Sample chapter from Marks of Our Brothers

Excerpt from MARKS OF OUR BROTHERS by Jane Lindskold.

Published by Avon Books in 1995; Copyright © 1995 by Jane Lindskold. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the Publisher. Exceptions are made for downloading this file to a computer for personal use.


sample-marks


My martial arts instructor says that I’m a hopeless cause.
“Do you really want to learn this or is this some kinda. joke?” she growls.
I don’t answer except by hopelessly screwing up another attempt at a breakfall, but I really do want to learn. There are six people that I have to kill and I figure that some idea of how to defend myself might come in handy.
Five, I remind myself as I leave the dojo, stiff in body and fatigued from the instructor’s impatience.
Five. I killed the first last night and he died painfully, slowly, but with no chance to warn the others.
I smile and straighten despite my sore muscles.
Five left.
At home, a tear sheet hangs limply from my fax phone. The green ink tells me that the message was coded “Urgent” and I smile a little as I rip it free.
“Karen: Rhys is dead–apparently a freak accident, Thought that you should know before Monday. Tammany.”
My smile broadens. If Tammany has dismissed Rhys’s death as an accident, the rest should, too.
Tammany, stingy Tammany, (Who else would fax such a message?) Soon there will be four, but you won’t be around to wonder if this is coincidence.
A cup of coffee later, I go and shower off the sweat from class. It seems to me that my first murder should have changed me, but the body I scrub off is the same lean, average thing, topped with the same straight brown hair, seeing the world through the same brown eyes. “The Invisible Woman” Mr. Allain called me and in a way he was right, because no one ever looks twice at Karen Saber.
As I’m toweling off, my phone pages me–doesn’t It always? I step into the bedroom and give the word for voice only.
“Hello? Karen?” The voice is male, baritone, and familiar.
“Hi, Toshi.”
“Have you heard about Rhys?”
“Tammany sent me a fax–something about a fatal accident.”
“Oh.”
I hear him considering.
“She tell you how?”
“No, she was keeping the message short.”
Toshi laughs dryly, “That’s our Tammany. Rhys was poisoned by oleander smoke. Apparently some of the wood he had bought for that fancy illegal wood-buming fireplace in his house had oleander mixed in. The fumes are deadly.”
“Oh,” I manage to sound shocked, glad for the relative anonymity of the audio-only connection.
“Can you come in about an hour early on Monday, Karen?” Toshi asks, suddenly crisp, all business.
“Uh, sure,” I pause, “Why?”
“We’ll need to prepare some sort of formal statement for our clients. I thought that you and I would be the best at framing it and leave the others to review and initial.”
Angrily, I run a mental translation. He thinks he has something to gain and figures that I’m his best sidekick. The anger roiling inside me doesn’t touch my voice as I agree. We chat for a few more minutes and then he signs off.
Shaking, though I’m no longer wet, I curse him. You’ll be Three, Toshi, or maybe Four. Your ambition makes you dangerous, but makes you safe, too.
Digging out jeans and an old shirt, I collect my laundry. No matter what else I’m doing, somehow I’ve still got to find time for chores.
When I arrive at work the next morning, I’m the promised hour early, but Toshi is there before me. He waves me into his office.
“Read what I have here, Karen,” he says, swiveling his chair about so that I can read the computer screen over his shoulder.
As I read, I can see Toshi studying me from his reflection on the screen. He’s mostly Japanese, but some Danish blood has given him a pair of the bluest eyes I have ever seen, eyes that seem all the more blue against the yellow ivory of his skin.
“What do you think?” he says, almost as soon as my eyes stop scanning the print.
“Don’t you think that ‘heartfelt grief’ is a bit overdone? Wouldn’t ‘sincere sorrow’ do just as well and be more–proper?”
Toshi nods sharply, “Yes, more professional, We must not seem to feel too strongly about this. Can you polish it off and have copies ready for when the others come in?”
My turn to nod, though something bums in me at his request. Toshi periodically forgets that I an! no longer clerical staff, that I am a Director, and that I hold the post at his instigation. I stifle my reaction, tamping it down with a reminder that I need Toshi to need me, to trust me. Right up until I kill him.
Sending the file to where I can access it from my office, I bid Toshi good morning.
I love my office mostly because it is mine, and because of that I’ve done my best to make it as beautiful a place as I can. The one narrow window was little more than an eyesore looking out into the cinder block grey of an alleyway until I convinced Mr. Allain to have a holo window put in; now it glows with light shining through a tangle of stained glass clematis in the rich jewel-tone purples of wine when the light hits it just right. My computer station is a donut of oak-and mahogany-toned plastics that grow over and embrace the monitors and other machinery the way a tree grows over a fence rail. The carpet is the color of moss and the walls fade from green into blue in an imperceptibly slow cycle.
Smooth. Peaceful. My refuge. A place where I have done some of my best work, a place I may need to abandon soon. The thought still hurts, but some things are more important than creature comforts.
I remind myself of that as I log onto the network and scan my messages. Toshi has about twice as many messages posted as anyone else. He’s become a fiend for administration since Mr. Allain died and that’s impressive since he started as a Knife rather than a Hand.
Me, I’m a Hand all the way and have been since I was just a clerk with a bunch of penitentiary degrees and a sixth sense for how languages work. I must not let myself forget how deadly the others can be and as I remember I am frightened.
Hastily, I shove my doubts to one side. I don’t dare let anything confuse the hot, dull core of anger that I have stoked ever since I learned . . .
I reach inside and find it there, hot and pulsing at the memory. Good.
Comforted, I polish the death announcement before returning to my messages. Most are routine, but one cipher has resisted the computer decoding. It’s a really devious thing consisting of an old standby: words cut from a newspaper and glued to a sheet of plain paper. This one has some neat twists, though–the message itself makes no sense, and the words themselves are cut from at least four different newspapers.
I recognize the typefaces of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times immediately. The last one takes a cross-check through my files, and even then all I can do is narrow the candidates down somewhat. It’s definitely a small-town or low-circulation paper. I’m sure of that, though more on instinct than anything quantifiable.
Temporarily blocked, I summon up the “Holmes”the check sheet of data our labs pulled from the actual material (I just get a copy at this point). Again, a block. Apparently to stop precisely this type of analysis, the message was photocopied before being sent–so, no glue clues or paper clips, and certainly no fingerprints or blood stains.
Sighing, I have my printer cough out hard copy. The page is headed by a date two days earlier. The message begins further down:

 

cabbage disproves questionably that the common diaper is unintelligent. Bangkok tartan Opal released for bad of seaweed. Auntie agreement disorganized

Yeah. Right. I stare and wonder if this can possibly be important. Even as doubt niggles at me, port of my mind is wondering why the “writer” bothered with four different newspapers. Surely the Washington Post alone would have contained all of these words. Unless …
I don’t even let my mind finish shaping the thought, shrinking from startling my intuition. Instead, I hurriedly type the message into my machine, picking a different format for each newspaper. Washington Post gets bold; Wall Street Journal gets italics; New York Times gets underlining; and the unknown paper gets standard. The message now looks like this:

cabbage disproves questionably that the common diaper is unintelligent. Bangkok tartan Opal released for bad of seaweed. Auntie agreement disorganized.

Shit.
I put a save on the file and cut out for coffee. Arriving in the break room, I pour something that looks like black sludge into my mug, shudder, and set up a new pot. While it’s dripping, Tammany comes to the door.
Tall, slim, with dark, satiny skin, Tammany was born within a stone’s throw of the River Niger. Her closecropped hair emphasizes her broad, high cheekbones. She destroys any resemblance to a professional model by dressing in clothes that even the Salvation Army would refuse.
“Karen,” she says, crossing to the coffee and replacing the pot with her mug, somehow managing not to spill a drop.
“Tammany,” I reply, taking the pot from her.
“Vance has checked Rhys’s packet and he says that there’ll be a wake of sorts, but Rhys wanted to be cremated.”
“What time?” I say, covering my discomfort with a quick sip of coffee.
“This afternoon. Four. In the Atrium.”
I wave my mug at her.
“I’ll be there.”
Back in my safe haven, I stare at the words on my screen. I’d never thought about the funerals when I started this, about maintaining my cool while the friends–well, at least the associates–of the people I’d killed discussed them, mourned them.
I’d only thought of Mr. Allain.
Now I wonder what else I might have forgotten.
Scared, I hit the button that will unfreeze the words on my screen. They glow turquoise against fog grey.
“Cabbage disproves questionably … common diaper … Bangkok tartan. . .” What craziness was this?
I stare, concentrate, let my mind associate. Anything is better than thinking about killing Tammany. Patiently, I reorganize the sentences, anagram the words, try reading every second word, every third. Nada.
As I lose myself in the game, the intuition that had prompted me earlier to recast the words within different formats brushes like an icy wind against the contours of my brain. Trusting it, I align the words in columns according to their typeface:

Postcabbage
Bangkok
opal
WSJdisproves
questionably
common
unintelligent
released
bad
agreement
disorganized
NY Timesdiaper
tartan
seaweed
Auntie
unknownthat
the
is
for
of

No meaning there, but I feel that there is something. Right off, I realize that the nameless paper contributed only the commonest of words–an article, a “to be” verb, a couple of prepositions, a indefinite pronoun. For the first time in hours, I smile.
Chortling madly, I select the list from the Wall Street Journal; one of the first rules of cryptography is to work with the largest body of material possible.
A whine from the intercom at my elbow makes me jump, banging my knee against the tabletop.
Rubbing the sore spot, I touch the answer tab.
“Director Saber.”
“Karen.” The voice is silky, male, with a whisper of a Southern accent. “Are you aware that it is nearly four? We are expected at poor Rhys’s wake.”
I hear the reprimand despite Vance’s courtly tones and try to sound sincere.
“Dear Lord, Vance! I didn’t notice. I’ve been working on a message that was forwarded up to me.”
A pause, then, “I saw your light as I was closing down,” he says without acknowledging my explanation, “Would you care for a ride?”
I sigh, resigned. “Thank you, sir. I’ll meet you in the outer foyer as soon as I shut off my stuff.”
“Very good. I’ll bring my car around.”
I look back to turquoise on fog, then tap keys and let ebony eclipse the screen.


Excerpt from MARKS OF OUR BROTHERS by Jane Lindskold.

Published by Avon Books in 1995; Copyright © 1995 by Jane Lindskold. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the Publisher. Exceptions are made for downloading this file to a computer for personal use.

Copyright © 1995 by Jane Lindskold. All rights reserved.

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