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."