The Company Dick

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In a drug-induced fog, my head pounding, I woke flat on my back in an unfamiliar, windowless place. With a herculean effort, I managed to lift my head. The room was without furniture except for the mildewy, armless, too-short sofa across which I had been dumped, and off an end of which, like dead weights, my calves and feet hung. The walls were dirty white; the floor much scuffed, of pale wood of some kind; the ceiling, aside from its single dim light panel, was dingy and water-stained beige acoustic tiles. A hard rubber wastebasket sat in a corner. From the ceiling-mounted camera, slowly panning from side to side, a red LED glowed balefully. A storeroom, by the look of things, and I being stored.

I went to sit up—and failed. Miserably. The fuel cell had been removed from my exoskeleton and its little reserve battery had run out. Between my own ridiculous Earth weight and that of the inert exoskeleton, I was restrained as effectively as if by the sturdiest of chains. Helpless as a bug pinned to a display board.

Exhausted, I let my head flop back onto the sofa. As I struggled to reconstruct what and why had brought me here—wherever here was—two words echoed and reechoed in my brain.

Two dead. Two dead. Two dead . . .

****

Two dead.

I had reminded myself of the toll—never mind how close I had been to becoming the third—so often that the words had become a mantra. I dare not forget that this business was serious. Deadly serious.

The pudgy guy ahead of me in line took a step forward. I plodded after. We'd been at this for a while and, best guess, I had at least an hour to go until the Security checkpoint. All passengers are screened before boarding, of course. But who knows? I might have printed a gun or knife or nunchucks during the flight. As I waited, interspersed with my subvocalized mantra, I gave silent thanks to whoever had designed the mobility exoskeleton I wore over my clothes. Earth was the gravitational hellhole of human space.

Interplanetary Arrivals was too damn big, a harbinger of all that I dreaded about Earth. Floor-to-ceiling wall displays cycled among agoraphobia-inducing panoramas: dizzyingly deep canyons; rank upon rank of snow-capped mountains, each ridgeline taller than the last; undulating plains stretching to an impossibly distant horizon; seascapes manic with crashing waves. The hall echoed with the footsteps and chatter of several hundred people. Ceres at present being near opposition to Earth, the ticket prices had been, well, astronomical, and I'd shared my flight with fewer than a dozen. I took encouragement in having disembarked during peak hours, no matter that, even with the exoskeleton, standing in queue had within minutes become torture. The less attention came my way, the better.

Even with the exoskeleton I struggled to stay upright, lurching with each step, learning to hate the hardware. The feeble twitching of Belter muscles sometimes conveyed my intentions to the exoskeleton, but as often miscommunicated. Then a leg would kick out to the side, or a knee would lock, or a foot would stomp, or something. After half an hour in the Security line and not even five meters of progress, admitting defeat, I tapped a command (and this task, too, was a struggle) into the tiny virtual keypad of the exoskeleton's back-of-the-left-forearm control panel. Thereafter, lurching like Frankenstein's monster, the hardware marched me forward one step with each tap of the virtual star key. The lone remaining shred of my dignity was that I hadn't—yet—been tempted to slap the big, red, physical, "I've fallen and I can't get up" Panic button.

It did not improve my mood that two lines to the left, another passenger from my ship glided along in her exoskeleton. Similar grace could have been mine—if I'd agreed before this trip to surgery. An implanted neural controller might even have been the wise choice, but I'm particular about having holes drilled in my head.

At long last, dripping sweat from stress and exertion, I reached the checkpoint. The exoskeleton caught the screeners' eyes, of course. I was prepared for the wanding and the pat-down that inevitably followed. But not the demand that I surrender the exoskeleton's fuel cell for inspection.

"Without power, I can't stand." That was maybe an exaggeration, because sans motorized assistance I could remain in place with the exolegs mechanically locked. Unless someone bumped into me. Then, I'd go over like a sack of potatoes. Surface gravity on Ceres is under three percent of standard.

"We need to check it," one of the Security screeners insisted.

"Then I need to sit."

While in the serpentine line behind me other weary travelers fumed, one of the screeners retrieved a chair. I sat. By the time they returned my fuel cell (Shocker! It wasn't a bomb) I had become a statue. The exoskeleton's power reserve—the tiny, built-in, rechargeable battery sized only to runs things during a quick, old-for-new, fuel-cell swap—had fully drained. Looking disgusted at my helplessness, a screener snapped the fuel cell back into its socket on the exoskeleton's left thigh. Then it was on to Baggage, and then to another line. Finally, I reached the Customs counter.

"Welcome to the USNA," the Customs officer offered in a bored monotone. The badge pinned to her blouse read Carruthers. Even by Earther standards, she was petite. With her neck craned and head tipped up to meet my gaze, she evoked an image I'd once seen of a baby robin anticipating a juicy worm. I took a passport chip from its shielded sleeve and handed it over. "Mr. . . ."

For an instant, I froze. As secretive as the company was, being one of the Belt's major employers meant it could not hide the identities of all its employees. So, if I were to have any hope of success, I had to be someone other than myself. "Donovan," I completed, recalling my current alias.

Carruthers busied herself for a while with mating the passport chip to an authenticator, giving the counter's sensor pad only the most perfunctory of swipes with a sanitizing tissue. Inwardly, I shrugged. State-of-the-art med nanites had been the least of my preparations. I pressed my thumb against the sensor pad until the device bleated its constipated approval. (As expected: the company had plenty of pull with the Ceres government. The ID chip I'd given her should be good. So should the extra ID chips nestled in dummy sockets of my exoskeleton. Bogus Cerian IDs were not exactly illegal—at least not on this world—but I didn't care to think about the questions their discovery would raise.)

"What brings you to Earth, Mr. Donovan?"

"Business," I said. Preventing economic ruin across the Belt must surely qualify as business, and her voice-stress analyzer shone a steady green. That I also hoped to rescue the kidnapped son of a company employee? That was a complication best not contemplated anywhere near a voice-stress analyzer. "Well, not just business. I've never been to Earth before. I'm taking time while I'm here to look around."

"Your computer, please. Logged in."

Since landing, I had struggled merely to stumble about in my exoskeleton. I had had no opportunity to practice fine-motor control. The tremor in my hands (damned gravity!) as I typed my pass code confounded the keystroke-dynamics recognition. Four times, to Carruthers's annoyance. Finally, the biometrics module authenticated me. I handed over the comp.

While reading out the balance from my digital wallet, an invasion of privacy the USNA somehow justified as an impediment to money laundering, she added absently, "What sort of business are you in, Mr. Donovan?"

"Management consulting." That was vague enough to encompass, well, almost anything. If there were follow-up questions, I was prepared to discuss forensic accounting for as long as necessary. In the event, she didn't ask and the LED remained green.

"Business must be good."

"You have no idea," I said, defying the lie detector to object.

With furrowed brow, Carruthers studied my face, comparing it to the holo projected from my passport by her chip reader. "See what?"

"Pardon me?"

"What kind of sightseeing do you have in mind?"

"I've heard about some interesting museums. Historical sites. Natural wonders."

"Yeah, we've got those." An icon began flashing on her screen, and she frowned. "This chip doesn't encode your DNA."

I nodded. "Not done on Ceres. As far as I know, not anywhere in the Belt."

"Yeah, well, that's there. I'll need a sample."

"But visitors to Earth aren't legally required to—"

"Earth? Maybe so. Maybe you could enter that way at, say, Timbuktu. You want to enter the USNA? Then you will authorize me to update your passport and file a DNA sample. Or . . ."

"Or?" I prompted hopefully.

"Or you can turn around and fly back to whatever rock you came from."

Had I taken as much umbrage as any upright Belter citizen? Not yet griped enough to invite a deep dive through my every digital gadget? It was a balancing act, because I really did not want to invite any extra scrutiny.

I shrugged. "Sample away."

"Already done." She pointed at the sensor pad. "Everyone's DNA is collected at entry and compared against a terrorism database. You only needed to authorize filing today's sample."

Crushing gravity and fastidious fascism. I couldn't finish my business here soon enough. "Will there be anything else?"

She keyed away at her terminal. Finally, it chirped. She removed and handed back the passport chip, then my comp. "Enjoy your visit, Mr. Donovan."

"Thank you," I answered. Because I will was a lie I could never have slipped past the voice-stress analyzer.

****

Exhausted well before I had cleared Customs, I ubered to a midtown Manhattan hotel. No matter that by local time I had landed in the early afternoon; according to ship and body clocks, it had been the middle of the night. Then, fortified with twelve hours of sleep and an epic, room-service breakfast, I got down to business.

I spent three days ostensibly enjoying some of the many famous museums, landmarks, and eateries in Manhattan. (As for the restaurants, well, strike ostensibly. In the Belt, synthed food was all I ever ate. Was all anyone—apart from senior partners of the company, or the few folks equally rich—could afford. I could get used to natural ingredients and actual cooking.) After unfashionably early dinners I returned to my hotel suite, bone-weary, to rest and to take in Earther news feeds: a litany of border wars, refugee swarms, climate disasters, health crises, anti-Spacer rage (apparently, as some would have it, we were despoiling a pristine Solar System), and spiraling crime and civil violence. In the abstract, I'd always known the mother world was a mess. Long hours immersed in that madness made it real.

And in truth? Those days were all work and no play. I mastered walking in my exoskeleton—and, "thanks" to all its metal, also stoic acceptance of a security pat-down at damn near every building I chose to enter. Internalized, after several painful conks, that I had to duck to get through almost every doorway. Came to terms with there being more people here in a single city block than the population of entire Belter cities. Proved to myself that I could survive modest exertion, that five liters of synthetic corpuscles and their super-efficient artificial hemoglobin took up the slack for my Spacer-flabby heart. Shuffled around Central Park, away from the worst signal reflections off the zillion nearby skyscrapers, until my comp obtained enough satellite ephemeris data for the GPS chip to locate me. (Freaked out my entire time in the park, I might add, by wind. What a weird phenomenon! Wished I had the time and the agility to try kite-flying. To judge by the many gleefully shrieking kids, kites must be great fun.)

I spent an entire evening in battle with downloads from the exoskeleton manufacturer's website. Almost before the ship landed, the Updates Waiting LED on the control panel had blazed red to herald a discouragingly large number of critical patches, all new since I'd departed Ceres. Half those updates took it upon themselves to re-enable a factory default setting of "Help us improve by sharing your experience." With growing impatience, I kept re-disabling that. Two updates simply hung, grinding away mid-installation, till I found the obscure operating-system setting that needed tweaking. One update activated the "I've fallen and I can't get up" feature, never asking if I wanted to accept the first-month free trial offer; I undid that, too. When the patch-notification feature proved to have no Off switch, I disabled the comm entirely. There was no telling what, if anything, the manufacturer's servers recorded from such communications with the exo—and I did not plan to leave behind a trail of digital breadcrumbs. That was the night I found a way (plenty of French wine!) to sleep through the recurring nightmare of falling splat.

What else? Practiced dining with a knife, fork, and spoon, and not slopping liquids from an open cup or glass. Acquired a small wardrobe of Earther style: men's shirts and trousers were as ubiquitous in the USNA as in the Belt, and likewise of programmable fabrics, but the cuts differed. Here, pant cuffs and long, pointy shirt collars had come back. I couldn't disguise my height or exoskeleton, but I didn't need to appear fresh off the ship. And so, I prided myself, I didn't—

As long as I remembered never to look up.

The vast blueness wasn't my problem. An infinite sky is the birthright of every Spacer. Buildings, per se, were not the issue, either. Space settlements, by their nature, are large, complex structures. But office towers of five hundred meters and more looming overhead? In this gravity? And no matter that I knew clouds to be mere aerosol accumulations, every glimpse of one, even of the white-and-fluffy variety, sent my reflexes into panic and set my overtaxed heart racing.

After three exhausting days—still less than prepared, but with the foreboding sense of time running out—I took the next step on my mission.

****

I had practiced one additional skill in New York and again at every stop along my superficially sightseeing excursion down the East Coast: picking up women. Had my repartee, as the conversational rust wore off, led anywhere, I hadn't the inclination, much less the stamina in this gravitational hellhole, to act on it. Still, no matter that I had yet to notice a tail, I did not dare risk that I didn't have one. Flirting as I went was part of the show—because as of lunchtime on my second day in Washington, DC, the flirting became my cover.

I had lied to my wife, and then argued with her, about my short-notice trip. A once-in-a-lifetime training opportunity in advanced forensic accounting? That was less than compelling, especially on the heels of a long company assignment away from home. Oh, I trusted Bea not to blab—but not not to worry. Any scrap of the truth about why the company was sending me to Earth, of all godforsaken places, would have terrified her.

And the hazardous-duty pay I'd extracted? The reward, whether or not I made it home? The company was welcome to send someone else to investigate, I'd said. Of course they wouldn't: the fewer people they brought into this mess, the less likely their vulnerability was to leak out. As for involving the authorities, it was out of the question. Any proper investigation must entail a visit to the crime scene—and that (even had it been physically possible) the company would never allow. I kept all that, too, to myself. Bea's uninformed, misdirected anxiety weighed heavily enough.

Lying. Keeping secrets. Hitting on other women. It all made me feel like a dick, and not the investigative sort that circumstances so desperately called for.

Eyes cast downward, I made my way, as the appointed hour approached, to the designated bistro just off the National Mall. I folded myself into the revolving door. Beyond that rotary torture chamber, I encountered dim lighting, tinkling jazz piano, and tiny tables. Maybe half the tables were occupied.

I plodded to the brass-and-stained-wood bar. Only a few of the stools were occupied. From one of those, the blonde in a thigh-high pink dress avoided my gaze. Courtesy of the antiqued mirror wall behind the bar, I took in her tanned oval face, pouty lips, and flowing blond hair. By Earther standards, she was an Amazon and a knockout. Give her another half meter and get those breasts out of this cruel gravity, and she would have been my type.

"Hey there," I began.

Glancing my way, she said, "Not interested, sailor."

Her voice was low and throaty. Sexy as hell. To my tabulation of her attributes I added come-hither eyes. I went thither. "Spacer."

"Same thing. The type with a girl in every port."

"I happen to have an opening for this port." She ignored me, but I persisted. "Nice place. I'm surprised it's not more crowded."

"Clearly, you haven't eaten here."

"How are the buffalo wings?" Notwithstanding recent utensil practice, I preferred finger food, though that wasn't why I asked.

"Greasier than, and almost as insipid as, the egg rolls." Finally turning my way, she saluted with her glass. "I recommend sticking with these."

I caught the bartender's eye. "Two more of what the beautiful lady is having."

"Two double scotch rocks," he acknowledged. "Single malt."

"You're pretty cocky," she told me.

I waggled an eyebrow. "You don't know the half of it."

A few more lines exchanged from the cheesy script, her eye-popping outfit, and my mismatched socks, and we had established each other's bona fides. Drinks in hand, we reconvened at a nearby table. With a deft pat of the hand, my lovely companion set the privacy screen shimmering. White noise hissed all around us.

"Maureen Rogers," she said, suddenly all business.

"Bernie Fredericks." Not that it mattered, I wondered if her name were any more real than mine. "You're with the company?"

She shook her head. "PI. I sometimes do work for one of their law firms."

While I savored my scotch (unbelievably smooth: the distilled, aged in oaken barrel kind, and nothing like the synthed stuff I got in the Belt), she found a contact-lens case in her capacious purse. "These are for you." She tipped her head questioningly.

As in: why hadn't I just brought my own? Or printed my own once I'd disembarked?

Because getting caught at the border with fake IDs was one thing. A common criminal might arrive with those; if caught, I could hope merely to be shipped back home. But if I'd been caught at Customs with spy gear, or the digital recipe for same? No way was that going to end well.

Maybe she just wondered what I was up to.

Whatever the nature of her curiosity, the company expected me not to share. "Who knows about this meeting?"

"On my side, as far as I know, only one of the law firm's senior partners. I don't ordinarily do anything for him."

Meaning, I took it, he did work for the company, and that he had picked her because she didn't. I palmed the lens case. "Good. And who knows about these?"

"Just me. It's my spare set. The thing is, I work mostly divorce cases."

Honey trap, did they call it? "And no one will know I have them?"

"I'll report them lost and expense a replacement pair. Not to worry."

When accountants play detective, they had better worry. "How do these work?"

"Slip them on." As the lenses molded themselves to my eyes, Maureen took a comp from her purse. "And I'll need your comp."

I authenticated, and she mated the smart lenses to my comp. She taught me the blink sequences that started and stopped scene capture. Once I'd mastered those, I practiced the squint that downloaded imagery from the lenses to my comp. Then we established and tested a direct link between our comps. Between quantum crypto and routing over the dark web, the connection was as secure as either of us knew to make it.

For good measure, she threw in several apps ("Tools of the trade," she called them. "More dark-web goodies.") I had no reason to believe I had any use for. That those came encrypted and disguised as parts of unallocated spare memory ("Not anything you would want to be found carrying") made me more than a little queasy. Or maybe it was the buffalo wings on which, despite her warning, I'd been chowing down.

She tried again, dispensing with subtlety. "I could be of more help if I knew what you were after …"

Eventually, she shrugged. "What more do you need?"

"Working capital. I believe an amount has been arranged?"

Maureen transferred a large, untraceable wad of cryptocash to my comp. Unlike the money I had had to disclose at spaceport Customs, this was not anything government could tax or trace. Merely confiscate, if they found it. "Anything else?"

Good luck? Given the woman's usual line of work, being lucky could be taken the wrong way. And had the company been willing to inform anyone on Earth of their dilemma, I continued to believe, I wouldn't even be here.

I said, "Dialing down the gravity would be appreciated."

****

Had Maureen worn another pair of super-spy contacts to the meet? Back in my hotel room, studying my reflection, I couldn't make out the pair still in my eyes until (having to crouch to do so) I'd brought my face to within scant centimeters of the bathroom mirror. So, I had to assume, yes.

I could envision lens imagery capturing my pass code and the nuances of my typing it, then bypassing the keyboard via a thumb-drive port. I was pretty sure I could code that hack myself. The possibility would seem academic while the comp remained in my possession, but I don't roll that way. (Two dead. Two dead.) Once I'd ascertained that the (supposedly) inert-till-I-decrypted-them apps didn't include a hidden keystroke logger, I began the switchover to a new authentication sequence. I entered a new pass code, over and over, until keystroke-dynamics recognition trilled completion.

No key logger (that I'd found, anyway) did not mean the unsolicited gifts were otherwise innocuous. After disabling a concealed tracker, I changed names and hotels. Had Maureen not tried to tail a secretive company agent, not tried to discover something exploitable, I'd have been disappointed. Who didn't hunt for some advantage over the company? I had, although my ink-not-yet-dry status as a very junior partner wasn't the sole reason for me being here.

I played around for an hour with Maureen's toys; the wireless skeleton key for electronic locks seeming the most handy. I tweaked the code of several of her apps. Remembering her offhanded Not anything you would want to be found carrying, I downloaded two backup sets of everything into spare memory in the exoskeleton controller and deleted the originals from my comp.

Then, bone-weary, I ordered room service and went to bed early.

****

I spent another two days in Washington—watching for, but not noticing, any surveillance—while I mastered the art of blink/snapping pictures. The museums were diverting, the monuments inspirational. Even the National Mall, as long as I kept my eyes downcast, was pleasant enough. But once darkness fell? Even after, never mind expense-account wine, a healthy three-fingers slug of scotch?

Horror.

It began with the scariest sound in space: the warbling wail of a decompression siren. The roar of escaping atmosphere punctuated the klaxon's periodic lulls. Papers and pens, drink bulbs and food wrappers, hand tools and clipboards, everything not secured was sucked up into a maelstrom. My ears popped. My flesh bloated.

As quickly as humanly possible I slapped up emergency patches. So did everyone around me. People I knew. People I loved.

Fresh wall cracks gaped even faster.

With air pressure plummeting, as the keening of alarms eerily trailed off, I was in agony. My gut distended from end to end as trapped gases expanded and expanded and expanded, spewing puke and shit. I screamed, silently, into the near vacuum—when I could, when the puking eased up—to squeeze out air before the pressure differential destroyed my lungs. Ankles, knees, shoulders, knuckles … every joint was aflame. My eardrums burst. The world turned red as the blood from ruptured vessels seeped into my eyes and as hypoxia took hold.

I could feel my eyeballs bulge.

In nightmarish slo-mo, frenetic commotion became the yet more ominous absence of activity. People slumping to the floor. Others adrift, launched by involuntary spasms or tugged by the final wisps of escaping air. A floating body nudged me. Long, chestnut-brown hair: a woman. Slowly, she turned. A delicate ear came into sight. The graceful curve of a cheek. The cupid's-bow shape of her lips.

Bea!

I'd jerk awake, gasping for breath, sodden with sweat, trembling. And repeat.

The third morning, done in—but as acclimated as I would ever be—I moved on.

****

Chicago's main museum complex sat alongside a freakily huge lake. There, on Day One, I observed (admired would have been an overstatement; these things had all begun to look alike) yet more artwork and fossils. Traveling inland, I whiled away Day Two gawking at wondrous beasts at the Brookfield Zoo. I wasted far too much time both evenings streaming local news feeds and surfing Earther social media, incredulous that anyone could believe the overpopulated home world would be better off without lunar He-3 or Belt rare earths and precious metals—and somehow unable to look away.

And louder than ever, the words echoed in my brain—

Two dead. Two dead. Two dead. Two dead . . .

On my third day in Chicago the tourism act ended. Either no one was surveilling me, or I lacked the skill to notice them. Regardless, the clock was ticking.

Two dead. Two dead. Two dead . . .

I began with the last address I had for Darin Hodges: a name conspicuously absent from the collection of lobby buzzers. "I'm a friend of Darin's father," I told the apartment manager, a glum, elderly fellow with the droopy jowls of a St. Bernard. "I promised the old man I'd take Darin out to dinner."

Only Darin hadn't lived there in months. Skipped out owing rent, the manager said, chatty after I paid the young man's arrears. Everything Darin had left behind—no inventory had been taken, of course—had long since been disposed of through a consignment shop (which kept no records of its customers) or recycled.

No clues to be had then, from his possessions, to the young man's whereabouts.

The University of Chicago online directory did not list Darin Hodges, but a snapshot of that directory from the Wayback Machine confirmed that, in the previous semester, he had been a student. I roamed the echoing corridors of Watson and Crick Hall, asking about him, until a young woman with blue-and-mahogany-striped hair and gold hoop earrings pointed me to what had been Darin's office as a research assistant. Former officemates there and, once I tracked down the professor, Darin's erstwhile dissertation adviser, claimed they hadn't been surprised at Darin's dropping out. He had been distracted for months, they said, doing more coffeehouse BSing than research. BSing about what? Economics. Or politics. Maybe tree-hugging. Labeling his hobby horse didn't seem worth the effort. More discouraging, no two of them agreed when they had last seen him.

If anyone as much as suspected Darin had been abducted, they kept it to themselves. Clearly, no missing person report had been filed. Chicago PD would have found these same acquaintances as readily as had I.

Mentions of coffee were, if not productive, at least timely. I got a recommendation for a nearby coffee bar where, over a double espresso, battling exhaustion, for the umpteenth time I considered more technological methods of investigation. If I hadn't had the skill set, I'd never have gotten into Les Hodges's computer. I wouldn't even be on this quest. I wouldn't be achy and bruised inside the damned exoskeleton, without which I could not as much as get out of bed on this damned planet.

If I accessed the younger Hodges's financial accounts, I'd have a better idea when he had been snatched. The latest transaction might even suggest where he had been snatched. Then, by hacking the city's archive of public-safety surveillance, with facial rec I might spot the actual kidnapping. Maybe, even, the kidnappers. But the prospect, however unlikely, of getting caught and serving years in this barbarous gravity once again deterred me.

We'd call hacking Plan B.

Darin's father was in biotech, the professor had offered confidentially. Was I aware of that? (Yes.) Perhaps an advanced degree in biotech had never been Darin's idea. He certainly had some kind of issue with his father. (Okay, I hadn't known that. Not for certain. To be sure, the paucity of messages from Darin on his father's computer had implied as much.)

And maybe the young man's adviser was onto something. Somewhere along the way I heard that Darin had volunteered as a docent at the nearby Oriental Institute. Showing ancient Middle Eastern artifacts? That was not exactly a typical hobby for a budding biotech engineer. I plodded the few blocks to the museum, passing a line of posters on utility poles proclaiming a week-earlier protest over Spacer imperialism. All that the arduous trek got me was three more sorry-haven't-seen-hims.

Outside the museum, with evening falling, a car with heavily tinted windows pulled up. The Uber to return me to my hotel, I thought, till the rear curbside window slid down a few centimeters. From within the vehicle, a decidedly non-synthesized voice said, "I hear you've been asking about me."

****

I struggled to contain my shock.

"Darin Hodges?" I said. This was, without a doubt, the "missing" son. It wasn't just that he took after his old man, with the same slot face, cleft chin, and close-set blue eyes. More times than I cared to remember, I had watched Darin in the vid from his father's hacked comp. I saw the same thin lips, the same slight leftward bend to the nose, and the same curly black hair.

"Yes." I heard the click-thunk of a door unlocking. "Get in, please."

I did. And as the car sat at the curb, my mind raced.

The terrified young man in the vid, handcuffed to a metal-frame chair, pleading for his father's help, had had a black eye and a split lip. Had cringed from a ski-masked, voice-disguised someone threatening his slow death unless the elder Hodges did as directed. The passage of time might explain the fading of bruises, but not the young man's freedom—much less why, to protect his son, Les Hodges had . . . done what he had. Apart from a few people within the company, no one knew that.

I hadn't anticipated Darin finding me. That left me winging it. I temporized, "How did you know it was me asking around?"

"We don't see a lot of middle-aged Spacers around here."

"Your father is a middle-aged Spacer," I reminded. (Earthborn, and so a shorter-than-two-meter pipsqueak, but a Spacer nonetheless. Belters crazy or driven enough to visit must be in short supply, though. I sure as hell looked forward to going home.)

"Uh-huh. And how often do I ever see him?"

"Let's start over." I introduced myself, my spiel basically what I'd used with the apartment manager. I concluded, "When your dad heard I'd be in Chicago, he made me promise to take you to dinner."


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