If you arrived here by mistake and are looking for the start of this story, you can find it here.
I set out at eight. From my place, I’d have to change lines a couple of times to get to Hagar’s by the Maggie, and I wanted to be there early to make the most of speaking to the barman, Ridge, before the real crowds built up. He knew Tawnee, she was a regular, so I was hoping he’d have an idea where to find her.
The Maggie was sparsely populated at that time. The service ran until midnight, but most of the heavy traffic was from commuters during the day. The city kept the MagLev trains running into the night to provide cheap transport for people working late or taking in shows, but it was heavily subsidized, and there was always talk of cutting the operating hours.
After changing at the Brooklyn Park station, I took the Campus Line, which swung east over the flooded out old downtown area, then curved back north. It was a circuitous route, but the five credits I paid covered my entire journey.
The nearest station to the bar was on West Read Street, and I followed the exit signs until I was outside, safely off the streets on L2. Elevated walkways took me to the right spot after an easy ten-minute walk, though my still-sore legs protested. The tranq had taken away the earlier pain, and I was doing something positive to get myself out from under the cops’ magnifying glass. The black mood I’d been swallowed by earlier had lifted a little, despite the incident with the license renewal. I had no idea how I was going to worm my way out of that situation, but at least I was still fighting.
The entrance was festooned with gaudy lights, while an overhead holo-display showed a couple of wrestling dinosaurs, along with the name Hagar’s in garish, multi-colored splashes that resembled the holographic equivalent of vomit. At least I thought they were fighting. Who could tell with dinosaurs? They could have been making love for all I knew—paleontology wasn’t one of my strong suits.
The two guys running security on the door eyed me suspiciously but let me through. Being early meant I was less likely to be liquored up and looking for trouble. Which only proved they didn’t know me well.
The place was almost empty, and even the thrashing music was at a low enough level to allow discussion between the few people there. I idly wondered if the volume was programmed to rise as the hour got later, or whether they controlled it manually based on the crowd.
I weaved toward the circular bar in the center of the room, but when the bartender appeared they were disguised as a raptor, not the friendly troll I’d encountered a few nights ago.
“What can I get you?” he said.
“I’ll have a bottle of Old Stumpy.” Despite the name it was a decent quality brew, and seemed appropriate given my current situation and mood.
As he fetched the beer, I glanced around. The small groups mostly chatting in booths looked harmless enough. But there was no sign of either Ridge or Tawnee.
“Here you go, mate.”
I held out my credit chip, wincing only slightly at the cost that flashed up, before pressing my thumbprint against it to accept the charge. “Have one yourself.”
“Thanks, cobber, real friendly of you.”
The charge doubled, and I winced harder. He wouldn’t drink it, but it might make him friendlier. “I was in here a few nights ago. Got chatting to a woman called Tawnee. We were getting on well, but I had to leave and was kinda hoping to see her again. Any idea if she’s likely to be around?”
The raptor’s eyes narrowed. “Tawnee? Don’t know anyone by that name. Sorry.”
“What about Ridge? Is he working tonight? He seemed to know her well, said she was a regular.”
“That bastard?” the raptor snapped. “Ain’t seen that bludger in almost a week. Probably got munted and sleeping it off. Only worked here three days. Seems no one wants to do regular, honest work no more, all they want to do is live off the wag.”
“Cheers.” I lifted the bottle in a toast and swallowed some of my beer, then pulled out my Scroll and pretended to make a call. My chances of finding an alibi were looking slimmer than an accountant’s Christmas shopping list. While pretending to talk, I slowly turned my Scroll, using the screen as a surreptitious mirror to see what was happening around me.
Nothing much had changed since I’d entered, and I almost “disconnected,” then I spotted a guy in a booth all alone with an untouched beer in front of him. He was staring. At me.
I turned, still making my one-sided conversation. The flickering lights made it difficult to see, but the guy didn’t look like much: seventies possibly, with a balding head framed by a circle of gray whiskers. When I faced him, he looked straight ahead, as though he’d never been watching me, and sipped his drink. If he was a cop, I was a pet canary. Unless they’d dragged one out of retirement especially to handle my case. I turned back to the bar and flagged the raptor down once more.
“Do you have a number or address for Ridge? He might be able to give me a lead on Tawnee.” I put on my biggest shit-eating grin. “She sure was cute.”
He glared, and wiped the glowing fake lava stream that topped the counter in front of me. “What’s with all the questions, mate? You a cop?”
I held up my hands in denial. “You have to be kidding. I told you, I’m just looking for this woman.”
“Yeah, well find her somewhere else.”
A shadow fell on me from behind, and I looked around. The two meat slabs from the entrance hovered over my shoulders, and judging by their expressions, they weren’t about to buy me a drink.
“Time to leave, shorty,” the one on the left said, his voice like loose shale sliding down a mountainside.
“What about my drink?”
The slab on the right shuffled closer and peered down his nose. “Seems you’ve had enough.”
Maybe before my injuries I’d have been able to take care of one of them, but now I had no chance, and what would be the point anyway? “You’re probably right.”
I made my way to the door, the two man-pillars following me every step of the way. Once outside, I turned around to face them. “Thanks for your hospitality. It’s been pleasant, I’ll be sure to come again.”
“Don’t,” the one on the left grunted.
While I was addressing them, I was staring through the glass door into the bar. I wasn’t at all surprised when the guy I’d spotted watching me crossed to the bar to talk to the raptor. There was something going on, and my gut told me they weren’t planning an orphans’ picnic at Leakin Park.
I trudged down the street, wondering what my next move should be. I’d blown my chance of getting information from the bar, so unless I staked out the place in the hopes of Tawnee resurfacing, my “investigation” was already over. Footsteps clattered off the walkway behind me, and two pairs of hands grabbed my arms on both sides.
“Take it easy, numbnuts.” A voice growled in my left ear, and garlic-soaked breath washed past my nostrils. “Mr. Davilera wants to talk to you.”
“I’m sure he does, but the Fred Fenuku show is on tonight, and I never miss an episode.”
“Now what have I told you, Lenny?” The guy on my right chuckled. “You forgot to say please.”
The last word was accompanied by an oily click as something blunt and metallic was pressed against the back of my head.
“You just said the magic word.” I allowed myself to be guided along the walkway to a blocky, dark-colored Sulanga Imperial sedan.
“Get in.” Lenny opened the back door, and “Chuckles” forced me into the seat, slipping in next to me. A few minutes later, we were in the air.
“I think there’s been some kind of mistake. If you’re looking for money, you’re going to be hugely disappointed.”
“There’s been a big mistake, for sure,” Lenny said from the driver’s seat. “And you made it.”
“You know what I think? I think you should stay quiet,” Chuckles said. “You too, Lenny.”
“What’s with the names, Sammy?” We’re not supposed to—”
“Believe me. It ain’t gonna make any difference with this one.”
Sammy’s words chilled me. Clearly, they weren’t expecting to bring me back from wherever they were taking me.
The AeroMobile stayed in the local SkyWays, traveling steadily east, no doubt to avoid any untimely attention. Lenny bypassed most of the downtown, and we finally dropped toward a decrepit industrial building on the outskirts of Rosedale. The roof’s flat perimeter was bisected by a central glass ridge that may have let in light about a century ago, but was now coated with thick, black grime. “An old warehouse? You guys are kidding, right? That’s such a cliché.”
Sammy slammed his gun into my skull, and I jerked to the left. A couple of seconds later an agonizing stab bounced around the inside of my skull like a buzz saw, and a trickle of blood flooded my mouth.
I didn’t need telling twice. If I’d been a Solido star, I’d have wrestled the gun out of his hand before Lenny in front could do anything. But with one arm resembling an overcooked noodle, I had no chance.
We landed on a rooftop pad, and I got out when ordered. Anyone who thinks they can fight off a couple of armed attackers like in the Solidos is asking for an early grave, and Momma Ballen hadn’t raised any fools. Though, in truth, my early life was spent in an orphanage like so many others. Environmental destruction had brought with it plenty of new ways to die, and parents weren’t immune.
The roof perimeter was cluttered with several air-conditioning units that looked like they’d last seen use in biblical times. On the far side, away from the reinforced landing pad, a gray cube stuck up from the roof with an ancient steel door leading inside.
There were no lights, but the moon hung fat and bloated over the horizon, the milky white light revealing piles of crates and a number of barrels dotted around the doorway. Perhaps the roof had once been used as auxiliary storage, though everything appeared to be corroding or falling apart.
We clattered down a set of metal stairs winding around in a spiral supported by a nest of scaffolding, and I tried to breathe evenly. The air had the ever-present cloying odor of damp common to most street-level places, but there was an edge to it that could have been rust. Or blood.
“Nice place you have here. Must be perfect for throwing big society parties, for all the other guys with broken noses.”
Sammy laughed, but Lenny was the one to respond. “Anyone told you, you got a big mouth?”
“That’s hurtful. I always thought it gave me more of a sensitive, poetic look.”
“You know what I think? This guy’s demented or something.” Sammy nudged me from behind. “Keep moving, pretty boy.”
“Demented? That’s a nice big word. Do you know any others? Like abduction? Or prosecution?”
The gun slammed into my kidneys, and I fell forward, only saving myself from tumbling by grabbing Lenny.
I gasped. “Thanks for the hand.”
Lenny jerked me back upright. “You’re nuts.”
At the bottom of the stairs we crossed toward what appeared to be an enclosed office space. A set of double windows and a door faced us, the glass leaking tainted yellow light, highlighting puddles of water on the concrete floor.
“Is that a Buffo’s Burgers? I’m starving. That jingle, man, it always cracks me up. Get yourself to Buffo’s, to get your favorite treat. With orange, red, and green ones, they’re all fit to eat.”
“Unfit to eat, you mean.” Sammy laughed. “Man, I wouldn’t feed that crap to my mother-in-law. They make those things outta beetles.”
“Mmmm mmm, just like momma used to make.”
Lenny knocked on the office door, which was covered in peeling blue paint. A voice called out from inside, “Come.”
After the relative dark of the warehouse, the office seemed glaringly bright, and I blinked multiple times. The blow to my head probably wasn’t helping. A clean-shaven man sat at a battered metal desk, the wall behind him lined with ancient filing cabinets that didn’t look as though they’d been opened in fifty years or more.
He looked like an accountant, or maybe a consultant, slightly swarthy, but on the respectable side of the fence. At least until I saw his eyes. They were dark brown, almost black, like a couple of microscopic black holes—as though no light, or good, ever escaped them.
I pushed away from my abductors and stepped forward, holding my hand out and grinning widely. “Mr. Davilera, how good of you to invite me. I’ve heard so much about you.”
Davilera frowned, and jabbed a smoldering cigar at my two friends. “What’s he talking about? What did you guys tell him?”
“Nothing, boss,” Lenny said. “He’s a wise guy, is all. Likes shooting his mouth off.”
The cigar was real, and the smell in the confines of the office made me want to throw up. SootheSticks were bad enough, but real tobacco? No wonder they made it illegal.
Leaning back in his chair, Davilera sucked on the cigar and blew a cloud of filthy blue-gray smoke toward me. “So you like to talk, huh? That’s okay. It’s Ballen, right? Okay if I call you Joe?”
“You can call me a cab. If I don’t get home before midnight, I turn into a princess.”
“You’re a funny guy.” Davilera smiled, but it missed his face by a meter or so. “It’s okay, I like funny guys. Now look, Joe. We can be civilized about this. It don’t need to end in violence. All I want is information, and you can vanish into the night to do whatever it is you spend your time doing.”
“I’m sure you’ve plenty of experience making people vanish.” My brain wasn’t running this conversation—my mouth had taken charge.
Davilera scowled. “You don’t want to keep it civilized? Is that it, Joe?”
He nodded to the guys who’d brought me in, and the next thing I knew, my head bounced off the desk. My ears filled with the roar of my own blood trying to rush everywhere at once. Then something was jammed into the back of my legs, and I collapsed onto a chair. My forehead burned where it had impacted the desk, and a trickle of wet stickiness oozed down my cheek.
“My great-great-grandfather opened this place, you know?” He gestured with the cigar. “He was a fishmonger—a good honest trade. Of course, there were still plenty of fish around back then. But when the market tightened, other guys got jealous, you know? He had to defend his business, otherwise he’d get steamrollered.”
“Let me guess.” I rubbed my forehead, and my fingers came away coated in blood. “He found that defending things was a lot more lucrative.”
Davilera grinned. “See, you’re a smart guy after all. What I’m telling you is, I’m a businessman. I come from a long line of businessmen. I know how to make the tough calls when I need to. The question is, do I need to now?”
“It might help if you told me what you’re after.”
“Simple. I want Kenzie, and I want my hundred million credits.”
The only thing I could connect with that much money was the hijacked Null Vector, but I had no idea why they wanted me. “I don’t know anyone called Kenzie. You think I had something to do with the hijacking on the High-Rig too?”
“Still playing games, Joe? I thought we were going to keep this civilized.” He nodded again.
“Wait. I had nothing to do with that.”
“Sure. Your biometrics were at the scene, your DNA, your clearance was used, and security recordings show you there. But it wasn’t you. Right…”
“I’ve been through all this with the police. I can’t explain those things, but I was unconscious the whole time it happened—someone shot me full of zom.” Sammy reached for me once more, and I leaned out of the way. “Why do you think the cops let me go?”
“Cops got rocks for brains.” Davilera waved his finger at the guys behind me.
The metal desk boomed as my head hit it again, and I momentarily passed out. So far, this was mostly bruises and a little blood, but how far would they go? Shaking my head, I lifted my hand in surrender. “This Kenzie—who is she? Or he? How about a description?”
Lenny answered. “Kenzie Saint—one hundred and sixty centimeters, female, brunette, curves in all the right places.”
Other than the hair, that could easily have been a description of Tawnee, and with the kind of cosmetic technology available now, changes to hair or even skin color were easy enough to be done on a whim. “I met someone using the name Tawnee at Hagar’s Bar a few days ago. That’s the last I remember for almost a week. Maybe that’s who you’re looking for. But I’ve no idea where she is.”
Sammy grabbed my shoulder, ready to slam me again, but Davilera waved him off. “Tawnee, huh? Could be.” He sucked on his cigar and flicked the ash on the floor. “That still don’t let you off the hook. Go on, though, it’s entertaining watching a smart ass trying to talk his way out.”
I relayed everything I knew. It didn’t take long, but at least it stopped Lenny and Sammy from working me over for a while.
“So that’s it. Now you know as much as me.” I tensed in the chair, half expecting another assault.
Davilera leaned forward. “It was the perfect operation. I had the intel. Knew when the shipment was coming. Setup cost me plenty, but I had a buyer all lined up. All I needed was one thing—the proper access. That’s where you came in.”
“We needed a way through the security. They don’t mess around up there.” He pointed the stub of his cigar upward. “I figured a wreck like you would be all too willing to earn some extra cash.”
I was confused, partly because of the heavies playing splat with my head on the table, but also by what he was saying. Did he still think I was involved? “So this Kenzie or Tawnee was supposed to bring me in on this?”
“See, I knew you were smart.” Davilera ground the remains of his cigar into the concrete floor. “Now, enough of this shit. Where’s my spaceship full of FuzeCells?”
The look on his face told me I was in serious trouble. But that didn’t help. I had no idea where the hell the ship had gone, though there were a limited number of possibilities. It could have headed for the Martian mining operations, but would have stuck out like a goose at an AA meeting. Luna Free State was another option, though it had close relations with Earth and wasn’t likely to risk those ties over something like this. That left the Atolls or the Corporates. Fibonacci would have been an easy orbital transition from the High-Rig, and the Atolls would be happy with the unexpected windfall, regardless of the source. As for the Corporates? Well, they already owned the ship and cells. None of this reasoning was going to help me now, though.
“Okay. Tell your boys to back off on the rough stuff and I’ll tell you everything.”
He waved the two men back. “I’m listening.”
“You’re smarter than the cops, I’ll give you that.” My head swam as I tried to think up something convincing. “This Tawnee chick offered me a deal, like you said. My part was to get her through security. She said the people she was working with would take care of the rest. Then the crazy bitch shot the guard and I bailed. Didn’t even get paid. Can you believe it, after going through all that?”
“And who was she working with?”
“She told me it was The Silent, but I never saw any of them.”
Davilera scowled. “Gimme a name. Who exactly?”
I held my hands up. “She never told me, honest. She said she got her orders from Lil Loco or something like that. That’s all I know, I swear.”
“What do you think?” Davilera looked from Lenny to Sammy.
“The Silent could be muscling in on our turf, boss.” Lenny’s words were almost whispered.
“Could be. Rohas has been trying long enough.”
“Don’t they call Radek Locaro, Loco?” Sammy said.
“He a small guy?” Davilera said.
Lenny answered. “Nah, real big.”
“Figures. Where do we find him?”
I had no idea who they were talking about. I’d plucked the name out of my imagination, hoping it was generic enough they’d know someone it might fit. It was a long shot that had paid off.
“He usually hangs with Raj, Nelson, and some other guys at the Guadalupe Club on Sixth and Ritchie.”
“Okay, pick him up. Quiet, though. We don’t want no one getting spooked just yet.”
“Can I leave now?” I asked.
“Sure. Drop him where he wants to go, boys.”
I was going to say thanks, but Davilera continued.
“From a great height.”
—– To be continued —–