Syndicate Files: The Box - Part 2

((Part 1 Here, Co-authored by Ciarente))

As I showed my back to Kaita's hangar, my neocom buzzed. My government contact had some info for me and wanted a face-to-face. We arranged for a meet, later. First, I needed to have a talk with Bruve Ashte, 'CEO' of Ashte Security and Consulting.

I've heard on some planets they have big predatory fish - twenty, thirty, a hundred meters long, to hear some tell it. They are the biggest, baddest, meanest things where they live, and not an animal alive in those oceans would screw with them.

Swimming along behind those big fish, you've got little fish. They eat the scraps and enjoy the shade. Scavengers and hangers-on that live at the pleasure of creatures larger than they are. Maybe they even begin to believe the lie, that they are really under the protection of the monsters.

For the big fishes' part, I suspect the only time they notice the little fish is when they casually snap one up.

Bruve Ashte was, on his best day, one of those little fish. He was a small-time thug with pretensions toward grandeur. I didn't know the man well, but I knew the type. Slippery as a lawyer but not as bright. He hinted darkly at connections, sometimes in Venal, sometimes in Curse, but if he ever met a real Angel or 'Rista he'd probably need a clean pair of pants. The cleverest he ever got was bribing a few people to recommend his merry little band to incoming pilots for security.

Ashte ran his operation out of a low-rent office in a warehouse that had been illegally converted. 'Hiving' they called it. Just stacks of hexagonal containers linked with jury-rigged walkways, like a huge, dark, unusually fragrant beehive. I risked the climb - his office was well up the stack - and a sullen looking Sebbie kid buzzed me in.

The CEO himself was pacing nervously in the back room, drink in hand, when I walked in. He was powerfully built and blandly good looking, like a DED recruitment poster, a comforting stereotype for a security company. He stopped abruptly when he saw me and started babbling before I could even open my mouth, "Look, Tarva, you've gotta know, I didn't have a choice man. I mean, what could I have done? Guy like that shows up, offers to pay, you take it and go blind, right? You know me man, I can't mess with that kinda crowd."

I was expecting bluster and denials. I felt like I'd ordered the steak and gotten the vegetarian quiche instead. I held up my hands, "Whoa, whoa. Slow down. Guy like what? Just take it from the top."

He took a deep breath and a sip of booze, "Me and my boys were keeping an eye on that podder's hangar, like we was supposed to. Some guy with a face fulla' Rak' shows up with like, thirty hitters. Serious types. He offers me a tenth-kilo of crash, pure, if we find somewhere else to be for fifteen minutes. I took it and ran, man. Those freaks give me the creeps."

Rak'esme were facial tattoos favored by Blooders on-station. Their leadership claimed it was an ancient tradition, I suspected it was just a local affectation. They probably even made the name up, but Rak' were great for intimidation. Course, Ashte would have sold his mother to Blooders for a tenth-kilo of crash. I'd like to think if there were thirty Reds running around the station in a crowd, I'd hear about it. The rest might not be all bullshit though. Cult involvement would explain why he looked like he'd just seen the Void and she'd flipped him the bird.

Assuming there was a reason for Blooders to want the crate in the first place.

I worked on Ashte until it was past time for me to meet my government contact, and he didn't give me anything else. More like the Ashte I remembered, slippery as soap in a bath full of oil. I headed out, climbing back down past pimps' stables, black market pharmacies, and all the other Syndicate cottage industries. Hurrying by all that usual background noise. I was late for my meeting.

They hit me as I passed through the rat's warren of lean-tos and shanties that came about knee-high on the Hive. Two from behind, and one in front of me with black scrawls thick across his face and a curved knife in hand.

They showed their hand a little early though. I dashed toward the guy in front of me. He slashed wildly, and I grabbed his wrist while he was off-balance and used my momentum to smack him into a bulkhead face-first with a crunch like a walnut being cracked underwater, then I was off running again.

I managed to stumble out of the labyrinth of do-it-yourself shacks fifteen minutes later, and I headed for a section of the station I knew better. I kept an eye out, but there was no sign I was being tailed. I was now really late to my meeting, but I took the long way round, just in case.

My contact was named Auvergne Zarafa. You might wonder: how do you end up with a name like Auvergne Zarafa?

Couldn't tell it by looking at her, but she was Amarr, blood so pure that slavers would lick the ground she walked on. Her family fled the Empire before she was born for reasons they'd never wanted to talk about, and settled here. Her father wanted a 'Gallente sounding' name for her, so he picked one he had heard in a holo. I was a friend of the family after my folks and her folks helped each-other out, which is a whole other story, before I left to find my fortune and all that garbage. Auvy had been a gangling, cute-as-a-button ten year old when I left. By the time I got back she was all grown up, and had a job in the station's admin section.

I skidded to a stop and straightened my coat, taking a couple deep breaths (to make it clear I had not been sprinting to get to the meeting) before walking around the corner and approaching a certain cafe situated at the edge of a huge, open marketplace.

Auvy had already arrived, and was watching the swirling human tide of the market. She smiled and waved when she saw me, all in shades of yellow and cream and white. Hair so blonde it was almost silver brushing the shoulders of her pale yellow jacket, all of it in the latest Crystal Boulevard style, although if I knew Auvy, at nowhere near Crystal Boulevard prices. She looked as sparkling and fresh as a glass of the Guaranteed 100% Planetary Pure water they served in the kind of fancy restaurant I couldn't afford to take her to.

Or, if you knew her, as clear and sharp as a tumbler of Pator vodka.

The designer knock-off jacket might be buttoned over what I'd been surprised to notice, when I came back home to Syndicate, were curves that had a certain graceful economy, and she might have only missed being 'pretty' by a knife's edge, but it was the edge of the kind of knife made for carrying up a sleeve and slipping in between somebody's ribs.

The kind of knife you see in certain shops all around the cluster, guaranteed sharp for a life-time, stamped on the handle: "Caution: Product of Syndicate."

Just like Auvy was.

I saw there were already two cups of coffee on the table, and she nibbled on what looked to be a candied scorpion-on-a-stick as I made my way over through the crowd and sat. "Hey kiddo, what've you got for me?"

She sniffed, "Hardly even say hello? And here I am bringing you gifts."

"Don't count as gifts if I have to pay for them, and I sure pay." I put on a martyred expression.

Auvy threatened me with the candied scorpion, but couldn't keep a straight face, "Molok's balls Rory, you are full of it. Pretending you don't get off light."

I smiled and sipped my coffee, dark but sweet, "Well, maybe I do. I do appreciate it. This deal goes well, I'll buy you dinner, somewhere nice. Now, I need your help so I can afford it."

She raised an eyebrow but slid a folder across the table, "You didn't give me much to work with. Any idea how many 'Gelliques' there are on this station? Think I narrowed it down though, Henri Gellique, longshoreman, his address is in the folder. As for your body bin, no-can-do. If the station does have systems that could detect it, it's nothing I can get access too."

"Wait, what?"

"I said I can't get access, I'm an administrator, not a miracle worker."

I shook my head, "No, the other thing, body bin?"

She smiled, "Oh, you didn't know?" As if she didn't know damn well I didn't, "The box, I ran the stuff you sent me by a friend in the engineering section, he said it's a self-contained, cryogenic stasis unit. They call them 'body bins' because podders use them to store trophies."

This whole thing was beginning to make a nasty kinda sense. Podders are even worth something dead, after all. Particularly to Blooders.

I thanked Auvy and told her to say hello to her folks. And left a fifty on the table after she gave me a look. Like I said, Syndicate born and raised - I was lucky I got a discount. I left the market and headed for Gellique's address.

It was in a nicer, quiet part of the station, one of the blemishes in the otherwise familiar expanse of corruption; remarkable only for unusually clean corridors and a near lack of transients slumped in the alcoves and against the walls. No-one answered when I knocked at the door, so I entered the override code that Auvy had thoughtfully provided for me and slid into the place with a telescoping stun-baton at the ready - firearms costing more than my usual means in bribes. The smell hit as soon as I was inside. It smelled like blood and fear and worse things. A smell I recognized: violent death.

It was a single room and the place had been trashed. It looked like there'd been a cage match between exile addicts. Brownish splotches of dried blood were spattered here and there, among a mess of broken furniture and the detritus of Henri Gellique's life. The blood led to the closet sized bathroom, so I skirted the worst of the debris and carefully slid the door open with my stun-stick.

I recognized Henri Gellique from the picture in Auvy's file, even though he was hanging upside-down. He looked a little bit surprised, and very dead.

Someone had hung him by his feet from the light fixture with wire. He was shirtless, and there was a hole where his heart should have been. I got out a light and checked the floor. There was a ring underneath him, probably where there had been some kind of bucket to catch the blood. Quite a bit had gotten on the floor anyway, and the ring was smeared, as if the bucket had been pushed further into the room at some point. I took some pictures and left, making sure not to touch anything, trying to maintain good habits. Probably a wasted effort, since if the local cops had any forensics equipment that hadn't been hawked, it'd be able to detect I'd been there. Having to answer a few questions, or pay a couple of bribes, wasn't the foremost problem in my mind. I didn't like where this was pointing, not at all, even for podder money.

Dead men don't need cash, after all.

I made it back home - which happened to be the room behind my office - without any incident, and spent a long time in the scrubber before collapsing.

I dared Fortune and hoped tomorrow would be a better day.

That's me. Rordon Tarva: optimist.

((Part 3))

Syndicate Files: The Box - Part 1

I was just minding my own business, leafing through a case file in my office, when trouble walked in and asked in a breathy voice, "You're Rordon Tarva? The detective?"

I knew she would be trouble. Maybe it was the curve of her lips, maybe it was the flight suit that fit a little too well. Who am I kidding, it was the podder implants. I stood and waved to a seat. Podder or not, a client's a client, and rent was due, "Call me Rory, Ms...?"

"Kaitane Ihonoka. You can call me Kaita." She sat with a nervous smile and a flip of her short, black hair. There wasn't any smile in those pretty gray eyes though, and I'd bet dirt against Exile that I'd never see nerves in them. Gray as a Raven's soul and dangerous, so much so I near missed what she said next, "I've been told you find things. Something of mine has disappeared."

I flipped open a notepad, "Can you describe the item?"

"A metal crate. Two meters tall, by one, by one. It has an on-board power source. It disappeared from my hangar floor. I have some diagrams."

She passed them over. Hardcopy, and there was pages of stuff. And lots of pages missing: The ones that showed the insides. For the rest, well, it was a metal box. I'm a simple guy, so I asked the obvious, "What's in it?"

"Nothing illegal." She laid it on thick, wide eyed, and even a little tremble around the mouth, "And I want it back badly Rory."

I wasn't falling for it. Not much, anyway. This is Syndicate, where "not illegal" means your bribes are all up to date. Still, a podder, she should be able to pay, "I'll look for the box for you. Now, I charge five hundred a day, plus expenses. Two days in advance is your deposit. That's whether I find it or not."

"The money is in your account." I thought she had been laying it on before, until she smiled. Cut through a man like a laser, that smile. "And if there is anything else I can do for you..."

I have rules, about relationships with clients and with people who give a bulk discount on massacres. Those kinda relationships get messy. So I got a few answers about dates, times, who might have access, things like that, scheduled a talk with her Hangar Chief and shooed her outta the office quick as I could.

The whole thing had gone colder than a priest's soul before she'd even got into my office, the box had been gone two days before she was desperate enough to bring in an outsider. I needed to get moving, but first thing's first. I brought out my neocom and checked my account balance. And nearly choked. She'd paid in isk, not syns - Syndicate Credits. I did a quick bit of math: With current exchange rate I could live like one of Quafe's pet senators for a year on that. Maybe even afford to hire a secretary.

Money like that, normally I'd say it stunk like three weeks on a shuttle full of cattle, but podders, right? She probably didn't even notice. That's what I told myself anyway. Money has a blinding charm all its own.

I squared things at the office and caught a ride down to Dockland. The bar nearest Kaita's hangar was a run down affair wedged into what was supposed to be the clear space between two internal bulkheads. If it had any kind of operating license, it was the cash-in-an-envelope sort, and the place didn't even have a name. Longshoremen who looked like they hardly needed help from a loader to move a few tons of ore around were lounging at rickety tables outside. I sidestepped as a man and a woman rolled out of the dimly lit interior. I'm not positive what they were doing, but the man spit out two teeth. I took the opportunity to slip inside.

The interior was crowded with a restless, shadowy mass of shapes. I pulled my coat a bit closer and tried to blend in, but I felt like the furrier in the slaver pen as I moved to the bar. The bar tender had a Caldari look to her, and seemed hard enough to do her own bouncing. I motioned her over and flashed fifty syns, "Anyone been showing a lotta credits round here lately? Last week or so? And a brew for me."

She pulled me a beer and gave me the usual: a hard look, a sneer, and a "Maybe."

I held out three fifties, "Got a name for me sweetheart?"

"For these, yeah, Gellique." She jerked her head at someone behind me, "And for calling me 'sweetheart,' this. You come back sometime honeycheeks."

I was grabbed from behind, and I got a look at the bouncer as I flew out the door. He looked like he might be a cargo loader. At least I didn't have to try the beer.

I dusted myself off to the laughter of the patrons at the tables outside, rallied my dignity like the Amarr at Atioth, and headed out. I sent a query to a friend in what passes as the station's government about the name 'Gellique' and whether the station's internals had a chance of detecting the power plant attached to the box.

It'd take a while for her to get back to me, so I set my sights on Kaita's hangar. I gave my authentication to her security there and got passed through. The guys manning the checkpoint looked tougher than the top shelf body armor they were wearing, and had a look I remembered from the days when I was drawing a corporate salary. Not amateurs, so how did someone sneak a man-sized box past them?

Well, that's why I was getting paid. I met Kaita's hangar chief, Oiman Mastako, in his office adjoining the main hangar. He had a face like a Veld 'roid: Lumpy, grayish, and begging for a laser hole. He radiated smugness like an antimatter charge radiated hurt. I wondered how well he knew someone named Gellique.

I took a seat without being asked and started right in. "Just got a couple questions for you. Tell me what happened."

He twisted his mouth like I walked in with a fedo conga line, but I knew my authorization from his boss was there flashing at him, "It was Tuesday, when myself and most of the rest of the regular hangar staff have the day off. We came back Wednesday, and the box was gone. There are no cameras or sensors on the hangar floor, for obvious reasons."

'Obvious' because a little run of the mill pilferage by hangar staff was nothing compared to creating a record of the things that transpire in your average podder's hangar, "What about security? The checkpoint on the way in didn't seem half-assed."

Mastako had the grace to look embarrassed at least, "Those are new, ex-Home Guard, mostly. At the time of the, um, incident we had contracted out to a local company. Ashte Security and Consulting. They came very highly recommended by the local contacts."

I'll bet they did. I knew of them. "And the box, you know what was in it?"

He hemmed and hawed and all I could get out of him was, "It's a bio-preservation unit, so something biological I guess."

Something 'biological.' Great. I pressed for a bit longer but didn't get anything useful until I was half out the door, "Last question, I wanted to talk to one of your guys..." I pretended to flip through my notes, "Gellique?"

His answer wasn't much of a surprise, "Henri Gellique hasn't shown up for work since Tuesday. You see him, tell him he's fired."

((Part 2))