An older building had suffered a fire, and sat abandoned, for now. Not worth the money it would cost to finish knocking it down. The door blended in well, painted to match the bricks, smoke strained and dirty. It was an illusion over the entrance to a bubble. Being extra dimensional, their tiny apartment inside the bubble didn't actually exist in the real world. Anyone walking in the front of the burned store would find neither apartment nor the other side of a door in that corner. If they searched carefully, they'd find a spot in the soot stained wall where they could step through to another world. Xen and Jeff stepped out the invisible back door of the apartment and then through the Gate before they stopped to examine their prize.
"Typical wino, right down to the fleas." Jeff flicked at one, then Xen waved his fingers and it dropped off his arm. "Did you kill it?"
"Yes, and every other chitinous critter around. Whew. I wonder how many years it's been since this fellow had a bath?" Xen worked carefully through the layers of clothing, setting each aside. "Ah. An ID card. We could probably copy it, but we can't put data on it."
"How do they know whose card it is? Finger prints?"
"Yes, and pictures, possibly a retinal print. Probably that's all. Do you know, I believe I could imitate this fellow fairly well." Xen rolled him over and stared at the dead eyes. "Only one way to find out, eh?"
The bank's computerized system matched him to the wino with no trouble at all. It also informed him that his account was overdrawn by four hundred twenty nine point eight nine credits and accumulating penalties.
"Not a problem," Xen informed the machine. He recovered his card from it, and walked off, headed for a place that bought gold.
Except he didn't have a gold dealers permit, to sell in such quantities. Since the quantity was less than a pound, Xen felt a bit ill treated, and stomped off.
"Woo! Look who got all cleaned up at the Y."
Xen looked over to see a pair of winos leaning on a building.
He shuffled over to them.
"Oh no you don't. You're stakeout is down there. This is our corner."
Xen walked "down there" until another wino glared, then backed up a bit.
He was wearing clothing identical to the clothing Salazar Fromage had died in. Much cleaner. He'd dirtied the outermost layer a bit, and now he sat on the ground and scowled up and down the sidewalk. No doubt Salazar had survived by caging the chips of money – plastic coins – that this world had kept for small transactions. To one side, a pawn shop, to the other a porn shop. Across the street a small sign declared the building to be Heights Assembly Plant #4. Manufacturing, apparently.
Xen pulled out the cube of gold and sank his awareness into it. Pulled out a long strand and curled it around and around . . . An hour later, the pawn shop "loaned" him half the value of his gold chain necklace. Or what they claimed was half the value. It was better than nothing at all and covered the bank's overdraft and bit more. He took a long hard look at the stuff on display in the pawn shop. Gold mixed with copper to harden it. Inset stones. Xen stretched, and strolled the limits of his "stakeout." The few people on the street gave him a wide berth, and the live guard at the big warehouse on the corner glared at him. He wondered where Sal lived, and how he could gradually change that and settle down to collecting nice boring information. He studied the people around him, special emphasis on jewelry now. The women who noticed him noticing their rings skittered nervously away from him. A pair of men wearing heavy rings, and odd lumpy knitted caps on their heads glared at the attention he paid them. He headed back for the Gate. He had working ID and there were enough pawn shops around for him to start accumulating money. He'd pick up more gold, some of the gemstones they'd brought along and make a bunch of the big heavy rings men were wearing . . .
The snaps barely caught his attention, muffed by walls and doors. Two masked men sprinted out of the corner bank. A car squealed around the corner, braked enough for the men to dive in. Tires screamed as it accelerated.
Well, I guess they have bank robberies after all.
A gun stuck out of a window. Xen dived for the ground and formed up a shield. The first shot hit his shield and rolled him. His head thunked something hard and he concentrated on shielding as his vision tunneled and the world spun around. The car was long gone. Xen looked around carefully, then released the shields and sat up. prodded carefully at what was going to be a great lump on his head.
Those masks, black, knitted . . . were those the two men I passed a few minutes ago? Can't think of any other reason they'd shoot me, deliberately.
Sirens were converging on the bank, and he climbed to his feet and tried to figure out which way would be best to go. Black and whites were closing off an area several blocks across. Xen hunched and tried to look harmless. A patroller eyed him suspiciously. Maybe he could give them something else to do.
"I saw the car they drove away in. Big and black, the license was orange with black letters, KJUY 197."
One man radioed that information, the other wanted to see his identification.
Oh. Damn. Salazar is going to need to disappear pretty quick.
Xen handed over his purloined ID, and had his fingerprint and retinas scanned. He worked up a quick spell for a typical wino's odor of stale filth and alcohol, and was rewarded with the patroller giving him a few extra feet of space. Apparently the machinery was identifying him as Salazar, so that much was all right.
:: Trouble Captain? ::
Jeff must have picked up his nerves. :: Minor. Tell Q that I can pawn heavy men's rings. Two thirds gold to one third copper for hardness, large dark stones. If she'll whip up a few, I can start accumulating money. ::
:: Yeah, but what is the problem? ::
:: I witnessed a bank robbery. I'll probably have to stick around and swear to all sorts of things. The machinery is IDing me correctly. No worry there. ::
:: It occurred to me that I don't actually need a dead body. I could pick up someone without family or job, a wino or drug addict. Bubble them while I use their ID. ::
:: Good thought. You could find one the right size, shape and coloring, so there are fewer things that don't match. If I'm being watched, Q can do all the changes needed. :: Xen broke off as a man in a suit stalked up.
"This your witness?" The man's question was addressed to the patroller, while his eyes raked Xen. He sighed. "Sal Fromage, right? How drunk are you?"
Xen contemplated the possible advantages of being drunk.
"Uh, uh. Don't think up a lie, just answer. You're going to get a blood test anyway."
Xen hunched his shoulders. "Ain't drunk. Yet. Just got some money, so I kin take care of that problem."
"Not for a little while, I think." The man's regard deepened. "Do you remember me?"
"No." Xen made it sound grumpy.
"I'm Detective Martin Antoine. It's been a few years since I patrolled down here. But your height is hard to forget. You were usually helpful, never a problem. Why don't we keep it that way?"
Xen nodded reluctantly.
"Tell me what you saw."
"I sort of heard the shots. They were inside, so they weren't loud. Two men ran out. Big, broad, muscles plus a little fat. Black knitted things pulled over their faces. No holes for eyes, so it must have been real thin. A car came around that corner, braked, didn't even really stop, the two dived in and it accelerated going that way. I told the patroller the number. They had a window down and fired some shots around. I dove for the ground and hit my head on something."
"Some other witnesses thought they were shooting at you."
"Damn bad aim if they were." Xen hesitated. The detective raised his eyebrows. "Before the robbery, I walked past two men. They were walking in the direction of the bank. I noticed they had some really flashy rings, both of them. And funny little knitted caps. I don't know if that was the robbers or not. They saw me looking them over. I suppose they might have decided to cap me on the way out."
"Sal, let's go downtown and take a look at some pictures. Hospital first for a blood alcohol test, and a look at that bump on your head. Then we just may need to keep you someplace safe for awhile."
Xen straightened in alarm. Both men grabbed an arm. He hesitated. I can disappear later, without a fuss. He let them chivvy him into the back seat of the black and white. And reduced the smell spell down to tolerable levels.
He looked at millions of pictures, and a bit to his surprise, he was confidently able to pick out the two men. The nice policemen who had been supplying him with coffee and sandwiches blanched a bit and were replaced with men in even nicer suits. Xen described everything the men had been wearing, right down to a description of the ten rings they'd worn between them. The suits grinned hungrily and departed.
His old buddy Martin showed back up. "We have a nice safe place for you to stay until the trial. My sister . . . oh don't look so horrified. Sis just got out after her double twenty in the Army. Drill Sergeant. Yes, now that's the right kind of horrified expression. Just lay low for a week until the hearing, then a few months until the trial."
Xen choked faintly. "Months?"
"Really, you're going to just love Trudy."
Clearly there was a large age gap between brother and sister.
Trudy Antoine was a battle axe. No other possible metaphor. Arched beak of a nose, sharp shiny eyes. Steel gray hair. Gallons, no. Tons of self confidence.
"So. Sal. Fortunately for you, I bought a house much in excess of my needs. Let me show you the basement."
Xen cast a look over his shoulder. Only three big beefy cops between him and freedom.
"Don't even think it." Martin advised.
Xen slunk down the stairs.
The basement had been finished off into a combination library, TV room, office and bar. The shelves behind the bar were empty. The book shelves were well stocked. Xen edged over and took a look. The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. The Need for the Rich. The State of the World. Encyclopedia of the Multiverse. Perhaps being locked in the basement is not a Fate Worse Than Death, after all.
"There's a bathroom and a laundry. I expect you to use them both. Frequently."
Xen poked his head in. Huge bathtub. Things around the side that might be water jets. "Yes, Ma'am!"
She growled. "I just finished that bathroom, don't make me make Martin regret this idea of his."
The next door was the laundry, the third door a bare room with a bed in it.
"The guest room was my next project. I'll fetch a rug and some pictures tomorrow. Can't get around to the walls right away."
"Oh, don't worry on my account, Ma'am." Xen glanced around, the men had left. "I could do the walls for you."
"Call me True. You don't look as rundown as I was expecting."
"I've . . . been up and down a few times. I'm up right now. Just . . . not employed, and sometimes I just need to drink myself unconscious."
"That's not going to happen here."
Xen raised an eyebrow, then started pulling things out of his pockets and stashing them on, or under the bed, or between the bare studs of the walls. The ID and three broken watches he'd inheritied from Sal. His running shoes, shorts, two pairs of underclothing, a bit of leftover gold. Then he shrugged out of his coat and wandered back to the laundry to eye the machinery. True snorted and showed him how everything worked.
"How many layers of clothes are you wearing? Everything you own?"
"It's a bit nippy out, and this way nothing gets stolen." He dropped the coat in. It left plenty of room, so he shed the plaid flannel shirt, then the thin sweater under it. The belt with all the pouches he set aside.
"Might as well keep going." True looked amused.
He unbuttoned the worn white dress shirt, but set it aside. Peeled off the tee shirt and finally the thermal top. She nodded approvingly. It was, thank the gods, a sergeant's approval, not a woman's. He put the dress shirt back on.
"All right. You weren't kidding about being in pretty good shape. I've got some weights."
"I like to run, when I’ve got a safe place to put my stuff."
She narrowed her eyes at him.
"Perhaps early in the morning? No one will see me, and there won't be any liquor stores or bars open to tempt me."
She nodded reluctantly. "I'll check with Martin, he might not want anyone to know I have a man in the house."
He blinked. "I thought we'd gotten over that honor of the family thing."
She burst out laughing. "Good Lord, yes. He just doesn't want any gossip easily available if anyone checks his associates, looking for you."
"Ah. You had me worried for a minute there."
She snorted again. "I think you are manipulating me. Good at it, are you?"
"So, why do you drink?"
"Metabolic disorder, plus things I know I wasn't responsible for, but feel as if it was my fault. Fear of doing it again. Fear of the future. Despair over ever breaking out of a very deep rut. Fear of leaving my nice comfortable rut. To dull the pain of hundreds of things. Weariness of the fight. Long enough list? I can go on rambling forever."
"Humph. Well, come up for dinner in an hour or so." She made a face. "Confessions of an old sergeant. Cooking is not one of my finer skills."
"I'll come up in half an hour and help. I'm no ones idea of a chef, but I have picked up a trick, here and there."
At four in the morning, no one noticed him taking a five mile run. Trudy eyed him thoughtfully, and her locks with disgust.
"There aren't many locks I can't get though." Xen kept his tone apologetic and ducked downstairs to first lift weights, and then wallow in the jet bath. Then back upstairs where he demonstrated how to make pancakes and tested a number of strange pre-made fruity and chocolaty and chemically flavored things to put on them.
"Are you going to behave while I go shopping?"
"I'll just read or watch the TV."
The TV, with a bit of experimentation, displayed a nice long, detailed news program. Trudy returned and joined him for the local segment, which included a weather forecast.
"Warming up again. I love fall weather." She headed back upstairs.
Xen browsed the book shelves, and settled in with a history of the last three centuries. "The Age of Cross-dimensional Exploration" was the title, and the contents kept him rapt for three days. A worse indictment of Earth's utter disregard for anyone but themselves would be hard to imagine. And they deliberately pushed the One World, to see how they would react. Then the One World invaded, using the Amma and his troops. Destroyed the Earth's only Gate, isolating them for well over a year. And us right in the middle of it. Ugg.
He found a biography of the current President of the World and started reading.
It was a most pleasant captivity. Useful.