A redhead. Redheads always brought trouble.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Whitfield?” Ash asked as he waved the guy to the chair on the other side of the desk. Whitfield—Gabriel Whitfield, he’d given his full name as—sat down. Down wasn’t a long way for him. If he was any more than five-six, Ash was the king of Sweden.
“I want you to trace someone for me,” Whitfield said, fishing a terminal out of the battered and bulging leather satchel he carried. “May I?” He nodded at Ash’s desk terminal. Ash nodded back his permission, and a second later a face and name popped up. A young black man named Richie Swan. “The picture is a couple years old, but it’s the only one I have. I’ve attached the information I have about him.”
“You’re sure he’s here on Frax?” A lot could happen in a couple of years. The guy could be long gone. But maybe not. Fraxin Yari was booming. People were coming to the space station, not leaving. A young man of initiative could make plenty of money here. But there were also many reasons a man might leave.
“I’m not certain,” Gabe said. “But if he is, I’m sure you can find him.”
Flattery? Or confidence in Ash? Where did so much confidence come from? If Ash guessed right, Whitfield was new to the station. He had a strong Chicago accent, some color in his face—freckles too, brought out by the sun—and golden highlights in his hair. Yeah, he was new.
He might only have looked up the list of private investigators on the station and picked out one of the first—Ash Bowman came near the top of the list however you sorted it. Or maybe he’d gone for one of the cheaper ones. Ash studied him a moment. His clothes were not high quality. He wore basic black pants and a white pull-on shirt. They looked good on him, simple as they were, but both had seen better days. The white shirt had started graying from too many laundry days, and its cuffs were fraying. He’d come in wearing a decent overcoat, a black wool peacoat, but it appeared to be several years old. An investment coat he expected to last him a decade or more, not to be discarded for the latest fashion.
He’d need a good coat on Frax; the station was damn cold, especially in the Core. Not that Whitfield should venture anywhere near the Core. They’d eat him alive and floss their teeth with his pretty wavy hair. Pretty? Ash shook off such thoughts as Whitfield looked away from his intense scrutiny. Stop staring.
“My fee is a retainer, plus an hourly rate,” Ash said.
“My partner, Mrs. Jackson-Cooper, will be working on the case too. She’ll run electronic traces to find him. If we locate him, do you want us to contact him? Or to serve papers on him? I’m licensed to serve subpoenas.”
“No. Tell me where he is. I’ll take it from there.”
“Okay. How will you be paying?”
They sorted out the money, and Ash took him back out to the reception area. If you could call it reception when they had no receptionist. He had Whitfield’s personal contact details and an address and promised him a progress report in twenty-four hours. They shook hands. Whitfield left, shrugging back into his coat, slinging the heavy satchel over his shoulder. Ash watched him go.
Nice. But too short. He didn’t go for short guys. They gave him a crick in the neck.
When the outer door closed, he strode over to Kitty’s door, tapped, and went into her office when she called out. If you couldn’t call the reception a reception without a receptionist, maybe you couldn’t call Kitty’s work space an office without a desk. Technically there was a desk, but it had long ago become a workbench, where she worked on her handy-dandy little surveillance and tracking devices.
“Hey, big fella,” Kitty said, looking up through the magnifying lens she used to work on the tiny devices. It made her eyes monstrously big and turned the pores of her dark skin into deep craters.
“Do you have to do that? You know it freaks me out.”
She pushed the magnifier aside. “So, new client?”
“The details should be on your terminal.”
She shoved her wheeled chair across to a bank of screens and tapped a few keys, bringing up Swan’s face. “Got it. You want me to get straight on this?”
“Yeah.” Since they had no other active cases, then why the hell not? “Check him for arrest records. He’s got that look.”
“Half the people on this station have that look.”
“And while you’re at it, check out the client too. Something about him bothers me.”
She grinned. She’d seen Mr. Whitfield when he arrived. “Bothers you in your pants?”
“Don’t be crude. It’s beneath you.”
She took a stylus from where she had it conveniently stored in her thick hair like a decorative pin and hovered it over her terminal. “What’s his first name again?”
“Gabriel. No jokes about blowing his horn, please.”
“The thought never crossed my mind—though clearly it crossed yours.”
“I don’t want a full background check. Just tell me who he works for. He didn’t quibble over the fee, even though his shoes need repair and his bag’s held closed with a shoelace. To me, that implies he’ll be putting our fee down on an expenses claim.”
“Good observations. Have you ever thought about becoming a detective?”
“Funny lady. Can you get me a lead on Swan first, please? Then I’ll follow it up while you work on Whitfield.”
“Okay. While you’re waiting, can you go grab us some lunch from Hopper’s?”
* * * *
Kitty got him a lead on Swan quickly. An address from over two years ago. After they lunched on hot takeout sandwiches and coffee, he left her working on what else she could find for both Swan and Whitfield, and set off for the address.
The address was in one of the accommodation sectors of the station. Not one of the better ones—a little too close to the Core for comfort. He didn’t expect to find Swan still here, not in the kind of place where people lived for a couple of months and moved on. For the same reason he didn’t expect to find any neighbors who remembered Swan either. None of the landlords of these apartments lived anywhere near them, and their records would be of little use. People paid for these rooms in cash, week by week, and often used a fake name, if they used a name at all. So Ash went right for the superintendent of the block of property where Swan had lived. Only the supers stayed for any length of time.
“You remember this guy?” Ash asked the grubby man in his grubby office. If the state of repair of the guy’s personal office was any indication, then Ash hated to imagine the apartments. “Lived here about three years ago.”
“Mister, I barely recall guys lived here three weeks ago. This place has more turnover than a whorehouse.” The super wheezed a laugh. Ash didn’t want to picture him in a whorehouse, so he moved quickly on. The application of a small fee made the super look at the picture properly.
“Hard to say. The blacks all look alike to me.”
Charming. Ash controlled his reaction.
“Three years ago. Try to remember. He lived in number 326, on level two. His name is Richie Swan.” And he’d used the name when he lived here. Thank God. “Swan. It’s a little unusual.”
“Swan, yeah, I remember now. Always some kind of trouble going on at his place. Rows and yelling and screaming all the damn time.”
“Did anyone live with him?”
“No, but he was never lonely, you know. Always had men around. A hustler, I’d say. Disgusting.”
“Do you have any idea where he went after he left here?”
“People don’t exactly leave a forwarding address.”
“Was there anyone who came more regularly than the others? A friend? A boyfriend?”
“I didn’t keep track of whether he had repeat business.”
That seemed to be all the useful information Ash was going to get. He left.
So, Swan was a hustler? Was Whitfield a customer? It didn’t seem likely. Whitfield looked around thirty and was cute, even if not Ash’s type. He surely didn’t need to pay for it. He could walk into any queer bar here on Frax and have anyone he wanted. And…Ash was getting distracted. He knew nothing about Whitfield’s sex life. His interest might be professional. He might be an investigator himself, working on behalf of Swan’s family. Swan only looked about nineteen in the picture. Could be he had people out there looking for him, wanting to bring him home.
Lots of people ran away to Frax. The population had gone up tenfold in the past fifty years, since nearby planets and asteroids were surveyed and found to be rich in minerals. An old station, once a military installation, then for a hundred years almost forgotten, serving as nothing but a waypoint in a minor shipping lane. Now it was the center of a booming mining industry and still growing. Not only the population, but the station itself. New sections were added, old ones reopened and repurposed, to house people, to process ore, to cater to the needs of both the standing population and those who passed through on what had become a major shipping lane to Earth.
However Ash’s business didn’t often take him into the booming areas but to the Core and its immediate surroundings. The oldest part of the station. The darkest and most corrupt. The part he hated more than any other. As he walked away from Richie Swan’s last known address, he passed one of the corridors that led into the Core, and shivered. It pulled him. It called to him in her voice. Maybe…just an hour, get a few sections…
No. He had work to do. He strode away, putting distance between him and sucking darkness. He walked blindly and almost panicked when he came back to himself and didn’t know where he was. But he recognized section numbers marked on the wall and sighed with relief. A short distance farther on, he came to a plaza formed by the intersection of several corridors, wider and nicer than the ones he’d come from. A coffee cart stood there, a fringed black canopy protecting it from the bats that sometimes passed above, descendants of long-ago stowaways on ships from Earth. Ash bought a cup from the vendor and drank it to regain his calm.
His handheld terminal beeped. Kitty had sent a message a half hour ago, but it had only just gotten through. Unwired network access was notoriously bad near the Core, and inside it, usually nonexistent, barring police comms. Another lead on Swan. A job at a hotel, as a bellhop, about two and a half years ago. Ash finished the coffee and headed there.
It wasn’t the fanciest of hotels—it wouldn’t have been employing dubious characters like Swan otherwise. But it was a semirespectable place. The type people with not a large amount of money stayed in when passing through the station. Or where people having affairs met up.
“Oh.” The receptionist’s eyes went wide when Ash showed her the picture. Clear recognition there. She blushed. “Yes, I remember him. Um, I think you should talk to Mr. Ridley.”
Ash nodded. He didn’t know the receptionist; she was new to that job, at least, though she must have been at the hotel awhile if she recognized Swan. But he knew the head of hotel security, Jack Ridley, all right. He’d been here over twenty years. Since Ash was a cop. Since before Ash was a cop.
“Bowman,” Ridley said, rising from his desk and extending a hand. “You want coffee?” Ash rarely said no to coffee. In a few minutes they had cups of a good fresh brew.
“Swan,” Ridley said, looking at the picture. “Yeah, I remember the little bastard.”
Most people were little to Ridley, who stood six feet four. A scowl twisted his dark, granite-hard features.
“Thieving?” Ash speculated. That was the usual reason for bellhops to be fired, getting light-fingered with the guests’ jewelry.
“Nope,” Ridley said. “I caught him on his knees blowing a guest. He was earning a little on the side, offering additional services beyond carrying their bags to the room.” He shook his head. Ash didn’t say anything. He wasn’t too surprised, since the super had called Swan a hustler. “I threw him out myself,” Ridley said. “A couple of days later, I threw his boyfriend out too.”
“Don’t tell me. He was offering more than one type of room service.”
“Yeah. He’d been as thick as thieves with Swan, so I kept an eye on him. Can’t have that kind of thing going on here. This is a respectable place.”
Ridley was okay, Ash thought. No puritan. But he guarded the reputation of the hotel carefully, not wanting it turned into some kind of unofficial whorehouse. There were plenty of official ones people could use, he said.
“Do you have a name for the boyfriend?” Ash asked. He’d pass that on to Kitty and see if she had better luck cross-referencing it with Swan’s name.
“Gimme a second here.” Ridley tapped at his terminal. “Over two years ago. Where does the time go, huh?” He glanced at Ash as his terminal searched. His gaze briefly wandered to Ash’s left arm. “You doing okay these days, Bowman?”
“Right, here we go, report of me firing Swan. And a few days later, there, Francis Kerr.”
Ash stiffened. “Francis Kerr?”
“That’s right.” Ridley looked speculatively at him. “Ring a bell?”
“Rings a peal of them, yes.”
“Probably knew him when you were a cop. Pair of petty crooks like that are bound to have crossed your path.”
Ash gulped down his coffee and rose, held out his hand. “Thanks, Jack. It’s much appreciated.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll check my records. If I find anything useful, I’ll send it along to you and Mrs. Jackson-Cooper. She’s well, is she?”
“She’s fine.” And still a lesbian, he wanted to add. But Ridley had a little soft spot for Kitty, and a tiny hope she might entertain the possibility of being bisexual maybe. A man was entitled to his dreams, however hopeless.
“You’ll give her my regards?”
Ash hurried from the hotel and called Kitty on his handheld terminal as he went.
“Was Ridley helpful?” she asked.
“Very. He sends his regards.”
“The old sweetheart.”
“Have you started checking up on Whitfield?”
“Not yet. Still working on Swan. I’ve got his arrest record, by the way. A few minors, a couple for solicitation.”
“No surprise there,” Ash said. “Keep working on that, but start working on Whitfield too. I want more than who he works for. I want everything you can get on him.”
“Okay. What’s wrong, Ash?”
“I got the name of a boyfriend of Swan’s from Ridley. Francis Kerr.”
She gave no immediate reaction. She had no reason to remember. “Am I supposed to know who that is?” Kitty asked. “You want me to add him to the search?”
“By all means. Kitty, Francis Kerr was Remy Devon’s roommate.”
She went silent for so long he thought he’d lost the connection.
“I’m here.” Her voice had strain in it. “There…there’s got to be a connection, then. Swan, Devon, Evelyn, uh—us.”
“I’d lay serious money on it. Find out who Whitfield is. That’s the key. I’m going to go talk to Pat and see if the cops have any current information on Swan.” He didn’t much like doing that, using up those favors, even if Pat Flynn was always willing to provide the information to a brother officer invalided in the line of duty. A brother officer he’d also slept with on a semiregular basis when they were both still cops. But never since. That was mostly Ash’s choice, though it bruised his ego that Flynn never asked anymore. But he had to follow up on the connection. He had to know what Whitfield wanted.
* * * *
Gabe dropped his satchel on the second chair behind Bernie Cain’s desk.
“Drink?” Cain asked, pouring whiskey into a tumbler.
Cain looked at him. “Are you sure you’re Irish?” He grinned.
Gabe smiled thinly back. “So I went to see Bowman,” he said as Cain shoved aside some of the mess on his desk to make room for his glass. The room was quite dark, the monitors playing the feeds of Cain’s and all the other news channels making spooky flickers of light across Cain’s face.
“What did you make of him?” Cain asked.
He’s a tall, cool drink of water, and I’d like to get him out of his dark gray suit and make that fine black hair of his stand on end.
Gabe didn’t say that. “He seems like a straight shooter.”
Cain shook his head, sipped his drink. “It’s a bad idea involving him and Jackson in this.”
“Jackson-Cooper,” Gabe corrected. He held Cain’s look. “They were married.”
“Okay, okay, don’t get sensitive about it.”
“I’m not involving them. I wanted to meet him, form my own impression.”
“You know he’ll find out you work for me.”
“I’d expect so.”
“And he’ll probably figure out Swan’s connection to Devon.”
“Yes, and when he does, his reaction is going to be interesting.”
Cain chuckled, took another sip of whiskey. “Okay. I gave you the story. You work your angle. But don’t lose your objectivity. Bowman seems like a good guy. I know. I’ve met him. But even the nicest guys can be as corrupt as the rest. He and Evelyn Cooper—sorry, Jackson-Cooper—are suspects too. You know that.”
“She’d dead, and he was in hospital for six months. If they were the bad guys, they sure came off worst.”
Cain didn’t argue. Gabe hadn’t thought the two cops were dirty even before he’d met Bowman. Now that he had, he couldn’t believe it was true. But Cain expected him to keep an open mind. That was the job. If you went in with the story already written in your mind, then you were a fiction writer, not a journalist.
“That’s where I met Bowman,” Cain said. “The hospital. He probably doesn’t remember me. He was pretty heavily doped up at the time.”
“Please tell me you weren’t disguised as a nurse. A female nurse.”
“Of course not.” Cain’s eyes twinkled. “I was disguised as a nun.”
It wouldn’t surprise Gabe. Bernie Cain would not make the most convincing nun, with his heavy jowls and continual five-o’clock shadow, but shaved… Gabe had seen uglier nuns.
“I’ll have to borrow your habit sometime when I need to get into a hospital.”
“You’d pass more easily than me.” Cain shook his head again. “Joking aside, that was fucked up. His arm was in this…tank attached to his shoulder. I mean, what was left of his arm.”
Gabe shivered. That he did not want to hear about. He stood, lifting his satchel. Damn, he needed to clear the thing out. It weighed more than he did. “I’m going to go chase up some more leads,” he said. “And see what Ash Bowman has to say when he gets back to me.”
“If he works out who you are, then he’s not going to give you the information about Swan.”
“Like I say, I’m more interested in his reaction. I’ll send some other PI after Swan later. One who’s not personally involved.”
“More expenses. Am I made of money?”
It was a familiar complaint, but Gabe had already learned to ignore it. Cain signed off on all expenses for this story with only token objections. Whatever it cost, he wanted the truth behind the murders of Ash Bowman’s partner on the force, Evelyn Jackson-Cooper, and Remy Devon, the man she and Ash had gone to meet one terrible night two years earlier.
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