Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chapter twenty-one: I guess that you're this much of a shit to everybody

Last Chapter

I left Carnival after that; I was beginning to distrust my own actions.

I am not completely lacking in the ability to discern the implications and effects of my own behavior, though I have a number of blind spots, some of which I do not know. But after enough examples of pounding my own head into a wall, I do begin to notice.

I'd let the fights of the night before rattle me, and I'd made enemies to no good purpose. I'd been rude to Cheryl, and more violent than I needed to be when gaining admission to see Caine, the slash fighter. Just now, I'd broken Al's foot just because he pissed me off. If I kept this up, I could kiss off any hope of making progress in getting information out of Carnival. Word would get around that I was dangerous to talk to; I'd hurt somebody who didn't deserve it, or I'd get into a fight with someone a lot luckier that I am, and I'd take some serious damage myself. The odds were getting longer, and I was the one doubling up my bets.

I was afraid to go to the City for a late night prowl. I was genuinely afraid that I would kill somebody.

The problem was that I had no idea of why I was behaving like this. Was I just getting impatient? Was I feeling guilty about giving Molly Laird or her daughter short shrift, while I chased some phantom image on somebody else's radar screen?

Hell, if I really wanted to confuse myself, all I had to do was think about Marjori, and wonder what she was doing that night, and whether she was enjoying it, or if I had fled from Cheryl Chiba's company because I wondered what it would be like to tangle in the barbed wire.

Joey was still on duty when I docked at the hotel. He said, "Hi, Mr. Honlin. You're back early tonight."

"Sometimes the best you can do is to know when to quit, Joey," I told him.

He smiled at me. "You're just tired, Ed. You'll feel better in the morning."

I blinked at that. I think that was the first time he'd ever called me "Ed."

"When you put it like that, I have to believe you," I said, and his smile broadened into a grin. "Tell Fumio to give you a raise." Then I went inside to my room.

As I think I've said before, there isn't much in my room. I live in one of the upper lift bloons in Fumio's hotel, and I get charged by the kilo of occupancy. I have a couple of changes of clothing, some light bedding, and an inflatable chair that Calvin once brought over. If I want some light, I use a chembulb, they're good for a couple of hours; if I want food or drink, the cafe downstairs is open ninety-six hours a cycle.

I didn't need any extra light in my room that night. In addition to the dim twilight that leaked through the City to its dark shadow below, the megastorm down south was still churning the planet, and it had destabilized some of the strata farther to the north. We were getting more than our normal share of storms down below, in other words, and the flickering illumination was enough to light my room. Occasionally, there would be a flash brighter than a chembulb; most often the entire hotel was bathed in what the old astronomers had called "The Ashen Light of Venus," visible either during true night or in the shadows of the City.

I tried to calm myself by sitting seiza, searching for my center by watching after my breath as it settled down the path of my spine. My body seemed willing, but my thoughts refused to do anything but masquerade as chittering geese.

About twenty minutes into it, my door comm buzzed. I ignored it for the first few times, but the buzzing kept up, and eventually I rose and went to the door. The flap fell away as I unzipped it. Cheryl stood outside.

She smiled at me and said, "You couldn't have known that it was me out here, so I guess that you're this much of a shit to everybody. That makes me feel better, I guess. Can I come in?"

She was dressed pretty much as she had been dressed the night before, black-on-black striped body suit with spiked bracelets and belt, but the barbed wire had been replaced by what looked like cobwebs spun from liquid metal. Glints of light moved up and down the strands in slow time, except when a flicker of lightning outside seemed to energize them. After a few seconds I realized that they were probably responding to AM radio spectrum static -- electrical discharge sensitive jewelry.

She noticed my gaze and said, "You like it? It's called 'Weather or Not.' It was quite fashionable years ago, just after the first megastorm. I found it in a thrift store."

"Frugality is a virtue," I told her.

"Yeah," she said. "And I don't have that many. Do I have to ask to come in again?"

"Oh, sorry," I said. "Please come in."

She raised an eyebrow. "A 'please' and an apology. I'm impressed." She stepped in through the door. "Oh, and thank you," she said, as if an afterthought.

She looked around the room, while I rezipped the door. Not that there was much to see. "So," she said finally.

"So," I repeated. Then neither of us said anything for maybe a full minute. Finally she spoke; it was slightly louder than a whisper.

"Goddamn you," she said. "Goddamn you to hell."

"Nice to see you, too," I said. Then she slapped me, and I let her.

"That was for running out on me," she said, her voice getting louder, but it was still more a hiss than a yell. "You made me feel like shit. Did you enjoy that? Let her get all hot and greedy, then just poof, so long and goodbye? Did you think that it was funny?"

"I didn't really think about it," I said. "I'm sorry if I didn't meet your expectations."

"Expectations? Hell, I've had vibrators that did a better job than you."

I couldn't help myself; I laughed. She started to slap me again, and I caught her wrist, just below her bracelet. I held her hand about six inches from my face and looked into her face. "I am sorry," I said.

The anger drained away from her face, and after a moment she chuckled. "I guess it was pretty funny," she said. "You gave me a very sleepless night, though. I'm not used to being dumped."

"I can believe that," I told her.

I slowly released her wrist and she left her hand where it was, then tentatively brought it to my face in a slow caress. The sudden pain caught me by surprise and I quickly stepped back away from her. She laughed again, louder this time. I reached up to my cheek and my fingers came away with a smear of blood on them. She brought her own fingers to her mouth and licked them.

"First blood," she said.

I stepped forward and grabbed her wrist again, and looked at her fingernails, seeing what the dim light had hidden from me before. Her nails had been coated with some sort of plastic, then filed to razor sharpness. She could probably rip out a man's throat with talons like that.

She swung at me with her other hand, and I caught it as well, then brought both of her arms down to waist height and used them to push her to the wall. Her elbows poked into her stomach when her back hit the wall, and she gave a little huff as she exhaled. I held her there, pinned, for several seconds as I wondered what to do next.

Her bracelets had several slots in them, in a pattern that made them a match for the spikes. I brought her wrists together and fitted the spikes into the corresponding slots. There was a click, as if a mechanism had engaged, and her hands were locked together as if by handcuffs.

She looked me in the eyes, and said, "Congratulations. You just solved the puzzle."

Then the tiger stripes on her body suit began to come apart. It was held together with some sort of electrovelk, and the command had just been sent to unattach. The strips of her clothing came off slowly, in a completely passive striptease, until all that she wore was the spidery jewelry, her handcuff bracelets, and the spiked belt.

She licked her lips as she stared at me, her mouth a rictus, a slash of greed and expectation. A flash of light outside lit her face and glinted off of her exposed canines. She said, "Are you willing to finish it? Are you?"

With one hand I pushed her hands above her head. With the other I ripped off her belt, the last sharp thing that was between us.


The storm was still down below us when we were finished, but it felt like it was beginning to break. I finally pulled away and rolled over to near the inflatable chair about a meter away. Her breathing was nearly back to normal when she opened her eyes again. She did something to release her bracelets and then took them off completely, tossing them over onto the pile of her clothing.

"Want any souvenirs?" she said with a smug smile on her face. I shook my head.

"Suit yourself," she said, then stretched, a motion that would have been even more appropriate if she were still wearing her tiger suit. She sighed, then reached down to trace her fingers along the front of her hips, along her pelvis.

"I wonder if I'm very bruised," she said. "You were pretty rough, you know?" She looked very pleased with herself.

"Sweets for the sweet," I told her.

Next Chapter

Monday, June 23, 2008

Chapter twenty: In any other than a direct light encounter

Last Chapter

The next day was a light day, and I spent from morning to mid-afternoon running oxygen for the hotel. Sometime around 1500 by the twenty-four hour clock, I dropped down to the drift level and headed for the edge of the City. Once there, I let the bloon slowly rise, bypassing the City fringe and making mid-level out on the Circle.

I docked at a small cafe that was on the Great Circle comm and transport line between two suburban towns. After I had a piece of pie, I went into a private comm booth and placed a call to Skyhook. There isn't even the illusion of security on calls that go through radio transmission; from the Circle, though, it was light pipe all the way to Anchorage.

"This is Dr. Landau."

"Dr. Landau, Ed Honlin here."

"Hello, Mr. Honlin," Landau replied. "It's been over a week since your last brief, cryptic message."

What had I said last time? Something like "Still on it, no news." Hey sport, these things don't come quickly.

"Yeah," I said. "It's been about that long. Anyway, I've run across our friends from across the gulf of space."

If you can hear someone sitting up straight, that was the sound that came through the wire. "Where are they?" he asked.

"Still in Carnival Cluster," I told him. "Carlyle, at least is dressed out as a medical, a doctor going by the name of Warren."

"I see."

"My guess would be that they are establishing themselves in medical practice for the cluster, so that the next wig case gets brought to them before it gets dumped on the City hospitals. They are also well placed to make blood tests without anyone being the wiser."

"That would make sense," he said. "In fact, I wish we'd thought of it."

He couldn't see me shrug. "It's a slow payoff routine," I told him. "It will take months to get any results, most likely."

"It's already been months," he said with what I took as self-recrimination. "Slow and effective is better than quick and ineffective."

"Well, yes, there is that."

He said nothing for a while, so I spoke up again. "There's another thing. In addition to the sex clubs I described to you, we have another possible contagion route to worry about." I then described the slash fight that I'd witnessed.

"Is that likely to be a problem?" he asked.

"I don't know," I told him. "On the plus side, there are fewer vectors than the clubs. On the negative side, the fighters aren't monks." I was thinking of Caine and his three women. "Also, the show goes on the road, sometimes, so you have the risk of sweeping up anything that's out in the upper latitudes."

"Should we think about cracking down on the entertainment clusters?" he asked me. "It's sometimes argued that such a policy would just force the behavior farther out, where we have less chance of keeping track of it."

I hesitated. I had no desire to be Big Brother's Judas goat. "Regulating the shadow clusters wouldn't be completely ineffectual," I said. "But it might not have the effect you want. Anyway, I think that it's premature to be making big changes. For one thing, I still haven't located anything concrete on Lucy Dahl. I'd prefer not to investigate anything while the cluster is under siege mentality."

"That sounds like you've made some contacts, though," Landau said.

"It might just be smoke," I told him. "Don't get your hopes up."

He sighed. "There doesn't seem to be much chance of that, Mr. Honlin."

I was about to ring off when I remembered. "By the way," I said. "Do you have anything for me on that list of names I asked for? Somebody local with some deep knowledge of the kind of thing we're dealing with?"

"Ah, yes," he said, sounding a little better at having something good to report. "I have at least a partial list of Luna to Venus immigrants who used to work for the four research facilities. It isn't a very long list, actually; high level people tend to stay put."

"I'll take low level people, too," I told him. "You can never tell what a janitor has picked up and read."

"I'll do another search, then," he told me. "You should have it by tomorrow."

"Thanks," I said, and clicked off.

My next call was to Marjori. "Hallo, love," I said when she came on line.

"Oh, Ed," she said, as if surprised to hear me. Well, it had been several days since we spoke.

"I just called to see how you and Anna are getting on," I told her.

"Famously," she said. "She sleeps through the night and always seems to need a nap just when I have something else to do. My own children should have been so accommodating. Suzette seems almost redundant. Anna is fun to play with, too."

"So you're having fun?"

"God, yes."

"That's good," I said. "It makes me feel less guilty for neglecting you."

"I'm sure you have good reasons," she said.

"Um," I said, with a feeling that I'd just erred. Oh, well. "Any word from Leo?"

"Yes," she said. "As a matter of fact, he's escorting me to some dreadful charity thing, this evening. I told him how I hated the things and he bravely volunteered. That was while we were discussing the adoption. He's of the opinion that we should take care of that before proceeding with anything else having to do with the Graylings. Apparently one of the things that they might try is to petition for custody, which they could do as long as she had no legal guardian. Once adopted, she's safe."

"Sounds like a good idea," I told her. "Convey my appreciation to Leo."

"I will," she said, softly. We said a few more things, then I clicked off and headed back out to my waiting bloon.


I pulled in one last string of oxy-bloons, then traded the tug in for a one-man squid and headed back to Carnival. This time I docked at the farthest end of the elongated cluster. I wanted to scout out the sideshows.

Physical deformities are almost unknown on Luna; the genetic makeup of fetuses are monitored almost from the moment of conception, and uncorrectable defects are quickly aborted. Beyond that are gene replacement therapies, hormone and enzyme implants, and reconstructive surgery that can repair almost any injury. The extremes have been trimmed on the Procrustean bed of medicine in the name of survival.

On Venus, though, things are different. Even now, more than sixty years after the Skyhook opened up Venus to Lunar trade, there are still clusters and individual bloons that aren't on the comm nets, that never get near the equator, sub-populations that keep to themselves with a xenophobic devotion. Some shy away from religious conviction, some just don't like outsiders. As you might expect, there is a fair amount of inbreeding in the hermit clusters and more recessives come to the fore. Beyond that are accidents of development, or oddities of nutrition or training. And when a person sees or is seen as being too freakish to fit in, they leave to find other means of living, and other places to live.

So you can see the midgets in Carnival, and they have a giant, too. All the classics are there: the Fat Lady, the Pinhead, the Dog-faced Boy, even a pair of Siamese twins, though I suspect that they were attached by artifice, and can be disentangled any time they need a break from each other's company. That's the way it is in the sideshow; half of the draw is the sign over the stage; a good portion of the rest is often simple con. The name of the act can be more important than the act itself. The Rubber Man is just a contortionist, and the lure of the Snake Charmer is more to see real snakes than to see them respond to Man. I'm pretty sure that I can bench press more than the Strong Man, and I know that I'm more accurate than the Knife Thrower. I'm not interested in playing to an audience for money, but I don't despise those who make their living that way.

Besides the physical freaks, there are the mental cases. There's a long and inglorious history to that one. "Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes," you know. On pre-industrial Earth, the insane were judged as possessed by demons, and sometimes were dressed up and painted, then rented out to perform at parties for the aristocracy. We do things in a more egalitarian fashion: catch a glimpse of the depths at half a deb.
Very few males, in my opinion, have any epidermis records of ever having been connected vibrationally to organized crime bosses, in other than a direct light encounter.

A wall-eyed guy with a flat affect was chanting his rant below a sign that said, "Marat-Sade." Unlike the other barkers along the sideshow strip, his ravings made no particular sense. I expect that was the point. I'd check out that geek show some other day.

No males, in my opinion, have ever gotten any definite idea of either the vectors to their person from whence the organized crime boss vibrations are originating or the distance from their person from whence the organized crime boss vibrations are originating, in any other than a direct light encounter.

Across the way from Marat-Sade stood a barker who stood maybe one meter high, dancing slowly and pointing to a sign that said, "Girls with Tails and Other Things." I smiled at him and moved along, the saga of crime bosses beginning to fade.

No males, in my opinion, have ever gotten any specific identity of any organized crime boss when connected vibrationally at a distance in another direct light encounter.

"Hello, Ed," came a different, more familiar voice from behind me. I'd noticed him scurrying to catch up with me, while at the same time trying to look unhurried. He wasn't very good at it.

"Hi, Al," I said. His full name was either Albert or Alberto, depending on who he was trying to impress at any given moment. He was a small-time smuggler, part of a large and loose coterie of odd-job men of flexible ethics who lubricated the skids of Darkunder commerce. I'd run a few shipments up through the floor of the City for him once upon a time, but I hadn't had any dealings with him for many months.

He matched my walk and spoke in a way that only moved his mouth, something that he'd learned from old movies, I expect, though it looked a little like an imitation of the hebephrenic barker we'd just walked past. Only less impassioned.

"What brings you to Carnival, Ed?" he asked.

"This and that," I said.

"Word has it you've been asking around about some things."

"I'm a curious guy," I responded.

Albert wasn't quite as tall as I am, and he's skinny besides, but he's always tried to cloak himself in an aura of quiet menace that can be mistaken for the real thing if you haven't had much experience. I expect that he can be dangerous if you're quite a bit smaller than he is, or if you turn your back on him, literally or metaphorically. His tone of voice got darker when he next spoke.

"The word is that you're doing a police job," he said. "I thought you were through with the cops. That's what you said when you ran for us."

"You'll have to refresh my memory on that one," I told him. "I don't recall talking with you about the cops. Nor, for that matter, do I remember talking about you with the cops. Seems to me like anything else I do is none of your business."

He put his hand in his pocket, but kept it flat, so I didn't think he was about to pull anything out. Another tough gesture. I checked my peripheral vision to see if we had an audience. Just the barkers and the gawkers, as nearly as I could tell.

He said, "I think that you should keep it that way." He paused, I guess because that's the way his mental script told him to. Then he said, "It can get unhealthy to be closely associated with the police, especially after so many people trusted you in the past."

I stopped walking and he took a couple of steps before he realized that I was behind him and he turned to face me, a little bit of nervous animation on his face.

"What the hell is this all about?" I asked him, letting my annoyance find its own way out. "Did you and Hugh and Ray and the rest of the merry men draw straws to see who got to find old Ed to warn him off? Has anybody been jerking your collective chains, or are you just feeling paranoid? Or is there some sort of 'Find the stupidest twit in Darkunder' contest, and you're going for the top prize?"

He almost took a step backwards, as surprised at my sudden emotion as I was myself. Then he reminded himself how tough he was supposed to be.

"I'm just delivering a message," he said. "Smart guys don't ask too many questions."

"Yeah, and what about stupid guys?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Things happen," he said. "You're beginning to get a high profile, and that's not good for anybody."

I noticed with increasing surprise that I was getting angrier with every word he said. I didn't know if I was angry at the veiled threat, or the silliness of it all.

"Yeah, yeah," I told him. "You know where I live, yabba, yabba. But I can see pretty good, and I can see folks for a long time before they get there. And you know what?"

He didn't react to the question, so I moved to take a step towards him. His eyes widened very slightly, and he began a step back. I almost laughed. Halfway through the step meant he only had one foot on the floor. I extended my own step and brought my foot down hard on his instep. I heard a faint crack just before his yelp of pain. I only used enough force for a greenstick fracture, though.

I said, "If the guy who comes after me walks with a limp, I'll know it's you. Merry Christmas."

I turned and headed back the way I came.

Of those males who have ever been vibrationally addressed by organized crime bosses, all have experienced step and fetch vibrational conditions from the general direction of organized crime bosses, in my opinion, at the time of this writing. Males experience it, females don't experience it, is my present guess. Step and fetch vibrational conditions as experience by the recipient results in a situation where the male epidermis does something and, rather soon afterward, a remote entity knows what the male epidermis has had done, within a context of a surveillance relationship. It is a round trip communications loop from the remote entity to the male epidermis without the permission of the male epidermis and without the male epidermis being able to disconnect at the discretion of the male epidermis.
Next Chapter

Friday, June 13, 2008

Chapter nineteen: You have my official apology

Previous Chapter

We exited The Arena right into another parade. This one consisted of maybe two score people carrying sticks that they clacked together in a syncopated pattern while they danced along. Clack clack, tic tic, then take two steps forward. More pounding then step to the side. For a brief moment I flashed on beaters driving wild animals in front of them for the hunt.

"What are you looking for?" Cheryl asked me as she clung to my arm. "I know some places where we can go…"

I shook my head. "I need to find a stairwell to the lower level," I told her. "I want to get a better look at those fighters, without their masks."

"Why?" she asked with a note of disappointment in her voice. No, Cheryl, I'm not that easy.

"You don't have to go along," I said.

She pulled away from me with an angry gesture. I was supposed to try to mollify her at that point, if I read the scenario right, then she'd allow herself to be coaxed into coming with me. Instead, I turned and headed up the street, against the flow of the parade.

"Hey, where…?" I heard her voice from behind me, but I'd set into a fast walk, and I doubt that she could move that fast when there were that many people in the way.

I found the access door about two hundred meters up the corridor. It was down a short side alley, and it was supposed to be locked, but it was a simple loop latch that nearly fell apart when I used my knife on it. Then the door unzipped just fine. I went in and zipped it closed behind me.

The stairwell spiraled down into the gloom of the next level. Down below was where a lot of the maintenance areas and living quarters for Carnival are located. The top levels, above the main drag, are mainly for extra lift and air circulation and supply. I'd sussed out the general physical layout of the cluster on my first few swings through Carnival cluster. It always helps to know where you are.

The fighters and their handlers had come from down below. I figured that to be where the dressing rooms were. I wanted to talk to the fighters.

The stairs ended in another dim alleyway. I made my exit and headed back toward the direction of The Arena.

The space below the main drag in Carnival was not well lit; anyone down there should know where they are or where they were going. In this case, that was easy. There were people milling in the corridor in front of an entrance, well-wishers, hangers-on, essos and exxons, anybody who wanted an entree to the backstage world. I pushed my way to the front and flashed my Sky City Police ID at the bouncer on duty.

"So what's this to me?" the guy asked with a hint of a sneer. Sky City Police have no official jurisdiction in Darkunder, but just because it's unofficial doesn't mean there is no leverage.

"Unemployment if I yank this cluster's tethering privileges," I told him, softly so no one else heard. "Some broken bones if I just decide to go in over you."

He looked like he was about to see if I had a bark/bite mismatch, but instead he nodded once and slipped back through the door, closing the flap, but not zipping it. After a few seconds, it opened again and he waved me in.

I went in cautiously; I might have pissed the guy off enough to try a sucker punch. But there was another, smaller guy now with him. The smaller guy looked like management. "So what's this about?" he demanded.

"My name's Honlin," I told him. "I just want to ask a few questions of some of the fighters."

He shook his head. "They're getting cleaned up after the fight," he said. "Then they rest. They deserve it."

"I'm sure they do," I told him. "I won't take long."

"Forget…" the guy began.

I slammed the bouncer in the solar plexus, just once, but hard enough to double him over, retching, onto the floor. The manager tried to yell something, but I had my fingers around his throat at that point, and nothing came out.

"You have my official apology," I told him. "I deplore the unnecessary use of violence. I also deplore wasting my time with assholes. Now we are going to go see the fighters."

He nodded, his eyes bulging. I let go of his throat and heard the sound of air going back into his windpipe. "Tell Fido here to resume his post," I told him. He nodded.

"Get back outside," he told the bouncer, in a raspy voice, still constricted from my throat hold. The bouncer was trying to get back to his feet. After he made it and began an unsteady walk toward the door, the manager-type and I headed inside. I had one hand wrapped around his wrist in a come-along that wasn't very painful, but the guy kept complaining.

"Is this necessary?" he asked.

"Probably not," I admitted. "But it's fun."

It was easy to find the way to the post-fight dressing rooms. All we had to do was follow the smell of sweat and blood. There were four dressing rooms, in a row along a narrow hallway, but two were empty, the two glove boxers having already left, I surmised. The two remaining rooms were pretty crowded near the doorways, especially Caine's.

As we neared the door, the manager-type seemed about ready to call out to some more security guys who maintained a vigil just outside of the dressing rooms. I tightened my grip on his wrist and he winced.

"Sure," I whispered to him. "You can make a scene, and try to get some more people to throw me out. And what does that get you? Maybe a broken wrist, if you try to do it now. Worse if you try it later, since that would really piss me off. You might also wind up with a couple of damaged employees, not to mention the likelihood of getting yourself in Dutch with Skyhook. Didn't you see my badge? I'm special appointment to upstairs. You don't need that kind of trouble. Not just to stop someone from asking a few questions."

For a second I was worried that he wouldn't buy it. His pride had been wounded and that makes people stupid. But he was bright enough to wonder how silly he'd look in a body cast maybe, and he had up front evidence of how strong my hands are. So he introduced me to the two security men as if I belonged there.

"J. J., Twill, this is…" he looked blank.

"Honlin," I repeated. "Ed Honlin."

"Ed Honlin," he said, without missing another beat. "He's going in to see Caine. Just for a few minutes. It's okay."

The two guys parted. I let go of the manager-type's wrist. "Thanks," I said with a smile. "I owe you one."

"Yeah," he said flatly. "I owe you one, too."


Inside wasn't as crowded as I'd feared, because the room was quite large, probably twenty meters deep, though it was only maybe four meters wide. There was a cluster of people around the door, and another group over to the right at what I took to be a wet bar. Caine was about halfway back, and behind him was nothing much, just some storage lockers. I headed back, cautiously, since I hadn't made any friends on the way in.

There was a knot of people around him, four females, three of whom were dressed for speed. The one who had plenty of clothes on was a medical type, dressed mainly in white, a tall, rangy blonde with eyes the color of almonds. She was busy sewing cuts and putting on butterfly bandages. She seemed to be nearly done.

The group looked up as I approached. "Mr. Caine?" I inquired.

Caine looked at me and gave a short laugh. "Stage name," he said. "Call be Bill. William Bomar." He glanced at the medical tending his cuts. "I'd rise to shake hands, but, well, you know." He flashed a smile.

"You're from Luna?" I asked. It had been obvious from the way he moved when he fought. Some of it had been like looking at myself in the mirror.

"Yeah," he admitted. "Eight years ago. What's this about?"

I showed him my police ID. One good thing about Lunars is that they respect the police. One of his girls took the card and showed it to him. Then she handed it back. He nodded.

"So, Mr. Honlin, what's up?" he asked again, wincing slightly as the med cut a suture line. She was finishing the last cut to his scalp.

"It's nothing special," I told him. "I'm trying to get some information about a guy who might have spent some time in Carnival here. He was good with a knife, so I thought he might have tried out the fights." I showed him Costello's picture. He stared at it for several seconds.

"Morgue shot," he observed. I nodded.

"He killed a girl and got killed in the process," I told him. "I'm seeing if he has any backtracks."

Bomar scowled. "Killing girls is not a nice thing to do," he said quietly. A couple of his girls nodded at this wisdom.

"No," I said. "It's not very nice at all."

He stared at the picture for a while longer. "He does look familiar," he said at length. "I think it's him I'm remembering, too, not just a type. Give me a few seconds on it."

The woman stitching his cuts had finished. She stood up and stooped down to get to a bag, reached in and removed a tube of ointment. She looked at the other three women, and said, "This salve should go onto the cuts when you change the dressings. I'm sure you can find some help in that. It's to prevent scarring." She said it with about as much emotion as someone giving street directions.

"Yeah, sure, Doctor Warren," Bomar told her. "Thanks again." He watched as she left.

"She's lots better than the old guy," he said appreciatively. "Prettier, too."

"What are we, squid pus?" said one of the three woman and the other two nodded.

"Shut up, Judy," Bomar said. "Without the Doctor, I'm a mass of scar tissue, and none of you would have anything to do with me."

"Oh, I don't know," said another. "I think that scars are sexy." She lightly touched one of his bandages.

"Bullshit, honey," he said pleasantly. "The only things you think are sexy are blood and money."

"I'm kind of fond of penises," said the third one, and that one got a laugh from the others.

Bomar looked at me. "I've heard of you, haven't I?" he said.

"I don't know," I said. "Have you?"

"Yeah," he said. "You train with McElroy, right?"

Close enough, I thought. I nodded.

"And you're another ex-cop," he said.

"Another?" I asked, not that I was surprised.

"I was on the force in Clavius for a few years before I immigrated," he said.

"So why'd you leave?" I asked.

He shrugged. The movement looked painful, given his current state, but he didn't seem to mind. "I didn't like it much," he said. "No special reason." He was lying, just like we all do. But I wasn't interested in prying.

"About Costello," I said, indicating the photo again.

"Yeah," he said. "I was hoping more would come to me." He paused. "As best I can recall, this guy came through a few months ago, trying to get into the game. Said he was good with a knife. That's okay, but we don't do knife fights; they're too dangerous. Sometimes they get staged way out on the rim, so they can be taped for folks who like to watch the really hard-core stuff, but the folks here won't touch it. Slash fights are about the limit, and personally, I expect those to get shut down before too long."

"Why is that?" I asked.

He looked at me. "Were you here tonight?" I nodded. "Well, there you are," he said. "Things like tonight are pretty common. Near riots. Some night there's going to be a real thing and somebody's going to get killed or seriously hurt, and there it goes. No one wants to give the pricks in the City an excuse to shut us down. We blow in the breeze, you know?"

He paused. "Anyway," he continued, "This guy Costello, he may have been good with a knife, but he didn't cross over too well. That's my guess, anyway. I couldn't have seen him more than twice, then he was gone, so that's what must have happened.

I nodded. This was a lot more information than I'd ever expected to get. "Who would have made the decisions on Costello?" I asked.

"One of the personal managers, I'd say," he replied. "Mine is Bobby, over there by the bar. You might ask him."

"Thanks," I told him. "I'll do that."

I pulled out a few other pictures, and fanned them. "Do you recognize any of these women?" One of the photos was of Lucy Dahl.

While Bomar looked at the pictures, one of his girls spoke. "I'm pretty sure I've seen that one," she said. She pointed at Lucy's photo.

My throat tightened. "Where?" I asked.

She scowled. "Not around here," she said dubiously.

"Not in Carnival?" I asked.

She shook her head. "Oh, I didn't mean that. I mean, I hardly ever leave the place, so it would have to be in the cluster somewhere. But more out on the edges. Like in the sideshow areas. Probably just walking down the street. But I'm pretty sure I've seen her."

I pulled out a couple of cards with my name and number on them and passed them out. "If either of you remember anything more, please call me, okay?" I said. "I'll make it worth your while." The girls perked up at this.

"Sure, Ed," said Bomar. "Maybe you can come by sometime and we can spar a little."

"I'd like that," I told him. Then I gave everyone my best smile and left.


On the way out, I checked with Bobby, last name, Fulton, William Bomar's manager, to see if he knew anything more about Costello, but Bobby had a convenient memory. That was all right. I'd pushed my luck far past the point of reasonable that night.

I'd come down there to see Caine because the way he moved in the ring gave me the wild thought that he was Harmon Reed, the Lunar Guard operative who was also trying to track Lucy Dahl. But without his mask, I could see that the resemblance was just body type and the fact that he moved like a Lunar transplant. That Bomar had a memory of Costello was just a stroke of good fortune; his girlfriend's recognition of Lucy Dahl's picture was like filling an inside straight.

I had no simile for the coincidence involved with the doctor, though. I'd come down hoping to find Harmon Reed, but the doctor who sewed up Bomar's wounds was Juliet Carlyle.

Which also meant that Reed and Carlyle now knew I was investigating Carnival.

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Friday, June 6, 2008

Chapter eighteen: or whether they were feeding on the blood that leaked through

Previous Chapter

"But it was over so fast!" complained Joan while we waited for the crowd to settle and for the next fight to begin.

"So how long does it take you to come?" Cheryl asked with a little bit of a curl to her lip. Joan gave another giggle at Cheryl's sophisticated bon mot, while John continued to rub her body in the places that weren't covered with barbed jewelry.

Cheryl turned back toward me, and I asked, "Is this one of your standard Darkunder outings?"

"You mean, go to the fights then find some place where we can screw?" she asked. She showed her teeth; I'd call it a smile.

"You can't, you know," I told her, watching her face. There was a brief expression of confusion that flickered across it.

"Can't what?" she asked me.

"Shock me. You can't shock me. You're working a nice contrast here from the time Calvin and I had dinner with you. There you were cool and witty in a post-debutante sort of way, and here you're doing a good female slime-wrestling impression. I appreciate it, really I do. But it's not going to shock me, no matter what, so if it's an effort, or if you're doing it for my benefit, don't bother."

An angry look flashed across her face, but it died almost immediately and she laughed. Her whole body moved with her laughter, and then she squirmed closer to me in her seat and took hold of my arm. "I'm really glad we ran into you," she said. Then the public address system squawked and began to announce the next fight.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the main event of the evening, a blood match between two major stars of slash fighting."

The crowd cheered its approval, with special notice given to the mention of "blood." Two men appeared on the fight platform, rising from their respective trapdoors slowly, milking every bit of applause from the spectators. Ah, show biz.

"The challenger tonight is a newcomer from the far north, where they gut bloons before breakfast, and slice open squids for lunch! He was weaned on razor blades and learned to walk on broken glass! This man sleeps on a bed of nails. This man cuts no deals; this man deals in cuts! I give you, in white, Jaxon Manic!"

Both men were dressed in tight body suits that looked quite a lot like what Cheryl and her companions wore, sans the barbed wire, and the clothing extended up into hooded masks that looked like a cross between movie ninja and biocontainment gear. Both men were well built, and the sheen of their clothing highlighted their muscle definition. Certainly the material was too thin to leave anything to the imagination. Any thinner and you'd be able to make out the label on their loin cups.

"In the other corner, in black, is Caine, the current champion of The Arena Slash Ring!"

The rest of it was drowned out by the crowd. I caught something about "undefeated by rivers of blood" but I may have heard it wrong.

Both men were carrying a weapon, the crux of the forthcoming combat. It looked like a slightly shortened billy club, with three long, thin, knife edges set into it, each one quarter of the way around. The remaining flat edge I guessed as being for blocking and parrying. The club looked to be a soft plastic, slightly flexible, but tough.

The blades were narrow, no more than half a centimeter in depth, and there was no point to the weapon, just a blunt tip at each end. The blades ended far enough from each tip to make each end a handle. So "slash fighting" seemed to be basically short stick fighting, but with the added ability to make shallow cuts. Jabs wouldn't penetrate, but a straight strike could open a welt, and grabbing your opponent's weapon was out of the question.

The bell rang and the two fighters began to circle one another. Caine shifted his slasher back and forth from hand to hand. Manic kept his in his left hand, and kept rotating his wrist as he moved. Neither man seemed anxious to begin.

Suddenly, Caine darted forward and whipped his slasher toward Manic's left hand, apparently aiming for the wrist. Manic's elbow came up and the two weapons met, with Caine's being parried to the outside. There was a brief clack, and Caine withdrew.

This repeated itself several times, usually with Caine on the offensive. On the third or fourth time, however, rather than withdraw, Caine used his left hand for the slash attack, and as the two weapons met, he swung his right hand toward Manic's face.

Manic flinched, and as Caine withdrew, he flipped his slasher across the back of Manic's hand. The fabric parted slightly and a slight line of pink and red appeared.

"First cut!" cried out somebody to my left; I don't think it was any of my companions. The crowd seemed ready to surge to its feet, but then subsided back into the seats.

"Is that legal?" I whispered to Cheryl. "Using something other than the weapon, I mean. Can they kick or punch each other?"

"Anything they can get away with," she told me. "But they only score with blood."

As if to prove her correct, Manic tried to kick Caine in the knee, a crippler that would have left his opponent considerably less nimble. But he received nothing but a gash on his calf for his troubles.

The two then began a series of thrust and parries, with Manic on the defensive. He took a weak jab to his chest at one point, but he managed to cut Caine's biceps in the process.

It went on like that for a while; neither man was doing serious damage to the other, but the small cuts began to multiply. The idea seemed to be to use kicks and punches to set up an opponent for point gathering cuts, or, alternatively, to use the threat of a cut to try for some blow that would significantly weaken one's opponent. There were no rests allowed, so eventually one or the other would begin to make mistakes as his stamina ran out.

Or when his patience ran out. After about twenty minutes of back and fourth, Manic suddenly gave a piercing scream and ran full tilt at Caine. I could see some sense to it, especially if an opponent were good at the bloodletting, but not so hot at the rest of the fight. In that case such a tactic would give up some points on the attack, with the hope of a grapple that could do some real damage to the opponent. Unfortunately for Manic, Caine was as good at the rest of it as he was with the slasher. He sidestepped Manic's attack and slammed him in the sternum with the tip of his club when Manic got near enough. Then Manic was past him, and Caine made two quick, long cuts to Manic's lower back as he, Caine, backed off.

Then Caine made a mistake, probably thinking that Manic wouldn't try the same tactic immediately, he let himself relax slightly. But Manic came around without a pause and, screaming another bloodthirsty cry, came at Caine again. Caine slipped slightly; I couldn't see, but there might have been some blood on the floor by that time, since each fighter had at least one slow dripping wound. Manic took advantage of Caine's off balance posture and swung his stick high, with his whole weight behind it. Caine partly blocked the blow, but enough of it got through to glance off his head. The blades gleamed red in the light of The Arena, and suddenly Caine was bleeding from a scalp cut, just over his right ear.

Scalp cuts are real bleeders. The fabric that covered that part of Caine's head quickly soaked, and as the first rivulet of blood slid behind his ear to trickle down his neck, the crowd roared approval and leapt to its feet. One section began to chant "Manic! Manic!" and Caine glared at them.

Then, with his own weapon, Caine reached around and cut himself over his left ear, in a place symmetric to the cut that Manic had just inflicted.

For the barest instant there was a beat of silence; fighters cutting themselves was not a common thing, I guess, nor was it common for someone to so obviously sneer at the audience. Then there came a huge roar as Caine launched himself at Manic.

It looked like a berserker attack, no skill, no forethought, just overwhelming force. But it wasn't. To my eye it was a pure mastery of movement; force meeting little opposition because of the angles in which it was directed. Caine went in through Manic's defenses like smoke through a grating, and his left elbow came forward with a savage strike to Manic's lower rib cage. Manic's sudden exhalation of breath was lost in the thunder of the crowd, and I could see Manic's knees wobble. Caine's stick came down on the inside of Manic's elbow, then again, same spot, and Manic's stick slipped through his grasp.

Manic tried to protect himself from the sudden onslaught of blows that Caine rained down upon him. He fell to his knees trying to reach for his slasher, to maybe regain at least some possibility of rejoining the battle. But Caine was concentrating his strikes to Manic's head, and the blood was flowing freely, covering Manic's head with it, sluicing down into his eyes. Manic was nearly blind at this point, his white mask now bright red, and he was holding his hands to his eyes, both to try to clear them, and also to protect them from Caine's blows.

The overhead lights were flashing, a signal to end the match, I think, but the crowd had gone berserk, much more so than Caine. I could see spatters of blood whip off of Caine's weapon and splash upon the wire mesh of the screen that shielded the platform. Some of the spectators had left their seats and were trying to climb the wire mesh, but it was too fine for handholds. Others were pounding at it, and yelling. Some were pressing their lips against it. I couldn't tell whether trying to yell more directly into the ring or whether they were feeding on the blood that leaked through.

The trapdoors opened up and people spilled out of them, swarming over Caine and Manic, holding Caine's arms, pulling the slasher from his grasp. The new people in the ring were heavily padded and wore night vision goggles, or so I surmised, because then the lights went out.

They were only out for a few seconds, but when they came back on again, the stage area was empty. The crowd was still stone crazy, though. Several fights seemed to have broken out. One erupted only a few feet away from me, I think that it involved the guy that had tried to block our seats when we came in. I couldn't tell who was at fault, but I was annoyed, so I stepped over and rabbit punched one of the participants, and he dropped to his knees. The other guy looked disappointed and looked at me as if trying to decide whether to take me on as a consolation prize. I smiled at him and stepped away. He decided not to pursue it.

I took Cheryl's arm and leaned close to her ear. "Let's get out of here," I told her.

She fastened herself to my arm without even a backwards glance toward John and Joan. That was just as well. They seemed about ready to rip off each other's clothing and go at it on the spot. At any rate, they were temporarily oblivious.

It was surprisingly easy to get out, once we made it back out of the seating area, but we had to climb over some seats to do that. Once that was accomplished the combination of my size plus Cheryl's spiky clothing opened a pathway to the door. Thus we made our escape.

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