Monday, November 26, 2007

Chapter twelve: I'm from the goddam planet Krypton

Previous Chapter

I gave them a few minutes to get to the bloon docks and get clear, then I headed up there myself. Sleep was completely out of the question. The images were roiling and the pressure was building and I needed something to blow it off. When it got this far, liquor wouldn't help, and I wasn't fit for civilized company. I needed to find some uncivilized company now.

Joey was working the hotel dock that evening, just like he does about sixteen hours a day. "Hi, Joey," I said to him and he gave me a smile.

"You going out now?" Joey asked me, just a little uncertain, because I usually made air runs for the hotel during the day. Pretty much all night runs have to be under power, you can't expect to control a one or two klick drag line in the dark, and an air run under power is just about a break-even proposition. Fumio runs a taxi service, too, but I don't like to do taxi runs, because you have to meet too many people. Given my distaste for taxi work Joey was wondering why I'd be taking a bloon out in the complete dark.

"Yeah, Joey, I'm going out now." I winked at him. "Just a little free float. To be by myself for a while, you know."

Joey gave me his smile again. He didn't really know, but he liked being in on things. "Do you want to take Bess out?" he asked, naming my favorite bloon, an old one that was still improbably alive after all she'd been through.

"No," I said. "We'll let Bess rest for tonight." I reached into the nearest bloon and pulled the transponder from its position by the entrance flap. "Hang onto this for me, won't you?" I told him.

This time he gave me a wicked grin. He knew that it was illegal to pilot a bloon this near the City without a transponder, so I must have some mischief in mind. There were only a few of Fumio's air jockey's that were allowed to play transponder tag, and I was one of them. Of course the deal was that Fumio was never supposed to know about it. If I were caught I was in a stolen bloon, but I wouldn't get caught, not where I was going. And the deal always meant an extra tip for Joey.

"Sure, Mr. Honlin," he said. "You take care of the bloon, and I'll take care of the box." He carefully put the transponder in a recess under his seat.

I winked at him again. "I won't be too long," I told him. Then I got into the bloon and pushed off.

I needed to find some uncivilized company now.

Like I said, a power run costs enough in fuel expenses to eat up the profit on an air jockey assignment, so the more free sail you can do, the better your pay. I have a full sail license and I'm good enough to do a straight cross wind tack from the uppermost free sail level, just below the Darkunder clusters.

But even novices can do it the easy way, by dropping down a few more levels to where the planetary jet is slower and letting the City pass by up above. That's just differential drifting, of course, and if you want to return the same way, you have to go up above the City level, where the differential is much less, so the travel is much slower. But no one is allowed to free sail above the City proper, so you still have to do some tack work to get outside. The round trip for a differential drift and a short tack line can take a day or longer. The round trip gives you a nice overall view of the City, though, and during the day, the drift tours are a tourist attraction.

That night I had a different plan in mind. I was using the smugglers' route, by powering a short way over to the north, then dropping down to the lowest transport level. Then I drifted.

This part was no real risk at all. You can lose your license if you're caught free floating without a transponder near Sky City, but on the lowest drift levels, the likelihood of being caught is pretty much nil. Bloons don't have that much of a radar cross section, that's why they carry transponders in the first place, that and for identification purposes. Besides, the lower levels get some uninhabited bloons from time to time that drift up from the lower depths. Policing Darkunder's basement would be a waste of time.

I stabilized my bloon at the 310 Kelvin level, about two kilometers below the City floor. The differential drift rate at that level is only a bit over a meter per second, not more than a slow walk, but I didn't have all that far to go. It took maybe 45 minutes for the triangulator to count out the required distance, and I used the time to adjust the bloon's external fins for a slow spiral.

When the triangulator told me I was in the right spot, I dumped half my charcoal ballast and began my assent.

This was the risky part if there was any risk to the run at all. If someone happened to notice my bubble up maneuver, they'd know instantly what I was up to. But no one was likely to see me in the dark, and unless the geography of shadowville had changed in the past couple of hours, there was nobody between me and the City floor.

More of the underside floor of the City is warehouse space, and except for a few entry points, docks, and air shafts, the warehouses are packed side by side, with no roads or alleyways between them. The bottom is uneven, since the storage bloons are not all the same size. So there are thousands of nooks, crannies, and clefts in the underside floor, perfect for trapdoors.

My bloon was on an upward spiral, right toward one particular cleft, one that contained an illegal entry hatch. Every so often I adjusted the external bloon fins to modify the spiral slightly. Overall, the maneuver was a cakewalk, since the triangulator had my position to within a meter, and I had plenty of time to adjust my trajectory as I reached my target nook. The most challenging part of it was trying to time the spiral so that my bloon wound up with the right orientation. This didn't matter much, since the docking was largely self-correcting, but I'm a purist. When the gentle thump came, announcing that my bloon was sliding upward into the correct position, I noted with satisfaction that the bloon settled in with practically no rotation.

[U]nless the geography of shadowville had changed in the past couple of hours, there was nobody between me and the City floor.

I already had my bubble mask on, you always do when free sailing, and I squeezed the peroxypack under my armpit to enrich the oxygen a little for the exit and climb into the warehouse. The illegal hatch had no airlock, and the warehouse was nitrogen only, with no O2 in the mix. I'd used this particular hole only a couple of times before, running some blank comm chips that I'd assumed were hot, either stolen or slipped under the excise collectors. Most likely they were both, come to think of it.

It wasn't one of the better shadow holes. It was just a random bloon tear that had been patched with ziplock instead of sticktight, by somebody who had then sold the location to some people who needed to make a quick run. But it was small, and the warehouse opened onto a corridor that was too busy to carry a lot of contraband without somebody noticing. So after a few small deals, the hole fell into disuse, forgotten by everybody except me. I used it when I needed to.

Most often my need would take the form of wanting to get into the City but not being able to bear the idea of going through a checkpoint. Sometimes this was just for bar hopping, but most of the time I headed for the most deserted areas of Sky City, the big warehouse corridors after hours.

There's not much security in the warehouse corridors. A few of them have motion sensors, or surveillance cameras, fewer still are patrolled by guards. Mostly though, costs of security outweigh the benefits. Too much stuff moves through Sky City for thievery to make much of a dent, and most of that stuff has a high bulk-to-value ratio. If a thief wants to spend his time loading raw bloonsilk, bloonskin, or activated charcoal, he might as well get a job.

But hidden away in some of the storage areas are things worth stealing, microchips, pharmaceuticals, exotic produce, vid glasses, and digistores. Usually these go into the security areas, but sometimes someone gambles that you can safely hide them under a bale of bloonsilk. Usually, they are right.

I climbed through the hole into the warehouse and ziplocked it behind me. The warehouse was packed with bloonskin that day, with rolled bolts of it stacked high. I threaded my way between them to the outer door. It was locked, but it was easy to gimmick the lock from the inside. They are made easy to get out of in case a worker gets trapped; the only tricky part is evading the alarm switch.

The corridor was deserted, which was to be expected at that hour. I pulled my bubble mask off my head and stuffed it into my pocket. The air was a bit stale, but my earring and the telltale strips on the walls both agreed that there was plenty of O2. Occasionally they put a whole corridor to pure nitrogen to kill vermin so it's a good thing to always have a peroxypack with you.

What I wanted that night, at least in part, was to walk. And to be alone. One or the other is easy enough, but in bloon culture both are hard to come by. Back on Luna I'd sometimes suit up and go out topside, just to get away from everybody and everything. But being in a vacuum suit still carries a little bit of claustrophobia with it, and a morbid imagination can always get to wondering what would happen if you pulled the release valves of your helmet, just like it's always so easy to imagine stepping over the side of a bloon and plunging toward the planet below.

The other thing I sometimes did on Luna was to go prowling the lower corridors after lights-off, when most citizens were supposed to be in bed. The lower levels could never keep their sensors in repair; fix one and it would get vandalized within a week. Anybody you found out in the lower corridors after hours was apt to be up to no conventional purpose. Sometimes it was just teenagers looking for a place that wasn't under their parents' eyes. Sometimes it was meetings of like-minded insomniacs, trying to walk off the deep black blues. Other times, people I met were clearly up to no good. There's a deep need for violence in the human psyche, I think, and almost everywhere there are places where men go looking for a fight.

That's another reason why people go to the lower warehouse levels late at night.

I kept up a brisk walk for a couple of hours, occasionally taking a pull off of a water bottle I'd brought with me. I'd done this a number of times before, usually not running into another living soul for hours on end. Those times I'd end up my walk with a sense of disappointment, sometimes a sense of relief. Occasionally I'd find somebody else who was looking for a rumble, sometimes alone, sometimes in twos or threes. Then it was fight or flight, and I was always curious to see which I would do.

That night I hit the jackpot; I stumbled onto a burglary in progress. The odds weren't greatly against it, I guess. If I cared to check the insurance statistics I'd know how lucky I was. Maybe the gods sometimes arrange to give a man what he truly needs.

There were three of them, and they'd cut open a door with a skill saw. One was stationed at the outer door, and the other two were using a pry bar on some sealed crates insides. It looked like the crates were full of vid sticks, or maybe high density storage crystals. They were loading a pallet outside the door with the goods, and I guessed that they would then haul it over to some small storage space that they'd rented nearby for later transfer and fencing.
There's a deep need for violence in the human psyche, I think

The one at the door saw me round the corner, and he gave a short bark to the two inside. They expected me to turn tail and run to give an alarm, I guess, thinking that I was a security guard. When I kept walking straight for them, I saw them tense up. When I was about four meters away, they moved to block the corridor. Two of them pulled knives, the third still had the pry bar in his hand.

"Where the hell did you come from?" said the one who had been at the door, who I took to be the leader.

"I'm from the goddam planet Krypton, pal," I told him. "I've got a Science Police warrant to kick your ass."

He relaxed a little with that, figuring me to be crazy or brain damaged. "Take care of this guy, Leo," he said to the one holding the pry bar.

The one called Leo came at me, swinging the bar as if he expected me to jump away from it. That made it easy. I tossed my water bottle into his face, and slipped in underneath his swing, giving him a stiff arm right to the nose. I felt the bone and cartilage go crunch, and Leo's head snapped back as the pry bar thudded to the floor. The sight of their own blood enrages some people; others faint. Leo was closer to the second sort, or maybe I'd rattled his brain. Either way, his legs turned to string, and he fell right over.

The other two should have attacked immediately, or they should have run. Instead, they tried to flank me. Maybe they even moved fairly quickly, but you couldn't prove it by me. I'd hit the slowdown, where the adrenal rush sends everything into slow motion. I'd first experienced it years earlier in my first tournament competition, and it had become a regular companion over the years.

It was obvious which one of the guys in front of me was the better fighter. The one who called the shots was smooth and he held his knife like he knew what to do with it. So I charged the other guy. This one held his knife out in front of him like I was going to do him the favor of impaling myself on it. I let him think that until the last moment, when I rotated off the line, snagging his knife hand as I slid by. A quick pull and a twist, and I heard a series of popping noises in his hand. He gave a scream of pain and went down hard, trying to contort his body around his hand in an inept parody of proper ukemi. I kicked him in the temple as he went down. I don't think I killed him.

Then there was just the Leader. He knew enough not to charge me outright, even when I reached down to pick up the knife from his fallen buddy. I moved the knife from hand to hand and saw that he kept looking at my eyes, not the knife. I held it up in front of me and pretended to examine it closely. Still no charge.

"What a piece of crap," I said of the knife. "Epoxy blade and cheap plastic handle. Switchblade mechanism. Feh." I held it between my two hands and pushed. Blade and handle snapped apart.

I tossed the pieces over toward him and they landed at his feet. "You can still walk away," I told him. "You don't owe anything to these two losers."
I'd hit the slowdown, where the adrenal rush sends everything into slow motion.

"Fuck you," he told me.

I shrugged. "So many offers, so few meaningful encounters," I said.

The guy with the broken nose moaned and the blood on his face his face bubbled with it. I glanced over at him, taking my eyes off the Leader.

He took the bait and launched himself at me. He was as good as I expected, his knife getting close enough to slice my shirt sleeve as I parried the thrust. Then I had him in a wrist and elbow lock that let me twirl and suddenly he was staring at his own knife, still held in his own immobilized hand.

I looked into his eyes and let my own demons feed on what they saw there. "I could make you eat it now, you know," I told him. "That's one of the standard endings. Or I could just take it away from you and send you on your way." His eyes blazed with hatred still, enough to cover the fear.

"Let's split the difference, shall we?" I told him and squeezed. His knife fell from his grasp. Then I gave a little downward pull. From that position, the alternative to elbow and shoulder dislocation is to drop, and he dropped. I followed him down until he was flat on his back. His other arm flailed madly, trying to reach across his body to get at me, but that was impossible. I steadily increased the pressure until I felt his shoulder give. He exhaled noisily from the pain, then pretended to pass out. I reached down and claimed his knife, watching for any sign that he would try some other move. Some people don't know when to quit.

"Move and I'll kick your teeth out," I told him as I got up.

He realized that I hadn't fallen for it, so he opened his eyes and looked up at me. "Why?" he asked. I felt my body go warm at the evidence of human contact. Real communion is so hard to find.
Real communion is so hard to find.

"I thought I might need a knife sometime soon," I told him. I looked at his. Real metal blade and handle, good balance, none of this switchblade shit. A collector's item for sure. I smiled at him.

"Thanks for the blade," I told him. "I owe you one."

Next Chapter

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Chapter eleven: One might as well believe the legends of Colonel Maximilian's ghost.

Previous Chapter

We picked up readables of the reports from the secretary, and she promised to pump the data sets over to PD headquarters that afternoon. Then we got into our waiting motor squid and left for the station.

"I don't like the way this is going," said Calvin as we pulled away from the Column.

"How so?" I asked.

"I don't like the way this case keeps expanding. Every time we see somebody it gets bigger. First we were looking into the history of Sheila Mason. Then we find ourselves looking for Doria Adams. Now we're trying to locate Thomas Grayling, and maybe Michael Deere as well. Every loose end leads to another loose end. And it's all a big tangle."

"Thus do I cut the Gordian Knot," I quoted.

"Huh?" he said, then caught the reference. "Yeah, maybe we need some sword work here. Damned if I know what to do about it though." He looked at me expectantly, but I was fresh out of wit.

"I haven't an inkling," I told him.

"In most homicides," he said, "at least here around Sky City, you get pretty simple situations. A cut up at a lifter bar is easy. Either you have the guy immediately, or 'nobody seen nuthin.' If you spend the time on those, sometimes someone will get convinced to help you out and you make an arrest. Otherwise, you're out of luck.

"Then we get the family kills. Some husband hits his wife too hard, and she dies. Or he hits her too hard and she sticks a knife in his gut for it. Or her brother does. Or somebody's father snores too loud and he has a little too much life insurance. It's a nice circumscribed situation and you either get it or you don't."

I wasn't quite sure why he was telling me all this. Maybe he was just trying to reassure himself that he really was an experienced homicide detective; that he had plenty of experience with murders, even if he was feeling a little out of his depth on this case. Or maybe he was trying to delimit our problem by listing all the things that it was not. For whatever reason, there was an uncustomary edge to his voice, a note that said that maybe this case was beginning to really get to him.

"Or maybe somebody kills somebody for money," he continued, a little louder than before. "Find out who profits and you find yourself a killer. The tough ones are where too many people make money off the deceased. Or there's a heist and somebody shows up who shouldn't and we find the body later. Those we usually write off. The trail goes cold 'way too fast.

"Sometimes people just disappear and we suspect foul play but have no corpus delicti. We usually don't solve those. If the killer manages to dump a body over the side or through the floor, we're clutching clouds. Nothing to go on, no investigation.

"Now we're stuck with not one but maybe three disappearing acts. If all three were cloud dumps, we're screwed."

"Sheila wasn't a cloud dump," I observed.

"That's right," he said. "So maybe the other three are still alive. Or maybe they're in some waste dump and mostly decomposed by now. We only found Sheila's body by accident, remember."

"I remember," I said. "Maybe it would have been better if you hadn't."

"Well, it's too late to put her back," he said. "We'll follow this as the tangle takes us."

# # #

We interviewed Grayling's investigators that afternoon and the following morning, but there wasn't a lot to learn. Mickey, Thomas, and Doria had last showed up on the data nets using Thomas' debit card in a small club called Turbolift, on the edge of the warehouse district. That had been nearly three weeks back, and no one at the club remembered seeing them, even though Grayling's people were willing to pay for information. The club personnel certainly weren't going to have better memories for the police.

Deere even addicted himself to prescription painkillers so he could go through the treatment program with the kid.

The trio had clearly been club hopping, since the money trail showed up in half a dozen clubs over the course of two days. In a couple of those clubs someone did remember something, usually just Doria's face, which was the sort that men sometimes remember. But that was it, just a couple of good-looking kids with an older man watching over them. Not the sort of contingent that tends to get into much trouble, not with as competent a chaperone as Mickey Deere seemed to have been.

Then nothing. Dead end. Deere had apparently left the City the following morning, but never again used e-money.

"Why would he leave?" Calvin asked me. "What could have made him abandon the kids and skip?"

"I don't think he did," I told him. "I don't know about Thomas or Doria, but I'm pretty sure that Deere is dead. At first I thought he might have turned somehow, thrown Thomas over for someone. But looking at his record, the photos of him and Thomas, the clinic records, there's no way. The man loved Thomas, maybe more than Grayling Senior did. Certainly he spent more time with Thomas than the father did. Christ, Deere even addicted himself to prescription painkillers so he could go through the treatment program with the kid."

"So why did he leave the City?" Calvin asked me.

"I don't think he did," I told him. "At least not through one of the checkpoints. I think one of his fingers did."

Calvin closed his eyes. "Oh, Jesus," he said softly. "I thought the ID mechs could sense a dead finger."

"Not if you attach it to the right machinery," I told him. Give it artificial blood and an artificial beat and the check-mechs will dance to it. You probably don't get that much of it here."

"So somebody really knows what they're doing," he said.

"Not really," I said. "They just think they do."

# # #

So loose ends became dead ends and night fell. Calvin told me that he had a few other things to follow up on and hinted that he had an important package on the way, but he wouldn't say from where. I didn't press him on it.

My internal clock was jangled again. The dark had come and I was wide awake. I wanted to make a couple of air runs, just to get away from people, or maybe go train at Sensei Mack's, but neither of those were available at that hour. I decided to go home and think about it. But when I got to my room, there was somebody already there.

Locks give a false sense of security, I think, which is one of the reasons why I don't have use them. I don't own anything worth stealing, and maybe once a month I come home to find that someone has been in my room, looked through my stuff, and left empty handed, probably cursing me for being a pauperous ass.

Locks give a false sense of security, I think…

I do have ways of letting me know if my door has been opened in my absence, however, and whether or not anyone is still there. What I came home to that night was telltales that told me of entry and the way the zipper was placed showed that they were still there. So it was with some caution that I unzipped my room door. I heard a voice coming from inside as soon as I began to open the second flap, and light spilled out into the darkened corridor. I relaxed a bit. People don't usually announce an ambush.

Robert Grayling was there with two of his men flanking the door. Grayling himself was on a mobile comm unit. He had noticed my entry immediately.

"Hey, Charlie, can I call you back later? ....Yeah, I know, but someone just arrived, and it's important that I meet with them... No, I'm not at my office... Yeah, give me maybe an hour, I'll get back to you."

Grayling looked at me. He was seated in the inflatable chair that Calvin Lee had left behind on his first visit.

"Hello, Mr. Honlin," Grayling said as he rose and held out his hand toward me. I ignored the proffered hand and looked at the two men who now stood beside me after my entrance. One of them was Smith, the other had also been in Grayling's office when Calvin and I had come calling.

"I don't think you've introduced me to your other shadow," I said.

"Oh, excuse me," said Grayling. He turned his outstretched hand and made a gesture. "Ed Honlin, Richard Lusk. Mr. Lusk is one of my personal assistants. I believe you have already met my other assistant, Mr. Smith."

"Yes, I believe we've met," I allowed.

Grayling looked at me and I looked back at him. I didn't figure that I had an end of the conversation to hold up, so I said nothing more.

After the awkward pause, Grayling said, "Walter, Richard, would you please wait outside in the corridor?"

"There's a lounge down at the end of the corridor to the right," I told him. "Plenty of light there, if your assistants want to read a book or something."

"I believe they will probably wait just outside your door," Grayling said in a neutral tone.

"Suit yourself," I told them. "If anybody asks, just tell them you're part of a new security system I'm thinking of buying. We've had a lot of break-ins around here lately."

Grayling forced a chuckle in appreciation of my sparkling wit, and his two men left the room. "If you don't want people coming in, you should get a lock," said Grayling.

I didn't figure that I had an end of the conversation to hold up.

I shrugged. "If I got a lock, someone might think I had something worth stealing," I told him.

He looked around the room. "I don't think there is much chance of that, do you?"

I shrugged again. "Should I flip you for the seat, or will you accept it as hospitality? Maybe as a going away gift?"

That one he actually found funny, for some reason. He laughed out loud. "Okay," he said. "You have me off balance. I have no idea what I expected when I came here, but this isn't it. You are a strange man, Mr. Honlin, and I think I may need your help."

"My help, or that of the police?" I asked him.

"Your personal help," he said. "Oh, I know. Before you say something about your relationship with the police, let me add that I do not propose that you do anything illegal or unethical. It is just that...." His voice trailed off, and he shook his head.

"Let me get to that later," he said. "You no doubt realize that I can and have performed a bit of an investigation on you. I have numerous connections back on Luna, so it was fairly easy to get your basic files and service records."

I shrugged. "Actually, that seems to be a common sport, these days."

He nodded. "And so you also know what those records contain, and maybe more to the point, what they don't contain."

"That has come up in conversation recently, yes," I said.

"The police here might not recognize your name, however," he said. "Whereas a Luna native might. Winslow Honlin was a relative of yours, yes?"

"If you got my full file, you know he was," I said. "My twice great grandfather. He was in Maximilian's first cabinet, then later he was mayor of Copernicus."

"He also had four children, according to records," said Grayling. "Again, a fact of significance to Luna citizens."

"He did it more honestly than some," I said. "He had four wives, one at a time."

"Ah, yes," he said. "Great Grandpere Grayling was also somewhat fecund. Two legal children and three illegitimate ones. Fortunately for my social standing, I am from the legitimate side of the family."

Well, it was really great to stand there and compare family bibles, but I was beginning to wish that Grayling would cut to the chase.

"Here on Venus, money counts for a lot," Grayling continued. "At least as much as position, maybe more. Quite the reverse is true on Luna, but of course you know that. You were born into a family of importance. Then you took a career of importance. One would have expected great things from you."

"One could always be mistaken," I said.

"Fortunately for my social standing, I am from the legitimate side of the family."

"Perhaps," he replied, "But I may doubt that a little. Your records come to a blank nine years ago, and don't unblank until you emigrate to Venus, where you live in a hovel wearing a hair shirt. Why is that?"

"Well," I pointed out, "All bloonsilk fabrics are technically made of hair. It's a spun protein, after all..."

"Stop it!" he demanded, clapping his hands together and startling us both by his loud vehemence. "Stop making light of this! This is my son's life at stake here! I need to know who you are and why you are here and whether or not you can help me find my son! Answer me! What happened to you on Luna, and why are you here?"

"I think you should lower your voice," I said quietly. "Your two goons are right outside my door, and if they come in here too quickly, I might have to do something we'll all regret a little later."

Sure enough, a little beep at Grayling's waist gave a yelp, and Grayling lifted the comm to his mouth and said, "It's okay, remain where you are."

Well, that answered the question of whether or not the guys outside were hearing the whole exchange. Grayling didn't want them to hear any more than they could get through a sound absorbing door.

Grayling was pacing now, shooting me little darting glances while he talked. He was doing a really good job of looking like a man at the end of his tether, ready to crack from the strain. I think I mostly believed that he was actually what he looked like.

"My business success depends in large measure on my family contacts, I admit that freely," he said. "I have an uncle who is on the Skyhook Authority, and relatives back on Luna who can keep me informed on the latest fashion trends. Actually, not a few of them help to set the trends. A man of your background must be aware of the importance of family, yes?" I nodded, as much to mollify him as anything else.

"Some of my contacts tell me of some odd occurrences over the past ten years. Nothing that you can really get your fingers around, but odd nonetheless. When a few too many of a certain sort of person die within a short period of time, there is talk. When well-placed people resign for reasons of health, or to spend more time with their families, there is likewise talk. Such talk leads to rumors, and sometimes the rumors get specific. They name names. They are fabulous yarns. One cannot believe them all. One might as well believe the legends of Colonel Maximilian's ghost."

I continued to say nothing. He'd get to the point eventually, and this not a man to prod. Nor did I want to tell him about who and what Maximilian's ghost really was.

"Have you ever hear of Operation Andorra?" he asked me.

I pretended to think. "No," I said, which was the truth.

"You would say that even if you had heard of it, of course," he said.

"Yes," I admitted. "But I haven't heard of it nevertheless." I had a good idea of what it was, though. Pretty much the same as Operation Monaco, would be my guess.

They are fabulous yarns. One cannot believe them all. One might as well believe the legends of Colonel Maximilian's ghost."

He looked at me sideways, a wave of considerable anguish washed over his face. "I've said too much," he said. Nice to know that reason hadn't completely left his grasp. "This doesn't get us anywhere."

"I'll second that," I told him. "Why don't you just tell me what you want from me?"

"Find my son," he told me, to my complete lack of surprise. "Alive, if possible, but if he is dead, find out who killed him and why."

"I'm sure that the police will spare no effort..." I began.

"Of course, of course," he interrupted me with a wave. "Just as they are sparing no effort to find the killer of this Mason woman. Maybe her death has something to do with my son. I hope not, God, I hope not, but it may. Either way, I want word of my son. I'll make it worth your while, if you wish. I can be quite generous to those who do me favors."

Yeah, I thought. I have a real knack for doing favors for important people. "Look," I said. "I'll do what I can. But I'm not Superman, okay? I don't have any magic powers, no matter what sort of crap you may have heard from your folks back on Luna. And I do things for my own reasons, and nobody else's. Right now, it looks like finding your son would suit me very well, so I'll give it a shot. But that's all I can promise. I'll give it a shot. And I don't like to have my elbow jogged while I'm working, so lay off me from here on out, got that? If I find something, I can tell you what my price will be, and that's to leave me alone after this is over, too. I like to be left alone, in case you haven't picked up on it yet. Maybe I'm wearing a hair shirt, but it fits me swell, and I like it just fine. So just leave me alone, okay?"

Yeah, I thought. I have a real knack for doing favors for important people.

My little speech was complete with hand gestures and intonation changes, and I watched his face during the performance. Somewhere about the middle of it he finally got his mask muscles working again. That was something at any rate. And maybe he got what he came for, whatever that was. I got what I wanted too, because he turned and left without saying another word.

Next Chapter

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Chapter ten: Could I take this guy?

Previous Chapter

I went home and caught a few hours sleep and sometime while I slept, the winds of the upper air propelled Sky City into the light. The dawn came, morning advanced, and I had just finished breakfast in the hotel coffee shop when a busboy came over to my table to tell me that a motor squid had arrived for me.

Calvin Lee was already in the squid. "Sleep well?" he asked.

"I don't remember, which means I slept pretty well," I told him. He grunted in response.

"We're off to see Robert Grayling," he said after the squid left the dock. "We called and his secretary told us to come right over. That's odd, isn't it?"

"No stalling, no runarounds, no 'please see my people about it?' From someone with Grayling's sort of money?" I nodded. "Yeah, something is up with Mr. Grayling. Did you tell them the purpose of the visit?"

"They didn't ask."

"Something has him rattled," I said. "Whatever it is, we'll find out soon enough."

"That's the way I see it, too," Calvin replied, nodding.

Grayling's office was in the Skyhook Column, the large cluster of bloons that were directly connected to the Skyhook. They don't have direct access to the Hook, of course. There's a fairly narrow terminus mouth to the Skyhook, with a lot of ancillary equipment and a huge organization to insure the most efficient transport of material up to and down from Anchorage, over seventy thousand kilometers up. The bloons surrounding the Skyhook serve as extra lift, and allow more servicing equipment and personnel to work on the Skyhook itself.

The Column towers above even the Heights where Marjori Low and the others of the social elite of Sky City live. The outer layer of the Column has the most expensive office clusters on Venus. Robert Whitley Grayling had one of the largest of them.

The bloons that housed Grayling's business offices were over a kilometer above the mass of Sky City. From that height the bloons below looked like a frothy mass of bubbles, both large and small, in hues of silver, green, and brown, stretching out nearly to the horizon. Only a line of white marked the north and south directions, where the City's edge was closer. To the east and west, the Circle stretched forever.
"Something has him rattled," I said. "Whatever it is, we'll find out soon enough."

Grayling's company was named Cytherean Flux, an import export firm with a number of manufacturing subsidiaries. Some of the displays set up in the lobby showed beautiful women in bloonsilk garments. I made the assumption that the company traded in garments, rather than women, but I might have been wrong. Other photographs came with text descriptions of the fine work done by imported electronics, pharmaceuticals, small electric motors, and bioengineered organisms. One ongoing project apparently involved the flavor alteration of bloon produced proteins to mimic unavailable Earth delicacies like lamb and salmon. As if anyone had an idea of what they really tasted like, I thought uncharitably.

The receptionist was a short blonde woman with a reserved smile, but we had almost no chance to speak with her before a smooth young man with an even smoother manner came out of an elevator toward us.

I felt a certain adrenalin twinge as the young man approached. He was compact rather than short, with a bland face that could disappear in a crowd. He had the usual brown eyes, average brown hair, and the general mixed race look that most of us Lunars have. But he looked like someone who was not going to stop at obstacles, for all his seeming deference.

"Mr. Lee, Mr. Honlin?" he said, holding out a hand to greet us. "I'm Walter Smith, Mr. Grayling's assistant."

Calvin and I shook the indicated appendage, each in turn. One shake of Smith's hand confirmed my initial impression. There was an easy solidity to his grasp that put several more of my inner sentinels on alert. I'd have been willing to bet that he worked out at least six times a week in some activity that, if used to a purpose, could kill or maim an antagonist in seconds. Smith had the look and carriage of a trained fighter, hidden beneath a mannered exterior. The automatic internal question "Could I take this guy?" had come back, "You don't want to find out."

We followed Smith into the elevator, and let it haul us up the three levels to Grayling's private office. It was an older elevator, with a slow motor, so our eyes had begun to adjust to dimmer light by the time the doors opened. The sudden brightness made us blink.

Grayling's office was almost overpoweringly bright. The basic color was white, relieved only by dead black furniture and a few abstract wall hangings in primary colors. The exterior wall was an unbroken sheet of transparency, utterly clean and with so few reflections that it seemed almost invisible, as if the entire office perched on the side of a cliff with a sheer drop to the curve of the City below. The effect was almost overpowering, probably intentionally so, a bit of an edge in any dealings that Grayling might pursue.

Smith preceded us as we stepped out of the elevator into the office. There was another man cut from the same mold as Smith, seated to our immediate right as we entered the room. In the distant corner was what I presumed was Grayling's desk, since the man I took to be Grayling was seated at it. Smith announced in a flat voice without inflection, "Mr. Lee and Mr. Honlin are here to see you, sir."

I was mildly surprised that Smith's voice carried all the way to Grayling's desk, which was a good fifteen meters from the elevator. But Grayling rose and met us halfway. He must have made some signatory gesture to the other men in the room, or maybe they always left the room when Grayling took a meeting. At any rate they both vanished behind sudden openings in the walls that were not apparent to the eye once they had closed again. Whether or not they continued to observe us after they had left, I couldn't say, but from time to time skin on the back of my neck would tighten.

Grayling was a tallish man, maybe one hundred and eighty centimeters, who walked with the carriage of one who had grown up under lower gravity -- another Lunar transplant, in other words. Smith had also had a trace of that look to him, as had the other man, whose name had never been given to us. So Grayling was Luna-born and hired Lunars for his staff. What that meant, I didn't know. His file has said he'd come to Venus while in his teens, along with his father who had left Luna after some failed business dealings and a divorce. The elder Grayling had then died a few years later, leaving his son with a small textile business on the eastern edge of the City.
The sudden brightness made us blink.

After that there was a typical story of business success. Young Grayling had leveraged his newly inherited textile business into the Luna/Venus trade, abetted both by family connections back on Luna and a good sense of what the newly fashion conscious consumers on both worlds might like to possess in any given year. By his mid-thirties, Robert W. Grayling had become rich. By his mid-fifties, he had become extremely rich.

The man who now shook our hands was trim, with an oval face topped by graying brown hair long enough to hide his slightly prominent ears. His face betrayed a certain amount of strain, recent enough to clash with the already established lines of his skin. The established lines of his face were those of someone who was long accustomed to giving commands and having them obeyed. "Hello, gentlemen," he said to us. "To what do I owe the visit?"

"We would like to talk to your son," Calvin told him. "He has a comm line, but he does not seem to answer it."

Grayling tightened at the mention of his son. Then relaxed slightly when Calvin's entire statement had sunk in.

"Why do you want to see him?" he asked. "Is he suspected of any wrongdoing?"

"No," Calvin assured him. "The entire matter is a bit complicated. We are investigating the murder of a woman named Sheila Mason. One of our leads in the case is a friend of Miss Mason's named Doria Adams, who we think may have been a friend of your son's. So we need to talk to your son about Miss Adams and her whereabouts.

Grayling bit his lip for an indecisive moment as he took that in, then seemingly made a decision. With that decision came an almost inaudible sigh. He said, "When I heard that two homicide detectives wanted to see me, I expected the worst. Now I don't know what to expect."
[F]rom time to time skin on the back of my neck would tighten.

He looked at us and made a gesture of explanation. "I was afraid that you had come to tell me my son was dead, you see. I haven't seen or heard from him, no one has, in over two weeks. Quite frankly, the worry is enough to drive me nearly insane."

Calvin scowled at this news. I don't want to even think what my own face looked like. "Why haven't you reported this?" Calvin demanded.

Grayling winced. "Because I thought it might be a kidnapping, of course. I was hoping that I would be able to get Thomas back by paying a ransom, and I feared that involving the police might panic the kidnappers. Or whatever. I hired several private detectives, of course, and I made some discreet inquiries through my contacts in the bureaucracy at City Central. They tell me that Thomas' bodyguard, Mickey Deere has left the City, but Thomas has not. That absolutely should not happen. Mick is a reliable man, or so I thought, and he would not have left Thomas voluntarily. So I don't know what to think."

"Have you received any other information that might indicate that there has been a kidnapping?" I asked.

"No, none," Grayling replied. "But the other possibilities are much too horrible to think about."

"Do you know of anyone who might try to get at you through your son for reasons other than ransom?" I asked.

He looked blank. Which was odd. He wasn't dumb, the idea must have occurred to him. But he asked, "Like what?"

"Such as business dealings where someone might be trying for an extra advantage, or deals that have gone sour enough so that someone might try to exact revenge."

"Lord no," he said. "At least I don't think so. I mean, there are often sore losers in any big deal, but . . . ." He paused. "What sort of maniac would harm a man's family for revenge over business dealings?"

That was a little too ingenuous for a man who'd made millions, I thought to myself. He must really be under a lot of strain to be trying "poor naive little me," on us. But I let it pass.

"You say that you hired private investigators to check into your son's disappearance," I said. "Can we speak to them? Are you willing to turn over their reports and other files to us?"

Grayling bit his lip again. "I suppose so," he said. "Yes, that would probably be a good idea."

He looked at us and another flicker of anguish made it through his expression. "I love my son," he told us, as if he were afraid that someone might think otherwise. "I try to do right by him, but I'm often unsure as to what that means. His mother died fifteen years ago, a suicide. You don't get over something like that, even as an adult. As for an eight year old boy . . ."

He paused, again trying for control. He was obviously used to being in control, and his lack of it where his son was concerned was an open wound. He started up again, "I presume you know that my son was in a drug addiction program a while back?"

"That was where he met Miss Adams," Calvin told him.

"Yes, that is true," Grayling said. "Thomas was seen in Miss Adams's company just before he vanished. You will find that in the investigators' reports. Thomas may have been in love with Miss Adams, in fact. I never met her, however, and although Mr. Deere was supposed to report on such things to me, I think that he may have had some mixed loyalties. If Thomas asked him to keep a secret from me, Mickey might have done so from time to time, even though I paid his salary."

Grayling looked at us. "Mickey Deere is a good man. He has been my employee for nearly twenty years and for much of that time he has served at Thomas' companion. I cannot believe that he would be involved in harming Thomas in any way. Nor can I believe that he would have left Thomas, if Thomas were still alive. So I'm at my wit's end."

"When can we see the investigators' reports?" I asked.

"I'll have my secretary give them to you," he said.

"We will probably wish to speak to the investigators themselves," I suggested.
Thomas may have been in love with Miss Adams, in fact.

"That will be fine," he said absently. His face had developed that look again. Of trying not to think about images that came all to easily to the imagination. Not even money can buy off imagination. That is one of the reasons why money has few charms for me.

"We'll check out these reports and such and get back to you, Mr. Grayling," Calvin told him. "Come on, Ed. Let's see the secretary." My partner was obviously uncomfortable. Maybe he wasn't used to seeing so many important people quite so naked.

Next Chapter

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Chapter nine: AKA, 'not his real name.'

Previous Chapter

Besides Wilma Fiore and Jean Fallow, both of whom lived nearly half the world away on the Circle, Deeth Moran was our only remaining contact for the therapy group that was itself our only slim connection to Doria Adams. Neither Calvin nor I expected much from Moran, and we were not disappointed.

Moran worked the docking bays and warehouses on the underside of the City Hub, well below from the Skyhook terminus, but within the City's center zone. Reaching the Hub underside from the area of the police headquarters was a matter of elevator transport and a modicum of walking. The warehouse bloons are very large, dirigible-sized, each with a single entry point for security. The connecting corridors are narrow, large enough for a two narrow wheeled lifts to barely pass.

From what Mrs. Low had said about Moran, it seemed a good idea to be discreet in our inquiries, so I asked the shift boss to see Moran, but didn't identify myself as being from the police.

"Who's looking for him?" the shift boss asked, in a tone that made me dislike the man instantly. He was a short stocky little fellow, with shoulders not quite broad enough to carry all the chips stacked on them.

"I'm a private investigator working on a missing persons case," I told him. "Mr. Moran knows a friend of the individual who is missing, that's all. I'm just looking for a little information, nothing fancy."

"Moran gets off in fifteen minutes," the boss said. "You can see him then. Until then, get lost, we've got work here."

Calvin and I beat a retreat. "Very diplomatic," he observed. "And you didn't even have to lie."

"I probably should have, though," I said. "Telling bits of the truth is dangerous. If you just decide to lie it's not as easy to get tripped up."

"I've heard people say the opposite," he replied. "That twisting the truth is the best way to lie."

"They're wrong," I told him.

Moran got off his shift a bit late, probably because his boss decided to jerk our chains a little. Such men are their own punishment. It's too bad that it spills over onto the rest of us sometimes.

"There's a bar two levels up," Moran told us. "Let's go there to talk."
"Telling bits of the truth is dangerous. If you just decide to lie it's not as easy to get tripped up."

The bar was a laborer's hangout. Moran asked for his usual, Calvin for soda water, and I had a gin and tonic, maybe from remembering Marjori Low. Moran's usual was a beer. When we sat down he took a sip of it, leaned forward a bit and whispered, "It's non-alcoholic. I try to stay away from the real stuff these days."

It was both funny and sad, actually. Moran was a large man, nearly my height and probably out-massing me by ten or fifteen kilos. His hair was mid-tone brown and close cut, and he had small ears. He also had several tattoos, fancy ones of dragons and firebirds, of the sort that spacers get up in Anchorage. Some spacers have their entire bodies covered, to make up for the induced baldness and to help shield them from solar UV.

But there was something timid about Deeth Moran, for all his size and strength. I knew at a glance that in a fight I could take him in about two seconds, and that he probably couldn't even out-tussle Calvin Lee. Moran had a boss that bullied him, and he was embarrassed by a former set of addictions and embarrassed by his abstinence, embarrassed enough to drink de-alcoholized beer while acting like he was just having his usual brew with the boys.

Well, none of that was my problem. Moran told us briefly how he'd gotten hooked on uppers while working two shifts, because he'd needed the money for some extra expenses that had come up. Moran supported his mother and two sisters, and one of the sisters had some medical bills that had caught them by surprise, so the loyal son had stepped into the breach. After a double shift with an amphetamine buzz, alcohol was the downer he began to need put the brakes on to sleep. By the time he realized he was hooked, it was too late to kick without help. So he took his vacation time and checked into Fields.

We asked him about the people in his group, Doria especially. It turned out that Doria was the one he remembered. He spoke of her with the sort of obvious love that the downtrodden show for the unattainable. And no, he'd never heard from her after the program ended. I gave my number to Moran in the outside chance that he'd think of anything to help us find Doria or any of the other missing group members, then Calvin and I left for police headquarters.


Dawn was only a few hours away, and we were still bleary-eyed staring at another holorez computer screen. The Venus citizen registry database is incomplete compared to Luna, where every living thing is cross-filed down to its DNA patterns. On Venus, out of maybe ten million humans, probably ninety nine percent of them have at least a listing in the main storage memory in Anchorage at the other end of the Skyhook. Luna immigrants, of course, have full personal files, as do Anchorage and Skyhook personnel. A Sky City visa at a minimum requires a coded Ident bracelet plus fingerprints and retinal scans. City residents have school and work assignment records as well.

Beyond City borders, records vary. Most Great Circle residents are as Big-Brother-visible as City folk. At the other end of the scale are the comm-less clusters, of which there are an unknown number, many tracing their histories back to the early settlers who came before the Plague that took the Earth. Most clusters are on the comm net, though, and most with comm links participate in the census, because Skyhook Authority gives a price break if they do. The accuracy of the volunteered information has been the subject of numerous studies.

"Our problem," said Calvin Lee in frustration, "is that the Fields Clinic is outside the City and they have that damn confidentiality policy. They don't do ID checks, in other words, and many of their clients pay cash. Apparently, at least half of their clients come in under phony names and they don't bother to ask them about it."
"That could turn up every other homosexual couple in Sky City that took a vacation outside."

"Well, I certainly agree that all substance abuse clinics should set themselves up to make our job easier," I said, and saw my irony rewarded by a dirty look from Calvin. "But, gosh, they seem to have tried to take their clients wishes into greater account. Go figure."

I waited a moment, then said, "Chan knows more than he lets on. It's maybe not worth shaking his tree too hard, not until we run out of other options."

He looked at me in mild surprise. "Yes," he agreed, as if to encourage further signs of empathy and restraint from my direction. "Well, it behooves us to come up with other options, then, doesn't it? Any suggestions?"

"I was hoping for a brainstorm from the Sky City representative," I said. "Finding Thomas Roberts sounds like a good first move."

"Agreed," he said. "Or maybe we could find Michael Williams, probably not his real name, who may or may not have a connection to Roberts, also aka, 'not his real name.'"

"Mrs. Low did suggest that Roberts was a City resident," I observed. "Which means that he probably had to pass through the City checkpoints when he went out, and then when he came back in."

"Yeah, I thought of that," he told me, indicating the computer screen. "But there are over two thousand City limit checkpoints, each averaging over a hundred passes per day. That's almost a quarter million exits and entrances each day we choose to sort."

"Most are day trips though," he continued. "And three quarters of the longer trips are tourists coming in."

"So how many City residents took month-long trips at the correct time?" I asked.

"Nearly three thousand," he said. "Way too many."

"Males in their mid twenties with light brown hair?"

"Over two hundred."

I thought for a moment. "That's low enough for a photo lineup. Mrs. Low or Deeth Moran could..."

He interrupted me with a shake of his head. "We don't do yearly photo IDs like on Luna," he said. "You get photographed only if you need a special license. We might have file photos on thirty or forty of them, and most of those would be older photos. We'll try it, but..."

"We'll probably come up dry," I finished for him. "While we're trying long shots, let's try something else. Let's guess that Thomas and Mick came in together. Let's guess that Mick was there to keep an eye on Tommy boy, in fact, maybe he's a bodyguard or a nanny, or something. If Thomas was a golden child, he might well have come with a keeper."

Lee pondered this for a moment. "That might explain how Mrs. Low thought she'd seen him before, mightn't it? Overlapping social circles. Okay, so if that was the case, then we're looking for a double pattern. Two men leaving and coming back together. At most a fifteen year age difference, so that will eliminate father/son combos." He grinned. "That could turn up every other homosexual couple in Sky City that took a vacation outside."

"Try putting a filter on it to keep out co-residents, then," I told him.

He shook his head. "If Mick really was a bodyguard, he might live on the same premises. But we can put in an income and job status filter. The younger man would class as wealthy, the older man as salaried."

A few minutes at the keyboard and we were left with a blank screen. "Progress of a sort," Lee said blackly.

"Expand the time window," I suggested. "Put three weeks on either side of the clinic time." But that still gave us nothing. Apparently, wealthy young men were not prone to the company of slightly older working stiffs, even as lovers.

"Okay," he said. "Let's follow this. Maybe Thomas has a job. Instead of a trust fund from mommy or daddy, he has a job in the family firm."

"That gets rid of the income filter," I said.

"Maybe not," he replied. "The bodyguard probably won't make as much as the kid."

"Unless he's on a tight leash," I said. "Try just killing the income filter and see what we get."
"Progress of a sort," Lee said blackly.

He shrugged and entered the codes.

We couldn't have found them if we hadn't already expanded the search, because they'd stayed out of the City for an additional two weeks after the clinic. But among the four sets of two names that came up on the screen, there they were. Robert Thomas Grayling, and Roy Michael Deere had left the City together and returned together. Thomas Grayling worked for a company that was owned by his father, Robert Whitley Grayling, and Deere was on the elder Grayling's personal staff.

And Robert Whitley Grayling was one of the wealthiest men on Venus.

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