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He Who Laughs Last

Part I

Some days I hate my job.

Today is one of those days. I'm slagged out from two days of surveillance on behalf of some paranoid sworm-kisser who thinks his wife's slinking around on him. You'd think he'd be happy when I presented him with the information that her so-called "business meetings" were meetings. But no.

"I'm paying you to get evidence that she's cheating on me!"

I pointed out that this was tough to do if she wasn't cheating on him.

"I know she is! Maybe...maybe she's putting out for you so you'll tell me these things!"

I admit it, I was tired, sore, and frustrated. So I let him have it with both barrels. I told him precisely what I thought of his dirty little mind, his intelligence factor (which I compared unfavorably to his belt length), the probable size of his manhood, and his intense need for psychotherapy.

Satisfying? Definitely. Smart? No. So now, here I was, sitting in my office with two days shot to heck and not one meseta to show for it.

Like I said, some days I hate my job.

Most people would call me a hunter. I admit, there are some similarities. I work for private clients, I carry a gun, and now and again the Division of Law Enforcement would love to escort me down to Central HQ for a nice long talk about what my work was and how many sections of the Palman Laws it had broken. So from that viewpoint, maybe I am a hunter.

I don't see it that way, though. From where I sit, hunters are the mercenaries, the op-teams, the gridriders who provide the deniable assets corps use in their under-the-table wars to see who can squeeze the last meseta out of the consumer. That's not how I work. I do surveillance, find missing persons, make courier runs. Industrial espionage, B and E, kidnapping, sabotage, extractions, wetwork--those I leave for the real hunters, the hardcases. That's why the sign on the door says "Rand Marshall, Inquiry Agent," and why the Redfield Marksman sonic gun I carry has a permit issued to my very own citizen ID.

It's also why my bank account isn't swollen with ill-gotten meseta, or any other kind for that matter, but you can't have everything.

Why I'd come back to the office I didn't know. I could pick up my visiphone messages from home just as easily, and work was the last thing on my mind. I'd managed maybe four hours of sleep at best out of the last sixty, and I was wiped. Masochistic tendencies, maybe; I don't know.

I'd just decided to go home and sleep, 3:00 PM or not, when the phone rang. Predictable. It rang twice more while I debated whether to bother, but I finally surrendered.

"Marshall, inquiry agent."

"Mr. Marshall?"

"That's right." A secretary was a luxury I couldn't afford and would just be one more person the clients didn't want to know about their business anyway.

"I have a job for you, if you're interested."

My caller had a hollow-cheeked face, short black hair, and a goatee with pink stripes. His right nostril was pierced, and the jeweled ring looked like it was worth something. Entertainment or underworld, I decided. I toyed with the idea of telling him no and hanging up, but my bank balance politely suggested that this would be a bad idea.

"What kind of a job are you talking about?"

"A courier run. I need some sensitive data taken from Camineet to Scion."

"Travel," I pointed out, "is expensive."

"You'll get two thousand meseta for the job plus a teleport ticket. How you get back to Camineet is your own problem."

That was well within my pay scale. Heck, it was well above my pay scale. I asked for a retainer anyway, and he agreed to one-fifty up front. Things were definitely improving.

"All right, let's talk details," I said.

"Go to the Matrix-4 store on Ashdown in Parolit at seven-thirty. Hang out, look at the stuff until the manager, named Naria, is free. Go up to her and ask if you can see the latest model Tigerstone. She'll tell you that the 1272 isn't out yet, but ask if you'd like some promotional literature. Say yes and she'll give you a chip. Bring that chip to Scion. Your teleport ticket and the retainer will be waiting for you at the teleport station."

I took a couple of quick notes. Code phrases aren't my favorite trick, and I didn't want to screw up.

"What about the other end?"

"When you get to Scion, you'll probably be hungry anyway. There's a bar a couple blocks down the street from the teleport station called the Mermaid. Go in, eat, drink, whatever. Someone will approach you and ask you what you think of the Knights' chances this year. You'll exchange the chip for the rest of your fee, and that will be that."

"Sounds simple."

"I don't like things complicated," my client said.

"A man after my own heart. Do I get a name to go with the face?"

The man smirked.

"Yeah, sure. You can call me Cash, P.I. Cash."

As in, "Paid In." Wiseass.

"If you live up to the name, I'll forgive your bad jokes. Goodbye."

The phone beeped as my client hung up. I dialed up the city's InfoAccess system and located the Matrix-4 shop, then verified directions from there to the teleport station. I checked that I had a bag ready with a spare suit of clothes and a toothbrush (in this biz you never know just when you'll be staying overnight), then I set the phone clock to alarm mode and curled up on the couch for a nap. I needed to get all the rest I could now; on a case there was rarely time to catch forty winks.

Any rest a person got then was usually permanent.

* * * * *

I stepped into Matrix-4 ten minutes before the allotted time, thanks to shockingly light traffic on the roadways. I'd never set foot in one of them before, though I'd walked past any number of Matrix-4s in shopping malls. The chain is owned by Global Envirotech ("Building Palm's Tomorrow Today"), and an inordinate number of its products were produced either by G-Tech or one of its subsidiaries.

The theme of the place was nature, the "matrix" of life (Where the "4" came from I had no idea. Maybe it was the fourth name they thought of.) that included all aspects of the ecosystem. The walls were inset with a long, narrow strip of aquarium that ran all the way around the store, about a foot wide at chest level. Gaily colored tropical fish with long, sweeping fins swam in and out of live, not plastic plants. They didn't seem particularly depressed by their captivity; maybe regular feedings and an environment free of predators were worth more than privacy and freedom to a fish (or a resident of Mota, but that was another rant). Who knew? The fish weren't talking.

The products on the racks and shelves were all nature-related. Shirts with natural scenes, artwork, educational chips, natural-wonders holovids, the works. I drifted towards the garden kits, containing everything a person needed to microclimatize their own garden. Not that there was much dirt in the archopolis to grow anything other than mildew, but enough suburbanites seemed to like them to make keeping the rack well-stocked worthwhile. Tigerstone was a fairly expensive model, including rocks, seeds, irrigation system and nutrient feeds designed to turn your back lawn into a slice of tropical jungle. Purchase of two biotechnology robots (also from Global, no surprise there) was recommended "for ease of installation and maintenance."

I glanced at the date and noted that, in fact, this was the AW 1271 model of this particular kit. I wondered what would happen if some legitimate customer came in and asked for this year's. Would they end up with the data I was supposed to pick up? I'd better keep an eye out for Naria, I decided.

Then I saw her.

G-Tech happens to own an exclusive chain of biosculpting salons, and the Matrix-4 manager obviously believed in using her corporate master's product. Either that or Nature had been in an extremely kind mood when it made her because Naria was curvy in all the right places and slender in the rest of them. Her pale green blouse was open at the throat just enough to hint at temptation without being overtly unprofessional, and the soft brown skirt which matched her hair was snug on her legs. A small gold name tag was pinned on her shirt, which was how I knew this was really her and not just some vision sent to distract me.

Well, that was that. One point six seconds of ogling and the back to business, which was likely to be all the exercise my hormones got for a while. If you believe the holovid, we lone wolf inquiry agents possess such magnetism and charm that we can't help but get involved romantically with at least one member of the opposite sex per case (yes, it applies to women, too, at least according to Monica Shayne, Hunter for Hire). In reality, it gets very lonely being a lone wolf.

Deciding that my whiny mood was due to a lack of sleep, I approached the manager before someone else took my chance.

"Excuse me, Miss," I said. "I see you're the manager here, so maybe you can help me. I've been looking for a Tigerstone, but all I see on the shelves are the 1271s. Could I see the latest model?"

Naria's face fell in the perfect retail clerk's "Oh, I'm so sorry but..." expression.

"Sir, I'm afraid that this year's Tigerstone hasn't been released yet. Global Envirotech is working hard to make it the best possible choice for your garden. Perhaps you'd like a chip containing a promotional holovid for the 1272, so you can see how right it is for you?"

"I'd appreciate that."

She took me over to the cashier's desk, where she presented me with a slender datachip, colored blue-green rather that the usual amber, as well as a business card.

"There you go, sir. If you decide the Tigerstone is your choice, we'll be happy to take a pre-order for you. Our visiphone and datanet-link numbers are on the card."

"Thank you."

Her customer-service facade cracked then, just for a second. I was grateful; I was starting to get afraid that I really had been given an ad for a garden kit!

"Good luck...with your garden."

Reassured, I gave the fish a grin and left Matrix-4, slipping the chip into an inside pocket and tossing the business card into a recycling bin on the way back to my landskimmer.

I got the skimmer going and gave the autodrive the Teleport Station as my destination. Obediently, the computer headed towards the nearest ascent ramp and headed up to the elevated highways that were the fastest way of getting around the arch' for we not lucky enough to have private aerocopters. The roadpass unit on the dash beeped and flashed a green light as we passed the entry gate, reporting to the traffic computer that yes, I had paid my road tax this month. So far, everything was going well.

One thing you learn quickly in the inquiry agent biz is that most of the time if you think a job is going well, you're not paying attention. Sure enough, there was a nondescript gray sedan sitting just far enough back behind me that an average skag wouldn't notice that it was following me. I've tailed people before, though, and unless you've got an electronic transmitter or a team of shadows that can switch off, you're going to be fairly noticable to the trained eye.

I've got some nice optics rigged up in the skimmer for surveillance work, so I went and took a look at the guy on my tail. Magnifying the view through his windscreen, it became fairly evident that I was looking at a huskily built man in a pale gray coat that matched his skimmer, with a square jaw and a Drasgow Corsairs cap.

Oh, hell, I said to myself.

I am, theoretically, a trained observer. While, admittedly, most of my observational skills had been centered on Naria at the time, I had noticed Square Jaw back in the shop. My subconscious mind, which is better at these things than my conscious, had picked up on the fact that he was giving me a sharp look while I was talking to the manager. At that time I'd assumed it was standard alpha-wolf crap (you know, he wants to try and make points with the female but I'm in the way, the kind of thing we ought to grow out of during puberty but don't) but now that he was following me, well, it felt like something completely different.

Did Mr. Cash have loose lips? Did someone else involved in his little scheme? Or had some of his enemies fallen back on the old trick of tapping his phone? No way of knowing now, but it was clear that this wasn't going to be a milk run.

There are a number of ways to lose someone who is tailing you, but they all rely on two basic ideas. Either you make them lose contact with you so they can't figure out where the heck you are, such as by sharp turns through mazelike back streets, or you can put them in a situation where they're physically unable to follow, such as sticking them at a stop light. I decided to try for the latter.

I was in the second-from-the-left lane of traffic, and an exit was coming up. I switched to manual drive on the fly and swung hard to the right, cutting across six lanes. Angry horns sounded and I nearly got clipped by a landrover, but thanks to the relatively light traffic of the evening, I made it to the exit.

The guy following me tried to keep up, he really did. The move had caught him flatfooted, since it was my first radical maneuver and up until then he'd been thinking "sneak and follow" instead of "pursuit." he reacted quickly, though, and he might have hit the ramp had it not been for the Westalyn Brocknar coming up in the second lane right at the wrong time. Rather than test out the full-size family transport's anti-collision software, he pulled up short and shot past the exit. By the time he could get off the road, I'd be safely enmeshed in the groundways, impossible to catch.

I decided to stay on the ground from that point, rather than popping right back up to the highway. That would have been a major mistake which, if my shadow was a professional (and there was no reason to assume he wasn't, so far), that he'd keep his eyes open for, just in case. Instead, I plodded along, enjoying the congestion of local traffic and the occasional pothole all the way from Parolit to Downtown. By now it was after nine, local time (I had to start thinking about Scion time, too) and I was feeling very glad that Cash had arranged for me to teleport rather than fly out to the coast. Last-second changes in driving route have made better people than me miss their aerojets.

I guided my skimmer into the long-term section of a parking garage that served the station, collected my lot ticket, and set the vehicle sec-system. Another advantage to being legit is that unlike some hunters, I can actually have my skimmer alarms set to call the DLE if it's stolen or broken into. I actually managed to solve a case once when a guy broke into the back seat to snatch what I hadn't yet realized was incriminating evidence and the cops busted him. Secure in my own righteousness or some such rot, I slipped the key card into my pocket and headed across the street.

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