Home > The Churn: An Expanse Novella (Expanse #3.5)(2)

The Churn: An Expanse Novella (Expanse #3.5)(2)
Author: James S.A. Corey

“So you thought it through, and you came to the conclusion that the wise and right thing to do was escalate this little visit from a collection run to a murder?”

Timmy’s head tilted a degree. “Didn’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. Water’s wet. Sky’s up. Austin gets you more dead than alive. Kind of obvious.”

Burton went silent. Oestra and Erich didn’t look at him. Burton rubbed his hands together, the hiss of palm against palm the loudest noise in the room. Timmy scratched his leg and waited, neither patient nor impatient. Erich felt a growing nausea and the certainty that he was about to watch an old friend and protector die in front of him. His stunted hand opened and closed and he tried not to swallow. When Burton smiled his small, amused smile, the only one who saw it was Timmy, and if he understood it, he didn’t react.

“Why don’t you wait here, little man,” Burton said.

“Arright,” Timmy said, and Burton was already walking out the door.

Out in the café, the lunch rush had started. The booths and tables were filled, and a crowd loitered in the doorway, scowling at the waitresses, the diners who had gotten tables before them, and the empty place reserved for Burton and whoever he chose to have near him. As soon as he took his chair, the waitress came over, her eyebrows raised, as if he were a new customer. He waved her away. There was something about sitting at an empty table in full view of hungry men and women that Burton enjoyed. What you want, I can take or I can leave, it said. All I want is to keep your options for myself. Erich and Oestra sat.

“That boy,” Burton said, letting the words take on an affected drawl, “is some piece of work.”

“Yeah,” Oestra said.

“He’s good at what he does,” Erich said. “He’ll get better.”

Burton was quiet for a long moment. A man at the front door pointed an angry finger toward Burton’s table, demanding something of the waitress. She took the stranger’s hand and pushed it down. The angry man left. Burton watched him go. If he didn’t know any better, this wasn’t the place for him.

“Erich, I don’t think I can take your friend off his probation period. Not with this. Not yet.”

Erich nodded, the urge to speak for Timmy and the fear of losing Burton’s fickle forgiveness warring in his throat. Oestra was the one to break the silence.

“You want to give him another job?” The words carried a weight of incredulity measured to the gram.

“The right job,” Burton said. “Right one for now, anyway. You say he watched out for you, growing up?”

“He did,” Erich said.

“Let him do that, then. Timmy’s going to be your personal bodyguard on your next job. Keep you out of trouble. See if you can keep him out of trouble too. At least do better than Oey did with him, right?” Burton said and laughed. A moment later Oestra laughed too, only a little sourly. Erich couldn’t manage much more than a sick, relieved grin.

“I’ll tell him,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Do,” Burton said, smiling. An awkward moment later, Erich got up, head bobbing like a bird’s with gratitude and discomfort. Burton and Oestra watched him limp back toward the storage room. Oestra sighed.

“I don’t know why you’re cultivating that freak,” Burton’s lieutenant said.

“He’s off the grid and he cooks good identity docs,” Burton said. “I like having someone who can’t be traced keeping my name clean.”

“I don’t mean the cripple. I mean the other one. Seriously, there’s something wrong with that kid.”

“I think he’s got potential.”

“Potential for what?”

“Exactly,” Burton said. “Okay, so tell me the rest. What’s going on out there?”

Oestra hoisted his eyebrows and hunched forward, elbows on the table. The kids running unlicensed games by the waterfront weren’t coming up with the usual take. One of the brothels had been hit by an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant syphilis; one of the youngest boys, a five-year-old, had it in his eyes. Burton’s neighbor to the north—an Earthbound branch of the Loca Griega—were seeing raids on their drug manufacturing houses. Burton listened with his eyelids at half-mast. Individually, no one event mattered much, but put together, they were the first few fat raindrops in a coming storm. Oestra knew it too.

By the time the lunch rush ended, the booths and tables filling and emptying in the systole and diastole of the day’s vast urban heart, Burton’s mind was on a dozen other things. Erich and Timmy and the death of a small-time deadbeat weren’t forgotten, but no particular importance was put on them either. That was what it meant to be Burton: those things that could rise up to fill a small person’s whole horizon were only small parts of his view. He was the boss, the big-picture man. Like Baltimore itself, he weathered storms.

* * *

Time had not been kind to the city. Its coastline was a ruin of drowned buildings kept from salvage by a complexity of rights, jurisdictions, regulations, and apathy until the rising sea had all but reclaimed them for its own. The Urban Arcology movement had peaked there a decade or two before the technology existed to make its dreams of vast, sustainable structures a reality. It had left a wall seven miles long and twenty stories high of decaying hope and structural resin that reached from the beltway to Lake Montebello. At the street level, electric networks laced the roadways, powering and guiding the vehicles that could use them. Sparrows Island stood out in the waves like a widow watching the sea for a ship that would never come home, and Federal Hill scowled back at the city across shallow, filthy water, emperor of its own abandoned land.

Everywhere, all through the city, space was at a premium. Extended families lived in decaying apartments designed for half as many. Men and women who couldn’t escape the cramped space spent their days at the screens of their terminals, watching newsfeeds and dramas and pornography and living on the textured protein and enriched rice of basic. For most, their forays into crime were halfhearted, milquetoast affairs—a backroom brewer making weak, unregulated beer; a few kids stealing a neighbor’s clothes or breaking their furniture; a band of scavengers with scrounged tools harvesting metal from the buried infrastructure of the city that had been. Baltimore was Earth writ small, crowded and bored. Its citizens were caught between the dismal life of basic and the barriers of class, race, and opportunity, vicious competition and limited resources, that kept all but the most driven from a profession and actual currency. The dictates of the regional administration in Chicago filtered down to the streets slowly, and the local powers might be weaker than the government, but they were also closer, the gravities of law and lawlessness finding their balance point somewhere just north of Lansdowne.

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