Prologue

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The boy danced on shimmering moonlight across a glass sea, spinning joyously, stretching to trail his fingers through the silver black ceiling of storm clouds. At the edge of his vision, ripples…

Blade glanced quickly to confirm the identity of the slight figure approaching along the old float—Linden Chan, operative for the Viet Ching—then he ducked his head beneath the level of the boat’s rail and exhaled underneath his infrared-masking serape, waiting for Chan to complete her surveillance scan. No motion disturbed his hiding place. In the cabin below, a water taxi family huddled in rigid terror, knowing he would kill them if any sound or movement betrayed his presence. Since securing them some hours ago he had lain prone on the water taxi deck under a heap of tarps, waiting to observe Chan’s drop. The intercepted Viet Ching message had given a time, but no other details.

He raised his head, risking a glance. Chan stood just three meters in front of him, her back turned, scanning the harbor and surrounding boats for electronic or human surveillance. At the top of the ramp leading to the Pender Street wharf, two figures stood silhouetted against distant lights—Chan’s henches. The drop must be so discreet that she didn’t want them to observe the details. Interesting.

Blade slid his goggles over his eyes, switched to enhanced ambient light and began recording. Chan, now clearly visible to him, finished her scan, then walked to the pilings anchoring the end of the float and crouched down under the sign which read “Reserved 24 hours for Harbour Patrol.”  The end of the old float sagged low in the water, its lichen-encrusted foot-rails half rotted away. Beyond, nav hazard lights blinked, marking drowned buildings. An old elevator shaft jutted skeletally out of black seawater.

Blade zoomed in on Chan’s gloved hands and saw her remove a sealed plastiche pouch from her coat pocket. A length of fishing line trailed from it. Chan dropped the pouch into the water, then looped the end of the fish line around a steel cleat and stood up.

Blade ducked down again and counted off a minute. When he looked up, the float and the wharf lay deserted. He scanned the area with his goggles, then tagged the sequence he’d recorded to Chan’s dossier and began his wait for the pick-up….

The little boy rushed back out to his glorious dance floor, flipping onto his hands and waggling his feet in the air, his palms walking the mirror-sheened water. He loved this wonderful night stillness, the seductive promise that he could flee along the moon’s path and leave the ugly, twisted ghoul behind him. A chill of fear clutched at his limbs and he looked unwillingly back at the float, searching the shadowed water taxi for a glimpse of that stone-frozen skull.

Instead he saw a fish boat….

Blade began recording again and focused on the craft. It was a standard Fisher vessel, about ten meters long, with modern trolling gear retrofitted on an antique aluminum hull. It chugged towards the Patrol float, slowing and swinging broadside.  Glowing yellow biolume letters on the bow spelled “Urchin.”  Navigation lights shone from the mast, but the captain wasn’t using the wheelhouse spotlight for this landing.

Several figures stepped out of the wheelhouse and moved towards the stern. They waited as the boat drifted closer, then one person jumped lightly over to the float. Someone else threw a large bag and the first figure caught it, then waved, and Blade saw the soft infra-red puff of a shout. The boat heeled gently and began pulling away.

Movement caught Blade’s gaze and he turned to see a tall figure in a Harbour Patrol parka striding down the boat ramp. Unexpected. He zoomed in on the officer’s face, noting dark hair tied back in a standard Patrol queue and facial features—heavy but distinctly female. He queried his database. A second later, text flashed up in the periphery of his vision:  “Match 92% probability: Captain Baljeet Dhillon, commanding PBoat7”. Most interesting. If she wasn’t with her boat, she must be off duty, and in that case he could think of no legitimate reason for her to be alone on foot in the slums of old Downtown.

Dhillon strode towards the newcomer, frowning and opening her mouth. Blade cued his directional microphone, and text unrolled along the bottom of his field of vision.

“…reserved float!”

The Fisher turned towards Dhillon and Blade saw her face clearly. She had pale, freckled skin and looked to be in her twenties, but his database could not ID her.

“Sorry, captain, but it’s no big spill. Just some friends dropping me off. Didn’t take a second. See, I’m almost gone already…”  She headed for the ramp, heavy duffel bag slung over one shoulder. She did not glance back toward the piling where Chan’s packet lay hidden.

“Hold it, Citizen!  This is a fineable offense!”

The Fisher swung around and aimed at broad grin at Dhillon’s scowl.

“So fine the Guild!  It’s no rain on me. I just left. The Fishers Guild can suck seawater. I’m out!”

Laughing, she turned and sprinted up the ramp. At the top she tossed down her duffel bag, flung both hands up over her head and started jumping up and down. Then she threw herself sideways….

The boy stared, open-mouthed with delight as the Fisher woman cartwheeled across the wharf, boots arcing through the air, heavy sweater flapping wildly. Two, three, four cartwheels, then she hopped in an ecstatic circle, arms windmilling, hair flying wildly around her head. The boy rushed up to join her, only to be disappointed when she stopped to catch her breath. He’d never seen anybody dance on a wharf before, only the greedy-eyed, raucous seagulls who whirled up into the dizzy freedom of the sky. He watched the girl hopefully, but she only brushed her hands off on her pants, and then shouldered her bag and walked away towards Pender Street….

A shadow fell across Blade. He ducked automatically as Dhillon walked past him towards the end of the float, then he refocused his goggles, tagging this recording to his master’s attention, high priority. The Harbour Patrol were customarily paid off by the Kung Lok. If Dhillon was also transacting with their rivals, the Viet Ching, evidence of her actions would be highly salable.

He glanced back at the wharf to confirm that the Fisher girl had departed and instead saw another Harbour Patrol officer approaching down the ramp. A collaborator?  Dhillon was kneeling, retrieving the packet when she evidently heard footsteps. She jumped to her feet, letting the packet fall back into the water as the other officer stepped onto the float. Blade queried the new arrival’s identity. The database had difficulty discerning his shadowed features, but one possible hit was Dhillon’s first mate, Officer Gill.

“…just go and leave it behind,” the man was saying. The text crawl’s red hue indicated agitation in his voice, but Dhillon’s reply was gray.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Bullshit you don’t!  Look, a little palm grease, OK, no smog, everyone does it, but you’re diving too deep, gonna get all of us in trouble!”

“You go sneaking around after me at night and you think I’m a problem?!  Well, I don’t slag my own crew.”

“I’m not slagging, I’m scared!  There’s rumors going around the flots. You got to clean up, talk to Command before somebody else does.”

There was a pause. Dhillon looked down at the hidden packet.

“I can’t leave this here.”

“OK, so we take it. And get rid of it somehow.”

Dhillon hesitated. The other officer stepped past her and knelt down. “Here…”

Dhillon reached under her coat, pulled a pistol, reversed her grip and struck his skull with the gun butt. The man pitched towards the water, but she grabbed his arms and hauled him back, staggering under his weight. She looked around urgently, and Blade glimpsed her calculating expression in the dim light from the wharf.

For several seconds Dhillon stood holding her slumped comrade, then she shifted her grip on his arms and lay him out face down on the float with his head and shoulders hanging out over the water. After one last glance around her, she knelt over him, knees on either side of his buttocks, gripped his wrists in one hand, and then lowered his head into the water. The man’s legs kicked convulsively. Little waves rippled out across the calm water, bubbles bobbing in their wake.

Dhillon held him under for a long moment, then she sat back, grabbed his legs and slid the body slowly and quietly into the water. Trapped air bubbles swelled the man’s parka, then boiled out as he began to sink.

Dhillon turned and retrieved Chan’s package, cramming the wet fishing line deep into an inside pocket of her parka. Then she looked down into the dark water and smiled.