New London, Mars.
The 3rd Street Lounge is a swanky bar in the city’s hellhole, the Industrial/Manufacturing District. The owner, Curtis, transformed an abandoned cube of a building into a classy gin joint with a stage for swinging bands, a dance floor for the uninhibited, an island bar in the center of the room for the thirsty, small tables near the stage for the enthusiastic, and cozy booths along the wall for the intimate. Wood and Art Deco comprise the majority of the decor. Why Curt chose the IM, how he paid for the place, or the renovations are beyond me. I’ve never asked and I don’t care.
Anywhere else in New London, the 3rd Street Lounge would be packed every weekday night and have a line around the block on weekends. Anywhere else in this city, bands would be begging to get a gig. Instead, the stage has never seen a live act and the only people lining up are the factory workers who go the bar instead of home at the end of their shifts.
I had my usual booth along the wall near the dance floor, and was kept company by the remnants of a gin and tonic. Baseball highlights streamed on my PLEX12. If I hadn’t been so oblivious to the world around me, I’d have seen her walk in, looking about as out of place in this joint as a herd of elephants on the Elysium Planitia.
I only glanced up when I heard my name and caught a glimpse of the one person who would send me through the wormhole. At that moment, flight became impossible. Instead, I sat, rooted in my booth, and gaped like a fool at a woman who’d have made the Judgment of Paris infinitely harder.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of those poor saps instantly smitten by any babe that crosses my path. There are plenty of good-looking women in New London. But not like her. She possessed classiness only the truly beautiful enjoy, the very image of a New Look model complete with an Arden-styled jacket. The deep forest green tones of the fabric matched the shade of her eyes. Her makeup and hair – blonde with a pixie cut – suited her to a tee.
As the mystery woman glided towards me, her expression radiated contempt. I guess I couldn’t blame her. Instead of sitting at my office, I was entrenched in a booth in New London’s very own industrial nightmare watching sports’ highlights and clutching an empty highball glass.
Despite what I might say on the subject, first impressions matter. The thought of being viewed as some common wino stung like a punch to the gut.
I stood up to greet her. She checked me out again – this time head to toe. Fortunately, my pressed wool suit and trilby stood in contrast to the other patrons of the bar. Add to that my 185 centis of fighting fitness, and I almost made inroads. A slight smile implied a minor success.
“You are Daniel Helmqvist?” she asked with a girlish voice that betrayed the smooth, silvery tone I had already conjured in my mind.
“I am. Would you like to sit and may I take your coat?”
She nodded and turned her back to me. I slid her jacket off to reveal shapely shoulders and arms of flawless alabaster; a rarity these days to not find a dame roasted like an over-cooked brisket from one of those infernal tanning machines. Unexpectedly, she sat down in the exact spot I had vacated only seconds ago.
“Can, umm, can I get you anything?”
“A soda water with a twist of lemon.”
“Coming right up.”
A few minutes later, I slid around to the bend of the u-shaped booth with her drink in my left hand and a G&T in my right.
“Now, Miss -”
“To what do I owe the visit?”
“I wish to hire your services on a very delicate matter.”
“I have an office where I usually meet prospective clients.”
“Your assistant directed me to this place when I called your business number.”
Of course she did….. “Wonderful. Okay, well you’re here now. What’s the job?”
Her emerald eyes flicked toward the door before settling on mine. She seemed far too distracted and worried for my comfort. I fought an overwhelming urge to glance in that same direction.
“Does the name Paul Fischer ring a bell?”
I went for the obvious answer: “The guy convicted and sent up the river for blowing up the UN building, most of East Side Manhattan and tens of thousands of people? What about him?”
“What if I told you that he had been set up? That he unwittingly took the fall for the crime?”
I shrugged. “The AG made a good case against him and the twelve people sitting in the jury box agreed with his argument. But let’s skip the hypothetical. You think someone else did it, right?”
“No, I know someone else did it.” Her gaze flashed past me once again.
“Are you expecting someone, Miss Rennick?”
“I have taken a considerable risk coming here.”
I turned my head and stared at the entrance as if a couple of hard boys would come crashing through right at that moment. No one did. The Quantic remix of Skalpel’s “1958” filled the brief lull in our conversation.
I took a long pull at my highball and sat the half-empty glass down. “Please continue.”
“Someone else planned the attack and planted a trail of evidence that led straight to Paul Fischer.”
“You sound pretty confident.”
She sipped her club soda. “I am.”
“Despite the fact that they had overwhelming proof of his involvement in the bombing – eye witness accounts, video corroboration and a laptop with a recovered copy of the manifesto sent out afterwards on it?”
She nodded. “Doesn’t that sound a little too convenient? At best, all it means is the culprit gave the investigators just enough information to string them along until Fischer became the one obvious suspect.”
I finished my drink. “Why not go to the police, or contact the FBI?”
“They would never believe me and I would be exposed to the very person I am trying to hide this from.” She paused and let out a measured sigh. “You see, it involves someone far too important for the police to even consider capable of mass murder.”
I glanced down at my highball glass, wishing it hadn’t run dry. “Who is this person?” I managed at last.
She looked up and our eyes met: “Mara Kitterman.”
“The same Mara Kitterman that put our city on the galactic map!?”
Charlotte looked around to ensure no one had heard.
“You can see why I cannot go to the authorities, right? They would never believe me.”
“Lady, I’m not even sure I believe you. Mass murder is pretty far down the list of things I think Mara Kitterman would do. What proof do you have?”
“A datapad exists that contains all of the information required to prosecute her.” A hint of defiance tinted the edge of Rennick’s voice.
“I don’t suppose you know where it is, do you? Or for that matter, how do you even know it exists?”
“If I knew its location, I wouldn’t need you. As far as how I know, let’s just say that I have overheard things that give weight to my belief in her guilt.”
The conversation lapsed again. I glanced at her while she picked at a beer coaster. Mara Kitterman, a killer. A ridiculous notion. But intriguing nonetheless.
“Do you believe me?”
“What if I paid you to look into it anyway?” Her attention was back on me now.
“I’d feel bad taking your money.”
“It’s my money. I’ll spend it as I like.“
“Fine, but let me ask you this: if she did do it, why go after her now?”
“It is a secret I have born for too long.” She whispered so quiet I almost missed it.
I leaned in closer to her, thrown off by the gravity of her response.
She nodded her head toward Curtis. “Besides, I’m certain you have a healthy bar tab to pay-off. Look into it and see what you uncover. If, at the end of two weeks, you haven’t discovered anything, we settle up and go our separate ways. If, however, you do discover something to support my claims, we see this through to the end. Is that a deal?”
I gave the question the customary amount of thinking. “I’ll give you two solid weeks of investigation. If by some wild stretch of the imagination, your allegation has a kernel of truth, then I’ll be your man to the end.”
Her pert lips formed an imperceptible smile.
“My rate is 500 credits a day.”
“Perfectly reasonable. Now, if you will excuse me, I must go before I am missed at work.”
She scooted out of the booth and I scrambled to follow. Once standing, we exchanged business cards. She grabbed her coat and made for the door. I glanced down at her details:
Applied Science Division
1 Corporation South, Research District 1
Tel: (1601) 21274962
“I will call you in a few days to see how you are progressing,” she called out before stepping into the strong Martian daylight.
And like that, she vanished. I stood there, long after the door had closed, lost in thought. Curt’s voice shook me from my reverie.
“What the hell was that all about?”
I sidled up to the bar. “Can’t say.”
“Can’t or won’t?” A grin on his face.
“Another gin and tonic, then?”
My attention drifted back to the door. “Make it a double, I’ve got some serious thinking to do.”