Outside Jimmy’s place, I hit Bright up and make sure she’s got everything.
“You’re headed to Fee’s, then?”
“Yup. Figured I’ll just hang around until I spot our guy.”
“You’ve always been a master of planning. This should help—I pulled his face from your memory dump.” When I’m on the clock I generally let Bright log everything I see. It comes in handy, but it still freaks me out. “Here,” she says, and suddenly his face is fresh in my mind.
“Any chance this guy has a name?”
“Yeah, I cross referenced his face with all the usual databases while you were talking to your contact,” I can hear her rolling her eyes. No doubt she’d done some research on Jimmy too while I was with him. “John Powell. He has three arrests on his record, criminal trespass, aggravated assault, possession of a controlled substance. Sounds like someone I know.”
“Yeah, only I’m not dumb enough to get caught.”
On the walk to Fee’s I think about trying to scuff up my boots or something so I’ll stand out a little less. The idea is short lived—between my hair and the fact that I’m dressed in clean clothes, I’m not exactly inconspicuous here in the lower city.
Besides, I really like these boots. I’m not going to voluntarily rough them up.
Fee’s is in a block of derelict townhouses. It’s below street level, down a short flight of stairs choked with trash. Inside, it’s mercifully cool, but the appeal of the place ends there. It smells like stale liquor and vomit and the faint unmistakable tang of blood. There’s a visible layer of grime on every surface.
Jimmy was right. The place is a shit-hole.
The bartender is a horrible buzzard with one eye, lazily keeping watch on the handful of patrons clustered in the darkened corners. I’d expected the place to be a little more lively, but I guess I hadn’t considered the daytime crowd. Might as well have propped up some bar rags in the far booths—all these folks are doing is sopping up cheap beer. The only sounds are low, slurred conversations and the rattle of the ceiling fan.
I take a better look around, but there’s no sign of good ol’ John Powell. Reluctantly, I belly up to the bar and dig for my wallet, depositing a couple of ration coupons on the filthy counter. The official currency of Neo Angeles is intangible: electronic transfers of credit, but those don’t have much weight outside of government circles and the upper city. After a few long minutes an acknowledging grunt comes from Buzzard the bartender.
“Whiskey, neat.” He doesn’t look like a man well-acquainted with anything “neat.” He shambles around behind the bar and finally returns with a cloudy glass of what might be piss. As he snatches up the coupons I raise the glass to my face, wrinkling my nose. At least it smells like alcohol. I take a seat at the end of the bar, where I can keep an eye on the door and my back partially to the wall.
Eventually, the place starts to fill up, a slow trickle of customers slouching in from the blazing heat. I’m a little surprised that I don’t feel as out of place as I’d expected. When people think of the lower city their minds tend to automatically jump to images of garbage dwellers dressed in tattered rags, eyes sunken and glazed with drugs and insanity. The truth is there are a lot of people living down here for a wide variety of reasons, not just those suffering from a terminal inability to function in the “real” world. Fee’s isn’t exactly what I’d call a respectable establishment, but I’m realizing it’s probably one of the better options in the lower city.
I order another drink, still scanning the crowd for familiar faces. Nothing. The wait is starting to gnaw at me. I’m a patient man, but that doesn’t mean I like waiting. My whole body is restless, and I find myself wishing for a coaster or a napkin or a drink stirrer, something to fold into tiny sections, anything to occupy my hands. They ache in anticipation of violence.
I keep watch on a table towards the back, where a handful of noticeably armed men have gathered. Their voices are quiet but their laughter is raucous. I imagine they’re all itching for a fight as badly as I am, and realize I probably shouldn’t risk a full-on shoot out in here. Presuming John shows, I’ll need to find a way to get him alone. I wonder if I should make a plan that goes beyond “isolate bad guy, ask questions, inflict pain until answers are given.” I think hard about it. Why mess with what works?
It’s with this thought that I see him come through the door, finally—a burly son of a bitch with a blond ponytail and a bad attitude, his sleeveless shirt almost comically too small for his muscle-bound frame, a hand gun in a holster at his waist. His face sends a shudder of recognition through me. I don’t think I’d even needed Bright to update my memory of him. When someone shoots me I tend to remember them. The last time I’d seen him, he’d gotten the drop on me. I’m looking forward to returning the favor.
A rematch, now that the playing field is level again. The upgrade Bright had given me would protect my ‘machines from those tech-killer bullets. I’m almost tempted to get myself shot again—just to see the look on his face when I come back up swinging.
“Don’t be stupid, Reilly.”
I’d forgotten my link to Bright was still up. She’d caught me thinking out loud. Despite the lingering stimulants in my system, I have a little trouble handling the neurocomm. Shit. I slump back against the wall, talking into my hand. “Don’t worry, Bright. I’m just gonna get our guy alone and jump him.”
“Right. Just be sure you can jump when the time comes.”
The bartender comes back. My glass is empty. I tell him to fill it again. When I look back up, I notice that he’s joined the men at the back table. Great. He’d walked in alone and I’d hoped he’d stay that way. It was too good to be true, but this development doesn’t change much. I’ll wait for him to have a few drinks with his buddies, and follow him back to the restroom when he gets up to go take a leak.
It seems like a sound plan at first, but as time drags on I realize he’s got a bladder like a camel and I’m starting to get drunk. I rub my face and sigh.
I don’t drink much. I used to, in the few months after they’d thawed me out—before I’d discovered the drugs. I avoid it now, for the most part, though there’s something about the information gathering and surveillance parts of my work that seem to require it. But there’s something unpleasantly imprecise about alcohol…and waking up from a blackout night feels too much like coming out of the freezer.
Just as I’m getting anxious that he’s never going to leave his friends and I’m going to have to confront them all, he stands up and heads for the back, weaving a little. Perfect. I finish my drink and immediately wish I hadn’t—I feel it hit me too fast, and I’m beginning to think what passes for whiskey here is grain alcohol cut with gasoline.
I glance around, reassuring myself that no one’s paying me any mind. I focus myself with thoughts of broken bones and get up to follow the target.
I don’t know how I know the things I know. I don’t know who I was. All I know is I can fight like a bastard. I don’t carry a gun. So far I haven’t needed one. I open the bathroom door quietly, and he’s standing at the urinal. There’s no one else here. I wait for him to finish up—not out of courtesy, but in the interest of keeping my boots urine-free. He takes a step back, zipping up, not even noticing me. Adrenaline surges through me. Time to move.
I lunge forward and slap a hand down on one muscular shoulder, jerking it backwards, spinning him around so I can sock him in the gut. He keels over and I put a knee to his face. Blood erupts from his nose, splattering my pants.
Hm. Should have thought about that one.
He’s crumpled to his knees on the ground, stunned, clutching his face. I shove him the rest of the way down, pressing his face to the filthy bathroom floor, my boot to his back, between his shoulder blades. “John Powell. I’ve got a question for you.”
Even with the wind knocked out of him, he uses his gasping breath to swear at me, so I crouch down and twist his right arm up behind him. “I need to know where you get your gear.” He flails at me with his free arm and I grab that too, pinning him. He whimpers. Pathetic. I was expecting more of a fight out of him. I suppose his muscles are all for show—the perils of relying on a gun to pack the punches. “See, you put a bullet in me the other night, and man—it was really something special. I need to know where you got ‘em.”
“Guy—I—work for,” he coughs, choking on his own blood as it trails from nose to mouth.
“Yeah? Who’s he?” His arm is close to the breaking point, and I give it another little jerk.
“Ffffffuuuu—Dan Black—! Mid city. Tech guy—” This is almost too easy.
“Thank you so much,” I sneer. I wonder if Bright is listening, in. I wonder if she’s watching. I shift my weight, rocking forward so a bony knee digs into his spine. He groans and I clamp a hand of his bloody mouth. I lean in close so he doesn’t miss a word. “Here’s the deal. I want to leave now, and I don’t want you or your friends following me. So, I’m going to go ahead and break your arm and call us even. You did shoot me, after all.”
I take a deep breath. I let it out and throw my weight forward against his arm. Something snaps. He lets out a sob against the palm of my hand.
I can feel muscles tense in my face. It feels like a grin. I find myself wondering again what I was like before they froze me. I ask myself if it matters.
I get up and wash his spit and snot and blood off my hands without taking my eyes off him. He stays down and keeps quite, aside from labored, wheezing breaths. Smart man. Fee’s is the kind of bar that doesn’t have bathroom mirrors, and as much as I’d like to check my face I’m thankful. I step around his body, and leave the bar as nonchalantly as possible.
As soon as I hit the street outside, I break into a run. The adrenaline coursing through my system keeps me going for a bit, even in the sweltering heat, but it’s ultimately a bad idea. A few blocks from where the public transit line picks up, I have to stop—gasping for air, pain like needles radiating through my stomach that even the ‘machines can’t compensate for. I duck into the shadows of an alley, trying to catch my breath. A vicious wave of nausea hits me and in an instant I’m doubled over, puking up rotgut liquor.
Shit. I’m going to have to shine my boots after all.