Neither Big Nor Easy
by Michael S. Roberts
Riverside wharves, No-cops Zone, New Orleans, August 2040.
As soon as I saw the two cybered-up Jamaicans round the corner, I knew there would be another fight. Probably they were just dropping by Cao’s brothel for a disease-free afternoon quickie, but Cao was writhing happily right at my feet, giggling and grasping at imaginary butterflies. I still had the warm coilgun in my hand. I’d hoped to nab Cao without being noticed by the Posses. Both of them stopped short, cutting off their laughing chat, taking in the tableau: me, standing over the pimp they were likely coming to see; the smoking, sparking synthdoll laid out a couple feet away; the reporter near the brothel entrance, steadying and panning her headcam. The reporter’s camera operator was still concealed in my car, at least. She’d get it all on digital, whatever went down next.
I scanned them on infrared, picking out a heavy-gauge shotgun on the left, a pair of magnum autopistols on the right. Much more worrisome was the metal in their meat: Shotgun guy on the left had a full cyberarm, shoulder-down. Cooler eye sockets meant optic implants, much nicer than mine, probably ZeissOptik. Guy on the right looked all-meat except for bulges on the backs of the hands: talon implants, serious street hardware. When he grinned, I saw two chromed incisors, nearly an inch long. Both had the colors of the local Jamaican Posse: brocade vest on one, animated neon paisley muscle shirt on the other. Gold lame pants, rainbow sashes. Mix of dreadlocks and braids, heavy with ebonywood beads and colored glass.
“Not what it looks like, guys. . .” I holstered the flechette thrower, kept a hand on the grip. “Got a civilian here, just looking to leave with Cao.”
Cyberarm tilted his head and grinned at his partner. “We f’sha come here’a get screwed, mon.”
Chrome Teeth kept his predator smile aimed at me. “Looky-like you come f’dat too.”
One hour earlier. . .
Café du Monde, French Quarter, New Orleans.
Brutally humid as usual today, the air thick and wet as a washrag. I had a meeting set for noon with the camera crew, iced coffee and beignets as much on my mind as the job itself. Her face was fresh in my head, studied and memorized from her online profile: Cajun good looks, brilliant camera-friendly smile, dark hair around a healthy tan, chin-dimple, green eyes. Genevieve Bordelon, freelance reporter, looking to do a story on my line of work: bounty hunting. I scanned the open café, noting the thermal contrast was higher in here. Shade and overhead fans.
She was already at a table, studying the printing on a paper cup of steaming coffee. Probably the standard warning not to spill it in your lap. Good advice; my optics showed a temperature above one-seventy. She wore a fairly retro photographer’s vest from the last century, loaded with pouches, pockets, and paraphernalia. Black t-shirt from Hurricane’s Bar and Grill, short sleeves cut into knotted fringes, pseudo-Amerind style in fashion this week. I didn’t register any armament, aside from a Gerber multi-tool on the belt and a small hunting knife. Quick scan around: she’s not alone. The black woman with the recently-trimmed high-and-tight hair and military-issue cyberarm two tables over was keeping an eye on her—and me. Miss Bordelon brought a friend, a veteran friend from the look of her, armed with a small-bore pistol under her shirt. Smart lady.
I was kind of looking forward to this. Give an interview on skip-tracing and bounty hunting, then take her and her crew on a ride-along on an easy pick-up job, a pimp who’d skipped bail and gone back to business in the no-cops zone near the riverfront. My partner was already setting up the bodyguard to be tardy for work today, leaving the mark open for a snatch-and-grab.
The target, Daniel Cao, was a low-end pimp running a brothel on Tchoupitoulas Street. He’d gotten arrested a few weeks ago, foolishly heading to Saint Charles and straight into a Homeland Security stop-and-frisk. He ran a brothel out of an old warehouse, mostly eroto-synth automatons, programmable sex dolls, giving customers the option to choose a body type and a personality type and put them together, accessorized to taste. Cao also ran live hookers for the retro-minded customers, legal and licensed. That was not the problem. Supposedly he also pimped out underage kids from the Far East, little girls from Hong Kong, Saigon, Manila. Cao had a lot of the local cops on the pad, and he definitely ran his business in the unofficial police-free zone. But he’d gotten stupid, wandered into HomeSec-enforcement turf, and gotten pinched.
Bordelon would get it all on camera, I’d get my standard pay, minus a cut for my partner, with a token payout from the Fresh Eyes News website if they ran the story. Plus, she looked pretty sexy. I always liked Southern girls.
She looked up as I stepped to her table, flashed the same smile I recalled from her profile. “You must be Mister Rooker. Have a seat, I’ve got the tab.”
“Call me Chris.” She took the offered hand; I took the chair.
“Genevieve Bordelon. Call me Vivvie.” She worked hard to hide the bayou accent. It mostly worked. “My producer Randi set up this meeting. Thanks for coming out. How would you like to start?”
“With coffee. Iced, and a beignet.” I signaled a waitress, holding up one finger, then four, numbers on the holo-menu over the kitchen entrance. Curly hair bounced when she smile-nodded back, flash of electric yellow at one ear. “Then I answer pretty much any questions you got. Hopefully you’ll answer some of mine, too.”
“Every interview’s a two-way exchange,” she smiled. “So tell me how you got started. Tell me your story.”
“Sure. You recording already?”
“Of course.” She tilted her head to the left, falling hair showing an ear-mounted minicam, earbud, and throatmike wired together. Her eyes cut to the right. “My partner—Mia—has a cam running as well. 3-D hologram, real-time linked to both our laptops offsite through a repeater in the car.” I checked: yep, her partner had a high-end newscam on the chair next to her, pointed past the table between us.
The waitress brought my order and called me Sugar. Creole beauty and lazy sweet-tea drawl, with a yellow neon tattoo below her navel: Fleur-de-lis, Latin script scrollwork around it: local college girl. Neural-input jack below her left ear, also highlighted in glowing yellow. Hacker? Not shy about it, either, flaunting hardware like that. There are guys in Elysian Fields who’d dig it out with a switchblade for the lousy couple grand it’d bring at a pawn shop. I filed her under Interesting Persons as she sashayed back to the kitchen.
“So okay,” I opened, facing back to Vivvie, taking a sip of icy café au lait. “I got my start in the U. S. Army. Ranger school after a year in the basic infantry. Grunt work, house-to-house stuff in Bandar-Abbas mostly, sometimes port security. Learned gutter Persian pretty fast, some Arabic—Army said I had a knack for languages. Then I got approved for Rangers. I thought I was Billy Badass until I went through spec-ops training. Made it through, of course, but that was a tough year, eighty percent drop rate. Earned my jump wings, diver quals, demolitions, sniper training, Apache knife work, languages. . .” Another sip. “Lots of hypno-training, neural induction, like that. Brutal headaches most of the time. Plus the workouts. Physical training every day, and at night, couple days a week, the electrostimulation. Not the fun kind you’re probably thinking of. The kind where you get acupuncture needles in the major and minor muscles, different groups in sequence, microjolts of electricity to keep ‘em twitching all night. Builds up dense muscle mass without over-bulking.” I picked up the beignet, held my breath, took a careful bite. Powdered sugar stayed put. “That’s the stuff,” muffled by sugary dough, “I can say without violating clearances.”
“Can you say how you know my producer?”
“I can say some, sure. Down south, covert ops in. . .a country with a Spanish name and some excellent beaches. That’s where I got my one Purple Heart and a modest upgrade. She was an intelligence officer, Navy, a lieutenant commander if I recall correctly. I was a sergeant. My guys were running a parallel operation with a SEAL team, which is why the Navy was involved. Can’t say anything about the mission, of course. But after, when I was in the medical ward, she stopped by to check on me. No idea what she looked like, but I loved that whiskey-and-cigarettes voice. We talked business mostly, but she did bring me a couple of really cold beers. She also ran interference when the doctors and my colonel tried to pressure me into taking the long-term contract for the medical procedure. I went with the middle option, four more years and an electronic upgrade.”
“You’ve kinda lost me there, hun,” she said, letting a little drawl into her voice. “Contract? Upgrade?”
“Right. I lost my eyesight in that mission. The bad guys had lasers, fast-flicker beams, blue-green frequency, same as ours, so the firefight was chaotic as hell. I took a headshot, right in the face. Overloaded the visor, crisped one eyeball and burned out the retina in the other. My guys got me out. Anyway, the Army says, you got three options. One, discharge as a blind man, full medical bennies but that’s it. Complimentary white cane with a red tip, that’s on us, thanks for your service and so long, sergeant. Two, implanted cyberoptics, infrared, flash-polarization, good quality gear. Military issue, like your friend’s arm over there. But the price for that is another four-year hitch. Three, they clone me actual new eyes. Twenty-ten vision to boot, all natural, real meat, the finest clone-vat technology, proprietary Euro-tech. Price for that, ten years, and they pushed it hard. That’s where your boss stepped in. She couldn’t pull any rank on my colonel, naturally, but hearing her get all up in the doctors’ faces was priceless. Not sure why she helped me, but she definitely did. She made damn sure I signed the contract I wanted, being still blind and all. The Army is. . .”—I did my best Gollum impression—”tricksy.” Another sip of icy coffee. “Anyway, she was gone before the implant work got done, so I never got to actually see her. But we keep in touch now and then through email. No holos or webcam, though. I like her being a mystery woman of sorts.”
“So is that why you wear those very nice shades?” she asked, eyebrows raised. “To hide the cyber-eyes?”
“Ah, you know Costa del Mars when you see them.” I reached up, touching the frame. “Yes. Definitely. No need to let people know you’ve got military implants. At least,” I gestured with my free hand, “ones that can be easily hidden, unlike your friend’s arm. She seems to like showing it off, though.” I smirked, left corner of my mouth scrunching up. “Want to see them?”
The Jamaicans split, left-right to flank me. Chrome Teeth balled his fists and went talons-out: six ceramic-grey blades, about three inches each, right between the knuckles. Cyberarm came out with a hatchet I hadn’t seen, small of the back carry. I read the unspoken lingo: they wouldn’t go to guns unless I did. This was a street-beat, just a bit of fun and practice for them.
“I’d love to,” she said. “And hear whatever you want to tell me about them.” Vivvie kept her head steady, trusting Mia to get a good zoom-shot from the side.
I set the shades on the tabletop, green lenses in tortoiseshell frames catching a brief distorted reflection of twin ceiling fans. Where eyes should be, matte-black lenses filled my sockets, primer-dull and gently curved. My right cheek twitched upward. “The thing I miss most is being able to give a proper wink. Especially now.” I settled the sunglasses back into place, leaned back in my chair again.
“What about crying?”
“Can’t anymore. Although I still have reason on occasion.” I looked down at my powdery beignet. “You see some scary things on the street.”
“Your line of work, I can imagine so,” she hazarded, leaning farther forward. “Can you give me an example?”
“Some other time. Sad tale of an unlucky husband, wife, and daughter and Jamaican Voodoo Posses. But not today.”
“Are we—” She shivered a little, involuntarily. “Are we going to be dealing with them today?”
“Nope. We’ve got a pass. Cao does business with them on occasion, mostly girls and dope. But he’s not under their protection or anything. Plus, he got arrested. Jamaicans won’t miss him. They’ll just do business with his replacement, probably the bodyguard my partner’s handling today. Life on the streets, Miss Bordelon.”
“I do know a little about it, even though I grew up down in the bayou.” She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, let it fall free again. The black t-shirt, damp with sweat even in the shade of the Café, stretched tighter as the khaki vest fell open. Infrared revealed more than she thought it did, and sudden exposure to the breeze from the overhead fan made things even more. . .outstanding. Subtle facial cues told me she’d planned the gesture and knew its effect. I looked away after a moment, activated the implanted timepiece on my left wrist, dim red LEDs showing military time, twelve-thirty hours. Almost time to go.
“Okay, Miss Vivvie. Let’s go get our bad guy.” I stuffed the last of the beignet away, washed it down with the coffee, crunched a couple of ice cubes. “I’ll be happy to answer more questions after we’re done, but today we’re on a timer.”
They rode in my vehicle, an old hybrid Hummer with the off-road package: flat black, bumper winch, knobby tires, toolboxes and plastic lockers filling the cargo space in back. The seats were solid plastic, almost no padding at all. Five-point Recaro racing harnesses instead of the standard seatbelts. It moved quietly for such a huge monstrosity. We were well into the lawless zone on the riverfront.
“So,” Vivvie asked from the passenger seat, while Mia recorded from the middle bench, “How exactly are you planning to arrest this person?”
“Pretty easily, is the plan.” I grinned in the mirror at Mia’s camera. “My partner already texted me. The bodyguard is out of action. A little dose of mil-spec synthetic dysentery, enough to keep him tied to a toilet for about three hours. Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. When we get there, the place won’t be open for business just yet, so we’ll hang out and talk to the door-girls until Cao shows up. Then I pop him in the leg with the fletcher here.” I patted the holstered gauss pistol. “Different cocktail, same idea. I don’t want him crapping up my ride. Standard load on this model is ninety rounds of tungsten flechettes, fin-stabilized after two meters. Top two rounds today are different: fast-dissolving ceramic darts dosed with dimethyl sulfoxide and a mix of curare for the base and psilocybin as a chaser. In clinical terms, he’ll be muscle-weak and tripping rainbows inside of a second or two. Then I strap him in the front seat and take him to my bail bondsman, who will then take him to Precinct. I know he doesn’t carry a firearm, but he does keep some monowire in his pocket, and that stuff is dangerous: single-strand molecule with a weighted ball on the end, cut through just about anything. Takes some training to use without lopping off your own arm, so I will wisely assume he knows how to use it. But all I gotta do is put a needle in him from a safe range, and I have two shots at it. So don’t expect any spectacular jujitsu demonstrations today.”
“Unfortunate,” she grinned. “Where are Mia and I in all this?”
“You’re outside with me at the door. Just a couple looking for a bit of kink. We chat up the door-girl until he drives up. Mia stays in here. I’ll park close so she can get a good angle.”
“Let Mia pick the spot, if that’s okay. I’ll have the headcam running for the up-close shots.”
Behind me, I saw Mia get out of the Hummer and set her digicam on the roof, making fast adjustments to its controls, then bolting to Vivvie’s side near the dock. I sidestepped toward the left-hand Jamaican, Cyberarm, trying to get them in a line to neutralize Chrome Teeth until I could take down the first. He switched stance, fast footwork followed by a machine-fast swing of the ceramic hatchet. I ducked under—barely—and rolled toward. . .
We parked near the loading dock at the front of the building, crumbling old warehouse turned brothel. The dock had been painted a glossy maroon, harlequin-patterned plastic mats brightening the concrete ramp. I could see the two door-girls were already activated, waving slowly with too-perfect vacant smiles. The hologram above the entrance flickered briefly, static and distortion obscuring the Vinyl Velvet marquee. It resumed its scroll after a moment, a series of beautiful faces tagged with names like Flower and Candi. The finest in personalized pleasure from manufacturers in Tokyo, Taiwan, and Zurich, interchangeable personalities programmed from genuine sorority girls, Thai hookers, and five-star Manhattan courtesans. I knew the live hookers wouldn’t be here until evening, so there was no chance of random interference. The little girls had been extracted by a volunteer team from Amnesty while Cao was in holding, and he hadn’t gotten a new shipment yet. I explained this to Vivvie as we walked up to the shaded entryway.
“So we’re only here for Mister Cao, right?” Vivvie seemed to be lowering her voice so the automatons wouldn’t hear. “Nobody to rescue in a dashing and heroic fashion?”
“Not today. We grab Cao, we go. The door girls run on autopilot all day. The bodyguard gets here three hours late, sees the deal, and it’s back to business as usual. Hopefully with a lesson learned on turning out tweenagers from Manila.”
The door girls turned their attention to us when we entered their five-meter engagement zone, smiling more widely and waving.
“Welcome,” Vivvie chuckled, “to the Hall of Prostitutes.”
They began their programmed spiel, trying to entice us into their parlor, switching vocal patterns and accent every half minute or so. The tall Nubian was speaking in a Texas twang, its Oriental partner in a sultry Slavic, when Cao’s car rolled up.
The red Lotus came to a stop near the base of the dock, right where I’d hoped it would in the spot labeled “CAO.” Mia would have a great angle from inside the Hummer. I turned to smile in its direction, using my arm around Vivvie to turn her as well, hiding the flechette pistol behind her hip. Then the Lotus’ doors swung upward—both of them. Another bodyguard? Cao stepped out of the passenger seat; the driver, a slim Hispanic beauty in a short green kimono, climbed out next. I waved and called out to them, registering the driver as low on thermal signature—a synthetic? Maybe just the air conditioning in the Lotus. Worth risking a drug-shot.
“Afternoon, y’all. You the owner? My girlfriend and me want some—” Crack! The thigh of Cao’s white trousers puckered, tiny red speck where the flechette went in. Crack! A tiny impact on the driver’s calf, no blood spot there. Definitely a synth, hopefully just another pleasure doll.
Cao was as fast as I’d expected, the monowire handle popping into his hand instantly. He flicked it out into the beginning of a figure-eight defensive weave and. . .dropped, doped up already as expected. A meter of monomolecular wire fell across the Lotus’ fender, slicing through headlight, metal, tire, and wheel. Sparks as electricals parted, balloon-pop of air from the bisected tire. The woman moved quickly, rushing me, launching a well-trained meai lua de costa double spin kick—Capoeira move, so this one was definitely programmed for combat. I ducked under the first kick, trapped the follow-up in the crook of my gun arm, gave her a reflexive Muay Thai knee strike straight to the groin. It connected hard, lifting her off the pavement. She didn’t even flinch. Or blink. Dumb move, Chris.
The headbutt hurt, and it was machine-fast. Thumbs shoved hard into my windpipe. I swept my gun arm up and over, clearing the chokehold; the synth’s elbow whipped back as I shot under and behind, securing a fast one-armed lock around its neck. How the hell do I choke out a robot? The machine, on the other hand, had no doubts programmed into it: two elbow strikes to my ribs, a foot stomp I barely avoided.
Flash of funny old memory from Cozumel: lithium battery unit implanted in the doll’s butt. Thermal check: Definitely a hot ass in more ways than one. The increased power load of combat showed me it was already heating up fast, so just a reprogrammed sex worker, not a true combat model. Good. Coilgun hand twisted into the space between my belly and the small of its back. Crack-crack-crack-crack-flash! Tungsten flechettes punched into the firm latex flesh, mauling the battery packs, ozone and sparks right against my groin. The doll went completely limp, hitting the pavement knees-first, then face down on the concrete when I released the neck hold.
That’s when the damn Jamaicans rounded the corner. I turned toward. . .
. . .the Lotus, rolling under the hatchet’s backswing follow-up, scooping up Cao’s monowire handle, the wire already auto-retracted into the grip. Years since I used one of these, but the training was hypno-burned into my lobes. I thumbed the release catch and whipped it backwards just as Cyberarm was cocking the hatchet for a third slash. The composite arm came apart at bead-wrapped wrist and myomer bicep. He was street-hard, I’ll give him that. Didn’t even flinch, but he stared at the stump in surprise for a moment. This time the Muay Thai kick worked, my shin strike aimed at the back of his head, his groin being in the way of that arc. Cyberstump turned gray, vomited a bit, and folded. I swept optics to the right, looking for Chrome Teeth, grabbing the dropped hatchet as I turned.
Mia was down, blood spitting from her thigh, Vivvie already putting pressure on the femoral. Chrome Teeth was reeling back, wrecked face in both hands. Mia must’ve gotten a punch in with her own metal arm.
I cocked the hatchet for a swing, then remembered the Jamaican Rule: kill one Posse soldier, and they will rain down retribution on you, your family, your friends. I’d have to tell Vivvie that story later. I flipped the hatchet blade-backward. The blunt end of two pounds of razored steel took him right behind the ear.
We left the Synthia and Jamaicans on the loading dock, Mia at the emergency clinic. Vivvie’s first aid, learned the hard way down in the bayous, had stopped the bleed just in time. Cao, grinning and mumbling, sat strapped into the passenger seat.
“Well,” I grimaced, examining the lump on my jaw in the rearview, “you got your spectacular jujitsu after all.”
“Most definitely. Mia’s cam got it all. We’ll edit the piece this afternoon. Thanks for a great story, Chris. I think you owe me the rest of the interview, though.”
“I’d love to.” He put the Hummer in gear. “Over dinner?”
“My place. I’ll cook.”
The author and his wife live at anchor aboard a 33-foot sailboat. Solar panels and wind provide their energy. Isolation and eccentric interaction both feed creativity out there on the water.