Authors: Chris Strange
Eddie paused in his recount of his first meeting with Cassandra. Meryl the black-haired beauty curled against Eddie in her red-tinted hotel room, their flesh pressed together. “You fell in love with her?”
“Like a rock. We were pulling jobs together within a week, ripping off the syndicates and filling our pockets with cash from Fractured Jaw’s corrupt administrators. Within two weeks her gang had accepted me as one of their own. By the third week we were sleeping together.”
He flashed back to a moment not unlike this one. They were in an abandoned apartment building, not a hotel room, and he was young and stupid and bursting with feeling. But just like now there was the skin of a woman beside him, the scent of their sex hanging in the air. He pictured Cassandra reading aloud from a lurid dime novel on weathered paper as his fingers slid deep inside her, slick and hot. His education on Ophelia had stressed the value of good literature, classics from before the fall of the Gypsy Gates, thick tomes that promised to expand his mind and make him worthy—of what, he was never quite sure. It wasn’t until he abandoned all that and found Cassandra that he learned of these other stories, stories written in the language of the working class, stories that were wild and violent and sexual and yet somehow truer than anything he’d read before. He felt like he’d spent his entire youth cut off from the universe, contained within some tiny bubble that had never fit quite right. And now he’d finally found the truth, here in this dark apartment on Fractured Jaw with this girl who was four years his senior, this girl full of harshly learnt wisdom.
“What happened?” Meryl asked.
“Ambush. Revenge. We were mosquitoes buzzing around the colony’s syndicates, siphoning off what we could. We were nothing but an annoyance to them. But I guess you get annoyed enough, you want to squish that mosquito. A police raid hit us in our hideout. I say us, but that’s not right. I wasn’t there. I was out on a job. I was on my way back when I saw it. The police lining up the gang against the side of the building. I could see right away that something was wrong. I knew the law. I knew police procedure. But those kids, they didn’t know shit.”
“They weren’t cops,” Meryl said.
Eddie shook his head. “Syndicate members in stolen uniforms. They pulled out their guns and filled the kids full of holes. Just a roar, just five seconds, then it was over. They were all dead.”
No. Not all.
If she’d survived the attack, why hadn’t she contacted him? Had she assumed he was dead like he’d assumed she was?
Forget it. None of it mattered. She was alive. He made his decision. He had to find her and get her off Temperance. It was all that mattered.
He sat up, gently pushing Meryl off him. He’d wasted too much time already. He’d enjoyed himself with Meryl. He needed it, after the boy in the hat, the boy with the hole in his throat. And the shock of that vid screen. But Meryl wasn’t Cassandra.
Lady Luck Gentlemen’s Club. That’s where Cassandra was. That’s where he’d find her.
“You’re going?” Meryl asked as he stood and kicked through the clothes strewn across the carpet.
“Have to. Sorry. I have to find her. Enjoy your brothels.” He picked up her dress and tossed it aside.
“Looking for these?” she said.
He turned and found her twirling his underwear on her finger.
He extended his hand. She snatched the underwear out of his grasp and grinned impishly at him.
“Once more. I enjoyed myself. I think I could do with a little more warming up before you leave.”
She had stamina, he had to give her that. He sat on the bed, took her face in his hands, and kissed her full on the lips.
Her eyelids fluttered open as their lips parted.
“A goodbye kiss?” she said.
“Sorry. Any other day….”
“But not today.” She nodded and reluctantly passed him his underwear. “Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.”
He dressed quickly, her eyes on him.
“You won’t find her, you know,” Meryl said.
He pulled on his shoes. “And how’s that?”
“You know why people come to this city. If she’s alive, if she’s here, she’s not the woman you once knew. It’ll all end in tears.”
He stood, took her hand, and kissed it.
“Everything always does.”
Eddie stared at the burned-out husk of Lady Luck Gentlemen’s Club on the corner of Valentine and Wilcox. The neon sign above the door had survived, but not much else. He could see footprints in the blackened debris. The place had burned up months ago. He hadn’t even been close.
The downer pill he’d picked up at a pharmacy on the way fizzed under his tongue. Calm was returning to him once more, focussing his mind. He let the drug flow through his blood, envelop his heart, slow its beats. His hands no longer shook, his neck no longer felt stiff.
But he could still feel the whisper of Cassandra Diaz’s breath on his ear.
High heels clacked on the street behind him. “You’re a little late, honey.”
He glanced back. A tall man wearing a sleek dress and stiletto heels stood beside him, royal blue lips wrapped around a cigarette.
“Late for what?” Eddie said.
The cross-dressing prostitute gave him a smile. Unlike the rest of him, it was a reserved smile, quiet and conservative. “Late for Lady Luck. I knew the woman who owned the place. She ran into some debt when her mother took ill. The only money she had was tied up in the club. Temperance was already preparing for its demise. No one would buy a club on a dying station. So she came up with a Plan B.”
“Insurance fraud,” Eddie said, staring at the burned building.
“You got it, honey. And why not? What’s a little casual insurance fraud between friends?”
“So she hired a couple of toughs to come in splash a bit of liquid ship fuel around. Lit a match and whoosh.” The prostitute spread his hands. “Up it went. I don’t know how, but the insurance company bought it. Probably couldn’t be bothered fighting it. The place wasn’t worth much anyway.”
“You sure seem to know an awful lot about it, Jack.”
“Like I said, I knew the woman.” He took a long drag of his cigarette. “You got any more Bluen?”
“I saw you popping one before.”
The downer continued to bubble in Eddie’s mouth. “You must have good eyesight to recognise a pill from all the way over there.”
The cross-dresser shrugged. “What can I say? Do you have any more?”
“Keep talking and we’ll see.”
“What’s to tell? She got the money. Bought a forged travel pass. Hired passage off the station. The Feds scanned them as they were leaving and her pass didn’t check out. That’s what the forgers never tell you. If any Fed takes more than a casual look at your pass, they’ll see it’s forged. And they won’t react kindly.”
“Didn’t get the chance. She wasn’t the only one with a forged pass on board. The pilot tried to run the Fed blockade. The Feds locked weapons and blew them out of the sky. And that was that.”
Eddie nodded. “I’m sorry about your friend.”
“I never said she was my friend.”
“I’m looking for someone who used to work here. A dancer.”
“I might recognise her. Do you have a picture?”
Eddie shook his head. “Her name was Cassandra. But I thinks she went by ‘Daisy’.”
He thought about it. “Sorry, honey. A lot of dancers come and go from these sorts of places. She might not even be on the station anymore.”
“Maybe not. But I have to try to find her.”
The prostitute dropped his cigarette and crushed it under his stiletto heel. “Why? Does she owe you something?”
“No. She owes me nothing and I owe her nothing. But if I can find her, I will. I couldn’t tell you why, Jack. That’s just the way it is.”
The man was quiet for a moment. Eddie studied the building’s burnt facade. Music drifted out of the handful of strip clubs up and down the street. There’d be records on Lady Luck somewhere: ownership, tax, booze licences, all that. There’d be names and addresses. But he had no way to access any of that. He was nothing but a stalker, a concerned citizen with a gun and some flimsy legal justifications for hunting fugitives. Neither the Feds nor the local administrators would give a shit about his ex-girlfriend.
Finally, the cross-dresser spoke. “Most of the people who worked here are long gone. But I know one woman. A girl who ran the bar.”
“You know where she is?”
“Sure. But I don’t want to bring her any trouble.”
“There won’t be any trouble. I just need to talk to her. I just want to know what she knows about my friend.”
He nodded. “I’m going to die on this station. A couple of weeks, they say. I’m scared.”
“You could try to run.”
“There’s no running. The Feds have this place locked down. No, I’m going to die here. My last few weeks alive and I can’t even enjoy it because I’m so scared.” He looked sideways at Eddie. “Can you help me? If I help you, will you help me?”
Eddie stared straight ahead. He held no judgement. Everyone died differently. He’d learned that. Some cried, some blanked it out, some fought, some tried to run. Some watched the others dying, recording it, trying to understand it.
He dug the blister pack of downers out of his pocket and handed it to the prostitute. Five more Bluens remained. Enough for a couple of days, if the man was careful. Enough to blank out the panic as doom ticked closer.
The cross-dresser popped a pill out of the foil and slipped it into his mouth. The tension drained slowly from his shoulders.
“Thank you, honey,” he said.
“The name and address.”
“Victoria Palmer. Green Acres apartment building, five blocks that way. Apartment nine-oh-three.”
Eddie committed the information to memory. “Tell me. What kind of place was Lady Luck? Did they treat the girls right?”
“Do you want the lie or the truth?”
“It was the worst kind of place. The kind of place even the most perverted bottom feeders would be ashamed to be seen going into. The kind of place you only worked when you had nowhere else to go.”
“Do you wish you’d asked for the lie?” the cross-dresser said.
“What would’ve been the point?” Eddie turned away in the direction of Green Acres and raised two fingers in a wave. “Thanks for your help.”
“I hope you find who you’re looking for, honey.”
Eddie thrust his hands into his pockets and kept his head down as he walked away.
Roy Williams picked up the wrench once more and slammed it down on Scott Hudson’s knee. The bound man screamed into the socks stuffed in his mouth, sweat pouring down his cheeks. The chair rattled beneath him as his body shook in agony.
Roy put the wrench down on the bed and stood over the man in the dim half-light of the abandoned apartment. He waited, breathing. In and out, in and out.
He had to remain calm during this. It was the only way he’d get anywhere. Be calm, be patient. He hadn’t broken out of the Bolt and skipped halfway across the system to screw everything up now.
Slowly, Hudson’s muffled screams subsided to coughs and groans and panting. His eyes drooped. Black bruises marred his normally feminine cheeks. Roy had been tempted to break the man’s long and pointed nose, but he didn’t want the gagged man choking on his own blood. That wouldn’t do at all.
Roy stood between the overhead light and Hudson, casting his large shadow over him. Hudson kept his eyes on the floor. Roy grabbed the man’s chin and forced his face upwards. Grunts escaped Hudson’s throat. His nostrils flared.
“Three hours,” Roy said. “That’s all it’s been, Hudson.”
He hadn’t known the man’s name when he’d knocked him out and brought him here. Never seen his face before. He didn’t even know if the name he’d pulled off the ID in the man’s pocket was real. But that didn’t matter. It’d do. Hudson was nobody. Nothing but an unfortunate pawn.
“It’s going to keep going like this, Hudson. I don’t get tired. I don’t sleep anymore. Maybe a couple of hours a night. It doesn’t pay to sleep in the Bolt. I had a lot of enemies in there. Plenty of guards willing to leave my cell unlocked for one of the other cons to come and stick me. Guess how many of them succeeded? Guess how many of them were flushed out the airlock with their own shank buried in their throat?”
Hudson tried to look away, but Roy gripped the man’s damp chin tighter and tugged his face upwards.
“Temperance has perhaps two weeks. Say I keep doing this for, I don’t know, twenty-one hours a day. Twenty-one times fourteen, that’s…let me see…nearly three hundred hours. Three hundred hours for me to get the answers I want out of you. And you’ve only been through three. Three hours and you’re already crying. Look at your knee.”
He grabbed the back of Hudson’s head and pulled it down to face the pulped and bloody mass that should’ve been his knee. Hudson went even paler.
“You’re not going to be able to walk on that leg again, Hudson. You know that, don’t you? But you’ve still got another leg and two arms and two eyes and a cock and a couple of balls. You’re doing pretty good, all things considered. For the moment. Because make no mistake, I will take each of those things from you one by one until you tell me what I want to know. Do you understand? Hudson, listen to me. Do you understand what I’ll do? Do you understand how far I’ll go? You’ve heard tales about me? Those tales are nothing compared to what I’ve truly done. You’ll talk. Everyone always talks.”