Alex Stanton clicked the shutter on his camera, knowing that the shot was a good one. Zalia wanted proof that her husband was cheating on her, and he had just gotten it on film: pure light projected onto pure celluloid. Nothing manipulated, nothing artificial. He would develop the film in his darkroom while she watched. Alex turned off all of his other recording equipment, one by one. He knew from experience that the actual photos straight from the camera were the most visceral, but the data he had collected were extensive.
Alex waited until Jon St. Tago finished with the girl, making sure to get enough face shots for a digital signature confirmation, in case this ever went to court. But Alex didn’t think it would. Zalia was never going to leave Jon. That’s what Marseille kept telling him and the sooner he accepted it, the better of he was going to be. Alex packed up his equipment and checked the time. Two hours until he was to meet her in his apartment darkroom. He killed the time with muddy coffee and cancer-free cigarettes -- the pull-tab kind.
She was waiting for him outside his apartment, standing in the cold drizzle, coatless because she had never been practical when it came to weather. Night had settled in and deepened. The moon was hidden or new. There was no way to tell these days. Stars were all blocked by smog.
She followed him silently up into the darkroom. He mixed the developing chemicals and washed the film thoroughly. The end of the fantasy was that she would see her husband having a go with the girl Alex had been unable to uncover any information on – probably a whore or a synthetic or both -- and fall into his arms. Alex had known Zalia for years, and had been in love with her longer than that. He told himself sometimes that she’d married Jon for the money. That she’d always come back to him.
It was a lie that kept getting harder to believe. When the image in the picture became clear enough to discern details, she pulled out a gauss gun. A small one, but deadly at close range and perfectly silent. Alex had seen them in gun magazines his dentist kept in his office, but had assumed they were too expensive for private citizens to own. Not that the St. Tagos were private citizens.
“You were always a good friend, Alex.”
“Zalia, I’ll burn the pictures and the negatives. You know I would never betray you. This isn’t necessary.” Alex’s hand found a bottle of fluid. Nothing in the room was all that toxic; otherwise, life and limb be damned, he probably wouldn’t have the heart to throw it.
“He knows you were there. He can’t know I hired you.”
“This isn’t the way.”
“I feel like I’m doing you a favor,” she said, her words almost soothing.
She engaged the coils on the gun. A pellet dropped into the chamber, and there was no going back. From that point on Zalia was another animal and she meant him harm. Alex leaned left, then shoved off the table to the right. Her shot zinged through the air harmlessly to his left.
The chemicals from Alex’s hand splashed into Zalia’s face. Her hands shot up to her eyes, defensively, not yet realizing she hadn’t been hurt that badly. Alex pushed his body into Zalia, pinning her against the developing table. He grabbed for the gun, expecting a struggle, but she released it immediately.
Her eyes were squeezed shut, awaiting his killing blow. Alex took a step back, liking the way the expensive gun felt in his hand, despite everything else.
“You blinded me.” Her words came out like a child’s accusation, simple and flat.
“Acetic acid won’t blind you. It’s not much stronger than vinegar. Go flush your eyes.”
“You have to destroy it all. He knows you filmed him. He let you film him.”
“He put on a good show, in that--”
The door in the living room clicked shut, which meant someone had opened, then close it. He had almost missed the sound over Zalia’s talking. Suddenly Alex was a rat in a cage.
He had no time to assess the situation. He had to act. Alex pushed the door open, ducking and bringing both arms up in a stable, crouched shooter’s stance. He saw Lyriano, St. Tago’s head of security. The big man dove across the room and rolled athletically, a maneuver that would have worked well if Lyriano had barged into a karate dojo, but in a gunfight the person who moved least got the best shots off.
Lyriano fired with his pistol twice, both shots going pitifully wide. Alex kept his cool and fired the gauss gun. The gun made a clicking noise no louder than the door had made. The bullets whistled through the air.
Alex had expected to need an eye shot or a shot to the fleshy part of the throat to do any real damage to the big man, but the first shot hit Lyriano in the chest and the second caught his forehead. Both shots penetrated. The big man pitched forward.
By the time Alex got to his side, Lyriano was twitching his death dance. Alex looked down at the gun. He had underestimated the velocity of the pellets.
A weight hit him from behind. Alex staggered forward a couple of steps, but kept his feet. He turned to meet the next blow, already feeling his shirt wet with blood. Zalia had grabbed the first handy thing, which was a heavy crystal vase that had stayed whole despite the blow. He wrestled the vase from her hands with his free hand. It fell to the ground and still didn’t break.
She tried to slap him, but he hugged her to him so she couldn’t move. She was strong. He was stronger. He could kiss her, he realized. She went limp, sinking into his arms. She stared at him, breathing deeply. His next revelation was that she he wanted to be kissed. She had always wanted him.
Alex let Zalia go. She stumbled back, but kept her balance. She collected herself quickly and slapped him hard across the face with the ball of her hand.
“For not kissing me,” she said.
Zalia pressed her long body against him again, without being forced. He had time to notice her warmth and her firmness. He had time to desire her lips, which came so very close to his. Then he noticed that the nice, expensive gauss gun was no longer in his hand.
Alex looked down. The gun was in her hand, pressed into his ribs. He opened his mouth to say something and a small stream of blood spilled out and stained his shirt. She had already shot him.
He gasped for breath and fell to the carpet near Lyriano. Breathing was agony. Fire filled his chest and oxygen came in a strained, painfully slow stream through his nose. He forced himself to stay calm. Panic would kill him right now. Focus on breathing.
Zalia leaned in close. “And that was for shooting Lyriano.”
Alex’s muscles gave. It simply became too much work to keep himself upright. He told himself not to black out. Blacking out would be death for him. Then, he blacked out.
Alex woke up on a table with two synthetic doctors staring down at him. One could have easily passed for human from a distance, if you didn’t notice the medical scope array wasn’t just a piece of headgear, but was actually drilled directly into his forehead. The other wasn’t even trying. He had four extra arms--tentacles, really--and a smooth steel face.
They said nothing to him as they repaired him in the back of the truck. Alex had a gold subscription with Robodocs. They must have gotten there quickly, probably he had jumped to priority because of internal bleeding, not that he was kidding himself that they would not take care of someone with a platinum subscription first, internal bleeding or not. An element of luck was always involved. He felt a tugging in his side, but no pain. He was numb. He thought of Zalia. He thought of Lyriano.
“Are there cops here?”
“No cops were called, sir. Did you need to speak to someone about filing a report?” the human-like doctor said through his mask.
“No. There was an intruder. Two of them.”
“You were alone in the apartment, sir.”
“There was a dead man, by the couch.”
“I’m sure there was not, sir.”
“Sedative,” the octo-doctor said, flatly.
“No, I need--”
But before Alex could say what he needed, he was gone again.