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Ain’t No Sunshine

Michael J. Ferguson and Christopher L. Smith

Flavor burst onto his palate like a mouthful of fireworks. Yes! That inevitable and delightful burn of heavenly nectar from an earthbound distillery. The haunting sound of the Miles Davis horn and the heady smoke-ladened liquor paired so well it made him feel like the gods themselves had designed this moment.

I can get used to this, thought Slade, taking a second sip. Would that he could afford this Earthside hooch more often. Maybe this PI thing will work out after all.

It wasn’t his intention to go into the private investigation business, but with the success of his first case, the possibilities became more plausible. The transition from “search and destroy” to “search and rescue” had been easier than he’d thought, and brought with it a fulfillment he hadn’t expected. The money didn’t hurt, either. While not “buy an island and retire” good, it was “I could get used to this” good, at least for his initial case. Enough for him to seriously consider making it a career. Hang out the shingle—Isaac Slade, Private Eye. Had a nice ring to it.

He looked about his single cube dwelling, small even by station standards. Clean and organized in military fashion, if a little dingy around the edges. Despite his best efforts, some of the grime refused to budge. He’d made his peace with it, accepting it as something that wouldn’t change. Granted, his cube wasn’t in the best sector of the station. One of these days, though… It would be nice to move up to a place in a location he could bring a woman without the associated embarrassment.

Perhaps if he had applied himself a bit more while in the Marines he’d be pulling down a captain’s or even a major’s pension. Once he traded his nugget for a silver bar, he felt he had arrived at the perfect comfort level. As first lieutenant he never had to make the big decisions and only took orders from his captain. Most of the time anyway.

“Money talks and BS walks,” his gunny had said the day he handed Slade his old antique knife. “It may be the root of all evil, but you can’t do fuck all without it!”

With the near empty glass in one hand, he grabbed the bottle with the other as he got up from the “kitchen” table to move over to the chair in front of the display. Two long strides and he flopped into the autoform chair. It moved immediately to his preferred alignment, lifting his legs and adjusting to a perfect spinal position. These days, it was well beyond his paycheck to find old-fashioned furniture that could fit a person over six foot four, so he’d had to make a minor compromise to his preferred aesthetic.

The chair was the only thing he had that could be considered “modern.” Artificial Intelligence had made some major leaps in the last hundred years, but Slade just couldn’t bring himself to trust it. Only one more thing to break, or make a mess of things, as far as he was concerned. The less complicated and intrusive, the better. Even his vid unit was an old 3D version with no voice command.

He’d stopped using his military implant the second he was discharged, declining the offer to upgrade to the civilian spec version for free. He’d gone so far as to have it removed with his last check, effectively segregating himself from the majority of the world’s tech. “Off the grid” was difficult these days—practically impossible—but in his mind, every little bit helped.

Slade knew his atavistic nature made him an oddball in this day and age, but he also knew just how much humanity was stripped away by modern tech. As “connected” as everyone was, they seemed more and more distant. Modern interactions seemed to have no soul to them. Not his style at all.

He put down the bottle, finished what was left in the glass, set it next to the bottle and picked up the remote from the table by the chair and turned on the display.

Maybe it’s time for a little R and R. Catch the shuttle over to a geosync and take the elevator down Earthside and get some real gravity under my feet. See a beach, walk on some sand, talk to women in bikinis.

A few seconds into his fantasy, he realized his display was still blank.

“What the hell?”

He stared at it, trying to figure out what was happening. Signal but no feed. He switched to another channel, then another. Nothing.

“Great. Another glitch,” he said, mentally adding another bullet point to his list of things he didn’t like about technology.

Finally, he got something—a local feed. Station news mostly, but at least it was coming in.

“…behind the continuing glitches,” the announcer said. “The unprecedented interruptions of operations is puzzling engineers and techs stationwide. We’ve not been able to get a direct answer from Lagrange Analytic on the cause.”

“The glitches are blamed in at least one death. Lagrange Analytic’s Senior Vice President and Chief Operations Officer Salome Deveraux, died earlier today. Head of security, Damian Rains, told Station One News the preliminary exam suggests the death was caused by a catastrophic failure of her access node implant at ten a.m. station time, when the glitches began…”

Slade leapt out of the chair, still holding the remote.

“Salome?” he whispered.

He needed to go to the office. He grabbed his fedora from the hook by the door and rushed out.

* * *

Slade lifted the brim of his hat slightly as Dennis Collier walked into the office. His friend, carefully juggling his lunch and a small package, kicked the door closed behind him. Shifting slightly, he tossed the parcel on the desk they shared.

“Where you been?” Slade said, looking up from the slate. He’d been going through what little there was about Salome while he’d waited.

“A man’s gotta eat. Came for you today,” Collier said, sitting down and nodding at the package. The smells from the lunch bag suggested something laced heavily with saffron. Again. “You’re in my seat.”

At just under six feet tall, and especially with his leaner frame, Collier didn’t have the same issues as Slade when it came to furniture. Slade felt no remorse over taking his partner’s chair.

Slade didn’t answer as he opened the package, carefully sliding his knife along the top edge. Turning it upside down, he eased the contents into his palm. A smile flickered unbidden, but unashamedly, across his lips. He’d get back to Salome momentarily, right now he just wanted to enjoy the moment.

“I don’t get it, man,” Collier said, tucking into the couscous mixture, “We have vids, slates, etc., available. What is it about books?”

Slade ignored him, breathing in the scent of the yellowed paper.

“It’s just…” he said, placing the book on his desk after a moment, “it’s just that it feels more real, you know? The pages have weight, smell, texture. Like you’re a part of the story, not just reading it.”

“Whatever, man,” Collier said, pointing at Slade’s hat. “You don’t see me wearing a fez, do you? Seems too much like you’re living in the past.”

“Ah, but the past was cool,” Slade said, smiling. “The style, the panache, the way things were done.”

“We live on a station that we flew to in a spaceship, bud. How can you possibly say that’s not cool?”

“Don’t get me wrong, ain’t nothin’ wrong with progress, and I got no hassle with where I am,” Slade said. “But c’mon—you have to admit, the sense of adventure, the thrill, it’s missin’.”

“That’s another thing—listen to yourself. And don’t give me that ‘poor black sharecropper ancestor’ crap. ‘Ain’t nothing.’ ‘Got no hassle.’ You are a college-educated man, not some hayseed hick from East Texas. Why try to sound like that?”

Slade’s grin grew, causing his partner to roll his eyes.

“Like I said, man. Panache.” He picked up the book, turning it so Collier could see the cover. Slate tapped the picture. “Easy Rawlins was a smooth talkin’, tough walkin’ sonofabitch. I like his style.”

“Whatever you say, Slade. I’m not gonna argue with you.” Collier pushed back from his meal. “So what was so urgent that you actually came into the office? I figured you’d be taking some R and I by now.”

“Rest and Intoxication? Yeah, that was put on hold,” Slade said, getting his mind back on task. “Remember me talking about a woman named Salome when we were in the service?

“We were friends back in the day,” he said, not waiting for an answer. He carefully placed the book on the desk. “Came up together before I enlisted. Went to the same college and all. Well…she’s dead. Died this morning. They’re saying it’s part of these weird glitches we’ve been having.”

“I think I heard something about that on the local feeds. Nothing coming in from outside. Salome Deveraux, right?” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.”What of it? Sounds like a tragic accident to me.”

“I can smell something is wrong, and it’s not just your damned curry. I feel it deep down—just can’t shake it. The same way I felt when something was hinky on patrol. This whole thing’s not on the up and up.”

“So what do you want to do about it?” Collier said, giving him his “you gotta be kidding me” look.

“I think we need to go see Rains.”

“Great! I’m sure he’ll be thrilled.”

* * *

“Gentlemen, to what do I owe the pleasure?” Rains said. He stood and walked around the large desk to greet them before they could walk further into the office. “I don’t believe we have an appointment.”

“As if you’re booked solid,” Slade said as he pushed past the smaller man to flop into one of the four chairs. “Mind if I sit?”

“Look, Damien,” Collier said. Rains raised an eyebrow slightly before Collier continued, mollified. “Inspector, my partner here thinks all these glitches and interruptions the station is going through might not be wholly responsible for the demise of Ms. Deveraux.”

“Oh?” Rains said, eyebrow shooting higher. The expression, coupled with Rains’ small, dark eyes, somehow made the man look even more ratlike to Slade, if that were possible.

No, rat is wrong. he thought. Weasel.

“I know what you think.” Slade leaned forward. “Just give me something to go sniff around and I’ll be out of your hair so you can get back to…inspecting.”

“Well, I suppose I can let you see the prelim autopsy report.” Rains went back to his desk and lifted the clear rectangle of his tablet. “Would you like me to send a temporary link to your implants?”

Slade gave a sharp wave of his hand.

“Ain’t got one. Just hand me the tablet, will you?”

Rains glanced at Collier before tapping instructions on the tablet and handing it to Slade.

Slade felt the frown take over his face as he studied the words and images on the tablet, brow furrowing involuntarily. Since it was clear, Collier would be able to see the same thing, only in reverse. Slade shifted to let him have a better view.

“Well?” Collier said, gesturing.

“I’m no expert, but it seems the damage is very localized,” Slade said, handing the tablet to his partner. “Not like frying from a glitch—I’d think that should have taken out more of the neuroelectronics. This looks like a controlled overload, like blowing a fuse.”

“You’re right about one thing, Slade.” Rains looked disgusted, snatching the tablet from Collier before huffing back to his chair. “You’re not an expert. Not to mention this report is preliminary. Come back when you have a doctorate in medical tech.”

Rains looked back and forth at the two men, finally throwing his hands up in a helpless gesture.

“I don’t believe anything untoward caused Ms. Deveraux’s death,” he said. “This is an old station—the oldest in the system. The retrofits are not going as planned. Typically overbudget and delayed. Something about scarce rare metals.”

He paused, looking between them again. Slade kept his expression neutral. Rains sighed dramatically before continuing.

“Fine. If you feel you must duplicate effort, then you should probably seek out Ms. Deveraux’s heir apparent at Lagrange Analytic. A Ms.”—his eyes became distant for a moment as he checked his implant—“ah yes, a Ms. Lydia Vadinov.”

That got Slade’s attention, setting off a myriad of emotions. Some good but most not so much. Lydia, Salome, and Slade’s complicated past made this case more compelling and personal.

“Yes. Judging by your reaction, I take it you know her,” Rains said. “She was in charge of the day-to-day for the retrofit. Though, I suppose, now she’ll be in charge of the entire project.”

Slade nodded at Collier, then jerked his head toward the door.

“Thank you, Inspector,” Slade said as they turned to leave. “We’ll keep you in the loop if we find anything new.”

“While you’re at it,” Rains’ voice came from behind them. “You might want to speak with Samantha Deveraux, the victim’s sister. She handled the procurement.”

As they left Rains’ office, Collier pulled Slade off to the side of the corridor out of the way of the foot traffic. There was more than the usual amount of people in the corridor, likely due to issues with the transit pods.

“Look, Slade, we should split up to save time,” Collier said. “You take this Vadinov woman and I’ll go see Deveraux.”

He held up a hand before Slade could speak.

“I know you know them both, but Samantha just lost her sister. I’m thinking a stranger might be easier to deal with than a friend”—he gave a knowing look—“especially one that had history with the deceased.”

Collier was right. Slade felt his emotions ebb, argument dying on his lips. He nodded.

“Yeah, I feel ya. I’ll give her a heads-up you’re coming by. Let her know you’re okay, dig?” Slade gave a slight grin as he said the last, enjoying the pained expression on his friend’s face. “I tried to reach her on the way to the office but I couldn’t get hold of her. I still want to see how’s she doing. Give my condolences, you know?”

“Understood. We’ll meet up afterwards to compare notes.”

* * *

As Collier walked off, Slade went to the nearest com corridor to give her the heads-up about the visit.

Little Sunny Deveraux, all grown up and putting all her nerdiness into the station retrofit. Slade had to admit he hadn’t been a very good friend to her since he returned from the “policing action” on Callisto. For that matter, he hadn’t seen much of Samantha or Salome. He’d have to make an effort to visit more, now that Salome was gone.

He placed his thumb on the com’s “call” button, a picture of an old-fashioned rotary telephone, activating the screen. One of the original pieces of tech from the station’s early days, he found it comforting in its relative obscurity.

Name and number? the screen read.

“Samantha Deveraux, 92647.” He appreciated the little hourglass icon as well. An atavistic hanger-on from an earlier time. How many people would even know what that is these days?

“Hello?” said a female voice he recognized. Audio only, no video. Either the gremlins were still running rampant, or Samantha was being cautious.

“Sunny, it’s me—Slade.” The screen came to life. Not gremlins then. Deveraux’s upper torso filled the screen, a deep blue satin robe drawn tightly around her shoulders. He took a second to examine her face.

She had been crying, it seemed, and had hastily prepared herself for a video call. Her hair spilled out of a top bun, stray dark brown locks cascading down her neck. Her nose and eyes were rimmed in red, and both were running.

“What do you want?” she said, sniffling.

“Sunny, I just wanted to say how sorry I am for your loss. I wouldn’t be bothering you right now if it wasn’t important.”

“Save your sorrow for someone you care about, Slade. Haven’t seen hide nor hair of you in months.” She shook her head slightly, dislodging more hair from the bun. “The only time I see you is when you’re sniffing around Salome. If she wasn’t dead, you’d still be a stranger.”

“I know I haven’t been a very good friend of late,” he said. She wiped her nose with a tissue and tossed it to the side. He imagined the floor piled with snotty, tear-soaked tissues, and repressed a shiver. “I get busy with stuff and forget to do the real things I should pay attention to. It’ll be different, you’ll see. I’m here to support you, Sunny, I swear.”

“It’s Samantha. Only people close to me get to call me ‘Sunny.’” If she saw Slade wince, she ignored it. “What’s so important? I’m sure you didn’t call just to explain what a lousy asshole you are.”

“Right.” He gave up on trying to convince her of his sincerity for the moment. “Look, my partner is on his way to talk with you about Salome. His name is Dennis Collier. We don’t think it was an accident. We’re working a couple of leads and could use anything you’ve got. He’ll be there shortly.”

“Not an accident? You think she was killed?” Her voice dropped. “Murdered?”

“I think it’s possible. You should get yourself cleaned up enough to have company.” Snotty, tear-soaked…

“I have a right to wallow as much as I want,” she said, eyes becoming hard under the tears. “If he can’t understand why I look this way, then tell him to piss off and leave me alone!”

“Fine. I’m sorry I said anything.” He shut his eyes and took a deep breath. Staying calm was key.

“I didn’t ask for this, Zac. I’m not paying a private investigator to look into ‘It’s possible.’ Rains told me it was a closed case.”

“No. This is on me. I’m the one that’s kicking up all this mess, and I owe her—you—this much,” he said, fighting to keep his voice level. “Just, please, talk to Denny when he gets there. Tell him anything you can think of that might have been out of the ordinary or caught your attention as odd. In the meantime, I’m on my way to see Lydia Vadinov.”

“That prime bitch!” she snarled, features twisting. “If it is murder, I’d put her at the top of my list. She hated Salome for parachuting into that position over her.”

“Sam, let’s not jump to any conclusions…”

She ignored him. “Lydia thought she was next in line. She never had a chance and the chip on her shoulder was so big it made her walk funny.” The anger fell away as she teared up again. “Well, I guess she finally beat Salome.”

“I’ll suss out what’s really going on, Sam. I have a nose for such things. There will be justice for you and Salome.” His eyes narrowed. “I promise.”

* * *

Lydia Vadinov. She had been one corner of a sexually tense triangle back in college, with he and Salome as the other two. Both women were fiercely competitive in nature, and it permeated into all aspects of their lives. Each was always ready to throw down, in order to outdo the other, no matter the subject. Grades, fashion, bedroom games, it didn’t matter. Kept him on his toes—not to mention exhausted and happy.

He and Lydia had parted on strained but civil terms way back then. Since he’d been on station, they’d met up a few times, but it didn’t feel right. Since then, he’d done his best to avoid her. Not difficult to do, considering the social and literally physical rings they moved through. She and Salome, being rich, socialite businesswomen, wouldn’t have had that luxury.

He snorted at the irony.

Could it be that she was jealous enough to take things a step too far? It didn’t feel right, but yet, the stakes were much higher than before. He’d reveled in it at the time—two smart, white-collar women fighting over his blue-collar ass—but it hadn’t been healthy for any of them. Perhaps Lydia took the competition a little too seriously?

With the pods all jacked up, he figured he would take a maintenance belt ladder upspoke to the .75g area where Lagrange Analytic had offices.

He had been a station rat back before the Marines. Fresh out of college and looking for adventure, he came to L5 because it was the most affordable space habitat. He quickly discovered why.

It was old, very old. The first large space station ever built, it was state-of-the-art at the time. Now, it was mostly a tenement. A lofty version of its inner-city ancestors, locked into geosynchronous orbit.

Of course, that made it very affordable and desirable to Earth’s lower-class citizens, especially in those countries that had issues with overcrowding. Many of the residents were “encouraged” to relocate here by their “benevolent” governments, often at the business end of a rifle.

He knew every corner. Gentrification only went so far, a fresh coat of paint over the mildew and rusted corruption underneath. Those areas—the unseen and unmentioned places the well-to-do tried to ignore—that’s where he and his cohorts made their home.

He slipped into a back corridor unnoticed, the smells of curry and cabbage fading behind him. Flickering lights, their affliction more obvious due to their fewer numbers, did more to bolster the darkness than vanquish it. In the farthest corner, beyond the limit of the last stuttering circle of illumination, he found a maintenance hatch. Pulling Gunny’s knife from his back pocket, he used the blade to ease the panel off the lock screen and hit the override. Just like back in his rat days.

The hatch gave way to a narrow corridor, connecting all the “back of house” necessities for station life. Plumbing, fiber optics, electrical, waste retrieval, etc., it was all here, hidden from the upper crust.

Slade covered the hundred meters to the belt ladder with brisk, long strides. He stepped onto it, activating the mechanism.

This brings back memories, Slade thought.

He felt lighter as he ascended, the gravity easing as he moved closer to the center of the station. Each ladder shift became something of a dance as he adjusted to the sensation. His younger self dared him to jump for the next ladder; his wiser current self slapped that down, hard. Missing the landing would put an end to his new career in short notice.

Just as that younger voice decided to speak up again, it was time to get off. He landed lightly on his feet in a semilit corridor similar to the one he started in. Only the floating, glowing, alphanumeric level designation differed.

Slade walked slowly for a few moments to adjust to the weight he’d lost, getting his “grav-legs” under him. With a grin, he let his younger self come out, sprinting down the corridor to the maintenance hatch. The lock was designed to keep people from getting in, not out. He hit the large exit button and slowly opened the hatch, peeked out to make sure the coast was clear, then slipped effortlessly into the foot traffic with no one the wiser as to how he got there.

So much for the easy part, Slade thought. Now what do I say to an old friend that just might be guilty of murder?

* * *

“Isaac?” Lydia looked up from a glass and chrome desk as Slade walked into her office. “So this is what it takes for you to show up around here. Death and the station falling apart around us?”

She stood up and walked around the desk, the rustic curls of her long black hair slightly buoyant in the reduced gravity. Her smooth skin, tanned and healthy as though she just walked off a beach, looked as though she hadn’t spent months living as a space mole. Her tight skirt, along with the brightly colored scarf adorning her neck, gave the impression of a model playing at big business.

To his eyes she looked even better than before.

“You look…great!” Slade said, his brain deciding to shut down. Lydia walked up to him and, rising slightly on her toes, kissed him on the cheek.

“At a loss for words. I’ll take that as a compliment,” Lydia said, smiling. She indicated two chairs and a couch near a coffee table to the left of her desk.

“This office is bigger than my apartment,” he said, taking in the room. Data banks sat to the right of the desk, dwarfed by the massive monitors behind it. He turned and saw two on either side of the door, similar in size. All were showing different angles of the same scene, giving the illusion of windows overlooking a beach. “Very impressive.”

She sat on the couch, carefully smoothing her skirt and crossing her legs. He took a chair.

“You should see Salome’s. The boss has it even better.” Lydia looked down, a sudden catch in her voice. “Had.”

“Lydia,” Slade said softly. She raised her head at her name, allowing him to look her squarely in the eyes, “I have to ask—how enticing is her office to you? I mean, how badly did you want that office to be yours?”

“I am quite sure I don’t like your insinuation,” she said, eyes growing hard. Genuine indignation, or just good acting? “Are you suggesting that I might have something to do with her death?”

“You have to admit, the competition between you two didn’t always stay on the rails.”

Lydia sat back, crossing her arms.

“I’ve seen you, what, twice since you returned?” It had been four times, but two of them were all fun. She didn’t give him a chance to correct her. “I had to hear you were back through the grapevine and it was me that came to you. Now you waltz in here and accuse me of murdering a childhood friend?”

Her face twisted, like she smelled something awful.

“The nerve of you. You have no idea the relationship I have…had…with Salome. What makes you think I’m capable of committing such a horrific act?”

Slade paused. He wanted to answer carefully, with a little forethought. After all, he was accusing a friend and former lover of murder. A friend he hadn’t seen much of, granted, but one he still cared for deeply. That realization hit him like a finely aimed left hook. He didn’t want to lose her, too.

“Lydia, you have to admit, it all lines up.” He ticked points off on his fingers. “The competitive nature of your relationship with Salome is well documented. It’s no secret—you were pissed that she got the job, the job you figured was by all rights yours. You told me that yourself.”

“I did no such thing!”

“Honey, you talk in your sleep,” he said gently. He raised another finger as he continued, “You have the know-how, and access, to create a feedback loop in the implant. Take a step back, calm down, and be reasonable.”

“Calm down?” Her voice rose an octave between the first and last word.

He looked at her, trying to keep his face expressionless. She met his gaze with ferocity and a side of anger before standing abruptly and walking to her desk. He recognized the action as her way of getting under control. Ever conscious of outward appearance, Lydia hated losing composure in public.

“You need to leave. Now.” She held up a hand as he opened his mouth, cutting off any reply. “I mean it, Isaac. You have no authority here, and as far as I’m concerned you’re trespassing.”

“Lydia, I’m trying to get to the bottom of this. Salome’s death wasn’t an accident.”

“No, I get it, Slade,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re convinced I had something to do with it. I’m your prime suspect, our history be damned. Get out of here before I call Rains.”

“Fine. You know where to reach me if you want to talk.” He turned and walked towards the door. There was no reasoning with her when she got defensive.

She said nothing further as he left, the door closing with a whisper over the icy silence behind him.

* * *

Slade went back to the office mollified after meeting with Lydia. Collier was already there, sitting in “his” seat.

“How’d it go with Ms. Vadinov?”

“Let’s just say I had to leave before I became the next victim,” Slade said, shrugging. He sat in the other chair. “She’ll come around and want to talk again later, she always does. She just needs time to think it all through. So what did Sammy have to say? Anything useful?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.” Collier leaned forward, clasping his hands as he leaned his elbows on the desk. “But I don’t think you’re going to like what she had to say. There’s no love lost between Samantha and Lydia. She thinks that if it is murder, then Lydia had something to do with it.”

“I gathered that from the conversation I had with her. I have to admit that Lydia looks like the prime suspect but I can’t help feeling like I’m missing something.”

Collier said nothing but made a “go on” motion with his hand. Slade sighed and continued.

“They may have been competitive, but they were good friends as well. Like sisters from another mother.” He shook his head, “It’s hard to explain.”

“Tell me, Slade, if it is murder, who else had something to gain?” Collier leaned back, combing his hair back with his fingers.

Slade thought a bit. Collier had a point. Only one person came front and center, no matter which way he looked at it. Still, there was a nagging feeling in the back of his mind that it wasn’t that easy.

“There’s always more than one angle,” Slade said. “Maybe Salome saw something she shouldn’t have, or one of the contractors had a beef. Maybe she had a relationship sour. Could be anything.”

“You’re grasping at straws,” Collier leaned forward again, a smug look on his face. “You’re inventing boogeymen. Look, it’s all about Occam’s razor. The simplest solution is usually the right one.”

“It wasn’t when we looked at Salome’s body.”

Collier waved him off. “Bah—you don’t want it to be her, is all. I get it; I really do. She’s a looker, and you two have history.”

Was that all it was? Slade thought. Am I thinking with the wrong body part?

“Hey! I found something you’ll appreciate,” Collier said, changing the subject. He reached into one of the side drawers and pulled out something wrapped in an oiled cloth. Placing it on the desk, he pushed it toward Slade. “Check it out.”

Slade reached over, pulling the object closer. He knew what it was before he unwrapped it fully.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” Slade’s grin threatened to split his face in two. “A Ruger Standard? With the red eagle medallion…this is from what? 1949? 50? Where the hell did you get this?”

Slade picked up the pistol carefully from its position between the two loaded magazines. It was in excellent condition and freshly cleaned. He checked the chamber before loading it, seating the mag with a slap. He felt like a real PI, the hard-as-nails sleuth with the classic heater, ready to crack the case. He raised the .22, aiming at the wall away from Collier and sighting along the barrel.

“Sweet Jesus’s Mama! This had to cost you a fortune!”

“Nah, won it in a poker game. The guy had a major tell,” Collier said, chuckling. “Poor sucker definitely didn’t know what he was betting. I figured you’d get a kick out of an antique like this, Mr. Hardboiled Gumshoe.”

“You betcha.” Slade dropped the mag, checked the chamber again, and placed both on the cloth. After carefully wrapping everything up, he slid it back over to Collier. Still smiling, he said, “Great gun to have on a station by the way. Low caliber. Won’t pierce the walls. Well, that was a moment of delight on this otherwise shitty day.”

“I thought it might make you feel better,” Collier said, returning the gun to the drawer. “Go home. Get some rest. We’ll talk more later, maybe over dinner and a drink. It’ll do you some good to step back for a bit.”

“You ain’t lyin’ ’bout that.”

* * *

Slade entered his cube, thoughts buzzing through his brain like electronic gnats. Bright flashes of ideas that would zip away as soon as he tried to pin them down, taunting him with how close he could get. If he could only slow them down enough…

The bottle of high-quality hooch sat where he left it. He went over, plopped into the autoform and poured himself a snort.

Then, with a frustrated sigh, added more.

Lots of ways to think about this case, but only one way that covered all the bases, Slade thought, taking a sip. If not Lydia, then who? Lydia knew Salome was qualified for the job. Could simple jealousy and pride be reason enough to kill a long-time colleague and friend?

It didn’t jibe with Lydia’s style. Competitive, yes—she was ruthless when it came to winning—but she was honorable. Salome had been the same way, preferring to “win” against Lydia by using what she had, not sabotaging the other woman. It’s how they were able to remain friends.

The display com announced an incoming call, causing his thoughts to scatter like cockroaches scurrying from the light.

“Lydia Vadinov. Will you accept?”

“Hell yeah!” He said, before getting himself under control. Not knowing her mood, he tried for “passive polite.” “Lydia, how nice of you to get back to me.”

“Save it,” Lydia said curtly. “How soon can you get back to my office? I have something to show you.”

“Not long,” he said. She cut the connection without another word. Slade downed his drink, hopped up, and made for the door, grabbing his hat on the way out.

* * *

Slade calmed himself before allowing the AI to announce his arrival. The doors pushed aside and he walked in, not knowing what to expect.

“You got here fast,” Lydia said, looking up from her desk.

“I know a shortcut,” he said. He’d only stopped long enough to shoot a quick message to Collier about where he was going.

No kiss this time, he thought. To her, he said, “Hello again, Lydia. Feeling better?”

“I’m fine, Isaac,” she said flatly. He recognized the look on her face. Not angry, just…disappointed. “It doesn’t mean I don’t hate your guts right now.”

Okay, so more than disappointment. Slade walked over to the desk.

“Just following the evidence, baby girl.”

“Then you should have followed it more closely.” Standing suddenly, she walked around the desk, stopping about two feet away. For a long moment, she said nothing, looking him in the eyes. Her impossibly high heels brought her almost to his height.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was about to…

Her right hand came up so fast that he didn’t have time to flinch before it made contact. The sound was deafening in the silent office.

“That’s for not giving me the benefit of doubt!”

Slade rubbed his left cheek. If he had lighter skin, there would be a full handprint there. Even so, he wouldn’t be surprised if it was at least partially visible.

“I deserved that. You feeling better?”

“Much,” she said, smiling slightly.


She stopped him, putting an index finger to his lips while pursing hers. “You’re like a dog with a bone, Slade. You get an idea in your head and, right or wrong, you build up a story to support it. But you got me thinking.” She walked back to her desk, the computer coming to life as she tapped something into it. “I was worried about the glitching and what effect it might have on autonomic systems throughout the station. I mean, we all have access nodes.”

She stopped, giving him a look.

“Well, most of us, at least. So, if this was indeed an accident, why haven’t more people been affected? There should be more cases of failure, up to and including death.” She tucked a buoyant curl behind an ear. “So, I did some digging.”

Slade moved around behind her, watching the screen as she clicked through.

“When I checked the logs, they showed this computer as the source,” she said, bringing up the appropriate file.

“You’re not making a case for yourself, Lydia. It’s all right there, in black and white.”

“You see what I mean, Slade? You won’t give up what you assume you already know. If I were guilty, would I have called you up here?” She looked over her shoulder at him, her expression showing exasperation and disappointment. “That’s what I don’t understand, Zac. You know me. I’m not some random suspect you’ve never met before. I thought we…I thought you and I…”

“It doesn’t matter what I think, or feel, or desperately want to believe, Lydia.” The words didn’t ring true in his head, but dammit, those gnats were still eluding his grasp. He moved away from her again, heading back towards the door. “What matters is that everything still points to you. You had the motive, the means, and the ruthless streak to do it. What I don’t get is why you called me up here. Are you trying to convince me to cover for you?”

“No! No, you don’t understand—I couldn’t have done this!”

“Oh? The woman that clawed her way to the top of this ladder, who told me in as many words that she’d do anything to make it to the top? She couldn’t have cut down anyone in her way?” He spun, frustration coming to the surface. “I’m not going to risk going to jail because you and I had a good time.”

“I’m going to ignore that for now, because I need you to quit being so damned stubborn and listen: I’m not only saying I wouldn’t have done it—I’m saying I couldn’t have. I’ve been hacked. I don’t have the codes any longer; my login was changed.”

Lydia turned her screen to face him. Like he’d said, it was all there in black and white. The internal log showed Error code 505. “Password and login unrecognized.” Dated the day Salome died. Service ticket request for new password created and received at 0800. He thought back to the autopsy—Salome’s time of death had been closer to 0930.

“It’s very subtle,” she said, pulling up the page source. “Just a few lines of code here and there. It allowed me to access the other systems but locked me out of that section until the scheduled update at 0915.”

“Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

“You mean when you were accusing me of murder?” She stared at him, unflinchingly meeting his eyes with hers. “Honestly, it didn’t occur to me that it was more than just another glitch until you came up here.”

Either this was a very elaborate lie or…she didn’t do it, and someone wanted to make it look like she did, should anyone dig deeper.

Like me.

Those gnats started slowing down, still eluding his mental grasp, but letting him see them better.

“Lydia, has anyone else used your office recently?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head, “I haven’t even allowed the cleaning crew in here recently. I’ve been practically living out of this office since the project began.”

That made sense when he thought about it. That competitive streak again. Lydia wouldn’t want any detail to be missed, just to prove that she was the better woman.

“What about Salome? Was she as diligent?”

“I’m not sure,” she said, frowning. “I mean, I didn’t keep tabs on her, but she also had a workstation in her apartment.”

He caught a gnat, then another. Just as things started to fall into place, Lydia’s eyes widened.

The muffled cough behind him caught his attention, turning his gaze away from Lydia. Collier stood there, smoke drifting lazily from the suppressor screwed into his .22. Slade blinked slowly, realization of what had happened coming shortly after.

He looked down—expecting to see a bloody rose growing across his chest. It took him a second to realize he wasn’t hit.

“Slade…” Lydia said weakly. “I…”

He spun, lunging for her as she toppled forward, catching her before she hit the desk. He lowered her slowly to the floor, carefully working his way around to her side. For now, her pulse and breathing were thready, shallow, and rapid, but there, as her system went into shock. She was alive, at least for now. He pulled off his shirt and pressed it to her wound, placing her hands on it.

“Hold this here as tight as you can,” he said. “Just hang on for me, baby.”

Slade looked up at Collier, eyes pleading for an explanation even as the pieces fell together in his mind. As he stood, he felt his features harden.

Collier smirked at him, keeping the pistol leveled. The nine remaining rounds would last him until the end of Slade’s life.

“Let me guess,” Slade said, taking a step toward his former partner. The gun came up just a little, aiming squarely at center mass. “Salome found something fishy with the retrofit project. She’s only working a hunch and doesn’t want to go to Rains until she’s sure. Wouldn’t want to give any appearance of mismanagement, especially with Lydia watching. Goes looking for someone on the outside, and up pops your name.”

Collier kept smirking, giving him a slight shrug. Slade took another careful step forward, keeping his hands at his side but in view. The Ruger stayed steady, but Collier’s gloved finger tensed ever so slightly. Slade continued.

“Long story short, she hires you to suss things out. Which you did, with your not-too-shabby investigative skills. Only when you discovered what was really going on, you threw in with the perp for a big payday.” He rubbed the stubble on his chin and cheeks with his right hand as if to aid his thought process. “You wanted to split up earlier, so you could take Samantha out of the picture for a clean getaway after you finished tying up the loose ends here. Am I close?”

He squared his shoulders and placed his hands in the back pockets of his jeans. He inched a booted right foot closer to Lydia.

“Not bad,” Collier said, nodding, “Not too shabby yourself. But you are wrong on some essential facts. Yeah, Salome hired me to track down the culprit. She had a lot of it figured out, so it wasn’t that difficult. What I didn’t expect was who it led me to.”

He almost looked…was it happy? His eyes sparkled.

“It led me to the smartest, most incredibly stunning woman I have ever met. The first time I saw her, she stopped me dead in my tracks. It led me to…”

“Samantha Devereaux,” Slade said, finishing the sentence. He tried not to look shocked, although by Collier’s expression, something had flashed across his face.

“I know, right?” Collier’s grin spread as he spoke. He gestured as he continued. “Your problem is you still consider her a child. Little Sunny in glasses and braces who used to cramp your style with Salome. Take it from me, pal, she’s definitely not a little girl anymore. She also knew you might be the wild card.”

“What, she flash some skin, and you were all in?”

“Don’t be crass, Slade. Do you know what cobalt is?”

“Sure. It’s used for all sorts of things, like blue glass or high-strength durable magnetic alloys. Weapons, too.” Collier’s jaw dropped a bit. Slade couldn’t help but grin. “What? I know stuff!”

“Okay, so you’re familiar with it,” Collier said. “Anyway, it’s very expensive and hard to come by, unless there’s a huge project with deep pockets.”

“Like fixing up a historic space station, home to a major corporation.”


“And this has to do with Sunny…how?” Slade knew the answer, but he needed to keep Collier talking, giving him time to get his boot a bit closer.

“Let’s just say the high strength durable magnetic alloys aren’t very durable currently. Samantha siphoned off about half of what was intended for the station.” He shook his head, as though overwhelmed with his fantasy. “Zac, you have no idea what that kind of money can buy! It’s close to half a billion Elons, enough to buy two spaces on the Martian Colonies. Good spaces. Orbital now, dome when it’s done, and a quarter billion left to play with.”

“How do you plan on getting away with shooting Lydia and your partner in cold blood? It’s not like I have a working implant to fry my brain with.”

“Here’s the thing, pal; I don’t want to shoot you. If I did, I would’ve already. So, I’m giving you a choice.” It was Collier’s turn to look pleading, his features softening slightly. “Leave her, we all jump ship, and live fat, rich and happy. All the R and I we can stand.”

“And the other option? How do you plan on explaining that?”

“That’s the easy part. You suspected Lydia and came here all in a huff, dead set to punish the murderer of your college sweetheart. Only she was armed and shot you before you wrestled away the gun and shot her.” He put on a look of sorrowful resignation. “Unfortunately, you both bled out before I could get here. How did you get here so quickly anyway?”

“Trade secret. Do you really think that story’ll fly?”

“Believe me, the good Inspector Rains will be only too happy to take the path of least resistance. Especially with a reasonable fee to cover any paperwork. He’s looked the other way for years. I’ll make it fly.”

“Neat little gift-wrapped bundle for the news feeds.” Slade let out a humorless chuckle, covering the sound of his boot against the floor. “Thought of everything, did you?”

“I can’t take all the credit,” Collier said. “It was Samantha’s plan. I’m just doing what I was told, like a good Marine.”

Slade nudged Lydia hard in the side. Her scream filled his soul with guilt, but he quashed the feeling, hard. There’d be time to feel bad later. Maybe.

Collier, surprised by the sound, looked away for only a second. Just enough time for Slade to push off hard, lunging to his left, away from Lydia’s prone body. As he dove, he pulled the knife from his back pocket, pressing the button as it came forward. In the same fluid motion, he snapped it toward his former partner. There was another coughing sound, and fire lanced across Slade’s shoulder. He ignored it, rolling to his feet and throwing himself at the other man as the gun went off again.

He hit him at the knees, his mass causing Collier to topple even in the fractional gravity. Slade used his size to his advantage, pinning the other man as he locked a hand around the pistol. Another shot hit the wall as Slade drove his free hand into Collier’s nose.

His former squad mate was only fazed for a second, lashing out with his own free hand in a haymaker that caught Slade on the temple. Fireworks exploded in front of his eyes, blinding him briefly. He rolled to his right, pinning Collier’s arm before he could land another. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his knife, just within reach.

Collier met Slade’s eyes at that moment, determination written on his face. He’d seen it too.

Slade forced the gun hand backward and down, keeping the muzzle of the pistol pointed at Collier’s body. His fingers, inches away from the knife’s hilt, scrabbled against the floor, straining to make contact. Collier fought back, trying to get enough leverage to bring the gun around.

Slade snapped his neck forward, slamming his forehead into the other man’s bloody nose with as much force as he could muster, then again for good measure. Collier went limp briefly, giving Slade the moment he needed to grab the knife, rolling as he did so. He put the blade against Collier’s ribs and finished the roll, letting his weight come down on the hilt.

Collier’s gasp turned into a gurgle as his body went limp. Slade moved off of his friend, kneeling next to him.

Collier looked at the knife sticking out of his chest, crimson petals blossoming around it. He chuckled weakly, blood flowing from between his lips. “You and that stupid feeling of yours. Couldn’t let it go this time. You just had to scratch that itch, didn’t you?” His laugh faded into a wet cough, scarlet foam spraying the air. “A switchblade! A fucking switchblade!”

“I assumed y’all’d appreciate the gesture,” Slade said. “An old-fashioned solution for an old-fashioned guy. Like I said, the past is cool.”

The gun fell to the floor, followed by Youcef Collier’s head, his dead eyes staring at nothing in particular.

Slade stood, taking a moment to check his shoulder. It stung like all get-out, but was only a flesh wound, the blood flow only a trickle. A soft groan brought his attention back to Lydia. He crossed the office, knelt down beside her, and brushed a stray curl from her face.

“Sorry I had to kick you, baby girl, but hard times call for hard methods.” He reached across her, pulling her arm closer. The bracelet on her left wrist looked like just another piece of high quality jewelry, but she’d told him what it really was. He tapped the synthetic sapphire in the middle, alerting security to her position.

“Help will be here soon, honey. Just hang on a little longer.” He pulled the scarf from around her neck, tying it across his blood-soaked shirt on her chest.

The large video panel behind him came to life, the beach scene replaced with a face he barely recognized. He pushed himself to his feet, and after a moment of stunned inaction, walked over to the monitor. Smooth coffee and double cream skin occupied most of the screen.

“Hello, Zac.”

“Sunny? Is that you?” My god what a transformation.

“I told you before, it’s Samantha, and even that is only temporary.” She gave him a brilliant smile that made the siren’s call even more alluring. “Not the little girl in horn rims and braces any longer, am I?”

“I’d say not.” He forced his mind back to the matter at hand. “Why? What happened with Salome that drove you to hatch this plan?”

“To tell you the truth, I’ve been planning a move on sister dear for my entire life.” Her lovely face took on a sinister cast. He had to admit, it was terrifying and arousing at the same time. “I hated that bitch! Forever in her shadow, never living up to her status. Working for her was the final insult.”

Damn, Slade thought, as she arched an eyebrow, the gesture coming across as an invitation. He could almost smell the pheromones through the screen. She’s getting to me too. Glad we’re not in the same room.

“Salome got everything she wanted—always,” Samantha said. “I got nothing, no matter how hard I worked. I was constantly compared to her, and never measured up. Do you know what that feels like, Zac? Don’t answer—I know you don’t. You met some criteria of hers.”

“I feel we’re missing the sad violin music,” Slade said. “It’s over, Sunny. I’m coming for you. Even Rains can’t deny your guilt or Youcef’s culpability.”

“I wish you luck with that endeavor, you’re going to need it.” The camera zoomed out, revealing her surroundings as it pulled back. No wonder Collier fell for her so hard. “Drink it in, Zac, this is the last you’ll see of little Sunny. There’s no extradition from the Martian Colonies to Earth space, not that it matters. They won’t know who I am once I get there.”

“Where are you?” Slade said, focusing on the background. It didn’t look like anywhere on the station.

“Dear Zac, I’m on the cruise ship Asimov, on an intercept course with the Martian orbital. Did I forget to mention that when last we talked?”

“You weren’t in your quarters then, I take it.”

She shook her head. “Things were getting a bit dicey, what with all the systems issues. I thought it a good idea to get a head start on my new life.” She hit him with that smile again. “I’m in your debt though. You saved me the trouble of having to tidy up around there. Poor Youcef. He didn’t understand that he wasn’t invited, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him otherwise.”

She pulled a long braid over one shoulder in a move so sensual it made Slade shudder.

“Of course, had things gone as planned,” she continued, “Mr. Collier would have experienced another unfortunate access node failure.”

“Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around lately.” He snorted. “You had his nose so open he didn’t have a chance. You played him like a stacked deck, but you weren’t planning on me getting involved.”

“Yes, you were the only wild card, one I underestimated. You’ve just got big, black and stupid written all over you. Living in the past like some historical vid drama, with your bizarre colloquialisms. You play the part well—it’s something of a pleasant surprise to see the truth.”

“Spare me, Sunny. You just can’t murder three people, steal a half billion Elons and get off scot free. I’ll find a way to get to you.”

“Dear, dear Zac, that is exactly what I am doing. Soon we will go dark and only the AI will be awake to ignore your pleas,” she said, dazzling smile growing more radiant with her gloating. “This section of the ship is considered Martian soil, already through customs, sanitation and clearances.”

“This isn’t over,” he said, not quite able to convince himself of their sincerity. “System Central will come knocking, and I’ll be right there with them.”

“Earth and Mars aren’t getting along these days. I suspect the rich and infamous are tired of paying Earth to be rich and infamous.” She smiled that deadly, alluring smile. “You can try, Slade, but I suspect you’ll die broke and bitter before it happens.”

The camera filled with her face again as she moved closer.

“Goodbye, Isaac Slade. If you’re lucky, I’ll see you in Hell.”

The screen went as blank as his mind felt.

Coming out of his daze, he made a promise.

“I will find you, Sunshine, if it’s the last thing I do,” he said, meeting his gaze in the reflection of the dark monitor. “Mama didn’t raise no quitters.”

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