The emergency email from Rory hit her pager at precisely 8:01 a.m. Already at her desk, Nails had a hard copy in her hands by 8:03. It was in their standard form. She scanned it swiftly, her face going white.
Thoroughly shaken, she sat down to memorize what appeared on the surface to be nothing more than one of countless Net solicitations.
Antique Auto Auction! You can’t afford to miss this one! Closeout sale. Early 21st century vehicles in running condition, some TLC needed. Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Bug, Chevy Lumina used only on the farm. Other items: Four mudflaps, fit small pickup. Three unused cans of black paint. No time to lose! For details call….
She memorized everything but the number, which would have been recently disconnected, anyway, hooking up nowhere. Before consigning the evidence to the office shrederator, she went through it one last time to absolutely certain every part of the message was interpreted correctly and locked into her long term memory.
“So,” the disguised reporter pondered aloud, “What’s the scoop?”
Camry was in trouble, she of course being the Toyota Camry. Two other people involved, one white American guy in whom her cousin had great trust. American men were Chevies. Lumina from luminous, meaning this guy was the light of her life. Not only that, but–and this Nails found the hardest of all to believe–the guy was a Seeder. Used only on the farm, that had been family code for the Guild’s nefarious Seed-pickers for, well, just about forever. There could be no other interpretation, but it was beyond hard to swallow. Maybe her cousin had snagged some boy toy who didn’t know any better, got him in trouble with the Guild, or…. Nah. No use guessing.
As for the Volkswagen, Cam was nuts about VW’s, even calling the first one she ever owned her “baby girl”, so the third person was either from Germany or at least of German extraction.
Closeout sale: They were moving from wherever they were.
Bug: They’d be bugging out very, very soon.
You can’t afford to miss this one: Self explanatory.
Vehicles in running condition: Cam and her friends were about to run and healthy enough to make it.
Some TLC needed: They couldn’t safely do it alone.
Four mudflaps: Four pet cats as part of the deal. The code for this one came from those big truck mudflaps with silhouettes of naked girls on them, pussycats as it were. Dogs were Mack trucks, from the old hood ornaments.
No time to lose: They needed to go black in a hurry but had not yet done so.
She coded an email back to Rory and headed out. Half an your later, her pager vibrated confirmation. By that time, the Hoelringer was already at her apartment, changing clothes/ By 9:40, she’d parked her nondescript Jetaway and was walking slowly into 42nd Avenue’s Stay ‘N’ Play. Because of the name, most people thought it must be a whorehouse or a casino, but it wasn’t, just a few pool tables in the back surrounded at some distance by booths lining the walls. As early as she was, they’d beat her here. An obvious couple with a mother in tow, or maybe a grandmother.
“Good morning,” she said calmly, sliding in next to the old woman and across from the couple. Under the table, the two old women’s hands met and clasped. Outwardly, they give no sign except for eyes suddenly glistening with tears.
Garrett Di Marco, with Teal sitting next to him, was suitably impressed. All it had taken to transform Cammie into an old bat had been a bit of makeup, a gray wig, a couple of scarves, some old lady clothing including antique lace gloves, a hump on her back that was actualy a daypack full of spare cash, and a cane. The redhead played the role to perfection, hunching over, taking small, hesitant steps, transforming her usual quick stride into the cautious shuffle of an aged crone.
Her cousin had clearly studied at the same school of Disguise and Acting. The only difference in her outfit from that of Cam’s involved the lack of a scarf and a wig of hair that was pure white rather than gray. Both women wore dresses that looked to have come from the nearest Salvation Army store. Even their shoes were old and clunky. Today, the taller woman’s eyes were brown and, behind rimless glasses, clearly missed nothing.
“Interesting place,” Garrett offered by way of a conversational opening.
Nails smiled a wrinkled smile. When she spoke, her voice even sounded like an old woman. “The owner believes in privacy.”
He nodded, determined to look cool without sounding as stupid as he felt. Privacy? What the–but as the old saying went, better to say nothing and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.
The reporter took mercy on him and explained.
“There’s a foot of airspace between booths, which helps. Henry, that’s the owner, he won’t allow security cameras at all, except outside. You may have noticed the walls are unusually thick, but what you can’t see is that they’re filled with a material that both deadens sound and blocks heat so that infrared search rays can’t see inside from the street or from space or anywhere else. Then, just in case someone does manage to wire the place without his knowledge, the pool balls clacking around sort of helps to break things up a bit.”
“Yeah.” He got it now.
“He’ll tell you.” Cammie said quietly, addressing the unspoken question in her cousin’s eyes.
More than a little surprised at seeing such deference to a man–any man–by the woman she’d known since childhood as Fire Breathing Dragon Girl, Nails cocked one eyebrow and turned to Di Marco. He spoke softly.
“I’m a Guild Senior Seeder who’s about to go on the Guild hit list. I need to disappear permanently without breathing dirt.”
Nails felt her jaw drop, recovered, snapped it shut. Cam’s message had indicated a Seeder was involved, and yes, she’d come prepared for that possibility. But a Senior Seeder? True, her A.S.P. contact had been one such, but…. Just when she’d thought nothing could surprise her any more. Her mind raced. This must be the rich South Dakota guy who’d gotten rid of Rotten Richard on Cammie’s behalf. She had no idea about the unidentified girl at the Seeder’s side. Housekeeper?
Her cousin read her mind. “We’re his slaves. We’re a threesome.”
Slaves? Threesome? This time the effort to reclose her mouth was almost greater than she could manage. A Senior Seeder falling right into her lap was one thing. But Fire Breathing Dragon Girl allowing a man to master her? Sharing with another woman? This could not be. People could die–people had died–suggesting things like that to the Raging Redhead. Not that people didn’t change. Sometimes. But share a man with another woman? Never! Little Red had always been the kind who loved sex and might have a spare guy or two of her own on the side, but her jealousy was legendary. How could this ordinary looking man sitting calmly across from her–how could he have managed to tame the Dragon Girl?
It couldn’t be endowment; her cousin had known men hung like gorillas on steroids, and that hadn’t slowed her down one bit. “You must have something,” she murmered in her old lady voice.
“I don’t know how you did it, and we don’t have time to go into that now.” She fished in her handbag, a worn old beaded thing that looked like it could accommodate enough junk to stock a pawn shop. Whatever came out went to Cammie under the table.
“We’ll have more time one of these days.” She closed her junk bag and sat with her hands in her lap. “For now, I think I’d better skip coffee after all and get back to the Home. My kidneys aren’t what they used to be.”
With that she rose, but with some difficulty. Garrett jumped up a bit belatedly and helped her make it to her feet.
He could act, too, when the need was there.
They watched her hobble heavily through the bar and out the front door, her cane barely enough to keep her upright. As the Seeder sat back down, he murmered almost under his breath. “That, beloved, is the only woman I’ve ever met who might be more dangerous than you.”
Why that should make his redhead look pleased, he had no idea.
Not until they had finished their omelettes did the threesome rise to pay their check. Back in the car–not the smooth gray SkyFire but a much older ground-only vehicle they called their Stealth Chevy–it seemed safe to talk freely, although Cammie would retain her disguise until they were once again behind four strong walls. In the back seat, Teal shood her head in admiration.
“Wow, sis, you and your cuz are both good. Academy Awards, here we come.”
“Hey, we’ve had practice,” Cammie replied. She looked at the folded slip of paper in her hand. “These are the numbers we need to call, places where we can hole up using nuds instead of credits.” Nuds, or New Union Dollars, left no paper trail. It would be that or barter for a while, at least until they were resettled. Maybe longer. Nails’ brother Rory could outfit them with new identities, but that wouldn’t be enough by itself if they were on the Guild hit list. Nuds were an interesting form of cash, mostly copper with a little other stuff thrown in to make them a bit stronger. True, they’d only been in circulation for twenty, thirty years. Something like that. But they did the trick; nuds were accepted everywhere credits weren’t.
There’d been a lot of resistance to the new money at first, [NUDS ARE CRUD!] campaigns, stuff like that. Her favorite was the one that bellowed, UNCLE SAMMY’S GOT YOU BY THE NUDS!
Complete with full color illustration, of course.
Her family believed the old way, in gold and silver, not in play money. She loved those silver dollars from the nineteenth century you could still win in the slots at Silver Dollar Casino in Las Vegas. Then there was Montana’s Silver Dollar Bar with its ten thousand original silver dollars encased in the bar top under a quarter inch of clear plastic. That plastic had been liquified, poured over and around the big coins like see-through concrete. It could not be separted from either the money or the massive wood of the bartop, yet there were legends of America’s Dumbest Criminals trying to steal the whole thing. Which was more than silly, since the bar was more than twenty feet long and weighed umpty dumpty tons.
Corolla had given her one more item, which she now fished out of a pocket in her old lady dress and handed to her Master.
“What’s this?” He asked.
“A little book of some kind.”
“I can see that, but–well, it’s not the first time you’ve seen me read while driving. If I look like I’m going to wreck us, grab the wheel.”
“Oh, thanks a lot.”
“Yeah, thanks a lot,” Teal chimed in from the back seat. She had reason, having once awakened in a hospital to be told she was going to prison. Drunk, she’d hailed a cab and passed out in the vehicle. The stupid cabbie had left the motor running and gone into a convenience store. No doubt he figured to run up some extra time on the meter to rip off the drunk. What he hadn’t counted on was Teal coming to, just mobile enough to climb behind the wheel in an alcoholic blackout, pop the thing into gear, hit the gas, and ram the whole arrangement smack into a brick wall.
Ever since, her life motto had been, Hire a designated driver, go to jail!! A whole new slogan for the alkies of the world. Thank goodness she didn’t drink any more, and neither did Cammie.
“What? What?” Cammie’s immediate panic assumed they were about to be rammed or shot or arrested or blown up or–
“No, no, settle down. Sorry, hon.” He was holding the book in one hand, driving with the other. It was a small volume, palm sized if you were comparing it to his large hand, maybe as thick as a deck of cards plus a couple of hairs. The print was small, too, which was why it had taken him a moment to get out his reading glasses. Even then, he had to squint a little.
“Listen to this. The title is Surviving Retirement. Sounds pretty innocuous, huh? But this isn’t just any itsy bitsy retirement guide. It’s written for Guild Seeders getting out of the game, and I’m pretty sure the authors are A.S.P. people!”