Sunday, May 11, 2008

Chapter thirteen: The truth is a hard act to pull off.

Previous Chapter

On my way over to the home of Marjori Low, I had plenty of time to think about the way that life doesn't ask if you're hungry before it fills your plate. Nor does it ask if your plate is full before it dumps another load on you.

And it could care less about your dining preferences.

Landau had offered me money, which I refused; I didn't want to show up on any payment files, and I have enough money to operate. The only thing I took from Landau were a couple of high level access authorization codes and some secured comm line numbers. I don't have that much confidence in secured lines, either, but there are some tricks you can play to make them nearly trustworthy.

Beyond that, what? I didn't know. Lucy Dahl's case probably was a coincidence, for all the fear lurking in Landau's gut. And for all the fact that the phrase, it wouldn't hurt to look into it, felt to my own gut like famous last words.

There was also the possibility that I was being set up. I only had the word of two public health officials that there might be a variant of the Plague virus at large. Was that really enough to risk a tangle with the Special Guard?

Well, that was for later. Tonight, I had other plans. Tomorrow as well. After that . . . we'd see what happened.

I went back out through the checkpoint, and through City Center to my waiting bloon. Marjori lived on the outer edge of The Maze, in a residential section called The Heights, where the old money of Sky City liked to live. Multi-bloon dwellings are either hotels or mansions, and Marjori lives in a mansion, a ten bloon cluster that predates the City even; it was towed into place during the wild years after the Skyhook came down and when the Maze grew like topsy.

There is no checkpoint at the front of Marjori's place, just a dock and an air curtain in front of the door. I rang the front buzzer and was ushered in by one of her servants. His real name is William, though Marjori calls him 'James' just like all the others. That night I said, "Hello, William," maybe because my experience with the Andersons in Taylorville had left me sensitive to the identities of servants.

"Hello, Mr. Honlin," William said with a smile of greeting. Something in my expression must have made him add, "Hi, Ed. Mrs. Low is in the shower. She's been here for about an hour."

"Darling!" came Marjori's voice from across the room. She was barefoot, dressed in a plush robe and her hair was still wet. She not-quite-ran across the space between us and I pulled her into my arms when she got near enough. William discreetly vanished right about then, and Marjori gave me a passionate kiss that underscored her first words.

"I missed you, dear," she said when we finally broke the clinch.

"And I missed you," I told her.

"I wasn't quite finished with my shower," she said, and shrugged her shoulders so that the robe slipped a little. "Would you like to help me finish it?"

"Of course," I told her.


Later, after we'd showered then gone to her bedroom and gotten sweaty enough to need another shower, I told her of Molly Laird and Molly's, at this point still theoretical child. I concluded, "So I'd like your help in checking up on the matter, assessing the situation, figuring out what to do next."

"What do you expect?" she asked me.

I shook my head. "This is a little out of my line," I said. "I haven't checked on the value of the antique gun, for example, but I think that it's worth quite a lot. Whether it's enough to pay for the raising of a child is another matter. But if there is a child, he or she is an orphan now, and arrangements need to be made. There's the problem of custody, for example. I don't know anyone in the Darkunder cluster where I think the child is now, but I suspect that it's not what the authorities would call a 'suitable environment.' Also, I don't know the attitude of whoever has the child now, or what their relationship was to Molly.

"Then there's the Grayling family. I don't want to even think about that bridge until I come to it."

"So tomorrow is…" she began.

"Reconnoitering," I told her. "And I suspect that people will be a lot more forthcoming to a woman than to me."

I traced her collarbone with my finger. "I'd like to have you come with me," I told her. "But you don't have to do it, I'm sure that Fumio would be willing to substitute."

She snorted a laugh. "And have me miss watching you at work again?" she said. "Why should Fumio have all the fun?"

I told her nothing about my new mission from Skyhook.


The next morning found us en route to a small cluster in Darkunder near the southern edge of the City, where the shadow is less intense. Sky City had passed into light by that time, and while the sun had already risen high enough to be obscured by the City itself, the Darkunder edge clusters still got some light from the unshadowed clouds out past the City borders.

The main planetary directory gave the owner of our destination cluster as one May Barker, formerly a licensed prostitute in Sky City itself. Although it's not required, Ms. Barker had registered a business there, probably to make it easier to request services from the City government. Madame Fumio did the same thing; she found that it made getting her weekly power tether more reliable.

The business was registered as "May B's," and also had several licensed masseuses, physical therapists, and sex workers on its official employee roster. But the designated form of business was "night club."

Marjori said, "A place for tired businessmen, perhaps? Come out to May B's, maybe baby? We'll take good care of you. Let go of the tensions of the day; our thoughtful employees will rub and stroke those cares away."

I felt another smile take over my face. "You may have a future in advertising," I told her. "Set it to music and you have the next hit jingle."

"That's jiggle," she said, and she leaned over to lick my ear.

"Not now," I told her. "I'm piloting this squid."

We were almost there, in fact. I'd reset the transponder frequency to indicate a request for docking, and someone had switched on the ready light at the cluster docking area. Marjori made some sort of comment about how the light should be red.

"I'm sensing a certain nervousness about this," I told her. "Could it have anything to do with the fact that this place is basically a bordello?"

"Ah, that could be it," she said. "Henry and I had quite a few adventures over the years, but we never got around to visiting a cat house. For purposes of academic interest, you understand."

"I understand," I said, and she punched my arm.

"Oh, be like that," she said. "So what sort of act should I put on?" She was obviously enjoying the prospect.

"I'd say cool and reserved," I said. "A posture befitting your social standing. Sympathetic and generous, of course, with just a distant hint of snootiness. Too much pleasantness would be taken as phoniness. You are a kind society matron interested in the welfare of an orphan."

She gave me an odd look. "Isn't that what I actually am?" she asked.

"Pretty much," I told her. "That's why this may be difficult. The truth is a hard act to pull off."


We docked at May B's, and pushed our way in through the air curtain. Since it was morning the place was not open for business and the docking area had no attendant. Inside, there was a single man waiting at the entrance. He was nearly as big as I am, and built like a pneumotube, being of the same circumference from hip to shoulders with his neck doing a good job of keeping up. He had the look of a professional bouncer to him.

"We're closed, folks, unless you have a special appointment."

"I did call yesterday," I said. "There was no answer, so I left a message. My name is Ed Honlin, and this is Marjori Low. We're here to see May Barker, about a girl named Molly Laird."

"I wouldn't know about that," the bouncer told us. "You'll have to wait here." It was obvious that he knew who Molly was, though.

The guy vanished through a doorway, then reappeared after only a few seconds. "Mizz Barker says to go on up," he said, his tone of voice telling us how rare a privilege we were getting.

"Thanks," I told him. I felt him looking at me until we were out of sight. I knew that look; he was wondering if he could take me. It goes with a job like his, or any kind of police and security work, actually. It's an automatic function for me as well. I expect that we'd come to the same conclusion about the matter, which is that he couldn't, not on his best day.

We climbed a short ramp to a room of modest size, bare except for a desk at the far end, and a curtain that I guessed concealed a bed. Behind the desk sat a woman who looked like she'd just gotten dressed. She was of indeterminate age, partly because of clever makeup, and partly due to the wig she wore, which was silver gray. She rose to greet us.

"You would be Mr. Honlin, and you would be Mrs. Low," she said to us. "Pardon my appearance, but this is a night club, so I'm usually still in bed at this hour."

Marjori scowled slightly and her tone of sympathy was perfect. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Ms. Barker," she said. "This is my fault, I'm afraid. I didn't think of the time. I just got back to the City last night, and I wanted to take care of this business as soon as possible."

May Barker was cautious in her reply, a hostess smile on her face that revealed nothing. "Please call me May," she told us. "Your message only said that your business involved Molly," she said. "Do you have word of her?"

Marjori looked over at me. I cleared my throat. "We were hoping that you'd already been informed," I said. "But I can see that you have not. Molly was killed about a week ago, a senseless mugging in the City. I've been hired by the City to attempt to put her affairs in order."

What little there was to May's smile vanished, then her face froze into a flat mask. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it again. She did that a couple of times, then finally found her voice.

"I was afraid of something like that," she said. "I was hoping that she was just being thoughtless, but of course that would have been unlike her. My second hope was that she was kidnapped, or comatose." She gave a short bleating laugh that had no humor to it. "Imagine hoping for things like that, just so you won't have to think about worse things."

Marjori reached out and touched her shoulder. "We're so very sorry," she said.

May's back straightened and, while her eyes glistened, no tears fell from them. "So what is to happen to Anna?" she asked.

I asked, "Anna would be Molly's daughter, yes? She said something about a child before she died."

May gave me a funny look, then walked over to her desk and pressed a button. "George, could you get Mirri and have her bring the child with her?" Then she turned back to us. "How did she die?" she asked. "Don't try to spare my feelings; people will tell you that I haven't any."

"People are obviously wrong," I told her. "But I will tell you. Molly was killed with a knife and she died quickly, though she did managed to shoot and kill her assailant. The suspected motive was robbery, of course. You knew that she carried an antique pistol?"

May nodded. "Yes, she wanted to sell it in order to raise money for the child. I think that she wanted to bring some sort of legal action."

"Against the father?" I asked, meaning William Taylor.

"Against his estate," May said, misunderstanding the question. "Molly's father died recently, and he was quite wealthy, at least according to Molly. She wouldn't say who he was."

"Molly's father was Robert Grayling," I told her. "He was indeed quite wealthy."

May's eyes widened a little at the mention of Grayling's name.

"You didn't know?" I asked.

"No, Elizabeth came to us after she had already had the child. She wanted someplace to disappear into, and you can't do that as a prostitute in the City; you can be tracked through the licensing agency. I run a very discreet operation here, though, Mr. Honlin, and Elizabeth stayed with us for almost ten years. She eventually left when she felt that Molly needed a better environment." She spat out the last phrase, leaving no doubt as to how she felt about the "better environment" of Taylorville.

We turned at the sound of a baby's crying and a woman's voice saying "There, there, Anna." The woman carrying the child was herself as young as Molly had been, and she was rocking the child as she walked. She also had dark circles under her eyes.

"Mirri," said May Barker. "This is Mr. Honlin and Mrs. Low. They have come for the child."

Mirri looked at us with a mixture of sudden sadness and relief. I had the distinct feeling that child care hadn't been part of Mirri's job description when she signed on at May B's. For my own part, I was surprised that Anna was being handed over with so little fuss. May must have caught my expression.

"Surprised, Mr. Honlin?" she asked. "That I would just hand Molly's child over to a stranger? But you are not really a stranger, you see. Molly specifically told me that if anything were to happen to her, you would take care of things for Anna. She spoke of you by name. Naturally, I had you checked out, and I can see why Molly thought that you were the man to call."

Mirri had handed Anna over to Marjori, and Marjori was making little cooing noises at the infant, who had quieted down as soon as Marjori held her. Maybe practice has something to do with it.

"And I know this much," May continued. "I'm a small fish and I make my way by not making too many waves. I've heard enough of Robert Grayling, and his kin to know that their kind makes waves. Big waves. Big enough to capsize an organization like mine. So Molly's problem is yours now, Mr. Honlin. Yours and Mrs. Low's. And I thank you."

Next Chapter


Mark Ganzer said...

I'm really enjoying this.

Can't wait for the next chapter.

Great work.


James Killus said...

Thank you very much. I'll also note, IMHO, that we're about to get to the really good stuff.

Amity said...

Good words.

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