THE BREAKFAST ROOM WAS empty. Fifty lonely tables all perfectly set with dainty cups and saucers and fine silver on white tablecloths. Only one was occupied. Alone in the cavernous room, Drinkwine’s isolation was sorely emphasized by each echoed clang of his fork against his plate, resonating through the emptiness. The remnants of a slightly underdone egg and thin, crisp pieces of toast lavished with marmalade were strewn on the plate. The orange juice was instant, with a promise from the server that in time it would be fresh squeezed; just as soon as the trees took. Yeah, good luck, Drinkwine thought. When he lifted his spoon from the neatly pressed tablecloth to stir his coffee, he saw its faint outline in a misting of red against the white.
His attention was drawn to the whining of a vacuum cleaner as it plied the hall carpet, sporadically coughing on grains of sand. Drinkwine watched as an aged maid—dressed in a drab blue work dress with black, flat-soled shoes, her body bent feebly over her work—was momentarily framed in the open doors of the breakfast room as she passed, her face pinched in consternation over the annoying sand. After she passed, he watched the extension cord as it bounced and fell in jerks and tugs against her slow progress, the droning hum of the vacuum fading off. Drinkwine was sadly amused at the thought of what lay ahead for these people, futilely trying to suck up every offending grain of sand that found its way into the opulence. There was enough here to keep these women, and their offspring’s offspring busy for the rest of their lives.
Beyond the glass was the desolate surface of Mars. The sands were still for the moment, the winds having not yet risen. In short order the temperature would rise, stirring the atmosphere and disrupting the calm. Drinkwine tried to gather his thoughts but they were drowned out by the music being pumped into the room. He was sick of the heat, the sand, the food, the restless winds, and this fucking music. It was a politically correct mix of traditional eastern styles rendered in a techno disco vibe with pop vocals blurting mundane lyrics of dancing the night away in an endless party of life. Certainly, he thought to himself, there were other things to sing about.
Ignoring the music, Drinkwine sipped at his coffee, staring out at the dunes, thinking how tranquil they looked. In years to come, the area would most likely be covered with dwellings. This place would be home to millions.
After checking the time he downed the last of his coffee. He had an appointment, summoned again via an anonymous note. Yet another of Mars’ developers wished to bend his ear. When he settled the cup on the saucer the clank resonated through the room. He took a sip of water. As he did so he saw grains of sand settling back to the bottom of the glass. It was everywhere.
Rising with phantom irregularity to the surrounding landscape, the triangular design of the massive steel structure rose some one hundred meters at its highest point, tapering down to a mere ten at the opposite end. The slanting wedge of the roof hummed with an array of giant air conditioners that cooled the building’s interior with industrial strength.
Drinkwine dragged himself through the rising heat of mid-morning to the mysterious meeting inside the building at the edge of the city. It was situated among half built amusement rides and an unfinished waterslide—the fiberglass channels dry and baking under the Martian sun. Drinkwine thought to himself what a sad sight a dry water park was. That was one of the uses the precious water would be put to here; a waterslide, for the indulgent splash of leisure.
Passing through the opaque glass doors, Drinkwine was immediately plunged into the chilled atmosphere inside. The building hummed with the constant stir of air conditioners and the excited shrieks of daring as skiers and snowboarders raced down the artificial ski slope that contoured the design of the building. Falling from above was a constant flurry of fake snow. Above it all was more of the ubiquitous music, piped in over the house stereo system. So, Mars had snow, Drinkwine considered as he waited for the mysterious person to present himself.
Nearby, seated in the concession area with a dark-skinned wife and a brood of pudgy dark-skinned children—all consuming ice cream—was a heavy Middle Eastern man who, upon sight of the detective, immediately got out of his chair and made straight for him. Drinkwine figured him for Pakistani. The sleeves of his pressed white shirt were rolled up and the buttons were undone, revealing several gold chains about his neck. His stomach hung over his belt, which he pulled up on to raise his pants three times in the short few steps between them.
The man’s fingers had an array of rings, which Drinkwine saw as his hand came forward to shake in introduction. “Ah, Detective Drinkwine, pleasure, pleasure,” he said as he took Drinkwine by the arm and led him to a less populated area of the wood planked patio. “Drinkwine, what a name, lovely name,” as he drew him further away from the fun and sport of the ski slope, the cries of joy echoing through the vastness. “Thank you for meeting me here. Though not perhaps most conducive to business,” referring to the interior ski slope building, “it is conducive to keeping children occupied, yes?” The one-sided banter unfolded with the speed of someone jacked up on cocaine. But his English was good. “Do you have children, my friend?”
There it was again, the empty throw away of, my friend.
“No, I don’t have children, Mr….?”
“Not important. Though, being a Detective, if you really need to know my name it will be easy enough to come by in certain circles.” They were at a remote part of the building, where the steel walls caught the echo of the skiers, the scratch and tear of skis. “Hmm, unusual for a white to not have children,” the man said, using his hand to wipe his mouth of ice cream as he threw the empty container into a trash can.
Drinkwine had long since been calloused to the off-handed comments related to his color.
“Children—they’re the future—the future of Mars. We’re carving out a wonderful one for them here,” he spoke, looking at his children. “And just think, soon there’ll be the first birth. Imagine, a whole new generation conceived and born here, colonizing Mars. The arrival of settlers is one thing, a glorious thing, but a truly indigenous populace is something else altogether.”
“Are you saying there hasn’t been a baby born on Mars yet?” Drinkwine asked, with a tinge of disbelief.
“Oh, there’s probably been one among the workers,” he answered with a disparaging wave of the hand, the words uttered with distaste, as if the mere impurity of it crossing the lips would offend, “who knows? But they would’ve gotten rid of it out of fear of deportment. I mean a proper birth, of proper blood.”
The man was unwittingly spewing disgust, a slip of vulgarity now in every word.
“What can I do for you?” Drinkwine asked, eager to be done with him.
“Do for me?” the man responded, “perhaps better put as to what I can do for you.”
“Am I to guess what that means?” Drinkwine proffered.
“Has the bloom gone off the bud of this investigation, Detective?” Although he presented it under the guise of genuine curiosity, the question was ripe with a kind of vague victory.
“Why would you ask that?”
“Some time now spent, a lot of inquiries, and, what do you have?”
Drinkwine studied the man for a long moment. “I’m curious, are you concerned for your children’s welfare here?”
A laugh through the bounce of jowls, “Whatever are you getting at?”
“Your children… living on Mars. Don’t you want to ensure they’ll be safe? With law and order, the practice of justice?”
“Excuse me, Detective Drinkwine, I am merely a contractor, an investor. I am here to pave the way, quite literally, for the future generations of Mars. I will leave the future inhabitants of Mars with all the fruits of a wonderful world.”
“So, you won’t be staying?”
“I have work to do here, I am the purveyor of dreams. Once that work is done, I will go home. As you will go home when your work is done.”
“So you don’t fancy yourself a future resident of Mars?” Drinkwine said with unmistakable sarcasm.
“Do I detect some disingenuousness?”
“I don’t get it. They’re selling a lot of bullshit. Pardon me, but this place is an inhospitable wasteland. All the waterslides and ski slopes can’t conceal the fact that man will be fighting this place forever.”
“Perhaps if you were not so beholden to the nostalgia for your precious Earth, you could learn to love this place equally as much, Detective.”
“What gives you the impression I love the Earth?”
“If you dislike it here so, why stay?”
“You’re a creator of dreams? Well, I solve murders. That’s why I’m here.”
“Not a very sexy, or lucrative line of trade.”
“No, maybe it isn’t sexy, and maybe there isn’t a great deal of money involved, but regardless, it’s a nasty little reality that needs to be tended to in every society.”
“Oh, no, no, no, this is just a little inconvenience we’ve to deal with. This will pass. And let’s hope it passes without too much disturbance. I can reward discretion quite handsomely.”
There was that word again, discretion. “Is this a veiled bribe?”
“Veiled?” the man laughed heartily, his jowls flapping. “Detective, I don’t veil anything. Tell me how much you want and I’ll see to it you get it.” The voice was bent with a kind of cynical pride.
“It’s not that easy.”
“Oh, I assure you, Detective, it is, quite easy.” His tone was unnerving.
“A figure. For me to go away?”
“Yes, a number. As with all commerce, for all business, there is always a number, just the right price. If a job is wanted; a fee is arranged. A preferred apartment; a value is set. A woman desired; a price agreed upon. Everything on Mars has a price. You don’t rise to a stature like mine without knowing this, without accommodating this.”
“Settling a planet with the currency of bribes.”
“Yes, that’s right, Detective; Dollars, Yen, Rubles, Yuan and Rupees. There is nothing different as to how man has always settled new lands. In the past, perhaps more physical brutality was required. Now, there is little need for brutes, save for the construction. Otherwise, it’s all legalese and paperwork.”
“This isn’t some novelty that can be shuffled into the thin memory of this place. So long as man colonizes planets, there are going to be murders. You’re going to have to figure out a way to deal with it, not just now,” Drinkwine said, with a weary tone of experience, “but in the future as well.”
“But there’s no profit in it,” the man responded in earnest.
“Yeah, what a shame.”
“Detective, we’re creating a new colony on Mars. The people who will come will not be of a criminal or wantful kind.”
Drinkwine studied the man, his gaze running down the man’s bare forearms, coming to rest on the garish gold watch adorning his thick wrist. “No, the bloom has certainly not gone off the bud of this investigation.”
“Detective, the gravity of the situation overrides any falsehood of decorum here, it demands absolute transparency. There are deals pending that require the grand plans for Mars to come to complete fruition—the figures of which, to say the least, are quite astronomical. Forgive me my candor, however revolting it may be, but there is far too much at stake to allow the status of Mars to be tarnished.”
The man regarded Drinkwine, his face flushed red for a moment. His eyes burned sharply with threat and floated in pools of anger. Drinkwine thought, to draw a man to anger is no great feat. But did he have any sense of morality? Or was he merely another businessman trying to curb a flood of bad press for their precious investments in paradise?
“Think of a price, Detective. Whatever the figure, it will be in your hands by the set of the sun.”
Without another word the man was called away by a disturbance at the table where his family sat. A dispute had erupted between two of the children over an ice cream. They bellowed loudly their privilege, overwhelming the mother who screamed for her husband’s assistance, her shrill voice echoing across the space, comingling with those of the skiers.
Drinkwine watched as the man settled the argument with the procurement of more ice cream before looking back at him and motioning with a rubbing of fingers, as if to say; Think of a price.
Drinkwine emerged from the chilled atmosphere of the ski slope building into the wall of heat waiting for him just beyond the glass doors. It stopped him in his tracks, the sun quickly evaporating the mist of frost that had formed on the collar and sleeves of his linen suit. He thought of the people who wanted him gone. Well, he wasn’t going anywhere. Fill him with all the expensive booze and elaborate meals they wanted, place him in the penthouse suite of the most lavish hotel and offer him substantial bribes. He wasn’t going until this damn thing was solved.
From this vantage point the newly completed skyscrapers of Jannah, with their glass façades, were catching the sun with a glistening beauty that hid the fact that all the floors were empty, waiting to be occupied. Others were skeletal framework reaching skyward in a buzzing of activity, engaged in the chase of commerce. That’s where Drinkwine was headed; to one of the towering skeletons to speak with a Mr. Smith, an associate, so to speak, of the late Mr. Byrne.
The construction elevator climbed the exterior of the building in a rickety scaffold that creaked with rusted moans, the cable rattling as it ascended to the upper floors. Save for the perforated metal grating the elevator was open to the elements. Drinkwine had a rendezvous with Mr. Smith. The name was probably fake, he thought as the lift rose, the result of some dubious past on Earth. No one cared. So long as you could serve the raising of these behemoths of glass and concrete and steel, and provided you would accept the meager wages, they would allow you to come. Greed helped dramatically to relieve the restrictions of the law, providing a steady flow of questionable persons into the workforce of Mars. Drinkwine wondered where these people would go when their usefulness was all used up.
It was rumored that Mr. Smith was owed money from Mr. Byrne due his bad luck at cards. Drinkwine didn’t put much credence in the scenario, but he had to investigate everything. Besides, there was always the chance of something mentioned that could open up a whole new path of investigation. As the lift continued its ascension into the Martian sky the breezes increased. Drinkwine didn’t care for heights. In fact, they scared the shit out of him. The creaking rattle and vibration of the lift was only serving to reinforce his uneasiness.
The lift clamored to a stop at the twentieth floor. Drinkwine stepped onto the fresh slab of concrete flooring that was opened on all sides. No warning tape, no barriers to guard against a fall. A person could easily step off the edge into thin air. Nails and screws and scraps of wood and metal littered the area. Clusters of colored wiring hung down from the unfinished ceiling like draping Spanish moss.
There was a man sitting on a box of fasteners, precariously close to the edge, transfixed on a length of wire in his hands. He was carefully stripping the plastic sheathing back with a pair of dikes to expose the copper for splicing. He hadn’t noticed the lift arrive and was startled when Drinkwine called his name.
Spooked, Mr. Smith accidentally clipped the wire in half, an expletive escaping his mouth. He froze when he saw the detective.
Drinkwine cautiously approached, trying not to appear frightened by the height. He could see all the way to the street below. The vehicles looked like toys. The turbulence created by the canyons of high-rises whipped discarded food wrappers and pieces of trash upward with serious velocity. There was nothing in between himself and the fall to death. Mr. Smith seemed unconcerned.
“Yeah?” Mr. Smith uttered hesitantly.
“My name’s Drinkwine, Detective Drinkwine.” Flashing his badge. “I need to ask you a few questions.”
“About what, why?” Mr. Smith came back anxiously.
“You knew Michael Byrne?”
Smith took far too long to answer. Eyes wide, unblinking.
“Mr. Smith, surely you don’t need to think about that. Either you knew the man or you didn’t.”
“He’s dead,” Smith now blinking nervously.
“Yes, that’s right. Somebody killed him.”
“I didn’t kill him,” Smith urged.
“Well, okay. So that’s settled.”
Smith was woefully confused.
“He owed you money?”
After a moment Smith answered, “Yeah, but I didn’t kill ’em.”
“How much did he owe you? And what for?”
Smith sniffled, his nose running. “Cards. Blackjack.”
“Blackjack?” Drinkwine shot back quickly.
“It’s the only game we know.”
“I take it Byrne wasn’t very crafty at the game?”
“No. I mean, well, I mean…”
“What do you mean?” Drinkwine’s voice rattled Smith further.
“Jus’ bad luck.”
“Yeah, plenty of bad luck; the man’s dead. How much are we talking?”
“Three thousand duckets,” Smith divulged. “That ain’t ’nough to kill no man over, not even here.”
“Do you know anyone else he owed money to?”
“I’s the only one play with him.”
“Why was that?”
“The guy was kinda weird.”
“Jus’, kinda weird.”
“So, you weren’t friendly?”
“No way. Jus’ cards.”
Drinkwine looked out over the city. The buildings were creeping a little higher each day. Out on the horizon the desert was stirring with rumor of a dust storm. The taunts unsettled him. He’d had enough dust storms to last him the rest of his natural life.
Smith was sitting there nervously twirling the hacked off wire in his hands. “So, is that it, we done?”
Drinkwine turned to look out over the cranes. He knew he was wasting his time. “Yeah, we’re done.”
The cable whirred as the construction elevator dropped down through the rickety column of scaffolding. Drinkwine watched the passing floors, catching brief glimpses of workers engulfed in the rain of sparks as they grinded and hammered the metal with a vengeance. He wondered if any among them knew anymore than Mr. Smith. Or was that it? Was Smith the last lead, the mysterious contact, the great clue?
The elevator shuddered to a stop at the ground level. Drinkwine unlatched the flimsy metal cage door and exited. As he crossed the muddied ground, considering his next move, there was a loud metallic snap from high above followed by a chorus of warning screams. He looked up to see a heavy iron beam had broken loose from one of its triangles of cable as a crane was swinging it into place. In a violent upset of balance the beam shimmied and squirmed wildly, smashing against the structure, sending shockwaves up and down the iron maze. The beam was falling, fast. Drinkwine bounded for the street, slipping and sliding across the muddy ground. He could hear the tonnage of errant steel falling from height, clipping the building repeatedly as it came down. The heavy beam crashed to the ground behind him, flattening a generator in a deafening crash. It hit with such force as to upset Drinkwine’s balance and stumble him to the mud. The ground shuddered for a moment in the aftermath.
When all was clear, after the remnant pieces of debris had fallen, clattering in chase of the beam, the entire area sat stunned with an eerie silence. After a moment, a worker approached Drinkwine, helping him to his feet. The linen suit was splattered with mud. Dazed, Drinkwine looked at where the beam had settled, pressed a full two meters into the soft ground. It was perched, spear-like, exactly where he had been walking. Shielding his eyes from the sun, Drinkwine peered up the precipice of the skyscraper. Dozens of hard hatted workmen were looking out from the open floors at the commotion below.
Drinkwine looked into the faces of the approaching workmen. Two of them tried to be courteous, swatting the mud off his jacket, making a mess of it. Drinkwine searched out any incriminating malice in the faces around him.
“Buddy, you okay?” one of the workers asked.
“Yeah,” Drinkwine answered absently, “fine, fine.”
“Shit, you was lucky,” another exclaimed.
Was it an accident? Drinkwine thought to himself. Just one of the many mishaps that plagued this place due to lack of oversight? There were few rules in place or governance over these monstrosities with regard to safety. Safety? No, that would impede the progress. The fucking progress. Or was someone trying to kill him? Drinkwine backed away from the gathering workers as they speculated on what had caused the mishap. When they turned with their questions, he was gone.