The first tale in a series, The Hard Streets of Aphrodite...
This city is a bitch.
A sleek and sexy, stone-hearted bitch who will seduce you with velvety eyes and silky skin, draw you into her scented bedchamber with siren-song whispers, then claw the still-beating heart from your chest and feast on it in an animal frenzy as you lie there dying.
And I mean that in a good way.
The old wound in my left shoulder aches dully, like those shattered dreams that never quite fit back together again even after you’ve picked up all the shards, and I take a long, slow drag on my cigarillo, relishing the sensation of the rich, full-bodied smoke as it settles deep into my lungs. Then I exhale just as slowly as I sit and stare out of the water-streaked, second-story office window that I can’t open and wouldn’t want to anyway, unless I cared to be swimming most days. The rain on this planet never stops and my part of Aphrodite doesn’t rate the high, arching pavilions that shield whole blocks on the better side of town. We get covered streetways here and that’s it.
Fine by me. Let the fancy folk try to make this broad into something more suited to their tastes. If they can. Me, I like a woman who’s always wet.
I know her dark, treacherous underbelly and love her for it. Not most people. When most people think of Aphrodite, that jeweled navel of Venus, all they can see is the glam and the glitz. Perfumed parks and well-appointed hotel suites. Patterned promenades, acceptably avant garde art, and elegant eating establishments. That’s all surface, baby.
But surface is what most people want to see. They see His Majesty Louis-Antonio with his pompous ass plastered on the Bourbon throne back on Earth. They see His Grace Diego Laurent, Duc de Nouveau Orléans y San Marie regally administering the Venusian Territory of this Franco-Spanish Empire from the palatial complex at the heart of the city. Much solemn ceremony and even more grand ostentation. Nothing but glam and glitz.
A tap of my finger sends a tiny snowfall of ash cascading from the tip of my cigarillo onto the office floor. My name is Nick Phillips and I don’t give two shits about surface, that prick Diego, or Fat King Louis.
I am, as the territorial authorities would say, an enquêteur personnel. Back in my native Philadelphia, they would have called me a private dick. I’m that, too. But my gig these days is pretty much the expected racket. A missing person here. An extortion play there. Every now and then, I hire out as a bit of extra protection for somebody who’s pissed somebody else off real bad. Or hunt down someone who’s run off with something or somebody that doesn’t belong to them. It all blurs together, like a bleary-eyed hangover after a bad date. Doesn’t matter too much in the end. I get paid and I get to put some greasy food in my belly and keep a leaky roof over my head. Fair enough.
How did a bright-eyed kid from Phillie end up as a jaded, burnt-out shell of a man playing private snoop on the hard streets of Aphrodite, you ask? None of your damn business, that’s how.
The gloom on the other side of the window slowly thickens, the oppressive grey giving way to an equally oppressive black. I’m just thinking about closing the office for the evening and heading downstairs for some grub when I hear a knock at the outer door. I swivel my chair and turn from the wet scene beyond the glass. My two-bit office has a back room and a small front vestibule with an escritoire where a secretary would sit if I could afford one. I just keep the inner door open and sit at my desk. Easier that way.
“Come in,” I call out and lean forward to put my cigarillo in the ashtray like a proper gentleman. Some folks care about that sort of thing and it’s been kind of a dry spell for me these past few weeks, so I figure it’s worth the effort.
After a momentary pause, the door opens and a little ferret of a man stands in the doorway looking confused. His black hair is greased down and parted exactly in the middle with a fastidious precision that stands out in marked contrast to the rest of him. Dark eyes like tiny dots of night examine the entranceway to my office, as though he wasn’t sure what he ought to have expected on the other side of an open door. A pencil-thin mustache sits on his upper lip like someone’s idea of a joke. He’s wearing a drab, mud-brown business suit that doesn’t quite fit him properly and poorly-polished dress shoes. I notice his feet shifting uncomfortably as he stands there.
“Come in,” I repeat, waving him forward. “And please shut the door.”
“Of course,” ferret-man says, his dark eyes still darting about nervously. He pulls the door closed behind him and steps through the vestibule into my main office. I gesture to the pair of plain wooden chairs in front of my desk and he looks at them, hesitating like he’s trying to decide whether or not to sit down.
“Sit,” I say, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice. “Please,” I add a beat later. No point in spooking a paycheck.
The man nods in quick, jerky movements that remind me of a marionette played by a bad puppeteer and finally sits in one of the chairs. My stomach growls in a low rumble and I’m already starting to wonder how long this visit will take. I’d like to eat sometime this year. After allowing another moment to pass, I clear my throat. “Yes?” I prompt.
The ferret still doesn’t say anything, shifts nervously in the chair, looks around some more. My patience is starting to wear thin, but my wallet is thinner. So I wait.
“My name is Grant,” he says after another minute. His voice raps and squeaks like old hinges. “Adam Grant. And I’d like to hire your services.”
Finally. “Which services would that be, Mr. Grant?” I ask casually. “My repertoire is somewhat varied.” His blank expression tells me he doesn’t get the jibe, so I continue. “Could you elaborate?”
His face twitches. “I’m a senior clerk at Simon & Simon.” I look at him, my own expression flat. “It is a very prestigious accounting firm,” he explains. “We have dealings with several of the major contractors involved with the Exhibition.”
I nod at that. Planning for the upcoming exhibition--or, to be precise, L’Exposition du Siècle--has been in the works for two years and now the exhibition itself would be opening in just a few months. Seems like people get all excited about a calendar flipping over back on Earth to a year with a bunch of zeros on the end. Everyone goes around yapping about how glorious the coming twentieth century is going to be. I figure the next year will be pretty much like the last one. Same old craps, shiny new year.
But the Exhibition was a dame in a different dress. Back on Earth, and on the other planets from what I’d heard, the different governments were holding separate celebrations to commemorate the event. But here on Venus, for whatever reason, the administrations of the various national concessions had all pitched in together with the territorial government of the Franco-Spanish Empire for one big shindig to be held here in Aphrodite over the span of some six months. That’s a whole lot of d’argent sloshing around.
“I see,” I reply, still keeping my tone casual.
“Some time ago,” he continues, twitching again, “I noticed...irregularities...in one of the sub-accounts of one of the firm’s clients. Material losses-in-transit which seemed high and went consistently unnoted in several reports.” Glances around nervously. “My suspicion is that monies have been diverted to enterprises other than those for which they were intended.”
“Yes,” his head jerks in a nod.
“And you naturally informed your superiors,” I observe mildly, keeping my expression bland. “As well as the appropriate authorities.”
Grant coughs. “Not exactly.”
“Ah.” I lean back in my chair and consider my prospective client in a new light. Not a ferret after all. A weasel. I let the silence sit. He shifts uncomfortably.
“I covered the irregularities, buried them.” He looks at me. “I’ve followed the trail as far as I could from my desk. I’d like to hire you to follow it the rest of the way.”
“Why?” I ask calmly, knowing perfectly well why. Grant doesn’t twitch this time. He squirms. Glances away.
“I’d like to...ah...approach the individuals involved for...ah...certain consideration,” he says finally. His tiny black eyes find me again. “I will pay you for your time and expenses.”
“Going for the blackmail angle, eh?” He flinches. “It’s okay to say the word.” I smile. It isn’t a nice smile. Weasel-man shrinks into himself. “If you’re going to play in that game, Mr. Grant, I’d suggest you put a bit more steel in your spine.” My teeth show a bit. “Or someone else may well put lead in your gut.”
His eyes widen. “Are you threatening me?”
“Not at all,” I shake my head. Slowly, just to make sure he can understand. “I’m merely pointing out the occupational hazards of your proposed course.”
More squirming. More silence. “What are your terms?” he asks, after another minute.
“What are you proposing?” I rejoin.
“I am prepared to pay you a pound sterling per day, plus legitimate expenses.”
Five dollars a day. Standard rate.
He coughs. “And ten percent of any consideration I receive.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. “Two pounds sterling,” I counter. Then I lean forward. “And thirty-five percent.”
“What?” He’s genuinely shocked. Poor bastard. “I’ll just have to find someone else, in that event.” He stands to leave.
“Mr. Grant.” He hesitates. I gesture to the chair, real polite-like. He sits down again. I steeple my fingers on my desk and look at him for a long moment. “Mr. Grant,” I repeat. “Let me tell you something. I know this business. You do not. I know the other people in this line of work. You do not. You go somewhere else and you’ll get fleeced for fifty percent, if you’re lucky.”
“And if I’m unlucky?”
I shrug. “If you’re too unlucky, you’ll be dead. It’s a rough game.”
“What if I go to the authorities?” he asks tentatively. “And mention our conversation here?”
Pansy-ass novice. “Aside from the fact that you’d be admitting your intention to commit a crime,” I point out the obvious flaw in his idea, “I have something of a relationship with Chief Inspector Durand and his men.” A bit of a stretch, that last bit. Durand might remember my name, given a few minutes. And my relationship with his men has generally consisted of their fists relating to my face, but weasel-man here doesn’t need to know that.
His gears turn. Slowly. After a few minutes, he sort of sags in the chair. “Okay then. Thirty-five percent.”
“And two pounds sterling per day,” I add.
He sighs. “Yes. Two pounds.”
“And two days’ pay front money.” When he starts to protest, I hold up my hand to forestall him. “Deducted, of course, from my daily fee.”
He gives another jerky nod at that, resigned. “Okay.”
I smile again, more friendly-like this time. “Very good. You’ve hired yourself a snoop, Mr. Grant. What information do you have to start me off?”
A brief pause. “The accounts involved belong to Bersheim Brothers, Limited. A warehousing firm, among other interests,” Grant replies. “But I suspect they are not participants in the embezzlement, merely a convenient shelter. The sub-account in question deals with another firm entirely, going by the name of Nescott General Suppliers.”
Interesting. “And what do you know of that operation?”
“Very little,” he admits. “I’ve managed to ascertain that it is a wholly-owned subsidiary of yet another firm, Maldive Holdings, Incorporated.” He shrugs. “But that is all.”
A shell game, in other words. I’ve had to thread my way through worse mazes. I nod. “Okay, Mr. Grant. I’ll begin working on the case first thing tomorrow. How shall I contact you when I have something to report? Can I call on you at your office?”
He looks absolutely terrified at the thought. “I have a box at the city Poste Générale which I check on a daily basis. The box is number 267. Send a note to me at that address and I will know to come by your office here.”
I don’t allow my face to show my reaction. “I understand, Mr. Grant. I will let you know when I have something to discuss.”
Grant looks relieved. He stands and turns to leave.
He turns back. “What?”
“The front money.” I tap my desk once with my forefinger. “Please.”
His expression is unreadable, but he reaches into his coat, opens his wallet to remove four one-pound notes, and places them on my desk.
“Thank you,” I say, all polite and considerate. “As I said, I will begin work on your case first thing tomorrow.”
He jerks another nod and leaves. The door clicks shut behind him.
I start on the case right away.
If there’s one thing I despise even more than my own miserable existence, it’s having rank amateurs think they can pull one over on me. As soon as Grant has left my office, I’m on my feet and at my outer door. I can hear his footsteps recede down the short hall and then begin down the flight of stairs that lead my street-level entrance. When I judge he’s about half-way, I step through my door, locking it again behind me with a smooth twist of my wrist. I turn to the door immediately to my right and unlock it with the same key. I step through quickly and lock it once more. To my left, a narrow stair leads up to my third-floor apartment. To my right, another narrow stair leads down to the alley behind Kim Soo’s restaurant, which occupies the ground floor of the building. I take the stairs down, pulling my overcoat on as I descend.
The alleyway is not fully roofed, so I hug the wall under the high eaves three floors up in order to avoid the worst of the evening’s downpour. As Venusian atmospherics go, the rain is moderate, so I shouldn’t complain too much. Rounding the corner, I’m out of the alley and onto the walking path running along the main street out front. Setting my dark grey fedora on my head, I glance up at the roadway’s low-arched covering, listening to the steady beat of water underneath the noise of the wheeled and foot traffic.
I looked down the way and spot my quarry stepping into a hansom cab hitched to a four-legged, ostrich-like orla, just like every other cab in the city. I pull my hat down a bit and raise my hand to hail a ride for myself. It’s my lucky day, as one happens to be coming by at that moment, and I hop in, giving curt instructions to the driver to keep the cab ahead of us in sight, but not to follow too close. I’m still sitting down as we pull away from the walk. The cabbie knows his stuff though and we manage to stay on the trail of the weasel despite the heavier traffic on the streets. When we pass by the turns that would have led into the better parts of Aphrodite and continue instead toward a less-than-fashionable side of town, I find myself unsurprised.
Grant’s cab comes to a stop in front of a shabby-looking apartment building and my driver pulls over to the curb a half-block further on. Glancing back as I step onto the walk, I see the weasel entering the lobby. A moment’s assessment of my surroundings brings me to a conclusion and I pay my fare, throwing in a small tip for a competent job, but let the driver go. The neighborhood’s not exactly pleasant, but I’ve been in worse. No need to have the cab hang around. Too conspicuous here, in any event.
As the cab disappears down the street, I give Grant’s apartment building a looking-over. From the style of its architecture, it was built some time ago, a product of another era when this part of town was far more prosperous than today. Empty structures flank it on either side: a boarded-up tenement and an old office-complex, both long vacant. It looks like about every third or fourth building in this neighborhood is wholly or partially abandoned. Still, folks gotta live. I cross the street at an unhurried pace and turn back down the walk on the far side, ambling past the lobby entrance to the apartments first, a casual look through the glass front giving me a sense of the place and confirming that Grant isn’t loitering around. I walk further on. A short smoke-break outside a small pub a block further down the way allows me time to think for a bit and then return without being too terribly obvious about my casing of the joint. Worn hinges grind metal-on-metal as I open the reluctant glass door and the lobby greets me with a despondent and melancholy air. I nod mentally, confirming the assessment I’d made in my quick-pass. This was a swank place once, but now long gone downhill, with the kind of decaying glory one finds in old mansions the owners can’t afford to keep up any more.
There is a receptionist, although the dishwater blonde behind the lobby desk looks to be a lifetime member of the lonely-hearts club and it is plain that there are any number of places she’d rather be. A row of chairs lines the right-hand wall of the lobby, their cushions worn and colors faded. One of the lobby chairs is occupied by an older man in a suit that has seen better days, his face tucked into a newspaper. The faded upholstery on the lobby walls, once a rich green but now more a murky grey, hangs torn in places and ratty in others. The brown shag carpet badly needs cleaning, but I’m betting that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
Blondie barely looks up from her dog-eared paperback as I enter. I catch a glimpse of a garish cover, confirming the likely nature of the work. Pulp presses have churned out a vast amount of sludge these days for semi-literate masses desperate to imagine themselves in some life other than the dreary existence they’re stuck in. Can’t say I blame them. Certainly wouldn’t have picked my shit life, if I’d been given the option. But there’s work to be done. I take my time, still moving with a casual air as I saunter over to the side wall where several rows of small mailboxes are set, their labels looking somewhat worse for the wear. A rapid but clandestine scan confirms my suspicions: there is no resident by the name of Grant listed.
A muffled grunt escapes my lips as I stare past the wall in front of me. A bit of time passes as I weigh my options. There’s little more to be gained sticking around here any longer tonight, so I turn away and leave the lobby, casually tipping my hat to Blondie as I pass her desk. Never hurts to have a possible contact for future use. Her bored eyes glint with life for just an instant, but the dull glaze returns when I keep walking. As I open the lobby door, I see her eyes drop back down into the ragged pages of her book. Trapped, like so many of us working sslobs, with nowhere to go. I step out onto the walk again, the dull patter of the evening’s rain sounding on the lower roadway covering overhead, and I flag down another cab. I needed to go somewhere else to think.
After a short ride, the cab delivers me back in my section of town. I get out some blocks from my destination, as I’d like to feel the hard streets under my feet as I ponder my next moves. The night air is dark and wet, weighed down with bad memories. The solid cement of the walk presses up against the soles of my feet, holding me to the present and keeping me from falling back into the roiling fog of regrets and remembrances. I shake my head sharply and try to focus.
Like the other worlds that were colonized by the various Great Powers in those first frenzied decades of the space era, settlements on Venus were governed by the 1832 Treaty of Geneva. In this case, overall administration of the planet was given to the Franco-Spanish Empire, just as Mercury and Mars were given to the Austro-German and British Empires and the region of the Belt was assigned to the Russians. However, concessions of varying sizes were allocated to both greater and lesser powers. The rule of the United States over Vulcan, on the other hand, is something of an exception to this general arrangement. Aphrodite, being the territorial capital of Venus, is a fairly cosmopolitan city, with people of all nationalities mingling in a scrambled stew of humanity. Most of the major powers maintain an official presence here, even if their concession lies on the far side of the main continent. Toss in the jumbled project of the upcoming Exhibition and you’ve got a situation ripe with opportunities. So the possibility that an international wrinkle might appear in this case of mine is very much on my mind.
It takes me a bit to cover those blocks on foot, but eventually I walk through the door of Perididos, pausing for a moment in the entranceway to relish the welcoming embrace of the pub’s dark and murky atmosphere, the swirling smoke of low-quality cigarillos, and the general sense of malaise that permeates the place. It’s like a second home. Scratch that. First home.
The thin, brown-skinned man behind the bar has lean features, flint-sharp eyes and an improbable hawk-beak nose. He nods to me as I sidle up to my regular spot. “Nick.”
“Jack,” I nod in return. Jacquin de Jardinier runs a tight business, takes no lip from trouble-makers, and treats his customers with respect. He’s also one of the last people I’d ever want as an enemy. Jack and I have been friends ever since I helped him out with a bit of trouble, some years ago now, when I tracked down the smooth-talking low-life who’d convinced Jack’s underage daughter into running off with him. It’d taken a bit of legwork, but I’d finally tracked the pair to a run-down tenement on the slum-side of Adonopolis, at the edge of the British Concession. The wayward child, suitably chastened by the experience, had been returned to her father. The smooth-talker now sings a sweet soprano, if you get my meaning.
“The usual?” Jack asks, already reaching for the glassware.
“You got it,” I say.
He nods again. “One bitch-shredded heart, coming up.” He looks at me sternly when I pull out my wallet. “On the house.”
“If you insist, Jack.” I put my wallet away again.
“You want that with or without the cruel twist of fate this time?” he inquires as he mixes the bitter night-black and sour blood-red spirits which comprise my drink of choice. I do have a few variations, so his question is a legitimate one.
“Without,” I answer, shaking my head. “But throw in extra bitters for irony.”
His eyebrows rise just a bit. “One of those days?”
“Don’t you know it.”
He amends the recipe accordingly and places the drink in front of me. I look down at it, give a low sigh, and curl my hand around the smooth, cold glass. Better that than a smooth, cold dame, I think to myself. Jack mixes a second drink for himself, but with the twist of lemon, and raises his glass to me. I lift mine and we clink discordantly.
“To bitches and hearts,” he says.
“May never the twain meet,” I reply and take a mouthful of my life.
The harsh taste of the liquid suits my mood. Jack gives me a nod and moves off to tend to another customer further down the bar. I tumble back into my own thoughts amid the stale cigarillo smoke as I review what I have so far. A purported embezzlement scheme using the considerable noise of the Exposition as cover, likely involving several shell-companies, but with as-yet-unknown aims. And my client, the weasel, not named Adam Grant, who may or may not be a clerk, senior or otherwise, and whom I am willing to bet does not work for Simon & Simon, the accounting firm. I grimace as I drain the rest of my glass. Just peachy.
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE OCTOBER TALES TO ASTOUND