“So good of you to meet with me on such short notice, Ruy.” Victor Fernando Lima de Campos announced himself in his own office as if he were the visitor. He wasn’t very tall, but his shoulders were broad and he filled out the pricy forest green suit he wore with a muscular physique. Dark but out of the norm colors were the fashion for businessmen in Brazil, especially those with real power like de Campos.
Ruy Oscar Aoki Aranha stood respectfully as the other man entered. He wore a casual sport coat in black with a crisp robin’s egg blue shirt. Unlike de Campos, who sported a neatly trimmed beard, Ruy was clean shaven, almost as if to make visible the scar under his chin, the only thing that mired his otherwise handsome features. “I couldn’t say no to you, Victor. You’ve been very good to us in the past.”
On his way to his desk, de Campos ran an appraising eye over the third member of their meeting. The girl couldn’t have been older than fifteen or sixteen. Her dark blonde hair was cut off short and without anything resembling a style and though she dressed in a slovenly and unadorned white t-shirt and track pants, she was wearing her weight in mismatched rings, bracelets and necklaces. At first blush, she seemed frail, but as he passed closer, he could see the tensed muscles in her arms.
“And this is…” He asked. The girl never looked him in the eye. She just looked to Ruy.
“My sister.” said the other man simply and motioned for the girl to sit as he did. They both seated themselves and the comfortable looking, but overly firm cheats facing de Campos’s semicircular, modern desk.
Not satisfied with this, de Campos pressed. “And does she really need to be here?”
“If you want me here, then yes.” Answered Ruy.
“Oh?” de Campos’s eyebrow twitched. “But you see it’s just that I don’t remember you ever mentioning a sister.”
Ruy just settled back in the seat, looking as comfortable as if he were sitting on a cloud. “You never asked, I never told. But if Zoe being here makes you reconsider your need for us…”
“Us?” de Campos asked. “You work together then? This isn’t just babysitting.”
A proud smile came to Ruy’s face. “I hardly have to do any work at all these days. Zoe’s the best there is. And you know that means something, Victor, because I was the best there is. That’s why she’s here; this job, whatever you’re going to ask, it’s her job.”
De Campos laughed boisterously. “Ruy, this can’t be true. You’re just giving up your crown to this menininha fraca. Don’t you still have your pride?”
Ruy scowled and his voice turned less friendly. “If there’s any word in the world that fails to describe Zoe, it’s ‘weak’, Victor. I’m not joking around here. She really is that good. But if you choose not to take my word for it, after everything I’ve done for you, we can leave right now.”
“Let’s not be hasty.” de Campos didn’t betray any sort of urgency in the words. For all the world, he sounded as if everything was under control and Ruy was panicking. From where she stood and with what she knew, Zoe could tell differently. He sounded calm only because the only thing he was more worried about than not hiring Ruy or whoever Ruy picked for the job was appearing to be anything other than completely together with everything well in hand.
In spite of the history both men professed, Zoe had never met or even heard of de Campos in her many months in Rio under Ruy’s tutelage. But then people in Ruy’s business weren’t associates you really wanted to see on even a yearly basis. Hiring them was a sight that they had failed at every other type of dirty pool and now needed to take the direct approach. Ruy was renowned in the right circles for making sure that such an act of desperation was worth it. Word was that he didn’t fail. Ever.
She chanced a quick look at him. He was older than he looked, probably in his late thirties, or early forties, but the life and what it took to be the best at it kept him in impeccable shape, almost impervious to time. All she allowed herself was a glance. Any more and she might blush. And a girlish blush would ruin the cold, silent criminal look she had going.
Or the illusion of it. As intimidating or bizarre as her mode of dress was, it was all utilitarian. But it was important to make people think it was all for show so they underestimated you, overlooked you.
Ruy taught her all of that. Only two weeks after her parents died; died for real, he found her. She hadn’t called her Aunt. Though she loved her aunt, uncle and cousins, they were in America. And she couldn’t go back there. All the aide, all the apologies and all the overtures of a new era of friendship between the nations wasn’t going to heal what they’d done to her.
But in Ruy, she’d found family. He started out just trying to teach her enough to survive. The days of squads of men hired by local businesses and crime lords hunting down and killing street kids were gone, but there were still the gangs, still the traders in white slavery, and still the specter of hunger.
In the course of teaching her, he’d seen something more in her. He said it was potential; the potential to surpass him as the best in the game, but she was always sure it was something else, something he never talked with her about.
Whatever it was, it didn’t make him see her the way she wished he saw her. To him, she was an apprentice, at best a younger sister or maybe even a daughter. He’d made that very clear, much to her dismay, but the crush persisted, only she hid it now and they didn’t speak of it again.
De Campos continued to speak. “We can still do business. I was just a little concerned. I’ve always used you and we’ve always dealt alone. Surely you can see how changing the formula can be of a concern to me.”
Ruy never missed a beat. “Concerned you may be, Victor, but have some respect.”
“Very well.” de Campos sighed.
“Tell us the job.” Ruy said in a professional manner. He was careful to leave out any measure of rudeness, leaving de Campos the facade of control while making it clear that any line of discussion that questioned Zoe’s presence or skill was over.
That made de Campos stare at him for a moment, taking a measure of whether he could risk taking one more jab out of defiance. Evidently, he surmised it wasn’t worth it, because instead, he reached out and swiveled the screen of his office computer toward them. A few taps of the screen and a typed password later and he bought up a static image.
“This is Kirk Ludlam, regarded in his field as the expert in room temperature superconductors. He’s already developed and tested a prototype of the most efficient such device known. This science is very important in my market; anyone that can put out medical scanning tech without having to pay the premiums of a helium extraction company will dominate the market.
“I offered him two million a year and a share in the profits. He still stupidly sold his services to Sistemas Inteligentes de Diagnóstico.”
Ruy frowned, there was more venom in de Campos’s voice when he talked about Ludlam then he was comfortable with. He felt that corporate espionage was something that should be done without passion. Other contractors like himself often did their worked based on agendas, working for people who didn’t so much want to make money as to take a pound of flesh from enemies and rivals.
His instincts told him to be on edge.
Zoe heard the same thing in de Campos’s voice, but what she was on the screen, that name, they seemed like acid, eating away at all those lessons Ruy taught her about emotions. She knew that face. She knew that name. Over the years, she’d memorized both. Ruy thought she’d let it go because she’d stopped talking about it, but the rage and the bile just turned inside.
And now there was an outlet: Kirk Ludlam, one of the men in charge of developing the Groundwire’s inner workings. That man was one of the faces of so many night without sleep, hours spent feeling alone, and countless moments where she would break down and cry without warning because some little thing reminded her of home. Whatever it was about him that put the venom in de Campos’s voice, it was a splinter to the towering tree of her hatred for the man.
As Ruy had taught her, she never took any pleasure in the actual act of taking, only in the skill and art of reaching that moment and of getting away clean. That wouldn’t apply here. She wanted to steal everything he had, everything he cared about until he was cold and alone in the world and understood exactly what she felt every day because of him.
“Twenty-one million.” Said de Campos.
“Excuse me?” Ruy didn’t let himself look surprised even though that was, frankly, an alarmingly high price, even for his services. “For stealing his prototype?”
De Campos shook his head. “No. The prototype isn’t commercially viable; too expensive to build. But everyone in the industry knows that he has ideas for fixing that.”
“Data then? Notes?”
“Do you think I would offer three times your usual ‘lucky seven’ if it was that simple? No. I’d rather lose that potential than let my competitors gain it and ruin me over it. I want him dead.”
Ruy shook his head once and rose, motioning for Zoe to do the same. “The meeting is over.”
“Think about what you’re walking away from.” warned de Campos. “I know you charge less for the lower profile jobs, much less. This is a year’s pay for you, maybe more. And how many jobs are you going to lose pushing your… heh… apprentice on them instead of doing the job yourself, huh?”
Ignoring him, Ruy turned to go, pausing when he noticed the Zoe hadn’t gotten up. “Victor, I am not an assassin. Zoe is not an assassin. We’ve had this discussion before and I asked you to respect that.”
“Frankly, I always assumed it was because I didn’t offer you enough, or because it was insulting your superstitions.” de Campos said casually. “So I offered you three sevens. Maybe I should offer four. They say four is death, after all.”
Something about that set Ruy off. His normally calm expression didn’t change, but his eyes did. It was a rare sight for Zoe, because whenever he was angry or upset around her, he’d leave for a time, returning to the apartment after some hours with that unsettling, icy glint in his eyes gone.
In two strides, he reached de Campos’s desk and slammed his palms onto it, making a noise that nearly echoed.
“You could offer me seven billion and the answer would be the same, Victor. I’ve made it clear throughout the entire community that this is an offer that you do not try and make with me. You know my reputation: I am a thief in the night, taking whatever I please and never being detected. As far as anyone else is concerned, I am the hand of god reaching past their walls and locks with no defense.
“It’s taken years to gain that reputation. Years of practice and discipline that you can’t even imagine with you six year business school program and bowing and scraping your way up the ladder—something that you wouldn’t have been able to do if it wasn’t for me doing you a favor.”
He slowly straightened. “And all of that boils down to one thing, Victor: I make the rules. Not you, not your childish taunts, and not your money. Me. And the rule is that you never try and tempt me into soiling everything I’ve worked and suffered for with murder.” With one last, withering glare a de Campos, he turned and motioned sharply. “Come on, Zoe. “Victor; never contact me again. Never contact anyone in the game here in Rio again. Good luck staying on top now that you’re blacklisted from the only business acumen you’ve ever had.”
Zoe was in such awe that she barely noticed that she’d gotten up until she was following him out. The past two years had shown her his kindness, his intelligence, his warmth and his cunning, but rarely has she seen his passion. She felt her crush reemerging all over again, fluttering and pulsing deep in her stomach.
And yet, she didn’t share his conviction on the subject. That fact reasserted itself as the stepped into the elevator and she found herself staring at the door to de Campos’s office. The elevator’s doors slid closed, hiding them from view and somehow, she felt her chance at closure slipping away.
“I…” Her voice was scratchy from disuse. She was used to that too; she only talked when she needed to, something that often drove Ruy crazy. After clearing her throat, she tried again. “I wanted to do it.”
“The money wasn’t worth it.” Ruy muttered, eyes focused forward.
“It’s not about money.” She kept her eyes forward to. After what she saw of his feelings when it came to assassination back in de Campos’s office, she was afraid to look into his eyes when she said it. Before he could get the wrong impression, she interrupted.
“The man. The one de Campos wants killed; Kirk Ludlam. He’s one of them, Ruy.”
“One of who?”
“The men who built the Jabbewock.” She said quietly. The only answer was silence, so she pressed forward. “It’s his fault. Especially his fault, because he developed most of the electrical systems in the Groundwire. He’s one of the best electrical engineers in the world; an expert on electromagnetism – do you think he really had no idea what was going to happen?” Her voice was getting shrill and she struggled to control it.
“This is my chance. If I can… I want to kill him, Ruy. He did this to me; all of it. And he doesn’t care. He’s probably lived all this time rich and happy and now he’s doing business in the same country where he murdered millions? He’s rubbing it in my face!”
She didn’t realize she was shouting before Ruy draped a comforting arm over her shoulders and hugged her close, cutting off her rant.
“I know.” He said quietly. “I didn’t until you just told me, but I know how you feel, Zoe.” He rubbed her shoulder soothingly and she tried to press herself closer to him.
Ruy didn’t seem to notice what she was doing anymore than she did. “But I still don’t want you to do it. Not because I don’t want you to get your justice, but because I’ve seen this before and it doesn’t lead anywhere good. Killing him wouldn’t be the end, but the start.”
“It would be the end.” she mumbled quietly.
“I know you think that.” Ruy leaned over to kiss the top of her head. It felt heart-wrenchingly fatherly to her. “I used to have a younger brother who thought like you are right now. Only we didn’t really remember out parents. We came up on the streets; not like I found you—we lived there years and years, stealing to get by, doing odd jobs for dealers and gangs.
“One day Jorge, he hears about a job; one big score for a hundred thousand. One of the gangs needed a rival dead. I tried to tell him not to go, but he told me that once he did this one thing, all the sleeping in alleys and scraping for food was over. Kill one man and he’d never have to do it again.”
The elevator doors dinged and they walked out, Zoe still leaning on Ruy, seeking comfort. She already knew, just form the fact that she was hearing the story meant the Jorge has been wrong.
“What happened?” She asked, keeping her voice down so people in the lobby wouldn’t hear.
“It doesn’t end, Zoe. He kept doing it for eight years, making more money than I will probably ever see. Until one night, it all caught up with him. I got a call; he said he saw an article online about how the son of a woman he killed as graduating college. He told me his banks account numbers and passwords, sent me a list of names…”
Ruy hesitated. “I… the next time I saw him was in a casket after they pulled him out of the river. They couldn’t even tell me if it was him that did it or someone else. Either way, that’s what came of it, Zoe. It doesn’t end. And I don’t want to lose you to this thing like I lost him.”