Thursday, October 11, 2007

Chapter five: But there's not a man on Venus you'd lift a finger for

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I'd only had six hours sleep in the last forty-eight, so Lee dropped me off at my hotel when we got back to Sky City. It was one of those achingly beautiful sunsets that we never see from the City's shadow, and Calvin and I lingered over a sandwich in a small Edge-of-City cafe that had a view window, to watch the last of it, as the color of neon faded through the color of blood into darkness.

After Calvin dropped me off, I went through the main lounge of the hotel on my way back to my rental. The main lounge has the front desk, plus a small restaurant and bar. It was almost empty at that hour and Madame Fumio, the owner, was having a quiet meal with her latest boy toy. I could hear him from across the space, his voice was neither loud, nor penetrating, but it had a rich quality that carried well. All of Fumio's boys had rich voices, that was always their most distinguishing characteristic, that and each one's belief that he was special, never to be cast aside.

"Ed!" It was Fumio, and since she was occasionally my boss as well as my landlady, I padded over to her table to see what she wanted.

"Billy at the front desk told me you needed to cut back on your shifts," she said as I reached the table. The hotel needed extra air, like all the clusters in shadowville, and I did one of my regular runs for Fumio.

I shrugged. "Another deal came up. It's only temporary and if you need me any time, I'll make a special run."
Fumio snacked on men for breakfast, then spat out their bones before lunch. It was part of her charm.

"That's reassuring," she said in a mildly sarcastic tone. "I doubt we'll have that much of a shortage of air jockeys, though. Even Meren here can make an air run, can't you, Meren?" The fellow with her assured her that he would walk one end of Sky City to the other for her. It was touching enough to almost get a laugh out of me.

"But the word is that your 'something that came up,' is the police, Ed. Is that true?"

I shrugged. "More a personal matter," I said. "But I took a consultant contract with Sky City police to work on it."

Her face clouded. Fumio had no truck with the police. She started out in shadowville many years ago as a stripper, and slowly worked up to "exotic dancer" with an act involving feather fans and see-through fabric. She saved her money and first bought the hotel showroom, then the hotel itself. She still danced occasionally, and even in her late fifties she could make a room full of men feel the heat of her compact curves and olive skin. She once commented that it was too bad I wasn't twenty years younger so she could take me on as one of her "boys." I told her I was flattered, but that she'd have been too much for me even when I was twenty.

Which was true, of course. Fumio snacked on men for breakfast, then spat out their bones before lunch. It was part of her charm.

Like most Darkunder dwellers, Fumio had little use for cops, especially Sky City cops. She knew I'd been a Luna cop, but considered that I'd learned my lesson and given up a misspent youth.

"A friend of mine was murdered, Fumio," I told her. "Tortured, then murdered. I don't intend to let whoever did it get away with it. Getting on with the Sky cops is the only way I can go after them. Besides, the pay is good. I'll be able to buy a new comm unit for my bloon."

She considered it. "Well, you're no snitch," she said finally. "I'll try to get the word out to let you alone on this. But you'll have to curtail certain...associations, you know?"

I understood. "Sure," I told her. "Just tell everybody that I can do an air run or two every now and then, but no side trips. I'm not looking to bust anybody's chops."

She nodded. "This girl who died, Ed, was she special?"

"I didn't say it was a girl, Fumio," I said.

"No," she told me. "But there's not a man on Venus you'd lift a finger for."

I sighed. "I don't know, then," I told her. "Maybe she was special, maybe not. But some things you just don't let pass."

She gave me another look. "Go get some sleep," she said, but the way she said it sounded like she thought she'd never before seen me this awake.


My dreams that night were olfactory and hallucinatory, full of odd smells amid a shifting landscape where solidity was a vague misconception. The smells were of must, and smoke, and the smell of singed flesh, and my own identity transmogrified with each change of the wind.
"This girl who died, Ed, was she special?"

I awoke several times, each time covered in sweat, each time unwilling to do anything more than turn over and try to plunge once more into unreality. Finally even dreams were denied me and I reached over and snapped a glow bulb. My watch told me I'd been asleep for sixteen hours, a personal best.

I got up, showered and shaved, dressed and headed to the dining areas. The ninety-six hour cycles of dark and light on Venus tend to scramble the normal human diurnal cycles, but even in the City's shadow some patterns are typical. The time immediately after nightfall tends to find everyone asleep, catching up on the time missed when the light prevailed. The light itself has little effect on the inhabitants of Darkunder, since we see so little of it, but the rhythms of the City above are felt below. So many of the activities in shadow involve the supplying of entertainment of various sorts to the well-lit folks above, that when those folks are all asleep, activities down below come to a crawl.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, because some things are best accomplished while the world sleeps, but the cops know this rule also, and they pay particular attention to the hours between 4800 and 6000 on the light clock. After that, the cycles slip, with many bodies seeking their own internal rhythms and by dawn many folks can find themselves quite confused and in need of caffeine or other regulatory chemicals. Most of these are legal, even in central Sky City, but the exceptions can make for lucrative business.

In central Sky City, artificial lighting makes the rules, central Sky City time being more an extension of offworld time than part of Venus itself. There is an extension of offworld Law, as well, and the gradient between offworld and true Venus culture has made many a lawyer rich. We all play the Sky City gradient in one way or another. When the money river flows, you can sit on the banks dangling your feet in the water and never starve.


I had breakfast at what was nominally suppertime, though there were as many people dining on Bloody Marys and eggs as there were on chicken and potatoes. I usually avoid animal products myself, for no good reason other than my eating habits were of long standing, and I prefer the taste of spiced tofu and corn meal grits.

After breakfast, I went to the main lounge and used my nice new debit card to order a new comm unit. Twenty-four hour delivery and I'd be back in contact with the world, even when hiding in my single compartment bloon. Great. Then I put in a call to Calvin Lee from a rented phone.

"Hello, Ed," he said as he came on the line. "Your comm is still out of commission."

"I know," I told him. "I just ordered a new one."

"Fixed or mobile?"
When the money river flows, you can sit on the banks dangling your feet in the water and never starve.

I snorted. "You're not paying me enough to afford a light pipe connection. It’s a no roam mobile, and low priority. If you want security, you'll have to spring for a scrambler."

"We'll take it under advisement," he said. "For now I think that we'll just assume that no one cares enough to eavesdrop."

"You got that right."

"It's getting near the end of my shift, where have you been?" he asked.

"Asleep," I told him. "Happens to the best of us."

"Uh, huh. I've got some information for you to chew on."

"Spill," I said.

"Which do you want first, tobacco or Doria Adams?"

"Make it tobacco."

"Okay, my search demon found two hundred forty instances of tobacco or nicotine possession, sales, or usage violations in all offworld jurisdictions in the past five years. That's pretty low, I'd say."

"About what I figured," I told him. "Venus is the only source, and security through Skyhook is tight. Tobacco is pretty bulky, and very hard to smuggle. The only market is rich thrill seekers."

"Yeah," he said, "But nicotine isn't bulky. It's hard to get and dangerous to handle, though. Of the two hundred forty cases, only six of them were nicotine rather than tobacco, and five of have show a lab analysis of mixed isomers, meaning that it was probably a lab synthesis somewhere."

"Mixed isomers?" I asked.

"Nicotine has mirror isomers, left- and right-handed. Tobacco produces only the left-handed kind. Lab synthesis gives a mixture. You can separate them, but why bother for a street drug, even one for rich kinks?"

"How about bioengineered sources?" I asked.

"You'd have to go through either the Luna or L-colony biodesign labs. They make Skyhook security look like first-level school hall monitors."

"So what was the one remaining case?" I asked him. I can subtract five from six as well as anybody.

"It was on Ceres," he said. "It showed up as skin absorption patches and a white powder called 'Old Nick.' The powder was microencapsulated nicotine. The stuff's a liquid normally, and the pure stuff is so toxic even a drop will kill you. The encapsulated stuff was maybe three percent nicotine, tops."

"And the Ceres connection was...?"

"No one ever found out," he said. "The stuff showed up one day, got a lot of miners and work gangs hooked, then vanished. As it went away, the price went through the roof. That was when Ceres security found out about it. There were some incidents of violence."

"My encyclopedia hookup is the same as yours," I said. "It says that there's few things more addictive than nicotine. It's co-active with alcohol, too."

"Yeah," he agreed. "What does the Ceres thing sound like to you?"

"One of two possibilities," I told him. "Either a single batch was smuggled by some lone wolf, and he milked it for all he could get, or...."

"Or number two is that someone was doing market research," he supplied. "Yeah, that's the way I figure it, too."

I sighed. Great. All we needed was a system spanning conspiracy. "Let's pray for a lone wolf," I said.

"You don't sound very hopeful," he said.

"I'm an atheist." I replied. "Prayer is for saps. So tell me about Doria."

"Rap sheet has her down for two convictions, both minor, prostitution without a license. She must have saved her money, because a little while after the second, she bought a license. No problems from then on, except that she spent a month in a substance abuse program about six months ago. Checked herself in with an expensive set of habits. Signed up for positional placement after leaving the program; Marley Farm was her second job."

"Anything else?" I asked.

"That's it. Both parents dead, no close relatives other than the couple who took care of her after her parents died. They haven't seen or heard from her since she ran away. I commed them and spoke with the husband. I got the feeling they were relieved when she left. That was about six years ago. We want a background trail, we have to start at the clinic."
"I'm an atheist. Prayer is for saps."
"I thought that clinic records were confidential," I said.

"Don't act naive," he told me.

"Any idea of where she is now?" I asked.

"She should be in Sky City. She checked in on a tourist visa just after she went on vacation from Marley Farm. But it was a two week visa and she didn't check out after it expired, so she is officially overstayed. One the other hand, we haven't been able to locate her. She used her deb card several times in the first week, then zip. She got automatically checked out of her hotel when her stay was up and she left behind a few things, nothing important. No one at the hotel really remembers her anyway, it was a high volume people packer."

"So she could be dead, in hiding, or she could have left the city illegally," I said. "Great. That really narrows it down."

"Don't forget that she's probably a blind alley anyway," he said.

"I never forget an unpleasant fact," I told him.

"I've noticed," he replied.

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