I stepped off the landing platform, steam swirling around my legs as I walked toward the terminal. I needed to get some information, and fast. The scum I tracked to this remote asteroid colony knew his backwater hellholes, that was certain. Perseid Beta was a small colony in the hollowed out moon of the only planet in the Perseid system, Perseid Prime, a former “dark” colony. Dark colonies were any colonies or outposts established before the invention of FTL communication, back when FTL travel was for brave pioneers and foolhardy miners in search of their fortune. Perseid Beta was built by the mining company Weisenkard Corporation years ago, then abandoned when the valuable element helium-3 ran out. Helium-3 is used as fuel in nuclear reactions, and its discovery on Luna led to a new space race and real interstellar travel.
I laughed nervously as I hurried through the throngs of people that pushed around the terminal. Crowds. They had never been my favorite, and now I wanted nothing more than to be away from this shithole. The draw of the place was different for everybody, but the desperation in their voices, and in their eyes, was the same. Everyone came here because they had nowhere else to go. All except me. I came looking for a killer. Anywhere else in the developed galaxy it would be as easy as searching the numerous databases and surveillance tech. Here it would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Even such an exceptional class of criminal was common here. This is where scum congregated; the worst that the galaxy had to offer came to this place, full of violence and greed. I came here in search of the worst in humanity, and found a whole colony of it. Great. This is just what this investigation needs: more needles, and more haystacks. I lit my cigarette, the paper burning a bright orange against the pale glow of the arrival terminal. Ok, so it shouldn’t be too hard, right? No way he could run too far, I thought, and he only had a few hours head start. If I were a lowlife piece of scum, where would I hide?
I made my way to the only person I knew on this rock – Joe. Joe ran a pawn shop on the main level of the colony, right between an arms dealer and an old adult entertainment shop. It wasn’t the prettiest of places, but he knew everything that happened on this dusty rock, and I needed help. I made my way to the main level, pushing past people either as scared or as pissed off as I was. Being a cop in this place must have been like a hiker trapped between two pissed off grizzlies. My presence made them all wary, and any of these people might kill me just for looking at them funny. Not the way I want to go. I pushed my way to the shop, but stopped to see the show outside. There were about 10 people, mostly just gawking. Pathetic. I’d seen that look quite a bit since I got here; like rats staring at the last scraps off the table. I shook my head, and shouldered through the rats toward the object of their envy: a woman. She stood out, everything from her clothes to her looks screamed rich girl on an adventure. One of those people who thinks that visiting the hellish corners of the universe might be fun if daddy lets them go. She was gorgeous, and she knew it. Golden waves fell around her shoulders and framed her picturesque face, one crafted by only the best artists and plastic surgeons the core worlds had to offer. She had the look of a woman who never worked a day in her life; athletic, graceful, and clueless. I walked up and pushed her into the building, locking the door behind me. She looked stunned and confused, but mostly gracious. She knew she’d gotten into trouble. I smiled, shook my head, and turned to walk toward the counter.
“Hey! Joe!” I yelled to the noises in the back of the store. “Its Ryan; I’m here to collect on that debt you owe me.” With that, the door behind the counter swung open, and a grumpy old man walked out. I always called him that, even though he’s barely pushing 40. He looked older than he was, a result of too many battles and too few moments in between. I fought with him a long time ago during the Centauri civil war. We saw too much together, survived too much, to let each other live it down. He had a dark complexion and a weather-worn face, with a nasty scar partially covering his right cheek. He knew his way around a gym, but never quite kept his fighting shape after the war ended. Neither of us did. I reached out my hand, and he took it, shaking it hard and fast. I laughed dryly, and brought the woman up next to me. “Joe, this young lady was just about killed outside, figured you could help.”
Joe eyed her, eyed me. Then he let his head hang for a minute. “Dammit, Ryan. Could you just, for once, come to me without needing something? Just say hello, maybe?” He reached out his hand, took hers, and looked into her eyes. Unnerving as it was, Joe always had a way of peering into people. He could tell what kind of man (or woman, in this case) you were, just by seeing your eyes. They say eyes are the window to the soul. I don’t know about the soul part, but I’ve seen too many people’s fear and hatred in them, and it always ended the same when I saw it. Hell, I saw it in my own eyes every time I looked in the mirror. Exhaustion, desperation, and ebbing determination. That’s all I had left, all I had to work with. After almost 10 years hunting down criminals on the worst backwaters in the settled galaxy, I’d simply lost myself, my fire. I wanted to retire, but no. I had one month left on my contract, one last major case to solve before I could feel the sweet embrace of retirement. Geez. What would a guy like me do with free time?
I realized that I didn’t know her name, or what she was doing here. Only that she was a damsel in distress. I used to be sucker for em, but lately there had been too many damsels and too much distress to try to save them all. I realized that the universe is cold, and the only way to survive is to be colder. It doesn’t take sides in war, or step in to solve a broken marriage. It just watches us fly around in a vacuum in tin cans, trying to eek out a life wherever we can. I turned her towards me, and introduced myself. “Hi. I’m Ryan Darrow, and this lady-killer extraordinaire and the purveyor of this fine establishment is Joe Collins. He may not look much, but trust me, he’s worse.”
Joe just laughed, and extended a glass of bourbon. He always liked the cheap stuff. Probably not good enough for this princess of the stars. “Yeah, that’s me. But I’m not as bad as he says. Not when I’m sober. And that’s almost never. And you are?”
“Amy. Amy Devereux. I’m sorry, I just got here, and I’ve already been harassed twice. I’m not much for pleasantries at the moment. I’m still deciding if you two are here to kill me, or worse.” She took a sip of the bourbon, and recoiled in disgust. “Wow. What is this? It tastes like it was made from space dust and kerlack crap.”
Devereux. I knew that name like I knew my own parents’ names. A famous politician back on Earth. Joe pretended to look hurt, but he was all smiles. The man couldn’t lie to save his life. “Well, gee, sorry ma’am. Just what I can get here on this station. They use an old hydraulic assembly for a still, I think. Tastes like it too. Don’t worry, it’s not for flavor. And calm down, you’re among friends. This guy’s one of the last of the Marshals.” She looked over at me, surprised. I nodded and tried to force a smirk, but I just was not feeling it. It’s just wasn’t one of those days.
“Hmmm. Well, you could have led with that, don’t you think? You sure know how to make a girl feel comfortable.”
I just laughed. “Yeah, that’s what my ex wife told me. I guess I’ve got a knack for inappropriate timing. I guess I just didn’t feel like telling a total stranger on the most criminal-infested rock in the galaxy that I’m cop. So, what’s a Council princess doing here? Slumming it? Spending some of that trust fund money on some less-than-legal goods?”
She turned her nose up at me, then snorted. God, why do I always get the obnoxious ones? In reply, she pulled out her ID. Reporter for the biggest news outlet in the galaxy. Not bad. “I’m here on a story, actually. I tracked a serial killer here, and I’m here to make sure to get an interview. Though I guess you’re going to make that difficult, aren’t you? I can’t interview him with two bullet holes in his chest.” You’d think we’d have been rid of old-fashioned guns long ago, right? The truth is, we haven’t found a suitable replacement, not yet. You need something dead, guns are your ticket. Have been for over 200 hundred years in space, and a few hundred before that. Why fix it if it isn’t broke?
I looked at her for a second, trying to rectify my initial assessment with her career. Nothing clicked. “Well, I’ll try not to kill him. You know, it’s not like he’s killed people or anything...” I replied. “Listen, you want your story, I’ll give it to you when he’s dead or in prison. But I’m not going to let you get killed, or anyone else, for a stupid story.”
“Well, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. You can help me find him, and maybe I help you, or you can leave me to find him myself. God only knows what he might do if I find him first, though...” She let her words trail off, and looked at me with those big eyes and a pout on her lips. God, I am a sucker for a pretty face.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll help. You give me what you’ve got, and we’ll go from there. I’m not promising that you’ll get what you want, though.”
She flashed me a mischievous grin, and said in the most sultry voice she could muster, “I always get what I want, Ryan. You should know that about me.” She had it all, and she knew how to use it. I got the feeling that she wasn’t lying.
“Ok, Joe, what can you tell me about this guy, and where he might be?”
“I’ve got a little info, but this place isn’t exactly an open book, ya know? It’s going to cost you. And it turns out I need a little help.”
I rubbed my forehead, and pulled another cigarette out of my pocket. Joe grabbed his lighter and offered it. I took it, lit my cigarette, and closed my eyes. I was sick of favors. Sick of doing things for other people just for a little information. All I wanted was for someone to give me what I needed, when I needed it. But no, that’s not my luck. I have to fight for everything, and even then I don’t always get what I need. “What is it Joe? Another gangster out for your head?”
“No, nothing like that. Just need you to pick up a package and bring it here. I’d go, but I’m pretty sure that they’re expecting me.”
“Hah. So it’s not yours, is it? Always like you. ‘Requisitioning,’ isn’t that what you call it? You really should hire a full time errand boy for these things.”
“Well, I would, but I’m not exactly loaded with cash at the moment. I just need you to stop a guy at the arrivals terminal. He should be wearing a courier uniform and escorted by a single bodyguard. They’ll be looking for me, not you. His flight should be landing in half an hour.”
“Great. I’ll be there. Since I couldn’t exactly bring a weapon with me to the gate, I’ll need to borrow something. Preferably light and compact.” I needed to get in and get out without starting an incident. The guards at the terminal would be a problem if I started a firefight in the middle of their spaceport. They carried weapons, high caliber auto rifles, so if I didn’t get in and out quick, I was as good as gone.
It was actually Amy who spoke up first. “I’ve got what you’re looking for, Ryan. I can let you borrow it, but you’ve got to let me go with you. I’d like to see what you can do before I go tracking a serial killer with you. Not that I don’t trust you.” She reached into her sizable bag and pulled out a pistol. It looked like a kid’s toy, but just looking at it I knew it could pack a punch. It would work. I extended my hand, and she gave it to me, then stood there and smiled. I felt the cool metal of the gun, admired the etching on the barrel, and inspected the chambers. A shiny little .38 auto-pistol. Many styles of small arms have been attempted since the invention of the compact solid-state laser and rail guns, but no energy weapon has the punch and the reliability of the old fashioned combustion guns. Rail guns in pistol form were too unreliable and laser pistols were showy but had a tendency to fail when the core components overheated, an issue with compact weaponry. That’s not to say that the gun hadn’t been improved; bullets no longer used casings with powder charges to propel them, instead each round was made of a bullet propelled by a small packet of fuel lit with an ignition spark, a simple design that had yet to produce a single jam or backfire since its institution as the standard. And since the packet and round were both wrapped in a flash-melting plastic, there was nothing to clean up and no chance of casings being stuck in the action. This also allowed for rapid fire in any size, which came in handy on occasion. I smiled, and put it in a pocket inside my worn, old coat. Worn and outdated, just like me. It had seen me through a lot, and I wasn’t about to get rid of it. Plus the ballistic lining was useful at stopping anything smaller than a 50 caliber round. Getting shot still hurt like a son of a bitch, though.
“Alright, Joe. I’ll get your package. But you’d better have the information I need. I’m not trudging around this damn moon for nothing.” I walked toward the front of the store, hoping the crowd that had gathered earlier was gone. No such luck. I shook my head, and walked back to the back of the store, and the ladder that led up a hidden tunnel to the next level of the station. It would take a little longer to get to the port, but I needed anonymity right now, especially with the woman following me. She attracted attention like moths to a flame and I didn’t need the headache. Joe had given her an old coat he got from his ex-girlfriend, a battered piece made of wool to withstand the cold at the fringes of the station. She pulled it close to conceal her expensive blouse and jewelry, as if her face and hair didn’t make her a target all by themselves. We got to the next level, and made our way to one of the many elevators that dot each level. It was a huge place, and confusing to the casual observer. But if you were like me, and knew how people ticked, it was simple. Like any building, knowing the architect’s mind told me everything I needed to know, and the man who had built this place was an open book. He was a sad, brow-beaten individual, whose creativity had died out long ago in favor of practical design and a need for money. Predictable human behavior. I shook my head in disgust, and punched the button for the main level as Amy followed me into the elevator.
“So, Ryan. What’s the plan?” She inquired. She looked at me quizzically, like a scientist watching his lab rats scurry through a maze. I was in no mood for a psych workup from a pampered reporter from the Homeworld. Earth had abandoned me, and I wasn’t about to let it back into my good graces. Damn Earthlings. Acted like they ran the place, no matter where they were.
“No plan, not really. Can’t tell until I get there. Too many questions. How big is he? How big is the bodyguard? Are they armed? How big is the package I’m grabbing? I’ll make it up as I go along.” Always did, didn’t I? I was never a planner, never one to try to solve every problem before I started. I ran on reflex and luck, when it was on my side. Or so my former partner told me. That guy was a pain in my butt. I could never shake the feeling that he knew me too well, and it made him a little paranoid. I don’t know why, but he always acted like I was as much an antagonist to him as the criminals we chased. Wasn’t until he died in front of me, and bled out in my arms, that I new why. He wasn’t suspicious, he just understood what I was: a magnet for pain and death. I had a knack for trouble, for finding the door where every bad buy with a gun was waiting, for walking into traps. It was only my quick thinking and reflexes that had saved me. Who knows how. Many people died in less dangerous situations. Hell, my partner died in one. Dumb luck, some had called it. Is it lucky to survive when everyone around you dies? Is it luck to see those you care about, those you called “friend” gunned down? No. That’s fate; as cruel, as twisted as it may be, it is never fair. I learned that a while ago.
The elevator ride was quiet, at least on the outside. I knew differently. The quietest moments are usually the ones that you have to fear the most. As I stepped out of the elevator near the port entrance, Amy grabbed my arm. I turned and saw a ghostly face where the beautiful girl had stood. It was fear, pure and unwavering. She saw something, but when I looked all I saw was the usual crowd; the fresh faces full of waning hope and growing desperation, the old faces filled with bitterness and hate. No one who came here really wanted to be here; not unless they were serious masochists. I laughed as I realized that I wanted to be here. I guess “want” is the right word. A masochist? Me? Never. I asked her what she saw, but she simply shook her head, and color returned to her face. “Just an old face. A face I haven’t seen in a long time. A face I’d like to forget. That couldn’t have been him though...”
“Well, there are plenty of people here who want to be forgotten. Just ignore it. If it was him, be happy that he’s here, in the festering tumor of the galaxy, and not somewhere you see every day. If you’re lucky, you’ll never see him again. Assuming we make it off this rock...”
“We, Mr. Darrow? You plan on hitching a ride? I’m not one for passengers, you know.” Her fear turned into a soft smile, her whole face warming as it did. Whatever she had seen, her wish was granted. She’d forgotten already. Lucky girl.
“Well, you’re not going to let me fly off with your story, are you? And I’m not going to leave without him. So you’ll have to sit in a prisoner transport for a while if you want to get your big scoop. Hope you like long rides with sweaty men who’d kill or rape you the second they get the chance.” I smirked, showing my already obvious disdain for “journalists.” As if the word meant anything any more. It had always been a bit of a misnomer, with biases and money guiding the stories people told. But it was always there, to keep the government and the people in power in check and to provide the people with a voice. But eventually the news had become a complete farce, a pretty way of telling people just what the governments, or the mega corporations wanted them to hear. Truth became a fancy word, a tool to twist people’s perceptions. Not a fact. Sickening.
“I’m here with you, aren’t I?” She flashed another mischievous grin. “So, where did Joe say this guy was coming from?”
“He didn’t. Just said to look for a guy in a courier uniform with a bodyguard. They shouldn’t be too hard to pick out.” Personal security served two purposes: to deter and to stop criminals. In order to deter criminals, many bodyguards were big guys; imposing, gruff men who looked like they could stop a mag-lev train with their arms. One look at a guy like that, and a mugger or amateur hitman would think twice. The other kind is the quiet, observant type. Security that blended into the background, but could quickly step up and solve a problem if it needed his expertise. They were more useful if your assassin was a real professional, someone who knew what they were doing.
Not five minutes had gone by when I got my answer. It was a small man with a pointed nose and eyes close set. His lack of a defined jaw and thin, long mustache made him look like a rodent. “Pack rat, 1 o’clock,” I said with a little sarcasm. No obvious security around. Great. Not what I needed right now. Why couldn’t anything ever be simple? I just wanted to get the package and go. I scanned the room around the rat man, but saw no one who stood out at all. They’re good. I turned back toward Amy, and gawked when I saw empty space where she should have been. I turned back to the rat man, and tried to contain my horror. There she was, talking to the man that I was supposed to be robbing, and using her feminine charms to get what she wanted. Again. She was good at that, and I wasn’t about to stop her. She “encouraged” the man to put the crate down, and he did, intently focused on her. She signaled me, I think, with a light tug on her ear. Then behind her back I saw her make a little motion with her finger. She was calling me over. I tried to look like I was in a rush, and walked by the rat man as fast as I could without drawing attention, grabbing the crate as I walked. No security had stopped me, but then I saw them.
The security was actually two men, one fairly stocky and angry-looking. The other was wiry, young, and tall. He moved faster, but with less purpose. I ducked right when he took a swing, and brought my fist as hard as I could into his gut, sending him to the ground. Before the smaller man could reach me, I went for the gun in my pocket. Gone. I just couldn’t catch a break. I rolled backward, pulled a knife from my boot and brought it to bear. The cold steel stopped him in his tracks, and he shot me a look that would freeze lava. I watched his eyes as they moved between the knife and me and back. My focus was misplaced, however, when the wiry young man stood up behind me and grabbed me around the throat. I reached back and sank my blade into his side, causing him to howl in pain and pulled back in time for his partner to bring his fist into my jaw. I heard a crack, and my face smashed into the cold steel bulkhead behind me. This day could get worse, but I was desperately hoping it wouldn’t. Then, like an angel, I saw Amy out of the corner of my one good eye. She had the pistol she had let me “borrow.” Hah. What a bitch. She leveled the gun at the smaller man, and told him to lay on the ground. He did, but not before kicking me in the stomach while I lay I on the ground. The wiry fellow was on his knees, clutching his side where I had stabbed him. The look in his eyes screamed murder, but I just stood up and walked back to the crate. I grabbed it, then walked away. No need for more pain, I figured. I motioned to Amy, and she waited for me to get back toward the shop and into the crowd, then followed.
We got back to Joe’s, and he opened the door. He took one look at me and said “Hell, Ryan, I didn’t expect you to get beat that bad. Get in here you two.” When he spoke I shot Amy a glance that make her smile nervously, then shuffle into the building quietly. Once inside, I handed the crate over, and Joe opened it up. It was full of ammo and a few guns. Great. He was stealing guns from gunrunners. Brilliant strategy old man. I fumbled in my pocket for a cigarette, but they had fallen out in the fray. Now I was sure the day couldn’t get worse. I looked at Joe and asked for a cigarette, to which he replied “Sorry, but I just gave it up. Expensive around here.” After checking the closest store, I had to agree. I just muttered curses under my breath and looked at Amy, who shook her head.
“Sorry, Ryan. Not a smoker. You should give it up, anyway. Terrible habit.” Not today, I thought. I need my cigarette today. I finally had to go to my secret stash, my hideaway cigarette in a plastic baggie in my hat. I hated going for my final cigarette. I pulled it out, grabbed the lighter Joe had handed me, and lit it up. Ahh, sweet relief. I savored it, knowing it was likely the last one I was going to get for a while.
“So, Joe, what’d you want guns for? Didn’t figure you for an arms dealer, though you wouldn’t know it looking around your shop. Always thought you were on the up-and-up, even in a place like this.”
“This isn’t for me, genius. This is for you. I heard you coming, and I knew who you needed to take down. You’re going to need some help. These should make it a little easier.” To everyone’s surprise, Amy grabbed the machine pistol on top, grabbed a magazine, loaded it, and looked down the iron sights. She then grabbed a laser sight and attached it to the bottom of the barrel. She smiled that devilish smile of hers, and stuffed the weapon into her waistband. She grabbed one of the small double-shot pistols and put it into her jacket. I laughed as I saw it, staring in disbelief like she was Jesus walking around cursing out children. She just laughed and grabbed a box of ammo. I followed suit, grabbing one of the rifles with a sling and checking the functions. Worked smooth, and didn’t have a problem. I looked for a pistol that suited my tastes, but couldn’t find one. Just my luck. I grimaced, leaving the rest to sit in the box. I slung the rifle over my shoulder, checked my knife and replaced it in my boot.
“Got anything better, Joe? I’m going to need something with a little more kick than these things. The rifle will do great though.”
“Hah. You were always a picky one, weren’t you Ryan? Well, this one’s a special one, but leave me these and I may be able to part with it.” He pulled out a pistol from behind the counter, and handed it to me. I liked it, but it looked familiar somehow. It was a chrome and nickel plated .45, a stout old Colt older than this colony. I checked the chamber and barrel, and smiled. It would be just great. Ivory handle and nice responsive trigger. I looked at the chamber, then back to Joe. He smiled and grabbed a box of ammo out of the back, along with a quick reloader for revolvers. Great stuff. Amy looked at the pistol, frowned, then pulled out her own. It was a near exact match. The only difference was the engraving on the handle; mine had an E printed on it, hers had a G. I shrugged, and turned to Joe. “Hey, don’t ask me. I didn’t know this was part of a pair, but it makes sense. Many people had guns like these made in pairs. Could be the initials of the first and last name of the owner, or two people. You never know. Just take care of em. Those things are worth more than everything in this store together. I’d like to have em both, if you ever want to part. Are we even, yet?”
I just smiled. “Sorry, Joe. You’re not getting off that easy. How many times did I save your life again? You’re close, but not quite.”
He frowned. “You ever going to let me off the hook, Ryan? I saved your life at least once, remember?”
“Yeah, Joe. I remember. But I still need your help, and I’m afraid if we call it even you’ll never want to see me again. I wouldn’t, if I were you.”
“I’m hurt, Ryan. You know I’m always happy to see you. I just need a little warning first. You’re like a natural disaster; I can prepare, but only if I know you’re coming. Give me a heads up, ya know?”
“Like I ever know these things in advance. I’ll give you warning if I get warning, Joe. Anyway, what’ve you got for me, besides some nice guns?”
“Well, I called around. A few people have seen your man, but no one wants to talk. They’re all terrified. You want the information, you may have to ask them yourself.”
Great. Just what I wanted. At least I had a list of names, and places to find them. I hate this damn place. Too many dark holes for vermin to crawl into, and not enough light to scare them out. I felt like a blind man in a house of horrors. I should just get this over with. “Well, any names I should start with in particular?”
“Kuzo Miyazaki. Real nice guy. Killed a few people back in the day, now he just does odd jobs, plays enforcer for a few of the big wigs around here. He might give you some trouble, but he knows all the biggest, baddest killers in the moon. He’ll know your guy, and how to flush him out.”
Trouble? A guy like Miyazaki isn’t trouble. He’s pain, and death, all wrapped in meat suit made to kill. I knew enough about him to know that this was not a man I wanted to find, nor let him find me. This is going to hurt. Looking over at Amy, I thought she had an anticipatory smile on her face, and that devilish twinkle in her eyes. I was going to regret this so much. “Stay here, Amy. I don’t need you getting yourself hurt, too. I imagine I’m going to be in pain, and you don’t really need to be there.”
“Oh, really? After I saved your life earlier, you’re going to leave me behind? I don’t think so. Anyway, if you’re going to get your butt kicked, I want to be there. Honestly, I think it may be a little cathartic.” She laughed like a hyena waiting to feast. She knew I couldn’t really stop her, and that I could really use the help. Here we go again, I guess.
“Well, then. Get ready, ’cause I’m going over there right now. If I’m going to get beat to within an inch of my life, I suppose a little audience might help. Who knows, his heart may grow three sizes, and he might stop.”
Joe laughed at me, slapped me on the back, and shoved me toward the now empty door. I suddenly felt unwelcome, like a dog being kicked to the street after peeing on the new floor. Amy followed me out, and we looked down the street toward the elevators. I started walking, keeping my eyes peeled for anyone in the area that could be a problem. Hah. Damn. Needle in a needle stack. I just pulled my coat close to my body and kept my eye on Amy. She looked even more out of place. I turned and asked her where she learned to handle a gun like that. “Mean streets of Chicago.” She answered. “I grew up in a nice neighborhood, but I had friends from the outskirts. They grew up in gangs, fighting for every dollar they earned. They learned to handle guns from an early age. I tried to help them, to get them what they needed. But many refused. My dad even refused to give them a cent for a while. But a few agreed to go to school with me, to help me with some of my problems, in exchange for an education and a way out of that life. I got a few bodyguards, friends, and in one case, a tutor. They got a chance to escape, and to make something of themselves. They were so grateful many of them worked twice as hard as anyone at my school, making sure they did well so they could go on to great things.
“It was going well when I found myself in a bad neighborhood with one of them, and it looked like it was going to go from bad to worse. He stepped up, fought off four guys, and even managed to survive. But he had been shot by one of the other gangsters. I picked up a gun, and fired wildly in his direction. I hit him in the shoulder, and he hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. After that, I thought it was important that I learn to defend myself, especially when I learned what I wanted to do for a living. I wanted to go to places like those my friends grew up in, and tell their stories. So I got a gun, and have learned to use it in case I run into trouble. I’ve also learned a few self-defense techniques, just in case.”
I smiled, trying to imagine such an immaculate woman fighting off a group of attackers with a gun and a few well placed kicks. Didn’t really seem to fit, though neither did what she did earlier. I just shrugged, and wrote her off as a mystery. She was complicated, that’s for sure. She’s certainly not the daddy’s girl I thought she was, though she dressed and acted like it sometimes. I found a few dollars cash in my pocket; a rare thing to see almost anywhere, but practically a requirement here. No one really had much of a bank connection. Usually you used your thumb/finger print to withdraw money from a centralized account, with very little need for cash. Places like this ran entirely on cash, though. No one had bank accounts. I was usually fine with that, but carrying around cash wasn’t a great idea, either. I left most of my money with Joe, instead. He was trustworthy, right? Sure. I just kept telling myself that.
Once I reached the elevator, I looked back down at the piece of paper Joe had given me. Three levels up, then 20 miles “east.” East is a stretch given the design of the colony, but I knew what he meant. We hopped on a light rail train and took it to our destination. It was in a nice area of level 36, filled with only the richest and most successful lowlifes. Galactic mobsters, crime bosses, smuggling rings, high end cults; they all call the Golden Sector home. Powerful people with more money than moral fortitude lived it up in style in the nice penthouses, nightclubs, and hotels in the area. My particular target was in one of the nightclubs in the red light district. We walked down the street, admiring the amazing architecture of the buildings. Rich people, fancy buildings. Figures. You wouldn’t see stone masonry like this in the rest of the colony. There really aren’t that many stone structures at all. I looked over to Amy, studying her changing expressions as she looked from building to building. The mix of disgust over the money that built them and admiration of the beauty that went into their design was written all over her face. I had to agree. The contrast between the brutality that many of these people expressed in their daily lives and the beauty they want in the world seems pathetic. They live lives of violence and brutality, and some deep, dark part of them feels guilty. They want to bring some sort of color, beauty to the world they help destroy every day. Instead of stopping their criminal behavior, and trying to change the world for the better, they try to put a sheen on their evil desires and actions. It sickens me. I did find a place to buy fairly cheap cigarettes, though. Who would’ve guessed? I put one in my mouth and lit it, taking a long drag. Someone walking by looked at me with judgment in his eyes, so I made sure to blow the smoke in his face. That probably wasn’t the smartest idea, but something tells me a brawl in the street would end poorly for both of us, and he didn’t want to chance it. He kept on walking, putting his mouth in his sleeve and breathing slowly. I smiled insincerely and kept walking. Damn rich folk. Always thought they were better than us. I just pulled my hat down and kept walking. Amy shook her head at me and laughed as I flicked my cigarette butt into the street. This was her kind of place, minus the mobsters and violent thugs. I saw my target, and started walking faster.
We walked up a short drive to the front gate; a wrought iron assembly overlaid with gold elements and a few jewels. Yeah, this was the place. This place was owned by a member of the new and improved Yakuza, the Japanese mafia of old had changed. They’re still all about drugs and human trafficking, but they’re operating on the galactic scale now, and they have whole governments in their pocket. Not the kind of people you want to mess with. The boss who owns this penthouse is well connected. He must run the Yakuza operations in the sector. Pays well I suppose. No matter, I don’t plan on busting them for anything. Not my job, not anymore. I walked to the security booth and introduced myself to the giant Polynesian man sitting inside. If it came to violence, I didn’t want to fight this guy. “Hey there. Name’s Ryan. I’m a marshal, the last one, in fact. I’m here to talk to your bosses about a man who passed through recently. I don’t want to cause trouble. Just a couple questions.”
The large man looked at me and then got on his radio. I couldn’t hear what was said, but he opened the gate. “Go on in. You’ve got 15 minutes. The boss is in the main room with Kuzo. You ask your questions, they’ll answer what they feel like answering.”
I looked slightly defeated, but gave a sarcastic “Thanks.” We walked into the penthouse, and saw Kuzo and his boss sitting at the conference table. They looked unhappy, and unhappy gangsters were volatile gangsters. Amy was going to make this difficult.
“Hello. Name’s –“
“Ryan. We heard. And who is this lovely lady?” His voice softened and he put on his best winning smile when he saw Amy. Well, maybe she wasn’t going to be as problematic as I thought. I had high hopes, what can I say?
“Amy. I’m just here as... muscle.” Then she slowly pulled the guns out of her waistband and boot and set them on the table. Then she drew a knife I hadn’t noticed from her sleeve and another from a hidden pocket in the jacket. Hah. This woman may be more trouble than I thought.
Kuzo and his boss just laughed for a minute, then the big bad spoke up. “I am Hiro Yamaguchi. Businessman and purveyor of fine art and antiques. This is my associate, Kuzo. How can I help you, sir?” He was on the defensive, but never showed it. A snake of a man, baiting the mongoose. I was feeling dumber by the second.
“I am in search of a man. Someone who makes your business more dangerous, even in a place like this. A serial killer who makes the predators like you look like prey.” I emphasized the last word, playing on their obvious discomfort at my presence. They weren’t stupid; they knew that if I wasn’t here for them, then I was after someone dangerous enough to risk speaking to them. That was enough to scare them a little. They knew of him, but if they knew him personally, it didn’t show. Damn.
“We know of whom you speak, marshal. He passed through this area not long ago, seeking assistance in... disappearing. We specialize in making people disappear you see.” The obvious pride in his voice turned my stomach. I knew all about his human trafficking and kidnapping strategies. Sick man. “We turned down his offer of significant amounts of money, knowing that association with his was going to be problematic.” Oh man. Some of the worst gangsters in the sector were afraid of being associated with this guy. That didn’t make me feel any better about my chances. “We can offer you information regarding his whereabouts, or at least his next destination. When we turned him down, he informed us that he would go to one of the smugglers that call the Golden Sector home. We don’t know which one for sure, but the only ones who would even consider talking to him are with the Crimson Rail. A group of despicable businessmen” he spat at the ground in disgust, “they would do anything for a quick dollar. And the man had plenty of money.” The fact that these scum, the lowest of the low, would regard the Crimson Rail with such disdain, did not bode well for my chances of getting a meeting. Or surviving it.
I set out anyway, putting the Yakuza and their blood money to my back; making my way down to the hideout of the very dangerous, very dark Crimson Rail. What a name. Blood and steel. Fitting for a group with a reputation as ruthless as they have, I guess. I really hoped they were in a mood to talk. Amy ran after me, waving to the security guard as she went by. Damn, she was a bubbly one sometimes. Irritating, but uplifting at the same time. When she was around I knew things could either get much worse or much better, but that they wouldn’t be boring. A feeling I was unaccustomed to, for sure. She kept jogging and pulled up next to me, flashing that mischievous, imp grin. “So, out of the frying pan, into the fire, huh? Sounds like fun.” She started skipping down the street. Skipping. I wish I had that kind of reckless idealism, the fairy tale upbringing she must have had. I felt a wave of envy, then shook it off and kept walking.
“So, where’d you get all the knives? Pretty girls like you, who dress like you, they don’t carry around a butchers’ block in their clothes. You told me part of the story, but I doubt that’s all of it.”
“Yeah, well. There’s a lot to it. I guess after I got this job, I thought it was going to be all about the people. Human interest stories and all that. But I learned quick that human interest doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t live to report it. I learned to fight, to take care of myself. I was a naive little girl, seeing the world through my own brand of rose-colored glasses. And I still have them, but I can take them off and put them on at will. I suppose it’s what lets me keep doing this job, even though I know it’s hellish and stupid at the best of times.”
Was it naive to want to see the world in the best light? Maybe. But I like to think that she was just seeing what could be, what society could create. I chose to see the worst, the most despicable of society. And look where it got me; alone, on the edge of creation, with more scars than I care to count. Who’s to say her way wasn’t better?
We finally arrived at the Crimson Rail’s place of business. Strange to see a criminal organization with a storefront and a ficus instead of being in a basement somewhere. It’s unnatural, dammit. Criminals should be in a dark alley, or a basement, or a dark room, cowering in fear of people like me. Not working in the open, just tempting me to shoot em all. I wasn’t the violent type, really. I didn’t like killing if it could be avoided. I just found that I was good at it. Not my fault that I was fast and accurate. Well, I suppose it is. I walked to the front door, and pulled it open. A little bell above the door rang as I entered. Wow, how nice. Right on cue, Amy started giggling. I just hung my head a lit up another cigarette. People had always told me that these things would kill me, but I always figured my job would do that first. Now that I was – hopefully – a few months from retirement, I had to start considering my health. Never would have guessed. The life expectancy of a marshal, at least when we were a common sight, was less than 6 years into the job. I’d been doing this for 9 years, and besides a bullet wound or two, I was still alive. Someone up there must like me, so I figure the cigarettes won’t kill me, either. Then again, wouldn’t that be a joke? Killed by my bad habit after surviving 10 years on the job. I finished it and set the butt in the ashtray, still smoldering. The office was far from extravagant; there was an old wooden desk in the center of the room, and two doors to the right and left. Faded green walls were splotched with patchwork putty and the desk looked like it had been built for colonial America. I walked up to the man at the desk; a pudgy balding man with an expression of pure disdain all over his face. He’d rather be anywhere else, and I couldn’t disagree. He looked up lazily, and asked me what I needed.
“Hey. I need to talk to your boss about a prospective client. I’ll wait.” I looked around, and picked out a nice spot to stand. Amy followed suit. He looked like he was about to object, but couldn’t be bothered. Instead he picked up the phone, and punched a button. A voice came over the phone, but I couldn’t make out what it; I only heard his response.
“Hey. I got a guy here, real cowboy type. Wants to talk to the boss about a client.” A few seconds passed, and he said again “Yeah, listen. I don’t care. I’m not dealing with it. You want to kick him to the curb, you come out and do it yourself.” Great. That doesn’t fill me with confidence in my situation. With that, he hung up the phone and went back to doing absolutely nothing with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. Amy looked at me and frowned, and I just nodded thoughtfully. I waited until someone came out of the door of the left, and walked up to me.
“Hello. I’m sorry, but you need to leave. We don’t discuss our clients with anyone. Least of all not law enforcement.”
“What, not even for a marshal? Now you’re hurting my feelings. And I don’t think he was a client, just a prospective one. If you guys have any brains at all, you turned him down quick. Dangerous fellow, this guy.”
I saw the man’s demeanor change. He looked like he was contemplating something, and I only hoped it was his decision to help. “Yeah, I know who you mean. He caused a little trouble when my boss turned him down, so we softened him up a little before kicking him to the curb. After that, there’s only one place he could go if he wanted to disappear, and they make a happy-go-lucky group like us look like a charity. You won’t be able to talk to anyone there and keep all your teeth, so I’d recommend giving it up.”
I frowned, but I wasn’t about to give up. “Just tell me where to go. I’ll worry about my teeth, thank you.”
He threw his hands up in defeat. “Well, if you want the last living marshal to die a horrible death before reaching his target, go ahead. You’re like a relic, aren’t you?”
“Hah. Yeah, something like that,” I laughed. “I’m a fossil of a bygone era. Maybe I’ll retire and spend my days in a museum. Now, where am I going?”
“Out of the Golden Sector. Down to level 67. Far corner. Got a nav system on you?”
I looked at him, puzzled. “No. I guess my buddy didn’t think I’d need it.”
Amy piped up, and showed me a small tablet. “Here, Ryan. Use mine.”
I shrugged, and the man grabbed it. He punched a few buttons on the screen, and a few seconds later a map of our location popped up on the screen, as well as a second blip where we needed to go. Handy. I took it from him, thanked him for his help, and walked back out the door. Amy turned to me again, and started questioning me.
“What do you think you’re going to do? Walk in and get the information? I doubt it. Those guys we’re going to see, they’re the worst of the worst. That area of level 67 is filled with the less successful, but equally as brutal, criminal element. If you’re going down there, we need to head back to Joe’s and get the big guns. We’re not walking into that place and coming back alive.”
I hated to think it, but she was right. These guys weren’t the kind to question good business; they couldn’t afford to. If my target was looking to disappear, they’d help. They couldn’t do it well as the Yakuza, or some high end smugglers like the Crimson Rail, but they could get the job done. Quick and dirty, but effective. “Yeah, I know. Let’s head back and see what he knows about these guys.”
I picked up my phone and called Joe. Mobile phones on the colonies weren’t the greatest, but they worked well enough. Each planet or colony uses a different encryption software, based on local technology. Every mobile phone has a slot for a different decryption card, and you switch them out when you get on the planet or colony. Not exactly the greatest bit of technology, but for civilians it works as well as you can hope for. I explained where we needed to go, and asked him to see if he could find out anything about our target. We were only a few hundred yards from the office when a man in a hoodie and worn out jeans stopped us. I guess we looked like tourists to him. As if tourists would ever come to this hell hole. I put up my hands when he shoved a gun in my face. “Calm down, kid. I don’t have any money on me, and I’m not looking to die today. Now, just walk away. There doesn’t have to be any trouble.”
He took one look at me and Amy, and realized that she was either a very good thief or a terrible liar. “She’s got some nice stuff. I’ll bet she has plenty of money. Now hand it over.” I sighed, took one good look at the kid, and relaxed. I put my hands down at my sides, near the pistol on my hip. He didn’t see it beneath my coat. “I’m not kidding man, I’ll do it!” And with that, he pointed the gun at Amy. She didn’t move, but I did. I reached out and pushed the gun out of the way just as he pulled the trigger, and drove the heel of my boot into his kidney. He let out an oof and hit the ground, hard. I pulled the gun out of his hand, and put the safety on. He looked up at me with terror, and I bent down.
“I’m not going to kill you, kid. In fact, you can have your gun back. But if I see you again, I’ll shoot you without a thought. Now, get out of here. With that, I pulled the magazine, cleared the chamber, and put them in his pocket. I handed him the empty gun and started walking away. I turned my head as he grabbed the magazine from his pocket. I just said “You put that magazine in the gun, I’ll shoot you before you get one chambered,” then I pulled my gun from its holster and let it hang in my hand, just to show him I wasn’t kidding. He put the magazine back in his pocket, and sat down with his head hanging. Amy turned to me with gratitude in her eyes and smiled. She wasn’t the violent type either. As they said in the old days, “Violence begets violence.” Far be it from me to be the cause of such violence, regardless of the situation. I’m more of the “ending violence” type. Anyway, such a beautiful girl shouldn’t have to see the kind of brutality that human nature causes.
We made it to Joe’s without further interruption, and he opened the door for us. He was prepared, with a few finer pieces of weaponry on the counter. He waited until we got in and sat down before briefing us. “Ok, the people you’re looking for are not your friendly types. They make the Crimson Rail look like a charity case. And you really don’t want to piss them off. They’ll kill you for finding them, or kill you for just trying. You’ve got a few options; stake it out, wait for our guy to walk out. That could be a problem, since he left the Crimson Rail almost eight hours ago. He could be done and long gone. Which means watching the place could be a costly waste of time. Option two, you walk in and ask nicely, at the barrel of a gun. They won’t respond too well to that, but it’s the fastest way. You just have to make sure that they don’t call reinforcements. So, what’s it going to be?”
I smiled at Joe, and he got a worried look on his face. “How about this; I go in, guns blazing causing as much noise as I can. You and the lady sit outside the building, waiting to see if he runs out. Take out any stragglers if they come out the doors. You do this for me, we call it even. How’s that sound?”
Joe stroked his bushy beard, and nodded. “I can live with that. Especially if it’ll mean no more unannounced visits.”
Amy looked at me, faked a wounded look, and said “Hey! I’m coming in with you! You’ll need all the help you can get.” I knew she was right, but I also knew that if we wanted to cover both streets away from the building, we’d need her outside.
“Sorry Amy. But we need to cover both exits. Joe can’t do that alone, and I need to make sure he doesn’t escape.”
“Well, Ryan, I technically could cover both sides,” Joe said. “I’ve got a nifty toy that can watch the other side. It won’t be able to shoot very quick, or very accurately. But if he comes out, I’ll see it, and I’ll be able to track his movements.”
“Fine,” I said. “Amy will come in with me. But,” and I pointed straight at Amy, “If it gets ugly, you get out. You don’t need to get shot, and I won’t have that on my conscience. Or Joe’s.”
She looked annoyed, but agreed anyway. And with that, I grabbed the shiny rifle sitting on the counter. A bull pup service rifle from the Coalition military. Powerful, compact, and accurate. Amy grabbed a sub-machine gun, another bull pup with a smaller caliber. A 5.56mm, I think. I looked at the other guns, then grabbed some ammo for the rifle and my revolver. Amy did the same, and we slung the rifles onto our backs. Joe grabbed a long-range rifle, a custom gun of his own. Nice scope and a bi-pod He was planning on setting up across the street. That should do fine. He went to the storeroom, and came back out with a large device. It looked like a tripod with a gun and a camera mounted on the top. If that’s what he was planning on using, it’ll work well enough. Amy smiled, pulled on an armored vest, and threw me one. Most modern weapons were powerful enough to punch a hole straight through it. But the vests could stop a bullet that had gone through a cement wall, or a ricochet. I strapped it on, putting the rifle over it on my back. We went over the plan one more time, then went to the door.
Amy and I shared a knowing glance; we looked like a SWAT team ready to take down a crime boss. And I suppose that’s what we were. I wasn’t much for the forceful approach; I preferred subtlety. But I rarely got what I wanted. The world doesn’t move according to our whims, and it doesn’t care what we want. We are all the masters of our own destinies, as the rational egoists always liked to say. The discovery of the Martian race threw a lot of philosophies into question, and gave religion a big question to answer. I never really gave any of it any thought. I suppose you could call me an indeterminist. Causality is a crock. Things happen because people are stupid, selfish, and emotional. That’s the cause. Not some butterfly in Brazil. We’re not a closed system, especially not since the invention of space travel. We fly around, wreaking havoc, destroying or ruining everything we touch. We don’t mean to, just like sharks and wolves don’t mean to kill. They’re not cruel; it’s their nature. We are supposed to be better. Yeah right. Show me a good human and I’ll show you a dozen who are as bad as can be. Just human nature.
We arrived at the appropriate level, and I checked my nav map. Not too far, but still irritating. Too close for the maglev, but too far to run with all our gear. No fun. We started off at a slow jog, heading toward our goal with an inevitability that got my heart racing more than normal. I was on my way, and nothing could stop me getting there. My death, or my salvation. I hated not knowing if they were expecting guests, or if we had made it here unnoticed. I doubted it, but there’s always a place for hope. We got closer, and Joe tapped my arm, signaling me to slow down. I pulled up behind a dumpster, and crouched down with Joe and Amy. He grabbed the turret, and ran toward the nearest building. They had picked a perfect spot, for us. There was no way they were going to let us use the buildings for a perch. I figured they had at least one person in each surrounding building, watching out. Joe knew it too, and he was being very careful. We needed to sweep the other buildings quickly, or they were going to know we were here. We couldn’t rush in if we expected snipers. I tapped Amy’s shoulder, pointed at the nearest building to our left, and whispered for her to clear it out. She nodded, checked her weapon, and sprinted into the alleyway between buildings. I checked my weapon, and made for the first building to the right.
When I reached the door, I took a deep breath, and swung around. I kicked the door, splintering the old wood around the hinges and the lock, and pushed it to the ground. As soon as I did, I heard the metallic click of a weapon inside. I couldn’t see, so I grabbed my little flashlight and pointed it through the door of the old house. Inside was exactly what I expected; an old, Victorian style house with stairs leading to the second floor, and an old, broken chandelier hanging from the high ceiling. I looked up the stairs, and saw a shadow moving from inside the room to the right at the top of the stairs. I sprinted up the stairs, and pushed against the wall next to the door. A voice from inside called out “Hey! I know you’re out there! They know you’re here! You won’t get through that door in one piece!” I knew he was probably right; as soon as we hit that door a hailstorm of bullets would come flying through, and that alley would light up like Christmas during a supernova. We couldn’t get in the old-fashioned way, I guess.
“Well, that kinda puts a little snag in my plans. I’m a little pissed off. I guess I could beat you to death, like I did the Crimson Rail and Yakuza scum that didn’t answer my questions. Man, they could take a beating. For your sake, I hope you pass out before then.” With that, I swung into the room as fast as I could, taking sizing it up and looking for him as I went. I saw him, in the corner of one room, clutching a nasty scatter-gun. I dove away from the wall he was pointing at, and saw a blast of steel and powder fly out of the barrel, and felt the heat from the shot passing my head. I hit the ground on my shoulder, and pulled my gun up to bear. I put a round through the outside of each thigh before he could reload and aim the gun my way. He hit the ground, blood pouring from his knees, screaming his head off. Well, if he was bluffing before, he wasn’t now. I ran over and wrapped my arm around his throat to stop him from screaming. I whispered in his ear; “Now, I don’t need to kill you. You could go to prison for a while, get back out. Technically, I don’t even think there’s a law on the books about killing a marshal anymore. You’d probably get a few months probation. I’ll have to fly you out of this hollowed-out rock, but I’m sure you wouldn’t mind that, would you?”
“Hey, man. These guys are brutal. They’ll kill me if I talk. I don’t think you can get me off-world fast enough.”
“I’m willing to take that risk. Now, would you rather spill the beans or your blood?”
He stopped struggling, and just relaxed. “Ok. There’s one more out here, we patrol around. Your partner seems to have killed him anyway. What do you want to know?”
“Oh, the usual. How many inside? Any more back doors or secret exits I should know about? And finally, is the man I’m looking for inside? You know who I mean.”
“Ok, ok. There’s at least 23 inside, and no secret entrances that I know of. Just the two doors at street level and the elevator to level 66. And no, I don’t think your man is inside anymore. As soon as the alarms went off, all clients and non-members would be sent up the elevator, and I don’t think you covered that one. I know the guy you’re looking for, though. Nasty fellow. Lots of scars. We gave him a new name and everything.”
“You know the new name? That’d be mighty helpful. Maybe go a long way to ensuring I don’t paint the wall a nice shade of red.”
“Sorry, man. I never got the name. Just the old one. Duncan. What kind of name is that? Anyway, I saw him talking to the boss, and the boss handed him some papers. I didn’t see what was on em, but the passport looked real official. He agreed to drop off a package for us, in exchange for a new identity.”
“Where was he taking it? Tell me...”
“Luna colony. He was going to Luna colony. Now let me go...”
I obliged him, but only after squeezing my grip to cut off the circulation to his brain. He fell unconscious, and I dropped him to the floor. I checked, and figured he might live with the bullet wounds. Who knows. Not my problem any more. I grabbed his sawed-off shotgun and slung it inside my coat. I might use it. I ran downstairs and out the back door toward the house Amy was clearing, just in time to hear a blood curdling scream followed by a gurgling noise as if someone was choking on their own blood. Great. She killed him. Whatever. I didn’t have time to worry about that. I ran back to Joe’s nest, and waited for Amy. When she got there, I asked if she had any new information. She didn’t. Big surprise there from the trigger happy reporter. She was so strange...
“Ok, so Duncan Macintosh is already long gone by now. They have an elevator up to the 66th level, and they sent him out the minute we grabbed their lookouts. But, I happened to get his next destination: Luna colony. He agreed to deliver a package of a sensitive nature in exchange for his new identity. Now, I don’t know what name he’ll be under, but if we can get to the port before his ship leaves, we may be able to catch him. Joe, pack up and go home. You don’t owe me anything anymore, and these scum piles get to live another day. Amy, if you want to come with me, you’re welcome to tag along. We’re leaving. Joe, it was great seeing you again, and if you ever need help, give me a ring.”
Joe and I shook hands, Amy gave him a hug, and we took off toward the nearest elevator. We wouldn’t be able to take our guns on a passenger flight, but we could check them in as luggage. We got to the port not fifteen minutes after my conversation with the lookout, and I checked departure times. The flight to Luna colony would go through the travel hub of the galaxy, Centauri Station. If he made it there, we’d never find him. We’d have to wait until we got to Luna to hunt him down. Centauri Station was a travel hub, a space station with a few dozen docking ports and a hundred terminals. He could get lost in there quite easily.
We sat at the departure terminal, looking for our guy. We waited for two flights to leave, and gave up, figuring he was already on his way. Damn. We had to catch up to him on Luna, and hope he stays there for a few hours. We were hot on his heels. At least, I thought so, until I heard a familiar voice; an altogether unnerving voice that haunted my sleep and my thoughts. “Hey Marshal. I heard you were looking for me. Well, you found me.”