Pneumotube transport cars are a lot like motorized squids. They have an internal fan that pulls in air from the front and pumps it out the back, so they ride the pressure differential without the loss of efficiency that comes from moving air around. They are noisy, though, so once we got onto the express, I was spared any more of Calvin Lee's insights. There's not much to look at in a tube car either; they don't bother to make the transport car windows clearer than translucent, so all we got was the regular flash of exterior corridor lights, too fuzzed to even focus on.
We had to leave the tubes for the final leg of the journey to our next interview. We had four names, two in the City, and two more out on the Circle and at least half a day away. Of the two in the City, one agreed to see us immediately which was a pleasant surprise.
There are no criminal penalties to drug possession, even back on Luna. But as Lee and I had seen at Marley Farm, addictions are frowned upon even in the loosest of societies. On Luna, possession per se was legal, but sale and addiction were not, and that led to a catch-22: Possession of greater than a certain amount of many drugs was prima facie evidence of either trafficking or addiction, so you wound up on a work gang either way.
Things were a lot less strict on Venus, even under Skyhook command, though possession or intoxication on a job was grounds for dismissal. In Sky City there were a slew of ways you could get yourself banished, your City residence revoked or your visa canceled. So people tended to be discreet in their habits, discreet in their histories.
Marjori Low was a society widow; her husband had owned a string of clothing factories and sales shops on the outer edge of the City. Her husband had been nouveau riche, but she was fourth generation Venus-born, and her family was from what passes for old money on Venus: those who'd staked out positions near the Skyhook when it first came down, and who had managed to retain ownership of those positional rights throughout the legal jockeying and occasional outright uses of force that followed.
Her home was in the Heights, where the City bloon curved up to meet the Skyhook. The place could only be called a mansion, with windows of real plexiglass to take advantage of the view. At night, the curve of Sky City seemed to issue from the feet of the Low residence, lit by the diffuse radiance of the internal lights of the City leaking through the translucent bloonskins. It looked like a carpet of bubbles, soft and warm, with occasional wisps of clouds drifting over the fairy landscape.
Marjori Low was in her mid-fifties, though in the modest light of her home she could pass for thirty, still attractive and well-groomed. Age retardants aren't that good, not by themselves, so she'd taken care of herself, regardless of what chemical habits she'd acquired and shed along the way. Her hair was that shade of red that happens when black begins to lighten, and it was cut to show off her high cheekbones and vaguely Eurasian eyes. Some of her vigor obviously came from exercise, because she walked with the kind of balance that comes from dance training or something very much like it. We had a good view of that walk while she graciously led us to vista seats, and I glanced over to see if Calvin was as affected by her as I was. Then I lost even that bit of concentration when she asked if we needed anything like food or drink. Her voice was set exactly in the register that feels like it caresses your ears before it is heard. Calvin declined her offer; I asked for water, which a servant quickly brought.
It looked like a carpet of bubbles, soft and warm, with occasional wisps of clouds drifting over the fairy landscape.
Then we asked her about her time in Fields Clinic. Most people are loath to speak of past falls from grace, but Mrs. Low spoke without a trace of embarrassment.
She spoke almost as if reciting lines she'd spoken often before. Perhaps she had satisfied other morbid curiosities, those of family, friends, who knows?
"When Henry died, that would be my husband, of course, Mr. Henry Low," she began. "When Henry died, after the grief passed, I became bored, not to put too fine a point on it. Henry and I had led an active life, full of both work and play, and we did both perhaps to excess. Still, my mother was an Experientialist, from one of the original Venus Bloon colonies. The Experientialists have a saying, 'Is it better to live too much or not enough?' Henry and I made our choices and I can't say we ever regretted them.
"But, with Henry gone, my former activities lost much of their allure. When a hole appears in your life, things that previously had been small and easily dealt with can grow much larger, without your knowing it."
She looked at us and smiled. "I remember some of the parties that we used to attend, the sort that the gossip columnists love to report, and always get wrong. There was plenty of drinking and music and dancing and drug taking, flirtations leading to affairs, sometimes affairs leading to divorce, all the delicious hints of scandal, you see. Such indulgences are childish, perhaps, but they can be quite fun, so long as you keep your perspective.
"But without Henry, I lost my perspective, I'm afraid. I began to drink more heavily without realizing it, and when there was a social function, I'd rely on stimulants to give me a lift that I couldn't find naturally. Well, you know the cycle. I shan't burden you by dwelling on it.
"But I do have real friends and real family," she continued. "People who actually care for me. One of my sons expressed some concern about me and I snapped at him. That surprised me, that I should feel anger for that. I was quite concerned about it. Then a week after I read some article in a magazine, 'How to Tell if your Spouse is an Alcoholic' something like that. If I hadn't been worried about it I would have passed it up, but I was worried, so I took the test, asking the questions of the woman in the mirror, you see."
[W]ithout Henry, I lost my perspective, I'm afraid.
She smiled again. It was an odd smile, mixing rue and pride perhaps. "I scored 95 out of possible 100," she told us. "A mere 50 was a good enough score to qualify for alcoholism. I was quite impressed." She smiled that same smile again.
"So I saw my physician and said, 'Time for this to stop, Angie.' She agreed. I could have checked into one of the really posh drying-out spas, but Angie knew Dr. Chan from school in Anchorage, and to be frank, I figured that part of my problem was that the only people I'd been seeing were other bored and boring people like me."
Calvin opened his mouth, about to ask her about Doria, I supposed, but I shot him a look. Sometimes you spend hours trying to get an interviewee to be forthcoming, and Mrs. Low was candidly telling us her story. We could do back-and-fill later.
But Marjori Low was a very sharp lady. She saw the exchange and grinned at me. "Ah, your partner wants me to cut to the chase, is that it? He's probably right. I should probably join AA if I want to spill my guts in front of strangers."
"Mrs. Low," I said with as much sincerity as I could muster. "Most people are very reticent about speaking to the police at all. You're doing fine. Just tell your story in your own words, any way you want to tell it. We have plenty of time."
She smiled gratefully at me, and for a moment her reserve slipped and I realized that this wasn't as easy for her as she made it seem. My admiration moved up yet another notch.
"Anyway," she continued. "I checked into Dr. Chan's clinic. They gave me some shots to help me detox and to keep the shakes and horrors away, and that went very easily. Dr. Chan explained that addiction has at least two sides to it, and that the biochemical part is the easy half. The more difficult part is to change the way you deal with yourself and other people."
She called to the servant, "James, please bring Mr. Honlin another water, and one for Mr. Lee also this time." Calvin was about to protest that he still wanted nothing, but she put up her hand to silence him. "A tonic for me, also, James." she said. "No gin."
She looked over at us. "I do still drink alcohol occasionally," she told us. "More often though, I drink tonic without gin, dealcoholized wine, rum free daiquiris. Part of Dr. Chan's program is to desensitize people from their usual chemical cues."
She paused again as the servant returned with our glasses. After he'd left, she said, "His name is not James, actually, but I call all my servants James. It's an eccentric affectation, you see. I'm rich enough so that all my oddities are eccentric affectations." She smiled at her own joke and sipped her tonic slowly, obviously enjoying the physical sensation of it.
"Where was I? Oh, yes, the group sessions, which is what you came to hear about. Dr. Chan's group therapy classes were part of the idea of changing how a person related to other people. We were supposed to redefine our methods of social interaction to include sobriety. Hmm. That sounds very toney, doesn't it? That must have been the way that Dr. Chan put it. I think he would have preferred a posh clientele in a classy detox spa. Naturally he gave me special treatment, hoping I'd give good referrals, perhaps."
"Perhaps he had other designs on an attractive wealthy widow," I offered.
She looked at me with an expression of faint surprise. "Why thank you," she said. "I never thought of that. I wonder why? It's an obvious possibility."
"Perhaps you weren't inclined to think along those lines," I suggested.
She shrugged. "You're probably right," she said. "Anyway," she continued. "We were supposed to learn to get along with people without drugs. And to enjoy it. That was the idea.
"I remember the group very well," she said. "There was Doria, of course. She's the person that you are interested in. She was an absolute charmer. There were two boys in the group who were very interested in her. Well, actually, all of the boys and maybe one of the girls was interested, but only two of the boys really acted like they had a chance. Doria was obviously high priced merchandise. I knew that even before our first session, where we learned everybody's background.
Thomas was a City boy, I'm sure of it.
"Anyway, the two boys were Thomas and Jean. That's J-E-A-N, but he pronounced it 'John.' They were both in their twenties, so I probably shouldn't call them boys, but everybody below the age of thirty is a boy or girl to me, so what do I do about it?
"Those would be Thomas Roberts, and Jean Fallow," Calvin said, consulting his list. "Those were the names they gave at the clinic, anyway. Fallow lives out on the Circle, quite a way out, in fact. We haven't been able to track Roberts through the registry."
"Hmm," said Mrs. Low. "That's a little surprising. We only used first names at the clinic, but we did talk about our backgrounds to a certain extent, where we grew up, things like that. Now Jean, he grew up in a free cluster, so he might not have even been registered. But Thomas was a City boy, I'm sure of it. In fact, he looked a little familiar, though I could never place his face."
She stopped for a moment with a look of intense concentration on her face. "No," she shook her head. "It never came to me." She paused for a moment, then continued. "There was also Mick, or Mickey. He wanted us to call him Mick, and everyone did except for Thomas, who occasionally slipped and called him Mickey. I could tell it annoyed Mick a little bit, since he was in his late thirties, so he was older than Thomas by at least ten, maybe fifteen years. But he seemed deferential to Thomas, almost like an employee, at times. On the other hand, sometimes when he was talking about things, Thomas would look over at Mick before he said something, or he'd be talking and then stop in the middle, again, after he looked over at Mick."
"Mick would be Michael Williams," said Calvin. "He's another of our mystery clients."
Mrs. Low stared out at the City lights for a while, remembering, I suppose. Then she blinked and gave her head a quick little shake. "Sorry," she said. "It's easy to reminisce, isn't it? Sometimes the past is better than the here and now. I liked all our group, and it had such a while since I'd really liked anybody.
"So who's left? Wilma Fiore, who was about Doria's age, maybe a little older. But she was plain, poor dear, and felt badly about it.
"Then there was the fellow with the delicious name: Deeth Moran. Doesn't that sound wonderful? He was a warehouse laborer. Doria called him a stevedore. He pretended that it annoyed him to be called a stevedore, but he secretly enjoyed it, or we'd not have all picked it up. Some groups tear each other down, Dr. Chan told us, but he was glad to see that ours gave each other support.
"Deeth was really a dear. He had several tattoos and such pretty muscles. I think I fancied him, but he never noticed. He was so embarrassed that he was there and said he'd be fired if his boss ever found out that he'd had a drug problem. It was liquor and pills with Deeth, just as it was for me. Maybe that's why I thought I fancied him. Or maybe it was just the muscles."
She looked at our faces and laughed aloud. "Ah, I'm pulling your legs, dears. But your expressions are priceless." She laughed again.
"But enough fun with the polite policemen. You want to know about Doria. Her parents died, you know, and she didn't get on well with her aunt and uncle. To hear her tell it she had both a wicked stepmother and stepfather, but reading between the lines it was just a case of an easily bored teenager descending on an inexperienced childless couple who couldn't cope."
"There's that word again," I observed.
"You mean 'bored?'" she asked, her smile remaining. She sighed. "Yes, so much of life comes down to a matter of keeping boredom at bay."
"What about afterwards?" Calvin asked her. "Have you heard from any of the others?"
"I received a couple of posts from Doria," she said. "Both were from that place where she worked, Marley Farm. Very pretty -- the cards I mean. They print them on paper that they make there, I believe, and sell them to collectors, for the most part."
"Do you still have them?" I asked.
"The cards? I should, shouldn't I?" Her mouth twisted into a faint frown. "But I've misplaced them. I'll continue to search if you think them important."
I shrugged. "Probably not," I admitted. "But you can never tell, so if you find them, please notify us."
"I'll do that," she nodded absently, an abstracted look on her face. She said, "As for the rest of them, no, I haven't heard. At the end of it, you feel so close to your group mates, and you all promise to keep in touch, but once back in your regular life, the clinic time seems dreamlike. How can you keep in touch with dreams? They fade so easily."
She looked at us straight on. "Being in an S.A. program is an admission of defeat, isn't it?" she asked, rhetorically. "An admission that you've lost control of your bodily functions, like being incontinent or vomiting in public. It's embarrassing as hell, actually. I resolved not to let my embarrassment rule me. So I tell people about it if they ask. It's rude to ask, but understandable, and I tell them. I don't blush at the telling, either. Perhaps I used to, but I don't anymore."
She gave us a final smile and rose to her feet. The audience had ended. That's exactly how it felt. The audience had ended, the performance was over. Time for the performer to retire.
"James will show you out when you are ready to leave," she said. Feel free to stay and watch the City for a while, if you wish. It's a beautiful sight but one grows accustomed to almost anything after a while, and I confess I'm a little tired of this place. Henry used to call it 'regression to the mean,' which is a fancy way of saying 'you get jaded.'" She smiled at me and said, "You'll notice that I did not again use the word 'bored.' There are many synonyms, after all."
How can you keep in touch with dreams? They fade so easily.
She turned and walked to a portal. Turning her head, she said back over her shoulder, "I'll continue to search for Doria's cards, and I'll call you if I think of anything else."
Then she was gone, closing the portal behind her. After she left, the sheen of the closed portal took up the blurred lights of the City, a faint reflection remaining to remind us that she had been there.