She thrashes in the water, fingers clawing at my arm as she struggles for a breath that will never come. Her legs kick ineffectually against the cold grey water, splashing it up to soak my coat as I lean over her, hands gripping her throat, keeping her pale face beneath the churning liquid.
Soon enough, her legs spasm one last time and then go limp, sinking downward beneath the dead jellyfish of her orange dress. As the water stills from grey froth to a black mirror, I see her eyes gazing up at me amid the black cloud of her hair. Her fingernails unclench from my wrist, releasing wispy tendrils of red blood which swirl around her lacquered orange nails and pale white skin, as if she were trying to extend her own life by extracting my soul in a blood ritual. My daemon rises up, screaming in terror at the sight of blood mingling with the water, but I choke it down as assuredly as I am choking the woman.
This is no time for fear or equivocation.
She must die.
Her chest spasms and her widened eyes disappear behind a curtain of bubbles as her failing body makes one last desperate attempt to return to the womb it has never felt, sucking in the cold liquid in a doomed attempt to draw oxygen from the water.
I hold her until the end, watching dispassionately as her face goes limp and life fades from her eyes. When it is finished, I release her into the clutches of the lake and watch as she slowly fades from view, a figment of white and orange dissolving into the shadows until nothing remains but a memory. I know that she will be with me always, she and all her kin rising up from the depths to torment me in my sleep until I at last surrender to my daemon and embrace the unending sleep of death.
I stand and push my cold, bloodied hands into the pockets of my overcoat. The bitter wind whips fresh snow into my eyes as I gaze across the dead grey lake and consider the woman I have just murdered, and all of those who came before her.
I can’t help wondering if she will be the last of us to die.
She’s just about worn out. You can see it in the corners of her eyes: Thinning brown skin folding over itself like threadbare sheets around bloodshot orbs sunk deep above sagging bags. Ethie’s been at this so long that she’s probably forgotten what it’s like to not be surrounded by foster kids, forgotten the sacred silence that can only be found in a solitary life. Judging from her hollow eyes and stained teeth, she likely finds her own silence in long, solitary hours dedicated to smoking as many cannabinoid cigarettes as she can afford.
Beneath the floorboards of my office, the emcee transitions to another stuttering dance track and I find myself tapping my foot to the arrhythmic beat. My mind drifts away from the old woman sitting across from me as I picture what must be happening downstairs. I’ve forgotten how to be alone too, but where Ethie fills her life with drugs and orphaned children, I drown my pain in liquor and try to salve my ruined soul by extracting people from bad places. Problem is, half the people I save probably deserve to be where they are.
She sure doesn’t do it for the money. Tamar made that clear when she persuaded me to talk to Ethie. How exactly the classiest madam in the city became friends with a poor altruist twice her age is beyond me, but I owe Tamar everything and she asked me to take this job.
“I appreciate you taking time to talk to me,” Ethie whispers, clutching her Koffee mug like it’s keeping her afloat. “I don’t have a lot of options right now.”
I nod and give her a reassuring half smile. I’ve gotten to be good at faking that look, among others. You can’t slink timidly into a room where three corporate drones are tweaking on the latest synthetic mind bomb and threatening to do plastic surgery on a manikin with butter knives. I mean, you’re welcome to give it a try, but chances are only two people will walk out of that room alive, and both will be corporate drones.
“It’s the girl. Meg. At least, that’s what we called her. Youth Services didn’t have a name for her, but I can’t just call a child by her case number, so I picked an M name that sounded nice.”
“Why did you pick a name that starts with M?”
“Oh…” Ethie shifts in her seat, sips at her Koffee. She knows why she picked the name, but she isn’t telling.
“It doesn’t really matter, I guess. Go on. Tell me what brings you here.”
“It’s Meg. She’s disappeared.”
“Yeah, probably. I mean, I hope that’s all it is, but you know how dangerous the city can be for a little girl without anyone to protect her.”
A raucous chorus rises up through the floor just then, as if to emphasize Ethie’s point. Not that Tamar would let anyone underage work her place, but her club is on the classy end of the city’s underbelly. The bit here at the edge of the midden that’ll sell you hydroponic food and a lively manikin who’s all up on their phage boosters, as opposed to the dingier parts where Darby’s goons will sell you a night with a coma patient and you’ll wake up in the river down half a liver. There’s plenty of worse places to wind up than entertaining clients at Tamar’s.
“And you’ve reported this to Youth Services, right?”
That makes Ethie really uncomfortable. Possibly more than the thought of whatever might happen to her runaway. She drains the Koffee, then sits silent, fondling the mug and staring at the floorboards.
I nod. Push a stack of eper aside. Cross my arms on my desk and lean forward to fix Ethie with a gaze that should register as gentle and inquisitive. “You can’t. Why?”
“You know how it is, Mister Liu.“
“Tal, please. Talbot if you must.”
She grimaces and sets her empty Koffee mug on the end of my desk. Worries her thin fingers in her lap as she tries to decide how much to tell me. Finally, she looks up, eyes roving the room until they lock on to the single framed photograph on the wall, the one showing Seth and Tamar and me all smiling together at the front gates of an amusement park, back when people still went to those places. Back when I remembered how to smile.
“You know how it works here in the city, Talbot. You living here, above this place, taking in folk like me. Tamar and her manikins downstairs selling themselves for chits every day. We all do what we can to get by, to scrape up enough for the next boost, to stay off the corporate radar.”
She falters. Looks to me with oil slick eyes.
I nod. Offer her what should be an encouraging smile.
“Strictly speaking, I’m not supposed to have as many kids as I do. I take the credits to the casino every month, play enough to justify the chits, then drop a few in the right mailbox and nobody bothers to count how many child support deposits are tied to the same home address.”
And how many is that? I wonder, but she’s finally talking so I keep my lips shut.
“Problem is, if I report the girl missing, that pulls in a whole other branch of Youth Services. I don’t think I can depend on the investigators keeping mum on how many kids are living in my place. How many deposits I get every month. ”
I nod. Drum my fingers on the desk as I wait for her to continue.
“I’m a good mother, Talbot, better than most of those kids ever had before they come to me.”
Ethie looks like she’s about to cry. I stand, pick up her mug, and refill it from the battered Koffee machine beside the hotplate in my kitchen nook. I’m not fan of the stuff, but as a caffeine source it’s cheaper than soda and safer than pills. Besides: My clients tend to enjoy it.
“I’m sure you do your best,” I say, offering the refilled cup to her.
She wraps her withered hands around the mug and smiles up at me, eyes almost disappearing between the crow’s feet, mouth a faint red and white line half hidden under collapsing folds.
“What are you looking for me to do? Tracking down lost kids isn’t exactly my specialty.”
“Just… take a poke about the darker side of town. Make sure she hasn’t ended up anyplace where she’ll get hurt.”
“Questions don’t always come cheap in those sorts of places.”
“I don’t have a lot of chits. Services pays me in credits and most of what I convert goes to keep the accountants on my side.”
I breathe. Bite my tongue. Wait for her to continue speaking. I’m doing this job as a favor, but I’d still like to get something out of it. At a minimum, I don’t want to lose money on driving around the city and paying off doormen.
Fortunately, most people interpret the hardening of my jaw and cold control of my eyes as barely controlled rage, rather than the suppressed anxiety that it truly is. That generally works to my advantage.
Ethie squirms and pats at her thinning hair, as if looking for the hat which rests atop her purse on the floor beside her. She looks at me with a haggard frown and shakes her head, minutely. “I wasn’t expecting charity, Talbot. I know Tamar better than that.”
I shrug. Wait.
“I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ve been raising kids in this town for neigh on fifty years. Started out when my husband died and left me childless. I know a few people who might make your work easier. Nobody in deep, mind you, I raise them too good for that. But I’ve got a son in Rydeco who can probably get you free car credits. Course, a man like you might be more interested in pleasures, right? Spending all your time above a club but never sampling the wares, am I right? My Laurie ended up managing a playhouse down by the river wall. Can set you up with some of the girls down there, if that’s more to your liking.”
I try to suppress my reaction, but she must see something in my face.
“Oh, they’ve got boys too. No need be ashamed, Tal. Things been a lot better for the manikins since legalization.”
“It’s not that I’m ashamed—”
“Good. Everyone got their own brand of pleasure. Now me, I prefer them older than me. Course, that’s been getting harder to find these last twenty years, if you catch my drift.”
You’re not here, I tell myself. You’re not listening to an eighty year old woman offer to get you free sex at a brothel one of her foster kids manages.
“Hell, I’ve been known to make a visit myself on occas—“
“Thank you for coming, Ethie,” I say, standing and offering her my hand.
She takes it and, befuddled, rises to go.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a photo of her, would you?”
“Laurie? She’s the manager, Talbot. Can’t rightly say she’s done any of the, uh, manual labor this last decade.”
“No, Ethie. I’m talking about Meg, the girl you asked me to find.” I hand Ethie her hat and bag, trying to usher her towards the door before I have to listen to any more awkward propositions.
She pulls away and steps over to my desk, where she upends her bag, scattering pens, cosmetics, sugar free candy, and packets of Mary’s Choice cigarettes across my control surface. “I’ve got her file in here somewhere.”
I close my eyes and breathe. Deep into the belly. Up through the diaphragm into my chest. Slowly out, starting down low in my core. Expelling the revulsion. I swear I’m not an agist. I’ve helped plenty of elderly dancers out of their cabs when Tamar hosts a monthly event she calls Unfaded Glories and hauled plenty of grey haired Federal patriots out to cars at closing time, but something about Ethie makes me feel like dozens of spiders are crawling across my skin.
“Found it!” Ethie exclaims. She looked up at me, concern folding her perpetual frown into a basset hound lolling of the jowls. “You all right Talbot? You look like a toddler just head butted you in the balls.”
“Fine. Just a bit of a headache.”
She hands me a crumpled eper. “That’s all I got on her. A few captures, basic bill of health, her case history, such as it is. I’m worried about her, Tal. Girl’s as quiet as a mouse. I’m half surprised they didn’t keep her in for observation, but you can never tell with Youth Services.”
I flatten out the eper just enough to make sure that it still works. The seal of the city Youth Services board flickers into existence on the crumpled surface, then fades into a watermark as a case file appears. Satisfied that I have what I need, I drop the eper on my desk and help Ethie reload her purse, then see her down the stairs and to the back door of the club where an autocab is already waiting. A chill gust nearly steals Ethie’s hat as I help her into the car and she clutches at the brim while I brace the door against the blast. When it passes she looks up at me, hooded eyes pleading. “Find her, Talbot. Before the storm. I hate to think of her wandering the streets during a hurricane.”
I give her a tight smile and nod, then push the door shut.
The autocab pulls off down the street, passing clusters of security cameras sprouting from every building, then turns a corner past an animated billboard reminding the residents of the midden to get their phage boosters. It’s a tacit admission from the city’s managing board that they need the midden to drive the economy, even if they view us as a rabble of infection vectors. Some thought that corporatization would result in a police state, with the cameras that peer down on us being harnessed by city security to arrest anyone who dared act against the interest of the state, but the real result has been a sort of benevolent neglect. Step one: Secure the borders with drones and barricades. Step two: Give everyone in the city a clear path to employment. Step three: Ignore anything that doesn’t directly harm the ruling corporations. There are fewer people to worry about now, and most of those who are still alive are desperate to move up the corporate ladder, so there’s little point in policing every aspect of citizens’ lives.
“Cold night for pining after empty streets, bossman.” I look around and see Sven has stepped out of the club for a smoke break. He pulls deep on his vaporizer, painting his scarred face with a pale blue glow.
“They say this might be the worst storm in a decade. Got some cousins thinking of heading west of the mountains before it hits.”
Sven’s got cousins everywhere. Half of them are probably not even blood relatives, but who am I to judge how a man forms a family. I shrug off my ghosts and say, “The rain’s just as bad out there.”
“Yeah, but if the levee breaks…”
“There’s no hiding from the storms, Sven. Go west you just trade drowning for tornadoes and survivalist gangs.” I stalk past him and pull at the door, which hesitates for an instant before recognizing me and unlatching. I pause, holding the door open, and turn back to Sven. “Any of your cousins deal in little kids?”
He half turns and raises a bushy eyebrow at me. “We’re better than that, bossman. Now, you need somebody killed, talk to Gregory down in the seventeenth.”
I close the door and trudge back up the stairs to my office.
The only thing that has remained consistent throughout the history of human governments is our obsession with paperwork. Tribes give way to democracies, which fade into feudal empires and transform into dictatorships and republics. Citizens are taxed in some times on their ownership of land, or their commerce, or their value to the state. In ancient days the bean counters kept track of beer inventory on clay tablets, which gave way to paper documents and, in time, to computerized spreadsheets. Now the records of human governance are recorded in self-replicating databases which occupy the etherial clouds of distributed processing power. It was one of the few things that were amicably settled when the article of corporatization were hammered out: Public data remains public.
Not that the girl’s data is public, but Youth Services, or rather the corporate human resources division which won the contract to administer Youth Services, is required to keep records on all of their activities, which are available to the Feds at any time and in privacy redacted form to what little remains of the general public.
Returning to my office, I pick up the crumpled eper that Ethie gave me and tap at the flickering face a few times. The semi-organic cells which make up the eper’s display respond sluggishly, reconfiguring themselves to display what little is known about the missing girl. For a child who has only been a ward of the city for a few days, the file is remarkably long. I drop into my chair, ask my ancillary to play some focusing music, and settle in for a long read as the sound of modulated static washes over me, drowning out the pulsating beat from below the floor.
The file capture shows a girl who looks to be about ten years old. Skin so pale she either has a pigmentation disorder or is one of those rare full-gene Europeans you sometimes find in survivalist enclaves out west, but rarely along the New Coast. Straight blonde hair that looks like someone tried to comb it before taking the photo, but gave up half way through. She does not blink even once, just stairs straight into the camera for the length of the capture, her face so still that you might think it a still if she did not swallow once part way though the loop.
I tab to the medical documentation, wondering if she might actually be from a segregated enclave, but there is no record of medical history, just a basic physical examination and blood panel noting that she is clean of any pathogens. There is one other oddity, however, in the results of the genetic testing. A notation from the blood lab indicates the presence of unusual genetic markers within the blood sample and requests additional time to analyze the sample for the presence of patented genetic alterations. The supervisor grants authorization, and then the record trail ends.
Strange that. There ought to be a timestamp closing the file or an indication that the authorization is still awaiting response, but the file simply ends. I’m not a data specialist, but that suggests to me that the file has been tampered with.
“Remind me to get the girl’s file to Javier for analysis. Looks like somebody deleted a message from the blood test history.”
“Done,” my ancillary chirps. A small kaleidoscope pattern of multicolored light pulses at the corner of my desk, indicating that the restrillect has acknowledged my command.
A knock sounds on the door and I look up to see Tamar pushing her way in, riding a wave of retro-disco. I gesture for my ancillary to silence my own music and wave her to the seat across from me.
“Hey. I hear that Ethie’s been here.”
I nod and toss the file onto my desktop, then fix her with a sardonic glare.
Tamar shuts the door and crosses the room with a lithe stride that would be more at home on the stage than my dingy office. She’s pressing fifty these days, but just as shapely and spry as she was in our youth. I keep my expression hard and my eyes fixed on her as she spins the chair around and sits down, legs spread, arms resting on the back. Her black hair tumbles over her bare shoulders in a mass of curls which nearly hides her tanned shoulders and the narrow straps of her blue sequined dress.
I say nothing.
After a time, she breaks the silence. “Are you going to help her?”
“One of her foster kids runs a brothel in riverside. She offered to get me free services in exchange for finding the girl.”
“Oh? I guess you’ll finally get laid.” Tamar’s eyes sparkle, even as my cheeks start to flush.
“A pocketful of chits would be more handy.”
“I bet the manikins are pretty handy.”
She laughs and pulls her har back, then piles it over one shoulder and begins running her fingers through it as she talks. Light sparkles from the glitter in her makeup. “The kins are starting to talk, Tal. Some of them have a bet going on whether you’ll go for a boy or a girl first, but there’s a strong pool going that you’ve got a doll hidden away up here.”
“You’d think they would be glad to have someone around who treats them like people.”
“They are people.”
“You know what I mean.”
“What I know, Tally, is that you need to loosen up a bit. You’ve got even me half convinced that you prefer robots to humans, and I’ve known you since we could walk.”
“I’m going to help her,” I say, heaving a sigh and trying to divert the conversation away from the vast desert of my sex life.
“Maybe it’s good or maybe you’re going to help her?”
“I’ll do what I can, but this already isn’t adding up.” I lean forward and trace a circle on my desk, surrounding Ethie’s eper. The desk tosses a set of options around the ring, from which I select the choice to copy the data into my archive. A progress circle flashes for an instant, then a virtualized version of the file appears near my hand. I toss the now superfluous eper to Tamar.
She glances at the eper, then back up at me. Doesn’t even move her fingers to browse it.
I sigh and lean back in my chair. The desk flickers, then fades to dark. “She’s already been missing for three days. There’s a lot can happen to a kid in that time. And with the storm blowing in…”
“Do you think she’s dead?”
“If she isn’t dead already, there’s not a lot of hope for her in the storm, unless she finds shelter.”
“But she already has shelter. I’ve known Ethie for a long time, Tal. She’s not the warmest person, but she really does care about her kids.”
I stand and move across the room to one of the narrow windows that look down over the front of the club. Neon light pulses, spilling red light across the street like blood, waging an endless war with the blue glow of the immersion arcade across the street. Tamra’s club is located at the edge of the midden. Plenty of corporates with solid credit to spend, easy access to the highway and better apartment complexes for delivering manikins to parties, but not so nice that the independents are afraid to set foot in her place. Ethie’s place is a few blocks away in a partially redeveloped zone, deeper in the midden between hilltop and the river wall. Still safe enough, but not the kind of neighborhood that attracts entertainment establishments.
“I’ll poke around. Ask a few questions on the filthier end of town. If she’s stumbled into any of the danker circles I should be able to find out.”
Tamra scowls at that. She knows what I do, and she’s willing to use my reputation and muscle to protect her manikins when they’re on call and keep the more unsavory sorts out of her club, but she doesn’t like this reminder. “Tell me you’re not talking about Darby.”
“I’m not talking about Darby.”
“Christ, Talbot. You know he’s trouble.”
“That’s the point, isn’t it? If anybody in this city is sick enough to kidnap a little girl, Darby would know.”
“Yeah, because he did the snatching.”
“More likely he hired people. A grandmother with a walker could outrun Darby, let alone a kid.”
Tamra laughs, then stands and grimaces as she catches a look at the analog clock hanging on my wall. It’s approaching dinner time and she’ll be needing to go check on the kitchen. She steps around the desk, rests a hand on my shoulder, and gives it a gentle squeeze. “Just be careful, Tal. We need you around here.”
“Why? Another bouncer quit?”
“No, silly. I just like having you around.”
The river carves through the city like an open wound, draining the puss of the infection that is slowly killing us all. It starts up in the mountains, where fresh water squeezes out of the earth in ponds and streams before tumbling down waterfalls amid tumbling piles of mossy rocks, then meanders towards the city, pausing in three valleys to spread out into lakes behind the barriers of hydroelectric dams. It’s all very picturesque and the reclamation corps like showing it off in their promotional vids, but what with the unmaintained roads and risk of encountering a survivalist clan or ravager swarm, it’s not much of a vacation spot.
There used to be two more dams on the river, but one was destroyed some forty years ago in an incident that might have been cause by pure neglect or by incompetent survivalists mucking with the systems, depending on who you ask. The resulting onslaught of water wrecked a whole valley then slammed into the second dam, fracturing it and causing an additional flood which wiped two small towns off the map. Not that many people lived in those festering pockets of plague anymore, but it didn’t help public confidence to learn that the mire had claimed yet another victim.
But all of that is miles away, across roads that haven’t been maintained in a generation and terrain that has succumbed to the clinging grasp of CarbZu and scrub. For those of us who live in the city, the most immediate concern is the dam twenty miles up river, up in the hills where many of the corporate executives maintain private estates. Much of our power comes from that dam. Below the dam, the river meanders among the foothills, past the remnants of suburban communities, now mostly empty except for a few aging holdouts and the agroplexes where the major food corps grow crops and biostock, before finally passing through the center of the city and out into the morass of the mire.
This is the last inhabited city along the river. The only safe place for some hundred miles around, though that statement might require several asterisks and footnotes if anyone bothered to regulate advertising anymore. Suffice it to say that as dangerous as life can be in the city, it’s better than being stranded in the mire.
The autocar pulls to the curb nearly a mile from my destination and pops its door locks, the restrillect announcing that that it cannot deliver me any closer due to “exclusive road access privileges.”
I scowl and swipe my finger across the battered map display, cursing the jargon. I’m in a district near the river wall, on a street that’s half buried in layer after rusting layer of crisscrossing railroad tracks and raised streets. Down here, “Exclusive Road Access” could equally mean that some corporate lab is paying to keep indies away from an off the books research facility or that the autocab company doesn’t want to risk their vehicle being hijacked by skeletal teenagers with a directional signal jammer.
Either way, I’ve got to hike it if I’m to reach Darby’s gallery.
I set off along the cracked concrete, keeping one eye out for stalkers in the warren above my head. In my old life this place would have presented a tactical nightmare scenario, the sort that we would have been loath to risk actual Federal troops on. Better to send in a drone swarm, scout the place, then eliminate all threats with remotely controlled weapons. Probably not even send in people at all unless an asset needed rescuing. But those days are passed, washed away in a tide of blood that most were fortunate enough to drown in.
A few ferrel children run past on a side street, laughing as they chase one another with sticks. Above, an ancient internal combustion vehicle growls by, spewing the scent of burning peanut oil from its biofuel engine. All about me, the concrete pillars and metal cross struts are decorated in garish, multilayered graffiti, which serves to bring some sense of life to the dying husk of the city’s infrastructure.
Before the river wall was built, this was an industrial area with warehouses lining the streets and a dozen shipping quays jutting out into the river. Now, many of the warehouses sit abandoned or have been repurposed as low rent offices and housing. There just isn’t as much need for storing goods these days. Demand tends to dry up when half the population dies in the space of two years. The remaining quays are hidden behind the river wall, a thirty foot high concrete and steel barrier which runs through the middle of the city on either side of the river to prevent flood waters from ripping out the city’s heart. At the upstream end of the wall, the south-west edge of the city, the wall curves back away from the banks up as it slowly decreases in height, opening like a funnel to swallow the rushing waters as they overflow the banks. To the south, some of the water is diverted into side channels in the wall, where half a dozen of the largest corps run their own small scale hydroelectric operation, before the river is disgorged, frothing and laden with industrial effluent, into the unending swamplands of the new coast.
I find Darby three levels up into the tangle above the streets, in a structure that looks to have once been a tobacco cigarette factory before somebody grafted a steel supporting structure beneath the third floor and cleared out the lower two levels to make room for a bypass and playground, both of which now lay fallow. As I climb the yellow steel staircase up to the entrance level, I study the tangle of pipes, wires, and girders beneath the suspended building, wondering whether the residents of this district ever look up at the building hovering over their heads and suspect that it might come crashing down upon them, or if they simply ignore it as part of the landscape, as so many of us ignore our own looming fates.
The door opens at my approach, slipping into the wall like the airlock of a space ship. I glance up at the black dome of the surveillance camera mounted above the door, then nod and step into the cramped antechamber, the thought creeping anatomy mind that a drop floor in this chamber would be a perfect compliment to the evil super villain persona which Darby intentionally cultivates.
A voice crackles over the speaker. “Talbot Liu. Bloody hell, is that really you?”
I look for the pickup amid the stickers and tags on the burnished steel walls and locate it directly above my head in yet another black dome. Can’t sat that Darby doesn’t have a flair for the retro design aesthetic. “Yeah, it’s me,” I say, flashing a grin and raising my middle finger towards the camera.
“Shit, man. I never thought we’d see you again. Didn’t boss say he’d break your legs if you came back around?”
Technically he said that he would break my kneecaps with a tire iron. “Nope. Least, not that I recall.”
The voice cackles, squelching painfully over the speaker. “Maybe you ain’t recollecting ‘cause you hit your head a time too many.”
“More likely I killed my memory with too much bourbon.” I stick may hands into my coat pockets and lean against the side wall, forcing myself to ignore the daemon’s screaming complains about all of the pathogens which might be growing on the filthy wall. “Now, are you going to let me in or just talk me to death?”
In response, the wall in front of me slides aside as the interior door opens. First thing I see is the barrel of a snub nose revolver. Second thing is the tattooed punk holding the gun.
“Nice to see you again Li. You can put the gun down now,” I drawl, my hands still resting comfortably in my pockets.
“See, the problem with that is I’m still waiting on word from the boss. Seems he’s not sure if I should let you in or put a bullet in your skull.”
I shrug, then cock my head to one side and look past Li. On the wall behind him, three screens show grainy video feeds from the firing line. Half a dozen men and women stand in booths, firing a variety of guns downrange. With each discharge, the shoddy cameras flare with slowly dying pixelated fire that obscures their weapons and turns each of the shooters into a ghostly blur. I can just make out a faint pop, pop from beyond the heavily insulated wall behind the counter. “You haven’t done much to improve this place since I was here last. Still running those buggy lane cameras? And this door has got to give the fire marshal fits.”
Li steps sideways to put the gun back in my face, so I stand straight again, pointedly ignoring him. He scowls and adjusts his aim.
“Just put the gun down, Li. You and I both know you’re not going to use it,” I say, studying the array of weapons hanging on the wall behind the counter. They are all of the basic firearm variety, probably because neural disruptors don’t have much of an effect on paper targets and a plasma cannon would blow a hole in the rear wall of the building. Deadly, sure, but only fun to shoot if you’ve never seen a single drone drop a crowd to the street, twitching as their brains struggle to reboot.
Li chuckles and waggles the gun at me, a cocky smile creeping across his face. “Don’t you be thinking the city’s ears are going to save you. This place is soundproofed and this gun is hacked. I can drop you and ain’t nobody going to know about it.”
Back when the corporations took control of the city, they put in some strict controls on guns. Nothing that would keep anyone from owning a weapon, those rules were actually relaxed, but anyone who wanted to cary had to get their gun fixed with a monitor that records the exact time and location of any gunshot and all new weapons had monitors embedded. Couple that with a citywide detection network that can triangulate any gunshots to within a few meters, throw in stiff labor sentences for anyone who is caught with a weapon that isn’t monitored, and you’ve got a quick method of building up the manufactory population. That, and mostly reducing the use of guns for crime. You’ve still got people like Li who are willing to use hacked or unmonitored weapons, but most would-be killers switched back to the classic trio: knives, cudgels, and piano wires. Personally, I’m a fan of the ceramic blade.
“And what are you planning to do with my body? You think Security won’t come nosing around here if a body shows up without a correlated weapon discharge?”
“We’re nice and close to the river.”
I pull my hands from my pockets, enjoying the twitch of fear on Li’s face as I move, and clap my them slowly in front of my face, with as much sarcasm as I can put into the motion. “Bravo! It’s a brilliant plan, Li. I can’t wait to see how it works out for you.”
Then I push off wall and dart my arms forward, swatting Li’s gun to the side and grasping his gun arm at the elbow with my right hand. My left hand flicks, releasing the ceramic blade hidden in my sleeve, and an instant later I’ve got Li pinned against the door frame, a blade pressed to his chin.
“Such a good plan I might have to try it myself,” I say, smiling at him from inches away.
Li spits obscenities at me in at least three languages and tries to point the gun at me, but I keep his elbow pushed out, my thumb digging into a pressure point so he cannot summon enough strength to fight back. I pivot my blade so the flat of it presses against his neck and look into his eyes, summoning the intense calm that has helped me suppress my daemon so many times. “I’m not here to kill anyone. Let me talk and we all go free. Keep jerking me around and we’ll have a problem.”
Li glares at me, but with my blade at his throat he doesn’t even dare to speak.
“Drop the gun and I’ll let you go.”
The gun clatters to the floor.
I chuckle and ease up on my blade, then tap the flat against Li’s chin and let him go.
The speakers above the counter awake and Darby’s heavy voice pours out like congealing blood. “Let him go, Talbot. I will see you.”
I flash Darby a victorious grin, then step back from him.
“Drop your weapons on the counter and come through. All of them, if you please.”
I lean over the counter and pull a plastic bin from beside the sale terminal, dumping the collection of pens and binder clips out onto the floor behind the counter, then begin placing my knives into the bin. It takes some time, as I extract the blades from my sleeves, inside jacket pockets, and boots. Lee retrieves his gun and goes back around the counter, where he stands, arms crossed, glaring at me. I jab a finger in his direction, feeling my heart warm as he flinches away from it, and say, “Don’t touch my knives or I’ll come for you. Got it?”
“No guns?” he asks, skeptical.
I pick up my favorite throwing knife and hold it in front of his face for him to examine. “Ceramic composite blade. Sharp as steel with none of the metal. Won’t get through a hard-object scanner, but your average metal detector won’t even blink at it.”
With a flick of my wrist the blade darts across the room and embeds itself in the wall behind the counter. “Pretty effective at what it’s built for, too.”
Li starts and almost raises his gun towards me again, then he sees the other knife I’m holding, balanced between two fingertips. All I have to do is flick my wrist and it will dive into his neck like a hungry sea bird digging for clams. He mutters something foul under his breath and puts his gun into a cubby beneath the counter.
“Smart. Please make sure my knives are all here in the bin when I get back.” I drop the knife and turn my back on Li. I look up to the speaker and shout, “Let’s get to it Darby, I don’t have all night.”
A buzzer sounds and the door to the right of the counter clicks. I open it, revealing a tight corridor lined with locked file cabinets, some of them topped with cheerful red and green potted plants, their plastic foliage dulled by a pathetic layer of grey dust. The passage is illuminated by glow panels on the ceiling, their light the sickly green of failing organics. It’s too tight for Darby to pass through, so there’s got to be a private way out of this building. Maybe a ramp to one of the elevated highways or an elevator hidden among the tangle of supply conduits which climb the supporting structure. This hall is clearly intended as a passageway for clients of the undesirable variety and low budget snoops like me. I take solace in the distinct lack of bloodstains, hoping that suggests that the hall is rarely used as a kill box.
The door behind me clicks shut and then, after a moment, the forward door unlocks with a buzz, releasing me from the narrow prison.
And there sits Darby, resplendent in his ill-gotten glory.
If you never have the misfortune of meeting Darby in person, count yourself among the blessed people of this earth. Few outside of the world organized crime know Darby’s name, and fewer still have met him. It’s not his appearance or grooming that is so off putting, in point of fact Darby is one of the best groomed people I have ever met, thanks in no small part to a private valet who ensures that his clothing is always stylish, impeccably laundered, and scented with the faint aroma of oranges. No, the problem is that Darby is a member of that parasitical class of humanity that always seems to breed in the sewers of large cities. He has a list of vices as long as my bar tab, and those which have to do with sex and drugs are the least revolting. There are plenty of men who will kill for money, or even kill for pleasure, but Darby’s preference is to have others tortured for him while he watches, high out of his mind on whatever designer drugs his chemists have cooked up most recently.
I first encountered Darby six years ago when he sent an underling to Tamar’s place to arrange for some entertainment to spice up a private party. Tam isn’t wild about that sort of gig, but if it pays well enough she will put out the call for volunteers. Some of the dancers always respond and it’s not uncommon for me to go along with the manikins on those gigs, a sort of mobile buzzkill in a black coat, watching everything to make sure that my wards are being treated well. On this particular excursion, I happened on one of Tamar’s girls crying hysterically in the restroom. She had managed to escape from a particularly nasty situation, leaving on of Darby’s guests with a hairpin in his eye and the others scrambling to find their clothes. I was prompting her for descriptions of the remaining offenders so they might have an intimate experience with my blades when one of Darby’s minions came in, looking to silence the girl.
As you might imagine, I didn’t take well to that. And neither did he, after I eloquently explained the consequences of his intended actions. Seven finger bones into our conversation, he cracked and took me to see Darby while my ward left the party to get some fresh air at a bar closer to home. Darby and I had a brief and unpleasant conversation, during which it was made clear that he would never step on Tamar’s turf again.
“Talbot Liu. I thought we agreed to never speak again,” Darby growls from the depths of his massage chair. He sits in shadow, illuminated only by the glow emanating from his desktop. He’s got a collection of tablets and epers scattered on the expansive oak desk, real oak, none of that veneer they peddle at your neighborhood furniture fab. At a glance, I’d say that half of the screens are flickering with a melange of gonzo porn and what I hope to nothing more than commercially produced faux torture films. The rest feature a variety of documents and chat conversations, the tangled threads of which Darby tugs to manage his empire of crime.
“And I thought you were more classy than this. What drops you low enough to do your business from the back of a shooting gallery in riverside?”
A rumbling exudes from the chair, whether it is a hearty chuckle or a bout of indigestion I’m not sure.
“At any rate, I’m not here to give you any grief.”
“That’s certainly a relief to my tender heart. For a moment I worried that you might make nasty jokes about my mother.”
“Nothing I can say that’s worse than ‘Darby is alive and well.’ Plenty of folks wake up every day hoping to learn you’ve had a stroke overnight.” I look around for a seat, but the only other furniture in the room is a pole that rises from floor to ceiling about two meters away from his desk. At first I think it’s a dancing pole, but on closer inspection I see that it’s a simple steel rod mounted to a metal socket bolted to the concrete floor. There’s a drain in the floor a half meter away from the base of the pole.
I suppress a gag and lean against the pole, stuffing my hands into my pockets so I do not touch it. The daemon claws at my guts, but my rational mind know that this is probably the cleanest room in the whole building. Whatever bodily fluids might have been left behind by the last wretch to lean bloodied and pissing himself against this pole have certainly been washed away with enzymatic cleaners to remove all trace DNA.
Darby gazes back at me languidly from his chair, which shifts and buzzes around him with disturbing organicity. One of the text screens flickers and he reaches out to tap a quick response, probably sealing the fate of some poor bastard who was unlucky enough to get on his bad side. I hope the guy will be fortunate enough to be killed quickly, rather than ending up on Darby’s entertainment list.
“I prefer to keep some business away from my homes,” he says, eventually.
“Really? Because as I recall you’re fine with paying manikins to screw your business associates while your goons put screws through their fingers.”
Darby chuckles, a faint smile creasing his features. “Ah, our first meeting. I thought it was a rather poetic form of interrogation, but you and your whore seemed to disagree.”
“Yeah, I try to keep coercion and torture out of my sex life.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Shall we discuss more recent affairs?” He drops a ponderous finger to a tablet screen and the wall beside his desk flickers, then clicks from opaque to translucent. There’s a one-way mirror behind the smart glass, giving us a clean look into one of the shooting galleries. This isn’t the one I saw on the monitors outside. For one thing it’s smaller.
And then there’s the matter of the man hanging from the rafters in chains.
A woman sits in a metal chair some meter from him, her legs manacled to the floor, a small metal box resting on her lap, her face buried in her hands.
“There are some scenarios I cannot allow to play out in my private home. Take this for example,” Darby says, gesturing towards the window. “A certain gentleman owes me a significant debt. You may recognize him.”
I squint at the people in the next room for a minute, but they don’t look familiar. Their clothes are certainly high end though, and I get the sense that their haircuts probably cost as much as my weekly food budget. “Not exactly my social circle.”
“Really? That surprises me, but then they do tend to frequent the exclusive private parties, rather than your establishment.”
Darby pulls one of the screens off the desk, perching it atop his enormous vested belly like an otter preparing to crack open a clam, and taps at the controls. In the room, the woman jerks upright and stares down at the box on her lap.
“When last we spoke, you threatened me, Talbot. You said that, let me see if I can recall your words precisely, you would ‘cut out my eyes and choke me with my tongue’ someday.”
“That’s still the plan.”
“Not a nice thing to say.”
In the room, the box lid slithers aside with the distinctive ripple of a retreating nanite swarm. The woman shouts soundlessly and jumps up from her seat. The box should fall, but it is affixed to her wrist with a short chain. A small, printed handgun falls from the box, dangling on a thin silvery chain like a deathly pendulum. She stumbles as the chains around her ankles snap tight, rights herself, and begins pulling at the chains on her ankles and wrist, desperately trying to free herself.
“You didn’t think that when we first met.”
“When we first met, you were defending the rights of your ward. I fully acknowledge that I was attempting to coerce some vile deeds from that young woman. I admired your gumption in breaking eight—“
“—Seven of Corin’s fingers to learn my location. That took metal. We had a good relationship for a while.”
“Still would if you had kept to torturing animals and criminals instead of innocent people.”
“Oh, please. Those so called people who got you all worked up were nothing more than rats who had snuck into the city. A drain upon our precious resources and a threat to public health. I was doing my part in cleaning up this place.”
Beyond the mirror, the woman is back in the chair, box and gun still dangling from her wrist as she sobs into her hands.
“I’m not here to argue about the past, Darby. I’m here because I need information.”
“Information? Bloody Christ, Talbot. You are presumptuous.”
I stalk up to Darby’s desk and lean on the cold, hard wood, looking at him across the flickering sea of obscenity. “I’m looking for a little girl. You know, Darby, the sort a person like you might take an interest in.”
He blinks at me, eyes swearing innocence while his fingers twiddle with the interface of the tablet perched on his belly. After a long moment of silence I glance away and my eye is caught by the play unfolding beyond the glass.
The woman is standing now, visibly trembling as she points the gun towards the chained man.
“I knew you would not be able to resist it for long,” Darby whispers, excitedly. The chair rotates, affording him a full view of the room beyond the glass without the effort of turning his neck. “It’s a splendid show. You know, Talbot, I’ve moved beyond the blasé sexual games to which you took such offense. I find that there is more subtlety, more range and variety of flavor in the extract of pure emotional torment. Take this one, for example.”
He steeples his fingertips in front of his jowls and chuckles to himself before continuing. “The woman you see before you owes a significant amount of money to one of my casinos. Now, despite what you might be thinking, I consider that to be one of her assets. A compulsive gambler, especially one who is so well connected, is an asset to any casino operator. Give her a few extra chits, make her feel special, forgive some of her debt, and she will do almost anything for you.”
“So, why the chains? The man?”
He holds up one finger, a practiced, calmly menacing gesture which would loosen the bowels of most people who find themselves in a private audience with Darby. Me? I find it maddening. As vile as Darby is, and as much as he likes to revel in the supposed uniqueness of his brand of evil, I’ve seen his equal scattered throughout the mire or, before the plague, among despots across the broad world. For a moment he just sits there, watching as the woman behind the glass trembles, then collapses back into the metal chair. Watching Darby watch the woman, my skin begins to crawl, as if I were being forced to watch him masturbate. This is how he finds pleasure, when all other avenues have been explored and tapped to exhaustion.
Finally, he continues. “Unfortunately, the gentleman over there declined my offer to become a more active cog in the machine which governs this city. The usual methods of recruitment having failed, I am left with no choice but to resort to more entertaining means.
“The woman is his wife. She has been given a simple decision: Transfer all of her assets into the control of a holding company which, though a string of intermediaries, belongs to me, or kill her husband and have a recording of her actions delivered to Security.”
“A bit dangerous, isn’t it? Especially you being here to watch in person.”
“Neither knows who has captured him. All of their implants and devices have been blocked from the moment of capture, so there is no way they could be traced back to me. Besides, what is life without some element of risk? I could not turn down the—”
Beyond the glass, the woman screams in silent pantomime, jams the gun into her own mouth, and pulls the trigger.
Blood, brain, and bone paint the wall. The woman flops over the back of the chair, then drips slowly down before collapsing onto the floor.
“Looks like she took a third option.”
Darby shrugs his shoulders with all the ponderous, shifting mass of an earthquake.
“And the man? What are you going to do with him now?”
“I imagine he will agree to work with us. Perhaps even come crawling to me for protection from whoever killed his wife. That, Talbot, will be a most exquisite meeting.”
Darby’s chuckle is deep, long, and ominous, like the rumbling of boulders in some subterranean rockslide. He turns his chair and offers me a silver-toothed smile across the glowing desk. “I think that even you would be willing to work for me if you had spent two days in drug-induced paralysis, watching someone you love try to decide whether to kill you.”
One of my eyebrows creeps up, revealing my surprise.
Darby sees the movement and nods, still grinning. “Oh, yes. And I’ve been watching the whole time. It has been… delicious.”
I shrug and turn my back on the grisly scene. It’s not my part to avenge every brutality this city has to offer. I’ll kill Darby someday, you can be sure of that, but it will be for my own reasons, not out of some sort of misguided sense of vigilante justice. I’m a fixer, not an assassin.
“About the girl.”
“What about her? I presume the girl you’re looking for isn’t the one laying in the room with her brains sprayed across the wall.”
I shake my head and slowly, playing to the hidden cameras or guards which must be watching, pull my coat open and extract the folded eper. I step closer and drop the eper on Darby’s desk. “She’s been missing about a week. Figured that was enough time for her to show up on your radar.”
Darby lifts the eper delicately between finger and thumb, studying it through hooded eyes. After a moment he drops it and waves his fingertips dismissively. “I haven’t seen her.”
“And I presume you’re too busy to pass word to your lieutenants.”
“Frankly, Talbot, I’m offended that you thought of me first when looking for a missing child.”
I nod towards the one way mirror and shrug. “Whenever something terrible happens in the city, I figure you’ve at least heard of it.”
“What will it take to get you to pass the word through the underground?”
“I presume that you giving me your word that you won’t kill me is off the table.”
“And access to Tamar and her manikins?”
I shake my head. “They’re not mine to bargain with. I can pay you a little. I can offer you conditional services.”
“I’m not exactly sure what you think you have to offer. I have far more money than you. The only thing you have that I desire is the club and the delectable women who perform there.”
I hold my hands wide and smile. “We both know I could still be carrying a blade right now. That I could kill you before your guards even noticed.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Merely an observation.”
“You would never make it out of this room alive.”
“Neither would you. The point is that you know what I am capable of, and you know my… shall we call it a moral compass? Do this for me and I will owe you a favor. We both know there are some things I won’t do, but the list of things I will do is far longer, and anyone who knows about both of us knows we despise one another. This is your chance to do something right for once, and to make something happen in the circles that are normally closed to you.”
Darby ponders that for a while. It’s probably foolish of me to make him such a broad offer, but Darby can accomplish more with a single phone call than I can in a week of visitations. My advantage in this city is that I am independent, fiercely so. I will work for, or against, any of the power players, and I have a broad network of individuals who owe me favors. And it doesn’t hurt that I’m co-owner of one of the best private clubs in the city, a place with a reputation for talented performers and complete discretion. That means that I can move nearly anywhere without placing myself at risk and most people who matter prefer to deal to deal with me, rather than putting up a fight. Darby’s advantage is that he owns more people than any organization outside the big three corps. He gives the word and thousands of people will be combing the underworld, looking for the missing girl.
Not that he’ll go that far. I’ll be lucky if I can get him to share her picture to his lieutenants.
“What kind of cooperation are you expecting from me?” he says, after a moment of contemplation.
“Check around. Just because you didn’t pick her up off the streets to practice your filleting skills doesn’t mean that one of your colleagues didn’t. Maybe one of your casino whales needs a new kidney and she’s a blood match.”
“That doesn’t really happen much anymore. Anyone with enough clout to arrange a stolen organ can afford to have one custom grown. There’s some cities that offer citizens up to two guaranteed replacements for all major organs as part of their insurance package.”
“You know what I mean. Put the word out there.”
Darby taps the eper against one of his tablets, transferring the girl’s image and vital statistics into his own network. “Done. You owe me one.”
“Not a place I like to be,” I say, turning my back on him. The bloody scene beyond the glass snags my eye again. “What happens to him?”
“Not that it is any of your mind, but he’ll wake up in his bed some time tomorrow. This will all seem like a terrible dream, until he crawls out of her sheets, swearing that he’ll never take those particular hallucinogens again. He’ll stumble into the bathroom and, if he’s lucky, be in such a daze that he’ll make it to the toilet before he notices the dead body in his bathtub.”
“Kind of obvious that she didn’t die there, isn’t it?”
“You’ve got a lot to learn about the art of manipulating people through killing, Talbot.”
I open the door to the hallway, calling over my shoulder. “I only kill people like you.”
Wakefulness hit me upside the head like a broken whiskey bottle, wrenching me from one nightmare into another. My handy is screaming at me, the klaxon alert of a citywide emergency alert blaring out from the cluttered table beside my sofa. Clutching the screen to my face, I see a clutter of emergency warnings: Hurricane Jasmine has already carved out five miles of shoreline in the Gulf and is showing no sign of slowing as it rips up the coast, skips over the mountains, and rushes towards the city on a coastal highway of muggy air. The meteorological restrillects are predicting that Jasmine will still be a punishing category six hurricane by the time it hits us, with rain starting as early as this evening and the full force of the storm striking within forty-eight hours.
I groan and drop the handy back onto the table, pulling my blanket back over my stubbled face.
There are plenty of advantages to life in the City: Safety, opportunity, comfort. But when you come right down to it, even the mighty industrial architecture and gargantuan flood control systems are subject to the whims of nature. My grandparent’s generation was the last to live with the blissful delusion that they could conquer nature through technology. Ever since, the restless planet has pummeled us with repeated lessons that we are a part of nature, not its masters. Rising seas, extreme weather, and the relentless evolution of diseases which eventually outpaced our ability to cure them. The worst of these was, of course, the plague. The ultimate manifestation of nature rebelling against humanity’s hubris.
I push back the covers and swing my feet to the floor, fingers gripping my knees as my head hangs loose from my shoulders. I fixate on the pattern of the synthetic wood floor, forcing myself to focus finding the repetition in the print as I struggle to banish the visions of necrotic flesh and seeping blood which flood my vision each time I close my eyes.
This is the last thing I need this morning.
There are days when I sit, feet nailed to the cold floor, eyes fixed on the floor, wishing that I were curled up on the floor in a pool of my own blood, feeling my soul sink through the floor and descend into hell. I’d take one of those days over this.
I wonder what it would take to get myself locked up in solitary confinement for the rest of my life. Some masterful crime just terrible enough to ensure that prosecution is handed over to the Feds, so the corps cannot put me to work in one of their private factories, but no so terrible that I run the risk of execution. Of course, it was such a confinement that saved my life to begin with, so maybe the solution lies instead in setting out across the mountains through the mire, walking naked through the wilds until nature claims me for its own.
It is enough to make me understand why men in medieval times would submit themselves to the strictures of monastic life, to spending decades performing strictly ordered acts of spiritual service while studying the intricacies of winemaking. The complete surrender of agency is an emotional suicide, an act of self destruction without all that pesky risk of damning the soul.
My handy buzzes as my ancillary notices that I’m awake and reminds me that I’ve got plans for the day and had best get off my ass and start moving.
“Gotta save the children,” I grunt. “They’re the goddamn future.”
I push myself up off the sofa and stumble towards the toilet, shouting for my ancillary to get the shower started.
Relatively speaking, this isn’t a bad start to a day.