“Of course,” she replied, barely giving it thought, despite their background together. She was starting to feel a headache coming on, but she wasn’t sure if it was stress or the wetwear working overtime.
“I knew I could count on you.”
“Is he still pinging,” Constance asked. She watched as the Principle began to carefully work on the tree. Just a tiny nip here, the slightest of cuts. It was surgical.
“Yes. Be assured that I do not take this action lightly. His handler has been informed, and it would appear that he is offline and unable to be contacted.”
Constance ran through the list of reasons why Carter might not follow orders. Maybe all this talk of late between her handler and the Principle had been right, he was a double agent. An ordered marriage was an extreme sort of order. She noticed the horizon, beyond the Principle’s part garden. It was black like asphalt. Last afternoon was plunging into unforgiving night.
“I’ll do as ordered.” Constance didn’t question beyond that.
“Of course. Regrettable, but necessary. I have every reason to believe that he has turned double. I trust your ability in this regard, Template.”
The Principle, his bonzai and his garden winked from existence, but the afterimage still burned on her retina momentarily. She felt the hard spats on oncoming rain, and heard the sharp buzz of a parasol opening. She glanced towards Manly, her handler’s grim expression lit by the soft neon of the parasols shaft. He put it up, to cover her in part. Constance headed quickly towards the skycar, parked just within the parks limits.
Too many variables to think about. How long had she known Carter, and how many assignments had they been involved in together? There was only so far you could push the Agency. Constance went through the mental gear changing and thought of Carter, watching as the call blinked in her peripheral.
She hadn’t expected it to connect. By the time she reached the car, she hung up.
“Tough times, Lady,” Manly supplied, quietly. Constance glanced back over the sea, as the rain began to hit in sheets. Behind her, Taranaki was a hard shine, all towering blocks and clean cut architecture. She got into the car, pulling her wet skirts about her.
“Tough times, Manly.”
Manly remained outside, the parasol giving him scant protection against the elements. “Your stipend should cover any expenses. Contact me should you meet with any extra challenges that need consideration.”
Constance nodded, the skycar coming to life with the barest of hums. Before her, the dashes infiltrated with her Headsup, spilling her with countless screeds of situational and environmental information. Beyond the drivers window, Constance could see the finality of Manly’s expression, the sympathy of the assignment at hand.
Constance kicked the car into action, and the air thrummed as she began to lift off.
* * *
Returning to her hotel room in the Archologies was an inconvenience at best, but it gave Constance a chance to think. Any other assignment she would have gone straight to the Bullet and headed back to Skycity. That would be where Carter was, it was where his ping was coming from.
Damn you, Carter, she thought as she ditched her wedding dress. The sight of the damn things alone were starting to make her feel bitter. Well, there will be no number five. No more chances for anything, Carter.
Constance decided on the strict look, plain black attire of a wage slave in advertising. Lost were the golden tresses, to a more severe, slicked black. She put the clasp in the back of her hair, creating a short tuft of a tail. The metal suited the hard sensibilities of her no nonsense pants and jacket, Western with just the hint of the East in the short, no collar.
She’d let the windows out reflect the true look of the night. Hard rain that clear come tomorrow, the newsfeeds promised. Better to remain this side of augmented reality. Better not to get lost in the niceties of a realized world. Not now.
Constance’s peripheral blinked as the newsfeeds gave way to Mericia. Spin on the random pop variables, a new track every time. She swore under her breath, and let the call take.
“You don’t even know the half of the trouble you’re in right now,” she remarked, sharply frank.
“I gotta half idea.”
Carter appeared before her almost bubble headed. His brown, smooth features were grainy, and the sudden rainfall that emerged just beyond him in Constance’s room suggested he was making the call from a hardline. The water shined off his black shades. That and his all but shaved head gave him a predatory, street appearance. He still had that same cocky grin.
“Does that half involve me?”
“Every half always involves you, Constance,” he remarked, his voice coming back in a poor echo. It shot the reality of his appearance in the room.
“Does it involve a gun too?”
“I knew you’d be mad,” Carter said. At least he had the good sense to sound like he meant it. “What? Twice now?”
“Three times, Carter.” Constance cut him off before he had a chance to reply. She was already disposing of the wedding dress as she spoke. “And my feelings obviously have nothing to do with anything right now. You were ordered to the altar this time. Why the hell haven’t you been replying to your handler’s calls?”
There wasn’t enough of a context to show it, but his look had something of a shrug about it. “Things would never work out between us. We both like the opposite thing when it comes to the genders.”
“You were ordered, Carter. Ordered.”
Carter gave that implication of a shrug again. “What now?”
“Well, back to that thing about me and the gun,” she said. What she didn’t need to take with her had been recycled comfortably in the under bench unit. “Because of what we’ve been through, I’m giving you that much, but you know me well enough to know that’s all I’ll be giving.”
Carter frowned. For a guy, he wasn’t half bad looking, Constance figured. If only she swung that way. For a moment, he almost looked confused, before the reality of it dawned on him. “Oh.”
“What did you think would happen?” she asked, sharply. “I mean, honestly. What?”
“I’ve got my reasons.”
“You know what it’s looking like,” replied Constance. She didn’t want to scoot too close to what she, Manly and the Principle suspected. Maybe he had worked it all out, though. Carter was a hard piece of brawn, but you didn’t have a long career as an Agent not being smart.
Constance let the line sit silent. The implications lay heavy between them, as Mericia swung sultry through her number. Carter looked like a dead man, considering his options. He thumbed at his broad nose a moment, catching a little of the rain that ran off his face. Constance remembered the years. It felt like countless. Enough that both of them would seriously contemplate marriage. What other options were there for two people like them?
“Come clean with me, Toa,” she said, softly. “Damns sake. Come clean.”
Carter’s face sat bubbled before her, cast in the hash light of the hardline, shining off his shades. The answer, at least, was a considered one. She knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t lie about this. Even if he had his own and Constance’s handlers listening in on the line.