Chapter Five: Quinn

Grumbling, I pushed my way back to the assigned meeting place.

A knot of people had formed, surging down the Boulevard in a tight cluster.

At the time it had seemed the smart thing to do, flow with the stream, circle back to the shop with the pink door.

Now I was late, and irritated. I should have stayed put, made the crowd go around me.

But as soon as Trini stepped out from the bar, that all faded.

She stood in the street, searching back and forth through the throng, the fading evening suns picking out strands of gold and red in the waves of her tousled brown hair.

The light behind her picked out the vaguest shape of her body through a loose green dress that didn’t cling to her, wasn’t low-cut, wasn’t revealing at all.

And still, something about it made my pulse run a little fast.

“Over here,” I waved and a smile lit her face. 

“I thought you hadn’t waited!” she exclaimed

“Where would I go without my guide? Alright where to first?”

“This is our first stop,” she explained, grabbing my arm and tugging me after her.

“We’re starting the day with cones.”

“With what?”

“Come on, anybody who can drink that stuff can’t be afraid of a little cone.” She tilted her head thoughtfully. “Are you allergic to anything?”

“I don’t think so,” I answered, somewhat confused. It would have been an odd oversight for Doc to make, but possible, maybe. “Nothing’s ever come up.”

“Well then, let’s go in!”

We walked through the bright pink door into a room decorated in purple and orange, a cool white marble floor softly reflecting the colors. A light chill permeated the storefront, unfamiliar smells everywhere.

Trini bounced to the front. “There’s not even a line. It’s a great sign.”

“Haven’t seen you in a while, kiddo,” the  woman behind the counter welcomed us, fine lines creasing her face, highlighting her smile.

“It’s been a little busy,” Trini said with a little shrug.

‘Don’t let that old slave driver keep you passed your shift so much,” the older woman scolded.

“I don’t mind the overtime,” Trini answered. “You never know when a little extra padding on the account is going to come in handy.”

“That’s true,” the woman agreed. “Glad you decided to cut loose for a bit, though. What’ll it be?”

“I’ll have a chocolate almond mocha mint bomb.” Trini’s smile got broader with every word.

The woman grabbed a thin hollow golden cone and began scooping globs of something into it from small vats below the counter.

“Don’t forget the sprinkles,” Trini said.

“I’d never do that to you,” the woman handed the towering thing to Trini. Now the globs had tiny multicolored flecks all over them.

It looked horribly, horribly wrong.

“What can I get for your friend?”

My mind stuttered. “I don’t really think this is something I can eat.”

“Nonsense,” Trini insisted. “Cones are good, I’m sure they’re probably good for you too.”

That seemed unlikely, but it was just as unlikely that I was going to get out of here without ordering something.

“What do you have that’s plain?” I asked the woman behind the counter. “And small?”

The woman laughed. “She’ll never admit it, but we do a pretty good vanilla.”

“No. He’s not having vanilla,” Trini insisted. “He’s here to have fun. He should have something like this.”

“How about he has one of your flavors,” the older woman argued on my behalf. “It might take a while to work up to all of them together.”

“Fine,” Trini sighed. “But don’t forget he wants sprinkles too.”

I started to argue, but then she turned those huge eyes at me.

“Right. Sprinkles.”

But there was only so far I was willing to go. When Trini reached toward the black square set into the countertop, I gently grabbed her wrist before she could press her thumbprint to it.

“Do you have the ability to take a chip?” I asked the store owner.

“I can handle that,” she said. “Good manners are always appreciated.” She finished the transaction and winked at Trini. “Keep an eye on this one.”

We headed out of the shop and the boulevard was even busier than before.

“Let’s go this way, it will be less crowded,” Trini said, then with a quick swipe of her pink tongue took a lick of her treat.

I followed her, and soon enough the crowd emptied out, and I could hear the crashing of the sea.

“So you don’t have anything linked to your print, at all?” Trini asked. “Isn’t that inconvenient?”

“It hasn’t been so far,” I answered. “Don’t you worry that it makes it far too easy to track everything you do?”

Trini took another lick of her cone and my throat tightened.

“Don’t just stand there,” she scolded. “It’s going to melt all over your fingers.”

She was right. I’d been so caught up watching her eat her cone, I hadn’t even noticed the sticky drips down my hand.

I took a tentative bite. It was cold against my teeth, and far, far too sweet.

“It’s, it’s interesting.” I managed.

“Cones aren’t interesting, she laughed. Cones are fantastic.”

“I’m not sure what I think about the sprinkles.”

“I will win that argument, I promise you,” she said.

It was almost worth arguing, just to see the flash in her eyes, but I wanted information more. For now.

“So, everyone here has their thumbprint on file and access to all of their information linked? And you’re ok with that?”

“Sure,” she said, heading closer to the sounds of the ocean, salt air replacing the perfumed aroma of the Boulevard.

“Everyone works for the corps, one way or another. Even me.”

She stopped as the street dead ended, leaned against a waist high wall that separated the street from the stretch of sand beyond.

“I mean, not directly. But the Merry Stormcloud, just like any of the businesses in Rondi, has to do their banking through Mada Sommu’s corp. Price of business.”

“And since the bar pays you, it goes through the corp accounts,” I finished. “Every other business here is all linked together.”

“It’s not just here, it’s how it is all through the Sector,” she explained, watching me as if I should know this. “It’s just more efficient this way.”

That was one way to describe it.

It was a remarkably efficient way to track everyone who participated in the economy. Not just their spending habits, but their movements, their routines.

I tapped my fingers on the wall, watching the waves crash against the wet sand.

Since Rondi was a tourist destination, shops here were more likely to be able to take alternate methods of payment.

But even here, the initial assumption was that you’d have a corporate account.

It seemed likely that the deeper you got into the sector, the more you’d almost have to have one, just to survive.

That was disturbing.

But there were always ways around surveillance.

No matter the trade off in convenience, there would always be a few who refused to play by the rules.

And chances were good that’s where I’d find Torik.

Trini finished her cone and I offered her mine. “Don’t you like it,” she said, expression crestfallen.

“I do,” I said hurriedly. “It’s just a little too sweet for me.”

She shook her head sadly, but took it. “Not many things are considered a sin here,” she said as she turned back to the wall. “But wasting a good cone would be.”

Trini rested her elbows on the top of the wall as she licked the cone. I glanced at her, then quickly away, out to the wine-dark sea, high finned boats cutting across the waves and back again, out for evening cruises.

A group of young boys played some sort of game down the block under a flickering light, their shouts competing with the screeching of black glossy birds high above, cutting through the air.

“I love coming out here to watch the waves,” she said softly. “When the storms come, they crash almost over the wall in places. It’s so wild. Anything could happen.”

I shuddered slightly, thinking about what Geir had said lived under the waters surrounding the Compound where he’d freed Valrea. “Anything could, you’re right.”

In three quick bites of her white teeth she crunched through the crispy golden cone, then boosting herself up, scrambled to the top of the wall.

“What are you doing?” I asked, startled.

“Feeling the wind,” she answered, standing with her arms spread wide.

I shook my head, uneasy. While the wall was only waist high on the city side, the beach side was four or five meters below, piles of jagged rocks swept against the base.

Further down the walkway I saw an opening cut through the wall, steps zigzagging down to the ocean.

“If you want to go to the beach, why don’t we just take the stairs?”

It was a perfectly reasonable question, I thought, but she looked confused.

“I don’t want to go to the beach,” she said. “I just want to feel the wind for a bit.

The top of the wall was as broad as my hand, I told myself. It’d be fine.

“So,” she said, walking a bit ahead of me. “Tell me about this person you’re looking for. Lots of people come through the town. Maybe I’ve seen him, or at least heard of him.”

I stepped quickly to keep by her side. “I think possibly you have,” I agreed. “But first, tell me more about the person you thought I was when I came in this morning.”

The wall had risen gradually as we talked, her feet were now level with my shoulders. She didn’t falter once, and I began to relax.

“That,” she sighed. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know why that happened. You guys don’t look anything alike. Different color hair, different color skin, there’s just something about where you were in the doorway.”

“Tell me about him anyway,” I said. “Now I’m curious.”

“Fine, he’s a trapper from up north, only comes into town every few months. His name is-“

A shout from the street distracted her and Trini turned, whipping her head towards the noise.

Without thinking, I reached up, batted the small ball out of the air away from her.

But it didn’t matter.

Trini flinched from the oncoming projectile, and stumbled backwards, losing her footing.

There was only a moment to see her pale frightened face before she fell, not even a scream, just a gasp.

With a quick leap I jumped to the top of the wall, one arm hooked around the top, the other snagging her from the air before she fell onto the rocky beach below.

Before she could gasp again, we were back safely onto the walkway, her soft form cradled in my arms.

The group of young boys ran up, eyes wide. “We’re sorry, Jan threw wide, and then I missed the hit, and then -“

“Be more careful,” I growled, holding Trini’s shaking body tightly against me. “And leave.”

They left, quickly.

I leaned with my back against the wall, still holding her, waiting for my own heartbeat to restart.

Her shaking had stopped, the scent of her fear subsiding.

I swallowed hard, and again.

Knowing she’d been afraid, that they’d been the cause of it, it’d been all I could do not to not tear into those boys.

She took a deep breath, then another. Trini squirmed, and reflexively I tightened my grip.

“Thank you. You can let me down now,” she said in a small voice.

“Are you hurt?”

A long pause.

“No, just a little startled.”

A different scent flooded the air and I stiffened.

Against every instinct I had I set her down carefully.

She looked up at me, cheeks flushed, lips parted. “Thank you again.”

And then that irrepressible smile broke through. “Come on, let’s go have some more fun!”

Mind whirling, I followed her as she tugged my hand, leading me back into the lights of the city.

Staring at her tiny fingers wrapped around my wrist, I shook my head.

I could break her grip in an instant.

Find another, more reliable source of information.

But really, I couldn’t.

Just the scent of her, the touch of her, the feel of her in my arms.

And I didn’t have any other choice.

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