Edition 19: Number Man by Sean Monaghan
Tommi’s fresh out of prison, looking for a clean break. But his brother Kevin sucks him back into that world, the only place an ex-con can catch a break. Tommi’s got some decisions to make, and his little girl is waiting for him to get it right. SY
Tommi rode the airboat from the prison gates right to Del’s house. He had sixteen dollars in his pocket, his old notebook and a freshly laundered collared shirt. It felt like it belonged on some guy who worked fifty stories up, pushing figures from one bank account to another. The screws had burned his old clothes.
Sixteen dollars wasn’t going to buy him much. Prices had changed in four years.
And he didn’t want to have to lift anything. He needed a day or two to gather his thoughts.
He wished that he could have at least stopped to get Del some flowers.
The boat dropped him on the old street. The fare had been paid. Folding up into something little bigger than a cot, the boat took the air again. Searching for its next mark.
The sound of the city surprised him. Inside, he’d forgotten that background hum. The movement of traffic, the whirr of air-conditioners, shouts and laughing from kids at the basketball half-court at the end of the block.
Del’s place was a three story faux brownstone with aluminum windows and calendulas growing in boxes in front of each. The steps led right up from the sidewalk.
Tommi walked up, bent to smell the flowers in the nearest box. It was almost overwhelming. After all that time of prison food, working in the laundry and the stink of the bathrooms this was like the whole of springtime unleashing on him at once.
The door opened with a snick.
Tommy stood. Del.
She looked pretty. Fragile and thin. She had a blue floral summer dress on and he reached out to her hip. The fabric was soft to the touch. Her skin firm beneath.
With the expression on her face, he dropped his hand.
“What are you doing here?”
“I just got out.”
“A half hour.”
“And you came right here?”
Where else? he thought. “Where’s May?”
“You expect to see her?”
“She’s all I’ve got.”
“You’ve got that fancy shirt. Fancy shoes.”
Tommi glanced down. The new black shoes shone back at him. “You know I’ve got to see her.”
Del nodded. “I knew I should have gotten a restraining order.”
“I meant to do it. Thought about it.”
“Is she here?”
“Why don’t you go talk to your brother?”
“Kevin? What does he have to do with this?”
“Let him tell you what a mess it’s been.” Del stepped back and shut the door.
Tommi touched the back of his neck, feeling the dull scar from the old spirax.
He needed to call Kevin.
Rollo’s diner was exactly as he remembered it. Overpriced and noisy. Perfect.
Tommi sat at the counter and ordered coffee.
“Anything else honey?” The waitress was new, probably just graduating grade school when he’d been sent away. He could see her mixed parentage, probably a black mother and white father. Donna. Once he could have almost deduced her whole history just by looking at her. Not anymore.
“Just coffee,” he told her.
People came and went. Some of the regulars he recognized. Old Petey, Jason Six, Cobblestone Fred. Ageing. Lines where there hadn’t been, teeth yellowed, hair gray and thin.
Donna shouted orders at the kitchen and they shouted back for pick ups.
After an hour she asked him if he really didn’t want something to eat. “Special on eggs.”
He didn’t like to tell her he had just sixteen dollars. “Coffee’s fine.”
“Let me top you up. Waiting for someone?”
“My brother. Kevin.”
Right away her face changed. Like an ultrafreeze sucking the warmth from water in an ice cube tray. “Spand?” she said. “You mean Kevin Spand?”
Tommi nodded. She still hadn’t filled the cup.
“Yeah. I guess he’ll be in sometime. Usually is.” She took the pot back to the hotplate.
Tommi considered his empty cup. After the joint it was great. Ambrosia. Rollo’s was in good shape. Clean, good food—at least the food he saw on its way to other tables. Even the counter wasn’t sticky.
“You were going to refill me?” he said. Tried to sound polite.
Donna scowled but brought the pot over. She poured. “He starts fights. He’s rude and obnoxious and he doesn’t leave tips.”
“Sounds like him.” Tommi made a mental note to leave a good tip. “We’re very different.”
“Lucky you.” Cup filled, she took the pot back. It made a loud clunk as it hit the plate. Tommi was surprised it didn’t break.
He drank three more refills before Kevin showed.
“Bro!” The hug could have crushed a bronze statue. He smelled of the docks; a little salty, a little fishy, and a lot oily.
The waitress’s hostile frown didn’t budge as she took his order.
“Not eating Toms?” Kevin’s grin showed teeth in better shape.
“Cash flow problem.”
“Well. Let’s get that licked for you.”
“I can’t do that anymore.” Tommi knew what Kevin had in mind.
Kevin shifted his eyes around the diner. There were only a few others. Far away in the booths. He pulled out a little wriggling blue starfish.
Tommi shook his head.
“Yes you can,” Kevin said as it dangled.
Midnight. Kevin’s girlfriend’s friend’s apartment. Grace. They’d pulled the cushions from her sofa, turned it into a makeshift bed.
Kevin had left already, heading for his girlfriend’s place. Tommi had forgotten her name. He wondered if that would matter. They never lasted long.
Grace had seemed nice enough. She’d let him shower, given him a towel, told him to help himself to fridge snacks.
She had locked her bedroom door. Tommi would have if he was her.
The fridge made him a pie. Pumpkin. It came out the slot piping hot. He ate the whole thing. The screen on the fridge had a long menu, based on its contents. He had it make him a chicken sub, an apple strudel and a mochaccino. Even after that he wasn’t full.
“Hungry, huh?” Grace said. She stood at the hallway door watching him. She was wearing just pajamas with no underwear and he was conscious of the hints of shape. Ins and outs, points and drapes.
“I’ve eaten nothing but lunch meat on rye for four years.” He’d left his entire fortune by his coffee cup in Rollo’s. He hoped the waitress appreciated it.
“Kevin said.” Grace took a step forwards. Parts of her swayed.
Tommi took a breath.
“You’re not like him, are you?”
Grace smiled. She had good teeth too. Dimples. “Good. Don’t let him lead you astray.”
“Again. Lead me astray again.”
She nodded. Smile shrank. “Yes. Exactly.”
After she’d gone he ordered a celery smoothie, a lamb wrap and a brownie.
Fit to burst he lay back on the sheets on the cushions. The sounds of traffic swishing by. He didn’t sleep for hours.
Should have known. Too much good coffee all at once.
When sleep did come, his dreams were filled with numbers and scuttling spiraxes.
When he woke he decided he needed to get some AmbienPro.
“So here’s the deal,” Kevin said. “I can get past Del so you can see May.”
They were in one of the dock offices. Second story. Looking out over the San Diego Marina. Tommi watched tall-masted yachts motor away. Far out in the harbor a gray two-tower submarine cruised through the passage.
“I don’t think that’s a deal.” Tommi swung around to face his brother.
There were scented flowers on the big desk in the center. Lilacs or Ganymede foxgloves. Royal blue little trumpets with yellow speckles.
“One job,” Kevin said.
“Did you forget I just got out? I’m on a restrictor. My brain doesn’t work like that.” The thing had been surgically implanted. It sat in a hollow chiseled into his third vertebra. The size of a penny, it sucked proteins from his system and resynthesized them as some kind of balance dopamine-ketamine-adenosine interference. He couldn’t think in numbers anymore.
Didn’t mean he had to serve any less time.
Kevin walked to the window. “Do you see that?” He pointed out at the quartz and sapphire towers on Coronado. Some of them rose a hundred and fifty stories. Parts of downtown got no sunset.
“That is a financial district with enough money to buy a country.”
“I hear Namibia’s for sale.”
Kevin smiled. “Funny as always.”
“I can’t do it.” Tommi knew what his brother was going to say. He was going to offer the spirax. Probably as a one-off deal. Promises, promises.
“You saw what I have,” Kevin said.
Tommi nodded. “I want to see May. That’s all.”
“I can get you that.”
“And if I go away again this time it’s for ten years. She won’t be a little kid anymore.”
“You won’t go away.”
“Why don’t I believe you?”
He stayed at Grace’s again. Kevin loaned him five hundred and he gave her two.
“Good,” she said and gave him half back. “The kitchen’s got an order. You can go to the grocery store.”
The fridge printed him a paper list. Tommi picked most of the things up from the 7-Eleven two blocks down.
Pigeons ran along the gutter. Some of them had blue beetles crawling around their necks. He wasn’t sure if the beetles were natural or artificial.
As he fed the printout into the 7-Eleven’s slot he heard a siren. Further along a cop car burst from the curb. It spun around in traffic. Headed away from downtown.
People continued walking, cycling. Tommi felt a tension across his shoulder.
The store’s screen asked for $98.42. He fed the bills through the same slot. The screen thanked him. The store whirred and clicked. The receptacle squeaked open and he retrieved the paper sack of groceries.
An Asian woman fed her own list to it.
Tommi walked back. He’d read about this. The difficulty integrating. Everything was so normal. The smells of the sandwich franchise, the sounds of the trams trundling along, people simply out and about. Part of re-offending came, he’d been told, from a desire for the security and regularity of prison life. He got that temptation.
At Grace’s apartment he took the stairs. He was going to have to find a gym membership somehow. Otherwise he was going to get real out of shape.
“All right then,” Grace said when he handed her the sack. She stuck it into the fridge’s own receptacle and it made a series of sounds not unlike the 7-Eleven’s.
“Sorry if I’m eating too much.”
“First day out, right? Yesterday.”
“I get it. You should have seen my cousin. He had to go to the emergency room. Practically ate himself to death. Been inside no more than a couple of months. You?”
“And you haven’t seen your kid in that time?”
Tommi managed the slightest of nods. “I just need a job.”
Grace grinned. “Well that’s easy.”
“Well of course. I’ll take you down to the agency tomorrow.”
They ate. Grace told him about her cousin, about his family. About the yacht they’d owned for a while. Told him to go to SeaWorld and see the new augmented seal show. He let her talk, barely said a word.
Later he lay in the dark staring at the ceiling. A job would be good. Being occupied was a solid way to stay out of trouble.
When he woke he found his clothes laundered and hanging waiting.
The agency was on Coronado. They had sixteen floors of one of the towers. Grace worked near the top. Her view from the open plan office faced back to the city, but was still spectacular.
Arrayed around the area people sat at white desks, leaning back having conversations through their phones. There was an almost constant stream of people going to the coffee machine.
Grace had him sit on a hard chair and she went to talk to her boss. The conversation went on longer than Tommi had expected.
Grace came back. Her face was grim. “Nothing. I’m so sorry. I was sure that we could get you through into the system.”
Tommi pointed above his head. “My neon sign, huh? ‘Ex-Con’.” He felt hollow.
Grace looked at the floor. “I’ll think of something. I’ll get you the aptitude sheets, you can do those. I can get you onto another agency.”
“You’re being real nice to me,” he said.
“Well, I like Shirelle.”
He couldn’t place the name. “Shirelle?”
Grace rolled her eyes. “My friend. Kevin’s her boyfriend.”
“Oh yeah.” He couldn’t quite place the name still. They really had done a number on his head.
They found a cubicle empty but for a vase of self-regenerating flowers on the desk. He filled in pads of forms and details. Felt like he was failing every one. After two hours, exhausted by the mental energy, he gave the pads back.
“We’ll find you something,” she said. But she didn’t meet his eyes. The lack of confidence showed in her voice.
“Good,” he said. “I can start tomorrow.”
Grace gave him cab fare home.
It wasn’t home, he knew that.
He had the taxi drop him ten blocks away so he would have some change for at least something. Maybe a Snickers or a Coke.
At the 7-Eleven his five dollars eighty would just cover a generic cola.
Once he would have known how to hack this thing. He could just put in a handwritten list, with some glyphs and negative text. The machine would ask for confirmation and he would rapidly enter a sequence of numbers he’d pre-loaded from home. The store would oblige with a couple of Miller six-packs and maybe a ready-dog.
He rubbed his neck again.
The narrow can rattled into the receptacle. When he popped the top half of it fizzed away.
A kid across the road laughed. Tommi almost raised a finger at him.
He sighed. Well, that was something. He could hold himself in check. He wasn’t falling back into those old automatic ways.
He drank the remains of the soda as he walked on. It wasn’t until he was five blocks beyond Grace’s building that he realized how far past he’d gone.
And realized where he was actually going.
The calendulas at Del’s place were really blooming now. She must really water them. Plant food too, he guessed. He wished he knew more about gardening. Del used to raise potatoes in buckets and zucchini on their old back landing.
He crossed the road. A car too far away to matter blared its horn at him.
Tommi kept his fingers down.
He ran his hand over the rough iron railing as he walked up the steps. At the top he stopped, hand raised. All he had to do was knock. Knock and be polite.
“Please, Dell. Just let me see her. Let us go down to the park for an hour. A half hour, even.”
But he could already hear her response. Could see her with a phone in her hand, bead in her ear. Calling the cops.
His hand dropped to his side. He thumped his thigh until he could really feel it.
He turned and started down.
The door opened.
Tommi held his breath. He didn’t turn back.
“I’ve got a restraining order now,” she said. “You’re not even allowed on the block.”
Now Tommi faced her. “Del. Please. I’m not that man anymore.”
She laughed, an incredulous cackle.
“I’m getting a job. A real job.”
“Sure.” Del looked out along the road. A loud car approached from the corner. Its rails scraped on the pavement. “Somehow I think the cops won’t be far behind.”
The car pulled to a stop. A low-slung Mustang. Black. Custom. Long snout and windows the height of a coffee cup. Kevin shouted for him to get in.
Tommi watched Del back away. “You have to deliver a restraining order,” he shouted. “You can’t just tell me about it. Hand delivery.”
“Check your account,” she hollered back. The door slammed.
“Hand delivered!” he yelled.
“Just get in,” Kevin said.
The door slid aside. Tommi had to shuffle right down in the sticky vinyl seat so he didn’t bump his head. Kevin accelerated away. The engine sounded like a jet on reverse thrust.
“So,” Kevin said. “That went well?”
“She still won’t let me see May.”
“Probably shouldn’t yell at her then.”
Tommi twisted his head to look at his brother. Kevin hadn’t shaved, hadn’t done his hair. He smelled of feminine perfume.
“You been to Shirelle’s?”
Kevin flicked him a glance. “Maybe, maybe not.”
Naturally, Tommi thought. Kevin had never been the faithful kind.
“And maybe,” Kevin added, “if you want to see your daughter you shouldn’t get into neighborhood shouting matches with her mother.”
Tommi looked straight ahead. They’d left the street of faux brownstones behind and were cruising into Delacourt and its glassy condos.
“Did you think about this gig?”
“Gig?” It dawned on Tommi that Grace really had tried to get him a job. “Did you screw me over at the agency? Make it so’s I couldn’t get work? So I’d have to come and do your job?”
Kevin looked over, face shocked. “Bro’? Whatcha mean? No way I would do that.”
“You did, didn’t you?”
Kevin’s mouth made a kind of negative smile. “You know, I considered it. But I want you on board clean. Willing to do what it takes.”
Tommi sighed. “All right. I’m in.”
The speedboat lulled in the waves ten miles from shore. San Diego’s lights glistened across the constant low waves. Now that it was stopped the boat smelled of oil and diesel smoke. On the speedy way out here, all Tommi had smelled had been the crisp tang of salt.
Besides Kevin and himself, there were three others on the boat. Lucky Tim, from the old days, and two others. A guy from Temecula who called himself Brad but looked more like a Manny. Tommi had met plenty of his kind on the inside.
The other was Amy. Amy was a dead ringer for Grace. Tommi didn’t dare ask if they were sisters.
The four of them were below setting up frequencies and adjusting the patterns. They were muttering to themselves. Mostly they didn’t think Kevin could pull it off.
It had been five years since anyone anywhere had wired other people’s money to themselves this way. The banking software was practically AI in its defenses.
Tommi leaned against the transom as the big boat gently rocked. It seemed so calm, so peaceful. A couple of miles off a big sailing ship closed on the harbor. The ship’s lights were like a festival, strung from the five hundred foot high masts. It was probably a tanker, bringing palm oil from Indonesia. It would be so empty and light on its return that it could probably make it the whole way under sail.
“Ready?” Kevin asked from the cabin well. “Remember you can back out anytime.”
“Yes I can.” Tommi knew he couldn’t. You might as well tell a ski-jumper he could back out just after he’d tipped onto the run. When Tommi had yelled at Del, that’s when the decision had been made.
No backing out now.
He followed Kevin down the steps into the main cabin. The others had set up a half-dozen slates and displays on the tiny galley table. Cables festooned the whole cabin. Tommi had to duck under some to get to the seat Kevin pointed him to.
There were a couple of open Heinekens on the table. One half-empty, the other half-full. Tommi didn’t make his dumb joke aloud, but he like the allusion to not knowing the outcome here. It might go very well and it might go very badly.
“All right then,” he said.
The others smiled at him, but didn’t speak. He could see a level of enmity in their eyes. They wanted this, but they couldn’t do it without him.
“Everything’s ready,” Amy said. Her voice was nothing like Grace’s, Tommi realized. An Asian accent.
“What do I do?”
“The systems are tuned on BancoSoCal. Holding at the outside. Ready for you to enter the numbers.”
On the table in front of Tommi there were two physical keypads. 0 to 9 on one, a tab, return, space and dash on the other. He put his hand on the keys. “Linked yet?”
Tommi raced his fingers across them. He typed in his social security number, May’s birthdate, his own birthdate, the dates of a dozen important events. JFK, signing of the declaration, VJ day, crucifixion of Christ, discovery of America, sinking of the Titanic, Mars landing.
“What’s he doing?” Brad-Manny said.
“Getting used to the layout,” Kevin said.
“I’m getting them wrong,” Tommi said. He could barely remember some of the dates. Was the Titanic 1907 or 1909? He couldn’t afford to screw this up.
Kevin got out the spirax.
Tommi nodded and bent forward. He felt the little tentacles scrabble over his neck. They latched on.
The tiniest of pinpricks.
He felt that familiar endorphin rush. Even as it kept drilling in, he didn’t feel it as pain.
The Titanic went down in 1912. 04151912-0220
Tommi started keying in the race times for every race Joey Logano ran for Nascar. Forty years of racing, thirty races a year. Times down to hundredths of a second. All of them still tucked away. Hidden only by the restrictor.
Over 8600 digits. Tommi stopped at 2000. He leant back from the keypads.
“Fast,” Brad-Manny whispered.
“Are we getting to it?” Lucky Tim said.
“Ready?” Kevin said.
Tommi angled the displays so he could read them clearly. “Ready.”
Both replied they were ready.
“How long are we in for?” Tommi said.
“Times have changed.” Kevin put his hand on Tommi’s shoulder.
“Still think I can do it?”
“All right. Let’s start.”
Kevin sat and ran over the system. Lucky Tim and Brad-Manny would work through the bank’s front doors. They had a feed siphoning transactions from around the whole grid.
BancoSoCal’s customer base reached from Central L.A. to Tijuana, and inland as far as Yuma and Kingman. Close to a half-million customers. That made for a lot of transactions at any one time.
The plan was to force those to back up for a minute. It would force the system to run a check on itself. While it did that, Tommi would code in the hacked access and make them all very rich. Simple.
Tommi didn’t care about the money. He just wanted to see May. If Kevin said he could make that happen, it would happen.
“Start in five seconds,” Kevin said.
The other two tensed up. They hunched over their displays.
Tommi relaxed. This was familiar. Old territory. Easy to run. Now that he had the spirax.
Kevin counted it off on his fingers.
The bank portal opened.
Tommi watched the strings of numbers across his display. Every one of them tucked itself into his memory.The time ran down on the top right corner.
Forty-five seconds. More numbers.
Thirty seconds. More numbers.
“Hush now,” he said.
Tommi had close to a quarter million digits in his head.
It felt like the spirax wiggled.
That was wrong. He needed it still.
“Kevin?” he said.
The numbers stopped.
The bank’s diagnostic system began.
“Go Tommi,” Kevin said. Tension in his voice.
The software threw up a pie chart. Working through the error log.
It was going to find them soon.
“Why isn’t he typing?” Lucky Tim said.
“Tommi?” Kevin put his hand on Tommi’s shoulder again.
“We lost fifteen seconds,” Brad-Manny said.
“Come on Tommi.”
Spiraxes wiggle sometimes, Tommi reminded himself.
It wasn’t that unusual.
Sometimes they moved, sometimes not.
He just wasn’t used to it. All that time in prison, getting used to the restrictor. It was years since he’d used a spirax at all.
Back in the early days, when they were teenagers, he’d tried one. Just to amp up the situation. Burrowing into a car’s registration and jacking the car. He’d both liked and disliked the sensation. He had numbers anyway. Could memorize phone books. Could memorize details. That was how he’d impressed Del in the first place.
He looked at the display. Five seconds left in the window.
Let the spirax wiggle.
He began keying in numbers. The confirm codes revealed themselves. The display recorded them.
Fifty numbers. Eighty. Tommi kept going. The keys rattled under his fingers.
The bank’s security system shut it down.
Lucky Tim cursed. He thumped the table with his fist.
“Anyone want a beer?” Brad stood up and went to the kitchen’s little fridge.
No one said anything.
Tommi stared at the black screen. From outside he heard a ship’s horn. He became aware again of the speedboat’s gentle rocking.
Brad shifted the displays. He set four tall cans on the table. Coors.
Tommi didn’t feel like one. Now he wouldn’t get to see May.
His chest felt tight. His eyes moistened.
He didn’t want to cry in front of these guys. Standing he went back up into the main deck. As he pushed his way up onto the tall passenger seat he heard the sound of the cans hissing open. Lucky Tim muttered something.
Tommi sighed. He looked back over at the city. Maybe if he just got a real job he’d be able to wait it out. It would be better to see her in ten years than not at all. He just had to stay out of messes like this.
He saw a boat nearby. The lights glinted off the water. For a moment he imagined it being the coast guard. Any second now a big spotlight would blind him. They’d start yelling over a megaphone. The four of them would be put in cuffs and the speedboat would be towed in.
But the boat drifted on. He heard the vague sounds of party music pulsing from it.
Kevin came up. He handed Tommy a can. Cold. Tommi tapped the top and it opened. Some beer hissed out.
“When did you last have a beer?” Kevin said.
Tommi realized he hadn’t even thought about it since leaving prison. “I guess four years.”
“Go easy, then.”
Tommi smiled. He sipped. Bitter and sweet at once. Going easy would be difficult.
“Want to know how we did?” Kevin said. He put his hand on Tommi’s shoulder again.
“Bad, I guess.”
Kevin laughed. It sounded nervous.
“Maybe there’s another thing we can try?”
“Maybe.” Kevin took a slug from his own can. He looked where had been looking. “Friendly?”
“I guess. I heard music.”
“Good. Let me tell you how we did.”
“Okay.” Tommi took a good swig. He imagined Lucky Tim and Brad being more than angry.
“Sorry I screwed up,” Tommi said.
“Listen. We got six hundred and eighty accounts.”
Bad, Tommi thought. At least fifteen thousand had come through in that minute. “Sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. We can lance out close to a million and half. Lucky Tim’s going through the figures now.”
“Doesn’t seem like much.”
Kevin squeezed his shoulder. “Sure it could have been more. But it’s not bad for a night’s work.”
“All right.” Tommi felt cheered. He took another swig.
“Your cut will set you up good.”
Tommi looked at Kevin. His brother’s hard eyes bored back at him. “Thanks, I guess.”
“You guess? That’s a good start. Not like you’ll be living the high life, but at least better than that sixteen dollars you came out with.”
“You knew about that?”
“You did know. You stopped Grace from getting me a job.”
Tommi shoved him. Kevin stumbled back.
The seat spun around. Tommi found himself staring over the side.
“Easy,” Kevin said.
“I just wanted to see May. That was all.”
Tommi didn’t think he’d ever felt so angry. So betrayed.
Why had he let himself trust Kevin? Big brothers were supposed to look out for you.
Kevin came over beside him. “We got the money. Some money. That’s all that counts.”
“Get it off me.”
Kevin didn’t reply.
Tommi looked up at him. Kevin’s face was a blank mask. Tommi stood.
“Bro,” Kevin said.
“What have you done to me?”
“Isn’t it better?”
“Better?” All Tommi could think was that he would never see May now. Never.
“Sure. I know you hated the restrictor.”
Tommi smacked Kevin in the jaw. It sounded like a fish slapping water. Broken. Kevin lurched back over the side. He yelped and went under.
The other two came running up.
“Where’s Kev?” Lucky Tim said.
Tommi didn’t have to reply. Kevin splashed.
“Hey!” Brad shouted, looking over the side.
“Grab the rope,” Lucky Tim said.
Brad darted back.
Kevin gurgled. The splashing stopped.
Tommi just saw his silhouette go down.
Brad came with the rope. “Where is he?”
Lucky Tim produced a flashlight. He shone it down.
The sea reflected back. Black.
“What did you do?” Lucky Tim said. The flashlight came up into Tommi’s eyes.
“Give me the rope,” Tommi said.
Brad handed it over.
“Is the flashlight waterproof?”
“Of course,” Lucky Tim said. He handed it over.
Tommi dove in. The sea was cold. Water ran up his nostrils.
The light’s beam was eerie. A foggy green-blue haze.
He kicked. He could feel his clothes weighing him down.
Ahead something in the water. A dark shape. Kevin. There was blood coming from his head.
Tommi kept kicking. He grabbed Kevin’s outstretched hand. No response. Tommi pulled him in. He let go of the flashlight and kicked for the surface. Kevin didn’t move in his arms.
Please, Tommi thought, please don’t die. How to make the worst night even worse.
They broke the surface.
“Help,” Tommi said.
Lucky Tim and Brad pulled the rope. At the side of the boat they reached down and pulled Kevin aboard.
Tommi heard them talking. He couldn’t see anything except the dark line of the boat against the star field. For a moment he thought they’d abandoned him.
Lucky Tim reached down. Tommi grabbed his wrists. He scraped up over the side and fell down beside Kevin.
“Breathing,” Brad said. “Busted up pretty good.”
Lucky Tim swore. “Tijuana?”
Brad scowled at Tommi. “It’ll have to be.”
At the late clinic, Tommi sat staring at the tiled walls. They needed a clean. The place smelled of antiseptic like a surgery, but it was desperately in need of some sanitation.
Two hours he sat, staring. He calculated the number of squares on the wall. 283,650. Thirty tiles up, sixty across. Every tile made a square, every four made five, every nine made fourteen. Simple square progression.
He wondered if he’d screwed up, so he started counting.
He’d reached 157,290 when Kevin came out. His jaw was wired. He looked pretty uncomfortable. He didn’t look at Tommi.
Lucky Tim paid the bill. Pesos.
They took a cab back to the border. Brad had stayed with the boat, driven it back to America. The passport officer didn’t even look at their documents. Didn’t even seem to notice Kevin’s injuries.
“Kevin?” Tommi said in the transit airboat on the San Diego side. They rode high, the wings vibrating.
Kevin stared out the window.
“Don’t think he wants to talk to you,” Lucky Tim said.
Tommi felt hollow. He hadn’t meant to hurt his brother. No matter what Kevin did, he was still family.
Tommi slumped down. He wished he’d never gotten out of jail.
The airboat landed at Grace’s apartment. Lucky Tim reached across and pushed Tommi’s door open.
Tommi stepped out. “I’m sorry, Kevin.”
His brother didn’t even look.
Lucky Tim shrugged and pulled the door closed. The airboat swung its wings out with a metallic scraping. It rumbled and lifted into the air.
Tommi watched for a moment. The night air was warm. It smelled of flowers. That made him think of the calendulas growing on Del’s window boxes.
He turned and went to buzz himself inside. At least he had a quiet place to sleep and something to eat. He was hungry. He imagined the fridge making him a big meatball sub.
The door didn’t open.
He tried the code again.
With the switch panel he called Grace’s apartment. No response for a couple of minutes. He was about to leave and go figure out his next move when the speaker hissed.
“Hi Grace. Sorry. Tommi. I guess you changed the code.”
“Oh, yeah. Kevin called. Said you hit him?”
“Yeah. I hit him.”
“I think he deserved it.”
“He really did. But I wish I hadn’t hit him. Anyway, thanks for letting me stay. I’ll see you around.”
As he stepped down, Grace spoke again. “Tommi? Did he hurt you?”
“In a way. It wasn’t really a fight. I got off a lucky punch.”
Grace was silent for a moment. A ground bus trundled along a block away. Some pigeons fluttered to the sidewalk. “All right. Why don’t you come on up and tell me about it?”
The door buzzed and swung open.
“You look like a wreck,” she told him at her apartment door. “And you stink of fish.”
Grace stuffed him in the shower with a big cake of soap. She fed him meatball sub from the fridge.
“Boy, you sure are hungry. Want to tell me about it?”
Tommi nodded. “I only wanted to see May.” He told Grace the story.
He could still feel the spirax in his neck. It felt like the thing squirmed.
“Lot of money,” Grace said.
“I still can’t help but feel like I let him down.”
“But he manipulated you. I bet he manipulated Del too.”
Tommi hadn’t thought of that.
“Get some sleep,” Grace said. “I need to think.”
The sofa cushion bed was still made up. It was almost as if she expected to ignore Kevin.
Grace slipped off to her bedroom. Tommi peed and scrubbed his teeth and lay down.
It was always harder to sleep with a spirax. Something about adenosine blocking. Other spiraxes had mute switches. He would have turned it off or down if he could.
Despite feeling some remorse about hitting Kevin, he still felt mad about the spirax. And everything else.
Eventually he slept.
Grace drove a 2034 Corvette. “Single-woman’s car,” she told him. “If she’s got some spare cash.”
They roared out to Encinitas.
As they drew closer, Tommi could feel his tension increasing. His heart beat faster.
Grace parked across the road from Del’s place.
Tommi sat looking up at the calendulas blooming in their boxes. Such peaceful, residential bliss. A place he could now never hope to recover.
He was sweating.
“I talked to Kevin this morning,” Grace said.
“Guess he didn’t say much back. What are we doing here?”
Grace laughed. “No, he just murmured really. And we’re here so you can see May.”
Tommi sank lower in the seat. “Restraining order. Can we just go?”
“Kevin talked to Del. She’s willing to get it rescinded.”
Tommi looked at Grace. “That’ll take weeks.” He knew how these things worked.
Lawyers and courts. Money. And in the meantime she might change her mind back.
Another car pulled up across the road. Kevin’s Mustang.
Tommi grabbed the door release. Ready to bolt.
“Relax,” Grace said. “He’s going to tidy up a couple of things.”
Lucky Tim was driving. He waved.
Kevin got out of the passenger side. He went up Del’s steps and knocked.
“What’s he doing?”
“Give it a minute.”
He heard the sound of a car sweeping by. Tommi hunkered down again. It might have been a police cruiser. He was within the restraining order’s boundary.
It was just an old Subaru.
Del came to the door. Kevin talked to her. He moved his hands a lot. Del bent an ear close.
“Guess he’s whispering,” Grace said.
“His jaw’s wired shut.” Tommi still remembered the blow. Sending Kevin over the side.
Tommi wished he’d said no right from the start.
Behind Del he thought he saw a small figure. A girl in a white dress.
His heart leapt. It felt like a squirrel trapped in his chest. He reached for the handle again.
Grace grabbed his arm. “Wait.”
Del nodded at Kevin. He handed her a slate. She swiped and scrawled something. When she passed it back, Kevin held it up again. He said something.
Del pressed her thumb into the slate.
She said something. Kevin held up a hand. He started down the steps. Checked for traffic. Walked across.
Grace wound down her window. Tommi felt the warm air breeze in.
Kevin bent down. His eyes were black and his face puffy.
“‘lo,” he said. Just his lips moved.
“Well?” Grace said.
“Gave ‘er all yur money. Frim the job. She’s signed to kill the restraining order. Tommi’s just got to enter the code.”
Kevin handed the slate through the window. Grace took it and passed it to Tommi.
The screen had the document. Cancel Restraining Order. A long police number on the top corner. All the slots filled with Del’s details.
“What do I do now?” Tommi swallowed. This was going to let him see May.
He realized he didn’t care about the money.
“Just got to back it through the p’lice system,” Kevin said. “The slate’s got the data. It’s on a direct link.”
“Back it through?”
Kevin blinked. “You need to do numbers on it. Find the key and-”
“Break in, you mean?”
“It’s what you do.” Kevin stood upright. He said something Tommi didn’t catch.
There was a cop car along the road now. It cruised up slow. The cops took a look at Kevin
Tommi felt his heart again. Right now he could end up back inside.
The car continued on.
Tommi looked back at the slate. In a column on the left it was waiting for an access code. He swiped up the routing and found the back door.
The code was right there.
Up in the doorway, Del and May still stood. His girl had come right out onto the stoop. She looked as gorgeous as the flowers. Her golden hair wafted in the breeze. She had her arms crossed, hands on her shoulders. So much bigger than when he’d last seen her.
He looked back at the code. All he had to do was enter the numbers. The restraining order would disappear.
With a tap in the corner he killed it. The form faded away. The column rolled off to the side.
The slate returned to its home screen.
His breathing came easy now. His heart settled down. It felt good.
He would miss her all the more. But he wasn’t going to get her that way. Doing that always made things worse.
Reaching he handed the slate back to Kevin. His brother bent and took it. “All done.”
Tommi nodded. Grace gave him a limp smile.
It took Kevin a moment. He swore. “You didn’t even do it.”
“I can’t do it that way.” Tommi stared up at Del and May. He waved.
Kevin cursed again.
“You’re going to break that wiring,” Tommi said.
Grace grinned at him.
“It’ll take months,” Kevin said. “I’m trying to help you here.”
“You already have.”
Kevin slapped the Corvette’s roof and walked away.
“Grace,” Tommi said. “Maybe I could stay with you a little longer?”
She nodded. “And I’ll find you a job. Guaranteed.”
“Aren’t you going straight?” She pointed out the window. “For her?”
“It was all for her.” Tommi nodded and waved.
May waved back.
Tommi’s heart lurched again. Pounding. But in a good way.
Sean Monaghan lives in New Zealand, where he works as an educator in a busy public library. His stories have been published both at home and abroad. Sean’s science fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Perihelion and Aurealis, among others. Twice a semi-finalist for the Writer’s of the Future Contest, he was also a finalist in 2012. He was the Grand Prize Winner of 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest.