Previously: The year is 3301. Six months after Zachary Hudson was swept into office, Jason Frimantle, a young and unregistered Commander, broke with his father to start his own trading business.
One of these days, I’m going to need to get myself a docking computer.
It wasn’t that Jason had trouble easing the Wayfarer through the ‘mail slot’ of a particular station. His more immediate concern when landing was scraping his ship against the guide rails, or bumping up against other ships. It was a reaction based on how the Federation treated incoming or outgoing Commanders — threats of lethal force were commonplace from traffic control. Jason found the attitude of those along this trading route much more agreeable, for the most part. He guided his ship to the landing pad within Lave Station, feeling the reassuring bump of his landing gear against the solid metal.
The pad lowered into the hangar, and Jason felt the faint pull of the access corridor interior’s 0.2 gravity. One didn’t have to worry about a particularly strong step along a corridor putting one into freefall, but handrails were still highly recommended. He moved from his ship into the corridor with a few long yet careful strides, and took hold of the handrail in the corridor. A few minutes later, he was in the Workers trade station, bringing up his manifest to onload some crates of Lavian Brandy.
The woman at the front desk looked up as Jason walked in. “Commander Frimantle?”
Jason blinked. “Um. Yes?”
“Commissioner Parker would like to see you.”
Most of the dealings Jason had had with the Workers of Lave Liberals had been through a contact that worked directly with the system market. Parker was the overseer of the faction’s trade, a subordinate to their leadership; from what Jason had gathered, they were a middle manager who tracked inventory and ship traffic. He wasn’t sure why such a person would want to see him, since he was still starting out in terms of being a freelance trader. Regardless, it wouldn’t hurt to make new friends, or at least establish new contacts. He thanked the receptionist and found Parker’s office.
Parker stood in front of a floor-to-ceiling holo display of Lave’s market, a tablet in one hand and a stylus in the other. She was an older woman, still in her middle years but definitely showing the signs of working hard on her career. She wore a business-style blazer and knee-length pencil skirt that flattered her figure yet projected an air of professional austerity, backed up by the unadorned blouse that came to her neck. Her reddish-brown hair was drawn back in a conservative bun, but the chopsticks holding it in place were lavishly decorated with flowers and branches that seemed to fly in the face of her steely demeanor.
Jason adjusted his jacket, which he’d opened after exiting the Wayfarer, suddenly aware of the fact that both it and his pressure suit were due for a cleaning. His hair was probably mussed, as well, from the last few trade runs being uninterrupted by stopping for anything other than food and sleep. Parker looked up from the tablet in her hand at the motion, looking at Jason over the rims of spectacles that complimented the light brown color of her eyes.
“Commander,” she said, her voice reminding Jason of a schoolmistress. “Thank you for coming to see me.”
“Nice to meet you, Commissioner,” Jason replied. “What can I do for you?”
She turned away from the display to lay her tablet on the desk. Jason noted she was wearing high heels, which couldn’t have been easy at lower gravity. They weren’t stiletto-style, but still…
“I have need of a trader who can take care of a matter of some urgency. Your efficiency in the Zaonce trade route leads me to believe you can accomplish such a task.” She turned back to him, regarding him for a long moment. “Do you believe I am correct?”
Jason nodded. “Lots of Commanders starting out like this run, ma’am. It’s got decent profit margins and there’s enough of a gap between deliveries that no markets get too flooded, nor do they dry up. The items are always in demand, be it Lavian brandy or blue milk.”
“I see you have a head for the greater business picture as well as your own credits. I do believe we can work together.” She picked up a different tablet, took a step towards Jason, and handed it to him. “How is your planetary landing experience?”
Jason regarded the tablet. It was information and telemetry for a settlement called Abel Prospect, located in the Arque system. “I’ve been a spacer all of my life. Making planetfall hasn’t really been a priority, but I’ve done it a couple of times. Usually with my father guiding me.”
Thinking of his father filled Jason with a mix of emotions that weren’t entirely pleasant. He tried to keep that out of his voice, but Parker was studying his expression closely. After a moment, she nodded.
“Very good. The settlement has indicated a need for medical supplies. There has been a minor epidemic of a rare skin disease. None of the in-system stations have what they need to deal with this, and they want to combat it lest it become a system-wide outbreak.”
Jason studied the layout of the settlement and the planetary landscape around it. “I don’t see any landing pads.”
“That is the other concern. They lack the facilities to accommodate starships in the usual manner. They also have no means to take in a SRV. So the supplies must be hand-delivered.”
Jason’s brows furrowed. “How’s the gravity there?”
“0.09 on the surface. They need two tons of specialized medical supplies, and are paying 200% above market price. You will be entitled to 50% of the profits.”
Jason looked over the figures, and hoped he wasn’t suddenly showing signs of his excitement. With that amount of money, he could buy several enhancements for the Wayfarer — a frame-shift drive with longer range, an improved fuel scoop, a more comfortable pilot’s seat…
Maybe even a new ship, he thought.
“I do believe you’ve got yourself a pilot, Ms. Parker.”
“Excellent. The sooner you can depart, the better.”
A short jump or two later, the Wayfarer‘s planetary approach suite was guiding Jason into a low orbit over the rocky body where Abel Prospect had been established. The gravity of the body was negligible, but he definitely felt the tug of it when his ship dropped out of supercruise. The Wayfarer creaked slightly as he adjusted his approach, unused to flying in any sort of atmosphere or planetary gravity. Granted, Abel Prospect’s host body had only the thinnest of gas layers drawn to it during its formation, and a human being would still suffocate in about 15 seconds if they found themselves outside without a pressure suit.
As he made his descent, he checked his radar to ensure a good position for the transfer of the goods. Then he looked again. There was another contact on the surface. He rolled to starboard to get a visual look. A Hauler, smaller (and, in Jason’s opinion, less elegant) cousin to his own Adder, was parked near Abel Prospect’s sole lock. A bad feeling crept into him, tightening his jaw as he sussed out a similar place to put down the Wayfarer.
Once he was settled on the surface, Jason activated his p-suit’s helmet and seals, and did a check of his equipment — integrated oxygen supply, suit displays, utility & gun belt, and so on. He moved aft, unlocked the crates from their restraints, and opened his hatch before pushing them out towards the lock. As he moved closer, he saw that it was still cycling. Quickly, he tapped a few commands into the control panel. He reset the system, then opened the outer door.
Two men were inside, wearing pressure suits, staring in shock at the outer door. Jason gave them a wide grin.
“Gentlemen! Delivering medical supplies?”
One of them slowly nodded. “Um… yeah.”
Jason nodded, looking over the crates. “Four tons, it looks like. What’s your margin?”
“150% market price,” said the other.
“Undercutting the competition to sell more quantity? Nice.” Before he continued, Jason took in the logo on the crates. He blinked, trying to hold down a sudden surge of shock and anger.
It was the logo of his father’s company.
Without warning, he drew his pistol. Like the flight jacket he’d left in the Wayfarer, it had belonged to his grandfather. It was an old-fashioned ballistic weapon, a revolver, designed to fire without issue in near or full vacuum. He shoved its muzzle against the clear faceplate of the closest trader. The other man didn’t move. Neither of them seemed armed; if they were, their sidearms were somewhere inside their pressure suits. What was the point of that?
“Okay. Before I cycle this lock, you’re going to leave it. And your crates. You’re going to take off, go back to Eravate, and tell my father that he, and you, and any of his other cronies, are staying on your side of the galaxy. Nod if you understand.”
The man nodded. Jason reached behind him with his free hand and opened the outer door one more time.
“Good. Now get out.”
They obeyed. Jason slammed the butt of his pistol into the controls to close the door and cycle the lock. He turned to the crates — now six in total — and tried to ignore the little voice telling him that, technically, he’d just committed an act of piracy.
But what was his father going to do? Put a bounty on his own son?
I’ve been getting more and more mental momentum to get more writing done. I’m planning updates to my Patreon page. I’ve been carving out time for both Monday storytelling/art-making posts here and forward progress on my longer novel project and revising my shorter novella, the sequel to Cold Iron. Titled Bloody Streets, I’ve had a “final draft” sitting collecting metaphorical dust for a few years, now. Revisiting the draft, it’s clear to me that, while it might have been “final” back then, it certainly isn’t ready for consumption quite yet. It’s close, but it needs a bit more work. Still, I think it’s going to be a good follow-up to Cold Iron. You can read that novella by picking it up from Amazon or other sources (for now), and as for the sequel… well, here’s the first chapter. Enjoy.
Church of Saint Mary the Redeemer, Green Street and 5th, Philadelphia
July 1st, 2020, 12:21 am
Murdered nuns. Not something you see every day.
Morgan Everson had left her coffee in the car. The scent of it was unlikely to help her nausea.
Cops from other precincts kept onlookers from walking by, too far to get a good shot on any phone or tablet cameras. The wind was coming at Morgan from behind, meaning the street was being spared the smell of death. In front of her, Doctor Leminovsky knelt by the scene, latex-gloved hands gingerly pulled dark fabric away from one of the slain nuns.
“Never seen someone have quite so violent a crisis of faith.”
“We sure it’s a someone, Lem? Not some animal?”
“I just got off the phone with Bowman.” Next to Morgan, Seth Fasil tucked his phone into his pants pocket. “All of the zoo’s animals are accounted for, and no domestic animals in this area are bigger than a bull terrier.”
“There’s no way a pit bull did this, not even an abused or rabid one.” Lem sighed and shook her head. “I’ve never seen a weapon in human hands do something like this, either. Even axe murderers leave cleaner wounds than these. It’s like they mauled by a big cat, or maybe gored by a bull. Ever seen what happens to a bullfighter who isn’t that good at his job? It’s not a pretty sight.”
“Neither is this.” Morgan moved the circle of her flashlight over the bodies. “Any other evidence of big animals?”
“Last rain was a week ago. We’ll be lucky to get many paw prints around here.” Seth was looking, in spite of his observation, his own flashlight prowling through the grass. That was Seth in a nutshell: aware of the problems but unwilling to give up. It was clear he hadn’t lost a bit of his cop instincts. The angry scar on Seth’s neck, just above his collarbone, reminded Morgan of Seth’s reason for joining the city’s Special Homicide division in the first place, and the means by which he’d come to their attention.
“It could have been an animal.” Lem rubbed her forehead on her wrist, away from the latex. “But without tracks or other evidence, I won’t be able to tell you much.”
“The animal theory does have another hole in it.” Seth’s voice was lower than usual. Morgan turned to look at him, and her eyes followed the beam of his flashlight. On the stone wall of the church, red letters stood out even as the blood used to paint them ran in rivulets down grooves of mortar.
Morgan glanced over her shoulder, making sure any onlookers were still out of range or sight of the message. She approached, tying her auburn hair behind her head before pulling on gloves of her own. Seth produced a small evidence vial and a cotton swab from the kit he’d brought to the scene, and Morgan slid the swab against the blood. Sealing it in the vial, she walked back over to Lem.
“Probably a match for one of the victims.”
“I’ll be sure to let you know.” Lem dropped the vial in her bag and shook her head again. “I don’t know, guys. Something stinks about this other than the entrails.”
The medical examiner waved over her assistant, who carried the body bags. Morgan removed her gloves and walked back over to Seth. They were out of earshot of most of the collected professionals in the courtyard, but Morgan looked over both of her shoulders, just to be certain, before she spoke.
“Are we thinking wolves?”
Despite her circumspection, she still went for the abbreviated term for the most obvious suspect, rather than actually using the entire word ‘werewolves’. Seth frowned, just a bit, not wanting to give away what they were discussing to any onlookers. He didn’t look at Morgan. He’d taken a photo of the word on the wall, and was examining it on the screen of his phone.
“They’re usually pretty quiet. We’ve had an actual case with them… what, once, since I came on board?”
Morgan nodded, looking around again and brushing a lock of hair out of her eyes.
“And that was due to some greenhorn bloodsuckers deciding to take a joyride across the bridge. There’s a reason vampires aren’t welcome in Camden, and why we avoid it like the plague. If that pedestrian hadn’t been involved…”
“Isn’t Camden technically out of our jurisdiction?”
“We’re Special Homicide, Seth… anything around here that goes bump in the night is our jurisdiction.”
“And last time, they brought the perpetrator to us, before we’d even saddled up to cross the bridge ourselves.” Seth flipped back through his notebook. “There was a note tacked to the guy, from someone named ‘Pickett’. Asked us not to cross the bridge, either.”
Morgan frowned. “I wouldn’t count on them being that helpful twice. Not if this was some sort of hit or message.”
Seth nodded, then frowned for a moment as his fingers swiped at the screen of his phone.
“Any other problems with that thing?” Morgan let a change of subject take her mind off of the scene.
“I think I’m getting the hang of it.” He turned the device over in his hand. “Still hard to believe I’m basically holding a personal computer. Did you know portable phones used to be the size of bricks, and computers once filled entire rooms or floors, constantly monitored by dweebs in sweaters?”
“I think it was mentioned in school once or twice.”
Seth shook his head. “Technology marches on.” He tucked the phone into his jacket. He’d left the leather in his Firebird and was wearing a more stately if somewhat dated blazer on the job. Morgan smiled. So far Seth’s clothing seemed to be coming from thrift sources and other second hand sources. She reminded herself that she wanted to take her partner shopping. Just because he was essentially from the 1980s didn’t mean he had to dress like it.
Producing her own phone, Morgan took one more shot of the victims as Lem and her assistant began to close the body bags. Once the photo appeared, Morgan sent it to Neil Parkhurst, who would feed the photos into their secure datacore and dig up more information on his end. As the phone processed the images, she looked up at Seth, who was standing by the fence that separated the grassy courtyard of the church and its attached living quarters from the street. He was studying the fence, examining the metal closely.
“If it works the way I think it does, we can definitely rule out certain parties.”
Morgan nodded. The church was old, and the fence had never been replaced. The less iron was worked by human hands and methods, the closer it was to pure, or ‘cold’ iron, which Morgan had learned was repulsive to vampires. Myths of vampires being unable to walk on holy ground were likely tied to the presence of cold iron fences and gates. The savagery of this new murder was not beyond them, but looking at the wrought iron that bound the courtyard within the confines of the church around it, Morgan felt more and more that the fence had been vaulted by something even more savage, even more unhinged; something worse than a vampire.
They continued to work the scene. They marked and photographed the patches of blood and gore strewn around the courtyard. Seth kept searching for abnormal footprints, and Morgan scoured the bushes for bits of fabric or any other evidence. What little they found was bagged, labeled, and taken back to the district house. Neil’s skills at evidence analysis kept anything related to vampires from going to other CSUs, and thus limited the number of people aware of the creatures. If there was one thing on which Morgan agreed with the likes of Bethany Engelherz, it was the fact that people would not take wide-spread news of actual vampires roaming around terribly well, let alone werewolves. The cover story protecting Marshall Thorne, CEO of Comcast and the local Baron, said he had an atypical blood-borne condition that kept him on a nocturnal schedule. Others reported the condition, to try and transition into their night lives, but sooner or later, one of them would run afoul of Morgan and Seth. And then after that…
“I think we’re done here. Let’s go talk to the priest.”
Morgan looked up, unaware that she’d been daydreaming. Well, nightdreaming if you wanted to be technical about it. She followed Seth into the church. It was solid stone, showing weathering here and there, but there was something implacable about the building. The sanctuary had a high, vaulted ceiling, complete with stained glass windows, flying buttresses, and statuary in the corners, each one holding a different angel. Morgan didn’t go to church that often, but this was an impressive one, and as intimidating as it was in its size and eerie as the echoes were within its cavernous space, she felt a little more at peace within it.
The priest was in a small room behind the front of the sanctuary, beyond a tiny dressing area where several robes hung in a closet to one side. Dressed in a black shirt with a priest’s collar and faded jeans, he talked animatedly into a phone as Seth and Morgan walked in. Morgan knew enough that the man was speaking Italian, and using a very formal and roundabout way of addressing people, but other than that she quickly got lost. She kept telling herself she’d be brushing up her language skills, but somehow she never quite found the time.
Seth put his hands in his pockets as the priest wrapped up his call. Morgan had noted, on a previous investigation into a couple young vampires gone AWOL, that Seth could assume that nominally casual pose and still look intimidating. Maybe it was the way the gold flecks in his jade-green eyes reflected the light, or maybe it was just an effect he had on vampires who knew of him and what he had done to a member of their secret police.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting, Detectives. I’m Father Michael Jacobson.”
Morgan shook his hand. “I’m Morgan Everson, this is Seth Fasil. We’re sorry for your loss.”
“Not as sorry as I am. Sisters Florence and Gwendolyn were very active in our outreach to the homeless. Two fewer sisters ministering to the poor and neglected means more people will drift without assistance.”
Seth produced a small notebook and clicked his pen. Morgan had to smile a little. All the years of innovation since he’d last been a cop, and he insisted on doing things the old-fashioned way. “Let’s start right there. Do you know of anyone among the homeless who would want to hurt either of the sisters?”
“I didn’t know many personally, I’m sorry to say. I do know that those I did speak to held them in high regard.”
“Could we get the names of the ones you spoken to?” Morgan felt her phone vibrating in her pocket. It was the third time that night, and like before, she ignored it. “It would really help us.”
“Of course.” The priest began listing names and basic descriptions of several destitute people, as well as his numbers for the church and his cell phone. Seth diligently got it down on paper. Morgan took the opportunity to check her phone. The first voice mail was from last night’s date. The second, a message from her mother. The last one was from Bethany Engelherz.
If there was one person on the face of the planet Morgan didn’t want to talk to, it was Bethany. On a basic level, dealing with powerful vampires felt like spending time in a tiger paddock with a fresh, raw steak around your neck. Even if they weren’t interested in eating you right then, they still wanted to get a piece of you. Bethany, in particular, was a thorny issue for Morgan. Not only was she powerful, and an attorney on top of it, Bethany’s actions in sparing Morgan and Neil from a vicious if ill-advised vampire attack meant that Bethany felt entitled to call on Morgan whenever it suited her. Normally, it was to check on the status of cases in progress. But they’d wrapped their last fang case two nights ago. What was she on about now?
With nothing to say to last night’s date, Morgan decided to let the attorney wait, and stepped out to return her mother’s call, rather than listening to the voice mail.
“Morgan? I’m sorry to call so late, did I wake you?”
“No, Mom, I’m working.” Morgan’s mother knew that homicide detectives worked all hours of the day and night. She didn’t know Morgan worked with denizens of the night almost exclusively. The existence of vampires was not a widespread fact, and both the vampires and mortal authorities tried to keep it that way, to avoid panic. “What’s going on?”
“I thought you should know your father’s here.”
Morgan’s blood turned to ice and then immediately boiled before freezing again. “When?”
“Just a half-hour ago. He said they kept moving his flight around.”
Bullshit. “Can I talk to him?”
“Sure, sweetie.” There was hesitation in the elder Everson’s voice. She knew there was tension between father and daughter, but had never imposed upon the situation. “Here he is.”
Morgan waited, perhaps a heartbeat or two, before the voice of a man with millions of miles under his feet and more than a few encounters with cigars and booze in his throat came on the line. “Hello, Morgan.”
“Hi, Dad.” She swallowed. “Moved your flights around, huh?”
“Something like that.” There was a pause, and then his voice became distant. “Diana, can you get me a glass of wine? Whatever you have in the house is fine.”
He’s sending her out of the room. She waited. She hated waiting for her father to speak to her alone. It never ended well.
“You know I can’t talk shop with your mother in the room.”
“Why are you here, Dad?” She got right to business. Other children or family members might doubt Charles Everson’s involvement with shady corporations or government agencies as a security consultant, but Morgan knew better. She had access to his criminal records. A friend at Interpol had helped her fill in a lot of blanks, a lot of days and weeks unaccounted for, a lot of missing, silent years.
“I’m here because you’re in danger.”
That, Morgan scoffed at. “I can take care of myself.”
“I don’t doubt it, Morgan, but I’m here all the same. I take it your mother doesn’t know who you really go after at one in the morning.”
What? No. No way. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Deniability. I’ve taught you well.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. I learned how to be discreet all on my own. It’s easy when you don’t have family to talk to.”
He paused. “Morgan, I didn’t come here to pick a fight with you. I can be in Philadelphia first thing in the morning.”
“Don’t bother. I’ve got things under control here. Worry about Mom. She hasn’t seen you in over a year and she’s been a mess since Mark died.”
“I know. I’ll stay here as long as I can. But I’ll keep an ear out for…”
“No, Dad. Just… just stay there. Take care of Mom. She needs you, even if she won’t admit it.”
“Redirecting on me, Morgan? I guess I deserve that.” She listened to him take a deep breath. He wanted to say more. “Look, just know I’m here, all right? Call if you need me.”
“Don’t hold your breath.” She took the phone away from her ear and ended the call without looking at it. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“Is Mark the name of last night’s beau?”
She jumped, turning to find Seth at the top of the stone stairs outside the church entrance. Morgan had walked down them while talking to her father. She looked down at her phone.
“No. His name was Leonard. And he works way too much.”
“You’d have that in common.” Morgan’s head snapped up, scaring away Seth’s smile and bringing concern to his eyes. “Come on, I’m kidding.”
“I… Mark was my step-dad. My mother filed for divorce when I was about ten. My dad wasn’t home that often, and…”
Seth blinked slowly. “I understand, you don’t have to say any more. I’m sorry for your loss.”
She smiled a little. “Thank you. It was six months ago, but Mom is still pretty wrecked over it.”
“Hey, if you want to call it a night, I’m fine with that. This is heavy stuff in and of itself, and we just wrapped the case with that vamp from Portland, you had a bad date last night…”
“It’s ‘heavy’, is it? Does that make it hard to hold?”
Seth gave her a look that wasn’t entirely pleasant. She couldn’t help but smile.
“Still a man of the 80’s, after all.”
“Next thing I know, you’ll be reminding me that we’re not at war with the Russians.”
“You’re the one who gave the stink-eye to the guy running that hot dog stand, not me.”
“I know Siberian prison tattoos when I see them.”
“That doesn’t automatically make him the enemy, Seth!”
“No, but it does make him suspicious.” He sipped his coffee casually, and Morgan held up her hand and turned away, trying to hide her widening smile.
“I think I’ll take you up on your offer. I need to sort some things out at home.”
“Good. Take your mind off of the case a bit. We’ll catch up tomorrow.”
She nodded. “Thanks, Seth.”
“Hey, it’s what partners do. Just get home safely.”
Morgan left the scene, and as she drove home, her thoughts was less with the dead nuns outside of the Redeemer and more with her father reappearing after years off of her radar. Once she got home, Morgan headed into her apartment, cracked open a fresh can of food for Nike, and unlocked the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet next to her desk.
Rather than keep data on her father digitally, she maintained hard copies of photos, articles, and snippets from files she had acquired one way or another. As much as her friend at Interpol and the occasional delve into her mother’s basement had helped her figure out places Charles Everson had been over the years, what he did day to day still eluded her. What he had said to her now begged the question: did his globe-trotting and mysterious ‘consultation’ profession have something to do with vampires, or something else that went bump in the night?
She spent more than an hour poring over the file, the Siamese cat occasionally making a plea for attention. Finally, when she could barely keep her eyes open, she wandered towards bed, Nike directly behind her, curling up beside her human as the detective drifted off into a fitful sleep.
The year is 3301. Zachary Hudson has been swept into office as President of the Federation. Cuts to healthcare and other social programs has made his corporate sponsors quite happy, but has left casualties among the populace. One of them, Abigail Frimantle, finally succumbed to a debilitating disease after over a year of battle. Her son, Jason, embittered and emboldened, has taken steps to strike out on his own into the wild and dangerous galaxy beyond his home…
The interior of a station access corridor resembles a telescope when seen from within; for Jason Frimantle, it gave the promise of freedom.
As a boy, he’d looked up at the inner surface of the Ackerman’s Market hub and its traffic with wonder, his head full of dreams. Once he was old enough, his father had entrusted him as an extra pair of hands aboard the Frimantle’s family freighter. Recently, he’d been given permission to run a few missions of his own in his grandfather’s Sidewinder, the same ship that had established the Frimantles as reliable and efficient traders in the Eravate system and several of its neighbors.
He stood alone in the control tower of one of the Market’s many landing pads, gazing at the familiar habitats and conveyance ways, blue eyes focusing on the bright fields dividing the hub from the blackness of space beyond. When he took in that sight, as the sovereign young man he was becoming, he did so with hope, and more than a little impatience. The need to exit Federation space and avoid its stations after said egress was becoming an itch under his skin.
He went down from the civilian observation area of the tower to the hangar below. Perched under the lights was an Adder, its cobalt blue hull shining in the overhead lights. It was freshly washed, fueled, and its stock equipment had been replaced with everything Jason needed. The plates declared its registration code, and the name Jason had given it: Wayfarer. With the Civil War having calmed down, and interdiction rates at an all-time low, Jason knew it was time for him to leave. He tugged at the collar of his somewhat weatherbeaten flight jacket, a relic of his grandfather’s time with the Federation Navy, and was about to climb aboard his new ship when he heard the door open behind him.
An unctuous and preening man in a suit about a size too large ambled towards Jason with a big smile. “Ah, young master Frimantle! I thought I’d find you in the Trader’s Lounge. I bring good news! We’re all set.”
Jason took the tablet from the man’s outstretched hand and gazed at its screen. It did, in fact, lay out all of the payment information for the Wayfarer behind him. It included the sale price he’d gotten for the old Frimantle Sidewinder, which tugged at one of Jason’s heartstrings, just a little. But it was a small discordant note in the growing feeling within him, like an orchestra tuning up.
“Are you sure I can’t interest you in a Cobra Mk III? It’s one of our best sellers!”
Jason smiled and shook his head. “For the last time, Mister Cornwall, no thank you. I have a long journey ahead of me, and the more credits I hold onto for that journey, the better. Besides —” Here Jason’s smile became knowing, his tone chiding. “— you and I both know there are no refunds on customizations like paint jobs and name plates.”
Abashed, Cornwall tugged at his mustache, a tick Jason recognized as his unconscious “I’ve been caught red-handed” expression. “Now, now, no reason I can’t make an exception there, my boy. Your old Sidewinder is in excellent condition; I’m sure I can extend a line of credit. I’m always willing to work out a deal! Remember, once you’re a Cornwall customer, you’re a customer for life!”
Jason stopped smiling. That my boy made him bristle, and the idea of being tied to Ackerman’s after today was too much. “My life isn’t going to be here, Mister Cornwall. Or anywhere near your dealership.” He pressed his thumb to the marked square on the tablet, and it chirped, indicating the finalization of the sale. “Thank you. I’m sure you’ll find that Sidewinder a good home.”
Cornwall’s frustration at a loss of potential revenue seeped past his genial expression, which suddenly froze on his whiskered face when he looked past Jason as another door opened behind him. “Well… ah… excuse me, master Frimantle, I have to finalize the transfers. Nice doing business with you!” The little salesman scuttled off. Jason didn’t turn around.
“I hope you have a damn good explanation for this.”
Jason shrugged. The irritated voice of his father no longer had the terrifying effect on his guts it used to. Now it just served as one more obstacle to overcome before he left this place forever.
“I do. I’m leaving.”
“The hell you are, boy. Your place is here. Just like mine is, just like your Pappy’s was. Why’d you have to go and sell his Sidewinder? It’s a better ship than this…” His father’s voice trailed off, as if he was searching for the right way to trash-talk the Adder, which was smaller, faster, and definitely prettier than the beat-up Type-7 his father used.
Jason didn’t let his father finish. Instead, he turned.
“Is it better because of the tracking device you had installed in it?”
Joseph Frimantle, his hair going more gray by the day, frowned. It exacerbated the worry lines on his face.
“You taking that tone with me over something I used to keep you safe?”
“It kept me on a leash, Dad. That’s all it ever did.”
“What if you’d run outta fuel out there? Huh? Or how about if you got jumped by pirates?”
“Then I’d be dead.” Or I’d call the Fuel Rats. Jason didn’t want to mention that aloud; his father’s opinion on the altruistic organization usually involved words like ‘socialist scumbags,’ ‘hippy nonsense,’ and more than a few expletives. “I don’t see how you knowing my every movement outside of this station kept me ‘safe’.”
“You’ll understand when you have kids of your own, son. Now, come on, let’s sell this flashy piece of crap back to Cornwall. I’ve got work to do.”
Jason crossed his arms. “I’m not stopping you. Go do work.”
Joseph blinked. “Now, see here…”
“No.” Jason glared at his father. “This is over, Dad. I’m leaving. I made my own credits, I bought my own ship, and I’m leaving.”
“Oh, is that so? And where is it that you’ll be going in your fancy new ship?”
Jason shrugged. “Away. What do you care?”
“What do I—? I am your father, you overgrown snot, and what I say goes.”
“I’m a licensed, independent commander, and I have no outstanding warrants or fines. I can come and go as I please. Emphasis on go.”
“Your mother would be weeping if she were standing here to see you talk to me like this.”
“My mother is dead.”
“She’s turning in her grave, then.”
“She wouldn’t be, if you’d let her get the care she needed.”
“She was just sitting around the house, not lifting a finger to help us at all!”
“She was in pain, Dad, every single day, and the fact that the doctors we could afford couldn’t help her wasn’t her fault. And did you think the dishes washed themselves? Or that prepared meals just emerged from the oven at your whim? You’re really dumb if you think all Mom did was sit idle all day.”
“Don’t you dare call me stupid, boy.”
“Oh, I dare.” Jason’s hands were in ever-tightening fists, and they were just starting to hurt, now. He didn’t care. His voice was a growl. “I dare because you could have paid for better care for her. You could have been here more for her. Hell, if I had then the cash I had now, I would have paid for her medical care, and I’d be taking us both away from you.”
“One more word outta you —”
“Go ahead, Dad. Can’t be worse than you killing her. You son of a bitch. Why didn’t you just shoot her, if you wanted her out of your hair so badly?”
Joseph raised his hand to slap his son. Jason’s arm flashed up, grabbing his father by the wrist, blocking the blow. Shocked, Joseph stared at the young man in front of him.
“You’re never hitting me again, old man.” Jason resisted the urge to twist the wrist in his hand, possibly breaking his father’s arm. There were lines, even now, he refused to cross.
He did tighten his grip, though. Joseph’s eyes began to water. “Let… let go of me.”
Jason did, and stepped back. Joseph kept staring, uncomprehending, gently holding his wrist in his other hand.
“Listen to me. And you listen well. This is the result of your actions. You voted for that blowhard, Zachary Hudson, to be the Federation President. You put up all of those signs, about people paying their own way, and how those who can’t work shouldn’t get ‘handouts’ from the government. You barely lifted a finger when Mom started getting sick. You stayed out on longer and longer runs, and when you came home, drunk and exhausted, you yelled at her to keep the house more tidy and to get a job. And when I started working on my own? You took as much of my profit as you could, putting it who knows where.”
He paused. He waited. Joseph was, in fact, listening. Another discordant note sounded in the young man, but he kept on his tirade.
“When Mom died, I set up a way to have credits automatically deposited in an account of my own before you saw my balance sheets. And I worked a lot. Check that tracking data of yours. I’ve been out as far as GD-219 and Macarthur Terminal. And I earned this.” He pointed at the Adder. “I earned my way out of here, and away from you.”
Joseph blinked away tears. “I loved your mother.” His voice was quieter, now, tired and worn out. “I didn’t want to watch her die.”
“But you could have helped. You could have let me help.” His father’s face took a little of the wind out of his sails. “She needed both of us. All she had was me. And I couldn’t do enough.”
Joseph shook his head. “She used to be so strong. She was making her own way, and she helped make our business become one of the best.”
“She loved you. She honored you. And… you let her down.”
“Okay. Okay. Just… let’s just go home, son. We can talk more when we’re at home. I’ll keep listening. I promise.”
Jason closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. “No, Dad. I have to go.”
Joseph frowned again. “You can’t. Jason, you can’t. I’m getting more work requests every day. I can’t be in two places at once.”
Jason shrugged. “I guess that’s because I told everyone I was trading with to contact you. I figured the Frimantle name meant speed and quality of service, and now you’ve got customers far and wide. You’ll be making even more money!”
Joseph’s eyes narrowed. “Then… why are you leaving? You know I can’t do this alone.”
“You know why I’m leaving. And isn’t that your President’s whole thing? Independent businessmen doing business on their own, without handouts or help, ‘personal freedom at any cost’?” Jason spread his arms. “Well, here you go. Plenty of work, no family holding you back, just you and that rattling old rustbucket of a ship. That’s what you voted for, Dad. I’m just making it all happen for you.”
Righteous indignation crept back into the old man’s eyes. “I’ll have your license revoked.”
“By the time you get that paperwork squared away, I’ll be out of Federation jurisdiction. Which means it’ll be a huge waste of your time and money. Go back to your freighter, Dad. Go back to work.” He turned towards the Wayfarer.
“At least take off that jacket. It’s mine.”
Jason looked over his shoulder, one foot on the ramp into his ship. “No, Dad. He said I was a better pilot than you, and that only the best pilots wear jackets like this.” He paused. “Get clear. I don’t want you to get caught in the blast wash when I take off.”
Joseph glared, his hands balled into fists, and turned to leave the hangar. Jason walked into his ship, sealed the ramp, and got his pre-flight checklist completed as quickly as possible, without missing anything. With his flightsuit secured and all systems green, he requested liftoff clearance, and headed for the exit of Ackerman’s Market.
As he cleared the landing lights on the exterior of the station, his comm channel crackled to life.
Turning his head, Jason checked his contacts. Sure enough, an old Type-7 freighter had emerged from the station.
“Don’t make me call the Federation Security pilots! I’ll tell them you bought that ship with stolen funds!”
“And when I keep flying away in spite of your cunning ploy?”
“Well then I’ll just shoot your engines out myself, smart-ass!”
“Oh? With what?”
“The guns I got installed by my friend over at Cleve Hub last week! Now turn that ship around!”
“I don’t think you have a single weapon installed on that crate, Dad.”
“You callin’ me a liar?”
Jason cocked his head to one side. “Yes. Yes, I am.”
They had cleared the no fire zone around the station. Jason knew that, given their position, Joseph would feel confident in bringing his weapons online. Jason immediately turned his ship, boosted himself back into range of Ackerman Market. The Type-7 began its slow turn, killing its throttle, and had never left the zone.
The ship automatically switched over to the traffic control channel when the Federation pinged him. “Zorgon Peterson Bravo Lima Uniform, please comply with all Federal regulations —”
“Mayday, mayday, calling Ackerman Control.” He kept his voice calm, but added a hint of urgency, as if he was truly terrified but trying to control it. “This is Zorgon Peterson Bravo Lima Uniform. I am being pursued by a hostile party, their weapons are hot. I am unarmed. Say again, this vessel is unarmed.”
This was true — other than a chaff launcher and point-defense turret, the Adder transport did not have any weapons. Jason had made sure to remove them after he’d bought the ship from Cornwall. They were weight he didn’t need on his trip; once he got where he was going, maybe he’d install something. But, for now, his Harmless status was in his favor.
Federation fighters zipped towards him. He keyed his comm back over to his father’s frequency.
“I think those officers want to have a word with you, Dad.”
“You!” The voice on the other end crackled through the speaker with impotent fury. “You tricked me! You —!”
“Bye, Dad.” Turning off his comm, Jason turned to his map of the galaxy. It was a long way to Lave, but it was out of Federation space, and the trade routes he’d heard of were lucrative, if a bit volatile or dangerous at times.
Nevertheless, he was going. He was putting this system, this station, this family behind him. And he wasn’t looking back.
A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, I played Star Wars: The Old Republic as a Chiss Sith Marauder. Considering how much of the new Star Wars media I’ve consumed of late, it feels right to revisit the characters of that time. And, hey, it just might make for a good story.
There was a time when I was certain of everything.
My mother, an agent of the Aristocra, became instrumental to the rise of the Sith Empire in its renewed war with the Republic and its Jedi. I was certain that she would carve a path forward for all of us. I was certain that, as a wielder of the Force myself, I would do her proud. I was certain that she would set an example that I would not only meet, but exceed.
There was a time when my passion was my guide.
I gave little thought to the future, to plans, to politics. I lived in the moment. I whirled through the enemies of the Empire like a Jakku dervish. I challenged and supported my beloved Xul’darin in her rise as a Sith Inquisitor. I loved, and hated, and rose in anger, and fed upon fear.
There was a time when everything went wrong.
The wreckage of the Frozen Lance has become my home. I cleaned out the bodies of my loyal crew, pushed snow atop the broken hull, sealed myself away. My homeworld is a cold, remote place; Hoth is as good a substitute as any. I roam the corridors alone, meditating, scavenging for food and supplies when I venture out. I’m slowly coming to terms with being the sole instrument of my own downfall.
The Sith teach that passion is a more powerful guide than peace. That the Force is born of emotion, and so one must embrace that emotion, rather than suppress it, as the Jedi do. And embrace it I did. I unleashed it. My anger made me strong; the fear of my enemies thrilled me, to the point of ecstasy in battle, the heat of lightsabers second only to the heat of tangled limbs in several beds.
To be Sith is to lose control. And I was a very, very good Sith. Too good.
I destroyed all I had built in moments of hot, blinding rage. The intimation of betrayal, even one that had been born of my own actions, was enough to set me off. My crew turned on me. Loyal servants sought to assassinate me. I fought back, and in doing so, all I had sought to create to propel me forward to a goal I’d never solidified crashed down into the snow and howling winds. Thoughts of using one of the escape pods never occurred to me; if I was going down, then by the stars, I was going down fighting.
I survived. I’ve been left to think and reflect. And in the cold, I’ve come to my conclusions.
I cannot go on as I was. My precious passions, the core of my old life, had turned me to a gibbering fool. My heart remained that of a small, frightened boy wishing desperately to be worthy of his mother’s love. Pushed by emotion and heedless of reason or forethought, I’d brought about this ruin of a life by my own unguided and impetuous hands. When moments of desire and anger seized me, I’d seized them back, and in doing so sealed my own doom.
If I am to live on, I must live on without such foolishness.
Whenever I manage to leave this frozen cocoon, it will be another act of destruction. But it will also be one of growth. Within these cold durasteel bulkheads, I have incubated. Something completely new, that I never thought I would or could be, is growing. I cannot say if it is better or worse than what I was before; such things are subjective. But here, I have found a measure of peace. I’ve come to understand myself more; to see who I was, and what was broken about it. I turn my thoughts, perhaps for the first time, towards the future, and find myself wishing to move forward, away from the past, the memories, the pain, the longing.
I contemplate these things as I refine the lightsaber on the bench.
I hold the kyber in my blue hands. It strikes me as somewhat odd. This is a remnant of my past, something I’d used before was a weapon to slay anyone in my path, with indiscriminate glee. I’ve shorn it down, chipped at it, changed its shape and its harmonic vibrations. It remains dangerous, perhaps even unstable. Yet it feels more true, more honest. I know what it is, now. I see it as a tool, a way to carve a true path forward; not through blood, but through doubt and darkness. When one is lost to the Dark Side, one cannot see the way forward.
I feel the Dark Side close in, outside, beyond the ruin of this place.
It is time.
“Zel’thane’nuruodo,” comes an augmented, amplified voice. “Come out. Face your end.”
I reassemble the lightsaber. I pull on my cloak, its former jet black stained into a steely gray by the dust of the wreckage and wear all around me. I make my way to the hatch, don my gloves, and touch the activator. What formerly snapped out of the way with an eagerness to unleash my wrath now groans, as if reluctant to let me face what awaits me. It seems to warn me: This is a trap. This will only bring you more pain. This is a bad idea.
Be that as it may, I will not turn away from destiny.
I step out into the cold. The sun is setting. Hoth will soon become even more bitter, and unforgiving. As are the dark shapes arrayed before me.
There are a half-dozen, at least. All in black cloaks. All seething with the Dark Side. The one in the front, particularly so. Rage and heartbreak and the sting of betrayal, all honed into a laser intent on burning the heart out of me, perhaps with her gaze alone.
I know her. I know the crimson of her tattooed lekku. I know the eyes that once captured my soul and ruled my every breath, as much as I ruled hers.
“Xul’darin.” I say the name. I say it quietly. I let the sound ground me in this moment.
“Hello, Thane.” Her voice drips with false sincerity, a phantasm of affection. “It’s been a while.”
I don’t respond. Her stance shifts. She’s confident. Assured of her righteousness.
“No witty retort? No flirtatious remark? I’m disappointed.”
“Leave this place,” I tell her. “Take your Inquisitors and go. I wish no harm to any of you.”
Xul laughs. “You’ve gone soft, Thane. Pity. I always liked you more when you were hard.”
My memories caress my senses. Her smile. Her gasps. The feel of her skin. The taste of her blood. My name whispered on her sweet lips. The caress of those lips on and around me. The glimmer in her eyes when…
I push the memories away. I do not shove them. They are of happier times. But they have no place in the moment. The dead are dead. They’re not coming back.
“That was over a long time ago.” I keep my voice from being too harsh. But I make it firm, adamant, unmoved. “I’ve made my mistakes, Xul. I hurt you. And I’ve kept to myself. I’m learning myself, and how to forgive myself.”
Another laugh. A bitter one. One tinged with madness. “You’re a fool. Forgiveness? Please. Even if such a thing were possible, you went beyond such sentiments a long time ago.” She shifts her stance to one of combat. Her lightsaber, ignited now, does not so much illuminate the area around her as frighten the shadows to a reverent distance. In her other hand, lightning crackles. Angry, seething, hungry for pain.
“There is no forgiveness for people like you.”
The other Inquisitors light their sabers as well. I take a deep breath, center myself, close my eyes. I let the Force flow into me. I do not demand it, or even command it. I simply open myself to it. There is darkness there, to be sure. My broken heart, my regret, my anger at myself, my fear of death. But so, too, is light: my hope for a better tomorrow, my pride in making myself better than I was, my gentle grief for what I’d lost, and cost myself, and can never regain.
When I open my eyes, I see a shape beyond the Inquisitors on a snow bank in the distance. I think I recognize the shape. One of my crew. One of the most trusted. One reluctant to join the fray, who watched the battle explode with calculating and fearful eyes. She’d disappeared during the melee. Perhaps to an escape pod, unbeknownst to me. Perhaps it is an illusion projected into my mind. Perhaps a ghost, born of my grief and unresolved shame. Or perhaps, still alive, she’s come to witness what happens next. To choose her allegiance based on who survives. To watch, as she always did, with that cool calculation that I’d always admired.
Who am I to deny an old friend a good show?
I turn my body to the side. I raise my lightsaber’s hilt. It’s curved shape fits in my hand like I was born holding it. Before, I’d have held one in each hand, red blades whirling, causing damage and bringing death with glee in my heart and a laughing warcry on my lips.
Now, I am silent. I press my thumb against the switch.
Indigo at the edges, white within, the blade pierces the gathering dark. Xul blinks. She was not expecting this. She’d been ready for an assault. She was anticipating the rush of anger, the thrill of combat, the thirst for death. Not for me to keep my distance. Not for me to be prepared for her to be the aggressor. I narrow my red eyes, and take up the defensive posture of a fencer, one with practiced skill and a honed, clear mind.
Perhaps there is something to the Jedi tenants of peace and lack of emotion. At least for moments like this.
“You’re going to die on this frozen rock,” Xul’darin spits, trying to goad me. “And I’m going to kill you for what you did. What you did to me. To us. You murdered us. I’ll make you suffer for days before you die. This is justice.”
“This is revenge,” I tell her, gently. “You are merely a pawn of your emotions. It makes me sad. I had to learn to let go of my hatred. To leave the past behind. To create something new, now, in this moment, and moving forward. It’s the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced. By that cold light, the one I now hold within the heart I broke with my own hands, you and your Inquisitors are nothing.”
I salute with my glowing blade.
“So come on, then. If I die here, I die as I am, not clinging to what was. I cannot say the same for you and those you’ll send to die on your behalf.”
Xul screams. They come for me.
No matter what happens next, I’m ready to meet them.
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-exsisting 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. It’s a custom-made job with a mahogany shaft with inlaid accents, carved handle that curves gently from the shaft rather than laying flat, 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 Noon 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. Had I blinked, I would have missed Mick’s microscopic 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.