She inhaled, and when she exhaled there was an unsettling rattle that accompanied the passage of air.

Amélie tried piecing together what had happened – there were holes, and now new holes in her jacket, her shirt, her. She remembered being shot distinctly. There was a moment when she’d thought to herself, I think I’ve been shot, then nothing for a while.

* * *

That ogre, Peck, was standing over her with a chunk of pavement held over his head, ready to crush her, but evidently something had stopped him.

Did he shoot you? No, he was behind you, but why would he be trying to kill me afterward?

* * *

On coming to again, Amélie struggled to lift her head, trying to get her bearings. The alley was dim. She’d been shot around noon – high noon, just like the New Wild West of her childhood – but she sensed her unconsciousness hadn’t lasted more than an hour or two. It dawned on her that it was she who was dim, not the day. Something was wrong with her vision. She couldn’t make her eyes open all the way, she couldn’t move her head much.

This is bad. I may be dying.

She came fully awake when she heard shuffling footsteps from down the alley where she lay. Fully awake, but still utterly immobile. She lidded her eyes.

Two men – boys really – appeared over the corner of the dumpster she was positioned behind. They paused, eyeing her cautiously. “Is she dead?” the first one asked.

“I don’t think so. I think she’s breathing, see?”

Amélie heard the two boys approach her. “Who’s she with, d’ya think? Who shot her?”

“Just shut up a sec.” She felt hands pawing at her jacket, rifling for valuables, weapons, anything. Ah, humanity, she thought, they weren’t any better. Pain and suffering at my doorstep, but what’s in it for me? She waited another moment as the more adventurous boy peeled back her jacket to find the coins he’d heard rattle in her pocket. She sensed the first boy was leaning in close behind, too.

Her eyes burst open, blue and alert. She had only the one card to play, but she held back a moment, taking them in and letting them do the same. Nothing about them told her whether they were Phils or Waltzers. She tried sitting up, but the only result was a pervasive sinking feeling in her head. She was going under again.

Fuck it, she thought, as she forced her mouth to form the words that had gotten her shot. “Pom Blue.” She started to drift off.

“Did she say…?”

* * *

Not dead, it seems. Amélie opened her eyes and took in the small, gray room around her. It was a cleaner room than she’d seen in years, though sparse. A cabinet with various bandages and devices on top and the cot on which she was lying. She was breathing smoothly, though lifting her head brought on a wave of dizziness.

A deadbolt on the outside of the only door slid open – ah, not ‘hospital room’, but ‘cell’ – and two men, dressed in white approached her bed. A quick nod from one and they grabbed the sides of her bed together and brought her into a sitting position. Amélie released a slight grunt, but struggled to conceal how much that had hurt.

The two men exited and another man, the first actual man she’d seen today – probably in his 40s, great hair, well dressed – walked into the room and seated himself in a chair by her bed.

“I’m Eugene Gumble. You’re at the FPC. You’ve been out for almost two days, but my people here tell me that you’re going to make it. You were brought here because you gave two of my boys a pass phrase. Now that you’re here, though, nobody seems to want to claim you and our pass phrases are only given to friends – unless they’re taken under severe duress…

“So, who are you? Who gave you the phrase? And what were you doing on that battlefield?”

“Pom blue?” Amélie muttered, dumbly.

“Yes, great,” Gumble said, “you’re in already, sweetheart. You’re safe for now, as long as I get some answers.”

“But what does it mean? What is ‘pom’?”

“Okay, you’re hurt, disoriented maybe. So you get that one question and then you tell me about how you came to be here, holes and all. ‘Pom blue’ doesn’t mean anything. It’s this week’s pass phrase, selected at random off of a piece of garbage pulled out of the river. Only Phils and their closest allies get the phrase. It guarantees aid from anyone else who has it. Unless you stole it from someone, you’re also obligated to help me. So now, tell me your tale.”

Amélie smiled at him. “Thank you, Eugene. May I call you Eugene?” She told him the tale of how she had found herself on the battlefield, who she was and how Joey had come to give her the password – with only minor changes. She alternated direct eye contact with extended, ‘meaningful’ stares at the floor or ceiling or door. It was damned hard to flirt when you could hardly lift your hand to touch your hair, but she was gifted. And it was working.

“So there we were in the alley and Peck, my erstwhile partner, ratted out my position so he had time to get away. I think he was even the first one to shoot me. If I find that bastard, I swear I will kill him. To think he was with the Waltzers the whole time. He didn’t seem smart enough to pull off any kind of subterfuge… Goes to show you, I guess.”

Ease up there, Amé. He’s already lapping it up – no need to add more gravy.

Gumble nodded. I could tell he was piecing it together, filling in my blanks. The best stories get told mostly by audience. I had no idea what it ‘went to show him’, but he did.

“So the Waltzers have the password. No matter, I can have that changed immediately. But you have given me some invaluable insight, Amélie. It has cost you a lot of pain, but I think it will be worth it. We’ll give you a couple more days to recuperate here, then I’ll see to it that you’re put up in some accommodations for an extended recovery. It will take time, but you’ll get better.

“We had no idea the Waltzers were running what amounts to an espionage front at the same time as they were waging all out war on us. We may need to rethink our entire strategy. No matter. For now, just know that we are in your debt and whatever I can do to make your time here more comfortable, let me know.”
Amélie nodded her thanks, then drooped her eyelids. Gumble blathered out some sort of goodbye and turned to leave.

Just before he closed the door, Amélie said, “Oh, Gene, before you go… Could you get word to Joey Martinez for me that I’d like to talk to him once I’m resettled somewhere more permanently.”

“Absolutely. But for now, rest up. Sleep well.”

He closed the door, no lock this time. Amélie was wide awake.