DRINKWINE TOOK THE ELEVATOR to the top floor of the Science Center, arriving at the Sky Bar. He entered the establishment, which was discretely dark, emphasizing the dramatic nighttime view afforded by the domed glass ceiling that ran the length of the room. The place was only sparsely seated. He spied a woman sitting at one of the sunken conversation pits. She was dark-skinned and dressed in the plain blue jumpsuit of the researchers, often worn in off hours out of ease of habit.
As he crossed the room Drinkwine noticed the Iranian flag patch on her right arm, affirming his initial assessment of her being Persian from the brief exchange on the phone. Her long black hair was pulled up efficiently into a tight bun at the back of her head. Feeling his approach, she turned just as he arrived at the table. Other than somewhat captivating eyes, she was nothing much to look at. She had no discernible feminine features in her figure. A stern face and thin lips that, upon polite smiling—as she was doing now—revealed horribly crooked teeth. He extended his hand, which she took with a firm grip. Being close to a woman, touching, only served to bring thoughts of his wife back to him for a fleeting second.
“Miss Naji, I’m Detective Drinkwine. Thank you for meeting.”
“Of course. Please,” she said, motioning for him to sit down. “Drinkwine, what an interesting name.”
Drinkwine managed a smile.
“Of course, you must get that a lot.” Her voice was soft.
Drinkwine pulled a small note pad from his pocket, a pen neatly clasped to it. “How long have you been on Mars?”
She looked off, searching her mind, then, “I arrived last February, the 22nd.”
Drinkwine looked at her, a little embarrassed, “I’m sorry, that must’ve sounded like a formal investigative question. I was merely making conversation.”
“Oh,” she said, with girlish inflection.
The two of them laughed slightly, which eased the awkwardness.
“And you?” she inquired.
“I arrived this afternoon.”
“Not a man to waste time, are you?”
“Well, after all, the body was discovered over six weeks ago,” Drinkwine exclaimed, “so I feel drastically behind on the investigation.”
The waiter approached and placed a coaster before Drinkwine. Tray in hand, he looked at the white man with half moon eyes, having to struggle to form the words in English, “What may I for you get?”
Without hesitation Drinkwine responded, “A bourbon, please.”
The waiter and Naji exchanged glances. She intervened politely, “Detective, they don’t serve alcohol here.”
It took a moment for him to remember he was in an Islamic state. “Oh, pardon me, could I get a…” having to consider, then, surrendering, “a Ginger Ale, please?”
The waiter looked puzzled, turning to her for help. She translated the request in Farsi and he turned on his heel, moving off quietly across the carpeted lounge.
Drinkwine settled, “I forget,” placing the pad on the table between them. “If you don’t mind, may we begin?”
She settled into the plush sofa, taking a sip of her mint tea, setting the small glass on the table.
“If anything I ask upsets you, please, just say so.”
She nodded, serious, hands clasped demurely in her lap.
“You discovered the body?”
“Yes,” she began, regarding the questioning respectfully. “Well, technically. But there were others there immediately. I work with the water measure teams, we were on deployment in the riverbed.”
“How many were there, on the team?”
“There would be myself, my supervisor, and four other researchers,” she offered with an ease of deportment.
“Can you tell me exactly what you found?” Drinkwine asked.
“I noticed something odd among the dead vegetation that line the riverbed,” she said, remembering.
“Dead vegetation?” Drinkwine inquired, unfamiliar with Mars.
“The clusters are remnants of early expeditions and experiments to green the planet. They’re a serious nuisance, virtually everywhere. The seeds were unintentionally spread by the winds across Mars. They took root, flourished, and then died.”
“Why did they die?”
“No known reason.”
Drinkwine stopped writing. He looked like he had more questions about the botanical phenomenon.
“Detective,” her voice carrying an enigmatic tone, “you’ll find that this place has happenings according to its own weird.”
“Yes, so I’m learning. You were saying?” Drinkwine prompted.
“Well, anyway, when I got closer I saw it was the hand and arm of a human, buried in the sand.”
“Did you, or anyone on your team attempt to uncover it?”
“Certainly not, Detective. Perhaps it’s our role as scientists,” she offered, “but we immediately understood this was something very serious.”
“And why was that,?” Drinkwine asked, jotting something down. Her blank face begged explanation. “This is just routine questioning,” he reassured.
“Finding the decomposing remains of a body chained to vegetation and buried in a riverbed isn’t exactly a common occurrence,” she answered, a slight tone of offence in her voice. He felt her body tense. It was due the waiter arriving with his drink. He placed the glass in front of Drinkwine and disappeared again.
“Do you know who exhumed the body?” Drinkwine asked without looking up from his pad, knowing her dark eyes were fully on him.
“They dispatched several workers to dig it out of the sand,” raising her glass to her thin lips, sipping thoughtfully at the hot mint tea.
He stopped his writing, “Did anyone in an official status observe this?”
“I don’t believe so,” absently pushing the mint leaves into the steaming water with the plastic stirrer.
“Do you remember anything about the body, how they uncovered it, or how they handled it?” he asked, returning to his note pad.
Her eyes wandered the bar as she recalled the experience. “One of the workers vomited when they started digging out the sand around the body.”
“Understandable,” he said obtusely.
She lowered her gaze, “They handled it rather roughly, as if it were a piece of scrap meat.” Voice softening, “I thought how sad, because somewhere that person once had parents, and if they could see…, well. Now…” her words stopped there. “I do remember,” she continued, “they started to unravel the chain from around the arm. We told them that it was important to leave it as they found it. They seemed rather dumbstruck at the notion. After that they lent a little more care to the handling of it. Probably because they knew we were watching.” She looked off, “It was so stiff.” She rubbed her fingers, remembering. “They stumbled in the sand and dropped the body. One of the legs broke with a loud crack. It started to swing a bit. That got them to laughing for some reason,” she spoke with a hint of dismay. “Then, they wrapped the body in plastic and placed it on the bed of their service rover, and headed back to the city. That was the last I saw of it.” She was looking blankly at the table, unblinking.
“I regret having to make you remember this, it must have been unpleasant,” he offered sincerely.
The words snapped her from her trance. “Oh, it wasn’t seeing that, Detective,” voice full of contemplation. “I mean, certainly, the brutality was unnerving, even if it was just something that happened between the workers.”
The words struck Drinkwine. There was that presumption again; that this was merely a simple-minded squabble escalated by ignorance among some workers. Strange, coming from a seemingly compassionate and educated woman.
She continued, unaware, “It’s just the thought,” she paused, “that’s where we all end up. No one is immune, Detective.”
Drinkwine jotted down some notes before closing his pad, then raised his eyes to meet hers. In the darkness of the lounge, the star field brilliant above them, her large brown eyes pooled slightly. The bewilderment in her smooth brown face gave her a kind of attractive vulnerability. Drinkwine was unsure what to say or do, his professional callousness momentarily abated in the face of a woman suffering some quiet, private anguish that shadowed the theme of their unpleasant conversation.
To avoid having to console her, Drinkwine’s gaze drifted the lounge uneasily. His eyes settled on a baby grand piano, the ebony instrument almost lost in the darkness. He rose, her eyes following him as he crossed to it. Pulling the bench back he settled in at the keyboard, gently running his large fingers over the keys, a film of dust covering them from lack of use.
After a moment of contemplation, as if summoning some distant memory, Drinkwine began to play Chopin’s Prelude No. 4. He winched at his rusty awkwardness, embarrassed at numerous missed notes, but continued to play, the piece unfolding its haunting melancholia. The sparse notes sifted through the lounge, quieting a conversation at the other end of the bar. Several businessmen listened politely for a moment before resuming their talk.
Naji got up and, as if drawn to a mythical siren, crossed the room, settling at the piano, listening, studying his fingers in their unexpectedly delicate touch on the keys.
Drinkwine brought the sad piece to a finish, the final notes resonating. He sighed, running his hand affectionately across the smooth ivory keys.
She did not speak right away. When she did, she said simply, “That was beautiful.”
Drinkwine was self-conscious. He smiled, then let out a little laugh.
“What is it?” She asked, curious as to what was so humorous.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s just that I only know three pieces.”
“Did you make that up?” she asked sincerely.
“I’m serious,” Drinkwine answered, “That’s all I know, just three pieces.”
“No,” she came back, “I mean, did you make up that piece of music?”
The smile left Drinkwine’s face. He looked at her, perplexed, unsure what to say. “No,” he began. “That was…” he stopped. He cupped his hands together in his lap, and uttered with a kind of sad bewilderment, “No, I didn’t make that up.”
The glass ceiling held a blanket of stars that spread out over the silence between them. Unsure how to interpret his sudden quiet, she looked out into the ink black night. “Look,” she brightened, “the Earthrise.”
Drinkwine looked out at where she was staring. “Pardon me?”
She pulled herself closer to him and pointed to the horizon. “See that faint blue planet, just now rising above the rock peak in the distance?”
Drinkwine followed the length of her slender arm into the eastern sky. Barely visible among the field of shimmering stars, having just crested the horizon, was a tiny, pale blue orb. It sparkled faintly, disappearing and reappearing in the immense distance.
“Do you see it?”
“Yes,” Drinkwine responded, captivated.
“That’s the Earth, Detective,” she said, as if entertaining the whims of a young boy.
“How far away is it?” he asked.
“This time of year,” she considered, “about one hundred fifty million kilometers.”
He marveled at the sight. Earth—one hundred fifty million kilometers away—shown vaguely. Most everything he knew, or cared about, was back there, on that tiny soft blue orb easing its way into the Martian sky. Everything.
After a moment of contemplation, Drinkwine finished off the remainder of his Ginger Ale, the ice clinking the glass, wishing for something with some kick to it. “It’s late, isn’t it?” he said, inferring the interview, and the evening, was over.