devil's due
by
david england

The first tale in a series, The Hard Streets of Aphrodite...

Part I

La Exposicion

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.”

“Embezzlement.”

“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.

“And?”

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.

“Mr. Grant?”

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.

Part II

Shell Games

 

I’m up early the next morning.  My head screams, but I tell it to shut up.  The ragged face that stares at me from the mirror of my closet-sized bathroom serves as a silent rebuke of my existence.  I lather up some soap and do a halfway decent job of clearing the stubble.  The water’s cold, on account of the broken boiler.  When I’m done, the face in the mirror looks more presentable, if no less haggard.  Only the dark circles beneath my eyes remain to tell the pathetic tale.  I inhale, then exhale.  Another goddamn day.

 I put on my second-best suit--my only other suit, actually--and head out the door.  Once a dark grey, the suit’s a bit faded now, with some light fraying that shows at the cuffs.  Down two flights of stairs, I pull on my overcoat, put my fedora on my head, and step out into the morning wet.  Time to get to work.

I head down the block, splurging a thruppence on a paper hawked by the newsboy at the corner of the second intersection from my building.  The foot-traffic is thin yet, so I make good time and get to Flora’s diner just as it opens.  Another tuppence gets me a pair of toast wedges and a cup of chikrey, a Venusian hybrid of good ol’ American chicory root, but with twice the caffeine of Old World coffee.  I can use a good punch in the face this morning and welcome the assault on my senses.  It’s black and bitter, like the cloud that hangs over my mood, and I feel halfway human by the time I’m done.  I leave another pence for tip, ‘cause I like Flora.  She’s still got some spark of life in her, even past fifty years standard and even pushing through the weight of working-class life here on Venus.  It isn’t anything more than that, though.  She and I occasionally warm one another’s bed at night when the need arises, which isn’t often but often enough.  Helps each of us cope with our respective demons in our own way. 

A raised arm gets the attention of a passing cab-driver.  I hop in and give him the address, but tell him to pull up a block further on.  The orla clicks over the streets and we maneuver through the slowly thickening traffic toward that less-fashionable side of Aphrodite with which I was now getting familiar.  The cabbie pulls over a block past Grant’s apartment building and I pay my fare, ambling slowly towards the front door.  I quickly survey the lobby through the glass with a glance as I approach, just in case I’m wrong, but everything looks as I expect it to.

Blondie’s not at the reception desk, her place being taken by an older broad bent over a folded newspaper.  She doesn’t even look up as I enter.  The man in the chair is also absent and I go over to the chair I’d seen him in the night before and sit down, raising my newspaper in front of me to shield my face.  And I wait.

Three-quarters of this job is sitting around, bored, waiting for someone to show up or something to happen.  A fifth of it is actually doing something, like tailing a mark or hunting down a clue.  And five percent is getting shot at, beaten up, and threatened with castration or a similar fate.  All part of the game, baby.  I pay my dues and take my lumps.

I try to interest myself in the newspaper, but it’s difficult.  The major stories are all about the upcoming Exhibition, the glories of scientific progress, and the dazzling prospects of the twentieth century which lie only months ahead.  I snort and move on to the other columns.  Not much there, either.  Another pirate attack reported in a different sector of the Belt.  Some tensions regarding trade rights along the World River encircling Mercury.  A long op-ed piece lamenting the most recent wave of drug addiction to cascade over the worlds.  Just the usual garbage, in other words. 

I hear the rattling of the old lift as it clatters down its chute.  As I said, this was a swank joint once, with all the extras.  Now gone to seed, the shine’s worn off, and most things look like they work about half the time.  The lift manages to reach the ground floor without breaking and a bell dings as the cage doors get opened.  I move my paper just enough to see to lobby.  Sure enough, Grant is among the small group stepping from the lift and making his way toward the front door.  He doesn’t even notice the guy in the chair with the newspaper, which was exactly what I was counting on, and he exits the building onto the street.

I give him a brief head start, then follow, casually tucking the newspaper under my arm as I step onto the walkway.  To my surprise, Grant hasn’t hailed a cab, despite several passing by in the street at that moment, but is on foot yet, making his way along the block towards that pub I’d stood outside last night.  I sip into the stream of gathering foot traffic and trail behind him.

We walk for a while, in the general direction of the city’s business center, but by no means into the heart of it.  The ragged edge, more like, where third-tier shops eek out an existence from the scraps that fall from the table of their social betters.  He stops at a storefront and unlocks the street-door with a key fished from his pocket.  After he disappears inside, I make sure that I’m jumbled up in a cluster of pedestrians as I walk past, taking note of the faded lettering on the front window: “Jos Dorsheim, Bookkeeper.”  I nod to myself, keep walking.

 

###

 

I let my thoughts wander as I make my way toward the blocks of administrative offices at the city’s center.  Alright.  So the weasel is a third-rate bookkeeper trying to get a bit of extra scratch.  In all probability, he’s a bookkeeper for a sub-subcontractor or the like involved with the Exhibition and accidentally stumbled onto something he wasn’t supposed to.  Now he’s trying to capitalize on that bit of fortune and claw something more out of an otherwise bleak existence by blackmailing the embezzlers.  A ballsy play for a pansy pencil-pusher way out of his league.  I give a mental shrug as I cross the street during a momentary pause in the ceaseless traffic.  It’s his life, if he wants to play that game.  As long as I don’t end up dead, I’m good with what comes of it. 

This isn’t my first time dancing the embezzlement tango and I’ve learned a thing or two about corporate registrations in my years as a snoop.  In addition to sorting out starched-collar thieves, a solid history of hunting down missing assets and disappearing spouses has given me some experience with how the shell game is played.

My first visit is to the Hall of Records, where all corporate entities doing business within the Venusian territory of the Franco-Spanish Empire are required to register.  For those operating wholly within the confines of one of the other national concessions on the planet, only very basic information is collected, usually obtained and forwarded by the administration of the national concession in question.  For those companies who wish to operate within the broader sphere of the Franco-Spanish territory, however, or who deal directly with the Viceroy’s administration in any way, a much more substantial registration is necessary.  As the Exhibition fell very much with that latter category, I expect to find a fair paper trail.

The mindless thoroughness of the administration’s bureaucratic machinery does not disappoint.  There are still the layers of petty officialdom to be penetrated, of course, but I am well-practiced in such things.  Self-important clerks have a tendency to guard their precious territory, defined by a stray clause or two of regulation, with surprising tenacity when they feel that their tiny kingdom’s being threatened.  One has to have the ability to sense what mixture of ego-stroking and subtle threats need to be employed in a given situation.  It’s a game I’ve gotten pretty good at over the years, even if I do say so myself.

Today’s specimen is modestly overweight with a pale, doughy complexion.  Black, beady eyes observe me from behind small-frame spectacles which strain to encompass the width of his face.  He looks to be well into that middle span of age where meaning has bled out of one’s life slowly, leaving a hollow husk behind still moving through the motions of existence out of sheer momentum of habit.  He gives me a weary look as I approach the counter and I explain the section of records I’d like to examine.  His expression manages to somehow blend disinterested boredom and mild disdain into a homogenous concoction.

“And why would monsieur be seeking to access these records?” he inquires in a bland, indifferent tone.

“Ah,” I say and lean forward ever so slightly.  “You see, there is this certain lady who has retained my services to...how shall we say?...ferret out certain investments into which her husband has directed a substantial amount of her funds.  It all appears to be above-board, of course, but she is...concerned...that the accounts she has been given do not reflect the entire situation.”  I make a point of glancing to my right and my left, as though to verify no one else paying attention to our conversation.  “I’m sure you understand that a certain delicacy is involved.”

His eyebrows rise.  A questioning look takes in my second-rate suit.  I give a small nod.

“A necessary incognito, of course.  It would be unbecoming for the names of the persons involved to be known or the nature of the inquiry to come to light.  Any...issues...which may arise as a result of my report shall be dealt with privately.”  I allow a moment to pass before adding: “As would any hindrances to my investigation.”

An expression of almost feral cunning appears on his face for a brief moment before getting buried again.  “I see, monsieur.  These are, of course, public records.  The regulations require only that one seeking access demonstrate sufficient cause, as a guard against superfluous inquiries.  I judge your request to have met the necessary standard.  If you would follow me, I shall escort you to the relevant section where you may conduct your investigations.”

I give another nod.  “Many thanks, sir.”  I offer my hand, a one-pound note carefully folded in my palm, and the clerk takes it with a perfunctory shake.  A quarter of my front money, but that’s also what the front money is for.  Don’t think it won’t show up on my expense report, though.

I trail just behind the ample width of the clerk as he leads the way through a broad entranceway conspicuously flanked by uniformed gendarmes on guard duty and down a long hall lined with doors along both sides standing like soldiers on parade.  Each door bears a small brass plaque with type that I can’t fully decipher as we pass by.  He stops in front of one somewhere in the middle of the right-hand side. 

He opens the door and gestures for me to enter.  “All visitors must be escorted to and from the chambers of records.  Please pull the bell-rope when you have completed your investigations here and an attendant will arrive momentarily to escort you out.”  He gives me a cautioning look.  “All records must remain within these walls.  You are permitted to make copies of course.  But no materials from these files are to depart the premises.”  He coughs politely.  “I trust that no extraordinary measures will be needed to ensure compliance?”

What measures he’s talking about, I’m sure I don’t care to know.  I shake my head.  “Of course not.  I understand completely.”

“Very good.  I will leave you to your work in that event.  Good day, monsieur.”  He closes the door.  I turn, give the room of filing cabinets a good looking over, and get to work.

I’ll say this for anal retentive bureaucrats: they do come in handy sometimes.  The files are well-organized and it takes me only a few moments to find the registration records for Nescott General Suppliers.  The file has all the pertinent information--general description of the business, addresses of the main offices and key financial institution, list of the top three executive officers, and finally, the top three shareholders.  That last category has only one name listed: Maldive Holdings, Incorporated.

So far, at least, Grant--or rather, Dorsheim--has told it straight, except for lying about his name, of course.  I’ll be circling back to him on that, don’t you worry. No one plays me for a stooge.  But my concern right now is picking up where his trail left off.  Now that I’ve ascertained that the information he gave me last night was on the level, it is time to plow some fresh ground.  I make my way over to the section of the records pertaining to holding companies and begin digging.

 After a bit of searching, the organization of that section being slightly different, I find the file I’m seeking.  As I expect, it is much thinner.  The information required for holding companies is not as significant, only a primary mailing address, a list of businesses owned, and, once again, the top three stockholders being given.  Slim pickins, as folks back in the States would say.  But I’ve been in this business for a good while and two things catch my eye right away.

First, this holding company is itself owned by a pair of two other companies in an even split, 50% each.  That strikes me as unusual, as generally in these things one has a senior partner and a junior partner, to prevent deadlocking decisions if nothing else.  Given these are themselves corporate entities, rather than individuals, I am thinking more shell-game maneuvers are going on behind the scenes.

Second, I notice that along with Nescott General Suppliers, the company owns several other businesses--some fully, some partially--including a wholly-owned Northland Grain Systems and a 25% share of Bersheim Brothers, Limited, the warehousing firm.  That last name strikes a familiar note and a moment later I remember why: that was the firm in whose accounts Dorsheim had originally found the discrepancies.  Coincidence?  In my line of work, coincidences don’t exist.

I close the file and put it back in the drawer.  Suspecting I know the outcome, I look up those other two holding companies but come up with the single-line entries I expect.  Past the second layer of ownership, if the holding company itself is not directly involved in commercial operations in some way, the registration requires only a listing of the corporation’s national and planetary origin.  Interestingly, both entries list the British Venusian Concession, but there my trail ends.

I push the last file drawer closed and consider my options.  It’s getting along in the day and my stomach’s starting to talk to me.  In any event, I’m not going to discover anything in these records--at least not without more clues to follow up on--and I need to think.  And eat.

A tug on the bell-rope brings a young junior assistant clerk who’s barely shaving but already wears the smug expression bureaucrats reserve for those they consider below them on the social ladder.  My second-hand suit obviously marks me as one such individual and while the little snot says nothing beyond verifying that I am finished, I keep my expression neutral as he escorts me from the back halls and manage not to punch his conceited puss.  It takes some doing, but my need for access to the records overrides my pride and I make it out of the building without incident. 

 

###

 

The hour is past noon and I need lunch.  Normally, I’d head back to my side of town, but I’m hungry and willing to spend a bit more of Dorshiem’s front money at a cafe in the heart of the city.  I can afford to live a little when it goes on the expense report, within reason.  There’s no shortage of choices and I strike off in a random direction, heading down the block where one sign hanging over a front door catches my attention.  A menu is posted in the window and I give it a brief scan.  Toward the upper end of reasonable, but within bounds.  So I open the front door of La Crie de Baudelaire and step inside.

I glance about the interior and decide to take advantage of the small fenced terrace I’d spotted from the outside, abutting the main promenade.  Confirming the quality of the establishment, within a minute of planting my ass in one of the pair of chairs flanking an empty bistro table along the fence, a waiter materializes next to me.  Taking the proffered menu, I do some quick assessing and choose an affordable sandwich plate featuring one of the more flavorful varieties of native fungus.  

“And what would monsieur care to drink?”

One thing I’ve learned in my years in this business is to keep a low profile and when in character, stay in character.  I’ve my second-hand suit and more or less the persona of a once-well-off-but-now-struggling gentleman, so I decide to run with that.

“What selection of teas are available today?” I inquire.

“We have a broad selection,” the waiter responds.  He gives my clothing a quick assessment without being too obvious about it.  “If I might suggest one of our local varieties?”

I nod at that and allow a thankful expression.  “Something with character, if you could,” I reply.  “But thank you.”

The waiter takes the menu from my hand and retreats inside, returning some minutes later with a small teapot and a saucer-cup set.  He places the teacup and saucer before me and pours the first serving of tea.  Receiving my thanks with a wordless nod, he disappears gain, leaving my alone with my thoughts.

I sip the steaming, bright blue liquid and discover it possesses a peppery aftertaste that is not unpleasant.  The atmosphere today is less heavy with moisture than your average Venusian gloom and the green-grey far above the high arch of the pavilion filters the unseen sun into a soft light.  For a brief moment my guard falters: the dark cloud of my life lifts and I allow myself to slide into long-repressed reverie, observing passers-by along the adjoining promenade.  A pair of young lovers, obvious from their frequent looks at one another, stroll casually past.  The barely-mustachioed youth looks rather dapper in a well-cut suit with a derby set atop his head.  His companion wears a bright spring-time dress, full of yellows and oranges, with a ribboned hat to match, and sports a slender batonette, that feminine version of the man’s walking cane which fills the traditional role of a lady’s parasol in Venusian fashion.  And I remember, far too many years ago now, another pair of young lovers strolling through the city parks of Philadelphia on bright afternoons before--

Before.  Before that stroll in that park on that day.  I scowl and the black clouds descend once again.  The lid on the memory box which had jostled open clicks shut once more and I shove those lingering shadows away with a vengeance.  I’ve got work to do and no time for this crap.

“Monsieur.”  A voice at my side startles me from my inward focus.  I turn in my seat to see the waiter placing my lunch-plate on the table before me.

“Will you be requiring anything further?” he asks.

“No,” I shake my head.  “Thank you.  Only the tab.”

“Very good, monsieur.”  He discreetly places my bill face-down on my table.  “I wish you a pleasant afternoon.”   And disappears once more.

I’ve been a professional snoop for a good long while now and in that time I’ve learned a thing or two.  Aside from confirming my general opinion of humanity, my experience has taught me to trust my gut.  And my gut was telling me that something doesn’t smell right about this whole damn set-up.  But damn it all to hell if I could figure out what it is.

Another thing I’ve learned, though, is that when I’m up against a blank wall, what works best is to put the problem aside and focus on something else.  I’ve heard that some experts say it is another part of your brain or awareness or whatever that keeps plugging away in the background.  I don’t know about any of that, but I do know that seemingly-unrelated pieces will click together when you’re not looking sometimes.  So I don’t look.

Sure enough, I’m biting into my sandwich when my murky hunch explodes into a full-bodied idea.  I chew slowly as I work through the possibilities that have coalesced from that gut feeling and nod to myself as the various parts line up with one another.  No wonder it feels off, I tell myself.  Embezzlement, my ass.

I glance at the bill.  Damages are a shilling two.  I leave a shilling six because I know what it’s like to scrape out a life as a working stiff.  And I’ve got that expense report.  But I have things that need doing if I’m to be ready for nightfall, so I get moving.

Back in the streetway, a raised arm catches the attention of a cab and I tell the driver to head to the main markets.  On the streets, we call this area the Borderland, at the edge of the slums where the classes mingle a bit more freely in the traffic of open commerce.  That area is not too far from my neck of the woods, as one would say back on Earth, but more importantly, it also lies near the warehouse district.

The cabbie lets me off and I stroll casually through the blocks of open markets, letting the stream of humanity carry me along.  After a few turns, the crowds begin to thin slightly and I find myself at the fringes of the warehouse district.  Past investigations have taken me into this area on more than one occasion and it was the memory of one such job that brings me here now.  Sure enough, the Bersheim Brothers warehouse is where I remember it to be and I take note of the position of the side door in the alleyway as I nonchalantly pass by.  Another turn and a few more blocks bring me back to the markets and the crowds.  I glance at the clock standing tall in the center of a small plaza.  I need some time to prepare for my outing this evening, so I find the street that heads back toward Kim Soo’s place and start walking.

 

###

 

My outfit is black.  Shirt, pants, boots.  Even my fedora is a very, very dark grey.  At the same time, I don’t want to look like I’m on my way to a break-in, so I wear my light grey overcoat to hide the rest of the ensemble.  The evenings are cool enough that a long coat won’t be remarked upon.  It’s reversible, though, with a black interior.  My tools are clipped to my belt and my pistol is snug in its holster beneath my arm.  As the inky night spreads over the city, I turn from my window and leave my apartment.

I take my time and a meandering route to the warehouse district, checking to see if I’ve got a tail, but nothing shows.  If this racket is what I think it might be, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s already on the alert.  Perhaps I’m just lucky.  Or maybe they’re just good.

By the time I reach the vicinity of my earlier stroll, the streets are pretty well empty.  Even the poor have generally slunk back into the hollows they’ve carved out for themselves deeper in the slums.  I find that alleyway again without any difficulty and slip quietly down its length.  My overcoat comes off, gets turned inside out, and put back on in a smooth, well-practiced motion.  I’ve done this sort of thing a time or two, you see.

Now swathed in black, my fedora pulled down low, and a dark bandana covering the lower half of my face, I move swiftly to that side door to the warehouse I’d noted earlier.  The lock is not terribly complicated, meant more to deter than prevent entry by a burglar of any significant seasoning, and a few minutes’ effort is rewarded with a quiet click as the tumblers rotate.  I push the door open slowly, verifying that the coast is clear, and then slip inside.

The gloom inside the warehouse is even deeper than the night outside and I give my eyes the time they need to adjust.  Ghost-like shapes of boxes loom in the shadow, stacked like so many headstones.  The warehouse is not a small space, though only of modest size as such structures go.  I’m grateful for that tonight--it makes my task a bit easier.

The office I’m looking for is toward the back, up a half a flight of stairs to a mezzanine level which overlooks the floor.  A feeble yellow light leaks past shades drawn low over the interior windows, letting me know that the night clerk is present.  I move down the long row of double-stacked crates, feeling my way carefully and stepping over any floorboards which might creak and give the game away.

I’m almost to the end of the row, which opens next to the foot of those steps, when a noise sounds from the office and I freeze in the shadow.  The door at the top of the stairs opens and the clerk begins to descend, the light from a hooded lantern bobbing in his hand.  Even better.  I press myself between two crates and wait.

The clerk reaches the warehouse floor and turns, passing my row and heading along the next row down.  I slip out of my hidey-hole and head back the other way, moving parallel to the clerk.  When we’re both nearly to the end of our rows, he stops and sets the lantern on the floor.  I quietly make my way to the end of the row and slip around those last crates, peering carefully around the corner at my quarry.

A slightly disheveled man is crouched on the floor, holding a small metal template against one of the lower crates with one hand and working a small paintbrush over the template with the other.  He completes that task and places the template on top of a square of cloth on the floor beside him, then picks up a second template, dips the brush in a small can of paint and stands.  He’s just placing the template against the side of the upper crate when I close the distance between us.  I grab the back of his neck and shove him against the crates hard.

“Wha--?” he sputters, his head sideways against the wood, his eyes wide with fear.

“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” I growl in a low, menacing tone.  He doesn’t know who I am and I’m counting on his thinking I’m someone higher up in his chain or else from a rival gang in the underground.

“I’m just doin’ what I’s told,” he whines.  “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with doin’ what I’m told, man!”

It’s an old trick.  Nescott General Suppliers.  Northland Grain Systems.  NGS.  The cataloguing codes use the initials of the originating company as part of the system.  Same initials, shipped around the same time.  Similar codes.  Just a bit of adjustment on one part of the labelling here and a fudging of the records upstairs and the two crates will have exchanged identities without anyone being the wiser.  Differences in value could be written off as losses in shipment, which was how Dorsheim had picked up the trail, but those were not uncommon.

The first part of my hunch has proven out.  I test the second part.

I pull the scrawny clerk back and slam him against the crate again with a fierce blow.  “Stop fucking with me,” I growl.  “Someone’s gone through all of this trouble just for a bit of jack?”

The man’s forehead beads in the shadow of the warehouse and I smell the stink of his sweat like marsh gas.  He gives his head a jerky shake.

“Not just jack, man.  Crackerjack.  The new stuff.”

Damn.  I grimace and my stomach turns a bit.  Life is a tough game for most of us here and I’ve seen shit that’ll make your typical starched-collar snob blanch and turn his head in disgust.  Hell, I’ve done some of those things myself.  A body does what a body needs to do to survive.  I cannot blame anyone for that.  I’ve enough shadow in my own past to put me away for lifetimes.

But even I have my limits.  There are two enterprises I will not touch.  And this is one of them.

“You know an awful lot for a little shit nobody.”  I lean in next to his ear.  “Is there a hole here that needs plugging?”

A quivering moan escapes his lips.  His body starts to quake and I swear I hear the sound of liquid on the floorboards.  “No, sir,” he whimpers.  “Please.  I don’t know nothin’.”

“Good,” I reply.  A solid whack on the back of his head with my piece puts him out cold and I let him drop to the floor in the small puddle of piss.  What a crap job this has turned into.  I move quickly to the side door I came through and slip back into the alleyway.  My overcoat gets flipped around again and I head back toward my apartment with a determined stride.  I’m getting tangled in things I want no part of, thank you.  The drug-trade is serious business and something I make a point to steer clear of.  My personal issues aside, there are just some people you don’t mess with.  Not if you want to keep breathing.

I need to sleep, but then I’ve got serious business of my own come tomorrow.  Time to make a call on my purported employer and settle a few things.

 

###

 

Late-hour operations take more of a toll on me these days and I end up sleeping well into the morning.  I sit up and swear at myself, since I’d wanted to get going a lot earlier.  But a cracked orla egg ain’t gettin’ put back together, so I revise my plans and start moving.

Before I head off to Flora’s for a late breakfast, I sit down and write out my expense report.  Including my daily fee, the tab comes out to a neat five pounds ten.  I might have padded the bribe a bit, but a body’s got to make a living, and it isn’t like Dorshiem is some saint, after all.  As it is, I’m helping the guy keep his skin intact, so I’ve got no problem extracting a bit of a fee for that service.

Breakfast is good--fried sweet tubers and sea-pork sausage washed down by more chikrey--and Flora gives me a look that says that she’d be interested in meeting up again tonight.  I casually mention plans to return for dinner later and our date is set.  But I’ve got somewhere else I need to be just now, so I say my goodbyes and head out the door.

My plan is to confront Dorsheim at his little office and leverage the shock of my having seen through his pathetic charade to terminate the job and get the pound and a half I’m still owed after the front money.  That plan gets a monkey-wrench tossed in right away when I get there and find the office window dark and the door still locked.  I glance at my pocket watch.  The time is past eleven.  I push aside the bad feeling in my gut and head down the street toward Dorsheim’s apartment building.    

I take the rattletrap of a lift to the fifth floor.  The disheveled, bleary-eyed operator doesn’t even acknowledge me, but blindly goes through the motions of his routine like a hung-over drunk who’s working to get his key in the lock.  The gate opens on the second try.  When I step from the cage into the hall, though, my senses are on high-alert.

The worn tread of the carpeting shows the traffic of the years, adding to the impression that everyone in this joint is stuck in a rut, moving only out of unthinking habit.  The paper on the walls is faded from its former glory, torn and peeling in random places. I make my way to the far end of the hallway, to Room 507, and knock.

The door gives.

Damn.

I push it open.  The apartment isn’t lit and shadows fill the space.  I step in, carefully.  There’s no movement and I use the dim light from the drawn window shades to move to the wall to my left and let the gloomy day in.  As I raise the shade, my gut proves itself to be right once again.

The body lies on the rug at the far end of the open area.  I’ve already shut the door behind me and step across the small central room, ignoring the open doorway off to one side leading to the even smaller bedroom, and I wonder if that is the only suit the guy ever owned.

Staring up at the ceiling, his dark eyes blank and unseeing, is Joseph Dorsheim aka Adam Grant aka the weasel.  I kneel beside the body and touch the side of his neck, but the exercise is pointless.  He’s deader than dead.  His skin has cooled, so I know he’s been here for a little while.  I frisk him and find his wallet.  It’s empty.

So much for that pound ten.

I’m just thinking that it would be far healthier for me to be someplace else just now when there’s a sudden sound in the hallway, rapidly moving footsteps, and I haven’t even had time to move when the door crashes open behind me.  “Arrêtez-vous!” a firm voice commands.

I raise my hands nice and slow, cursing myself silently for being six ways a sucker.  I stand just as slowly, my hands still up, as a pair of uniformed gendarmes take hold of my arms and propel me from the apartment and past the plain-clothes detective standing by the doorway with a hard expression on his face.

My expense report drops much lower on my list of concerns.

Part III

A Dead End

 

I sit in a small interrogation room buried somewhere deep in the bowels of the main headquarters of the Bureau des Gendarmes.  The walls are a featureless grey with no exterior windows.  Harsh light fills the space and the air is dry but stale, like an old trunk that hasn’t been opened in a decade or two.  There is a soft, lingering scent of cigarillo smoke.  And sweat.  Lots of sweat. 

A small, heavily glazed window is set squarely in the wall to my right and I get the sensation of shapes moving about in a dimly-lit room on the other side, watching me.  I know the drill.  A long time ago, I had been one of those shapes.  My left shoulder twinges a bit.

My hands are free, but they’ve taken my piece, of course.  And my coat, my hat, and just about everything else except the suit on my body and the shoes on my feet.  All carefully itemized, logged, and boxed up.  I even have a receipt.  If nothing else, the gendarmes are methodical.

There’s a table in the middle of the room with two chairs on opposite sides.  I’m sitting in one.  The other stares back at me, empty.  The sole door into the room is on the wall behind that other chair.  It’s been hours since I was brought here, at least as best I can guess.  My watch is in that damn box, too.  It’s all a game, but it’s a game whose rules I know very well, so I wait.  And make it plain that I don’t mind waiting.

More time passes and I find myself grateful for the late breakfast, since no one’s offering me any food at the moment.  I try to focus my thoughts on the circumstances of my predicament while keeping my expression unconcerned.  Depending on exactly how they want to play this, I could be in a considerable jam.  Catching a guy next to a body makes for a damn tidy case.  Open, shut, execution.  I am understandably disturbed by this prospect.

After a while longer, they finally take the hint.  I hear the click of a bolt sliding back and the door opens.  I’m admittedly surprised when the Chief Inspector steps into the room, his expression grim.  The door closes again and I hear the bolt as it slides shut.  He plops a thick folder onto the table and sits in the other chair.

François Durand, chef inspecteur des Gendarmes Territoriales de Vénus, is stoutly built with a swarthy complexion, neatly-combed hair as black as night, sharp blue eyes that miss nothing, and a prominent aquiline nose.  His grey suit is tastefully stylish without being flamboyant.  His cleanly-trimmed nails drum absently on the table as he considers me silently for a time.

“Monsieur Phillips,” he says finally with a slow shake of his head.  “What pile of dung have you stepped into this time?”

“Chief Inspector,” I reply blandly.  “I’m not sure whether to be honored or concerned that I warrant your personal attention.”

“Oh, I would definitely go with ‘concerned,’ if I were you,” he responds, smiling thinly.  “We have a corpse, after all.”  He pauses for effect.  “And you standing next to that corpse.”

I nod.  Not like there was any point in denying that part.  One has to know how to handle these negotiations.  And I’m looking out for number one just now.  “A corpse,” I point out, “who was a client.”

His eyebrows rise a fraction, though whether in genuine surprise or an act, I can’t tell.  They might have had time to put those pieces together.  Or they might not.  “Oh, really?”

“Two days ago,” I explain carefully.  “Came by my office wanting to hire me for a snoop-job.  I was wanting to follow up on a few points.”

“What was the job?”

I snort.  Probably not the smartest thing to do, considering.  Durand’s expression confirms that thought, but I’m already committed to a strategy now.  “Can’t tell you that, Chief Inspector.  Client privilege and all.”

“Your client is dead,” he observes with a casual air that is just as deliberate as mine.  “Hardly someone who’d be concerned about such things.”

“Call it professional ethics,” I reply.

It’s his turn to snort.  “Don’t make me laugh.  Creatures like you don’t have ethics.”

I shrug.  Say nothing.

He sits back in his chair, propping his right foot on his left knee.  His right hand drums on the table.  It wears on my nerves a bit--part of his game, I’m sure--and I push the annoyance aside.  “I’ll tell you what went down,” he says to me.  “You get hired for a job.  You do your snooping.  You deliver your goods.  Your client won’t pay up--or you try to squeeze him for a bit more d’argent, doesn’t matter which--and the two of you argue.  You get angry.  You shoot him.”

I shake my head.  “Come on, Chief Inspector.  That story has more holes in it than a giant sea sponge.  First off, what were these “goods” I was delivering?  I’ve written no report of any findings.  Secondly, my pistol hasn’t been fired recently, as I’m sure your lab boys know by now.  Third, Dorsheim was stabbed, not shot.  And fourth, he had been stabbed some time before I got there--his body was already cooling.” 

“Nothing which can’t be fixed.”

In my rookie days, I might have blanched a that.  Crooked cops are nothing new.  I’ve certainly tangled with the likes of such before, including a whole rats’ nest back in Phillie.  But I know my adversary better than that.  Durand’s an arrogant ass, but he ain’t crooked.  And I also know that he’s hot ‘n heavy on the drug trafficking that’s been on the rise.  So I decide to call his bluff and play the ace up my sleeve.  “If you wanted to put me up in a frame, you’d be doing it already and wouldn’t be here talking to me about it.  You’re fishing and we both know it.”  I look at him levelly.  “I’ve been snooping and found out some things and you know that.  You want to know what I know.  I want to get out of this cozy little joint.  How’s about we do a trade?”

He says nothing for several minutes.  Just looks at me.  I look right back.  The key to these things is to keep your cool, at least on the outside.  You never, and I mean never, let them see you sweat.  Sweat’s nothing but blood in the water.

Durand’s eyes narrow.  “You’re a tough bastard, Phillips,” he says to me.  “A two-bit snoop and poor excuse for a detective, but tough.”  His fingers stop drumming.  “Fine.  Tell me what you know and then you can get on with your miserable life.”

“Works for me,” I reply.  I sure as hell can’t dispute his characterization.  I wait as he takes out a notepad.  Then I start talking.

 

###

 

It’s late by the time I step through those doors again and into the damp air.  Durand took his time, going over every detail several times like he was trying to catch me lying.  Can’t blame the guy for being thorough though, and he did have food brought in, so it’s hard for me to hold too much of a grudge.  But all that’s done now and I’m free to go my own way.  I glance up.  The night lies over the city like a wet blanket and the streetlights burn softly, every other one extinguished now to conserve fuel through the small hours of the morning.  The pavilion arching well overhead holds the night’s downpour at a distance more comfortable for the high-class folks.  I don’t care for it and miss the steady drumbeat of rain sounding only feet above me.

Still, the air is cooler with the absence of the never-seen sun and the clammy chill makes its presence known despite my overcoat.  I need to think.  I want to walk for a bit, but not the whole way back to my place.  A lone cab clatters out of the gloom, heading towards me in the nearly-vacant street and I raise one arm to catch the driver’s attention.

He drops me off where I ask, several blocks from my building, and I start walking.  The cab rolls away, slowly at first, then picks up speed as it disappears into the night, leaving me alone with my thoughts.  The sidewalk is empty and I begin making my way, my mood sour.  What a crap job this turned out to be.  Got the front money, at least.  And my hide is intact, so perhaps it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

I’m maybe a block from where the cab let me off when I sense a presence close in behind me.  I start to turn and confront the bastard, but the business end of a pistol nudging into my ribs dissuades me.

“Just keep walking, Mr. Phillips,” a cultured voice says softly, “and step into that alley just ahead.”

I give a curt nod of understanding.  Whoever my companion is, he’s a smooth customer.  The street is deserted.  No witnesses.  Very clean.  I do as the man says.

“Nice and easy,” he cautions as we step off the walk and into that alley.  “Keep your hands where I can see them, if you would.”

The alley is narrow, less than an arm-span wide, tucked between an Italian eatery on one side and an empty tenement building on the other.  The overlapping eaves two stories above us keep the rain off as we leave the cover of the roadway.  After ten or so feet, the alley takes a sharp turn to the right.

“Around the corner,” the voice says, the command accented by a nudge of the pistol.

I give a mental shrug and comply.  I’ve no idea whose hornets’ nest I’ve kicked, but it appears that I’ve riled someone good and proper.  The thing that irks me the most in that moment is not knowing.  Dying is one thing, but not knowing why is just plain annoying.

We round the turn.  Three steps ahead, the alley ends in a blank wall, the mottled mud browns and tans of the brickwork forming a bland pattern in the barrier in front of me.  A dead end.

“Here is just fine, Mr. Phillips,” the man behind me says quietly.  I take the hint and stop, my face perhaps two feet from that wall which will most likely be the last thing I see in these worlds.  I let out a small sigh.  Always knew that there’d be that job that’d do me in.  It’s just an occupational hazard in this line of work.  The one chance too many that gets taken and ends it all.  But I didn’t think that it’d be a dud job like this one where my number would come up.  Goes to show that nobody knows nothin’ about nothin’ when it comes to dancing with Lady Fate.  Always hoped I’d go out with a bit of flair.  This is crap.

“You got the drop on me pretty good,” I say, still facing the wall, the muzzle of the pistol still nestled in my ribcage.

My unseen assailant chuckles mirthlessly.  “It wasn’t a terribly difficult task.  The gendarmes are thorough and methodical; I know their procedures quite well.  And as for you…”  The voice trails off for a moment.  “You are rather a creature of habit, Mr. Phillips.  Prone to walking under circumstances such as these when you are pondering a decision.”

The bastard is right, of course.  I’d laid myself wide open.  Too late to do anything about it now.

“Do I get to know who you are, at least?” I ask, playing for a bit of time.  As though another minute or two is going to make any difference.  Still, a body deserves to know who it is that does him in.  It’s only polite.

That gets another light laugh.  “You’re a cool customer, I’ll grant you that much.  As it turns out, I am not inclined to kill you just now.”

A wave of relief crashes over me, but I hold myself still and try not to show anything that might be construed as weakness.  It helps that I was facing a blank wall.  Still, a question nags at me.  Better to leave well enough alone, I think to myself, but my big mouth is already moving before I can stop it.

“Why?”

“Why kill Dorsheim and not you?” the man replies to my question with a question.  “He was an obnoxious little toad who had the gall to interfere in my affairs to glean funds for his miserable existence.  He quite deserved what he received.”

“And me?”

I could feel the contemptuous, unseen smile.  “I find you to be of some interest, Mr. Phillips.  Your existence is no less miserable, but you are certainly not an obnoxious, interfering toad.”

“Some might say so,” I grunt.

“Are you sure you want to debate my assessment?” the man teases.

I shrug offhandedly.  “Probably not.”

“A wise choice.”  The muzzle of the pistol prods me again, a reminder of my situation.  “You are a professional doing a job, even if a bit of a low-life, and I can respect that.  Under the circumstances, I would like to talk with you and a conversation with your corpse would be rather less satisfying.  The truth is that you rather intrigue me.”

I give my head a sharp shake.  “There’s more to it than that.  I’m no greenhorn.  You want something from me.”

“Of course,” comes the smooth reply.  “What is this life but one trade-off versus another?  You have established a certain relationship with Chief Inspector Durand, a credibility with regard to a certain subject matter of interest to me.  This is a relationship of which I may well have use in the future.”

“How can you possibly know any of that?” I ask, rather incredulous.  “I’ve been locked up at the station for hours and just now got out.”

“I have my own sources.”  A quiet, knowing pause.  “And I know something of Durand and his methods.  And I know something of you, Mr. Phillips.”

Impulsively, I give a snort.  “What do you know about me?”  I’m kinda dumb that way at times.

“Enough.”  All at once, powerful fingers grip my left shoulder, the thumb digging into precisely that spot in the muscle where the bullet exited so many years ago.  Pain shoots up my left arm and down my left leg.  My knees don’t quite buckle under the onslaught, but it is a near thing.

“We understand one another?” he asks, releasing my shoulder.

“I’d like to think so,” I admit, letting out a long breath and standing up straight again.  I’m insistent though.  “If we’re going to have a conversation, then, it would be helpful if I could have a name.”

“Hmmm.  That is a fair point.”  He pauses for a moment.  “You may call me ‘The Shadow’.”

Damn.  I’m in far deeper than I’d even thought.  Having an operative get the drop on me was one thing.  But I know that name, whispered as it is in the dark corners of the Venusian underworld.  Few, if any, actual know who this mysterious figure is.  Hell, Durand and his men think the name is a cover, a mind-game meant to divert attention elsewhere.  But the long reach of the Shadow deals death and madness.  And if that person is indeed standing behind me…

“The Shadow,” I repeat, masking my concern with a cockiness that has gotten my face smashed in more than once.  “Gimmicky.”

“It suits my purposes.”

“And what are those?” I ask, knowing that I’m pushing my luck even as the words leave my mouth.

The reply is curt and clipped.  “My purposes are not of your concern.”  A silence follows, emphasizing his point.  “Learn from the mistakes of the late and unlamented Mr. Dorsheim.”

“Understood,” I acknowledge.

“Good.”

The blank wall stares back at me.  “What is it you’d like to discuss?” I ask.

“The future,” the Shadow responds.  “Specifically, your future.”

“It would appear,” I admit with a quirk of my head so show that I’m paying attention, “that my future is very much up to you at this moment.”

“I appreciate your understanding of the situation, Mr. Phillips.  It is always easier to talk with someone who knows where he stands.”

“One of my many talents,” I quip.

The Shadow laughs.  The sound echoes hollow.  “You do indeed have a handful of those, some of which may prove useful to me...which is the primary reason you have not already met the fate of a certain meddlesome bookkeeper.”

I nod.  “I find it a good thing to be useful.  Keeps me alive, a state of being I tend to favor.”

“Quite so,” comes the reply.  “We will most certainly be talking again.  You might consider yourself to be on retainer, shall we say.  I am not without rivals.  It would be of use to me if information regarding those rivals were to find its way to the authorities at certain opportune times.”

Now the cards get turned face up.  I consider the situation for a moment and make a decision.  “I do have conditions,” I state, still looking straight ahead at that damn wall.

There is a moment of silence.  I imagine raise eyebrows.  When the reply comes, the voice is cold and hard.  “Do you consider yourself to be in any position to dictate terms, Mr. Phillips?”

“Not really,” I shrug.  “But I’ll do it anyways.  It’s my life.”

“Fair.  What do you ask?”

“My terms are simple,” I reply flatly.  “No drugs.  No prostitution.  I don’t touch those.”

Another chuckle, more mirthful this time.  “Morals.  How terribly quaint.”  The pistol pressed a bit harder into my ribcage.  “Can you afford such things?”  There is an ominous quiet.  I consider the uncaring bricks in front of my face.

The moment stretches out too long.  I close my eyes and tense for the muzzle blast and the searing pain of a bullet tearing a path through my chest cavity.  They never come.

“I do believe,” the Shadow replies with a definite trace of amusement in his voice, “that I can accommodate you.”  A cough.  “My interests vary over a considerable scope of activities.  Those which you find...distasteful... need not concern you.”

I let out a ragged breath.  Nod again.  “Fair enough.”

“Excellent.”  I hear a brief rustling of cloth behind me that ends almost before it began.  A skittering as something falls to the stone walk of the alley.  “Until our next conversation.”

The pressure on my ribcage disappears with a suddenness that makes me flinch.  It takes a few seconds for the absence to fully register, however, and when I turn around, the alley is empty, except for me, the blank wall, and the fog.

And the five twenty-pound notes scattered at my feet. 

 

###

 

Life is full of questions.  Is there purpose to this crap existence?  Can a dame ever truly be trusted?  Is it still a dodging of the proverbial bullet when one sells one’s soul to the Devil and Old Scratch never shows up to collect his due if one doesn’t have a soul to begin with?  Not that I give care one way or another.  I’ll leave those questions to the pin-head professors at the universities.

The first thing I do that next day is go make things right with Flora.  She’s a good person, for a broad, and was understandably miffed for being stood up in her own place.  I give an explanation short on details but with enough of an outline of the situation that she gets that there were circumstances beyond my control.  We patch things up that night at her apartment and I’m glad that it’s all good between us again.  This road is rough as it is without adding to it.  And good diners are hard to find. 

But I’ll tell you what I do know.  I got me a hundred quid that set me up for a good while.  I’ll take what I can get when I can get it.  The Shadow never did call on me again.  Weeks later, I heard mutterings on the underground grapevine and more weeks after that those mutters solidified into rumors that something really big had gone down a few days before that much bally-hooed turning of the Old Calendar over to the shiny new century.

 My first thought was that the Shadow had been taken out by one of those rivals he had mentioned.  Wrong.  Seems that some broad had taken his whole operation down.  And not only taken it down, but straight-up decapitating it by killing the top-level bosses, including, it would seem, the Shadow himself.  A broad.  Seriously.  And not just any dame, but some goddamn British noble.  Titled and everything.  Just when you think you’ve got the worlds figured out, someone throws a curve-ball you never saw coming.  As reluctant as I am to admit it, my estimation of women in general heads northward just a notch.

But the grapevine is sparse on details and the whole thing fades from view a short time later.  The worlds move on and I move on along with them.  There are johns and janes to tail, protection to enforce, disappeared spouses to hunt down.  Always another job, always another tomorrow.

  And tomorrow’s just another goddamn day.