This is a short story that takes place immediately before the events of The Invisible Crown.
* * *
I was playing my 2,134th losing game of solitaire in a vid window, a hard light interface, when she walked into my office. She was impressive-looking, with her close-cropped hair, dark skin, and tall stature. I immediately flicked the floating screen away into the corner of the room and attempted to look as professional as possible. The woman was clearly someone very busy and very confident; I could tell by looking at the smart, no-nonsense business suit she wore and the vid windows floating around her head at eye level like a low-slung halo.
“No, I want you to sell the shares of Vitruvian Dynamics,” she was saying to one of the screens, “and buy 100 shares of Relativistic, Inc.” She pinched the vid window closed with an exasperated sigh, and waved away the rest to gather into a stack that floated just outside of her peripheral vision. The long-suffering woman turned her well-manicured attention on me. “Detective Edward Hazzard, I assume?” It was less a question and more a resigned statement of unavoidable fact. She was clearly unhappy that I was the man she’d discovered behind the desk. And I couldn’t really blame her. My appearance doesn’t inspire much confidence: I’m scruffy, slovenly, and only kind of sober. Her attitude stung a bit, though.
“Yes ma’am, though I prefer ‘Eddie,’” I replied, trying to ignore her disdainful tone.
“I’m sure you do,” she sniffed. “I have a…case for you, detective. The subject matter is quite distasteful, and I would prefer if it were kept quite confidential. I don’t want my business all over the tabloids.”
“Of course, ma’am,” I replied smoothly, easing my way out of my battered chair and around the corner of the scarred, ancient desk. “We are very discreet, you have my word.”
The woman arched a tweezed eyebrow. “Well then, I guess I should provide you with the lurid details,” she said, snapping open a smart leather briefcase that was older and better-cared for than anything in my shabby life. She withdrew a small datachip and handed it to me. “This is a file on my ex-husband, a man named Geoffrey Witherston Pennington III. We divorced recently over his rather…unfortunate nocturnal habits.”
“Sleeping around on you, was he?” I asked with a wink. The woman looked aghast.
“No! He…had a habit of getting temporary genetic modifications and running around town naked. It was…unseemly. I could not handle the personal stress and the lost face in the community, so we quietly separated a few months back.” A gen-mod tourist, a guy who used a chemical cocktail to give himself the traits of some other animal – snake scales, bird feathers, whatever – and ran around the city making a fool of himself. It wasn’t all that unusual, but the obscenely wealthy did live in a weird bubble.
“So what do you want me to do, then?” I asked, slipping the datachip into a small port on my desk. A vid window popped up with a picture of the man and physiological information. He was around 55, in good shape, with a thick head of still-dark hair. He was handsome, clearly, and didn’t look unkind or all that odd. Guess it just goes to show, you never can tell. “Sounds like anything that he does now is somebody else’s problem.”
“I wish it were that simple,” the former Mrs. Pennington replied, snapping her briefcase shut. “When we separated, he took with him several documents and files that were quite important to me and my business. I need you to retrieve them quietly and without causing a scene.” I opened up a second file from the datachip, which turned out to be a list of the documents the woman needed. Legal documents, going by their titles.
“Lady, not causing a scene is my bread and butter.” I didn’t mention I couldn’t afford bread or butter, what with my wholesale whiskey bills. “It’s $500 a day plus expenses, first two days’ pay upfront.”
Ex-Mrs. Pennington flipped a vid window back in front of her from the stack, tapped a couple of buttons on window, and pinched it shut. “The money has been transferred to your account. I expect results, Detective Hazzard. Do not disappoint me.” She pivoted and headed out the door, her heels clicking loudly across the scuffed linoleum in the quiet room.
I waited until early evening to go out to investigate. Not because I was hungover – though the mild headache I’d been fighting all day had proven effective at killing any desire I had to go out while the sun was still up – but because the sort of skulking and law bending I’d have to do to investigate was much easier to accomplish if everyone else had gone home for the day. I filled the afternoon with a bit of research on Mr. Pennington, half a bottle of whiskey – hair of the dog and all that – and three more lost games of solitaire. I decided to try Pennington’s lawyer’s office first, figuring any important business or financial documents – the sort his ex-wife hinted were taken – would likely be kept in a safe there. Pennington’s lawyer was Caius Vellum, well-known in the fancier circles of Arcadian Society as the guy who could help you get away with just about anything. In my research that afternoon, I’d turned up some news articles from several months ago about Pennington’s, as his ex-wife called them, “nocturnal habits,” and it sounded pretty weird, even by Arcadia standards. I’d thought I’d seen it all, but this guy had gotten up to some strange business, rolling around naked on the street in Eakin Plaza, climbing up on the fountain in the center of the square to…well, it was gross, let’s just leave it at that. But Vellum had managed to avoid getting any charges pressed against his client, and the whole episode had eventually been passed off as just an eccentricity on Pennington’s part.
Vellum left the office at half-past six, and I sat across the street in a coffee shop for another half hour after that before deciding the place was empty and I could try to get in. I slipped out of my booth and trotted across the street, my jacket collar turned up against the encroaching October wind and my hat brim pulled low over my eyes. I reached the office building and inspected the lock. The security system was an electronic pad with several security measures, including retina scan, DNA scan, and fingerprint pad. You had to pass all three for the door to unlock for you automatically. The actual lock itself, though, was a traditional deadbolt, and one it was quite easy to jimmy open with a few seconds’ work with a lock pick. I heard the lock’s tumblers click into place, but I waited to open the door until after I’d placed a flat, matte-black square over the security panel next to the door. I pressed a button on the box, which hummed quietly for a few seconds, then beeped. A small green LED lit up, indicating the alarm system linked to the door had been deactivated. Pocketing my lock pick and the security bypass, I turned the doorknob and pushed open the door, which swung silently into the office. I glanced around to see if anyone was watching me, then ducked into the building and shut the door behind me with a muffled click.
I let my eyes adjust to the darkness as I dug through my pocket for my safe cracking kit. The kit was another small box, about two inches on a side, and about as thick as a pack of cigarettes. It would use magnets and some other science-y mumbo-jumbo to rotate the tumblers in the safe’s lock and open the thing up quickly and quietly. While I could pick the lock on a safe manually, as I’d done with the door, it would take a lot longer. The safe cracking box was fast and reliable. I found it and made my way to Vellum’s inner sanctum, sidling around expensive lobby furnishings and deeper into the dark recesses of the office.
I reached Vellum’s private office and crept over to his desk, feeling for a light panel. I found the panel and tapped it lightly, creating a dim ambient light in the room and temporarily blinding me a bit. When I regained my vision, I saw I was not alone.
Crouched in front of the safe was someone clad in burglar black from head to toe. They already had the safe open and several piles of important-looking documents strewn about the floor. They were frozen in place, staring right at me as I stared back at them.
“I’m just here for some documents from the safe,” I said casually, trying to remember if I’d packed my sidearm or not. A certain absence of weight under my left arm told me I had not remembered, much to my frustration. I generally preferred to talk my way out of situations like this anyway, but not having options was a tad frustrating. “I don’t want to get involved in any violence here, pal. Let me get what I came for, and you can rob this legal leech blind for all I care.”
The burglar stood up, revealing an individual of indeterminate sex and slender dancer’s build. They reached into a pouch strapped to their belt and came out with what looked like a short baton.
“Look, I don’t want any trouble,” I said truthfully, backing away and raising my hands placatingly. “I really don’t give a damn what you’re doing here or who you are, I just want to get what I came for and get out.”
As the burglar advanced on me, I reached out and slapped the light panel. The panel was set to bring up the light based on intensity of touch; my heavier touch caused the light to flash to full brightness in an instant, temporarily blinding my opponent and giving me the chance to grope around for a weapon. I found a large, heavy paperweight with my left hand, grabbed it, and quickly twisted away to the right to avoid the already-recovered burglar’s slashing swing with that baton. The baton extended in flight, slapping down across the desk and cracking the smooth, glassy surface. I turned my twist into a full 360, bringing the paperweight up to slam it into the burglar’s head. They ducked my attack, throwing me off-balance a bit. As I recovered my footing, the baton slammed into my midsection, and the burglar touched a button on the end of the baton that sent a few thousand volts coursing through my body. I twitched uncontrollably, dropping my improvised weapon and collapsing on the floor. With no input from me, my body decided to twitch a bit more once I landed.
Meanwhile, the burglar turned back to the safe, gathered up all of the documents and folders they had taken out of it, and started for the door. I had just enough self-control to reach out and grab them by the ankle, but nowhere near enough energy to actually hold on. The burglar shook off my enfeebled hand, striding out the door and the office.
“Nothing personal,” they said in a harsh, robotic tone, their real voice masked, “but you weren’t even playing the same game I was, here.” With that, they vanished, leaving me alone and twitching on the office floor.
It took me a few minutes to regain control of my limbs, and even then it was a pretty shaky proposition. I struggled into a sitting position, clutching my bruised gut and wondering just what the hell had happened. I scooted over to the safe to see if there were any documents left inside, knowing there wouldn’t be. I looked anyway. There weren’t. Being right all the time can be a bit of a burden in situations like these.
“Okay,” I muttered to myself, staggering to my feet, “I know there’s someone out there with the files I need. It can’t be a coincidence someone burglarized this place the same night I came to do my investigation. So, who else would want these papers?”
I slunk into my office the next morning in a pensive frame of mind and a hung over state of being. I had no idea where to start the search for the missing papers, nor who else might want them. Was that burglar from Vellum’s office hired by Pennington himself? Or maybe even Vellum? Did the ex-Mrs. Pennington hire the burglar as a backup plan in case I couldn’t cut it? Who knew.
I mean, not me, obviously, but hopefully someone out there knew.
“How’s the case going, Eddie?” I heard Miss Typewell, my secretary/personal assistant/head researcher/person-who-knows-where-everything-is asked. Her blue hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail, a pair of archaic reading glasses hung around her neck on a thin chain, and she wore a wooly cardigan of bright orange.
“A bust so far,” I replied, shrugging out of my jacket and doffing my hat. “Someone beat me to the punch at the lawyer’s office.” And then just plain beat me, I added silently. I gave Miss Typewell a brief rundown of what had transpired at Vellum’s office the night before, skipping over most of the details of the beating I’d suffered.
“Going to try Pennington’s personal files next?” she asked when I’d finished.
“Gonna have to,” I replied. “Think they’re hackable?” I knew a fair amount about technology, but not nearly as much as Miss Typewell did. She was my go-to with technical questions like this, though her answer was often not quite what I was hoping for.
Miss Typewell looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, “I can probably get in no problem, but I doubt it’ll be to Mrs. Pennington’s satisfaction. Digital documents are too-easily forged and faked these days.” True to form, then: an answer, but not one that was all that much help.
“True,” I said, my thoughts drifting off. “Maybe we should try a different approach.”
“What do you have in mind, Eddie?”
“Well…I know that the reason I didn’t get the stuff last night was because someone got there ahead of me,” I said, pacing across the reception area of the office. “Can you do a search to see if there’s been any other robberies of this type in the city lately?”
“Sure, gimme two minutes,” Miss Typewell said, flicking vid windows across the space in front of her with the deft movements of a trained professional. She tapped away at buttons on various panels for a minute or two, lost in concentration, then I got bored and wandered into my office and sat down. I pulled up a new game of solitaire and was halfway through losing game 2,138 when Miss Typewell’s face popped up in a vid window next to my game.
“Found a pattern, Eddie,” she said.
Oh yeah?” I replied, not taking my eyes off my game.
“Yes. Six similar burglaries in the past three weeks, all in the same district. Looks like they’re all done by the same person, a burglar who goes by the name Red Ace.”
I glanced toward Miss Typewell’s screen. “You’d think they’d at least have some red in their outfit, then,” I said, frowning. “Any idea how we can use this?”
“Well,” she replied, looking away at a different vid window, “it looks like all of the jobs were commissioned through a bulletin board for underworld types. The Boss set it up a few years ago to make contract jobs with freelancers outside of the Organization easier to arrange and control. Arcadia PD hasn’t been able to do anything about it because the boards just set up electronic communication between the two parties, they don’t actually plan the jobs there on the boards.” I nodded thoughtfully. The Boss – the head of Arcadia’s massive crime syndicate, the Organization – was a shadowy but powerful figure who loomed over the city of Arcadia. Anything he put together would be tough for Arcadia PD to even chip away at, let alone dismantle completely. Be that as it may, the bulletin board did provide us with an opportunity to track down our burglar.
“Hmm…a plan comes to mind, Ellen,” I said, stroking the stubble on my chin.
“Already way ahead of you, Eddie,” she replied. “I’ve set up a post on the bulletin board. With any luck, we’ll hear from your mystery burglar soon.”
In fact, it took seven more lost games of solitaire before Red Ace replied to Miss Typewell’s message.
“I’ve got a meeting with Red Ace set up for this evening at 7:00 at the Funeral Parlor,” Miss Typewell said, indicating the name of my favorite bar over on Purgation Avenue.
“Great,” I replied, pinching shut loss #2,145 and standing up from my desk. “Guess I’ve got some time to get there myself and make sure all my ducks are all in a row.” I walked over to my filing cabinet and dug out my weapon, the popgun, checking its cartridge and the safety.
“Yup, all in a row,” I said, holstering the weapon.
* * *
I arrived at the Funeral Parlor at half-past six and took up residence in a corner booth. In deference to the fact that I was about to have a meeting with an individual who had already sucker punched me once, I just ordered a seltzer.
Red Ace arrived when I somehow wasn’t looking. One second, I was alone in my booth, no one around me. The next, a slender figure sat across from me, their whole form bathed in shadows that hadn’t really even been there moments before. It’s like Red Ace traveled with their own shadow.
“Red Ace, I presume,” I said after my startled yelp at the burglar’s sudden appearance had removed any dignity I had left.
“Yes, Detective Hazzard,” the burglar replied, their voice blurred by a modulator.
“Really, vocal distortion?” I snarked, arching an eyebrow at my shadowy companion. “Are you really a woman trying to pretend to be a man, or a man trying to make people think you’re a woman trying to pretend to be a man? What’s the damn point?”
“My sex is of no consequence,” Red Ace replied, “only my skills.”
“Oh, well, that’s just a giant pile of—” I began, but Red Ace cut me off.
“Detective, you reached out to me, and here I am. What is it you want?”
I looked Red Ace right in the eye, or where I thought their eyes might be. “I want those damn documents you stole from Vellum’s office last night,” I said, anger and frustration tinting my voice.
“I’m afraid you will not be able to meet the asking price for those documents, Detective,” Red Ace replied coolly and electronically from behind the vocal modulator.
“Try me,” I replied, leaning back and trying to act casual.
“Fifty million,” the burglar responded calmly.
I sat there silently for a minute, regretting my decision to not get a real drink.
“That is a bit rich for my blood,” I replied quietly.
“Indeed,” said Red Ace, standing. “Now, if there is nothing else…”
My hand shot out and grabbed Red Ace by the wrist. “Actually, there is,” I said, a smirk on my face. “You’re under arrest for theft, boy-o.”
Red Ace stood there silently for a beat, then laughed, a strange sound filtered through the vocal modulator.
“Detective Hazzard,” the burglar said, “this has been somewhat amusing, so I guess I’ll let you keep your hand this time.” Red Ace suddenly twisted their wrist, wrenching it from my supposedly-tight grasp as the burglar danced away from the booth, the shadow that had protected their identity following. I reached for the popgun, flicking the safety off as I drew. Red Ace was nearly to the door, but the popgun fires much faster than a person can run. Or dance.
The gun went off with its distinctive pop! and an expanding bubble of semi-permeable matter flew across the room at Red Ace. The burglar turned to see what had caused the noise and caught the bubble face-first. It enveloped them, and the bubble’s forward momentum rolled Red Ace up against the far wall of the Funeral Parlor, knocking the lithe individual off their feet.
I stood slowly and gingerly picked my way across the bar, holstering the popgun as I went. I stopped in front of the bubble holding Red Ace, resting a foot against the gently-rocking and now very solid membrane surrounding the burglar. “Well then,” I said, fishing a cigarette out of my coat pocket and lighting it, “looks like there was something else.”
Captain Edison O’Mally of the Arcadia Police Department stood near the door while a uniform took my statement outside the Funeral Parlor. Two more uniformed officers were rolling Red Ace into a custody wagon, the bubble from the popgun having not dissolved yet.
“So you just happened to be having a quiet drink when a known criminal entered the bar in a completely unrelated coincidence?” the office repeated back to me, incredulously. I’d had to embellish my story a little bit to protect the not-so-innocent (me).
“That’s correct, Officer Higgins,” I replied, my face attempting to beam honesty and settling for not completely giving everything away.
“So, how come five other patrons report that the suspect was seen at your table, having a rather heated conversation with you?” Higgins was good. He could actually ask a question and could compare facts to each other and see when they contradicted each other. Most of the uniformed officers I’d seen over the years were the type to accidentally ended up asking the wrong person the wrong question, like, “Was it you what done the deed, then? Oh God, why are you pulling my spleen out through my mouth?” Higgins was one of the good ones, which was making him a pain in my ass at that moment.
“I’d asked him to pass me a coaster. He didn’t want to. Wasn’t a very neighborly burglar, I can tell you,” I said innocently.
“Hazzard,” O’Mally called as he came over to us. The captain, the walrus tusks of his gen-mod gleaming, nodded at the officer taking my statement. Higgins nodded back and stepped away. “Care to tell me just what the hell is going on?” His jowls quivered slightly, as a walrus’s jowls are wont to do. O’Mally thought his gen-mod made him look intimidating, but mostly it just game him fish breath.
“Captain, as I was explaining to your man Higgins here, this whole thing is completely innocent, just a big misunderstanding.” I attempted to put an arm around O’Mally’s shoulders, but the look he gave me made me think better of it.
“Drop the act, Eddie,” O’Mally said. “Be straight with me.”
I sighed. “Fine. I’m working a case, all right? Red Ace is my one lead on it, and I managed to trick the guy into meeting with me, but he wouldn’t give up anything.”
O’Mally nodded, sending his jowls quivering again. “We can give you some time in the interrogation chamber with Red Ace, Eddie, but I don’t know what else we can do. Most of the evidence linking this character to those burglaries is circumstantial at best.”
“Right,” I said, turning up my coat collar. “I’ll be down at the precinct in an hour.”
The interrogation room at Precinct 4 was a stark, utilitarian affair. It was not a room that the 21st century had touched, let alone the 22nd. The walls were bare, the table was made of a single piece of machined aluminum bolted to the floor, and the chairs were uncomfortably Puritanical in design and form. One wall was the traditional one-way mirror, and the door was set in the opposite wall. The one token nod to modernity was the small video camera that floated in the air above the table, maneuvering on small air jets to take in the whole room.
Red Ace was already there when I arrived, unmasked and handcuffed to the chair across from the one-way mirror. Turns out the burglar was a woman with a close-cropped shock of bright red hair and a dark complexion. Her eyes were a pale green, but burned with a fierce anger borne of (1) being stuck in an interrogation room and (2) having been caught by me.
“Red Ace, how nice to finally meet the real you,” I said as I walked in. I patted her on the shoulder as I skirted the table and took a seat across from her, my back to the one-way mirror. The door clicked shut behind her, locking again and only openable from the outside. She sat in her chair, resolutely saying nothing.
“So, what’s your name,” I asked, pressing on against the tidal wave of annoyed silence emanating from her.
The silence continued, unabated.
“You might as well say something,” I opined, hoping she’d open up after such a clever bon mot.
“You’re only making things worse for yourself, y’know,” I said. “Even now, Captain O’Mally’s getting a search warrant to toss your place. We’ll find the files, and we’ll find all the other stuff you’ve been stealing lately, too. It’s just a matter of time.”
This time, she snorted a laugh, and a smile that had nothing to do with humor flickered across her face.
“They won’t find anything in my place,” she finally said, a sneer on her lips. “And your client will just have to live with the fact that she’ll never have those files she wants.” Her voice had a slight accent, a melodic lilt that was difficult to place but made her seem exotic. It was the sort of voice you could fall in love with, if it weren’t for the fact she was a notorious thief.
“You know, you’ve got a nice voice. It was a shame to hide it behind the vocal modulator like you did.”
“It’s chauvinists like you who are the reason I did it,” she replied defiantly. “I hate being judged by what I look like, or what I sound like. Never for my abilities, always for my physical characteristics!”
I raised my hands defensively. “Easy, tiger, I was just trying to make conversation. Don’t get so defensive.”
Red Ace sat there casually, a defiant and confident sneer playing across her face. “Your kind is always the same. You think you know everything, but you’re just as ignorant and self-serving as anyone else. You’re just less honest with yourself.”
I was starting to get annoyed. “Look, lady, I’m sure your degree in gender studies or whatever makes you imminently qualified to lecture me on this,” I said, “but all I really want to know is who you’re working for.”
This time, she gave me another smile, one that not only still had nothing to do with humor but that promised someone wasn’t going to find what happened next funny at all. “Detective, that’s not really an issue right now. What is at issue is that I will be out of here in the next few minutes, and the only thing I’m not yet sure of is whether you’ll be able to walk out under your own power or not.”
I shifted uneasily in my chair. “You do realize you’re handcuffed to a chair, right?” I asked.
Red Ace barked a short, sharp laugh, shoved her chair back away from the table, and flipped over the back of it, bringing her handcuffed hands in front of her in the process. “A little help!” I called out to the floating camera, hoping the guards who had been posted right outside the door would be able to do something about this new turn of events.
The guards burst in, stun batons raised and ready. But Red Ace was ready, too, and swung her chair in a wide arc, catching both guards across the face and knocking them down. She knelt down and grabbed the handcuff neutralizer, touching it to the band on first her right and then her left wrist, deactivating the cuffs. Rubbing her wrists, she then grabbed the two guards’ stun batons, twirled them like she’d spent her life leading a marching band, then turned to me. The whole display had taken all of maybe ten seconds, and I hadn’t even had time to think about getting out of my chair.
“Well, detective, what will it be?” she asked, twirling the baton in her left hand.
Call me a coward, but I know when I’m beat. “I like walking,” I said, hands in the air with resignation.
“I thought you might,” she replied. She turned and walked out the door, balanced and poised as a dancer.
I pulled up a vid window and called Miss Typewell. “Ellen, it’s Eddie,” I said, standing up and checking on the two guards. They were both unconscious, probably had some broken bones, but they’d live. “I just planted a tracer on our good friend the Red Ace. I’m sending you the access code now. Can you upload the signal to my GPS?” Folks rarely notice the little details of a casual touch; when I’d patted her shoulder, I’d slipped a GPS tracer under the collar of her shirt.
“Sure thing, Eddie,” she replied. “Things go wrong at the precinct?”
“Of course they did,” I said as I stepped into the hallway. Another guard at the end of the hall was on the floor, also unconscious. I was clearly on the right trail even without the GPS signal. “Looks like Red Ace just dealt herself a losing hand,” I said.
“Eddie, are the bad puns really necessary?” Miss Typewell asked wearily.
“If it weren’t for bad puns, I’d have nothing to say,” I respond.
“And what a tragedy that would be,” Miss Typewell said as she closed her vid window.
* * *
By the time I left the 4th Precinct, the tracer had come online. A small vid window over my left eye painted a bullseye on the Red Ace’s location. She was on the move, and she was fast.
The tracer’s signal eventually led me back into Old Town, down around 43rd and Watterson Ave. This was a slightly run-down neighborhood, one with security windows and bars on the doors. According to the signal, Red Ace had slipped into an apartment building on the corner, and was about six floors up.
The front door of the building was open, so I slipped in as quickly and quietly as I could. I took the elevator up to the sixth floor. At apartment 604, the GPS was blinking at me like crazy, so I knew I’d found my target. I jimmied the lock and stepped inside, the popgun drawn.
The front room was empty, and not just of people. There was nothing in the room at all, and some rather concerning scrapes along the far wall that looked like an animal had dragged some claws across it. I crept through as quietly as possible, cutting through the small kitchen/dining area which was, again, empty of anything.
The back hallway led to two bedrooms and a bathroom. The bathroom contained nothing. The first bedroom contained what I’d been looking for: a small filing cabinet full of files, and the black shirt Red Ace had been wearing, folded and sitting in the middle of the floor. On top of the neatly-folded shirt was a note, addressed to me. It read:
I have enjoyed our little game, though I feel as if I’ve been playing by myself while you sat on the sidelines, drooling on yourself. You may not have been the cleverest of opponents, but you were rather determined and dogged, and I can admire that. The filing cabinet contains the documents you were looking for. My client, I’m sad to say, refuses to give up their identity, so you’ll have to be content with merely solving your case.
Oh, and do be careful. There’s a guard bear in the apartment, and she hasn’t been fed in a few days.
The Red Ace
I read and re-read the note twice, trying to make sense of the whole thing. This hadn’t been the hardest case in my career, but it certainly hadn’t been a game, either. I reached into the filing cabinet and grabbed the documents, shoving them into a pocket inside my coat.
Then I really processed the whole note, and turned around to see nine feet of furry violence behind me.
It was a brown bear, I think. Maybe a grizzly. I’m not really sure, and honestly I didn’t want to take the time to find out. It had a surveillance camera hard-wired to the vision centers of its brain, allowing someone to track what the bear saw. The things had been all the rage a decade or two ago, but they’d fallen out of style because, even with the intelligence amplifiers and behavior controls, guard bears were still tremendously unpredictable.
This one growled at me, a deep rumble in the back of its throat, and stood as tall as the low ceiling would allow it. “How did they even get you in here?” I asked in disbelieving astonishment as the thing wound up to take swing at me. I ducked back, and the large paw took out the filing cabinet instead. The metal cabinet flipped end over end across the room, slamming into a wall to my left with a loud clung, laying on its side with the filing drawers hanging out. I glanced around, looking for an exit, and saw only the window behind me. Mind you, I was six stories up; not exactly where you want to be if you’re jumping out a window.
On the other hand, when you’re staring up at an angry and, if the letter was accurate, hungry bear, pretty much anything else looks good by comparison.
The bear took another swipe at me, this time with more power behind it. I barely managed to dodge out of the way. The bear’s claws scored the wall on the right hand side of the room with deep gashes. That window was looking pretty tempting at this point.
“What the hell do I have to lose?” I muttered, jamming my hat down on my head and running toward the window at top speed.
Security glass shattered around me, the fragments flashing angry red letters to let anyone who cared to check that a window in the building had been broken. The alley between this building and the next was thankfully narrow, and I slammed into the metal railing of a fire escape, knocking the breath out of me. I chanced a quick glance behind me and saw the bear reaching through the window, persistent and angry. I couldn’t remember whether you were supposed to try to make yourself bigger and scare bears away, or curl up and make yourself smaller so they wouldn’t consider you a threat, but decided it didn’t matter and crawled over the railing of the fire escape to reach the ladder down to the next level. Behind me, the bear roared its frustration, which only served to speed up my efforts. The fire escape shook, metal groaned, and suddenly the safety scaffold was sagging towards the ground several stories below. I held on for dear life until I saw a dumpster below, the lid open and something suitably soft-looking inside. Again, figuring I had nothing left to lose, I let go of the fire escape and dropped into the dumpster.
The dumpster’s contents weren’t as soft as I’d assumed, but they weren’t as hard as the pavement. The wind was knocked out of me by the impact, but I coughed and gasped and sputtered, lying there among the trash. When I’d caught my breath, I dared another peek up at the room I’d jumped out of. The guard bear was nowhere to be seen, which was good. I’d escaped with my life and the documents.
“Guess we’ll call that a win,” I wheezed to myself, clawing for the rim of the dumpster.
* * *
I took the bundle of documents and stuffed them into a large manila envelope, slapped a few stamps on the front, and dropped the parcel in Miss Typewell’s outgoing mail tray in the office. She didn’t ask any questions or even make any snarky comments about the fact I was covered in garbage. I made my way back into the inner office, slumping into my desk chair and reopening a minimized vid window hovering low over the scarred surface of my desk. It displayed solitaire game #2,146, all of which had been loses. Some of those games had been close – on more than one occasion, a single missing card was all that stood between me and total victory.
I looked over the cards blearily, scanning for a move, any move, that I could make.
All I needed to start the cascade of cards that would signal a victory was a red ace, but none were available.
With a wry chuckle, I pinched the vid window shut and reached for a bottle of cheap whiskey.