My upcoming novel, Finders Keepers, is an SF/Mystery story set in my loosely connected Inflection Point series. In a future Los Angeles still suffering the ravages of a second Civil War, private detective Cal McCallister takes on a case to track down a kidnapped clone. For sure, he’ll need the help of his dog Fen to track down the perpetrators.
This story was originally published in a shorter form in the Black Market anthology in December 2020. An expanded novel-length edition of my story will be published in June 2024.
I. The Case (or, Why Does It Always Start with a Dame?)
Mowbray Lounge, in Little Texas: Sunday, 17:00 — Missing 16 Hours
The Mowbray Lounge (called the M), more than seedy but less than sleazy, was a restaurant and an entertainment venue with a stage for comedians, dancers, karaoke, you name it. The two things that rescued it from obscurity were the best BBQ and ribs in Little Texas, and the thrice-weekly Dance Nights, where professionals and wannabes strutted their stuff.
The blond woman looked totally out of place sitting alone in one of the back booths, wearing a designer business suit with creases sharp enough to draw blood. She was obviously uninterested in the racy dance routine being enacted on the stage, which I cleverly deduced by the fact that she had her back to the action.
I figured the woman was either my client or somebody had picked a bad place to go slumming.
As I approached, a man sidled up to her table. I’d have recognized that cocky shuffle anywhere, even if his name, alias, and priors hadn’t popped up on the edge of my sensorium.
Jaeger, real name Bartholomew Jones.
He’d been out of circulation for a while. He should have stayed there.
Jaeger was dressed street lethal, but flashier than I remembered. He had Snake gang tats entwining his arms, a fluorescent red Mohawk and a crooked nose that looked like it had been broken a few times. He was way out of his territory; the Snakes mostly dominated East L.A. above the 60. He said something to the woman. She obviously didn’t like it, because she dashed the drink she’d been nursing into his face.
While he was distracted, I took three fast strides, cupped his head, and slammed it into the table. Hard, like I was dunking a basketball.
And then I did it again, just for good measure.
I shoved him aside. He sprawled on the floor, looked up at me blearily, but still had the presence of mind to extend razor-sharp fighting claws from his fingers.
“Gonna cut you up for that,” he threatened.
“Go ahead, tosser, if you wanna lose those claws again.”
When I’d still been a cop, Jaeger had used his previous set of claws on one of my snitches and left her face so badly scarred it had taken a couple of years before I could put together a deal with enough of a windfall to get her fixed. Now she was married with two kids and nobody except her husband and me knew she’d ever been a Tinsel Town streetwalker.
Street rules had dictated that I take Jaeger down hard for that. I’d thrashed him within an inch of his life, and then smashed his fingers and claws into splinters with a sledgehammer.
I was disappointed to see he’d apparently done well for himself in the intervening years. Well enough to get all my fine handiwork repaired.
He sneered at me. “You ain’t a cop no more.”
“You should be afraid,” I said, smiling. “Now I don’t have to follow any rules.” For some reason, nobody except my dog finds my smiles comforting.
Jaeger scuttled backwards without taking his eyes off me. I had cyber mods from my stint in the military; he knew how fast I could move if I needed to.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry about Jaeger. The bouncer loomed behind him, then reached down and tapped him with a military-grade taser. There was a bright arc accompanied by a snapping sizzle, then Jaeger arched his back in agony before going limp. Out stone cold.
And me without my sledgehammer.
“Thanks, Gavin,” I said.
“Don’t be startin’ stuff in here,” Gavin McCloud said mildly. “You’ll waste away to a shadow if I have to drop a three-week ban on you, like this loco hombre’s gonna get.” Gavin was ex-military like me, though he was Republic of Texas and I was U.S.A. His mods were probably better than mine—the U.S.A. was much diminished, in both size and manufacturing prowess, after the Time of Troubles and the Second Civil War.
“Didn’t start it,” I said. “He was bothering my client here.” I turned to the woman. “You’re Ester Waynewright?”
“Yes.” I noticed she was holding a pulse gun in her lap, a small, easy-to-conceal gun that quietly fired disabling microwave pulses. Not so helpless, after all. “He asked me if I liked pole dancing. Said he had a pole to show me.”
I shot a glance at Gavin. “Eight-week ban…for unoriginality?”
He shook his head sadly. “They just don’t make thugs like they used to. Yeah, I think you’re right.” He looked down at Ester. “Sorry about the trouble, ma’am. The drink is on the house, and I’ll get you another one for free.”
Gavin smiled easily. “Rain check, then.”
I sat down across from Ester as Gavin effortlessly hoisted Jaeger over his shoulder and carried him away.
“It was actually a very nice Vodka Collins,” she said regretfully. “I wasted a perfectly good drink on that idiot.”
“So, what brings you to need my services?”
She looked around. “Is there somewhere more private where we can talk?”
“Sure. My office is just around the corner.”
A few minutes later we were traipsing around the aforementioned corner. I gestured to a squat, rugged-looking vehicle that looked like the illicit love child of an RV and a U.S. Army troop carrier. Which was a surprisingly apt description; there’d been a lot of surplus gear lying around after the Second War Between the States. It was as long as a bus, but low-slung and slightly wider. It looked like it had seen better days. It had a California license plate that read “GRENDEL” and a bumper sticker right above it that said, “DOG is my Co-Pilot.”
Ester shot me a look. “That’s your office?”
“Convenient, eh? I can park it anywhere.”
I ran my hand over the door access sensor. There was a click as the locks released.
I turned and saw Ester looking at the “BEWARE OF DOG” sticker I’d put right above the sensor.
“I’m guessing you have a dog?”
“You’re about to meet him,” I said, pushing the door open. “Don’t worry, he hasn’t eaten anybody in over a week.”
“Yeah, I’ve got him on a diet.”
Her eyes widened as my dog suddenly filled the doorway, tail wagging like a propeller. Two hundred and twenty pounds of gengineered canine, part wolf with some Rottweiler and mastiff tossed in for good measure. He had a huge head, an improbably wide chest, legs like furry pillars, and scarred ears. Elevated by the two steps that it took to climb into the vehicle, he was basically at eye level for Ester.
“You don’t have many problems with people breaking into your office, do you?”
“Not lately,” I said. “That was actually the last person he ate. This is Fen, by the way.”
She chuckled and held out her hand for Fen to sniff. “Short for Fenrir, right?”
“I guess you know your Norse mythology.” I was impressed. Most people didn’t pick up the reference to the Norse wolf god. It was a much more suitable name than the nickname he’d had before I got him.
Smiling, Ester brushed away a lock of hair that had fallen across her eyes. “I always liked mythology in general, not just Norse mythology. It made me wonder, though. If that’s what people believed in the past, what are they going to believe in the future?”
Fen let her rub his ears and stroke his head, which was even more impressive. He was friendly, but he didn’t take to everybody.
“I always wanted a dog,” she said wistfully.
“So get a dog.”
“Maybe someday.” She sounded like she didn’t expect that day to ever come, which seemed odd. Judging by her expensive outfit, casual assurance and personal weaponry, she seemed like someone who had both money and connections. Certainly not somebody to be stymied in having a pet if that was what she really wanted.
“Out of the way, you big lug,” I said, pushing Fen aside so we could enter.
Inside, you couldn’t really tell that the RV was actually a converted troop carrier unless you knew what to look for. Like the low ceiling or the thinly disguised armored doors leading, respectively, to the back compartment of the vehicle and the cockpit.
Otherwise, it had the normal accoutrements of an RV, including a mini-kitchen, a fold-down table with bench seating that I used for a desk and a couch facing a wall-mounted Tri-D projector. The back compartment included a modest-sized bedroom, guest accommodations (bunk beds), the privy, and a secure compartment I used as an armory.
What I really had was a bullet-proof RV with a killer commo suite and the world’s worst suspension. And I mean worst. Sometimes I swear it generated bumps if the road was too smooth.
A client hadn’t had the cash to pay for a job that had been more complicated and dangerous than expected. We’d agreed that Grendel—that’s what I’d named my vehicle—was adequate compensation for the job. I’d been living in it ever since.
I gestured for Ester to take a seat at the kitchen table. While Fen circled three times and then lay down on her foot, I sat opposite her and raised an eyebrow.
“We lost an employee,” Ester said. “We need you to get her back.”
“You don’t need to know.”
“What’s she do?”
“You don’t need to know that, either.”
I sighed. Sometimes you get clients who think they know best what you need to know. They’re usually wrong. “I work better when I have all the necessary information.”
“Indeed,” she said, smiling. “But you still don’t need to know that.”
“All right. How do you know she’s lost?”
“She’s tapped. We have footage that shows her being grabbed by some thugs.” She held up a memnode, a shiny device about the size of a fingernail.
I raised an eyebrow. A tap rig meant whoever had the right access codes could see, hear, and record everything that the tapped individual experienced. Most people preferred their privacy.
I took the memnode from her. “When was she taken?”
“Last night. Little after midnight.”
“So, she’s been missing for around sixteen hours,” I said. “It’s probably going to complicate things.” That was an understatement. With any abduction, time is your enemy. Depending on what the kidnappers wanted, she could already have been raped, chopped up for body parts, or moved to some remote location. They should have contacted me, or the police, as soon as possible.
“I know,” Ester said. “It took too long to convince my employer.”
“I have to be honest, most kidnapping cases are solved in forty-eight hours…or they’re not solved at all.”
“I know the stats.”
Flipping open a panel on the wall just above the table, I inserted the device into a slot. Glancing down and to the right, the file list popped into view in my sensorium. There were two files on the memnode, a large video file and a small one. I picked the smaller one, which began playing on the wall above the panel.
POV of someone sitting in a crowded night club with loud, techno-cowboy music. Whoever it was reached for a drink on the bar. A woman, judging by the non-masculine arm, the bejeweled bangles, and the cherry-red nail polish. The club’s clientele was a mix of men and women, maybe a little on the rough side. I was pretty sure I wasn’t looking at a genteel, up-scale establishment.
At my inquiring glance, Ester said, “The Mixie Trixie.” I’d heard of it. A pickup club on the edge of Thai Town.
Claudia exchanged some unintelligible words with another woman at the bar. Enhancement would bring out the words later, if they mattered. She got up and walked toward the back of the club, obviously heading for the facilities. After taking care of business, during which Ester and I both studiously looked away from the view, Claudia adjusted her make-up in front of the mirror. There were some good close-ups of her face, so I’d have a good image to show around. A few minutes later, someone hit her with a taser as she came out of the ladies’ room.
The view swung wildly as her attackers, and there were at least two of them, carried her down the hallway and through a door into a back alley. The footage never showed a clear view of the attackers, though there was one good silhouette of a man’s head outlined in the glare from the light above the back door. He had spiky hair and big ears with holes in the lobes.
The screen image went black when someone pulled a Faraday bag over Claudia’s head.
I looked over at Ester. The corners of her eyes were shiny with unshed tears. “I’ll need to see all of the footage of her at the club.”
“It’s on there,” she said. “That was just a clip of the actual abduction.”
“She was clearly targeted,” I said. “That wasn’t a random kidnapping. So, there’s something you’re not telling me.”
“She’s a clone.”
I raised an eyebrow. Legally, clones weren’t people, except in the Republic of Texas.
They’d come into heavy usage before Civil War II, during the worldwide Time of Troubles. It had been a mad, world-wide paroxysm of war that had stopped just short of apocalypse, not that that mattered to the billions who died from conflicts, tactical nukes, man-made plagues, digital assassinations and the like. Fast-grown clones with rough-shod cerebral programming had been used for dangerous jobs like cleaning up plague victims, medical experimentation, cannon fodder…you name it.
Now, clones were too useful for spare body parts, cheap labor, whatever folks needed and didn’t want to do themselves. The new slave class. Just like you and me, but not, because of various genetic markers added during the cloning process.
“Is that a problem for you?” Ester asked.
“Not if you pay me enough,” I said.
“We can do that.”
I leaned back. Whatever her role was with her employer, negotiation clearly wasn’t part of her job description. “It just means we’re going to be dealing with a rough crowd.”
“Is that all it takes for you? Money.” She sounded disappointed.
“Money always helps, sweetheart,” I said. “It’s the universal lubricant. But, no, the way I figure it, anything that can have a meaningful conversation with me is a person. And I don’t believe in slavery.”