Another morning, another rude awakening from the city’s emergency alert network. Seems the hurricane has hit a pocket of warm air above the vast swamplands and is actually gaining strength as it grinds up the coast. We’ve got a day at most before it hits the city. Already the lower districts have been ordered to begin preparing for extensive flooding. The docks on the inside of the river wall have been cleared, the last of the ships scurrying downriver in hopes of reaching the ocean before the storm hits and washes them out into the mire to be picked over by scavengers. The middle levels, where Tamar’s place is located, are less likely to flood, but we should be prepared to hole up for between twenty-four and indefinite hours, because there’s a chance that the mayor might take this opportunity to exterminate the middle class.

All right, that last bit might be my own cynicism distorting the news. Besides, he’s more likely to let the poor drown in their hovels along the highway that rings the city than to risk upsetting his corporate masters who depend on the midden for a steady stream of upwardly mobile workaholics. 

The bourbon glass is still on my desk as I stumble up from the sofa. I snag it and down the oddly viscous concoction of melted ice and trace alcohol on my way into the bathroom. Fill the glass from the tap and blindly down some city water before I dare look at myself in the mirror. On second thought, I think as I rub the stubble on my cheek and feel my eyes throbbing behind their lids, maybe I’d better not see myself this morning. I haven’t felt the urge to off myself for at least forty-eight hours and there’s no point spoiling a good start to the day.

The hot water needles my skin in the shower, steaming away some of my self loathing along with a couple layers of epidermis.

Soon enough I’m sitting naked and mostly awake in my desk chair, waving for my ancillary to apprise me of any overnight messages. There are better systems available now, synthetic intellects so advanced that even conservative pundits are beginning to open ask whether machines will achieve independent sentience within our lifetimes. Problem is that most of those are owned by the companies and I prefer to stick with open source projects for my computing. The way I look at it, if a system is secure enough for the sort of computer hacker who spends their waking hours playing cat and mouse with corporate infosec, trying to exfiltrate technical data to sell on the open market, then it’s probably good enough for me.

The desk recognizes my face, fingerprint, iris, habitual login time, and passphrase, then starts spilling out bundles of data into the display field. The first thing to catch my eye is a report on the latest Federal drone surveillance of Redemptor territory in the mid-west. I scan the article as I sip another glass of water, trying to not worry about what sort of engineered germs the Redemptors might slip into the city water processing plants if they got the opportunity. 

After Red Easter, a lot of people figured that the Fed wouldn’t be long in eliminating apocalyptic sects, after all it’s not as if they are discrete. Problem was that it took longer than any civilian imagined for the plague to run its course. Hell, even now there are pockets of the mire where you run the risk of contracting a variants if your phage load isn’t strong enough. Then there was the matter of corporate statehood, breakaway states, and the general degradation of the Federal system. Add to that the close ties between the Redemptors and the politically connected televangelists who had spent the better part of a century decrying the nation’s sins and it was difficult, no matter how many people died from the plague, to drum up much political will for a systematic expurgation of Redemptor theology. When it all settled down about fifteen or twenty years back, we were left with a Fed that mostly serves as a wholly inadequate police force for the mire and a sort of mediator between the newly corporatized enclave cities. 

I wave the drone video onto eper, hold it up to close my face, and waste several minutes searching for familiar faces among the Redemptor border patrol standing guard with assault rifles slung over their shoulders. It’s been a long time since I have heard from any of my relatives who set out west to try and escape the plague, but I figure that if they are still alive the odds are even that they ended up joining a religious compound somewhere in the great planes. Finding no familiar faces, I wave away the news feeds and pull up my encrypted messaging suite. It’s not the most convenient method of communicating, the most secure messages require me to have met the sender in person and exchanged high-entropy security keys using our handys, but it’s as safe as anything can be these days, which is to say that there’s only a single-digit percent chance that the Feds or one of the more proactively intrusive corporations will be able to read my messages. Some will tell you it’s impossible to view an encrypted message, and that is true to an extent, but the moment that something is displayed on a computer screen, there’s a way to snoop it. 

Amid the usual stream of updates from my contacts in other cities and scattered across the mire, there’s a message from Darby. 

Turns out that I’m not the only person snooping around after a missing girl. 

Someone else has been probing the city’s dirty underbelly, sticking his nose into the flesh markets, organ dealerships, pleasure houses, and sweat shops, looking for a little girl. He’s been discrete about it, walking into dimly lit labor halls and flashing a photo he claims to be of his dear little girl who has gone missing while out on visitation with his ex-wife. His business interests and the ex’s questionable citizenship status make going to security awkward, so he’s supposedly desperate to find his kid and willing to pay a hefty bounty to anyone who can point him in the right direction.

A believable enough story, were it not for the fact that the guy is still poking around after almost two weeks. You’d think that any real father would swallow his pride, say damn the ex, and go to Security after a few days at most. They’d have run a comparison on the face and pointed him right to Ethie’s place, where Youth Services had just placed his darling little girl. 

No. This guy is like me, only he’s probably working for whatever gang or corporate slave shop the girl escaped from to begin with. 

Darby’s message is short on names (he knows the value of keeping his contacts happy, and in his business happy and anonymous are often synonymous), but appended to it is a short video clip. Judging from the superimposed and stenographically enciphered timestamps along the bottom of the image, it’s straight off somebody’s security camera. 

The grayscale video shows two men standing at a counter in a room that would be dimly lit by visible light, but is positively glowing in the infrared illumination of the security cameras. The floor is covered in thick shag carpet, which runs right up the walls and along the front face of the counter. The man behind the counter is dressed in attire that attempts a fusion of bedroom casual and maître d’ formal with somewhat limited success. His half-shorn half-long haircut is a throwback to previous century brorave and his body language screams that he would rather be anywhere but here, answering questions for an irate father. The other man is close to the ideal median of corporate blanditude. Average height. Expensive haircut with just the hint of what could equally be three days worth of stress-induced chin stubble or a carefully cultivated faux-cool. His clothes tread that same vague line between unkempt and meticulously distressed, capped off with a battered leather jacket that fits him too well to not be custom tailored.

I zoom in on the video clip, trying to get a look at the man’s face. In the grayscale, his skin tone appears to be somewhere around average tan, but it’s impossible to be sure. He looks young: mid thirties at the latest. Not too young to be the girl’s father, especially if he is wealthy enough for rejuvenation treatments, but perhaps a tad youthful to be a genuine corporate exec, which is what he must be if he is telling the truth. Nobody that young ought to have the money to toss around bribing sex club operators for information, let alone the intense concern for his own reputation, and the sympathy for an illegal ex wife to try to keep security off her back as well. You could certainly find one of those things in many a person younger than me, perhaps even two if you encountered a remarkable young man, but I figure the odds of encountering all three character traits in any man, let alone one my junior, are vanishingly small. 

I go back to Darby’s message, skimming it for more information about this mysterious father figure. 

This sort of investigation isn’t uncommon, but most folks who suspect that their kids have been taken by the dark side of the city give up after asking around the half a dozen bars and pleasure houses closest to their home and then either go to security or, if they have reason to keep their loss private, look for someone like me. I know this much already. It’s the foundation of my business. Well, seems that this enterprising young father has been spotted at no less than two dozen locations within Darby’s network alone. Given that Darby is far from the only player in the citywide shadow game, and that even the most cynical estimate would put the number of businesses paying protection to one syndicate or another at less than a quarter of the total, there’s a solid chance that this same guy has been wearing his shoes thin trekking across the city.

Darby’s good about not using names, and probably intended for me to have to come back and offer him some obeisance before he would give up the names of establishments where daddy boy was snooping around, but that won’t be necessary. 

The great thing about a stenographically signed surveillance camera is that most people who put one up fill out the information accurately. I mean, if you’re going to spend at least double what a decent surveillance system costs for the privilege of encoding a tamper-evident location and timestamp on the file, there’s little point in lying about who you are. All of the protocols for reading those stamps are open, have been since the standard was established, to ensure that plenty of researchers had access to bang on the encryption and make sure that nobody could fake the video or metadata without altering the verification certificate, so it takes me all of ten minutes to work out the owner of the camera that captured the video. 

The thing’s registered to one Amelia “Coldhart” Vimes who, according to another brief network search, is the sole proprietor of a little pleasure house called Coldheart’s Carriage Club just a couple districts west of Tamar’s. 

That sounds like as good place to start looking as any. 

I dress and summon an autocab. With everyone running about, doing last minute shopping before the storm arrives, the system estimates that it will take me a couple of hours to arrive. Not quite long enough to be worth hiking down the hill, through the more lowdown neighborhoods, and then back up again two hills later, but the thought is tempting. 

I kill some time reviewing the cost of ownership on a used car and have just about convinced myself that it’s worth the insurance fees to get myself a rundown hydrogen conversion when my handy informs me that the autocab is on its way.

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