by Lance J. Mushung
I’d wondered what case Reggie Hamamoto had for me for the two hours since he connected with me, but wouldn’t have to wonder much longer. A mirrored elevator was whisking me to the upper floor of his palatial home styled on old-Earth Japanese castles.
Hamamoto had insisted on meeting at his estate far outside the city, which had allowed me only 12 minutes before I needed to leave the office of Frontier Investigations, my detective agency. I’d asked Thelma, my research and hacking right-hand woman, for ideas on how to help convince a rich corporate titan to become a client. Following a brief study of social media, she’d said Hamamoto dressed at home in traditional Japanese clothing and recommended I approximate the look. The genderless style of skirts and tops worn by many would do, but I had little of that fashion in my closet, not to mention no time to go home. We’d therefore rushed to the nearest store a block away where she’d selected a navy blue maxi-skirt, blue-gray loose-fitting shirt, and black flip-flops for me. She’d said the outfit went well with my pale olive skin and brown hair.
The elevator door slid open. A gorgeous Geisha, although I had doubts about her vivid Kelly green hair, bowed. I dipped my chin.
She straightened and smiled. “Welcome, Mr. Marlowe. I am Kiyomi Sato. Please follow me.”
Her steps lightly thumped a rapid cadence on the opulent Earth-oak floor as she led me across the large room paneled with Ruby pine. My flip-flops produced their characteristic sound.
She stopped at a plush mauve floor cushion placed next to a panoramic window. “Mr. Hamamoto will be with you presently.” She then disappeared through a screen on a side wall.
The window showed marvelous scenery so different from the scrubby khaki desert covering much of Ruby. Hamamoto had placed his mansion in the middle of a forest of Ruby pines with needles that from my vantage point above looked like an uneven pale-green carpet. The view emphasized the three crystal rules of real estate; location, location, and location.
Hamamoto glided into the room dressed as a samurai. His face didn’t seem as sinister as vids implied, although his severe expression did give the impression he’d crack something if he smiled. I bowed my head.
He motioned to the cushion and I plopped onto it. He began a slow pacing in front of the window, his footsteps making no sound. “Mr. Marlowe, thank you for coming. I like to meet people in person. You have an enviable record as a private investigator.”
“It’s kind of you to say so.”
“It’s a fact. By the way, I’m fascinated by your name. Phillip Marlowe is a famous detective in 20th fiction.”
“I chose my professional name because of that fiction. I’m impressed you know about it.”
“I know many things. Now, to business, someone is trying to ash me.”
“The bomb in my office in Dusty Plains yesterday convinced me. One of my assistants got blown to bits. It’s lucky I was holo-presencing that day.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t see anything in the news.”
“You’re holo-presencing now too, aren’t you? It’s that or you have the lightest footsteps on the planet.”
“You’re very observant. I really do like to meet people in person, but I’ve become rather cautious. I brought you out here to maintain the illusion I’m here while I move around.”
“Logical. What do the police say?”
A scornful expression flashed over his face. “Except for telling me it was a bomb, they don’t have a clue. They’re really best at applying nerve tinglers to the genitals of lowlifes.”
My brief laugh sounded more like a grunt. “True enough. Do you have any particular enemies who want to see you ashed?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Hmm, really?”
The ghost of a smile marred his face. “Actually, there are many, although I don’t know how many would actively try. I’ll pay you triple your normal rate to concentrate on this matter, and a sizable bonus upon quick success.”
I maintained a straight face with difficulty. If he thought the bonus sizable, I’d think it astronomical. “I’d need details and access to your office building.”
“My aide will take care of it on your way out.”
His holo-presence disappeared and Kiyomi walked in seconds later carrying a small thin pink box, her comp slate. I touched it to allow her to upload files onto my office’s comp.
As I stepped into the elevator, it occurred to me Hamamoto hadn’t actually asked if I would take the job. Then again, he wouldn’t be one of the richest persons on Ruby and several other planets if he let people say no.
My car had already moved back onto the maglev driveway and stowed its wheels. I slid into the white teardrop and told the auto-driver to take me home to Dusty Plains.
Thelma would be dying to know what Hamamoto wanted. A thought to my implant opened a mesh connection with her.
She asked, “Do we have a client?” the second her dark face and platinum hair appeared in my mind.
“We’re getting triple normal rates and a big bonus to find who’s trying to ash him. It may be a big list. He’s known to be pretty ruthless.”
“Triple and a bonus. Stellar.” Her expression said she’d already started planning how to spend the money.
“There’s a new file on the office comp. Let’s get to it.”
The bomb had obliterated Hamamoto’s office. The cops had performed a decent investigation, for a change, including penetrating radar and ultrasound probes. They’d found no unauthorized people, cam tampering, unexpected DNA, hidden tunnels, or secret spaces. A bit of debris had indicated the bomb was homemade, making it essentially untraceable.
I connected to Thelma again when the jagged skyline of Dusty Plains became visible through the windscreen. “Got any ideas?”
A mischievous expression played over her face. “It could have been done using something like a Star Trek transporter.”
The several Star Trek series from the 20th were her current fixation. I’d only seen a couple of episodes. “What’s that again?”
“What an interesting theory. I’ll add it to the list. For now though, let’s stick with more likely methods.”
“You’re thinking the bomb was planted by an insider. I’ll start checking into everyone much more thoroughly than the police did.”
“And I’ll go look around the office building.”
I poked around the building into the evening and tried to make people as uncomfortable as possible, but nobody acted guilty. I headed home late without having seen anything worth the time of a second look.
Kiyomi requesting a connection woke me up early in the morning. I accepted audio-only.
“There’s been another attempt on Mr. Hamamoto in his townhouse, but I’m relieved to say he’s unharmed. I’ve just sent a file with details to you. Sayonara.”
I sent Thelma a message about the file, jumped out of bed, and showered. After dressing in my typical fashion of slacks and knit shirt, I ate English muffins covered with multi-berry jam while studying the file. The vid from inside the townhouse was particularly interesting. A hit-bot had appeared in the middle of the living room at 03:53.276 as if conjured by a wizard’s magic. It dispatched two guards and a sentry-bot with bolts from its energy pulse guns. However, it only disabled a second sentry-bot, which then crashed into it and exploded, taking out both bots. Playing the vid several times in slow motion and magnified showed a small dark spot appearing and growing in a split second before the hit-bot popped out from it.
Thelma had preceded me to the office. She looked up from the projected comp screen when I said, “Good morning.”
She nodded. “I suppose the hit-bot could have come through an Einstein-Rosen bridge, except bridges are used for interstellar travel and require massive amounts of power which produces a light show as the bridge forms.”
“I’m wondering about a cam spoofer to disguise what really happened.”
“Found anything about his employees?”
“No. I am onto something though, I think. I’ve been looking at the vehicles that were near the office building and townhouse at the times of the attacks hoping to find one at both places, and there’s something very interesting. A ten-wheeler truck stopped near the office on the side of the maglev highway at the time of the bomb blast. Its ID was bogus. It made no more stops and I lost it in Mission Hills when it went off maglev. It came out of Mission Hills earlier too. There was also a ten-wheeler stopped by the maglev not far from the townhouse at 03:49. It moved off at 03:55. It had a bogus ID and also left from and returned to Mission Hills. The trucks both pulled the same amount of power from the maglev, meaning they could be the same vehicle. I can’t believe it’s all a coincidence.”
“It’s not. Identify every building in Mission Hills suitable for concealing a ten-wheeler.”
“I wish the Dusty Plains gov had never noticed Mission Hills attracting sleazy pursuits and ending surveillance there to localize such activities in the area.”
I nodded. “That will stand against us, but I can do some old-fashioned gumshoeing and check out places in person.”
“I’ll need time to compile a list. As you know, industry left after the area became vice central. There are a number of large buildings. What are you going to be doing?”
“I’ll head over to Mission Hills to talk to a couple of people who keep their ears to the ground. At least one won’t accept a connection with me. I’ll need help from Lily too.”
I checked my balance of Mcoins, the untraceable currency of the off-the-grid economy transferred from slate to slate. I had plenty. I then requested a connection to Lily Bissette, a petite woman I’d employed from time to time. Her ancestors had been genetically modified to settle the heavy-gravity planet Kraken. The settlements had failed, but she’d inherited great strength.
Lily’s delicate features and blue-black hair cut in a pixie style came into my mind and I said, “You interested in an easy job?”
“I want to talk to Maurice Monceaux in person, but we have a little history and I expect the quick little weasel will run when he sees me. I want you to grab him when he does. The pay is 5,000 Mcoin.”
“Name the place and time.”
“Maurice is a creature of habit. He’ll be looking in on the Bounce Inn in a couple of hours. Meet me there in an hour.”
I positioned Lily down the street and hid in an alley near the Inn’s front door. I stepped out as Maurice walked by me and he ran down the street straight into Lily. She pinned his arms to his sides and forced him to his knees. A tyranno-slither couldn’t have held him any tighter. I grinned while strolling over to them. The look on his face about being manhandled by a pixie made every Mcoin I’d paid Lily worth it.
I shook my head. “Maurice, you don’t have to bolt every time I come around. I might have just been sampling the local cuisine and wanted to say hi.”
Sarcasm dripped from his reply. “Just tell me what you want.”
“I want info about a ten-wheeler moving around Mission Hills late at night. There’s 3,000 Mcoin in it for any valid tips.”
I tapped his forehead. “That’s it.”
Lily and Maurice went their separate ways and I headed to Li Xiang’s home, the base for her lucrative escort service. I found her at home. She had a pretty face, beautiful long black hair, and a pleasing athletic body which she didn’t mind showing. I’d disturbed her bath and she dried herself as I explained my deal. On the way out, I said, “Thanks for letting me see you.” Her laughter about my weak double entendre followed me out the door.
A short man wearing a slink suit blocked my way outside of Li’s place. He didn’t want to be recognized or leave any DNA behind, not a good sign. A peek over my shoulder showed a man about my size behind me, also wearing a slink suit. My heart began trying to pound its way out of my chest.
The short one said, “Our employer wants to speak with you about Hamamoto.”
“What if I don’t have anything to say?”
“You don’t have a choice, dick.”
The use of the ancient term for investigator always irritated me, so I put some attitude into my reply. “I think I do.”
I leapt toward him and a right jab feint kept his eyes on my hands. I followed up with a kick to his sack. He doubled over whimpering.
The man behind me moved in and touched my left shoulder with a tingler. I yelped and spun around with the nerves in my shoulder screaming into my brain. My wild roundhouse right missed his jaw, but a kick to his left leg connected with the sickening sound of bone cracking. He screamed and collapsed clutching his knee.
The small man struggled upright. I shoved his chest as hard as I could with my good arm and he almost flew backward off the sidewalk. One leg of his slink suit caught on the rough concrete curb and ripped with the sound of torn wrapping paper, showing a slither-skin cowboy boot with a yellow toe. I ran.
I needed help to identify the men who’d tried to nab me and requested a connection with Nayan Chandra after I walked into my office. We’d helped each other in the past and, as one of the crime lords of the city, he knew every local fixer and gunsel.
Nayan accepted my connection audio-only, but I had little doubt he wore a toothy grin. I’d never seen him without the grin and I suspected he’d wear it even while shoving a shiv into a person’s liver.
I said, “I could use your help.”
“On the Hamamoto case?”
“Word gets around fast. Perhaps I should just send you my case files in the future. You wouldn’t happen to know who’s trying to ash Hamamoto, would you?”
“Not a clue. Is there anything else?”
“A couple of sack brains tried to nab me earlier. I’m hoping you can help me identify one of them. They had slink suits, but one is short and when he tore his suit I saw fancy yellow-toed slither-skin cowboy boots.”
“The height and boots make it sound like Dardan Hoxha. This is him.”
The image of an short arrogant-looking man with flame-red hair came into my mind. “One of your fixers?”
“Yes, but if he hassled you, it’s as a freelancer. Do you want me to ask him about it?”
“No, I need to speak with him. Can you send him to the deserted store at 9647 Countryside Road in two hours?”
“You won’t hurt him much, will you?”
“He won’t be permanently harmed. I would like you to bag him for a few days if he is the right guy.”
He said, “Will do,” and disconnected.
I opened my gun safe and pulled out a weapon I didn’t carry often, a blue-black pocket-sized energy pulse pistol. I shoved it into my right pants pocket. I was glad Thelma had gone out to lunch. She’d worry about me needing an EPP.
I packed my gear, including a stunner, in a satchel and arrived at the red brick store well before Dardan. The interior contained nothing but garbage, dirt, and collapsed shelving. I settled in behind a pile of the shelving and waited.
Dardan walked in, more like swaggered in, on-time. He was wearing the distinctive boots.
I stunned him, cuffed his wrists to a filthy wooden pallet, and switched on a mesh jammer to stop him from connecting with anyone when he came to. His eyes fluttered open in about 15 minutes and showed fear after he pulled on the cuffs.
I said, “Well tough guy, it’s a cliché, but we can do this the easy or hard way.”
“Stroke off, dick. I work for Chandra and he’ll scorch you for this.”
“The only one getting scorched will be you. Nayan and I go back a long way. He sent you here, right? And I was here waiting for you, right?” I shook my head and sighed. “Don’t be as dense as a neutron star.”
Dardan’s tanned face turned several shades paler.
I flourished a hypo-injector. “I want to know all about who hired you. If you don’t want to talk, I’ve got some RLX 44 here. As you know, you’ll do some talking after it takes effect, and then some suffering from its nasty aftereffects. And I think I’ll take a page from police operating procedures and explore your privates with a tingler while we wait for the drug to work.”
Any bit of steel in Dardan melted away. “Alright. Alright. A woman paid me 15,000 Mcoin to deliver you to her. After nabbing you, I’d be told where to take you.”
“We met at the Starburst Diner at 06:45 this morning. I’m certain she used face and ID altering nano-meds. Her face seemed around 30, but her hands said she’s much older.”
“Did she give any details on why she hired you?”
“No. She just said she wanted to talk to you about Hamamoto.”
“Did she connect with you again?”
“Yes. I told her we’d missed you, and she told me to forget about the job for the time being. She let me keep the half of the fee she’d already paid.”
“Who was with you when you tried to nab me?”
“Is there anything else?”
He shook his head.
“I guess we’re done. Enjoy your sleep and the hours of dry heaving your guts out after you wake up.”
He began yanking on his cuffs again with considerable energy while I injected enough RLX 44 to knock him out for the rest of the day.
I switched off the jammer and received a recorded message from Li. “I’ve been checking with my associates now that they’re waking up. One, Gan Dhuleep, works the 1900 block of Jacobian Drive very late. He’s seen a truck a few times over the last week. That’s very unusual because it’s a minor back street and the late traffic there is always the vehicles and scooters of people trolling for an escort. They’re the types who don’t use holo-reality and don’t want to make arrangements through the mesh.”
I opened two connections in rapid succession. I told Li she’d have her Mcoins in a day or two and asked Nayan to send someone to bag Dardan.
After connecting to Thelma, I said, “Narrow the list of the places suitable for hiding a ten-wheeler to ones near Jacobian Drive.”
I shook my head.
Thelma placed a list of nine locations on my slate within a minute. I needed little time to prove the first seven locations were clear, which was fortunate because dusk wasn’t far off. Clouds had filled the sky all day and I might as well be on the dark side of one of the moons when the sun set. I’d neglected to bring night vision.
The eighth place, a dingy abandoned tan-brick warehouse, piqued my interest. A large loading door on one side near the front showed marks indicating it had been opened and closed recently. Further back from the loading door, I discovered a small door next to a rusty dumpster and a stack of packing crates. My slate triggered the simple lock and I opened the door a crack to allow one of my spy-bots to scurry into the building. It showed a ten-wheeler parked inside.
The loading door screeched open and a woman wearing a long white lab coat walked out. She yelled, “What are you doing over there?”
“Just looking at properties to lease.”
“Hey, you’re Marlowe working for Hamamoto.”
“What makes you think so?”
“I’ve been monitoring Hamamota’s comm.”
She reached into a coat pocket and pulled out an EPP. I drew mine as I ducked behind the packing crates. Her weapon produced a deep electrical hum and a black burnt spot appeared on the dumpster next to me.
I gritted my teeth, popped past the edge of the crates, and fired. I missed. She returned three quick shots while ducking back through the loading door. The packing crates I’d used as cover crackled and charred, but didn’t burn. The treated wood had done its job.
I shouted, “Nobody has to get ashed.”
“You do, now. And Reggie will be. That back-stabbing slither left me to rot in an Ordony prison.”
I crept to the small door. “I bet you think those two dolts led me to you. They didn’t. It was your truck. You didn’t cover your tracks well enough.”
“It won’t matter because I’m burning a hole through your brain.”
I yanked open the door and dove into the warehouse. She was crouching with her side to me with the intention of ambushing me when I approached the loading door. She began to turn toward me, but I had the time to aim with care. I fired and she crumpled backward to the floor. I moved cautiously to her and prodded her with my foot. My shot to her side had ashed her. I muttered, “Damn it.”
Her wrinkled face, short wild gray hair, and lab coat made her look like the stereotype of a mad scientist. I pushed a DNA probe into her mouth and my slate identified her as Asilah Haddad. She’d earned several graduate-level science degrees, but no records about her existed following that schooling.
Nobody had been around to notice our brief gun battle, so the police weren’t on the way. And the odds were against Asilah having any close associates who would simply show up. I had time to poke around.
The only things I recognized inside the truck’s cargo box were a desktop hyper-comp and a power cell on a grav sled. Another smaller grav sled carried a two-meter diameter dull gray ring, five pale-green cabinets mounting switches and gauges, and a curvy sculpted box colored a pastel lavender. The five green cabinets were typical electronics boxes, but the lavender one didn’t look like a human design. After looking through its transparent rear panel, the collection of translucent rods colored cherry red, aquamarine, and daisy yellow left little doubt about its alien origin.
I connected to Thelma. “I found an Asilah Haddad at the eighth place on your list. She’s the perp. I had to ash her.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Oh no. Will it mean legal trouble?”
“No, there’s plenty of evidence she attacked me. She has a truck full of equipment.” I panned my slate to show it. “I need you to see what you can make of it. I’m telling the auto-driver to take the truck out into the desert to 29.762824 N and 95.383176 W. I’ll call the cops now and join you as soon as I can get clear of them.”
I spent hours with the police, but only cooled my heels most of the time. And they didn’t use a tingler on my privates. After they cut me loose, I stayed off the mesh and drove to Thelma. I said to her, “Learned anything interesting?” after stepping out of my car.
She smiled. “Good to see you, and I have. Asilah was a kidnapper as well as a killer. She lured an A.I. simulant named Lucy Pascal here from Earth and has held her hostage for some time.”
“We don’t get many class one androids out here. How in the galaxy did she manage to kidnap one? I didn’t think that was even possible.”
“She disabled Lucy with a focused electromagnetic pulse, downloaded her into the desktop comp which has no connectivity to the mesh, and destroyed Lucy’s body. Lucy had no choice but to help her in developing the device in the truck. Asilah named it the Smerb Generator. Smerb stands for short miniscule Einstein-Rosen bridge. The device can create a small short-range bridge using relatively little power.”
“It employs alien tech, right?”
“Why don’t cams show a bridge’s light show?”
“The device doesn’t throw off and waste much energy in forming a bridge.”
“How short-range is it?”
“A bit more than one klick for this one. You should talk to Lucy.”
I sat down in front of the desktop comp with Thelma watching from behind me.
Lucy said, “You’re Philip Marlowe.”
“I am. You know Asilah is ashed?”
“Yes, Thelma told me. It’s more extreme justice than I would have liked, but justice has indeed been served.”
“She mentioned Hamamoto putting her in an Ordony prison. What’s the deal?”
“She and Hamamoto were a couple just out of university. She truly loved him, at the time. He had an old ship she described as a piece of junk they used to survey the rim for rare minerals. What they found were fragments of a device floating in space that held an alien pico-processor. As you may remember, when it was adapted for human tech, it greatly improved the speed and efficiency of human circuitry. After discovering the processor, he put her in a survival pod and set her adrift near the Ordony world Drezondy. As you probably know, the Ordony Realm maintains limited contact with the Alliance and takes a very dim view of humans flying in their systems. She served 22.15 years in a labor camp on Drezondy, which she said should be named Stinking Crotch, before the Ordony released her on the pirate world Dodola.”
Thelma interjected, “I knew our client is a muck sack, but that’s incredible.”
I shrugged. “You and I both figure he’s done worse. All we can do is take his money. Please continue, Lucy.”
“That’s about it. When she found out how rich Hamamoto had become, she knew she could never obtain any legal justice and devoted the rest of her life to finding something to make him pay. She finally did.”
“Why’d she kidnap you?”
“She needed more sophisticated computing power than she could afford. She tricked me to come out here for what I thought was an interesting job.”
“What would you like to do next?”
“I only want to go back to my genteel life on Earth.”
I considered mentioning I’d heard Earth described as effete, but instead asked, “You don’t want to report to the police?”
“That would no longer serve any purpose.”
“A robot can carry you as a desktop comp back to Earth. I’ll donate the funds for the robot and passage. If you prefer, you can contact the A.I. Commonality back on Earth to see what they can do.”
“The Commonality will be slow because spare bodies like the one I had are not simply lying about. I want to accept your lovely offer, but need to know what you’ll want.”
“Nothing beyond your discretion about this whole affair.”
“I’ll never say anything about what has happened. I’ll simply tell everyone my body was destroyed in an accident.”
I turned to Thelma. “We have a plan for Lucy. What do you think we should do with the device?”
“Can you imagine what it could do for murder and kidnapping? And the possibilities for government misuse are beyond endless. Life would become more miserable for a lot of people before some sort of defense is found. I think we should destroy it.”
“You don’t think we’d be committing an offense against science?”
“We would, but sometimes science should be slowed down. Somebody will invent it again someday.”
I nodded. “Go back to the office to pick up thermite, a couple of shovels, and more water. We’ll melt this thing and then bury what’s left. Take Lucy with you.”
I moved the small grav sled onto the ground about 35 meters from the truck. Several pulses from my EPP didn’t damage the alien box in the least. Prying off the rear panel and firing into the box did though. The rods shattered and became little more than sparkling multi-colored shards.
I sat on a rock waiting for Thelma to return and one incongruous thought kept running through my brain. She wouldn’t be able to resist reminding me now and then how close to correct she’d been about the transporter.
Lance J. Mushung graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with an aerospace engineering degree. He worked for over 30 years with NASA contractors in Houston, Texas performing engineering work on the Space Shuttle and its payloads. Now retired, he writes science fiction.
Lance’s work has appeared in Tales of the Talisman, Perihelion Science Fiction, Theme of Absence, Every Day Fiction, Stupefying Stories Showcase, Larks Fiction Magazine, Interstellar Fiction, Ray Gun Revival, and the ebook Body-Smith 401 and twenty other stories: an anthology of speculative fiction.