It was still early afternoon by the clock, when I got back to the hotel, hours before my dinner date with Mrs. Low. Although it was still light night, I figured I would put in an air run or two. I'd missed several slots in the informal rotation that we used at Fumio's, and I didn't want to slip off the roster entirely.
Every free cluster in Darkunder keeps a few taxi bloons tied to it, since no one likes to be dependent on the commercial call services. During off hours these tend to get used for air runs by the floating population of air jockeys, people like me who don't like regular hours, and are willing to work for pickup wages. Fumio's operation triples up as a small commercial call service, as I've already mentioned. They don't guarantee to get you there quickly, but they will get you there cheap. As I've also said, I hate taxi work for myself, but I've done it a few times, especially in my first few months at Fumio's when I needed the work.
Today it was just air runs. There's always a market for more O2 in the City's shadow. The population density of Darkunder is a constant tension between people wanting more living space, and the need to keep the sail lanes clear so supplies can be brought in. As motor squids become cheaper, I expect the cluster density to increase, and free sail will keep moving out towards the periphery. But the City above keeps growing, so there's more periphery to move to. Maybe it evens out.
Night runs aren't really profitable, since you can't even use short lines without a real danger of tangling with somebody else, and you have to use powered flight almost exclusively. The plus side about a powered run is that you can get to the front edge quickly, then do a differential drift back in. It's rare that anyone needs O2 enough for it to even out, though, but tonight I was doing it just to keep my hand in.
It says something when a woman is early for a date, though I'm not sure exactly what.
My timing was good. I got back to Fumio's at 8320, gave Joey a smile and a tip, and went down to my room for a change of clothes. Nobody had been there snooping lately, which was a pleasant change.
Mrs. Low was already in the lobby when I got there at 8340, twenty minutes before our agreed upon meeting time. It says something when a woman is early for a date, though I'm not sure exactly what.
She was talking to Fumio and Meren in the lounge when I arrived. "Hello, Mr. Honlin," said Marjori Low in that voice of hers. "I was just speaking to your Madame Fumio, and she has invited the two of us to dinner. I accepted. I hope that is all right with you?"
I gave her my best smile. "Quite all right," I told her. "Fumio is both my landlord and employer, and I never pass up a chance to butter her up. You are looking wonderful tonight, Madame Fumio. I am very glad that I do not have to judge a beauty contest between you and Marjori, since that would probably kill me with indecision."
Both women rolled their eyes and made protests of disbelief, which meant that they enjoyed every word of my flattery. A quick flash of a scowl passed over Meren's face, an indication that he considered the praise of moneyed women to be his job, but he immediately replaced it with a smile as he assured both Fumio and Marjori that I was an oaf who could only say such things because they were true.
"I think perhaps we should go eat before the guano reaches our knees," Fumio said.
A quick flash of a scowl passed over Meren's face…
It was hours before the floor show in the lounge, and the place was nearly deserted at that time of day, which meant that the chef could devote his entire attention to the preparation of our dinner. The fact that he would be feeding his boss was also of note, and I expected that we would be well-served.
Earlier, Fumio and Marjori had been comparing notes, the subject being me, and of course they began a recap even before our first drinks arrived.
"I was telling Marjori about when you first came here, Ed," Fumio explained. She looked over at Marjori. "It was a couple of years ago, and he'd just gotten his City free sail license. He was quite dreadful at it, of course, but one of my regulars had just gotten his line tangled for the third time in six months, and even though it wasn't his fault, it's an automatic three month suspension."
"That seems a bit unfair," Marjori said.
"The City doesn't run on fair," Fumio said. "It runs on what works. You can get your line tangled through your own incompetence or someone else's or just because it's gotten too crowded out there. So they reduce the number of pilots, figuring that will ease the problem. By forgoing the fault investigation, they save themselves time and trouble.
"Anyway, I hired Ed. One friend of mine, Joanna, who thinks of herself as a psychic, told me that he had the most dangerous aura she'd ever seen. On the other hand, my nephew Joey took to Ed straight off, and Joey is usually very good at judging people."
Marjori made a small show of looking me over. "So which one do you believe?" she asked Fumio. "Joanna or Joey?"
"Oh, I'm sure they are both right," Fumio said, and she and Mrs. Low both laughed.
Marjori leaned over and touched Fumio on the arm. "You know," she said in a mock conspiratorial whisper, "I had a friend of mine downtown pull Mr. Honlin's personal file."
"Oh Christ," I said. "I should just have the damn thing printed up and hawk it from street corners. Or maybe not. Hell, who would buy it? Everybody has already read it."
"I haven't read it," said Meren, anxious to not be left out of the conversation entirely. "What does it say, Marjori?"
I caught the familiarity and saw a small flicker across Fumio's face. Ah, Meren, I thought uncharitably, very bad move. Your days are numbered, I think.
"Oh," Marjori said airily, "Just that Mr. Honlin was from a very good family on Luna, and he used to be a policeman. Then four years ago shipped off to Venus. What it doesn't say is much more interesting, yes?"
Fumio had seen my file, too, no doubt. It was not all that difficult to gain access to personal files, and I never imagined that she would hire someone sight unseen. But Meren wasn't very quick on the uptake and he missed what Marjori was actually saying. Instead, he asked about something else.
"Why would someone from a wealthy family want to become a policeman?" he asked.
"My family wasn't wealthy," I told him. "Wealth doesn't count for very much on Luna, at least not until recently. And you talk as if being a policeman were a lowly thing."
"Well, isn't it?"
"Not on Luna," I told him.
"I don't understand," Meren said.
"Too bad," I told him.
"'Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,'" she quoted. Does that shoe fit?"
He was about to get angry, then looked at the two women and thought better of it, so he forced a laugh, as if I had told a joke. Then, fortunately for the tone of the evening, our drinks arrived.
Meren drank a little too much that evening, all through the appetizer and the main course of spun soya beef stroganov. Even so, he was a professional charmer and he was charming. He told jokes that were genuinely funny, his stories were self-deprecating and revealing, he knew quite a lot about art and literature and he had the knack of drawing someone out, provided they were at all interested in being drawn out.
Marjori Low needed no real provocation to be revealing, however, as Calvin and I had seen the first time we met her. She told stories of private scandals, and of low embarrassments in high places, like the time that a wealthy socialite discovered that her beau was a male dancer in a gay strip joint in a Shadowville cluster, or the time when Marjori and her husband seduced a young couple only to find that one of the two had taken the whole thing seriously and filed for divorce, much to the consternation of the other three.
Fumio must have found the atmosphere of confession contagious. She began to talk about her early days as a stripper, and how her feather act had gradually transformed into a fan dance. Many of the stories were funny, but quite often the steel in her would show through, like the time she dumped a grabby manager into a waste chamber, then called in a couple of tough friends to make sure he didn't get out too soon.
Meren, as I said, drank too much. And he paid just a little too much attention to Marjori Low, laughing a beat too long at her jokes, glancing in her direction when he though Fumio wasn't looking.
Fumio, of course, can see things with her eyes closed. After the main course, but before dessert, when Meren had excused himself to go to the rest room, Fumio got up and said, "When Meren comes back, tell him that I've gone back to my room."
"How much longer do you give him?" I asked.
"Well," she said, "He will attempt to prove his undying ardor tonight, and that may be enough to keep him through tomorrow night, but I doubt it. Physical prowess was never his strong suit, I'm afraid."
She looked at Marjori Low and smiled apologetically. "I fear also that he will probably call you at some point. I can't give him much of a recommendation, though. He's really only about a forty watt gigolo, and you don't look like the sort with a screw in socket, if you know what I mean."
Marjori gave her a smile of sunlight warmth. "Madame Fumio, it has been an absolute honor to be in your company. May I reciprocate sometime? Would you come to my place for dinner?"
Fumio returned the smile. "You'll have to give me a few days to find a presentable replacement for Meren," she said. "I hate to go out alone. But yes, I'd like that."
Fumio looked at me. "Be careful, Ed," she told me.
"About what?" I asked.
"You'll think of something," she replied, and turned to go.
"He will attempt to prove his undying ardor tonight, and that may be enough to keep him through tomorrow night, but I doubt it."
When Meren came back a few moments later, his complexion went slightly pale for a moment when we told him that Fumio had left. He looked toward the door and back at us, as if torn between fantasy and reality, then he excused himself and hurried off. Marjori Low shook her head.
"I hope I did not behave indecently," she said. "Or accidentally cause trouble."
"No," I told her. "Meren wasn't long for the fold anyway. He was beginning to think he was good instead of just lucky, and they usually don't last long with Fumio after that."
"Do you really think he thought that I could be interested in him?" she asked.
"The self-ignorant get many delusions," I told her. "I expect he thought he might be able to trade up."
"Trade up?" she said. "That sounds as if I were an appliance or an air car."
"That's how Meren considers himself, so why shouldn't he think the same of others?" She thought about this.
"So how do you think of me?" she asked. "You've said very little all evening."
"I thought I was being garrulous," I said.
"You tell jokes," she said. "And stories. About other people you have met, things you have seen. But there is nothing of yourself in them. You don't give anything away."
"I don't think of myself as being very interesting," I replied.
"That is a lie," she informed me. "You are a very good liar, also. That is perhaps part of your charm. That and your dangerous aura."
"I think Fumio just made that up," I said.
"'Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,'" she quoted. Does that shoe fit?"
I shook my head. "No," I said. "I was a cop on Luna, which is a dull job. A little dangerous maybe, but dull all the same. All the glamour jobs turn out to be dull when you actually do them.
"So I got fed up and I came to Venus. Here, I'm still dull. I work out to keep in shape and my main source of income is dropping lines and setting fins so I can haul some air to places in the shadow of the City. I like to drift in the air and watch the clouds, because it's so very different from how I grew up. I don't own anything worth stealing, so I don't have to lock my room. It doesn't even have electricity or any light but chembulbs and a cheap flashlight. The shower is down the hall, and so is the nearest reading lamp, so I don't go to my room except to go to bed."
She tilted her head forward a little and regarded me with upward gazing eyes. The light in the lounge was not bright, so maybe her pupils were dilated for that reason, but the faint flush to her features was from something else. She pursed her lips slightly, then reached out to touch my arm.
"Please take me to your room, then," she said.
Several hours later I watched as she dressed by the light of a chembulb, her skin a cool green in its light. At one point, just after she had put on her bra, she stopped and dropped back down beside me, looking at my face while she hugged her knees to her chest.
"This doesn't commit you to anything," she said. "You don't have to feel obligated to see me again."
I reached out and touched her leg. "It's not an obligation," I told her. "I want to see you again." I thought for a moment. "Unless this is your way of saying that you would rather I not."
"That would be awfully devious of me, wouldn't it?" she asked.
I shrugged. "No more than the usual," I said.
She leaned over and kissed me again. When it stopped she whispered in my ear, "I'm not devious, at least not about this."
She released me and got up again. "Where is my blouse?" she asked. I pointed to where I thought it had gotten thrown. She walked over and retrieved it.
"I think it's missing a button now," she said.
"I can't imagine how that happened," I said.
"Yes, you can," she said. "You got impatient."
"Oh, right," I said. "I was impatient."
"Well, so was I," she admitted. "When should I see you again?" She stopped. "Oh, hell, I sound anxious, don't I?"
"You sound fine to me," I answered. "I think there are some police matters happening tomorrow, but I'll call you either way."
"Oh, right," she said. "Police matters. That reminds me." She reached into her bag and pulled out a post card. "The one I told you about. From Doria." She handed to me.
I read it while she finished dressing. "Dear Marj," it read. "I'm working in temptation's pit. But I love it and I haven't been too bad a girl. I tried calling Thomas, but the number turned out to be fake, the cute little bastard. Or maybe I just used the wrong code. Anyway, there's plenty here to keep me busy, and I'll try to stop by next time I'm in City. Love and kisses, Doria."
"Did she?" I asked.
"Did she 'stop by the next time' she was in City?"
"No," she said. "She never did. Her next card was an apology for why she hadn't. Something about running into an old friend. That was a couple of months ago."
I got up and padded over to her. She was fully clothed now, and I was completely naked. I embraced her. There is something exciting about someone else's clothes on your own naked skin, and I briefly considered starting all over again. But the flesh has limits, and we'd done a good job of finding mine.
"You can call me if you want," I told her.
"I know," she said.
"The corridor hasn't much light," I said. "You should take the bulb with you."
She smiled. "Thank you," she said.
"I'll call you tomorrow," I repeated again.
"I believe you," she said, as if there was a wonder to it.
Then she left the room, and it was dark when she was gone.