June 28, 2787
The place was almost empty. There were two boozers splitting a bottle at the far end of the bar and a gray-haired woman with her head on a table, out cold with an empty glass in her hand. The windows were closed up tight. The aircon was blowing full.
Bensaid and I were standing face to face, the bar standing between us. Bensaid was the owner of this rat hole. He ripped off his patrons by cutting his brandy with water. He kept a bottle capper in the back room that he’d use to seal the bottles back up so you couldn’t tell.
“You better not be holding out on me,” I said as I pocketed the thin wad of bills, too thin.
“You don’t trust me? You know I wouldn’t short you.” Bensaid tried to look offended.
“Bullshit. Where is the rest of my money?”
“Son of a bitch!” He slammed his drink glass on the bar, splashing brandy up onto his bushy arm. “I’m sick of your bitchin’, comin’ in here every month ’cusin’ me of this shit. It’s all there. Count the fuckin’ money yourself you don’t believe me!”
The pair at the far end of the bar looked our way. Gray-hair didn’t flinch.
I should’ve smashed the glass into the side of his face. Forced him to count aloud as I laid out one bill at a time—prick thought he could cheat me! When I was younger, I wouldn’t have hesitated. I used to be KOP’s ass-stomper supreme, but that was a young man’s game. These days, I’d just make my collections and try to stay out of trouble. Besides, I wasn’t as quick as I used to be.
I patted his cheek, all cool. “Why didn’t you just tell me it was all there? That’s all I need to hear.”
Bensaid glared at me, pissed times ten. First I’d accused him of cheating, and now I was pulling this fake nicey-nice shit on him, saying, “Why didn’t you just tell me it was all there?” If I wasn’t a cop, he would’ve jumped me already or pulled out that shockstick he kept back there for bouncing rowdies out of his dive when they got carried away.
“See ya next month,” I said, grinning in his face . . . extra long . . . then I turned my back on him and walked out of the bar snail-slow. I dare you to jump me, you fuck.
The truth was I wanted to count the money as soon as he forked it over. My right hand shook, and all I needed was for a bastard like that to see and start thinking I was old and weak. I’d first noticed that I couldn’t hold it steady a few years ago. When I’d gotten it checked out, I learned it was a degenerative thing, caused by a twenty-five-year-old injury. Nowadays, I’d keep my right in my pocket most of the time. People around here would walk all over you if they saw you had a weak spot.
The heat hammered me when I hit the street. Lagarto’s sun had been up for a couple hours. The thin cloud cover didn’t do much to minimize the late morning sun scorch. I could feel the prickle of sweat breaking out on my forehead as I headed down the block. I should’ve started my rounds earlier. I was getting too old to be out in this shit. One of these days, I’d have to face facts and hang it up, turn in my shield, and take Niki out of the city. She’d been after me to quit. We had all the money we’d ever need, but I just couldn’t get the job out of my system. What else would I do?
I crossed the street, weaving between the puddles and piles of rotting garbage. Geckos scattered out of my way, running for cover under green weeds that had pushed up through the rippled pavement. Every few months, the city would come through on a slash-and-burn. They used to poison the encroaching jungle growth until people started to notice tumor-ridden fish belly-up in the Koba River. Citizens’ groups got worked up over their health and forced the city to change methods. Now, they blasted the streets with flamethrowers, crisping anything green, leaving only the smoldering stench of burned trash and vegetation in their wake.
I rounded the corner and strode into Li’s Parlor to hit up Li for my cut. The entryway was done up in Asian silks, reds and golds. The aircon was blowing in my face. I fanned my shirt to get some of the cool inside. One of Li’s women led me back to the lounge. On the left was a bar where the johns would knock back a couple before heading upstairs; on the right, velvet sofas were backed against the wall. They were used to display the merchandise.
Li’s Parlor was one of a thousand snatch houses on this planet. We were experts at drawing tourists down to Lagarto from the Orbital and the mines, feeding them some hot tail, and relieving them of their offworld dollars.
Li was counting pesos at the bar. Rouge and caked-on lipstick both feminized and anglicized his Asian features. His hair was in a net, too early for the wig.
“Juno!” He singsonged my name.
“It’s so nice to see you. Would you like to join me for some tea?”
“Not today, I’m running behind schedule.”
“Why are you always in such a rush?”
I shrugged a response.
“You must come back this evening. I have two new girls. One is just your type . . . tall and quiet with a real wild streak. You have to let me earn back some of the money I give you every month.”
“Sounds interesting, but I don’t think the wife would let me.”
“Oh, stop it!” He mock slapped me. “Mr. Tough Cop turns into a little kitten at night? I don’t believe that. My mother used to tell me stories about you.”
Li’s mother used to run the joint before she’d died.
“That was a long time ago,” I said.
“That wife of yours won’t mind if you get your main course at home and get your dessert at Li’s.” His eyelids fluttered. “Are you still worried she’ll be upset? I’ll tell you what, if she feels left out, you can bring her along. You can still handle two women at a time, can’t you, Juno?”
Smiling, I said, “I’ll have to ask her, Li.”
“You tell her first-timers are free.”
“How’s business?” That was my usual signal; it said I was done with the small talk.
“You know how it is.” He passed me an envelope. No need to count, Li always played it straight . . . so to speak. “I have to let Ramona go. You know how offworlders are. They keep wanting them younger and younger.”
I shook my head in that what-can-you-do way.
“I just can’t make sense of it, Juno. Those mines are booming, and I still have to let her go. I’m telling you, the market for mature women is dying. More than half my girls are in their teens now. You know how old Ramona is? She’s twenty-seven. She started here when she was nineteen. That’s only eight years, Juno. How’s a girl supposed to earn enough money to set herself up after only eight years? It used to be, a girl could have a fifteen- or even twenty-year run.”
I nodded my head in agreement.
“It’s not fair,” he said like a spoiled kid. “I don’t know how Ramona’s going to make it.”
Christ, here we go. Li wants me to lower his rate. “So slip her a bonus before you kick her out.”
“If I had the money, I would, but I’m just barely making it as it is.” Li leaned in close. “Ben Bandur is squeezing me dry, Juno.” Benazir Bandur was Koba’s kingpin, the top dog in this town. The Bandur cartel took a piece of all the rackets . . . just like us cops.
I grinned at him. “So it sounds like you need to talk to Bandur, get him to cut you some slack.”
He knew I was screwing with him. The Bandur outfit had never been known to show mercy. He put his hands on his hips. “Be serious.”
“Just raise your prices,” I said.
Li poo-pooed. “I’ve already tried that, but I started losing customers. You don’t understand how fierce the competition is. Heck, you know what they always say about this planet?”
“‘Come to Lagarto, where you’ll be welcomed with open legs.’”
I smiled as if it were the first time I’d ever heard it.
Li said, “It’s so true, Juno. You’ve seen it. You know how bad things have gotten. Shoot, these days, an offworlder can go into just about any bar and get a roll with the owner’s daughter or some skank runaway for a cut rate. Sure, the service isn’t anywhere near as good, but you know how offworlders are. They’ve spent five or ten years flying in from some star or another. They’re already popping erections when they get off the shuttles.”
“C’mon, Li. It’s not that bad.”
“Oh, yes it is! After five years, they’d bang a beehive.”
“But you said yourself that the mines are booming. Those guys come down from the asteroid belts every year. Every year. And there’s more of them all the time. You can’t expect me to believe you can’t make your payments. We both know you’ve got plenty saved up. You could set Ramona up for life if you wanted to.”
“It’s not like that, Juno. Do you see this place? It’s falling apart.” Li lifted one of the silks, showing the molded-over wall that stood behind it. As he poked at the soggy parts, crumbling clumps of plaster fell to the floor. “I’m telling you, I’m flat broke. You’ve always been fair to me and my mother. Just tell me you can help my girls. It’s them I’m worried about. You can make an exception for Li’s girls, can’t you? I won’t ask for much.” He batted his lashes.
“When are you letting Ramona go?”
“Let me talk to her.”
Li stepped out, coming back ten minutes later with Ramona on his elbow. “I just told her the news and helped her pack her things,” he said. He sat her down next to him, his arm around her shoulder. Ramona was looking scared and teary-eyed, and she had a sloppily packed carpetbag resting on her lap. She was rubbing the back of her arm where Li had probably pinched her to get those tears flowing.
“Do you have a place to stay?” I asked her.
“I have a sister,” she said.
“See what you’re making me do to her?” Li said. “This kind of thing is going to keep happening if I don’t get some financial relief.”
I pulled the money from the envelope Li had given me. “Go find your sister,” I said as I handed Ramona the cash. To Li, I said, “I’ll see you next month.”
I was back on the street. The heat hung heavy on my shoulders. Sweat dribbled down my back. I cut down an alley. Geckos ran rampant on jungle-crept walls. Some street kids spotted me and scrambled to hide their glue jars—huffers. I didn’t pay them any mind. They were too poor to afford the good stuff.
Next stop: Fusco’s. He ran a gambling den on the roof of his apartment building. I’d heard he put up some tarps so he could stay open rain or shine. Sounded like more profit to me. We’d have to hash out a new rate.
Phone rang. The display told me it was Paul Chang, chief of the Koba Office of Police. Officially, he had been running the show for more than ten years; unofficially, he had for over twice that long. Twenty-five years ago, we were partners.
“Yeah,” I said.
Paul’s smiling hologram appeared alongside and kept step with me. It didn’t move its legs. It just skimmed along like some freaky ghost. “I need you to work a case.”
“What kind of case?”
No good. There was no money in homicide. Sure, sometimes you could land a big payoff when somebody wanted you to lose some evidence, but emotions ran high on homicides. You could never tell what was going to happen. A lot of cops would look at the big payoffs and buck for spots in homicide, but they wouldn’t think about the risks. Murders were mostly poor-on-poor anyway, no money to be made from either side. The real money was in vice, where I’d been for almost my whole career. No major scores, but low risk and steady income.
“Send Josephs and Kim,” I said.
“They’re already at the crime scene. I don’t want them working this one. I need you.”
“Quit jerkin’ me, Juno. You taking the case or what?” The expression on Holo-Paul didn’t match Real-Paul’s clearly annoyed tone. Instead, it smiled personably. That was why I hated this holographic shit. They’d scan your looks into the system so they could construct an image that looked like you and beam it from the Orbital to anywhere on the planet. Sounded good until you found out that they didn’t adjust the image to your emotional state. They’d just give your holo this canned, perpetually pleasant attitude. Somewhere in Paul’s office was a happy-go-lucky me, smiling and acting all cheery instead of showing my actual sweaty and out-of-breath mug.
Paul wanted me to take a case. Reasons to say no ticked through my mind . . . I’m behind on my collections . . . I made lunch plans with Niki . . . I don’t enforce for you anymore. Instead, I asked, “Who’s the vic?”
“He’s an Army guy.”
“The alley outside the Lotus.”
I knew the place, a snatch house a few klicks from here. “Be there in twenty.”
“I’m partnering you up on this one.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. No way, Paul.”
“She’s new. She needs to learn the ropes.”
“Are you nuts? No way I’m taking on a green.”
“Listen, there’s nothing I can do. She has family pulling strings.”
I started to cave. “How green?” I asked.
“This is her first case.”
“No, first case.”
“First case! Holy shit, Paul. I don’t care who her family is. I’m out.” I accelerated my pace, but Holo-Paul stayed right on my hip.
“I know how it sounds, but she’s tough, and she has a good head on her shoulders. Without her family greasing things, she’d still make detective as fast as anybody. You have to do this one for me, Juno.”
“I work alone, Paul.”
“Listen, we can talk about this later. I’ll send her out to meet you at the Lotus. Her name’s Maggie Orzo. You check her out, scope out the crime scene, then come by my office, and we’ll talk it out.”
Copyright © 2007 by Warren Hammond. All rights reserved.