A tall, ruggedly handsome man gingerly picks his way through a bazaar, trying not to be jostled but failing in the thick crowd. One hand steers a path between patrons of the mem dealer, while the other hand stays protectively over his money belt. Thieves hate to miss an opportunity.
“Fresh mems!” shouts a mustachioed bald man with large gold earrings in both ears. “New and exotic! Brought directly from the world of Tosheet! Swim in purple seas and experience love and war as the barbaric Tosheetans do!” He stands before a canopied green tent with swirling symbols painted on it in purple and gold.
Men and women wearing the loose flowing robes common to the desert clamor to buy the mems. Claims of something new and original cause the hubbub; a different twist on the same old addiction. The tall man pauses then asks loudly, “Are the mems first… or second reading?”
The hawker ignores him, but other people repeat the question until the hawker says, “They are fourth… Some are fifth!” he adds quickly like it had slipped his mind but his crowd is already dispersing. Several die-hard addicts wait patiently, knowing prices will drop. Others wait, curious enough about another world to risk grainy, emotionless images.
The hawker scowls and points an accusing finger at the tall man watching with a grim smile on his face. “Ballack! You ruined my profit margin!” He calls an assistant to help the remaining customers and sidles up to the tall man, clutching his elbow and leaning close to whisper. “Why would you bite the hand that feeds you?”
“Someone would have asked sooner or later.”
“They did, but not in front of everyone else. I was able to steer their conversations into more profitable channels.”
Ballack brushes the grip on his arm away. “I’m sure you were, Fagin.”
“Profit is the only thing that allows me to pay you your exorbitant fees.”
Frowning, Ballack says, “Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it.”
“It is,” Fagin nods.
“I wonder if my whole life is a lie, like the stories you tell your customers.” Ballack spits in the dust of the street.
Fagin states, “I don’t lie about my mems!”
“Except when you think you can get away with it. Some day you’ll get caught. And I’ll laugh when they stretch your miserable neck.”
Fagin suddenly chuckles, “Perhaps, but as long as you have your next batch ready before I hang I’ll die happy. When will I get them?”
“When I’m ready and not a moment before!” Ballack growls.
“Temper temper!” Fagin raises his hands in mock surrender. “I need some good mems for a special customer. Mems like yours. If you’re ready now I can double your profit.”
“You’re a piece of filth, Fagin.”
“What have I ever done to you, Ballack?”
Ballack’s face falls, “I doubt I’d remember.” He strides away, heedless of Fagin’s heavy laughter.
He walks until he reaches a small but lavish villa, whatever he wanted from the bazaar forgotten. Passing the gate he ignores the heavily armed guard and enters the main house, collapsing on a rich divan near a decorative pool. A servant brings him something iced in a cup that he mechanically grabs and sips.
“Bring my Book,” he orders. The servant nods and leaves.
“What happened?” asks a tall, beautiful woman who walks in and gracefully sits next to Ballack.
“I saw Fagin.”
Concern crosses her features, and then panic. “Is it time? So soon?”
“It was a chance meeting. He was hustling people at the bazaar.”
Something in his mood prompts her to ask, “Is that all?”
He ignores the question. The servant returns and hands him a small album. Ballack opens it. Each page he turns reveals another woman. Some of them are smiling, some seem sad. All of them are beautiful.
“You’re going to do it, aren’t you?”
He doesn’t answer.
“Haven’t I made you happy?” her voice breaks.
He refuses to meet her gaze. “You knew what I did for a living when you agreed to our arrangement, Larashi.”
Tears spring to Larashi’s eyes. She does her best to compose herself. “So am I soon to be just another picture of someone you can’t remember? How do you know if any of those women were real?”
Ballack meets her gaze. His eyes burn as he begins to weep. “I don’t.”
She gathers him into her arms and holds him as he sobs.
“I have an idea. What if, after you’ve sold your mems of me, I stayed with you and we replaced them? You could retire and we could spend the rest of our lives together.”
He takes a deep breath. “That was not in our agreement.”
“We’ll make a new one if you promise you won’t put my picture in your album.”
An elderly man in a silk kimono sits up from lying on a couch and removes a small headset from his temples. “You were right, Fagin, he is good. The emotional content is superb. How much did you get from him?”
Fagin smiles. “Two years’ worth this time, and his mems carry emotion to the third and fourth reading. He will make us rich.”
The old man puts his fingers together and nods. “And Larashi? Won’t she try to make good on her offer to rejoin him?”
Fagin’s smile broadens. “You taught me better than that, Pater.” He holds up a small metallic disc. “Her mems are right here.”
“How did you get her to give them up?”
“I convinced her that it was the only way she could be with Ballack again.”
Pater chuckles. “But her picture will end up in his book after all.”
Fagin shakes his head. “I can’t risk Ballack’s love life to a stranger. I find a random picture for his book, but Larashi has been the only woman in his life.”
“And they always fall in love again?”
A wistful expression crosses Fagin’s face. “Yes. Every time.”
Jon Clapier is the author of Peter Chienko the Druid Hunter. He also writes for Fiction Vortex, where his serial story ‘Blighted Aura’, is part of the Hiberverse collection. He lives in Idaho with his wife, kids, and Jeep.