There are times when I regret going into private investigation, considering I could be some sort of lawyer or stockbroker on the Upside.
So many people in Underburough need help, though. It’s easy to feel like nobody’s on your side, when you look up to the sky and don’t see anything but the tiny-seeming lights the Upside designers installed that keep the Underburough lit 24-7. Sometimes wind whips around the support block columns and carries with it the scent of the huge sewer pipes exposed on the ventral surface of Upside. It drives people to do crazy things sometimes. Other people suffer for it. And the understaffed police have more than they can handle.
That’s where I come in.
I stand on the fire escape outside of my office and trigger my vaporizer again. I watch some people walk through the streets, respirators or breath masks in place. A lot of the populace has developed sensitive systems, which is why I keep my smokey exhalations out of the office. The drugs take the edge off of my anxiety and spin up my mental turbines. They’re legal, according to Underburough regulations, but on Upside, I’d be paying a heavy price just for medicative drugs that help me through things like this.
You’d think that ‘pre-consisting conditions’ would have gone the way of the fossil fuel industry. But corporations have to make their profits somehow. I hear things are better on Mars. If you can afford to go there.
I pocket my vape and head into the office, running a hand through my longer hair. I keep the left side short, so it’s easier to get to the interface I had installed on that side. It’s the only ‘enhancement’ I’ve got — on the odd occasions I do make it to Upside in the course of following a lead, it’s good to be able to wear a hat or something so I don’t stick out too much. Though I suppose the bubble-gum pink streaks in my hair would be a detriment in that regard.
There’s a young woman waiting for me outside of my office door. She’s dressed like your average Underburough citizen — decent raincoat, gloves, respirator around her neck now that she’s indoors, somewhat worn skirt and boots. She looks up and moves to stand.
“Miss Adler, my name is Anna Lipschitz. I would like to hire you. My husband is missing.”
I nod. “Let’s step inside. I’ll warn you, my office is a bit of a mess.”
I lead the way in. I tend to keep old paper records, rather than saving much to the Cloud. I don’t even have a terminal on my desk; just a small signal scrambler for any search or messaging I do on my pocket comm. I pick up my glasses, slide them on, and sit behind the desk. Anna Lipschitz seems mystified by the sight of so much paper and the scent of ink. She finds the small chair on the left in front of the desk and sits.
“So, tell me about Mister Lipschitz.”
“He works from home, taking support calls for an Upside technician’s firm. So it’s odd for him to be out for even an hour or so. He has some health issues and would rather stay in if he has the choice. He’s been gone for two days.”
I frown. I’m taking notes, and already I’ve written “dead?”, “cheating?”, and “hospital” under what Lipschitz has told me. I decide to start in the middle.
“Anybody else in his life he talks to often?”
“A few friends online. Like I said, he doesn’t get out much. When he does, it’s to have beer at the hall and watch Upside sports. Soccer and wrestling.”
“What soccer team?”
Well, at least he has good taste in sport.
“Do you ever go with him?”
“Once.” Her grip tightens on her purse. “He was flirting with the waitress. She was very young.”
Ah. “Thank you for telling me.” I draw a line under ‘cheating?’ and take a drink of coffee from the mug on the desk. It’s cold, and bitter. I make a face.
“What health issues does he have?”
“His heart. He had a coronary incident a few years ago and lost some use of his left side. Not a full-on stroke, but enough to make him mostly house-bound. He spends a lot of time in pain.”
“How does he medicate?”
“Mostly with painkillers and vape. It’s hard to afford everything.”
More underlining. “What else can you tell me?”
“I don’t know what else is relevant.”
I nod, and move my glasses to the top of my head. “Mrs. Lipschitz, I get cases like this all the time. It’s most of my business, in fact. Spouses and sweethearts disappear all the time in the Underburough. More often than not, it’s an affair. I just wanted to tell you that upfront.”
“I know he has a wandering eye.” Lipschitz looks down at her hands. “I’m more worried about his health. He needs looking after.”
“I understand.” I set down my notepad. “So let’s talk about my rates, so I can get to work and get you some answers as soon as possible.”
I put off getting fully underway with investigating for a couple of hours. I make myself some food on the hotplate at the office, catch up on some of the newsfeeds, and inventory my vape cartidges and other supplies. I know I’m stalling. It’s my third missing partner this week, and as much as I’m glad for the income, it gets so tedious after a while. I see people suffer every day and as much as I want to be sympathetic, there isn’t a thing I can do to help other than provide closure. I occasionally feel a bit ghoulish profiting over that sort of thing. But I have to make a living. It helps me be me.
Finally, I can’t stall any longer. I start with looking to MediaConnect, Mr. Lipschitz’s employer, to find out more about what they do and for whom. Their feedsite is the usual corporate fluff from Upside: we’re here to help, all is well, aren’t these white people in our call center happy, so on and so forth. I can tell just from the verbiage that contact them to try and get more information would be a bureaucratic nightmare. I need a way to navigate that labyrinth that doesn’t involve risk my patience or sanity.
And that means Mick Slane.
I don my coat and scarf and hit the streets. The atmosphere isn’t too bad today, so I can keep the scarf around my neck, rather than up over my nose and mouth. It’s green and white, so it sticks out a little, but it’s also woven with microfilters as well as yarn so it functions as a mask when it needs to. It could probably use a wash, though. It’s been a while since I last gave it a good cleaning. Or any of my clothes, for that matter.
I just fall behind on certain things. A lot crawls into my head on a regular basis.
The Eastdown Club is one of the more upscale establishments in Underburough. It looks and acts like a jazz club from the 1920s. The brass solos and crooning vocals bleed into into the street like a gin-soaked stab wound, reminding everyone around that you can still have fun in Underburough if you can afford it, which most can’t. I know it’s worth the investment — I’ve been there a couple of times, on dates and investigations alike — but I’m not a regular. Not like Mick.
Michael Slane is tall. Taller than most in Underburough, but not towering. His hair, colored a deep violet tonight, is a fashionable mess, cut to emphasize its natural shape. He dresses fashionably, especially on Eastdown nights, and he has smokey, expressive eyes that can be hard to ignore. Add to that his general manner and everything, and it’s no wonder that I tend to see him with a different girl on his arm every time we meet.
Tonight, though, he’s alone. He’s standing by Eastside’s imposing but well-decorated front door, a solid metal affair with big brass rivets and the sort of filigree that belies whatever security measures protect the patrons, booze, and money within. His left hand leans on his cane, a custom-made job with a mahogany shaft with inlaid accents, carved handle, and long cap that I know are made of something much sturdier than gold. In his right is a long-stemmed pipe, which he’s casually puffing, exuding a sweet smell that I’ll have to ask him about. Maybe they have it in cartridges because, damn, it smells really good.
“Hello, Mick.” I don’t smile. Not quite. He smiles broadly in response, showing dimples in his cheeks about halfway between the corners of his mouth and his sideburns. Another reason for the usual arm candy.
“Miss Adler. Good to see you.” He takes a drag from his pipe. “Care for a puff?”
I’m tempted. I really am. But I know what would follow would be a light conversation followed by an invitation for drinks. And I simply do not have time tonight. It’s easy to fall into comfortable patterns with people you admire, even grudgingly, and have come to trust.
He’s one of the few.
“Not tonight. I’m on a case.”
His demeanor turns more serious, but the smile doesn’t quite leave his face.
“Ah. Business.” He nods. “Let’s hear the particulars.”
I tell them about Mr. and Mrs. Lipschitz. I don’t leave anything out.
“I don’t know if the employer would be of much use,” I conclude. “Which means it’s more of an Underside manner. Still, I want to cover all of my bases.”
“But you don’t want to waste your time.”
“And I know you’ve got nothing but time on your hands.”
He smirks. “You make it sound like I’m some sort of hedonistic ne’er-do-well.”
“Poppycock. I do well on a daily basis.”
Okay. That gets a smile from me.
“I walked right into that one.”
“You always give me great set-ups. It’s one of the many, many things I like about you.”
This would be easier if he weren’t so handsome. He flirts in a casual, earnest manner, which conveys his attraction without diminishing respect or genuine interest in me as a person. He’s not superficial, in spite of his dress and demeanor. At least, as far as I can tell. Despite being a trusted contact, I’ve looked into him, but found nothing untoward in his background.
“Do you know anybody back Upside who’d know MediaConnect?”
He thinks about it. His left hand’s fingers tap idly on his cane. It’s a light metallic sound, hard to hear over the jazz behind us. I glance down in spite of myself, at the artificial hand, decorated with embossed swirls. In particular, there are Celtic knots where the fingernails would be. My eyes are drawn back up the corner of his left eye. It feels more proper than looking down at his pants; it’s the artificial leg below the knee I’d be trying to imagine.
Every once in a while I remember that Mick doesn’t really belong here any more than I do.
If I belong anywhere.
When he speaks, it gets me out of that line of thought. Thankfully.
“Maybe. I can make a couple of inquiries.”
“Good. What’ll I owe you?”
He waves the hand with the pipe in it, giving me another whiff of his tobacco. “This one is on the house, Detective. It’s a minor matter. I’m not tapping into anything significant, nor will be I be on the line too long. It’s safe, quick, and up front. Nothing worth bothering about when it comes to compensation.”
I make a face. “I don’t like being in your debt.”
“Don’t think of it that way, then. Think of it as a favor for a friend.”
That word makes me stop. Friend. I have about three in the entire world. One is back Upside (despite my vehement protests that she not be there), and the other two are in stacked cities on the other side of the world. I don’t get out to see them much, as the cities are themselves far apart and distant from here, but I take full advantage of the time whenever I do. I feel an ache in my heart. I miss them. I miss a lot of people.
Mick watches me. His face is full of concern. I know he wants to talk with me about it. He claims it’s good to open up about things, let them out, not give them time to fester and turn one dark.
I’ve listened to him. And I’ve talked with him. It’s always good.
But I still do not have the time tonight.
I marshal myself and raise my head to look him in the eye.
“Tell you what. Next round is on me.”
His smile comes back.
“It’s a date.”
I give him a light punch on the right shoulder. The left would actually hurt him. It’s still sensitive, years after whatever accident did so much damage.
“Go back inside and find a different date for the evening, Mister Slane. I hate the idea of keeping you from your fun.”
“But Miss Adler, talking with you is always fun.”
“Even with the headaches in the morning?”
“I consider the time well worth the price. Be off with you. I’ll be in touch.”
I start asking around Underburough about Mr. Lipschitz in a more in-depth manner. I stop in at a couple of tobacconists, some bars nowhere near as nice as Eastside, a few pho and chicken finger stands. I almost stop for a bite to eat myself, but I really just want to get this case out of my hair. I’m pretty certain I’m going to find some sort of jilt or affair, and I’m behind on sleep and bills and all of that bull. And the paybills will help me, well, pay bills. I occasionally am struck by the cleverness of the universal currency we now use. It’s difficult to counterfeit the hard currency, and since the Great Collapse, everybody’s more thrifty and circumspect with their cash. Except for some Upside people, of course.
Upside just lives by different rules.
It’s about an hour into my ambling that I get the prickly feeling along the back of my neck.
It’s a skill you develop if you live in Underburough long enough, and not bury yourself further under a rock or a haze of drugs, drink, or some other depraved distraction. You learn to feel eyes on you, watch reflections in shop windows, listen to jostling bodies behind you. It’s a subtle combination of all those things that tip me off to the guy in the hoodie who’s shadowing me.
I also learned a long time ago that once you start running, you never really stop. The only reason I’ve stopped in Underburough is, where else am I going to go? Go to one of those other cities, and shack up with one of those men, who’d love to have me around? I’m not the domestic type. I’ve never met the right kind of person to gear me towards that kind of life. And I’ll definitely be good and damned if I let some man push me in that direction.
This is my life, even if it isn’t much of one.
Some people just try to get home when they start getting followed. Some look for a cop. There are few that have even come to my door. I have my own way of dealing with this sort of thing.
I turn down an alley, find the shadow of a fire escape, and wait.
Hoodie Dude appears in the mouth of the alley, and walks towards the other street. Apparently, he isn’t very smart.
I hope he scares easy, too, when I pull out my hold-out pistol.
I rush out from my hiding place, right in front of him. I put my free hand on his shoulder and shove, aiming him for the wall. He bounces off of it a bit, and my hand pushes him back against it. I raise my gun and put the barrel to his eye.
“Hands,” I hiss. “Show me your fucking hands.”
The eye I can see goes wide and his hands shoot up. Nothing in either one.
“You ain’t gonna do shit.” His voice is rough. He drinks a lot of rotgut and doesn’t hydrate enough.
“I’ll put a 5mm slug through your eye socket and let it bounce around in your skull, which will purée what passes for your brain without leaving an exit wound. I’ll leave your corpse in this alley. The only way anybody will find it is if they smell the shit that’ll be in your pants. Even then, nobody will miss you. Your choice.”
His bladder’s far ahead of him. I can smell the piss.
“Okay. Okay. I was told to follow you. Just to follow. I wasn’t gonna do shit.”
“Who told you?”
He pauses. I press the gun in a bit further. He starts whining.
“Give me a name and I’ll let you go.”
“Honey Noon. I work for Honey Noon.”
I narrow my eyes. “You work directly for Honey Noon.”
“Well… she ain’t my actual boss. I get told by Curly. Curly’s…”
“I know who Curly is.” I shove his shoulder, one more time, then back up a pace. “Disappear.”
He runs for the street, and vanishes around the corner. I let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding, and holster my hold-out.
I need to get home. Make some coffee. And make sure I’m on the right track.
“You could just write the dude off and get paid.”
I frown and glare over my glasses at the shimmering simulacrum of a person in the middle of my office. She smiles her sweet smile at me to show me she’s kidding. I take a sip of coffee.
The woman who calls herself “Tara_Byte” is my best friend, and one of the smartest people I know. She stays Upside because the money is better there and, if we’re honest, she’s too good for Underburough. She dances in a gentleman’s club frequented by brokers and high-rollers under a different alias, which earns her walking-around money and distracts any security people from uncovering her tendency to hack in her off-hours.
“I don’t leave a job half-finished, Tara. You know that.”
“Yeah, yeah. Okay.” She runs a hand through her dark hair. Her interface is in the back of her neck, but it carries a lot more data than mine does. I have a small wireless box attached to mine, which transmits the image of her into my visual center. Anybody who walked into my office would see me talking to open air. The connection’s also scrambled, some custom overlay of Tara’s design, so no online eavesdropping either.
“So this dude is involved with Honey Noon somehow. What’re you thinking? Overopes?”
I nod. Overpowered opiates — “overopes” — are pretty powerful and somewhat illegal narcotics that have become something of a trendy addiction in Underburough. You have to have enough money to pay the entry fee for a den, and enough free time to lose yourself in a haze of what sounds to be a pretty powerful high for hours on end. It harkens back to days a millenium and century ago when places like that were all over big cities, without the benefit of electronic surveillance or cybernetically enhanced bouncers. I didn’t like the idea of knocking on their doors, and even less the notion of having to do it by process of elimination.
A few of the outfits in Underburough operate overope dens, but Honey Sol runs the biggest ones, and they’re one of her primary sources of income.
That’s why I called Tara. She could dig up the addresses of Honey’s dens near the Lipschitz residence and narrow the search further.
“How’s things with Richie and Baz?”
My guys in the other cities. I shrug.
“Haven’t talked to either of them lately.”
“Uh-huh. And Mick?”
“Why are you asking?”
“Because you’re my friend and you should have friends other than me to whom you can talk this easily and this frequently.”
“I’m probably due to take a trip to see Richie.”
“And get laid.”
“Well, yeah. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
I stick out my tongue. “That’s for people who don’t know how to enjoy their own company.”
“Know anybody who can do that besides me? ‘Cause I’m the only one in this room who thinks to myself ‘I’m the goddamn best’ on a regular basis.”
I frown. “You can be a real bitch sometimes.” But there’s no venom in my voice.
“Love you too, boo.” Tara blinks. She’s got something. “Closest den to the address you gave me is on 157th and Lewis Avenue. If Mister Lipschitz has the kind of problems that leave him relatively housebound, that’s where you’ll find him. I’d bet real money on it.”
“Thanks, Tara.” I pause. “Are you okay?”
She shrugs. “I dance, and I know things. Nobody messes with me, everybody pays me, and I still get around a half-dozen marriage proposals and ‘I can take you away from all of this’ speeches in the VIP rooms every night. I’m good.”
“You should come up sometime. Just for a visit. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. I’ll see what I can do.”
She narrows her eyes. “Don’t do that ‘keeping busy for the sake of being busy’ shit. You deserve to have space for you. You know that.”
“I gotta go.” I tap the interface attached to my implant and Tara fizzles out. I pull of the device, return it to my desk, and check my guns. The hold-out stays at the small of my back. I slide into the shoulder holster for my 12mm revolver (because you go big or you go home, possibly in a box) and get my coat and scarf back on.
And I put on my door-kicking boots.
“I’m not here to smoke up. I’m here to find someone.”
“No pay, no entry.” The guy at the door is a big slab of man-meat. He probably hits the gym ever day, just to look swole. I can tell that if he had to actually be in a real fight, he’d be too slow to do any real harm to me, as long as I kept moving and didn’t let his big hammy fists connect with me. Plus, I’d probably have shot him before it came to that.
I do not fuck around when it comes to self-defense. I don’t necessarily like guns, but in Underburough, you’re either bringing the most heat you can or you’re going cold in an alley.
“I’m a private detective. But I know how to get the attention of the public ones. You want cops? I can bring you cops.”
He frowns. I can hear the gears grinding in his head. Slowly. Painfully.
He pushes a button on his wrist. A big red one, all by itself. A simple way to summon his boss.
“Good boy.” I smile sweetly. “I’d toss you a treat, but I left all of my jerky in my other pants.”
He growls. I want to giggle. But I stay professional. Mostly.
After a minute, a woman easily half the bouncer’s size comes through the door. She has caramel skin and a shock of dark hair. She wears a loose shift that doesn’t really hide much of her body, and she doesn’t seem to care that she’s coming out in the street dressed like that.
“I run this den. What do you want?”
“I’m looking for someone.” I hold up Mister Lipschitz’s picture. “I think he might be here.”
She doesn’t even look at the photo. “Lots of people are here. They pay to come in. And you haven’t paid.”
“He’s been missing for two days. A bit longer, and it becomes a police matter.”
“And you’re not police.”
“Not in the badge-carrying sense. I’m a private eye.”
“Ah.” She glances at the photo, finally. Then back to me. “Still, rules are rules. Honey wouldn’t like it if I made an exception, especially for someone like you.”
“Fine.” I put the photo in my pocket. “Then it’s cops. I’ll go get ’em.”
She crosses her arms and looks annoyed. “That won’t win you any friends with us, lady.”
“I don’t want to make friends. I want to do my job. If you let me in, I’ll look around and then I’ll ghost, so you can keep doing yours. Fair?”
There’s a pause. Lights are coming on the rowhomes around us. People are curious. She notices.
“All right. Two minutes. Then you leave. No photos, no talking to anyone, no funny business. Or you disappear for good. Understood?”
She and the bouncer move out of the way. I head into the overope den, and they close the door behind me.
“How long was he dead?”
I shake my head as Mick and I walk. “At least six hours. The place was so full of overope smoke I don’t know if anybody saw him. The pillowgirl laying with him was so passed out I thought she was dead for a second, too.”
He glances at me. “And you didn’t get buzzed from those fumes?”
I tug at my scarf. He nods.
“Very smart, Detective.”
“I didn’t get this far without being very smart, Mister Slane.”
We’re walking towards one of the nicer parts of Underburough. There’s a little less crime, a little less litter, a few less bums. It doesn’t smell like human waste and decay. Just quiet desperation and pretentious illusions of better living.
The perfect place for the ruler of a criminal empire to hang her fancy hat.
Honey Noon runs the outfit out of her house. It’s a standalone affair, one floor above ground, and it hosts more than its share of parties. Tonight isn’t a party night, and the place seems kind of sedate. Mick’s with me because he’s known more there than I am, at this point. He doesn’t run with any of her lackeys, but he also doesn’t interfere with their business, and he makes sure that outfit go-betweens have a quiet booth to discuss business at Eastdown. Mick’s really good at solving problems between people and getting problematic elements smoothed over so they can get along.
It’s the kind of skillset that could also be used to hide something vile. But he doesn’t ping any of those senses in me.
He walks up the steps to Honey’s front door. Curly’s sitting there, on the porch. The head of Honey’s mastiff is in the man’s lap. The eyes of the dog move to us, then back towards the door. Mick isn’t a source of trouble, and if I’m with him, I have the dog’s approval. That’s one barrier down.
Curly’s not burly like most bouncers, and he isn’t really a bouncer at all, more like a valet. His name comes from the mop of red curls on top of his head, and those one can see in his beard. He doesn’t work out, but he’s got bulk to him, and his hands in particular look strong and accustomed to violence, despite how friendly he can come across. Moreso than Mick, however, you can tell it’s a false front if you’re looking for it. He plays nice and goes over well with the ladies. Last I checked, he had at least four partners. I wonder if he keeps some kind of electronic calendar to keep everything clear and orderly.
“Curly, my friend.” Mick extends his real hand to be shook. “Good to see you.”
“Mick Slane.” Curly takes the offered hand. “It’s always nice for you to grace our doors.” His eyes move to me. “And you’re bringing such a lovely friend! Miss Adler, isn’t it?”
I nod. “Curly.”
“You really must come to brunch again, Mick. And bring Miss Adler. New couples are always welcome.”
“Oh,” Mick begins before we say simultaneously, “we’re not a couple.”
Curly looks from him, to me, and back again, and he smiles. His teeth look short, as if blunted. “Right. Okay.”
I want to say something caustic, but Mick holds up his hand.
“Is she in? I’d like to say hello.”
“She’s in, yes. Organizing a show. She’s getting dancers to come down from Upside for an event to raise awareness of some of the persecution being suffered by those of us who live without enhancement. You know, the ‘Fleshie Hate’.” He pauses. “Hear anything about that?”
“Oh, people try to recruit me to that idiot cause all the time,” Mick says. “And yes, with my lovely limbs, at times I know I can be seen as part of the problem. So, I do what I can to be part of the solution. When’s the event? Does she need a venue?”
“I think she does. I’d mention it.”
“I will. May we go in?”
Curly nods. “Seriously. Brunch.”
Mick gives a mock salute before we walk through the door. Through the sitting room and around the corner sits Honey Sol at a large, antique desk. The room smells of incense, and soft string music floats through the air with it. She’s on the short side, a collection of curves and curls in a well-maintained manner made to draw the eye. She looks up and gives Mick a winning smile. She stands and comes around the desk to take his hand in both of hers.
“So good to see you, Mister Slane.”
He bends to kiss both of her cheeks. “Mistress Noon. A pleasure to see you as well.”
She turns her eyes to me. “Why, Miss Adler! It’s been too long. How have you been?”
“I’m well, Honey. Thanks for asking.”
I try not to let on that all of this familiarity and faux warmth is really getting under my skin, making it crawl. I just stepped into this house, and now I want to run from it as fast as I can. There’s too much exposure to too many people who are just… ugly inside.
If Mick is aware of or shares my feelings, he doesn’t let on. He’s wearing a mask, too. There’s a way in which he understands these people, blends in with them, makes an effort to belong. There’s a fae nature to how he deals with these things, like some kind of charming changeling. But when we’ve talked about such things in the past, he’s taken that mask off. Taken down his walls. And I’ve extended him the same courtesy.
I think we both live in mutual fear that we’ll regret it.
“I’m afraid we’re here on business,” Mick is saying. “Do you know a gentleman by the name of Charles Lipschitz?”
Honey shakes her head. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“I found him in your overope den on 157th. He’s dead.”
The eyes of the criminal mistress go a little wide. She’s not used to people cutting to the heart of things like that. Most people are too intimidated by her or lulled into comfort by her demeanor or eager to be up her skirt to do that. Then, she shrugs.
“People overdoes on overopiates all the time. It’s a shame, but it happens.”
“He had a wife. She came to me asking about him.”
“Lots of people have wives and husbands.” She turns to Mick. “Is this why you came here?”
“This, and to tell you we can host your upcoming charity event at Eastside. I’ll have to clear it with the manager, but there’s no reason we can’t help you.”
She touches his real arm. “Mick. You’re such a sweetheart. Why don’t I see you more often?”
“I’m a busy man.”
“I’m busy, too,” I cut in. Being treated like I’m not in the room really boils my blood. Sure, sometimes I’d rather disappear than be in a social situation, but if I’m here, treat me like I’m here. “I need to tell his wife something.”
“Surely you know that if you tell her he died in the den, there will be a great deal more attention on my operation than I’d like. I can pay off the police involved, but that’s always a hassle.”
“My heart breaks for your hardship.” I can’t keep the acid out of my tone. She puts her hands on her hips.
“I’m just being honest, Miss Adler. There’s no need to be rude.”
“Please understand her position,” Mick says soothingly. He’s doing his thing. “Miss Adler is a professional, and she wants to offer her client professional results. She’s a businesswoman. I’m sure you can relate.” He turns to me. “And while Mistress Honey’s position can place her as an antagonist to your efforts, Miss Adler, I know that you would not want your reputation or client base reduced any more than she does, to say nothing of trouble from Underburough’s finest.” He spreads his arms, cane dangling from his artificial hand. “So! Let’s come to an accord. The night is young, and I for one want to go enjoy it.”
I see Honey’s face soften as she listens. Goddamn. I want to applaud the man. Even as my stomach turns, just a little bit. He goes over to Honey’s bar, in the corner of the office space, to pour himself a shot. Honey lets him.
“Tell you what, Miss Adler. I’ll make sure my den mothers keep a closer eye on the clients and get them out before they have too much. They can instruct the pillowgirls to be more watchful as well. In return, you can tell the poor widow Lipschitz that her dear departed husband overdosed in some other location, where I do no business. How does that sound?”
It sounds like I’m striking a deal with one of Satan’s favorite succubi. But I nod. “Okay. That’s fair.”
Mick has leaned his cane against the bar, and he places a hand on each of our shoulders. He puts his real one on mine. His touch is warm. It’s a clear signal, but a subtle one.
“Excellent. I believe that concludes the business portion of the evening.” He smiles at Honey. “Thank you for the whiskey. You always stock the best.” He turns to me. “Let me buy you dinner. I know this night wasn’t easy for you.”
I shrug, but not so hard that I dislodge his hand. “If you’re buying, I’m eating. Let’s roll.”
He picks up his cane and inclines his head to Honey. She reaches up to touch his shoulder. I almost don’t see the wince.
“Come by more often, Mick. I’d love to have you here again.”
His smile is brittle. I don’t know if Honey registers that, or just his striking eyes and white teeth.
“Always a pleasure, Mistress Honey. Good evening.”
We leave with a cursory farewell to Curly and hit the street back in the direction of Eastside.
“I do not like this.” I pull out my vape and take a long drag from it.
“I know.” He’s got his pipe between his teeth. He strikes a match on the back of his artificial hand to light his bowl. “I’m sorry you have to end your case this way. But the reality is, the less trouble we make for the likes of Honey Noon, the easier our lives are.”
“If I wanted an easy life…” My voice trails off. He looks to me as we walk.
“…you’d be in a different city, in a different living situation, and in a different man’s company.”
When he finishes my sentences like that, I either want to hug him for saving me the trouble of saying it, or smack him for knowing me well enough to do so. He’s infuriating sometimes. He sees my face and turns back to the sidewalk.
“Sorry. I know you hate it when I bring up such things. But I want you to know that I don’t talk about it with anybody else. People ask about you, since you’re something of a mystery. You’re like a sphinx, in their minds — people come to you for answers, and sometimes, all you give them is more riddles.”
“Who were you in Upside, Mister Slane?” I can’t help myself. This is the quickest way to steer this conversation away from tender spots and observations on my character.
“Who were you, Miss Ridgewell?”
Shit. He knows my real name.
My jaw tightens and I almost go for my gun.
“How long have you known?”
“A while, now. And you’ll notice nobody else in Underburough does.”
“Why?” There’s more fire in my voice than I like. I want to ease up, but I can’t. “Why haven’t you outed me?”
“Because I like you. Because you do good work down here, for people that need it. Because we both know what it’s like to have pasts that shame us and losses to run from. And because you and I could both use someone in whom we can trust down here. Because it’s rare. And so is a person with your heart and your determination.”
Just like that, cool water douses my soul. And at the same time, heat that has nothing to do with anger wells in my chest.
“Thanks.” It’s all I can say, after a very long moment. I hook my arm in his, and he pulls it a bit closer to him.
“I know the best noodle joint in Underburough,” he tells me. “And it’ll be my pleasure to buy you the biggest bowl you can handle.”
“I like big bowls,” I tell my friend, “and I cannot lie.”
I tell Mrs. Lipschitz that her husband died getting bad overope in edible form from an unidentified dealer. Honey’s people had his body taken to a hospital, dumped in the emergency intake area before scattering. She weeps. She wails. She goes through an entire box of my tissues. And she pays me.
I sort out a few bills with the money, and end up with just enough so I won’t starve until, hopefully, I can nail down another job. And down here, work isn’t that hard to come by. Everybody needs something, be it a person found, a lie exposed, or a way to kill the pain.
Charlie Lipschitz had a lot of pain to kill. And he killed himself in the process. He tried to do it by working for an Upside company. Maybe he even made a friend or two up there. Maybe that help him feel like he belonged. But he was lying to himself, and he preferred smoking himself into a grave rather than facing the truth.
He was never really a part of Upside. He lived his whole life in Underburough, never even trying to achieve. It was like after his heart attack, all of the fight and spark went out of his life. He lived it all within a closed circuit.
As sad as that is, there’s a part of me that envies him. I don’t want to die, not necessarily; I just want to disappear for a while. Let my own pain ease up. Stop thinking about who I’ve lost and how hollow I feel sometimes.
There’s a buzz from my door. A new client. Another paycheck.
I pocket my vape and head back into the closed circuit of Underburough’s people. They all need something. And so do I.
Image sourceMondays are for making art.