Friday, March 23, 2012
Edward Baggins slid three fingers underneath his belt and studied the detainee's face. The man sat in the interrogation room. A soundproof observation mirror, half the wall wide, separated the detainee from the detective in the utility room.
A man's face could tell Baggins a lot. A heavy forehead in combination with pronounced brow bones and a square chin betrayed violent tendencies and high aggression levels. A small mouth, thin lips and narrow, close-set eyes revealed stealthiness of character: this was the type prone to sexual abuse. But the man in front of the detective didn't seem to fit the typical mold.
Women had to find his oval face attractive with its high square cheekbones, a straight nose, light-green eyes and dark hair. The man was a couple of inches shorter then Baggins who used to pump iron when he was younger and therefore looked slightly bigger with wider shoulders.
Frank Shelby sat at the desk in the interrogation room staring straight in front. He wore a slightly crinkled navy raincoat over a red-stained shirt: Baggins could easily tell that the stains weren't blood. The man was facing a camera mounted on a tripod. The chair next to it stood empty.
It had been a while since Edward Baggins had rested his fat butt on the chair's polished seat. It had been ages since he'd last heard the familiar claims, I didn't kill! and I want to call my lawyer! that greeted him whenever he entered the interrogation room. They were usually accompanied by tears and bail pleas, by detainees' assurances that they didn't remember anything, that the whole thing was nothing but a ginormous mistake. Then they all begged him not to call for a Memoria technician, hoping he'd give the memory scan a miss.
That had been a long time ago. No murders had been committed in New York for a long time. The corporation's methods had proven efficient enough, and the number of capital offences had gradually dwindled to nothing. Still, the city's police force remained the biggest in the country. It had to be: the Bronx camp still housed almost three hundred thousand migrants. And migrants, they don't feel obliged to visit Memoria. They keep their thoughts to themselves.
The door of the utility room opened, letting in the gray mane of Bud Jessup, the chief of the police department. Without saying a word, he handed the detective a file and glanced through the mirrored glass.
"Has the victim's identity been established?" Baggins asked as he leafed through the paperwork.
"They're busy with it now."
"Why didn't she wear the bracelet? How on earth did she manage to take it off?"
"As if I don't want to know!" The chief of police leaned over the control panel next to the glass wall and studied the detainee. "I'm afraid, you've got your job cut out for you, Ed. It's not an easy case. Not an easy suspect."
Baggins looked up from the file.
"And don't look at me like that," Jessup stood up. "I know better than you do that there's no bloody murder without a bloody motive. And you're gonna find it for me." He smoothed out his thick gray hair and rested his hand on the detective's shoulder. "Now go and talk to him. You're good at that. Strike a chord and try to wheedle out whatever it is he has...
"Bud," at work, Baggins avoided being too familiar with his boss, but the moment called for some intimacy. "What're you driving at? If this Shelby is innocent, he has nothing to worry about. He'll be out in no time, no charges filed. It could be manslaughter for all we know. He could have taken their bedroom games one step too far and didn't notice that he'd-"
"Very well," the chief of police shrugged, dismissing his ideas. "Just go through the file and have a heart-to-heart with him before his brief arrives."
Baggins nodded and returned to the file. He knew what his old friend had meant to say. There had been no murders in New York for over five years now. Surely Jessup had already had the town hall on the line demanding to get to the bottom of it ASAP. He wouldn't be surprised if Memoria's expert and mnemotechnic team made it to the station before the man's lawyer did. The Mayor had his head firmly implanted up the corporation bosses' asses. Nothing new there. The suspect was a state government lawyer so they should expect DC calling in no time.
Baggins turned the page, thinking. His boss had passed his anxiety onto him. Scanning pages of small print, he marked out that Shelby had done some serious boxing in the past although an injury to his forearm had prevented him from pursuing a professional career. Baggins made a mental note. He'd also had a record of police assistance: when the suspect had been twenty years old, he'd defended a fellow trainee student against some hoods. The fellow student had apparently been an acting assistant city attorney. Later in court, Shelby testified against them.
Baggins snapped the file shut and left the utility room, leaving Bud Jessup alone with the recording system.
When he entered the interrogation room, Shelby still sat staring at the desk, his left hand feeling his empty right wrist: the electronic bracelet had been removed as part of the arrest procedure. Baggins flipped the camera on, checked his holster and said,
"Feel strange, eh?"
"What does?" the suspect raised his eyes at him.
"The bracelet. Feels funny when it's not there, doesn't it? As if a body part's missing."
Shelby didn't answer. He sat there staring blankly at the desk.
"Never mind," the detective sat at the desk opposite and placed the file in front of him. "It won't last. Once we're finished, you'll go back to jail. There, they'll give you the bracelet back, after they've changed the encoding."
He clenched his hands and got serious.
"My name is Edward Baggins and I'm investigating the murder case which currently lists you as the primary suspect. I'm informing you that under the ninety-third amendment, your name is now on the special category list, the electronic bracelet is temporarily confiscated, and you're deprived of your right to erase your memories. If you refuse to cooperate, we will have to contact Memoria for their expert and mnemotechnic team. In this case, you'll have to undergo a memory scan."
The detective paused, watching Shelby. "Want to make a statement?"
Frank raised his head. For a few moments he studied the detective and asked in a calm voice,
"Where's my lawyer?"
"He's on his way."
Baggins couldn't help admiring the man's composure. Looked like Jessup had his work cut out for him with this one. He undid his sleeve buttons and started rolling them up, exposing thick hairy forearms. "I could turn the camera off, you know. Want to say something off record?"
Shelby placed his elbows on the desk and rubbed his handcuffed wrists. He glanced at the mirror partition behind Baggins's back and returned the man's stare.
"You have a good face, detective. And I appreciate your trying to speak with me off the record. But," he shook his head, "I won't speak to you without my lawyer."
"I promise," Baggins turned around, nodded to the unseen observer behind the mirror and turned back to Shelby. "I'll have the equipment turned off. I don't want to waste our time. So?" he opened the file and got busy sorting the papers.
Shelby remained silent.
"Frank. You help me, and I'll help you."
Baggins never pressurized his suspects. No need to. Once they realized the Memoria expert was waiting, they would tell him all he needed and then some.
After about a minute, Shelby spoke. He rambled on, reasoning with himself, and immediately the detective managed to single out a few interesting facts. The suspect knew the victim by the name of Kathleen and used to see her occasionally at his place. She always called him herself or contacted him by email. Alternatively, she arrived at his apartment first, preferring to wait for him there. Shelby had gone so far as to entrust her with the door key - something the detective would never have done. To allow a stranger access to your home... oh well. It was one thing sleeping with a woman, or living with one, but these two didn't seem to know themselves what kind of relationship they were having.
Still, at this point he didn't want to interrupt the suspect. Let him pour his heart out.
"I meant to ask her to tell me more about herself tonight. I was going to propose." Shelby tried to raise his hands, but the gesture failed, restricted by his handcuffs. He laced his fingers and lowered his wrists onto the desk. "But tell me, detective-"
"You can call me Edward if you wish."
"All right. Edward. Can you give me one reason why I should kill her?"
That's what Baggins himself wanted to know.
"Frank," he produced a pen and a clean sheet of paper. "Can anyone confirm seeing you together? How often? Where and when?"
"Our doorman can, I suppose... Also, a friend of mine has a bar in Brooklyn. His name is Mike. Kathleen and I used to go there for a meal or a beer, or to watch a game…" Shelby paused, thoughtful.
Baggins waited patiently over his notes.
"There's also the girl from the minimarket next door. She used to like Kathleen a lot. She once told me we were a handsome couple. I think," Frank rubbed the bridge of his nose, "I think she might remember how many times she saw us together."
"Excellent. We'll have to pose them a few questions. Now I want you to concentrate and tell me. Did your girlfriend seem concerned about anything lately? Received threats, maybe?"
"No, she didn't," Frank shook his head. "She… She used to be outgoing and cheerful. One thing I did notice before leaving for DC, she seemed sort of preoccupied."
"Did you meet before you left?"
"No. No, we spoke on the phone. She seemed reserved and kept losing track of our conversation."
Baggins was about to ask his next question, but Shelby added,
"Then there was the cabman. On my way home from the airport, I spoke to Kathleen on the phone. Nothing special, really, only that her voice sounded strange. Preoccupied, you could say so. And hoarse. She told me she'd had a cold, but was feeling better already…"
Frank stopped and rubbed the bridge of his nose again. "I spoke to the cabman, too. I told him how it had gone in DC, said the place was rebuilt anew…"
"Did you take his plate number?"
"No, but… The cabman is a Hopper veteran guy, huge, wide face, thick mustache. I'm sure you can find him through the airport transportation department.
"I will," Baggins marked it down.
He could already see the way Shelby was heading. The man was recreating the events on his way home from the airport. Clever move: the more eyewitnesses he had, the more chances he had to be acquitted in court. Jessup seemed to be convinced of Shelby's innocence, but still there was some investigating to be done.
"When I arrived home, the lobby was wall-to-wall media," Frank hurried to add. "I elbowed my way to the reception, collected the mail and went upstairs. Ah! One other thing! Kathleen said to me on the phone that Mrs. Fletcher, my neighbor, had dropped by to see me."
This was something Baggins already knew from the crime scene unit report.
"She came back," Shelby went on, "when I'd just discovered Kathleen's body. It couldn't have been more than fifteen minutes since I'd spoken to Kathleen on the phone. It means that the murderer was in the apartment at that exact time. He strangled Kathleen with the tie which she'd given me recently. Now why would he do that?" Frank put his hands together and shook them. "Don't you think it's too elaborate? He could have hit her on the head with something. Or stabbed her, or broken her neck-"
He could have, Baggins agreed. He couldn't tell Frank, but that was exactly what had happened. She was first knocked senseless, then strangled.
"It's as if the murderer was trying to leave a message. Another thing," Frank raised a warning finger, "Why did the murderer take the trouble of looking for this particular tie? It was shoved away in the back drawer. He could have taken one of those that hung on the wardrobe door. You think it could be jealousy? One thing I don't understand is how he got into my apartment in the first place. Could it be he was on our tail all that time?"
"That's possible," Baggins said, thinking. "The girl could have known him, too. She could have answered the door herself."
"There, you see! So you believe me now, then? What's the point of me killing her? And how do you think I was going to get rid of the body?"
Baggins nodded. Alternatively, the murderer could have made it look like jealousy. Could Shelby be trying to throw them off the scent?
"Have you ever seen her without her bracelet?"
"Why? Ah, no, of course not. No one can remove it, apart from Memoria people or one of you guys. And even then you can't remove it without the explicit consent from the chief of police."
"No," Shelby shook his head, "I never saw her without it."
"Good," the detective shuffled through the papers and produced a yellow post office receipt. "Have you any idea what kind of item this is? Sent to you by general delivery this morning. You see," he pointed with a pen, "This is her name and the date. Kathleen Baker. Any chance this is your late girlfriend?"
Now Shelby didn't know how to react. He stared at the receipt in Edward's hand, moving his lips. Finally, he leaned back and said,
"No idea who that might be. I didn't check the mail the doorman had given me. So I didn't know about this receipt. I went straight upstairs." He sighed.
"Never mind, Frank. We'll find out."
"Listen, Edward," the suspect perked up. "There was another odd thing about this. When I walked in, I didn't see Kathleen's purse anywhere. She always used to have this fancy little purse, black with those square buckles. She loves black… loved. She always used to leave it on the mirror shelf when she came. But the last time, the purse wasn't there."
Baggins paused, then asked,
"Is that it?"
Baggins remembered the crime scene unit report. They did point out that the only things that belonged to the victim were her dress, shoes and a coat with its pockets empty. No keys, no IDs, no makeup whatsoever, not even a paper tissue. And the victim didn't look like one of those migrant girls or a penniless odd-job woman. But even those women have some items of personal hygiene on them, so their absence didn't look right. It just wasn't normal.
The door opened a crack, and Bud Jessup looked in.
"One moment," Baggins rose and went to the door.
Jessup whispered a few words, gave Edward a meaningful look and retreated, closing the door behind him.
Slowly, Baggins turned around. Frank looked at him, as if expecting them to tell him that Kathleen had somehow survived. Kathleen - right, that was her name. Kathleen Baker.
Baggins returned to the desk, leaned across it grabbing at its edges and said,
"I'm afraid you're deep in shit, Frank. This girlfriend of yours, do you have any idea who she used to work for?"
The lights overhead went out. The station building shook and the blast shattered Baggins's eardrums. Something hit him hard on the face cutting his eyebrow open. He let out a cry and fell over the desk. When the emergency lighting flickered on, he saw that the lighting fixture had come off the ceiling and landed on his head, cutting his face with broken glass.
Blood flooded his eyes and streamed down his cheek. Baggins squinted, trying to stem the wound, his other hand feeling for the gun.
Shaking his head, a stunned Shelby crawled out from under the desk. He stared at Baggins round-eyed, shouting,
The detective reached into his pocket for the keys and stepped towards Frank. Then, bullets started crackling through the door, covering it with a complex pattern. The camera on its tripod cracked and exploded. The mirror partition broke into a thousand pieces. A bullet stung Baggins's shoulder. He staggered. Another one hit him, and he grabbed at his chest swaying. His legs gave. Trying to latch onto a chair, Baggins collapsed on his side, using the desk between him and the door as a cover.
For a few seconds, the whole building fell silent. Moving to the door, Baggins finally managed to get the gun out. He croaked in a whisper,
"Get under cover."
Shelby jumped up, glanced at the desk, grabbed the paperwork and clattered across the broken mirror to the utility room.
Baggins turned to the exit and raised his gun, trying to keep it steady in both outstretched hands. The interrogation room door swung open. A masked black figure appeared in the doorway, machine gun at the ready.
The bullets sent Baggins to the floor. He didn't get one round off. The man started moving along the wall toward the utility room. Another masked man joined him, then two more. Four faceless figures moved slowly, their pointing guns scanning the room. Two more trained their guns on the detective. He was bleeding heavily. His chest burned and his mind started to collapse.
Another vague figure appeared in the doorway. This one had a smudge of white where others had masks. Edward squinted, trying to focus. A tall blond man looked down at him, his eyes cold. He walked into the room, pointed his silencer at Baggins's face and said indifferently,
Baggins wanted to tell him to go stuff it but all his throat could manage was an unintelligible wheeze. Droplets of bloody saliva landed on the stranger's trouser leg and his combat boot.
The gun in his hand jerked, spitting fire. The breech resounded, ejecting an empty shell. Baggins didn't hear it. He was dead.
Saturday, March 17, 2012
Last time I promised to tell you about some of the Dark Times world machinery and vehicles. So I'll do so in the form of some extracts from the novels themselves, and I'm adding some illustrations to each fragment.
The Punch Truck (extracted from The Wastelands Clans)
The truck was great. A reinforced armored cabin with the windscreen shuttered from above and below with steel plates, the distance between their edges about a foot and a half - just enough so that the driver could see the road. The bodywork was reinforced with steel vaulting the kind they'd used in bygone days in metro tunnels. Of course, Turan had never been in the metro, but Nazar had told him all about it. The mechanic used to buy these vaults from traders whose caravans sometimes passed through the fiefdom of Boris Jai-Khan. And farmers didn't care about their provenance anyway. Quite a few hotheads were out scouring the towns' ruins and ancient catacombs for loot.
|art by A. Shitikov|
The round hole in the roof was covered with a gun turret which was capped with thick sheet steel and equipped with a gun slit. Lower, between the seats, they'd welded a shelf; if you stepped on it, your head would be just opposite the slit. Next to it, was yet another shelf equipped with steel braces to which a double-barreled carbine of heavy caliber was strapped.
Turan walked alongside the Punch. Great wagon, nothing to say. Gigantic black wheels, solid footplates. The foglights were covered with steel hoops, and the hefty exhaust pipe was sticking up behind the gun turret.
The Sander (extracted from The Barbarians of the Crimea)
I sat at the wheel and set my hands upon it. Suddenly I got the sensation of… dare I say satisfaction? For the first time since I'd woken up in the boat I felt calm and at peace with myself. And for the first time since my escape from the Inkerman Gorge, all thought of Lada Prior had left me. I squeezed the wheel tighter and turned it slightly.
|art by A. Shitikov|
In the depths of the hangar, hung between two poles on chains, was a vehicle without its hood. The unscrewed wheels lay below. The sander, I remembered: a vehicle for crossing the silt flats of the Bottomland Desert and the sands of the central Wastelands. It was squat with an open cab fashioned out of steel tubing. On the front tubes, almost above the driver's head, were three round headlights, and behind them, a machine gun was mounted.
The armored bus (extracted from Password Eternity)
A vehicle appeared on the street. It really differed from the sanders which I'd seen at the catchers' and monks' places: if those reminded me of buggies, this one made me think of a square minibus. It was completely covered in riveted steel plates, with a flat roof and a protruding rectangular hood. The windows were armored, and instead of the windscreen was a slit between two horizontal shutters.
|art by A. Shitikov|
Chuck lifted himself in his seat, studying it, and said,
"They are Medvedkovo men, may necrosis eat their livers.
All along the perimeter of the roof, steel rods had been welded, to which the main cage was attached. Behind its bars, people were sheltering. It was bristling with rifles and sawn-off shotguns. In the wheel arches hung oval steel sheets which half-covered the wheels, small for such a behemoth. A kind of DIY armored car. It wasn't apparently meant for any serious off-road experiences, more for conducting assault operations in built-up areas. Or rather, in taken-down areas. The exhaust pipe spewed smoke, the engine roared, its noise resounding far in an empty Moscow.
Military Tricycle (extracted from Password Eternity)
|art by A. Shitikov|
From the hole in the concrete fence I glanced back. I rearranged the straps of my backpack and checked if the carbide lamp was held tight on the belt. Selga Ines, Amasin, Rost and two of the fighters stood at the foot of the hill watching me. A campfire burned by the HQ tent. Between the vehicles scampered the boys from the fuel clans. One of the vehicles stood out because of its unusual appearance: like a motorbike but far bigger and with two steel barrels welded horizontally onto the sides that looked like jet turbines. Under these barrels were small wheels, like those of a regular sidecar.
Translated by Neil P. Woodhead
Friday, March 9, 2012
Today, I repost a short interview published in December 2010 in the Vancouver Express. In it, journalist Irina Trufan and myself talk about writing in general, the Technotma books, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. project and other things.
"The only things worth doing in life are those that either challenge or excite you - or pay. Two out of those three are already good enough. And when you chance on something that ticks all three boxes - then you are in luck, man."
What's this, a page from a self-help book? Advice from a guru shrink? A pop star sharing his success story? Far from it.
Above is the opening of Sand Blues, the fifth novel in the Technotma: The Dark Times series, a larger-than-life post-apocalyptic project. One of its two co-authors, Alex Bobl, who writes the series together with Andrei Levitsky, has long remained an enigma for his readers: both his name and his contribution to the books. Today, Alex Bobl speaks to the Vancouver Express.
VE. Alex, it's a pleasure to hear about the latest developments in Russian SF from an insider. First, let's talk about the Technotma cycle. Why do you call it a cycle, and not a series?
AB. The first eight novels are a cycle. The difference is that novels in a series can have totally unrelated stories so long as they're somehow connected - if all of them are set in the same world, for instance. A cycle suggests a more coherent story that unfolds from one book to the next.
Technotma follows the stories of its four protagonists: soldier of furtune Yegor Razin (he figures in The Password Eternity, Sand Blues and the following books), a farmer-turned-soldier Turan Jai (The Wastelands Clans, The Wastelands Warrior, etc), Albino, an ex Crimean Mountain dweller who had left his home to become a humble courrier (Barbarians of the Crimea and Sand Blues - where, incidentally, he meets Yegor Razin) and finally, young Vic Casper from a Moscow mercenary clan (Jagger and Last Battle).
The readers of the first few novels meet all of the protagonists, so you don't need to worry if, say, after reading The Password Eternity you take a break from Yegor Razin's adventures. Similarly, having finished The Wastelands Clans, you meet Albino first and only then learn about the outcome of the feud between Jai and Chieftain Makota. You have lots of things to look forward to: Turan combatting the bandits' evil leader, Razin confronting Dr. Hubert… All four protagonists are yet to meet again, strike short-lived alliances, while getting into the thick of the world-wide resistance to the mysterious Dominants on their skyborne platforms.
VE. Many writers claim that they lose themselves in their work. Have you ever lost track of time while working on the cycle? What drove you then?
AB. I've never lost myself in work completely. I don't think I ever stop thinking about my wife and our two boys. The big one is seven and he's just started school. The little one is three and it's his first year in kindergarten.
As for what drives me when I work, it has to be coming up with new plot lines and characters, intertwining their lives and trying to divine their future. Novel writing is an immensely interesting task, even though it can be frustrating sometimes.
VE. So novel writing is also hard work and not just pure talent, is it?
AB. Absolutely. Often I have to force myself to write. And you can't even start to imagine the amount of uninspiring stuff you're obliged to read through while you work. You can't write a book on inspiration alone. Also, if you take me, for instance, I've noticed that I write a better and cleaner copy when I have to force myself to write. Not when I feel driven by the muse, if you know what I mean. In the first case, I don't have to work my way through the finished scene, editing, cutting and trimming it, all the while facing critique from my editor or co-author.
Some books are born in agony. You come up with certain images, but have no plotlines to support them. Other times, you have a plot but struggle with images. I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all method of how to come up with a book concept. You do have certain tools that help you in the process, that's all. I could compare a writer to a programmer who first creates a program, then runs the debugging algorithm. I'd say that those authors who take the time to outline their stories first - or, to complete the analogy, who take care of compiling their programs - find it easier to follow their gut instinct as they write.
|cover art by I. Khivrenko |
for THE ZONE WARRIORS
AB. Not in my books, no. I tend to generalize, compiling a character out of several people I know, although occasionally I discover that some friend or other fits a particular character's boots really well. A protagonist in two of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. novels, The Zone Warriors and The Quantum Bullet, is based on a real person, a good friend of mine.
VE. Do bad reviews affect you?
AB. Any critique is good when it has some substance to it. I'm always happy to receive positive reviews while the negative ones, provided they're constructive, help me take stock of potential errors and improve my craft so that the next books turn out better.
VE. Sand Blues, the fifth book of the cycle, is due to come out in November. What next? Which novel should we expect?
AB. Andrei and I keep working on two books. It's The Wastelands Warrior (a sequel to The Wastelands Clans) and Jagger 2 (working title (now Last Battle)). The one already scheduled for print release is The Wastelands Warrior - we should expect it some time this coming December.
|cover art by I. Khivrenko |
for THE QUANTUM BULLET
AB. I do - and no, I don't feel like I'm a hostage. I plan to start a stand-alone book of my own - nothing to do with Technotma - sometime this May. Andrei Levitsky, too, is contemplating his own project at the moment, with the working title of Invasion.
VE. Before Technotma, you used to write for the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series that features two of your novels. Some of the readers consider them the most original and unconventional books in the whole series. Do you plan on continuing to contribute to it?
AB. I do, but I'm rather pressed for time at the moment. But in the springtime I might seriously consider the publishers' request to do some more writing for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
VE. Have you ever considered writing in other genres?
AB. In order to change genres, you need to know what to say. Until now, I keep coming up with science-fiction plotlines - military science fiction, even. If one day I think up a story about a private detective looking into the death of a movie star, I'll write about it, too. I tend to think that writers' ideas define their choices of genre. Besides, the very idea of genre is critics' invention. They use genres to catalogue the books we write.
VE. Your readers here in Canada might want to know where they can buy your books.
AB. I don't think I can tell you that. Having said that, there is always OZON, an online book shop. My books are readily available there.
VE. Do you plan on translating some of the Technotma books into other languages?
AB. Possible. We've just signed an agreement with a European literary agency which is now busy shopping the project around. In the meantime, you're more than welcome at the Technotma official fangroup http://vk.com/zona_mystery
VE. Best of luck to you, Alex, from your Canadian fans and lots of thanks for this little interview. We'll be looking forward to more new books and projects from you!
Irina Trufan, the Vancouver Express
In the next post I will talk about diffrent vehicles in the world of DARK TIMES.
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
in the first post I promised you a few chapters from my new novel, Memoria. Today I post the first one.
When they learn to erase our memories...
When we dismiss violence and deceit as things of the past...
When wars become history we can't remember...
One man will rise against the new order!
Because he remembers who he truly is.
When they learn to erase our memories...
When we dismiss violence and deceit as things of the past...
When wars become history we can't remember...
One man will rise against the new order!
Because he remembers who he truly is.
A Corporation of Lies
The author would like to express his sincere
appreciation to Tais Khulish, Yulian Zagorodny
and Sergei Grushko for their wealth of advice.
Frank didn't like the cab the moment he saw it.
The ancient Ford Victoria had tinted windows, a rusty rear fender, and a massive brush guard mounted on the bumper. Frank had a bad feeling about it. The car raised questions. First, what cab company would keep this rust bucket in their fleet? Second, what kind of taxi driver would so brazenly cold-shoulder his fellow cabbies? He'd pulled out of the cab line that stretched all the way to the airport exit, cutting off the car that had already started for Frank. Brakes screeching, the cab came to a halt by the curb.
The driver rolled down his window and yelled at Frank, his voice drowned out by an airbus landing in La Guardia. The plane's shadow darkened the road and the cars underneath. It crossed the faces of people waiting on the sidewalk, brushed the glass façade of a newly restored building and fleeted away.
"What's there to think about? I'll do it for half the fare!" Frank heard once the whine of the jet's engine subsided.
He stepped toward the car, opened the door and looked inside, wincing at the smell of the leather upholstery. An unpleasant face looked back at him, its cheekbones high and eyes deeply set. Smooth skin was drawn tight over the man's skull, and a thick white scar ran from his right temple to the back of his head. It gave Frank the impression that the bully had slapped on some makeup before pulling in at the terminal exit.
Having said that... Frank had another look. The man's skin, although perfectly natural, looked too smooth to be real. What the hell? Judging by his license propped up against the dashboard, the driver wasn't even forty: not a bad age to start growing a bald patch, but way too early to lose all of one's facial hair.
"Get in," the baldie snapped.
Frank had another look at him and stepped back.
"I said, jump in," repeated the driver.
A spot of light fell on his face, causing the man's pupils to constrict. He looked up at the road in front of him, and Frank gave up his initial impression of the driver being a spaced-out junkie.
Behind Frank's back, unhappy voices tried to hurry the line along. Another cab pulled up by the sidewalk, causing the whole line of cars that snaked around the terminal's perimeter to edge forward.
"Just move it!" the driver croaked through his teeth, as if he had a cold.
He stuck out a sharp chin and turned in his leather seat. The cab behind him tooted and pulled too close, locking his bumper. Its front door swung open, letting out an indignant middle-aged heavyweight with a fat moustache.
The baldie tutted, annoyed, turned his smooth face to Frank and, unexpectedly, lunged across the cab as if he wanted to grab Frank's hand and drag him inside.
"You piece of—" the driver began, but Frank had already slammed the door shut, barely missing the man's fingers.
He looked around him at the people waiting, mumbled something about giving up his turn and headed for the mustached man's vehicle.
"I'll go with you, if it's okay."
In all honesty, he should have done something about the bald driver. He could have taken the cab, had the driver take him to the nearest police station and made a statement. Then it would be up to them to look into the suspicious cabbie. But Frank couldn't have gotten into the other cab even if he’d wanted to, because its inside was all done up in leather. And Frank was allergic to leather, to the point where a mere whiff of it made his eyes water and his nose run.
"Hey, get lost!" Frank heard the bald one's hoarse voice behind his back. He turned around.
"Get away, you!" The bald driver pushed aside a passenger who was trying to load his suitcase into the trunk." He waved to Frank. "It's your turn, ain't it?"
Frank chose to ignore him. The angry passenger picked up his suitcase and mumbled something. The bald driver slammed his fist into the man's shoulder. The crowd ouched and stepped back.
"I think I'm gonna teach him a lesson," the mustached heavyweight said.
"Don't bother," Frank said to him and added out loud, "I'll take care of it. I can always report him if I want to."
He marked down the Ford's plates and the company's logo and phone numbers on the trunk. Then he inspected the other cab's upholstery, got in and gave the driver his West Side address.
Frank was determined to let the bald man's bosses know about this. His poor conduct shouldn't be tolerated. Nor should Frank himself head for Memoria in order to erase the unpleasant incident from his mind. The bully had to get his comeuppance: be punished, demoted, fired — let him take his pick.
Of course, the man could always go to Memoria himself and erase the memories of his dismissal and the airport incident that had caused it. But it wouldn't help him much: his name would be blacklisted by all cab companies' databases, or maybe even the NY police department files. That would be more than enough. The La Guardia pig would never be able to appear in public again; he'd lose his driver's license, and no amount of Memoria wipe would help it. He could erase his memories every day if he wanted to, but every time the bald son of a bitch tried to get a job, the incident would come up until the day the sanction was lifted.
With a smirk, Frank reached for the cell phone in his pocket. After a brief hesitation — whom to call first? — he dialed his home number. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Kathleen had remembered his arrival and was now waiting for him there?
The phone started ringing. Theirs was a strange relationship indeed, Kathleen’s and his, nothing normal about it. Frank shifted the phone to the other hand and leaned back. High time they sat and talked about it. He needed to finally know her full name, her cell phone number, and have some idea of her job and address. Asking about her parents would be a good thing, too. Kathleen was an intelligent and educated girl, all designer clothes and sports cars, but she'd never shown off or spoken about herself. You couldn't expect a successful lawyer like himself, a government advisor, to keep dating a girl he'd met six months ago at some Mayoral event without even knowing her full name.
Frank tried to remember when exactly he'd given her the key to his place... Was it their second date? Third? Come to think of it, it had been her idea to begin with. Pretty irrelevant, but still, they had to talk it all over. Frank didn't look forward to falling victim to a jealous husband or anything like that, but better safe than sorry. In the light of his position, and especially his potential promotion to a post in the economics department, it wouldn't be a good idea to take his relationships lightly. So he needed to weigh up all the pros and cons and approach their future discussion in some seriousness. He had to practice what he was going to say and how he'd say it — his arguments, his body language... Then they'd decide where their relationship could go from there.
Under the gloomy sky, Queens' squatty buildings flashed past the cab window. Shame if it was going to rain: he'd been looking forward to a breath of fresh air. Provided Kathleen picked up. Provided nothing had come up to keep him from seeing her.
The phone kept ringing. What a pain. It looked like he would have to e-mail her instead. He had no other way of contacting her. Normally, she received his e-mails and either came whenever she saw fit, or wrote back setting a date.
Her voice echoed in the receiver.
"Hello? Frank?" She sounded hoarse and nervous, breathing in short fits, and sniffling.
"Oh, hi," he said. "You okay? I thought you'd given up on me."
"I'm fine, thanks," she sighed.
Frank's heart missed a beat. Something had to be wrong. "You sure?"
"Yeah. I got soaked in the rain so I'm not feeling very well, sorry. You'd better tell me how it went in Washington DC."
Her voice was softer now and her breathing, more even.
Frank glanced at the driver. You couldn't tell what he was thinking: no reaction was evident on the back of his head, and the part of the wide face seen in the rear-view mirror didn't betray any emotion, either. He kept his eyes on the road, steering with one hand and stroking his moustache with the other.
"It didn't go well, I'm afraid," Frank said. "Not for us, anyway. The talks have been rescheduled."
"So what's so bad about that?" Kathleen's voice asked, caring and sweet.
She was good at it. You could trust her to find the right words of support when a man could use some. She knew how to strike the right note in a conversation, ignoring her own problems.
"Just my future... My career, and this promotion, too... I've been laying the ground for this deal for a long time... too long, in fact. Now it's back to square one."
"I don't think so! It wasn't your fault that the talks didn't go through, was it?"
"No, it wasn't." Frank could almost see Kathleen's foxy smile and, unconsciously, his lips started to form into a smile, too. "I've no idea how it happened..."
"So you see! Your career is in no danger."
Her words soothed him a little. Frank had even forgotten about the bald cab driver, let alone the failed talks. Kathleen was the best pill ever. Even her voice sounded soft and musical.
"Frank, I miss you. Please come soon."
In his mind, he saw her lying on their king-size bed in her designer lace underwear — the girl wouldn't wear anything less, or at least he'd never witnessed it. Her groomed skin glowed golden against snow-white sheets; the dark lace teased, promising passion and pleasure.
He choked, swallowed and felt his crotch bulge.
"I will. I'm coming now," he croaked.
"Please do," she paused. "Oh, and this old lady next door, she dropped in..."
"Mrs. Fletcher? What did she want?"
"She still can't get the hang of her remote. She needs help to set up the cable channels."
"Did you do it for her?"
"No. I didn't let her in. She didn't seem too eager to see me, anyway. She said, she'd better wait for you to come back."
"Looks like I'll have to pay her a visit."
"Just make sure you pay me a visit first."
He got the hint in her voice. "Sure."
She hung up. Frank lingered for a couple of seconds, then slowly exhaled and turned to the window.
They'd already left the Queens' neighborhood behind. The cab was crossing Queensboro Bridge. To their left, barely half a mile away, rose Manhattan. If traffic permitted, he'd be there in minutes. Along the East River bank, towers stood in ruins; their burned-out, bomb-smashed skeletons crowded the ocean shore, black squares gaping where windows had been.
The only memory of the city war that had ravaged the center of New York. Try and erase this out of the memories of millions.
They hadn't tried to. Yet.
From afar, the concrete-and-glass stumps looked as if they could fold any moment like card houses and then slide down the shore into the ocean at the slightest poke. And once their remnants were done with, you'd be able to see the towers of the New Financial Borough in the process of construction. There, the enormous edifice of Memoria HQ had already arisen: the corporation that had stopped the bloodshed thirty years back. It was Memoria that had given people hope and a sense of security. Had it not been for Memoria, the whole Eastern shore from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico would still be engulfed in flames, fighting the resources war.
Bellville's army — migrants from Texas, New Mexico and other Western states — had wanted to secure their own grasp on the country. But they had lost the oil war. Jacque Bellville himself had been tried and executed in Washington. His entourage had fled abroad. Those of their combatants who had failed to escape had been locked in migrant camps, stripped of their right to vote and subjected to round-the-clock monitoring through CCTV cameras and the personal electronic bracelets that Memoria had enforced on the entire population.
Frank's gaze followed the enormous orange spot of Memoria's flag fluttering over the corporation's tower.
"Jesus. Things seem to be improving much faster in Washington. Most of their buildings are already restored. The Capitol building is as good as new. Memoria branches are mushrooming on every corner. And there aren't so many migrants left there, you know, most have already gotten their citizen status."
The cabbie braked at a red light, turned round with a smirk and showed Frank his electronic bracelet. An orange light flashed on the man's right wrist which meant that he'd fought for his citizenship in General Hopper's squads.
Frank lowered his eyes, embarrassed. His own bracelet was flashing with a little green light which meant that he'd been born after the war. His own citizenship was an automatic after-war privilege.
"You don't know how lucky you are, kid," The cabbie clasped the steering wheel and moved off on the light turning green. "Having a house, a job — a girl..." He glanced at Frank through the rear-view mirror, grinned and added in his strong, low voice, "You never had to lose your friends or family."
"But why—" Frank stopped short.
It had been a long time since he'd had a chance to talk to a veteran who'd chosen to preserve his war memories. All the old people he knew — those who still remembered the battles between Hopper and Bellville — had died since, or had Memoria erase their recollections. Somewhere in this city lived Frank's old boxing coach. Like so many others, he too must have visited one of the corporation's numerous branches, having forgotten the war and with it, his old students. Frank wasn't even sure the man still lived here — he could have relocated from New York for all Frank knew. His coach used to talk a lot about freedom, the word acquiring many new meanings through his interpretation. In the young Frank's eyes, he was the wisest man that ever lived, his guru and his role model.
How long had it been since Frank had seen him last? Had to be nearly a decade. Occasional phone calls and seasonal greetings didn't count. He absolutely had to see him. Make him meet Kathleen, maybe...
Frank rubbed his face hard and interlocked his fingers. Wasn't he a jerk, after all? How could he forget the man who was, in fact, his second father? What if the man failed to remember him?
"Why what?" the ageing cabbie squinted in the rear-view mirror. "Why won't I get rid of my past?"
Frank nodded and unclasped his fingers.
"When half the civilian population happily erase their memories, apparently content with living below the bread line," the veteran looked back to the road, "when I live next door to a migrant camp packed with those motherfuckers..." he cut himself short, locked his hands on the steering wheel and hunched over it, tucking his head into his wrestler's shoulders, wide and sloping.
Well, well, well... Frank leaned against the door keeping an eye on the cabbie and wondering what this sudden candor could mean and whether the cabbie was indeed candid and not demented. The latter seemed more likely. Success is never blamed, so the victors in that war guarded their presidentially granted right to preserve their memories. They didn't have to visit Memoria three times a year, like all the others had, and the recollections of the past war remained entirely their own business.
Still, the old veteran had a point: landing a well-paid job these days took a lot of luck. Having a place to live, a family and children was taking on quite a strain. He really shouldn't lose Kathleen. He should try and talk to her, maybe suggest moving in together — and why not for keeps?
For a split second, he wanted to stick to the status quo: what was the point in trying to dig up her past if they might not share a future? But today, it was different. Today, things seemed to fall into a pattern. He hadn't fallen for the bullying cabbie's abuse, he'd remembered his old boxing coach, he'd realized that he loved Kathleen and worked up the courage to propose... Yes, loved was the right word.
Frank couldn't help smiling.
"Here we are, kid," The cabbie pointed at the meter.
"Would you mind waiting a bit?" Frank reached into his pocket for his wallet. "Ten, fifteen minutes? I'll go get my girlfriend," He handed the man his fare.
"No problem, kid," The mustached face softened. The man ran his thick strong fingers over his moustache and added, "I suggest you pay Memoria a visit, too."
Frank pursed his lips waiting for him to continue. The cabbie shook his head,
"Don't give me all that about you having already done it," he reached between the seats, smoothed out Frank's creased coat lapel and patted him on the shoulder. "Not a good idea to ignore your duty. You know you've got to visit them three times a year. They run a free promotion now, too: you might still make it if you don't put it off for too long. Now off you go! I'll wait for you right here."
Frank scrambled out of the cab and wrapped his coat tighter around his body. Strange man, this veteran. He seemed to be able to read Frank's mind.
The first raindrops hit the sidewalk. Frank glanced up at the stormy clouds thickening in the dirt-gray sky and hurried inside the lobby of his apartment building. He couldn't make it past the entrance: the hallway was blocked by the backs of newspapermen, TV reporters and photographers busy setting up their cameras and lighting.
They crowded into the lobby blocking out the reception desk. Frank tried to bypass them through a narrow opening to their left. When he finally made it to the desk, the doorman produced two days' back mail and suggested he hurried to the elevators if he didn't want to have to take the stairs: the lobby was about to close for a press conference.
Frank was just about to ask him what all that media fuss was about and who called the press conference, but two media men complete with a camera and the ID badges of an international news channel beat him to it and demanded the doorman's attention. After a hesitant wait, Frank looked at the media crowd. It had perked up, and Frank hurried to the elevators. He'd find out what it was all about later. Upstairs, Kathleen was waiting and he couldn't think of much else but her.
When he left the elevator, he saw that his front door was slightly ajar. His first thought was about old Mrs. Fletcher next door: more than likely, she'd called on him again and Kathleen must have helped her to set up the cable remote. The poor old bag couldn't live without her TV, applying for every talk show and dreaming of her fifteen minutes of fame.
Frank entered the hall and removed his coat. Kathleen's purse was missing from the shelf under the coat-rack mirror where she always left it. In its place, he found a note: "Kitchen".
A puzzled Frank forgot to close the front door and moved along the corridor, taking off his jacket. He turned to the right and entered the kitchen. On the kitchen table sat a bottle of red wine and two glasses.
Frank smiled. This was so unlike Kathleen. He hung his jacket on a chair and took a corkscrew out of the drawer. Apparently, their restaurant date would have to wait. Same went for the cabbie. Kathleen was easily aroused, fiery in bed, and she climaxed quickly. He'd make her groan with exhaustion as she readied to come, and then—
He pulled the cork out and tilted the bottle. The red bubbly warbled in the glass.
Then she would get ready — shower, makeup, whatever — while he went downstairs and asked the cabbie if he could wait a bit longer than planned.
Frank left the bottle on the table, lifted the full glasses and headed for the bedroom. His hands trembled slightly with arousal. He stopped in front of the door and took a swig. Excellent wine. He raised the glass against the light, admiring the bubbles coming to the surface; kicked the door open and entered.
Kathleen lay on the king-size bed in her lacy lingerie and stockings, her arms spread wide. The electronic bracelet was missing from her right hand. Her raven-black curls tumbled across the pillow, her head turned to the doorway. Her glassy dead eyes stared at Frank.
For a second or two he stood there staring at the girl, unable to take it in, the wine glasses in his hands. His ears were blocked, his throat, tight. Finally, with a whimper, he rushed to the bed. The wine went all over his shirt and the sheets. He dropped the glasses, lifted Kathleen's head and looked into her eyes, praying for her to blink and say, hi there! But it didn't happen.
She had a tie wrapped around her throat — her own gift to Frank before he'd left for Washington. The pale skin under the tie showed a thin blue stripe.
She'd been strangled.
When? Why? By whom?
Something rustled behind his back. Frank turned round. Mrs. Fletcher stood in the doorway, the cable remote in hand, squinting nearsightedly. After a second, her eyes widened, filling with terror.
She must have thought she'd understood — but she misunderstood when she saw Kathleen's body and the red spots on Frank's shirt and the bedclothes. She must have thought it was blood, but what difference did it make now? Frank lifted his hand, and his wine-spotted fingers trembled, betraying his desperation. He opened his mouth and looked at Kathleen. No difference whatsoever. She was dead for good.
When he turned back, Mrs. Fletcher was already gone. Screaming her head off, she shuffled along the corridor, hurrying away.
Frank collapsed on the edge of the bed, lifted the radiophone off the bedside table and dialed 911.