THE SQUARE IN FRONT of the financial center had been set with several rows of white wooden folding chairs, neatly spaced to face a portable podium. Luckily the Monarch release had been scheduled for early morning to reduce the chances the Martian winds would make a play at upsetting the festivities.
Haunting the shadows of one of the skyscraper’s mammoth columns, Drinkwine observed from the distance as a parade of dignitaries waffled through their various, overlong speeches, painfully thanking a plethora of anonymous people by name. Each speaker in turn took up the mantle, boring the gathered yet further, with virtually everyone attending wanting an end to it, eager to get on with the great spectacle. Mothers and fathers had begun to lose control of their children who had become bored and ornery from the tedium. Dressed in their little jackets and ties they wanted only for the grass, to play, to be children, their simple desires slapped down with the back of a hand and quashed with harsh whispers of threat.
Behind the small stage, several dozen perforated metal boxes had been placed. They held one million Monarch Butterflies that were to be released into the Martian atmosphere. The release of foreign species into the still forming atmosphere (like that of the previous decades’ efforts to seed the planet with greenery) was always a gamble. No one could predict how these fanciful events would play out. That didn’t prevent the powers that be of making a big show of it with these boring exercises of pomp. As the last of the speakers sent their garbled, amplified words out over the gathered with occasional pops of feedback, one million Monarch Butterflies waited in perforated steel boxes, unaware they were to be set free in a strange place.
Kurian had been first at the microphone over an hour ago to make the initial introductions, and now, after a host of people had been erroneously imbued with some sense of importance and delivered their banal speeches, he returned to wrap things up. Taking the podium, Kurian encouraged ovation among the weary crowd with animated clapping. There was a polite smattering of applause in response, followed by an embarrassing shriek of feedback as Kurian leaned into the microphone, which elicited the biggest reaction thus far from the audience—albeit laughter.
“We thank you, Mr. Asah, for your generous help in bringing this monumental occasion to fruition.”
Kurian was enjoying the moment of attention just a little too much. Drinkwine smirked, wondering if this would turn into another monumental fuck-up, like so many other endeavors that had thus far been undertaken here.
“We also would like to thank the 1st Martian Bank Real Estate Development Fund,” Kurian continued, “for their contribution to this worthy cause.” The Ambassador had to once again prod the audience to show their appreciation by clapping his little, manicured hands together in front of the microphone. It was all so embarrassingly ridiculous.
“And now,” Kurian teased with dramatic pause, “the moment you’ve all been waiting for.”
Yes, Drinkwine considered, the moment we’ve all just been dying for—literally.
“Gentlemen,” Kurian uttered with a graceful drop of the arm to cue the handlers. The perforated steel boxes were unlatched and the hinged doors swung open. To the appreciative oohs and aahs of the gathered, one million colorful Monarchs were freed from entrapment in a beautiful confusion of fluttering color, forming a circling mass of delicately flapping wings that blotted out the sun and set the entire area into a brilliant commotion of dancing shadows. The handlers tapped the metal boxes to spook all the Monarchs from their confinement, until all the boxes were empty.
When Drinkwine saw the crowd immediately rising from their seats and dispersing, he crushed out the cigarillo he had been clandestinely smoking and made for Kurian. The ambassador was spewing out his pleasantries to some of the attending guests.
“Ambassador,” Drinkwine intervened, “you said you would make some introductions.”
Kurian raised a finger as if to say wait, turning to address one of the guests.
Drinkwine kept pace with him as he sidled through the crowd. “Ambassador,” patience wearing thin.
“Mr. Drinkwine, if you can just give me a moment,” Kurian threw over his shoulder as he waded deeper into the crowd, shaking hands and bowing to the cluster of people offering their thanks and appreciation.
“It’s Detective Drinkwine,” he corrected loudly enough to be heard by those around them.
Kurian was unsettled by the outburst, stopping to lean into Drinkwine and whispering, “This isn’t a good time. Let’s not mar this joyous occasion with such ugliness, please.”
“When would be a good time, Ambassador?” He saw Kurian’s anxious face. “Ambassador, I’m going to speak to these people, either with your help or without it. It’s your call.” And on that Drinkwine left a ruffled Kurian to his duties of Ambassadorship, stalking off with angered, impatient strides.
Kurian watched him go, his face awash with concern and uncertainty. He regained his composure and went back to the task of the shaking of hands and spouting of pleasantries.
The Martian sky had begun its nightly ritual blush to dusk. Once again the muezzin’s call to prayer filled the cement canyons of Jannah, the pre-recorded tape echoing hauntingly with a hissing of white noise and distortion that lent a charming, somewhat humorous sentimentality to it all. The streets were soon empty of inhabitants, all finding their way to places of prayer. From the vantage point of his room, at this time of evening, the city was a towering garden of tall cranes silhouetted against the fading sky. Motionless, the cranes had been silenced with the end of the workday. The crews, the men and women who were raising these steel and concrete giants out of the sand and nothingness, had been shuttled back to their quarters. Drinkwine ruminated that the laborers, who ceaselessly toiled to fabricate the great wonders, would never be allowed inside the luxurious structures once they were completed. Many of the lowly workers could scarce comprehend the notion of people wealthy enough to afford such lavish living spaces.
With the lace of his untied shoe in his fingers, Drinkwine had been sitting on the edge of his bed for a full minute, lost in trance. He was staring, puzzled and saddened, at a Monarch butterfly squashed into the sole of his shoe. His eyes traced the beautiful and colorful intricacies of design in its delicate, crushed wings.
His befuddlement over the squashed Monarch was usurped by something on the muted TV screen; a clip of him entering the embassy. Drinkwine read the creeping closed captioning in English as the female Pakistani newscaster spoke in silence, her words translated in black and white type: “… police have not ruled out suicide. However, officials declined comment pending further investigation into the death.” Drinkwine soiled yet another face towel with red as he wiped his neck and forehead, shaking his head in disbelief.
In the darkness of the room Drinkwine lay awake in the bed. It was late. He tried to not think about the scratch of a grain of sand that was irritating his left eye. He had been to the bathroom twice already to try and flush it out, but to no avail. The more he tried to ignore it, the more aggravating the scratching became. He was too exhausted to get up yet again and try to excavate the grain, but too bothered to allow sleep in. The sand, it got into everything.
The Myoko mirror sat silent in its perpetual orbit high above Mars. The gargantuan framework held a surface of Mylar panels that reflected sunlight toward the planet below. From afar it was a technical marvel. Upon closer inspection, it was clear to see the satellite had suffered its abuses over the years, taking a beating from passing meteors so miniscule as to be almost invisible to the naked eye, yet carrying enough velocity to have pierced the Mylar panels, leaving behind millions of tiny holes that let the sunlight pass through, giving it the appearance of a giant sieve. Entire sections of panels had been knocked askew, tethered only by their electrical wiring, buffeted by the invisible currents of space. The complex of supporting alloy framework had been rippled and dented over years of ceaseless celestial hammering.
There were more devastating examples of larger meteors that had smashed into the Myoko during its decades of service, leaving gaping holes large enough to drive a rover through. The once perfect mirror was pockmarked with thousands of such fractures, the result of being estranged in space, without ward, without protection, for all these years. The satellite suffered it all without complaint, continuing its quiet servitude that was reshaping the planet below into something the cosmos had never intended.
When Drinkwine arrived for the second day of interviews Kurian’s manner had been affected. He wasn’t his usual, forced buoyant self and instead tried to pretend to be busy with articles of papers on his desk to avoid eye contact.
“Good morning,” Drinkwine addressed Kurian jubilantly, just to antagonize him. The Ambassador glanced up just long enough to nod and force a perfunctory smile. Drinkwine presumed that the powers above Kurian had expressed concern about the visibility of the investigation, having made its way onto the news. Drinkwine could almost feel the lingering warmth of the phone where Kurian’s hand had held it as he was admonished by those invisible personages who were most certainly growing anxious over the matter.
“Is everything alright?” Drinkwine inquired.
“Yes, yes, why shouldn’t it be?” Kurian came back too quickly to be sincere.
Drinkwine could feel the Ambassador’s uneasiness. “What’s bothering you?”
Kurian took a breath, “I trust we can do our best to keep this investigation as discrete as possible.”
On that, Drinkwine knew the Ambassador had taken a scolding from someone. “It’s a murder investigation, Ambassador,” Drinkwine said firmly, “it’s not a very pleasant thing. I’m being as discrete as I can be.”
“I understand,” Kurian said, shuffling in his large chair, his reflection spread over the polished surface of the desk. “It’s just, I ask that you try and be sensitive as to what a lot of unnecessary press might do to the perception of the colony, a new and critical colony to the future of Mars, and the cosmos,” Kurian’s voice growing desperate. “A great many people have an investment in the future of this planet. I’m not just talking of investors, but families, children, this is their future home.”
Drinkwine studied Kurian hard, trying to decipher the source of this new angst. “If I’m ruffling feathers, those with the ruffled feathers can talk directly to me.” He waited for explanation.
“Well,” Kurian had to force out. “Yes, there are those who are concerned that this whole…” careful of his choice of words, “situation, not escalate.” Kurian was holding one of his fine pens in his delicate fingers, uneasy under Drinkwine’s intense stare.
“I’ve a job to do…”
“…yes, I understand…” Kurian came back, nervously twirling the pen.
“A man has been killed,” Drinkwine said calmly.
Kurian dropped the pen, his face raged with red, and blurted out in a fit of anger, “He was just a worker!”
The words hung accusingly in the air. The quiet that settled over the room was rife with revelation. Drinkwine studied Kurian’s heightened breathing. He could see Kurian already regretting the irretrievable impropriety of his words.
On that, Drinkwine calmly switched his brief to the other hand, then turned and crossed the office to the door. With one final look back, smiling, enjoying the vague victory, he headed down the hall.
Kurian listened as his footsteps strode the polished marble floor leading to the interview room.
The second day of interviews was unfolding with the same tediousness as the first go round. Drinkwine was a study in patience as a steady stream of people were paraded through the spare office in the embassy. Nothing of interest, not even the hint of suspicion with any of them. A good many of the workers, those who couldn’t read, were unaware a body had even been found and were confused as to what this was all about. Several complained openly about lost wages resulting from the time away from The Hole.
As the day dragged on the interviews transitioned to a higher level of education and position; engineers, managers, accountants. Presently seated opposite, a high-level researcher was expounding on his duties as a climate custodian, excitedly going into great detail about how they measure the temperature and track changes. Drinkwine glanced at the interview registration form, his eyes working to bring the name into focus: Jafar Barr, age 34. Pakistani. Languages; Urdu, Farsi, English.
“I enjoy my work,” Jafar droned on, speaking in heavily accented English, “it may seem odd, but I’m happy.”
He seemed pleasant enough. Certainly was enthused about his work. Drinkwine had already grown disinterested. There is usually some thread of uneasiness, some residue slip of the tongue with the guilty. That wasn’t present here. He was one of the researchers who had access to a rover and had actually secured one around the estimated time frame of the killing. He’d used it to travel to a remote research station.
“What do you do with your free time, Mr. Barr?” Drinkwine asked. “Any hobbies?”
“I like music,” Jafar responded, becoming even more effusive, bouncing his shoulders excitedly, “I collect vintage vinyl records.”
“Vinyl records?” Drinkwine repeated, but the words seemed to come from someone else.
“Yes, I have a very extensive collection, some two hundred old discs. I play them, on turntables I rebuilt myself,” he said proudly. “Vinyl records replicate the music with a quality of audio unmatched by modern digital components. You have to be careful how you handle them, and how you place them on the turntable. It’s fascinating, magical really, how the needle draws the music out of the grooves.” Jafar waxed philosophical, “Music performed by artists who are all dead now.”
Drinkwine wasn’t sure if it was the monotony, or merely the man’s persona—which was erudite, yet terribly boring—but his mind seemed detached from his head. It was as if his brain had found escape through his ears and was now floating about the room, teetering on a fog of jumbled thoughts. The periphery of his eyes was pulsating with an out of focus rim that appeared to be closing down. He wondered if he was getting sick. After all, most of the dishes served here, with their spicy ingredients, didn’t always agree with his stomach.
Snapped from his wandering, Drinkwine suddenly realized that the current subject had been waffling on about his records. He hadn’t heard a word. Drinkwine was finding it difficult to maintain his train of thought. He blinked away disconcerting blotches of what appeared to be neon lights shimmering in his lower field of vision. It scared him. He thought for a moment, Is this what a stroke feels like? The flickering neon globs were spreading further across his sight.
Jafar stopped talking and lost his smile when Drinkwine teetered slightly in the chair, his elbow sliding off the armrest, snapping him sharply to attention.
“Are you okay?” Jafar asked.
Drinkwine thought perhaps he was going to be sick. His professional composure was evaporating. All he wanted was to lay down.
“Yes, fine, fine,” Drinkwine answered, wiping perspiration from his forehead. Suddenly the room went topsy-turvy with the glare of the fluorescent ceiling lights dancing perpendicularly through his line of sight in a gathering fog, then, all went to blackness. Through it all Drinkwine heard Jafar’s voice asking repeatedly, “Are you okay? Are you okay?”
The next thing that registered in Drinkwine’s head, after what seemed like a long, deep sleep, was the bright yellow paint of the ceiling, an overhead light fixture silhouetting several figures standing over him, speaking in detached voices.
“Mr. Drinkwine, Mr. Drinkwine, can you hear me?”
Drinkwine didn’t recognize the voice, or voices, as there seemed to be several chiming in with the calling of his name to try and retrieve him from the edge of unconsciousness. It was all he could do to nod his head and try to form words, but they didn’t come. He attempted to sit up but the yellow ceiling spun, dipping off once again to blackness against the chiming chorus of, “Mr. Drinkwine?… Mr. Drinkwine?”
When he came to, Drinkwine found himself on the long leather couch in Kurian’s office, a moist towel across his forehead. As he blinked himself to consciousness one of Kurian’s secretaries came into focus, sitting alongside, gently holding his hand in her dark, lithe fingers with their elaborately painted nails. “There you are.” She smiled, relieved.
“What happened, where…?” were Drinkwine’s first, confused words.
“It’s alright, you fainted,” she offered with soft reassurance.
“It’s not uncommon,” a harsh voice pounded out from the other side of the room, hurting Drinkwine’s forehead. A heavyset, dark-skinned man with matted patches of sweat in the underarms of his dress shirt was winding up a stethoscope, which he crammed into a little black bag. “You haven’t acclimated to the thin air yet.”
“Where…” he repeated as he tried to sit up too quickly, a sharp pain in the head stopping him.
“You mustn’t try to get up,” the secretary said as she helped support his weight, settling him back onto the couch.
“You’re in Ambassador Kurian’s office,” the doctor said with an air of detachment as he looked at his watch, pulling on his jacket. “Do you remember? You were conducting interviews. You fainted. It’s the thin air.”
“It happens to most,” the softer voice soothed. “It catches up.”
As the room settled for him, Drinkwine came to his thoughts again. “Yes, yes, I remember.”
“They brought you here,” she explained as she handed him a glass of water.
“Drink plenty of water,” the doctor barked more than advised.
The secretary smiled at the doctor’s harshness, “It helps.”
He took the glass and drank, more to appease her kind demeanor than obey the doctor’s orders. “Thank you.”
“Good day Detective,” the doctor tossed into the air on his way out of the office, not bothering to look back. “Plenty of fluids.” A door banged somewhere, relieving the room of the man’s perspiration.
Drinkwine came around a bit, the room sharper. He immediately felt for his gun, making sure it was there. It was. “What happened to the subjects?”
“The subjects?” the secretary inquired.
“The people I was interviewing?”
“Well, let’s see, you almost made it through all of them,” presenting the stack of signed releases. “Only the last two were not seen,” setting the forms down on the table.
Of all things, Drinkwine thought of her slender fingers, how they had been holding his hand and were now resting on the stack of forms. He wished there was cause for her to resume her nurturing touch.
Alone in his room, Drinkwine sat quietly on the edge of the bed, his hands clasped together in thought. The fainting spell had spooked him. For one brief moment, as his body was failing him during the interview, he thought he was having a heart attack. He had feared, what if this is the way his life ended, here, in this Godforsaken place? The thought made him feel horribly alone. The idea that he could pass, and she would not know of it for some time. Worse, that she may not be all that moved by it.
Drinkwine was perplexed by the race of emotions. Surely the air was still toying with him, confusing his brain further with its thinness. He got up and urgently pulled on his linen jacket, intent on getting out into the desert, into the nothingness, to breathe, to be alone.
Drinkwine welcomed the familiar clang and rattle of the rover’s treads, the churn of sand behind, as they were all tools that would get him to that remote place of peace and solitude, the only place on Mars that had given him some thread of solace.
Peering out at the passing terrain, Drinkwine studied the horizon, which was once again pouring its lie of water out over the desert in shimmering mirage. A man, thirsty and light of head, could be easily coaxed into chasing that promise of water. What a cruel place, he thought. The ocean of sand possessed quiet tides capable of pulling a man out into the great, suffocating abyss. The malevolent sands were loitering out here in the nothingness, conspiring with the winds in plans for indiscriminant and unbiased, brutal beatings, assault against the greedy conquerors that had come. The planet was doing everything it could to repel these people. He was with Mars on this one.
Drinkwine stared, distrusting, at the desert. He was leery of the unnerving calm. It was said that more than one resident had gone mad with the winds and the ever-present red sand that washed over every inch of everything with a dusting of rebellion. He wiped his perspiring brow with one of his perfect white handkerchiefs. When he removed it he saw a smear of red.
Breaking the stillness, a narrow funnel of sand was roused from the desert floor by the distant winds. Without a sound, it wavered drunkenly, back and forth, stumbling over the emptiness in a misbehaving of balance. Drinkwine watched the dance of the solitary funnel with trepidation, as he knew this was how innocently the pounding storms began. He was relieved when, having found no partner, the swirling column dissipated, spinning itself to nothingness. The sands, the malevolent sands, he thought to himself.
Drinkwine justified yet another of his Hollands, addictively savoring the cigarillo as the steady progress of the rover brought him to the familiar location. He felt a sentimental twinge at sight of the marooned paddlewheel steamer, listing in the motionless ocean of dunes.
The clanging treads were silenced as Drinkwine stopped the rover to gaze at the beautiful boat. It seemed to have acquired an even more regal quality since he first saw it. It appeared to be bravely weathering the storms out here in the middle of the desert, proud of its whimsical nature, which contradicted the obsessive concerns of commerce brewing back there, across the nothingness in Jannah.
Drinkwine approached the paddlewheel steamer. With each step his shoes sank into the soft red sand. He arrived at the bow. There, just below the gunwale, painted in the lacy scrawl of another era was the sun-faded name, Yuki, flaking off in brittle wisps of gold paint. “Yuki,” he said to himself. So that was her name; the wife of the sad Chinaman—source of his heartbreak. Drinkwine reached out to gently touch the wafer-thin borders of the gold leaf letters that had been peeled back from the hull by the unrelenting sun. Despite his tender touch the delicate, translucent letters flaked off and floated away.
Pulling himself aboard, Drinkwine wandered the deck. For years it had taken repeated, harsh beatings from the marauding storms. The whipping sands had dulled its shine, but it was still beautiful, Drinkwine thought. A light breeze swept through the boat, creaking doors and unlatched windows, turning the boat into a symphony of soft clanging. It seemed to be grieving its sad fate, its loss of purpose. By the time the waters arrived there would be nothing left of her, Drinkwine considered, as he ran his hand over the smooth teak railing and oxidized brass fixtures.
The tiny cabins of the second floor were looked in one by one as Drinkwine made his way down the length of the ship. Atefeh had said the Chinese businessman had died here, on the boat, in one of the rooms. As he drew open a door, there on the floor in the lonely cabin, were remnants of the Chinaman’s last days; a rumpled gray wool blanket and an empty tin of food, with the spoon still in it. They were in front of a small, makeshift shrine set atop decorative lace, dusted with red sand. A square of tiny bamboo sticks framed a weathered photograph of a woman. Drinkwine respectfully left the picture where it was and squinted to try and get a better look. The photo was too faded to make her out, save for the long, silky black hair. Drinkwine wanted to believe there was great beauty there, enough to warrant this; a grand spectacle of love, wasting away out here in the harsh abuses of the emptiness. He considered the labor, the time, and the money that had gone into this vessel, undertaken out of undying devotion for a woman. To think, she died as they both waited for the water to raise the boat from her moorings of sand.
Drinkwine felt a strange union of pain with the Chinaman. How small and insignificant the world becomes when you lose someone, when the one you love is gone. No measure of logic, no rational thought, no consultations with history can convince a person that they will get past the loneliness, the heartache. When you’re in it, there’s no reasoning in the universe that can settle a forlorn mind. The odd ways of the heart, they also had happenings according to their own weird. It all felt so unfair and cruel. As proof, here it sat, one man’s monument to the calamities of love.
Reaching out, Drinkwine touched the teakwood railing with a gentleness that betrayed him. “If I’d built her a boat,” he uttered softly, “would she have stayed?” The words were swept up in a passing breeze that gently rocked the succession of unlatched shutters the length of the boat before dissipating into the desert.
Sitting there aboard the marooned paddlewheel steamer, Drinkwine looked out at the interminable desert. The water. Everyone was waiting for the water; the businessmen—to protect their investments; the pilgrims—to justify the move; the murderer—to conceal his deed. But saddest of all was the Chinaman’s boat. Drinkwine suddenly yearned to see just how far the waters were from reaching her.
He slammed the door of the rover and set the coordinates for the blue patch on the GPS. The rover cranked to life and craned around in a semi-circle, the treads churning a circle of berm in the red sand before setting off, steadfast, into the abyss.
After twenty kilometers of the mechanical clang of treads across dry rollers, Drinkwine saw the calm, mirror surface of water stretched out across the valley ahead. It glistened in a proud display of life. Drinkwine actually allowed himself a moment to be surprised and thought to himself, Damn, they’re doing it. They’re really doing it.
The euphoria was quickly subdued as the rover approached the stubbornly creeping edge of the forming lake and Drinkwine was overcome by a horrid stench. Bringing the rover to a stop, Drinkwine got out and made careful steps in the muddy periphery to where the water’s edge was lapping with lazy deliberation. He looked down to see the slush had already discolored his shoes. The water was perhaps only 200mm deep and covered the area in a motionless, milky sheet. He watched as the lip of the water’s edge lapped an ebb and flow of almost imperceptible movement. The ancient water, unleashed from a million years of captivity in the ice by the orbiting Myoko mirror, was flowing in, slowly, without concern of time. How long would it take, Drinkwine wondered, at this rate, to fill the vast basin? He, like all those presently on Mars, might be long dead and buried by the time the lakes had reached maturity.
He didn’t linger long. The sentimental feeling he had experienced cresting the rise that gave him view of the basin had been dashed by the stench of the water and the shallowness of its depth. Drinkwine referenced the GPS to plot the most direct route back to Jannah. It quickly mapped the most unobstructed path and the rover clanged forward.
After just a few kilometers of deep sand the rover crested a ridge that presented a view of a sprawling mesa. Drinkwine slammed the rover to a stop. He had wondered from time to time about all the industry that had been at work here for the past hundred years, preparing the red planet for settlement. He assumed it had produced a good deal of remnant waste and defunct machinery. Now he knew. Though he wasn’t ready for what he saw. Before him, stretching to the horizon, filling the mesa with a palette of rust, was a junkyard of tired and spent machines, a burial ground for worn-out and obsolete technology.
The spent machines had been deposited here, far from view of the city, in a valley of forgotten invention. Old rovers, decrepit cranes, seized-up generators, broken jackhammers and busted hydraulic winches shared equally their useless value. The machinery had been systematically dumped here without being drained of their oils and hydraulic fluid. It was leaking out, coalescing in thick ponds of grotesque, swirling black and purple sludge that seeped into the once pristine desert. The red sands were absorbing the steaming marsh like some large blotter. Mountains of batteries oozed their lifeblood in an acrid leaking of poison. The discolored puddles created a stench that burnt the nostrils and watered the eyes.
Drinkwine pulled his handkerchief from his jacket pocket and covered his mouth and nose to try and ward off the sting and offending smell. He thought, this was but one yard. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds of others. As Drinkwine surveyed the rusted wreckage, he thought of how the machines being employed now to build the metropolis skyward would eventually be relegated to this place. Few people gave thought as to how the great buildings were created. So long as the granite was smooth, the glass clean, the air cooled, they really had no reason to concern themselves with how it came to be and where the tools of industry that created it ended up. Besides, Mars was huge, enormous. Certainly, they argued, there was abundant land to store the byproducts of progress. Certainly.
Inspired by some thought that had arrived in the solitude, Drinkwine retrieved his voice recorder and snapped it on. “April 23rd. The interviews provided virtually no leads, no suspects to focus on. I am still very much adrift in the investigation, with designs on…” He stopped, seeing the red record light was not illuminated. He hit the button several times but it produced no response. When he pried the backing plate off there was a small cascade of sand. The red menace had managed to work its way into the device and suffocated its workings, rendering it useless. Bemused, Drinkwine pondered the malfunctioned recorder and the far reaches of the rusting junkyard. A shroud of dense gray cloud was sweeping the horizon, illumed deep within by menacing bolts of lightning. Drinkwine understood the planet’s fury, for he felt something of the same searing frustration.
Setting the recorder on the passenger seat he resumed the trek. Resting his hands on the steering brakes he let his mind wander back into the hidden rhythms of the churning treads and surrendered to the long, lonely drive that lay ahead. He stared with jaundiced eye at the unnerving monotony of bleak ranges, with bleakness beyond. And beyond that, ranges bleaker still. The rover continued its clang and shudder of vibration as its treads churned the sand, headed back to Jannah.
The Martian day was drawing to a close and Drinkwine still had a sizable expanse of inhospitable terrain to cross, so he crushed out yet another Holland and lit up a fresh one—his tenth of the day—and promised himself he’d get back on track with restrained smoking starting tomorrow. Yes, definitely, he would curb his smoking habit starting tomorrow.
On the travel between the rusted yard of forgotten machinery and this point, Drinkwine had encountered, about an hour earlier, a sprawling dump. It combed the desert with its own dunes of filth, the tossed away garbage of the glass and steel city. Miles of it, smelling up the Martian atmosphere with a revolting stench.
He had also encountered the endless line of tanker trucks waiting to take their turn at dumping their loads of human waste. Hundreds of trucks waited patiently to open their tank valves and drop the untreated waste over the stretch of sand set aside as a kind of toilet, letting the sand absorb it all and smother out the smell. Drinkwine had wondered just what the hell they were doing with all the shit, as Jannah had no working sewage. Now, he knew. Like everything else here it was merely being flushed down the great commode of the Martian outback.
Once again the rover was parked atop one of the dunes, granting an impressive view. The distant mountains were brushed with shades of purple as evening arrived. Drinkwine had not stuck to his promise to get back to a reasonable number of smokes in a day, presently drawing on yet another Holland. To be up here, away from the city, was his only escape, the sole respite from the frustration of the investigation. Dwarfed among the plains, the lights of Jannah were just beginning to glisten against the onset of dusk. It was almost beautiful, he thought to himself, a glistening gem.
He tried to busy his mind with thoughts about the murder but nothing came. Instead, just a lot of loose facts and dates and names floating about unconnected to one another with no hint of importance or relevance. Unsolved cases, they were almost a proverb on Earth. He’d even suffered several of his own. They don’t sit well with cops. They never have. Black marks on a man’s conscience, perhaps invisible to the outside world, but very much a real, often deep and festering wound of discontent for the owner of such failings.
But this was different; the red planet’s first murder. Drinkwine felt perturbed at the notion that if he failed to come up with a suspect and unravel the complexities of the motive, he might set a trend of passivity toward these sorts of serious crimes in the future. Now that would be a difficult albatross to wear about his neck, he thought.
Sucking the last bit of smoke from the thin cigar, Drinkwine watched the ash burn right up to the filter before crushing it out in the sand he’d drawn up into his palm. With a long sigh he pulled himself behind the controls of the rover and reluctantly headed down into the valley, to that glistening gem of a city he so despised, but to which there was no other alternative.
After returning the rover to the depot, Drinkwine made for the street and flagged down one of the few working yellow taxis. The evening call of the muezzin had begun its haunting pour into the empty streets of Jannah. Plopping into the backseat he realized it was his buddy, Robert Haze, the talker. Evidently Haze carried grudges. His eyes loomed large in the rearview mirror, seething with contempt. Not a word as he waited for orders.
“Science Center.” Drinkwine, still getting settled, barely got it out of his mouth before Haze, vindictive, gunned the rig forward, sending him recoiling into the sun-baked, smelly vinyl seat.
As the electric taxi purred onto the avenue, Drinkwine looked out at the barren six lanes of immaculately poured concrete that split the city. The city planners had great expectations. For now though, the taxi, Haze’s taxi, was one of just a smattering of cars humming along the thoroughfare in blissful denial. Drinkwine emptied the offending red sand that had collected inside the hems of his linen slacks, spilling it out onto the floor of Haze’s precious taxi. The evening air was unusually warm. Drinkwine lowered the window and let it swirl through the cab, stirring the awkward silence.
Streetlamps dotted the avenue in a corridor of halos, illuminating the ever-falling mists of red. The sweepers would have it all brushed away before the rise of the sun tomorrow. Haze, strobed by passing streetlamps, swiped the windshield wipers to brush a thin layer of dust from the windscreen, leaving arcing trails across the glass.
Dwarfed by the towering skyscrapers, a lone pedestrian was on the sidewalk. As they neared, Drinkwine saw it was a slender woman dressed in a beautiful silk saris that perfectly outlined the contours of her body beneath. She was in no particular hurry, floating along in a playfully inebriated stride. She seemed to be welcoming the unapologetic caresses of the evening breeze. The taxi whirred past and left the woman to her private pleasures in the strange night warmth of Mars. Happenings according to its own weird.
Drinkwine brushed the ubiquitous dusting of sand from his scalp and off his suit as he strode the pattern of hall carpet that led to his room. His suit, only just laundered, was already in need of another going over after just one wearing. The more this place made havoc of his clothes, arguing for adaptation of a more appropriate, workman-like dress code, the more determined he was to continue wearing the fine linen. It was the last refuge of his dignity. He couldn’t let that be taken. Drinkwine shook his head at the absurdity of it all. Waving his palm over the I.D. window the door of his room opened.
Stepping inside, Drinkwine thought he’d entered the wrong room. The walls were bare, his collage of investigation; the photos, the maps, the handwritten notes… all gone. He frantically opened the drawers of the dresser to see they were empty. The bathroom had no trace that he’d been there; the towels all neatly hung, no trace of the persistent red menace. The closet was empty of his linen suits. “What the hell?” Drinkwine said out loud. “What the hell!?”
Feeling the presence of someone, Drinkwine turned to see Kurian’s driver standing in the open door.
“Detective Drinkwine,” he began, but Drinkwine interrupted.
“Where are my things?” He asked angrily, pointing at the wall, “Where’s all my work? That’s official business!”
“Please,” the driver offered humbly, “I am to collect you.”
“What do you mean, ‘collect me?’” livid.
“It will all be explained, I assure you.” He then motioned for Drinkwine to follow him, “Please.”
Sitting in the backseat of the limo, Drinkwine stewed. His face had a shade of red to it that matched the surface of Mars. When the vehicle slowed and swung into a wide circular driveway, he looked out to see where he was being taken.
The drive, lined by towering plastic palm trees, curved its way to the front of a luxury hotel on the edge of the city. It was lit up with an inordinate amount of candlepower, making its gold trim sparkle in a vulgar show of excess.
The limo slowed to a stop at the base of a grand staircase lined with red carpet, anchored with polished gold straps. A lone doorman descended the stairs with a flurry of overeager movement to open the rear door. He waited patiently and without words for the befuddled detective to emerge. The little brown doorman led Drinkwine by virtue of a pointed finger, as if instructing him how to move his feet across the carpet and ascend the steps, his only sounds a kind of guttural grunt as he ushered Drinkwine up the stairs and into the lavish lobby.
Their feet strode the marble floor, the sound resonating up through the lobby into the impressive steel beams and glass high overhead. Not a soul about. They breezed down the corridor, which was lined with high-end shops all closed and dark. However, no doors had been locked. No metal screens to protect the precious merchandise inside; gold and silver watches, pens, and jewelry, the finest of the finest, all within easy arms’ reach of unscrupulous hands. Being predominantly Muslim, Jannah observed the punishment of removing the hands of those accused of stealing. The harshness of Sharia law appeared to be working. Not a thing had been disturbed.
Among the goods were designer goggles and sequined facemasks intended for stylish wearing to filter the air and keep the stinging grains of sand out of the well-to-do’s eyes. It was survival chic, lavish excess to make the realities of inconvenience here somehow acceptable; a grand mall of flamboyant overindulgence. An air conditioned monstrosity of designer labels waiting for the wealthy to come and shop away their boredom. And what if they don’t come? Drinkwine thought to himself. Just exactly who the hell needs a damn designer handbag here anyway?
As the glass and chrome lift silently ascended to the upper floors, Drinkwine, escorted by the little brown doorman—forever smiling despite not one word between them—looked out as the city fell away beneath them. The lift chimed with each passing floor, coming to a stop at the penthouse. The doors slid open to an opulent hallway. The doorman, with the smile still plastered on his face, motioned for Drinkwine to follow, again pointing at the carpet as if coaching the detective in the fine art of how to walk, prodding him along. There was a lot of gold; the light fixtures, the picture frames, the ornate door handles, the plates that held the beautifully inscribed door numbers—all polished to perfection.
Arriving at a double door, the little brown man—reflection distorted in the gold plate—swung them open with grandiose gesture. Drinkwine hesitated before tentatively stepping into the lavish expanse of the penthouse suite. Thick shag carpeting was groomed in waves toward a large plate glass window that had a commanding view of the desert to which the hotel butted, presently appearing as a black ocean with a canopy of stars. The room was obviously intended for visiting royalty.
The little brown man beckoned for Drinkwine to follow him on a tour of the large suite. Stepping into the bedroom, Drinkwine was surprised at how small the king size bed looked in the space. The doorman was eager to pull back the closet door and reveal the linen suits, immaculately laundered and neatly hung. All of Drinkwine’s personal items had been carefully set on the desk or folded and placed in the drawers of the dresser. His toiletries were arranged in a semicircle around the gold leaf sink.
The doorman was most eager to show him the adjoining suite where an entire wall had been enlisted to hold the investigative patchwork of photographs, maps, and copious notes. A proper corkboard had been hung to better accommodate the use of the pushpins that held it all together.
Drinkwine scrutinized it, tracing the handwriting, the gathered notes and their corresponding placement. Everything was exactly as he had left it. Though he had no reason to be upset, he chose to remain so at the impropriety of their trespassing.
“It’s all there and accounted for Detective, I can assure you.” It was Kurian. He’d just entered, dressed in one of his paisley silk suits, the pant legs tucked into soft suede gray boots, delightedly pleased with himself for this new accommodation for the visiting cop.
“I wished you’d have asked me first,” Drinkwine said with indignation.
Kurian was quick to defend. “It was handled personally by my own secretaries and with the utmost discretion as to the contents. Is it not exactly as you left it?”
After a brief hesitation, Drinkwine admitted, “Yes. But, still.” He felt foolish for having been so irate. “But why did you feel compelled to move me?”
“Oh, come now,” Kurian said as he crossed to the window. “The Science Center is quite nice, but please, there’s really no comparison,” his voice full of pretentiousness. “You’ll be a great deal more comfortable here. And not to worry,” manicured fingers splayed, excitedly rocking up onto the balls of his feet, quite pleased with himself, “my office is taking care of everything.”
As he stared at Kurian, Drinkwine—presently displaying a deceptive calm—amused himself with the shameless and unscrupulous attempt to soften him by ensconcing him in luxury, intended to wear down his unrelenting duty to protocol.
The Ambassador took his time crossing the room to the large picture window, gazing out into the night, the city lights sparkling. He clasped his hands before him and let out a contented sigh. “We’re doing it, Detective.”
“And what is that?” Drinkwine said, not wanting to encourage.
“We’re colonizing Mars.” Kurian was unusually cheery. “Do you realize, out there, on the edge of the desert, we’re creating a resort that will have four kilometers of beachfront, with artificial waves. It will hold every bit of beauty as anything nature has created on Earth.” He paused. “Actually,” considering, “better… because the sand will have underground cooling to prevent the beachgoers from burning their feet. Splendid, just splendid,” Kurian let out excitedly, accompanied by an exuberant clapping of his hands.
“If you take on the desert,” Drinkwine began as he fished a grain of sand out of his eye, “you will lose. Didn’t we learn that on Earth?”
Kurian’s face shifted into one of those exasperated looks he had been frequenting as of late and dropped from his tippy toe stance to the flats of his feet. “For someone with such a whimsical name, you certainly know how to put a stick in it.”
The telling silence between them was broken by a strong gust of wind that brushed the glass for a fleeting moment, as if agreeing with Drinkwine’s accusation.
“May I show you something?” Kurian asked.
The gold accented double door was opened to reveal an immense banquette room on the ground level of the grand hotel. It was empty, accentuating the enormity. The flower patterned carpet, smelling of newness and thoroughly untrodden, stretched out before Drinkwine and Kurian as they entered—the chandeliers, high overhead, snapping on in succession all the way across the large room, illuminating the empty opulence.
“They’ll be coming from all countries, with all kinds of backgrounds, all sorts of stories, all types of business,” Kurian expounded, arms spread in a gesture of bold statement. “They’re going to use this room for presentations, Detective.” Kurian was walking deeper into the open space. “Seminars about health, food, real estate, jobs, family, leisure—yes, plenty of leisure. They’re coming, Detective.”
“The immigrants?” Drinkwine said.
Kurian hesitated for a moment. “Settlers,” he corrected, “settlers.” He took on that pose of his, with the handkerchief clutched against the chest. “They’re coming, Detective, with hopes, with dreams. Many are going to pass through this very room for processing on their way to new lives on Mars. A shame for those dreams to be dimmed by the ugliness of this unfortunate thing that has happened.”
Drinkwine was amused by the lack of subtlety. “Why are you showing me this?”
“So you can perhaps better appreciate the breadth of what we’re doing on Mars,” Kurian said with conviction.
Drinkwine was tired. He needed a shower. “I’m well aware of how unsavory this business of murder is for you,” he paused, “you’ve made that resolutely clear,” watching Kurian for his response.
The two men were silent, the only sound the soft hum of large ventilation shafts moving treated air around the ballroom.
Seeing that the newest gambit wasn’t working to unscrew Drinkwine one bit, Kurian ventured, “It’s a shame, all this work and not a single lead, not one suspect,” the Ambassador condescended. Kurian continued his stride toward the center of the vacant ballroom. “You know, with the stroke of a pen the whole matter could be easily taken care of. You could conclude your business with an understandable result of no suspects.” His voice softened, “And you could return home with a sizable bonus for the inconvenience.” The air conditioner blew cold. “After all, the majority of murders go unsolved on Earth, it’s nothing unusual.” Kurian went after Drinkwine’s distaste of the planet. “You could be done with it, Detective. Just think, you could get off this ‘dreadful planet.’ You could go home.”
Drinkwine looked at him. “Would that suit your people?”
Kurian tried to pretend he didn’t know what Drinkwine was getting at. “My people? You mean the settlers?”
Tired of the game. “Those you’re working for. The people who orchestrated my move here.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. It was my idea to move you.” Kurian didn’t look comfortable with the lie.
“Look,” Drinkwine said, patience tried, “I understand you have a job to do. But I’ve got a job to do as well. I intend to do it.”
“In time,” Kurian began, “this incident will be regarded as just some isolated matter, and forgotten. Why tarnish the colony for the tens, nay, the hundreds of thousands, eventually the millions of settlers who are making plans, right now, as we speak, to come. Why upset their dreams? What good can come of casting a pallor over their future home?”
“Stroke of a pen, huh?” Drinkwine repeated.
“Yes, Detective,” Kurian was suddenly hopeful he was making an impression.
“An ‘isolated matter,’” Drinkwine, repeating Kurian’s assessment. “Ambassador, unfortunately, as we found on Earth, as we discovered on the Moon, and as I am certain you will see with Mars, this murder will not prove to be some isolated novelty. It’s merely the first.”
“Oh, come now,” Kurian dismissed, showing his perfect white teeth. “We’re not barbarians.”
“Yes,” Drinkwine said with deliberation, “of course not.”
The two men stood, dwarfed by the cavernous ballroom, as empty and bleak as the desert outside.
“Thank you, for trying to make my stay more pleasant,” Drinkwine said as he started for the door.
“Mr…, pardon me, Detective Drinkwine.”
Drinkwine stopped and turned to face him.
“My office would like to host you this evening at The Star,” Kurian offered meekly, “Jannah’s most exclusive restaurant. My driver will fetch you.”
Drinkwine had learned not to argue. Better to take the meal. It was sure to be good. Besides, there was certain to be some point to it, even if Kurian wasn’t about to impart any information presently. He nodded, then tiredly sauntered off, leaving Kurian to his budding apprehension in the empty expanse of the ballroom.
The penthouse bathroom was palatial—painfully so. Drinkwine’s every move in the shower echoing the lonesomeness against the tile and glass.
He dressed in one of his freshly laundered linen suits, choosing the one that had the least offensive reddish stains imbedded in the hems. Looking at himself in the mirror he filled a glass from the tap and drank. He stopped. Holding the glass closer he observed tiny particles of red sand swirling in a little tornado of water at the bottom. It was everywhere, he thought to himself. Everywhere.
Waiters fluttered about the candlelit restaurant with silent, efficient purpose. They outnumbered the patrons. The moment a water glass was sipped, a waiter invisibly swept in to refill it. The soft clink of silverware and quiet conversations filled the room. The establishment was luxurious beyond imagination. Gold draped everything. The music was a politically correct composition derived from multiple Middle Eastern styles, a popular trend on Mars to pacify the wide breadth of tribal lines currently residing here.
The maître d’ led Drinkwine through the restaurant, weaving between tables, the detective’s presence tying a string of knots in conversations as he passed. Thankfully the education and class of the room saved Drinkwine from his usual prejudices. Those here were certainly aware of who he was, and why he had come. Still, there were glances held too long, accompanied by murmurings that most certainly concerned him.
The maître d’ seated him at a small table near the kitchen door through which the staff was continually banging in and out. With each swing of the door came brief glimpses of the kitchen, the clang of pans, and the heightened voices of the crew.
Once seated, Drinkwine felt the eyes of diners on him. He was the only white person, save the two dishwashers in the kitchen—visible intermittently in the swinging of the kitchen door—enveloped in clouds of steam ushering from the machine they sweated under. Drinkwine was a pariah here. As he took the menu from the maître d’, he wondered what power plays were going on behind this little display of favor, buttering him up yet further. Fine, he’d play their game. Along the way he’d enjoy the food.
These well-dressed men and women—and worse, their children—all possessed a disturbingly palpable sense of entitlement. Either by their own devices, or perhaps the good fortune of their bloodlines, they commanded enormous wealth. Drinkwine wondered how much worth was here, in this room, at this moment. After all, these were yet more of the brokers behind the real estate deals and heavy industry unfolding across the plains of Mars.
The restaurant was windowless. There were no reminders of the endless, ceaseless desert that loomed just beyond the artificial clay walls. The lace, the velvet curtains, and the paintings had all been brought across space to replicate their familiar corner of the world back on Earth. The menu, the smells of the food, all worked to put them back there, if just for a little while. Drinkwine wondered that if in trying to make this place so much like home, were they in fact merely luring themselves into further longing?
As he perused the menu Drinkwine caught scattered bits and pieces of conversation. His rudimentary grasp of Farsi and Urdu allowed him to discern a woman’s voice whispering to those at her table, “I hear he speaks quite well… for an American.” Followed by the prerequisite exclamation, “Is Drinkwine his real name?” Yes, he thought to himself, bored with it all to the point of madness; my damn name really is Drinkwine.
A wave of exalted sighs swept the restaurant, accompanying a soft parade of waiters. As they weaved between the tables the guests broke out into spontaneous applause. The silver serving dish being carried by the lead waiter was elaborately laden with a prepared peacock, the head and torso cooked to glistening brown, its colorful, perfectly preserved plumage trailing behind, draped across the arms of two busboys.
The waiter placed the bird on a table before an older, obviously quite wealthy Middle Eastern man, and a beautiful, young, dark-skinned woman. She blushed, demurely cupping her tiny, heavily jeweled hands over her mouth in astonishment. The attending waiters deliberately draped the plumage to spill onto the floor in a supreme show of privilege. Guests at surrounding tables raised glasses in toast to the spectacle. Her sugar daddy enjoyed the vulgar display of wealth immensely. He was wearing a wedding band. She was not. No one thought anything of it. The couple settled into whispered conversation as the woman started in timidly with her knife and fork. His lips against his young mistress’ tiny ear, she blushed at whatever it was he was pressing into her head as the restaurant slowly retuned to its din of quiet conversations.
Drinkwine had read somewhere that only twelve of the birds had been brought up from Earth—thus far. One of them was presently adorning the table where its cooked body was being delicately poked at. Its price? Enough to purchase a small house on Earth. Drinkwine considered the lithe physique of the mistress, knowing full well she wouldn’t be able to make a dent in the amount of rarefied meat before her. His capacity for disbelief was drawing shallow. How many more oddities did Mars have for him? What was next?
Drinkwine’s dinner of chicken, creamed spinach and cauliflower with basmati rice, yogurt and garlic Nan had been enjoyed. He was following it with a coffee. He had watched the excitement over the rare peacock meal wane over the last hour. The couple had retired into little nothings of intimate whispers. The waiters, with silent efficiency, adeptly cleared the dishes without disturbing the amorous mood of the table.
The waiters passed within a breadth of Drinkwine, carrying the remains of the peacock. It hardly looked touched, with but a few bites taken out of the cooked, fleshy torso. The long, colorful plumage trailed behind, the beautiful feathers wafting softly in the turbulence of the waiter’s stride.
As Drinkwine sipped his coffee he saw the maître ’d making his way toward him, a small gold tray in his hand. Sitting on top, folded in half, was a note of fine paper. So here it comes, he thought. The maître ’d made straight for Drinkwine, stopping to bow and extend the tray, eyes discretely fixed on the floor. Drinkwine took the note, waiting for him to turn before opening it. In a much too perfect hand the note read simply:
Detective Drinkwine, Would you please be so kind, and discrete,
as to meet me at the aquarium facility. No. 4, the Asah Building.
Drinkwine had been waiting for something like this. He knew the lavish dinner would not be entertained without some kind of reciprocal business—perhaps just a vague threat, or worries about investment, all having to do with the potential catastrophe of a tainted reputation for Mars. Strange, no one ever mentioned the victim. There was no apparent concern about finding the killer, probably because there wasn’t any profit in it. Using only initials to sign the note was an unnecessary act, as the sender would of course wish to remain anonymous.
Drinkwine took his time finishing his coffee. It was his own, personal display of power, to keep the writer of that note waiting. The coffee subsequently acquired a slightly richer flavor. He understood now that this establishment had been chosen in order to put him in close proximity to the aquarium, which was the next building over.
A waiter emerged from the kitchen, setting the door to swinging. In the intermittent glimpses, Drinkwine saw the chef and his staff watch as the relatively untouched peacock was deposited into the trash. The door swung closed to shut out their befuddlement.
Drinkwine shook his head at the absurdity of it all. And so, with the last sip of the refined coffee staining the elegant cup with a tiny ring, he resigned himself to go meet this Mr. A.H
The front door of the Asah building, number 4, had been left open. There was no one about. Drinkwine entered and stood in the dark lobby. At the end of one of the corridors a door was ajar. He surmised this was for him, as it fit the scenario of foreboding that the meeting was supposed to be creating. It wasn’t. Still, he ventured to see where this would lead. For some odd reason he wasn’t concerned for his welfare. Perhaps it was feeling like there wasn’t a great deal to be giving up if someone wanted to play dirty. Besides, he had his service weapon tucked into the shoulder holster. Like a shot of whiskey, being in possession of a lethal sidearm grants its carrier a decent amount of confidence—perhaps erroneously so. But phony tough was better than nothing.
When he reached the door and looked inside he was met with the reveal of an enormous warehouse, filled with large aquariums. They were stacked to the ceiling and held an exotic array of fish and sea creatures. The only illumination was from the lights in the tanks, swimming the room in oscillating webs of turquoise. Sharks, squid, and manta rays silently swam the lengths of their tanks over and over, swerving adeptly when they arrived at the glass walled confinement of their cramped environments to start again in the other direction. The only sound was that of the aeration pumps that were raising symphonies of bubbles that broke the surface, escaping into the stale air of the warehouse in a soft chorus of gurgling.
Drinkwine entered and slowly made his way down one of the tall corridors created by the stacked aquariums, his shoes striding the wet, raised wood planking.
“Thank you for coming,” a voice ushered out from somewhere.
Drinkwine searched out the source but saw no one.
“How was your dinner?” The voice used slow deliberation in order to enunciate the English, no doubt a second, or third, or fourth language.
“Very pleasant. Thank you.” Drinkwine saw a thin, dark brown man in a white thwab in the adjacent aisle, distorted through the glass and water of the aquariums. As Drinkwine made steps toward the mysterious Mr. A.H., he in turn kept equal steps to stay ahead and avoid a face-to-face encounter. So the man didn’t wish to be identified. He’d creatively drummed up a dramatic setting to make a point. That was fine, Drinkwine thought, so long as he got to the point quickly. Which he did.
“Is there much of a living in solving deaths, Detective Drinkwine?” Mr. A.H. asked with a touch of disingenuousness.
“Are you really that interested to know?” Drinkwine came back.
Mr. A.H. let out a hoarse laugh. “Perhaps not. Forgive me. Money. It’s where my mind is most of the time,” Mr. A.H. said as his feet creaked the wood planking, running a finger along the glass of one of the large tanks. Two hammerhead sharks kept constant vigil in a graceful display of movement. “You have a task to perform here, we’re all very grateful. However, we too have tasks. Ours are the tasks of investment, of business, of managing wealth—of which I can assure you, a vast amount has been brought up to Mars, and a vast amount more is en route.” Mr. A.H.’s bearded face was distorted, elongated in the thick glass.
Drinkwine thought of Kurian, and wondered what kind of a chiding he’d taken from these people for not doing his job of curtailing the investigation. So, they’d stepped up their soft drumming of warning. Drinkwine wondered what Mr. A.H.’s approach would be, as he was obviously here to try and knock some corporate sense into him. “You’re interested only with monetary concerns,” Drinkwine responded, “I’m interested only in judicial.”
“Can you imagine,” Mr. A.H. continued, “how far some men will go to protect their fiscal concerns? It would sober even the most callous.”
Drinkwine wasn’t fazed. “All I can do with that is file it away with all the other vague threats that have come my way since I’ve been here.”
“Heavens,” Mr. A.H. exclaimed in surprise, “I don’t make threats. We’re just having a pleasant conversation, you and I.”
The gurgling of the tanks resonated through the warehouse.
“Have you an affinity for the ocean, Detective?”
Drinkwine purposely didn’t answer, keeping pace with Mr. A.H. as he continued along the wall of glass tanks in the next corridor.
“All life evolved from the ocean.” Mr. A.H. was attempting to be philosophical, but it was obvious he had other, more important things on his mind.
Drinkwine let Mr. A.H. stew for a moment rather than ask him exactly what it was he wanted to say. “Yes, Man crawled out of the sludge of the ocean a long time ago on Earth.” Drinkwine smirked, “too bad there isn’t an ocean on Mars.”
“Oh, but there’s going to be,” Mr. A.H. burst with exuberance. “We’re going to make one. And we’re going to stock it with these glorious fish you see here, with life, Detective Drinkwine, life. We begin with the Great Lakes of Mars. This facility is one of many. And that’s just for the waters. We have outdoor holding areas with countless species of animals that will be let loose upon Mars, to breed, to populate the planet with the glory of God. Just think; giraffes, lamas, antelopes, all freely roaming Mars.”
Drinkwine wondered how many tiers of characters like this he may have to wade through, with their various attempts to elaborately cloak exactly what it was they were trying to say. It was entertaining, nonetheless. “The Godding of Mars?” he let out with a touch of cynicism.
“Pardon?” Mr. A.H. retorted, unsure what he’d heard.
“Like playing God,” Drinkwine stated reproachfully.
“God?” Mr. A.H. had to mull it over, “Hardly.” Then, pleased with the notion, “Noah, perhaps.” He studied Drinkwine through the bubbling waters as a school of colorful mandarin dragonet fish swam between them. “But we will bring only the most beautiful, the most majestic of species. We will leave behind all the poisonous, the violent, the ugly.” Mr. A.H. peered at Drinkwine through the thick glass, saw the question, the disdain in his face. “I won’t be made to feel guilty for affording this place of privilege, which allows us the opportunity to create Mars exactly as we wish. We will create a paradise here.”
Each time Drinkwine thought he would get a clear look at the mysterious Mr. A.H. through the glass, some large spectacle of fish would intervene, as if on some agreed upon cue of collusion to keep him a mystery.
“Did you ever think that perhaps there’s a balance of nature that needs to exist,” Drinkwine offered; “The good, the bad… and the ugly?”
“Are you suggesting it’s wrong to be in a position to choose,” Mr. A.H. asked.
“Thankfully, it’s not for me to say,” Drinkwine came back.
“Ah,” Mr. A.H. smiled, “but by saying that, you make your point.”
“This planet was here for millions of years before humans arrived,” Drinkwine lamented. “And it will live on millions of years after he’s gone.”
“Come now,” Mr. A.H. studied Drinkwine through a flurry of fish, “don’t be so cynical. You Americans were once such an optimistic people. Now it’s our turn. There is great beauty and a great amount of prosperity to be had here.”
“Yeah,” Drinkwine uttered deprecatingly, “so I read in the brochures.”
“If there is profit to be made with a place, then why not?” Mr. A.H. stated emphatically, pressing his palm against a tank as an eel slithered past, brushing the glass with its body. “It is the way man has always operated.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s right,” Drinkwine responded.
“Mars has changed all of that, Detective,” Mr. A.H. inferred, his tone now somber. “It is yet to be determined what is right and what is wrong. Don’t ever forget that.”
Mr. A.H. curiously watched Drinkwine as he peered into one of the big aquariums. He was entranced by a large manta ray that came up to the glass before making a darting turn and slipping through the water.
“Are you a romantic, Detective?”
He was still watching the manta ray as it disappeared into darkness. “Don’t try to flatter me.” Drinkwine took in the room, “How many fish have you already lost over the years, dying in these tanks as you wait for the water?”
The comment bore into Mr. A.H. He stared, unblinking. “Every society has its teething, Detective. We’re learning. Yes, we’ve had our mishaps. But we will get there. A paradise, without want, without unpleasantness.”
“Every page of history is wrought with some unpleasantness.”
“You’re speaking of the Earth, of the Moon,” Mr. A.H. defended, “where the bad elements were allowed to fester, without proper restraint.” He stopped to peer into a large aquarium where a shark patrolled with vigilance. Admiring the menacing creature he fell into a trance, “We will manage things much more cleanly this go round.”
“Do you really think you can get it right? Do you really think you can reshape a million years of evolution?”
“Oh yes,” Mr. A.H. smiled, “the gardens are coming, you can be assured of that.”
After a long moment watching the shark, he spoke. “Strange, with a name like Drinkwine, I would have expected there to be some aspect of whimsy in you, Detective. I see I was wrong.”
Mr. A.H. abruptly pushed through a back exit and was gone, the heavy steel door slamming behind. Drinkwine didn’t bother to go after him. What was the point?
When Drinkwine entered the lobby of the luxury hotel it was eerily quiet and hauntingly empty, given the hour. He strolled through the opulence and into the lift that ascended to the penthouse suite.
Moving down the long hallway of the top floor, past door after door of unoccupied rooms, Drinkwine discerned the sole sign of life other than himself; the sound of a vacuum cleaner. At the far end of the corridor a maid—white, hunched over with an aged physique well advanced of her years—was rocking the humming machine back and forth across the carpet in tireless, relentless sweeps to extract the ever-present nuisance of the red sand
Settling onto the bed, Drinkwine kicked his shoes off, the upturned loafers depositing their requisite sand onto the carpet. Granted, given the evening’s locations, it was a great deal less than the normal allotment—but bothersome nonetheless.
Lying back on the bedspread, Drinkwine studied the ornate ceiling of the room. He reached over and turned out the light. The exterior lights of the building, far below, cast lightly dancing shadows of palm branches, brushed by the wind, their distorted movement stretching up the vast height of the hotel. In the semidarkness he could see the corkboard in the other room, holding the pathetic progress of the investigation. A new scribble here and there, but nothing of any significance. He closed his eyes. Far off, muffled through the walls, the sound of the vacuum cleaner continued its oscillations, back and forth over the carpet.
In the middle of the night Drinkwine was awakened by the distant peal of tires. The sound would fade to the distance, only to return again and again. He rose and crossed to the big picture window, drawing back the heavy drapes. Out on the newly constructed stretches of freeway that would eventually link Jannah to the future cities of Mars, the Zenon headlights of four cars could be seen fishtailing across the empty lanes. Above the madness of revving engines and screeching tires could be heard the excited shrieks of youth, engaged in the killing of boredom.
With the water park unfinished and the schools yet to be opened, the sons and daughters of wealth had little to occupy their whims. Immune to conviction by the vague threat of authority, under cover of night, they took to the unused freeway on the edge of the city in expensive autos to get their kicks. Here, the skidding of tires granted an entertainment of speed and daring in fishtails and drifting, accompanied by the excited screams of adolescent girls. The young men, empowered by the machines, displayed their budding alpha tendencies in the strange mechanical mating ritual. One of the cars got away from its driver, rolling and twisting violently in clouds of dust, illumed green in the mercury vapor street lamps. The totaled auto was abandoned as the youths, unscathed and laughing riotously, made for their accomplices’ cars, jumping in to continue the parade of daring. All those dark youths, Drinkwine observed, dancing nightly, so close to death.