Authors: Warren Hammond
For Roger, a good man
believing in this novel, a hearty thank-you to Jim Frenkel and Richard Curtis.
For their unwavering support, advice, and friendship, my deepest thanks to the Pearl Street Grill critique group: Mario Acevedo, Margie Lawson, Tom Lawson, Tamra Monahan, Jeanne Stein, and Terry Wright.
And for her love, my undying thanks to my wife, Kathy.
PRIL 20, 2789
was my turf now. Mine.
I stood at the head of the alley. Smoke billowed from fire pits, the flames licking at slow-turning ’guanas on spits. Neon signs blinked overhead. Hookers danced in the street, their eyes hidden behind lizard masks, their tits bouncing free. A five-piece band at the far end pounded out a heavy beat beneath a
’89 banner. Offworld teens drank and groped and drank some more. I breathed deep of air scented with perspiration and opium.
Nobody could stop me.
I weaved into the rollicking crowd, sliding past sweat-slick flesh, my face whipped by hair from dancing hookers. Some whore tried to shove a mask in my face. I pushed her away.
Every door in the alley was propped open for the steady stream of mostly male offworlders. On a day like today, a hooker could score a new trick every ten minutes. The Big Sleep was a hot time for offworld kids on their school breaks to come down to Lagarto’s surface with their bottomless pockets and insatiable libidos.
I looked up at the ash gray sky. Weak light trickled down. The darkness would be upon us soon.
I navigated past tubs full of shine, through a floating set of fornicating holograms, up a short set of well-worn steps, and found myself stuck at the end of a line of kids jamming the door. One yelled over the music, “Let’s get up to the roof. The sun’s about to drop.”
His buddy shook his masked head. “You go. I’ll come up later.”
The first one stepped out of line and tossed his drink to the ground. He kicked off his sandals, and just like that he was on the wall, crawling upward, gecko style. I stared while he picked his way through a tangle of power cords above the door. He cleared the last of the pulsing neon and quickly scurried up three stories, past clotheslines and patches of creeping vines, finally disappearing over the top.
Fucking offworlders. How do they do that shit?
I bulled my way inside, ignoring the protests. The foyer was packed with disrobing offworlders. Seeing their impossibly perfect bods, a chill came over me. There was something creepy about these kids, how they looked too perfect to be real, like a room full of mannequins come to life. Not an ounce of flab. Not a single strand of back hair. Not one pimple-plagued ass.
The teens at the head of the line were completely naked. They waited patiently with projection units pressed against their temples, pornographic imagery beaming directly into their brains. Every minute or so, a whore would come by and grab one of the erect from the front of the line. The limpers had to wait. No time for foreplay. Not today. Today, the whores would keep the johns moving in and out as fast as possible … in more ways than one.
Time to reclaim my turf. I turned left and stomped through a pile of clothes. A lizard mask crunched under my right heel, glittery scales popping free from the plaster. I pushed through a curtain made of strands of strung monitor teeth that clacked and chattered at my entrance.
Chicho sat at his desk. It had been almost two years since I’d seen this pimp. He hadn’t changed. He had the same pinched lips, the same sharp nose, the same rodent eyes peering through a pair of wire-rims.
“Juno?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”
“What do you mean, you’re back?”
I stepped up to his desk, piled with holographic ledger sheets. “It means from now on, you pay me. Just like the old days.”
“This isn’t a good time.” He looked down to read a ledger.
I gave his desk a swift boot, startling the glasses right off his face. “I’m talking to you.”
His eyes had opened so wide that white showed all around the black beads at their centers. “What’s your problem?”
Had the holo-ledgers been made of actual paper, I would’ve swiped them to the floor. Instead, I settled for pressing my fists into the desktop and leaning way down to get in his rat face. “You pay me now.”
“You can’t boss me around. You’re not a cop anymore.”
“No?” I lifted my right knuckles off the desk, and my hand immediately started to shake like it always did. Nerve damage from an old run-in with an offworlder. Using my bobbing index finger, I drew an imaginary shield over my heart. “What do you see right here?”
“I don’t know. A badge?”
I grinned wolfishly, showing molars and everything. “That’s right, Chicho. A badge. You want KOP to leave you alone, you pay me every month. I don’t get my money, and we’ll shut this shithole down. Got me?”
“What’s wrong with your hand?”
The question took me aback—not the question itself, but the fact that he was asking it in the middle of a fucking shakedown. As if he had no fear.
Puzzled, I stayed silent, letting my scowl do the talking.
When it became clear I had no intention of answering, he exhaled like he was trying to find the patience. “Listen, I pay Captain Mota for protection now. What do you expect me to tell him next time he comes to collect?”
“You let me take care of that pretty boy.”
“Um, okay. Whatever you say.”
I didn’t like his sarcastic tone. This was going all wrong. He should be scared. I caught his eyes flicking to the right and back. He’d just looked past me to the door, like he was expecting somebody. The bastard could have a panic button somewhere under his desk. My skin prickled.
I rushed to the door, arriving just as the lizard-tooth curtain began to part. I threw a right at what I guessed to be a face. The impact was painful—a monitor’s incisor got caught between my knuckles and my target. Whoever the bastard was, he disappeared behind the rattling strands of teeth. I reached for my piece but my shaky right failed to grab hold. The muzzle of a lase-pistol came through the curtain while I continued to fumble for my weapon, hopelessly incapable of a quick draw.
I backed up, hands raised, my right bobbing out of control.
Following the lase-pistol through the curtain came a slight wrist, then a forearm, and then came the rest of her. Fuck me. A woman.
You don’t hit women, asshole.
Hitting women was for cowards like my wife-beater father.
A thin red mark underscored her left eye. A crimson drop broke free and trickled down like a tear. The left side of her face was visibly reddening, quite a feat considering how overly rouged her cheeks already were. “What the fuck?”
Dammit, Juno, what did you do?
“Sorry,” I said lamely. “I didn’t know.”
“What didn’t you know?” She held the weapon firm in one hand, like this wasn’t her first time. With her other hand, she swiped at the blood, painting the back of her hand with a broad red smear. She made like she was going to wipe it on her skirt, a number so skimpy that it barely qualified as a mini, but she thought better of it and let her hand hang by her side.
“I didn’t expect a woman.”
“So what?” Her eyes creased at the corners, her forehead wrinkled in anger. She stepped up and jabbed the lase-pistol into my ribs. She was short, and looking down at her, she was nothing but hair and cleavage. A toxic mix of hair spray and perfume assaulted my nostrils, and I had to turn my head to find clean air. Without warning, she rammed a knee into my crotch.
I doubled over, my lungs heaving, my face burning, my forehead breaking out in an instant sweat. There’s nothing like nut pain.
I dropped to my knees, and she pulled my weapon from my waistband at the small of my back.
Chicho must’ve been staring at me, his rodent eyes delighting at seeing me down. How many times had he fantasized about this? Month after month, year after year, I’d taken his money, and there was nothing he could do. Fuck with me, and the Koba Office of Police would’ve put him out of business. I used to run that place, me and Paul Chang. I was the chief’s right hand, his enforcer. It had been my job to keep the money coming in, and to do that I had to keep everybody on the far side of the law in line—pimps, pushers, smugglers, gene-traders, bookies, bootleggers, fences …
And cops. Especially the cops.
I was the strongest of the strong-arms, a heavy-fisted, skull-cracking beat-down artist with a mean streak. The most ruthless enforcer KOP ever saw. But I’d fallen a long way since Paul was killed by rivals. I’d lost my badge. I’d lost my wife. And here I was, doubled over and blowing like a preggo in labor.
I heard Chicho’s voice over the agony. “I’m going to do you a favor, Juno. We go back a ways, you and me, and I’d hate to see you get yourself hurt, understand? Get out of here now, and I won’t tell Captain Mota about this. Piss me off any more, and you’re on your own.”
The woman bouncer stood over me aiming two lase-pistols—one of them mine—at my head. Looking up, I caught an up-skirt view that I couldn’t enjoy in my busted-ball condition.
“Who is this geezer?” she wanted to know.
Chicho was about to answer when a voice at the door said, “Drop it.” A uniformed cop came through the monitor-tooth curtain, his standard-issue drawn.
The woman let the lase-pistols slip out of her fingers.
I raised my hands to protect my face. One gun smacked the back of my left hand and tumbled harmlessly to the side. The other bounced off my jaw with a painful thunk.
“Nice.” I glared at her.
She gave me a smart-ass grin.
Taking the weapons as my own, I slowly stood, my hand smarting, my package aching.
The things I do …
“What kept you?”
Officer Marek Deluski shrugged. “I didn’t know you needed help.”
Hunched over the way I was, I had to crane my neck to see the kid’s eyes. They looked truthful, but I couldn’t say for sure. I could picture the dumb shit staying outside and peeking through the curtain, secretly enjoying watching me get my huevos scrambled before coming to the rescue. This new squad of mine had a serious loyalty problem.
Now that I was back in control of the situation, this was the perfect time to exact a little retribution. I thought about shooting the pimp somewhere nonfatal, maybe in the knee, or maybe frying a hole through one of those fancy offworld shoes on his feet.
But I didn’t do that shit anymore. Even after taking a groiner.
I forced my torso upright with a groan, my face frozen in a nasty leer. The woman tried to keep her tough-girl act going, but with the tables turned, I saw fear under those long, mascara-caked lashes.
I looked into Chicho’s eyes. “You ready to quit this pissing match and talk business?”
Chicho crossed his arms, a sour expression of defeat on his face. He glanced at Deluski’s weapon then sat on his desk, his ass dropping through the holo-ledgers.