Hollowed Memories, chapter 10, part 2

August 16, 2015

When the hostile scouts had arrived at their house, Mrissa met them at the door.  She had seen them approaching through the night vision cameras Yarec had set up.  Some of them were in uniform, like the guards from the factory, but several were wearing full-body isolation suits, to protect them from whatever infection Yarec was harboring.  Mrissa stood in the doorway, watching their hesitant approach, then invited them curtly inside.

She led them around the house and fed them her story.  It was convincing enough to distract them, which was really the most important thing.  Then, since Yarec was not present in any of the obvious living areas, the searchers headed back outside, bringing Mrissa with them.

Out in the yard, they bound her hands.  The flexible metal straps bit into her wrists, leaving red weals on her freckled skin.  She shuffled along complaisantly, towards the convoy of vehicles the intruders had left hidden around a bend in the drive, idling behind a stand of wiry thorn trees.  Someone coughed an order at her from behind a hazardous materials mask, and the butt of a rifle prodded her shoulder.  She walked a little more quickly, even as the armed figures around her tightened their ring.

As she approached the three low-riding trucks, the door of the middle one swung open, and a wan blue light stole out into the night.  Mrissa shielded her eyes and instinctively slowed her pace; but another jab from the back end of a weapon reminded her to keep moving.

They advanced a few more steps.  “Hold on,” came a clear male voice, apparently from inside the vehicle, and then everyone did stop.  The voice had a rich, businesslike warmth—which, out here amidst all the dark and dust, made it all the more frightening.  “Who the hell is she?”

“Don’t know,” said one of the men standing behind her.  “She says she’s a bounty hunter.”

“Bounty hunter?”  The voice from the truck sounded dubious.

“Yes, sir—” Mrissa started, but the unseen man cut her off.

“Shut up,” he said, loudly and slowly.  “We’ll hear what you have to say in a minute.”  Then his voice slipped back into its genteel calm.  “Now, was there any sign of our guy?”

“The sniffer is all lit up,” someone said, “but we didn’t find anyone in the house.”

“Well, search outside.  If he’s that infected, he can’t have gotten far.”  The orders were clear, but no one moved.   The only sounds were the whistling breezes among the thorn branches and the electrical hum of the idling trucks.  “Are you afraid of dark?” the voice asked, its sarcastic edge having returned.  “If he’s here, he won’t be in any condition to ambush you.”  The man directly in front of Mrissa was fidgeting anxiously.  “And if he’s not in that bad shape, he’s probably long gone from here.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he left,” Mrissa said suddenly.

No one responded to what Mrissa had said, but the armed men dispersed into the darkness.  Just three were left behind, standing guard over her.  One of them was rubbing the wrists of his itchy uniform and scratching unhappily at the backs of his hands.

“Un-cuff her,” said the voice inside the personnel carrier.  “I’ll speak to her now.”  Someone complied; there was the snick of a tiny metal key, and Mrissa jerked her hands free as soon as she felt the pressure on her wrists lightening.

“Thank you,” she mumbled.  “I know you have to take precautions, but—” her voice trailed away, as if she was unsure what else to say.

A hand emerged from the open door.  Mrissa saw pale skin and carefully shaped nails.  For a moment, there was a striking gleam of faceted ruby brilliance, as the long fingers beckoned her inside.

She stepped up into the truck, not waiting to be pushed.  The interior was bathed in a pale light that flickered occasionally, indicating an intermittent problem with the circuit.  Seated on a rich mahogany-colored seat was the man.  He was bald and clean shaven, and in the unnatural light his smooth skin gave him the appearance of agelessness.  Mrissa could see, though, that he was old.  Vanity and money had kept his face mostly free of wrinkles, but she was not fooled.  The way he smiled—so deliberately; young men did not smile that way.  He squinted at her, and few of the crinkles he had fought so hard to keep away from his eyes reappeared for just a moment, but then smoothed themselves away again as his face relaxed.  Mrissa realized, appreciatively, that Yarec had never looked old like that, regardless of his actual age.  Then she set that moment of romantic indulgence behind her and sat down where the bald man indicated, on the seat across from his own.

“Who are you, really?” he asked.  His face was featureless, and his voice as genial as ever.

“Paula O’lette,” Mrissa said, doing her best to make it sound like she was trying not to sound sheepish.  O’lette was a real alias she had used, early in her career, when her eyes and hair and nose had been different.  They should be able to track the name back to an inexperienced female bounty hunter, but they would not—Mrissa hoped—be able to connect it to her more recent activities.

There was a flexible new computing lamina sitting on the seat beside him, but the man did not reach for it.  He was not interested in checking her story yet—although for all Mrissa knew, somebody else was punching up her records out of sight in the front seat.  The bald man said nothing, leaving Mrissa to fill the uncomfortable silence.

“I’m a bounty hunter,” she said.

“Yes, so you claimed,” the man said, not quite interrupting.  “But there’s no bounty on the owner of this house, is there?”

Mrissa doubted that this was actually true—unless Yarec had somehow bought off everyone who had ever wanted to kill him.  However, true or not, it made no difference.  An old price on her husband’s hide would not do to explain what she was doing there at the house exactly then.

“I heard that people with deep pockets were angry at the guy who lives here—ban Silfien,” Mrissa said.

“Where’d you hear that?”  The man let an edge of anger trickle back into his voice.

“It was just yesterday—or the day before, I guess,” Mrissa said, looking back out through the open door at the late-night blackness.  “I heard people were likely to be looking for him.  I was pretty close by, so I thought I’d try to get to him first.”

Where did you hear we were looking for him?” the man repeated.

Mrissa coughed twice and pulled her disarrayed hair back from her brow.  “People were talking about it on JobLinkz.  I go on there occasionally to hear the rumors.  A couple users were talking about ban Silfien—that he’d made some powerful enemies.”  She waved loosely at her surroundings.  The truck was a custom refit, with expensive seats and a light coat of armor.  And in the shadows behind the man’s bare, wax-like head, Mrissa could see an expensive-looking copper-plated pistol, holstered to the neck rest.  “Looks like they were right,” she added.

“JobLinkz, huh?”  The man’s smooth voice gave no indication whether he might believe her or not.  JobLinkz was a digital site where people found questionable employment.  It was almost entirely anonymous, and for people who cared to use the site correctly, their connections were supposed to be untraceable.  All postings were purged from the system within eighteen hours, so there was probably no way to confirm Mrissa’s story.

As Mrissa recounted this part of her story, Yarec was trying not to laugh.  She glared over at him, but that only made it harder to suppress his cackling.  “Oh?” she said testily.  “You finding this funny?”

“No, uh.”  Yarec was trying to hedge, before he was finally overcome with laughter.  “No, really,” he said, after swallowing hard, “I just can’t imagine somebody who hangs out on JobLinkz catching me.  Can you?  I mean, they’re not the most elite bunch on there, are they?”

“No, probably not,” Mrissa said.  She did not think much of JobLinkz either, but she had poked around there more than once, when she was having real trouble finding work.  “They believed it though,” she reminded him.  “They wouldn’t have been convinced that you were gone if I hadn’t been there to sell it.”

And the searchers really were convinced.  There was no sign of Yarec in the backcountry, and they missed the secret infirmary in his house.  Mrissa kept up a patter of misdirection—about how she had been through the house and only found the signs of a hasty exit; how she had been hoping to tail Yarec through the backcountry; and which direction she guessed he might have gone.

“I think there’s a path downhill across the rocks over there—to the, uh, west.”

To Mrissa herself, her efforts felt incredibly feeble.  Yet they worked well enough.  The searchers were sloppy enough to overlook the vault where Yarec’s wasting body was hidden away.  Outside, they tried to find a trail, but there was nothing—no stumbling footsteps, no bacterial spoor.  Eventually, after an hour or so, they gave up.  Mrissa was still sitting in the compartment with the crew’s leader, and she listened as he dealt with the increasingly disappointing status reports.  Eventually, he gave a laconic order to abandon the search.  The searchers, their uniforms now dusted with pale dull sand, returned to the trucks.  They loaded up their exquisitely sensitive equipment, then piled onto the bench seats.

Two more fellows squeezed in beside Mrissa.  One of the them eyed her free hands suspiciously, but there was no move to cuff her again.  The door finally slammed shut, and after a few more jolts and clangs, Mrissa felt the engine starting up.  The three trucks made a looping U-turn and started back down the long, bumpy driveway.

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