Sunday, April 15, 2007

Something different from the trunk: PAYBACK CITY, my "lost" thriller

Some folks know that I have actually only finished one novel that never saw print, a thriller called Payback City, which I wrote in 1997; it might have been called "How to Burn Down Detroit for Fun and the Prophet" if I'd felt a bit more facetious about it. The long salvage-and-excavation effort that went into the last couple of months resulted in my looking at it again, deciding that it still had some considerable merits but was now more of an alternate history, and so I've decided to toss it out there as an ebook. This post gives the basic details, and then in the comments I'll post two excerpts from the book and directions on how to get one if you want one. You do, you know. You can hardly hold yourself down ...

To begin with, here's the basic press release sort of story about it:

In 1997 I contracted with a British publisher to deliver a thriller titled Payback City about a terrorist attack on an American city, conducted by forces from an Islamic country, with the intent to kill a spectacular number of innocent people. By the time I finished it, the publishers had been acquired by a larger firm that ordered them to trim the list, so they let me keep the signing money (though they suggested I should give them my next science fiction novel free), but stiffed me on the delivery money. In December 1997 I finished another version of Payback City, aimed at the American market, which my agent was unable to sell in the next few years for reasons more political than literary, and then on September 11, 2001, the whole thing became obsolete.

Or so I thought.

As many of you know, in recent months I've been excavating my way through literally tons of saved notes, manuscripts, and various papers, the saved material of half a career (figuring that I have been at this professionally for about 25 years and have about 25 to go). While I was doing that I found my old boxes of research for Payback City, and asked, "Wonder whether the poor old thing was ever any good? Jeez, it's been ten years."

To my pleasant surprise, it was one of the better books I wrote in those years; many of the reasons why it didn't sell, once I opened up my file of saved rejections and read through it with a cold eye, were purely political. The book flew into the face of the conventional wisdom of the time, suggesting that the United States was in danger of attack on its own soil by terrorists originating in the Arab Muslim world.

If I worked for a publisher's marketing department I'd say Payback City was "eerily prescient," and I'd be lying. The attackers from my imaginary Maghrebi Republic are not al-Qaeda either literally or figuratively; the motives and methods are different; the Americans coping with the attack and responding to the crisis are not anything like Bush or Rumsfeld. Payback City recounts an imagined terror attack of 1997, not the world we all live in.

Is it then just alternate history, a might have been that now never will be?

Perhaps. But once I had read it, and found myself smiling and sometimes patting myself on the back, thinking, Yeah, I did what I wanted to do right there, didn't I?, I began to make some notes about what had changed, for better and worse; and the notes grew into a mix of self-assessment, political polemic, thoughts about literature, and, well, about a 14,000 word rant, on the then-and-now. Additionally, I've worked many times as a book doctor and editor in the intervening years, and a host of small fixes itched to be made. Almost before I knew it, I had the New and Improved for 2007 Payback City, with a brand new introduction covering literature, politics, publishing history, and pretty near anything else I felt like ranting about.

It wouldn't have been possible to completely rewrite the book for the present, and I didn't try to do that; I polished what was there, and in a spirit of fairness I left some of my biggest wrong guesses lying there for you to find (and I didn't retroactively install any right ones, though I was sorely tempted).

But never mind all that.

You can skip that introduction if you like, and if you care about spoilers, you shouldn't read it till you've read the novel. There's still a great deal of stuff blowing up, races against time, derring-do being derring-done, and so on. There's a villain who I think is frankly way, way cooler than the ones the news gives us. There's a bunch of heroes (likely and un-), and a great deal about how scientific arson investigations are conducted, and a pretty in-depth view of the mean streets of Detroit. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll learn about how buildings are torched and how torches are caught, and you'll have a good time.

But if you do get curious about why I decided to drag the poor old thing back from its untimely grave, about what I think now as opposed to what I thought then, there's a 14,000 word intro – absolutely crawling with spoilers, so you might want to read the book first. And if you're the sort of political junkie who really only reads thrillers for their politics, well, there's 14,000 words there to straighten you out.

The book is in unlocked pdf format; you can reformat to whatever way you feel makes for the most comfortable reading, but as delivered, it's set up to look like a printed book with two book-style pages per 8 1/2" x 11" sheet. If you print out the file as is on 8 1/2" x 11" (American letter format) typing paper, and bind it along the top 11" side you'll get a comfortably readable text on 211 sheets (that is, as long and wide as a stack of typing paper, with two pages to a sheet; it will be about as thick as a 422 page regular paper book if you print it one-sided).

Access is deliberately fairly open because I want people to read it, so please do share a copy with a friend, but please point out the note on the front sheet to them. I'm hanging onto more than enough rights to control outright theft in quantity if I have to, and I'd love for this to be so popular that I had to. If you enjoy it (or hate it) enough to blog about it, please point people to one of the places where they can buy it!

In the comments below, I'll give you an excerpt -- the first 7000 words of Payback City itself since the intro is crawling with spoilers. If you'd like to buy a copy, you can get it directly from E-Junkie, or it's also available on eBay -- same price, $4.00 US, either place.

6 comments:

John Barnes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Barnes said...

Excerpt: the first 7000 words of Payback City

Formatting will pretty much disappear from this, of course, so another reason to buy the book is to have a version that is formatted. Anyway, here's how the story starts.

PAYBACK CITY


by John Barnes



NINE DAYS BEFORE THE DAY:
TUESDAY, JULY 19

Kit Miles knows what's coming, and so does Harry Johnston, so the two of them have already agreed that there is going to be a lot of beer tonight, one way or the other. Either there's going to be a lot to celebrate, or more likely a lot to mourn. Elmo goes up for sentencing today. This is his third time up for felony arson.

The Wayne County Municipal Court building is like three quarters of the public buildings in Detroit—built during the boom years between 1910 and 1930. Because the glory years were so short, almost every public edifice was built then, and the public areas of the city have a unified late Modern/early Art Deco look, warm and friendly in a way that reminds you of old black and white movies.

The bailiff calls "all rise" and the judge comes in. Rotlesburger is an old guy, probably got his start as an ACLU lawyer, getting radicals out of jail in the sixties. Anyway Kit knows he's liberal, which means he's going to be worrying about Elmo's rights a lot. Kit is liberal on most issues, himself—a black man in Detroit is a fool if he isn't. But he's also a cop, and not liberal at all about the rights of thugs. He's very afraid Rotlesburger is going to do something stupid. Too many judges in this town think arson is "just" a property crime and want to save prison cells for "real" criminals.

"Odds?" he says to Harry, under his breath. Harry's a lot more senior than Kit in arson investigations, and seems to have psychic powers when it comes to forecasting what judges will do. He says it's because he never allows himself to hope that a judge is interested in justice.

"Oh, twenty percent the good way."

"That much?"

"Third timer. Every judge has some number for every felony, and once a son of a bitch goes over that number he's in deep shit. I don't happen to know Rotlesburger's number for arson, but I'd give it a twenty percent chance that it's three."

Elmo has been found guilty of setting fire to buildings. There was a racketeering charge in there, too, of which Elmo was also guilty as hell, since everyone knows which gangs are feuding, and which specific gang's crack houses have tended to disappear in Elmo's fires. But that racketeering charge was thrown out on grounds that the evidence was collected improperly; so now they're down to five fires they could definitely pin on Elmo.

As it happens, not one of the current list of fires killed anyone. Elmo has probably killed sixty people in his ten yearcareer, including a number of children, old people, and the handicapped burned to death when fires spread to other buildings , but so far everything he has been convicted of has been "just a property crime."

Elmo is not what you call a sophisticated arsonist, just a willing one. He likes what he does, so they don't have to pay him much. Better still, he's both willing and close-mouthed—he never testifies against the people who hire him, and depending on the judge he either pretends to be a garden-variety pyro, or a stupid-but-concerned citizen who hates crack houses and didn't understand the charge was serious. The last two times the act held up pretty well, and he walked out of court with a short probation and credit for time served while waiting trial. This time, though, maybe since they hung five fires on him ... all crack houses belonging to one gang ... and Rotlesburger may have thrown out racketeering, but he has to know what Elmo's connections are—maybe they can get the son of a bitch off the street for a while.

Kit would call Elmo a "skinny-ass little white dude" if he were asking about him on the street. Thin, small, and white is the classic appearance for a pyro. Elmo likes fires, but he's not out of control; he lights them for money more than for the thrill. On the stand he's been decked out in a suit with his hair slicked down, not quite suppressing a giant cowlick, so that he looks sort of like a malevolent Spanky.

The bailiff is glaring at them. They've been muttering to each other too loudly. Harry and Kit get quiet. Rotlesburger looks around the courtroom, puts on his reading glasses, and says, "In my view arson is a serious crime and it has been established, sir, that you very frequently burn down buildings."

Kit and Harry tense; this sounds better than usual.

"On the other hand it has also been established that what you mostly burn down is untenanted buildings belonging to slumlords, and crack houses. The care you take for human life is commendable, but your luck is going to run out sooner or later and you will kill someone. And yet, I do not feel that someone who has so far taken such care of human life can be regarded as dangerous, and given your slight stature, and your absence of any record for any other violent crime, I simply don't see you as a violent person and I think you would be at extreme risk at the hands of other prisoners. Therefore, I am going to sentence you to six months in jail, and suspend that sentence for a period of two years. If you light another fire in that time, you are going to jail. Very likely not just for the six months, but because it will be your fourth felony conviction, the judge at that trial will probably throw you in for a long, long time. This is your last chance to straighten out. I advise you to use it."

Rotlesburger is out the door for a meeting with attorneys in chambers almost before the bailiff can shout; Elmo walks down the aisle with his attorney, a slim young black man who looks uncomfortable as he passes Kit and Harry. Elmo trails a bit behind his lawyer, glances around, grins at Kit and Harry, and shoots them the finger before hurrying after his lawyer.

"Beer," Kit says, "we were talking about beer."

Harry Johnston agrees. "Beer. Anyplace special?"

"We can walk to Music Menu, and I'll leave my car in the lot overnight and get it in the morning. I have a feeling I might be about to have a little too much."

They walk through the airport-type security gate at the building, and Harry says, "Yeah. Torrie said she'd pick me up, wherever, about seven, as long as I call and tell her where I am. So I guess we can both be the designated drinker."

It's just a few blocks, and though it's still hot and humid, since they aren't in a hurry it's comfortable enough. They walk down Beaubien side by side, not talking. Harry and Kit have been through a few of these together, and many more with other partners, and there's not a lot new to say. Some of the older arson investigators never go to sentencings, figuring it's less painful to hear about it later. Some go to as many as they can, perhaps hoping that their presence will make a difference to the judge. If it does, no one seems to know what the difference is.

Music Menu is in Greektown, near police headquarters and a short transit ride from most government buildings, so it's often full of city workers around five in the evening. They get the next to last open booth.

Most of the place is painted black or dark brown, and it looks like it should be a college hangout, with its crude, heavy, battered furniture and the little stage up front for bands. It's an office worker eatery by day and a yuppie club by night; this particular moment is right on the cusp, with some people unwinding after work and some affluent singles drifting in to say hello to each other.

After they've each had a glass out of the first pitcher of beer, Harry says, "Fuck'em."

"Yeah, fuck'em," Kit agrees.

"But I really mean, fuck'em."

"Well, I meant fuck'em too."

"Okay, fuck'em."

The rest of the beer in the pitcher gets consumed, and they order another pitcher, before conversation resumes. "Property crime," Kit says. "That's what every damned judge in this town believes, and I swear that's most of the reason why this place has more firebugs per capita than anyplace else. Have you ever looked at the numbers? I mean, we have more set fires than LA and New York combined. Because the local judges keep saying 'property crime,' which is code for no sentence."

Harry shrugs. "Protecting us, aren't they? I mean that's the whole thing. One of America's most liberal cities, so we have liberal judges. One of the few places in this country where if you're black and you're arrested, the court doesn't start out against you. That protects you and me, let's not forget. It's a town where judges worry about people's rights, not necessarily about property rights. You look at history, we've always been people but we haven't had much property."

"Yeah, but ... " Kit lets it trail off, not sure what he really wants to say.

"Come on," Harry says. "We've had this whole conversation a bunch of times. Next comes the part where you say 'Property crime endangers people' and 'Every firefighter only has so many fires worth of luck and these clowns use it up fast.' And then we talk about fire spreading, and about how sometimes a derelict or a junker gets caught in an abandoned building when it's torched, and, yeah, the whole thing, you know? Sooner or later I point out that since you don't get jail time till somebody's dead, every arsonist gets to kill one person, and we both get real pissed off about that, and then you and I start saying a lot of stupid stuff that we don't really believe. So tonight I want to skip that part and drink beer."

"You're right," Kit says. "Let's get drunk and go direct to the stupid stuff we don't really believe."

The burgers arrive, and they spend a while eating and enjoying the company. Kit's been alone since he broke up with a girlfriend a few months ago. He sometimes gets the impression that Harry doesn't want to spend much time with his family, even though when he thinks about it, from what Harry tells him, his wife Torrie spends a lot of time taking care of Harry. And Harry's forever complaining about the time he doesn't spend with his kids, and the way that his kids don't pay any attention to him. Sometimes Kit wonders who is avoiding who.

"So what do you think for tomorrow?" Harry asks. "Think the captain is going to gang us all up to go get Panty Man?"

"That would be Jaworski's style," Kit agrees. It's funny; Harry has been working with Jaworski for years more than Kit—heck, it was Harry who first got Kit interested in arson investigations, and set Kit up to train under Jaworski. But exactly because Kit did train under Jaworski, and most of the other guys in arson didn't, everyone expects Kit to know what Jaworski is thinking. Kit doubts that anyone can know. "I'd give it fifty fifty that he sends us after Panty Man. It's the only active and interesting case out there."

"Makes sense." Harry takes a long drink. "So, how's your sister with great legs?"

"Oh, she probably likes great legs, provided they're on the right guy."

"Never ask a brother to imagine his sister as attractive," Harry says, laughing. "Now, how is she, anyway? I thought LaTonya was going to come out to the Detroit office and be our local Feeb."

"She was until she quit the Bureau."

Harry nearly spits a mouthful of beer. "She what? What'd she do, get a job on some city police force, or with the Attorney General --"

"Neither. She's right out of the cop business."

Harry is shaking his head. "Man, that's strange. I knew her when she was a freshman in high school, and I was a senior, and that girl wanted to be a cop worse than anybody ever wanted anything. So what's she doing with herself now? Panhandling? Robbing old ladies?"

"You're very close. She's on staff with Congressman Dorland Turner."

"Dorland Turner ... isn't he --"

"Conservative Republican, his district's up north of here in the suburbs. Yeah, it's all kind of hard to imagine. But she did it—went to work for a Congressman, not a cop at all anymore, not even a Feeb. I wonder if it has something to do with our mother having died last fall, if maybe it put her in mind of a life change or something. Maybe it gave her the idea of mortality, you know?"

"Yeah, and I can see how a lady might want to work in a nice clean office, all paper work and phone calls, instead of being out chasing the scum of the earth. So, it's a white-bread Republican?"

"Turner's not just white bread, he's bleached white flour. He's one of those Republicans for Jesus; one little wedge of a Jewish neighborhood in his district, and a small slice of Arabs, and three quarters Leave-it--to-Beaver Land. The only thing connected with law enforcement she's doing is that she's a resource person—that's the Washington expression for 'the person you ask when you're too lazy to look it up yourself'—on international terrorism. So I guess she's getting something out of that masters degree she got a few years ago. But, like I said, it's still a little hard to believe. She's keeping semi-regular hours, working hard, and the two times I've been out to visit her she's been hanging with a lot of yuppie types, Ivy Leaguers and policy wonks and all kinds of other people in expensive clothes and conventional attitudes. Like going to the mayor's office on college career day, if you know what I mean. Lots of student council presidents and captains of the tennis team and all that."

"She's in with a bad crowd, eh?"

"She is. Yuppies and buppies and wonks, oh my."

Harry laughs. "Bet LaTonya loved it when you said that to her the first time."

"Naw, I stole it from her." They flag down another pitcher and sit drinking quietly together. Harry Johnston was the guy who first talked Kit into applying to become an arson investigator, instead of staying a fire fighter his whole life; Harry argued that Kit shouldn't waste his brains and besides Detroit didn't have enough black arson investigators. When Harry had been starting out as a firefighter, years before that, he had known Kit's father, shortly before he was killed. So had Jaworski. The firefighters, police, ambulance workers, and so forth in Detroit are closely interconnected, with some whole families scattered between Detroit's emergency services; talk to any of them and there's a good chance that you will discover a brother, an aunt, a father, or a husband working somewhere in the system. Most of them say that they are the only people who really understand each other.

Harry and Kit finish the pitcher and agree that they're both feeling, if not better, at least resigned. It's getting on toward seven, and the sun is starting to slant in through the front window. "Good thing you're getting picked up at seven," Kit says. "If we sit here much longer, we're both going to start talking about it all over again. And that's going to get us depressed all over."

"You got it. I've been doing this, what, twice as long as you? More? And I still take it all too personally. It's really hard to take it any other way."

Kit shrugs. "I think pretty nearly everybody feels that way; the ones that don't go back to a station house or move over to work in some other branch. Most of us couldn't do this any other way, you know?"

In most of the country, arson investigators start off as police, but in Detroit they start off as fire fighters.

Kit worked six years as a firefighter, and Harry worked nine, before going into arson. When they know a guy sets fires, he isn't just a perp; when they investigate a fire site, it isn't just a crime scene. They have seen death by fire, they've seen the hopeless stare on the faces of people who have lost everything, and they've seen friends hurt while battling a fire that some fool or lunatic lit for no particular reason. They have stood in close to the flames and poured water on it while they felt their skin turning red from the radiated heat; plunged into fires to pull out badly burned children, and gone to see the child in the hospital the next day; been slapped and punched by grief-maddened parents, husbands, wives as they stood, gasping for air over the charred body, and said "I'm sorry, there was nothing we could do." Arson investigators have a grudge deeper than most of us can imagine against arsonists. They also have difficulty understanding anyone who doesn't feel the same way.

"Just a pity," Harry says, "that before a judge can sit on an arson case, he isn't required to spend a year fighting fires. Or even some time in a burn ward, or maybe to go to a couple of funerals ... something so he won't be able to say 'property crime' so easily."

"Remember, we worked it out on a napkin once," Kit says. "In here, in fact. Complete qualifications for a judge in an arson trial. You, me, Jaworski—who else was along?"

"Ivanov wasn't; when a bad one happens he goes straight home to his wife. She must be a saint. That was—let me see ... yeah, that was the Cruz case. You, me, Jaworski, and Newt Gutierrez. Three people dead and the judge said it wasn't intentional so it didn't count, or something. Gave Cruz all of six months in jail. Bleaah. I suppose compared to that we did all right against Elmo."

Kit nods. "Yeah, but he's the one annoying us now. Well, here's hoping that tomorrow he decides to celebrate by torching Rotlesberger's house. Preferably in front of six cops and a TV crew."

"I heard that."

"Whoa, major babe alert. Look over your shoulder."

Harry looks and sees Torrie coming in the door. She's a tall, thin woman whose hair and makeup are always perfect. "Kit Miles, are you leading my husband into a life of drunkenness and debauchery?"

"Naw, he followed me home," Kit says. "Can I keep him?"

She slides in beside Harry and says, "I got a sitter for tonight—you wouldn't believe how upset they get about me wanting a sitter for kids their age—and I had dinner with my sister, so now you and I can go see a movie. The new one with Denzel Washington is supposed to be real good and I know you like movies where a lot of stuff blows up. I am told there's also a romance in it but I can cover your eyes for all the kissing scenes if it gets too icky and mushy. So if you're not hopelessly drunk out of your mind after hanging around with this juvenile delinquent --"

"I'm thirty-two," Kit protests.

"You're never too old to be a juvenile delinquent," Torrie says. "I know. I married one."

Harry is starting to smile and says, "Well, what do you think, Kit? Have we got it wrapped up here?" He takes out his wallet and peels off a couple of bills. "That ought to do my share and some."

"Wrapped up and delivered. And you're paying too much, as always. You guys have fun; I'm going to catch the Tigers game on the tube and get to bed early."

They go out of Music Menu holding hands. At least it doesn't look as if they'll be fighting tonight. Kit flags down the waitress to get the bill squared. As always, he tips too much; he figures that the way he feels, chances are he's a lousy customer to have to cope with.

As he goes out the front door, the bright evening sun and high humidity push him back toward the coolness of the bar, but he resists the urge to go in and kill the evening drinking by himself, crosses the street, and goes up the stairs in the Trapper's Alley mall, throws a token into the turnstile, and waits for the DPM, the People Mover.

This time of day the glassed-in enclosure is like a furnace; the air conditioning must be out again. In a few minutes the monorail train glides to a stop and he gets on. The DPM runs in a big irregular loop around the downtown, and since Kit lives near the stop at Grand Circus Park, he'll be going about a third of the way around. He likes the view—the evening sun on the skyscrapers, the people drifting along the sidewalks trying not to expend too much energy, the beat-to-its-socks quality of a town that's done a hard day's work and is going to bed. He wishes for the millionth time that the city had found the money for a People Mover that would run all over the city.

His apartment is in one of the renovated buildings around what the Detroit city government calls a "cultural center", by which they mean that the Fox, State, and Gem theaters are all located there and that this is where people come to see a show in the downtown. A few little acting troupes and some galleries, in storefronts, cling to the shadows of the three big theaters, as if for shelter.

He rides the elevator up to his apartment, looks around, and is reminded by the dirty t-shirt on the couch and the bag of crushed beer cans by the wastebasket that it's been a few weeks since he's had a girl friend. He hasn't moved the few dishes he uses into the cupboards, preferring to have them either soaking in the sink or clean in the dishwasher, which is another sign. Though a young black man with a high-paying steady job is a catch, once it turns out that he works irregular hours at a grim and depressing job, he turns into a catch and release. He grabs the t-shirt and throws it into his laundry hamper, moves the bag of crushed beer cans over to join the recyclables, and picks up his sneakers from the coffee table and tosses them into the closet. He looks around the apartment and says, "There, fit for a king." It's not as funny when he's the only audience.

On the sixteenth floor, facing east, his apartment is cool and comfortable in the evenings, and since there are no large buildings facing, he seldom bothers with the blinds. He strips, drinks a cold beer in the shower, and catches the last two innings of the Tigers as he sits dripping dry in front of the TV. The Red Sox clobber them, in one of those ridiculous high-scoring games. No point in staying up later. It's just not a good day for anybody in the old town, he thinks, as he drifts off to sleep.

EIGHT DAYS BEFORE THE DAY:
WEDNESDAY, JULY 18

When Ibrahim bangs on his door at two in the morning, Adhem knows it's got to be serious. Ibrahim is the least excitable of the four sergeants, and they all have great regard for Adhem's privacy and for his short remaining time with Jemail.

He has barely hollered "Who is it?" and gotten Ibrahim's answer that it is important when Jemail stirs and sleepily mutters "You're still in the business."

"You might say that," Adhem says, though he isn't. He pulls his pants on, goes downstairs in his bare feet, and opens the door to Ibrahim. "Now what is it? Talk with me out on the porch." He steps out onto the cool concrete porch floor, into the warm, humid, windless night of Michigan July, and closes the door behind him.

Ibrahim leans close—he's always been very good about understanding that Jemail must overhear nothing. "Cache Seventeen is gone," he says. "Stolen."

Ten days before the operation at most. Adhem sighs. "I'll get dressed. Where are the others?"

"They have staked out the nearest other caches. Everything was taken from Cache Seventeen so there was no point in staking that out."

Adhem goes back inside. It is possible that he will be talking to police, so he wants to be inconspicuous. He pulls on work clothes: a clean but old white shirt, light gray cotton trousers, and a pair of steel-toed boots that look like he's got a job but might come in handy in the event of trouble. Now he looks like any of thousands of ordinary, employed citizens in the Arab parts of Detroit.

Jemail comes out of the bedroom, looking much younger than the twenty-three she really is, rubbing her face. She's wearing Donald Duck pajamas; Adhem has never quite persuaded her to wear nighties, which she says are uncomfortable, and the Donald Ducks were cheap at the Goodwill. "Babe, I thought you quit."

"Well," Adhem says, "there is quit and there is quit."

"What does that mean?" She's glaring at him; usually she has big soft doe eyes, but at two in the morning under the glare of the kitchen fluorescents, they look hard as obsidian. Her gracefully hooked nose, full lips, and jet black hair, even in the circumstances, nearly capture his attention and it takes him a moment to answer; she adds, "Don't lie to me if you can't tell me the truth."

Adhem takes her in his arms and kisses her lightly on the forehead. He swallows the sad thought that the number of kisses remaining for either of them is small, looks her in the eye, and says, "Um. Well, what I can tell you is that I have quit. I don't want to be in the business any longer. I don't accept any new work. But ... there are those who remember that I was in the business. And some of them have committed a crime. The crime they have committed, if they are caught, which they are almost certain to be, could lead to my going to prison or being deported, because their crimes are going to reveal mine. Therefore, I am quit—I no longer have my old job—but I am not quit—I can still go to jail for it, and I cannot go to the police for help as a law-abiding citizen would. So I must go out and deal with these fools, before the police find them. Ibrahim was quite right to come for me. Do you know enough now?"

Jemail nods. "Be very careful. Make sure you come back safe, okay?"

Adhem kisses her again and says "I will," then heads out the door to avoid more conversation. He gets into his battered ten-year-old Ford Escort, bought with his own money and not with the money of his government. If he is alive two weeks from now, he will miss this car nearly as much as he does the house, and Jemail, and Detroit. He doesn't feel much love toward the Maghrebi Republic, and probably he never did; duty and love don't always align.

Mid-July in Detroit brings a heavy, dense, wet heat that lies on the city, sometimes for weeks at a time. Michigan is, as the tourist slogan claims, a land of lakes; the whole peninsula lurches almost across the freshwater sea that is the Great Lakes, dividing the four upper lakes from each other, and in addition it is pocked and pitted with thousands of smaller lakes and ponds, and raked with hundreds of rivers and creeks. In the summer the Midwestern heat fills the air with as much evaporated water as it can hold.

He follows Ibrahim's big, old Pontiac through the dark narrow streets, though he knows the way to Cache Seventeen himself, anyway. It's off of Livernois, almost all the way down into Southwest Detroit, on the second floor of an abandoned house.

Adhem thinks as little as possible while they drive south across the sleeping city to the house; it's a bad idea to make guesses until you've got some facts, and if he thinks about anything other the stolen cache or the plans for Operation Payback, it will depress him. He is getting prone to depression lately, and so are the sergeants. What would happen if any of them seriously argued for calling the thing off? Would Adhem be able to overcome an argument from one of his men? A year of working together here has eroded any mystique he might have as an officer. More importantly, would Adhem himself be able to resist the argument? Would the other sergeants side with him or with the mutinous sergeant ... he shakes his head and concentrates on the drive.

They park a block and a half from the house, and walk to it past the dark vacant lots filled with waist-high weeds and the clumsily-boarded-up houses. This area lost its people long ago, and then slowly started to lose houses to arson, city renewal, vandals, and junkers.

They put on night vision goggles to go into the house, and are able to pick their way upstairs without having to show a light—in these neighborhoods at night, a police scout car spotting a flashlight or lantern would come to investigate.

Adhem thought they might lose one or two caches to some pyro setting off an abandoned building, but it hasn't occurred to him till now that anyone might steal one. Now he swears at himself for not having thought about this possibility and having no plan ready to go.

They reach the second floor with only an occasional creak of the steps, probably not even heard outside the house. The dark shapes of the curved balustrade and the heavy woodwork show that this was once a prosperous household; probably an autoworker, his wife, and a couple of young kids, in a starter home. Most likely the guy long ago moved to Dearborn, Farmington, Livonia, Pontiac—anywhere out of the city where he could have a little lawn on a winding street without a sidewalk—and now has a boat, a pension, and some grandchildren, and is very satisfied with all of them. Now and then maybe he dreams he is back in this old place, maybe even that it is at night and the place is abandoned and run down like this.

The morbid thought annoys Adhem. They look in the room, and there in the dust are a scattering of footprints, and in the places where the crates had been, the faint rectangular outlines, where the dust settled around them during the long months that they sat here. They are, as Ibrahim said, quite gone; the muddle of footprints means several men were involved in taking them.

"Three crates," Adhem says. "Four hundred and fifty. What could anyone do with so many?"

"Now that they are his, he will do whatever he wants," Ibrahim says. "You above all others should know there will be a market for them in Detroit."

Adhem grunts. "Right. Well, I suppose there is some advantage to my having the contacts I do. I'll get word out about this. And we'll notify home that we need replacements. What else do you think we ought to do?"

Ibrahim nods, his head bobbing in the strange green picture Adhem sees through his goggles, like a character in a computer game. He understands that he is being trusted with an important issue. "Well, guarding the caches near here is a good idea; we have two more caches of this item, one with 450 more and one with 600. We can't know yet whether someone found this place by accident or whether they know everything about us and are only waiting to take some more. Till we find out we'll have to do a daily patrol of all the cache sites."

"Thirty-four caches. That's going to be a pain, even with all of us sharing the job."

"It is, but, captain, I don't see any way around it."

"I quite agree. Any other ideas?"

"Only that you should start making your calls and your contacts just as soon as you possibly can." Ibrahim scuffles his feet, then adds, "Captain, I am very sorry that this happened during the last few days. It means a big rush, and less personal time than most of us would have liked."

Adhem nods and rests a hand on his sergeant's shoulder—reaching up to do it, for Ibrahim is almost six foot three, a physically powerful man despite his soft voice and gentle manner. "I appreciate your feelings. Tell Muammad, Zine, and Hamed, from me, that we will get this dealt with as quickly as we possibly can. The message yesterday was that things look very good for a week from tomorrow. I will do my best to see that we all get as much of that time for ourselves as we can."

The two go down the stairs like ghosts, removing and pocketing their goggles at the door, and slip silently up the street to their cars. It is now 3:15 am. Most of the city is asleep, and the places that are not are places where Adhem will have to move carefully—not on account of danger to himself, for he is probably the most dangerous person there, but because what he might have to do to protect himself could easily draw too much attention.

Normally for calls that he doesn't want traced, Adhem uses one of several pay phones near his house. But when he is making a call to a high security contact, where the Feds might be watching it because they have penetrated the organization from its international side, he tries never to use a phone anywhere close to his home, to use a phone that has a lot of outgoing long distance calls that will help to mask the activity, and not to use the same location twice running. It has been several phone calls since he's used the phones at Wayne County Airport, so he turns onto Livernois and takes it to I-75, and turns south to get to the airport, located in the far suburb of Romulus. People talking on the phone in the middle of the night in an international airport are unlikely to draw attention—not even if they are obviously foreigners, like himself.

75 runs down through Southwest Detroit, the industrial guts of the city. As Adhem passes between Zug Island and Marathon Oil, the bright lights of a dozen major industrial plants light up the clouds above, and the whole place is bright as day. Flares of gas flames dance from giant stacks, welding torches and industrial furnaces blaze out into the night, and everywhere men and trucks scurry about in the complex ecology of money, chemicals, energy, and sweat. Adhem's heart lifts as he passes through it, and he enjoys imagining that the soft whisper of the Escort's tires on the pavement are saying to him, "Soon, soon, soon."

He will miss Detroit, but the plan is sweet.

He pulls into short term parking at the airport and walks through the automatic doors into the echoing, empty terminal. A few travelers are sleeping in chairs, waiting for the morning's first flight; a cleaning man is pushing a floor polisher around, looking only at the tile floor in front of him. No one even glances up at Adhem.

He sits down in one of the little steel booths, a long way from anyone else, picks up the phone, dials an 800 number and punches a set of codes. He hopes that his government has not economized by using stolen numbers. He has no way of knowing but he also has little reason for trusting; when he was first placed here, it was the better part of a year before the checks he needed for survival began to arrive.

When the obscure long distance company finally gives him a dial tone, the number he dials has a Chicago area code. An answering machine picks up and as always says "Hello, I can't come to the phone right now. Please leave a message." A pause; a beep.

"This is United Distribution and Handling." (Adhem's code designation indicating that this comes directly from the mission commander.) "We have received a complaint—" the code for needing a replacement—"on lot seventeen of your previous shipment. Replacement is needed immediately. If you have any questions called Fred in shipping." (That requests them to call to confirm at Hamed's phone drop, the pay phone inside the party store where he works, during his shift tomorrow evening). Adhem repeats the message once, then hangs up.

He stands up and glances around as if he were looking for someone or trying to read the schedule of departures. There is still no one nearby.

He dials again, this time a local number. It is an answering service; he says only, "Tell Joseph that Mr. Adamovic will be calling in twenty minutes. It concerns Albert." It amuses him that both calls have to be in code, although of course Joseph's code is much less elaborate than the Maghrebi Army's, since all it does is get Joseph's answering service to alert him to an incoming call, and set a level of urgency. A name beginning with A, like "Albert," tells whoever it is that answers the phone (Adhem doubts that it is any old answering service) that the call is urgent and Joseph should be awakened or paged to await a call; B means important, that Joseph should call back, and contact is needed at the beginning of the next business day; C by the end of the day; D within three days. He checks his watch, noting the time, so that he can call in exactly twenty minutes.

To kill the twenty minutes, he casually wanders down the echoing, empty space of the terminal to the one shop that's open, where he gets a bag of potato chips and a bottle of grape juice. He wolfs both down, surprised at how hungry he is, and then rinses his mouth at a drinking fountain and uses the men's room. It is two minutes until time to call, so he drifts back toward the bank of phones. There is still no one else anywhere near.

When he dials, Joseph picks it up immediately. "Adhem? Talk. I hope all your news is good."

"This is Adhem. At this hour of the morning, how can the news be good?"

"That is true. Well, what can I help you with?"

"We need to help each other," Adhem says. "You were always a very fair and reasonable partner for me in the business, and I always liked working with you very much. As you know, when I stopped doing jobs for you, it was quite an amicable parting."

"Do you wish to come back and work for me again?"

"I would enjoy it very much but unfortunately I cannot. Here is the situation. Some crates of property belonging to my new employer—property which would probably be very useful in the work I used to do for you—were stolen from where I had stored them."

"I see."

"I can describe them in more detail," he adds.

"I am sure you can. But why should I believe that they are of any interest or matter to me?"

"Well," Adhem says, "whoever you now employ in my previous capacity might be very interested in those boxes, and might be in a position to buy them. So of course I would like to hear about that. Furthermore, the theft of them may very well lead to my arrest, and if these things were found, one very real possibility is that someone may successfully guess what my old business used to be. So there is some risk, with these things stolen and their whereabouts unknown, that the exposure may spread from me to others."

"Ah," Joseph says. "You are right. That would be bad."

"I need to meet with you, for I believe there are things that should only be discussed in the sort of warm, friendly, face to face meetings such as we always had."

"Very well. The Euphrates, eleven o'clock? I do not think that anyone will do anything with those whatevers of yours in the rest of tonight, not if they've just been stolen."

"I don't know how long they've had them," Adhem says, "but not more than twelve hours, so chances are that you are right. If you can meet no sooner than eleven in the morning, that will have to be fine. Thank you very much for your trouble, Joseph. I am sorry to have troubled you."

"Friends are no trouble to friends."

They say goodbye and Adhem hangs up. He looks at the clock. It is now 3:50. Time to get home and sleep for a while longer beside Jemail before she has to get up and go to work. At least everything is not completely ruined, not yet.

And that's it for the free part, folks. Follow the links to eBay or eJunkie out on the main post, if you'd like to buy a copy.

green paint said...

looking for more books with that rather sweet nature that you displayed in Orbital Resonance.

Kind of an amazing departure from you other books, how long ago that was!

John Barnes said...

Well, there are a few gentler books in the oeuvre ... the two that are probably closest to ORBITAL RESONANCE in that sense are ONE FOR THE MORNING GLORY (if you can overlook a few beheadings in Chapter 1, but trust me, they're FUNNY beheadings, the kind you might have at a kid's birthday party ...), and THE SKY SO BIG AND BLACK, whose main character is Melpomene Murray's grand-niece.

Bill Seney said...

Thanks for making PAYBACK CITY available. I found your posts about it on GEnie back when you had just written it to be quite interesting and I always wanted to see it.

I just sent my $4.00, and while I've only had time read the introduction so far that alone was worth the price of the book.

Thanks again.

Dawno said...

James Macdonald has a link to your book in his Absolute Write sig. I just downloaded Payback City from E-junkie (cool site - I'm thinking about using it to sell stuff) and look forward to reading it, so next time you see Jim you can thank him for at least one sale.