Jaden ate lunch at a synthetic-food cafeteria just off the base. He punched in the specs for the Cuban food he wanted synthesized, then gorged himself on chicken and yellow rice, crusty Cuban bread, and savory black beans, washing it all down with three cups of café con leche. It felt like the last supper of a dying man. And maybe it would be if he got caught doing what he connived.
Hopefully that wouldn’t happen as long as he could identify, and lose, his tail. He knew he was being followed; the Corporation wouldn’t allow a potential criminal out of their sight. But whoever they had sent to tail him must be good, because he didn’t actually have any empirical evidence that anyone was around.
As he lingered over his meal, he noticed two brunettes in casual clothes talking in low whispers. Occasionally he’d catch one of them glancing his way. He had changed a lot in the past few months, but girls still tended to notice him.
He took another sip of his café con leche, continuing to watch the women out of the corner of his eye. They seemed a little old for him—he seriously doubted they were planning on trying to pick him up. Which meant . . . good possibility they were Corporation spies.
Both women were well-built and muscular. They wore tailored yet casual slacks and blouses, covered with blazers.
Then one of the women dropped her napkin. When she reached down to pick it up, her blazer fell open, revealing a small yet lethal blaster.
“Your flan, sir.”
“I didn’t order any—”
“I believe you did.”
Jaden looked up and saw Squeeze holding a tray with an oval cup of custard.
“Yes, thanks,” Jaden responded.
“And your bill, sir.” Squeeze slipped a piece of paper face down onto the table and walked away.
Jaden picked up the slip of paper. Bathroom. Now.
Casually stretching, Jaden stood up and asked the nearest waiter where the restroom was, just loud enough to make sure the women had heard him.
At least that’s one place where they can’t follow me, Jaden thought.
Squeeze was waiting for him in the restroom. The door had barely swung closed behind Jaden when Squeeze grabbed him by the collar and shoved him up against the mirror. “What the hell did you do with my shipment?” he demanded.
“It’s safe. I swear. But you saw, I’m being watched. I couldn’t bring it to you.”
Squeeze shoved him again and let go. “Ever hear of a freakin’ phone?”
“Bugged, I’m sure.”
“What the hell did you do to get yourself traced?”
Jaden told him everything, from his last trip into the U.Z. to storing the contraband in a locker in the parking garage, to the accusations of addiction and his promise to help Ally escape.
Squeeze leaned against the windowsill, his arms folded. His characteristic derby hat was missing. He wasn’t himself at all.
“If you do get her out, just where are you two going to go where you won’t be hunted down like dogs?”
“They won’t even know she’s gone. No one keeps track of people in the U.Z.—they’re mostly worried about keeping them out of the civilized world.”
“But they’ll know when their illustrious little ripper is gone.”
“I don’t know all the details, but I promised Ally I’d get her out, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“You won’t stay out unless you’ve got a better plan than what you’ve got right now.”
“I’ll get Ally out, let them apprehend me, get put in the U.Z., give my thumb to someone, then escape from the U.Z. After that I’ll be untraceable.”
“Oh, brilliant. Because you don’t need all ten fingers now, do you?”
“Squeeze, I don’t know what else to do.”
“You need a diversion.”
“Like a whole bunch of escaped convicts. It’s tougher to run down a couple dozen instead of just two.”
“I can probably get Ally out without getting noticed, but how can I get two dozen hardened criminals out without them being noticed?”
“That’s the point, goofus. You want them to be noticed. Let the cops run all over looking for a swarm of clever criminals while you and your little chippy scoot off the other way.”
“But won’t this ax any hopes you have of ever making another run into the U.Z.? Won’t it get your guy in trouble if a whole bunch of criminals escape on his watch?”
“Fractious guy’s been asking for more money. Can’t stop paying him unless he’s been silenced or else he’ll give the whole operation away. I can always find another licentious night shift force field monitor with loose morals.” Squeeze grinned. “Besides, it’ll create the diversion I need to get my package back. With everyone out searching for you, I can slip right in and retrieve my property.”
“What’s in the packages anyhow?” Jaden asked, remembering the men he’d seen working over the lab table.
“You’re so naïve. Joy, of course.”
“Joy comes from the U.Z.? That’s impossible.”
“You’ve seen the facilities some of the warlords have. Where do you think Gaspar got his airboats or Mel got his roulette wheel? They export Joy, and I export the things they require to feed the need.”
“But why not just make it out here? Sneaking into the U.Z. is risky and, believe me—far from easy.”
“And so is having your operation found out by the cops. Nobody polices the U.Z., so nobody notices.”
“And you trust criminals to make the drugs?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, Amsterdam, we are the criminals. We’re just the ones still on the outside.”
Jaden knew Squeeze was right. Jaden was just as culpable as the addicts on the other side of the fence. He just had a bit more freedom.
Of course he wouldn’t keep it unless he ditched his tail. And he couldn’t stay in the restroom much longer without the women getting suspicious.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” Jaden said.
“This way, so you’re not followed,” Squeeze said, indicating the bathroom window. “There’s a small marina just south of Fort Myers. Your instructions will be waiting for you there, plus everything else you need.”
“Thanks, Squeeze, for everything.”
“How about a parting gift for the road?” Squeeze asked, offering him a small parchment envelope. “A little bit of Joy, on the house.”
Jaden shook his head. “My joy is on the other side of that force field.”