I ordered another drink, as much to kill time as to occupy my hands and keep me from catching the eye of the man at the other end of the long, curved bar. I found myself thinking about a fencing class I went along to a few years ago – it’s always interesting to see what techniques you can pick up from another discipline – in particular about the first session. It always stuck in my mind, that session, mainly because they never let us near a weapon. After an hour of drills and basic positions, they lined us up in two ranks, paired off along a wide space with one coalscuttle fencing mask in the centre. It was a foolishly simple game. Call a number, and a student emerges tentatively from each rank. The winner is the first to carry the mask back to the safety of his own line . . . or to tap the shoulder of the man trying to make the run. The first few pairs were snatch and run affairs, short and fast, but it quickly became apparent that the advantage lay with the second man. That was when the dancing began.
It flashed through my mind in a moment, without distracting me from the man at the far end of the bar. He fitted in perfectly, conspicuous only because I knew him. Pavel Yakovych Tomeckova, a good man in his own service, from everything I’d heard, but sadly right now nothing more than an unwanted complication. I never caught him studying me, but I was certain that he was. I was the only good reason for him not to have done yet what he had clearly come to this rat-hole bar to do. I was almost certain that he knew my face as well as I knew his, but not quite certain enough to act on it, so I kept my survey circumspect.
It told me nothing I hadn’t known. He was slight at a glance, but dangerously lean on closer inspection. I had an uncomfortable feeling that with him my weight advantage wouldn’t be enough. There aren’t many people who can call me slow, or take points off me, but from what I’d heard he could do both, and that would be the least of my problems.
I toyed with my drink, and kept my eyes on the tacky surface of the bar. There was nothing else to see, and no point wasting time looking for his partner. I wondered if he was wasting time looking for mine; if he was, he was too good for it to show. But he was that good. He was too good even to be showing his interest in Emanuel, but it was inconceivable that he had chosen to drink in this rotten back street bar for any other reason.
And the second man has the advantage, the easier game. And I knew that Tomeckova was too good not to know it too. Well, one of us had to make the first move, before Emanuel got bored. I finished my drink decisively, and slipped off my stool. I had a feeling that this was going to be painful, and not just to my pride.
So I made contact with our friend Emanuel. We dickered a little. He asked me why he should trade with me, and not hold out for a better offer from Tomeckova. I smiled mirthlessly; I hadn’t been sure, up to that moment, whether Tomeckova’s presence was a coincidence or evidence that we were leaking somewhere. I told Emanuel he was too smart for his own good, pointed out that Tomeckova wouldn’t trust him any more now that we’d been seen talking together. I couldn’t be certain, when I said it. If he was leaving the reason would be subtly different. But I saw from Emanuel’s eyes that my guess had gone home, that behind me Tomeckova was leaving, and after that the negotiations were easy.
Then all I had to do was to get home. The only possible route had made me almost willing to throw up my hands over the whole affair from the start. Now it was the only reason my germ of an idea might work.
Tomeckova stopped me in the long dark alley that was the only exit, and tried to talk. I didn’t listen, not because he’s a plausible bastard and I didn’t trust myself not to fall for his line, though with his reputation I had a right to be cautious, but because I was listening for someone else – for the partner I hadn’t wasted time looking for in the bar, because I knew he’d be out here – because Tomeckova was too smart not to have wanted cover out here. I had a fractional warning from his footstep, and it gave me the chance to ride down the worst of the blow, but I couldn’t avoid the shattering jab from Tomeckova, and as they turned me over I was every bit as helpless as I seemed.
I listened until they were out of earshot, and wished I’d been able to think of a better idea. I told myself to get up, and go home. And I lay in the mud a bit longer, and thought about scorpions dancing, and honour, and rules. And told myself to get up, and go home.
After a while a shadow detached itself from the wall, and told me the same thing, slightly more sympathetically. As she helped me up I asked
“They got out into the crowds as a soon as they could, where they felt safe.”
In the crowds, where my slight, light-fingered partner is at her most dangerous.
“Give you any trouble?”
“A rough moment after I got it off them – nothing I couldn’t outrun.”
Because when scorpions dance, they do it in the desert, with no-where to hide. But when my partner runs through a crowd, no one ever taps her on the shoulder.