I leaned back and tried to rub two days worth of grime from my eyes. The holoterminal on the desk flickered as smoke drifted through it, coiled in lazy circles, and was dispersed by the old metal fan that rattled on top of the filing cabinet in the corner. The workspace on the display was a jumble of case notes, crime scene photos, and ads for illicit services I may or may not have considered contracting.
I took a long draw from the cigarette as I turned away from the desk. The office’s only window was half obscured by the backside of a billboard — for what I didn’t even recall — but I could still get a decent view of the city. A short pull of a drawstring raised the nicotine-stained blinds. Rainwater beaded up on the glass faster than it could run off, giving the impression that the outside world was trapped in some surreal aquarium of decadence. Steel and glass towers rose from the depths of the city like titanic fingers accusing the gods for the suffering of those below. Neon signs in every color twisted and danced in an orgy of commercialism run rampant, and holographic adverts projected for all the city to view seemed to be waving like aquatic flora subject to the currents of the sea.
I was broken from my reverie by a knock at the door. My nine-o’clock must have arrived, meaning it was later in the morning than I had thought. You couldn’t tell the day had come through the clouds and smog and rain. I hadn’t slept in two days either, so even if the sun had poked through the haze I might not have noticed. I spun the chair back around and stamped out the butt of the cigarette in a glass ashtray as I said, “Come in.”
The rusty hinges groaned as the frosted glass door was pushed open. It had been suggested that I replace them, but I liked to know when somebody was coming into my office and they were as effective as any fancy electronic sensor might have been. The dame that strode through the door looked as fantastic as she had a week ago when she first arrived, although her cheeks lacked the tear-streaked mascara they had born on that visit. Constance Hathaway had on a tight-fitting red dress that left little to the imagination, not that what she wore last time had concealed much mystery either. Her body had all the right curves in all the right places, and she had legs that went on for miles. Her crimson lips were like a bloody gash on an otherwise porcelain-like complexion, and blond locks fell around her shoulders like a waterfall of molten gold.
“Take a seat, Mrs. Hathaway,” I said without standing. I tapped a button on the desk, and the back side of the holodisplay was overlapped by a privacy filter. All she could see now would be a loop of some tropical beach somewhere I had no hope of ever visiting. I learned a long time ago it was best to play the cards close to the chest in these matters. “How are you today?”
“I’m doing as well as one would expect,” she replied. The sullenness in her voice was as strained as a set of strings on an old guitar left out in the rain. She squatted into the chair with her knees turned to the side. It was a wonder that dress could contain those hips, but it did its job. She placed her hands on the arms of the old metal chair, and as her right hand grasped it there was a clank and a scratching of metal on metal.
It was a shame, really. Such a perfect body until you got to that one shoulder, then it was all wires and servos and titanium plating. The bare metal bore a stark contrast to her perfect skin, and the whining of gears as she lowered herself punctuated what would have been a fluid grace. I flicked through the documents on the screen with two fingers, shuffling through the items until I found the specs I had looked up on that arm. I pinched the file between my forefinger and my thumb and dragged it over to the tablet resting on the desk. As soon as I touched it the screen lit up and there were all the details of her robotic arm laid out plain to see. I pushed the tablet over to give her a better view. “Impressive piece of hardware. Expensive too.”
She glanced at the display and huffed. “I don’t need reminded of that, and I don’t see what this has to do with my husband’s murder.” She looked over my shoulder, her eyes locked on the window behind me. Rain still beat against the pane like a thousand witnesses screaming for justice.
I pinched another file and flicked it towards the tablet. “Lawrence Hathaway, age fifty-two. Resident of the Vista Del Mar Villas, along with his young third wife, for the last five years. Account manager for Yanimusha Industries. Sound about right?”
Constance slid the tablet back across the desk so hard it almost fell off the other side. “Of course it does. That’s my husband. Aren’t you supposed to be telling me something I don’t already know?”
“I’ll get there,” I said as I reached down and slid open the bottom drawer of the desk. I pulled out a bottle of scotch and two glasses which I set down on top of the tablet. Pictures of Lawrence Hathaway danced under an amber sea as I poured two drinks. I picked up one and slid the tablet back over with the other before putting the bottle away. I took a sip and watched her eyes as she picked the glass up from the glowing ghost of her dead husband. She glanced away quickly, her gaze returning to the window as she took a sip of the beverage.
I pinched another file and flung it to the tablet. “I found that fellow you described. Turns out his name is Marcus Vance.”
She looked down at the profile on the tablet. There was a candid photo of a burly man in street leathers outside of a local underground night club. The file had his basic biographical information, but I had another card up my sleeve with more details on him. “That’s him,” she said with a quiver in her voice. “That’s the man Lawrence was arguing with.” There was a series of clicks and the whine of tiny servos as the fingers on her mechanical hand twitched in her lap. The latest prosthetics had overcome a lot of flaws in recent years, but they still didn’t react very well to adrenaline.
“Funny thing about that: He said he’s never been uptown, and I’m pretty sure a straight-laced, white-collar guy like your husband never made it down into The Burrows.” There was a line drawn in the sand of modern society, one which wasn’t often crossed. The dregs of society kept to the lower levels of the city, and the lowest of all was The Burrows. Old sewers and the bones of what was left of the past had been crafted into a series of tunnels and warrens where the majority of the population lived without ever seeing the light of day. People like the Hathaways lived in ivory towers above the smog. I was somewhere in the middle, an ambassador to and from the filth for those who had the credits to pay for my services. “Want to take another look?”
Her eyes flicked back to the tablet for a moment and swept across mine before returning to the window like a rodent trying to avoid the notice of a prowling cat. “I’m sure that’s him.”
“So, your bean-counting husband was visited by some Burrow-trash up in The Heights?” I flipped through the files until I found my notes from our first meeting. “And according to you, they got into an argument over money. You have no idea why the late Mister Hathaway would have business with Mister Vance?”
“No idea whatsoever, as I told you already,” she said. The veins in her neck were throbbing. She took another sip of the scotch and set the glass down with a shaking hand.
“Hmm,” I murmured. “So there’s another funny thing about Mister Vance. He wasn’t the talkative sort when we first met, but I could tell he had something to hide. That sort always does, don’t they?” I let a charming smile cross my face and met her eyes until she couldn’t bare to ignore me anymore. Her pupils locked onto mine and her nostrils flared in a way that could make even the most beautiful strumpet seem like a bull ready to charge.
“I wouldn’t know,” she said.
“Trust me, they do.” I flicked the notes aside, pinched my fingers on a photo, and sent it to the tablet. The screen lit up with another picture of Marcus, this time slumped against a tunnel wall. Blood ran from the corner of his mouth and his nose in a crimson river of pain. “Luckily, I can be very persuasive when I need to be.”
She barely glanced at the photo before turning away.
“I’m sure you’d like to know what he had to say, wouldn’t you?” I asked as I drained the rest of my scotch. I grabbed the crumpled pack of smokes from the desk and pulled one out. My eyes never left hers as I placed a cigarette between my lips and lit it. I took a deep breath of warm smoke and let it escape lazily as I said, “He had quite a bit to say about you, in fact.”
“Impossible,” she barked as she shot to her feet. Her metallic hand scraped on the chair with a screech and trembled as she stood there. The servos hissed and whined as her fingers twitched uncontrollably. “I see I’ve hired the wrong investigator to look into my husband’s murder. Are you going to have this man arrested or not?”
I slid open the drawer and pulled the scotch back out, filled my glass, and set the bottle back. I wrapped my fingers around the handle of the piece I always had hidden there; a chrome-plated .45 I had lifted off some gangster back in my days on the force. I laid my hand in my lap with the pistol, keeping it out of sight. “Oh, I’m sure I could find something to hang him out on, but he didn’t kill your husband.”
“What a waste of time,” Constance said as she turned to stomp towards the door.
I pressed my foot down on a switch under the desk and the locks on the door slid into place with a loud clack. She looked comical trying to pull it open. The rich were so used to getting their way that when presented with an impassable obstacle they turned into mewling kittens of frustration.
“You’ve been to The Burrows, haven’t you?” I started to lay it out for her. “Marcus said as much. You’re actually on his client list. See, Mister Vance has quite a reputation as a loan shark. Not one of the more reputable ones, but not picky about who he deals with, either.”
She spun around, the flush rising on her neck and cheeks almost competing with the brightness of her dress. “Are you seriously going to take the word of some lowlife over mine? I demand that you unlock this door right now.”
I’d seen two-year-olds throw calmer tantrums and tell more convincing lies. One thing that made dealing with white-collar criminals easy was that they usually had no idea what they were doing. While a professional would have woven a tapestry of lies so thick that you couldn’t pull it apart, I’d only needed to tug one thread for her entire charade to come apart.
I stood up with the gun at my side, leveled at her to let her know that our business arrangement had been altered. “Your story about Lawrence arguing with Marcus was very convincing. I believed it until I realized that you had just swapped your husband’s name for yours. The way I figure, your husband’s paycheck wasn’t enough to keep you happy. Most of all, you wanted an upgrade for that rig of yours.” I flicked a receipt for her prosthetic onto a wall monitor where it would be displayed larger than life. Her eyes shot over to the wall and grew large. “You tracked down mister Vance and took out a loan, but you never intended to pay it back. You thought you’d be safe up in The Heights, but when the piper came calling you realized the ivory tower you lived in wasn’t as safe as you thought.”
She began to pace around the room like a caged animal. She screamed and beat at the door, then spun on me, “I’ll pay you double to keep your mouth shut!”
I smiled at her and took another drag of the cigarette, then flicked a bank statement onto the wall. “Looks like that’ll be difficult, considering you’re tapped out. No, I think I’ll stick with the standard bounty for hauling you in for the murder of your husband. It’s a pretty easy game of connect the dots at this point. Marcus threatened to ruin that pretty face of yours if you didn’t pay up, so you figured cashing in on the old man’s insurance policy early was a better option. You’ve just been waiting for him to kick the bucket anyway, so why not help him along?”
“You can’t prove that!”
I sent an image up to the wall display this time. “You know, early prosthetics were a criminal’s dream come true. No fingerprints, so you could get away with murder if you wanted to. The government caught on pretty quick, so now every artificial hand has microscopic patterns that act like serial numbers on them. They don’t make a big show of it, of course. Not something many people know about.” The picture was of the late Lawrence Hathaway, and in the corner a blown up image from an electron-microscope scan of the bruising where he had been strangled. There, plain as day, was the tell-tale pattern from a prosthetic hand.
Constance screamed and charged across the tiny office at me. I squeezed the trigger and sent a round tearing through her mid-section. The splatter across the frosted glass of the door looked like blood strewn across some snow-covered battlefield. Still, she came at me. She batted the pistol aside with that metal appendage and brought it back across my face. My nose shattered under the impact and pain shot through my head. Blood already stained that hand, so she didn’t have any hesitation about getting more on it. That was the thing about killing, it was always easier the second time.
Luckily for me, I was well past that point myself. I spat a mouthful of blood on the floor and rounded on her, driving my shoulder into her chest and pushing her back against the filing cabinets. They crunched and groaned in protest, and the fan toppled onto the floor with a clatter. She screamed again and pushed me back. If not for the prosthetic, she would have had no chance of overpowering me; but the strength of that arm easily tossed me about like a rag doll. I ducked as she took a clumsy swing, and shuffled around to the other side of the desk.
“I’ll kill you. You’re not going to get away with this!” she yelled, still playing the victim.
I had a witty retort handy, but decided to save my breath. I knew I’d need it. She ran around the desk and I slid behind it, my back to the window. As she charged again I twisted to the side, grabbed her arm, and gave her a good push. The glass shattered with a crash that muffled her scream as she fell through it. The shards twinkled in the neon light with a rainbow of colors that chased her into the depths of the city. Her shrill cry faded as she fell, eventually swallowed by the background noise and the driving rain.
I slumped into the chair and pulled the bottle back out of the desk. I took a long swig straight from it since my glass had been lost in the scuffle. I lit up a smoke and cursed under my breath as blood dripped along it from my shattered nose. I coughed and spat out another mouthful of the copper-tanged liquid before draining the rest of the scotch. I cleared the files off the holodisplay and brought up a fresh pad to enter notes on. The rain poured in through the broken window and began to wash the blood from the floor, patting against the side of the filing cabinet like it was beating the rhythm to Constance’s funeral dirge. I slumped forward and began to type, wanting to get this over with so I could get some sleep. The worse thing about killing a client was always the paperwork.
B.K. Bass is an author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror inspired by the pulp fiction magazines of the early 20th century and classic speculative fiction. He is a student of history with a particular focus on the ancient, classical, and medieval eras. He has a lifetime of experience with a specialization in business management and human relations and served in the U.S. Army. B.K. is also the Editor-in-Chief of Kyanite Publishing and the Kyanite Press journal of speculative fiction, and the writing department chair for Worldbuilding Magazine.
Find out more about B.K. at bkbass.com.