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.