Fiction Inferno: The literary magazine that burns you up

Victim of Fashion

Mark Siegel


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S he bodies sprawled everywhere, fifteen of them draped backwards over broken furniture, lying face-down in the sawdust, or staring sightlessly from bad landings on top of the bar or tables. She worked her way carefully among the debris, placing her forward foot before shifting her weight to it, as silent as they were. Her finger was on the trigger of the Tech 20 she held in a two-handed grip, pointed down, a few feet in front of her, to avoid blowing her own face off. She stopped next to a body that appeared to be the man she was looking for. It was hard to tell, given the entry wound in his cheekbone, but she was almost certain. Then she sighted a second body nearby with an identical face.

I lifted my head off the bar and conspicuously cocked the sawed-off I'd had aimed at her. She jumped, accidentally pumping a round into the dead groin on the ground, but had the presence of mind to freeze when she saw I had the drop on her.

"He was dead anyway," she smiled lamely.

"Not really." I reached under the bar and switched off the hi-res holo. All the bodies disappeared except for one sprawled in a corner booth. The sawdust and broken furniture were real, courtesy of the e-pocalypse.

The remaining body didn't move, but mumbled, "Did someone just shoot me?"

"Not exactly. She's a burglar, not a shooter."

"She's very loud for a burglar."

"I'm Charlie Jobson," I told the woman politely, without putting down the twelve gauge I was pointing her way.

"And he's Jude," she said, holstering her pistola and pointing at my partner, the long-haired, over-sized somniac who'd been passed out in his personal booth. "I'm a Mary." She was five ten, brunette, more arm and shoulder muscle than was fashionable on Tri-V and some scarring around the eyes, but a complete knockout in my book. I let go of the shot gun and flipped on the holoprojector, filling the other eleven seats with apostolic ghosts drinking their last supper. It was supposed to make potential customers feel less inhibited, although, under my special arrangement with Jude, I didn't have any customers except him, and he was not the inhibited type. Neither was this A Mary. She stared back at the holograms until they seemed to look away from her. I fingered the feathered darts that bandoleered the front of my vest.

"How come you didn't shoot her?" Jude asked in a muffled voice from the booth.

"She got past the security perimeter. Could of fire-bombed us if she'd wanted. She already knew who you were. And you should open your eyes and take a look first."

He blinked his big black eyes once. "Good call." Jude came up in the booth in one slow, smooth motion, like a two hundred pound snake. I heard the leatherette bench, still nursing on his skin mites, pulling against his flesh. His spine cracked like distant, muffled fireworks. "Mind if I scream in pain?"

"I'd like that," she said. The tattoos that covered her left arm, from deltoid to digit, told my favorite lies. Apparently both our hearts belonged forever to someone named Rita. Her right elbow was perched on the bar, right forefinger curled like a question mark.

"What are you doing here?"

"I like to watch men sleep."

"What is it you like watching?" Jude asked her.

"The way you lie there with your throat exposed." He was a couple inches over six feet, still muscled like an over-sized gymnast although he was in his late thirties. Long black hair obscured much of his clean shaven face, although that's really what she appeared to like watching.

While they talked shop, I wandered down the bar and put together a little biker yakatori, shreds of dogcat speared on the five-inch blade of my Panther. The sturdy, thick-bladed knife had belonged to my mother, and was more a tool than a weapon. After knotting my long white hair safely behind my elusive hairline, I seared the meat with an ancient welding torch. I'd blown Jude's lease money on philosophy programs, and didn't have the eco-credits for legal grilling. "The Best in Blow Torch Cuisine." I offered her about a pound of flesh. She told me she was a vegetarian and took a bite.

"So, you're not a strict vegetarian, or Buddhist, or anti-vivisectionist, or whatever?" I said. Everybody had a religion or three these days.

She stared at Jude over the meat. "I can be as strict as you want."

We ate in silence for a moment. Despite our pressure seals, messages from the dry lightening in the Spaceport sky kept arriving for every electron in the bar. I hadn't been outside myself in days, but had heard on Tri-V that the humidity pH was above 2, an acceptable level with a good tank and O2 hoses. She could have walked here, like she said. "Why don't you start by telling us strictly the truth?"

"I don't believe in empty gestures," she said, giving me the finger.

I knew what she meant. The truth can be brittle, empty, soulless, uninformative, while deceit is pregnant with significance, sensual with suggestion, complex, seeping into every fold of your brain. That's what we had learned at Blue Peace.

She pushed her glass across the counter. Jude nodded and I brought up the good stuff from underneath. Brewed over a peat fire, back in the days when anyone with a match could burn fuel, it ran twenty-five credits a shot, and the lifetime supply he'd purchased was nearly gone. "What do you do for a living?" She asked Jude, although she wouldn't have been here if she hadn't known.

"I'm retired," Jude said, eyeing the scotch I'd poured. He always had a staring contest with the good stuff before he drank it, a show of respect for a worthy opponent.

"Retired," she mused. "Did you ever wonder what Judas did after he betrayed Christ?"

"It would have been an anticlimax to go back to the same job the next day," I said. "It would have been an anti-climax to blow the whistle on anybody else after that." She was not being polite, but I didn't want to spend my afternoon picking up pieces of her.

"I heard he retired," she said evenly.

"So you going to offer us a job, or what?" Jude said, just smiling, and swallowed the scotch.

* * * 

Predictably, A Mary liked to do more with men than watch them sleep, and the conversation in Jude's private office went on for a couple hours.

"Making love to you is like a long, cold shower," I heard him tell her as I kicked on the officer monitor in answer to his belated call. "Only warmer."

Although unwrapped upon the bed, A Mary merely nodded nonplused at my hologram as it appeared in the corner, then waited until Jude passed in front of the mirror on his way to the bathroom. "You know, Jude, your body still looks good, from a certain angle." Neither of them seemed to be embarrassed to be walking around naked in front of my virtual presence. Of course, I'd seen Jude naked plenty of times in the fifteen years we'd been burned, shot, and beaten together, and my guess was walking around naked might be part of A Mary's job qualifications.

"She wants us to do a job for her, but she won't tell me what it is, Charlie. How about if you drop your pants and scare her to death?"

"I surrender," A Mary sneered.

"You want us to hack Macrosoft?" I prompted.


"Why not? Everyone wants to hack Macrosoft."

"All I really want is for you to steal a dress," she said, as if tiring of the game, stretching more than the truth this time, and sniffing. The little back room smelled of mildew, because of all the fungus-proof plants Jude stuffed in the corners every time he got a girlfriend, which then proceeded to die along with his relationships.

"A dress? I thought you went to bed with me so I'd agree to the impossible."

"I just wanted to go to bed with you. What I really want now is a dress."

"That sounds . . . simple enough."

"It's in a lab, not a department store."


"Blue Peace, of course."

Of course. Jude's claim to fame had been destroying their Nuevo South American operation. The bastards nearly saved the Amazonia Rain Forest before he stepped in and exposed their subscriber list for a domed enclosure that was to be built after privatization of this world's oxygen supply. "The logging consortium paid me plenty for the Blue Peace job." He left out that we'd had to live on that payday ever since. The personal heat this deed had generated with Caesar Smith, the head of BP security, was still intense, to the point of having become an obsession.

"And this isn't plenty?" Her body, stretched across the bed, was plenty all right.

"It looks better without a dress."

"This dress is made of living biofibers that eat bacteria, drink sweat and stains, so it never has to be cleaned. Grows, modifies itself to fit the individual body. It changes color according to the ambient light."

"Last's forever?"

"Actually, it's guaranteed not to mutate for twenty years."

"A prototype? Must be well-guarded."

"It changes texture when you stroke it. Depending on how hard."

"I'm in. I'm in," Jude sighed.

"Get the dress, and we'll see."

"Uh." My ability to interrupt sexual banter is a necessary skill around Jude. "You forget we're retired? Forcibly retired?"

"That's the beauty of this," Jude explained. "Caesar is scouring the streets for us. He knows we're hiding. He'll never expect us to strike right in his own backyard."

"If he doesn't find us soon, his job's in jeopardy. We can win a war of attrition just by sitting tight for another six months or a year until Caesar gets the boot and BP decides to direct themselves toward an easier target, like assassinating the President of New Earth."

"By pulling a job right under his nose, we can assure Caesar's immediate ouster. Besides, Charlie, we're nearly out of scotch."

So it was hopeless to protest. "Well, Ms., how about telling us who we're working for, and how they know about this dress? What they expect to do with the dress, what kind of security we might expect, how --"

"I'd tell you if I knew. Well, I'd tell Jude, anyway. I'm on a need to know basis, the same as you," she shrugged.

God told Jesus to go here, go there, to say this and that. He didn't start out by telling His Son He was going to be crucified. Jesus's problem, the way I see it, is that He was on a Need-to-Know basis with God.

* * * 

Every moral has a tale. Jude and I had worked for Blue Peace before the e-pocalypse, I on the electronic surveillance end and Jude as a field op. Back then, people believed BP was a bunch of ecological altruists out to save this planet, rather than a counter-technology group. Then, when the ecology really began to disintegrate with the UV storms, the famines, the Red Cloud, when our voices should have been the loudest, the Jeremiads most thunderous, our whining "we-told-you-sos" the most annoying, Blue Peace turned suddenly silent. Well, not silent, but it took a couple months with my ear to the doors to recognize that what I was hearing were assholes puckering in secret, self-congratulatory hilarity.

"Hey, Jude," said Harry, our boss at Blue Peace Security, as usual ignoring my electronic presence, "don't be ashamed. We took a sad world and made it better."

"Better for us," Jude had replied.

"This world rejected us, told us we were a bunch of unrealistic dreamers who could go to hell. Instead, we turned out to be the pragmatists and the world went to hell. Whose fault is it if we own all the oxygen rights and control patents on a lot of the eco-safe technology?"

"But we're withholding those patents from countries that can't pay, from people who need them."

"When will you realize that the world economy is itself an ecology --"

"And every scum-sucking parasite serves a function?" So, with a little help from yours truly, Jude stole the subscriber lists and published them just before several international elections. And we have been hiding out at this bar ever since.

 * * 

I hacked my way along the web, tracing supplies and orders until I'd confirmed A Mary's information that something like her dress was being processed at the old Gingrich Street facility. A Mary sat next to Jude who sat next to me at what normally appeared to be another beat-up formica-topped booth, but which, at the moment of my educated touch, revealed itself to be king-sized monitor and keyboard.

"Hey," said A Mary, "what other stuff you got in this place?"

"Just stay away from that bank of old video games in the corner," Jude told her. "I'm about to beat _Zelda10.0_."

Under Jude's direction, I brought in a series of corner screens so he could watch simulations of different Blue Peace security procedures running simultaneously, as they would when he encountered them. We mapped out a strategy, and then Jude disappeared briefly into another side room to assemble himself for the job.

"You mean he's going now?" A Mary asked when he didn't return to her lithesome side after a few minutes.

"Sure. It's dark out." I punched up another external monitor that gave us a real time view of the street in front of the warehouse which fronted our bar. Gray-green mist swirled around a lamppost like ghost puke in a blender. Rainbow colored slicks were visible on the sidewalk at the perimeters of the halogen glow. Except for the shadow of the warehouse itself, the landscape pretty much ended there.

"But aren't you going to do a dry run? To check things out --"

"I checked you out while you and Jude were, uh, negotiating. You seem to be what you say. As for the rest of it, we'd only be giving someone else a chance to score the hit ahead of us, or for BP to get wind of the thing. Now is the best time to do anything."

"Who's that?" she asked, as a black, hooded shape in full street gear loomed into and swept through the circle of light on the monitor, great coat tailing after high, slick boots, flexible rebreather tanks spread like a hump of muscle across his back.


"But he just --"

"Now is the best time --"

"To check the systems," Jude's voice interrupted us from overhead.

"Hang on. I'm going to legs." I switched monitors, from the stationary cam that once again showed only the emptiness of the Seattle street in front of the warehouse, to two mobile cams. "These are mounted on the lapel and rear collar of Jude's coat," I explained to A Mary. M. C. Escher would have appreciated the paradoxical split screen view of the street around Jude coming and going at the same time. "Video looks good. I don't see any tails, least not yet."

"Won't they hear you guys coming?" A Mary asked. "What if --"

"We've got ourselves a secure long-distance infra-red channel here, with encryption. But when we get close, do try to keep still. Even a burst of static could blow our cover then."

"But --"

"Whisper in my ear, OK? And try to press your breasts against my big, manly biceps while you do it, OK?"

"Like this? Hey, I thought you were an old guy --"


We watched Jude slide along the street in his hooded great-coat, huffing faintly through the rebreather, the night as white with smog as A Mary's pubic hair. (I didn't mention that video cam in the back room to her.) "Slugs on your right," I murmured, and Jude acknowledged. Between the toxic sludge in the gutters and two-foot sewer slugs Blue Peace had sold the city to control the sludge, Jude needed all our combined concentration just to get where he was going.

"What's with those things, anyway?" A Mary asked. "The toxic waste makes them crazy, or what?" Everybody who walked the streets around here knew the slugs nasty habit of turning on people. This amounted to a banzai charge so slow you needed time lapse photography to record it, but many a careless leg had been shortened by their acidic slime-spit.

"Actually, the slugs are just rabidly territorial. Blue Peace bred this aggressiveness into the sterile species they marketed."

"To protect the environment from uncontrollable breeding?"

"That's what they claimed. But Blue Peace only marketed sterile species because it kept the customer from becoming a distributor. Besides, they have a subsidiary making a bundle selling salt guns to pedestrians for self defense. Jackers to your left, Jude. Give me some lapel." Jude obligingly moved one of the cams so that I could scan the entire street with infra red.

There were a couple of air-jackers drilling a hole in the pressure seal of somebody's front door to drain the extremely expensive gases from the home insulation units. They had stopped drilling and now were waiting for Jude to pass between them and their tanker truck. "There's another one on top of the truck. Cold steel, looks like a cross-bow maybe. Probably don't want to use explosives around the gas."

I felt A Mary press in at my side, tensing with the anticipation of blood. Gradually, as Jude passed among them and continued on, she relaxed, as did the jackers, who went back to work. "All clear," I murmured, and switched off my mike for a moment.

"Don't think he couldn't have wasted all three of them without losing a step. But it's not our beef, and it would have left a trail for the cops to follow."

"Some Robin Hood," she snorted.

"Ecology rules," I apologized. "You fuck with one thing, and you never know what the consequences are going to be."

"But not fucking with it is fucking with it," she argued.

"You're too deep for me," I nodded, but she looked pissed. "Maybe in the old days. . . . But he told it to you straight when he asked what you were paying. Cynicism is contagious, and Blue Peace infected all of us."

"So some poor sucker is going to wake up stone cold, blue, and croaking like a frog full of nitro in the morning?"

"You want to call it in on your own cell phone? Be my guest."

"Well, . . ."

"Don't bullshit me, lady. You don't give a freeze-dried fart in a hurricane about the people in that house. You know as well as I do that's no orphanage. Look at the size of the place, and the neighborhood. You're just disappointed because you wanted to see your legendary stud-muffin in action."

A Mary started to reply, then just smiled wryly and brought her lips to my ear. "Isn't that the Blue Peace complex coming up?" she whispered.

"Shit," I managed before clicking my mike back on.

The security perimeter of the Blue Peace complex revealed itself in the expected series of fences and laser zones, which, given our wealth of experience with the company, took only half my attention as Jude threaded his way through them. I was looking for some surprise, the less conventional trap that was BP's hallmark --

"See that series of white dust patches all along there?" I asked A Mary.

She squinted at the corner screen I'd indicated, and I jacked up the magnification until it occupied half the table. "Yeah, they make a kind of pattern along the ground."

"It's a kill zone. Predators have a natural range and their prey a certain speed of flight. Look at these other white piles, the bigger ones. They're newer."


"Right, but what kind? Hurry up. Jude'll be there in a minute."

"People? Dogs? There are some really small ones, too --"

But before I could finish the ecology lesson, I saw the nightmare rustling of what appeared to be leaves in the grove of maples lining the lab entrance directly ahead of Jude, and went back on line. "Monarchs dead ahead."

"Got 'em," came the hushed reply.

"Watch this," I whispered to A Mary. I returned the screen to a full view from Jude's lapel camera just as it suddenly swung wildly out of control in all directions. We could barely make out an impressionistic cloud arising from the maples before our view from the lapel camera was blotted out by a swarm of frantic, dark wings.

"He's under attack! They're all over him!" A Mary screamed, driving her nails half an inch into my arm.

"Take it easy. That's our defense you're seeing. Jude's great coat was lined with some of the pets we took with us from the BP labs. Custom-bred harrier bats." I turned up the sound. The little devils were chirping like cheap plastic underwear as they swept into the vaguely yellow midnight, swiftly neutralizing the vampire butterflies that had come swarming out of the trees to attack.

In the meantime, we watched Jude march past the BP icon, a huge blue globe impaled on a holographic crucifix, and through somebody's idea of the Gates of Heaven. The Saint Peter Machine took the jury-rigged pass I'd made him from his old ID more easily than I'd anticipated, and I expressed my concern. "Could be they're waiting for you. Could be A Mary here, and I mean no offense, ma'm, is as used as the corncob in grandad's outhouse --"

"Could be you're just better than you realize," Jude murmured back, and I let myself be placated when I should have known better. "It's positive day," Jude announced, holding a meter out over the floor of the first hallway. "Adjusting boots."

"Floor's electrified," I explained to A Mary. We knew the layout of the lab, and I was still explaining the procedure to A Mary and keeping a split-screen lookout from the three minicams Jude had plastered to the walls at key intersections when she spotted the section housing "Ultimate Clothing" for us. Jude used the phoney pass again.

"Hey, Jude, come on in," we heard a voice say from inside the just-cracked door.

"Shit! Is that Harry Pont --" I started, when I saw Jude swing the door in the rest of the way.

"Hey, Harry."

"You got Charlie Jobson on line?" Harry asked. "Hey, Charlie." He looked like something left behind by the tide. His breathing was slow and labored, his eyes hopeless, as if they recognized that his continued existence was merely an embarrassing oversight. I was anxious for Jude to correct that, but when Harry wheeled around in his chair, I could see his hand was already on a microwave remote. There was no way for me to tell if it was on itch, stun, or fry, or where in the room the blast would come from.

"Jude, tell the fat ass you've got a sonic detonator in your pocket that'll melt the blubber between his unprotected ears if you're down --"

"Charlie says to tell you --" Jude began.

"Tell him not to bother with the usual bullshit. We've been monitoring you since you came through the front door. You're not carrying any of his remote tech except the com units."

"This is bad," I muttered. I thought about telling A Mary to get out now because BP must have tracked the transmission and could be here any minute. It wasn't true, merely a ruse to see where she'd run. I bounced our transmissions off so many electronic walls they'd have to search half the town before they got here. On the other hand, I didn't really have the time to worry about her now.

"So my little leak about the product line found you already!" Pont was saying. "That was fast." With his free hand, he put down the thick manual he'd been perusing just before Jude entered.

"Fast is my middle gear, Harry." I could feel Jude looking around, and he gave a casual turn as he made to close the door so I'd get a look too. Then he gestured at the red beanie Harry was wearing. "I see you've been promoted. Cardinal of Security? Didn't know you got on with Caesar all that well."

"Caesar is merely a servant of Blue Peace, like the rest of us."

"So, the Board is hedging it's bets, huh?" Jude laughed.

"But what's the future head of security doing on night watch?" A Mary hissed.

"Could be a personal vendetta," I snarled. "Harry got burned bad in the Rain Forest robbery, too. Or he could be trying to get one up on Caesar, prove to the Board he's the better man by catching us."

Jude was leaning forward in mock politeness, trying to give me a close-up of Harry's microwave unit, but he echoed her question. "So what's a hot-shot like you doing standing Twelfth Station?"

"Waiting for a hot shot like you, Jude. And taking a peep at some fine new products."

"Is this where they keep the new clothing line? I'm looking for a dress for the little lady."

Pont gave a false laugh. "The dress is not exactly an off-the-rack item. That's why we wanted to talk to you. Here, try this on." He tossed Jude a blue fedora that had been sitting on the console next to him.

As the remote swung downward like a counter-weight to the arc of his throw, Jude showed him what fast was. The hat plopped onto the floor about the same time pieces of Harry's head did.

"Holy shit," gasped A Mary in appreciation. "I didn't even see what he used --"

But I was already back on line with Jude. "Nobody in the hall."

"Rogue operation? Harry going behind Caesar's back?"

"Either Harry was on his own, or he was lying and you surprised his ass completely." In retrospect, I wished we'd had more time to learn what the hell Harry had been talking about, but Harry himself had taught us never to pass up a chance to kill a good man; you never knew when you might get another. Jude's brief perusal of his desk and pockets told me nothing I didn't know. He picked up the hat and regarded it with suspicion, but it looked perfectly normal. "Bring it," I suggested. "Along with that manual."

There was a single, flesh-colored cabinet in the corner of the room, labeled "Grand Design." It seemed to pulse, and to pulse a little more rapidly as Jude approached it, as if in anticipation. "Look out, buddy. That closet's breathing."

Jude eyed the thing for a moment. "Suggestions?"

"Throw it something. See what it eats."

Jude tossed the hat, which bounced off and sat on the floor. The closet quieted.

"Think it's getting ready to pounce?" I whispered.

Jude pushed the rest of Pont out of his chair and flung him against the cabinet. There was a dull splat as he bounced off, but no other reaction. Jude picked up the chair and began poking at the cabinet like a lion tamer, also without eliciting any reaction. This made him bolder, but, where breaking into the building had been easy, and killing Harry not much more difficult, the cabinet was damn tricky, a sort of organic Chinese box. Jude tried to push through with gloved hands, but it tensed up like stomach muscles and he had to yank a wrist back out. Electricity from the ripped cord of a handy table lamp opened up any layer it touched, but the cabinet would close up and over the handle of Jude's homemade taser before he could get all the way through the other layers. In frustration, he slashed it with his own six inch blade, just to see it shudder. The cabinet farted a bloody liquid all over his coat, which gave me an idea.

"Feed it the bat sedative in your coat lining." The stuff acted like poison, either killing or cold-cocking the whole damn cabinet, and then Jude just hacked through it. The dress was inside, all right. Blood red, spaghetti straps, hot stuff. A Mary nearly wet her pants. Jude folded it up into a wad not much bigger than his fist. There was a slight buzzing sound as he dropped it into the hat, and dropped both into a hat box with the manual.

* * * 

"There's something else about the dress, isn't there?" Jude asked when he got back. But he handed it to her when she pressed herself against him and checked his mouth for microphones with her tongue. We'd checked the dress itself for tracers before he even left Blue Peace. Everything Jude had brought back was transmitter-free.

"You bet your ass. Look at these straps! Look at the way this thing is cut. I have got to try this on."

"They were waiting for us because the dress is especially valuable, or. . . ."

I was playing with the hat he'd brought back. I put it on briefly, but the static immediately attacked my rat's nest coif, so I took it off. Still, I was wondering about Jude's Or.

"What's your hat size?" I asked.


"This is an eight."

"Coincidence? Maybe eight's the most common size in counter-espionage."

"Or maybe this whole deal was not about the dress, but about you."

But A Mary didn't want to hear anybody putting down her dress. "When someone wears the dress, well, . . . I've only heard rumors."

"If it's supposed to make you more desirable, I'd worry about circuit overload."

"What a nice thing to say. Want to help me get undressed so I can try this on?"

Jude shook his head. I snorted from behind the bar and sailed the hat across the room to where he sat, scrunched up in his booth. He tried to try it on while he fiddled with his thoughts. At first the hat didn't want to go on, as if an up-draft was pushing it away from his head.

"Are you upset you had to kill your old friend Harry?" Mary asked, fiddling nonchalantly with the first of her shoulder zippers.

"Harry was a lying scum, but he had some less admirable qualities."

"Would you have let him live if he'd been somebody else?"

"No. Crime has an ecology too. It's best to keep things tidy. Only, like Charlie said, he seemed to be expecting me. . . not just to try to steal the dress. Like this whole thing was a set-up just to get me out of hiding. So I've got to ask you again who your employer is."

She shook her head. "Jude, you know how these things work." She unsnapped the back of her leather-vested pant suit, as if we might be talking about velcro.

I snorted again. "If you don't tell him, he'll pout."

In response, she began to tug her clothing down. "But what I meant was, I don't know. I was hired blind, through a contact who had the right passwords. That's what honor among thieves is all about. You're a thief, too. I'd sell you the info if I knew. And that's the naked truth." Technically she was still covered by a transparent bodysuit a couple of microns thick, designed to keep out the plague bugs, but I appreciated the metaphor as performance art anyway.

Jude changed his approach. "Pont was reading a new prospectus." He indicated the manual Harry had been reading which now rested on the bar in front of me. He tried the hat once more, and suddenly it clamped down on his head with a thunk. He winced a little, but didn't speak, so I picked up the train, and the prospectus.

"The prospectus is just an ad thing for wholesalers, nothing technical," I said as I flipped through it. "It talks about a whole line of clothing cloned from religious artifacts. They copied the DNA from organic components of the artifacts, wood, natural fibers, stuff like that, and then they monkey in some nanotechnology to `enhance the holy effects,' whatever that means. Wear Buddha's loin cloth for weight loss, Joan of Arc's hair-shirt for protection, is my impression, although they can't come right out and make those kind of phoney claims if they don't want to get sued. The prospectus says the fibers from that dress were cloned from the Shroud of Turin."

"The Shroud of Turin and the Veil of Salome, actually," A Mary revealed.

"Shit. You believe that stuff? I thought carbon dating showed the Shroud was a fake, that it was a thousand years younger than Jesus."

She shrugged. "I believe the microprocessing coupled into the biofiber DNA of that dress will make you think you're dancing with God's own girlfriend."

"So put it on. Let's find out."

A Mary looked at me and then Jude for a moment, then smiled. He didn't react. "Why not? I only have it for the night." At first it wouldn't go on, but bunched up around her shoulders. "Must be an electrical reaction with the bodysuit." So she started to pull that off, too. I pretended to stare at the ceiling, which was hell on my eye-balls. Fortunately the cameras were rolling so I'd be able to review all this, ah, technical data later.

I figured she and Jude would go out, have a good time. He'd keep her going until she was late for her rendezvous, so she'd have no choice but to let him tag along when she dropped off the goods. She was just a specialist, like we were, sent to perform a particular task. Well, always mate within your own species, I thought, as the body suit nested around her feet.

But Jude was frowning up at the blue felt rim of his new hat, like he'd thought of the same plan but found something wrong with it. Before I could divine any more than that, I found myself distracted again by the beautiful woman wriggling into the tight red dress a few yards in front of me. As she slid it over her head and it settled into place, there was a slight squelching sound. Fabric sighs, especially when it's on a body like A Mary's, but this was more like an air-lock noise.

The dress began to move, to flow, to breath like the plutonium in the local garbage reactor. By some coincidence, I happened to notice it first around her breasts, and then followed an almost tidal pull down to her hips. Her body seemed to be moving and not moving at the same time. Her face was rapturous, her skin radiant with a glow that mocked what I had felt and seen while reviewing the video of her love-making with Jude.

And then it went wrong. At least I assumed at first it was wrong, though I didn't know what Blue Peace actually had designed the dress to do. The amazing thing was that A Mary never screamed as her back arched, her feet pulled together and she came up onto her toes with a painfully balletic precision, her palms extended and beginning to bleed. She didn't make a single sound as the dress slowly sucked her into itself and ate every last cell of her.

And I didn't _do_ anything, despite the messages my body was sending to my brain. Because Jude didn't. He was the boss, and I just sat there watching him watch her. He seemed to be mouthing words he'd never heard before.

Finally the dress sighed again and appeared to go dormant. The tidy bastard didn't leave even a stain on the floor. Jude sat tipped back in his booth, his arms folded, and watched with a reverent dispassion even I had never known in him before.

"What the fuck?"

"She's been Eucharized," Jude said.

"Harsh is what I'd call it." I had watched the end of this with my elbows on the bar just above where, as Jude knew, I kept the sawed-off. I watched him watch me move away from it, now that he was speaking again. Somehow I felt fortunate I'd had the cool to wait it out, as if. . . . I kept staring nervously back and forth between Jude and the pile of fabric, even though it had stopped moving.

"Christ's cleansing transformation," Jude explained out of nowhere, "only in this version _He_ eats _her_."

"It's not still hungry, is it?"

"No, that's just what happens when you gamble for His clothes."

"I don't get it. Why would the Shroud of Turin eat somebody?" He scooped up the dress and headed toward the bar, to my left, where the hat box sat.

"You have to have the right DNA to wear it. It's anti-theft programming is . . . extreme."

"I guess it beats the hell out of those plastic clips that beep when you pass through a security gate. You knew about it all along?"

He dropped the dress into the box and adjusted the hat on his head. He was measuring me, trying to figure out what I had figured out. Finally, he said, "I didn't need to know, I guess, so I didn't."

"I don't get it, Jude. You figure she was in with Harry, that she wasn't the original Mary I checked out? Did you rig the dress so it would do that to her if her DNA was wrong?"

He shook his head. "Blue Peace has a new product line for cleaning up the social ecology."

"You working for Blue Peace again?" I asked, too surprised not to show it.

"Looks like," he said, indicating the hat.

"Where you going?"

"Have to return the dress. Maybe the whole point of their lending it out was to see if I would bring it back."

"Bring it back --" And then it dawned on me. "The hat looks good on you," I said as he turned to go.

"It fits," he shrugged, giving it a helpless little tug that told me, _At least until I find out how to take it off_. As he suited back up, I casually flipped through the catalogue until I found the listing for the hat. It didn't really tell me how much time I had to figure out how to neutralize the Crown before Jude got used to the feeling of thorns pressing into his skull, before the chemicals it was leaking into his brain to control him did some kind of permanent damage.

"It needs something," I said, just as he turned toward the door. "Here."

He had the hat box in one hand and was trying to work the hood of his great-coat over the hat when I stuck one of the feathers from my vest in his brim. He froze, and for a moment I thought I was probably already killed and just didn't know it yet. But his full hands had saved me. The top priority of whatever program was controlling Jude through the hat seemed to be to protect the hat and the dress. Before Jude could put them down in a safe spot, he began to waver from the poison in that feather. I backed up along the bar, toward the shot-gun, and he staggered a step toward me. His face grew silver and twisted, a sheet of almost metallic agony. I had one hand on the gun as he threw himself at me, swung it out from under the bar, and by blind luck caught him right in the hat with the barrel.

Jude went down. The hat didn't fly off, but hung by a few loose strands of flesh to his scalp. I came around the bar and swung again.

This time Jude wasn't moving, so it was more like a tee shot, the hat lifting off and plopping onto the floor a dozen feet away. Then I sat down in a booth with the shot gun across my knees, watching both of them.

"That hurt." Jude's voice was muffled. It's hard to talk and kiss the floor at the same time.

"Wait'll the sedative wears off. That was a Number Three feather." A Number Four would kill a man in less than a minute. Actually it had been a Four, but I'd figured if he was still wearing the hat after a minute, we'd both be better off dead.

Jude propped himself up briefly, then rolled over and stared at the ceiling, his arms crossing his chest. After a moment he said, "You know, I bet Caesar doesn't know anything about this hat. I bet Harry got the lab boys to make that to trap me all on his own, just to embarrass Caesar."

"You're suggesting we send him the hat? As a gift, a token of our desire to make amends. So he'll leave us alone."

"We know when we're licked," Jude smiled.

"It's not engineered for Caesar's head," I speculated. "It won't just control him, like it did you."

"Render onto Caesar," Jude smiled. "We can still sell the dress to his successor."

"Revenge," I said, "never goes out of style." And if I had never said another word on the subject, my life might have been easier, my sleep less troubled than it is today.

But after a moment, when I had filled both our glasses with the good single malt and he had struggled to his feet, I said, "You know, what I can't figure out? If Harry sent A Mary to set you up, how come he just didn't bust in here himself? I mean, if he knew where we were all this time, and was able to tell A Mary enough to breach our outer perimeter, why did he need her at all? Why didn't he just send the Boys in Blue to grab us and jam that damn hat on your head?" I flipped on the holo of the Apostles, as was our custom. I liked the feeling of drinking with comrades after a successful mission.

Jude looked at me with a little smile while he let the scotch go down. "Harry didn't hire her. I did."

"You hired her?"

"Yeah. I asked her those questions before to make sure she didn't know. To make sure my contacts were clean."

"But why did you hire her to hire you?"

"Boredom," he replied, his face just the slightest bit grim and impatient as he took another swallow. "I want to get back in the game, Charlie. This is the most interesting way to do it. We get rid of Harry, get rid of Caesar, make some money, and start with a clean slate. If I was caught, I could try to make a deal by selling them A Mary, because they'd want to know how her mysterious employer found out about the new product line. And if A Mary had been caught, she wouldn't have been able to tell them I started the whole thing. She was a buffer zone for us."

For us?, I wondered. "But she's dead, Jude."

"We know now how the dress works. And the hat."

"The hat was extra. You didn't plan on taking that risk yourself."

He knew what I was thinking, and he had to say something about it. "I heard she was a clone," he said. "That's why she called herself `A' Mary instead of just Mary."

"She was a person, Jude." Suddenly I wished he'd still had the damn hat on so I wouldn't have had to believe what I was hearing.

"Shit. I liked her, too." His face was drawn and angry, but at what I couldn't tell. I filled his glass again as soon as it hit the counter. Even in anger he didn't gulp good scotch, and his face slowly relaxed into a look I'd never seen on him before, resignation. "Charlie, it's just business. There are no revolutionaries in the post-industrial revolution. We're nothing special. We're just creatures in the natural cycle of things. Like sharks, or wolves."

"Or rats? Or slugs?"

"That's right. You adapt or die. I ain't ready to die. Are you, Charlie?"

I wondered exactly how he meant that. I flipped off the holo of the Apostles, thinking that extinction too is part of natural cycle, and let my hand drop to the trigger of the sawed-off.




© 2003, Mark Siegel

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