She was my family’s housekeeper. That poor woman was dredged up from the lower beads to clean the toilets of the Demarco estates. She’d been a constant of my youth, always reprimanding us Demarco children for our sloppy ways, bitter at her position in life. As a kid that didn’t bother me. It seemed proper. I got the impression she despised us for our wealth and privilege. I’d have never pegged her for a blackmailer, but impressions made as kids weren’t always accurate.
A quick stop at a jazz club behind the church got me the information I needed on Smith’s public file. As the musician whaled on his standup bass a skinny man with a pencil mustache poked at the interface of the public terminal, cigarette dangling from his lips. He’d taken my last pack of smokes as payment, and the cloud hanging in the club was already giving me cravings.
“She lives in the Benedict Tenements,” the guy said. He showed me the address. “They pack in pretty tight over there.”
“This whole bead is packed tight.”
He looked me up and down, as if he couldn’t decide if my rough clothing meant I was from the Heavies or my tall stature meant I was from the Hallows. He would have been right to guess either one. “There’s a lot of activity around there at night,” he said with a note of disapproval.
I made a point of looking around the packed jazz club.
“Yeah, this is different. This is a little pocket for those of us who have trouble sleeping at night without a little tipple or two. Over there they never sleep.”
“Doesn’t sound healthy.”
He chuckled. “Thanks for the cigs.”
“What about a guy named Trey Vitez?”
The guy punched a few buttons. “I got nothin’ on that one.”
“Might have come into town a few years back. He was from Earth.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You serious?”
“There can’t be too many who come this far to see this shithole, can there?”
“You’d be surprised. Scientists and terraforming engineers mostly, on their way to the planetary colonies.”
“This would have been a computer guy. Maybe someone with an interest in art.”
After half a cigarette, the guy looked up from the screen. “There was a guy a few years, but he was passing through. Headed up north.”
He nodded. “Must have had some cash to spend.”
It took more than cash to get long-term residence in Hallow Nicodemia. “Did he come back?”
“Not under the same credentials.”
“And what credentials would that be?”
He showed me a series of ID numbers. “Names have been purged for the transfers. You might find it in cold storage, but it looks like someone didn’t want his name leaked out all over the public records.”
The Benedict Tenements were upward and across from the cathedral. Not a long walk, compared to some, and I covered the distance without any trouble. As I approached that side of the bead, the glow of starlight gave way to the sulfur glow of streetlamps. Clusters of three or four people gathered in lonely pools of light. They spoke in low voices and pretended not to take notice of me. Buildings towered around narrow streets, the red fiberbrick facades stretched high into the sky, blotting out what false starlight might have lit the way. Spaces between pools of light became black voids of impossible darkness.
Smith’s building was one of many, all identical. I pushed past a pack of teens on my way in, enduring their curses and the harsh stench of their cheap smokes. The elevator was broken, so I mounted the trash-strewn stairs to the eleventh floor.
The hallway was empty, and my footfalls fell soft on threadbare carpet. Instead of knocking on Smith’s door right away, I stopped and listened for several minutes. There were voices, but they had the tinny, hollow sound of a drama. She was watching a show or listening to a radio. It struck me as shockingly mundane for my blackmailer to be alone and quiet in her home, watching entertainment same as any curfew-obeying resident would in the dark of night.
Taking a deep breath, steeling myself against the memories contained within, I knocked gently on the door.
When finally she opened the door, she stared at me for a long time with the security chain keeping the door only a few inches ajar. She was smaller than I remembered, and grayer. Her cheeks sagged with loose flesh, but her eyes judged me with a steely severity.
She closed the door, unfixed the chain, and flung it wide. Without a word, she walked back to her threadbare sofa and sat in front of the video screen. Her place had the thick odor of the elderly with a lingering must that told a tale of filth deeper than surface trash. Books and trinkets heaped on tables and shelves. Dishes piled high in the sink at one end of her single room. There was no second chair, so I stood.
“If it ain’t Wilson Demarco’s kid. Aiken warned me you might come after me.” She didn’t take her eyes from the screen.
“I never forget a voice.”
“It’s been a long time.”
“What is this about, Floretta? Reliving old memories?”
“Just like the spoiled brat you always were. You didn’t even make an effort to do one damn job, did you?”
“Jacob Donovan?” I stepped further into the room. Papers covered half the floor and I was careful to step around what looked like cat droppings. “You think he was responsible for the crash.”
She looked up at me. “What kind of fool do you take me for? He was the copilot. If he were responsible, I’d have figured it out. He knows, though.” Her voice quivered with anger and age.
“You think I can get the truth out of him?”
“Jacob Donovan is a hack and a puffball. I think anyone who can get close to him could get some real answers.”
“So what do you need me for?”
She frowned. “I said anyone who could get close to him.” She pointed upward with her finger. “He’s all fancy up there now that he’s been bought off.”
“Not quite that high.”
“This is the past. What do you say we let it live there?”
“My grandson died on that ship. Did you know I had a grandson?” She fixed me with her piercing gaze. “He was your age, but you never knew him. Your parents said he made them nervous. They were afraid what kind of influence a lower class kid might have on their precious little brats.”
“That’s a lie.”
“It’s a hard truth, Demarco, learning that your parents were assholes, but it’s something we all need to go through at one time or another. Maybe it’s a good thing you got yours killed.”
Anger boiled deep in my belly, but I swallowed it back. I didn’t want her to see how her words affected me. “My parents were good Catholics.”
Smith picked her way across the tiny room to me. Her head didn’t even come up to the level of my chest, but she glared up at me with those fiery eyes. “They were good Catholics, true, and shitty people. Not a mutually exclusive arrangement.”
“That’s enough,” I growled. “Release your evidence or don’t. I’m not finding anyone for you. I have business in town, then I’m leaving.”
“Just like your parents. An elitist all the way to the core.”
“You don’t even know you’re doing it. Let me guess, your client is wealthy? Important?”
“Even as a nobody you would never work for a person like me.”
I thought of Retch in her warehouse, but was I helping the poor kid or using her? It had certainly been convenient to win her as an ally. “Nobody likes a blackmailer.”
“Call me names, then. You haven’t changed a bit, have you? Still the whiny, elitist brat you were when that ship crashed.”
This time the rage took me fast and hot. With a broad sweep of my arm I knocked the trinkets off a nearby shelf. “My parents died in that crash! You think I didn’t care how it happened?”
She stepped right into my personal space. “You didn’t give one shit about it. You know how I can tell? Because you never bothered to find who was behind it.”
“It was an accident.”
Her voice softened. “You know damn well it wasn’t, child. Why didn’t you find who did it?”
All the energy drained out of me and my shoulders slumped. “I couldn’t.”
Smith put a hand on my elbow. “You found me, Jude. You found me with nothing more than a voice you hadn’t heard in fourteen years and a hunch that I might be somewhere in Onegee.” She crossed to the kitchenette and put on a pot of tea. “You can find out who caused that crash.” After a long while, when the teapot started to whistle its wailing moan, she said, “Do it for yourself. Free yourself from all that guilt you carry around.” She switched off the electric burner.
“I’ll always have the guilt.”
She let out a deep sigh, and for the first time her blue eyes went flat with the exhaustion she must have carried with her for decades.
“This life is my penance,” I said as I let myself out. “I’m never going to be free.”
As my feet hit the thin carpet in her apartment’s hallway, I heard her voice. “You were always a miserable little shit, Demarco, but you always did your best to make things better for everyone else.”
And just like that she had me working for her.
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Bio: Anthony W. Eichenlaub's short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Little Blue Marble, On Spec Magazine, and the anthology A Punk Rock Future. His novels range from pulse-pounding technothrillers to the adventures of irresponsible scientists on a colony planet. In his spare time he enjoys woodworking, video games, and working in his garden. Support him at: https://www.patreon.com/AWEichenlaub