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Space Pirate Chronicles: The Fool's Tale

Monday, Feb 27, 2017

The fool goes head to head against a cold-blooded killer on icy Europa.

Cecil Wendbury is a professional fool who performs in the streets of New Austin on Europa. Then a mysterious man gives him a flash drive containing information over which he was later killed. Now Cecil has to figure out who was supposed to receive the flash drive while not letting it fall into the wrong hands. The key is in the information on the drive, but the encryption is uncrackable. It seems to be a hopeless situation, but is it really hopeless?

In his search for information, he is aided by Larry, a physicist at the local community college and a retired netrunner, Sherry, a private investigator, and Captain Nick "Naptime" Vallejo, a notorious pirate. Together, they are a talented team, but even some challenges are too much.

What the hell is this?

This is my first novel. :) I started writing it for Nano 2011, and have chipped away at it over the years, and now it's ready, published, and for sale.

You can read on for a sample from the book that is about 1/3 of the total book content. Following the excerpt, there will be convenient links to purchase the book, or you can just go to Amazon and get it already.

Chapter One

It never pays to wake up in jail. Quite the contrary, waking up in jail means you didn't get paid, and probably not laid either. It's also the start of a number of bad stories, so I'll try to be brief.

So there I was, waking up, hoping to feel my baby's body heat pressed up against mine, and instead finding a cold cell and a terrible headache. What went wrong last night? How did I end up here? Why did I drink so much? It was quite the unusual feeling for a professional drinker like me to not be able to remember the night of drinking.

I've heard it said that one jail looks much like the next. I wouldn't know, I've only been arrested one time before this, and that was years ago. This cell was very different from that one. Like the other cell, this one was equipped with a steel sink and toilet unit, a steel writing table with a steel stool attached on a steel swing arm that doesn't swing, and a steel bench with a hard as steel pad on it that I'll call my bed. Unlike the other cell, this one had nothing resembling a shower. I got out of bed, winced at the sharp pain in my temple, and stumbled over to the mirror, where I learned that I was still wearing my facepaint. This was not going to be pretty. I used a black and white pattern inspired by the yin and the yang because it matched my fool's black and silver hat. Likewise, the rest of my costume, which I was no longer wearing, consisted of a silvery vest, white tuxedo shirt, black bow tie, and black pants. Without my facepaint, I'm just another white guy with high cheekbones, long brown hair, and blue eyes that the ladies go nuts about. Like a good fool, I'm somewhat muscled, but otherwise a slender build that the ladies also go nuts over. What I'm saying is that the ladies go nuts over me, in and out of my costume.

First thing's first, leave the paint on. Whatever was going to happen next, I felt like I needed my fake face showing, because it was easier to hide behind it. Then I needed to somehow find out what was going on.

All I could remember at that initial wake-up was that I was with my sweetheart at the time I was arrested. I vaguely remembered being arraigned and informed that I had violated the rights of the people by operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. I barely remembered the party. I didn't know what had happened to her after I was taken away. Did she make it home? Were we even going home? Did she feel as bad as I did in the morning?

I was coming under the impression of a feeling of danger, and the more I thought about it, the more anxious I became. I didn't think we were going home, but we were doing something dangerous. And, oddly enough, I felt like there was some sense of seediness in my girlfriend's behavior. Were we expecting a threesome at the destination? Was she planning on ditching me? Not Mary, no way. She and I were together forever, there was no way... But was there? She had clearly been deceiving me about something. Something had happened. Had she cheated on me? No, that didn't make sense. Mary was loyal to a fault, to a point where she wouldn't cheat on previous boyfriends even after knowing they'd cheated on her. It wasn't a sexual thing.

What was it, then? I started to think that my mind was playing tricks on me, because why else would I be thinking that we had angered the feds, the Illuminati, and the Belgians? That didn't make sense, but it did fit with the most common busker fantasy. There was no way I could be involved with anything like that. And yet, in the seemingly strange world of Cecil the Fool, locked up in a steel cage, it made sense. Somehow, in all of my magnificence, I had managed to get caught up in a plot that involved more secret government agencies than the cover-up of the UFO crash at Roswell! Of course, being a busker who was at the moment down on his luck and in jail, the fantasy would strongly appeal to my alcohol-adled brain.

After checking on my facepaint, I felt a bit better, and went back on my so-called bed to sleep. I must have slept for 20 hours, but since there was no clock in the cell, I couldn't tell.

When I woke up, it was meal time. I wanted to eat heartily, but the sandwich provided was sickening. I ate the orange and went back to bed, hoping the citric acid wouldn't trigger a puking fit.

After lunch, I sat there dreamily trying to remember what had happened the night before, with little flashes of vision lacking meaning parading before my eyes. I had performed at a bar that I also hang out in. I remembered doing that. And some guy was buying my drinks after the performance. Mary was there, but there was something about her, something I still couldn't put my finger on. Ah yes, there was that man! He came to our table and asked to buy her a drink, and she moved off to another table with him. I was jealous, really jealous, and I don't get jealous a lot. I realize that Mary has lots of friends, and most of them are male, and unlike a lot of men, that sort of thing doesn't bother me. Usually when they show up at the bar, she invites them to sit with us. This had the look of a man making a pass at her and she went for it. She didn't tell me what the guy wanted, later, but they did do some pad syncing. In a bar, that usually only means one thing: trading contact information to meet up later. And in context, it really looked like she was flaunting availability even though she was with me. Still, I liked to think I gave her space to be who she is, and do what she wants. I never want to be a constricting boyfriend, and she'd had enough of that with other men. As it happens, most women have had that experience. So I didn't question her. I figured she'd tell me if it was important.

Interrupting my ruminations, the guard opened my cell and informed me I had a visitor. So I roused myself a bit, got out of bed, and followed the guard down to the day room. An odd quirk of this jail, I suppose, is that they don't allow inmates out into the day room, but they have a day room anyway. Maybe I'll remember some day to ask about access to the day room, since I have heard the sentence for DUI can be pretty harsh. I might need to spend time in the day room getting help eating when both of my hands are stumps.

The guard brought me to a table in the day room and sat me down, which was a clear indication that whoever my visitor was, it was a person within the system and not my sweetheart. He walked over to his counter and buzzed in the guard outside, and sure enough, two obvious cops walked in and headed my way. When they reached me, one immediately sat across the table from me while the other stood off to the side.

"My name is Detective Johns," said the seated man. "And this is my partner, Detective Raymond. We're here to ask you a few questions about last night."

"My name is Cecil, and I'll try to answer your questions, gentlemen," I responded, "but as you are aware of my charges here, I really don't remember much of last night."

"That's fine," said the detective. "We'll try anyway. Let's start with this picture."

With that, he placed his pad in front of me. The man pictured look like your stereotypical Italian syndicate, um, "manager".

"I do not recognize this man," I said.

"Interesting," said the detective. "By all accounts, you were going to his bubble when you were pulled over." And with that, he gave me the Detective Stare.

To which I responded with the Jester Stare. Few can resist the Jester Stare, that's why jesters use it so carefully in their acts. Making the audience too nervous too often is a quick way to lose your audience. In this situation, Johns was obviously trying to make me nervous. Standard interrogation tactic, really. Just make your subject nervous, keep him nervous long enough and he'll spill his guts. Luckily for me, I had no guts to spill. I had already spilled them in the toilet.

"Ok," said the detective. "How about this gentleman?" He tapped the screen and the image was replaced with a new one. This one I recognized, he bought me my drinks last night. The scar near his right eye socket and the accompanying robot eye were a dead giveaway. Curiously, the picture was a mugshot. Obviously the man had a record. I wondered briefly if he liked the jail sandwiches.

"Yes," I said. "I recognize him. But I don't know him."

"Where do you know him from?"

"He bought me my drinks last night, after the show," I said.

"Did he give you his name?"

"Curtis," I said. "Or Jonas. I'm not very good with names. Occupational hazard."

"Well," responded the detective. "We don't know either of those aliases, but we do know his legal name is Jacob Smith, and he works as a courier for one of the big crime bosses on Jupiter. He has a string of minor offenses, and usually manages to get himself out of jail one way or the other. He must have had some reason to contact you. Perhaps you would care to enlighten me?"

Crime boss? That's who was buying my drinks? I started to wonder how much I had actually drank and why I was drinking it.

"I didn't know him at all, he just offered me a drink after the show and I accepted," I answered honestly and forthrightly.

"What happened after that?"

"Well, my girlfriend came over, and he offered her a drink," I said. "We all drank together for a couple of hours, and then my girlfriend and I left together."

"Where were you going?"

"I'm not really sure," I said. "We had been drinking, and then it was time to leave and I was driving. I didn't know where we were going, and the cop stopped us before I could find out."

"And that's it?"

"That's what happened last night," I said.

"Have you ever seen this man before that day?"

"I don't know. I see a lot of people every day," I said. "I can't track every face I see."

"Understood," said the detective. "Do you recognize this man?"

Again, a new picture. Unlike the other pictures, this man was clearly no longer among the living. Having recognized the man, I had a fair amount of momentary shock to withhold. Being a fool does have its advantages, I just hadn't expected them to show during a police interrogation.

"I'm afraid I don't," I said. "Another crime lord?"

"No," said the detective. "This man apparently doesn't exist, but was found dead a few days ago about three blocks from your downtown spot."

"Does that mean the police are now using my downtown spot as a landmark?" I asked cheekily.

"No," said the detective with a chuckle. "But there's some sort of connection between his death and the crime boss, Julian. And with this man being killed near you, and the courier buying your drinks, that makes a lot of people wonder what your part is in all of this." Again, the Detective Stare.

I felt that the Jester Stare would be an inappropriate response at this point, so I gave him the Honest Pickings.

"I'm sorry, detective, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about." Short, to the point, and completely honest.

"Ok, then, what about this man?" The detective dropped another picture in front of me.

I didn't recognize the individual at all.

"I don't recognize this man," I said. "Who is he?"

"He was also found dead in the same spot in which we found the other victim," said the detective.

"I've never seen this man before," I volunteered.

What followed were a few moments of silence, punctuated by the respective stares of the questioner and questionee. I had nothing: no information, no understanding, and absolutely no idea what he was trying to imply. Obviously, he had nothing either and was trying to rile me because he believed that I had something. But I had faced hostile audiences before, and this man was no effort. So, after a period, I broke the silence.

"You haven't said anything at all," I said to the man who was still standing. "Maybe you have something you'd like to suggest?"

"Watch your back," was his only response. The two detectives then exchanged a look, stood up, and beat their departure without so much as a handshake or a word of farewell.

The thing that was bothering me was that I had recognized the third man. He was in my spot, near as I can tell based on what the detectives had told me, just a few hours before he was found dead. Which means I may have been one of the last people to interact with him before he died. He had been watching me perform, and when I was finished and taking tips, he put a tip in my bag. I didn't think anything of it at first, but he had made eye contact with me. Later, I found a flasher in my bag buried among the gold coins. When I tried it in my terminal at home, it showed to be blank. So I figured he was just giving me an old flasher in lieu of currency, which is a common occurrence when you're busking. After I found the flasher, I found the man who'd given it to me, dead as a doornail.

The second dead man, I had no knowledge of. I had never seen him before, and I was completely honest about that with the two detectives.

I was curious about the "all accounts" comment. They'd obviously already interviewed other people at the bar that night, but I didn't remember intending to go anywhere but home. Mary was with me when we left. It was also unusual for us to drive at all, since we didn't actually own a vehicle of any kind, other than my bicycle which I never rode. Why was I even driving in the first place? Hell, my license was suspended already for previous bad driving habits, back when I owned a motorized vehicle. It would have made more sense for Mary to drive, except she was too drunk. She'd had a lot to drink, as had I.

Later that evening, after the detectives had gone, I was set free on personal bond. Watch your back, indeed.

Chapter Negative Seven

I was just minding my own business! I swear! I was all dressed up and ready to go. When I opened the door to my apartment, a hand reached through as soon as the there was room and pulled me against the door quickly before it had retracted too far. Then the mysterious hand moved in, followed by an arm and what I assume was an entire body, squeezing one of the hand pressure points and guiding me to turn around and face back inside my apartment. The half nelson that followed put me on my knees, and there wasn't one damned thing I could do about it.

"Give me the cash!" said a somewhat high-pitched voice behind.

"I haven't worked at all today, so I have no cash," I answered.

"Not good enough! Give me the cash!"

The epiphany I had at the moment led me to my very next move, which was to twist my body hard, throwing a leg out and sweeping my captor. He lost his grip while falling, and in 0.213 seconds I straddled his belly, confirming that this man was, in fact, male.

"You old scoundrel," I told him.

My friend laughed uproariously.

"Cecil!" he said. "Nice to see that you've kept in practice!"

"Of course I have," I responded. "Now, if I release you, are you going to attack me again?"

"Of course not," he answered. "The infamous Captain Nick Vallejo knows when he's beat."

"Great," I mumbled, getting up. "I'm off to perform--"

"No problems," he answered. "Let's go to that Fastburger joint I saw around the corner. Have you eaten, yet?"

"No," I said. "I was planning on stopping off for something off their dollar menu."

"I thought you said you didn't have any cash?"

"I have a tab there," I answered. "Actually, because I do a little performance whenever I get there, they feed me for free."

"Ah," he said. "Then let's rock and roll, shall we?"

A few minutes later we were sitting across each other in a garishly decorated burger joint, I with my two breakfast burritos, and Nick with a gigantic jalapeño cheese burger. As we ate, I considered this old friend. Interpol had him listed as somewhat dangerous, but with only a smittering reward. They described him as about two meters tall, with long wavy black hair, usually a bit scruffy on the face, and as Mexican as the Mexican Hat Dance. He wore a lot of black, and that day was no exception. He was the stereotypical picture of a ruffian.

"So, when did you get into town?" I opened up with.

"Last night," he answered. "We set in for repairs."

"What's broken?"

"Oh, just a few things," he answered. "We're out of missiles, the aft lasers got taken out, and the aft shield generator is down."

"Sounds like you were being chased," I answered.

"Yep," he said. "Pirating just isn't what it used to be."

"Who was chasing you?"

"Dunno," he answered. "The ship wasn't in our database."

"Are you still using that outdated Russian database?"

"Nope," he said. "My netrunner managed to score an up-to-date USN database."

"Oh really?"

"Really!"

"Who'd he steal it from?"

"I cannot say," answered the pirate, "but I can say that if a ship isn't in that database, it's not from around here."

"Maybe it was just heavily modded?"

"Not with those weapons."

Nick looked at me pointedly, and a bit more seriously.

"Look, Cecil," he said. "I don't know what's going on, but something is going down. There's been a lot of covert traffic running around between here and Mars, and there's rumors out about a group of vigilantes that have started taking out pirate ships."

"Only pirate ships?"

"Only."

It was my turn to look at him.

"You definitely look more haggard than you usually do,"I observed. "Chino still feeding you right?"

"Of course," he answered with a sigh. "I was just thinking that maybe piracy isn't what I ought to be doing with my crew anymore."

"These new guys really got you worked up?"

"Let me just say that if the ship that attacked us was one of them, we're fucked. We can't get three pirate crews together and defeat it."

"That much firepower, eh?"

"That much," he said. "We were lucky to get away, and that was with Shauna extending the front shields to the rear after the aft shield generator resigned and went to find a new job. We hid for three days in a comet's trail while the thing stalked around us trying to find us."

"Lucky to be so near a comet," I said.

"Well, we were following the comet when we were attacked."

"Sounds like another brilliant plan of the great 'Naptime' Nick Vallejo!"

I found it disturbing that he didn't follow that up with his usual humor. My old friend looked more tired than I had seen in him in a long time. He must have been really shaken up about the experience.

"So why were you following the comet?" I asked.

"Oh, that," said Nick. "I was breaking in a new pilot, making him match course and speed to a predictable object like a comet."

"I don't believe that to be completely true."

"Ok, it's because a random USN ship caught us on sensors during a raid, and I was hiding."

"Sloppy," I said. "Why were you pirating in the inner planets?"

"I wasn't," said Nick. "That's what makes the whole thing so weird."

Nick's comm went off right then and he moved off to answer it. A few minutes later, he returned.

"Well, looks like it's time for me to go," said Nick. "We found a buyer for our cargo, and it's time to take Shauna out shopping."

"Buy her something pretty," I told him.

"I'm going to buy her a pretty new reconditioned aft shield generator," he answered. "Until I see you again, take care, my friend."

"And also with you," I said, gripping his hand in a firm handshake. I watched him walk away and wondered what nature of combat he had been in. We had been in some rough patches together, and together, we usually found a way out of them. Ok, obviously, we had always found a way out of them or I wouldn't have been sitting in that Fastburger chatting with my friend.

Realizing that I needed to get downtown to make some money, I got up to go. On my way out the door, an old homeless guy with gray hair going everywhere bumped right into me, so hard that I temporarily lost my balance.

"Excuse me," I said politely.

He met my eyes and just stared for a moment.

"I should get going," I said, and started to move off. He grabbed my shoulder and whipped me around with surprising strength.

"Don't go downtown today," he said.

"Why the hell shouldn't I?"

"Because danger awaits you."

I didn't have any time for a crazy homeless guy doing crazy things around me, so I told him to shove it and walked away. He didn't follow me, but I continued to be unnerved.


Downtown. Blah. Not a terribly exciting place. It was a large dome with tall steel buildings like you'd find in any downtown area in the outer planets. Shops, banks, the usual selection of economic activity you'd expect. I was performing for a small audience in the early evening hours, normal shopping hours for mothers with their young kids. Naturally I was in the shopping district. The people closest to me were mostly kids, with their mothers making the second row, and there were only about 5 ladies. Businesspeople were walking to and fro, headed toward the tube station or headed to work. Clothing stalls lined the corridor, and barricades were starting to go up in preparation for the considerable bar traffic that would be coming soon. What little traffic that had existed had mostly stopped, and there were only battery powered vehicles certified to use in pedestrian areas. I had just finished a double cartwheel where I borked the return and dropped into a roll. When I stood up from the roll, I found myself eye to eye with a man showing Haunted Mario. It struck me so hard, this man's most seriously harried expression, that I threw myself backwards onto my hands, did an about face, and started walking away on my hands. Losing my balance, I dropped into a roll again and kicked around to face the crowd. The kids yelled, and the man was looking behind him. I glanced to see what he was looking at and saw two men pushing people out of the way and moving this way. They were still several blocks away, but the way the corridor curves in that part of downtown, I could see them clearly. So could the man.

Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed my bag, stepped up to him, and gave my standard line about tips. He looked at me for several long moments, then dropped some money into my bag and moved away, murmuring something about trying to get away before they catch him. I moved around the mothers collecting whatever I could get, and kept an eye out for the man's pursuit. When the mothers had finished letting their kids pay me for the few minutes of entertainment they received, I strapped my bag back onto my belt, pulled out my balls, and started tossing them in a cascade pattern. I kept my eye on the men moving through the crowd and moved bombastically to interpose myself between them and their prey. It took another minute for them to reach me, at which point I ran interference, while switching to the waterfall. The two men each dropped a coin in my bag, forcing me to obey the busker convention of leaving them to continue on their journey. I figured I managed to keep them busy for about 20 seconds or so. Hopefully that was enough time for the poor guy to get away.

As the evening went on, I couldn't shake the man's expression from my mind. Why were they chasing him? It wasn't technically my problem, but something about working in the street makes you develop a certain compassion for people. Later in the evening, when I was getting ready to head home, I went off to my counting spot. I usually count my money before I leave, but after I've finished performing. For safety's sake, I always count at a different spot. That night, the spot I used was a few blocks away, opposite the tubes, farther than usual. I sat down on a bench and opened my bag. Since most people pay with paper money, it's usually a matter of pulling it out and putting it in my wallet. After sorting through the bills, I started digging through the change to get an idea what sort of coinage I had earned. There were more gold eagles than usual, but there was a funky mass that was decidedly not coin-shaped. I pulled it out and looked at it. It was a flasher, a digital storage device. Who would put that in there? Sure, people often tip with things that aren't money. In fact, early that same evening a lady tipped me with half a sandwich. But she didn't put it in the bag. People usually show you what they're tipping you, except for the ladies who leave you their contact info. It was a surprisingly safe bet that that chased man had put it there. Careful study showed it to be well-used. It was a Samsung AJT-6100, which is a common flasher used by academics. It's practical, small, and has a lot of space on it. It's also supported by the big mainframe computers used in most research labs, and there's only like three flashers that are reliably supported. I would have to see what's on it that the man was so desperate to leave me.

I put my wallet away, closed up the bag and looked up. The security cameras in this part of town don't work so well, so it's good when you're carrying a bit of cash to keep yourself in view of the cameras that do work. When I went to stand, I noticed on the ground a bit of pinkish water. That was unusual in and of itself. Water is so common on Europa, a moon made almost completely out of water, that it's not unusual for it to flow a bit freely in some of the seedier parts of town, nor is it unusual to find bodily fluids coloring it, but pink? If that was a bodily fluid, I wasn't sure I wanted to know from where it came.

On a whim, I followed the water upstream. It wound its way around the corner, where I found a person sitting slumped over on the ground, back against the wall. I walked over and looked at the person and recognized Haunted Mario. He was bleeding from what looked like a gut wound of some sort. I guessed the good news was that he was still bleeding, so he was still alive, but he didn't look like he was conscious. I picked his head up and slapped his cheek to try to revive him, and he woke up a bit. He looked at me with glassy eyes, seeming to recognize me.

"Don't talk," he said. "If they ask, you never saw me."

"Who are you?" I asked.

He coughed a bit, and let his head drop. Then he mumbled something.

"Sorry, bud," I said, "I didn't catch that." I moved my head in closer to his mouth, where I could hear better.

"Don't let it fall into anybody's hands. You will be contacted. Leave me now."

"Who will contact me?" I whispered.

"Nobody."

Then he died.

Chapter Two

Perhaps I should introduce myself. My name is Cecil Wendbury, and I am a professional fool. I am 36 years old, and live with my girlfriend in a cabin on Europa, a republic in the Islamic Federation of Jupiter. It is a tourist area where the Jovian miners spend their weeks mining Jupiter's atmosphere for helium and their evenings on Europa enjoying the lustpots, strip clubs, and various entertainments. As a professional fool, most of my evenings are spent in the street, busking. From time to time, as had happened last night, I score a gig on a stage in a bar. Tips are usually better in bars, but much more unpredictable. Europa also attracts a great deal of tourists from Earth and Mars, being in the orbit of the closest of the outer planets and therefore the cheapest to visit. Outside of Jupiter's orbit lie mostly military bases, self-sustaining colonies that are rarely heard from, probably because there's only one person left due to a dog virus that mutated into giant monsters, or so I assumed, and a few vacation spots for the very rich that operate outside the rule of law. Jupiter is the official start of the new frontier, and serves as the crossroads for all goods imported from the outer planets and exported from the inner planets. It's also a place where the rule of law isn't quite as common as it is in the inner planets, which are in turn dominated by the United States of North America and Venus. As a result, good old high seas piracy can be a profitable adventure for crews who have the courage, chutzpah, and know better than to be cruel to their victims. So it's ideally situated for a person of my profession to do quite well, and I do. I live with my girlfriend, Mary, in a modest home in an upper-middleclass bubble.

I chose Europa as a home. When I was a kid, I lived in the asteroid belt. My dad served in the Strategic Space Force as a trainer, so we spent a lot of time living in the asteroid belt. When he got cancer and retired, we went back to Mars for awhile. When he recovered, we moved back to the asteroid belt because his position had been spun off to the civil service, and he was able to take a similar position and do his old job again. Somewhere in that mess, my older sister moved to Europa to attend the same university as her school friends, and when I finished school, I followed her. She let me stay in her place for a few months while I worked a shitty fast food job, saved up money, and moved out on my own at the naïve age of 18. The rest is history, of a sort.

In the years since then, I got married, had some kids, got divorced. I've worked as a fry cook, a fusion drive mechanic, software programmer, marketer, and during the last years of my divorce, a physics lab assistant. After the divorce, about a year before I got arrested, an old friend got in contact with me, a girl from my first job. We'd both had crushes on each other, but were too wimpy to ever do anything about it. After getting in touch with me, we started going out, and I have been considering marrying her, but she doesn't know, so do me a favor and don't tell her until I get a chance to tell her myself. In any case, during the divorce, I spent some time on a freighter of sorts with an old friend who got me into juggling as a hobby. It was fun, and relaxing, and at that time I needed something relaxing to do. Later, I found I had gotten pretty good at it, and having a generally whimsical personality, decided to try my hand at busking. I parted ways with my old friend the captain at his next Europa stop to do just that. After a few false starts, and getting involved with my girlfriend, she helped me put together a costume that, when put on, makes me feel like a completely different person, but still the same person, if that makes any sense. Trying again at busking, I did quite well, and at the time we needed money so badly we were willing to try almost anything legal. So, like my old fencing instructor used to say: when you find something that works, keep doing it until it doesn't work anymore.

And there you have it. Cecil the Fool was born.

I don't really have a downtown spot. There are actually several spots downtown that I use regularly, and when they barricade the street, I tend to go out on the road and perform out there. When I'm juggling, that is. It's actually a small part of my act. I had been studying martial arts since I was a kid in the asteroid belt with my old friend before he was a freighter captain, and now I have multiple black belts in Aikido, Judo, Tae Kwon Do, and Jiujitsu. I realize how that makes me sound like some sort of martial art prodigy, but the truth is that all of those arts are similar enough that after you get a black belt in one, getting a black belt in any of the others is easy. After the divorce, I studied Hapkido without ever getting a belt, which is a story all its own, but since it includes some acrobatics that I already knew, I worked those into my act. I'm a traditional jester, doing a bit of juggling, some acrobatics, and a fair amount of scathing satirical comedy. Most of my act is spent harassing people closest to me in the circle, and getting laughs at it all. Then I take out my bag and collect my tips, and move on to a different spot. On the street, with the kind of hours I work, you have to have something different to offer audiences when there's a chance you'll see some of the same people from one spot to the next, and over the months since I started I've picked up quite a few regulars. So, improvisation is the key to my success. I take the best of what I can remember doing in the street onto the stage about once a month, and I do alright.

Naturally, it doesn't matter which downtown spot I was in when the gentleman-that-doesn't-exist tipped me, because they're all fairly close together anyway. What does matter is that if I was one of the last people to have seen him before he was murdered, then that empty flasher could be of importance, especially if he was somehow involved with a major crime boss. Jupiter, being a crossroads planet, with Europa having the interplanetary spaceport, is a natural target for organized crime and espionage. And I, being a common street fool, should be able to do a fair amount of my own detective work.

You may ask why I didn't just tell the detectives everything I just told you. Go ahead, ask it. Thanks. The last few days had actually been quite a bit more eventful than I led the detective to believe. The police had obviously been watching me for some time, and I doubted they were going to let me know how much they knew about what I had been up to. How the flasher and the man carrying it are connected to the crime boss is unclear. Well, to be completely honest, there was no logical connection to it that I could see, yet, but whatever information was on that flasher, a man who doesn't exist was carrying it, and the cops have somehow connected him to both the crime boss and to me. Chances were, the cops think the crime boss murdered the man, and that means the crime boss is connected to the flasher somehow. Worse yet, they might even think I was associated with the crime boss because of the night I got arrested, which would make me the primary suspect in this murder. Of course, technically I didn't know for sure if it was even a murder, since he could have been killed in self-defense, but when you consider that I had observed him being chased, murder was a logical conclusion.

I wanted to revisit the original crime scene to see if there was information to be gleaned now that the cops had worked it over. Since I couldn't operate in my usual costume, I decided to use my jester-ette costume. I carry with me in my juggling bag a simple bra and a set of Almost Real breast forms. Sometimes as part of my act, I slip them on when nobody's looking and instantly become a woman. At other times, I am a woman for the entire act, but that's a completely different costume. Luckily there are gawdy clothing shops downtown, so it would be a simple matter to find a new top. I carry all my makeup together, so I was set for that. All I had to do was get suited up and then I could operate without fear of security cam footage when I visit the crime scene. So, when they let me out, I bought a new costume and went straight to the nearest restroom to get suited up. I was let out in the evening, which should bring a decent crowd.

Time to get to work.

Chapter Negative Six

I was, to put it lightly, more than a little freaked out about a man dying right next to me. It wasn't the first time that had happened, but it's not really something to which you adjust. It's frightening, especially when you don't have any idea who it is or why they just died, but they have trusted you with some prized possession that's likely the reason they were killed in the first place.

It's the same old story, told a thousand times in cheesy cloak and dagger novels.

And it just happened to me.

Interesting.

Who, exactly, is supposed to contact me? His answer wasn't exactly exact, so naturally it didn't give me the exact kind of information I'd need to determine exactly who the good guys were, assuming that the dead man was one of the good guys. Maybe I'd recognize them by the color of their hats? No good, because I think I'm one of the good guys, and my hat is exactly half black and half silver.

Anyway, there wasn't much time at that moment to think about it, because if a citizen came wondering by and saw me talking to the dead guy, I'm the suspect. There wasn't time to hide the body, and all that would do is make it possible for cops to link his death to me anyway. If the man had wanted to involve the law, he wouldn't have dropped the flasher with me and then gotten himself killed, so I decided to beat my escape as quickly as possible, but not without first going through his pockets looking for spare change. At least then I'd help make it look like a mugging that went awry. More importantly, I might find some clue as to the man's identity and whoever it was that he thought may come to contact me. While I wasn't in a hurry to help the people who did this get away, I felt some responsibility since the dead man had entrusted me with the flasher. He must have had a reason, and until I can determine what that reason is, I'd better leave the cops out of it. Luckily, I have friends that could help.

So I went through his pockets, checked under his shirt, gave his crotch a good groping, all while wearing my performance gloves. I felt a little dirty doing it, especially since I didn't have a necrophilia license, but I turned up a few interesting things.

One: He was carrying a wallet with ID guaranteed to be fake. It said his name was Jack Simpson, listed a home address, and had everything you'd expect an ID card to have. Some bills, some family photos, stuff that's obviously fake.

Two: He wasn't carrying a weapon at all. Either that or his attackers took the weapon but left the rest of his stuff alone.

Three: His pad. I'd get Larry to go through it later.

Naturally there wasn't anything to make of this just yet, so I'd have to wait until the forensics team got on it to figure out who he was and then see if I could get in and find out what they knew, somehow. Or, with any luck, his compadres would contact me, I'd instantly recognize them, give them their trinket, and my involvement would be over. Yeah, not seeing that happening, but one could hope, right?

So I moved on. I picked up my stuff and headed the long way around so that by the time anybody saw me they wouldn't be able to associate me with this gentleman, jumped on the tube and headed home. It had been a long evening, and I was looking forward to a warm shower and some cuddle time with my lady before snoring the night away. I could deal with all this cloak and dagger stuff in the morning. Luckily, being self-employed, I wouldn't have to take a vacation or deal with playing spy around a full-time job. Unluckily, the two murderous thugs didn't think my night was over yet, because they were sitting in the capsule, waiting for me.

How did I know they were waiting for me? Simple, as soon as I stepped on the capsule, they each appeared on either side of me, and one shoved a sharp object into my gut. He didn't hurt me or cut any part of my costume, but I got the point, no pun intended.

"You're with us," said the man on the right. "Get off at the next stop. We have to talk."

I didn't argue the point just yet. The doors closed, so all I could hope to do was hurt the two guys until they opened again.

The thing about the tubes is this: they're long. Really long. Each route is a single capsule that is shot through a rail gun, and then caught in, well, another rail gun. The basic idea is that for close connections, a tube isn't used at all. Instead, you would just walk or use a slidewalk. It's not that bad since with surface gravity being only 1.3 m/s2 it takes a long walk to get tired. Also, on wider thoroughfares, you're allowed to drive electric vehicles so long as they tap into the city's wireless grid. Of course, since the city gouges you on the power rates, only people who are quite well-to-do drive the electric vehicles. The remainder? Well, let's just say that the old rickshaw is not an uncommon mode of transportation. Likewise, the bicycle has made a big comeback on Europa, and battery-powered vehicles that only go so fast have been recently approved for use in pedestrian thoroughfares. Anyway, I digress. I live pretty far north of downtown, out in the Cedar City bubble, which isn't even directly connected to downtown except by tube. It's not even possible to go from my home to New Austin without using a tube. Reason? Apparently the people of Cedar City decided some time ago to save themselves the problems associated with being a boom town by simply not being one and instead sleeping the middle-management for the boom town. Middle-managers like the tubes, so the tubes are the connection. I like living in Cedar City because, well, I don't, really, it just happens to be where I ended up after the divorce. The tubes themselves are basic ballistic tunnels. They're kept at a high vacuum to minimize friction, use magnetic bearings to keep the capsule centered in the tube, and curve only as much as the curve on the capsule can handle. The capsule maintains its vertical orientation through the simple and effective means of having a low center of mass. The tubes aren't necessarily straight, nor are they necessarily parabolic, although some are parabolas, most curve quite a bit over their entire length even if individual curves aren't terribly sharp. At each end lies a series of coils used to accelerate the capsule on either end. At launch, obviously the capsule has positive acceleration, and at its destination it has negative acceleration. The capsule has such strong magnets in it that the system is able to recover about half of the initial energy expended to launch while the capsule is being slowed to a stop, making it a very inexpensive system to operate. Some tubes shoot through the atmosphere of Europa which is so thin that the tunnel itself doesn't have to be kept at a vacuum, but obviously lowers their efficiency quite a bit. The system is really quite beautiful, but suffers from one particularly important flaw: after launch, the riders are in free fall for most of the trip. It's only a few minutes at most, usually mere seconds, but it's still quite significant. Barf bags are not provided, so a lot of people avoid the tubes whenever they can resulting in the boom town being boomier and the middle-management-sleeper-town being more middle-management like.

What that means, of course, is that these two men were clearly off-worlders. If they were native Europans, or at least transplants, they would know that the tube only has two terminals and no stops between the two. They clearly come from a place that has more traditional public transportation, which is almost certainly Earth, since most of the off-Earth colonies and nations tend to use systems like the tube.

The thought went through my mind so fast that words became deeds in nothing flat. I watched the two men as the tube launched, and they were clearly unprepared for this. It probably wasn't their first ride in the tube, but they definitely hadn't had that many rides. Of course, I'd been riding the tubes at that point for 17 years, which ignores the fact that my first series of martial arts training happened in the asteroid belt at near free fall, so I knew exactly what to do. I just couldn't kill either of them.

So, once we were in free fall, and both men looked very uncomfortable, I moved. I grabbed the knife arm and used a little of Newton's Third Law to pull him towards me. I slipped past him and knocked him against his partner, and caught the door with my butt. The two men drifted towards the back of the empty capsule, so I launched myself right at them. This is usually a suicidal tactic when used against an opponent familiar with zero gee fighting, but these blokes obviously had absolutely no idea what they were doing, so I felt reasonably safe making the charge. I zipped past the man in front to grab the back man by the neck and pull him to the other wall, where a quick neck jerk put him out like a light. A little more pressure in the jerk and his neck would have snapped, but I used just enough to knock him out instead. Then I grabbed onto a handhold while the reverse acceleration kicked in and we slowed down at about 2.2 m/s2. The poor guy I had knocked off the ground in free fall fell back against the back wall and failed to break his fall properly. I stepped up to him when the car stopped, grabbed his left hand in a gooseneck, and walked him out the door into the corridor.

I took him to the nearest wall, slammed him up against it, and put my other hand around his neck. Pain is a wonderful motivator, it's amazing what you can get someone to do with the right joint lock.

"All I have to do is squeeze this hand, and you will be laying here in the morning for your friends to find you. On the other hand, if I move this other hand like so..."

He let out quite a squeak at that.

"...you get the idea. So how about you tell me who you are and what you want from me, and if you answer my questions smartly, you'll be laying here fast asleep when your friends catch up with you, with all of your joints and bones intact. Deal?"

The man finally got a chance to get a word in edgewise. Lucky him. Not surprisingly, he spoke with an Earth accent. I'd guess somewhere European, probably British, but never could get the hang of distinguishing all the European accents.

"You know I can't tell you anything," he said. "You're just going to have to kill me."

So I applied some pressure, and let him squeal a bit.

"Wrong answer, bud," I said. "What do you want from me?"

"You spoke to someone we were after, he gave you something," he said.

"Who was that?"

"Does it matter? If you give us what we came after, you will live a long and fruitful life."

"And if I don't?"

"You will die, and we will search you, and we will still have what we came for."

I suspected he wasn't sure who was in control, nor who he was dealing with. If I killed him that night, it would not be the first time I'd killed a person. I decided to make that point to him.

"This here is your jugular, and this other one here is your carotid. I would squeeze them both together, and you will suffocate. No fingerprints, barely a bruise, and you're out on a limb right now without ground support. I'll get away from both the cops and your friends, and you won't get away from me."

Now, my aikido instructor once told me that you should never play the "I will kill you card". His reasoning was that the aikidoka does not kill, so could never bluff someone into believing he could kill. But among men like this guy I had against the wall, killing is second nature, and they can smell when someone has blood on their hands. As he did so now, and I had already determined about him, even if I didn't already know he'd killed the man that belongs to Nobody.

"Maybe we can work something out," he finally said. "You give me what I came for, and I move on."

"Not so fast," I said. "Firstly, I'm not involved in whatever it is you have going on, and Lastly, I don't know who the hell you're talking about, nor do I have any idea what gift I was supposed to have received."

"Then why do you want to know who I am?"

"You've gone to this much trouble to abduct me," I said, "I'd like to know why."

"Maybe this was a simple misunderstanding, but that doesn't explain why you delayed us in the cube."

"I busk. I wanted a tip. You're cheapskates. Simple enough?"

At that point, I was in a bad way. If I kept pressing to find out who he was, he'd figure out that I was lying about the flasher. If I let him go, I'd let useful information get away from me, and right now knowing who my new enemies might be would be very helpful. Of course, after I knocked him out, I could search him, and that would turn up something, I was certain. At the very least, I could steal his pad. I decided that was the best and proceeded to knock him out. Once down, I searched him and indeed found the knife, his gun, and his pad. He had a fair amount of cash on him, but I left it there. He'd need it to get back home. While I was doing that, the tube left again, sending his buddy back into downtown. Oops.

And then I went home. Mary wasn't home yet, and I was wiped out, so I showered and went to bed.

Chapter Three

I stepped out of the restroom and left the cafe, stopping at the door to check my reflection. I love how I look when I get all dressed up. Luckily the cops had returned all of my performing equipment, except the swords, predictably. While not legally defined as weapons, they're the sorts of things cops would rather take when they can, and when you're arrested all of your belongings become property of the state. Upon release, a constable decides what you get to have back and what they keep. The Islamic Federation of Jupiter isn't the free-est place to live, that's for sure. So as soon as I was down the street, I had my balls out and flying in a simple cascade, which happens to be the easiest pattern while walking, especially when you're looking to move quickly through a crowd. It's amazing how a crowd parts when they see a juggler. Luckily for me, the crowd was thin that night.

I made my way down the street to Margo's, then snatched the balls out of the air and went inside. I went straight to the bar and waited for the bartender to attend me.

"Hello there, pretty lady," he said. "Looks like you got out of jail already."

"How did you know I was in jail?" I asked casually. "Two zeigens, while you're answering, please."

"Certainly," he replied. "There were some detectives in here earlier asking some questions, and they let it drop that they spoke to you in jail."

"What sorts of questions?"

"Photo ID, mostly," said the barkeep. "They wanted someone to say they recognized some folks, and nobody recognized them."

"Did you?"

"No," said the bar. "Can't say I have. Where were you playing the night you were arrested?"

"Homeboy's," I said. "Over in the Wells bubble. Small place, older crowd. Fun show."

"I don't get out that way much. Two eagles."

I dropped the coins in his hand and nabbed my two beers.

"With the cops sniffing around and showing the pictures they're showing, you'd do well to keep your head low," said the bar. "There's something going on, I can smell it, and it smells like trouble with a capital T."

"Good thing I don't play pool," I answered. "Thanks for the heads-up. I'll remember that when I'm famous." Then I walked away.

I went over to the table I usually sit at and placed the beers in the standard Waiting For Godot position, so that nobody would try to join me. After the second one clicked in the magnetic holder, I took a long draw from the first and took out my own pad. I dialed up Mary, got voice mail, and sent her a message. She'd answer as soon as she got it, I was certain. Then I scanned news headlines. Out in the sticks, a cow gave birth to a five-legged monster. It was killed and burned immediately, as well as the mother. Superstitious folk. Some rapes, the perpetrators being in the stocks right now. Maybe I'd head over and see if I recognized any of them. Rape is an interesting crime. It's legal in most of Jupiter, provided you have a license. Of course, to get a license, you have to prove you're not an aggressive person normally, and you can only rape people who also have licenses. It's sort of a government-funded way to let something normally considered quite kinky to happen safely. If you rape someone and don't have a license, but your victim has a license, you pay a fine. If you have a license and rape someone without a license, you lose your license and pay a fine. If neither you nor your victim have a license, you go in the stocks for three days. Few rapists survive one day of the stocks. I've always wondered how these folks figure out who has a license and who doesn't before they start raping.

I noticed one of the patrons trying to catch my eye. Figures. She probably wants me to do a little dance for her. Not happening, I'm on my beer break. So I continued scanning the headlines.

Apparently carjacking rates are at the lowest they've ever been, which is no surprise considering the price of power these days. Nobody's driving much and even carjackers don't want to steal at those prices. Some archaeological team claiming to have found proof of life on Jupiter has been thoroughly debunked and stripped of their science licenses. I wondered briefly if they got to keep their rape licenses. Now there was something interesting. Apparently a sting operation run last night turned up some drug dealers, seized a lot of windcrack, and did serious damage to a crime boss's operation. The picture of the crime boss caught my eye, because it was the same one the cops had shown to me. His name was Guido Julian. Apparently Italian crime bosses are still a thing. I read the article further, but didn't find a mention of either of the detectives I'd spoken to earlier, nor the courier that had gotten me drunk. The operation itself was in progress when I was stopped, and happened just a few blocks from Homeboy's. Curious.

About then, the lady that had tried to catch my eye just slipped into Godot's spot. So I turned my eye up to her and gave her I'm Taken.

"Hi," she said. "Didn't I see you at Homeboy's the other night?"

"Doubtful," I said, mindful of the completely different costume I was wearing compared to the evening at Homeboy's which I was still having trouble remembering.

"I remember, you were hanging out with the Tortoise."

"Tortoise?"

"Yeah," she said. "The guy that was buying your drinks."

"Ok, what's up?" I asked. She obviously had something she was dying to tell me, and had seen through the girly costume.

"You don't remember talking to me, do you?"

Damn, how drunk was I?

"Sorry," I answered. "Normally I remember every extremely attractive woman I talk to."

"Flirt," she answered. "But let's move on. Did the Tortoise ask you at all about the possibility of performing for his boss?"

Curious question.

"No," I said. "He just bought drinks for me and my girlfriend." I obviously didn't remember any more than that happening.

"Ok," she said. "That's good. I have a very private client who would like to contract with you for your entertainment skills."

"The Tortoise's boss, I take it?" I asked.

"Let's just say it's someone who could make or break your career."

"And if I don't accept?" I asked.

"Break."

"So I'm not really being given an option, then," I responded.

"You always have a choice," she said. "Look, I have other appointments to attend. I'll leave you my contact information. The gig pays one grand, and is about 6 hours. A party. You won't go on stage, if you don't want to, but you'll wander around and entertain guests the same way you do here in the street. My client specifically wants your female ego. Send me a message when you've decided, and I'll send you details."

With that, she dropped a card and took off. Luckily, she hadn't drank any of the other beer.

I nabbed the card and switched the two beers so that now it looked like Godot had drank a bit of his beer. I looked at the card. Susan Hall, Event Coordinator. Kind of cute, but obviously quite annoying. Break my career if I refuse to play? That didn't sound like a contract I wanted to sign. I slipped her card into the card slot on my pad and let it scan. Then I thought back over the conversation.

She looked awfully familiar, and her name was definitely ringing a bell. Unfortunately, the bell brought about a headache, meaning it was likely I had met her at Homeboy's, and she had been telling the truth about that. It was obviously significant that I had been talking to this turtle person, and she knew about it. Maybe she was organizing something for a competing boss with the turtle's, and wanted to make sure I wasn't already being claimed by him? No, more likely the Tortoise was checking me out, and she was going to talk to me after getting his approval. That seemed to make more sense, but was pure speculation. She could be connected with Flasher Boy, who was in turn some sort of agent who was after Julian for something. It made more sense that she was connected with Flasher Boy somehow, but what he was about, I couldn't even begin to guess. And how she identified me as the guy who received his flasher was an open question.

Still, there was something nagging me about her. I had seen her, I was certain. It could have been at Homeboy's. I did chat up a lady when Mary was off talking to her new friend. Thought it would be worth a little jealousy to throw it back at her, and it seemed to work. Who was the lady? I checked my pad to see if scanning her card had any hits, and sure enough, I already had her contact information in my pad. I had gotten her contact information, but had no intention of contacting her. I only did it because I'd seen Mary doing the same with her new friend. I didn't really want to do a gig where I'd be punished if I refused.

Feeling a stranger to my own thoughts, I thought I'd distract myself. So I dialed up Larry to see if he'd made any headway on the flasher. He answered readily.

"Hi Cecil, how are you?"

"I'm fine, Larry," I said. "Did you make any progress on the flasher?"

"Well, that depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, I haven't managed to open up the filesystem, nor have I managed to determine if there is a filesystem, because we have to consider that the encryption may be hiding an actual application. On the other hand, I have managed to at least determine the encryption algorithm that was used. You see, every encryption algorithm has a characteristic signature, and what a lot of people will do is encrypt one time with one algorithm, and then encrypt the encrypted stream with another algorithm so that you have to, well, it's called Double Layer Encryption, and what it means is..."

I let Larry drone on in his own way. He suffers from Too Much Detail Syndrome, and I've tried to cure it for several years and failed. So I've learned to tune him out until he gets to the skinny, and took a draw from the zeigen sitting in front of me. I'm sure he has a lot to teach me if I quit tuning him out, but really at that moment I just wanted to know about the flasher. Also, in this situation at least, I was already familiar with Double Layer Encryption. It's a technique that goes back to the early digital age, but was actually used with hand ciphers for centuries before that.

As he was saying:

"...and this system was really only ever used by the CIA. It's really strange, such an old encryption system on the inside layer, especially considering that it's now something like 150 years old. And since the CIA doesn't really exist anymore, having since been replaced by the EIA, chances are there isn't anybody around who knows how to get through this."

"I would expect that such an old system would be covered thoroughly in textbooks," I suggested.

"Is the internal combustion engine in any textbooks?" Larry asked.

"Well, not that I know of, but I haven't studied that sort of engineering," I said.

"No, you were studying fusion-drive engineering, which wouldn't include any such complicated mechanical devices," said Larry. "I got my master's in physics at the Mars Science U, and we didn't cover the internal combustion engine, which is weird considering how much that engine is still used on Mars."

"If there's no information on the encryption system, how were you able to identify it in the first place?"

"..." Larry can be quite long-winded.

"So, you're saying you can identify it because you happen to have gotten some old CIA equipment in your lab as a hand-me-down?" I asked.

"That's about the size of it," he answered.

"Well," I said, "Can you get one of those old machines running and see if they know how to break this encryption?"

"I've tried for several years, off and on, to get one of these machines running. You see, it all started with the fact that it uses the outdated 20th century American AC power grid, pumping 110 volts into the thing. We've all gone positronic since then, using wireless power conductors, so there isn't really a way to..." Let the positronic engineer explain the gobbledy gook.

"So if you had a wireless power inverter, you could run it?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "Absolutely."

"Ok, don't you have one somewhere in your lab?"

"Probably," he answered. "If not, I'll have one at the house."

"Then you should probably get on that," I said. "Have you heard from Mary at all?"

"Not for a couple of days," he said. "Last time she seemed really concerned about Ohm's Law."

"Yeah, she has trouble with algebra, and she was doing her homework while I was working, which she's not supposed to do. I've got to go now, I'll check in again in a bit."

"Do I take it then that deciphering this thing has taken a higher priority now?"

"Yes, it has," I said. "There's something amok. I don't have even a clue what it is right now. Watch your back."

"I always carry that lead pipe you're so fond of swinging."

"Keep it by you," I said. "Good luck. One more thing."

"Shoot."

"What kind of forensics did you find on the first crime scene?"

"First?"

"Yes," I said. "That one."

"Oh, right," said Larry. "Let's see, cause of death was a knife to the chest, puncturing a lung. They say he was laying there for at least half an hour before finally expiring. No fingerprints, no evidence of the scene being tampered with. Also, the man had been searched, but we already knew that. Footprint analysis only turned up that there were two people with the man when he was stabbed."

"There's no evidence of the scene being tampered with?"

"Correct," said Larry, "But there is a note from the investigating Detective suggesting that the scene was too clean."

"Too clean?"

"Yeah, not enough evidence. No DNA from the attackers, very little footprint evidence, that sort of thing."

"So the scene could have been cleaned, but without leaving evidence of the cleaning?"

"Yep," said Larry.

"Ok," I said. "Thanks. I'm going now, I'm going to look at the second crime scene. It's in the same location, and it's another John Doe."

"How do you know about this?"

"Detective in the jail that questioned me."

"Was it Detective Johns?" Larry asked.

"Yes," I said. "Why?"

"He's the investigating Detective on the first murder."

"I see," I said. "Ok, then, I'm going to get going. Keep an eye on Johns for me, will ya?"

"Will do," said Larry. Then I signed out.

I dialed Mary again and got nothing. So I sipped my beer and watched the crowd. As the crowd thickened, I moved out and went to the crime scene.

The crime scene was still taped off for police only, but I could observe from a distance. There were a few rubberneckers also observing the scene. I noted that the water leak from earlier had been repaired, so this body had left a small puddle of blood, and a blood trail. Using my binoculars, I could see the trail of blood well enough to see that it led to the puddle, not the other way around. I spotted a larger blood spot at the beginning of the trail, several meters from the bigger puddle. I took a close look at the white chalk outlining the body that was found. Then I moved away and found a place to sit while I considered what I saw.

The basic activity that I could figure out was that the man was probably stabbed, due to the lack of any blood spatter on the wall behind where he was injured. The first man had been stabbed, and the man from the tube had a knife that he threatened me with. So, similar MO. That links the two murders, but why would they happen on the same spot?

Chapter Negative Five

In the morning I headed over to Larry's lab armed with the two pads. I had powered them down, which wouldn't guarantee they can't be tracked, of course, but since nothing bad had happened to me in the night, I felt fairly safe they hadn't tracked me just yet. And since this was exactly the sort of thing Larry liked doing, he'd know how to prevent any tracking signals from getting out. I just had to get them to him.

I found a note from Mary saying she was sorry she missed me last night. Apparently she'd come home after I was asleep, and left before I woke up, which, while not unusual, wasn't a regular occurrence. It was a bit irksome, considering the events of last night, and I felt like I needed to talk to her. Still, I could call her later. Reasoning so, I went to Larry's lab.

Nothing untoward happened on the way to the school. I encountered no gangsters, no spies, no secret organizations, and no dogs. I thought it was weird after the way the previous night had gone, but then maybe I had just foiled a couple of muggers who in turn tried to mug me instead. You know, casual crime. In any case, I approached Larry's lab unmolested. As expected, he was sitting in his stuffed prep room, full of physics educational supplies and positronics gear, and even a fair amount of older electronics stuff. He was working his terminal, probably reading some positronic journal or other, when I came in. Larry was a fairly good shaped late '50s man, measured in Earth years, of course. His blond hairline had started its retreat over a decade ago, framing a face that was frozen in an expression of confusion.

"Larry, you really need to figure out how to lock your door."

"Oh hi, Cecil," he said. "What brings you to this part of the world?"

"I have these pads here," I said. "They might be tracked, we need to disable any tracking mechanism right away before we go any further."

"Well, nice to see you after so long," he said. "So, how's the girlfriend?"

"Larry, I just saw you last week."

"Well, it'd be nice to get a 'hi, how are you doing' every now and then," said Larry. "Nobody ever does that anymore, it's always 'Larry do this', 'Larry do that', 'Larry the air track is warped', Larry--"

"Hi, how are you doing? I have these pads here that may have a tracking mechanism that you need to disable. Girlfriend's doing fine, and I'm just knocking about the neighborhood looking for a netrunner."

"Fine," he said. "Over there is a, well, it's, uh, one of those things, what do you call it?" Larry can be quite absent-minded. I walked over to where he was pointing. "That silver plate over there, that's it. It's a tracker disabler thingee." I'm always amazed when Larry throws Layman's, because he's usually so anal about using Right Words. I set the two pads on the plate. "Now you need to flip that switch on the side, there." I flipped the switch. "So, would you mind telling me what this is all about?"

"Can't yet, sorry," I said. "Could be dangerous. Also, I don't actually know anything myself yet. Well, it's mostly that. Just a strange adventure from downtown New Austin."

"You really need to quit hanging out down there," he said. "You could get your job back here, now that what's-her-face is gone."

"I know," I said. "I'm just not ready for it yet. Sorry, but you know how it is."

"No," he said. "I don't, really. Explain."

"I'd rather not," I said. I smiled. "I'd rather find out who owns those pads. Next of kin, that sort of thing. When you get names, I'll hit up Sherry and see what she can find in her PI database."

"Alright," he said. "I won't pry. It'll only be a few more minutes worth of scanning to find out what sort of passive trackers those things have. Of course, standard pads have active trackers in them, so once we power them back up, the active trackers will start broadcasting. I have no way to shield those."

"But they can often be disabled," I pointed out helpfully.

"Not reliably," he said. "That EM suppressor should prevent the wireless towers from receiving the signal, but if there's even a small chance you were followed, well, someone with the right receiver could still pick up the tracking signals if they were in close enough proximity."

"I don't think I was followed," I said. "But it's hard to be sure, you know?"

"No, I'm naturally paranoid. I always know when I'm being followed."

"Have you ever been followed?"

"Well, there was this one time, this girl," he said sheepishly, "but you don't want to hear about it. The scan is complete, looks like there are no passive tracking devices in those pads. Let me see if I can hack into them from the terminal. This could take some time, do you want to hang around and wait, or do you have pressing matters to attend to?"

"I'll hang around a bit," I said. "But I've got to make a call."

"You go do that," he said. "I'll be at work here."

"Roger that, and thanks, Larry."

"No, thank you," he said. "You know I love this stuff."

We exchanged smiles, and I stepped outside and let him work. I rang up Mary, and she answered.

"Hey baby, whatcha doin'?" I asked.

"Talking to you, what are you doing?" she answered in that sexy contralto she uses when she talks to me.

"Hanging out with Larry in his lab, wondering what you've been up to."

"I've been working, of course," and she smiled at me.

"Where'd you end up last night while I was working?"

"I hung out after work with some friends, played some silly bar games, the usual. Didn't quite manage to make it downtown to see you this time."

"I noticed," I said. "I missed you."

"I missed you, too," she said. "Look, honey, I've got to go, I'll call you back later, ok?"

"Ok, I love you, good-bye!"

"Love you too, good-bye!"

And then she was gone. I went to see if Larry had anything for me, yet. He was hard at work, but had an obviously troubled expression on his face.

"What's up, Larry?"

"Well," he said, "it's this security system that's on here to prevent exactly what I'm doing. I know it, I've seen it. A colleague of mine developed it a number of years back, and then disappeared. I heard a rumor that he was working for the mob, which would explain his disappearance, and if true, would indicate that the gentlemen you took these pads from are, well, gangsters." He looked at me very seriously. "Cecil, I've never known you to get involved with these sort of people, what's going on?"

"Larry," I said, "I have absolutely no idea. It seems that I'm getting sucked into a plot of some sort, and I don't really know a way out just yet. So I'll have to ride the roller-coaster for a bit and see what happens."

"That zen stuff never really worked for me, you know," said Larry.

"I know," I said. "Let me know when you have more from the pads." Then I left. I didn't want to get involved in a deep conversation about the source of the pads until Larry had a chance to objectively analyze the data, and I knew how Larry was.

I went over to Sherry's office. She works in an office in a retail bubble immediately adjacent to downtown where she can conveniently visit the courthouse regularly. Sherry is an interesting character. When I first met her, I was juggling at the school during downtime between labs. She initially creeped me out a bit, and I didn't want to talk to her. But since we had to occupy the same space at certain times, I couldn't shake her, and she didn't creep me out enough for me to try. So, over time, we developed a friendship and I came to rely upon her significantly. She really helped me out with her PI resources when the psycho ex-wife had a stalker, and she's always happy to use her PI resources for her friends when they're in a bit of a bind. It's just not the kind of resource most friends need.

I'm not most friends. She's done a fair amount of extracurricular investigation for me, and this situation definitely called for her support. And she can't avoid a good spy story, so it would be an easy sell. The receptionist was quite attractive, and obviously checking me out. For a performer such as myself, I was used to that sort of attention, but I wasn't in costume at the moment, so she was obviously attracted to me as a person rather than as a performer.

"Is Sherry in?"

"Are you one of Sherry's clients?" she asked.

"Yes," I answered. "I am Cecil. Can you let her know that I'm here to see her?"

"Certainly," she smiled broadly.

"Soooo, can I see her?" I asked.

"Sure," she said. "You can see your girlfriend."

"She's not my girlfriend," I said. "She's a good friend."

"So you're free to date?"

"No, I'm not. Sorry."

"Oh," she answered, looking somewhat disappointed. Then she saw on her little screen what she needed to see and said "Ok, Sherry is available now. Just go through that door--"

"Yeah, I know where her office is, thanks," I said. "You're new."

"Yes," the receptionist answered. "Today is my first day."

"Oh, ok. Well, have a good morning," I told her.


"You want me to do WHAT?" Sherry said.

"DNA analysis."

"On blood from a man that police are going to think you killed?"

"Yep."

"Did you kill him?"

"Nope."

"Can I really believe that? Have you ever killed anyone before? Wait, don't answer that, there are some things about you that I just don't want to know," she said. "What happens if I find out who this guy is?"

"Then we'll know," I said, matter-of-factly, "And you get to do a fairly complete workup on him. Also, how does your forensics guy compare to the police's?"

"He's generally better," she said. "He really digs his work, and does it privately because he gets more interesting cases that way."

"So, when the police start investigating the murder?"

"I won't be able to keep tabs on the police investigation, but we'll be ahead of them for information for quite a while," she said.

"That's fine," I said. "I can probably get Larry to hack into the city's system and keep tabs for us."

"You have a really odd collection of friends," Sherry said.

"Yes, I do," I said. "It's like we have all that we need to be a field espionage unit."

"Isn't that what we're doing now?"

I laughed. "Don't worry, girl, it'll be fun, you'll see."

"There's a reason I'm trying to get out of PI work," she said.

"No there isn't, you love it and you know it. It's just your current boss is an asshole, is all."

"Shut up, Cecil," she said with a chuckle. "Why don't you move along and let me get this stuff done."

"Roger that, and thanks," I said.

"It'll be my pleasure," she answered. "Now shoo."

So I left. With the transit time and the time spent talking to Sherry, Larry ought to have made some headway, so I went back to the school. Indeed, Larry had gotten into the pads.

"It wasn't really that difficult," he said. "That's mostly because the basis of the security system is something I gave to my colleague..." Then Larry went off in his most detailed manner describing the system. I waited for him to finish because that would probably give Sherry some time to get the DNA analysis.

"So, who are these people?" I asked.

"They're definitely gangsters," he said. I interrupted him before he could get any further.

"One of them is a murder victim and the other is the murderer."

"Interesting," he said. "Why are you getting involved in a gang war?"

"I don't think I am," I said. "The victim seemed to know me. He gave me something, a flasher. Said Somebody would contact me."

"Have you been contacted?"

"No," I said. "They might not even know he got murdered. Hell, I don't know if the police even know about him yet."

"Interesting."

"Did you manage to download the database from each pad?"

"Yes," said Larry. "I've got it here."

"Send a copy to Sherry so she can run down the contact list and check on anything else that looks interesting."

Larry sighed. "Roger that."

"Also, would you be able to put an agent in there that would transmit all voice calls to your own recorder?"

"I could," he said. "No guarantees it won't be found out, of course."

"Of course," I said. "But can you do it without at least getting caught?"

"Certainly," he said. "What do you have in mind?"

"I was thinking they'd track the pads sooner or later, and you downloaded everything that's on them now, right?"

"I see what you're thinking. Leave them in a cafe somewhere where they can be found by the owners, and then use them to spy on the owners. Owner, I guess, since one of the owners is dead. Gangsters aren't stupid, you know, and they probably have a protocol for when their communication devices are left in enemy hands for extended periods."

"I know," I said. "But if there's a chance we can get something out of it without risking anything, then why not try?"

"True," he said. "I could have them both ready to return to their owners in about an hour. Do you want both of them ready?"

"Yes, do that," I said. "While you're at it, how easy is it to break into the city system?"

"Easy as pie," he said. "I've, uh, cough, done it before," he said somewhat sheepishly.

I looked askance at him.

"It wasn't on purpose!"

"You don't break into the city system on accident!"

"Well, this was, and I don't want to talk about it," he said.

I could tell he really wanted to tell me all about it, but all that really mattered was that he could do it.

"Can you get into the police subnet?"

"Sure, why?"

"I want you to track the murder investigation."

"Easy enough," he answered. "We should be able to keep abreast of whatever they find out. Why don't you just go to the police with everything you know and let them handle it?"

"Because right now we don't even know if they're involved, and if they are, on which side," I said. "This is probably a good guys vs bad guys thing, and I want to make sure the good guys win."

"But it's not your conflict," he said.

"I've got a weird feeling about it," I said, "And when my gut tells me to get involved with something, it's usually right. That's how I wound up with Mary, doncha know."

"Fine," Larry said. "But we do know one thing about the man."

"What's that?"

"He wasn't a cop," Larry said. "If he were, I'd have found that out already."

"And they'd have identified him," I said. "And probably kicked open my door in the night. I figured that much already." I hadn't, but it's usually a good idea to let Larry think you're always a step ahead of him. That way when he's clearly ahead of me, he gets really happy and smug about it, and I really appreciate a happy and smug Larry, especially considering how often he's down and out instead.

"Yep," said Larry. "Under normal police procedures, they would have identified the victim by now, so he must be pretty far off the beaten path for them not to have ID'd him already."

"I don't think they will identify him," I said.

"So how are you going to figure out who he is?"

"I don't know," I said. "But you and Sherry need to talk."

"Sure thing," said Larry. "Always a team player, I am."

Team? Is that what's going on here? Do I really have a team? I'd have to get Mary involved if that were going on, and I'd need her sooner or later. The thing about Mary is that she actually has connections into the mob, so she might be able to get some information from them. A long time ago, she worked in several of the strip joints, and by all accounts she was very good at her job. The work got her in contact with a number of shady underworld figures, and she maintained those relationships for a number of years after that. Nowadays she's your standard mid-30s chubby hispanic woman, and as a result can't strip anymore, which is good because she doesn't ever want to return to that lifestyle. And it puts her in one of the categories of sexy that I find really sexy. Add to it that she's a really great lover, loves sex, and loves me, and we've got a good thing going. I couldn't even imagine what it would be like to lose her, certainly not after all those years I struggled in an abusive marriage. With Mary, I had a level of freedom I didn't even imagine possible. Everything is open. I can have whatever sex I want with her, I can talk to her about anything, and she does the same. She's supportive of everything I want to do, which says a lot about her temperament because I'm always finding something new to do and often discarding a previous pursuit when I haven't finished it. It takes a certain kind of woman to be able to put up with that, and a very special woman to be supportive of it. On top of all of that, she is easily one of the smartest people I've ever known. I'd need that intelligence, that certain way of simplifying problems that she has. I just don't want anything to happen to her, and keeping her at arm's length in this affair should be a good protective move until I know more about what's going on.

But what about Sherry and Larry? They can protect themselves, of course! Well, so can Mary, dammit! But I was so willing to involve Sherry and Larry so quickly, within 12 hours of the man's death even, and still didn't even want to tell Mary about it. That didn't really sit right with me, I'd have to talk to Mary and see what she thought.

I suddenly remembered that I was still talking to Larry. He was just watching me work through my thoughts.

"You're thinking about getting Mary involved here, aren't you?" he psychically observed.

"Yes," I said. "She may still have mob connections that could help."

"Don't," he said. "You have to consider the possibility that the man had advance knowledge that he was safe to give you the flasher."

"What makes you think that?"

"That's the only reason you'd be involved at this point," said Larry. "You have something from an unidentified man that was killed by gangsters, carrying a pad encrypted by gangsters, and you have to figure out how to get that thing to the proper group of people, people that you think are the Good Guys. It's obvious, really. But he can't let Mary get her hands on it, because she might pass it on to the Bad Guys."

I was dumbfounded. The way Larry talks, you hear his thought process, and he often comes up as being really smart but slow. He's not really known for his wit. When he does some quick smart thing, it's always surprising.

"Ok," I said. "How does he know I'm with Mary?"

"That's an admittedly weak part of my hypothesis, and is also a reason he wouldn't have given it to you in the first place."

"Quite weak," I said. "I don't know the man."

"Maybe Mary knows him?"

"Maybe. That's another very weak part of your hypothesis. While it would be advantageous to him if he knew her and was working with her, it seems to me that she'd be more likely to turn it over to her mob connections."

"So, what are you going to do?"

"Well, what he gave me was a flasher," I said. "That means he obviously had data he needed to prevent from falling into the wrong hands."

"Maybe he figured you would just destroy it?"

"No, he told me explicitly that I'd be contacted," I said.

"That implies that his people, whoever they are, have knowledge of his giving the device to you."

"Maybe it's got a tracker?" I suggested.

"Doubtful," said Larry. "Anything they can track can also be tracked by their enemies. No, there has to be some other sort of arrangement. I'd ask if you had any strange conversations with people recently, but that would be useless because you're always having strange conversations with people."

"Just like this one," I said and smiled. "But to answer your unasked question, no, I haven't had any conversations that lead me to think his people have already contacted me. More likely they're working on my sterling reputation for honesty and integrity and will contact me."

"Or they're expecting you to hand it over to your girlfriend," said Larry.

"Well then, if they want to find me, they shouldn't have any trouble," I responded. "I am, after all, the only fool in town."

"Maybe I should clean my gun."

"Is it registered?"

"One is. I'll use that one," said Larry. "I can give you the unregistered one for the duration of the crisis, if you want."

"I'd appreciate that, Larry," I said, "But my profession makes me subject to too many searches. I'd better keep my shit clean."

"Up to you," said Larry. "So, I take it you want me to forward ID information from the pads to Sherry?"

"Yes," I said.

My pad started singing the Sweetie-is-calling-you song, so I gestured to Larry and stepped out.

"What's up, baby?" I said.

"Not much," she answered. "I just wanted to tell you it'll be another late night. Rosa's having big problems with her husband, and I need to run and help her out. This might be the Big D for them."

"Ok," I said. "I was planning on working the shopping circuit for a few days, so I won't be downtown."

"That's good," she said. "You know how you going downtown makes me nervous. They had another murder down there last night, probably not far from you. Scary stuff. I hope you're ok."

"Scary stuff indeed, and I'm just fine," I said. "Good luck with Rosa, I've got to go now, love-you-bye."

"Love-you-bye," she said.

I closed the connection.

"Larry, how soon before you can get into the police subnet?"

"I already made it in there," he said. "That system's hopelessly simple. They found the body soon after you left it. Night patrol found it. They haven't identified the man yet, but they've started interviews. They'll probably talk to you, sooner rather than later."

"Luckily nobody downtown knows my secret identity," I said, "So I'll just avoid downtown for awhile. Shopping district tips are decent, if unreliable compared to drunk tips. If the night patrol found it, then what are the chances anybody besides you, me, and the police know about the murder?"

"Slim. Very slim. Especially with the President coming to give a speech, they'd suppress the information immediately and run damage control. You can bet nobody else knows."

"Then how did Mary know the police found the body?"

"Because she knew the victim, obviously. Maybe you should give her the flasher."

"What if Mary's mob friends are the same ones that killed this guy?"

"You're starting to over think this, I think," said Larry. "Let's stick with the known facts and go from there."

"You're right, Larry. You're right."

Chapter Negative Four

Playing the Arboretum was reasonably profitable. I made enough money, even if it wasn't a killing. A number of kids laughed at my act, and kids almost always love my act. In the time I'd been being a fool, I'd never encountered a kid with a clown phobia. Maybe I had, but I think that being a fool is enough different from a clown that I don't invoke the clown phobia. So kids love me, and their mothers do too. If I were single, I could probably get into plenty of mothers' pants. Luckily, I've never really been interested in that sort of lifestyle, and no matter what your profession, sleeping with your customers is unprofessional. So I don't, and wouldn't have even if I was single. In fact, I didn't try even when I was single, even though that was before Cecil the Fool existed and I was just a random juggler that looked like a downtown beggar.

At home that night, Mary showed up late. I was still awake when she got home, but I was tired. She muttered a little bit about her friend's divorce, took a shower, and jumped into bed. I considered fooling around with her, but I was half asleep when she got home, so I didn't get far. I think I may have left our favorite tube inside her when I fell asleep, which usually means she wakes up horny, but she wasn't there when I woke up. She had to work that day, and since I usually work evenings, I wasn't even awake until after she'd left. I found the tube, though, and it had enough of a mucus covering to tell me what she'd been up to that morning. I love Mary.

Sherry should have taken the pad databases and other identifying information from Larry and run it, so I started the day by heading out to her office. I had intended to do lunch that day at a popular hispanic restaurant, so I showed up to her office dressed for work. The new receptionist was still quite attractive, and obviously checking me out in my work uniform.

"Is Sherry in?"

"You're one of Sherry's clients?" she asked.

"Yes," I answered. "I am Cecil, the Fool. Can you let her know that I'm here to see her?"

"Certainly," she giggled. "You're a lot cuter than the friend that came in yesterday."

Being the friend that came in yesterday, I was slightly offended by that.

"Soooo, can I see her?" I asked.

"Sure," she said. "Are you, um, dating her?"

"No," I said. "She's a good friend."

"So you're free to date?"

"No, I'm not. Sorry."

"Oh," she answered, looking somewhat disappointed. Then she saw on her little screen what she needed to see and said "Ok, Sherry is available now. Just go through that door--"

"Yeah, I know where her office is, thanks," I said. "You're new."

"Yes," the receptionist answered. "I started yesterday."

"Ok," I answered. "Remember me, both in costume and out, because I have a lot of business with Sherry and really don't want to go through this little scene every time I need to see her."

With that, I left a huffy girl behind me and went straight to Sherry's office. I hate having the same conversation over and over.

"Ok girl," I said, "Whatcha got?"

"Cecil! I love it when you're in costume!"

"Settle down," I said, "This is serious. What do you have?"

"Oh, alright," she answered. "You never liked friends noticing your costume anyway."

"The costume is just a formality."

"I know," she responded. "You're a fool, and that's all there is to it."

"Shut it," I said, "And give me the scoop."

"Ok," Sherry answered. "Here's the deal:

"The guy that you assaulted in the tube is a mobster. He's on the Federale's most wanted list, which means he's a pretty serious gangster. You have to have killed a number of people to get on that list."

"Wow," I said. "And I attacked him. Truthfully, we'd already figured they were mobsters."

"You're crazy," she agreed. "But, you see, they're wanted on Earth, and while the warrants apply here and the reward can be collected here, they haven't operated here. There's no record of them having ever operated here."

"That was obvious from the way they fought in free fall."

"They?"

"Did I mention there were two of them?"

"Oh yeah? How did they fight in free fall?"

"They didn't," I answered. "They lost."

"Ah, that was your competitive advantage," said Sherry. "These guys are cold-blooded killers, and you took them down solely because of the situation. The real question is this: why were they assigned to this mission when they clearly don't know how to handle the gravity here?"

"Because they're the best the mob has to offer?"

"The mob has plenty of good agents on Europa," said Sherry. "These two agents were obviously imported. That usually means there's a common thread of some sort."

"Common thread?"

"Yeah," answered Sherry. "Whatever jobs they were working on Earth, or Mars, or wherever they were last at are somehow linked to this job. It's the same thing."

"Are you sure they're organized that way?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, see, when I was on Mars," I started, "I had mob contacts. Distant family. You know. Anyway, it seemed to me that the mob never evolved into a big monolithic organization but instead fractured into families that merged in various ways. I don't know how they're distributed, but there's a fair chance the Europan family and whatever family these guys are from aren't the same families and might be competing."

"That's interesting. Then the guy they're after might be a local mobster."

"Speaking of whiches, did you get an ID on him?"

"No," answered Sherry, "I didn't. There's no record of his DNA anywhere in the system, which is usually an indication that he wasn't born in the Islamic Republic. I have some leads to pursue yet, still, so I haven't given up on ID'ing him."

"Have you scanned his contact list yet?"

"I've got the computer running through the contact list, it'll report when it's done a complete background on every entry."

"Fancy," I pointed out.

"It's an older system," said Sherry, "But it gets the job done."

"So what's the common thread here, then?" I asked.

"I don't know," answered Sherry. "There's no public record, and no police record, of what these guys have done. The only thing the police have noted is who they've killed, and most of them are people the police couldn't identify."

"That's interesting by itself," I pointed out.

"Yes, but it doesn't tell us anything," Sherry said. "Their victims could have been other gangsters from rival gangs, dealers, whatever."

"True," I said, "But if they're following a particular thread, then the guy they murdered the other night is in that thread. And mobsters usually have ID's you can find. That suggests our victim was not a mobster, even if he was using mobster encryption. Can you work up a report of their victims? Who are they, where were they killed, and what sorts of thing they had their noses in?"

"Already did," said Sherry. She's so cool. "Nothing. Their victims had birth records and death records, and nothing else. It's like they barely existed."

"What kind of jobs did they have?"

"It ranges from fusion-drive mechanic to door-to-door salesman. There's really no common thread that links them."

"No obvious common thread," I said. "Interesting."

Sherry said, "Look, Cecil, you're easily the smartest person I've ever known, and I don't doubt your instincts at all, but the evidence just isn't there to tell us about these guys. One is definitely a gangster, and the other was his target, and he may or may not have been a gangster, and that's all we've got."

"I understand," I answered, "And I appreciate your over-estimate of my abilities. Tell me more about the victim?"

"He doesn't exist."

"Doesn't exist?" I asked.

"I cross-referenced every database I've got. If he had been born on Europa, then a DNA sample would be on file. If he had served in any military, then there would be DNA to match against. He's never committed a crime for which he was arrested, and he's never really done anything. He may also be from off-world, in which case the databases I have access to wouldn't carry anything on him."

"That sucks," I pointed out.

"More than a little," said Sherry. "We'll figure it out, though. It's just going to take some more time."

"Understood," I answered. "Can I have my flasher back?"

"I'm not quite done with it," answered Sherry. "If you need it..."

"Not a big deal," I said. "If you think you might get more information from it, then keep it. I figure I'll turn it over to Larry so he can study it himself."

"You mean find out what's on it?"

"And anything that might help identify these people and why one was willing to kill for it and the other was willing to die."

"Right."

"So," I said, "When you find anything out about our victim, you're going to let me know, right?"

"Right," she answered confidently. "I'll pay a visit to the address on his ID card and work my way through the mountains of data that Larry has given me."

"Ok," I said. "So we figure out who he is, focus our efforts on that, and forget that the mob might want to kill me?"

"If they'd wanted to kill you, they would have done so already," Sherry said. "So just take a chill pill and relax, you're safe right now. Whatever they wanted from him, they now want it from you. If they kill you, they don't get it. Remember that."

"But they can torture it out of me."

"We'll burn that bridge when we come to it," said Sherry. "Really, how do you go out at night?"

"By dressing up like a fool," I answered. "Speaking of whiches, I have a performance to make."

"Go do that," Sherry said. "I'll be here, unless I'm at the courthouse."

"Ok," I said. "I'm there."

"Have fun," she said.

"I'll try," I answered.

Then I left.

The lunch at the restaurant wasn't a big take, but it was better than what I normally get for lunch: nothing. I don't work lunches normally, but under the circumstances I figured I should try to take what I can when I can to leave me free to do what I have to do when I have to do it, whatever it actually turns out to be. Near the end of my performance, Mary wandered in and took a booth by herself. When my performance ended, I gave her a kiss and took a seat with her in the booth.

"Hey baby," I said. "Guess where we are?"

"I know this place," she said. "It's where we ate on our first date." She smiled sweetly at me.

"Yeppers," I said, because while I was in costume, I said stupid things. "Look, sweetie, I have to ask you something that's a little tricky to get at."

"Ok," she said. "I slept with him."

"With who?"

"Whoever you're asking about."

"A dead guy?"

"Oh, no, I didn't sleep with a dead guy, just you." I love the way she flirts.

"You mentioned earlier on the phone that they had found the body I found last night," I began.

"Yes," she said.

"I happen to know that only me and the police know about that murder," I said. "The body was found within a couple of hours of me seeing it by the police."

"You saw it?" she gasped.

"Yes," I said. "Look, it's hard to describe. I didn't call the police because I didn't want to get involved. Then, when I was headed home, these two guys followed me and tried to take me into custody in the tube."

"Ah oh," she said. "Did they use guns?"

"Yes," I said. "Tried, anyway. See, here's the weird thing. They're off-worlders, obviously from a planet with much higher gravity than our beloved Europa, so I took them down pretty easily. They killed the guy downtown, and seemed to think that he had given something to me before they got to him."

"Had he?"

"I don't know," I said. "You know how my money bag is."

"True," she said. "So, what then?"

"Well," I answered, "I took their pads and got some friends to ID them. They're mobsters."

"Cecil, dear, what have you gotten yourself into?"

"I don't know," I said. "But it seems you're somehow involved as well. How did you know about the murder?"

She stopped up short at that. Apparently she didn't see this coming.

"I read it in the news," she finished.

"Sweetheart," I said, "No you didn't. The police are keeping it quiet so that there won't be a fuss when the President plays downtown next week."

"You mean 'gives a speech'," she said.

"No," I said. "I mean 'plays'. What the President does and what I do are essentially the same thing, his tips are just counted as votes, and my costume is cooler than his. But don't distract me. I need to know how you know about the murder."

"You know I have my own friends downtown, right?"

"Mobsters?"

"No, silly," she said. Then she looked at me more closely. "I haven't been in contact with any mobsters for several years, and even then it was because they were still trying to whore me out. And you know I'll never do hooker's work."

I met her eyes with a You're Not Serious.

"I didn't find out through mobsters," she said. "Besides, the ones I did know wouldn't have anything to do with off-world mobsters. The Europan families are pretty closed to outside intrusions. So I didn't find out through mobsters."

"Then you knew the victim," I said, "And were in contact with him."

"No, sweetie, I don't know the victim," she said. "I'm sorry, you must have missed the report in the news or something. I swear I don't know anything about it other than what the general public knows."

I was having a little trouble believing her, which was odd since I trusted her so much. Was she actually lying to me? Did I really miss something like that in the news? Sherry would have mentioned it, had it been in the news. Of course, I told her all about it before she had a chance to say. I better ask her.

"Under the circumstances," I said, "You wouldn't object to me double-checking that, would you?"

She was a good poker player.

"No, of course not," she said.

I gave her Blessed Silence. She stared back at me. This went on for several nervous moments, then she spoke again.

"So, what's going on, then?"

"I think I've brought you up to date," I said slowly.

"No, I mean, why, er, crap," she stammered. "How did you get involved in the first place?"

"Well, I was performing like I usually do, and this guy stopped to watch, and I noticed he was a bit huffy and out of breath. I noticed somehow that he was being followed, and after he left me, I used my juggling act to stall the people who were following him, hoping he'd be able to get away."

She softened noticeably at that. "You're so sweet," she said. "I love you."

"I love you, too, babe," I said automatically.

"Look, sweetie," said Mary, "I have to go. I wish I didn't, but I have class to go to."

"I understand," I said. "Give me a kiss, then."

"Ok," she said. Then she leaned across the table and gave me one of her sweet, deep kisses that always leaves me gasping for air and wanting more. It had much the same effect as usual, even with the tension in the air. I love that about her. "Ok, bye sweetie, I'll see you this evening."

And she grabbed her backpack and took off.

So, she knew about the murder and wanted to play off how she knew. I went outside and dialed Sherry. She answered immediately.

"What's up?"

"Hey, Sherry," I started. "You check the news pretty often, right?"

"Yes," she said, "But the reason I always know the news is because we get an aggregate form that has names, places, etc. It helps in our investigations."

"Oh, that's convenient," I said. "Any mention of the, uh, event we're working with?"

"Nope," she said. "Checked that after you left earlier. Nada, zip, zilch. Why?"

"Why would Mary know about it, then?"

"She's obviously involved," Sherry said. "Interesting. Does she still have her old mob contacts?"

"I know she knows how to contact them," I said, "But she just said she hasn't talked to them in years, and the last time it seems some one or more were trying to get her to be a hooker and she didn't go for that. On the other hand, she was clearly lying about knowing about the murder, particularly in how she found out. Does your news aggregate include everything in today's news?"

"Yes," she said. "Well, everything reported on Europa, anyway. We get some off-world news, but this sort of story would break locally first and then go off-world."

"So if there was something in today's news--"

"It would be there," she interrupted. "Mary knows something."

"Damn," I said. "Damn, damn."

"Yeah, tell me about it," said Sherry. "Hang on a sec." Then, after about a minute or so: "Looks like there's someone in here marked 'Jaclyn' that shares Mary's number."

"Jaclyn?" I asked. "Why would it say that?"

"Dunno," said Sherry. "But the PI software isn't making the connection. I'll run a background on Mary and see what we get for the dossier."

"So we can confirm that Mary knows the victim," I said. "Maybe it's time to come clean to her."

"Not yet," said Sherry. "We still don't know if she's safe. Just keep it under your hat for a little longer and let's see what we come up with, ok?"

Against my gut feeling, I agreed.

Chapter Negative Three

The lunch performance was over, and I was feeling quite unsettled by Mary's knowledge of the murder, but I pushed it out of my mind. I swung by the address on the victim's ID card. It was an abandoned compartment, set for demolition. Poking around the wreckage, I determined there was nothing of interest here, or at least nothing that I would find without a full forensics team. It wasn't unexpected. So I decided to take myself out for a few drinks. While I was walking away from the abandoned compartment, Larry called me.

"Hi Larry," I said. "What's up?"

"I wanted to let you know I've got those pads ready to drop."

"Ready?"

"You asked me to put a monitoring agent on them," he reminded me.

"Oh right," I said. "Great, I was heading out to have a few drinks out in the Wells bubble. Care to join me?"

"Sure," he said. "Just remember to power up the pads whenever you drop them, or else they won't send the tracking signal."

"No problem," I said. "Do you know where Homeboy's is?"

"No, but I can check the map service," Larry answered. "I've got one of Vali's classes just finishing up right now, so I'll be able to leave in about 20 minutes. Will that work for you?"

"Sure," I said. "You're only about 10 minutes from the bar, you'll probably still beat me there. I'm leaving from downtown."

"Ok, I'll see you there," answered Larry. I cut the connection and moved on.

I dropped in at Homeboy's right when the early evening crowd was arriving. About a kilometer from Homeboy's sits a shopping center that tends to attract a good night crowd, so I figured I'd go make some money out there, after finishing up with Larry. That would also make a good place to leave the pads for the gangsters to find the one, and for me to see who shows up for the other.

Homeboy's is an unusual place, in my limited experience with bars, sarcasm intended. On one side, it's a karaoke bar starting at 10pm every evening. On the other side, it's a sports bar with a single pool table and a few vintage game machines scattered about. Now, pool in Europa's small gravity is an interesting sport. The table itself is eight times the size of an earth table, and the walls are about a meter high. Instead of pockets, there are four gates, one in each corner, plus four more gates in the middle of each side. There are 21 balls instead of the traditional 15, and the balls themselves are made of lead. That gives them a nice high mass to prevent them from jumping too high, while still allowing them to be relatively small. To shoot, the player has to actually climb into the "table" area, get down on hands and knees, and shoot. Players are automatically disqualified if any balls touch any part of their bodies, as in traditional pool.

The karaoke side of the bar doesn't start until 10pm, so at the time I met Larry there, it was just a sitting area with a dark stage. Larry was sitting stage side, since at that time of day that table is the least noticed table. I found him with two beers already on the table.

"So, whatcha got?" I asked Larry.

He passed the pads to me, and I stuck them in my bag.

"Don't forget," he reminded me. "Don't power them up until you've dropped them off, and then get out of the area as fast as possible. You don't need to hang around and make sure they're picked up. As soon as somebody uses them, we'll know, and we'll be able to quickly determine who it is."

"Got it," I said, canceling my plan to observe whoever picked up the victim's pad. When your friends are watching your back, sometimes you do what they ask without question. "Any other interesting news?"

"Yes," said Larry. "Well, sorta. It depends on how you look at it."

"Ok, what is it?"

"The police have decided to class the, um, event, as a random mugging, so the case has been shelved for now."

"Hm," I said. "That's interesting."

"I didn't really think so," said Larry. "There's enough murders around these parts that the police don't investigate every single one."

We sat in silence for a few moments and drank our beers.

"Did they identify the victim?" I asked finally.

"Nope," said Larry. "Apparently they're having the same problems doing that that Sherry's having."

"Of course," I said. "It is curious, though. The President is going to give a speech right on my spot. How does the city figure it'll look if the President finds out later about the murder? Won't that be more embarrassing?"

"I don't understand politics," said Larry. "It's all about show, not tell, so I don't even pay attention to it anymore."

"Ah," I grunted.

"There are two possibilities," said Larry, switching back to a previous track. "Either Mary knows the victim or she knows the killer."

"Or is somehow connected to one or both," I pointed out.

"Right," said Larry. "I guess, technically, that's three possibilities."

"Four," I said. "Add to it that Sherry found Mary's number under a fake name in the victim's pad. We'll just have to wait and see."

"I could probably hack into her pad and put a monitoring agent there," he suggested.

"No go," I said. "I trust her to be doing the right thing, and if she found me spying on her, that would be a disaster. We'll just have to let her run on her own while we run on our own, and we'll see where the pieces fall when the time comes."

"Not sure I agree with that," said Larry, "But you're the boss."

I finished my beer. Larry was already finished with his.

"Want another?" I asked.

"Sure," he said.

I grabbed the glasses and went to the bar. Gomer, the owner, was working the bar.

"Heya Cecil," he said. "Are you performing for us tonight?"

"Sorry bud," I answered, "Not tonight. Got stuff going on."

"Ah," he said. "Well, you need to come in and do a show sometime. We always enjoy it when you do."

"I will," I said. "Don't worry. I love playing here, you know that."

I grabbed the two full beers and headed back to the table. Larry and I sat in silence while we finished our beers, considering what little information we had.

"I went to the address on the victim's ID. Abandoned compartment."

"That's no surprise. Look, Cecil, why don't you go to the police?" asked Larry.

"Simple," I said. "Since Mary is apparently involved somehow, I have to protect her. Police involvement would destabilize the situation even more than it already has been."

"The police may be able to stabilize the situation and keep it from getting out of control."

I laughed out loud.

"I doubt it," I said. "The cops around here can't tell a murder from a rape, even though one victim is obviously still alive."

"Bah," said Larry. "We can monitor their investigation just fine, just like we're already doing."

"To be honest, they'd probably just slap me with the murder charges and be done with it," I said. "Let's see, murder, robbery, mugging two honest citizens..."

"Only they're not honest citizens," said Larry.

"Our information that ties them to the mob is somewhat incredible," I said. "The cops won't buy it, and can't confirm it their own way."

"Sherry was able to confirm it, so the cops should be able to," Larry said.

"That's even more reason for them to back down," I said. "They avoid the mob, that's why they've risen to so much power around here."

"Oh I guess you're right," said Larry. "You're stuck in the middle of this, and so far seem to have avoided getting snagged. But you'll be on the mobster's radar again, and it won't be so pleasant the next time."

"I'll watch my back," I said. "I do it anyway."

"Yeah, I know," said Larry. "I guess it's time for me to head out, got an early morning tomorrow."

"That early class of Vali's?"

"Yep," said Larry. "Thanks for the beer."

Then he walked out and disappeared. I got another beer, sat, and thought for awhile. That last part of the conversation with Larry filled me with a sense of foreboding. When my thoughts became too ugly for me to consider, I slammed the remainder of my beer and left.

I wanted to leave the pads in the Wells bubble because that's far from my normal range. True, Mary and I liked to go to Homeboy's, but we didn't go there very often, so the likelihood of us encountering anybody associated with the pads was slim. Furthermore, the people who retrieved the pads would not be able to link them to me in any way other than knowing I had taken them and left them, if they even knew that much. In any case, they wouldn't be able to track me leaving them, and by the time they were found, I'd be long gone.

I made the decision not to perform in the Wells bubble and instead to just do the drop. There's a small shopping center with a fried chicken place near Homeboy's, so I figured I drop the pads there and get some food. What's the worst that could happen?

Chapter Negative Two

When I got home that night, I found Mary sitting on the couch. She was just finishing up a conversation on her pad when I walked around the couch and dropped into the chair. I looked at her, she glanced at me.

"We'll see you then, don't worry," she said. Then she cut the connection and looked at me. "What are you doing tomorrow night?"

"Performing somewhere, I'd imagine," I said. "Hadn't set any plans yet."

"Feel like playing Homeboy's?" she asked.

"Sure," I said. "What's going on?"

"An old friend wants to hang out," she said. "I thought you might like to meet him."

"Sure," I said. Then I dumped my bag on the coffee table and started sorting through the cash. "I always like playing at a social occasion, because then I get paid to hang out and have fun."

"Thought you'd see it that way," she said. "So, did you find out anything more about the murder you were telling me about?"

"Nope," I said. "At least, nothing other than it hasn't been in the news."

"Oh silly," she said. "Of course it was. You just didn't see it."

"Sure," I said. "I didn't see it. And I have no way of checking up on it."

"Right," said Mary.

"Right," I said.

We were at an impasse.

"You're sure he didn't give you anything before he was killed?"

"Why does it matter?" I asked.

"Well, obviously because you'd have to go to the police with the whatever it was," she said matter-of-factly.

"I disagree," I said. "He may have given me something, but I wouldn't have gone to the police. I got the impression he was a nice guy, one of the Good Guys, and if he entrusted me with anything before he died, I'd have to do whatever it took to make sure it fell into the right hands. And nine times out of ten, the police are not the right hands for information to fall into."

"So you think he might have died for information?"

"I don't know why he died," I said. "Maybe they just wanted his shoes."

"Was he still wearing his shoes when you saw him?"

"Honestly, I didn't notice. I don't usually look at the feet of a fresh corpse."

She took a sudden deep breath at that, not quite gasping, but still noticeably affected by my comment.

"You knew the victim," I said. "You found out he was dead before the police even knew."

"Well, maybe," she said. "It's complicated."

"Enlighten me," I said.

"I can't," she said. "I'm sorry, Cecil, but I can't talk about it. I just lost a dear friend, and I don't know what to do about it. He was obviously murdered, and there seems to be no reason for it. It bothers me that you were so near to him when he died, and then happened to see him before anybody else saw him, and talked to him. Did he say anything at all to you?"

Put on the spot, I could only answer one thing. "No."

"I don't understand what's happening." Then she started to cry.

Oh bother. That's just great. Now she's crying. She knows damn well that I couldn't pursue any questioning while she's crying. On the other hand, neither could she, so our impasse wouldn't resolve, but we'd at least be cuddling. Sometimes I have to admire her style, especially when it comes to keeping secrets. We ended up falling asleep together on the couch, with her cuddled up in my arms and pushing her butt up against my hips. I was very horny when I finally fell asleep, but since she was already asleep and clearly going through some problems, I left her alone.

She was gone when I woke up in the morning. She hadn't left a note or anything, just took off. My pad was ringing an incoming call, and I staggered to it and answered. It was Larry.

"Cecil!" said Larry. "Cecil! Are you ok?"

"I'm fine," I said. "What's going on?"

"Damn," said Larry. "They found another body."

"Who?"

"I don't know! I can't identify the body, and Sherry has no information on it."

"No, I meant 'who found the body'?"

"The cops!"

I've never seen Larry so alarmed at something.

"Ok, so the cops found another dead body, big deal, right?"

"They found it on the same spot our murder victim was!"

That was a little more sobering.

"Interesting," I said. "What's significant about it?"

"They've now named you as a person of interest," said Larry. "The investigation is continuing, now that there's two bodies."

"Trust our police to only investigate when there's two bodies," I said. "Is there any indication the two are linked by anything other than location?"

"Yes," said Larry. "Neither body can be identified."

"Ok," I said. "That doesn't exactly link them together."

"It doesn't matter!" said Larry. He was really worked up. "You're a suspect!"

"No," I said. "I'm a 'person of interest', which is really just the police acknowledging me for who I am, if you think about it."

"Cecil, this is no time for jokes," said Larry. "They tortured this man!"

"On the contrary," I answered. "This is the best time for jokes. Look, I need a soda. Where are you?"

"I'm at the school," answered Larry.

"Ok," I said. "I'll go get a soda, and I'll get cleaned up and head over there, and we can chat, ok?"

"Ok," answered Larry dubiously.

"I'll have Sherry meet us there, and we'll have a little pow-wow, just the three of us. What time is it, anyway?"

"It's noon," said Larry. "Vali's got a class starting in an hour."

"Fine," I said. "We can chat while his class is working on their stupid lab."

"Just don't get picked up by the cops."

"Do they even know my secret identity?"

"Not apparent," said Larry. "But probably."

"I won't worry about it, I've got bigger fish to fry. We'll be there soon." Then I broke the connection. Sometimes hanging up on Larry is the easiest way to get him to shut up.

I went ahead and took some time getting myself cleaned up. I had apparently fallen asleep while I was still wearing my costume, so parts of it were wrinkled and my face was still painted. So I took a shower while I let my clothes hang in the dryer to work out the wrinkles. Then I got dressed in street clothes, carefully folded my costume into my gear bag, and got ready to go to the school. I dialed up Sherry and got her to agree to meeting me at the school. Then I went down the corridor to grab a soda.

As soon as I stepped outside my home, I felt the familiar prickling sensation on the back of my neck that reminds me I have an audience. Since I wasn't suited up nor performing in any way, that could only mean someone was watching me intently. I turned all the way around to the left, opened the door, stepped in, grabbed something random, then came back out. This time, I turned to the right and headed out. Spotted my watcher on the first turn. Hopefully he was convinced I had forgotten something when I turned around, and not that I was surveying. I walked down towards the tubes, staying to the right, and when I reached my turn, turned left with a glance. He was following me, sure enough. Maybe I should go to the cops. Maybe it would make my life a lot simpler.

I stopped off in a grocer's stall and poked around. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, I was giving my stalker a chance to catch up. There were three possibilities as to his identity. He's an agent of the crime boss, a cop, or an agent associated with Flasher Boy. I waited until I could see him clearly looking over the wares in a magazine shop, then shifted into the butcher's stall that stood right next to the grocer's. I continued on into the little tamale shop on the corner, slipped around the corner, and nabbed a corner seat. After a few minutes, my follower headed down the street past me, failing to see me in the hidden corner table, and on down the corridor. He'd lost me. So I slipped out and got in behind him.

Being an acrobat and a juggler and performing these things in the street 6-8 hours a day for 4 or 5 days a week for three months, I was in tip top shape. I caught up to him quickly, tapped him on the shoulder, and when he spun around with his hand in the air, grabbed his wrist and pushed him against the nearby wall.

"Why are you following me?" I demanded.

"You're my assignment," he said.

"Don't you know you're not supposed to admit following me?"

"Standard protocol," he answered.

"Who are you?"

"The guy that's assigned to follow you."

"Who are you with?"

"The organization that made the assignment."

"You're not being very helpful now," I said.

"Standard protocol," he answered.

"You know I could break your neck before you could reach that blaster of yours, right?" I answered.

"Yes, but you won't do it."

"Because I'm not a cop killer?"

"Well, I'm not a cop, so obviously that doesn't matter." Aha! Not a cop.

"Why, then? Would your family come after me?"

"My family doesn't even know I exist," he said.

Emo kid? Or one of Flasher Boy's friends? I gave him Hard Up to see how he'd react to that expression. He answered with what looked for all the world like I'm Taken. Obviously a well-trained agent.

"Which government do you work for?" I asked.

"None," he said.

Then he went to live hand, broke my hold on his wrist, jabbed me in the rib, slapped me in the face, and slipped right past me. When I turned to see in which direction he had gone, he truly was gone, disappeared into the mid-morning shopping crowd. Dumbfounded, all I could do was rub my cheek and wonder at how he had so easily gotten away from me and marveled at the speed with which he moved. If I could move that fast, I could juggle 15 balls at least.

Since he had apparently quit following me, I resumed my walk to the tubes, jumped a tube, and shortly walked into Larry's lab.

"You didn't get a soda," said Larry.

"Obviously," I said. "I was followed."

"How did that stop you from getting a soda?" asked Sherry.

So I briefly related the encounter to the two of them.

"That's interesting," said Sherry. "Hang on." And she ducked out of the prep room.

"So he knows some martial arts," suggested Larry.

"Obviously," I said. "He went to live hand perfectly, he's had some practice."

"That's not a mobster thing," said Larry. "They don't train their guys in any martial arts."

"That doesn't prevent individuals who are interested from taking up the pursuit on their own," I pointed out.

"What art was it? Could you tell?"

"Live hand is common in all the grappling arts," I said. "So it could be Aikido, Hapkido, Judo, or any number of other arts."

"Any idea how many practitioners of each there are on this moon?"

"Greco-Roman and North American wrestling..."

"Cecil."

"Old Scottish, Islamic Ground Fighting, a fairly new style..."

"Cecil!"

"Australian Aboriginal kangaroo fighting..."

"CECIL!"

"Wait, what?" I asked.

"Focus!" barked Larry.

"Ok, I'm focused! Sor-ree!"

"Fine!"

"Fine."

"Now, I'll ask again," Larry said pointedly. "Any idea how many practitioners of each there are on this moon?"

"Sure," I said. "Thousands. There may be a lead there, but you'll have to let Sherry chase it down."

Sherry came back in the room with a large caffeinated and carbonated beverage. She handed it to me. I sucked it down like a Scottish Terrier sucking down a hot dog on a cold day.

"Thank you Sherry, I love you," I said gratefully.

"So, we got nothing on the flasher," said Sherry.

"Expected, at this point," I said. "Did you bring it with you?"

"Yes," she said, and she took it out of her pocket and handed it to me. I relayed it right to Larry.

"Find out what's on this thing," I told Larry. "Since a man died for it."

"Sure," said Larry. "I'm surprised she didn't get anybody to look at it."

"My own guys can't do half of what you can do," said Sherry.

"All the more reason to send the work to me."

I detected more than a little bit of tension in the room.

"Do we know yet whether or not the pads were picked up?" I asked, changing the subject.

"No," said Larry. "Nothing, as of yet."

I coughed out of nowhere as a drip of soda went down the wrong tube. Larry and Sherry looked askance at me, and I signaled I was ok.

"Let me know as soon as you've got something," I said. "cough So let's talk about this 'person of interest' thing, since you were so upset about it."

"Ok," said Larry and Sherry together.

"Cough First, what does it mean?" I asked.

Sherry answered. "It means they've connected you with the murder. They don't know if you did it, and probably aren't making you a suspect just yet. They just know that you have some sort of connection to it."

"There were two murders," I pointed out.

"Yes," said Sherry, "And the fact that they both happened near your downtown spot means something."

"Does it? Cough I haven't been downtown since the first murder happened."

"The cops don't know that."

"Surely they must," I said. "There are cops all over downtown cough every night I'm there."

"Got a timesheet? Invoice? Anything cough to indicate where you were when it happened?"

"Camera data?" I asked bleakly with a hoarse voice.

"Not good enough," said Sherry. "The camera data is ok, but is usually not a high enough resolution to identify anybody."

"My costume is pretty identifiacoughble."

"Can you guarantee there were no copycats on your spot last night?"

cough cough cough

"Well, uh, I guess not," I said. "But I don't have many copycats. I'm uncopyable."

Then I hacked it up for a moment while the two watched me, my cheeks the host of matching waterfalls.

"Are you ok, Cecil?" asked Sherry.

"I'm cough fine." I swallowed some more soda, which soothed my aching throat a bit. "I think I'm done now. Please, continue."

"If you say so," said Sherry dubiously. "Maybe the mobsters sent someone down who looked like you just before dumping the body, precisely so you'd be fingered for it?"

"That'd be a dirty trick," I commented.

"Yes," said Sherry, "And well within the scope of mob operations."

"Ok, so, Larry, can you find out for us?"

"I already have," said Larry, "And nothing of the sort happened. I don't know why they're linking you to the second murder, there's nothing indicating a link."

"Ok," I said. "Who's the victim?"

"Another unidentifiable person," said Larry.

"Unidentifiable to whom?" asked Sherry.

"To the cops," said Larry.

"But not to me," said Sherry.

"You still haven't identified our first victim."

"I'll get it."

"You still haven't. cough "

"Some things take time!"

"Some things!"

"Yeah, some things! Got a problem with that?"

"We needed to know cough yesterday!"

"We did know yesterday!"

"Nothing useful!"

"We knew that Cecil wasn't the killer!"

"No we didn't!"

"Are you suggesting he might cough have killed somebody?"

The argument was getting out of hand, as was the coughing.

"STOP."

"No, I'm not suggesting that!"

"Then what are you suggesting?"

"I'M SUGGESTING YOU BOTH SHUT THE FUCK UP!" I roared.

Larry and Sherry both stopped with their mouths open, ready to retort to whatever was said. Slowly, they each turned their eyes to me and closed their mouths.

Unfortunately, at that moment I had my last bit of soda coughing to do. The two watched tearfully as I finished. At least, I like to think they watched it tearfully.

"Sherry," I croaked, "Get on identifying the second body. Ok?"

"Ok," she said.

"Larry," I said, my voice recovering a bit more, "Figure out what's on the flasher that someone died protecting, ok?"

"Ok," he said.

"Also, Larry, please don't copycat my coughing." I gave him Rue the Day.

"No problem."

"This whole 'person of interest' thing is not interesting," I said. "I can easily conceal what I know about the first victim, but I don't know anything about the second. Got it?"

"Sure," said Sherry.

"I suppose," said Larry.

"Let's try to figure out what connection the cops think I have to the two murders. Larry, you keep monitoring the investigation and see what you come up with. Sherry, you find out whatever information about the second victim you can get, forged or not. I have no connection to the second murder, other than the location of the body when it was found, so figure out why the cops have linked us based on location. Ok?"

"Ok," said Sherry.

"Sure," said Larry, dubious again.

"In the meantime, what does 'person of interest' actually mean?" I asked.

Sherry had the answer ready.

"It means you can be taken downtown for questioning at any moment. They won't arrest you until they question you, because they're hoping to get a confession out of you when they question you."

"Which they won't," I said, "Because I didn't kill either of them."

"They'll pressure you into a confession," said Sherry. "It's how they get most of their murder convictions: by pressuring someone near the murder into confessing."

"That's not a reliable way to get to the truth," I pointed out.

"You're such an idealist," Sherry pointed out.

"Yeah, sue me," I said.

"I will," said Sherry.

"No you won't," I responded.

"I will, for getting me into this mess."

"You like it," I said.

"I love it," she answered, "But that doesn't mean I won't sue you for it."

"Good luck collecting," I said. "I'm already up to my neck in debt over the divorce. You can collect from my stool samples."

"You giving me shit?"

"Of course."

"Ass."

"Yep."

"Cecil," said Larry, "We've got bigger fish to fry."

"There are fish that are bigger than my ass? Ok," I said. "So, what else do we have?"

"Well," said Sherry, "I finished the background on Mary."

"You don't look too happy to have done that." I said.

"I want to stress that I feel like I shouldn't have done it," said Sherry. "I feel like I violated her."

"Under the circumstances," I said, "I think it had to be done. Besides, she might like that. Anyway, what did you find?"

"Apparently Mary used to cohabitate with a man named Jacob Smith," Sherry said. "About five years ago. They signed a year long lease, but he was arrested eight months into the lease. He had charges associated with mob activity, and served a two year sentence before being released."

"Were they together when he was arrested?"

"No way to tell," said Sherry. "They could have broken up a month into the lease and he could have gone to stay with friends until he got arrested. No way to tell. The paperwork says he lived there, that's all I've got."

"Any idea what his family affiliation was?"

"None, but it's likely Europan," answered Sherry.

"Got it," I said. "What are his current whereabouts?"

"Unknown," said Sherry. "He finished his probation, and then disappeared off the public record."

"Probably got a girlfriend to put him up without putting his name on the lease," I said.

"Probably," said Sherry. "That's a fairly common way to stay under the police radar."

"I believe it's called 'spanking the mattresses'. Or something like that."

"My mistake."

"Whatever, do we have any determination who our murderers are affiliated with?"

"Nothing," said Sherry, "Except that they're off-world. They may be pirates for all we can tell right now."

"I'd be able to identify them if they were active pirates."

"Really?" asked Sherry.

"Really," I said, giving her Honest Pickings.

"Hum," she responded.

"So, can we make the association between Mary and the off-worlders?"

"No," said Sherry. "We can't. Quite the contrary, it looks like Mary's not associated with the murderers because her mob connections are local. She's most likely associated with the victims."

"Interesting," I said. "When there was only one victim, she told me he was a dear friend, but refused to give any more information. Now that there's two unidentifiable victims, I wonder what she'd say."

"There's more about Mary."

"Explain."

Sherry sighed deeply. "Did she ever tell you she had a kid?"

"Yes," I said. "She's been pregnant several times. None resulted in live births, however."

"That's not technically true," said Sherry. "There was a live birth, and this Jacob Smith character was the father."

That got my attention. It also evoked The Masked Man.

"So she had a baby with a mobster, and in a year together has never told me about this kid?"

"Well, the baby died at the age of two," said Sherry. "No records other than birth and death, and the death certificate simply states 'accidental causes of death' on it."

"That's interesting," I said.

"You're not shocked?" asked Sherry.

"Oh, I am," I said. "I'm just giving you The Masked Man."

"I'll never understand your facial expressions no matter how many times you explain them to me," said Sherry.

"So what if Mary also knows the second victim?"

"Maybe you should give her the drive," said Larry.

"I'd rather know what was on the drive before I tell her I have it," I said. "I trust her, and I love her, but she's fallen in with some bad crowds in the past. I have no way to verify that she's currently involved with the Good Guys. She may think she is, but actually be with the Bad Guys."

"What will you do if she comes up on the wrong side?"

"I don't know," I said. "I don't want to dump her, but I don't really know."

"What if she dumps you?"

"What do you mean?" I asked Sherry.

"What if she determines you're on the wrong side and dumps you?"

"I don't see that happening," I said. "She doesn't even know I'm involved yet."

"Are you sure?"

"Sure," I said, "Why not?"

"The police have named you as a person of interest, why wouldn't she know you're involved?"

"She knows better? She knows where I've been?"

"Does she? How much contact have you had with her the last few days?"

"Ok, not much," I admitted. "But enough."

"Enough to what?"

"Look, Sherry," I said, "I really strongly value your point of view. You're a really helpful person, that's why you're involved with this. This paranoia shit has to stop. I love Mary, and I trust her, and whatever's going on, I'm sure she's on the side of the Good Guys. So when I figure out which side she's on, I'll throw my support to that side, unconditionally, and with my life if necessary. Got it?"

"So what if she's a mobster?"

"She's a good girl," I said. "If she's a mobster, then it's the right side to be on. Ok?"

"Ok."

"Sure?"

"Not really," said Sherry, "But I'll go along with it."

"I've heard that before."

"You've said it before."

"Figures."

"Relax," said Sherry. "I wasn't trying to get your back up."

"I know," I said, "I know. And don't worry, if she turns out to be a Bad Guy, I'll kill her."

"Cecil!"

I laughed out loud over that one. Sometimes, just taking someone by surprise really is the best way to construct a joke.

"Not really, I was just seeing if you were paying attention."

"Fine, ok, so, what now?" asked Sherry.

"Do you have a way to track a person's connections and filter by particular information?" I asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, like the old social networking stuff that's still around. Start with a particular person, and then search all people connected to that person for a particular skill, and then search all people connected with each of those people, etc."

"Sure," said Sherry. "Our PI databases have that feature. Larry wrote it, so it works well."

I chuckled and looked at Larry. "Ok, then, start with Mary and find someone with knowledge of a grappling art."

"Do you think that will be helpful?" asked Sherry.

"No, but it's something to do, and we're pretty much grasping at strings right now, waiting for something else to happen, such as Larry figuring out what data on that drive was so important that a man died over it, and yet so unimportant that the man that died could leave it with anybody except his pursuers. And in the meantime, we all have bills to pay."

"Indeed," said Larry.

"Sure do," said Sherry.

"So let's move out and see what happens," I said. "Hopefully before someone else dies."

By force of habit, I walked out of Larry's prep room and into the physics lab, noting that Sherry went straight into the hall and left. She was such a college student. Vali was sitting at one of the lab tables fooling with one of the air track units.

"Cecil," he said in his best Dracula impression. "What's going on with you?"

"Same old, same old," I said.

"No, not same old, not this time," he said. "Sounds like you're in a bit of a mess."

"Yeah, I suppose," I said with a chuckle. "Nothing I can't handle."

"You're a great performer, but you still cannot lie to me," he said. "What can I help you with?"

"Um, does your physics training include any sort of espionage, or martial arts?"

"It does, in fact," he answered. "I served in a special forces unit during the revolution. I was pretty good at what I did, too."

"Really? You never told me that!" I gave him Sly Story.

"Really."

"You're pulling my leg," I said.

"No, I'm not," he said. "Cecil, you are my friend, and I care deeply about what happens to you. I stood by you through your divorce, and I was always by your side when you worked here. I will always be on your side, no matter what. Just tell me what I need to do."

I looked at him soberly for a moment before answering.

"You're right, of course," I said, watching him provide a knowing smile. Actually, it was more like he was giving me Shiteater. "At this time, the danger level is low, and there's just not much information to go on. I don't know that there's anything you can do right now, but there is a likelihood there will be some shooting, sooner or later."

"You're sure of that?"

"Not completely," I said, "It's just that people keep dying, and sooner or later we'll figure out who's who, and will have an ethical obligation to step in in a big way."

"Why not go to the police?"

"Because Mary's involved, somehow," I said, "And police involvement will probably increase her danger level dramatically."

"What is her danger level right now?"

"I don't know," I answered, giving him Awe-Inspired Ignorance. "She doesn't know I've gotten involved."

"Do you trust her?"

"Yes, I do."

"Why don't you ask her what's going on, then?"

"And risk exposing everybody at once?"

"This is something you carry from your marriage," he answered. "You trust her, but you do not trust her. You fear that she will ultimately betray you as your ex-wife did. You fear that she will hurt you by what she is doing. Do you think she will?"

"No, I don't--"

"But you can't ask her for fear of that betrayal and hurt."

"Sure."

"I'm very sorry for you for having to go through this, Cecil. Your ex-wife was a terrible person to make you feel this way, and it is impacting your relationship with Mary, the woman you need to spend the rest of your life with. When you determine what role I need to play, you will let me know. Promise?"

"Yes sir," I said. "I will do that. And thank you for all that you've done for me."

"You're sure?"

"I'm sure."

"You're not just saying that to get me out of your hair."

I gave him Honest Pickings. "Vali, when I know what you need to do, I will tell you, I promise."

"Fair enough."

We shook hands soberly, and as usual, parted ways without any sort of farewell. For my part, I had to leave, if only to hide the tear developing in my right eye.

Chapter Four

I went into the crowd in performance mode. I had three balls in the air, and I was moving to a spot. The interesting thing about juggling, in case I haven't mentioned this before, is the way Newton's Laws so aptly apply. You see, you throw one ball up in the air, and it has to go high enough into the air to give you time to catch and throw a second ball. That ball, in turn, needs to go high enough into the air to let you catch and throw a third ball. When you do that, the first ball should just barely be landing in your other hand. It's complicated. It's also tricky. There's a reason so few people can juggle. In the lower gravity of Europa, juggling is quite a bit easier in some ways. You see, the velocity required to throw a ball to a height matching your forehead is much less than on Earth. But the natural inclination is to give the ball a much higher velocity, which in turn makes it easier to juggle more balls because you have more time to deal with catching and throwing. So, juggling three balls and not throwing them any higher than your head is still impressive, even on Europa, but if you throw them higher than your head, three balls isn't that impressive. A lot of people on Europa can throw three balls above their heads, it's so simple it's taught in grade school. To be impressive, you have to throw at least six balls to match the three balls thrown on Earth. Now, you might ask, how is six balls equivalent to three when the acceleration due to gravity is less than one-sixth? The answer is simple. The height of the balls changes, but the length doesn't. Your arms don't suddenly become wider apart, and the throws require a great deal of accuracy. So you're asking someone to throw six balls with the same degree of accuracy that throwing three balls would be. It's surprisingly challenging. That's why I, like a lot of jugglers, resorted to clubs. But clubs are their own problem! You see, when you juggle clubs, you throw each individual club with the intent that it will turn over once, rise to a certain height, and then you'll catch it in the same place you'd catch the ball. The problem is that while the height varies due to gravitation, the time it takes for the club to turn over once doesn't. It's a simple matter of mass distribution, or what physicists like to call it, moment of inertia. That is dependent on the club's mass and where it exists in the club, but not on the acceleration due to gravity.

It's not as tricky as it sounds, though. Sometimes you just have to light the club on fire and throw it, and let the audience be wowed even though you're throwing a simple cascade. Fire makes all the difference.

My torch setup was completely custom. I built the torches, and I built the extinguishing devices. So I could light a set of torches, juggle them for awhile, then extinguish them without the need for water or anything else. That gave me the advantage of being able to relight the torches at will, ignoring the need for refueling. I could usually find a discrete place to refuel. I also had electronic lighters in them so I could actually juggle them unlit and light them while throwing. Unfortunately, I hadn't figured out a way to extinguish them safely while throwing, since they were still based on kevlar wicks. I'd heard rumors about torches that used burner nozzles and a fuel tank that could be lit and extinguished at will, but I hadn't found any in real life.

Juggling wasn't my entire act, however. I also did acrobatics and told jokes and other funny stories. You see, historically, fools were never primarily jugglers. The juggling was to get attention, or to impress someone. The acrobatics were done for both flare and slapstick effects. The jesters had also invented the novelty song genre long before certain pop acts in the 20th century. The core of the act, however, is what I call the Diatribe. It's an ongoing monologue about your life, whoever I'm interacting with, that is internally consistent and completely satirical. I take age old roles and turn them around.

For example, when I went into the crowd, I found a couple holding hands. A little girl was skipping in front of them. I came up right in front of them and bumped right into the little girl, lightly.

"Why are you following me?" I demanded of her.

"I'm not following you!" the little girl answered.

"Yes, you are," I said.

"No, I'm not!"

"Well then, who are you following?"

She looked a little confused, then turned and pointed at her parents. So I hunkered down and looked her in the eye.

"Dear girl," I said, gravely, "Those two are walking behind you. You can't possibly be following them."

Now, having her attention, she was seriously thinking about what was going on.

"Look on the bright side," I said. "You've raised good, obedient parents who follow you closely and don't wander off to play without telling you."

That was the role reversal, of course, making the kid responsible for the parents. Sure, it's been done to death for all of us grown-ups, but for the kids, it's often new, and even when it's not, it's always entertaining. And, as a fool, I had to take it up a few notches compared to what anybody else would do.

"Now, did you make sure they've eaten dinner?"

"Well, that's what we were going to do next," she said.

"Oh yeah? Where are you going?"

"We're going to Fastburger," she declared proudly.

"I see," I said. "And you are aware that the average burger served there is about 1400 calories, and will raise your cholesterol levels two whole points? Are you sure you should be feeding that to your parents?"

She chewed on that for a moment.

"Well, they are bigger than me," she finally said. "They need more food than I do."

"True," I said, "But 1400 calories in one meal is a lot. That only leaves them 600 calories to have for breakfast and lunch. What did they eat for those meals?"

"Are you telling me how to raise my parents?" the little girl demanded.

"Of course not," I said, "I am merely a fool trying to engage your attention. Would you like to see a trick?"

"Ok," she said dubiously.

"Would you like to see it again?"

"What? You didn't do a trick!"

"Oh yeah, forgot," I said. Then I did a back extension, which is basically a back roll with a handstand thrown in, and at the end I kick my feet down and land on my feet.

"Would you like to see it again?"

"Can you do a back flip?"

"No," I said, even as I threw myself backwards onto my hands. Then I kicked up the same way you'd do in a tip-up, moving forward instead, and landed on my feet. "See, I keep forgetting which direction I'm going."

The little girl was giggling at this point. I had also drawn a small crowd of kids, their parents standing behind them and smiling.

So, at this time, I whipped out my light-up balls and started throwing them up in the air. Several kids started giggling uncontrollably. Kids are impressed by juggling much more than adults. I started with a cascade, then switched it to a waterfall, then smoothly transcended back through a cascade into a waterfall moving the other direction. You know, basic stuff.

"Can you--" started one of the kids.

"ACK!" I yelled out, while throwing a ball way up into the air. "Great, kid, you broke my concentration. Now, where did the ball go?"

The kid pointed up into the air. I looked up over his finger.

"I don't see it."

The whole group of kids laughed. Several started pointing fingers up in the air, with voices murmuring things like "Look up!" and "It's over your head!"

So I turned around, took a step, and looked up. Of course, I didn't see it.

"I don't see it!"

At which point the ball came down quite fast and landed in a hand I'd slipped out behind my back. I threw them all back up in a cascade.

"Oh, there it is, right where I left it."

And so on. You get the idea.

I worked my way through the crowd in this fashion, heading over to Old Blarney's spot. Old Blarney is a crazy old guy who plays a guitar badly, and only knows half of one song. He'd been living down there for years, and barely made any money, but he always knew the gossip.

"Say, Blarney," I said.

"Blarney," he responded.

"What's up?"

"Not much," he answered. "Cecil? Is that really you?"

"In the flesh!" I declared. "Surprised to see me?"

"Well, with all the dead bodies turning up, we thought you were a goner," he answered.

"Dead bodies?"

"Yeah, apparently they've found like three in the last four days, all near your spot. Say, you didn't kill any of them, did you?"

"No sir," I said, "But tell me more."

"Rumor has it these people don't even exist!" said Blarney. "Now, just between you and me, I have a hard time believing you could have killed someone who didn't exist, and the bodies are real, so obviously you couldn't have killed them."

I love Blarney's screwed up logic.

"You're right," I said. "But what do you mean about them not existing?"

"No records, no identification, nothing," said Blarney. "A bunch of John Does."

"Interesting," I said. "Why were people who don't exist wandering around downtown?"

"Probably looking for drugs," said Blarney. "I don't know. It was the first one that's the mystery, the others were looking for him. They actually asked me about him. Then there were some guys in suits asking, then more guys in suits, it's like the whole world wants to find out what the first guy did that night."

"Any scars or tattoos or identifying marks?"

"Well, the guy that talked to me had a funky scar on his face like he'd been burned or something," Blarney said. "He's the one that turned up dead later."

"Weird," I said, thinking it was doubly weird that the guy that turned up dead attacked me hours after he was found dead.

"Yeah, weird," he said. "Hey, don't kill me, ok?"

"I'll think about it," I said. Then I dropped a couple of eagles into his cup. "Have a good night, Blarney. Play your heart out!"

"I will," he said. "It's good to see you, Cecil, take care of yourself, alright?"

"I will," I said.

So the second victim was the guy that followed me from my home a few days ago, but apparently was murdered before he followed me. That didn't make any sense. He's also obviously linked to the first victim. In that case, why didn't he ask about the flasher when I had him? Probably he just wanted to get away since I'd obviously read him.

I spent the evening hitting people up and asking questions, but there wasn't any new information to be had. I kept performing off and on since I still had bills to pay, but eventually decided I was just going home. So I went and found a new money-counting spot and sat to sort through what I had. After finishing, I dialed up Susan Hall.

"Hey lady," she said, looking at me. "So, are you going to play?"

"Sure," I said. "Maybe. Who am I going to be playing for?"

"You've already figured it out," she said. "Don Julian."

"I see," I said. "Is there a particular reason he wants me?"

"You know something about these murders," she said. "That's all he told me."

"So this is a covert way for him to get me into his house without anybody suspecting."

"Yep," she answered. "And that's really all I know. Look, I'll send you the details on when and where later. You just be ready."

"Roger that."

So I jumped on the tube and headed home.

When I walked in the door, my lovely little home was a disaster area. Clothes, shoes, data units, all sorts of things were thrown everywhere. Clearly someone had ransacked my home while I was out. Something was definitely wrong here, I decided, getting a sick feeling in my stomach when I realized that Mary wasn't in the cabin at all. Maybe she had gone home with that guy from Homeboy's after all? Then I found her note, written on old-fashioned paper with an old-fashioned pen.

Dear Cecil,

I'm sorry to say that I can't date someone irresponsible enough to drive while drinking. I will remember the fun times we had together, but we're through.

Mary.

To say that I was angry, frustrated, and rapidly filling with hate would definitely have been an understatement.

To read more, you can get it from Amazon. You know you're hooked...

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