Two days later we were back in Las Vegas. Getting the equipment together had been problematic. Apparently you don’t just buy a brand new dune buggy and try to drive it 1200 kilometers. It has to be broken in, lots of oil changes and tire changes and other stuff that needs to be worked out, most of which were done by other people. We arrived at Harold’s place late one evening to find that the buggies and motorcycles had been delivered and were waiting for our use. Someone had been working on his house too. Nothing was built back up, but plenty had been torn down, and all the furniture that had been exposed to the elements by the lack of walls was gone.
“Are we staying here?” Lewis asked.
“You are, with the security team. Jacob is staying too; he’ll continue to put the vehicles through their paces. Customize the hell out of the stuff if you want, these are supposed to be ‘our’ bikes and buggies, so go to town making them your own. Also get your helmets and other gear and get it dirty. Make it look worn and used.”
“Where are you going?” Soleil asked.
Harold hitched a thumb my way, “Andro wants to see him.”
She looked at me and shook her head, “He’s going to want to take a run at you. To train you.”
“I won’t.” I told her.
“Good. I like you the way you are, dull.” She turned and headed to a locker of gear and began picking through it, she called out to the others, “Dibs on anything in non-reflective black!”
Harold just smiled and asked me, “You need to hit the head or anything? The plumbing works, I’ve been assured.”
“No, but I do want to walk around a little first. Why didn’t you tell me Andro wanted to see me?”
“I figured the later I told you, the less time I’d have to listen to you bitch about it.”
I shook my head once, “Fair point. I take it that it’s not your idea?”
“Billy, I’m going to tell this to you straight, me and you, we have our differences, we have our past, we don’t see eye to eye on many things. Given that I can assure you, we do agree on one thing, and that’s Andro.”
“Yeah, but you went to work for him anyway.”
“There is that.” Harold admitted.
“Maybe you can tell me how that happened sometime?”
“Maybe. Okay, go walk, we’ll leave in 10.”
“Sounds good.” He headed into the house. I went to where my car had been a few days before. It was gone now, cleaned up with all the other junk from the battle. The garage doors had been replaced too. And the siding on the front of the garages. Maybe work was progressing faster than I thought out here. Only a few chips of safety glass remained where my vehicle had been. I whispered, “I wonder where Ruby is.”
Char had been practicing with me a lot in the past couple of days too. She couldn’t speak into my mind, so far it was too taxing for us. I could subvocalize words, and she could pick them up that way, which made our yes/no/maybe conversations go a little easier. One thing she had managed was to restore my abilities to me, they seemed a little faded, but I could clearly see the path into Baja now, and I could sense where trouble was brewing in hotspots within five hundred kilometers again.
We hadn’t had the chance to get into another I depth discussion via the computer again, not with five other people in a small cabin talking plans for Baja. Nor had I been able to take a hike where she took over my body and let me hear what she had to say. When I pulled up Morse Code to study it a little closer, the group had laughed, except Lucia, who already knew it and started tapping out words to me when she thought she could get away with it. It was an oddly crude way to learn it. Lucia had a clever mind, full of sarcasm and snark which she only apparently used when talking by code. Despite my lack of time alone with Char, words were getting through. A lot of them. Just not by her talking in my mind.
“Dead.” She said by tapping out the letters on my thigh with my left hand.
“She might be. That might have been the best thing. They are not known for releasing captives. She had a mom and dad, maybe they ransomed her back?”
“She is probably dead. Too much risk.” Char said.
I coughed and nodded, “Yeah. Sheesh, I’m sorry I got her into this. I should have come alone.”
Harold was back at the truck, he called over, “Find anything?”
“Just admiring the repair job.” I said, walking to the passenger door.
“Oh?” He glanced at the doors, “Oh, yeah, I see it, they got the garage fixed up again at least. That’s good. Andro has an apartment in town for us. Me and Jacob, I mean, we’ll be crashing there tonight.”
I got into the truck when he did, and soon we were on our way towards Sin City. “You have any idea why he wants to see me?”
“He said he wants to be sure you are you and not a doppelganger.”
“I made him paranoid.”
“I think you reminded him to be paranoid again.” Harold said, “You know he flushed out more than just the Ramos Cartel when he cleaned house. He found some feds, some state investigators and even a few people whose true loyalties lay to other people.”
“Please tell me he didn’t ‘reassign’ all of them?”
Harold laughed, “No, but he legitimately moved some around to less key positions. Some he fired outright.”
“Sheesh a lot of unemployed people have to be cursing Billy Greer’s name right now.”
“First Billy Greer is dead, so that’s okay, but I doubt anyone other than Lucas put together that it was Greer who had anything to do with them losing their jobs.”
“But Lucas knew?”
“I’m sure he grew to suspect it as the reassignment went on. It took a while for his new assignment to come in. All night from what I heard, during which a lot of information was learned. But how much of that kind of information can you really trust? When people get so broken, they say anything to make the pain stop. I’m sure Andro didn’t have much leverage on Lucas either.”
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“Well, unless he was a fanatic of the Ramos Cartel, then you can rest assured that they kept all the leverage. I suppose he was put in place under duress, with his wife/family/lovers under close watch by the Ramos’s. He didn’t have anyone here really, claimed to live for his job. In the end, he died for it.”
This was a nice interesting line of questioning. I wonder if Harold knows he’s giving me more information that I gave him. Andro can’t read minds, otherwise, why bother torturing Lucas? Or maybe that’s just what Andro wants people to think. There is another possibility too, he can only read shiners. That’s a scary thought.
I shook my head, the conversation had started to lag, and I need to hold up my end of it, “So Lucas was probably just a pawn, more or less innocent, doing what he had to do to keep himself or his family alive.”
Harold looked at me, which was disturbing as he was driving, “You’re not that naive, Billy. No one is innocent in life, not even a new born baby and especially not some wetback that agrees to spy on the most famous shiner in the world.”
“Hey, watch it, the borders will be open soon. I figured Lucas was getting something out of it too, at least the man deserved a bonus for working his way so close to Andro. You don’t think Andro is going to want to ‘train’ me, is he?”
A shudder visibly ran through Harold’s body, everyone Andro had trained reacted the same way. In a way it sort of made me want to try it myself and see just what was so bad.
“I don’t think so. You’re basically a subcontractor, working for Bircus, whom he has an arrangement with. The checks will come from her, but ultimately he is paying. Shit. I hope he doesn’t.”
“Why, I’m touched, Harold.”
“No, it’d screw up the mission timing. You might need to recover.”
“Not to mention the training probably takes a little time too.”
“No. It’s fast. I was done in a couple of hours. But recovery…that took a lot longer, I think I was out for about four, maybe five weeks. I feel bad for those poor suckers who don’t have my wealth to live off of while getting over it.”
“I don’t think you’re over it yet. Do you think you’ll ever be?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I’m fine, and I’m going places. You know it’s been five years and my wealth has doubled. I wasn’t poor, to begin with either.”
“So you really can’t give me any details about what he does to you?”
“I know you’re dying of curiosity, which I think is part of the reason so many shiners go to him in the first place; they all think it can’t be that bad! But it is. I hear he takes it easy on the people who are going to work for him too. Like me. All I know is if that was easy, I’d hate to see hard.”
“Alright I know you can’t talk about what his price was, but can you tell me if it was worth it?”
“You tell me, Billy. You tell me. You saw what I did at my house after Jacob was shot. You know from way back how I was before, do you think I gained anything?”
I thought about that for a moment. Shines have a tendency to grow with age, which is nice, it gives a guy something to look forward too, by comparison, your run of the mill humans just get old and more broken down. Even accounting for ten, fifteen years… I shook my head, “No.”
“You don’t think I’ve gotten stronger?”
“I meant ‘yes’ you have. Just fifteen more years couldn’t account for you tearing off the front of your cabin. Hell, Harold, back in the day I remember you straining to juggle three baseball bats. Now you’ve progressed to full sized logs and a lot more than three of them. Speaking of the big fight, what are the authorities doing about it?”
“I’ve been on the phone with my lawyers the last few days. The feds know who I am and want to press weapons charges against me, but the thing is every weapon I had was licensed and registered; they just want leverage against Andro. He pays for my lawyers, so the government calls my lawyers, my lawyers handle most things and then call me. So far no charges have been filed against anyone. You want a difficult job? Try getting your insurance company to sign off on your destroyed house when there isn’t a party at fault for the damage. I have the feeling this will fall under the terrorism provision, and I’ll be left eating a couple million in damages.”
I let out a long whistle, “Was it really that much?”
“No, I’m exaggerating a little. With a hundred thousand most of the structural things will be repaired. I figure another two hundred thousand for art and stuff that was damaged and needs to be replaced. Probably I’ll be sued by the families of my people that died; they all have insurance, but things being the way they are in this country…” He shrugged his shoulders.
“I hear ya. I’ve been sued a time or two myself. People want to prove things and don’t like it when what you find doesn’t match their expectations. Once one of my clients even went to jail on account of what I found out.”
“Yeah, dumbass contracted me to find his wife’s killer. Turns out it was him. And I proved it. And sent him a bill for my efforts. And was sued for it. The contract held up in court, and I got paid, but by the time it was all over only the lawyers made any money.”
“This is a conversation that would be better with a bowl or over a few beers.”
“We’ll do that after the meeting.”
“Good. You know Jacob is worried we’re going to sleep together tonight.”
This took off guard. Char was tapping “Yes. Good. So strong.”
I said out loud, “Not gonna happen!” this was apparently an acceptable answer to both Char and Harold.
He laughed and shook his head, “I told him we had history that wasn’t going to be overcome by a few positive days. Maybe when we get back from Baja.”
My stomach felt like it had a ball of worms turning over in it, but Char just purred seductively in the background. “And maybe we should stick to business.”
The uncomfortable silence stretched into just silence after a few minutes, and we rode the rest of the way into the Giza in silence. It was actually sprinkling, water weeping out of the sky in fits as the sun set.
A valet was there to take the car from Harold, inside near the private entrance, another young woman met Harold with a small case of poker chips, “Good evening mister Harrel! Andro wanted you to have this to keep yourself entertained for the duration of his meeting with mister…Folsom.”
Harold’s look told me this wasn’t what he had been expecting, but he also seemed relieved at the same time, nodding and taking the chips, the smallest denomination that caught my eye was $500. “Very nice, I was wondering what to do with myself while they were busy. I can find my way to the high stakes room well enough, thank you.”
Harold kept walking past the elevator, and the new custodian waited with me in the lobby for the few seconds it took for the elevator to arrive. “He is waiting for you, Compass.” She bowed to me as she said this. Who bows anymore?
I nodded back and preceded her into the elevator. She did not follow me, just called out, “Have a good meeting, sir.” As the doors closed.
The elevator started upward and soon I was back in the marble hall leading into the inner sanctuary. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I started to walk up the ramp to where Andro and I had spoken before.
“What do you find so amusing, Compass?” He was up the long ramp in his nest again.
“Shall I come up?”
“Do. I am curious as to your amusement.”
“I find it ironic that I’m here again in such a short time.” The floor wasn’t lighting up this time, but there was enough dim light to find the hand rail and circle my way up to where he was surrounded by computer monitors. The only difference was when I got close, all the monitors faded to black and plunged the room into darkness. I stopped in my tracks and listened for signs of movement. I heard his feathers rustling and just a little bit of a compression as if he had just pushed his bulk off of the ramp and was flying. Which was exactly what had happened. As my eyes adjusted to the lights from Vegas, I saw his shadowy form circling in the atrium above me.
“Did I come at a bad time?”
“Why is it amusing to find yourself here again so soon?”
“I never intended to come here. Not last week. And after my visit last week I resolved not to visit again.”
“Honesty. You prize that. So take this in the best way possible. You freak me out. It’s not just that you’re several orders of magnitude wealthier than I will ever be, but that your shine is alien and unknown. The problem with either rich or powerful men is that you never know what will make them your enemy. I didn’t think it would be wise to tempt fate again in my lifetime.”
A rolling laugh came down from above me. “But we have history, Compass. We’ll always be friends. Besides, I may be rich and powerful, but you’ve proven yourself to have hidden talents over the last week as well. One could argue, and I am one, that rising from the dead trumps any power I possess.”
“I wasn’t dead.”
“Compass.” A bank of monitor flicked on along one side of the room, well below the windows. It was my initial examination from the coroner.
“Have you never heard of HIPAA and patient privacy?” I shook my head, “Let me rephrase what I said. I don’t recall dying, and I don’t think I was dead.”
“Better. You were dead. The cause of death was a gunshot to the head. Do you want to see pictures?”
“I’d rather not.”
“They are wonderful in a way. Magical even, now that you’re here. Or are you here? Who is it that is standing before me?”
“I am who I always was.”
“You could be something else entirely. I’m sorry, Compass.”
“For what I am about to do.” Andro said, continuing to fly.
“I’ve been thinking about your training; I don’t want it.”
“Think of what you could do…I improve everyone. Could you bring back the dead? Could you become a fountain of youth? If you wanted wealth to rival mine, you would have it. I can do this for you.”
“You can do something for me? There're no guarantees, are there?”
“But I have to pay the price for it. Every shiner knows that. Harold said the recovery from such training was…arduous, that it could impact our mission’s chances.”
“There isn’t a time frame on what you want to do. What does it matter if you spend a week or two years plotting your revenge?”
I shook my head, “It’s not revenge. I don’t think that big.”
“You should. You’re a risk. You knew about Lucas.”
“So? He was a tree in the forest that you couldn’t see. I’m glad I was able to be your botanist and point out the wood that needed trimming.”
“How did you know?”
“I’ve been an investigator a long time, Andro. Some things just come naturally to me. I didn’t like the look of your head butler from the moment I saw him and my gut was telling me if anyone was in a position to screw you, it would be him.”
“So I had him tortured and killed based on your gut feeling.”
“I wasn’t wrong, was I?”
“You were not wrong. I cleaned house because of you. Then you died on me, and I was thinking of finding your closest family to give your money to.”
“We made a deal, Compass. I always pay my debts.” Andro said.
100 thousand dollars to tell him who the highest level spy in his organization was? My philosophy on money may have been reprioritized in the last few days. It is ironic that when I finally got a break, it wasn’t the break I cared about anymore.
I nodded my head, “Everyone knows this. So why are you so determined to force training on me?”
“You work for me now; it’s debilitating to the moral of my shiner staff to know you’re in the chain of command and haven’t undergone vetting yet.”
I shook my head, “No. That’s not it. I’m a subcontractor. What’s your real reason?”
“I don’t need one!” He roared from above. I swear the glass shook, a week ago I’d have piddled in my pants, which might have been what he was going for. Now I just stared up at him, trying to keep an eye on his flying form. I guess death or Char had a calming effect on me.
“You do need one. Especially if you think, I’m going to ‘let’ you do anything to me!”
Andro, upside down, grasped the frames of one of the windows high above, he swiveled his head to look down on me, “Are you so sure you can resist me?”
“Are you threatening force?”
“I’ve already started. Your consent is not, and never was, required.”
“Char.” I said, my conscious flicked out like a light. What seemed like a moment later I was back in charge, I was tangled in Andro’s nest of computer displays, over the edge in fact and hanging over a precipice of several stories by one hand grasping a few of the cables. The glowing line was lit on the floor again, but other than the spastic glow given off by the broken monitors all of the other lights were still off. My clothing was torn and sticky, it had the familiar quality of semi-coagulated blood. One of my shoes was missing, and it felt like the arm I wasn’t dangling by was broken. It seemed to snap back into position as I hung there, and I used it to grab a post of the railing, which was bent outward and pulled myself back onto Andro’s perch. Once I was on it, I had to untangle myself from a few cords, one of which was attached to a large flat panel screen still hanging over the edge. It crashed to the ground, and the noise echoed off the glass above.
“Why?” came Andro’s voice out of the darkness.
I pinpointed him immediately, he was midway up the glass off to my right. The glass was cracked. “Sic Semper tyrannis.”
“How could you know?” Andro crept along the glass almost at eye level to me.
Any help here would be great about now Char. What the hell happened? Except she professed to not being able to read my thoughts. Fortunately, she did answer, in a fashion, tapping out; “Abomination!” on my thigh.
“Abomination.” I said simply, hoping that meant something to Andro.
“As if you’re not! You got what I could give you. And you hold me in blackmail for the gift. Give me back what you took.”
I watched him crawling carefully around the ceiling. My eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness again. I could see smashed up furniture down below, a swath of destruction as if there had been a fight, a fight of which I had no memory. Then it hit me, He’s blind. He must not know the floor lights came on.
“You’ll have to get closer.”
“How close?” He growled.
“Touch is best.”
“I’ll kill you, Compass, for what you’ve done.”
“Well, then perhaps I should just finish the job?”
“You wouldn’t dare! If you took me out of place, the Ramos cartel would be in charge. I may be a tyrant, but I’m not a wasteful tyrant.” Andro said.
“Which is why you won’t kill me. You should have left well enough alone. I told you I didn’t want your training.”
His voice sounded confused, “You were getting it…the changes started, we began, you…I couldn’t make you pay the price, and you…you weren’t you anymore. What are you?”
“So I got something, huh? Unless I’m wrong, you got something too.”
“No. I did not.” Andro said.
“You’re a liar. You got something, not what you wanted, but you got enough.”
“I could make you a God!”
“Blasphemy!” Char tapped out frantically.
“Not interested. Men don’t need false gods to lead them.”
“Don’t they? Wake up and smell the shit, Compass! You’re covered in it. Regular humans need to be led, like sheep by a shepherd! When did you learn Latin?”
“When did you?”
“Seyt?” Andro asked, it was almost ‘Set,' but not quite. It was a name, I recognized that.
I shook my head, “Who are you hoping I am?”
“Hope is not the word I would have chosen.”
“Come, let me restore you.”
“Even though I’ve said I’ll kill you?”
“You won’t. We’ll make a new deal; I’ll restore you back to what you were. I’ll mention this to no one, ever, in fact, it will be as if I don’t remember it at all. If I am ever asked about what went on here, I will act like everyone I ever asked and make a disgusted face and decline to give details. In return, you will not harm me directly or indirectly through your machinations.”
“That’s too generous.”
“I’m in a giving mood.” I sighed, “Look Andro, truth be told we need each other. If you could have stopped the Ramoses from moving in on your territory, you would have. I know I can’t do it alone and I’m not sure we can do it together because I don’t know what we’re up against. We can form a partnership.”
“A partnership!” He roared, “You propose to elevate yourself as equal to me!”
I tapped my shod foot on the hard floor, “I would never say so publicly. In public I’ll say you are my mentor and I am, if I do well, your heir apparent.” I had no idea what I was even bargaining for.
“I cannot abide a partnership.”
“Then restore yourself.” I started walking down the ramp.
“I’ll send people after you. They will catch you. You won’t leave Vegas. They won’t kill you. They’ll drop you in a box and fill the box with concrete. Or maybe….they’ll just poison you.”
I stopped. “What’s your counter offer?”
“I accept the reality of your bargaining. You have temporary strength through force, I can admire that, especially as I have used the tactic before. I have not been on the receiving end since…Seyt. I won’t harm you or through inaction allow you to come to harm, without notifying you first that our agreement is null and void. I will promise that. I will accept you’re not telling anyone what went on here, from what I’ve seen you should have an easy time keeping that pretense up. I cannot abide a partnership, even a private one. This mentor arrangement has possibilities. I can work as your mentor. You tell no one. We are the only ones who know you are working for me.”
“Working with you. Not for you.”
Andro growled, “You try my patience.”
“And you insult mine!” I shouted back, “Think on what just happened!”
He cleared his throat, “We are the only ones who know we are working together.”
“Will Bircus fit into this?”
“You said it; you’re a protégée, something new in the world, and a closely guarded secret, at that. Few will know Billy Gary Folsom is the same as William Greer. The hair color alone took ten years off of your age. Your identity will stand up to any scrutiny brought to it. I can get actors in play, parents, siblings, hometowns, people who swear you graduated college with them, anything you need.”
I have him on the ropes, and I don’t even know how. “Andro, can you live with those terms?”
“Now you care?”
“A relationship like this with such conditions isn’t much of a relationship.”
“You want us to be friends? To like each other?” He laughed, “I almost respected you for being a hard bargainer.”
“Mock me if you want. I’m coming to realize I might not be dead in ten years, or twenty or a hundred. I’m not interested I having our entire relationship be based on fear and loathing.”
“You think I fear you?”
“You probably should.” I was hoping, anyway. Char said she could visit anything she had healed upon her enemies. “Eventually you’ll grow to hate me, more than you do now if that’s possible. Especially if our deal isn’t acceptable to both of us.”
“I find you interesting again. A totally different person from who I was dealing with earlier. Why are you trying to handle me with your version of kid gloves?”
“I like to keep you off balance.”
“I think I know what you are.” Andro said.
“But you’re not sure, isn’t that enough? Can’t it just be enough to get us through whatever this Ramos thing is?”
“We know what it is; they’ve been breeding shiners and controlling all aspects of the kid's lives for the past twenty or thirty years. Over the course of the last five years, they’ve been killing anyone they think will get in their way.”
“You knew? And you didn’t do anything about it?” I asked.
“I’ve done everything I could about it!” he roared, “You know, Compass, my new protégée, when you showed up here a week ago, I thought you had come to kill me. Someone underestimated you. I underestimated you. But you weren’t here to kill me; you were neutral, and they sent you into my arms. That’s what I thought a week ago. Now I know just how badly they, and I, misjudged you.”
“What will you do about it?”
“I’ll use you to get what I want.”
“To wipe out the Ramos Cartel. To control the underworld. To rule the entire underworld, if you live that long.”
“Why not just come out and say ‘world domination’ like you mean?”
“I don’t want that!” Andro protested, “That comes with too much drudgery! Who wants to care for the poor or uphold the laws? I like the other side far better, I can get things done if I am not the law; which requires getting enough counted noses to elect me or ruling by fear and violence.”
“So you’re more of a benevolent dictator instead?”
“I’m doing society a service by keeping the vices under control.”
“I’m sure society is very grateful. So we have a deal?”
“We have a deal.”
“Then get down here and let me fix you.”