The monument garden was a strange place with its own strange rhythms playing discordantly along the strains of the colorful high rises of the city surrounding it. What ever Jack or Jill administered the garden had set the weather ambience to a weak, misty drizzle under a dark sky, without a hint of irony. So, I stood in the rain in my slicker and good heels, watching Colm.Trenger stare at his son’s gravestone. The only illumination came from the tines of my umbrella and the lapels of my jacket.
“This is, what, the third time you’ve bothered me this week? I could have you arrested for harassment,” Trenger said, without much feeling. His face remained in profile, and I studied the way the rain collected and dripped off his nose.
“I’ll just tell them you reneged on a business contract. That should settle it. My friends in the Force will probably sweep it under the rug for me.” Truth was, most of my ‘friends’ in the Force couldn’t stand the sight of me anymore, but you probably knew that. “I need my money, Trenger.”
“I voided the contract, remember?”
“Only after I found your wife. Way I see it, I fulfilled our contract and then some.”
His lip curled. “You got her arrested.”
“I got her saved. Mobsters don’t take kindly to traitors, Trenger. You’re lucky your only involvement with them was being the dupe your wife milked for government contacts. Ara is alive because of me.”
He turned his head so I could no longer see his face. “If you call it living.”
“Figmentiaries ain’t so bad. She’ll have three squares, a place to sleep at night, and plenty of activities to keep herself occupied. If anything, prison is the utopia this world was designed to be, before we got here.”
“She won’t be able to touch anyone.”
“Except you, during visitors hours. She’ll need you more than ever, now.” I tilted my head, regarding him. “Ain’t that what you wanted all along?”
He let out a breath through his nose and opened up his console. Fingers flew over keys, arranging the transfer. Trenger’s hand fell over the keyboard, and hesitated.
I rolled my eyes. “I have errands to run, Trenger. Think of it like this—we run in different circles. Hurry this up, and you’ll never have to look at me again.”
“I don’t run in those circles anymore, Ms. Sazerac,” Trenger said. He fixed me with a dark glower, but he hit the transfer button. That was all I care about. “I can’t. Not after you exposed my wife and ruined me.”
“Traceys don’t ruin their clients, Mr. Trenger. They just occasionally dig up ways the clients ruined themselves.” I tapped a key on my own console, accepting the transfer. “Pleasure doing business with you.”
“Place your palm on the pad and spread your fingers, please.”
I did as the woman instructed, giving a tilt to my hips and making a show of my ringless fingers.
As the device ran over my palm, I felt a cool tingle in my hand. As the sensation penetrated my skin, goosebumps prickled and my access to my command console, my inventory, and my applications was blocked. But I still smiled.
“You know,” I glanced at the name tag across her right breast. Turning my eyes up, I flashed her my winning smile. “That uniform is really fetching, Ms. Darling.”
The Fetching Ms. Darling regarded me with a flat expression and gestured to the opening gate in the stark-white hallway. “That is Lt. Darling to you. Do you have any gifts to declare?”
“Just the one marked in my inventory.”
Lt. Darling glanced at her display and nodded. At the tap of fingers on the keyboard, a small sack appeared. She passed me the sack, never dropping her grim mien.
“Pass through the doorway. You will be under observation during the visit.”
When my back was turned on her, I made a face at being snubbed. Wiping away the irritation, I focused instead on the gate in front of me. For the fiftieth time, I checked my jacket, my skirt, my good heels. When I stepped through the doorway, the world shifted.
The stark white hallway turned into a stark white room. The dimensions were perfectly cubical, lit with no visible source. Shadows found no safe corner to hide. At least it didn’t smell as sterile as it looked. A faint trace of vanilla cookies and cut grass wafted on the air. Windows outside gave views of the yard where other inmates socialized, played games, or worked on crafts.
I found her, sitting on one of the two plain gray couches placed across from each other in the center of the room. Compared to the immense dead space in the cell, they seemed almost comically small. Of course, the way Ara stretched out on them, you’d never notice. Even in a prison uniform she looked like white chocolate poured into a mold of Venus di Milo.
I tried to tuck my hands in my pockets before walking over to her, but the skirt had no pockets. Grumbling to myself, I tried, awkwardly, to find other ways to appear casual.
“Nice digs,” I said. Not much in the way of things to say to an ex, months after you’d last seen them, but who said you have to be smooth all the time? “Do they make you sleep on the couches, or…?”
She looked up at me from her book, eyes half-lidded in a way that expressed either molten sensuality or plain sleepiness. I suppose it was the latter. Pursing her lips, Ara closed the book and tucked it away.
“The décor changes during the day,” Said Ara. “Welcome to my mansion.”
“Please, don’t get up on my account,” I said as I was lowering myself onto the couch opposite her. She hadn’t even threatened to. She remained lounging, like a cat. I tried to ignore the way that even a lazy Ara at ease still set a fire in my belly.
“So…” I said, leaning on my elbows.
“So,” said Ara.
She watched me, and I stared at nothing in particular. The urge to whistle, innocently, came up but I ignored it.
“Come to see how the other half lives?” she asked me, after a too-long silence.
“I already know, thanks.” It was supposed to sound like bragging, but I guess it came off as something worse.
She frowned to herself. “Yes, I suppose you’ve seen enough people put in here.”
I shrugged, rolling my eyes to one side, a guilty half-grin sliding across my face. “Not as many as you’d think. Mostly the job entails lost things or cheating lovers. If I’m in a court room, it’s usually for a divorce, not homicide.”
“Well, then I’m glad to be your first.”
“Well you weren’t my first. At least, not in the court room.”
She let out a breath in what I still think was an attempt not to laugh. Pulling her legs off the couch, she sat forward and pulled something off the little table between the couches. A cigarette. Placing it between her lips, the tip glowed blue then began to leak artful circles of smoke.
“Want one?” she asked.
“Sure.” I leaned in, out of habit, half expecting her to place one in my lips just like the old days. And for a moment she seemed she would, but at the last, she just offered me the stick. I took it and for a brief second it seemed our fingers would brush, but hers passed through mine as though they were only an illusion. My eyes flicked to her face, and I decided to pretend I hadn’t seen the hurt that caused in her eyes.
Leaning back, I sucked a deep drag, letting the sensation unfurl along what passed for nerves in my avatar’s body. It reminded me of something.
“You know,” I said, gesturing with the cigarette held between two fingers. “This used to be a lot worse. I hear when the system first went live they would deprive prisoners of their avatars and lock them in their partitions, bodiless.”
“You always know how to cheer up a party,” she said with a quick of her brow. “Did you bring me anything?”
“Yeah.” I held up two fingers. “Two things: First, I talked to Trenger this morning.”
Real hurt sparked in her expression. She shrank away, looking out the window. “How is he? He hasn’t spoken to me since the trial.”
“It could have been worse for both of you—the trial I mean.”
“I don’t see how,” she muttered.
“Justices usually tend to shorten the allotted life span for convicts in cases of partition hijacking.” I remembered the case clearly. I’d hidden in the audience the whole time, watching Duke Petrucci give his character witness. In the end, it was his word that bent the presiding justice toward leniency. “You still have all your years left. Just lay low, play along with the rehabilitation and arts and crafts, and you may get out and get your life back.”
She rested an elbow on her knee, holding the cigarette aloft. It was one of those small, strikingly feminine mannerisms I always loved about her. “I suppose…”
“So—your husband. I talked to him this morning.” I’d just leave out that he’d been trying to stiff me my fee for months and that I’d finally collected.
“I think you’ll be starting to see him real soon.”
You could see the tension start to leak out of her body. Her shoulders started to slacken, her calves loosened. Ara leaned back, obviously trying not to show how pleased that news made her.
“Thank you, Dera.” Saying the words seemed to pain her, but she continued. “That—I know it hurt when I left. That you would do that means the world to me.”
“And that’s part of why I did it.”
Giving her a side-eye, I smiled coyly. Holding the bag up, I said, “There’s one other present.”
She took the bag from my offered hand, taking care not to let her hand pass through mine again. That’s why folk on the street call them Figmentiaries, I guess. Prisoners can’t touch anyone but one designated loved one. You become a figment, able to see and talk to others but never know what it’s like to shake hands, to hold them, or even to fight them.
Ara leaned back on the couch as she reached a hand in the bag and pulled the gift out. It was a small snow-globe, depicting a city-side beach scene. Inside, three people hugged each other and waved to the viewer: A man, her husband, and their son.
Tears welled in her eyes. Ara bit her lip, staring at it, seemingly too scared to even shake it. “Why did you do it? What’s your price?”
“Nothing. I just did it. Thought it might make the wait in here bearable.”
Her voice was quiet, almost as though she didn’t want me to hear. “Bullshit.”
“Seriously. No price. I’m mercenary, but I’m not heartless. You know that.”
I looked away, gave Ara her privacy while she tried to compose herself. I heard her sniffle, heard the wobble of the snow globe as she shook it. Finally, when she cleared her throat, I looked back. Ara was transformed. There was no cool regard, no invisible distance. She smiled, well and truly.
“What can I do to repay you? For everything?”
“Nothing. There’s noth—“
I swallowed, looking down at my shoes. “Alright. Maybe there’s one thing.”
“What is it?”
“Could you sing for me? Like old times?”
A slow smile spread across her lips, and after a moment she stood. Her lips parted to take in a breath, and then she sung.
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