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My office was lit with a red-orange glow from the setting sun as I gave my report to my client, a man named Dwight Cullender. He was a lawyer, a partner in an uptown firm called Frankfurt, Cullender, and Rowe. He seemed like a decent enough guy, his profession notwithstanding, and he hired me for a simple job: he thought his wife was cheating on him and wanted me to find out one way or another. It’s unglamorous but this is the meat and potatoes of detective work. The job is rarely like it’s portrayed in the media, where the brilliant investigator helps baffled law enforcement solve a murder or something. Most of the time it’s telling some poor bastard that the woman he loves is screwing around with other men, or that his business partner is cheating him, or even telling bereaved parents that their missing kid is dead. Sometimes you’re a bodyguard, sometimes you’re a bounty hunter, but you rarely get to be the hero. You do this job long enough and you start to grow numb to it. You have to, otherwise it’ll drive you crazy.

“Are you sure?” he asked, his eyes almost pleading with me. “Could this somehow be a misunderstanding?”

I sighed. I hate this part. “I’m sure, Mr. Cullender. Look for yourself.” I slid an envelope across the table to him. It was full of high-resolution printouts of the pictures I had taken. “I can give you electronic copies of these if you want,” I said. His hands trembled a little as he looked through the photos, and I could tell he was fighting to not tear up. It had to be tough for him. He was an average-looking guy, middle-aged, balding, with the pasty complexion of someone who spent all of his time indoors. As near as I could tell he was a faithful husband, the workaholic type who maybe didn’t pay enough attention to what was going on at home. His wife was another matter—she was a fitness nut with the figure to match. While he was putting in long hours at work to pay for her lavish lifestyle, she was having trysts with both her yoga instructor and her personal trainer. I had pictures of her with both of them, and they left little doubt as to what was going on.

“I can’t believe this,” Cullender said. He set the pictures down and held his head in his hands. “We haven’t had sex in months. She said it was a hormonal thing, that it was her, not me, that she was talking to her doctor about it. It was all lies.”

“I took these pictures over the course of a week. I’m afraid your wife gets around.”

“Oh, God,” Cullender said.

I could see the shock and humiliation on his face. Like I said, I hate this part of the job. “Let me get you a drink,” I suggested. One of the nice things about being your own boss is that you can drink on the job. Cullender looked like he needed a drink and after the day I’d had, I needed one, too. I pushed away from my desk, stood up, and walked across my office. I have a liquor cabinet in one corner with a supply of booze for every occasion. My client was having what was probably the worst day of his life and he’d paid me handsomely for the trouble. This seemed like as good a time as any to break out the good stuff. I poured two glasses of Darwin Ducote Single Barrel, on the rocks with ice from the cooler, and brought them back to my desk. “Here you go,” I said, setting a glass in front of him.

“What is this?” he asked, looking at the glass.

“Bourbon, aged ten years in a real wooden barrel.”

“Sounds good to me,” he said. He picked up the glass and took a long drink. “Oh. Wow.”

“Pace yourself, Mr. Cullender,” I said, sitting back down. “That’s one hundred proof.”

“One hundred proof? Damn.” He took another sip, a smaller one this time. “It’s a good thing I’m not driving.”

“I’ll call you an auto-taxi if you need it.”

“I just can’t believe it,” he said, looking at the pictures on the desk in front of him. “I do everything for her. I work my ass off so she can have everything she wants. I . . .” He fell silent, then looked back up at me. “I suppose you don’t really care about my marriage problems.”

“You see this stuff a lot in my line of work,” I said.

“Of course. You’re a professional. What now?”

“There’s only the matter of the remaining bill. Like I said, I can send you electronic copies of these pictures if you want. I’ll also be sending you a notarized, sworn statement of my findings for your records. As per our contract, I’ll make myself available for a court deposition if you need it, but in my experience the signed statement is usually enough.”

Cullender finished off his bourbon and put the photographs back into the envelope. “Why do you bother with printouts in the first place?”

“To protect my clients’ privacy. None of my files or records are stored on a computer that’s connected to the planetary network, so they can’t be hacked or accessed remotely. If anyone wants to steal my files, they’ll have to come in here and physically take the drives, and even then, it’s all encrypted. I take protection of your personal information very seriously, Mr. Cullender.”

“I see. It’s appreciated.” He stood up, envelope in hand. “Thank you for all of your help.”

I stood up, too. “It’s a tough break. I’m sorry it worked out this way.”

“I suppose I’m not that surprised. I suspected, but I didn’t want to believe it, you know?”

“You going to be alright? You’re not thinking about, you know, shooting your wife and jumping out a window, are you?”

“What? No, nothing like that! I’m going to show her these and tell her to get out of my house. I’ll have her served with a divorce notice by the end of the week. I’m glad I listened to my mother and signed a prenuptial agreement!”

“Well, then.” I offered my hand to my client, who shook it firmly. “See Lily out front to get your bill taken care of and to get a portable drive with the photos if you want. I hope things get better for you.”

Dwight Cullender turned to leave, but paused by the door. “Are you married, Mr. Novak?”

“Me? Not anymore, not for a long time.”

“Huh. I suppose, seeing what you see, that you might be hesitant. Listen, if you ever need a lawyer, call me first. My firm specializes in criminal defense and civil litigation. If I can’t help you myself I can direct you to someone who can.”

“I appreciate that, Mr. Cullender, but I know the kind of work your firm does and I’m afraid you might be a little bit outside of my budget.” Frankfurt, Cullender, and Rowe was one of the top law firms on Nova Columbia. They didn’t even have to advertise because their potential clients already knew who they were.

He shook his head. “You saved me a lot of pain and humiliation, and you did it for a very reasonable price. If you find yourself in trouble, please, give me a call and don’t worry about the price. I’ll work with you.”

“That’s mighty decent of you. I hope I never have to take you up on that, but in this line of work you can never be too sure. If you ever find yourself in need of my services again, or know anyone who might, don’t hesitate to give me a call.”

“I will. You do good work, Mr. Novak.” We shook hands again and he left without another word, closing my office door behind him.

Alone again, I turned around to look out the window. My office is on the sixtieth floor of a commercial tower in East Downtown. I had a pretty good view from where I stood. Delta City sprawled out before me, a congested metropolis of thirty million people. Built in and around the forty-mile-wide crater left behind by an ancient meteorite impact, the Big D is the second-biggest city on Nova Columbia. The Economic Engine of the Northern Hemisphere, they call it. The hundred-foot video screen on the building across from mine, which at that moment was showing me an advertisement for aesthetic body-sculpting surgery, attested to that.

The sun had sunk below the artificial horizon created by the city’s towering skyline. As darkness fell, the man-made lights of the city increased their output, enveloping much of the Crater in their amber-white glow. You can never see the stars in the city, what with all the light pollution, but it never really gets dark so long as you’re on a major street.

Most locals call it the sun, by the way. Our system primary, 18 Scorpii, I mean. Some of us still call it Scorpii from time to time, but that’s gotten less common with all the off-world immigration coming in these days. I did my share of interstellar travel during the war and I learned that most people, regardless of which planet they live on, refer to their star as the sun. I guess it’s just easier that way.

If you’re not familiar with Nova Columbia, it’s one of four planets orbiting 18 Scorpii and is the closest one to the star. It’s a cool, rocky world, with gravity close enough to Earth’s to make no difference, and an atmosphere you can breathe without assistance. The days are longer than on Earth, but not so long that you can’t adjust naturally. It’s not like Harvest, with its long, thirty-four-hour day, or Styx, with its ridiculously short fourteen-hour rotational period. Most people don’t need their circadian rhythms chemically altered to live here comfortably.

The official name of our colony is the Commonwealth of Nova Columbia. We’re not the richest colony, or the oldest, and we’re kind of out on the edge of inhabited space. We’re known primarily for still using the old Imperial measurement system for nonscientific purposes and for having the highest-per-capita manpower contribution during the Terran-Ceph War. Not too bad for a planet with only ninety million people.

Before you book your visit, though, remember that we’re a pretty young colony. Planetary engineering is still a work in progress, and a lot of the terrain can be charitably described as bleak. There’s a reason most of us live in one of a handful of huge cities, and it’s not because we love the congestion. The continental interior beyond the terraformed zones is an arid, lifeless wasteland, most of it only accessible by air.

I looked over my shoulder as my office door slid open again. It was Lily, my assistant. Her friends call her Lilith but that always seemed too formal to me. Like usual she was dressed in black: short skirt, tall boots, patterned hosiery, and some kind of corset over her blouse. Her hair was as black as her clothes but had purple streaks in it. She also wore a transparent display eyepiece over her right eye. I didn’t get the whole techno-goth-punk style, but she was young, and we didn’t have much of a dress code at the office.

She had her jacket on. “Headed home?” I asked her.

“Yeah. Mr. Cullender settled his bill so that’s all taken care of. That’s too bad, what happened to him.”

“It really is,” I agreed, sipping my drink again. Lily is a sweet girl despite her grim fashion sense. She’s pretty, too, real easy on the eyes. Were I a younger man I’d probably chase after her, but as is I’m old enough to be her father. Besides, she’s my employee. Never trust a man who goes sniffing around the women who work for him; at best it’s unprofessional and at worst he’s a creep. “Moral of the story is, be careful who you tie the knot with.”

“What about you?” she asked. “Putting in another late night?”

“Not tonight. I’ll be on my way home shortly.”

She looked at the glass in my hand. “I don’t think you should drive, Boss, and you still haven’t fixed the auto-navigation on your car.”

I hadn’t had nearly enough booze to feel buzzed, much less drunk, but I knew there was no point in arguing with her. She was a good kid like that, always worrying about me. “Tell you what, I’ll take the train. I can take it back in the morning. Would you mind getting me a two-day pass?”

Lily smiled. “Will do. Just give me a minute.” She stepped out of my office, sliding the door shut behind her as if she was afraid I was going to try and sneak past her when she wasn’t looking. I chuckled. I pay Lily as well as I can for what she does, and that goes above and beyond just being an office assistant. She keeps records, she does the billing, she looks after me, and she remembers things like how I need to get the auto-nav in my car fixed.

On top of that she’s the best net-diver I know. She’d been some kind of child prodigy, writing code when other girls were having tea parties with dolls. She graduated with a degree in computer science as a teenager. She’d probably be making big money with some tech company if not for a couple of felony convictions for illegal hacking. The way she told it she got careless, a dumb kid who got in over her head. Her lawyer got her off on probation on account of her technically being a minor at the time. Like I said, I pay her as well as I can, but sometimes I feel like she’s wasting her potential working for me. She seems to like it, though, and running the agency would be a hell of a lot harder without her.

She came back in a couple of minutes later. “You’re all set. I got you a fifty-two-hour city-wide transit pass and sent it to your handheld.”

“Thanks, kid. I couldn’t run this place without you.”

“I hope you remember that when it’s time for my annual bonus,” she said, smiling at me. “I’m headed out. Walk me down to the monorail station?”

“Sure,” I said, grabbing my coat. “You take the train home every day. Since when do you need a chaperone?”

“I don’t,” Lily said, “but this way you won’t be tempted to wait until I leave and drive home.”

“You don’t need a chaperone, but apparently I do.” I chuckled and shook my head. “Fine. Let’s go.” I grabbed my hat off the coatrack and followed her out of the office.

The corridors of the building were usually quiet in the evenings and that night was no exception. We usually kept the office open until 20:00, which was a couple hours later than most of the corporate outfits I shared the floor with did. We didn’t see another soul as we made our way to the elevator. The only other things moving were the cleaning robots.

The monorail station was on the tenth floor of the building. That, too, was deserted, but the whole thing was automated so it didn’t matter. The trains kept their schedule, twenty-six hours a day, four hundred and one days a year. There were urban legends about people dying on the monorail, right in their seats, leaving their dead bodies to ride around on the train for days before anyone noticed they weren’t just sleeping.

My handheld automatically transmitted my train pass to the gate as I approached. It let me through the turnstile and the security robot on the other side kept patrolling without giving me a second look. If you jumped the turnstile, the robots would follow you around, loudly telling you that you were trespassing while sending video of you to the Delta City Transit Authority. I don’t know how often they bothered to follow up, but Lily told me that it was usually an effective deterrent against gate-jumpers.

I said my goodbyes to Lily. We were headed in different directions and wouldn’t be taking the same train. Hers arrived at the station a few minutes before mine was scheduled to. No one got off the monorail as it was stopped at the station, even though there were plenty of passengers on board. I saw Lily off and then was alone in the station. Well, not entirely alone; the security robot told me to have a nice night in its tinny, synthesized voice as it rolled by.

The ride home was quiet, which I appreciated. When I was a kid, groups of punks would ride the trains all night, being obnoxious, harassing passengers, and committing petty crimes. The city had worked hard to clean up the transit system in the past decade and it showed. The monorail cars were cleaner than they used to be and the passengers on board all seemed to mind their own business. It’s a rare treat to see taxpayer money actually being put to good use, especially in this town.

I had a good view of the city on the ride home. The monorail track runs about a hundred and twenty feet above street level for most of the city, enough to give you a sensation that you’re flying down a canyon as the train snakes between skyscrapers. Every so often the track goes through a building, sometimes to stop at a station, sometimes just passing through. It’s impressive if you haven’t seen it a thousand times already, but I suppose anything can get tedious if you do it often enough. Hell, I fought on two different planets during the war and the whole time I just wanted to go home.

It took me more than an hour to get home on the monorail, between regular stops and having to change trains once. I lived in Residential Tower 77 on the West Side, and there was a monorail station right in the building, one that took up a good chunk of the twelfth floor. Seventy-seven was one of the newer buildings, two hundred stories tall and home to tens of thousands. Rent was a little high but it was nicer than most places I’ve lived. On-site security (real security, not just robots) patrolled the building and kept the gangs, the pushers, and the pimps from setting up shop. I was doing alright for myself, all things considered.

My place was on the 109th floor and, unlike a lot of my neighbors, I had exterior windows. The lights turned on automatically as the door slid shut behind me. “Welcome home, Easy,” said Penny, my virtual domestic assistant, using her sweet, synthesized soprano voice. “Would you like me to prepare a meal for you?”

“Sure, darlin’,” I said, hanging my coat and hat by the door. “Heat me up some corned beef hash and eggs.” I slid my shoes off and left them by the door.

“It should be ready in ten minutes,” Penny said. Her speakers beeped and the appliances in the kitchen got to work on heating my dinner. She could only prepare prepackaged meals, but it was still nice to not have to cook after a long day. The next thing to come off was my gun. It was tucked away in a shoulder holster under my right arm, and I was so used to it that I wore it all day. You get what you pay for in a holster—buy cheap junk and it’ll be uncomfortable, unsecure, conspicuous, or all of the above. Buy a quality holster and you’ll be able to carry even a large-frame handgun, comfortably concealed, all day.

I had to remove the holster to take my body armor off, though, so that’s what I did, hanging it over the back of my recliner armchair. Next I undid the fasteners on my armor vest and took it off, laying it out so that the inside would air out. Made of flexible ballistic material, the vest won’t stop armor-piercing or explosive rounds, but it does protect against common street weapons like pistols, carbines, shotguns, and knives. I was trying to get into the habit of wearing it every day—body armor doesn’t do you any good if you leave it at home.

“Penny, play the Relaxation Mix,” I said. Her speakers beeped again and my apartment was filled with light instrumental jazz. I removed my tie and unbuttoned my shirt collar before sitting down on the couch. I kicked my feet up while dinner was being prepared.

The music volume lowered for a moment and a tone sounded, telling me I’d just received a message on my handheld. “Penny,” I said, looking up, “put that message up on the big screen.” I didn’t answer work calls after hours unless it was from an active client or an emergency, but people could leave me messages if they wanted. My call screening usually did a good job of filtering out the junk.

“The message is audio only,” Penny said.

“Play it.”

The system beeped and the message began. “This message is for Ezekiel Novak. You were recommended to me by a friend.” It was a woman’s voice but it sounded a little off. Probably scrambled to avoid voice-matching. “You have a reputation for discretion,” she continued. “That’s important to me. I know this is short notice but I plan on coming by your office tomorrow morning. I hope you can help me. Someone I care about has gone missing. She . . . it’s complicated. I will explain everything in person tomorrow.”

That was all there was to it. I checked my handheld and, sure enough, the message had been sent from a randomized number. There was no way for me to know who had sent it. Very interesting. I rubbed my chin.

“Easy,” Penny said, interrupting my thought, “your food is ready.”

Ah, well, I thought. No sense trying to figure it out tonight. It was either a crank call or I’d find out the next day. Sometimes people just like to be dramatic, and you’d be amazed at just how eccentric some of my clients are. Based on previous experience, there was a very good chance the whole thing would end up being a lot less interesting than it sounded.

As it would turn out, I was dead wrong about that.

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