Centura City, Earth Colony Four, Sempra.
I relax back in my swivel chair looking out the window; it is pouring down, the rain rattling the windowpane; a miserable torrential downpour that hadn’t relented for days, even the air in the office is damp and cold, the heating giving up the ghost a few days back. Looking up passed the rooftop of the drab brown building opposite that houses the Centura loan centre, even more ominous depressing black clouds roll across the heavens.
It is late Friday afternoon and I am still at my desk with a pile of case records to file; paperwork was never my forte, and my secretary, Della, had she still been with me would have finished them days ago and neatly filed away. Unfortunately for me circumstances dictated that she sought other employment; not that I could fault her, after all business being what it is I hadn’t deposited any credits into her account for several months. Della and I parted on a friendly basis, but that had left me stuck with a gaping hole in the business that I couldn’t afford to fill.
Swinging my seat round from the window, I reached up to the percolator to pour another coffee.
Unwilling to fill the percolator I slipped a tabac between my lips, and placed my feet up on the corner of my desk. Flicking my lighter I light the tabac and exhaled a thick cloud of blue tinged smoke. Tobacco had been abolished for social reasons way back when, as the miracle cure for all known types of cancer had been discovered on some far off planet numerous years ago. The tabac had become a reasonable substitute, and one that had no health side affects.
The office is a mess; the filing cabinet is in urgent need of repair, layers of dust have settled on the top. The couch in the corner has rips in the material, and lately has been more of a bed for me than seating for clients. My computer sits in the other corner and is about the most modern thing in the office, and even that is years old. A fine pale blue web clings from the top of the windowsill to the nearby corner; the grey Trago bug, a species similar to the earthly spider, and just as damn ugly, it sits in the webs centre chewing on a Clayfly.
God I wish I’d never heard of the damn Syndicate.
The blue cloud begins to dissipate; I looked through the smoke to see the glass-paned door with the words DIAMOND INVESTIGATIONS in reverse, through which I could just make out the outline of someone of large stature approaching. As the door handle turns, I drop my feet back to the floor.
“Hello Diamond,” came a gruff greeting.
My heart sinks; standing in the doorframe, and much to my annoyance is the bulk of Opas Holburn, a man whose reputation within the corporate sector is shady to say the least. Holburn, known to most as the Caretaker, oversees all the underhanded dealings of the Manso Syndicate, a corporate body that rules virtually everything on Sempra.
Holburn makes sure there is no official involvement by the authorities when anything goes wrong with Syndicate plans. It is believed he has several high placed officials in his pocket. He’s a guy with little compassion for those who dare to cross his bosses, a guy who can frost glass with one icy stare; but more importantly, though unfortunately, one of my paying clients.
I’d done business with the Syndicate on a couple of occasions, they pay well for results, but often those results cost more than is bargained for, and I’d sworn never again. I ground the stub of the tabac into the ashtray.
“What ya want Holburn?” I didn’t really want to know the answer.
Holburn’s large frame crosses to my desk in three large strides, and fully blocks my view of the door.
“I have a small task for you,” he grates through yellowing teeth.
“Sorry, not interested!” I reply as I swing back round to face the percolator.
Holburn’s deep grating voice breathed on my neck as he leant over the desk and almost whispered.
“I don’t see anyone else offering gainful employment. You’d better pull yourself together Diamond or you may end up in a most uncomfortable position!”
Turning back to face him, Holburn straightens and gives me one of his cold icy stares. Of course he is right, since working for the Manso Syndicate all other prospective clients steered clear; it’s like I’d been marked in some unseen way, like I’d contracted a deadly plague; either that or I stink to high heaven.
The results of this means my credits have virtually dried up and my sky-surfer has been repossessed, which meant I was force to use Sempra’ public transportation system. So far, I’d lost two wallets, a blaster, three surveillance modules, and to top it all, some stinking low-life had snatched my licence shield.
If I ever get hold of… I reminisced; something quickly dragged me back to reality, Holburn’s loud gob.
“This is Apri; she’ll be working closely with you on this venture.”
Holburn shifts to one side revealing the doorway behind him; standing in the doorframe is a dame; a woman dressed in an extremely snug fitting one-piece cream suit that hugs and defines a slender curvy figure; a figure could easily melt the hardened resolve of the most unscrupulous criminal.
“Put your tongue away Diamond, she’s not for you!” Holburn grunted.
I blink, realising I’d been staring at Apri with my jaws agape. Her sapphire locks cascaded down her amply exposed cleavage and frames a face of rare beauty with aquamarine eyes and full crimson lips. She sauntered into the office with a walk that could melt butter.
“How do you do Mister Diamond?” she asks with a sultry tone while reaching out with her delicate hand.
Eagerly I jump to my feet and gently grip her hand, and instantly withdraw it realising Apri is not what she appears to be; a knowing grin spreads across Holburn’s normally bland face.
“My compliments on your astute powers of recognition.”
Up yours, is my first thought, but I answer.
“No way Holburn, I’m not having any Syndicate android in tow and that’s final!”
“You’ll do as required without question; otherwise you know what can happen! Apri will accompany you to ensure our needs are always in the forefront of your thoughts, and they are fully fulfilled. She is a PS thirty-nine, an extremely advanced model, in fact she’s one of a kind; we even had a bet you wouldn’t make the recognition, so it’s cost me already!”
Sitting, I light another tabac and exhale a cloud of smoke directly at Holburn’ face. Do I have a choice? Letting the cloud dissipate, Holburn waits to make sure he has my full attention.
“Now, to the business at hand; we require you to go to Japora in the Cumari System; once there you will seek out and track these individuals.”
Holburn slaps a holo-imager onto the desk; it flickers to life in a multitude of shimmering strands of colour to form two images, one a grey scaled reptilian, the other a guy of middle aged and human origin. I cast my eyes over the images and ask matter-of-factly.
“Who are they?”
“The reptilian is a petty crim known as Razal Fizz, his cohort goes by the name of Hackar; we know very little of his past” Holburn let out a throaty cough and continues, “They have made the unfortunate mistake of pilfering something that belongs to us, we want it back; your job is to recover it for us and whatever happens to Fizz and Hackar is of no consequence, kill them if you wish!”
“They are extremely competent at avoiding the regular authorities Mister Diamond.” Apri’s soft voice interjects.
Avoiding eye contact with Apri I reach out and shutdown the imager.
“What’d they get away with?”
Apri looks to Holburn, Holburn glances back at her and slides his hand into his inside left breast pocket; he pulls out and tosses a large wad of credits onto the desktop.
“That’s for expenses; you’ll be paid your usual fee plus a generous bonus should you return the item to me within two weeks,” grumbles Holburn.
“And what’s the item?” I inquire as I scoop up the credits; I am really in no position financially to refuse.
“Find Fizz and Hackar, once you have acquired the item Apri will deliver it to me. Good day Diamond,” states Holburn as he turns and exits.
Apri remains; she stands there patiently and silently. I eye her up and down, not sure what to do; finally I stammer quite unprofessionally to my discredit.
“So, so what’s this item Holburn spoke of?”
“I do not know. However, once I am within the proximity of the item a recognition program will activate allowing authentication and exact location.”
“So how the hell am I supposed to know what to look for?”
“Mister Holburn does have unusual faith in your professional ability.”
My arse, I thought, but said.
“Okay, so as I see it, when you are near this item you’ll know what it is and where it is, right?”
“Is that not what I articulated?”
I smiled and turned my attention back to the percolator.
Week old cold coffee is better than none!
Standard passenger transport en-route to Japora.
Our allotted cabins are reasonably comfortable; Apri spending most of the uneventful journey so far secluded in her cabin stating she requires downtime. Most of my time aboard has been spent in communication with a couple of long-term nefarious characters that base their own illegal operation on Japora, I’d used them before on several occasions to track a target down; thus far, my labours had been fruitful.
Razal Fizz, as Holburn had said, is a small time hood of no real criminal background; Hacker on the other hand is a different matter. Hacker holds a reputation of being a heavy and is currently wanted on a few planets for assassination and corporate espionage; seems like Hacker knows what he’s doing. Luckily for Hacker, Japora has no extradition treaty with the worlds he is wanted on, so makes an ideal base for his operation.
As I take a slow walk back to my cabin all that keeps filling my mind is, what the hell did they steal that’s so damn important to Holburn? And why does he need it returned within two weeks?
I knock on Apri’s door and am answered by silence so continued on to my cabin; once inside I slump onto the bed, close my eyes and drift off.
“ATTENTION, docking at Japora space-dock two in fourteen minutes,” the ships intercom blasts out waking me abruptly from my slumber.
I grab my blaster from the bedside table and check it is fully charged before slipping into its holster and quickly strapping it neatly under my left arm; grabbing my jacket I head for Apri’s cabin.
Tapping on the door, I hear Apri answer.
When I walk in she is standing at the portside observation viewer with her back to me looking out at the quickly approaching space-dock with the green globe of Japora filling the backdrop.
“You ready?” I politely inquire.
“I am always ready Mister Diamond,” came her reply as she turns to face me.
“Er… look, as long as we have to work together on this you may as well drop the mister and just call me Diamond, ok?”
“If that is what you wish,”
I nod in agreement.
We pass through space-dock customs without bother and transfer to the space pod that will ferry us down to Japora’s immigration centre where if all went well, and I was sure it would, we would be released into the public domain.
How wrong could I be?
Japora security were waiting for one of the passengers, apparently this guy had done the dirty on the resident high-ministers daughter and was being returned to face a blood-klan trial; unfortunately this guy wasn’t of a mind to wait and had the help of an accomplice to make a dash for freedom. The escape failed however, but the accomplice managed to evade capture. The officials closed down immigration until such time he was captured; resulting in everyone being interviewed and having their identity records checked. Three hours later Apri and I step out into Japora’s night and look out over the expanse of Devil City.
Devil City, Japora.
What a shit hole, is my first thought; I now remember how much I dislike the place.
Devil City; I’d forgotten what a dive it is; it hadn’t quite managed to drag itself into the thirty-seventh century, many of its buildings are crudely constructed of wood and sandstone blocks. Its road structure is not much more than pressed mud tracks; it’s like the place is caught in an earthly time warp dating back to Earths early twentieth century. Yet the natives of Japora have been given every opportunity and aid to grasp the latest fashion and technology, but somewhere along the line it had been greatly misplaced.
Devil City; aptly named for you wouldn’t find a more corrupt den of deviants in this system. Over the years, and probably a large lack of interest by those in power, it has become a haven for those who operate beyond civilised boundaries and the law; oh it has an enforcement regime, a regime that would act when it felt the need too, but usually turns a blind eye as long as those who run the regime receive their usual backhanded remuneration.
Apri gently nudges my arm bringing my mind wondering to an abrupt end; reality slaps me full in the face when the ugliest taxi driver I’ve ever seen brings his taxi, a shell encased carriage drawn by a large green six legged mammal called a Boubor, to a skidding halt in front of us. The ugly driver leans forward, eyes Apri’s exposed bosom with lustful eyes and grumbles.
“Hmm, where too?”
I quickly toss our gear atop the shell as Apri climbs aboard then slid in beside her; the driver rips his eyes from her bosom and grips the reigns.
“Take us to the cheapest hostelry you know.” I ordered.
The Boubor rears its long neck and screeches as the driver slaps his whip on its shoulders.
“Move it ya damn snail or I’ll slice ya friggin tongue out for me supper!”
The Boubor snarls at him, the carriage lurches as it set off.
The ride didn’t take too long and I for one was grateful, Apri and I were tossed and jostled as the carriage slid along the potholed track; all the time the driver cussed loudly at the Boubor and used his whip without compassion.
Arriving at our destination, Apri took care of acquiring us shelter by using her corporate identity card while I argue with the driver over his extortionate fee.
“The fee’s friggin forty credits and that’s final! Pay up or I’ll have the friggin snail rip ya head off!” he threatens.
“You’ll get twenty and be thankful, or I might have your licence revoked for over charging!” I parry.
“Tell ya what, deal me a piece of that sexy tart and ya have a deal; I sure bet she’d give a guy a damn good time!” he winks and drools.
The drooling grin almost makes me puke; the thought of any woman wanting or even willing to touch this pig turns my stomach. I chuck twenty credits in his face and finger my blaster into view.
“Get out’a here or I’ll shove ya so far up the Boubor’s arse you’ll need him to shit you back out!”
The driver eyes my blaster, spits on the ground by my feet, whips the Boubor and drives off shouting obscenities my way as I turn and enter the hostelry.
Stowing the gear in our dowdy but liveable apartment, and mentally admonishing myself for not realising Apri held a corporate card.
Why the hell didn’t I just get her to book us into somewhere more upmarket? The corporation could easily afford an expense account.
We decided it was time to get a bite to eat, well I’d get a bite, Apri doesn’t need any sustenance, and besides it is too late in the night to traipse after Fizz and Hackar. It’d be far better making a fresh start in daylight after I’d eaten and slept. To my surprise Apri didn’t question the decision, which I was glad of because there’s nothing more annoying than having to argue the toss with a damn stubborn sinthoid.
Dawn broke and Apri was jostling me to get up; quickly I got dressed, downed a cold coffee and we set out heading for a dive I used to frequent in my misspent youth. The sun is high and beaming as we entered the cities market area, which is already in full flow; sellers constantly jostled for our attention offering discounts for an array of wares.
Here in the marketplace one can purchase almost anything one desires, from star-ship spares, and subspace engines to exotic food and clothing, illegal weaponry, rent girls, boys or tri-sexuals whatever your preference. I never did understand the tri-sexual thing, each to their own though, I guess; the universe is filled with a diversity I will never fully comprehend. Anything you wanted could be located with a little time and effort and the right connections; we continued onward to where we wanted to be.
Fazool’s Canteen, Devil City.
Finally we reached the dive of my youthful exploits, Fazool’s Canteen; a den of dubious character frequented by a variety of Japora’s lowlife and most of the galaxies scum who’re on the run for one reason or another.
I’ve known the canteens proprietor, Tam Fazool, for quite a few years and have on occasion crossed paths with him, occasions that usually resulted in using brute force to gain the information I required, this occasion would be no different no doubt.
Fazool is a born coward, but a coward that knows everything and everyone on Japora; he can be bought if the price is right, but often the price is way too extravagant; besides, causing Fazool pain is way cheaper on the pocket and usually has a quick affect.
On entering, I quickly usher Apri into one of the secluded side alcoves, telling her to wait there, so she wouldn’t attract unwanted attention from the various pimps that hang round looking for fresh talent. Sure that Apri is safe I enter the back room where Fazool normally hangs out and goes about his underhanded dealings.
Immediately, those there are on their guard; looks of caution and suspicion are cast in my direction; the stench of stale alcohol hangs in the air with a faint but obvious odour of narcotics mixed in.
I stand in the doorway surveying the dimly lit area, taking all in; two pirates known to me sit unobtrusively in a shadowed alcove to my right; one nods slightly in recognition. Gace Ravern, a renowned bounty hunter of nefarious repute sits at the bar, he watches me as I move further in and fingers his strapped down pulse pistol.
Further along the bar and flanked by two rather fetching rent girls is Tam Fazool; the bartender leans close to Fazool’s drooping ear and whispers while looking in my direction. Before Fazool can react and turn I am on him.
“Diamond,” he greets calmly as he places his steaming drink on the counter.
“Lose the meat Fazool, we need to talk.”
He waves the girls away; each throws him a glance of disappointment; one cheekily gives me the eye as she passes. Out the corner of my eye I clock Ravern unclipping his weapon, bearing this in mind I turn my attention back to Fazool.
“Fizz and Hackar, where can I find them?”
Fazool grins showing his sharp jagged teeth, his breath rushes at me causing my nostrils to flare at the stench.
“Sorry Diamond, I’ve never heard of them.”
The sudden eruption of laser fire echoes in the air, swinging round, more by reaction than thought I draw my blaster; at the far end of the bar in a crumpled heap is Gace Ravern, smoking pulse pistol in his hand. His head lops forward, his neck snapped.
Next to Ravern’s corpse is a pair of short beige boots, my gaze follows up the legs to find Apri, a laser in her hand covering the two pirates who are now on their feet.
“He was about to terminate you,” she announces calmly, “I had no choice.”
I look up at the smouldering hole Ravern’s near miss has left in the balustrade just above my head.
“You’d better make tracks before the Feds arrive!” Fazool suggests, hoping I will take his advice.
In one swift movement my blaster is safely back in its holster and Fazool’s thin bony fingers are gripped firmly in my hand. I crush and twist them sharply knowing they are Fazool’ weak point, there is a sickening crack and Fazool lets out a loud howl.
“Fizz and Hackar?” I reiterate.
“Please Diamond, you’re really hurting!”
Fazool’s normally bleached white fingers turn deep blue, his hand is almost fully turned; his face contorts in agony.
“Where?” I ask again and glance at Apri who still covers the pirates who have now retaken their seats.
“Please Diamond, I, I can’t tell you!”
Fazool’s hand makes a brittle crunching noise as it is forced further back.
“Aggrrr, okay, okay, they’re off world!” he cries.
“Off world, off world where? Come on Fazool spill!”
His bulbous eyes almost push out of their sockets; his fat rubbery lips quiver. The bartender leans down and reaches under the bar but straightens rapidly when he sees my blaster pointed directly at his head. I put more pressure on Fazool’s hand; he screams and whimpers.
“Septima four, Empoc, sector seven!” he finally squeals.
“Septima? Empoc? Why?”
“I, I don’t know, honest Diamond.”
Yeah, I’m sure you wouldn’t lie; you’re so damn honest.
Fazool’s fingers turn purple, his face burns red, and his breathing becomes erratic.
“A board member, they’re meeting with a board member that’s all I know. I swear it!”
Releasing my grip Fazool draws his injured digits into his body for protection and sobs.
Something’s wrong, nags my mind, something doesn’t feel right! My mind races now. Septima is the centre of the Manso Syndicate, Empoc their antiquities research facility! Why would they go there? Who are they meeting?
“It is time we were not here,” Apri states, bringing me out of my thoughts.
She keeps the pirates covered as she backs towards the exit; I quickly follow and call back.
“See ya Fazool. By the way, ice is good for that hand!”