Collinsworth sat in the oak room where the Abolitionists had convened earlier that morning. Panel sessions were limited to a maximum of two hours, but as Prime, he could stay in the room as long as he goddamn wanted. Abolitionists – Prime included - were also not allowed to drink, but in that regard, he could do whatever he goddamn wanted too. He could do whatever he goddamn wanted in any regard. He gripped a half empty bottle of scotch and poured himself another glass. He gently replaced the stopper and lifted his glass in one hand to peer through its crystal walls and into the amber liquid inside.
Things were unraveling quickly.
There was no telling what Solomon already knew – he had refused to divulge anything about his meeting with Paltron. Then of course Judy had withdrawn, temper and hair aflame. Word had it that Paltron had gone missing as well– if not on Collinsworth’s orders, though, then by whose? And why? Who could want her gone? Was there something more Paltron knew?
Collinsworth took a sip and swallowed deeply, letting the burn trickle down his insides like rope on fire. He had always had Paltron on his bankroll, and perhaps he’d been foolish to believe that would have been enough to keep her in check, contained. He had underestimated her. He had eagerly played the fool. A frown tugged his worn lips and tired skin down. He was a two-timing pig – he'd taken one look at that stunning woman and assumed he knew what made her tick. He had deigned to think that his ambitions outshined hers – that her dreams were limited to red dresses and money. For the first time he realized that he had no clue what she wanted. Or what she was capable of.
He took another sip of his scotch. Damn her. Damn the way he always felt like a schoolboy around her, twenty five years her senior. He still soured at the memory of their meeting in Blaine, when he’d made a pass at her. He could never erase the look of disgust on her face. All that time he’d been sure she was encouraging him. Every laugh, every wink, every brush against his arm. It was true that he’d always detected some faint ulterior motive of hers in the matter, but he’d never let it concern him. Even then he’d known that his position could be used to climb ladders, and in her case, he had been happy to play the rung. He was just thickheaded enough to believe she enjoyed his company during the climb.
It was always meant to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. He, trapped in a league of inbred intellectuals and needing relief, and she, ready to build her empire based on whatever information he could proffer her. But now he saw clearly that it was Paltron, rather than he, that had always held the upper hand. Sex had been her way of possessing him, of making him her puppet – and he had participated wholeheartedly.
So what now? If it wasn’t the money or the sex she was after, then what?
The factory collapse did ooze of her.
His fingers tightened around his glass. He couldn’t imagine she would sink so low to cause thousands of Pure deaths for the chance at a break. Was there even such a thing anymore? What was the significance of being the first microtext in thousands? Real time information buried the lede. Any Joe could be first – but perhaps it took a Jean to stay on top.
His lips puckered. No matter her reason, it was his job now to keep the situation under control. It was a political game, and he was the king of politics.
He just needed his next move.
He took another long, slow sip, his bright, 1-color hair reflecting the waning afternoon light. He was old. He’d lived a long life. He wasn’t about to let two women and a black man get in the way of it all now.
Kaemi gripped at her stomach, her palm cradling the tiny life form inside of her. The baby was kicking, but more urgently than ever before. What was the matter? She wasn’t due for several weeks. The baby kicked again –
“Oh!” Kaemi let slip.
Williams, up ahead with the girl, turned. “You okay ma'am?”
Kaemi smiled a tight smile. “Yes, thank you.”
Sandy turned back as well. “We’re almost there. Don’t worry.”
Kaemi couldn’t help noticing the air of happiness in Sandy’s voice. A young girl, so far from home. Kaemi wondered what it must have been like to grow up in the bad part. She hadn’t spent much time there herself – it wasn’t a place known for its kindness to black people. Or any minorities for that matter.
In Klammath, where Kaemi had spent most of her life, there were distinct boroughs where the rules were clear. Stick to your borough and you were safe – except for the sneers, of course, who were the constant exception to the rule. Kaemi was suddenly reminded of Meg, the sweet messenger who'd been slain by sneers for venturing through Brownsborough. Her wake felt like so long ago now.
In the bad part, though, the common understanding was that there were no rules – anybody could turn violent at any time. And the bad part still had guns – lots of them.
She took a deep breath, rubbed her palm against her belly, and felt thankful they would be back in the caves soon. She was comfortable there, and they would be a sufficient place to hide until the war with Klammath blew over. Until Dirth returned. Then she could be home again.
She felt another pain in her stomach, this time worse than before. She winced.
Williams and Sandy had already turned back towards the path ahead. They were young. Let them be young.