Tourmaline: The Enemy (part two)
“That dry wit of yours. Anyone listening in would call you a danger to the public peace.”
Palma returned a smile, dry enough. “Sulya, they listen every minute. To you, too.”
Sulya gave a nod.
“They watch, as well as listen. Subject indicates agreement. My little schemes could matter, maybe, if I were seeking the identities of the Four, wanted to know where one lives. But Jocelyn they’re eager to see gone. They’ve started more than one assassin…Anton and his variants. And if they asked advice, well, why not say they have, by default? I would tell them the broken-minded won’t do. It’s cold professionalism they want. Our bargain has to be that we shake hands, my partner and I, and return to the shadows. We won’t talk.”
“Think of it as a three-way, with the G.R.A.?”
“Should I bother saying, ‘if you like?’”
A knock interrupted Palma while she studied her throw pillows. She had even considered an old-fashioned silver tray…
And decided impressing one’s co-assassin a silly preoccupation. The kitchen coffeemaker would serve, and a plate of grocery cookies on the living room table.
The screen on the door sash showed her a face.
“Deputy Commissioner!” she said, sarcastic with Herward’s title. “If I’m in trouble, tell me straight off.”
“Will you invite me in?” He brought a box from behind his back, that when she opened the door, wafted pizza.
“Spoil Sulya, and you’ll have to bring dinner next time, too.”
“I wish you would, though, cook for me.”
“I’m not flirting. I’m curious.”
“Sometimes I do cook.” Palma shrugged, and caught the closing door in time. Sulya inched in.
“Oh, look! Toady Herward. What’s he here for? I didn’t bring any party gear. Would the two of you like mints?”
“I’m here to join you,” Herward said. “No punches pulled.”
“How’s your wife?” Sulya asked.
“Apart. She thought being married was retro, then she thought it was confining.”
“Coffee’s in the kitchen.” Palma, already with her cup, sat. To Herward she called: “Is Jovie any use for drawing Anton?”
“Why don’t you draw him yourself? Tell him you have a job waiting.”
From a bowl kept for such discussions, Palma chose a spaceman. “This is me.” She chose a sea turtle. “This is Jovie. Remember these two, and we’ll decide, as we brainstorm, which is the stronger, which piece has more moves.”
“Do I get a toy?” Sulya asked, mouth full.
“Are you proposing a task for yourself?”
“Hmm. They don’t love me, the G.R.A. They love Palma.” She said this aside, to Herward. “So I’ll assume if I kill Jocelyn it’s all even-stevens to our overlords. One of those ‘she shot, he shot’ circs.”
“May I pin you down, then, to refusing trigger-woman?”
Palma picked a toy helicopter. “Sulya. I’ll set her hovering on the outside.”
“I’ll do it, you know,” Herward said.
“I’m not discounting you, but I expect I’ll do it myself. Still, how do you see your prospects?”
“Useful civil servant. Likeable to the public, if put on trial. First I’d bargain with them…the G.R.A. knows me for a helper. And I’ve got some Swisshelm dirt.”
Palma looked at Herward’s congenial face. “You’d sell Jovie out?”
“No, no. I’d position her, so to save her life she’d abandon the second government scheme. They want that, Swisshelms out of their hair.”
Palma took out a horse, and placed it next to her spaceman. “Recap. I will kill Jocelyn, but we need to know the time and place, to determine the method. Sulya will not, and we won’t ask her to. Herward will, and may be asked. You agree at least to carry out the plan if I’m unable?”
“Absolutely. Ask if Jovie or Vonnie will kill him.”
“It’s not that they hate Jocelyn. Or…” Herward propped feet on the table. “Bad phrasing. They hate Jocelyn. But hate isn’t how we’ll recruit them. To a Swisshelm, killing Jocelyn would be a transcendent heroism. Same as with Anton.”
“But with those two, it’s not a grudge. Anton has ideas of glory, but mostly wants scores settled. The Swisshelms…”
“Working as a team? Sisters of anarchy?” Sulya asked.
“Jovie and Vonnie don’t support anarchy at all. They support an economy-driven meritocracy.”
“Dandy. I knew they were a yawn. Kudos for all your months of listening to them.”
Palma put a policeman, and the turtle, near Sulya’s helicopter. “Swisshelms. Now someone will meet with Anton, find out everything. What makes him mad at his job, what colleague he thinks is all right. What the chitchat is. Has he ever come near Jocelyn? What do the others say about Jocelyn?”
“I’m going to do that,” Herward said.
“He’ll be delighted to see you. And furious he hasn’t. And now, sir, you and I will sit and talk.” She met Herward’s grin, glancing up, believing with this prompt he would understand. “One reason I’m glad you stopped by, Commissioner, is that I’ve always felt a little responsible for Anton.” She enunciated her artificial words. “I liked him, I really did. I want him to be doing well in the world.”
Herward fell in gamely, with a sigh. “I’ve been so caught up in work, I have to admit I’d pretty much forgotten Anton. But I know it’ll mean a lot to him if I tell him you said that. Did I hear he’s working in the Archive Room?”
“He is!” Sulya said. “Do the two of you want his address?”
(2022, Stephanie Foster)