Sunday, January 27, 2008

Chapter twenty-one: Then she left me to my own scary thoughts.

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I called Marjori to confirm a dinner date for the following clock night; she'd pled family matters later that evening, or I would have tried to see her again. Then I called a squid and headed for home.

I was still trying to sort it all out, but the entire mess was a jumble. I was sure that Patrick Barefoot and Angel Lee were dead. Their transponder had failed about halfway between Marley Farm and Sky City, and they hadn't even had time to send a distress code. What the sky control records did show was a sudden loss of altitude immediately prior to the transponder failure; I checked the last few seconds of transponder signals against those that Old Bess has sent just before my little skyriding adventure, and they matched well enough to satisfy my own conclusion jumper.

Can you make a road map when all the streets you turn up become dead ends? I didn't think so. Certainly I had my theories about what had gone on, why Doria Adams and Thomas Grayling were still missing, and who had snatched, tortured, and killed Sheila Mason, but they were just theories, not even good enough for extra-legal action, let alone anything that a board of review would go for.

And how many had died so far, and how little did we have to show for those deaths? Sheila, Mickey Deere, Patrick Barefoot and Angel Lee, to say nothing of our unidentified body from the raid, and who knows how many that went out the bottom when they dumped the burning bloons.

And old Bess. Damn, but I resented what they did to old Bess. What kind of creeping sentimentality is it when you mourn the death of an ancient invertebrate?

We docked at Fumio's and I tipped both the driver and Joey. Joey gave me the usual grin and seemed about to say something, then closed his mouth and grinned again. I gave him my best tired smile.

Outside, the sun had dropped below the horizon, but there was still a trace of red to the clouds below as I walked to my room, so the entire journey took on an unreal, neon-lit quality. I was going to take maybe three or four showers, toss my clothes, and take a sedative to spend a few hours doing the oblivion waltz. I deserved at least a few hours of dreamless sleep tonight.

But as I approached my room I realized that I was going to have to postpone everything again. Someone was in my room and once more it was without a prior appointment. I stopped just long enough to slip the knife out of my ankle scabbard, then walked to the portal and unzipped it.

There was no extra light inside, just the barest hint of fleeting pink that made it though the bloon's translucent walls. But my eyes had mostly adjusted to the dimness of the corridor, so I could make out her silhouette as she sat in my one piece of furniture, the inflatable chair that Calvin Lee had brought with him so very long ago.

She'd heard the noise of the door, and could doubtless see me as well as I saw her. She rose to meet me as I entered.

"Mr. Honlin?" she said as she held out her hand. "I'm Doria Adams. I believe that you have been trying to find me."

I shook her hand and motioned for her to sit again, while I let my legs fold under me and I sat on the floor. Her face slowly came to me in the semi-darkness, as my eyes continued to adjust and as each movement she made gave me a little more of her features.

I could see how it was that so many had been attracted to her. Despite her obvious nervousness and the effects of the past weeks of fear, her face still had a marked look of innocence to it, tempered by a mobility that bespoke an unsatisfied curiosity. Teach me things her expression seemed to say. Show me life.

From her fast-lived past it should have been lies that I read in her face. How could she still look this innocent, given what she'd done, who she'd been, how she'd lived? But I didn't believe that. There was still a kernel of unaffected guilelessness to her, a core of personality that had withstood whatever else had transpired and still served to draw other souls to her, men as would-be lovers, protectors, mates, women as confidants, friends. I could understand why shy Sheila would have called her a friend, and why Thomas Grayling would have to thought her a cure for his own malaise.

We said our introductions, then Doria told me her story.

"We were leaving the Turbolift Club when it happened," she told me. "There were two of them, they both were wearing dark bubblemasks, so I couldn't see them very well.

"Mickey reacted before I even knew that something was happening, like suddenly there was a knife in his hand and one of the guys was bleeding bad. Then the other guy put his fist next to him and I heard a little popping noise. Mickey swung his knife at that one, too, but the guy backed up real fast, and when Mickey tried to go at him again, Mick stumbled and fell and then he didn't move."

"Hypojet," I told her. "Some quick acting poison that made it into an artery. Was the guy's hand near Deere's neck?" She nodded. "That means the jet probably got one of the arteries and made it to the brain quickly. It can kill in seconds."

She grimmaced. "Well, then Tommy yelled, 'Run!' and he didn't have to tell me twice. I cut and ran as fast as I could. I heard Tommy shout a couple more things, then I heard his voice get really strange, like it was a weak scream. I figured that the guy had probably got him like he'd gotten Mickey, only it took longer. There was some other yelling and cursing besides. I think maybe Tommy got himself tangled up with the guy, so that they couldn't follow me very well. I don't know exactly. I was so scared. I just kept running.

"Finally I had to stop. I couldn't run any more. I was down on the warehouse levels by that time. I wandered around for a while, avoiding people, then I went up to mid-level, found a small hotel and spent the night shaking on the bed. I don't think I slept any. I paid cash for the room, but I was afraid they'd trace me somehow."

"Why didn't you then contact the police?" I asked her, pretty much expecting the answer I received.

She made a face. "And what good would they do me?" she asked. "I didn't know who had attacked us, or for what reason. I listened to the new reports and never heard mention of it, so for all I knew, the cops were in on it. Or it was some high level assassination deal. I know that Tom's father had some pretty tough looking guys working for him, and you don't employ that kind of muscle unless you expect to need it someday."

"Did you ever meet Thomas's father?" I asked.

"No," she told me. "But Tommy did take me on a tour of his father's offices once. It was after hours and he had some sort of idea about making it on once of the desks."

I couldn't resist following up on that one a little. "Where was Mickey Deere during the, uh, tour?" I asked her.

"Outside the door, standing guard," she replied. We should all have friends like Mickey Deere, I thought to myself.

"Okay," I said, changing tack. "Did you think of going back to Marley Farm?"

Even in the dim light I could see that the question disturbed her. "I did," she said. "But I didn't dare to. I mean, I didn't know who it was who attacked us, you see, or what they wanted. But..." she paused.

"But...?" I prodded.

"But earlier that evening at the Turbolift," I saw somebody from the Farm. A guy named Angel Lee. It was quite a coincidence, I guess, but I didn't think that much about it at the time. I called out his name and waved to him, you know, the way you do when you run into somebody you didn't expect to see. He didn't look very pleased to see me."

"Was he with anybody else?" I asked her.

"Yes, several others. There was a group of them in one of the back booths. I didn't recognize any of them, though."

"I see," I said. "So you think that Angel might have had something to do with your being attacked?"

"I don't know," she replied. "I honestly don't know what to think. But I can't afford to take chances. This is my life we're talking about here."

There wasn't a trace of prevarication in her face, not that I could see. But then again, the room had gotten darker since she'd started talking.

"So where have you been staying?" I asked her.

"With friends," she said. "Please don't ask me who. I don't want to get them into trouble. But one of my friends told me that you could be trusted and that you were looking for who did it. He, uh, said that you might be able to help."

"Did your friend tell you about Sheila?" I asked.

"Yes," she said in a tiny voice. "That was so horrible. Do you think they did that to Sheila just to try to find me? If I'd known . . . "

"Don't beat yourself up about it," I told her. "You didn't hurt Sheila, somebody else did that. You were just trying to get out from under."

She smiled gratefully at me. If only it were really all that simple.

"You also probably did the right thing in not going back to Marley Farm," I told her. "We just learned this evening that Angel Lee is dead, most likely murdered, but since it was a bloon accident, we may never know for sure."

Her eyes widened slightly. "Oh God," she said.

I nodded. "It's not over yet, but it may be soon," I told her. "From what you've told me, I think I may be able to get at the root of it."

"What should I do until then?" she asked me.

"Pretty much what you've already been doing," I told her. "Go back to your friends' place and lay low. Don't contact anybody for a few days, then you might want to give me a call to see how it's going."

"You don't want to have some way to contact me?" she asked dubiously.

"If anybody asks, I'd rather say 'I don't know,'" I told her. "And I'd rather be telling the truth."

She nodded. If she wasn't thinking of Sheila and how many times Sheila must have said 'I don't know,' she should have been.

We rose and I led her to the door. It was almost completely dark by now, and I gave her a chembulb in case she need it for the corridor. She grasped my hand when I gave it to her.

"I see what my friend meant," she said.

"How so?" I asked.

"It's not nearly so scary having you on my side," she said. Then she left me to my own scary thoughts.

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