Second Death, A Novel

January 5, 2009

Chapter Two

Filed under: B) Chapter Two — David Halpert @ 1:15 am

The Behemoth flashed once, blinked twice, and flashed again for good luck. The main windows parted with flawless efficiency as he awoke to Beethoven’s Fifth. The following equation coursed through his brain every time he heard that first quartet of notes.

( * * * – ) = V = Victory

The bed stiffened to a harsher firmness as a meager incentive to get his ass out of bed, a sand-like rigidity, and he felt displaced to reality once again. Little sunlight beamed through the lunafilters which were set at a low intensity. The opaque wall was programmed to that setting as a hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of neon swirls sprawled over him. A syncopation of clarinets and cellos ejaculated as Harlan rolled out of the bed. Across his darkened closest the following proverb read ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME. The rainbow hummed to abysmal as the lunafilters lightened to twenty percent intensity, a minute after the Fifth died on queue.

No messages tallied his visors other than some spam. They were fully-charged and activated. It was early, pre-dawn. Checkout time was noon and the sun wasn’t up yet. In his rear pocket was a silver packet of aspirin, a paper wrapper with a generic logo, and he swallowed the two tablets dryly. Harlan waltzed over to an ancient bureau of woodstained azure, pulling open the uppermost drawer. Under a pile of cotton linens was a flat attaché case of corrugated, glossy black plastic. Its top face was of a Chinese dragon in plated sterling. Harlan pocketed the case alongside his portable taser and surveyed the condition of the room, before finally securing the VisorGoggles on the bridge of his nose.

“Play WotF from playlist Omega6,” he said over the sink. His suite was littered with pinhole mics, though he felt the need to lean in. Waltz of the Flowers whizzed through the room. His cup of Joe was simmering, two lumps of milk, one sugar, resting under the countertop’s ledge. He reclaimed two slices of recycled toast from the dispenser and headed to the table. First class complimentary breakfast. The Behemoth retracted the chair and he pleasantly coaxed himself into the seat.

“Messages,” he announced commandingly. The far branch of the table rose vertically. Thousands of pixels composed of electronic ink danced across the monitors. Broadband messages and LAN pop-ups contaminated his communal software. They were immediately quarantined and purged, swallowed by the gaping mouth of the Behemoth. Seven of fifty-six spammed messages were for him, whose radical high definition sent his retinas screaming.

Teeny boppers and sugardaddies at your disposal. Tell me young brother, what do you get with three brunettes and two blondes? Regular price five bucks, five bucks, five bucks. Order now!

By ten o’clock his U-Haul was filled to capacity, a 5×10 meter rental space of second-hand aluminum siding. Tocsins pervaded the morning. Just as Harlan suspected, Expansion had gone smoothly. The roadblocks were cleared, traffic ebbed and flowed. Ivory towers eclipsed his route, a penumbra leading to the downtown. The skywalks between buildings looked sparse, unpopulated. Exhaust fumes seeped into the cabin despite the front end filtration. Rush-hour was unavoidable. Even with GPS, it was a struggle.

#

Harlan got chills leaving the proximity. Once the rental truck was returned — and his deposit relinquished — he immediately scrounged enough change for the return trip. The lateral junctions weren’t as cutting edge, the monorails heading east/west. Pleather avocado seats, warped subway floors of burnt sienna. An influx of Austrian tourists swarmed their section; fanny packs, digital cameras, folding maps. The concave plasma stretched from one end of the train to the other, sprawling model shots like quicksilver.

He transferred at the next station, picking up a plastic bag full of wine gums and a free paper, and took the monorail to the financial sector. Electrostatic made his arm hair stand on end, gliding over the glass dome of the local Xanadu.

His new resident office was a Victorian replica, a historical simulacra of an age long forgotten. Porcelain tiles, synthetic ficus plants, glass honeycomb tiles decorating the southern wing. Standard Odyssey elevators were as follows: glass concrete planted in the floor, mirrors laced on all sides in frames of Venetian marble, miniature surveillance cams, and soft muzak playing from ill-equipped comsats. Harlan reached into his jacket, retrieving a folded envelope of discolored manila. His keycard was a dark crimson of tempered plastic, his name engraved in gilded courier.

#

Aiko was one of a hundred-and-twenty-eight avatars for Harlan to choose from, most of which were women. Her clothing for the moment was a default black pantsuit with navy heels and a burgundy waistcoat. Even the blackness of her pupils represented pages of digitized code, her blinking sequence a subcommand. If he’d substitute her personae completely all RAM would be lost. Not the files themselves necessarily but every shred of adapted personality that had evolved since her activation.

“Let’s get one thing straight,” demanded Harlan, tossing his holster onto the maple desktop, “I want no trace on the web. As far as you’re concerned I’m an island, a deserted island. History’s to be purged every other day. Cookies, nominal. Only a handful of sites will be bookmarked and checked regularly. Understand?”

“I don’t see what the big deal is?” said Aiko spastically. “My model’s full of antivirals. First sign of trouble firewalls kick in like the fucking Bay of Pigs.” Her spontaneity was also a subprogram, a subset of algorithms designed to mimic human empathy. She sauntered to the wicker chair in the far corner, crossing and uncrossing her legs, lighting a virtual cigarette expunged from a brass case. “You know I never took you for the paranoid type.”

Harlan propped up a tactile interface of airborne sapphire polygons. He accessed CNN and the New York Times with three precise swipes of his hand, pinching and dragging the headlines down in an enamel-framed display box.

“These are for starters, major networks, conglomerates. Crosslist these headlines daily for patterns and irregularities. Scan the local papers accordingly, especially the ones dealing with crime. Think you can handle that sweetheart?” He cupped his hands together, locking the display in place. The lenses of his VisorGoggles tinted scarlet before returning completely transparent.

“Is Novak your real name or is that just some fancy handle? Frankly, it sounds made up.”

“Are you even listening?”

“Of course I’m listening. Jeez, what do you think I run bandwidth-wise? Do you ever forget to breathe? Throughput baby, throughput.” Aiko drew in a long, slow intake of smoke, letting the fallen ash dissipate before ever striking the floor. “Look, don’t worry. Your preferences are saved. Any other request no matter how outlandish you wish to put forth before me. Please, I’m all ears.” She winked her right eye, now a vivid amethyst under a dusting of blue eye shadow, and blew him a kiss with pillowy lips.

“Thank you,” said Harlan resoundingly, “and just so you know my name’s real. Cross-reference Del Mar if you don’t believe me.”

“Ah, California dreamin’. Now the paranoia’s starting to make sense. Can’t walk down Ventura on a Saturday night with nothing less than a nine-mil.”

“You’ve been scanning my purchasing records haven’t you?”

“Maybe.”

“That was a long time ago.” Harlan excused to relive himself and washed the grit beneath his fingernails. Pale maroon distilled from translucent resin presently offset the lobby’s interior. It looked arid, depleted. He felt like a mosquito trapped in amber. Harlan opened his desk drawer fishing for a felt tip red pen. Without thinking, he turned to the paper’s classifieds. With any luck, there’d be a decent vehicle on the market.

“Speaking of California, we’re going to have to do something about these clothes,” interrupted Aiko, thrusting her hands into her pockets, “I’m not a dyke if that’s what you’re thinking. This outfit is so passé, pedestrian. I can’t pull off the whole upstanding office kitsch. Not like you detective.” Harlan did his best to ignore her. Pressing so hard into the gazette that the ink smudged his fingers.

“I’m younger I mean. I should dress age appropriate. I wasn’t found in a thrift store you know…”

“Do I have to tell you to stop talking or should I play some music?” Despite her silence he accessed Vivaldi’s Winter, unlocking the display through his VisorGoggles. The icon, a rotating compact disc, highlighted opal. The concerto streamed from his desk.

In the meantime Aiko was modeling ganguro fashions — a deep tan, false eyelashes, a tie-dyed sarong snug around her legs — in an oblong mirror framed with chestnut. Harlan folded the newspaper as a hibiscus flower blossomed over her right ear, her dress hemming up her bronze shins to resemble a free-flowing peach miniskirt, a kind of Valley-girl nostalgia.

“You don’t have to impress me you know. If I wanted cheap sex I would’ve opted for a pleasure model.”

“Well, you had your chance. Too late to get a refund now.”

“That’s fine. I wanted a secretary not a prostitute. Besides you came with the room.” There was nothing more depressing to Harlan than reviewing his monthly checking account. He lived in hyper-speed, not the mundane, a condition worse than jetlag experienced in real time. Slumming was a lot easier back West. There was a silent ethos to fraudulent activity, its unspoken allegiances, borders and limits. Living honestly is harder than people give credit for, and Harlan paid dearly for it.

The ceiling fan hummed.

Aiko flinched.

“Whoa we’ve got movement here. Some nice-looking chika just asked for you in the lobby.” He threw down the free paper and tapped the side of his VisorGoggles, reactivating the display on his lenses.

“Where is she now?”

“Heading north to the lobby’s elevator.”

“Can you patch me through to surveillance?”

“Of course.”

Aiko propped a bird’s eye view of the west wing Odyssey elevator. In there was a Latina in a stunning denim miniskirt with black stockings running just past the knees. Her white tank top presented low cleavage. The video’s contrast made it difficult to determine the extent of her tan, its authenticity. She was calm, erect, talking to herself in frustration.

“Bring up some audio,” said Harlan, “I hope you’re recording this, Aiko.”

“Please.” It did little good. Runaway Spanish flooded his eardrums behind low faded muzak. She exited the lift. The footage cut.

“Do I have to ask you to scram?”

Aiko spirited away. He expected a lengthy silhouette behind the frost glass of his door beyond the electronic plasma that read HARLAN COAX, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR but no one came. He stepped into the lengthy corridor. It was fitted with checkerboard tiles and oriental carpets, mosaics of lilacs and lotus flowers, but still no one came. Aiko’s flighty laugh echoed from his office and his anxiety wavered.

“You’re a real bitch you know that,” he said, igniting a fresh cigarillo. His lips numb over the gentle white plastic.

#

A person could live within the downtown core without ever touching a sidewalk, never mind leaving one’s apartment. The night’s sky was a violent pink hunkered over a canopy of clouds. Harlan bought a metropass the second he stepped off the subway. The tramway’s platform was vulcanized rubber constructed from recycled tires. They operated solo at night. Photovoltaic cells stored energy in flat wafers of silicone, anything left behind was carried over. The practicality of it was genius. Less people rode at night. Infrequent excursions to civilization only to be thrown in anarchy on the trip back.

The carriage’s interior was rife in ultramodern decadence. Plated steal scuffed the floor. Windows were festooned with slabs of cardboard held together by worn silver duct tape. A carriage normally fit for fifty, drawn to capacity at seventy-five, though it was incredibly sparse, tagged with graffiti on every visible surface. An elderly Chinese woman in an afghan shawl sat at the other end of the tram. The cabin buoyed, screeching relentlessly along the electromagnetic cable before descending over the apartment rooftop.

A wrinkled hand covered in liverspots fell on his shoulders as he was exiting. The old woman handed him a surgical mask.

“It’s the pigeons,” she said softly, “they’re carriers.”

#

St. James Town, Night City, a graveyard of condominiums sprouted from the earth. From Harlan’s vantage the depot’s nexus met half-a-dozen caged walkways leading to most district rooftops. He donned his black gloves, rough leather firm against his skin, as he ran his fingers along diamonds of rustic iron. Gravel crunched beneath his feet. When he entered the elevator most numbers were singed off the buttons. The doors didn’t close properly either, aluminum dented inwards slightly. He butted the tail end of his taser on any random circlet and waited for the lift to descend.

“And you weren’t here when the incident took place,” muttered Harlan. The lenses of his VisorGoggles framed in bright red neon.

“I told you ‘ready, man, got jacked during ‘pansion.”

“And what time was this?”

“Anywhere’s from ‘leven-thirty to one o’clock,” answered his client. C-Block was a catacomb of single room apartments slowly crumbling into oblivion. The stairwells were clotted with garbage. Its hallways set to rupture. So it only seemed fitting that his first client was named Ash. His domicile was a twenty cubed meter cell, half comprised of yellowed temperfoam, the other a platform of hardwood oak that smelt of fresh ground reefer.

Ash Wednesday was an expatriate, a ghost in the shadows, exiled without a trace, RL or otherwise. He had mocha skin, hulking muscles, and a shaved head with a light blanket of stubble. Gangland tattoos from a dozen syndicates blanketed his right arm. Hypodermic scar tissue inhabited his elbow’s cleft.

Oblong mirrorshades of a fine nickel sheen covered his eyelids. They appeared as

though graphed to the skin but on closer inspection were magnetized via a bridge piercing. His broad shoulders lumbered when he walked. A marginal paralysis due on long-term digital exposure. Not that there was much room to work with.

“What’s the security like in these parts?” said Harlan, scanning the room for evidence.

“These parts? Listen, boy, this ain’t no wild west. This is the jungle, survival of the fittest. You close your eyes for a second and you’ll regret it. I got a bounty on my head, ya hear? A low profile is priority.” Ash’s hands were shaking, not from apprehension, but from compulsion. Dollops of sweat beaded down his forehead. “Don’t ‘spect surveillance neither. They’re dummies, not worth the plastic they’re made from. Tried siphoning through the city’s mainframe, came up empty. Five layers of ICE and not a shred of interference, publicly anyway. District’s clean.”

Harlan zoomed in close, appraising Ash’s doorframe inch by inch. There was no forced entry albeit minute flakes of white paint chipped along the interior. This break-in was precise, calculated, planned.

“Take it Ash is your pen name?”

“My pen names have pen names, aliases upon aliases, handles upon handles. My identity’s like a deck of cards, pull one out and the rest come tumblin’ down.” Harlan sleuthed to the centerpiece of Ash’s abode, a semicircle of monitors perched at a downward angle. “Exile’s no easy fix, man. Burn your bridges. Leave no stone unturned. I was skeptical ‘bout calling you in the first place?”

“Yeah, why’s that?”

“’Cause I can’t exactly travel now. My freedom’s in lockdown for the moment. Can’t up and leave whenever I please, ya know. Used to be John Law was always on my ass, now it’s just junkies, Triads, gangstas. You name it. Ya wait long enough, the piranhas eventually eat themselves.”

The screens were an outdated Russian design comprised from an ashen-gray polymer, its corporate insignia branded on its exterior, its serial numbers scratched clean. Ash fastened the ‘trodes to his fingertips, cushioning his ass in a beat-up swivel chair before focusing the relay so that his palms were parallax with the counter.

The monitors powered up, a lulling phosphorescence. Ash clocked the feed behind his left ear, a chambered nautilus spitting lasers. Transparent keyboards of vivid amethyst cradled under anticipatory flesh as he plucked invisible keys en tandem with the gyrations of the lasers.

“Check this, boy,” continued Ash, nodding towards the monitors. Harlan leaned in closer to gain greater resolution, “not without contingency. Anything worth value I lojack. This guy owed me one, a dynamo with GPS, worked for some high-end enterprise back in the day.”

“What did they steal?”

“My piece for one but that’s no matter. Scowl the dumpsters after hours by the docks and you’re bound to find somethin’ good. Know what I’m saying?” The keys highlighted orange before fading a deep purple. Rhythm. Balance. A wireframe topographic of silver and matte black. The viewpoint plunged laterally sinking into the depths of Little Tokyo, strictly infrastructure, nothing pure. “This one was special, a real prize piece. An import from Helsinki back before they hit the mainstream.”

“The gun?”

Ash folded his stubby fingers into palms freezing the monitors in place. There were six drawers of thin-plated steel sunk deep within the walls. To Harlan’s surprise Ash crouched down to the floorboards, prying up two with brute force.

“A robopet,” he answered. Ash handed him a glossy brochure of saffron paper speckled with dirt and pine thistles. “That was the original design during test runs, more or less, saved them until launch. Kept the specs for myself. Had a friend retrofit the frame, modify the design, arm it with some serious intelligence, though nothing close to sentience.” A square Polaroid slipped from the brochure’s edge, drifting to the floor until Harlan picked it up. It had a vinegary aroma, fresh, no creases.

“Is this it?”

“Yeah, man that’s it.” An inch from the fallen Polaroid was an empty glass vial with no label. It had metallic top with a pinhole lid, perfect for a syringe. Harlan cupped it in his palm before Ash noticed.

“And what’s so special about this particular robopet that you called a P.I. to investigate?”

“Nothin’. Market value’s trash, man. The model itself is worthless. It’s what’s inside that matters.” Blueprints absorbed the adjacent monitors. Neon green specs against a charcoal backdrop. Lines of alphanumeric code scrawling from left to right. “The specs themselves for starters. Under GATS I could ‘spect a decade in the pen. The Sweds watermark and date their patents. No, man. That robopet was a vault, Fort Knox baby. Three years of activity in one enclosed space. If word leaks that this is in the open, not only’s my rep destroyed, but my life as a cypher is shot.”

Harlan didn’t suspect Ash’s sincerity. The life of a cypher degrades with age, the mind withers. True cowboys had this sixth sense, a ubiquitous foreshadowing that was cyclical in nature. The merging of the past with the anxiety and uncertainty of the future. Harlan mindlessly traced his name in the dust collecting on the alloyed desk, his true name, before wiping it clean with his palm. That was the life of a cypher.

“Let me guess how many companies you hacked on the Fortune 500 list,” said Harlan, cracking his knuckles, “don’t answer that. I know how the community rolls. It’s none of my business.” Harlan had Aiko on standby for any incoming messages. She was much less reliable, they all were. Avatars, not women. “Can you prop up the route and time of the GPS tracking?”

The air was stale, re-circulated from a substructure grow-op consuming most of the building’s juice. Ash uploaded a composite list of every item in his stash, passing Harlan a flat circuit of glossy pink from the drive.

“Now I can’t pay you, man. Not until I get my ‘wares back. But my mind and my resources are at your disposal.”

Harlan loved a good challenge. It didn’t hurt to start networking in a new city either, seeing no prospective clients currently registered on his VisorGoggles proved bothersome. Harlan himself was no professional, he knew it. His tricks were archaic, past their expiration date. Branching out into other disciplines left rust in the joints, and Harlan would take help wherever it was offered, whenever he could.

He stroked the dimpled rubber before gripping the edge of his taser, resting half of his armament on Ash’s steel countertop.

“What you doin’?” asked Ash, amputating the ‘trodes from calloused fingertips.

“Protecting my investment.”

#

Lucid dreaming was a temporal fix, blue strata weaving in and through an abysmal silver strobe. It took months of hypnotherapy to train his unconscious, that untapped potential like diamonds in the rough. Cyberspace wasn’t as linear or mechanized as most people would have you believe. It wasn’t based on mathematics or the entrenched laws of causality. It was fluid, organic, amorphous. That was the attraction to DNI, its allure and its reliance.

Imagine your subconscious as the blackened continent of Australia seen at a bird’s eye view from the stratosphere, an unearthed mass of earth functioning at twenty-five thousand channels a second. Your conscious mind is like a tennis ball dropped from that stratosphere, capable of performing, at most, two to seven tasks at any given time.

Harlan’s mind was active during REM sleep, sequenced patterns of blinking cobalt green processing visual data. It didn’t stop the nightmares though, only dulled the insomnia. He still saw her face in the afterglow of his dreams, a masque of white plaster with painted red lips, bloodstained handprints smeared on enamel tiles, the aroma of smoke in disintegrating helixes.

That was the virtual transcendence.

#

Harlan floundered in permanence. His pupils dilated to the tempo rubato of Debussy’s Claire de Lune. The lunafilters deadened jet black, sphinctering the residual light before shining a placid indigo.

His VisorGoggles were from Milan, intrinsically crafted with the latest standardized hardware. Half-life, a mode where microscopic cameras placed on the headgear extended the periphery thirty degrees. It contained a remedial sensor grid that cut reaction-time in half.

Harlan hugged the doorframe, half-naked, clinging to his revolver, a modified .457 Wildey magnum with a mounted laser sight. He wiped the hair from his eyes and adjusting the carbon mic of his VisorGoggles.

“Talk to me, Aiko.”

“I count one pulse in your office by the mantle, maybe five foot six.” People were desensitized to alarms. Attention spans dwindled. Its melody was generally preferred over jarring tocsins.

“Lock the doors.”

The fire escape was unstable, tarnished stainless steel with chipping black paint and sheered bolts along the edges, as he sliced his office through the weather-beaten glass of the alley window. He heard footsteps. The sound of platformed heels against parquet was almost instinctual to Harlan. He unlatched the lock with her back towards him, ducking behind a wall separator of oak and sequined canvas.

“Cut the music.”

He donned a plaid bathrobe of navy blue and eggshell stripes, the sash was missing. Harlan siphoned a spherical crosshair where he assumed her brainstem was located. He inched barefoot to his target’s position.

“Don’t move.”

She whirled around intuitively, terrycloth draped over his calves, and then there was a sharp pain, stillness. Harlan staggered backwards, the gun still firm in his right hand.

“You’ve got to be quicker than that.” Something vicious snaked his right forearm, cascading down as a result of gravity. It was blood.
“Don’t move,” repeated Harlan, only less brazen. He was now conscious of his injury. The same feeling he got before jacking in, alertness and longing, a calm-before-the-storm adrenaline rush. “You bitch.” She stood, eclipsed in shadow, wielding a stiletto style butterfly knife. He threw down his VisorGoggles and cocked the hammer of his magnum.

“Mierda, you’re the detective aren’t you?” She produced a midnight blue satin handkerchief from her ridiculously wide cleavage, applying direct pressure to the wound. This girl knew what she was doing.

“There’s gauze in the desk.” Aiko set the illumination to standard and Harlan pressed down firmly.

“You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.”

“You shouldn’t sneak into peoples’ apartments.”

“I didn’t. The door was open.”

Her eyes were a bittersweet nightshade, flexible contacts over a vibrant purple. Constellations of minute scars blanketed her chest and shoulders. Her hair was a raven black, infused by the follicle to the scalp and laced with lily-scented pheromones. A barcode tattoo stretched diagonally on her neck, a foreigner, refugee, with no aforementioned accent.

Harlan paralyzed at the sight of blood.

“Oh, don’t be such a pussy. It’s just a flesh wound.” She dabbed the sterilized cotton with peroxide and gently wrapped it around his forearm. “Besides, you’re a big boy, you should be so lucky.”

“Why’s that?”

“I was aiming for your heart.” She maneuvered the butterfly knife single-handedly back to its resting position, a thin plating of magnetized cobalt on the exterior of her belt. Harlan waddled to his seat, a padded office chair of burgundy leather, while she traced the aquamarine plasma on his front door. “Forgive me. I haven’t slept in more than two days.”

“What’s your business here?”

“I require your services. It’s my employer…”

“Let me guess, Expansion.”

She nodded.
As the woman turned to him, Aiko’s pixilated image appeared on the door’s window lying forwards on her stomach with her chin cupped in her hands. Her widening smirk.

“Let’s get some lunch.”

#

The Daytime Lounge was a franchised hybrid, part sushi bar, part cybercafé, wedged between the ground level bazaars of morning rush-hour. The place smelt of freshly cut ginger sheltered under a canopy of fluorescent lights. Harlan stared through the wide window of transparent magenta, spotting a Korean nail boutique across the road. The remainder of the avenue was obscured by swarms of commuters and a colonnade of street vendors lining the sidewalks. A webwork of suspended cables guiding mobile streetcars made upper level visibility impossible.

Their table was of worn limestone under a thin sheet of digitized silicone. Harlan felt out of place, more off put than usual. How they must have appeared to this homogeneous crowd, a regular Bonnie and Clyde. In the darkest corner of the restaurant a prepubescent schoolboy was jacked in wearing baggy olive drab khakis and a T-shirt with an obscene logo.

“He was murdered,” she interrupted, her mouth chewing around an exceptionally large slice of futomaki, “The police have begun with the preliminaries but they haven’t told me a thing.”

Harlan was surprised she could eat at a time of such trauma. He just settled for some miso soup and warm sake to calm his nerves. Not one meter outside was a Rastafarian fencer selling a plethora of counterfeit goods, among them, hookahs. Her name was Luna Veca, or at least her handle was. She wore a Gucci knockoff of pressed gabardine and a matching jacket to boot.

“Do you wish to port?” asked the waitress. Beside them were five circular outlets of variant sizes shielded behind tempered plastic. Before he could answer, Luna grasped his free hand lovingly, and said, “Not just yet.” Instantly, she let go, grimacing, “God I can’t stand these bubblegum setups.”

“You were saying.”

“I was saying. My boss was killed during Expansion. He was found two days ago in his apartment complex. I suspect it was an inside job.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because that place is tighter than the Pentagon. The auxiliary power’s meant for security only,” continued Luna, rubbing her wooden chopsticks together. “I mean think about it. Locked in that giant tower. No power. No phonelines. No lights except for emergency backup seventy-two floors up. Whoever killed him had a plan.”

“What about drop-downs, forced entry?”

“None that I saw. When I got word there’d been an accident at the condo I rushed over ASAP. And when I arrived at the suite there was nothing. No broken glass. No bashed in door. Nothing. Just his body slumped over the living room floor. There wasn’t even a drop of blood.”

“That’s strange.”

“It gets weirder.”

She signaled the waitress to unlock the data port and the cover clicked open readily. A flat panel of circuited yellow fit perfectly into the slot. The surface texture of the table glistened amidst a platter of Ichiban sushi. Luna clipped a wireless ‘trode to her index finger, connecting the feed, and ran the program.

A wireframe layout of Apex Towers emerged from the table’s epicenter, pulsating scarlet — easier on the eyes — beneath ambient light. Harlan’s VisorGoggles filtered the glare. Apex’s promotional insignia spun drearily in the bottommost corner, a neon version of Luna’s fingernails, a firm peach. Data sticks advertised for potential buyers were handed out like candy.

“Only it wasn’t his apartment. His place was on the ninety-sixth floor. But the apartment he was killed in belonged to a woman, Amy Lynch, which means he either boarded an Odyssey to her place before Expansion, or walked down twenty-four floors in near total darkness.”

“And who’s this mystery employer you speak so fondly of.” Luna remained stoic. A silence perforated by drowned-out horns, simmering grilles, and precautionary error messages. She took an elongated swill from her Perrier as the hologram rotated clockwise.

“James Blithe.” Harlan never laughed so hard in his life. He slammed the table so hard that his sake spilt and the Apex flickered. In the meantime, Luna traced a path from Blithe’s penthouse to Amy’s suite, an arduous journey to say the least.

“You’re telling me you worked for one of the richest men in the world. The person who brought the Supreme Court to its knees rewriting half the obscenity laws in this country, the head of a multinational conglomerates worth half the European Union.”

“Again, worked for.”

“Well, I can certainly see why this is so important to you,” continued Harlan, tears welling up in his eyes, “The real question is, why did you come to me?”

“Because you’re the best.”

“Don’t try and sweet talk me. Really now, cut the bullshit.” Luna reached into her pocket and pulled out a double-folded section of green printing paper. The visors clocked her vitals — increasing pulse, vapid heartbeat, dilated pupils. With Luna still plugged in, the hologram toppled ninety degrees. Harlan tapped the logo, resetting it to its default position.

“All right then. Four days ago I received an email from Blithe while he was in Prague. Standard networking overseas. Tells me to transfer funds to a private account locally. Very last minute, like on some kind of whim. So I did. The next day I rendezvous with him at Pearson for pickup. The second he steps off the plane, he tells me to cancel all his appointments till after Expansion.” Harlan surmised that was typical behavior for your archetypal fundamentalist, but not for a realist like Blithe.

“Is that normal?”

“What’s normal, really?”

According to the email’s URL the server wasn’t a private line, which meant he only had access via a public kiosk. The message may have been traced, though Eastern Europe wasn’t fussy about its tracking. Not by governments anyway.

“Did the police question her?”
“No, she’s been missing since Expansion. Vanished without a trace.”
A fresh train of salmon sashimi appeared before them. A diamond-clad bracelet on Luna’s wrist splintered lasers in a thousand directions. In addition to sleep, it was apparent Luna hadn’t eaten much either as she quickly reached for the slim bottle of soy sauce.
“Now this is where things get interesting. How was Amy able to be kidnapped during lockdown with absolutely no signs of forced entry?”

Harlan didn’t answer.

“What’s even more astonishing is if Blithe actually walked the twenty-four floors. I mean the man’s a-hundred-and-twelve-years old.”

“Have you considered that Amy might’ve had something to do with the killing?”
“Possibly.”

“And what role do you see me playing in all this?”

“A very lucrative one,” she said, removing her equipment from the ports. “You see Blithe had no living family members, no children, but guess who the primary beneficiary is?”

“Did you kill him?” The vividness of her eyes seemed to flash. Aiko up to her old tricks. As Harlan rubbed his eyes, he realized his morning sustenance consisted solely of alcohol and soup.

“Of course not. Besides I’m not privy to his will. His safety deposit box is magnetically sealed upon his death. Only he had access to it.”

“And how long have you been on the run?” She looked down, a sign of submission. It only takes one good rainfall to destroy a counterfeit Louis Vaton handbag. She removed a pneumatic needle with a stimulant cartridge in the chamber.

“Well, no use in hiding it now. Cat’s out of the bag.” She brought the nozzle to her wrist and injected without contrition. A flush of euphoria weaved through her body, muscles and tendrils relaxing. “A minor dose of Dex. Its effects are shit for a surprisingly high yield. I tell you I can’t go on like this.”

“You need sleep,” insisted Harlan.

“No use crying about it now. I’m good for another six hours.”

#

His first objective was to get her out of sight. Since the murder was still recent it would only be a matter of hours before her face appeared on every net feed in the city, if it wasn’t already. They boarded a truncated Odyssey lift and headed southeast to the Underground, a subterranean network of upscale boutiques and duty-free gift shops. It was characterized by broken escalators, poster-sized plasma ads, and mosaics of linoleum cobblestone. He crossed the threshold of revolving doors and drew in the re-circulated air vacuumed in from the nearby subway station just a mere thirty meters away.

The pharmacy was a panoptical ovoid of pearl whiteness, stationed between two junctions where the avenues met. He purchased six items in total: a two-liter drum of Pepsi, a large bag of Doritos, the current National Post, a professional hair-dye kit, large waterproof Band-Aids with clear seals, and ochre cover-up. Harlan accessed a payphone terminal once Luna entered the restroom. It had a rudimentary décor of grays and turquoise. A thin optic cable connected his VisorGoggles to the unit. A five digit access code was needed. Harlan punched the keys.

An automated voice recording, female.

“Welcome to the Human Resources Department. All of our operators are currently busy. Please stay on the line.”

“The crow flies at midnight,” said Harlan into the receiver. A bleep, silence, then laggard breathing on the other end.

“Novak, is that you man?” Ash’s voice flooded the earpiece.

“Yeah, it’s me. Listen, I don’t have much time. I’m going to have to call in that favor sooner than normal. How are you with background checks?”

“’spect nothin’ but the best.”

“Good. I need you to do some busywork for me. Do your best in locating these names for me. Jot these down. Luna Veca, handle. Amy Lynch, Apex Towers, possible handle. James Theodore Blithe, true name.” Celebrities were free game in electronic circles. No pseudonym could hold them captive. Public relations landed in droves. Intermediaries upon fields of intercepted code. If there was a shred of truth it lay in the source, not the code. Harlan fixed the bloody bandage that had loosened around his left wrist. “Think you can handle that?”

“No problem.”

“Contact me when you have the results.”

“Aight man, stay frosty.” Luna sleuthed to his side swiping the plastic bag from his hand. A Band-Aid on her neck shielded her tattoo blending in with her deep pallor. Blithe didn’t make headlines. That’s all that mattered. They ventured through a corridor of stale air boarding the nearest Odyssey. Sunlight pierced the cabin the second they penetrated the surface.

“So who were you talking to?” said Luna pedantically.

“Wrong number.”

“Funny.”

#

Luna crashed three hours later during her next interval coming down hard from a dopamine high. She dove head-first into cumulous temperfoam, then through a slipstream of unconscious vertigo. Harlan lit a fresh cigarillo and helped himself to warm scotch from a flat nickel flask in his desk. A concise manifest of Ash’s stock lay upright on a digital plane. He recognized three companies right off the bat that belonged to the same conglomerate: a leaked report that dealt with face implantation, bootlegged imaging software from a second-rate IT mainframe, and a self-propagating worm virus that had never been implemented.

There were four ionic columns of jagged Courier: type, client, date, and class. Mission achievement was traced by color. Gaps of negative space through a smoky lather. By-referral clients were listed as freelance, which didn’t further Harlan’s cause. The rest was crosslisted by Aiko and designated by priority.

“That wasn’t funny what you did,” said Harlan to Aiko.

“What? You mean elevator girl. Wondering why she’s here? I was surprised she even came.” He recognized Luna the second he laid eyes on her. The thought that Aiko had something to do with her presence was disturbing.

“Why did you bring her here?”

“I didn’t bring her here sweety. You did.”

“Jesus fucking Christ.”

“Hey you’re the detective Harlan, not me. I may have guided her here but she’s going to stay because of you. I’m like a lighthouse guiding a ship. In the end, no one blames the lighthouse.” Her rationale was damning, a testament to the technological revolution and the ensuing avarice that lingered behind.

#

“There’s a forty-eight hour waiting period,” said Zan, scribbling a receipt over faded carbon paper. “Lab’s waiting list is backlogged. May want to tack on an extra day or two for results.” The exchange was transacted through bulletproof glass, a local repository on the fringe of sanitary. It was a private niche carved from ingenuity and kept thriving by competition. Zan was a lanky Pilipino in a white lab coat reeking of formaldehyde with a German-engineered prosthetic arm that made legibility impossible.

Craning his neck over Zan’s shoulder Harlan spotted vats of liquid nitrogen lined along the parallel hallway. He viewed himself in the monitor surveillance cam and adjusted his belt for no reason. Zan snaked the mic closer to his lips, responding to Harlan’s inquiry.

“Nothing’s absolute. There’s always room for error. Results are pretty accurate though. Truthfully, how would you know if the results were tainted? Only inconclusive results are grounds for refunds.”

He wired the charges through Blithe’s expense account, a laissez-faire obelisk of polished ebony. Luna was confident it wasn’t blocked even if the authorities listed her a suspect.

Harlan sauntered down a prismed corridor to an arced skydeck set to depart. The lounge was a Western-style izakaya, an egg-shaped pod with a sprawling vista of the ward’s southern waterfront. He rested on an octagon fountain of gentle alabaster as the transport disengaged from the dock. The stench of the clinic lingered on his jacket. His armory jabbed his ribcage as he sat hunched over a bar of fluorescent saffron.

It was prior to rush-hour. Human traffic was no concern. Sporadic bodies flanked the establishment; an assemblage of yuppies drinking Heinekens, loan-shark metrosexuals on another nightly excursion, and the reclusive staff chaperoning the premises in Polo shirts and black aprons. Harlan was running on fumes. He felt lightheaded and groggy nursing back a double Bourbon.

The dimness provided a scene for interfacing. Ash’s robopet was a recalled model from Bonne four months after its initial distribution. Rumors grapevined through the blogosphere, an all-out smear campaign from its competition that their brand was going soft. This was easily circumvented with a lock pick and warped software, a news article originating in Greensboro where an owner’s jugular was drained clean.

A chill spread throughout his bones. His fingertips were tinged with numbness. The cubic tumbler Harlan was holding nearly slipped from his grasp. A jolt shook the shuttle jingling champagne magnums in their holsters. Static invaded his VisorGoggles, lines of freckled neon framing his rounded specs. Proximity, his heart clenched, a lurker stalked Harlan’s presence, though he remained completely stationary.

“I’m being traced,” he whispered under his breath. Aiko noted the time, his position both laterally and vertically. It was now zero-hour. He spotted a lean man in his extended periphery wielding a tracker beneath navy Armani. The capsule was autonomous, independent power supplies. The transmitting feed wasn’t localized or commercial but routed to a LAN-line from a love hotel nearby.

Harlan armed himself under the hem of his jacket. The target sauntered behind honeycombs of glass to the niche where the restrooms were held. Its faceplate was a square piece of sheet metal with a male ideogram in its center, carved using negative space with the word MEN in French and Japanese. If there was an opportunity for face-to-face confrontation Harlan would jump without question. This was the stuff being a detective was made of.

Fuchsia urinals of thick rubber lined the sloped western wall. Disinfectant swamped his nostrils. Wintergreen bleaches evanescing. Soft heating lamps warmed his already dry skin, a placid orange against scarlet wallpaper. Harlan dowsed his face in filtrated water from a spout of polished brass. The one stall closed was of matte black dead center within a tiled enclave.

A sienna loafer peaked under the stall. Pneumatic exhaust sounded through the barrel, a mosquito’s pinch. “Your tracer’s scrap man, yesterday’s news, west-end junkyards has them piled up as far as the eye can see.” An echo resonated through the chamber as Harlan’s gumshoe vernacular became congruent.

“You’re getting rusty my friend,” he continued, “As I speak, neotoxin’s already coursing through your bloodstream. Slowly disintegrating nerve endings like lye through flesh.”

Harlan kicked open the door. Inside was a young man in his twenties, Mediterranean-looking, with bloodshot eyes, gold teeth, and a cummerbund of C4 explosives. A bleach-blonde coiffe hung low down his right side, accenting his face somewhat. His weight was underestimated, a linear miscalculation, the prominent smell of sawdust with his hand clutching a detonator.

“How poetic is this? Just when you think you got your shit together, huh.” The man’s diaphragm sunk deep in his chest heaving. A dusting of cocaine coated his upper lip. “For old time’s sake, you know. One final hit before the long goodbye.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m scrap man just like you said, a freelance low-level transporter. My ass ain’t worth a dime on the street. They don’t tell me nothin’ I don’t already know. Can’t say I blame them. Stock’s been running dry till the next shipment comes in. ‘bout a dozen dicks capped in all to satisfy my selfish habit. How’s that for schadenfreude?”

“I want a name. Gimme a name.”

“You know she’s playing you.”

“Who?”

“The girl that’s who man. Do I have to draw it for you with a fucking stylus or something?”

The downtrodden martyr spat at nothing in particular as the shuttle whirled to a halt. The docking clamps started kicking in. A blue beacon situated lengthwise did a roundabout through tempered glass. Harlan remained steadfast, defiant, while his tweaked derelict rasped staccato knocks on marble fiberglass with his free hand.

For some reason he pictured Luna in the back of his mind in a one-piece denim jumper with a white rawhide belt and lifted platforms an inch off the ground, a statue of the Venus de Milo molded in reinforced plastique. And then it hit him, the flashpoint and realization that there was more at stake here than just his life and the lives of the people in the shuttle pod. Who truly knew how many gas lines ran through the building’s sector once it reached port? The number of hydro-cells? Electrical systems were endless. The chain reaction catastrophic.

Hitman be damned.

Murder, fuck it.

His life was in danger. Blunt force trauma was needed to ensure a swift concussion. Blood trickled from his assailant’s ears. Harlan’s VisorGoggles clocked a hairline cranial fracture in the rear part of the man’s skull. He dowsed his palms clean under the right-angled spout and reset the mysterious stranger to a comfortable sitting position before diffusing the explosives around his waist.

Like a vulture he stripped the man clean storing the C4 in the deep recesses of his khaki pants hoping they’d prove useful soon.

#

There was jurisdictional authority to be had for Harlan on his venture back home. Fusion is what allowed him to systematically (though unconsciously) sift through petabytes of visual data. Weeding out the interference as time rolled on. The feeling of paralyzing a man sent the adrenaline pumping. Picasso reprints and bronze sculptures dominated the financial district’s mezzanine, a good fifty floors off the ground. Within each cowboy there was this sixth sense, a Godlike intuition, where humans were seen as energy. Pure energy. Harlan felt the auras of pedestrians locking and interlocking as they crossed paths. A strictly symbiotic relationship.

The term ‘parasite single’ was a common and perfunctory one. Among cyphers and denizens alike it implied a force in the digital realm as well as a relinquishment of power. There was nothing tangible at stake when all was said and done.

Harlan entered his office. There was no sign of Luna in his place. She was gone. An imprint of her body lay molded in the temperfoam. Her scent in the fabric of the pillows. In the meantime Harlan chewed a stick of hyperbase to cleanse his tangy palette. Concentration wore thin in the wake of his brush with death.

“Ready to cruise?”

“I was born ready,” said Aiko mischievously, “just give the chemicals a second to kick in.”

“Nothing personal. Security’s just tight. You understand right?” She didn’t answer. “Just don’t leave me hanging once I’m on the other side.”

VR was falling endlessly without ever touching the ground, a patterned sequence of visceral lights in the wake of fortified firewalls. The first was traditional ICON, low-grade by conventional standards, a latticework of streaming neon with predictable alternate weak points. The second was its complement, a bombardment of static spheres packed to the brim with white noise. It was easy riding from there, its shockwave to the event horizon behind a lull of trance music.

In the lairs Harlan was known as Quickshot by a select cartel of cyphers. The construct was fashioned off a castle in the Nagasaki Prefecture. The pyramid-like pagoda stuck straight into the fractured overcast. The sky was geodesic ashes smudged into a uniform backdrop. Despite its brilliance it was ultimately useless. The meetings were always held underground.

“Welcome, gentlemen. It’s been a long time,” started Durango, portfolio in hand, “I’m glad everyone was able to make it.” He was in his classic G-man avatar, first-class business suit, lanky physique. His cheekbones were sunken and his skin weather-beaten. An outdated texture with low resolution. “Nice to hear you’re back on your feet Prodigy.”

The group consisted of five users: Snow, Durango, Soundwave, himself, and Prodigy, their latest addition. A pentagon table of stunning sandstone laid dead center in the inner sanctum. It was those little details that Harlan appreciated in lairs; the fineness of stone, water dripping from the crumbling masonry, those minute yet calculated imperfections that added mystique and underlying decadence.

“Any new business?”

“I’m having trouble finding people to sign up for the workshop without coming off as the sleazy salesman. God damn noobs. Think they can walk into Unreal City and take whatever they please.”

“Calm down, honey,” said Soundwave removing his reflective sunglasses, “they don’t see the big picture. Keep in mind most of these so-called hackers are in it for the short term. There’s no master plan there. They’re suggestible. Too distracted by the smallest success. Usually cop out before the check clears. Remember Attitude?”

Prodigy’s specialty was online real estate. Easily the most profitable segment on the net using nothing but space and bandwidth. His avatar was a shimmering blue sports jacket, baby-blue lipstick and silver eye shadow. Its controversy was its homosexual undertones. Ironically its allure as well.

“Well give it some time. Bootcamps are cropping up all over the place. Double-check the forums with some viral marketing. Wait until word-of-mouth spreads. Things are bound to pick up. Anyone else?”

“I was nearly killed this evening,” said Harlan. Everyone went silence minus the latent static and the leather coming off Snow’s swivel chair. He produced a flash disc the size of a business card and expanded it to fit the back wall. The projection was coarse and immobile but once the footage began — with the snap of Harlan’s fingers — the video became clearer. There was no sound unfortunately but it was better than nothing.

The girl that’s who man, thought Harlan, do I have to draw it for you with a fucking stylus or something?

“The man’s name, at least what I gathered from his wallet, is Randall Ozwald. The license was a clear forgery. Nothing else in there but coupons and some old condoms.”

“Let’s see what we got here.” Soundwave was also known as the Archangel. He wore ripped jeans, a tight white shirt, and a featherbed of wings behind his shoulderblades. He snatched the gilded halo above his head and enclosed it within the clip, filtering the interference as best he could.

“Perfect,” replied Soundwave. The static was less degraded than before, screened through a Jakarta-inspired feeding realm. This strained the constant static like dust caught in an air vent.

“Notice anything?” The three minute clip repeated as the group sat in silence. The overall quality improved. The key was switching formats. Another skill Harlan lacked.

“That dye job isn’t worth a dollar that’s for damn sure,” said Prodigy. “Could easily be a wig if you look hard enough. Plus the clothing is tasteless and uncoordinated. True Brazilian kitsch — ”

“Can you magnify that…” started Durango lifting from the chair, “…the ring on his finger.”

“What the hell is that?” Harlan froze the clip and quarantined the frame enclosing the gilded band on Ozwald’s hand. The awkward angle made it obscured. He winced.

“C4 is hard to come by. Even today. Black markets. Try scoping out military surplus stores, demolition construction companies, chemical supply shops. Message me back on that.”

Prodigy dug deep beneath his fingernail and gnashed it free with one tug. It took eight seconds to upload the file into his personal database. Durango tossed them each shimmering business cards framed in gold. These required identity recognition. He spat on its rear face, disarming the protocols that protected it. Harlan kicked his feet on the centerpiece — pleated snakeskin imported from Vienna- resizing the itinerary’s window as he saw fit.

“Next week’s assignment,” he concluded already jacking out of Dakar. Durango was just a product of Western corporate outsourcing gone awry.

#

It was close to midnight when Harlan awoke and deactivated the VisorGoggles. He tuned them to a wireless hot zone and let the unit charge for an hour or so before leaving. From the coral-tiled kitchenette, Harlan boiled some instant noodles and waited for the pot to simmer. Triangulating Ozwald’s signal to a fine point was simple, even without his headgear.

The love hotel was a sleek little joint at the corner of SEDUCTION JUNCTION located in the north-east section of the city’s largest Xanadu. These self-contained bubbles of interacted neon were simple geodesic domes of cemented glass, one-way mirrors unseen from the outside. Harland waited for an Odyssey elevator for nearly twenty minutes. These were incredibly cramped and built for only two people at a time, which was great for having sex. Escort calling cards were laminated beneath tempered plastic. Tubes of vertical magenta lined the lift’s interior. Torn condom wrappers lay scattered on the stained cheetah-printed carpet.

The bridged displayed holograms of Greek nymphets in laced negligee emitting bumping-techno arias worthy of the Sirens themselves. He was escorted to his destination by a seething dominatrix named Cleo with a spiked collar around her neck and leather corset. Harlan swiped the obelisk over the sensor and flat-paneled speakers announced, “Welcome to the pleasure dome, Mr. Blithe.”

The door’s iris sphinctered and Harlan entered through the anus of the building, a golden whore bent doggie-style, arms together tucked under her chin. The procession counter was framed in frothy pink shag and an aquarium counter with goldfish swimming inside. A laminated menu was posted in Japanese and English giving hourly rates and diverse room suites next to ‘special services’ involving sadomasochist paraphernalia — whips, heavy chains, butt plugs — a staple indulgence of Harlan’s generation and personal salute to hedonism.

He stored his request in a pneumatic tube of ruby acrylic which was promptly returned by the faceless connoisseur. A phallic keycard with a number attached as plasma monitors of frosted plasma played hentai vids.

“I’m about to cross the threshold, Aiko. Keep your eye on the wireless for anything suspicious. Look for the keywords I provided in the server networks.”

“Listen baby, I’ll do my best from this end but let me remind you that reception here is complete crap. These Xanadus are like localized sunspots for that sort of thing. Whatever you do on your end will take at least twice as much time on my end. Just keep your eyes sharp sweety.”

The keycard bleeped twice and the black lights activated. Harlan gaped through the central well outside the convex window that made up the building’s left areola. Pixilated fireworks stormed the main basin, a tepid atmosphere where the air tasted like champagne. This second circle of hell.

The pleasure domes was a circumferential spindle that ebbed and flowed with knee-jerk vivacity, smelling mainly of vanilla and tangerine incense. A rain forest biodome complete with palm trees, Romanesque statues, and cobblestone walkways laden throughout. Harlan surveyed his suite, gauging the tension in his face on a ceiling mirror. The flat panel activated with a wave of his arm, transparent ideograms of saffron and lime floating over stiff plexiglass. He ported the VisorGoggles at the bed’s footing and the aluminum pole brightened instinctively.

Sensor nodes. The rippled lining spewed pixels in midair transfiguring to a standard-issue pleasure model.

“What’s your poison, bitch?” said Astrid.

“Crème-de-menthe.” The sterilized crystal appeared before him halfway filled with chilled emerald.

“So are you here for business or pleasure?” She laughed garishly, mechanically, emotional algorithms coupled with seductive code working overtime.

She was sexual in her pulp-fiction exaggerations — buxom breasts, nymph-like stature, helpless demeanor — in a two-piece white lace ensemble, sporting a pluming foxtail out her backside and a rubber whip in her right hand.

“My business is my pleasure.”

“Specifically?”

“Murder for hire.” One swipe of her invisible palm would send his oxytocin bubbling and the serotonin flowing to his brainstem. These neurons, the natural opiates of the body, would cause blissful paralysis, a bulbous leech sucking his credit until near virtual bankruptcy. “There was a man here earlier tonight.”

“Like so many others who’ve traipsed through the doors of their local Xanadu.” She pivoted flawlessly on platformed heels though the lagtime was atrocious. Flickers of distraught programming siphoning through overused hardware.

“Let’s cut to the chase sister. Less than six hours ago I traced a signal to this hotel from a transport shuttle in Sector 31. I’m a little sketchy on the physical details, but sufficed to say he was an elusive one.” Harlan took another swig of his crème-de-menthe and wiped the grime at the corners of his eyes before checking that his VisorGoggles were still online. “This isn’t a request sugar. Download the electronic receipts of any occupants of this hotel.”

Rouge Avenue was the black market under-the-counter interplay within each and every Xanadu. Its syndicate of suppliers easily detectable by their feather boas, knee-high leather boots, and pink cowboy hates. Germanic software and counterfeit gear from the finest dealers around.

Harlan anchored her avatar before she had a chance to disengage from his suite. The rubber sheaths fit snuggly over his fingertips as he stretched the netting over his palm, a thin webbing of razor-thin fiberoptics, before snapping the metal latch at the wrist.

“Fuck off, preppy. You can’t fucking touch me,” she scowled, buttoning up her plaid cut-off tanktop, “You ain’t no pimp. Certainly no smooth talker that’s for sure. That is, unless you’re a day player.”

“Tell me. Does your programming include the Crusades? Brutal battles for such a dark age. Horrible atrocities. I minored in medieval history back west. Bullshit discipline history. The past isn’t going anywhere. Must keep that in mind. The past isn’t going anywhere.”

“Fascinating son but if there’s no use for me then I just be going — ” A sharp backhand ruptured the program’s left cheek. It took a few seconds for the pigmentation to set in and the wheels in motion for a hefty bruise later on.

“Ouch, that hurt.” True terror invaded her eyes. Astrid stumbled backwards into the sensor pole. A trickle of blood rolled down her lower lip. “What the hell? I can’t plug out.” Harlan clasped the ‘trodes on his hand round her neck, approaching the digital platform in his alligator skin loafers.

“Now you’re going to tell me everything about the tracker I mentioned or you can expect some very unpleasant things to come. See there.” He tilted her neck towards a duffel bag where his deck was wrapped in a Reebok sweatshirt. “I can hack into the security protocols and have your program uploaded into many a number of scenarios. Gamers aren’t simply button mashers these days. They’re intuitive. And let me tell you my dear Astrid. There are far worse things than death in cyberspace. Believe me, I know. And unless you tell me everything short of the cologne this guy was wearing I’ll hold you in electronic limbo for the next half-a-century.”

Her laquered nails dug deep in his wrist. The whites of her eyes bulged red as the day-old gauze from Luna’s wound miraculously still clung to his arm. And where was he now? In a love hotel strangling some banal holographic hooker working an investigation that served no purpose.

And where was Luna?

It was her investigation after all.

It had been almost two days and not a peep, not an email, not even single text message. Dollops of fresh blood trickled on the carpet as Harlan loosened his grip. He felt infected, polluted, psychologically contaminated like his blood was tainted, in desperate need of filtration.

“You are one sick bastard. Bet there’s not a single piece of hardware in that bag. All hat, no cattle. That’s what you are,” massaging her sensitive throat, “His handle was Jason Carter. Said he was part of some short-term trafficking ring in Sector 43.”

“What’d he look like?”

“Short guy, five foot six, shaved head for the most part. Had on one of those stylish gray jackets, pink shades, Korean I think, definitely Asian. Give me a moment. I’ll siphon through the transaction records. Maybe pick up something you may have missed.”

“Anything else?”

“Circumcised, if that’s what you mean. He didn’t have an accent. Actually now that I think about it his English was very concise and articulate, good vocabulary. Smoked extra-light cigarettes, the cheap, generic ones.”

Harlan snapped the glove off his hand and unzipped his duffel bag. He smothered the remnants of his cigarillo in the teal ashtray the hotel provided. Sin seemed to fester on his skin like a fine film. He took one last pan of the Xanadu’s promenade before unlocking Astrid’s protocol. She left flipping him off.

He bid adieu to this place and the night was over as he pocketed a complimentary pack of matches in his front jacket pocket.

#

Harlan reminisced. The email was tangible. His only tangible link to Luna. He’d read it a hundred times, unfolding the paper, framing the outline before it degraded any further, and copied the text to his database. It read as follows:

To : Eva L. Yonge <Yonge@gomail.ca>

Sent : 08/06/54 5:32:34 PM

From: J.T. Blithe <Blithe_James@btf.com>

Subject : Re: unflinching

Dear Evie:

Contact Daniel Keynes ASAP. Tell him to wire the international funds account to TD special interests. Create the account and hold it until I get back.

Don’t ask me why, I’ll explain later.

Y.T. (Yours, Truly)

Blithe

Code Number: e92mf2pj3la93j_39fa_3923

The air was ill-ridden at ground zero. He spat his tasteless hyperbase into the gutter, surprised he hadn’t done so hours ago, and collapsed on the bedspread once he arrived home for the second time that day.

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