I’m a fast riser, you know. Never feel drowsy when I wake up anymore. Just –bam!– and I’m awake. There’s a light switch inside me, and it’s hard to turn off, always gets caught on the way down, a little light that wants to shine.
But that’d be a waste.
So I sat right up, eyes wide open, just like any other morning.
A girl slept beside me, naked. I didn’t know her. Well. “Know” is a tricky word. I knew her, in the Adam and Eve way, the night before and all through the early morning hours. But that was as deep as we went. She’d been a little bruised when we met, and I’d worried about her for a bit at first, it’s what had first caught my eye, but then who didn’t have bruises these days?
It’s strange, the things you learn when you do a thing like that often enough.
I paint, sometimes, when I’m alone. Nobody knows, of course, be bad for my reputation. And yes, I learned all the points you’d expect. How to hold a brush so that it says sunshine and sadness all in the same stoke, how to take black and blue and make them say flesh, how to look at a blank canvas and see the painting all at once, just drink it in and bathe in it.
That’s the hard part, by the way. The seeing. After that, painting is easy, just connecting the dots really. That’s why you can’t teach painting. You can show a boy how to hold sunshine and sadness until his fingers weather to calluses, and with enough practice he’ll manage an imitation, but you can’t copy sadness. Not real sadness. You have to see it for yourself.
Anyway, it’s the strange other things you learn that I was talking about. Yes, I learned to paint, but I also learned how to read a person like a book.
It’s odd, but it makes a good deal of sense too. I’ve made a thousand faces, you see, sculpted their creases to tell the story I need them to tell, the story I see. They say every face you ever see, even if it’s gone in an instant, has a little corner in your memory. When you spend the time really getting to know a face, which I have to do if I want to paint it, it gets its own room.
You’d think it would help, really. And it does, in many ways, so you’d be right. I’ve been a corporate lawyer for Ishtar Industries, one of those big new-age NeuroTech firms, since I graduated law school. When you can read a man so completely, it’s not hard to get a settlement that makes everyone happy. So I’ve not been to court since I started work, not been shot at in the gallery. Or at least I hadn’t until this mess.
But that’s why we’re here.
So yes, it helps a lot, being able to read people. But have you ever looked into a girl’s eyes when she says, I Love You, and seen the lie there? It always comes at the end, on the third word, You.
A girl can say, I Love, and have it be true. Everybody loves. I’ve painted it, just Love, general and broad and deep and all encompassing. It’s quite pretty, really, and if it were more focused it would be a beautiful thing.
But You, that’s the rub.
So it helps with the job, staying alive and all that, but it doesn’t make the other parts any easier. People don’t like to be understood, not so completely – and I don’t always like what I understand anyway. We need to tell lies, they’re the grease between the gears, and without them the whole machine jams up.
Of course, there are big lies and small lies.
The first time I watched her tell me that special lie, the real big one, I was sliding a gold band onto her left hand. There’s meant to be a vein there, going straight to the heart, and I was binding it to me in gold. She said, I Do, and I watched her say it, even repeated it myself when the priest asked me. I don’t remember the question.
See the thing is, I hadn’t started painting then. Not really, it was just an occasional hobby of mine, nothing serious. So I let her lie to me the first time because I didn’t know any better.
It was a few years after the ceremony before I painted a real picture, something I’d seen. Just a landscape, with this thin green forest in the foreground that said trying, and an old white mountain in the background that said tried. But that was the start. And it wasn’t long after that until I tried to paint I Love You.
It took me three tries.
But as I said, once you’ve seen a face, you never forget it. And I knew what my wife’s face looked like when she said I Do. I tried to lie to myself – not something I’m very good at – but I got home from work that night, and I told her I loved her and I watched ever so carefully as she smiled and-
I paused, caught myself on the edge. Smiled a thin smile.
Sorry. I’m jumping around a bit, aren’t I.
Where was I?
Ah. Right. So I got out of bed with the bruised girl, got back into my suit, slipped my ring back on and clipped my gun onto my belt. A lawyer’s tools. My wife was gone of course, almost seven years before, but a lawyer must have a ring. It makes him look dependable.
I didn’t wake the girl. I’d like to say it was another skill I’d picked up, moving quietly around people and all that, but every woman I’ve ever been with has slept like a rock. That or they don’t like to be awake around me. I tell myself it’s the first one though, and if it’s a lie it’s only a small one.
Everything seemed normal when I got to the office that day, just another Wednesday. It wasn’t until I sat down at my desk, took a sip of my latte, and checked my email that it all went to shit.
My client’s settlement offer had been rejected. That never happened. Ever. Worse, the plaintiff had moved to go to an immediate trial. Nobody did that.
I’m not a coward. You can’t be in my line of work – they brain-screen law school grads for that, simulated stress, fight-or-flight impulses, and if you don’t make the grade you don’t get to work in corporate law.
Of course, corporate law is where the money, prestige, and women are. And you can’t do anything big without working a stint in corporate anyway, on the off chance you want some sort of spiritual satisfaction instead of material compensation. But they let you pay for the schooling before they test you. Be bad for the schools if they weeded out the cash cows too soon.
So I’m not a coward. And I can put a bullet through a quarter at 50 yards. Hell, punch a thread through that quarter, tie it to a beam, set it swinging like a pendulum if you want, let me come a little closer. My hit rate won’t drop below fifty percent. It’s not arrogance talking. I paid for the implants to be able to shoot like this, and my brain really took well to them.
But reading that email I felt the little glitch in my mind, sipped my latte again even though it had burned me ten seconds before. It didn’t make sense. Why would you ever move to go to immediate trial? Maybe if you hated your lawyer, wanted him to get shot, but then why go through all this hassle.
I could find someone willing to shoot a random lawyer for less than our fees.
I spent the next nineteen minutes sitting in my office, sipping my scalding drink and trying to explain what I was reading. I played back our conversations with the plaintiff, re-read our settlement offer, even looked up obituary records. You can never be too sure who’s died these days.
But I got nowhere.
Twenty minutes is too much time to waste being unproductive, so I got up and left for the Starbucks again before I could hit that mark of shame. It was still procrastination, but it’s easier to fool yourself when you’re being active.
By the time I got there, maybe three minutes later, I was starting to think I’d lost my touch. Maybe it was my fault, maybe it was on me. I hadn’t painted in almost a month, could that be it–
Usually I try not to look people in the eye for too long unless I’m looking for something in particular. It’s hard for me not to start analyzing, and mostly it’s easier to get by in life without knowing everyone’s secrets.
But I was doubting myself, so when I ordered another latte I watched closely. And I saw her friendly customer-service smile, I saw her slightly self-conscious hand gesture, I saw the loathing for me buried surface-deep – I did look like a lawyer, I suppose – and the hints of a past boyfriend that hadn’t treated her right.
You see why I try not to look.
She probably saw pity in my eyes and thought it was condescension because she stopped trying to do the friendly thing. But what do you expect when you try to read your barista without trying to hide it.
The little encounter certainly put me back in my comfort zone, and I didn’t burn myself once on the second drink.
There wasn’t much else for me to do after that. The email was soon followed by a more official looking package. Very fancy, very formal, very polite for what it was. When I saw the court date was set for the next day I just nodded to myself as if this was all run of the mill legal proceedings. Settlement refused and a court case for tomorrow.
Sure, why not. Who needs precedent, etiquette, and paperwork anyway.
I made a quick call to my secretary explaining the circumstances and pushed a copy of all my files into her database. It looked bad for us to have to go to trial, I’d probably lose thirty percent of my bonus this year. More. But at least she – and by extension the senior partners – would see that this wasn’t my screw up.
Not that that ever made a difference in life.
I didn’t get much else done that day, and when I left early nobody said anything. A man is allowed some breathing room before a big day. And maybe nobody wanted to come too close, else they catch whatever it was that made me lose. Make no mistake – going to court counts as a loss for us, even if you win.
I rarely drink. I don’t smoke. I’ve never taken drugs stronger than painkillers. But every lawyer has a vice, and I’m sure you already know what mine is.
So I didn’t go home, I went out into the city. And I found a sweet girl whose laugh drew me from across the room, and we chatted and shared some of ourselves – some of us more than others – and if I never quite mentioned that I was a lawyer, well. She never quite mentioned that I was her first either. But we both knew those things.
The rest isn’t for you to hear.
Suffice it to say that when I snapped awake the next morning, she was still there. Maybe one day I’ll wake up slowly, and there’ll be a little haze and warmth in the bed beside me, and I’ll reach over and just for that second I’ll think she’s-
But not today. As I said, my wife’s gone.
Where’d she go?
I sighed. Not something I’ve talked about before. Not something I really want to. But you can’t say no to the company psychologist when he asks a question, not if you want to keep your license to practice.
Well I shot her, didn’t I. Had to, no other option.
I laughed then at the sound of my own words, at how hollow they sounded, how callous. Did that make it a lie? I don’t know. Hard not to laugh though - you always have options, one of the first things they teach you in law school.
But then I hadn’t gone to law school at the time. I used to be a middle school teacher, would you believe that? Me neither. But it’s true. I liked being a teacher, too. They don’t let many older guys back into school, but I guess I had a pretty compelling story after shooting my wife.
What? Because she didn’t love me? No, what are you talking about?
I realized then that I might have set the story up wrong. Not at all my intention. That’s one way to get disbarred.
No, no. It was all strictly legal.
See, I realized she didn’t love me after I started painting. And that was what it was, nothing I could do about it. Maybe I wasn’t ambitious enough for her, maybe I didn’t work out enough, maybe I just wasn’t around as much as she wanted. Maybe she thought she was settling.
I ignore the irony there and steadfastly maintain eye contact with the psychologist. His mask is perfect, but I can see his eyes and they say all they need to.
I realized all that about her, about us, and I decided it was okay. I could work with that, I didn’t need her love, I just needed to be with her. I could still be happy.
And when I caught other little lies, how her day was, what she’d done, if she liked the food, I didn’t press. I just let them be.
But when our boy was born, Richard, and I saw the lie that was his face I couldn’t bare it anymore. I didn’t make a big deal of things, understand. I just said I was leaving.
The rest was just paperwork really.
Except there was one little issue, just a small catch. She asked for child support in the legal documents, but I wasn’t going in for that, not knowing what I knew. So I refused, and she contested, and somewhere along the way everyone forgot to ask for my DNA.
A simple test, two samples, and everything would’ve sorted itself out.
Maybe not, maybe that wouldn’t have mattered.
As it was, you can’t stop the law. Not after it’s built momentum. The weight of paperwork grows and when nobody stops it with a settlement, its velocity carries it to the courthouse. That’s how our system works.
Of course, she couldn’t afford a lawyer.
How was I to know she’d spent her part of our money.
And of course, I couldn’t afford a lawyer either. You know what teachers make? Getting that far in proceedings had cost me all I had. It’s tough to be a defendant.
I don’t think she realized that either.
What a pair of fools.
Anyway, I’m sure you see where this is going. A court date set and neither of us rich enough to afford a proxy.
I thought maybe I wouldn’t be able to pull the trigger. Thought I’d just let her shoot it out and have it all done.
I smiled sadly.
But I’m no coward. More than that, there’s a little animal inside me that won’t ever look away, won’t ever back down. I don’t freeze up, my instincts all tell me to act when shit hits the fan. And I don’t know much shittier than an almost-ex-wife who never loved you, a handgun, six shots, a courtroom shooting gallery, and fifty yards.
She missed the first two.
I finger the scar along my ribs.
That’s about it really. The boy went to live with her parents – I’ve not seen him since. I’m sure they all hate me, but I don’t think that’s very fair. I was very accommodating, I think. It’s the system they should hate…
Though that’s not true either. Because it’s a good system, the best there’s ever been. Or it was, anyway. Ishtar Industries, the guys who’ve hired my firm, have put a wrench in the whole thing now. They think curing death is going to fix all the world’s problems.
Fuckers don’t see what a pain it’s going to be for the courts. I’d bet my bonus – or what’s left of it now – that frivolous lawsuits quadruple in a year or two when they launch their product.
Just think of all those smug, shit-eating lawyers, and now imagine that none of them stay dead when they bury bullets in each other. I can’t think what it’s going to do to the young associates at our firm. Their egos are big enough as it is.
More than that, who’s going to want to settle now? There’s no benefit to it, and if nobody settles the system doesn’t work. People have to learn to compromise to get along in society. What kind of justice is decided at the end of barrel?
So the system is shot to pieces starting next year. But her parents should blame their daughter really, not the system. Of course they’ll never do it, and why should they? It’s hard to admit when those you love make mistakes. Harder when they’re dead.
Enough about my wife. I don’t know why we made this about her anyway. It’s why I got started in law I suppose, but I don’t think that’s relevant here.
Where was I?
Ah yes. The surprise court date.
Well, as I said, it’s a good system. I believe in it. So I followed the law to the letter. My suit, my ring, my gun. All in immaculate condition.
I was on time to the trial – almost a minute early actually. Opposing council was already there, looked like he had been for quite some time. That pleased me. He’d clearly gone to some trouble to set this up, and I liked the thought of him wondering if I’d show.
Pulling a no-show is a bad idea. The only direct capital offense there is. Still, I’m sure he wondered.
I smiled at him as I walked up to the podium to sign my name. The judge frowned as he read the preamble. He looked annoyed, and I didn’t have to be a Painter to know that he felt the judicial system was being toyed with.
He had a point.
The plaintiff’s council – I’d never seen him before – glared at me as we shook hands, whispered under his breath, This is for Katie.
He was your typical lawyer, which I suppose means that he and I looked alike. Slick suits, gleaming rings, well-oiled pistols, lean bodies, hard eyes. He turned and walked away from me immediately, leaving me with a pretty good question.
Who the fuck was Katie?
As far as I knew, the case was about some unfortunate early clinical trials of Ishtar’s NeuroComm product. The road to immortality wasn’t without its bumps. The exact kind of thing that usually gets settled, given the promise of a sure payment over the uncertainty of a courtroom appointment.
If you’re going to die, it’s nice to know what for.
Katie, Katie, Katie…
I have a good memory. I remember dates, names, numbers, places, faces. Everything. But standing there in the gallery, I had a pistol in my hand and no Katies in my head.
I wasn’t going to die anyway. Which just made it a shame that he had to. But at least he knew what he was dying for, so it wouldn’t be a tragedy.
You know most of the rest. He shot, but I saw where he was aiming so it wasn’t a hard thing to move out of the way beforehand. Fifty yards is nothing when you’ve got eyes like this. Then I squeezed the trigger and that was that.
The psychologist gave me a look, and I grinned.
Well not quite. But I’m just telling you what you already know, so is there really any-
Okay, okay. Fine. Of course.
Yes. I shot him, but to his credit he moved a little too.
Not well enough, but it was a nice try.
But the thing is, when I heard his bullet zip by my ear, when I heard the gunshot echo in its wake, I remembered Katie.
It’s strange, the things you learn when you do a thing often enough. I said that earlier. Sorry. It’s still true.
One of the things you learn sleeping with girls, is how to pick up the little clues. You can read a person, what they’re thinking, what they love, what they really want, but if you put it together with the little things – a name, a foreign city, a book title, something personal – you’re in a whole new league.
Katie never told me her name. But I knew who she was, and I put my bullet through the lawyer’s throat. Not a nice thing to do, but it happens. And I put two more into his chest as he fell, which is very much against etiquette. Bad form.
But then Katie had been wonderful. She was the girl I told you about when we started talking. The one I didn’t know very well.
But then I didn’t need to know her that well to know what the bruises were from. I didn’t need to know her that well, because I could read the look in her eyes. The little fear that hid around her irises.
She’d had a photo frame on her dresser, a cute little picture of her and a relaxed looking man smiling somewhere sunny. Not the kind of thing I look at when I’m in a girl’s bedroom. But that face, the happy smiling one, and the one I buried three bullets into were two sides of the same coin.
I don’t leave a sign, I tread softly in other people’s lives and there’s not a lot of me to leave behind anyway. Which meant she must have slipped, or maybe she told him. Maybe I was the dagger she wanted to use to get back at him for the bruises.
As daggers go, you won’t find a deadlier one.
By the way, I hope she’s alright, that he wanted to take it out on me first. When this examination is over I’m going to head round and check, if that’s alright with you?
But one corner of the psychologist’s mouth turned down a little and he reached into his briefcase. That was all I needed to know that she wasn’t alright. It was all anyone would need.
Still. Seeing the pictures didn’t help. I’m not squeamish, but. Well.
That was for Katie, I thought, wishing I’d shot my last three bullets into his face. It didn’t help.
Fast forward a year. The story got out, of course. Psych evals are a big deal, they can break a promising career no problem. So it’s always better to let the story out rather than keep it in. People will imagine worse things than you could ever do.
Turned out pretty well for me, I suppose.
The psychologist who did my evaluation happened to be a close friend of someone in the administration. They’d been buddies in college, that sort of thing. I think he’d been impressed by my story. Remarkable clarity under pressure, shaded by an understandable emotional connection with the opposing council in both of his two court cases, which he nonetheless won. Those were his exact words. Glowing praise.
When the time came for Ishtar’s new product to be dragged before a panel of judges, well, my name came up.
I heard some thought we might lose the case, but my arguments were bulletproof. And even if they’d been willing to push it to court, I have a bit of a reputation now. The product was approved…which meant anyone with enough cash could cheat death. And individuals cheating death was going to kill the legal system I loved.
And here I am now, special representative to the Emergency Vote on Law, recommended by the administration and granted a leave of absence from Ishtar until the issue is resolved. Not that I think it can be. Court is court – if people aren’t afraid of it, they aren’t going to agree to any settlements. It’ll be retrial after retrial, and mountains of corpses that won’t stay dead.
Anyway, I ended up getting my bonus in full last year, despite the court case – the publicity was mostly good for the firm’s business. A pleasant surprise.
I even got one of the first batch of NeuroComms installed, perks of being legal counsel for the company producing them. Six months before full commercial release.
Semi-famous, wealthy, vices sated, and hopefully immortal. The things people would do for any one of those.
It’s funny though. Two things I ever loved, and I don’t know if I’d trade either of them for all of the above.
My wife. Lied to me. Betrayed me. Tried to kill me.
My country’s legal system. Had me shot at. Twice. For things that should never have made it to court – seems like as flawed a system as any. And now I’m killing that too.
Standing there back in the courthouse, watching my wife stare down the barrel at me, I’d thought maybe I’d just let myself be killed and have it all done with. Case closed.
And maybe, maybe, I’d hoped she wouldn’t pull the trigger.
But she did, and she missed the first two. But not the last two. Those are the only bullets I’ve ever felt, and they killed the teacher I used to be, leaving behind an animal wearing his corpse.
With my Painting, nobody can lie to me, not even myself.
So I’m glad the psychologist didn’t ask me if I still loved her. I locked that question away, and it can shine all it wants in the darkness.