She’s just about worn out. You can see it in the corners of her eyes: thinning brown skin folding over itself like threadbare sheets around bloodshot orbs deep above sagging bags. Ethie’s been at this so long that she’s probably forgotten what it’s like to not be surrounded by foster kids, forgotten the sacred silence that can only be found in a solitary life. Judging from her hollow eyes and stained teeth, she likely finds her own silence in long, solitary hours dedicated to smoking as many cannabinoid cigarettes as she can afford.
Beneath the floorboards of my office, the emcee transitions to another stuttering dance track and I find myself tapping my foot to the arrhythmic beat. My mind drifts away from the old woman sitting across from me as I picture what must be happening downstairs. I’ve forgotten how to be alone too, but where Ethie fills her life with drugs and orphaned children, I drown my pain in liquor and try to salve my ruined soul by extracting people from bad places. Problem is, half the people I save probably deserve to be where they are.
She sure doesn’t do it for the money. Tamar made that clear when she persuaded me to talk to Ethie. How exactly the classiest madam in the city became friends with a poor altruist twice her age is beyond me, but I owe Tamar everything and she asked me to take this job.
“I appreciate you taking time to talk to me,” Ethie whispers, clutching her Koffee mug like it’s keeping her afloat. “I don’t have a lot of options right now.”
I nod and give her a reassuring half smile. I’ve gotten to be good at faking that look, among others. You can’t slink timidly into a room where three corporate drones are tweaking on the latest synthetic mind bomb and threatening to do plastic surgery on a manikin with butter knives. I mean, you’re welcome to give it a try, but chances are only two people will walk out of that room alive, and both will be corporate drones.
“It’s the girl. Meg. At least, that’s what we called her. Youth Services didn’t have a name for her, but I can’t just call a child by her case number, so I picked an M name that sounded nice.”
“Why did you pick a name that starts with M?”
“Oh…” Ethie shifts in her seat, sips at her Koffee. She knows why she picked the name, but she isn’t telling.
“It doesn’t really matter, I guess. Go on. Tell me what brings you here.”
“It’s Meg. She’s disappeared.”
“Yeah, probably. I mean, I hope that’s all it is, but you know how dangerous the city can be for a little girl without anyone to protect her.”
A raucous chorus rises up through the floor just then, as if to emphasize Ethie’s point. Not that Tamar would let anyone underage work her place, but her club is on the classy end of the city’s underbelly. The bit here at the edge of the midden that’ll sell you hydroponic food and a lively manikin who’s all up on their phage boosters, as opposed to the dingier parts where Darby’s goons will sell you a night with a coma patient and you’ll wake up in the river down half a liver. There’s plenty of worse places to wind up than entertaining clients at Tamar’s.
“And you’ve reported this to Youth Services, right?”
That makes Ethie really uncomfortable. Possibly more than the thought of whatever might happen to her runaway. She drains the Koffee, then sits silent, fondling the mug and staring at the floorboards.
I nod. Push a stack of eper aside. Cross my arms on my desk and lean forward to fix Ethie with a gaze that should register as gentle and inquisitive. “You can’t. Why?”
“You know how it is, Mister Liu.“
“Tal, please. Talbot if you must.”
She grimaces and sets her empty mug on the end of my desk. Worries her thin fingers in her lap as she tries to decide how much to tell me. Finally, she looks up, eyes roving the room until they lock on to the single framed photograph on the wall, the one showing Seth and Tamar and me all smiling together at the front gates of an amusement park, back when people still went to those places. Back when I remembered how to smile.
“You know how it works here in the city, Talbot. You living here, above this place, taking in folk like me. Tamar and her manikins downstairs selling themselves for chits every day. We all do what we can to get by, to scrape up enough for the next boost, to stay off the corporate radar.”
She falters. Looks to me with oil slick eyes.
I nod. Offer her what should be an encouraging smile.
“Strictly speaking, I’m not supposed to have as many kids as I do. I take the credits to the casino every month, play enough to justify the chits, then drop a few in the right mailbox and nobody bothers to count how many child support deposits are tied to the same home address.”
And how many is that? I wonder, but she’s finally talking, so I keep silent and nod for her to go on.
“Problem is, if I report the girl missing, that pulls in a whole other branch of Youth Services. I don’t think I can depend on the investigators keeping mum on how many kids are living in my place. How many deposits I get every month. ”
I nod. Drum my fingers on the desk as I wait for her to continue.
“I’m a good mother, Talbot, better than most of those kids ever had before they come to me.”
Ethie looks like she’s about to cry. I stand, pick up her mug, and refill it from the battered Koffee machine beside the hotplate in my kitchen nook. I’m not fan of the stuff, but as a caffeine source it’s cheaper than soda and safer than pills. Besides, my clients tend to enjoy it.
“I’m sure you do your best,” I say, offering the refilled cup to her.
She wraps her withered hands around the mug and smiles up at me, eyes almost disappearing between the crow’s feet, mouth a faint red and white line half hidden under collapsing folds.
“What are you looking for me to do? Tracking down lost kids isn’t exactly my specialty.”
“Just… take a poke about the darker side of town. Make sure she hasn’t ended up anyplace where she’ll get hurt.”
“Questions don’t always come cheap in those sorts of places.”
“I don’t have a lot of chits. Services pays me in credits and most of what I convert goes to keep the accountants on my side.”
I breathe. Bite my tongue. Wait for her to continue speaking. I’m doing this job as a favor, but I’d still like to get something out of it. At a minimum, I don’t want to lose money on driving around the city and paying off doormen.
Fortunately, most people interpret the hardening of my jaw and cold control of my eyes as barely controlled rage, rather than the suppressed anxiety that it truly is. That generally works to my advantage.
Ethie squirms and pats at her thinning hair, as if looking for the hat which rests atop her purse on the floor beside her. She looks at me with a haggard frown and shakes her head, minutely. “I wasn’t expecting charity, Talbot. I know Tamar better than that.”
I shrug. Wait.
“I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ve been raising kids in this town for nigh on fifty years. Started out when my husband died and left me childless. I know a few people who might make your work easier. Nobody in deep, mind you, I raise them too good for that. But I’ve got a son in Rydeco who can probably get you free car credits. Course, a man like you might be more interested in pleasures, right? Spending all your time above a club but never sampling the wares, am I right? My Laurie ended up managing a playhouse down by the river wall. Can set you up with some of the girls down there, if that’s more to your liking.”
I try to suppress my reaction, but she must see something in my face.
“Oh, they’ve got boys too. No need be ashamed, Tal. Things been a lot better for the manikins since legalization.”
“It’s not that I’m ashamed—”
“Good. Everyone got their own brand of pleasure. Now me, I prefer them older than me. Course, that’s been getting harder to find these last twenty years, if you catch my drift.”
You’re not here, I tell myself. You’re not listening to an eighty year old woman offer to get you free sex at a brothel one of her foster kids manages.
“Hell, I’ve been known to make a visit myself on occas—“
“Thank you for coming, Ethie,” I say, standing and offering her my hand.
She takes it and, befuddled, rises to go.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a photo of her, would you?”
“Laurie? She’s the manager, Talbot. Can’t rightly say she’s done any of the, uh, manual labor this last decade.”
“No, Ethie. I’m talking about Meg, the girl you asked me to find.” I hand Ethie her hat and bag, trying to usher her towards the door before I have to listen to any more awkward propositions.
She pulls away and steps over to my desk, where she upends her bag, scattering pens, cosmetics, sugar free candy, and packets of Mary’s Choice cigarettes across my control surface. “I’ve got her file in here somewhere.”
I close my eyes and breathe. Deep into the belly. Up through the diaphragm into my chest. Slowly out, starting down low in my core. Expelling the revulsion. I swear I’m not an ageist. I’ve helped plenty of elderly dancers out of their cabs when Tamar hosts a monthly event she calls Unfaded Glories and hauled plenty of grey haired Federal patriots out to cars at closing time, but something about Ethie makes me feel like dozens of spiders are crawling across my skin.
“Found it!” Ethie exclaims. She looked up at me, concern folding her perpetual frown into a basset hound lolling of the jowls. “You all right Talbot? You look like a toddler just head butted you in the balls.”
“Fine. Just a bit of a headache.”
She hands me a crumpled eper. “That’s all I got on her. A few captures, basic bill of health, her case history, such as it is. I’m worried about her, Talbot. Girl’s as quiet as a mouse. I’m half surprised they didn’t keep her in for observation, but you can never tell with Youth Services.”
I flatten out the eper just enough to make sure that it still works. The seal of the city Youth Services board flickers into existence on the crumpled surface, then fades into a watermark as a case file appears. Satisfied that I have what I need, I drop the it on my desk and help Ethie reload her purse, then see her down the stairs to the back door of the club where an autocab is already waiting. A chill gust nearly steals Ethie’s hat as I help her into the car and she clutches at the brim while I brace the door against the blast. When it passes she looks up at me, hooded eyes pleading. “Find her, Talbot. Before the storm. I hate to think of her wandering the streets during a hurricane.”
I give her a tight smile and nod, then push the door shut.
The autocab pulls off down the street, passing clusters of security cameras sprouting from every building, then turns a corner past an animated billboard reminding the residents of the midden to get their phage boosters. It’s a tacit admission from the city’s managing board that they need the midden to drive the economy, even if they view us as a rabble of infection vectors. Some thought that corporatization would result in a police state, with the cameras that peer down on us being harnessed by city security to arrest anyone who dared act against the interest of the state, but the real result has been a sort of benevolent neglect. Step one: Secure the borders with drones and barricades. Step two: Give everyone in the city a clear path to employment. Step three: Ignore anything that doesn’t directly harm the ruling corporations. There are fewer people to worry about now, and most of those who are still alive are desperate to move up the corporate ladder, so there’s little point in policing every aspect of citizens’ lives.
“Cold night for pining after empty streets, bossman.” I look around and see Sven has stepped out of the club for a smoke break. He pulls deep on his vaporizer, painting his scarred face with a pale blue glow.
“They say this might be the worst storm in a decade. Got some cousins thinking of heading west of the mountains before it hits.”
Sven’s got cousins everywhere. Half of them are probably not even blood relatives, but who am I to judge how a man forms a family. I shrug off my ghosts and say, “The rain’s just as bad out there.”
“Yeah, but if the levee breaks…”
“There’s no hiding from the storms, Sven. Go west you just trade drowning for tornadoes and survivalist gangs.” I stalk past him and pull at the door, which hesitates for an instant before recognizing me and unlatching. I pause, holding the door open, and turn back to Sven. “Any of your cousins deal in little kids?”
He half turns and raises a bushy eyebrow at me. “We’re better than that, bossman. Now, you need somebody killed, talk to Gregory down in the seventeenth.”
I close the door and trudge back up the stairs to my office.