Why?

There’s another drink at the end of the bar. I don’t want to say that…fuck, I don’t want to have to say that.

IMG_0720But I do: I have to put another drink on the bar. Another drink to join all those I’ve set to toast the souls to whom I’ve had to say good-bye.

I came up here to rediscover life, not to lose one of those friends who helped me do so.

I didn’t know Gerard for long, but I did come to trust and admire him like I do few people in this world. He was, in every single sense of the word, a gentleman. He was, with no exaggeration, one of the best people I’ve ever met.

He was a hell of a lot better of a man than me.

Yet, here I sit, still alive, still drinking whiskey and still mourning the dead.

I’m sick of mourning the dead. I’m sick of being the last man standing while my betters are cut short.

Yeah, yeah, I know: it’s all grist for the mill. It’s all emotion and passion and experience that can go into the words. No one knows that better than I: I would never – could never – have imagined and created Connor and Oz without having lost far too many close friends to suicide.

Yes, loss and grief, just like pain and anger, are what we writers live on. But, you know what?

Fuck that.

If this is the price I have to pay, I’d rather go back to losing my soul in a goddamned cubicle.

What makes all this worse? Gerard’s wife is just as good a friend, and just as admirable. I love that woman…shit, I used to joke to my friend about just how much I envied him his soul-mate and how I was going to steal her.

Now she’s shattered and broken.

I’ve been shattered and broken…hell, I’m not sure I’m still all that far from shattered and broken. But to watch Jacqueline fall into that hell, to watch her lose the center of her world…

I spent today holding it together because I had to: the business was open, and someone had to keep it going. I had to announce to the staff, several times, the death of a man that most considered their second grandfather. I had to announce, several times, the loss that tore at all of our souls. Then I had to carry on. We all had to carry on…even when all I wanted to do was go out and get drunk and raise a toast to my friend.

I had originally intended this post to be such a toast, but the words….for the first time, the words are failing me.

I could put together a thousand-word post and not come close to doing justice to my friend.

I could spend every ounce of my remaining strength (which ain’t all that much, right now), and not touch on everything I should say.

I could do a lot of things…

But, for now, I’m going to think. I’m going to mourn. I’m going to cry. And I’m going to get very, very drunk staring at yet another drink at the end of the bar.

Winter Is Coming*

*Thanks, GRRM!

No, really – it’s July, and the weather is changing. No, not to get even hotter, as is happening for most folks in the northern hemisphere. Nope, the weather is changing to get cooler: my summer is (already) ending.

I woke up the other morning a bit before seven. I had nothing to do for the next few hours, so I grabbed some coffee and headed outside to write. The fog hadn’t yet started to lift, and the air had the crisp, cold feeling of the beginning of autumn. In July.

The nights are back down into the thirties, and as soon as the afternoon thunderstorms roll in the days drop to sixty – or even below, from time to time. In July.

As scary as it is, as I write this I’ve been living in the park for almost three months. That is more than halfway through this whole extended vacation/escape. And no, I am honestly not sure which of those two it is. A bit of both.

Pretty much everyone who comes up here is trying to escape something – well, except for the international kids*. The younger folks are trying to escape parents and authority…are trying to escape the boundaries they’ve known all their lives. The older folks are (often) trying to escape the boredom and feeling of unaccustomed uselessness of retirement.

*Err…maybe there’s a lesson in that? I’m not drunk enough to even think about that…

Us in the middle? In many ways, that’s a bit harder. Some are trying to escape lives that have not gone as planned…are trying to escape the whats and wheres of recent years. But others are trying to escape that hardest problem of all: themselves.

You can tell those at a glance: they’re the ones who drink themselves senseless every night. The ones who are angry and resentful all the time. The ones who find a place like this is not an opportunity to see and do, but as a prison.  The ones for whom the trees and valleys, the rivers and geysers, are things not to be experienced but rather feared.

Okay, so I’m not going to delve too much into the specifics of that…not yet, anyway. There’s a great deal to say on that particular topic – a great deal that pertains to writing and to the characters we create – and the whole train of thought deserves more effort and thought than I’m bringing to bear at the moment.

Yes, that does mean that this another last minute post. That worst thing about that? I didn’t even do anything last night. I have no excuse, other than the fact that I spent the last few days doing, err, Yellowstone-ish things rather than write.

No, the reason I started writing about change was more internal: change for me, like winter, is coming. And, just like Westeros’ winter, it’s inevitable and inescapable…and potentially destructive as hell.

The change, for me, is that I have to figure out what the hell I’m doing after this.

I sold my house a year-and-a-half ago. I gave up my (admittedly shitty) apartment when I came up here. My life is, in essence, sitting in a storage unit waiting for me to figure shit out.

It’s easy to lose myself in the beauty up here, and in the rather unique pace and structure of life that goes with living and working in a place like this. But that just delays the decisions, it doesn’t take them away.

I have options. In some ways, too many options. But the end of the contract is still two months away, and it all still seems so unreal…far too unreal to make decisions that, well, matter.

Crap, what’s the worst that could happen? Three months ago I acted purely on impulse: I sent a resume then uprooted my life and started this little adventure ten days later. It’s turned out pretty damned good so far, so maybe it’s time to roll the dice again?

On Revival

Redemption and revitalization are two of the most common themes in writing. Hell, those two concepts underlie just about every plot and story out there. Okay, so that’s it for the Lit 101 recap…why am I talking about this now?

It has something to do with recovering my own energy and focus, yes, but it has more to do with what my current surroundings have to teach.

I was hiking through an area burned out just a couple of years ago…and I mean completely nuked.

It was eerie: the trunks of many dead trees still standing tall, blackened and burned and ready to be blown down by the next strong wind. All around was complete silence, and that strange feeling you get walking through a graveyard.  Like disturbing something that is none of your business.

But…but in spite of the quiet, in spite the sense of death and destruction, there was something more, something quite different. The ground was anything but death and destruction. It was a carpet of deep blues and purples, the cool of those colors broken by the occasional contrasting slashes of reds and yellows. And below it all, the bright greens of young, vibrant plants just beginning to really grow.

Wildflowers. Millions of ‘em.

It took the death of thousands of trees to open the space for the sun to shine through. It took the renewal of the soil that comes with burning off the old and cluttered to make way for the new and strong. It took revitalization. It took drastic and irreversible change.

That is what I’ve been thinking about. That is the force I can see and feel in my own life right now, and the force I need to see and feel in what I write.

I’ve said before that I’m not a plot-centric writer. I’m a character guy – my characters are the life and heart of any/every story. They have to see and feel, taste and touch, the realities of life quite as much as do I.

Writing Wrath & Tears resonated with me because it was a story, at the heart of it all, about the suicide of a friend. It was personal to me, it was real. Silence is about – again, at the heart of it all – the recovery and revitalization of a kid hopeless and broken. About not just surviving, but overcoming, the disasters of life.

Just like every story I write – whether novel-length or short-story – is captured and defined by its final image, the themes I’m addressing (or trying to address, at least) are captured by that one image* I described above…by the forest of the dead being reborn in a riot of color and vibrant chaos.

*And, no – I did not get pictures while I was in that forest. I do promise to try and get back there for some shots, but I have no idea when that will happen.

Eat, Drink And Be Merry…

Hmmm…you go several hundred miles. You try to “get away from it all”. Then what do you do?

Well, if you’re like me – completely submerged in the world of craft beer – you forget that you came up here for a change, and you do what you would be doing if you were back home: you go to a beer festival.

I took a few friends down to one of the surrounding “cities” (ahem) in order to expose them to something better than the limited selection we have at the store. They were all excited, they were all happy to go.  Me, I was actually trembling with excitement.

As soon as we walked through the gates, what did I do? I saw the booth for “my” home brewery and I headed straight there. I heard these little voices in the background, calling out for me “wait up” and “slow down” but I still don’t know what the hell they were talking about: I wasn’t walking fast, they were just slower than shit!

That first damned beer from “home” went down far too easy. And the second.

Then I had to pace myself – my friends had caught up by then, and I had to lead them around the festival! As much as I love living up here in Yellowstone, it was freaking Heaven to be back in my natural element.

A porter here…a lager there…a chile beer over that way…. There was even a couple of breweries I had never tried before! That, sadly, is a rare thing nowadays…and you have no idea how much I miss that kid-on-Christmas-morning feeling of trying a new brewery for the first time.

Wait, writing? Work? The stuff I’m supposed to be doing?  What the hell are you talking about? I have me a growler of the good stuff from home, the rest of the universe can damn well wait.

Okay, okay…I did grab a couple pictures. No, literally, just a couple: I had beer to drink, dammit!  And, yes, I know they are crappy pictures.  Once again: there was beer demanding consumption.

My “home” brewery, all the way up here in Cody, WY at the Yellowstone Beerfest: IMG_0562

A couple of my friends from up here…the other five are back in line waiting (im)patiently while these two got their drinks already:

IMG_0559

Fat, Drunk, Dumb and Lazy

A nice load of artisanal bread, some good locally made Brie, a few slices of prosciutto, and a six-pack of a nice beer (Bozone Select Amber Ale, if you’re wondering). Screw the employee dining room, I’m doing my own thing tonight.

The thunderstorms are gone, the sun is back, and I’m off work.

The Chinese tourists are very put off by my meal choice, and the hiker-trash (of which I am a proud member) are all trying to pretend disdain, but have so far shown only envy. I learned many, many things in my time and travels in Europe, but most of all I learned how to picnic. I mean really, really picnic. I’d have a nice Spanish Rioja with me if only I could find one…but I’ll settle for a quality beer.

Remind me to tell you about the picnics I pulled off in southern France: I ate (and drank) better on ten bucks there than I do on a hundred here!

Ahhh…first world problems…I love ‘em. And, no, my life does not suck at this point.

Shit, I could be in an apartment back home, bitching about the heat and doing the same things over and over again.

My brain wouldn’t have stood for that, and my soul sure as hell wouldn’t have. About the only downside I have at the moment (besides crappy internet and hungry/horny bears) is that the writing itself is suffering a bit.

Oh, not the quality…not the words. Those are coming just fine. No, it’s the vision. Dark, bitter and cynical sci-fi just doesn’t flow all that naturally up here. Now, if I was writing that fantasy series floating in the back of my mind…

That being said, I am back to making progress. Crap, some of my friends up here won’t let me not make progress: they force me to sit here and write. I can’t help, however, how the surroundings, and the changes in my own mood, effect the work. Connor is developing a hint of a lighter side, and is grinding away all those edges, both the rough and the sharp.

There’s a bit from a song (yes, there’s always a song, just like there’s always a but)…admittedly, it was written about a trip to Prague, but it still applies for me. Not to mention the fact that I can, personally, also attest to just what magic and changes Prague can work on you:

The twilight of our youthful days
Books and bridges burned
And records smashed

I’m fat and drunk and dumb and lazy
Digging deep way past the petty cash
But there’s not too many nights like these
When you know you have it way too good

Oh, let it revive me
Carry on, carry in the fire
Oh, let it revive me
Finding peace for a little while

—Prague (Revive Me), Dave Hause, Resolutions

 

Lazy Post Of The Month

Late, again…  It’s harder than I’d like to get these up on time.  Some of it is time and distractions, some is my sheer laziness…and some really is the crappy internet connection I get!

I wasn’t going to do a picture post for a while, but I went down to the Tetons the other day.  Just to gorgeous not to run with…

First, though, a look at how variable it is here in Yellowstone.  The first picture is where I was hiking:

IMG_0457

Then, just a couple hundred yards and one stream later:

Yes, those are steam vents and boiling mud pots.  And, yes, I really did that close something that stinking hot.  I am not, however, going to talk about the mama grizzly and two cubs I ran into on the trail that day!

Now for the real reason for this post…a trip down to thermal features that run into Lake Yellowstone itself, then a run through Grand Teton National Park:

 

And, finally…with all the international visitors we get in this area, the most important sign in the entire place:

IMG_0553

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Healing Power Of Sweat And Sun

I brought work home with me last night. Oh, I don’t mean reports or emails or that kind of thing. No, I took “home” the frustration and anger of a bad day at work. I let it get to me.

That’s not why I’m up here.

Now, let me say this: I am one of the most competitive and proud people you will meet. Those two qualities – sins? issues? – drive me far more than I like to talk about. Oh, they make me good at pretty much anything I do…but that’s because I don’t actually, err, do anything I’m not good at. Or, at least, I don’t talk about it until I am good at it.

The upshot of all that is that I am not actually capable of giving anything less than my best effort…even in a job that I took solely as an excuse to spend 6 months “getting away from it all”.

But I very intentionally took a job that would end as soon as I clocked out. That would not demand more of my life, and my energy, than I was prepared to give. Shit, that’s why I left a very, very good job working for a publishing company!

I woke up this morning still pissed off. I woke up this morning needing, almost as badly as back when I first got up here, to get the fuck away from everything.

So I did.

I was out of bed by six…and had my pack on my back and was pushing onto the trail by seven. I hadn’t, when going to bed, known just what hike I was going to do today. But this morning that answer was easy: I did the hardest fucking one I could think of.

It was a perfect day. The sun…the temperature…not a single damned person in sight…and eighteen miles of sweat and work. Now, eighteen miles doesn’t seem like a lot, until you realize I was (a) using a trail no one has used yet this year and (b) was climbing to the top of a mountain the whole damned time.

My legs are killing me. My skin is killing me – and, no, forgetting mosquito spray was not a good idea! My brain, however, and my…well…soul, feel very much better. It’s absolutely amazing what is the healing power of a day in the sun. Of a day with nothing but trees and beauty that 99.9% of the visitors will never experience. Of a day just for me.

There actually is good news in the irritation and anger of yesterday: I am having no problem at all writing a couple of scenes for Silence today. At this point of the story, Connor is pissed off at just about everything (err, well, that’s not all that unusual for him, admittedly) and I can definitely sympathize…

The Evil Of Soup

Noodles…and, no, I don’t mean the good stuff. I’m talking about the cheap-ass “pour in hot water and have instant ramen” type stuff. Yeah, yeah – we all lived on that stuff at one time or another in our lives. I know I did.

But, for the love of all that’s holy, does it have to be so bad?

Let me paint a picture for you: roughly 4.5 million visitors go through Yellowstone in a year. And, to all intents and purposes, every single damned one of them comes into this store and gets noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner…all at the same time.

The hordes of tourists – all pushing and shoving and fighting to get their noodle-bowl first – are not even the worst part. The worst part? The smell.

No, really: the smell. How did I ever eat that crap?

The store’s cashiers, stockers and food service people are way too busy to take care of the damned noodle stand, so guess who gets to try and keep it cleaned and stocked? Good guess.

Every single time I walk past the place, I have to stop to clean and stock…all while gagging on the smell and getting shoved aside by hungry tourists. It’s enough to remind me why I’m an introvert…

Now, why on earth am I talking about the stench of cheap, instant noodles? Because, all too often, we writers forget that folks have senses other than eyes (and the occasional ear). How many stories talk about the smell of a place? Or the feel?

Honestly, the sense of smell can be just as evocative and memorable as sights and sounds. Whether I ever do another season working up here or not, I will remember two things about the store itself: the complete lack of air circulation in a 60+ year old building, and the stench of noodles.

And the noodles are worse…far, far worse. I’d gladly sweat my ass off every single day if it meant I didn’t have to walk by that damned noodle stand ever again.

Hmm…I thought about doing something serious here, a brief snippet to capture the feeling and smell of the store. My brain didn’t cooperate:

From sun to shade, the temperature dropped about twenty degrees. He pulled the hat from his head and wiped ineffectively at sweat-matted hair. The hike had left him tired, dirty and starving. But mostly starving. He needed something – anything – and he needed it fast.

He stepped through the door, dodging young kids and grandmothers as he squeezed between the two lines waiting impatiently for their chance at the registers. His stomach growled, and his legs felt weak. Something…anything…even a goddamned overpriced granola bar!

The crowd was a pain in the ass, every single one seemingly determined to keep him from reaching the ready-made food. It was a weaving, circuitous route he took. Faster to walk twice the distance than to fight upstream against all those pushing for the exit.

The beer fridge almost pulled him off the hunt – almost. As much as he wanted a drink, however, he needed food more. The briefest of sighs, and he left behind the Jennie’s Lake lager and the Bitch Creek brown. Later, when urgent needs were settled. When he didn’t feel like a weasel was eating him from the inside out.

He felt like a hero finally reaching the tower with the sleeping princess when he found the soup aisle. And when he’d grabbed one of those big, plastic bowls? He’d just slain the biggest fucking dragon in the place. Now he just had to escape, had to fight through the hordes of guards to reach the safety of the Kingdom of the Microwave.

Something began to build, however. A sense…a feeling…an odor. What fell beast lay in wait? What diabolical trap would he face?

That evil built, became all but overwhelming. Thirty people there were, all using two microwaves to heat soup. All the exact same soup…all the soup he himself held in his sweating, shaking hand.

The stench hit him in a wave. It was almost physical, that smell. Sickly, greasy…like a fire in a barn full of animals. Like the worst day in the slaughterhouses outside of Chicago.

He wanted to wretch, wanted to flee…but he was hungry, dammit!

He continued to wait in that line, started to push forward a bit, to claim a place as far ahead as he could. Hey, it was working for the little grannies – one had even stabbed him with the handle of her cane just to use his moment of shock to move ahead.

And the smell continued to build.

Thank God he had quit drinking early last night. He didn’t think he could take the place with a hangover. A headache and general queasiness to go with that smell? Yeah, that would be a good idea.

Only one person ahead, now. Hunger built until it had taken control of his mind. His eyes saw nothing but the microwave just ahead…

The rest of his body? The rest of his body was crying – screaming – to leave, to get out.

The dragon was still alive, and it was pissed. The air felt thick: thick with grease and salt, thick with the smells of nothing natural, thick with evil. His hands suddenly felt heavy, that plastic bowl starting to grow in weight until it dragged at his arms.

He had to do this, he had to eat!

The tiny granny fetched her soup from inside the microwave and moved away with a smirk for him. Psychotic bitch.

A tear at the packaging, then, and his bowl was open and ready. The smell, however, the smell from that granny’s bowl lingered. It had combined with the thousands before her, had permeated even the wood and plastic of the counter. Just a touch and the man felt soiled, dirty. Was that stain on his skin, or had it penetrated all the way into his very soul?

Water in the bowl…bowl in microwave…a couple of minutes to heat…

He started to shake and sweat. A burp, tiny and subtle, but one that brought with it a bit of bile from below. What the hell? He tried to settle himself, to take a deep breath.

That was a mistake.

He broke into a fit of coughing, wanted nothing more than water to drink..and to wash. The grease was everywhere, the evil filling every pore. He was gagging now, barely able to breathe.

DING

A trembling, palsied hand on the small door. A brief pull and it snapped open. Not a bowl of noodles did that door release, but a raging demon on the attack.

He wretched, had to lean on the counter to keep from passing out. His stomach continued to heave, and the other organs decided that now was a good time for some internal solidarity: his lungs shut down, his heart began to pound. Hell, even his fucking spleen decided to not do whatever it is that spleens do.

Inside that cloud, however – inside that demon – still hid his bowl of soup. Still hid the lunch he so badly needed.

He commanded an arm to move, to reach. The arm refused.

His legs had had enough. Fuck you brain, they said, we’re out of here.

The bowl of noodles laughed at him with maniacal glee.

Men and women were pushed aside. Children simply run over. The only pause in his flight was to kick aside the psychotic granny’s cane. Out of the store he ran, pursued all the while by the taunting, evil laughter of a $1.69 bowl of soup.

Terrorism Comes To Yellowstone!

Okay…well…maybe, not so much.

I don’t often do a “real time” post, but today I just have to.

IMG_0444Let’s start off by mentioning that I really doubt this place is Target #1 for ISIS: “Hmmm, Achmed, let’s see…do we bomb the SuperBowl or Yellowstone?”

Even they can get that one right.

That being said, we just had ourselves a nice (not so) little bomb scare last night.

Well, I use “scare” pretty liberally. The tourists were scared…the rangers were, err, collecting scads of overtime…and the store staff? We were up in front of the store, drinking and watching the whole thing. It was basically a Fourth of July picnic for us.

That being said, things did get more to the “scare” part when they evacuated the employee dorms a couple of hours later…then it started to hit home for a lot of folks. The poor international kids were confused as hell. Then again, the American kids weren’t a whole lot more on top of things.

Me, I had a nice buzz going…

Now, to whoever decided it would be funny to put a package in front of the building next to us with a threat printed on it: this is, err, federal land. It ain’t the much vaunted and feared Bozeman PD investigating this one, and it sure as hell ain’t the rangers. Them thar FBI boys ain’t the sharpest spoons in the drawer, but they have A LOT of money and power.

My favorite part, however, came when they evacuated the employees.

“What about my room?” I ask the ranger. “I’m like thirty feet from that package.”

“Naw, you’ll be all right. You’re below the store, it’ll take the brunt of the blast.”

Thanks. Thanks for that. I’m gonna sleep so much better, now…

One of the more entertaining pursuits, while the rangers were trying to (unsuccessfully) chase the employee picnic away from the theoretical danger zone, was to speculate on possible causes/motives. Aside from a creepy, mostly-insane former employee my favorite theory was that someone just didn’t want to wait the hundred years they figure it will be before the supervolcano goes boom. “Dammit, I want an eruption and I want it NOW!”

At least, I figured, if I was gonna die, I wanted to die with good beer. So I cracked the ONE bomber (don’t you just love the irony?) of Brombeere I had squirreled away and toasted the coming explosion.

IMG_0443Now I have to go to work, on one hour’s sleep, and clean up the mess.

Happy, happy…joy, joy.

The Breakfast Of Champions

It’s hard to get enough posts stored away in time…the, err, call of nature is too strong.  No, I mean that: nature calls.  Hiking and camping and communing with the animals are pretty high on my list right now.

At any rate, I’ve done Yellowstone posts, I’ve done writing posts, I’ve done picture posts…but it’s been a while since I’ve done a snippet from Silence.  Err, well, yes…part of that is because I’m badly behind on my schedule but, as Connor would recognize, that’s the price I’m paying for the fun.

At any rate, a snippet:

It was hard not to laugh. It was very hard. Connor had not seen a person as painfully miserable as Matt in a very long time. He tried to look sympathetic, he really did, but even with his skill at scamming and fooling people, that solicitude wasn’t very convincing.

“Two days I’ve known you, Connor,” Matt moaned with his head in his hands, “and I think you’ve already ruined me. Where the hell did you learn to drink like that? You have a secret career in the navy or something?”

A laugh and a sip of coffee for Connor before he replied. “Call it the legacy of a misspent youth. Eat the damn eggs, Matt. Trust me on that. You need the protein and carbs pretty bad.”

A slow, quavering forkful of scrambled eggs went down Matt’s throat, and a long drink of water. “Misspent youth my ass. I drank my share of beer and other stuff as a kid, but what you were pouring down my throat last night was just plain evil. You have to be feeling it, too.”

“Crap, son, you’ve lived here longer than me. That was local stuff we were drinkin’: slivovice. And, yes, even I have a headache this morning.”

Another groan, then Matt looked up. His small grin, ironic and laughing, did nothing to lessen the baleful stare of those reddened eyes. “How am I supposed to go to work this morning? I can’t even see straight.”

Connor did laugh, then. “You just do it, that’s how. There’s always a price, Matt, so you pay it and do what you have to. Life just is, boss, and you deal with it.”
“What is it they say around here? Do haje. Go to hell. I think you might be that bad influence my parents always warned me about.”

Connor was proud of the control he was showing. Not the slightest hint of dockside touched his tongue, and only the most inoffensive and mild of curses slipped into his words. He also felt like he was about to explode. Explode or not, however, there was no way he was going to show this pampered son of the elite the real Connor. This kid–a decade older than Connor, Matt’s naivety and inexperience still made him more a kid than Connor ever had been–was just too unknown, and too different, to trust. The lessons of that misspent youth he had joked about were still too fresh, and too important, to forget.

“You’ll survive,” Connor answered with a smile. “And I’m the most perfect person on this planet. I raised the average IQ of this place as soon as I stepped off the shuttle.”

“I hope to hell your boss has a sense of humor. He’s gonna need it with you. Mine, on the other hand, is a jackass. I don’t think anything or anyone exists for him except formulas and designs. I know us engineers can be obsessive, but that man scares me. Where will you be working, anyway? If you ever said, I was too drunk to remember.”

Connor had given Matt, over the last two days, the cover story prepared for him by Sonthi. Had lived that cover story, had thrown himself totally into becoming Connor Torlae. It was almost fun, he had to admit, living as someone so completely different from who he really was.

Although he was going to kill Sonthi for the name.

He was about to answer, to offer some vague explanation of the job interviews he had to attend, when an alert tone interrupted. What the hell? It took a strange look from Matt, and a pointed stare at Connor’s pocket, to make the necessary mental jump.

He grabbed the ‘screen from his pocket and rose from the table. What idiot would be calling him? He thought–he hoped–Sonthi wasn’t stupid enough to use the city’s communications net for something like this.

“Back in a second,” he said even as he was stepping for the diner’s door. A few seconds and he was outside, tucked behind a corner to shield himself from the icy wind. He touched a control on the ‘screen still wondering if he really should take the call, or if he should just drop the ‘screen and run. It was even money on which was dumber.

A swirl of colors that resolved almost instantly into an image. Dockside reappeared on Connor’s tongue, along with the realization that he should’ve run. “Ai shia, Sonthi. What the fuck?”

“Ki ni shinaide,” the ex-cop placated. “LRC’s got its own in-house comm system. Heavily encrypted and secure as fuck. Plus, I’m bouncing this through about half the damn networks in the star system. No worries, chiima.”

“Fuck you, it’s my ass on the line you kwai bastard.”

A laugh from the older man. “Your apartment’s got the same system set up. You can trust the net in there; it makes Snug’s blacknet look like a fuckin’ nursery school.” The smile faded, and Sonthi’s face turned serious. “You settled in good? I gave you as much time as I could, but Chapman’s gettin’ itchy to…well, test you.”

“Shit, I don’t even have the tools yet. You set me up with clothes and food, and the home system is pretty damn nice, but there ain’t a fuckin’ greybox or cracknet in sight. You expect me to…what? Just walk in somewhere and ask nicely for the info?”

“Flash those blue eyes and shake your ass to the right secretary and that just might work,” Sonthi laughed, unfazed by Connor’s sarcasm. “Sorry Connor, but that’s part of Chapman’s test. No tools, no shortcuts. It’s petty bullshit, but that’s life. Shou ga nai. I’m sending you a file with the targets. Five different ops. Just messin’ with data, no scammin’ or face to face work. Background and all the details you’ll need are in the file. Study it, then work ’em as fast as you can. Chapman wants to push you, so I told him it would take you a week or so. He was happy with that.”

Sonthi’s look turned from amused sarcasm to intense, deadly seriousness in a flash. “If it does take you a week, I’m sending your ass back to dockside on the next ship.”

“Heia. It’s fuckin’ doji, Sonthi, but I’ll get it done. But first…”

Sonthi raised a hand, forestalled what Connor had been about to say. “Don’t start. I got you covered. Ten grand when all five jobs are done.”

Connor repressed the smile that threatened: Sonthi still knew what the hell he was doing. That was good. Now it was time to press.

Trust no one and always have an escape plan; Oz’s lessons still mattered.

“In cash, boss. In fuckin’ cash. You know the drill: most of what I gotta do ain’t gonna go through accounts and idents.”

Sonthi’s eyebrows rose at that. “This isn’t dockside, Connor. Cash stands out. It raises questions and problems, and that’s not a good idea. I told you before, this place is run through damn ‘plants.”

“Dame. I don’t give a fuck. Remember where you pulled me out of. I need cash. You try to pay me through some baka account and you’ll never find me again.”

Hesitation, and the start of an answer, then Sonthi just shook his head. “Fine. I’ll have it brought to you, but not ’til you’re done. And that I ain’t givin’ in on.”

Connor nodded: he had expected nothing less. “By the way, boss, fuck you for the ident. What fuckin’ t-deck reject uses ‘liar’ for a fake name?”

Sonthi laughed. “You and me are about the only aho who’ll get the joke. Folks here…well, to folks here dockside slang might as well be from the bug-eatin’ aliens on the other side of the universe.”

Connor was about to close the ‘screen when a thought occurred to him.

“Boss…Sonthi. I need you to look someone up for me. Get me a full rundown on a guy named Matt Heaton. Has the unit next to mine in the building.”

“Somethin’ we should worry about?”

A shake of his head, but a hint of hesitation in Connor’s voice. “I don’t think so, but I’m not sure. Baka was introducin’ himself before I had a chance to even take a piss. I think he’s just a nice guy lookin’ for a buddy, but I just don’t know.”

“I’ll start lookin’,” Sonthi said with a nod, then closed the call.

Connor rolled the ‘screen and stuffed it back into his pocket as he re-entered the diner.

Matt was just getting to his feet. A look of curiosity, and a half-smile. “Everything okay?”

“Got a job interview,” Connor replied with a smile and a little laugh.

You always put the kamo at ease.