The woman nibbled at a bagel, and followed it with a sip of oolong tea from the small porcelain teacup she had brought with her. Tea in a paper coffee cup just wasn’t her cup of tea. The coffee shop was crowded this time of day, which was why she was here. Her nose twitched at the smell of so many humans in such close quarters. She pretended to be reading the electronic tablet she held in one hand, but she was actually watching a well-built young man sitting on the other side of the room drinking coffee and studying a tablet of his own. Two others shared the table with him; an older couple engaged in an animated conversation with each other, ignoring him. He was alone. Fair game.
When he glanced her way, as she knew he would, she made eye contact and smiled, crossing her legs to let her dark blue skirt rise to reveal a substantial amount of thigh. His eyes focused on her legs, then the cleavage exposed by two open buttons of her pale blue blouse, and then back to the ice-blue eyes set against a delicate face of ivory framed by long, flowing black hair. She let her tongue glide across full red lips. Even from here she could see that his heart was beating faster. She had an eye for such things. Then the crash of glass shattering on the floor behind the counter broke the spell. The young man’s face turned red. He grabbed his tablet and hurried out of the coffee shop.
She did not pursue him. She was not that hungry yet. At her age, she had learned to be patient. So she waited, a predator at a watering hole, knowing another young buck would come along soon enough. A few minutes later, the young man returned. He ordered something from the barista and fidgeted while he waited, looking everywhere but at her. This one was timid, skittish. She pretended to be absorbed in her tablet, careful to do nothing to frighten him off again. She smiled to herself, surprised and pleased that he had returned. Now she had only to wait and, like a moth drawn to the flame, he would come to her.
The aging spaceship voiced its complaint with a metal-on-metal groan when Trinity fired the reverse thrusters to slow their approach toward the world ship. Flynn toggled the com.
“Terra One, this is Therion, inbound from Vesta, requesting collision instructions.”
A no-nonsense, mezzo-soprano female voice responded, “Freighter Therion, this is World Ship Terra One. Stand by.”
Wileyanie Lee Jemarie had a low, smokey voice Flynn fell in love with every time he heard it. He muted the comm and tried to hide the grin that had formed on his face. “Damn, I love that woman’s voice. Her body’s not bad either.”
Trinity rolled her eyes. “You’ve been trying to get into Wiley’s pants for as long as I’ve known you.”
“Are all men learning impaired when it comes to women?”
Flynn worked at getting his face back into a normal shape. Or at least as normal as his less-than-heart-stopping looks would allow. “You’re just jealous.”
“What? That you might get there first?” Her eyes darted back and forth between the control panel and the visual of the massive O’Neill cylinder approaching them at an alarming rate, though of course they were the ones doing the approaching, not that it made any difference. She increased thrust to bring them under the maximum allowed velocity as they crossed the invisible boundary marking the world ship’s defensive perimeter. Space stations got nervous when someone approached them at high velocity. They had pulse cannons for such occasions and had been known to use them.
“Sorry, roid,” she continued. “That ship left the station a long—.”
She was interrupted by the business-like voice of the subject of their speculation. “Freighter Therion, this is World Ship Terra One. Recommend you not collide with us today, as the Commander is in a foul mood and it would piss him off. Hold station at coordinates oh oh four, oh six one, two two one. A pilot is being dispatched.
“Understood, Terra One. Will assume and hold position at oh oh four, oh six one, two two one. Hey Wiley. How about drinks later?”
“In your wet dreams, Flynn. Terra One out.”
Trinity released control of Therion to the pilot ship and they watched the station fill their forward view as the pilot took them in. Only the smallest ships were allowed to dock by themselves. Therion was small for a freighter, but still had more than enough mass to cause a lot of damage it if ran into something. The stars vanished as they entered the cavernous maw of the O’Neill cylinder. The pilot brought them alongside one of the docking bays, which reached out with two gigantic arms, took hold of their ship, pulled it in, and locked it in place. Wouldn’t want a freighter breaking free and wandering around the docks on its own, not even a small one.
Flynn released his harness. “After six months in the Belt, it’s good to be home.”
A suitless body chose that moment to slam into the ship’s forward window, slide across it, and disappear from sight.
Several seconds passed before Trinity said, “Well, you don’t see that every day.”
By the time they cleared customs, Chief Detective Oscar Wilde was waiting for them. This didn’t surprise Flynn. The Therion and its crew of two had something of a reputation with Terra One security, and it wasn’t unusual to find someone from law enforcement waiting for them when they arrived.
“Hullo, Flynn. Trinity.” A broad smile spread across Wilde’s expansive face. “Mind if we have a little chat?”
Flynn looked at Trinity, who shrugged as if to ask, “Do we have a choice?” He looked back at Oz, whose expression suggested they didn’t have a choice.
A few minutes later they were seated at a rectangular table in one of the customs office interrogation rooms. Oz Wilde sat opposite them, the chair barely containing his sizable frame.
“So Trinity,” he began. “Seems you ran over a pedestrian on your way in.”
Trinity tilted her head to one side. “I never was good with pedestrians.”
Flynn said, “I’m kinda thinking he ran into us, and I’m pretty sure he was already dead.”
“Yeah well, he was dead alright.”
Flynn scratched his chin. “So it was definitely a man.”
“No doubt about it. A certain part of his anatomy was frozen in . . . how shall I put this? . . . in an extended state.”
Trinity blinked. “Really? The guy got a hard on when he was pushed out an airlock?”
Oz nodded sympathetically. “Happens more often than you’d think. It’s all about fluids expanding and trying to find someplace to go.”
“Holy crap,” she said.
“There was some of that too.”
Flynn leaned forward. “So who was he?”
“I thought you might have recognized him.”
Flynn sat back in his chair and crossed his arms, letting Oz know he didn’t like where this was going.
“I don’t think so,” he said, looking at Trinity who shrugged her shoulders. “Of course, he wasn’t looking his best. Face bloated, eyes bulging, face turning frosty white. We only saw him for a few seconds before he slid off the side.”
Oz extracted a smart sheet from his pocket, unfolded it and laid it on the table. A few brushes with his finger brought up a document, which he pretended to study.
“According to his ID, his name is Knute Marcellus. We’ll have to verify that with DNA, of course.”
Flynn replayed the scene in his mind: the desiccated body, the bulging eyes, the face mottled and bloated; the mouth frozen in a silent scream. A shudder ran through his body.
“Well, crap. That was Knute alright,” Flynn said. “What happened to him?”
Oz nodded and looked back at the smart sheet. “That would be the same Knute Marcellus with whom you had an altercation at Dunroody’s a few days before you high-tailed it out of here.”
“We didn’t high-tail it out of anywhere and you know it. We’d been prepping for that trip for two weeks.”
“The same Knute Marcellus with whom you were involved in some questionable activities involving the Leyton family?”
Flynn pressed his lips together. Trinity had become very still. The small room seemed to have gotten smaller. And stuffier.
Flynn’s voice was taut. “Where are you going with this, Wilde?”
The chair creaked as the old detective sat back from the table and looked at them from under heavily lidded eyes. Flynn wondered how he got the indestructible, all-composite chair to creak.
Oz sighed. “Knute Marcellus disappeared a few weeks ago. Yesterday we received an anonymous tip that we should pay special attention to your freighter when it came in. Something about a meeting between you and Marcellus.”
Trinity let out a low whistle. “I guess you could call it a meeting. Sort of.”
The detective nodded. “Maybe you want to tell me what this meeting was supposed to be about?”
Flynn held up both hands in protest. “Honest to God, Oz, I have no idea.” He did have some ideas, of course, but he wasn’t about to share them with Oz.
The old detective gave him an irritated smile. “Yeah well, I’m thinkin’ somebody’s sendin’ you a message.”
Flynn thought so too, and he knew just who to ask about it.
After Wilde let them go, Trinity left the Knute Marcellus problem to Flynn, caught the tram to the district where she lived, and walked the short distance to her apartment building. She unsealed her apartment and looked around to make sure everything was as she had left it six months earlier. Satisfied that all was as it should be, she stripped down and showered, then put on a red skirt and a white peasant blouse, both of which set off her shoulder-length, red hair. Black pumps, a little make-up, a pair of earrings, and she was ready for some bar hopping.
She didn’t know who was around because most of her friends were as transient as she was, so she was on her own; a situation she intended to remedy quickly. Six months was a long time to be away with only Flynn for companionship. Of course, there were stations in the belt where a good time could be had by a girl like her, but the kind of business Therion did flourished best at small, out-of-the-way stations with less-than-stringent security procedures. Unfortunately, they also had little to offer by way of men or women she’d want to wake up with the next morning. Flynn was good company, and he knew his way around a woman’s body, so she had no complaints in that department. But at the end of the day, she was not a monogamous kind of girl. She liked variety.
Soft BEW-style jazz greeted her as she walked into the dimly lit, smokey bar. It wasn’t actual smoke, of course; just part of the ambiance. As was the imitation polished wood bar, the planked floor, the tables, and so on. The Black Toad was old school, like its owner Ike, and never changed, which was what Trinity liked about it. She settled on a stool at one end of the bar and surveyed the room. A few tables were occupied by couples, and two young men—boys, really—sat at the other end of the bar talking. Not a promising crowd, but it was still early.
The bartender approached her with a smile and leaned over the bar. His breath smelled of garlic. “What’ll it be, pretty lady? Coffee, tea, or me?” She suppressed a groan. That line probably pre-dated the End of the World.
“God, did you really say that?”
“Uh.” His smile faded.
“He’s taking a few days off. His sister’s wedding. I’m taking care of the place while he’s gone.”
“I’ll have a Flat Orange,” she said, satisfied she had shut him down.
When he returned with her drink, she sampled it to verify it was what she had asked for and then favored him with a smile that had been known to cause castrated monks to get hard. It was important to stay on good terms with one’s bartender, even if one didn’t want to sleep with him. She passed her wrist over the reader attached to the bar, transferring the price of the drink from her account to The Black Toad’s account.
Jason Mozartè waved at her from the other side of the room, and the night suddenly looked promising. Flynn was a gentle, considerate lover. Jason was rough and liked to play bondage games. She liked both. He was with a way-too-young Asian woman, but he had something of a crush on Trinity, so she figured the girl wouldn’t be a problem. She grabbed her drink and headed toward their table, fully aware that the boys at the other end of the bar were paying close attention to her ass as she sashayed it across the room.
She reached Jason’s table and said, “Hey, Jason. Would you like to tie me up?”
Detective Oscar Wilde, chief investigative officer for Terra One’s security force, collapsed into the stuffed chair that occupied a corner of his living room. The chair responded with an exhausted sigh, sagging under the detective’s substantial weight. He ran his fingers through what remained of his hair and thought about fixing something for dinner. After a while he decided against it. For one thing, it would require him to get out of his chair. For another, he had a bottle of whiskey and a glass on the wobbly table beside him. Hell, dinner was over-rated anyway.
A thump came from the bedroom, which had a sliding door stuck two-thirds open, the result of an altercation between Oz and the door a month or so earlier. A seriously overweight orange cat strolled out of the bedroom, flopped on the floor in the middle of the room, and glared at Oz with its one good eye.
Oz glared back. “What do you want, you ugly bag of lard?”
A low growl emerged from the cat’s throat, followed by a hiss.
“I suppose you expect me to feed you. God knows you’ve got enough fat stored up in that ancient body to keep you alive for months.”
The cat continued to glare at him, demanding his dinner. Most people would say Oz was projecting human motivations on the cat, and in most cases they would be right. But Frankenstein was a genetically enhanced cat with the mental age of a five- or six-year-old human, so Oz was pretty sure he really was glaring demandingly at him. He poured two shots of whiskey into his glass and downed two thirds of it in one go.
“Ya know, there was a time when that would’ve burned all the way down. Now I hardly notice. Must’ve burned out all the nerves.” He snorted at his own joke. The cat did not look impressed.
“Well, I ain’t gonna get up and getcha anything to eat. I’m busy.”
The apartment door beeped at him.
“Go away,” he shouted, and poured another shot. The door beeped at again.
He heaved himself out of his chair and staggered over to the door, forcing the cat to retreat back into the bedroom to avoid being run over. The door monitor on the wall revealed the face of Wileyanie Lee Jemarie staring back at him.
She said, “Open the door, you ol’ goat, or I’ll kick it in.”
Oz let her in and returned to his chair, where he finished his drink and poured another. She settled on the dilapidated couch opposite him. The cat reappeared, jumped onto the couch and bumped its head against her hand. She scratched behind his ears.
“How are you today, Frankie?” she said. This elicited a low rumble from the cat, who oozed into her lap and sprawled his sizable bulk across her legs.
“Damn cat,” Oz said. “Won’t let me touch ‘im, though he’s more than happy to let me feed him.” He sipped at his whiskey as he glared at the cat, who was now studiously ignoring him.
“Why don’t you get rid of him if you dislike him so much?”
Get rid of Frankie? After eighteen years? Oz couldn’t imagine not having him around, even if he was a mean-spirited curmudgeon.
“He’s an old cat,” she said. “You’d be doing him a favor.”
Frankie rotated his enormous head around to stare at her in shocked disbelief. Oz stared at his glass and shuddered. Putting Frankenstein down wasn’t even in the realm of possibility as far as he was concerned. The bastard already had one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel. A lot like his owner. He wasn’t about to hurry the process along. Besides, he couldn’t bring himself to think about life without Frankie.
“Why are you here, Wiley?”
She pushed Frankenstein off her lap and went into the kitchen. “You had dinner?”
“I don’t need a babysitter, woman. Why don’ ya go away and leave me be.”
Apparently she took this as a ‘no’ on the dinner, because she started rummaging through his fridge and pantry. Before long he had a more-or-less complete dinner in front of him, which he wolfed down, grudgingly admitting to himself that it was pretty good. As usual.
Later in the evening, when Oz’s vision and navigational skills had deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t figure out how to get from his chair to his bed, Wiley said, “Let’s get you out of your clothes and into bed.”
“Hell and damnation, woman. You’re takin’ advantage of me.”
He wasn’t really upset about it. She had proven very good at getting him into bed in the past. He let her guide him into his bedroom, where she stripped him down to his underwear. He was embarrassed when she noticed that his underwear hadn’t been washed recently, and although he objected when she pulled that off as well, he was in no condition to put up any meaningful resistance.
She got him under the covers and laid down beside him with an arm draped over his chest.
“I miss your mom,” he mumbled as his world faded into oblivion.
“Me too, dad. Me too.”