The Bucket Shop Job – Full Text
The Bucket Shop Job
by David D. Levine
Titan stinks. I mean that literally. The air smells of ammonia, gasoline, bitter almonds, and rotten fish. If you work outside, it seeps in through your mask and soaks into your clothes so deep you can’t ever wash it out. It’s always there inside, too, worse near the airlocks, of course, but even in the sleeping quarters and the restaurants it’s inescapable. They say you get used to it eventually, but I can tell you from personal experience that four years isn’t enough. I know a few people who got the surgery to destroy their sense of smell, but not me — not only didn’t I have the money, but I was hoping to get out of there someday.
So that’s why the first thing I noticed when I met the Cannibal Club for the first time was the lack of smell. Or rather, that I smelled and the rest of them didn’t. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. They had just come in from the Belt, after all, and they were staying in a fancy hotel suite that I could never have afforded in a million years. Of course it didn’t stink there. Stink is for the little people.
The suite had a window, too. Hardly any place on Titan has a window, because there’s nothing outside except an industrial wasteland, but I guess visitors want to see it anyway. The view was of pipes and tanks and distillation towers, dimly lit by hard cones of orange-brown light from the heat lamps in the dome above. Toronto is a typical Titan city: a complex of domes, not airtight but weatherproof, that ward off the near-constant methane rain and under which Titan’s freezing smog is warmed to a survivable temperature. Beneath these domes huddles a mix of refineries and factories and, incidentally, the airtight habitats where people actually live. Outside the domes it is even colder, and perpetually dark.
“This is Kane,” said Strange, the man who’d recruited me. I nodded to the group in what I hoped would seem a cordial manner. I don’t do cordial, usually. “He’ll be our finisher.” That meant nothing to me.
“Kane, this is Max,” Strange continued. “He’s our muscle. You’ll be taking the part he was originally supposed to play, so you’ll be working closely with him.”
Max was big, tough, with a wrestler’s build and a boxer’s scarred knuckles. He’d be a hard one to take down. But his face was round and warm and the smile under his impressive black moustache looked friendly and genuine. He extended a big meaty hand. “Welcome to the Club.”
“Provisionally,” one of the others interjected.
“That’s Tai,” said Strange, indicating the one who’d spoken. “Our hacker.” Tai was little and wiry, Asian, with bright green hair and a fancy outfit. She — no, they — gave me a nod and regarded me suspiciously. I could break them with one hand, but they were almost certainly armed. “This is Alicia, our thief.” Alicia was a pale, freckled redhead with generous curves. She smiled in a kindly way, but her hand as she shook mine was callused and had a crushing grip. “And Shweta, our grifter.”
“Negotiator,” Shweta corrected. Her hand was soft — she was soft all over, round and plump with smooth, warm skin and black hair in a bun. She looked like your fifty-something auntie, but her black eyes were sharp and missed nothing. If it came to a fight, she’d be the type to slip a knife in your back while you weren’t looking.
As for Strange . . . Even though Max was the biggest, Strange was the one I would least want to go up against. Slim but tautly muscled, his every movement showed he understood his body, and his eyes — startlingly blue despite their Asian folds — showed he understood yours as well. The one advantage I might have over him was that he was freshly arrived and didn’t have his Titan legs yet. Most Belters could deal with free fall and Belt standard quarter-gee equally well, but Titan’s fourteen percent gravity was unfamiliar to them and could mess them up in a fight. “So, what’s a ‘finisher’?” I asked him.
Strange crossed his skinny arms and leaned back on the countertop behind him, bouncing a little. He immediately corrected himself, I noticed; he would get his Titan legs sooner than most. “We’ve been setting this gig up for months,” he explained. “Your job is to come in and finish it.”
“And how do I do that?”
“Ever use a Pro-Tac 4421?”
I grinned in anticipation. The ’21 is a sweet, sweet murder machine, a fire hose of firepower that can take down a room full of people in ten seconds. “Couple times. Couldn’t afford one myself.”
“Good enough,” Strange said, nodding. “You only need to look like you know how to use it.”
“Here’s the thing . . . you are going to use it on us.”
We sat down to dinner while Strange explained the plan to me, with the others chiming in from time to time. I’ve never been much of one to follow explanations — which was how I wound up on Titan in the first place, I guess — and the chili and cornbread in effectively unlimited quantities were a great distraction as well. “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” I mumbled between mouthfuls as I scarfed it down.
“Genuine Ceres beef,” Tai said — a bit smugly, I thought. “Brought it with us. I can’t stand the synthetic stuff.”
I was amazed but kept shoveling it into my mouth. A lifetime of experience has taught me to fuel up hard whenever the opportunity arises.
So I didn’t get all the details, really, but the general idea was this: The Club had set up a scam storefront called a “bucket shop.” The marks were going to bring in a suitcase full of . . . something valuable, I didn’t catch what, to sell, and then, in the middle of the deal, I would burst in with the ’21 and shoot the place to hell. But the gun would be loaded with blanks. In the chaos the Club would swap the suitcase for an identical one. The marks would run away with the fake suitcase and not realize they had been robbed until the Club was long gone.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why not just kill ’em and take the suitcase?”
Max shook his head. “We don’t kill. Not unless we have to.”
“Murder victims have friends who’ll do anything for revenge,” Strange continued. “Fraud victims have . . . embarrassment. Tends to slow the retribution down, even if it doesn’t stop it completely.”
“It helps if the victims are dirty themselves,” Shweta said. “They won’t go to the police. But when there’s murder, the cops will get involved no matter what.”
“So, what’s the haul, then?” I asked. “Drugs?”
“Indent tokens,” said Strange, pronouncing it “in-dent” rather than “in-dent.” The words meant nothing to me. Strange jerked his chin at Tai, who reached into a pocket and handed me a small, hard rectangular object. It had a connector on one end and a holographic logo — the intertwined letters NR — which seemed to face you no matter what angle you looked at it from.
“That’s someone’s life,” Tai said. “Or it would be, if it were real. Forging that NR logo is actually a bigger crime than most of these people committed to get indentured in the first place.”
“Wait, what?” I said, barely following. “What does this NR thing have to do with indenture?”
“It’s an indent token,” Tai repeated. It sounded like it was intended to be a clarification, but it didn’t help at all.
Strange noticed my confusion. “Finance is a very conservative business,” he said. “Important contracts, like indentures, still have to be handled in hard copy.” He gestured to the token. “The NR means ‘non-replicable’; an NR token can’t be duplicated or transferred digitally. If you don’t have the physical token, you don’t really own the contract.”
“I . . . I think I see.” I flipped the token over, watching the logo twist and turn. “This must be worth . . . a lot.”
“And we’re talking about a whole suitcase of them,” Tai said, grinning and holding out a hand.
I gave the thing back, rubbing my fingers together as though they felt greasy. I had come way too close to being indentured myself, and once you’re in that pit it’s almost impossible to climb out. “Now I’m not so sure I want to get involved in this. Indenture is a nasty business.”
“That’s exactly why we’re doing this job,” said Shweta, steepling her pudgy fingers. “Once we have the tokens in hand, we’ll sell them to the Dove Coalition.” I nodded my understanding. The Dove Coalition was an interplanetary nonprofit that went around the System buying up indentures, medical debts, and other forms of legal extortion for pennies on the dollar and forgiving the debts. Their biggest problem was finding people willing to sell.
Strange leaned forward, capturing my gaze with those piercing blue eyes. “The Doves get a bargain, in exchange for not asking questions; the indentured go free; and we make a small fortune. Win-win-win.”
“And the contract holders lose.” I grinned. “I like this deal.”
“Excellent.” Strange’s grin matched mine. “Okay, the plan goes live day after tomorrow. Here’s how it’ll go down.”
After we’d talked it through — my brain was running out of my ears, taking half the details with it — and cleared the dishes, everyone got ready to bunk down. Strange and Alicia shared a bed, I noted; the others slept solo. “You’re welcome to stay here,” Alicia said to me, “if you like. No spare beds, but we can fold out the couch.”
I eyed the couch. Even as it was, it looked a lot more comfortable than where I’d been staying, and what little stuff I owned would be just about as safe without me there. And it had gotten quite late. “I’ll take that offer,” I said.
We worked together to turn the couch into a bed. The sheets were crisp and white, and the pillow was soft and smooth. I pressed my face into it. It smelled heavenly.
Alicia noticed me fondling the linens. “So, what brought you to Titan? You’re not from here, by your accent.”
“I’m from Dione, originally. My parents kicked me out when I was fourteen.”
I shook my head. “I can’t blame ’em. I was . . . a difficult child. But my Uncle Stanford took me in. And when he passed, a year later, his inheritance bought me a ticket to Titan. He insisted, before he died. Go where the money is, he said.”
“And Titan is where the money is,” she agreed.
Titan is the industrial capital of the Saturn League, maybe even the whole System. Lakes and seas of ethane, methane, propane, and all the other -anes are just sitting around on the surface, ready to be slurped up and refined into fuels, lubricants, plastics, and explosives. There’s hundreds of times more of the stuff than there is on Earth, and you don’t even have to drill for it. Add to that the factories that sprang up to turn those raw materials into profitable products and you’ve got a huge source of wealth . . . and a huge need for labor. If you have a strong back and a decent brain and can make your way to Titan, you can be set for life.
At least, that’s what everyone off Titan says. But when you get there, you find it’s not that simple.
I signed on as a refinery floor trainee, freezing my nose off despite the heated oxygen mask. No vac suits on Titan; the atmosphere isn’t breathable, but it isn’t exactly poisonous and it’s thicker than Earth’s. And under the dome, where that air is warmed from an instantly deadly 180 degrees below zero to a barely survivable 40 below, you can get by with just an oxygen mask and cold-weather gear. Which you have to pay for.
Trainees’ transport to Titan is paid for. But if you wash out of the program — which, they don’t tell you until after you get there, more than half do — you have to pay your employer back for the ticket.
I was one of the washouts. And if my uncle hadn’t left me the money for my transport, I would have wound up indentured like most of the others. You sleep in a dorm, eat whatever they feel like feeding you, and work the worst and most dangerous jobs, and your wages go toward your debt. Which, given that they are also charging you for your bunk, your meals, and your oxygen, not to mention the interest, will probably take more than the rest of your life to pay off.
But even though I’d avoided indenture, I didn’t have the money to get off Titan, and a man still has to eat and breathe. So I wound up selling what I had to offer, which was my fists. Turns out people will pay good money to someone like me to beat up people they don’t like. Or to keep from being beat up themselves. I didn’t care, as long as they paid.
“Yeah,” I said aloud. “I came here for the money.”
“Us, too,” Alicia said. “And when we get it, you’re in for a one-sixth cut.”
It took me a moment before I could work my mouth into the shape of a reply. “You have no idea how much that means to me.”
“This is just the beginning, Kane.” And she winked. “Sleep tight.”
I awoke to the smell of breakfast cooking. Everyone else was already awake — had been for some time, by the look of them — but even though I was sleeping right there in the same room I hadn’t heard a sound. Instead, they waved and wiggled their hands at each other in some kind of sign language. And, I noticed, they handled the pans and plates in complete silence. These people were good.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” said Alicia. Oh no, one of those disgustingly chipper types. And very observant; I’d barely opened my eyes.
“Gah,” I riposted, and stumbled off to the toilet.
It had a heated seat. A man could get used to this.
I returned to find a plate of sausages and eggs and white, fluffy bread like something from a fairy tale, all neatly laid out with shiny matching silverware and a cloth napkin. “What’s that wiggle-waggle y’all were using?” I mumbled as I scarfed it down.
“We have our own private sign language,” Strange explained. “It’s handy when we have to stay quiet, or when people are listening.”
They tried to teach me a few signs while I devoured my second plateful, but it wasn’t easy. The signs were designed to be inconspicuous, and I could barely tell “yes” from “no.” It was aggravating and frustrating and when we finally stopped, I think they were as happy to give up trying to teach as I was trying to learn.
After we finished eating Max took me aside, while everyone else busied themselves clearing the plates. “Let’s spar,” he said. And with no more warning than that, his meaty fist shot out at my face.
I dodged easily — too easily. “Don’t pull your punches,” I said, hitting back with a palm-heel strike. But he was a lot faster than his bulk implied and he dodged, too, whipping his leg around to take me down. I leapt over the swinging foot — thanks to Titan’s low gravity — and caught myself on the ceiling, pushing down with my arms and striking out with my feet.
But, amazingly, he caught my feet in his hands. And with the great strength of his arms and his feet firmly planted on the floor, he pushed back and sent me sailing toward the wall behind me.
I flipped in midair, pushed off the wall with my legs, and came flying right back at him, hitting him hard in the gut with one shoulder. But where most opponents would have doubled over with an “oof!” of breath, he just took it, grabbing me by the hips and preparing to pile-drive my head into the floor.
But here his strength and his Titan inexperience betrayed him. As I descended, he moved upward, giving me enough time to plant my hands on the floor and push back hard. Despite his bulk, the combined strength of his arms and mine was more than enough to overcome our minuscule weight and the two of us went flying upward. Surprised, he didn’t let go of my hips, and his head smacked into the ceiling with a crack that I felt as much as heard. As we descended to the floor he tapped my hip three times, conceding the fight.
I flipped away and landed lightly on my feet, watching from a safe distance as he bounced off the floor and wobbled to a standing position. Even though he had tapped out, I never take anything for granted. The others, I noted as my attention widened from the hyperfocus of the fight, had held back, watching carefully but not interfering. Finally, Max raised a hand, palm toward me, and I relaxed. “You’re pretty strong for such a skinny kid,” he said, settling into a chair.
I nodded acknowledgement of the compliment. “I can bench eight hundred.”
“Eight hundred kilos?” He snorted. “Bullshit.”
“Eh,” said Tai. “That’s only, like, a hundred ten on Earth.”
Max nodded slowly. “Okay, that’s pretty impressive.”
“And,” I said, “you have to pull almost as hard to bring it down again.”
While we were talking, Alicia came up behind Max — gently touching his shoulder so as not to startle him — looked at the top of his head, and made a face. She waved a sign at Strange, who ducked into the bedroom and returned with a bandage, which he skimmed through the air to her. She applied it to Max’s head, followed by a chaste little kiss. He patted her hand in thanks. All of this without interrupting our conversation.
I must admit I was jealous of their easy camaraderie, the way they all looked out for each other and did what was needed without being asked. I’ve always been proud of my independence and fiercely protective of it, but still, it would be nice to have someone you can trust to watch your back.
“Are we good?” I asked Max.
“Yeah, we’re good.”
“You wouldn’t really have pounded my head into the floor, would you?”
He grinned. “Only if I thought you really needed to be taught a lesson.”
Strange dusted his hands together. “All right, folks,” he said. “Tomorrow is showtime. Let’s move out.”
The job would go down in an existing bucket shop, albeit one that was temporarily closed. The owners, Strange explained, had recently been sent off on an all-expenses-paid holiday at the Kraken Sea Correctional Institution; we had just a week before the new caretakers arrived, so the timing of the job was critical.
We got on a monorail heading to Santa Teresa, one of the older domes. “Not a lot of indentured workers there,” I said. It had once been on the shore of Ontario Lacus, the methane lake that gives Toronto its name, but after eighty years of extraction Santa Teresa now stood high and dry, its refineries long abandoned.
“There aren’t any actual indents at a bucket shop,” Shweta told me. “It’s just arbitrage.”
“Arbi-what?” I said, cleaning my ear with my pinky. Tai had some kind of gizmo to keep the other passengers from overhearing us. It made my ears feel stuffy and sometimes I didn’t catch all the words. That’s what I told myself.
Shweta sighed and started over. “The people that operate in bucket shops don’t get their hands dirty with buying and selling actual laborers. That would be too much like slavery. Instead, they bundle indents together into ‘buckets,’ then buy and sell futures.” My face must have shown that I still wasn’t getting it. “They’re betting that they can sell a bucket of indenture contracts in the future for more than it costs today. It’s more complicated than that, but it’s just gambling, really.”
“Except,” Alicia said, “that when you lose a poker bet, the cards don’t wind up under even more debt and working in even shittier conditions than before.”
“I’ve been corresponding with the marks for months,” Shweta continued. “They’re coming out from Earth just for us. It wasn’t easy to get them to insist that the deal go down in this particular shop.” Her face settled into a small self-satisfied smile.
“The thing about bucket shops,” Strange said, “is that, although indenture itself is legal on Titan, indenture derivatives aren’t.” I frowned in incomprehension.
“The Powers That Be don’t want anyone else muscling in on their racket,” Alicia explained, and that was good enough for me. I nodded.
“So,” Strange went on, “for a cut of each transaction, the shop owners guarantee a secure location free from government interference. And the participants are authenticated, and the transactions are recorded on secure multichannel video, so no one can cheat anyone.”
“But we are going to cheat them,” I pointed out.
“That’s where I come in,” said Tai, cracking their knuckles. “I’ll subvert the shop’s systems so all that data goes into the bit bucket. Which isn’t supposed to be possible, but I’m just that good.” They breathed ostentatiously on their fingernails and buffed them on one velvet lapel. “After we’re gone, there’ll be no digital evidence we were ever even here.”
“Which makes it even more important,” Strange said, “that we don’t leave any physical evidence behind. When you shoot the place to hell, you can’t do any actual damage.”
“That’ll be hard with a ’21,” I said.
Max patted one of the cases we’d brought with us. “We’ve taken care of that.”
Max didn’t talk much, I’d noticed, and his attention had appeared to be focused on the other passengers rather than on our conversation. But somehow nothing ever escaped his notice.
We were the only ones to get off the monorail at Santa Teresa. Illuminated signs pointed to the dome’s landing pad — Toronto being such an industrial and manufacturing center, even the smallest domes had their own pads for interplanetary craft — but most of the other signage was dark, blank, or obscured with tape. This was not a happy, thriving dome.
The dome’s structures were laid out like a snowflake, six wings of living and working buildings connected by airtight tunnels. The six wedges between the wings, sheltered under the dome but barely heated and not oxygenated at all, were industrial zones. The A wing led to the still-active landing pad. We set off into the B wing, a long walk down a dim and chilly tunnel, pulling our heavy cases. That is, Max and I pulled cases; the others were less heavily loaded. “From each according to their ability,” Tai said, and I liked them even less — if that were possible.
Near the end of the B wing we entered a decaying light-industrial building with only a few tenants listed on the information board. We didn’t bother consulting the board — the Club had already cased this joint thoroughly.
After taking a creaking elevator to level 6, we waited with our cases in the lobby while Tai went ahead to suite 604. A moment later, a bright flash came from around the corner, then they reappeared and waved us forward. With the security cameras temporarily blinded, the Club moved out like a well-trained militia.
I stumbled along with them, doing my best to emulate Alicia’s rapid silent pace. She moved like a cat.
“Intentional Transactions Ltd” didn’t look like anything special from the outside, but Strange had explained that the ordinary-looking door was actually heavily armored and alarmed, with a highly sophisticated lock. Alicia set herself up in front of it, laying out a fabric tool roll on the floor at her feet. As she began her work, I brought up the case I’d been hauling all this way and set it down near the door, as I’d been directed. Then I pulled back, joining Max in watching out in both directions for uninvited guests. We didn’t expect any; apart from the bucket shop, this floor was unoccupied and unpatrolled.
We had about ten minutes until the cameras’ eyes cleared. Alicia worked rapidly and precisely, removing the door’s lock plate and poking about inside, swapping tools between her fingers and mouth. From time to time, she flipped a hand signal to Tai, who reached in with pliers or a screwdriver to hold something aside or snip a wire. Shweta paced nervously. Strange leaned motionless against the wall, arms crossed, sharp blue eyes flicking in every direction.
And then there came a click-beep, and Alicia sighed happily. “We’re in,” Max whispered to me, just in case I hadn’t figured it out, which I had, thank you very much.
Strange was the first one in, low and fast with his pistol at the ready. Max followed. After they’d checked the place out, Max returned, bringing in the cases while Tai and Shweta ducked inside. I remained outside, guarding Alicia as she reassembled the lock and wiped away all traces of her work, then followed her in.
I closed the door softly behind myself and let out a breath. Seven minutes had elapsed since the flash had gone off. These people were good.
I found myself in the shop’s reception area, which looked like every other waiting room I’d ever been in but nicer. Unlike the corridor outside, it was clean, tidy, and in good repair. There were two retina scanners on the desk — no waiting — and security cameras were prominently placed in all four corners of the ceiling. In fact, each had a blinking red light so you couldn’t possibly miss them. They made me nervous, but I guessed the shop’s intended customers found them reassuring.
“Don’t we have to worry about those cameras?” I asked Alicia, who was packing up her tools. Everyone else had gone on through to the next room.
“Nah,” she said, not looking up. “No one is watching right now, and Tai’s going to fix it so the recordings show the place empty for the whole two weeks.”
I looked up at the nearest camera and gave it a big fuck-you gesture with both hands, then moved on into the bucket shop proper.
The name “bucket shop” had led me to visualize something crude and nasty, but the reality looked like a cross between an executive conference room and some kind of tactical command center. The space was dark, making it look bigger than it was, but three large conference tables were brightly illuminated from above, and there were several smaller rooms to the side for more intimate discussions. The walls were paneled with displays, showing constantly moving graphs of incomprehensible financial data, and at the far end were several workstations equipped with banks of keyboards and screens.
Tai was already hard at work at one of these — to the extent that someone slouched in a comfortable chair with one leg flung across the armrest, typing furiously, can be said to be “hard at work.” They were hacking their way into the shop’s systems, which would take hours. I left them alone and moved over to Max, who was unshipping the ’21.
It was a beautiful machine, hard-edged and chunky, nine kilos of black anodized titanium alloy. It smelled of metal and gun oil and just faintly of ammo; obviously it hadn’t been fired lately, but it looked well maintained. “May I?” I asked, extending my hands, and Max passed it over. I checked it out, worked the action, inspected the empty magazine. Raised it to my shoulder, where it settled in like a good friend. The sights were already perfectly aligned.
“And here’s your ammo,” Strange said, walking up and handing me a box with a prominent white stripe.
The shells were blunt-tipped, and each had a broad white stripe of its own around the base of the cartridge. I’d never seen the like. “What’s this?”
“Training round. It’s a blank with a directed radio pulse.” He flicked a hand sign at Max. Max nodded and pulled a black disk like a small hockey puck from one of the cases and set it down in a corner. “That’s a target. Load up two rounds.”
I did so, chambering the first one with a surprisingly quiet snick-snick. “The directed pulse is pretty tight,” Strange said. “Try aiming one meter to the left of the target.”
I made sure no one was downrange, then shouldered the rifle. “Hot and clear,” I announced, and everyone immediately stopped what they were doing and held their ears.
I aimed, exhaled, and squeezed the trigger. The report was dramatic, accompanied by a hard kick, a substantial muzzle flash, and a sharp smell of detonation. Apart from the fact that the wall showed no sign of damage, there was no indication the shot had been a blank. The shop was soundproofed, I knew, so we didn’t have to worry about the noise attracting unwanted attention.
“Now hit the target,” Strange said. I shifted my aim and squeezed the trigger again. This time the target exploded quite satisfyingly, followed by a barely audible patter as tiny bits of plastic rained down all over the room.
“Impressive,” I said, dusting fragments from my sleeve. They were soft and rubbery, and dissolved into the air even as I watched.
“That was a small one,” Strange explained. “We also have medium and large, and blood bags for the victims. Work with Max to place them for the most dramatic effect.”
“Got it,” I said, inspecting the rifle again after firing. It was warm and smelled sharp and alive. But I was thinking: A flash and a bang may be quite overwhelming, but live ammo is a boy’s best friend. I wondered if my old buddy Ray could score me a box of real ’21 shells on short notice.
“By the way,” Strange mentioned casually, “there’s a chamber insert.” Which meant the weapon wouldn’t accept live ammo, damn it.
“What?” I asked, doe-eyed. “Don’t you trust me?”
While Max and I placed the targets, carefully camouflaging each one so it would not be visible unless and until it detonated, Tai continued taking over the shop’s systems, with Alicia’s help when some bit of physical security needed to be bypassed. Shweta and Strange stayed in the reception area, keeping an eye out for intruders on the exterior cameras — which were back online, but Tai, of course, had hacked into the system — and studying their notes for the upcoming grift.
At one point Alicia and Tai asked Max and me for help lifting one of the conference tables. It was made of cultured mahogany and weighed a tonne. Probably cost a tonne as well. “This little gizmo is the key to the whole operation,” Tai explained, placing a wastebasket-sized object under the table before we lowered it back into place. “I call it the switcheroo.”
I didn’t ask for an explanation, but Tai provided one, nonetheless. “This is our suitcase,” they said, bringing it out from one of the cases Max and I had lugged all the way from our hotel suite. It looked like very serious financial stuff, black leather with shiny metal corners and a heavy combination lock. They bent down under the table with it, there was a click, and when they came back there was no sign of it. “And this represents their suitcase.” They brought out a block of foam with a handle, the same size and shape and, from the way they handled it, weight. “Watch this.”
Tai set the foam block down on the floor, then kicked it under the table. There was another click. I bent down and looked; the fake suitcase was sitting there. “Pretty slick,” I said, impressed despite myself. I got down on hands and knees. “May I?”
“Be my guest.”
The switcheroo was a box with one spring-loaded side that, when triggered, swept whatever was in front of the box inside and left whatever was inside the box in its place. Pretty simple in theory, but the mechanism looked . . . fussy. If it were a gun, I’d say it would be likely to jam. But, as annoying as they could be, Tai certainly seemed to know their stuff. “Nice work,” I said, crawling out from under the table. “How do you know the fake suitcase looks just like the real one?”
“Shweta made them send us a 3-D scan. So we can be sure it’s the real thing when they arrive, you know.”
“Heaven forbid,” I said, “that they should try to scam a scammer.”
Max and I went back to work on placing the targets. But I kept thinking about that mechanism. It seemed like it might be the weak link in the chain.
06:30 — six fucking thirty in the A fucking M — came way too soon. I am not an early riser. But Alicia brought me coffee, some wipes in lieu of a shower, and the news that the marks were on final approach and still scheduled to land at 08:30. Titan customs was pretty perfunctory, especially at a half-dead dome, so they’d probably be here by 09:30.
We had one final meeting, all gathered around one of the mahogany conference tables like a bunch of executives. Everyone else looked the part, too; when the marks arrived, they would be playing the parts of bucket shop employees and other customers, and they were dressed in the sort of sharp outfits you’d expect to find at an illegal but upmarket interplanetary financial exchange. Shweta, in particular, who was supposed to be the one making the buy; she was dressed in the height of fashion, with a necklace and bracelets that could choke a horse. Even Max, who had been accidentally spotted on camera during the negotiations — which was why I was doing the job that had originally been his — was outfitted as a trader and looked remarkably elegant. For once, Tai, playing the part of a tech, was not the most fashionable person in the room.
But they were not the least fashionable, either. That would be me. I was wearing my usual, accessorized with a couple of bandoliers and a dazzle-patterned mask to conceal my identity. And, of course, the ’21. Which, even though it would only be shooting blanks, I checked and rechecked to cover my nervousness.
Could I really pull this off? I wasn’t sure. But I was sure I was going to try.
After reviewing our plan of action and a final, “Okay, any questions?” was met with silence, Strange said, “All right then,” and everyone just stood up and started to move away from the table.
“Wait,” I said. “Isn’t anyone going to say good l — ”
“Nuh-uh-uh!” said Max, silencing me with a wagging finger.
Strange gave a shy, sideways smile. “Sorry, should have told you. In the Cannibal Club, wishing good luck is bad luck.” He shrugged. “Not sure how we got started with that.”
“Okay,” I said. “Whatever.” I turned to Tai. “Outside cameras are off, right?”
“They’ll show nothing but an empty corridor until after we’re gone.”
“All right then. Here I go.” I picked up the case containing the ’21 and headed out. But going out without a “good luck” felt weird and inconclusive.
My station for the next couple of hours was a wide spot in the corridor around the corner from the shop. When this building was alive it had been a break area, with tables and chairs and snacks and entertainment, but now it was just dusty, empty, and echoey. I sat on the rifle case and stared at the tablet in my lap.
The main purpose of the tablet was to show me what was going on inside the shop — I could see all the views that were supposed to be recorded but were in fact being thrown away — but I could also monitor the marks as they approached, using public security cameras Tai had tapped into. By the time I got myself settled they had already left their ship and were just emerging from customs.
The client was obvious: older, heavyset, bald. He was clearly enjoying Titan’s gravity, grinning as he bounded along the corridor like a big loping balloon. He had no idea how to stop himself, though, and was constantly catching himself on walls, counters, and other people, ignoring the glares he received in turn. There was no sound, but I could see he was laughing his fool head off.
What an asshole.
He had two bodyguards with him, and it was immediately clear to me which was which. The one he’d brought with him from Earth — the one carrying a heavy suitcase, which did indeed look identical to the one Tai had loaded into the switcheroo — was ludicrously muscled, with dark glasses and brush-cut brown hair. Like her boss, she bounced like a rubber ball on every step, but was clearly uncomfortable with the situation and was working hard to learn to control herself. The other bodyguard was a Belter, with a more normal build; he had much more control over himself, but even so he stumbled from time to time. His short, curly hair and beard were bleached white to contrast with his skin, a current Ceres fashion, which implied that he was most used to Ceres microgravity rather than the standard one-third gee of Inner Belt stations. He’d be more likely to undershoot than overshoot with his strikes.
I couldn’t tell from the camera view whether or how they were armed, but my guess was that all three of them were packing, and each of the two bodyguards likely had a second weapon in an ankle or small-of-the-back holster in addition to their primary.
I watched them carefully as they moved down the A wing to the dome’s hub, across the hub, and back out the B wing toward me. The client was losing his giddiness, becoming more businesslike as the actual deal approached, but wasn’t actually getting any better at moving in Titan gravity and kept caroming off walls and his own staff. The Earther was doing better but her overdeveloped muscles were betraying her; I could see her frustration as she stumbled along, feet skidding on the deck and threatening to fall over forward like someone wading in a strong current. The Belter was the most dangerous of them. He was getting his Titan legs frighteningly fast, and I started to wonder if he’d maybe trained on the Moon.
I triple-checked the ’21 as they waited for the elevator, boarded, and ascended. In the elevator, the Earther handed the suitcase to her boss and the two bodyguards arranged themselves in front of him, ready to deal with anything unexpected when the door opened. I had to respect them for that, even if it might make my job harder.
I set the tablet on the rifle case and leaned it against the wall so I could watch the screen as I stood and readied myself for action. My heart pounded hard and steady.
I could do this.
I heard the elevator chime from down the hall as they arrived, followed by muttering between them. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. They moved a short way down the corridor to suite 604, where Alicia opened the door as they approached. No surprises here — of course they knew they were on camera. That was kind of the point of a bucket shop.
The Earther stayed in the corridor, watching in both directions, until the client and the Belter had moved inside and begun negotiating with Alicia over the retina scanners and the weapons safe. Of course, no guns were allowed inside; they clearly understood this and complied with reasonably good grace. I was pleased to see that both bodyguards surrendered small ankle pistols as well as their very substantial primary weapons, and the client turned over a small and mostly ornamental pistol.
Alicia didn’t pat them down, though, and the bucket shop lacked deep scanners — this was a genteel criminal enterprise, after all — so I couldn’t be certain they’d turned over everything they were carrying.
As soon as the shop’s front door closed, I transferred the video to my pocket comm and moved down the corridor, leaving the rifle case and the tablet behind. I stopped when I was just around the corner from the door, positioning myself to spring out in front of them if they spooked and ran for the elevator before the switcheroo. I would have been happier shooting them in the back instead, but given that the ’21 held only blanks that wouldn’t really be an option, so Strange and Max insisted I’d have to block their exit and try to intimidate them into dropping the suitcase. I really hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
I waited there, watching the comm, as the marks moved into the bucket shop and began their negotiations. Shweta greeted the client warmly but professionally, acknowledging the presence of the bodyguards with a polite nod; the other gang members played their parts in the background, providing verisimilitude. I still didn’t have audio. We’d discussed equipping me with an in-ear comm, but I’d turned it down; I’d told them I find them distracting, and the gang had agreed that they have their downsides. So, I watched carefully, knowing exactly how the deal was supposed to go down.
As soon as they moved to the far side of the table where the switcheroo was located, I shifted to just outside the door.
I waited, breathing through my nose. Trying to be Zen about the whole thing and failing.
And then the client set the suitcase down on the floor. That was my cue.
I burst in, screaming, “All right you sons of bitches!” as I ran past Alicia, peppering the place with semiauto fire as I entered the shop floor. The mask changed the sound of my voice, making me even more threatening, and the fast, hard bangs of the rounds detonating pushed everyone in the room away from me like physical blows. But though I was firing fast I was careful to aim at the targets we’d planted earlier, resulting in a convincing series of explosions from the walls, consoles (ones we’d brought with us), and a few of the Club members.
I must confess I took entirely too much pleasure in blasting Tai, who “died” quite dramatically, with arms windmilling and blood spewing from their chest. I think they might even have enjoyed it a bit themselves.
Everyone who wasn’t “dead” took cover, of course, and I fired a few more rounds into the ceiling just to establish my bona fides. “Turn over the shit, bitches!” I screamed, tracking the rifle around the room. But I was watching the suitcase, while trying to not appear to watch it. As Shweta dove under one table, she kicked the suitcase under another — the one where the switcheroo lay in wait.
The marks had ducked to my left, so I headed to the right as I moved further into the room, screaming at Max and Strange, who were standing with hands up and edging further right. This, of course, created an opening for the marks. Just to make sure, I fired two more rounds at the wall to the right of the client, detonating a couple of large targets right behind him.
It worked. The client sprang forward, grabbed the suitcase, and sprinted for the door. Terror made him surprisingly fast on his feet, despite his clumsiness. The two bodyguards took their cue from their boss and ran with him, the Belter in the lead and the Earther following. I pretended not to notice, instead threatening Max and Strange with words and body language as I continued to advance, forcing them further into the room.
But something wasn’t right. I saw desperate looks on the Club’s faces, and hand signals snapping back and forth. Nonetheless I continued to play my part as long as the marks were in sight, as I’d been directed, screaming at Strange and keeping the rifle and all of my visible attention focused on him and Max.
The marks ran right past me. I let them go, as planned, and they vanished out the door. I kept screaming, to make sure they’d keep running.
The door slammed.
Then Tai sat up, still covered with fake blood. “The switcheroo didn’t work!” they yelled at me. “They have the real suitcase!”
The room froze for a moment, everyone staring at everyone else.
Then I turned and ran after the marks.
The marks made it to the elevator before me. I charged down the stairs in pursuit.
Would the rest of the Club follow? I wasn’t sure. It depended on whether they prioritized maintaining their cover over a chance at retrieving the loot. I had my suspicions. But, more important, I had initiative, position, and speed. Max was strong but not as nimble as me, especially in Titan gravity; Strange might be able to outrun me but he had been backed way up into the corner. None of others was nearly as athletic as me. Even if they were following, I had a big lead on them . . . and the marks were stuck in a slow and creaky elevator.
Despite the desperation of the situation, I was actually feeling pretty good about my chances.
And then I hit the third floor. Where an entire flight of stairs was just . . . gone. The empty space was marked off with caution tape.
I made a poor choice then. I wasted more than a minute running around the third floor — in the dark, illuminated only by emergency lighting — looking for another stairway. I should have just called the elevator. Or risked jumping down one flight. But I didn’t think of either of those options until later.
By the time I made it to ground level the marks were long gone. I paused, sweat-soaked and gasping for breath, and pulled out my pocket comm to check the cameras.
Shit shit shit, I thought as I skipped past views of vacant halls, vacant tunnels, vacant corridors . . . and finally spotted them. They were making good time down the B wing, already better than two-thirds of the way to the hub.
If they made it to customs before I did, they would get away with the suitcase.
So I dashed across the hall and through the emergency exit.
I might have washed out of refinery floor training, but it wasn’t for lack of trying; I’d taken all the classes, and some of the lessons had even stuck. Especially the ones having to do with keeping my sorry ass alive. I pulled the inner airlock door shut behind me and started hyperventilating.
The air in the lock was horribly chill and smelled vile. Outside the door it would be far worse . . . but it wasn’t space-cold, and it wasn’t vacuum. If I held my breath — and I knew I could do that for almost two minutes, we’d all had to practice — and kept moving, I was pretty sure I could make it across the industrial zone to the A wing before I passed out or froze solid.
Two more deep breaths, then I held the last one and opened the outer door.
The cold hit like a blow, and I had to clench my throat so as not to gasp out the breath that was keeping me alive. My face and hands tightened painfully as the sweat on them flash-froze. My lips hardened. Even worse, my eyes threatened to freeze over. I blinked rapidly, feeling gritty ice forming on my eyeballs.
It is a horrible sensation. I do not recommend it.
I paused for a moment to close the airlock door behind me — I may be a criminal, but I’m not evil — then ran down the stairs, heading for the A wing on the far side of the industrial area.
Immediately my sweat-soaked clothing turned into boards. It crackled and crunched with every step. Soon after that I couldn’t feel my hands or my feet. I found myself stumbling but managed to remember to catch myself with an elbow or shoulder rather than grabbing a railing with my bare hand. If I did that, I’d have to tear my own skin to get free.
I was moving through an industrial hellscape of pipes and railings and elevated walkways. The light was dim and brownish, the shadows fuzzy-edged and deepest black. This refinery was long dead; only the heat lamps on the dome ceiling remained operational. But though the heat they provided was just a wisp, the trace of warmth on my shoulders and the top of my head was better than nothing.
It felt like I was running through freezing fog. Hell, I was running through freezing fog. Ice crystals peppered my face. My vision blurred. I felt my eyebrows and my hair freezing.
And then I stumbled on rising stairs. The A wing airlock.
I fell hard, tumbling to hit the steps with my shoulder rather than my hands, and felt air forced out of my lungs by the impact. But I held on to half a breath and managed to rise to elbows and knees, crawling up the stairs and across the landing to the outer airlock door.
Leaning against the door, I slid my shoulder up it until I could reach the handle with my elbow. I pushed the handle down, levered the door open, and fell inside.
My vision had faded almost to black. My lungs ached, but I knew if I took even a sip of breath it would be the end. This atmosphere wasn’t poisonous, but it contained no oxygen at all; once it mixed with what I had in my lungs I’d pass out immediately.
I got my legs under me, straightened, found the door handle, and pulled it shut with my elbow. Then I rammed my shoulder into the emergency flush button, resulting in an immediate and satisfying whoosh of air. It was probably freezing and stale, but it felt and smelled like a tropical breeze to me.
Then I pushed the inner door handle down and fell hard into warmth and light, gasping. My cheeks, my hands, my lips were burning. Even my hair felt like it was on fire.
But I was alive.
I lay hacking and shivering on the floor for a minute before I could get my numb fingers to activate my pocket comm — thank god, it was still working — and find the marks. They had already made it across the hub . . . but I was still between them and customs. Nearly as important, I didn’t see myself. This old, decrepit dome’s security cameras were in poor repair, and if I handled this next part carefully, I could avoid appearing on them entirely.
I took in a long, shuddering breath and, using the ’21 as a crutch, levered myself to a standing position.
“Stop,” I said. I didn’t say it loud, but the voice changer in my mask made it a threat. The heavy rifle in my hands didn’t hurt.
The Belter was in the lead. He stopped immediately, raising his hands. His boss actually ran into him, but somehow they didn’t collapse in a heap. The Earther, running last with the suitcase, had enough warning to bring herself to a clumsy but not embarrassing halt.
“In,” I said, gesturing with the rifle.
The three of them exchanged glances. The boss was pissed at the situation but clearly indicated to his bodyguards that cooperation was required, at least for now. The guns they’d surrendered were still locked in the safe back at the bucket shop, but I had no clue if they knew I knew that, or whether or not they had held any weapons back. The three of them edged in the direction I’d indicated, toward a burned-out storefront that didn’t appear on security cameras. Broken glass crunched as they stepped through the hole where the front door had been.
“Hand over the suitcase,” I said, leveling the ’21 not at the one who was holding it but at her boss. Given that they were both Earthers, I figured she’d follow the hierarchy.
But it was the Belter who acted. He leapt at me, pushing off the shattered display case behind him, counting on me not being able to bring the heavy rifle to bear quickly enough to fire.
It was the fact that I knew the rifle held only blanks that saved me. I didn’t even try to aim it at the incoming Belter; I just whipped it across in front of myself, catching him in the head with the flash suppressor. Nine kilos of hard, sharp metal put a lot of punch behind the blow, and he fell to the side, certainly disoriented and possibly unconscious.
I couldn’t repeat that trick for the Earther, though, who came in right behind the Belter with both hands open, propelled by the full power of her huge meaty one-gee legs. Instead of trying to haul the ’21 back to smash her in the face I just let it drop, entangled as it was with the Belter’s head, and used its momentum to help me duck below the Earther’s leap. As I’d expected, she overshot me, betrayed by her own muscles.
That left the boss, who had taken advantage of the situation to grab the suitcase and swing it at my head. But he also swung high, thanks to his one-gee instincts, and I slipped below the blow, slamming into his midsection with my shoulder.
I didn’t realize how dense he’d be. His belly was soft, and the air came out of him with an oof, but he kept his feet under him and brought the suitcase down hard on my back. One of its pointy metal corners hit me right in the left kidney, and I grunted from the pain.
But I had momentum, and I can bench eight hundred kilos in Titan gravity. I got both feet under me and pushed. The boss went sailing upward, heels over head, with an exclamation of surprise. I kept going, still moving forward while pressing upward with my hands and shoulders, and flipped him right over my back.
I heard the suitcase land behind me, followed by a thud and a curse, as I caught myself on the counter and turned around.
The Belter lay unmoving. The boss and the Earther were tangled up in each other. And the suitcase lay on the floor between me and them.
I grabbed the suitcase and hightailed it out of there.
A moment later I heard the rapid hammer blows of the ’21 on full automatic mode, aimed straight at me from just a few meters away. I grinned and kept running. It would take them a while to figure out how they’d managed to miss.
I’d been scuttling around Titan’s back alleys for four years, and thanks to that asshole Tai I knew where the working security cameras were and what they could see, so I got away clean. Forty-five minutes later I was panting in a warm, dry closet where I could hide out undisturbed for as long as I wanted. The marks were already headed back to Earth with their tails between their legs, and neither the cops nor the Cannibal Club nor anyone else would find me here.
The suitcase had a combination lock, but the current combo was already dialed in — I guess they’d opened it during the grift and hadn’t relocked it. I pushed the button, the latches sprang open, and I feasted my eyes on an array of NR tokens, each neatly cradled in a foam slot, the NR logos all facing me like expectant kittens.
I was a rich man.
Okay, I knew there was no way I would ever see the full value of the indentures. But there were hundreds of them. Even the tiny percentage I could get from a low-level fence would be more than enough for a ticket off Titan and a fresh start somewhere more comfortable. With a tidy little nest egg, if I played my cards right.
All I needed to do was wait here until the heat was off, then stroll onto the monorail and head for Toronto Central, where I knew a guy. Titan could be in my rearview in less than a week.
It was everything I’d been working toward for the past few years.
And I realized it wasn’t what I wanted.
If I took the suitcase and ran, I would be off Titan, safe and secure. And alone. But in the past couple of days, I’d seen that alone, although it had worked out pretty well for me so far, actually kind of sucked. I thought about Strange flipping pancakes and Alicia putting a bandage on Max’s head and even that asshole Tai, whose skills could not be denied, cheerfully employing them in service to the gang.
And if I fenced these tokens . . . what would happen to the poor bastards whose indentures they represented? They’d probably wind up working for some criminal even worse than me.
I looked at the tokens. They looked back at me.
A hundred percent of this? Or a one-sixth share of that?
I’d had a taste of family, and I wanted more.
I closed the suitcase, pulled out my pocket comm, and started planning my route back to the bucket shop.
The Cannibal Club greeted my return with champagne — “Real Champagne,” Tai insisted, “all the way from France, on Earth” — and more smiles than I think I had ever before seen at my arrival in my entire life.
“I knew you could do it,” Alicia said, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. Max gave me a big growling hug.
Strange shook his head at me, as though in wonder. “You really saved our bacon,” he said. Then he looked around at the rest of the Club. “So . . . he’s in?”
“He’s so very in,” said Tai, and the others agreed. We all raised our glasses and drank.
I had never tasted champagne before, real or otherwise. It was sour and fizzy and tickled my nose. I didn’t see what the fuss was about. But I supposed it was tradition.
“Welcome to the Cannibal Club,” said Shweta, and shook my hand.
“I’m sorry I lost the ’21,” I said.
Max shrugged. “It was stolen anyway.”
“We’ll steal you another one,” said Strange, and winked. “It seems to suit you.”
“It does indeed,” I said with a smile.
We spent the next few hours cleaning up the shop, putting everything back exactly as it had been. We had tickets on a fast passenger liner to Ceres — they had already booked six, which touched me — and would be well on our way by this time tomorrow. Even sooner than if I’d taken the tokens and run . . . and richer, in all the important ways.
“Oh, by the way,” Strange said, handing me a small, pale object, “we found this jammed in the switcheroo.” It was someone’s business card, folded unevenly in half, with a curved black gouge on one side. It might have been lying on the floor under that table for weeks or months, and just happened to get swept up in the mechanism at the wrong time.
Or it might not have.
Our eyes met.
I’ve never been any good at lying, so I said nothing.
“But you came back,” Strange said.
“I did,” I replied.
“I’m glad. I’d hate to have to track you down and kill you.” The look in his eye was hard and cold and serious. Then he smiled, slipped the mangled card in my shirt pocket, and patted my shoulder. “Welcome to the Club, kid. We take care of each other here. Got it?”
I swallowed. “Got it.”
“Good. Now come on, there’s work to do.”