He Who Laughs Last
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 actually...business 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
"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
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."
"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
"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."
"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
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
"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
"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."
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
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.