IT WAS NEAR DUSK when the limo delivered Drinkwine to the Science Center. The complex had been built to house the visiting scientists, researchers, engineers and executives, with a tawdry elegance more befitting a casino.
The driver had retrieved Drinkwine’s travel bag from the trunk, placing it on the walk under the massive façade of the center. Drinkwine took in the opulent entranceway as he emerged from the back of the limo, his aluminum brief and the two cartons of Hollands in hand. The driver swung the door closed and with efficient purpose returned to the driver’s seat.
The tinted rear window slid down. Kurian pushed across the leather seat to address Drinkwine. “Your rover will be ready at 9:00am, Detective,” he offered.
Collecting up his travel bag, Drinkwine responded dryly, “Thank you.” And on that he turned and moved toward the lobby.
Kurian watched after him for a moment, face registering uneasiness to this stranger who had arrived with an agenda that threatened to unsettle the careful routine of the planet. The electric window silently rose to tint out the world.
From afar the Science Center was a sprawling marvel of grandeur, integrating steel and glass in arching sweeps of impressive design. But as Drinkwine drew closer to the front doors the structure took on another persona. The building had an unfinished look about it, as if the carpenters had gone off to some other duty mid-task and forgotten to return. The decorative urns were full of dry dirt, awaiting greenery. The impressive columns were scarred with dried oozings of hardened cement, which had seeped between the gaps in the shoddy wood plank molds during construction. The gold trim of the glass doors was unevenly screwed. Inside, the lobby continued this strange continuity of dubious construct. The carpet had been cut irregularly, the misaligned edges at the wall joints revealing moist swaths of rough cement beneath. A halfhearted attempt had been made to conceal the shoddiness behind velvet curtains and potted plants. In one place, the glass of a large window was so ill-fitted as to allow breezes to pass through at the sill juncture.
As Drinkwine crossed the open expanse of the lobby that towered impressively overhead, he wondered about the structural integrity of the building. Standing at attention behind the registration counter, four dark-skinned employees in matching uniforms welcomed Drinkwine, wearing broad smiles and echoing a chorus of hellos, which did not fully conceal their curiosity.
The suite, situated on the fourteenth floor, had a generous view. A large bed dominated, set with a dozen pillows piled high against a somewhat garish headboard of swirling gold trim. The room was bathed in the orange glow of a Martian sunset, the distant reaches of desert clouded with a thin haze of airborne dust that diffused the setting sun to a dull red ball, just touching the horizon.
Drinkwine set his travel bag down on the thick shag carpet, placing the aluminum brief on the desk, the cartons of cigarillos alongside. He flicked on the light of the bathroom to reveal smooth tile and a glass enclosed shower with gold fixtures.
As he crossed the room to the sliding glass door, Drinkwine grabbed the remote and by routine switched on the large flat screen television. It was set to the hotel channel where a looping video showed beautiful, well-dressed Egyptian, Indian, Pakistani and Iranian couples enjoying the amenities; the stately lobby; the opulent guest rooms; fine dining in the restaurant; swimming in both the indoor and outdoor Olympic pools.
He muted the TV and picked up one of the cartons of Hollands, stripping off the plastic wrapper and ceremoniously pulling out a fresh pack. From that he drew the first, thin cigarillo to be smoked on Mars. Pulling open the sliding glass door Drinkwine stepped out onto the balcony, into the warm, thin air that gently breezed the fourteenth floor. The only sound was the evening call to prayer of the muezzin, settling hauntingly over the city. The wailing voice echoed out from dozens of speakers that pierced the ancient song into the budding Martian metropolis, the song slightly obscured by distortion. Taking up at the banister, Drinkwine produced a well-traveled silver lighter from his pocket and lit the Holland.
Breathing in the sweet tobacco, Drinkwine looked out over the burgeoning city of Jannah. The cranes had ceased their work for the day and stood quiet and still, silhouetted against the blushing Martian sky. The workers had repaired to their living quarters, far from the opulence they were creating. Visible beyond the shallow wreath of the city, the vast, barren plains of Mars stretched to the horizon in all directions. The landscape of rock and red seas of sand had been corrupted by the incongruous rise of the skyscrapers.
The call to prayer of the muezzin weaved through the empty streets far below, accompanying sporadic pools of green mercury vapor street lamps snapping on against the approaching darkness. They lined the avenues in strings of sparkling green pearls of incandescence.
Drinkwine had seen the endless parade of marketing campaigns on Earth selling a safe and leisurely life on Mars; future prosperity for pilgrims adventuresome enough to take on the challenge. What a bunch of fools. The brochures left a lot of basic facts on the table. Artists’ renderings had transformed the barren stretches of nothingness into alluring properties of luxury high-rise apartment complexes with views of man-made lakes and lush green parks. The written materials were generously peppered with language selling a crime free environment where families were safe. Crime free. He tiredly smiled at the naivety of it all.
Leaning on the banister, Drinkwine looked out at the modern metropolis that clashed with the barren landscape. Fools, he thought to himself as he savored the Holland, wishing all those who were presently selling off their lives on Earth to come here could see this; the endless swells of wind shaped sand and barren flats, as far as the eye could see.
The phone rang, muffled through the glass. Drinkwine pulled back the sliding door and crossed the room, which was darkening with the end of the day, snapping on a lamp as he settled onto the bed and retrieved the phone. “Yes?”
The female voice on the other end spoke English with a strong Persian accent. “Detective Drinkwine?”
“Yes,” he answered.
There was a moment of silence before she offered, “This is Atefeh Naji. I was told you wished to speak with me.”
“Yes, thank you for calling,” Drinkwine stalled as he searched his mind for association to the name. Then, remembering, “I understand you were the one who found the body?”
After a brief pause the voice came back, “Yes.”
“I’d like to speak with you in person, if I may.”
“Yes,” the voice waivered slightly, “of course.”
“Where are you?”
“Here, in the Science Center. This is where many of the researchers are housed.” The voice had a pleasantly feminine ring to it. “Perhaps we could meet in the Sky Bar, it’s on the top floor and is restricted.”
“That would be fine. Would an hour from now work?” As Drinkwine spoke he absently slid the drawer of the nightstand out. Sitting there was a new copy of the Quran.
“I’ll see you then. Oh,” the voice halted, “how will I know you?”
Drinkwine was still staring at the book. He broke from his trance, “I’m an American, Miss Naji.”
There was a moment of silence on the other end, followed by, “Oh.” A second later, “I’ll see you in an hour.”
After hanging up the phone, Drinkwine lifted the Quran out of the drawer. Feeling the weight, he opened it, fanning the stiff, unread pages and perusing the foreign writing before setting it back from where he had taken it, sliding the drawer back into the nightstand.
He noticed the long ash of his Holland was close to crumbling under its weight. He looked around for an ashtray. Nothing. He tapped the ash off into his palm, dropping it into the trashcan, then laid back on the bed. On the television the muted hotel channel continued its presentation of lush hotel amenities; an attractive Arabic couple toasting in the hotel bar under a curved glass dome that provided a view of the nighttime star field. The closed captioning that ran across the bottom of the screen read in English: “…or relax in the Science Center Sky Bar, sitting atop the twentieth floor, offering stunning daytime views of the plains of Mars and nighttime star gazing. The Sky Bar is a restricted establishment, ensuring an environment of exclusivity, comfort, and relaxation for our esteemed guests.” Drinkwine took another drag off his cigarillo, blowing the smoke out into the room, watching it swirl and dissipate in the stillness.