THE CHIME OF THE GPS alerted Drinkwine that he had arrived at the site where the body had been found. The rover automatically steered itself to within ten meters of the actual pinpoint of the shallow grave and chugged to a stop. The sound of the rover’s treads, which had been a constant drone since departing the transpo center two hours ago, suddenly ceased. When Drinkwine shut the rover’s electric gyros off it gave way to perfect silence. He got out of the vehicle, emerging into the oppressive heat, and surveyed the area. It was eerily still. The quiet was so absolute that Drinkwine could hear his heart beating. The ride had aggravated his persistent tinnitus and his ears were buzzing with white noise. It actually masked the horrific isolation, the barrenness.
The pictures of Michael Byrne’s body and its location were so well imprinted on Drinkwine’s mind that he easily recognized the root cluster to which the body had been tethered. Someone had had the good sense to tie a strip of red plastic tape to the dead branches as marker. In the intervening weeks since the body had been discovered the winds had had their play, scattering any clues into the great expanse of desert, shaping and reshaping the surrounding area a dozen times over, mischievously pushing the great dunes of sand about in a teasing of burials and exhumations. The shallow grave was but a vague indention in the desert floor now, washed over many times by the trespassing winds, making it almost imperceptible.
It didn’t really matter. Drinkwine had already surmised that the murder had taken place elsewhere and that the perpetrator—or perpetrators—had brought the body here, burying it in this grave of opportunity in hopes that the water that would eventually fill this basin to form the lakes of Mars would conceal the body in its depths. The water. Everyone was waiting for the water. The investors, the politicians, the builders, the landscapers, the engineers, even the murderer was waiting for the water.
Water, they were going to need a shitload of it to transform this Godforsaken place into anything remotely resembling the artists’ renderings. An estimated twenty-two thousand cubic kilometers were what they figured would eventually be required to flood the plains and form the Great Lakes of Mars. Drinkwine had learned back on Earth that the powerbrokers were already deciding a price. If you had money and ego enough you could have the future Martian lakes named after you. Of course, who could say when the lakes would actually take shape. Like everything else here they were horrifically behind schedule.
Drinkwine had read that the forming of the lakes, which were to be derived from the ice that the Myoko mirror was freeing from its million-year hibernation at the pole, was some twenty to thirty years off—depending on whom you were listening to. Looking at the sweep of endless desert and the ancient, dried riverbed, Drinkwine thought how this entire area would one day be under several fathoms of water. Well, he chuckled to himself, not any time soon.
A good amount of that precious water would go to flowing fountains and blossoming flowers so that a prettiness could be brought to this place. But the more they promised to make it like home, the more they were serving to propagate the lingering, seldom mentioned homesickness. It was all so inane, but necessary, the ornamentation of life. Home… they kept saying. Home… he kept hearing. No, this was merely a place to wile away a life. If this place was the new promise for the settlers, how hopeless must their existences be on Earth to warrant the move?
Circling the area where the body had been exhumed, Drinkwine stared at the perfectly groomed waves of sand, the jagged black rocks, and the dead plants. They had witnessed it all. They’d seen the faces, the moving of the body, struggling under the weight of death, the shoveling of sand in around the corpse to conceal this ugly thing that had taken place. Though mathematically implausible, it was a well-known phenomenon that a dead body had the impression of weighing more than a living, breathing one. Drinkwine wondered, if the sand could talk, what would it tell him? He stared at the meandering silky dunes of red as if there were secrets there, which the sand was cruelly keeping from him.
Dropping to a crouch, Drinkwine ran his hand over the perfectly groomed ripples of sand. He scooped up a handful of the fine red grains and let them pass through his fingers like a sieve. Felt the warmth. He watched the sand spill onto itself, like that of an hourglass, the fine granules tumbling under their weight to form a perfect cylindrical pyramid. When the last of the grains had passed through his fingers in adolescent play, he swatted the red residue from his hands.
“Why did you get killed, Mr. Byrne?” Drinkwine spoke to himself, the words muffled by the surrounding sand.
Drinkwine studied the clumps of dead shrubs half-buried in the perfectly combed sand. The dead plants served as reminder to man’s attempt to impose a foreign nature on this inhospitable place. For decades teams of arborists had been bringing seedlings up from Earth to instill some life on Mars. Some of the species had taken root, sprouted, but died mysteriously. Others had floundered only to flourish in groves where the winds had indiscriminately spread their seeds, confusing the arborists with their strange rhythms of life and death. He could make out the root the body had been chained to by the deep scars left by the murderers’ binding.
Drinkwine could have guessed this excursion wouldn’t produce anything of value. But it was necessary. A benign start to what was certain to be an ugly intrusion into the people’s lives here. They had better things to do than to be bothered with a murder. But, if nothing more than to have been in the same space that the killer had been, that was a start from where the investigation would blossom into an unsightly rose of facts and figures, most assuredly producing an interesting cast of characters. Drinkwine understood all too well that he would not be getting a great deal of support. He would be on his own. And that was fine. He was certain that the murder had taken place elsewhere. This was merely a grave of opportunity to hide the crime. To hide away a murder. Was it one killer or two? Perhaps three? Without facts to support it, Drinkwine believed that there was one killer. Who was it? And why did they do it? What had the poor son of a bitch done to deserve getting killed? That was the question. Behind every murder there is a reason. However vague, however complicated, there was always a reason. Drinkwine ran the mantra through his mind, over and over again. What was the motive? The days and weeks ahead would slowly unravel the tapestry of friends and acquaintances that Byrne had. His dealings, his habits, his vices. Lives have a way of weaving a pattern that paints a thorough understanding of all they were.
Drinkwine pulled the voice recorder from his jacket and turned it on. He spoke into it. “The homicide almost assuredly took place somewhere else. The location where the body was found is merely a dumping zone. The seven weeks since its discovery has made any hope for clue recovery impossible. The winds have taken a very large broom over this area.” He studied the barren desert that reached to the horizon in all directions. “The killer’s intent was for the water that would eventually flood this area to conceal the body.” Wiping the sweat from his brow. “If it’s one killer, he, or she, has given Mars the mystery of its first murder. If there were accomplices, by now there most likely would’ve been some sort of tension or flair-up that would have produced a slip of the tongue, then, a crack in the façade. The plan, the great secret would have come undone. Such is the reality when the tides of men’s blood is stirred within, that tempers of mistrust will eventually arise.”
Surveying the area, Drinkwine continued, “The act of murder induces a powerful paranoia that splits even the most loyal partners. I don’t like to guess, but if I were to, I would say there was one perpetrator. The investigation will have no tangible evidence emerging from the sand. The only fact is that whoever did this had access to a rover. So I now turn my attention to the relatively small number of people with that privilege, and to further reduce that to who was in possession of one during the period of time between seven and, given the estimate of decay of the body, nine weeks ago. Also, those who had access to the murder weapon.” He snapped the recorder off.
Drinkwine thought to himself with morbid pragmatism; somewhere on Mars is the location where the murder took place. There will be Michael Byrne’s DNA splattered about the whole of the area. After all, the spread of a Roches riot gun? All the cleaning in the world couldn’t wipe that simple truth away. Given the severity of the wound, there will be a good deal of brain and fragments of skull—impossible to brush up every last bit. And, there will be the remnant overshoot of shot pellets, either imbedded in a structure or scattered about an outdoor location. Every murder leaves behind stubborn and beautifully incriminating evidence. Already Drinkwine’s mind had assembled an overview that was so rudimentary it was almost embarrassing in its simplicity. The entry wound was at the back of the head. The angle was one of dominance, from above, at roughly 45 degrees. The victim was most likely knelt on the ground. The skin of the victim’s wrists, what was left of it anyway, had no signs of being bound when alive. Only a relationship of familiarity, of trust, would allow for someone the opportunity to get that close to the victim without suspicion. What was that relationship? Friends? Acquaintances? Lovers? Let the great mystery begin, Drinkwine thought to himself.
During the course of this mental checklist Drinkwine had absently fished a Holland from the pack in his breast pocket and lit it. Staring at his shadow against the soft sand he discerned a shift in his outline, the surrounding area growing brighter. His shadow became more defined and then was abruptly washed out in a gathering glare. He checked his watch: 1:11. Then suddenly remembered; the sunstrike. Drinkwine headed for the only cover offered out here; the rover. It was just twenty-odd meters off, but as he strode for it the entire area was collected up into a sudden and intense increase in brightness, the desert seared to white as the misguided rays of sunlight from the Myoko mirror engulfed him. In his haste, Drinkwine was exerting himself. The thinness of the atmosphere wasn’t enough to fully feed his lungs and he began to gasp. With his brain starved for oxygen he became lightheaded, each step measured out now with straining effort.
The harder Drinkwine strode the sand, the deeper his shoes sunk in, each movement met with a gasping for the putrid air. He heard Kurian’s voice and the warning he’d given. He had shaken off the advice of the little brown man. Drinkwine now realized how foolish that was, for he was trapped in a massive, endless oven, being roasted alive.
By the time Drinkwine got to the rover and climbed in the entire area was battered with the blinding sunlight being reflected off the Myoko mirror from four hundred kilometers out in space. Trails of sweat streaked Drinkwine’s face as he gasped for air. The heat sucked the air out of the cab. He looked at the gauge for the outside temperature. It had been steady at 32 degrees Celsius all morning. Now, it climbed rapidly to 40, 45, tapping out at a blistering 53.9 degrees Celsius.
Drinkwine had to close his eyes against the piercing whiteness that consumed the desert with blistering fury; an oven turned up full. The concentration of reflected sunlight pounded the rover relentlessly, the body creaking as its metal shell expanded against the heat. Drinkwine, eyes closed to slits, removed his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt. His chest was matted with sweat. He sunk his face into his hands to shield his eyes against the intense glare. He was dripping sweat now. His mouth painfully dry.
Then, as quickly as the onslaught had hit, it abated. The white hotness subsided. The rover sighed with relief as the temperature dropped, the metal body groaning as it cooled and condensed, Drinkwine following the rapid progression of decline on the temperature gauge.
The shift from the inferno blast to the oppressive heat of the previous hours felt like a Godsend of cool. Drinkwine opened the door of the rover, the air rushing in to displace the staleness of the vacuum inside. He breathed it in as he fumbled for the liter bottle of water Kurian had placed in the rover. How stupid, he thought to himself, to not have anticipated this, to have not brought more water. How foolish. Next time. Next time he would be prepared. As Drinkwine stared out at the glare evaporating from the sky, returning it to a calm of pale blue, he was possessed by a new, unquestioning respect for this place. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he uttered, sloshing the warm water around in his mouth.
Drinkwine took the beating as a harsh reminder to the lethal potential of the scientific mistake floating four hundred kilometers above; the great marvel of the Myoko orbiting mirror with its daily misdirected reflection of sunlight. It had spanked him good with a murderous wagging finger of warning. He drank more of the water, downing fully half a liter to quench the burning, dry thirst. Next time, water—plenty of water.
Smoothing the strands of his thinning hair across his scalp with water, Drinkwine punched in the command for the GPS to retrace the route the rover had come. The tired vehicle hummed to life in an awakening of electronics, cranking one bank of tread that spun it on its axis and started it back toward Jannah.
Far from where Drinkwine had suffered his first joust with this place, the gusting winds made their mad play in the private remoteness of the desert. Far removed from where the humans toiled, they swirled the sands into great funnels of red, spinning them in a drunken ballet across the barren plains. The sand, the sun, and the winds all conspired a wonderful chaos to disrupt the calm, raising great waves of dust to send across the plains in search of humans to annoy.
For the past hour the rattle of treads had acted like a metronome as the rover trekked the harsh, barren plains of rock and sand. Drinkwine had steered the vehicle off its original coordinates by five kilometers in order to break the monotony of the landscape already trespassed on the way out to the grave site. But there was little to distinguish this part of the desert from what he’d crossed earlier in the day. He was still acutely aware of the potential misstep in judgment concerning the severity of the sunstrike and the harsh reminder that, out here, water was to be valued above all else. Water and cover and smarts. Water and cover and smarts he drummed into his thoughts.
As the rover unraveled its course back to the center, navigating a barren stretch of hard-packed ground littered with rock, Drinkwine studied a flow of sand dunes in the distance. Standing out against the red was a breach of what looked to be bright white stone. Drinkwine tapped the left tread brake, feathering the rover onto a slightly altered course that aimed it for the distant apparition. Detouring from the hard-pack surface the treads sank into the soft sand, churning the powdery red into a mist that rose and fell behind.
The sun was conspiring with the elements, creating a mirage that made it appear as though a layer of refreshing water had been spilled out over the planet’s surface in the distance. The mirage spread its lie across the desert between Drinkwine and the apparition, the white patch hovering in the heat waves as the rover droned closer. Whatever it was, it was much larger than Drinkwine had first thought. He watched, waiting for it to evaporate like the damning rumor of water in the mirage. But as he approached, the white object stayed fast to the horizon, slowly taking shape as the distance was eclipsed. He eased back on the throttle to quarter setting, slowing the rover to a crawl, then stopped within close proximity to the mystery among the dunes.
The heat and thinness of the atmosphere were certainly at play again, confusing Drinkwine’s head with nonsensical images. He wiped his eyes and tried to blink away the vision. His eyes had not betrayed him. There, before him, listing slightly in the rolling sand dunes, was a full-scale Mississippi paddlewheel steamboat. It glowed white against the sun with three decks that tiered to a rise of the wheelhouse, flanked by towering, flanged smoke stacks, all trimmed in red and gold. The large blades of the paddlewheel—cracked and peeling from constant abuse in the elements—were motionless, dug deep into the ocean of red.
Drinkwine hesitantly exited the rover, his feet sinking into the soft sand, spilling into his shoes. He surveyed the area in search of clues to this oddity as he tentatively approached the mammoth boat. As he drew closer, Drinkwine saw the ship’s paint was not as pristine as first thought. From the distance it looked fresh and flawless. In reality it had suffered daily assaults from the desert. The once new teakwood deck planks and cabin doors had been routinely sandblasted, robbed of their polished sheen.
Certain the paddlewheel steamer was some strange illusion conjured by the thin air, Drinkwine timidly reached out to touch it, expecting it to vanish. His fingers butted against the hull. It didn’t vanish. He ran his hand over the smooth, white finish. He took hold of one of the oxidized brass cleats and hoisted himself up onto the deck. His weight creaked the teakwood planking as he crossed the main deck to the staircase. He stopped to peer into the open hatch of the engine room where a cast iron steam engine sat ready. It looked as if it had never turned, the crankcase, valve covers, and rungs of tubing virtually unstained by the misting oil of normal operation. It was spotless, save for the ever-present dusting of red sand left in the wake of passing storms.
Ascending the wide stairs to the second level, Drinkwine took hold of the darkly lacquered handrail. The upper deck afforded a generous view of the surrounding dunes. The boat was marooned in an endless sea of red swells. The rumor of water was still a good twenty years off by most estimates. “What on Earth, or Mars, rather,” Drinkwine corrected, “is this doing here?”
As Atefeh Naji had so poignantly said, Mars had happenings according to its own weird. But this was man-made, Drinkwine thought to himself as he settled onto one of the ornate benches in the shade of the third deck. In no particular hurry he indulged another of his Hollands. Ahead of his allotment, he felt the solitude afforded by the desert, and the strange find of the boat, justified it. Drinkwine wondered what the story was behind the boat, for surely there would be a story. Why would anyone build a replica of a paddlewheel steamer? And why here, in the middle of the nothingness of the nothingness?
As he sat there studying the magnificent boat, Drinkwine felt a very subtle atmospheric drop in pressure, like those that precede a storm on the plains of West Texas. That unnerving gulp the atmosphere takes before blowing the hell out of everything, uprooting trees and tossing mobile homes. He drew thoughtfully on the cigarillo.
Then, out on the open expanse, Drinkwine saw a faint swirl of movement. He watched as a slight incarnation of wind roused a thin column of sand that disturbed the calm, twirling itself into a funnel that rose from the plain. The funnel waivered, swaying from side to side in drunken impropriety. He watched as the winds drew more sand into the tempest, stirring it to frenzy. He thought of the many threatening tumults the planet was warden to; one recent… man-made, this one… ancient.
The distant mass of swirling red dust quickly grew, rising like an incredible wave in absolute silence. It wasn’t until the wave drew closer, sweeping in with surprising speed to blot out the sun and plummet the area into darkness, that Drinkwine comprehended the size of it. What had been thought a noiseless phenomenon suddenly revealed itself to be a mad, blinding wind with ferocious sound. That was when Drinkwine felt the first sting of a wind-driven grain of sand against his cheek. In surprisingly short order the calm had been incited to a rebellion of angered revolt.
Drinkwine dropped down the stairs and with surprising agility leaped off the bow, his shoes burying themselves for a second in the sand as he headed for the safety of the rover. Here he was, once again, seeking out cover in the rover. In mere seconds the entire area was engulfed in a violent sandstorm that rattled the boat, creaking its hull. Drinkwine had tossed the Holland and was now forging through the swirling, stinging morass of blinding sand. His face and arms and eyes were pelted. The desert had been put upon him yet again. He couldn’t make out a thing in the madness. Reaching the rover, he felt blindly along the contours of the bodywork for the door handle. Fumbling, he managed to open it and clamor inside, struggling with the wind for possession of the door, pulling it shut against the ripping menace of the winds.
The rover’s windows were quickly blanketed with red, the sand pummeling the vehicle in violent play. Drinkwine sunk his face into his arms out of fear the windows would shatter under the force, covering his ears against the deafening metallic drumming. The violent hammering of sand was punctuated by the discordant thump of small rocks that bounced themselves off the rover’s body and ricocheted out into the blind abyss.
The abuse continued for several minutes, Drinkwine befuddled by the aggressive nature of Mars, before he felt a lessening up of the violent forces that had held the rover at a constant angle. As the vehicle settled against the diminishing wind, the pounding subsided, eventually granting visibility out the windows.
The sky was still clearing as Drinkwine forced the door of the rover open against the sand that had been piled against it by the virulent winds. The dark curtain of sand had passed and was eloping across the desert to wreak havoc elsewhere, leaving in its wake an absolute calm adorned with an azure blue sky overhead. As if a traveler in time, Drinkwine stepped into a completely different environment than the one he had escaped just moments ago. The dunes had been reshaped and combed to perfect smoothness with virgin ripples of delicately groomed sand. The rover sat, buried up to its main tread rollers in the ocean of red.
As he brushed the sand from his hair and whacked the dust from his sleeves, Drinkwine saw that the winds had draped the steamship in a quilt of red, making its appearance among the dunes an even stranger oddity than it already was. Drinkwine stared with bewilderment at the retreating nuisance of wind and sand that lorded over this place.
Gathering up a handful of the red grains, studying them with careful deliberation, he could scarce believe that this soft stuff was the fuel that was coerced into those battering storms that tore and ripped and gouged at all that stood in their path. Drinkwine considered the planet’s steady repelling of man’s attempts to tame her.
After emptying his shoes of sand, Drinkwine climbed back into the rover and turned the main switch on, putting the vehicle into gear. Electric motor straining, the rover labored to turn its treads against the sand, digging through the immaculate smoothness, gradually extricating itself with relief as it climbed out of the shallow grave.
The rover churned out its monotonous drone of rattling tread as it skirted the desert landscape, headed back to the steeples of industry presently coming into view in the distance. Drinkwine’s nerves had been rattled by the display of the irascible temperament of Mars. One, the grand fuck up of the Myoko mirror; man-made. The other, merely one of the natural, vicious occurrences of Mars. They seemed to be competing for shows of brutality. It was all an example as to the undoing of one’s wits that this planet was known for. Drinkwine’s ability to compartmentalize his thoughts had been interfered with by a very real threat against his life. Survival. Man’s basic instinct. He had been sidetracked from the business at hand by the collective hostility of the planet. He gathered himself as the rover droned him back to Jannah. Oddly, after the peril doled out by the two ordeals, there was a kind of relief upon sight of the city.
Obscured through the quivering waves of heat rising off the surface of Mars, the distant steeples of Jannah came into view. They repeatedly appeared and disappeared in the wafting, unseen currents of air, the majestic towers of smooth metal—the color of gun barrels—glistening in the afternoon sun. With each passing day they rose a little more into the pale, thin sky.
After returning the rover to the depot and setting it to charge, Drinkwine had made for the Science Center, eager to get into clean clothes and rinse away the sand that was scratching his eyes and itching his scalp. As he made his way down the pattern of carpet in the 14th floor corridor, seeking solace in the privacy of his room, he saw someone sitting on the couch in the hall adjacent his room. It was a woman. She had long black hair. She straightened upon sight of him. As he got closer he realized it was Atefeh Naji. She had gone to some effort to make herself up, wearing a beautiful manteau, as if trying to make up for the workman-like impression she had left in their initial meeting and remind him she was a woman. Drinkwine wondered what was on her mind. As he approached, her eyes registered shock at the sight of him; beaten and thoroughly dusted with red sand.
“My word,” rising, “where have you been?”
“I went out to see the site where the body was discovered. I got caught in a sandstorm.”
“You were out there alone?” her words wearing surprise. “That’s dangerous. Even when you’re prepared and familiar with Mars.”
“Yes,” he responded, painful reminder to his foolishness. “I’ll take better precautions in the future.” He patted some of the red dust off his sleeve. “What might I do for you Miss Naji?”
“Detective,” she said, dispensing with niceties. “I remembered something that might be helpful.”
Despite suffering the day of abuse from the elements—wanting to get into a shower to rinse off the wrath of the desert—Drinkwine was eager for any information that might aid the investigation. “And what was that?” he asked, waiting for her to speak.
She cocked her head slightly, as if she were expecting a more cordial response. “I’d prefer to talk in a more private situation,” she said through lips she’d managed to enhance with some color—referring to the public nature of the hall.
“Well, shall we meet in the bar after I clean up?” running a hand over his mussed hair in less than subtle hint. “I’ve been out all day in the desert.”
She stared at him. “Detective, to be a woman, unescorted, at a bar—it wouldn’t be…,” she searched for the word, “… proper.”
She wanted to be in his room.
“Yes, yes of course.” Drinkwine ran his palm over the metallic I.D. plate and the dead bolt drew back. He pushed the door open, then courteously made a welcoming gesture.
She entered the room to see one of the walls was seeded with pictures and maps and diagrams, held up with push pins, outlining a threadbare investigation comprised of cartoonish renderings of the city and an X indicating where the body had been found. It was pathetically sparse.
“Please, sit down,” Drinkwine offered, assuming she would sit in the chair. He was surprised when she settled on the edge of the bed. As he emptied his pockets onto the desktop he accidentally spilled sand onto the floor. They exchanged looks. He shook his head. “It gets into everything.”
She shrugged her shoulders, having gotten used to the nuisance some time ago.
“So, what did you remember?”
“Well, one of the workers they sent to dig up the body, recognized the victim by his I.D. card.” She troubled to remember as best she could. “He said something to the effect of playing cards, gambling I suppose, and that, ‘his cheating must have caught up with him.’ Referring to Mr. Byrne.”
Drinkwine let the words sink in. “That could be helpful, thank you.”
A silence filled the space between them. She seemed eager for more of a response. “I don’t know if it’s relevant, but you’d said, ‘anything I may remember.’”
“It’s all helpful, especially in these early stages.” Drinkwine was eager to get out of his red-misted linen suit and wash the desert from his body. “Thank you.” He said it with the intent of her excusing herself.
“I was wondering, Detective,” her voice less self-assured, “if you would like to have dinner together?”
Drinkwine studied her. He wouldn’t have thought her hair was that long or thick given the workman-like way it had been pulled back when they first met. She’d done her best to present herself this go-round. “I have to clean up, then I need to go out to the mining operation to interview the victim’s supervisor.” He saw her disappointment. He tried to soften it. “Thank you, perhaps another time. Now, I need to get cleaned up.”
The room was being swallowed by the failing light that came with the end of the day. Her face, framed by silky strands of hair, was strangely attractive in the gathering darkness. He snapped on a lamp.
“Would you at least indulge me in a drink before you go?” She said it without any hint of a smile, then pretended it was for his own good. “I’m sure you could use it. The sun and the elements, they tend to take it out of you.”
He’d been six weeks in transit on the main ship, with scarce little interaction with others. Now, here was a woman to talk with. He acquiesced. “Yes, that would be fine. It’ll have to be brief,” he offered. “Shall I meet you up in the Sky Bar?”
“Detective, may I wait for you here? As I said, it’s unseemly for a woman to wait in a bar by herself.”
Drinkwine considered. “Certainly, but if you don’t mind, I do need to wash up before we go.”
“Thank you, Detective,” she said, the words wearing a kind of soft relief.
Drinkwine peeled the soiled linen jacket from his tired frame, spilling more sand onto the carpet and revealing the leather shoulder holster, his sidearm tucked into the worn sheath. As he swatted the glaze of sand from the linen suit her eyes went large at sight of the menacing weapon.
“I’ve never seen a handgun before,” she said absently, more enthralled than uneasy, “not in person.”
He unsnapped the straps and removed the holster, wrapping the harness loops around the weapon before setting the lethal bundle on top of the chest of drawers.
Intrigued, she asked tenuously, “May I hold it?”
“It’s loaded,” Drinkwine came back, “better not.”
The notion that the gun was loaded only roused her interest. She seemed to regard him with more respect. “Have you ever shot anyone?” she asked, her face carrying that disturbing curiosity people have about cops and handguns.
“I’m afraid you’re romanticizing what I do,” Drinkwine stated flatly. “I’ve only discharged my weapon at the firing range.” He unbuttoned the sleeves of his sweat-stained shirt as he retrieved a fresh one from the closet. “I just ask a lot of questions.”
She appeared unconvinced.
“If you’ll excuse me,” he said as he went into the bathroom, closing the door behind.
Once behind the closed door of the bathroom Drinkwine re-ran everything she’d said through his mind, understanding she had designs on the evening. He began to unbutton the string of buttons that ran down the front of his shirt. In the mirror he saw where red dust had patterned his shirt through the opening of his jacket. He shook his head in dismay at the thought of having to launder the suit after just one wearing. As he blinked away the scratch of sand in his eyes he spun the tap and felt the water as it slowly came up to heat, then plugged the sink and let it begin filling.
Using one of the fresh white towels soaked with hot water, Drinkwine did a preliminary wipe of his forehead, temples and cheeks, ridding his eyes of the stinging grains of sand. When he withdrew the towel he saw it was stained with a residue of red.
Atefeh sat on the bed, listening to the sound of splashing water on the other side of the bathroom door. She was looking at the holstered gun on the chest of drawers. She heard the shuffle of movement as Drinkwine removed his shirt. The tonal sounds of the water were changing as the basin filled. The sound washed out the quiet of the room. Entranced by the gun, she scooted to the edge of the bed and reached out to touch it.
She could hear Drinkwine splashing his face and washing his torso, the sound spilling into the room through the crack at the bottom of the door, accompanying the shadowed movement. Atefeh unsnapped the safety strap and carefully slid the weapon out of its holster. She felt the weight of it in her delicate, dark hands; studied the polished steel. Her fingers absently caressed the control panel, accidently snapping the weapon on… it illumed with readiness. The unintended activation startled her; she held a loaded gun in her hands.
As the sink sloshed behind the bathroom door, Atefeh lifted the gun to study it more closely, marveling at the smooth feel of the machined metal. A disturbing detachment came over her and she raised the gun to her lips, closing her eyes and taking the barrel in her small mouth. Running her tongue over the cool, smooth metal, her finger lightly flirted with the trigger mechanism. She trembled at the promise of easy death as a tear slipped from her closed eye and streaked her cheek.
The strange moment of disconnect was interrupted by the sound of the faucet being snapped off. Atefeh opened her eyes and withdrew the gun from her mouth. After returning from someplace else to exhale, she turned the weapon off, wiping the residue of saliva off the barrel before sliding it back into the leather holster. As she settled back onto the edge of the bed she wiped the tear away just as Drinkwine opened the bathroom door. Dressed in a fresh shirt, drying his face, he studied her for a moment, aware that something of the many oddities of human nature had just transpired. He tried to decipher her enigmatic expression, which gave up nothing of her little secret. Drinkwine let it go, but he knew, something profoundly odd had just taken place. Happenings according to its own weird, he thought to himself.
The Sky Bar was shrouded in the final twilight of the waning Martian day. The star field above had not fully revealed itself. Drinkwine and Atefeh were seated at one of the polished tables. She had an iced lemon flavored fizzy water in front of her. Drinkwine, dehydrated from his trek into the Martian outback, traded between taking gulps from a bottle of water and an ice-filled glass of Ginger Ale, longing for something hard to mix with it.
Atefeh seemed to be acutely aware of her surroundings, her movements, studying the way her hands fondled the glass of her drink, admiring the shape of things on the table. It was as if the earlier, momentary detour into flirting with death had stirred a profound appreciation for the simplest of things.
Drinkwine watched her, wondering, not knowing, where this odd beguilement in her character had come from.
“I saw something today,” Drinkwine broke her from her quiet introspection. “Something that, well, I shouldn’t say it doesn’t make sense, because obviously it makes sense to someone.”
“You’re learning,” she smiled, adding, “as I said, happenings according to its own weird,” the words holding more about herself, than the planet.
“About fifty kilometers due west of here,” he paused to thirstily down more water, “in the middle of nowhere, I came upon a paddlewheel steamboat, just sitting there in the sand.” Drinkwine spun the ice cubes in his glass. “It looks fully functional, with an engine room, everything.”
“It is,” she responded, running a finger thoughtfully around the edge of her glass. “A wealthy Chinese investor who was building several of the skyscrapers commissioned it.”
“What for?” Drinkwine, genuinely intrigued.
“Well, evidently he was enamored of the great American river boats of way back when.” She stared out at the gathering darkness. “He surmised that once Mars was colonized, there would be need for amusement, attractions. With the Great Lakes that would be formed from the melting of the polar ice caps, he decided to build the paddlewheel steamship so that people could go for nostalgic lake excursions.” Atefeh’s voice softened. She ran her finger through the condensation sweating her glass. Then, with tender sentiment, “He had a wife.”
Drinkwine studied her. In the darkness she traded between appearing homely and strangely pretty.
“He loved her a great deal,” her words revealing envy. “When it was finished, he named the boat after her. Isn’t that sweet, Detective?” She was still looking off, somewhat dreamily. “He named the boat after her.” Atefeh raised her drink but stopped with it halfway to her mouth, thinking. “But, the waters were slow in coming. So the boat sat. A decade passed, and the water still hadn’t come. Then his wife became ill. She was sick for about a year. Then she died. She died before the waters arrived to lift the boat.” Atefeh sifted through the continuity of events in her mind. “After that, after she died, they say he lost all interest in his business concerns and eventually they all failed. He was evicted from the penthouse in the very skyscraper he had built. With nowhere else to go, he took up living on the ship. The story goes that he died there, in one of the cabins, penniless, having not spoken to another person in more than a year.” Atefeh was longingly adrift in the romantic notion, despite the heart-wrenching aspect of it. “He died of a broken heart, Detective.”
“And the water still hasn’t come,” Drinkwine responded cynically, as he downed the last of his Ginger Ale, crunching the ice in his teeth.
“Do you find that at all sad, Detective?” she asked, hoping for some sentimentality to justify her own.
After a moment Drinkwine answered her with another question. “How far behind schedule are the lakes?”
She shrugged. “That depends on whose projections you wish to consider. There’s been twenty years of litigation over the delays. Thankfully, my work is just to measure the water when it comes, not make predictions of when.”
Drinkwine looked at her sitting there, her face shrouded in a growing melancholy against the dimming away of daylight beyond the glass ceiling. “We all have our jobs to do,” he said, rising from the couch. “Thank you.”
She seemed startled at the suggestion of good night. “Do you need to go?” she spoke before thinking.
“I’d love to stay and talk, but I’ve work to do, Miss Naji,” Drinkwine said dryly.
“Please,” she came back, “Atefeh.”
He hesitated for a moment before saying, “Atefeh.” He saw the faint shine of pride in her face.
“What’s next? For the investigation?” She inquired.
Drinkwine signed the tab. “I need to go out to the mining operation to speak with the victim’s supervisor.”
Her eyes grew wide, “You’re going out to ‘The Hole,’ at this hour?”
“It’s the shift Byrne was working,” Drinkwine answered, matter-of-fact.
“Be careful, Detective.”
From her tone Drinkwine could only surmise what might be waiting for him out there, on the edge of the night. He nodded goodnight and turned for the door. She ran her finger around the edge of her glass as she watched him go, thoughts flushing her mind.