The engine purrs like a hungry tiger, shoving me back in my seat with a snarl whenever Vakha floors the accelerator. It’s a heady sensation and I can’t stop the grin from growing across my face.
“Sweet ride, isn’t it?” Vakha shouts above the beast’s rumble.
“Sure beats an electric if you’re in the mood to drive for yourself,” I call back.
“Hell, yes. I’m telling you Liu, nothing beats unleashing a good old internal combustion engine on the open highway. Take this baby out to a straight piece of the old interstates and let her loose, it’s better than sex.”
I nod enthusiastically, recalling the adrenaline rush of carving along the mountain roads on a stolen biofuel motorcycle back when I was making the perilous trek to the city. “I can believe that.”
“You’re not half bad as a companion,” Vakha says, laughing. “Play this right and I might take you on as a partner, give you an intro to the company.”
“They pay well.”
“I’m not a fan of the corps. Prefer to have my freedom, even if it doesn’t come with these kind of perks.”
Vakha waves away my explanation and turns to glance at me as we pull up to stop light. “Can’t say I blame you. It’s a sweet gig you’ve got, running little jobs and living over a titty bar. You’re probably pulling in girls most nights, amirite?”
I say nothing. I’ve already exposed too much of myself by talking about the Redemptors, Vakha doesn’t need to know about Seth, or Tamar, or the details of the fall that brought me to live in the city. I, the Talbot who is distinct from the daemon of self loathing running in my mind, have no shame over who or what I am, but memories of my hometown and what I saw on Red Easter are still painful enough to break through my diligently constricted barriers.
My handy pings with a message from Javier. I check it as Vakha tears away from the stoplight, hurrying us towards the next place on his list of clinics, sweatshops, and manikin clubs. Javier thinks he’s spotted the girl on a Security drone sweep of Hilltop South, a few miles away. I pull up the video and watch as a blonde girl in an orange dress walks across a street and pauses to look at the artfully trimmed shrubs outside the New Leaf Hotel. Just as the drone passes out of visual range, she turns and walks towards the hotel entrance.
“This her?” I ask, holding the handy for Vakha to see, with a freeze frame of the girl filling the screen.
“Looks like. Where’d you get that?”
“I have contacts. My contacts have drones. Surprised you don’t have them yourself.”
“My employer has plenty of drones. It’s just luck you found her first.”
We plug the hotel into the car’s nav system and turn at the next stoplight, making our way up onto the highway. Vakha definitely has connections and money. If I were trying to make my way across the river to Hilltop South I would have to take the winding roads through lowtown, up to one of the few remaining public bridges passing over the river, paying the autocab company handsomely for the meandering path. Vakha guides his beast of a car through a toll booth and ascends three levels of ramps before emerging on the uppermost level of the highway. From here, some hundred feet above the surface roads, it’s a straight shot from one hilltop community to another, with no pausing to wait for a bridge opening or detours around damaged roadways. The executives who pay for this level of access can whip across the entire sprawl of the city in mere minutes, crossing the river on a high-rise bridge that rises some two hundred feet over the churning waters below, then jumping to any of the hilltop communities as fast as their personal transports can carry them.
The cold whips through our hair as we hurtle along the highway, above the squalor of the city, carrying with it the scent of the vast marshlands to the south. The clouds are heavy overhead, ominous with the threat of ran, but still holding on to their vicious cargo. Crossing the river, I look up the grey ribbon of water towards the agrocomplexes that rest between the city and the hydroelectric dam some twenty miles upriver. The view flashes by in an instant, to be replaced by the gleaming towers of corporate offices.
We drop down to surface streets on the far side of the river and wind through broad surface streets, lined with meticulously groomed trees and broadly spaced, uniquely architected offices, homes, and businesses. Here in the hilltop communities, the pretentious middle class retro suburbanism was long ago abandoned in favor of a more urbane, studied disinterest in visible security. When you can afford to pay as much for lunch as people in lowtown spend on food in a week and every troubling little aspect of life is handled by a personal assistant or syntellect driven subscription service, personal security because an expectation, rather than a constant concern. It certainly helps that every road leading in and out of the hilltop communities is either barricaded by toll booths or guarded by a swarm of Security drones.
Vakha pulls the car up to the valet line outside the New Leaf Hotel and tosses the keys to a stunned young man in an impeccable suit of pale, minty green with blue accents. Here in the heart of the city there is no on-street parking and public lots are scarce. It’s like that in a lot of cities that survived the readjustment. Started as a way of reducing the risk of terrorists leaving a van full of ammonium nitrate or shorted lithium batteries outside a major shopping center, expanded in a bid to increase green spaces in overcrowded urban centers, and stayed on after the plague, in part because halving the global population removed much of the housing and traffic pressure, and also because the remaining citizenry decided that they liked the fresher air and reduced risk of being run over when crossing a street. If you have business here, you’re either wealthy enough to afford a private town car or you’re willing to take an autocab everywhere you go.
“I’ll take the lead on this,” Vakha says, climbing out of the car and collecting his ticket from the still stammering valet.
I follow him through the automatic doors into the lobby of the hotel. “Hold up,” I say, catching up to him and drawing even more attention from people on the sidewalk. I dart around in front of Vakha and pin a finger to his chest in the entryway between the two sets of doors. “My contact brought us here. You’re just the driver.”
“And you’re a scruffy little unlicensed PI from the midden. Nobody here will even talk to you.”
He might think that, but I know Darby’s reach must extend even to the Hilltops, else he would have been arrested long ago and his territory quietly handed over to some crime lord more willing to play the oligarchs’ game. “I still get first crack. You can follow up if my tack isn’t working. Think of it as protecting your employer’s name. No need to go flashing your credentials when I can get the job done with some charm and a couple chits.”
Vakha glowers down at me for a moment as the automatic doors spasm open and closed on either side of us. Several people, business travelers dressed in clothing so delicate and meticulous it must be wildly expensive, have started to gather to watch our confrontation.
“Charm, you say.”
“Fine. Tip’s probably bad anyway.”
That’s good enough for me. I tap Vakha on the chest, flash him a grin that’s approximately seven times as cocky as I actually feel, and step through into the lobby.
The New Leaf has been one of the most expensive hotels in the city since it opened a couple decades back. The hotel is decorated in a style I like to call “reclaimed hypocritical,” with living plants, low-energy lighting, and ostentatiously simplified furniture constructed from reclaimed materials. The floor is an apparently random amalgam of recycled concrete, brick, and marble, sealed beneath a layer of gloss lacquer that has certainly been tested to death for compliance with volatile organic compound emissions standards. All very nice to look at. All calculated to make the upper class business traveler feel that they are doing their part in restoring the planet, when the truth is that their latest intercontinental flight ate up more carbon credits than most middle class families in federal districts are issued in a year.
Not that anyone in the city cares about such details. This place is a bastion of civility in a world that’s slowly creeping its way towards a drowned hell. Here, the features of planet friendly design are little more than another layer of aesthetics on the architectural landscape.
The desk clerk is a young woman. Attractive enough to make travelers feel welcome without drawing attention to herself. I’ll at least give the New Leaf this: They actually hire and train skilled customer service staff, rather than drawing their employees from modeling agencies.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. I’m Pierce,” she chirps, flashing a smile so white it’s got to be bleached.
“Talbot,” I reply, turning on the tap to my limited reserve to charm.
“Do you have a reservation?”
“We’re here to meet somebody.”
“Delightful. If you’ll tell me the guest’s name we can inform them you have arrived.”
“Yes, well…” I pause, leaning on the counter and cocking my head to one side. “The problem is we don’t have a name for her. And we’d rather she not know we’re here just yet.”
To her credit, Pierce manages to maintain a smile that almost looks natural as she shakes her head and begins moving her hand slowly towards the switch to summon security. “I’m sorry sir, but if you don’t know your part I’m afraid-”
“You a friend of Darby?” I ask.
That stops her and, for just an instant, causes the mask of her smile to slip.
She clears her throat and recomposes her face, then nods. “I know Darby.”
“Thought as much. Se, you must have heard that he’s the lookout for a missing girl.”
She hesitates for a moment too long, then nods. “Are you, um… a friend of Darby? I mean, I was just about to call in a report. They don’t lets keep our handys on duty, so I haven’t had time to—”
I lift a hand from the countertop, just enough that she gets the point and stops. Don’t want her to think that I’m here to kill her, unless it proves useful. “Farthest thing, Pierce. The man and I just trade favors now and then.”
“That’s good,” She breathes. “Just between us, I was worried when Darby send word for us to keep our eyes open for a little girl. He’s not the most…”
I shrug and tilt my head back and forth, raising both hands now. You don’t have to tell me that Darby is an unsavory sort.
“You’re not here to hurt her are you?” she says, eyeing us both. I’m not sure if she’s more unsettled by my greasy hair and two days of beard or Vakha’s painfully dapper look. “I just couldn’t live with myself if I helped Darby hurt someone.”
“Where’s the girl?” Vakha says, shouldering up to the counter beside me.
Pierce’s face falls, the pleasant mask of customer service collapsing as she wonders what Vakha might have in mind. I wonder what sort of hold Darby has over her. Could be anything, but such a pleasant girl working in this district, I’d be willing to bet that he doctored her credentials a bit to help her get the job. Not enough to get her out of service, but just enough to make sure she’s earning a comfortable wage in a nice part of town. She’s probably paying him a percentage of her income in exchange. That, or he made her kill another woman while he watched, because that’s the sort of lovely human being Darby is.
I shoulder Vakha aside and lean forward with my elbows on the counter again. “Don’t mind him. My partner is a bit of a jerk. Helps with the good cop bad cop routine, but he doesn’t always know when to turn it off.”
I pause and wait until Pierce manages to put her face back together again. When she’s collected herself I pull a chit from my pocket and scrawl one of my public IDs onto the back. “This isn’t about Darby. It’s about the girl. I need to get her back to her mother before someone like Darby gets his claws into her. You know what I mean, don’t you?”
I slide the chit across the counter and she takes it casually, folding the plastic slip and tucking it away into a pocket of her powder blue dress. “I do. She’s on the seventh floor. Here.” She hands me a plastic keycard with 712 printed on the back.
I pocket the card and nod. “I owe you one. Use that number if you ever need anything. Anything.”
“Take care,” she says.
I turn away from the counter and cut across the crowded lobby towards the reclaimed wooden doors of the elevator bank. “Vakha, If you’re done intimidating women there’s a baby whose candy needs stealing.”
We’re the only people in the elevator as it glides up the side of the hotel. Whether this is by chance or intentional avoidance, the patrons of this hotel could be excused in thinking twice before boarding an elevator with a pair who could be most generously described as a strung out celebrity and his twitchy bodyguard, the solitude affords us the opportunity to speak privately as we enjoy the view out the glass walls.
“I let you have the desk girl—“
“If that’s what you call taking a back seat I’d hate to see you butting in,” I interject.
Vakha continues, ignoring my interruption. “And that went well enough. You let me take point on the girl.”
“You’ve already got the staff thinking you’re about to sell her to an organ farm.”
“We don’t harvest organs from kids.”
“It’s too inefficient. Better to grow them in vats.”
“The organs or the kids?”
“Both, actually,” Vakha says. “Or haven’t you heard that artificial wombs are in vogue this season.”
“You must be a real hit at the company holiday party.”
“And you’re deeper in the shit than I figured. How’d you know she owed a rat like Darby?”
“I didn’t, just figured there was a decent chance she’d owe a favor to one underworld crime lord or another. Most people in the service industry do.”
I shrug. “Most of them owe me.”
The elevator doors ding open and Vakha starts right down the hall, then pauses, turns, and strides back past the elevator going left down the hall. I don’t even try to suppress my smirk as Vakha audibly counts the room numbers and pauses outside room 712.
“You have a weapon?” he whispers.
I raise my arm and the blade of a ceramic knife peeks out from my cuff. “You mocked the coat. I like this thing for reasons.”
“Nothing less lethal?” he asks, pulling a collapsable stun stick from his back pocket and flicking it to full extension.
“Just these,” I say, balling up my fists.
Vakha swears and shakes his head. “Give me the room card and try not to do anything that might damage the girl. I need to bring her back in one piece.”
“For the organ farm.”
“For reasons that don’t concern you.”
“Good enough as long as you pay up,” I reply. I pass him the card and lean against the opposite wall, crossing my arms and watching as he dips the card into the lock. If I play this right I might come out with a decent stack of credits, a story that will satisfy Ethie, and down nothing but a favor to Darby.
The lock clicks and Vakha pushes the door open.
“Well if it isn’t the missing Ms. Gr—“
There’s an electric snap and a wet sound like a dropped melon hitting the pavement and the top of Vakha’s head comes off in a fountain of crimson blood and grey brains.
“Holy fu-,” is all I manage to say before the world slows to a crawl and my jaw locks in place.
Vakha tumbles forward in slow motion, spilling the contents of his skull across the green and tan geometry of the hotel carpet. In front of him I see the girl, standing with her arm extended. The flesh of her palm has unfolded like the petals of a flower, exposing the miniature gun barrel hidden there.
Her eyes lock onto mine, glittering green in a paper white face.
Then she smiles.