Agency protocol called for him to skip to point 61 where, no doubt, all the agents would be in a line, waiting with open arms and stimpatches. They’d have a good laugh about how he had escaped death yet again, while passing around blunts and meatfruit. Hell, they might even break out the real food for the heroics of this round of his escapades.
Point 61 was just a quick Bullet ride through Skycity, and out the other end. Simple enough. But Tyler knew he was ghost, and couldn’t risk going online. He’d be spotted going ghost through Skycity about as easily as he would going online here.
In short, he was fucked.
Tyler pulled back into the nearest alley, trying to ignore the smell in his nostrils. The thick pall of ash was heavy. Set down by the rain that had been falling for the last hour or so. He headed back the way he came, and then realized that in his pain induced haze he had gone down the wrong alley.
Fuck it all. Let him walk it out and drop where he might fall. Without Agency help, he was dead. But if he went online to get it, he’d be tracked by Blacks and Whites, and Erikson.
I need an angel.
Tyler smiled to himself, warm against the cold fingers of the rain. He looked up at the sea of neon above him and tried to read the signs, like a tarot reader interprets the cards. Maybe he could find himself an angel, but he knew he would be burning that one last bridge. After that, it was just him and the street.
* * *
Tyler felt like he was holding up the building as he leaned against the door frame. He’d used the back door, negotiating the twisted, dark passages of back stage like he belonged there. He hated to think what he really looked like. Maybe some drug fiend, sweaty faced, begging for his next fix. Maybe he passed for some bohemian artist, not shackled by the conventions of society.
Eloise’s face looked just like it had last time he had seen it, her dreadlocks worn up in a tall topknot that appeared like some elaborate hat. She was all regal, high cheekbones and exotic features. Her skin was too dark to be Oceanic. She was from further abroad. Maybe even heaven.
When she noticed Tyler in the mirror, her expression was at first delighted. It quickly drained to shock.
“I wouldn’t have come,” he remarked. He’d convinced himself it was his lungs that were fucked, given how hard it was to breath. “But I got no where else left.”
“Sweet Mother of Jesus. Tyler …”
Eloise was on her feet, moving towards him with the grace of a dancer. Her voice was soft cinnamon, smoky and warm. She looked every part the singer she was. Tyler remembered giving her a warm, honest smile, just thankful to be back in her arms, treasuring the smell and the sensation. In truth, he was passing out, and Eloise was the only thing between him and the ground.
* * *
The place was quiet, but beneath him came soft notes, intoned by skillful hands. Tyler came to with a start, dazed at first, then recalling the room in its details. The African drums that Eloise had told him everything about, and he’d taken every word of the story as he stared at her dreamy. The bead curtains, the incense holders, complex and brassy. He wasn’t sure if the furs were real, but he liked to pretend they were, thick and lush. It was like a kids dream, this place.
“It’s been a while, dear child.”
Tyler squinted, trying to get up. The pain in his side was different, but still pronounced. He worked out with a start that he was naked, most of his torso bound up tight, tight about his chest. No hang over had ever felt this bad, even on stuff more akin to fossil fuels. Tyler clutched at his sheets, noticing Eloise’s slow smile. She stood slow and dignified.
“Nothing I haven’t seen a million times over, Tyler,” she remarked, drifting across the room. She had been sitting over in a chair made from deep, dark wood that was the same shade as her skin. “I took the liberty of having a doctor look you over. Of course you don’t mind.”
“No. Thanks.” Tyler felt like shit. And it wasn’t just the wounds.
“Cracked almost every rib on your side there, child. The doctor overlooked the fact you seemed to have offline wetware.”
“Eloise. I’m sorry. I feel like –”
She made a shushing sound, putting a long, eloquent finger to his lips. She hovered over him in a long, one piece dress that held every curve of her body. Her lipstick was a soft shade of gold, matching the hoop ear rings. She smiled, soft and smooth, sitting down on the bed next to Tyler. Tyler could smell the warmth of her.
“No apologies needed.”
“No. I only see you when I’m in trouble. It’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair, Tyler,” she replied, smoothing down her dress as she sat. “You of all people know this.”
“I wish I could see you more often,” said Tyler, stumbling for his words. No other girl could make him feel like his tongue was made of lead like she did. “I mean. If I could give up what I do.”
Eloise laughed, light and musical. “Child, if I had a dime for every low life thug that said that to me after performance each night …” She laid a gentle caress along the side of Tyler’s face and he felt like everything would be ok. “You’re just lucky that you and me are something more than that, Tyler. You don’t ever had to apologize. Or explain. You can’t give up the life you lead.”
Tyler felt his face flush hot as he entertained the worst of sins. Something made him skate the edge and just come out with it, “I want to tell you what I do. I mean, what I really do. Why I always look like this when I visit you these days.”
“You’ll always look like this, child. Hard and warm and strong.” Tyler was about to correct her, tell her about the Agency, finally this time. She shook her head and continued, interrupting him. “I know.”
Tyler felt a strange feeling run through him. How could she know? Did she really know about the Agency? She stood up, slow and fluid. Tyler fell quiet as she went over towards the short, low service where she had been sitting. She poured something dark and hot into a mug without a handle. Then she came back over to his side and offered it to him.
“If there’s something I’ve truly enjoyed about us, Tyler,” she said, softly. “It’s that there is no other life. Nothing else. Just you and I. In these walls, you don’t have to worry about what might be chasing you or hating you. Don’t ever feel guilty about coming here, whatever your state. We both have our share of secrets.”
Tyler took the mug. It felt smooth in his hand, warm from the piping hot liquid within. “I just don’t want to leave any mud on the floor. I walk in some pretty bad mud out there. I don’t want it coming back to hurt you.”
“I’m a grown woman, child. Ain’t nothing you can bring down on my house I can’t or haven’t already dealt with. You’re always welcome, and you’ll always be safe.”
Tyler took a short sip. He thought it tasted like chocolate, but more gritty. More real. He rubbed at his head a moment, wondering about his wetware, wondering if the doctor had done anything. He glanced passed Eloise and noticed the small monitor that looked down onto the club below. Scenes of jazz players, and crowds. Each few seconds, it flicked to another scene, fresh and new.
He could feel the drum beats below, urgent and almost playful.
Tyler spluttered, and Eloise grinned with the pleasure of playing with the word. She sat down in her chair, and the dim lights made her lips seem to glow. “You talk in your sleep, Tyler. Not much. But enough for me to wonder how many girls there are in your life.”
Tyler didn’t know how to answer. If she knew, if she really knew … He tried to sit back against the ample pillows, grimaced a bit at the pain in his side. Broken ribs then, that was all. Fuck that for a joke. It had felt like death.
“I don’t know who Constance is,” Tyler replied, honestly. He tried to remember.
“You scoundrel. It’s not like I don’t know how much of a little charmer you are, Tyler.” Eloise’s words were gentle and joking. “I’m sure you keep plenty of other women other than me …”
Tyler burned a bright red, feeling like a teenager caught out. “No! I mean. Hell. There isn’t anyone else. I don’t know what Constance is. What did I say?”
“I’m playing,” she replied, needing to confirm it. “I know I hold a special place in your heart, Tyler. I feel the same. That’s part of why I like you so much, Tyler. You’re a dark little box. So many secrets and hidden compartments.”
Tyler looked at the monitor. Seeing it made him paranoid. He saw the men on the stage drumming away in time with the beat he felt in the floor beneath him. “How do you like your drink?”
“It’s nice,” Tyler replied. “What is it?”
“A coffee I get from Europa. I can’t get it from my homeland any more.”
Tyler nodded, and wanted to try and tell her again. His surrounds made him want to forget it all for a while. Maybe a few days. Hell, weeks. Maybe he could play the part of the bohemian artist. He’d played enough lives before. Maybe he could settle in this one for a while. The Agency would understand. He could send message back to them through offline means. He could try.
The sharp rapping at the door broke him from him thoughts. An elderly, dark skinned man with dusty grey hair poked his head in the door. He glanced over at Tyler, but didn’t look at him like he was out of place in the least. Like perhaps Eloise was taken to having strange, naked young men here on a regular basis.
“You’re five o’clock is here, Miss.”
“Thanks,” Eloise said, rising. Her face took on a harder countenance. An expression that meant nothing but business. “Tell him I’ll be right down.”
The monitor flicked to a view of the bar. Tyler wondered if he could be a bartender. It couldn’t be that hard to mix drinks, surely. The door closed over again, and Eloise came over, taking his face in her hands and laying a chaste kiss on his forehead. Tyler felt the flush of embarrassment run over more than just his face.
“Time to work. Rest. I’ll be back and we can talk about old times.”
Tyler nodded, feeling himself relax, because he knew he could. As Eloise walked towards the door, he made an effort not to look at her that way. It was like the one last thing in his life that was still pure and still precious. Maybe the closest thing to a true friend, or a real life.
The monitor flicked again.
The door closed.
Tyler stared at the face on the screen, and his heart sunk. He recognized Erikson’s face with a full and sudden fear. That voice was back inside his head, mocking him, reminding him that no where was safe. No one was truly his friend. His felt his mind swim with a sickness, as he quickly climbed out of bed.
No rest for the wicked, n00b. And you about as wicked as they come.