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deserted_hills

He heard a clatter behind him. Something metallic had hit the curb side. Young, he thought, smiling. He didn’t turn around. After all, he knew his trade. He prided himself in being one of the best.

And he was right, as usual. A few moments after the metallic noise had shattered the morning’s peace he heard soft foot steps approaching. Tentatively. Careful, he thought, the smile vanishing. Maybe too old already. Well, he thought, we’ll see.

The foot steps stopped approaching and out of the corner of his eye he could just so glimpse her. Maybe 8 or 10, long blond hair in braids, a flowery summer dress and flip-flops to round off the picture. Apparently she was alone. Very good, he thought, the smile almost returning.

She was standing a few paces away, staring at him. Eyes wide open, mouth half open, her face was a picture of inquisitiveness and curiosity. After a while she shifted her gaze from him to search the horizon, looking for whatever it was he was looking at. Not finding anything out of the ordinary she turned her attention back to him.

He could hear her breathe, the kind of ‘I try to make no noise’ breath that is actually louder than the regular variety.

After a while of looking back and forth between the horizon and him she became more restless, almost fidgety. And a few times she drew a deeper breath as if wanting to say something, only to change her mind and let out the stored air in a long and low hiss that was not quite a whistle.

“What are you doing?”, she finally asked.

His smile grew wide and toothy. He knew his first hunch had been right. He slowly turned around to face her, taking her in fully for the first time.

“Why, I’m catching clouds, of course. What else could I be doing here?”

He had a point there, her face seemed to concede, looking towards the horizon again. Why hadn’t she seen that immediately. But then she looked back at him, looking him up and down with the open curiosity only children seem to have.

“But you don’t have anything to catch the clouds with”, she said triumphantly. “And how are you going to take them home after you catch them?”, she added, her forehead creased with incredulity.

He moved very carefully and slowly. This was the moment he had been waiting for. If she caught on too quickly he would lose his catch. And it was a beautiful catch, he thought. No chance he would allow it to get away. He hadn’t caught anything near as beautiful in a long time.

“With this”, he said, has he brought up the canvas bag in a wide arc from the side that had been pointing away from her.

Now he moved so fast that she didn’t even have a chance to lose the expression of curiosity on her face before it was over. The bag came around and towards her like lightning from a blue sky. Almost too fast to see. Certainly too fast for a little girl to get away.

You still got it, he thought to himself, chuckling, as he brought the now well-filled bag back towards him with practiced ease. Still one of the best, and no mistake.

With another look at the clouds he had been watching to pass the time, he turned away from the scene, the bag over his shoulder, and was on his way home. It took a lot of effort to not sing and skip. The bag’s contents seemed to affect him more than he had thought they would. Either the quality was even better than he had expected or the bag needed a new lining.

By the time he got home he was whistling and those who knew him would definitely have noticed a spring in his step. But beyond that he was in control.

When he opened the front door his wife’s voice came from the kitchen where she had apparently been preparing things for lunch.

“Did you catch something for a change, man, or are we going to have canned stuff again?”

He laughed as he kicked of his boots and went through the house to the kitchen, still shouldering the bag.

“Not to worry, my dear, this is the catch we’ve been waiting for.”

With that he heaved the bag onto the kitchen table where it landed much less heavy than it should have, considering how full it was.

“Now, now, now”, his wife said, “you know you’re not supposed to brag, that can easily spoil things.”

Despite her skeptical words she moved closer to the table and it’s baggy load, licking her lips in anticipation.

He grinned and went about the business of opening and emptying the bag, making sure that there was no spillage and no undue damage to his prize.

As she watched him, his wife’s eyes grew wider, and her grin outshone his be a tooth or two.

“Indeed”, she said, with a sing-song quality to her voice that reminded him to not only replace the lining in the bag but also to upgrade the other equipment to make sure that high-quality stuff like today wouldn’t spoil prematurely.

“I’ll go call the dealer”, she said, already turning around, before he had quite finished his work.

“Nix”, he interrupted her. “You clean up the mess here. I caught this, I’ll be the one who sells and delivers.”

Seeing her face go red with defiance, again remembering the maintenance the equipment needed, he added soothingly, “Look, you can enjoy the spills as you clean up. While I have to do the unpleasant negotiation thingy you don’t like too much.”

Almost mollified his wife turned back to the table to begin the cleaning routine while he removed his protective gloves and apron and went to the living room to get down to business. As he closed the door he could hear his wife humming and he smiled, thoroughly happy with himself.

“Yes?”, came the dealer’s voice through the receiver. The harshness only slightly softened by the phone’s low-fidelity speaker.

“Got your delivery, sir.” He had a hard time to keep his voice straight, he noticed. “Ready for pick-up at the usual time.”

After a moment of silence on the line, the dealer’s voice came back, somewhat friendlier, if still cold enough to freeze hell over on an average summer’s day, “The usual place, too? What quality rating?”

Crunch-time. This was the moment when he gave his quotation, the moment that would decide their financial stability for a while if he played it right.

“Grade triple-A, level eight to ten on the c-scale, clear pink g-reading”, he said, as coolly as he could manage. Then he held his breath.

Finally, after he already started fearing that the other had hung up in disbelief, the voice came back, a mere whisper, “If those readings turn out to be correct you will be rewarded accordingly.”

No negotiation, no argument. He let out a sigh he hoped the phone system wouldn’t give away. “See you at the usual place, then”, he said and hung up before the dealer could change his mind and start asking questions after all.

He went back to the kitchen to share the good news with his wife over a well-earned celebration lunch.

When the time for the delivery approached, he put on his coat and boots, both, for the weather as it was promising to be another cold night, and to protect him against whatever leakage the container might suffer from. Heaving the heavy box into the trunk of his car he noticed again that his equipment needed some serious maintenance. All of it. Business hadn’t been the best for too long. Children weren’t what they used to be, he mused. But tonight would turn it all around, and no mistake.

As he closed the trunk’s lid and got in behind the wheel he could feel it despite the additional insulation his coat and boots provided. Yes, tonight would turn it all around.

As usual he arrived a quarter hour early, but when he turned into the parking lot that had served as a drop-off point so many times before, he knew that tonight was going to be different. He couldn’t see anyone, but there were decidedly too many cars in the lot for this time of night, and they were almost to a fault the wrong type for this neighborhood. His own wheels were as inconspicuous as you could possibly get them, of course, but he could feel the hired attention trained on him as he slowly crossed the not-quite-empty-enough expanse of cracked and pot-holed concrete finding his accustomed spot as if by chance.

He exhaled deeply as he killed the engine, trying to ignore the smell of fear that had permeated the car in the small space since his arrival at the parking lot, and to relax his cramped body. You need an upgrade, too, he told himself in an attempt at humor. His emotions were creating a feedback-loop instead of staying nicely boxed and under control as they should in a man of his profession. Speaking of professionals, he thought, and snorted in disdain, finally able to get his fear under control, although he knew that the arrogance he replaced it with might be even more dangerous in the showdown he felt building all around his car. They sure believed the quality ratings he had quoted, he thought, judging from all the hired suits out there. Let’s hope I didn’t get them too greedy, or things might get even uglier. Well, too late for second thoughts now, he thought as he opened the door and eased his bulk out into the suit-filled cold night.

“Good evening”, came the usual distorted voice his contact applied when meeting him for transactions. But he wasn’t fooled so easily. The tension was thick enough to be cut with a knife. It seemed that business hadn’t only been slow for him recently. As far as he knew this guy was dealing with dozens of suppliers. And if he was this hot for tonight’s package, it could only mean that there hadn’t been any catch like this in a while at all. Well, let’s dance, he thought.

“Good evening, sir,” he replied, following the other’s example in putting on am air of routine he didn’t feel at all. Knowing he wouldn’t fool the other any more than he had been fooled, himself. But one has to uphold traditions, he thought, and almost laughed out loud.

“Where is it?”, the dealer asked, a little too sharply. Apparently he had been too slow responding.

“Right here”, he replied, pulling himself together. “What is all the firepower for, by the way, sir? I’m sure you don’t expect any trouble, do you? If I hadn’t known you for so long I’d be tempted to be insulted at the display. Sir.”

“Just a precaution. Goods like this one have become rare and we wouldn’t want any misunderstandings or accidents happen, now, would we?” The smile on the dealers face was as fake as his voice or his emotions, but the explanation was valid enough, even if it might turn out to be a lie.

“Fair enough”, he said. “I assume payment has been prepared according to our usual business practice.” He felt nowhere near as confident as he tried to come across, but if the other picked up on it, he didn’t call his bluff.

Nodding, both men walked the few paces to the trunk where they were met by a third who was carrying a large and heavy-looking suitcase.

“Here we go”, he said as he opened the trunk and stepped to the side to allow his business associate access to the box that filled the trunk in ways more than just physical.

“Let’s see whether your claims hold true, old man”, said the dealer, stepping closer to the trunk and carefully opening the siagnostics port in the top of the box. He had hardly closed the rest of the distance to the tiny opening to press his eye to the box as he started giggeling.

“Enough seen, sir?”, the catcher asked, with too much joy in his voice for his taste as he reached around the dealer’s head and hastily closed the port before the spillage would spread far enough to start affecting the suits that had started closing in on the car, most certainly not per order but driven by curiosity and the ever present hunger of the perpetually deprived in the presence of fresh goods.

“Yes”, the dealer said, pulling himself together with force as he stood straight. “You have come through, old man, finally, again. Payment shall be made in full.” He beckoned the suit with the suitcase to come forward. The cashier’s lips were twitching with the tell-tale signs of hilarity, but he at least was pro enough, the catcher had to concede, to not skip the few steps to the trunk’s edge.

“There you are, old friend”, the dealer said jovially, all but patting the catcher on the shoulder, as the cashier opened the suitcase to reveal the prepared payment. “The customary amount for this quality.”

The catcher stepped forward carefully, aware that he could still lose everything if things went wrong. He briefly examined the contents of the suitcase, knowing that he shouldn’t act too suspiciously as to not provoke the buyer. On the other hand this wasn’t your average business transaction where you could claim missing funds later or protest the whole deal. This was the moment. This was it. He realized that he had underestimated the value of his catch. There was more than twice as much in the suitcase as he had anticipated. And given that the other would almost certainly try to short-change him, he realized that the value must be at least four times what he had thought. Not to mention what the dealer’s client would pay, undoubtedly not more than a few hours later. Not for the first time in his long career he mused whether he should have gone into trading rather than catching. But he didn’t have the stomach to deal with the kind of slime bags the dealer was selling to. So, also not for the first time in his career, he shook off the greed and returned his frayed attention to the most important part of the transaction: getting away with life and payment.

“This may have been the customary amount before the latest shortage”, he said as he slowly stood up straight, looking the dealer hard in the eye, his act, finally, intact. “Both of us know what this is really worth. Not to mention what it will be worth to your clients who have probably already started bidding and salivating.”

Now the dealer was pro, too. “I don’t think you are in much of a position to bargain, old man. My associates here”, he said indicating the suits all around, ” are not only here for the show or because I like a crowd. A catch like this is hard to keep secret and we’ve been warding off over-zealous competition from this place as well as your house and all the way between ever since you called me this morning. We pack up and go without completing the transaction, how long do you think you’d be both alive and in possession of this?” With that he pointed casually at the box in the trunk that suddenly seemed to glow like an emergency beacon.

But the catcher knew that he still had some room to maneuver as the other had honored his argument with a counter instead of just ignoring him.

“Then why don’t we settle nicely in the middle between what we both know this to be worth and what is in your first suitcase”, he said calmly with a smile, nodding first towards the box, then towards the suitcase that had magically been closed and set down by the cashier’s feet again. “We can call it a security commission”, he added, “and both leave here alive and happy, instead of in varying degrees of trouble as you well know we both would be if the deal failed. I might end up losing my goods, but you would lose the deal and your clients’ reaction might not be far from what you claim to be protecting me from, out there.”

“You seem to forget that you are just about outnumbered here, old man”, the dealer said with a sneer, losing a bit of the professional poise again. The catcher let out a slow breath, finally relaxing. He knew he had won as the dealer was retiring to threats, even if they were not empty threats.

“I’ll give you that, sir”, he replied as calmly as he could manage. “But don’t you think that we’ve been doing business together a little too long to assume that either of us would be without reassurance on a night like this?” With that he pulled a small vile from his coat. “I’ve been around this catch for a whole day now and you can count on it that I didn’t indulge in any of the spoils. Tempting as it was, I’m a pro. What do you think how long it would take for your starved suits to tear each other – and us, for that matter – to pieces, if I released this. Or dropped it, say, if something happened to me?”

The dealer took an involuntary step back at that, then relaxed and spread his arms. “Now, there, old friend. Why would we possibly go about threatening each other here?”, he said, his voice dripping with false sincerity. “Have this on top of what you’ve already seen, and we both know you’ll be more than justly rewarded for a few hours’ work.”

With that he beckoned the cashier again, who was now carrying two suitcases, the second one only marginally smaller than the first. The cashier stepped forward again, heaving both suitcases onto the lid of the car’s trunk, opened them and stepped back.

“Alright,” the catcher said after merely glancing at the contents of the second suitcase. “You throw in an upgrade for my equipment and you have yourself a deal.” That last bit wasn’t strictly necessary but he didn’t like the dealer’s smart-ass attitude. And, after all, he really needed it.

“Word if honor,” the dealer said and held out his hand.

They had hardly started shaking when the suits moved in and removed the box from the trunk, plunking the payment in, instead.

“Pleasure doing business with you, as always, old friend”, said the dealer grinning.

“And you”, replied the catcher, face as straight as his back. Traditions have to be upheld, he thought. Or have they?

He sat in his usual spot. As he had for the last decades. But the last few days had been different. He wasn’t actually working. He had his equipment with him, of course. He would feel naked without it. And good new equipment it was. The dealer had beed true to his word and actually delivered the stuff the very next morning. Good stuff it was. Top of the line, all of it. Not that he needed it, anymore, really. The compensation for the last catch, even without the upgraded equipment, was enough to allow him to retire in luxury. And on the way home he had been painting a glorious image of retirement in his mind. Life in paradise without a care for as long as he would live. And then some.

And his wife had been all for it. Going through the house to see what to take and what to leave. But the next morning, after allowing himself to sleep in, he had found the new equipment in his back yard, dropped there no doubt by the dealer’s minions sometime around dawn, and very naturally, without giving it another thought, he had found himself getting ready for work. It had seemed wrong to not go. This was what he did, who he was, after all.

So here he was, as usual gazing at the horizon, senses open all around, sieving out signs of promising catches, but then all but ignoring them when they registered. After that last catch they all seemed inconsequential, sort of, and the money to be made off them seemed like pittance to him now. He knew he would need to do something about this attitude issue. He couldn’t keep pretending this was normal for very much longer. But somehow he couldn’t get himself to let go of either the idea of wealthy retirement nor the image of himself as a catcher. So the days had passed and he had kept pushing the decision back, while his wife had grown more and more impatient. She had all but packed their bags and was waiting only for him to come to terms with the change. But it didn’t seem like he would. At least not anytime soon.

He checked his watch and sighed. Lunch time was closing in. He pulled is equipment together and made his way home. His mood had been weird ever since the night in the parking lot. He wasn’t quite sure whether it was the exposure to more spillage from a catch than he had been used to in a long time, or really only the damned retirement issue. Grumbling, he arrived at home. But when he opened the front door, all of his concerns suddenly vanished.

There, in his living room, on his very sofa, sat the dealer. And it wasn’t even the breach of etiquette that made the catcher stop, it was the dealer’s body language. He had never even conceived of such agitation being possible in the old pro. The tang of a predator hung in his living room, almost repelling the catcher physically. But long-honed reflexes cut in and he calmed himself within a heart beat, before the other even became aware that he had gotten home.

“Unusual visit, sir”, he sat as he walked around the room to face the dealer and sit down opposite him. “I take it this is not a social visit, so what brings you here.” Extending his senses to beyond the confines of his house, he added, “and without a platoon of suits, to boot. Quite unusual, indeed.”

“Hello old friend”, the dealer replied, all fake calm and cool again, now that the catcher was there. “Caught anything of interest since…?” He let the end hang in the air, sure that both knew what he was referring to.

The catcher waved the question away. He was too annoyed to get caught up in small talk, traditions notwithstanding.

“Nothing you’d be interested in, sir. At least not after…”, he didn’t need to complete the sentence, either. Now he knew, he felt, that the visit was related to his last catch. Not that it took a lot of clairvoyance to see that, either.

“Indeed, indeed”, the dealer concurred with an air of arrogance. “And that is why I am here, as I am sure you have guessed.”

The catcher didn’t say anything, but nodded to encourage the dealer to cut to the chase and not keep him from lunch longer than necessary.

“My client, that is, the one who purchased your last catch, has made a rather unusual request. And he has made it in a way that I wasn’t able to refuse following up on it.” The dealer’s voice went quiet, almost as if he was ashamed of what he was going to say next.

The catcher had the sinking feeling that that feeling of shame might be justified, as irregular it was in someone of the dealer’s line of business. And if that was true, and if he was here, under these highly unusual circumstances, it could only mean…but that was too much to bear thinking about. So he gritted his teeth, faked a smile and nodded again.

“Well, needless to say, the client was very pleased with the goods”, the dealer continued, clearly trying to put off the time when he would need to spill the beans. “So pleased, in fact, that he requested…”

His voice trailed off. Suddenly he looked shrunken and old, his head lowered, staring at the hands folded in his lap like they might yield some revelation if he kept staring a them for, say, a millenium, or two. Then he pulled himself together, cleared his throat, and continued.

“Er, you could say he demanded, rather than requested. The word ordered comes to mind. You know, he is the kind of customer who is highly rewarding to please but fatal to disappoint.”

The catcher sat stoney-faced, staring at the dealer, sensing that his worst expectations were about to come true, but still said nothing, waiting for the dealer to get around to his point, however long that would take. Lunch or no lunch. If it was indeed what he suspected it would be, missing a meal would be one of his least worries.

“Hrmph”, the dealer made, “OK, I’ll just say it. There is no way to say this nicely. He wants more from the same source.” He cleared his throat again. “Actually, what he said was, he wants the source.”

The bomb dropped, the dealer fell silent once more, and the catcher felt like he just got slapped in the face and kicked in the balls at the same time. No matter that he had seen this coming, but actually hearing his business associate say it was a different thing altogether.

“What do you think I am?”, he demanded, with more calm and quiet than he felt. “I’ve caught fresh and original emotions for a living for a long time…” His voice trailed off as he saw the other’s face fall. “And even if I agreed to do it, you know as well as I do that it’s not possible. Your clients pay premium rates for fresh, first-hand emotions, because the world is so full of artificial, second-hand stuff that most of us don’t even remember the taste of the old stuff anymore. And the goods get rarer and rarer as TV and the other mind vampires get more and more pervasive. If I actually delivered the girl whose curiosity and wonder has made both of us rich, she’d be useless even before I got her into the car. By the time she arrived at your client’s, nothing would be left worth paying for. At least not along the lines of my trade.”

“I knew it was pointless appealing to you”, said the dealer, “but I had to try. As I told you, my client didn’t so much as ask. He ordered. And when the likes of him order something, they get it. Or else, if you get my drift.”

He pulled out a gun from his jacket and pointed it at the catcher with an almost tired gesture. “So, you and I are going to go for a little hunt now. I’m sure you remember where you made your catch.”

The catcher shook his head in resignation, and said, “Have it your way then, but let me bring my equipment, so I can at least get the last of her free and fresh emotions before we destroy her for good.”

He stood up slowly, not waiting for the dealer’s answer, and went back around the room towards the front door where he had dropped his still unused equipment.

“No tricks, old man”, the dealer said as he followed closely behind. “No warning the girl or some other stunt.”

“Not to worry”, replied the catcher, turning around slowly, catcher-bag in hand, feeling inside the lining near the rim for the intensity switch and smiling as he found that it hadn’t been moved from it’s factory setting. “That won’t be necessary, old friend”, he said, bringing the bag around with practiced ease, too fast for the dealer to even blink or think about pulling the trigger before the bag completed its work.

“I always wondered why the bloody bags even had a setting ‘full extraction'”, he said to the empty husk of the dealer as he carefully removed the gun from his limp hands. “Wonder what I’m supposed to do with you now. You could be anything from here on in. But not before lunch.”

With that he walked around the still figure and made his way to the kitchen, a weird feeling of Deja-Vu prompted by the bag that was filled to bursting with everything the dealer had ever felt or thought.

“We’ll have to take care of that, too”, he grumbled. “Maybe I can sell it as raw material for some horror program.”

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