Saturday, February 23, 2008

Chapter two: The real thing...It's from Earth

Previous Chapter

The morning was dark, as it would be for the next forty-eight hours, or thereabouts, while the winds of Venus' upper air carried us around the planet. Of course, where I live is always pretty dark, since we have the enormity of Sky City floating above us, cutting off all but the barest glimmers of light. It's dark under the City, and that's how our motley collection of free-floating bloons got its name: Darkunder, Shadowville, there are more than a few other names for it. Darkunder suited my mood when I came to Venus, and here I've lived ever since.

Each morning I get up and wander down to the lobby of Madame Fumio's, glance over the news screens and then I usually have breakfast. The bar doesn't open until clock noon, but the Madame hates wasted space and time, so the kitchen is open at all hours, and the lounge and bar serve as a coffee shop even when no liquor is available. That morning I'd gotten up late, like most people do on the first dark morning of the light night, so there were quite a few people in the lounge. As it gets close to clock noon, the alcoholics have claimed table space, waiting for the moment that their Virgin Mary's get carnal knowledge, and maybe slipping a few drops out of a flask. They do the flask bit cautiously, of course, since no one likes Madame Fumio to yell at them.

Some of the newcomers even try to get Lewis to break the rules and give them a setup before the bar opens. Lewis is always polite, and will even take their money, but he still doesn't bring them their booze until noon. Lewis is Madame Fumio's sometimes lover, whenever she is between examples of the rich-voiced play boys that she has a taste for. He is also her full-time friend and employee. The likelihood that Lewis would break the booze dictum is about one in forty seven thousand, that being the probability of the dice combination that he uses to decide that particular question. Lewis is a Stochasticist, one of the Dice people, and you know what that means.

I usually use breakfast to decide how to spend the day, whether to do a few sailing runs to bring oxygen to some of the Darkunder bloon clusters, do a bit of freelance trouble shooting, or devote my time to reading, or working out. Some days I'll go down to Sensei Mac's Aikido Dojo and continue my progress in the arts of nonviolent combat. Some days I do things that I don't talk about.

That morning, I was about halfway through my tofu and eggs, when Lewis brought a comm unit over to my table. "Somebody calling for you, Ed," he told me as he handed me the comm. "Sky City Trauma Center," he answered to my raised eyebrows.

"Hello, Ed Honlin here," I told the unit.

"Mr. Honlin?" came the voice from the small tinny speaker. We're not big on amenities here in Shadowville. The comm was voice only, without even a text screen.

"You're one up on me, pal," I told him. "At least you are until you tell me your name."

"Huh? Oh, ah, it's Reynolds. Arturo Reynolds. Dr. Reynolds, actually. Ah, do you know a woman named Molly Laird?"

My skin tightened a bit. Doctors don't usually track you down to tell them that one of their patients is doing fine. "I've met Miss Laird," I told him. "Only once, however, and briefly."

"Oh," Reynolds said. "Well, I'm not sure . . . Uh, well actually, Miss Laird has died, and we don't have any next-of-kin listed for her. Her ID bracelet gives her mother as N-O-K, but apparently her mother is dead and we don't have a current address for Miss Laird. The only other thing that we found in her possession was a note with your name and number on it, so I called you."

I thought about that for a moment, not liking those thoughts at all.

"Uh, Mr. Honlin? Are you still there?"

"Yes, I'm still here," I told him. "What do you want me to do?"

"Well, uh, we do need someone to identify the body," he said.

"I hardly know the woman," I told him. "Surely there is someone else. . ."

"Mr. Honlin, I know that this is an imposition, but. . . well, I'm afraid that there is going to be some problems with this anyway. Miss Laird was murdered, so I expect that there will be an investigation, and since your name was found on her. . ."

"Oh, Christ," I said. "All right, you've made your point. I'll be there as soon as I can finish breakfast."

We clicked off and I put in a quick call to Calvin Lee, one of Sky City's three homicide detectives, and a friend of mine. He wasn't in his office, but his calls get routed, so I let it record, "Calvin, Ed Honlin here. You've got a stiff at SCTC by the name of Laird. She had my name on her when she died, so I'm on my way over there. You might want to check it out."

I handed the comm back to Lewis, who had been eavesdropping. I made a face at him. "Shit," I said.

"Sounds like it," he replied, then retreated to his post behind the bar. Lewis knows me well enough to know how I'd feel about this and that avoidance was going to be a good strategy for a while.

I ate three more bites of my breakfast, just to show myself that my appetite hadn't been destroyed. Then I got tired of lying to myself, so I stood up and left.


The hotel runs its own cargo and taxi service; Madame Fumio didn't rise from stripper to landlord and hotel owner by passing up opportunities to make a buck. I have my City flight and sail license, and I mostly do air runs, like I said before. But sometimes I'll take straight taxi service, and I've gotten to know the air lanes of Sky City pretty well. And as a valued and trusted employee, I'm allowed to take out the taxi bloons for my own use, at least during the quiet times, provided I pay for fuel. Dark time of Venus tends to make for quiet times, so that day I asked Joey for a spare bloon, and he had several to choose from.

Joey is Fumio's nephew, or some similar, close relation, I've never asked specifically. His parents died in a bloon accident that also left Joey permanently fixed with a mental age of a ten year old. But he's a conscientious worker and good with bloons, especially the ones that are still alive. I like Joey a lot.

"Here you go, Mr. Honlin," Joey told me as he off-loaded the ballast that corresponded to my weight. "I just checked her out and gave her engines a fresh fill of nitrocarb. Do you need the drag lines?"

"No," I told him. "No freesailing for me today. I'm going to the City. Officially." I winked at him through my bubblemask and he grinned. Joey knows about my little surreptitious forays, though he's good about pretending that he doesn't if anyone asks. I can't actually think of many people I trust like I trust Joey, which says something, I guess.

I opened the first layer of the bloon airlock and stepped in. Then Joey zipped the bloonskin behind me. Fumio's has an exterior docking bay so the entry has to be done outside, in the carbon dioxide atmosphere of Venus. It would kill any man who breathed it direct, kill him horribly in a only few seconds, so Joey wears a bubblemask pretty much full time, even when he's behind the air curtains. He feels more comfortable in a bubblemask, I think.

I entered the taxi bloon proper and fired up the fans. They were a little old; Madame Fumio seldom buys the newest equipment either. But they worked fine, and I backed the squid away from the bloon cluster that was Madame Fumio's hotel, and my home. There are maybe a hundred linked bloons in the cluster, and the topsy look of it crouched in my running lights as I pulled away and headed for the City.

The City looms above us always, a faintly glowing mass of connected bloons with shafts of light spilling down from the entry avenues. I aimed the squid for the nearest entry way and put the fans to forward thrust.

Passing through a City entry portal from below is always a lot like passing into dawn. During the forty eight hours of Venus light, some of the illumination comes all the way down the kilometer long airshafts from the sunlight overhead. But there isn't really much left of the natural light by then. It's augmented by artificial lights on the avenues of Sky City, though, and that light never dims. There are a couple of ultra-high current cables running down the Skyhook from Anchorage, and they supply the City with enough power for any conceivable needs.

Most of the clusters in Darkunder tap into this power as well. Once a week Madame Fumio pays to have a line dropped down from the City to recharge the batteries that run the hotel. Outside of the City's shadow they can use solar cells, but we dwellers in the dark are dependent upon the link to offworld.

My destination was the Sky City Trauma Center, which is connected to Sky City General Hospital via pneumotube, just like a dozen or so other specialized clinics. Sky City General is very near to City Center; the Trauma Center is maybe a couple of kilometers further out, just inside the section of the City called The Maze. No need to ask why it's called the Maze, not if you've ever seen it. I'd gotten lost in the Maze more than once, even with a transponder and radio link to traffic control. But that was just after I had gotten my City pilot's license, and I'd made it a point to learn the thing since then. So I zigged and zagged at all the right times and I made it to the Trauma Center in about half an hour.

I docked at the nearby public docking area, and entered the City. That involves an ID check and a thumbscan, which is why I don't like to visit the City very much, at least not officially. On Luna there's a checkpoint every hundred meters, it seems; that's one of the reasons why I came to Venus. One of the reasons I'm willing to give, anyway.

I checked through the gate and promptly turned the wrong way down the corridor, so I had to retrace my steps to get back to the Trauma Center. I don't like to get lost, and I usually don't. I took it as a sign that something was bothering me, then admitted the obvious. I don't like looking at the bodies of dead girls, and that was what I was about to do.

The information desk at the Trauma Center sent me up to the third floor to see Dr. Reynolds. When I got to Reynolds' office, Calvin Lee was already there.

"Hi, Ed," Calvin said as I entered the room. "I got your message on the way over here, in fact. Bit of a coincidence, eh?"

I scrunched my face a little, and shrugged. "Are there still only three homicide detectives on the force?" I asked him.

"We have a fourth part-timer on since a month ago," he said.

"Then that makes the coincidence about one in four, doesn't it?" I asked.

"Same old Honlin," he told me, and looked at the doctor. Maybe the idea was to put Reynolds at his ease. God knows the sight of me wasn't likely to do it.

"So how did she die?" I asked Calvin, who looked over at Reynolds.

"A knifing, or so Dr. Reynolds has been telling me."

Reynolds nodded. "Yes, Miss Laird died of a single knife wound to the abdomen, slicing up into the diaphragm and puncturing the heart. Someone came on the scene only a few moments later, as nearly as we can tell. The passerby sounded an alarm, and the parameds got there quickly, where they rushed Miss Laird here to attempt a revival. But it was no good; she'd been dead for too long. She died fairly quickly, so she didn't suffer much, if that is any help."

"Maybe it is," I told him. "Any leads on who did it?"

Reynolds blinked, and Calvin interjected, "We know who did it," he told me. "In fact, he's already dead."

Now it was my turn to be surprised. "Uh, what?" I replied. Sometimes I just sparkle with wit.

Calvin smiled at me. "Miss Laird killed her assailant," he said. "With this."

I hadn't noticed it on Reynolds' desk until that moment. Maybe my mind had classified it as a decorative paper weight or something. But Calvin picked it up and handed it to me, and I could tell at a glance that it was either real or a phenomenal imitation. I turned it over several times in my hands, just staring. I'd seem a few like it before, of course. In museums. And you see a lot of them in the old movies and vids.

"I'm not up on my antiques," I told him. "What is the make?"

"That's a Smith and Wesson .38 Police Special," he told me. "The real thing. It's maybe three hundred and fifty years old. It's from Earth."

Next Chapter

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Chapter one: The last time I saw Molly Laird

The last time I saw Molly Laird alive was at the funeral of Robert Grayling, who had been rich and important before his death. I was there by invitation. In his will, Grayling had requested a number of people be present at his sendoff, and I was on the list. Why, I couldn't say. Maybe he thought that I would understand why he'd killed himself, or at least why he'd used the method he chose, an overdose of nicotine and strychnine taken by hypojet.

Maybe I did understand. A year and a half before Grayling laid himself to rest, he and I had watched one of his employees kill himself that very same way. Maybe Grayling was showing me that he could be as tough as his underling, a man named Smith, who had what some would call an overly developed sense of responsibility. It's an ugly way to die; your own muscles convulsing so brutally that your bones snap and your insides hemorrhage. Whatever was eating at Grayling had to be pretty black for him to consider nick-and -strick to be an easier way out. But Smith had taken it as a gesture of atonement for his involvement in the death of Grayling's son, and Grayling himself bore some of that guilt. It's possible that Grayling never recovered himself after the incident.

Grayling also had to dismantle an operation that he had been setting up to smuggle drugs like nicotine and cannabinol to Luna where they are outlawed, from here on Venus, where they are tolerated. That part can be laid at my doorstep. I told Grayling that if he didn't kill the operation then I would kill him.

He believed me. Most people believe me when I say things like that. I'm a pretty believable guy.

So there I was at Grayling's funeral, a relatively small affair, given his wealth and position. It was a simple Presbyterian service, though for obvious reasons, there is no burial on Venus. We inhabit living creatures called bloons, biological gas bags that float high up in the atmosphere, where the temperature and pressure are nearly Earth-like, at least according to the books. No one alive on Luna or Venus has ever been to Earth, of course, not since the Plague and the Silence that followed. So Grayling's body was laid to rest in a small growing bloon and set out upon the currents of the air. The bloon would extract the nutrients from the body and it would grow and probably bud, and return to the strange and artificial ecosystem that lives fifty-five kilometers above the planetary surface.

I guess the word for the attendees at a funeral is "mourners," though I can't say as I held up my end in the emotion department. But there were some forty people in attendance and some of them at least were crying or otherwise looking sad through their bubble masks. Behind us the Skyhook elevator stretched up and vanished into the sky. The thing is something like eighty thousand kilometers long, but sometimes you can actually see the whole of it, even the little pinpoint of Anchorage at the upper terminus, where goods are shipped on to Luna. But it was daylight here on this part of Venus, and would be for another thirty-six hours, so now the Skyhook just vanished up into the light of the sky.

Stretched out below us was Sky City, looking like a frothy carpet of green and silver bubbles that reached out for the horizon.

After the dirge bubble containing Grayling's body was launched, the group of us returned to the chapel and removed our bubble masks and helped ourselves to the food and drink provided. Over to one side, a woodwind quartet played some tunes that I took to be Renaissance or a mimicry of it. Though I wouldn't have called it dance music, the music wasn't somber, and it seemed to have a calming effect on those who were actually grief-ridden. I was told that all the arrangements had been made by Grayling before his death, though he hadn't told anyone that it was his own funeral he was arranging. I thought the entire affair showed quite a bit of class, and I was in the process of revising my opinion of Mr. Grayling.

"Hello, Mr. Honlin," said a man who did not seem to be one of the sadder people there. I'd noticed him earlier moving through the crowd, greeting people, shaking hands, and generally acting as a master of the ceremony. He was fairly young, no more than thirty at a guess, although he might be maybe five years older if he had been particularly aggressive with the age retardants. Blonde hair, medium length, high forehead on a square face made even more rectangular by small ears that lay flat on his head. His eyes were that indeterminate color between blue and green.

I took his proffered hand and tried to remember if I'd seen him before, but the answer kept coming back "no." He saw my hesitation.

"My name is Jesse Grayling," he told me. "I'm Robert's cousin, from Luna. I've been here on Venus for about six months, dealing with some family business. I didn't expect for this sort of family business to intrude, however."

I nodded. There had been family links in Robert Grayling's drug smuggling efforts, just as there were in all his other business enterprises. I reminded myself not to jump to any conclusions about whether or not Jesse Grayling's trip to Venus had anything to do with the illegal activities, though. Then I reminded myself that it was none of my business. My business had been with the Grayling who had died, and I'm not a family curse, or something that goes with an inheritance. I'm not a cop anymore, either, and Luna can take care of herself.

"So how do you know me?" I asked this new Grayling.

"I'm responsible for the funeral and I went down the list of invitations and got the City Central file photos of everyone so I could be a proper host," he said.

"So you know who everybody is and their relationship to Robert?" I asked.

"Not really," he said. "There wasn't much time, and in many cases I have no idea why Robert wanted them at his funeral. It's rather bizarre behavior anyway, isn't it? Planning your own funeral?"

"Maybe no more than suicide is bizarre behavior," I said. "Maybe more would try it if more thought of it. Or if they could afford it."

He gave that a consideration. "Maybe so," he said. "Anyway, I don't know why my cousin invited many of the people here. You, for example." He seemed to hope that I would enlighten him.

"Beats me," I told him.

He scowled. "I thought that you had met Robert several times on a police matter," he said.

I smiled. "Well there you go," I told him. "You don't need me to find these things out."

His lips compressed to a thin line, then he thought the better of it and quashed his irritation. We made a little more small talk, then I turned to leave.

As I reached the bloon portal leading to one of the City corridors, a woman stopped me.

"Mr. Honlin?" she asked.

I turned. The speaker was a young woman, probably not even twenty yet. Blonde, attractive, brown eyes, but in a cheap dress that didn't blend in with the rest of the funeral party any more than my clothing did.

"Do I know you?" I asked.

"No," she said. "But my . . . uh, Mr. Grayling once spoke very highly of you. He told my mother that if he were ever in trouble you were the man he'd most like to have on his side."

I probably grimaced. "He probably meant that he wanted me working for him," I said. "Men like Mr. Grayling prefer giving orders."

A little smile crept onto her face. "My mother said something like that at the time, I think."

"Your mother sounds like a perceptive lady," I said.

"She was," she said.


"She died about a year ago," she replied.

"I'm sorry to hear that," I told her. "And you are. . ."

"Molly Laird," she said, and held out her hand. I shook it.

"Nice to meet you, Molly Laird," I told her. "Even under these circumstances."

She smiled again. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Ed Honlin."

Then I left. That was the last time I ever saw her alive.

The last time I heard Molly Laird's voice was about a week later, when I returned to my room in Madame Fumio's hotel, after spending the night before in the company of Marjori Low, a lady of high class and much money. Marjori had attended an early evening cocktail party the night before, and I had gone as her escort, partly to spare her the attentions of society gigolos and other would-be suitors. Marjori is older than I am, in her mid-fifties, but I find her attractive, and her voice makes my pulse accelerate. Also, because of her wealth, she finds my lack of interest in money a relief. I imagine that some of her more casual acquaintances think I'm after her for her money, or maybe they think I'm her hired bodyguard. She cares what people think about as much as I do, well, maybe a little more. She sometimes laughs about what people think. I often have to concentrate to notice that there are other people around.

Normally we don't do society together, but the party had been thrown by an old friend of hers, and, as I said, she wanted me along for moral support. So we went to the party and made chit chat and ate enough hors d'oeuvres to skip dinner. Since I rarely drink and Marjori almost never does—she had a problem with liquor for a time after her husband died—we had to listen to society drivel without the benefit of anesthetic, something for which she later apologized after we had gone to bed.

The evening was also something of a parting party for us, since Marjori was to leave the next day for a visit to see her daughter, who lived out on the Great Circle which loops around the equator of Venus and connects Sky City to itself in a planet spanning embrace. Marjori and I said our good-byes in all the ways we know, promised to miss each other, and otherwise said all the words appropriate to ourselves and our stations. I got little sleep that night, but that, for me, is often a godsend.

I got home the following morning at about 3500 hours, with the sun slowly heading down toward its two clock days of night. There was a message waiting for me on my comm unit. It was from Molly Laird.

The voice said, "Hello, Mr. Honlin? My name is Molly Laird, we met at Robert Grayling's funeral. Could I meet with you sometime? I have a favor to ask, not a big one, I hope, and I'll probably be able to afford some kind of payment, if you think it appropriate. Anyway, I'm staying at the Constellation on corridor 234C West. I apologize, but I've forgotten the number, but it's listed, I expect. Anyway, ah, oh, that's about it for now. I'll call you tomorrow."

That was the last time I heard Molly Laird's voice. The next time I saw her she was dead.

Next Chapter

Introduction to Blood Relations

I finished Dark Underbelly and gave it to the writer's group, Will Write for Food, and everyone read it and pretty much liked it, but I kept getting this one criticism. "Hey," someone would say. "Sure, you solved the main mystery in this story, but there's still the backstory, and we get nothing. What the hell happened to Honlin on the Moon to make him the way he is?" And I'd say, "Well, I'm not exactly sure. Uh, okay, I have a pretty good idea of what it was, but I can't just tell you. If I did, you wouldn't like him anymore."

Anyway, a couple of them kept at me about it. One of them pointed to various figures in fantasy and SF who were pretty monstrous, and he said, "So what could Honlin have done that was worse than that?" So I told him. And he said, "Okay, that's worse. You're going to have to tell the story though, one way or another."

So I began writing the next book, with the understanding that, somewhere in it, Honlin tells at least the bare bones of what happened, but it had to be to the right person, in the right circumstances, and I was really going to have to sweat to make it work out. Somewhere in the first few chapters, another of the writers group got me to give her something about what was coming, and she said, basically, "Yuck! I'm not sure I want to read any more of this." But she did, and eventually came to the opinion that I'd managed to pull it off.

Maybe the past ten years or so have coarsened our attitudes about some things, so maybe it won't be as much of a shock now. Some pretty horrible things have been done in our names in the past few years, after all, and some people seem quite comfortable with it. So maybe we were all just squeamish and now we're fuddy duddies. Still, it seems to me that there is a lot of effort being expended on rationalizations and excuses and all the other ways of avoiding the idea of personal responsibility for brutal behavior. But I'm interested in someone who did something without excuses, without trying to rationalize it as ultimately being "for the greater good," even if it were possible to make the case, even if there were people telling him all those things, to try to make it all okay. But he knows that it wasn't okay. There are some things beyond excuses; there are some things that may be even beyond redemption. However much one might yearn for it, and strive for it, eventually redemption fails. But one strives nonetheless.

So the story of Ed Honlin is about the striving, and the recognition that he will probably fail.

How's that for a teaser?

Begin Blood Relations

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Chapter twenty-three: You have to stop somewhere

Previous Chapter

From Grayling's office, I went back to PD headquarters to make funeral arrangements for Sheila's body. Smith's statements were now on the record as a deathbed confession of culpability in the death of Sheila Mason, and Angel Lee had been tagged as responsible for the death of Thomas Grayling and Mickey Deere. Somewhere around there was the other assailant of that night, who had been wounded by Deere, but he was a minor player, and the three homicides were now marked solved, files closed and archived.

"Do you think it was Smith who tried to kill you?" Calvin asked me after we'd gone through the filework and logged them to the main homicide database.

"I couldn't say," I told him. "The incendiaries they used on the drug lab sounded a lot like the ones that killed Bess, but those things are pretty common. Smith, Angel Lee, some random smuggler who thought I'd gone snitch, who can tell?"

Calvin nodded. "Then you can't be sure that somebody won't try it again," he said. "Or Grayling could send somebody after you."

I shrugged. "Life's a risk," I told him. "If anybody comes, I'll be waiting for them, and I'm not that easy to kill. As for Grayling, I've sent a few messages to some people I know on Luna. If anything happens to me..." I shrugged again. "I think Grayling knows better than to try something like that."

"That reminds me," he said. "This just came in through a mail drop." He showed me a printout of a list of addresses and names. One of the addresses was for the drug lab we'd raided a few days before. It looked like Grayling had taken my words to heart.

"That looks to be something from a little birdie," I told him. "I'd raid those addresses one at a time, slowly, over a period of a few months, if I were you. Like you were gathering information through an undercover operation, something like that. It could be good for your career."

"Some of these are offworld," he noted. "Luna, Earth-Sol Lagrange Stations, even Ceres."

"I could give you some names of people to notify," I said. "It never hurts to make a few more contacts."

He gave me an exasperated look. "But how what do I put on my reports?"

I shrugged. "Do like I do -- lie." We'd already had a few words about the paperwork on this case.

He made a face, and made a motion like he was washing his hands of the matter. Then he returned to the previous subject. "So you're just going to forget about the fact that someone tried to kill you? You're just going to let it drop?" he asked, then winced when he realized what he'd said.

"Why stir up trouble?" I asked. "I got what I wanted. Smith killed Sheila, and now he's dead. You have to stop somewhere. I choose here."

He stared at me for a long time, like he was trying to make up his mind about something. I let my grin join the Cheshire cat. "You know," he said at long last, "When I first saw you, there in that dump of yours, I said to myself, 'Here's a man who doesn't care if he lives or dies.'"

I felt my face twist into a smile. Calvin is pretty quick on the uptake, I guess. "And now?" I asked him.

"I'm still not sure if you care about whether you live or die," he said. "But I'm pretty sure you care how you live or die."

"Well," I told him. "That's something, isn't it?"


After my business at PD, I headed over to Marjori Low's. One of the Jameses let me in and Marjori came down immediately. She gave me a bone crunching hug and led me into the dining room where I snacked on some of the food that was being set out.

"I'm having a small reception here tonight," she told me. "Can you make it?"

I shook my head. "I have some business to attend to," I told her. "I've asked Lewis to help me take Sheila's body back to Marley Farm. I figured that it was only appropriate to let her feed the plants one last time."

"What did Lewis say?" she asked.

"That he figured anything he did with me was so chancy it was a religious experience. So of course he said yes."

She nodded and I told her about my meeting with Grayling and of Smith's demise. I held back on most of the description of the way Smith had died, and I said nothing specific about my threats to Grayling, but I think she figured out most of what had happened on her own. After I was finished she shivered slightly.

"What a wretched business," she said.

"It is that," I said. "Have you heard from Doria?"

That caught her by surprise, and she didn't even have time to think how she should react. She blinked. "What do you mean?" she asked. "Should I have?"

I shrugged. "I just thought that she should know that she's safe now. Angel is probably dead, and he's no risk anymore, no matter what. Smith is dead. No one has any reason to kill her anymore. You could even invite her to your reception."

She stared at me for a long time, a silence that spoke eloquently. Finally she asked, "How long have you known?"

"That you were Doria's 'friend' who gave her a hiding place when there were people trying to kill her? I thought it a good possibility from the very beginning. When you're in trouble, you try to get as much influence as possible on your side, and you were Doria's most influential contact. Also you couldn't find Doria's second postcard. It was confirming a visit, wasn't it?" She nodded.

"Then too," I continued, "Doria isn't a very good liar, and she hesitated when she called her friend a 'he.' So I figured it was probably a woman, and probably someone who knew me. That's not very conclusive, of course.

"But I didn't know for sure until just now. Doria's a poor liar, but you're one of the worst I've ever known." I looked into her eyes. "That's one of the things I like and respect about you, you know?" I told her. "Your need for the truth. That's why I'm telling you this."

Her eyes filled with years and they began a slow trickle down her face. "I'm sorry, Ed," she told me. "I had to lie, of course, I couldn't put Doria in danger. But I didn't..."

I reached out and took her hand. "Let me see if I can help," I told her. "You went to bed with me to find out what you could about the investigation directly, to try to find out who had tried to kill Doria. You also wanted to know if there was anyone on the case that Doria could go to who wouldn't put her in further jeopardy. Eventually, you decided that I filled that bill."

She nodded again. "Do you know what convinced me?" she asked. I shook my head.

"It was after your glider ride, that attempt on your life. Somebody tried to kill you, but you decided not to follow up on it. 'It wasn't worth it,' you said. What you meant was that it wasn't worth involving Joey."

I must have looked puzzled, and she stared at me for a second. "Oh," she said, looking at me strangely. "You probably didn't think of it that way, did you? It didn't occur to you that protecting Joey was why you let it slide."

I hesitated. "It would have been a long shot, no matter what," I said. "Joey only saw a decoy, and they wouldn't expose anyone important."

"You don't know that," she said. "The only way to eliminate a lead is to follow it until it ends, right? But you were willing to have it stop at Joey. You didn't want to pressure him; you didn't want to put him in jeopardy."

I thought about what she was saying for a few seconds. Then I think I sighed. "You're probably right," I admitted. "Joey doesn't deserve that kind of treatment, certainly not for something as unimportant as..."

"As an attempt on your life?" she asked. "I also noticed that you were more annoyed at someone's having killed an old bloon than you were that someone had tried to kill you."

She paused, then said, "So you protected Joey, and I was counting on you to protect Doria, too. And I was right, wasn't I? You did protect her. You caught the people who were after her, and made it safe for her to live."

She stepped closer. "And I genuinely meant what I said about the ice melting," she said. "I'm a terrible liar, remember? I just didn't know if it was you or the excitement and the intrigue. That's horrible isn't it? To not know?"

"Not so horrible," I told her. "On a real horribleness scale I'd put in maybe around a two. I can think of worse things." I didn't add, much worse things.

"So now what?" she asked me.

"So now I take Sheila's body to the farm. I'll be back in a few days. Then..."

I stopped for a moment, looking into her face for some sign, I suppose. Then I said, "There's only one way to find out, isn't there? You'll have to decide if you still feel the same without the little thrill of hiding secrets. If it helps any, I've got secrets enough for the both of us; you don't need to bring your own to the mix.

"Anyway," I said, "When I get back you'll have to decide whether or not you want to see me again. I hope that the answer is 'yes,' but I'll understand if the answer is 'no.'"

She gripped my hand fiercely and looked into my eyes. What did she see in there, I wonder? What does anyone see in there?

"Yes," she said in a voice that still spoke to something in me I'd thought long dead. "Yes, I want to see you again.


Lewis and I made a slow trip to Marley Farm, free sail all the way, and we talked about many things. I'd also asked Calvin if he could come, but he was too busy setting up a raid that turned out to be of a small speedball factory in Carnival Cluster. Robert Grayling's list looked like it was the genuine article. I wondered if it was guilt or fear that was driving him. Both, most likely.

Grayling was one of the things Lewis and I talked about on our way to Marley Farm. "Do you figure you were too hard on him, or too easy?" was one of the questions Lewis asked me.

I shrugged. "Grayling wasn't my main concern," I told him. "I signed on to find out who killed Sheila and to bring that person to justice. That person was Smith, and I don't know if his death was justice, but it's all he's going to get from me."

"But Grayling set up the circumstances," Lewis said. "It happened on his watch."

"Yeah," I agreed. "He has blood on his hands. But very little of it is Sheila's. He didn't order her death, and even if he had, it's the men who do the deeds, not the men who give the orders. That's where the responsibility lies."

He looked at me. "You believe that?" he asked.

"I have to," I told him. "Anything else is just madness."

"Or karma," Lewis said.

"Yes, well, there is that. That's why the blood on Grayling's hands is mostly his own. He knows that his own actions led not very indirectly to the death of his own and only son. Some would say that's punishment enough. The Great Wheel turns, but it turns on its own. I'm not the karma police."

As I say, Lewis and I talked about a lot of things on the way to Marley Farm.

I wasn't done thinking about this karma stuff, of course. It's a big subject, and there was a certain amount of personal applicability, after all. You can do good or you can do evil and both are bound to come after you if you stay in one spot. Or you can run from them. Maybe then you can get out from under, but running carries its own karma with it. You can become a ghost in your own life, with no company but other ghosts, the memories of deeds past, but no flesh to clothe the ghosts. So there's a lot to be said for standing your ground.

Which is ironic, I suppose, because Venus has no ground to stand on, just a sky filled with bloons and a future that stretches out into the unknown. But I guess it's where I'll make my stand.

We got to Marley Farm, and watched as they loaded Sheila's body into a bloon that was about ready to bud, one that was going to be part of an expansion of the farm. So the buds would grow to full size, and would be filled with the dirt from two worlds, and Sheila would be both in and around the plants she loved. It was the least I could do, and the most I could do.

Then we toasted her memory with drink and I tried some of the Marley ganja. After that the entire matter became a happy blur. The Rastas dance at funerals, like they dance at every other part of life, and we were not allowed to abstain. So they taught us how to move, and Lewis and I danced the raucous funeral dances with them until we fell over and had to be carried to bed to sleep. And I dreamed a dream of a place with blue skies and bodies of water so large that great waves of it crested and broke upon the shores. I dreamed of snow and wind and rain, of great forests and prairies and green covered mountains, all the images of a lost world that we orphaned millions can only see on picture screens and viewing tapes. And for a time I loved my three homes, the world upon which I lived, the world upon which I was born, and the world I've never seen. And it was enough. For the moment, at least, it was enough.

End of Book One

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Chapter twenty-two: "Have you ever heard of karma?"

Previous Chapter

I was up late that night, thinking, and when I did go to bed, it was without chemical assistance, not that said assistance ever did me much good, but there are a few things that slip past the guard dogs in my liver. If the nightmares wanted me, they could have me, I decided. Unto thine own self be true. Good behavior is its own reward, I suppose, because instead of nightmares, I dreamt of flying weightless though endless perfect clouds of light, while somewhere down below me the darkness growled its appreciation and applauded my performance with thunder claps.

The next morning I motored over to Police Headquarters to check on some facts and to see what else had come up. They already had a preliminary autopsy on our stiff from the raid, which said more or less what I expected, how he'd died and what had been used to kill him. I also called Horowith at Marley Farms for some more background on Angel Lee. Then I made an appointment.

Calvin wasn't too happy with what I intended to do, but he agreed that it was pretty much the only course of action, given the circumstances. So I packed my gear and headed over to Robert Grayling's office.

Though it was clock morning, it was light night, and Grayling's offices looked quite different with only the artificial light of the Skyhook tower illuminating their exterior. Inside, the light was muted, more given over to the atmosphere of investment banking than the harsh entrepreneurial glare of the daylight hours. I could imagine that working there imposed its own rhythms and moods, and I wondered to what extent Grayling himself was the controller and to what extent he was the controlled.

I was led to Grayling's inner sanctum almost immediately; the man was still almost pathetically eager for word on his son. I was not going to take much pleasure in what I had to tell him.

"You already know Mr. Smith and Mr. Lusk," Grayling said to me as we shook hands. He indicated another person, pressed from the same mold as Smith and Lusk. "This is Elvin Dwight, another associate of mine. They may leave or stay, at your preference."

"I would rather that they stayed, actually," I told him. "I also have to ask your indulgence in another matter," I said. I reached into my pocket and removed a small mobile comm unit, and activated it. "This is Ed Honlin, a special consultant to the Sky City Police Department," I said into the microphone of the comm. "I am in the offices of Mr. Robert Grayling and several of his associates. This is to indicate that this meeting is being recorded as of now."

Grayling's brow clouded. "I think I must protest the use of transmission and recording devices in my offices," he said.

I switched off the comm unit. "If you object," I told him levelly, "Then I will leave, and you will have to obtain any and all further information about this case through official channels. I might also mention that any conclusions and speculations that I might have as a consultant are not part of the official record."

If metaphors were real, his look would have frozen me solid. Or maybe killed me on the spot. "I object to this blackmail, also," he said, his voice barely making it past his throat.

"This is not blackmail, and you know it," I told him. "I'm doing you a favor here and I'm cutting some corners. But I want a record of the cutting, so I still have all my fingers left when I'm done."

He darkened some more, and I hoped he wasn't a stroke risk. Finally, he said, "All right, damn you, just tell me what you know about my son."

I switched the comm back on and repeated my initial statement. Then I looked at him and said, "I'm sorry to have to tell you, but your son is dead."

The breath whistled out of his nostrils and he closed his eyes. "Are you sure?" he said.

"We don't have a body, but we have a witness to the event," I told him. "So, yes, I'm quite sure. He was killed during an attack on a woman named Doria Adams. His bodyguard and friend, Michael Deere, was also killed, while trying to protect the two young people."

"Who killed him?" Grayling asked in a whisper.

"That is somewhat problematic," I said. "There were two people in the assault, but there is reason to believe that the assault was part of a much larger crime, so culpability is not easily determined."

He scowled. "I don't follow you," he said.

"Then I'll explain," I told him, and began to tell my tale.

"One of the two men who killed Thomas was named Angel Lee. Mr. Lee was, until recently, a part owner of a communal agricultural cluster called Marley Farm, which grows and sells a number of plants, which the Marley people call 'herbs.' These plants contain a variety of psychoactive and medicinal chemicals. Some of your companies even do business with the Marley Farm people, using their tobacco, cannabis, belladonna, and so forth as sources of nicotine, cannabinol, atropine, strychnine, and other compounds of medical and recreational value."

I paused, then said, "There is nothing illegal in this, of course. You run a legitimate enterprise and so does Marley Farm.

"However," I continued, "There are venues and applications of the plant-derived drugs which are not legal, and these uses are, as a result, more lucrative. Mr. Lee apparently was ambitious and greedy. He joined into a scheme whereby some of the Marley Farm crops, which were supposedly sold to businesses out on the Circle, or free floating clusters, were in fact diverted and smuggled into Sky City. Here in the City, the contraband was converted into pure alkaloids for the purpose of smuggling them offworld.

"The smuggling was done 'up through the floor' and Mr. Lee accompanied the shipments. For some reason, Mr. Lee also found it necessary to appear in public. Maybe he didn't completely trust those he dealt with and preferred to have his meetings where there were witnesses. In any case, by a piece of very bad luck, he was seen at a club called the Turbolift, by another worker at Marley Farm. That would be Miss Adams, who I mentioned earlier.

"The problem was that Mr. Lee was in the City illegally, although Miss Adams couldn't have known that. But she might have mentioned it to somebody and if the word got back to Marley Farm, Mr. Lee would have been finished. Marley Farm is very strict about its rules, or so I'm informed. In any case, I don't think that the Marley people would risk covering for a smuggling operation that brought them no profit and considerable risk.

"Mr. Lee was not willing to gamble in that fashion and apparently neither were those he was dealing with. So he followed the trio when they left the club and attacked them. It was more bad luck for them that they didn't recognize Mr. Deere for a fight-trained bodyguard, because Mr. Deere severely wounded the other man, and your son put up enough of a struggle for Miss Adams to escape."

I looked Grayling straight in the eye. "Thomas died a hero, Mr. Grayling. He was doing his best to protect a woman for whom he felt responsible. I'd even go so far as to say that he did it out of love."

"That doesn't make him any less dead, though, does it?" said Grayling bitterly.

"No, it does not," I admitted. "But there's more to it as well." I looked around at the impassive faces of the men listening to me.

"We received word just yesterday of Angel Lee's demise. He had a bloon accident on his was to Sky City from Marley Farm. But it doesn't end there, either. He was almost certainly murdered as well, so the next questions are 'by whom' and 'why?'"

I continued to look into his eyes, his gaze locked on mine, as if he were paralyzed by some bright light. "Let's consider the smuggling operation that Angel was involved with. It has offworld connections and it must be large enough to transport a lot of material, so the smuggled quantities can be disguised. The obvious place to smuggle pharmaceuticals is with other pharmaceuticals.

"Let's also consider someone who works for this organization in a position of significant responsibility. Suppose he is a combination manager and trouble-shooter. Now let's suppose that someone accidentally punches a hole in the operation, and the first attempt to patch that hole has the disastrous result that it kills the son of the owner of the whole shebang. What do you think a manager would do in such a situation? Do you think he'd go right to the owner and say, 'Hey boss, we just screwed up and killed your kid?' Or do you think that the manager would try to cover his tracks?"

The flicker of Grayling's eyes told me everything that I needed to know, but I continued anyway.

"So the first order of business for the underlings was to find Doria Adams. Here another poor innocent gets in the way, a girl named Sheila Mason. Sheila never did anyone any harm; all she did was try to look up her friend Doria when both of them had overlapping vacations in the big City. For that little bit of friendship, she got herself kidnapped and tortured until she died. Some fun, huh?

"Other loose ends were a drug lab, now defunct and Angel Lee, also defunct. But Doria Adams managed to escape, hide out, and finally tell her story to somebody who had once known Sheila and who, coincidentally, knew enough about life's dark underbelly to recognize a hawk with a handsaw. That would be me, and the hawk with the handsaw would be you, wouldn't it, Mr. Smith?"

There was no way that Grayling could have kept himself from at least glancing at the man responsible for covering up his son's death, and Grayling's body language had been screaming out whodunit for the past couple of minutes. Lusk and Dwight turned toward Smith ever so slightly, but it was easy to tell that neither of them wanted to make a move.

I looked at Smith who had been listening impassively during my entire speech. I knew that if killing me would have helped him in the slightest, I would be a dead man now. But the damage had been done a long time ago, and Smith surely knew it by now.

"I should never have sat with my back toward the door," Smith said quietly. "Angel insisted on it, though. He was beginning to develop a nicotine and cocaine habit; he'd go on periodic binges and he was on one of them that night. He was more than a little bit paranoid at the time. I thought that by humoring him we could conclude our business, and I could decide what to do about him later. My mistake. I didn't see either Thomas or Mickey in the club, so when Angel saw the girl on her way out, I let him go after her to attend to it."

He looked at Grayling with dull, sad eyes. "You can't imagine how I felt when I discovered that they had killed your son. I wanted to tear them to shreds on the spot. Instead, I let them try to cover the tracks, to find the Adams girl." He shook his head. "It was all so pointless."

He looked at me. "I'm truly sorry about the Mason girl," he said. "I was never very good at interrogation. Even back on Luna, I never got the hang of it."

He had a hypo spray in his hand. "Do you know what this is?" he asked me.

"At a guess, I'd say it was loaded with nicotine and strychnine," I told him.

He gave me a thin smile. "I don't believe that you are guessing very hard," he said.

"Well," I told him. "We have a corpse over in the morgue who died of an overdose of those two compounds just yesterday, so you're right, it wasn't much of a stretch."

He brought the hypo to his abdomen.

"You don't have to do this," I told him. "We could work something out."

The thin smile remained as he shook his head. "No, we could not," he said. "A knight without a lord, a samurai without a domo, there isn't much of a market for pretorian guards, and I've already job-hopped once. Twice just isn't done." With that he squeezed the hypo.

The puft of compressed gas was surprisingly loud, and he dropped the hypo as he sank down to his knees, then into meditation posture. The drugs worked fast and we could see his skin tighten and the muscles bunch beneath his clothing. As the two deadly stimulants worked, his breathing seemed to stop as his entire body went taut.

Then we heard the first snapping crunch of a bone breaking. The pain must have been incredible and I was amazed at his control as he managed to keep his body straight and relatively still as his suddenly overstimulated muscles broke his bones in rapid order. Only when his spine arched, then broke, did his whole body begin to spasm, and his eyes rolled back up in his head as bursting blood vessels consumed his consciousness. Finally, his neck gave a spasmed crack! and the twitches began to subside.

Grayling and his other two men stared at Smith's body in open mouthed horror. Then Grayling found his voice and said, "Get him out of here." Lusk and Dwight complied.

When Smith's body had been removed Grayling turned to me and regarded me with a look so bleak that made Smith seem like the lucky one. "You have no proof of any involvement by me in any of this," he said.

"That is correct," I told him, and I reached over and switched off the comm unit.

"Now we're off the record," I said. "And you're still right, there's no way to directly connect you to anything. I'm sure your operations are at this minute clean as a whistle, and the only person who could have testified against you just took a permanent vow of silence."

I leaned a little closer to him. "Have you ever heard of karma?" I asked him.

"What does that have to do with anything?" he asked me.

"Karma is the original Hindu word for it, but I've been talking a lot recently to a guy by the name of Lewis, who is a Stochastacist. They call it 'karma' also, but they also say that every religion has an idea like karma in it. The Golden Rule is a statement about how to deal with Karma. 'Bread cast upon the waters returneth a thousand fold,' is what it's all about, 'what comes around goes around,' that sort of thing. And what works for bread on the water works for shit, too."

I watched Grayling's dead expression and I knew that he knew where this was headed; it must have already occurred to him. I was just echoing his own thoughts before he could think them.

"Whenever you do anything, have any dealings with another human being, something gets passed along. Then, good or bad, the next person passes it around as well. We all carry our own little karma cloud around with us, reflected back at us by all the people we meet and all the people that they meet. Sometimes it goes through so many people that we don't even recognize our own evil when it returns, but the taint is still there.

"It was very bad luck that had Doria Adams seeing Angel Lee in a dance club, but it was only bad luck because of what Angel was involved with. And Angel was a little tiny player in a big time operation. That operation carries some heavy karma, and whoever set up that operation carries some of the karma for the death of your son. You're setting up a shit factory, Grayling, so don't whine when some of your life begins to stink."

His anger at my words was palpable. My guess was that he was using the anger to keep back the tears, we all have to do that every now and then. So as his hands began to twitch and rise, I said softly to him, "I'd be careful if I were you, Grayling. You only had one man who could take me, and he's just broke his own neck."

There was a final flash of anger from him, like the last flare from a broken ember, then his face collapsed and he leaned back and sat down heavily in his chair. He buried his face in his hands. "What do you intend to do?" he asked in a choked voice.

"Nothing for awhile," I told him. "I don't expect I'll have to."

I waited for him to lift his head and look at me, then I continued. "Now if I were setting up a drug smuggling ring on Luna, I'd first make sure that I had a lot of product stored away safely, so that I could shut the pipeline on and off if the heat got bad, and still be able to service my customers. I don't know how close you were to a full working operation and I don't know how much stuff is squirreled away on Luna and elsewhere, but I'd take it as a very good sign if the police started to get some anonymous tips as to where the stuff was stashed."

"I have associates..." he began.

"Buy them out, if they'll let you," I told him. "Concentrate the first heat on your own turf and they'll never suspect that you are the one bringing the whole thing down."

He nodded bleakly.

"I'll be watching, you know," I told him. "And I have a few friends and associates who will be watching as well. If things start showing up on Luna, I'll know about it. If anything happens to me, my associates will shut you down completely, your good business and the bad. No trials, no due process. Some of it might look like bureaucratic harassment, but a lot of it will look just like bad luck. A lost shipment here, a seized load there. It can add up fast. There's a lot of things that happen that look just like bad luck, if you get my drift."

I leaned close to him. "Just think of me as your conscience," I told him. "Just a little cricket sitting on your shoulder, watching everything you do. A little cricket with very big teeth and no sense of forgiveness, at all.

"And if I ever get word that you're trying to do an end run around me, I promise you that you'll find out firsthand what it feels like to see Maximilian's ghost."

He looked up at me wide-eyed and uncomprehending, tears just barely held back. But the way I looked must have gotten through to him because I saw a sudden flash of fear in his eyes, the fear of something worse than death. I'd seen that look before and I still don't know how it makes me feel to cause that look in another human being.

I straightened up and headed for the door. When I reached the door I turned and looked back at him. He still had a bit of fight left in him, because he called after me, "It will happen anyway, you know, no matter what I do. You can't stop it. People will get what they want, one way or another."

"Yes," I said, in a voice that might not even have been loud enough for him to hear it. I think he did hear it though. "It will happen anyway. Drugs will be made, laws banning them will be passed, people will be killed or corrupted, all of that. But it won't be you who does it, and it won't be me who lets it happen."

Then I left the offices of Robert T. Grayling, one of the wealthiest men in the Solar System.