If you arrived here by mistake and are looking for the start of this story, you can find it here.
Late in the morning the following day, the outer door to the cells opened, and a guide-bot rolled in.
“Prisoner XC143475, Ballen, Joseph is to come with me.” It sounded like a drunken food disposal as it trundled over to my cell, unlocking the door with a loud click. “Place your hands in the MagCuff provided.”
The cuffs appeared out of a slot in the top of its square head, and I slipped them onto my wrists. They were fastened to the bot with a security wire, and clamped around my wrists automatically. I was going nowhere without my metal friend.
“What’s happening?” I said, following behind as it rolled back through the door.
There was no reply, which I shouldn’t have been surprised at. These things were bargain-basement tech and strictly functional. I guessed I was being taken to some kind of hearing, which seemed far too efficient for the police. It usually took several days for anything except murders to be processed. I shivered. Maybe the security guy on the High-Rig hadn’t made it, and I was facing a homicide rap.
We turned a corner, and the bot pulled me toward a door on the left. It opened and I shuffled in, not knowing what to expect. I couldn’t place the slightly portly guy nearest the door, though he seemed slightly familiar. Behind the desk was Detective Halmshaw, his glare reminiscent of a lion awaiting his first Christian of the day.
“Good to see you, Mr. Ballen.”
I finally placed the other person—it was the court appointed shyster, Koenig. He was smiling.
“What’s this about?” I glanced from Koenig to Halmshaw. Grinning lawyers were generally the bearers of bad news, and Halmshaw’s dark expression seemed to support that.
Koenig’s smile widened. “You’re free to leave. You made bail.”
“Huh?” My response was as insightful as it was communicative.
“Tox screening showed residual signs of a large dose of zom in your system, and a follicle test proved you weren’t a habitual user. The report also showed you’d missed several days of your anti-rejection drugs, supporting your claim that you were drugged.”
“That’s enough to get me released? Who put up the bail?” While I was happy to leave, I wondered how deep in debt I was.
“Bail bond company that specializes in medical related cases. They owed me a favor.” He turned to Halmshaw. “The papers for Mr. Ballen?”
“This isn’t over,” Halmshaw growled. “I’ve seen smart guys like you before. You’re gonna trip sooner or later, and I’ll be waiting.” He held out a clear bag containing my meager possessions, and a DataPad for my thumbprint.
“That sounds very close to a threat of harassment, Detective,” Koenig said.
“Not at all. It’s a promise.”
I acknowledged the receipt of my stuff and handed the DataPad back. “I’ll do my best to disappoint you.”
Halmshaw snatched the device and scraped his chair back. He punctuated his exit with a slam of the door.
“That’s one pissed cop,” I said, for the first time almost glad I was on a strict daily regimen of drugs to manage tissue rejection and nerve dissonance.
“It’s his own fault.” Koenig chuckled. “The toxicity reports probably wouldn’t have been enough on their own, but he screwed up badly.”
I followed him into the corridor. “What do you mean?”
“Rookie mistake.” Koenig seemed to be trying desperately to suppress a belly laugh. “He didn’t read you your rights under the Charter.”
We stepped out of the building, and I took a deep breath. Even with the street level garbage and ever-present smell of damp, rotting everything, it tasted like a shot of pure O2.
“Thanks. Even I was starting to think I was guilty.”
“No, no.” He shook his head. “Thank you. It’s not often a public-appointed defender manages a win like this. It’s not over yet, but I think we have enough to make a solid case and have the charges thrown out.”
“So, what next?”
“For me? I’ll get an investigator out looking for the woman at the bar. She should be able to verify your alibi.”
I liked his optimism but wasn’t sure about his pragmatism. To me it seemed more likely that “Tawnee” was an accomplice in the heist and the one who’d drugged me. I couldn’t argue with one thing, though: he’d certainly pulled a hat out of a rabbit. “Sounds good. How’d the recital go?”
Koenig wavered, the corners of his mouth drooping for the first time since I’d seen him today. “The performance was excellent, apparently, but Jason threw a fit at me missing it—he can be rather theatrical at times.”
“I’m sure you’ll make it up to him.”
“If nothing else, I’ll have fun trying.” Koenig grinned again. “I better leave. I’m due in another hearing soon. You can get home okay?”
“Sure. Thanks for the help.”
“Halmshaw isn’t going to let this drop without a fight, so stay out of trouble.”
“That’s my family motto.”
He climbed into his AeroMobile. It lifted straight up and was soon lost in the myriad of other vehicles traversing the SkyWays. He didn’t drive anything fancy—his car was a beat-up Soartech Excursion—but seeing it climb filled me with pangs of regret at the life in space I’d lost. With the drugs I was on, they’d never reactivate my AeroMobile license, but as I couldn’t even afford a beater, it was irrelevant.
I turned on the broad steps leading away from the ground level exit and bumped into a woman coming down them. Muttering a hasty apology, I hesitated as I took in her high, almost sculpted cheekbones and dark brown eyes that looked like you could dive in and swim around for life. I’d seen her before but couldn’t think where.
“Oh crap.” Her nose wrinkled, and she looked me up and down like I’d crawled out from under the nearest garbage can. “You’re why they pulled me down here.”
She wore a pink t-shirt with Dollie’s Cabs printed across it in bold letters. She must have been the taxi driver from last night. Or rather from four nights earlier. I’d only caught a glance at her profile during the cab ride, and that had been impressive enough, but now in daylight, I could see she was a real stunner. She had enough curves and jiggles to make any man sit up and beg—and not the kind of woman you’d expect to be flying hacks around Baltimore’s waterlogged streets.
“Sorry about that. Believe me, it wasn’t my choice.” I moved aside to pass her. At this time of day, the Maggie—the city’s MagLev transit system—was still running, and much cheaper than a cab.
“They threatened to pull my license.” Her voice dropped, almost rumbling through her lips.
“Take it up with the Charter commission.” I wasn’t exactly brimming over with the milk of human kindness, and as attractive as she was, all I wanted was to get home and crawl back inside a bottle.
“Oh, sure… and have them close down my business?” She scowled. “Thanks for nothing.”
“You’re Dollie?” I gestured at her chest, then realized what I was doing and fumbled my hand back down.
“Wow, you can read? I’m impressed. And there I was thinking you were checking me out.”
“I…” Usually my mouth is quick with a comeback, but she had a strange effect on me that made me want to respond in all manner of inappropriate ways, and it didn’t take much to guess what kind of a reaction I’d get. “You’re not seeing me at my best.”
“It gets worse than this?” Her eyes flicked up and down, and it seemed to me she was doing a pretty thorough job of checking me out. “Anyone ever tell you, you give in too easily? Where are you headed?”
“My apartment, I guess.” I had nowhere else to go, and all my friends lived in space.
“Want a ride?”
Her lips parted slightly, sending dizzying ideas through my head. She was a party invitation to the biggest ball of the year, and I would have been happy to be her guest. I’d been lonely a long time, especially since the accident. But that was the trouble: despite all the drugs, I felt weak and vulnerable. Besides, the hints I thought I was picking up were undoubtedly nothing more than fevered artifacts of an overactive imagination.
“Thanks, but the insurance won’t pay for it while the Maggie is still running, and my pension isn’t exactly extensive.”
“It’s on my way.” Her voice softened. “I’ll drop you.”
“Is this some trick to drive me out some place quiet so you can off me?”
“That would be a waste.” She chuckled. “Come on, it’s free, and I don’t bite. Much.”
She turned toward the parking at the side of the building, and I trailed behind her like a puppy, trying my best not to stare at her amazingly tight rear.
Her cab had the same Dollie’s Cabs emblazoned over it, along with the slogan For the Ride of Your Life. That had me wondering what kind of clientèle she typically attracted. She lifted the car into the local SkyWays with ease, deftly maneuvering through the traffic to the City lanes.
“Thanks for the lift. I appreciate it. But why?”
She kept her eyes focused on the traffic, so all I could do was stare at her perfect profile.
“I’m a sucker for hard-luck stories, and I have a feeling you’ve got plenty.”
I’d never liked talking about myself, something that had only gotten worse since my treatment. As soon as I mentioned it, I got one of two reactions: fake sympathy about how horrible it was and how hard it must be to deal with, or varying levels of repulsion combined with a morbid curiosity about my regenerated limbs, even though it was a standard medical procedure these days.
Dollie, however, gave off a refreshingly non-judgmental vibe, and I found myself pouring everything out to her like we were old friends catching up after not seeing each other in a while. When I finally stopped blabbing, she glanced at me with serious eyes.
“I knew some of that,” she said. “I recognized you that first night and had read about you in the news.”
It seemed everyone had, and I tried to change the subject. “What about you? How does a smart, attractive woman end up flying cabs for a living?”
“I’m glad you led with smart.” She dropped the cab into a lower level as we crossed over Charles Village. “Do you have any plans right now?”
Something in her voice made me think she wanted me to say no, but that could easily have been my imagination. “Not especially. Recently, one day has been pretty much like another. Well, except for the last few.”
“Do you like art?”
I can appreciate a fine piece of engineering, or a well-designed control system, but had to admit art wasn’t one of my strengths—too many pictures of people with arms growing out of their ears for my liking, but I didn’t want to look like a philistine. Especially after she’d given me a ride. “Depends what it is.”
“They’ve got an exhibition at the Museum of Art—paintings by Mozert, Ballantyne, Frush, and others. Would you like to see it?”
The names could have belonged to a new investment company for all I knew. “What about your cab business?”
“Pah, most of the work is at night. And we’re almost at the museum.”
For the first time in several months, I was enjoying being with someone, even if it was only companionship. The sense of bitterness that had enveloped me since the accident had turned me into an almost total misanthrope. I preferred spending time drowning my sorrows in a bottle of whatever I could afford. “Why not? But on one condition.”
“What’s that?” Again, I thought I sensed a hint of hopefulness in her tone. “Lunch first.”
—– To be continued —–