Final Labyrinth – Chapter One

There is a certain kind of fear that freezes the blood in your veins and arteries, stops it from flowing altogether. And against the frozen vascular blockage, the heart furiously machine-guns its last-ditch attempts to keep life going, to keep fighting, to keep running, to keep from being shifted from the “assets” column to the “liabilities.”

Continuous muscle spasms seize and bind the joints of the arms and legs as tightly as if fast-setting glue had been injected into them, immobilizing you as surely and with as much sense of futility as the Tin Man on the way to Oz, immobilizing whatever will remains within you to try to escape.

When the terror reaches a certain intensity, only the endorphin secretions of the brain save you from continuing the futility of struggling. Like the endorphins from strenuous exercise, which impart their euphoric high, there are endorphins that the brain saves for the last moments. Only these endorphins can give you that last insight into the realities of life and death, that final revelation which comes to each of us just before the body ceases to function. These endorphins help protect you from caring about the pain, but even they can’t shield you from the helplessness and the terror that precede that final realization that death is upon you. Nothing can save you from that.

The man in the loose beige pants, ripped at both knees and covered with blood from the many miles of crawling and clawing his way through dark, dangerous, rough, rocky subterranean passageways, was nearing the point of that final endorphin surge. His flashlight was dimming, at last. He had run and run through the cave-like maze, just ahead of the savage thumping, the drum-like ritual pounding which announced the imminent arrival of the creature behind him. The man had twice caught sight of the beast, and the effect was nearly as devastating as the approaching sound of its hooves clonking behind him on the rockstrewn footing of the caverns. It was like a human in its agility, but was much bigger than a human, and roared like no beast the man had ever heard, or ever wanted to hear again. If he got away from the monster alive. It was all so insane. It was a bad dream. It made no sense. None of this did.

As best the man could make out across the width of the great caverns when the monster emerged from a passageway on the far side in its relentless pursuit, the creature’s head and neck were awesomely bull-like. And it stood about seven feet tall. The man had hoped in the beginning that the snorting and growling sounds were evidence of the monster’s poor breathing stamina, that it would be possible to outdistance the beast soon. That was nearly three hours ago, and if anything the creature was getting stronger as it sensed the hunt nearing a successful conclusion.

The man held as much hope of reasoning with the animal as he would have if it had been a junkyard guard dog who was pursuing him—this creature showed no signs of understanding any human language, and showed no evidence of wanting to deal in anything but flesh and blood. Its legs were shaped somewhat like a human’s, only covered with a coarse coat of short black hair. The feet were protected by a horn-like substance that gave its movements a somewhat hooflike sound, except that it was quieter than a horse or bull. It seemed quite sure-footed in the underground darkness. Terrifyingly so. In its massive dark hands (and they were more like hands than hooves or paws) the creature carried a thick stick or rod that had some sort of tip on it, as if it might have been for throwing. There was an eerie mythological reality to a monster tracking a man in this baffling underground labyrinth. Mythology come alive. And that only compounded the terror. It plucked at all the worst strings. The clumping sound of its hooflike feet had syncopated horribly with the staccato pounding of the man’s overstrained heart. He would pause in the near darkness every few minutes and try to determine which sound was heart and which was the creature behind him, hoping that he had evaded it, that he had at last found a momentary sanctuary for a few minutes rest, some time to gather thoughts and energies. If there were any energies left.

But there was not to be any respite from the chase.

Not a moment. The strain on his body had increased so much now that the deafening thump-bump of his heartbeat was being fuzzed by an echoing flush of overburdened arteries in his head and his neck, arteries near the bursting point as they were trying desperately to flush more oxygen to fatigued muscle groups throughout his body. Muscles that were ready to shut down, to quit. To take that final dose of endorphins and wait for the end. But the man in the beige pants hadn’t quite given himself over to the terror yet. He still had hope.

He threw himself through a low, open archway and looked left down the long underground passageway beyond. There was light there! Coming through the doorway at the other end of the passage. This was it!

The promise of escape widened his eyes, and he mustered all of his remaining energies to stumble down the passageway toward the light. The obsession with the promise of escape carried him forward, wide-eyed, staggering, no longer looking back toward the crazed beast, no longer pausing to listen to the relentless, heartless hoofsteps drawing ever nearer behind him.

The light. It was the light which drew him. The safety of the light. And as he fi nally flung himself, gasping, headlong through the open door at the very end of the passageway, hurled himself toward the light of hope, his lifeline to salvation from the horrible terror which even now had begun its charge down the passage behind him, his mouth sprang wide with disbelief at what he saw. The small, empty room. No windows, no other doorways, only a ritual basin at the center, above which was a large light shaft, presumably from the earth’s surface far above.

The man stumbled to the middle of the room, leaned over the low basin and looked up the shaft at its high, straight, smooth unscalable walls. He shook his head from side to side, in disbelief, and desperately looked around him at his final trap. The place of no return.

Then he felt the final endorphin surge and the panic in him gave way to other feelings, strange feelings he’d never before experienced. The man looked up once again at the light above him. Far above him. The last light he would ever see.

The monstrous beast emerged through the doorway, huffing and puffing, a ghastly sight. Ropy saliva hung from the corner of its mouth, glistening in the light from the light well. The man drew back instinctively but retained his strange, stunned sense of calm. When the beast gave forth with an awful, deafening roar of victory, the man stumbled backward against the opposite wall of the small room, as if more by recoil from the sonic shock waves than by voluntary action.

With the endorphins taking full effect now, the man gazed almost fondly at the approaching tip of the rod which the beast carried. It was a trident shape, the ancient design symbolically merging the horns of the bull with a central spiral pike like the horn of the unicorn. The man watched it coming closer, watched the twinkling glint of the facets of its surface as it rolled from side to side in the huge hands. The man saw his fate approach as the sharp tines thrust forward toward his throat, and wondered at the artful accuracy with which the outside tines glided perfectly to either side of his head, the middle tine swiftly finding its deadly way to the center of his larynx.

The final endorphin surge gave the man an appreciation of the music of his own shrill scream, even as it was cut short. Somehow it echoed, as if it were someone else’s scream.

And that was all.

© copyright 2001 by Lance M. Rucker. All rights reserved.

* * * * * *

Available in selected bookstores.

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No Secrets – Chapter One

“A secret between two people can be kept only if one of them is dead.”

Atami, Japan, 1992

Goddamned Japanese. Make the doors so short, you feel like you’re in Lilliput every time you walk through one. Bruises on bruises on a forehead that didn’t need them. Injury added to insult tonight.

Sore feet from walking all day, and then sent on this wild Shinto chase to the hot baths. And now to top it off, Drake had to go and slip on the tile floor and crown himself on the doorjamb. Not a good day. Not a good day at all.

Where the hell was Yamamoto? Brandon Drake frowned at his own dim reflection in the steamed mirrors which lined the entrance to the spa complex, located on the second floor of the resort where he was staying for the final night of nearly six weeks of work in Japan. Tomorrow was clean-up-and-go-home day. Tomorrow he would be flying home so that he could file his report, catch up on snail mail, touch base with some of his friends, and then head off to his cabin in the North Woods for some well deserved rest.

The grey eyes of the tall, fair-skinned, lanky information agent tried to perforate the steam nebula and wondered again where Yamamoto might be. Despite his having been to these club baths nearly every day of these past two weeks since he had been here in Atami, he’d rarely seen the complete layout of the baths complex at one time. The never-ending roil of steam and heat from the central pools conspired for perpetually poor visibility. However, the design of the spa seemed pretty straightforward and symmetrical. So it hadn’t taken Brandon long tonight to cautiously slip, slide, and grope his way across the wet tiles floors, through the clouds of steam, navigating by the banks of open bathing stations against the surrounding walls, all the way around the huge raised pool. All the way around. And there had been no sign of the diminutive translator. No sign of anyone, in fact. The hot spring baths seemed to be deserted.

Brandon considered that he’d much rather go straight up to bed in his comfy tatami-floored resort room a few floors up than to continue wandering around through the empty labyrinth of hot springs and spa tubs, naked, searching for a man he barely knew anyway.

The whole thing had been Yamamoto’s idea to begin with. Brandon had been prepared to receive the final installment of lab notes and summaries at the HGS laboratories tomorrow, on his way to the train to Tokyo, but the Japanese research assistant had talked him out of it. Had said the hot springs would do them both “much health”. Much health, indeed. Much fucking waste of time.

It didn’t help Brandon’s mood to know that his sweet, sweet Mikki was somewhere waiting for his call. He was feeling more annoyed with each wasted minute. He didn’t need this kind of grief in the wrap-up phase of an otherwise smooth and successful information-gathering project. Information was how Drake earned his living, and he was damned if he was going to have his uncork-the-champagne time foreshortened by this sort of nonsense.

There had been no one else in the resort hallways at this late hour. The health club was already officially closed for the night, even though the hot tubs proper were open twenty-four hours. The hallway outside the tubs complex had been empty. The dressing room had been empty. But, damn it, Yamamoto had said he would be here!

Okay. One more pass, and then Yamamoto would just have to wait until tomorrow after all. Another close search through the rack of dressing baskets revealed one basket other than Drake’s which had some contents: a set of street clothes and a hotel kimono. No ID or keys. No wallet. That made sense for someone who might have come into the spa from outside the hotel. Like Yamamoto. Yamamoto would have checked in and paid at the front desk and then he would have been issued a towel and kimono and been given directions to the baths. So it stood to reason that this basket was his. Which meant he was bound to be somewhere inside the baths. A man doesn’t have a soak and then wander naked from the baths out through public hallways. Especially not in Japan. So Yamamoto must still be here. But how had Brandon missed him?

With the fluffy white resort towel still clenched in his hand at his side, Drake once more stepped carefully through the automatic sliding doors of the entryway to the hot tubs. The clouds from the hot springs in the middle of the room were fuzzing everything up. After the glass entry door slid closed behind him, Drake had to wait a few moments for the steam to clear enough to make out the general contours of the nearby structures.

The cool air which had raced in with him through the door was assimilated and the clouds thinned slightly. Drake could make out about a half dozen of the forty or fifty low-mirrored bathing stalls distributed along the two longest walls. Each had its own shower attachment, a low stool in front of it, and a steamed mirror. But no Yamamoto. Nobody. Not a single person anywhere. What the hell?

“Yamamoto?” Drake shouted into the fog. “Yamamoto?”

Nothing. Silence.

Maybe he’s running water over his head and doesn’t hear me, Drake thought. It was impossible to tell if a shower were running because of the continuous burbling of the boiling springs and the constant splashing of the hot water over the edges of the huge pool, cascading to the tiled floors and flowing in shallow sheets and rivulets to the narrow, sculpted drain gutters which ringed the outer walls of the spa and separated it from the small stalls of the open micro-showers. It sounded the same in here when there were forty people bathing as when there were none.

These were no ordinary hot tubs. In fact, these baths had been one of the absolute high points of Drake’s stay in Japan. He decided that he wanted to come back someday when he could really relax and enjoy them a bit more. So far, this trip had been a write-off for relaxation. A complete write-off.

But right now, all Brandon wanted to do was to find a certain Nippon who owed him a few tidbits of information. Then he could stroll back to his room, go out to dinner and sip some sweet, sweet sake with his sweet, sweet friend and have some sweet, sweet dreams on his soft, soft futon.

Drake could feel it whenever his assignments were almost complete. He could feel it and he loved it. There was a sense of fulfillment, a sense of savvy, a sense of okayness. It was like college. One more little push and the assignment is handed in. No more classes, no more late nights, no more guilt about what hasn’t been done.

Until next semester.

Until the next job.

Slowly Drake began to tread the circle around the shallow hotpool, watching the nearby walls for signs of his man. He couldn’t have missed him, he wondered. Or could he?

Drake’s bare feet slapped across the warm and continually washed white tile floor. Still no signs of anyone.

Through the steam billows, Drake edged his way around the large room, alternately checking shower stalls and the nearby pool’s edge for the strange, hygienic Japanese translator. He moved along the fourth bank, back toward the entry door — which he couldn’t see yet but which, in spite of his embarrassingly dreadful sense of direction, he knew was there.

It was then that he noticed the rust-colored river in the midst of the continual tide of hot water tumbling from the perfectly leveled black marble border at the edge of the pool. When a gust of steam floated around his legs, the red stream turned to brown and then to dark grey, nearly black, and then suddenly back to red. The stream showed up especially well against the background of white tiles on the floor and around his pale, untanned (and now unmoving) feet.

Drake turned and stepped to the rim of the pool from which the river was emerging and saw something bobbing in the shallow hot water near the edge. Unmistakably human. Unmistakably face down. He watched the form for a very long moment in the dark, rippling, steamy water, but could detect no movement.

Drake reached in to haul up on an arm, to pull up the face just enough . . . and it looked a lot like Yamamoto.

An eight-inch handle of a knife stuck out of his chest, to the left of the breast bone. An unremarkable long-bladed kitchen utility knife. Unremarkable except for the fact that it had pierced the vital organs of the man in the baths. Probably cut through one of the major vessels of the heart. Still some residual oozing from the wound into the warm water.

Drake felt for a pulse, but could detect nothing. It was strange to feel the warmth from the hot water where there was no longer life. Drake still wasn’t certain that the body was actually Yamamoto’s, what with the ghastly expression on the face. And the skin was parboiled. And the truth of the matter was that Drake continued to have difficulty telling Japanese apart one from another. Most of them looked alike to him. A politically incorrect admission, so he usually only admitted it to himself. It was especially embarrassing considering that Drake, before his shift into high-tech information gathering, had made his living for many years as a garden variety private investigator. His was a profession whose successes are usually based on keen powers of observation, including instant recognition and recall of faces and names and facts. And though Drake could easily recall most faces he had seen, he had much difficulty discriminating amongst Japanese. Hoped they had the same problem with Western faces. Doubted they did.

Drake was also handicapped by a long-standing aversion to handling corpses, one of many, many reasons for which he had made his lateral arabesque from the P.I. business into high-tech information work. Quite different. No more lurking in bedrooms, no more turning up corpses. Right.

Drake had no need to pursue this matter of the hot tubs any further, he reasoned. He would likely find out soon enough anyway whether the body were Yamamoto’s. Considering the several very public meetings which had taken place during the previous two weeks between the tall Canadian visitor and the short (even by Japanese standards) assistant to Atami’s famous inventor-in-residence, undoubtedly the police would soon be rapping their white-gloved knuckles politely on the door of “Drake-san”, requesting information and telling him more than he would learn from any further time fishing around in the lobster pot waters of the hot tubs.

And if this were not Yamamoto, but just a truly bizarre confluence of random circumstances, Drake would prefer to avoid police contact altogether. He could read about it tomorrow in English in the Asahi News.

On his way back to his hotel room, Drake quickly rechecked the basket of clothes in the dressing room for an envelope or some papers, but found only clothes.

At the elevator, Drake considered the basic indecency of leaving a corpse unattended. The man deserved better, surely. An elevator arrived and, just before stepping in, Drake stepped across the hall and jerked the handle of the fire alarm for the spa floor. The jangling alarm faded as the elevator ascended to his own floor.

Walking quickly and numbly through the hallways, Drake considered how easily a hotel room — a rented space no larger than the kitchen of most houses — could become a home and haven abroad. He liked staying in the same hotel room for the entire job when he was somewhere on assignment. He usually even requested the same room when another assignment took him back to the same place (which didn’t happen too often). Creature of habit. Creature of security, more like it. A familiar hotel room could be an important safe spot in a disconcerting and not-so-safe world.

Drake pulled the long key bob from the deep sleeve of his heavy hotel kimono and opened the door. Ka-lick. The tiny wall mount nightlight within gave the whole room the look of an emergency exit. As Drake slid the key from the door and inserted it into the panel on the adjacent wall to activate the room’s power switch, the whole apartment suddenly came alive with light and color. He glanced through the carpeted entryway past the door of the miniature W.C. and into the tatami-floored living room.

Everything looked quiet and apparently unchanged during the last half hour. Good. Drake disliked suspense, generally. And even if he did like the odd rush of an adrenaline infusion, he had had quite enough for today, thank you. He moved forward to close and lock the door.

As he shifted his weight to step out of his hotel slippers he noticed the sound of running water. He paused for a few moments to ascertain whether the sound emanated from his own W.C. or from the bathroom next door. He strained to hear which sounds were being filtered through the paper thin walls, but he couldn’t tell.

He heard the Japanese Muzak piped in from the hallways. The hour-long, continuously looped, taped cycles had become torturous monotony before the end of his first evening in Atami. After more than a month he had gotten to the point where he was beginning to tell time by them. He had had a dream one night about being strapped to a bed in the middle of an empty auditorium with a tape recording of the same song played over and over again. Softly. But he couldn’t tell where the speakers were. The sound seemed to come from everywhere. And every time he started to doze off to sleep, someone would shake the bed or swing it around really fast until he woke up and had to listen to the music again. Maybe they had left the Muzak on all night that night. Maybe it was the sake he had drunk with dinner.

Straining now to make out more sounds in his apartment, he could hear the evening sea-breeze buffeting the balcony windows at the far end of the living room. There was the distant thumping of partying Japanese on the floors above him. And that damned water running, but he was no closer to knowing where. Only one way to find out. Drake stepped forward and reached for the handle of the W.C. door. He jerked it open and stared through the fluorescent miniaturization of a bathroom. Saw a single pair of eyes staring back at him.

His own. His own reflection in the vanity mirror. Nothing else. Empty room. No water running in either the sink or the tub. Just the sound. Damned walls.

He was spooked and he knew it. He cursed himself for letting his imagination get away from him. He was so near the end of this one. So near yet . . . It pissed him off to let a little irregularity like the death in the hotpools make him so uneasy. It seemed unprofessional. And probably the stabbing had nothing to do with him anyway. Angrily Drake kicked off his slippers, stepped up to the tatami mats, and padded his way across to the low table in the center of the room.

He crossed his legs and lowered himself to the cushion on the floor. Staring at a wall seemed the best pose for regaining composure and letting thoughts get organized.

His mind started running to trails. Trails.

Drake wondered if he was likely to be implicated in the death in the baths. He would never make a very effective detective, he thought. The best insurance against problems with the police was a solid alibi. He would need a good alibi for the evening. He had already blown it a bit by taking his key with him to the hot tubs. Somebody at the front desk might have noticed that he was gone from his room for that time. They had a light system that told them at the desk whether the key was in the power panel in each room. And they had a computer that might even record these things. Hell, the computers seemed to do everything in this hotel. Except to shut the Muzak off one night. Maybe.

So Drake had already blown the “airtight alibi”. He decided to continue with the plans that he had already made for the evening and hope for the best. It was not the most satisfactory of options, but anything too elaborate might be suspicious in itself. And Mikki could probably be helpful in shoring up the weaknesses in the story anyway.

The phone rang. “Moshi-moshi. Mr. Dlake? Terephone call from outside hotel. One moment, prease.”

“Hello? Hello? Drake? Hello?”

“Mikki! I was just thinking about you.”

“I’ll bet you were, Brandy,” said the voice. “Listen, I finished at work a little early, but I still haven’t had dinner yet. How about you?”

“Haven’t crossed chopsticks all day, m’lady. Sounds good,” Drake replied, trying to sound jocular, but deciding he only sounded like a goof. “Can you meet me here at the hotel? I’d like a pickup.”

“I’ll bet you would,” said Mikki. “But it might be faster if we met at the bottom of the Ginza. I want to go back to that Chinese place, again. The one where you can order by numbers. Okay?”

“Sounds good, but I still want a pickup.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll meet you in the front lobby in five minutes. Persistent man, aren’t you?”

“Only for you, m’lady. But, at the risk of seeming overly demanding, I want to meet you out back instead.” Still thinking about trails and alibis. “I’m afraid I’ll be besieged in the lobby by all my groupies.”

“Keep dreaming, Brandy,” sighed Mikki.

“No, really,” he persisted.

“You can’t be serious.”

“Only about meeting you out back,” said Drake.

“I’ll be there in five, then. Bye.”

The next morning, Brandon Drake propped himself up on one forearm and opened his eyes just enough to realize that he had forgotten to close the thick drapes across the balcony windows before he had finally dropped off to sleep. The bright light of the rising sun shone across the crystal waters of Izu Bay and was gleaming its most unwelcome morning rays into Drake’s eyes. He draped his other arm over the side of his face to shade it and squinted down at the soft futon and at Mikki, who lay sleeping peacefully beside him. Beautiful woman. And such a contented look on her face. She was quite obviously oblivious to both the sunlight and Drake’s restlessness.

As his head continued the clearing of its sleep haze he considered how surprising it was that the police had not yet contacted him. He and Mikki had spent about two hours out to dinner, but they had returned to the hotel before nine o’clock. The key return system would have ensured that the police could have known exactly when he had returned. The police would have had ample opportunity to investigate his room in his absence, if they had wished. But there were no signs of any searches. Nothing out of the ordinary at all. The main lobby had been quiet when he and Mikki had picked up the key, and the lack of excitement led him to wonder if perhaps the body had not been discovered yet. In spite of the fire alarm gambit.

A sharp knock at the door interrupted the morning puzzling and answered Drake’s unasked question.

“Mr. Drake. Mr. Drake. Are you awake?” asked a routine voice with the usual Japanese difficulties pronouncing the R-containing name. “This is the police, please.”

“Just a moment,” replied Drake, reaching for his robe on the mat near his pillow.

No sooner had he spoken the last syllable than the door exploded with a crash and two men armed with automatic weapons rushed through the entryway.

“No move, please! Do not move!” directed the no-longer-routine voice.

Drake’s mouth fell open and he released his handful of robe. It fell to form an abstract pile of fabric on the tatami mats.

Mikki, startled when the door was kicked open, was still struggling against her combination of hangover and post-orgasmic sleep trance. Only after looking from the armed duo to Drake and back again several times did she grasp enough of the situation to draw some bed-covers around her naked body. She was not usually a terribly modest woman, but she felt particularly vulnerable in the midst of so much tension, and staring at so much firepower. She tensed and cringed.

One of the intruders, a bulky man with thick eyebrows which seemed to be continuous across the bridge of his nose, smiled at her gesture. The other man remained grim-faced and emotionless.

When the smiling man spoke, Drake knew for certain that Smiley was the one in charge. And as Smiley drew closer, his sights still trained on Drake, Drake became increasingly convinced that neither of these men was a policeman.

© copyright 2001 by Lance M. Rucker. All rights reserved.

* * * * * *

Available in selected bookstores.

Intimate Falls – Chapter One

“Whenever two rockclimbers tie on to a rope to form a climbing team, they are doing far more than tying their bodies together. Once they are up high on the rock face, they must act in perfect concert. With a special, intimate attachment they have tied their fortunes together. And at the end of their climb, they are bound to share with one another a highly intimate success. Or a highly intimate fall.”

It was one of those great autumn days when all the golds and reds and browns and the few remaining greens turn the world into a color carnival. In other circumstances, it could have been one of the fourteen thrilling days of Brandon Drake’s life. But the day was not ruled by Nature. Nor was it ruled by Man. It was a day ruled by Machine.

One of the time bombs set by the Industrial Revolution was the Computer. It was a bomb set to go off generations later and destined to engulf every island of clock time which had been freed up by all the other wondrous machines created since that revolution. We make machines so that we have time so that we spend time. And spend it how? In rapturous contemplation of our own individual journeys toward enlightenment? In active pursuit of a successful formula for deriving winning numbers for the lottery? In appraisal of the spiritual evolution of our universe? No. In learning how to use the curious intangible development of wizardry and infuriation called “software”.

It was Upgrade Day. The day when Brandy’s entire mental faculties were focused on the adaptation of his computer usage to a new series of patterns and formats and processes which are just similar enough to the “old” way of doing things as to seem tantalizingly familiar and friendly, but just different enough to confound every decent attempt to shortcut the complete rereading of the new software documentation. And each time there was an upgrade in one of the half-dozen programs which were the basic tools of his trade as an information jockey, the manuals were longer and longer, more and more complex.

On Upgrade Days, wonder and loathing are stirred into the mental pot until confusion bubbles forth, calling for more reading, more wonder, more loathing. Upgrade Days were even worse, in their own sweet way, than the annual personal springtime fest known as “Tax Day”, when Brandy pulled together the envelopes and pockets full of the previous year’s receipts and spent the day cursing and swearing and hunting for lost information and trying to remember why he’d written off only forty percent of the cost of the carpeting in his sunroom-cum-office as a business expense. It didn’t matter that he had been trained as an accountant. Just figuring out and submitting his own taxes each year reminded him why he hadn’t lasted more than six months in the family accounting business. But Upgrade Days made him wonder why he moved into high-tech detective work. Out of the frying pan…

New software was different than upgrade software. At least new software does new tasks with the jaded machines. New software plays new games, presents new challenges. But upgrades? Upgrades are the modern day equivalent of self-flagellation and self-deprivation of the medieval monks. High-tech masochism. And every time he began the painful process, Drake would grit his teeth and stare at the upside-down diploma mounted on the wall above his computer and ask… well, far lesser cosmic questions.

It was in such a mood of high spirits that Drake wrenched himself from his computer to scour the kitchen for an afternoon snack. He was rummaging in the bottom drawer of the fridge, through a pile of recycled cloudy plastic bags and their enclosed remnants of such delicacies as last week’s roast beef (no longer rare), a cardboard palette of side bacon, broccoli in its mostly flowered yellow state, a fold of dried out flour tortillas, all of which had broken in two where they’d been folded, and more things below which he had no heart to examine. PB&J won. On sesame white bread. A nearly virgin loaf.

He was still emerging from his upgrade trance and was slowly becoming aware that, standing at the kitchen counter next to the refrigerator, he’d nearly eaten the two sandwiches he’d made for himself. He was considering how thirsty he was for something cool to drink to wash down the snack, when the doorbell rang. On Upgrade Days his rule was to ignore the phone and door. People would leave messages or call back or come back, but an interruption in the process of learning an upgrade only intensified the agony. Upgrade Day was zombie day. Brandy chomped another mouthful of bread when the bell rang again. He felt the texture of the cottony fresh bread pressed between his tongue and his palate and the inner surfaces of his teeth, and grunted an animal “humpf” to himself. The doorbell rang more insistently, and he dropped the remains of the PB&J on the sandwich plate on the countertop and shook his head in annoyance. “For cryin’ out loud…” he grumbled, lumbering through the living room toward the big front door of his condominium.

“Yes?” he demanded as he jerked the door open. He was usually more careful to look through the peephole before opening his door. In the information business, one had to be reasonably cautious, even when one specialized in low-security, no-risk contracts. Not everyone with whom he dealt was so generous in their appraisals of what constituted innocuous information. In the information business, one man’s refuse can be another man’s gold mine. Or his death certificate. People get real edgy about what other people want to know about them. And sometimes they hold grudges. And sometimes they send gifts to your home. The kind of gift which leaves a few remnants of the door clinging to the hinges and brings ambulance drivers to cluck and raise their eyebrows and carry the remains of the person who answered the door back to their ambulance in a body bag.

The lady at the door was stunning. Intense, wild-haired, and striking, she had deep brown insistent eyes. They wouldn’t let go. The more Brandon focused his attention on her, the more striking she became. “Are you Mr. Brandon Drake?” she demanded.

“Yes. Yes. May I help you?”

“I hope so. May I come in?” She marched past him with her eyes lowered before he could respond.

As he watched her stride across his small living room and lower herself onto his grey-mauve couch, still keeping her back to him, he murmured aloud to himself in a deadpan, “Sure thing. Make yourself at home.” He clicked the door and locked it. Wondered whether the enchantment was with the demeanor or the hair. It was medium length and curly-frizzed like a science experiment in static electricity. He sat attentively at the edge of the cushioned straight chair directly across from her and faced her, waiting for eye contact or words. Miz Brazen was suddenly very humble. She searched the rug for lint and chewed at her lower lip and wrung her hands. Brandon waited.

Eventually her eyes travelled up to his. The sclera were red, as if she’d been taking drugs or was in a deep trance. Or both. But her words were distinct and clear when at last she finally spoke. “I need to talk,” she said.

She was unwavering and silent. The sheer force of the woman’s eyes and her intensity shook the last fog of Upgrade Day from Brandon’s mind. This was a woman to be committed to. Or to be committed. Or a woman to make love with. Or all of those things. “Well?” Brandy prodded.

“I need to find someone. Someone special. And I want you to tell me how to do it.”

“I’m not a missing persons bureau.”

“I know. But I’ve heard about you. And I… Will you help me? Please?” Her eyes were more supplicant than her voice, and both oozed real sincerity. Brandon was so startled by the effect that he wondered if he were slipping back to foggy land.

Drake gauged her carefully. It wasn’t that anything didn’t fit, yet. It just seemed like too much to fit. “Mind if I ask a personal question?”

“Anything. Whatever you need to know…”

“What’s your name? Who are you?”

She flushed crimson. Stumbled for words. “Oh. Of course. I’m so sorry. It’s just that I was so determined to have you say ‘yes’ that… Julia Hobbs.” She leaned forward off the couch and extended her arm straight out toward him, a downward angle to the heel of her flat hand. Brandon took it, responded with a firm ritual shake, and held it an extra moment to enjoy her textures. A thoroughly sensuous woman. Charged and set and live-wire.

“Glad to meet you. You obviously know who I am.”

“Of course. Will you help me?”

He released her grasp. “Probably not.”

“What? Why not? Why do you say that?”

“To slow the train. Before I’m hit by it.”

She bit her lip and cast her eyes down again. “Oh. A little strong, huh?”

“I like to be swept off my feet, Miss Hobbs, but…”

“Julia.”

“Okay. But I don’t like to be railroaded. Who do you want to find?”

“My husband.”

“How long has he been missing?”

“Since he was killed.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He was rockclimbing in Yosemite Valley. He didn’t return from a day’s climb. But they haven’t found his body. And that was nearly three months ago.”

“And you want me to find him?”

“Exactly!” She leaned forward into his eyes with a tight, pursed, triumphant grin.

Brandon frowned. “Then I’m definitely not the man to help you. I’ve never done anything like wilderness searches.”

“No, no. You don’t understand. I don’t want you to find his body. I want you to find him. I don’t think he’s dead. But if he is, I want you to help me find people who can find him, because I want to be absolutely sure one way or the other.”

“But you don’t think he’s dead? Why not?”

“Because it’s not his style.”

“Dying isn’t most people’s style. Except once per.”

“No. I mean, everything they said about what happened… it just doesn’t fit Farmer at all. Farmer might climb the most gruesome cliff in the Valley, but he never climbed alone, and never would he change plans without telling the climbing control people at the Park Information Center. Never. That’s why I think he’s not dead.”

“But you said it’s been three months. And you haven’t heard anything from him?”

She halted in mid-flight. Eyes back to the carpet.

“If he were alive,” Brandy persisted, “don’t you think he would have contacted you by now?”

“I know. But, you see, we had an argument the week before he left.”

“Must have been pretty severe argument if you think he’d disappear like that and not get in touch with you. Not that it’s my business, but…”

“We’ve been separated for nearly two years, Mr. Drake.”

There was a long silence.

“Forgive me for being the cynical man that I am, but does your reason for wanting to locate either your husband or his remains have anything to do with insurance?”

She shook her head and frowned incredulously. “No! Why, heavens no! I come from a very wealthy family, Mr. Drake. I’ve never needed Farmer’s money. And I certainly don’t need his insurance. And the people at Minnesota Mutual have already told me I’ll get the insurance if he hasn’t reappeared in seven years anyway.”

“That’s probably true. So, once again forgiving my skepticism, why are you so anxious to find out what happened to your estranged husband?”

“Don’t you think my curiosity is justified? I mean, he was my husband for five years. And I loved him deeply. And…” She noticed Brandon’s dubious brow. “he loved me, too. We just couldn’t live together. That’s all. He was a workaholic, and I just got tired of trying to be fitted into his schedule. Unsuccessfully, at that. Farmer and I got along beautifully when we were only together once a week or so. The last two years were the best of our lives together.”

“It took you three months to start searching for him?”

“I thought the police would find him. Or that he’d turn up on his own. I should have known he wouldn’t, though.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because he never went overtime on a project in his life, and the one he was working on when he went to Yosemite for the rest was due three weeks later. It went so totally against his grain to be late on a project, I knew then that something was wrong. Maybe he fell and had amnesia, or he was kidnapped…”

“Off the side of a mountain?” Brandon asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Three months?”

Julia glared at Brandon for the first time. She sucked in a deep breath and eased it out, the fierceness melting from her expression as she sighed. “Okay. Okay. I’ll tell you. I guess it doesn’t make any sense otherwise. Because I’m pregnant with Farmer’s baby. And I wasn’t sure until two weeks ago. I kept thinking it couldn’t be. It was the night before we had the argument. Just before he left. And for the past three weeks, all I can think about is ‘what am I going to tell our baby?’ That his daddy just disappeared? And then I thought I should get rid of the baby, but I… even though Farmer never wanted to have a child, I did. Well, it wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to have the child. It was more that he knew he’d never have the time to give a child the father-care it deserved. So we’d decided not to.” She looked steel solid into Brandy’s eyes. “Satisfied?”

“No. That still doesn’t explain why you picked me, Julia. I was serious when I said that missing persons is not my line.”

“Remember Jerry Hambleton? He’s my brother. He told me you were graduate school buddies. He said you were good at what you do. Weird, but good. And when I found out you were here in Vancouver, it was like a special message from the cosmos that said ‘Go see this man, Julia!'”

“There’s nothing more unreliable than recorded messages from the cosmos. I’m glad you came to see me, Julia, but I am not a private detective. I used to be, but now I’m an information agent. I help people find information that isn’t in the Yellow Pages. Information about industrial research, information from databases, information about corporate affairs.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning I’ll be happy to refer you to someone who can search for your husband. But that someone is not me.”

“But I don’t want someone else. I want you. I… I have a strong feeling about you. That you can help me find Farmer. And… and those feelings are never wrong. Never.”

“Julia, there are better people out there who are in the business of locating missing persons and checking police files and that sort of thing…”

“Not according to Jerry.”

“Jerry is an incurable romantic. A lot of my university buds thought that I gave up a career in drab old accounting to set the world on fire as a buccaneer adventurer of the James Bond genre. But it’s not that way. It never was that way.”

“He says you’ve done some of the most impressive detective work ever done in the private eye business in North America. He says you’ve located all sorts of people in all sorts of bizarre circumstances and…”

“All that was years ago. And all blown as fully out of proportion as the size of the trout that fishermen used to catch in the mountain streams. Among other things, I’m completely out of touch with the right kinds of contacts in that business. Especially in California. And you have to keep current to be good at P.I. work. I can send you to a man named Don Beeley, in San Francisco. He could get background on your husband and on the police investigation, and the information would cost half of what I’d have to charge. Not because I’m any better, but because right now, without connections, it would take me twice as long to get the same things.”

“I want you. And that’s final.” Brandon was surprised at her suddenly renewed assertiveness. Her eyes confirmed what her tone of voice commanded. Drake had the sensation that if he refused to consent, he should resign himself to having a pregnant Julia henceforth camped on his living room couch. “I don’t care how much it costs.” She heard the echo of her own voice within her and realized how hackneyed, if not downright ridiculous, her statement sounded, so in the next breath she quickly appended, “Within limits, of course.”

She leaned forward on the edge of the couch again, sliding her hands down her calves to her ankles, which she clamped onto so firmly that her fingers blanched. Her complexion paled two or three shades, like a faded Botticelli, and she said in a frail and plaintive voice which was barely more than a whisper, “Before you tell me how much you charge — or anything else for that matter — can I have a cup of tea or a glass of milk or something? Anything? I’m feeling a little nauseated.”

© copyright 2001 by Lance M. Rucker. All rights reserved.

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