It was a slip of a gun. I’d have missed it if the kid didn’t look so shifty to begin with, and if he didn’t walk with a limp. But he did, and the barrel glinted silver from his hip as he moved into the room. He favored his left leg. His coat, which seemed a little too large and a little too grey on his scrawny frame, parted a little too much – that’s what gave the blaster away.
He moved to the wall of glass by the seating area and looked out into the city below him. It was about four in the afternoon and the sky was slipping into a hazy purple tone as the sun swooped below the horizon. The neon glow of the skyscrapers around ours had already begun to color the canvas of mist in the air. The kid looked tense. Still, he gazed out at the world below him with fascination, as if looking at something he should be able to recognize but couldn’t. I knew that look. He started to relax after a while, but only a little. I wondered if it was the nature of barbershops. Or perhaps he felt relieved he was up here and not down there.
I wrapped up business with my current client. “Happy with the job?”
He nodded his bulbous head. “Sure am. And good thing too, considering how much I’m paying for it!” His voice was like gravel, and when he chuckled I could hear the spittle in his throat. He was not one of my favorite customers, and I did not pay particular attention to what was in his mind. It was nothing clever, and certainly nothing profitable.
“You know how it is. Droids don’t give you cuts like these. You want human services, you pay human prices.”
He stood up from his seat, offered another chuckle and handed me the credits in cash. “Here’s your money.”
“Thank you, Vintro.”
“Now you have a good evening, Barber. And hey, try using some of those credits to repair that ceiling, yeah?” The sliding panels made to close, but he reached out and held the doors with his fat fingers for a few more words. It was a Vintro sort of thing to do. “This is a respectable establishment. Shouldn’t be no leaking where Vintro gets his haircut. No sir.” With that, he waved his plump hands and left. The glass panels hissed back into place behind him. No secrets from Vintro today, which wasn’t too surprising. He was the type to seem important, but he yielded to a boss, just like anyone else. Me? I yield to the scraper.
I was partly relieved that I wouldn’t have to take the subtrain over to the next district of skyscrapers that night. It wasn’t worth the trouble to make the trip to sell one secret, so it’s usually better to sell them in bulk. Unless it’s a big one. Vintro was the last client of interest for the night, however, and I had gotten nothing worthwhile from the mafia grunts that had come through before him. Whatever. As far as I’m concerned, sometimes slow days are a good thing.
I took a moment of respite and looked out into the city again, listening to the leak. Vintro was right about the dripping, but I couldn’t bring myself to care too much. It wasn’t really a bother, and what’s wrong with a little bit of rain anyways? Sometimes those who have lived their whole lives up in the skyscrapers need some rain. God knows a few of them have never even touched it. Vintro was one of those guys.
The kid was up next, and he was not one of those guys. He’s seen rain. It was obvious. The big coat and the hungry frame gave it away. I looked like that once too. But more than anything, it was his eyes that clued me in. The kid scoped out everything in sight, passing the room over with his gaze once, twice, three times. He double checked the chair before he even began to approach it, and stared at the razor blade in my hand. He gave a wary glance at the glass cup I put a few feet behind me to catch droplets.
The kid approached with hesitation and I waved him over, had him sit. “What’s your name, son?”
“My name is Rel,” he said. I hummed in agreement with the lie and kept an eye on the blaster. I was close enough to see specks of blood on its grip and a familiar insignia branded onto the barrel. The blaster was mafia property, but the kid wasn’t.
“So what are you looking for today, Rel?”
“Just cut it short,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he meant the hair or the conversation. I figured the hair. If he was looking to make himself less recognizable, that’d do the trick. He had a mane of black hair that curled down to his dark shoulders, which were tense and ready to bolt. It was tempting to reach into his mind and figure out his real name. Or at least where he got the gun. I wondered what the truth was. I wondered what the secrets were.
“You got it. You know my rates?” I had to ask. I knew where he was from, even without reading his mind. Droids, which composed the majority of the workforce below floor twenty, only took credits. One of the luxuries of working so high up in a scraper was that I only accepted credits in cash. Cash credits were hard to come by down there. Then again, so were mafia blasters.
His response was curt. “Yes. I can pay.”
“Then let’s start.”
I didn’t have to think about it too hard. I’m one of the best in the business, but I don’t put too much effort into cutting hair. I’ve had hundreds of different people under my hands. I know how to work it all – and do it well. Hundreds of different types of hair. Hundreds of different minds to work with. Hundreds of different lives, hundreds of different truths. Every time I had a client, I wondered whether I should do it. Every time… should I?
I touched his head and every single rapid-fire thought that ran through his mind splayed out in front of me for inspection. Messy, like a head of hair. I’d never met anyone with a neat mind, and his was no different. I wasn’t prodding too deep this time but I found what I was looking for with ease. The strands of one’s past were deeply ingrained in the mind, so it took no combing through to find the truth.
His real name was Dav-zen. He came from the fourth quarter, way down below. His mother worked the sky-docks as a shipment coordinator. His father was dead as of two days ago. He did not want to use the blaster on me. But he would. I switched tools, and began trimming the sides of his hair. I delved deeper, probing for secrets. He had a mafia blaster – there had to be something valuable in his head.
I asked him a question in an attempt to guide his mind to a branch of thought I could follow. “Where are you coming from, Rel?”
“Thirtieth level.” That was a snappy reply, but his brain was focused on making the lie. I could recognize the particular strands of thought that lit up when lies were being formed. Clients lied often. Some of them inane, others significant. All the same to me.
“That’s a long way from 127. Do you live on thirty?”
“No,” he said. “I was just visiting a friend.”
There, I caught it. I saw the flash of a muzzle as he shot a man. He was a regular visitor to my shop, like many of the members of this quadrant’s mafia. I failed to remember his name, but I knew for sure that he was of a middling rank and that he had filched four hundred credits from the chief. It’s how he paid for the haircut. I had hoped to sell that particular secret to my contact next week. I was mildly disappointed.
Still, I followed the pulse of the memory and watched the two have their confrontation. It was murky, because Dav-zen was beginning to think about other things, but I got the gist. The pilfering mafioso killed Dav-zen’s father. Why?
The image of blood appeared in his mind and I felt his shoulders tense as I picked up my razor blade to clean up the back of his neck a little. He did not like that.
I tried putting him at ease. “Tough day, son?”
“Something like that.”
He wasn’t the sort for small talk, by my estimations. “How about your friend? Didn’t you meet with ‘em? Couldn’t have been too bad.”
“It was a business meeting,” he said. I nodded, though he couldn’t see me do so. When the blade touched the back of his neck he nearly jumped. The kid trusted me far less than the machines that usually cut his hair for him. Go figure. I moved the blade down his neck at just the right angle to shave off the hair smoothly, working from right to left. “Business, huh? I see. Did it go the way you hoped?”
His jaw clenched up. “Yes.”
My eyes went to the gun.
The sliding glass doors hissed open and allowed a man to enter. He had a black suit and sandy hair that reached his shoulders. His stature was lean and he looked a few years younger than me. More ambitious. Mid-30’s perhaps. He had a strong jaw. I recognized him by his watch more than anything. It was silver, classic, old. Top-floor expensive. They didn’t make those types of watches nowadays. Nobody needs them. This was the Boss. He’d never come before, but his associates did. I got most of the secrets worth selling from their very accessible minds. This shop was a popular spot for those sorts. But here he was, and I had to wonder why. Dav-zen’s mind rippled with fear at first, then anger.
“Well!” said the Boss, “if this isn’t the barbershop that my friends are always going on about. Nice view. Mind if I sit?”
I nodded my assent. “Take a seat. I’ll be with you soon.”
The Boss sat in the seat nearest the workstation. He stared as I finished Dav-zen’s hair, but didn’t say a single word. A small smirk graced his lips. I had never met him, but I had met enough of his close friends that I wasn’t disturbed by the staring. Those sorts looked down at everything they could with ravenous abandon. I wondered, sometimes, if it was because they had so little to look at so high up. Just the sky.
Still, used to it or not, there was something unsettling about it. But was it me? No, it was Dav-zen’s emotions flowing through. He got over the discomfort quickly in favor of hatred.
“Say, Barber,” said the Boss. “Don’t this young gentleman on the chair look familiar to you?”
I tensed up myself. “No. Should I recognize him?”
“Haven’t you checked the news, Barber? One of your clients died. He was shot with his own blaster this morning. All his money was stolen. I checked the photos of the murderer, and, well… It looks just like this fellow. Uncanny, really.”
He pulled out a blaster. “I’m sorry to have to make a mess, but I was in the area and figured this was business that needed personal solving.”
Dav-zen shot up from his seat and grabbed me by the neck. He had his own blaster out and ready to fire before I could react. “You can’t kill me without killing him.” Dav-zen’s threat was an honest one.
The Boss fired. The blast blew right by my ears and hit Dav-zen in the throat. He hit the ground hard and blood splattered all over my workstation, spilling out onto the floor. Red drops made their way into the glass cup. The blood swirled, mixing with the water.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” the Boss explained. “But frankly it had to be done. He was trouble.” He walked over to where I lay on the ground and reached out a hand to help me up. “You’ll be receiving a transfer shortly, I hope it’ll be sufficient recompense for your troubles. No cash, unfortunately.” He patted me on the shoulder and stepped away towards the exit. “My cousin says he only caught his wife’s interest because of his hair cut. Can you believe that? That’s the wonder of a human barber. Anyways, I’ll send someone over to clean this up.” He laughed to himself, but paused as he reached the doors. They hissed open and stayed that way, yielding to him. “Hey Barber, you can keep this a secret, can’t you? Not that it matters. But just on principle.”
I nodded numbly. He left.
I glanced over at the body of Dav-zen and kneeled by his side. He was breathing, but they were shallow breaths. I put my hand on his shoulder. I doubted he could even hear me, so I said nothing. His mind was bursting with thoughts and memories, and I struggled to watch. It was like looking at a fading flare in pitch-dark. I caught glimpses of bright things. Distilled truth. No secrets. No filters. No one can afford to keep secrets in death, especially not from oneself. Revolutionaries and sky-dockers can’t afford it. Mafia bruisers and barbers can’t afford it. The rich can’t. The poor can’t. The old can’t. The young can’t. Dav-zen can’t.
I saw childhood memories, the jubilance of adolescence. I saw sisters. I saw a church and smelled incense. I saw pain and tears. Suffering. Poverty because his father slighted the wrong type of bastard. Long days scavenging at junkyards for extra money as a result. I saw the kid’s father giving impassioned speeches on ending the corrupt reign of the city – of putting things back in order, getting rid of the mob. I understood then that Dav-zen’s father was an anonymous dissenter whose identity I had revealed for the price of 243 credits a week ago. A low-end secret. Was that the price of a man’s life? My mind teetered into a wave of self-loathing, but something pulled me out of myself and into a wave of belief. I felt it through Dav-zen, whose dying emotions became my own. Hope in what his father stood for. For a moment, I felt belief in something. In something more. In God, in justice, in hope itself. It had been a long time since I felt like that. And maybe it will be a long time before I feel like that again. Dav-zen believed in his father’s truths.
I believe in nothing.
A month passed, and life went on. I gave haircuts. I sold secrets. It’s my job. It’s all I’ve ever had. It’s lonely inside other people’s heads, but I manage. In a year, I could move up to level 133. That’d make me the most sought after barber in the city. More than now. But wasn’t I already?
The glass panels slid open and I heard the tapping of what I assumed to be expensive shoes. “Mr. Barber! Y’know, I really do wonder what your name is. But I like the mystery. I’m here for a haircut. I have to look great tonight – I have a function in the evening.”
My jaw clenched of its own accord. I nodded my assent. The shop was empty so the Boss took his seat. “I see you fixed the ceiling. Put that money to good use. Atta boy. I care about the state of these buildings, granted that I own this whole quadrant. Next time, I’ll cover your costs as a personal favor.”
I cleared my throat. “So, what kind of haircut would you like today?”
He shrugged, tapped away at his communications device. I saw him give me a grin through the glass’ reflection. “I trust you, Barber.”
I nodded and got to work. Every time I had a client, I wondered whether I should do it. This time…
Some men don’t deserve to be understood. I cut his hair, snipped away with scissors, trimmed with the machine.
I prepared the razor to shave his neck. “You know,” he said. “I’m really sorry about that kid. I’m sure it wasn’t too much fun to–”
I imagined that I took the razor and slit his throat with it. Put an end to him. For what? Why? Who knows. Maybe I believed it would be for the better. Maybe it was for Dav-zen. Blood lazily flowed down his neck and fell onto the floor as he faded into death.
He stood up and gave me a thick bundle of cash credit. Much more than what I charged.
“A little something extra, to get you up a couple floors.”
He left, and I closed up the shop for the evening. Later, I’d wonder at the money he gave me. The cost of ascension.
The sun breathed its last light into the hazy sky, painting it red, like the blood of Dav-zen. I stepped through the sliding doors and heard them hiss shut as I made my way to the elevators.