The morning bell jarred me out of a dream about clean sheets and hot meals. I rolled out of the bunk and slid bare feet into the plastic slippers that they gave us to wear as shoes. Clancy walked through the dorm, swinging her wooden spoon. It had a leather thong looped through a hole in the handle and she swung it from her fingertip as she looked for stragglers.
I'd been treated to her spoon across my knees on my first two mornings here. I’d learned to get my feet on the floor before she made her rounds. She gave me a crooked smile and gripped the handle of the spoon for a second as she looked down at my slippers. Bare feet on the floor would get you knock on the top of the head. She moved on. I turned to smooth the faded and yellowed sheets across the thin mattress. I'd lost my blanket on the third day for spilling my breakfast oatmeal and hadn't earned it back yet. March is cold in Chicago. I really missed that blanket. A howl erupted from somewhere at the other end of the room as Clancy found a target.
Clancy checked the bunks and administered a few more sharp raps with the spoon. She smiled at me as she looked at my taut sheet. She ran a fat hand through my hair. I wanted to vomit but instead I gave her a toothy Dumb-Dwarf smile.
"Did I do good, Auntie?" I asked.
"You did fine, Tito. Just fine." She kissed the top of my head. Her breath smelled of stale beer. The spoon dangled from her wrist as her hand stroked the inside of my groin. I almost kicked her, but managed to keep the stupid grin plastered on my face.
"Can I have my blanket back, Auntie?" I pleaded. "I been good all week, honest."
"Don't make Auntie mad, Tito. You'll get it back tomorrow if you're a good boy for me tonight."
Don't hold your breath, you old hag, I thought. I had enough evidence get her busted on a dozen abuse charges. All I had to do was signal Franklin and have him get me out of this shit hole.
Clancy rang the bell again and we fell in line behind Tommy. He was Clancy's snitch and relished his place. I couldn't hate him. He'd been here for five years and had been 'Auntie's Special Boy' for most of them. I think he was relieved when she started to show an interest in me. It didn't keep him from his exacting his own petty revenge. I was used to it. It'd take more than a few mashed toes and shoves in the back to get me to break cover.
We shuffled into the dining room and stood behind our chairs. Cassie, the girl with Down's syndrome, was limping and had tearstains on her cheek. She'd been slow getting out of bed again. Hang on, Cassie. Just for today, I thought, as if she could hear. She didn't look up.
"All right. You can sit now. No dawdling. And don't spill." Clancy looked sternly at me.
We sat, or in the case of Tommy and me, climbed up into the bare wooden chairs. My chin came just above the edge of the table, so not spilling was a bit of a challenge. I drank the watery orange juice but didn't chance the cold cereal. Franklin could buy me a burger for lunch. After this, he'd owe me big.
Tommy was a Spud like me. We're all just about the same age--around twenty-one more or less. But he was afflicted with the developmental delays (social worker speak for retardation) that afflicted most of us. Maybe one in five hundred had normal intelligence. I was one of the lucky ones. Even then I'd struggled with reading and learning troubles all through childhood.
I shuddered as Clancy walked behind me. She had a thing for Denver Dwarves and I was her next target. I'd heard about perverts like her, but usually they were men who preyed on the girls. They're very specific about their taste. Real Spuds, not just little people.
It's called Viral Hyperteloric Dwarfism Syndrome, VHDS to the medical community. Denver Dwarf or Fish-Eye Dwarf or just plain Spud to the masses. We're a select group, about hundred thousand of us. Our mothers were pregnant when the Plague hit Denver and we were exposed to the vaccine in the womb. It caused a specific and usually devastating series of birth defects.
On a personal level, it trapped me in a stunted body with wide set eyes and a narrow chinless jaw. Not exactly the sort of thing to attract hot girls, or even earn me tolerance in Normie society. Out of sight and out of mind was the unofficial government policy. Most of us were warehoused in institutions or Custodial Care homes, like this one. I'd busted out of a C.C. home just after my eighteenth birthday and hadn't been back since. Except, of course, on paying jobs.
We finished breakfast and everyone carefully carried their bowls to the big sink in the kitchen. Clancy rang her bell again. The little parade left the kitchen and marched to the day room. In another setting, it might have been a pleasant room with a high airy ceiling and big bay windows overlooking Fargo Avenue. But the ceiling was cracked and water stained and the worn carpet was caked with dirt and smelled faintly of stale urine.
Three tables with chipped faux wood tops and some more rickety wooden chairs occupied the center of the room. Two battered, threadbare armchairs slumped against the far wall. An old flat-screen netlink blared from a ceiling mount, permanently tuned to a children's educational channel. That along with a few puzzles and building blocks fulfilled Clancy's requirement to provide a comprehensive remedial adult education program.
Clancy surveyed her domain with a satisfied smile before leaving us to our own devices, locking the door behind her. She'd fetch us back to the dining room for lunch at one, then dinner at six. Such was the totality of our existence. Five days of this had driven me to the brink of madness. Time to call Franklin.
Cassie sat on the floor in the bend of the big bay window with her knees drawn up to her chin and her arms crossed in front of them. She rocked slowly back and forth humming a little song to herself. I didn’t know the tune but it seemed to comfort her. I wasn’t sure if she had recognized me when Franklin checked me in. We’d been in C. C. together in Denver before I busted out and I had a few bad moments when I realized where I’d seen her before. She hadn’t given any indication that she remembered me.
She’d been quiet back in Denver as well, but she’d seemed happier then, smiling often and interacting with the other kids as she was able. Now she spent all her time huddled in one corner or another, rocking and humming. Clancy would pay for that as well.
I stood at the window and peered through the dirty pane. Franklin's green Ford electric was parked a half-block down Fargo. A wisp of steam from the hood showed that he had the heater on. He'd be watching the house from there. I couldn't see the C.O.P.S., but figured he had Patrol Units hidden in the alley. I shuddered. I didn't like C.O.P.S.
The signal that I was ready for rescue was lowering and raising the shade twice. Subtle, simple and effective, unless your partner has fallen asleep and you're too short to reach the shade in the first place.
Someone had flipped the drawstring up over the curtain rod. I stood on the windowsill and stretched but couldn't reach it. I got down and looked around the room for something I could use to knock the string loose. Cassie stopped humming and looked at me. She gave me a wan smile.
“Hi, Tito,” she said.
“Hi, Cassie,” I answered, keeping my tone light and my voice soft. “Do you remember me?”
She nodded. “I didn’t tell Auntie. You’re smart, but Auntie thinks you’re dumb like me. I didn’t tell her. Did your Dad and Mom go away, too?”
I knew Cassie’s parents were both dead, killed by the Denver Plague when she was just two. I thought of my Mom, killed by a rogue C.O.P when I was fifteen and about Dad and Javier, my younger brother, on the run from Consolidated Genetics and their C.O.P. flunkies. I hoped they were safe in Tonga.
“Yeah, they did.” I didn’t trust myself to say more through the wave of sadness that threatened to overwhelm me. Time for some payback.
“I want to go home, Tito.” Cassie’s voice was soft, almost a whisper. She hid her face in her arms again.
I touched the top of her head. Soon, Cassie, I thought.
A quick circuit of the day room revealed nothing that I could use to reach the string. Clancy and her goons had made sure there was nothing we could use to harm each other or ourselves. Tommy-Boy eyed me suspiciously as I wandered around. He slid off his seat on one of the armchairs when I tried the storage closet door. It was locked of course, and I wandered away from it before he got the idea to call for Clancy and rat me out.
In the end, I was reduced to waving my arms at the car, hoping Franklin would notice. He didn't, but Clancy did. Tommy must have called her when I resumed my perch on the windowsill. One second I was flapping my arms like a crow in a tornado, the next I was sitting on the floor with Clancy swinging that spoon at my head.
I brought my hand up and blocked the blow as I rolled away and got to my feet. She screamed something at me and swung again. I lost it. I ducked under her arm and grabbed the spoon out of her hand, snapping the thong.
"Get away from me, you fat pervert!" I swung the spoon and smacked her on the elbow. She screamed again and grabbed at me. I ducked away and kicked her in the shin. She kicked back and sent me flying into one of the tables. Fury contorted her face. She advanced toward me, arms out, her eyes red. My side ached where she'd kicked me. This was going to end badly if I didn't do something.
I scrambled backwards under a table and glanced around the room. No help. My fellow inmates cowered against the walls. All except Tommy who stood on the armchair smiling gleefully.
Clancy grabbed the table and shoved it aside. She got a grip on my ankle and pulled me toward her, raising a balled fist. I brought up my arms to shield my face.
I heard a shout of "No!" from my left. Clancy jerked my leg, but then let go. I opened my eyes to see Cassie shoving Clancy against the wall. Cassie was a big girl, big as Clancy. She'd never shown any sign of rebellion before. In fact she'd been one of Clancy's favorite targets. I didn't know what had sparked her to action, but was glad for the help.
Clancy turned her wrath on Cassie, slapping her about the face and head. I looked around for a weapon, but only came up with the spoon. Not much against Clancy's bulk and fury, but I wasn't going to let Cassie down. I charged but never made it to Cassie's side.
The door splintered and gave way as a C.O.P. Patrol Unit crashed through it. Franklin stood behind it and there were more units in the hallway.
"Halt," said the Patrol Unit in that commanding synthesized voice that they all use. "This unit is seeking the male Horacio Guzman. All individuals will suspend activity and assist with a lawful search."
I raised my hand. "I'm Horacio Guzman. I wish to make a formal complaint against a citizen here present. I charge Mildred Clancy with abuse of the disabled citizens left in her charge, with fraudulent billing of the Department of Social Welfare and with being an ugly, spiteful pervert."
The Computer Operated Patrol unit cocked its mechanical head, a rough parody of a man's with round optical sensors for eyes and a speaker where the mouth should be. It stood over two meters high on twin titanium alloy legs and could move faster than any human alive. It regarded me for a half second as the biochips in its CPU processed my words.
"Citizens wishing to file formal charges with the Department of Public Safety should clearly state the nature of the offense and present reasonable evidence before an arrest can be made." It didn't like my editorializing about Clancy's character.
Franklin stepped forward and rattled off a string of statute numbers. The unit turned to Clancy who had backed into a corner. Cassie sat on the floor crying. I went over to her and hugged her. Sitting down, her head was almost level with mine.
"Hush, Cassie," I said softly. "It's all right. You did the right thing. No one is going to hurt you anymore."
Franklin supervised Clancy's arrest. More Patrol Units were in the room, rounding up the rest of Clancy's victims. The units spoke in soft feminine tones to reassure everyone that the situation was now in the hands of the lawful authorities. I wouldn't let any of them near Cassie. The room was full of that C.O.P. smell that always set my teeth on edge - lube oil with faint overtones of burning hair.
Franklin finally came over to me. "You have to let her go, Tito," he said. "The matrons are here to pick her up. She'll be all right."
I pulled back away from Cassie and she dried her eyes. "All better?" I asked.
She nodded and said, "Bye-bye, Tito." She smiled as a small round woman in a DSW jacket took her hand and helped her to her feet.
Franklin had the good sense to keep quiet as they led her away. I turned to face him.
"You owe me a bonus for this one, Franklin."
"That wasn't in the contract. You knew the situation here when you took the job."
"I agreed to get the goods on Clancy. I've got them." I pulled off the tiny button camera that I'd used to record all of Clancy's antics. It looked like one of my shirt buttons, but held up to 200 hours of continuous video recording in its tiny brain. "You didn't tell me she had a thing for Spuds."
He looked genuinely surprised. Maybe he didn't know. I didn't care. I needed to take out my frustration on someone and he was handy.
"Did she. . . " He left the sentence unfinished.
"No. Tommy over there was her Special Boy. But I was next in line for the job. Maybe she planned to make it a threesome." Franklin squirmed uncomfortably. A bit hypocritical of him, if you ask me, considering his own sexual preferences.
Franklin wasn't into Spuds. But he did like things a bit kinky and he liked his girls young. I'd retrieved a damning video from a pimp last year as a favor to him, which was why he was going to pay me a bonus now. The girl in the video had said she was eighteen. She looked twenty-one. But a judge wouldn't care that she was a well-paid and willing participant. He'd only see that she was barely sixteen and Franklin would be looking at five to seven in Joliet.
"What do you want?" He lowered his voice and bent closer to me. At almost two meters tall and only sixty-five kilos, he might have been a stork stooping to speak to a toad. I wasn't pretty enough to be a frog.
He looked around for the C.O.P. units, but they had all filed out with the social workers. "That's illegal, Tito."
"So is sex with teenage girls." 'Tis one thing to be tempted, another to fall, I though, hearing Charlie's voice in my head.
He alternately paled and flushed with anger. "Where am I supposed to get biochips?'
"You work for DPS. Be creative. Two chips by noon tomorrow. On top of the credits I earned for this job." I smiled. "And now I think I'll let you buy me lunch. Otherwise I might have a serious lapse in memory after such a trying ordeal."
Lunch was at an out of the way diner. Not the Taproom at the Drake, but I didn't care. The burger was good and they used real grease for the fries, not that canola crap mandated by the Health Department. I made a note of the place for attention later. We sat across from each other in a booth with cracked red vinyl cushions. I sat facing the door where I could look over Franklin’s shoulder and see the exit. Habit. We were the only customers. It was nine thirty in the morning; a bit early for the lunch crowd, late for the breakfast rush. All the same, the waitress had taken one look at me and hustled us to a booth in the back.
Halfway through lunch, Franklin took a call. He excused himself for two minutes, and then returned with an envelope. He slid it to me under the table. A bit melodramatic, but I let him have his moment of drama. The envelope contained two brand new untrained biochips. Franklin had more resources than I gave him credit for.
Biochips were the micro-DNA processors that allowed the C.O.P.S. – the Computer Operated Patrol System – to function. Each chip could carry on thousands of parallel operations. They could be ‘trained’ to operate a patrol machine as smoothly and efficiently as a human cop could function. Their exact make-up was top secret and possession of untrained biochips was a crime punishable by five years in a reeducation camp. They were also valuable trade goods in a certain off-the-books sector of the economy.
"Thanks. You're a true friend, Jack." I used his first name to make sure he knew I meant it. If you'd cultivate a man's loyalty, flatter his vanity, as Charlie had once said. In Franklin's case it wasn't just flattery. He went out on a limb with the Department of Public Safety every time he hired me. Between the two of us, we'd busted ten C.C. homes and put some truly nasty people out of business. I needed the money he threw my way and the busts hadn't hurt his career, either.
"Just be careful with those things,” he said solemnly. “I can't help you if they catch you with them."
"No worries, Jack. My problem.” I popped a last fry into my mouth. “Thanks for the lunch."
I stood up to leave as he slid his Universal Debit Card into the reader to pay the check. He stopped me with a touch on my shoulder. "You did a good thing today. Tito. I'm sorry if Clancy hurt you."
"'It's not enough to help the feeble up, but to support them after'," I said, borrowing Charlie's quotation voice. Franklin looked puzzled. "Shakespeare. If you want to do a good deed, Jack, help Cassie find a decent home. I owe her."
I left the diner, my thoughts running down the road with Charlie as they often did after a job. God, but I missed that old man and his quotations from the Bard. I'd been a smart-ass bum when he'd found me on the streets two years ago. He'd taught me the value of family and honor. He was on the run from the DPS himself these days, a Blank with no records or identity. And I was now the Fixer in his stead.
It had been rough those first few months. I didn't have Charlie's flair for drama or his ability to intimidate. But I'd found my own way to do business. I'd learned to use my 'disability' as an advantage. Like these jobs for Franklin. I could infiltrate a custodial home without raising suspicion. I had practiced my Dumb-Dwarf act until it was second nature. Once I had enough evidence, I'd whistle for Franklin and another abusive home would bite the dust. Franklin paid in much needed credits.
More often, pay was in favors, courtesies as Charlie used to call them. That's the way the business worked--a favor for a favor. Value for value. I did a favor for a client and they would owe me one as well. Some were big, most were small, but always there was an exchange of value. That's something else I’d learned from Charlie. No such thing as a free lunch.
I took a cross-town bus to Harlem Avenue, transferred to a southbound number 23, and settled into a window seat. The bus wasn’t full and the few passengers ignored me. I liked it that way. It beat the Look. Spuds knew the Look well – the head to toe sweep of the eyes, the pained expression coupled with the hint of revulsion in the eyes, followed by the careful mask of politically correct pity.
I watched the neighborhoods slide by. This was working class Chicago. The Normies here were resigned to their safe if boring existence. Those that had jobs lived carefully modest lives lest their jobless neighbors report them for conspicuous consumption – a sure ticket to a tax audit. Everyone was assured of a safe and comfortable existence as long as they followed the social norms. “The nail that stands out gets pounded down”, and everyone knew it.
I got off at Ashland and walked the last few blocks to Rosie's place. The building had started life as a gas station and repair shop. It had gone belly up when the government had mandated all-electric cars. Now it housed Rosie's warehouse and small fleet of delivery trucks, a legitimate business. And a front for his real business.
I banged on the door and a skinny guy with long blond hair answered it. He held a baseball bat, even though the Cubs hadn't started spring training yet.
"Hey Clarence, whattaya know?" I said.
"Hi, Tito. You looking for Rosie?"
I nodded and he opened the door wider and waved me in. "He's in the office." He pointed toward the back of the garage.
I said thanks and headed that way. There were two trucks in the garage, up on lifts over the grease pits. Men moved back and forth from the trucks to the door to the back storage room carrying armloads of plastic wrapped bundles. More men squatted under the trucks, unpacking the bundles from the hidden storage compartments in the wheel wells and handing them up out of the grease pit. I took care not to notice the activity as I crossed the open bay and knocked on the office door.
“Heya! Da door’s open,” a voice called from the office.
Ambrose Olongopo was the biggest human being I'd ever seen. He perched on a bar stool that looked ridiculously small under his massive bulk. Gold chains hung from his thick neck and disappeared below the open collar of the orange Hawaiian shirt he wore. Black tattoos covered arms as thick as my thighs and sketched a zigzag pattern up one side of his face.
Rosie and I shared a common heritage from the Pacific islands. But where he had inherited the massive size of his Tonganese ancestors, my family on Guam had mingled with the Spanish generations ago. We tended to be smaller and fine boned.
"Hafa adai, Rosie," I called as I entered.
"Hafa' Tito, you little tau-tau."
"Who you calling little?"
He laughed, showing white teeth filed to points. "You still got da tau-tau, da devil, in you guts, heya? What you want?"
"Trade. The usual."
He shook his massive head; the gold chains around his neck tinkled slightly with the motion. "I dunno, Tito. Times gettin’ tough. Maybe da price go up, yah?"
"Maybe not. It's for Sarafina. You wouldn't want to cheat an old lady would you?"
His face assumed an expression of exaggerated distress. "Now dat's not fair. I wanna talk-talk an' haggle a bit, an' you gotta hit below da belt."
I laughed at that. Rosie was a smuggler and dealer in contraband. He'd buy and sell anything. But he had a soft spot in his pirate's heart for Sarafina. He'd never been serious about haggling with me anyway. It was just a way to save face. I passed him the two chips. He reached into a big box behind his chair and pulled out four cartons of Italian cigarettes.
"Dese tings gonna kill dat ol' lady one day."
I shrugged. "She's all alone except for me, Rosie. Smoking's about the only pleasure she has left."
"You tell her Rosie say 'Hafa' an' she still owe me a lasagna, yah?" He pushed the box of contraband back under the desk and reached into a cooler at his feet. He extracted a bottle of fruit juice and twisted the top off. He handed it to me as he reached down and got one for himself.
"Sure thing." I paused to take a long swig from my bottle. "Any word from Raratonga?" I asked carefully.
He shook his head. "You family safe, Tito. No news is good news, yah?"
I nodded but wasn't happy. Dad and Javier had made it to Tonga, but I'd heard nothing for months. I didn't know how long Consolidated Genetics' reach was, but they had worldwide operations. I just had to trust Dad to know when it was safe to come out of hiding.
We’d gathered evidence of their illegal human cloning operations but didn’t know whom we could trust to take the information and go after C.G.’s directors. It hadn’t helped that Dad was officially dead and had been the one to get the program started many years earlier. Or that Charlie was now wanted for a string of murders that had followed in our wake as we ran down the data. The real killer was dead but had been high up in the C.O.P.S. directorship. There was no telling who else in law enforcement Consolidated Genetics had bribed.
We finished our drinks in silence. Rosie knew the score and would keep our secret. The fifty biochips I’d paid him to smuggle Dad and Javier out of the country helped, but I suspected he was just as happy to tweak the tail of the government tiger on his own. Especially when there was little that connected him directly to Dad or Charlie.
I said good-bye to Rosie and made my way home. It wasn't a long walk and the crisp air cleared my head. The streets were clean but empty this close to Blanktown. Smart citizens avoided being seen within blocks of that area. Blanktown was less a location that a state of existence. There was an area here on the near west side of the city that was its epicenter, though. Within its square mile of streets lived transients, illegal migrant workers and the true Blanks – people with no official existence in the government data banks. Some were addicts and juicers who had dropped out or never been catalogued. Some were anarchists and libertarians who preferred a marginal existence to a controlled one. A very few were the crime bosses who ran the place, people with enough juice to have their records wiped from official notice. I was a very tiny minnow swimming around its edges. I had no illusions about my ability to survive there full time.
The air was turning colder by the time I reached home. I climbed the stoop to the three flat where Sarafina and I lived. She owned the building and I rented the first floor apartment. The middle floor was vacant. All of its utilities were rerouted to my flat giving me beefed up electrical and netlink access.
I was winded by the time I'd climbed the three flights to her door. She must have heard me coming. She opened it before I could knock. Sarafina Nostopolito was a small birdlike woman, painfully thin but quick of movement with sparkling eyes and surprisingly strong voice. In her youth she'd been famous as Sara Nestor, primary female lead for the Folger Shakespeare Troupe. But VR netlinks had killed live theater, and the Plague had killed her family. She was alone now except for me and her photographs.
She stood in the doorway to her apartment, a cloud of cigarette smoke surrounding her. "Tito! How wonderful. What did you bring me?"
I held out the cigarettes and she clapped her hands like a child on Christmas morning. "Oh, thank you, dear. I was running low again." She was almost never without a cigarette in her hand, a hard habit to maintain. Tobacco had been illegal since I was eight years old.
"Won't you come in?" she asked. "I'm making grain pie."
I was sorely tempted. I loved the rich custard pie stuffed with sweetened wheat berries and chunks of dark chocolate. But lunch was still heavy in my stomach and I was tired and dirty. I wanted a shower and a nap.
"Some other time, Sarafina," I said. "I've been working and I need a nap. Rosie says 'Hafa'"
She laughed. "And he still wants his lasagna, that old pirate."
"Yes, ma'am. Can I come for pie and coffee tomorrow?"
"Of course, dear. Oh, I almost forgot. You had a visitor. She said she'd gotten your name from Rosie and wanted to talk to you about some work. A very pretty little thing she was, too."
I wondered why Rosie hadn't said anything about a job. Sarafina had only a vague idea of what I did. Just that I performed services for people. I didn't want her knowing the seamier side of the job. She handed me a glossy card.
Titania's Purse it read. Objects of Wonder, Secrets of Beauty from the Faerie World. I flipped it over. There was a net locus and a vidphone number on the back.
I looked at the front of the card again. As I watched it changed, morphing into images of elves and faeries holding colored jars of ointments and crèmes with prices scrolling under them. Each flip of the card brought up a new image until it cycled through all the files and returned to the original printing. It was a nice effect, probably expensive. Whoever ran this VR store was doing pretty well. Good news for me.
I returned to my own apartment. The front room looked out on the street through big bay windows. I'd salvaged much of Charlie's furniture after the C.O.P.S. had smashed the place up. I'd reframed the Seamus Murphy painting as well. The oversized seascape and spare furnishing gave the room a nautical appearance that I liked. I went to the netlink in the corner and checked my account. Franklin had deposited the credits already. I was flush for a little while, even after I paid the utility bill.
I walked down the long hallway to my room, stripped off my clothes and turned on the shower. Soap and hot water stripped away the grime of Clancy's hellhole, but a deep sadness and feeling of futility remained. What did it matter if I closed her down or a dozen like her? I was still a Spud to most of the world. At best an object of pity. At worst a reminder of a loss so terrible that most Normies chose to forget it and bury themselves in mindless pleasures. No room there for unpleasant truths like me.
I dried off and put on fresh jeans and a sweatshirt. I picked up the card. Titania's Purse. Interesting name; it showed more than the average level of literacy. I went back to the netlink and activated the avatar program before entering the vidphone number. I don't use an avatar to talk to people I know, but for new customers it helps reduce some of the shock at my true appearance. Until we had an agreement, all they'd see was a cartoon of a handsome dark haired man with vaguely Latino features.
She answered on the second ring. Sarafina had been right. She had white-blond hair cut in a short bob that framed her heart-shaped face. Her deep blue eyes were set above high cheekbones and a thin delicate nose. She peered into the link.
"Horacio Guzman?" she asked. Her mouth was a little wide, thin lipped with perfect white teeth.
"That's me. Forgive the avatar. Until we have an agreement, I prefer to keep my face hidden. It may save some embarrassment for both of us if I don't agree to help you."
"Why do you think I need help?" Her words were subtly accented. European, maybe Slavic or Russian. I'd spent enough time in Blanktown to tell. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say.
"You wouldn't look for me if you didn't. I understand Ambrose Olongopo referred you. What's your connection to him?"
She looked around her as if someone were watching, then lowered her voice. "I make various beauty aids. They are sold in some of the finest VR malls. But many ingredients are difficult to get at reasonable cost. Mr. Olongopo helps supply them. He said you were a man to be trusted." Again her words and speech pattern suggested she wasn't a native Chicagoan.
"Your name?" I asked.
"Titania Pedenko. It's why the shop is called Titania's Purse."
"Ukrainian. By birth at least. I am a citizen now." The pride in her voice was touching.
"'I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over canopied with luscious woodbine'" I said softly, quoting from the Bard.
""With sweet musk roses and with eglantine'" she finished. "You know the play?"
"A Midsummer Night's Dream. I wondered if it inspired the name of the shop as well."
She nodded and grew serious, as if she'd made a decision. "I need your help, Mr. Guzman. I must find my sister."
"Is she missing? Perhaps the police would be better."
"No. They will not help. I haven't seen her in almost twenty years, not since we came to this country. We are orphans, adopted from the Ukraine through an American charity, but by different families. The Plague struck just after we separated and I haven't heard from Irina since."
"Was the family in the Plague zone?"
She nodded. "They were from Woodland Park, a suburb of Denver."
"Forgive me for being blunt, Ms. Pedenko, but are you sure your sister is still alive?"
"I think so." Her eyes clouded with tears. "I don't know. The adoption records were sealed. I don't even know the name of the family who adopted her, only the date and the location. The authorities say they are very sorry, but the records are sealed and cannot be opened without court order.” Her accent deepened as she became more emotional. “I have tried to get the order but have no 'standing' they say. Not even as sister."
I thought for a minute. Adoption records were under the jurisdiction of the Department of Social Welfare, but DPS could access them in a criminal case. Franklin might be able to help there. He could at least to get me into the Denver system. I could then find out the names of families adopting children on the date Titania knew. I could cross reference that with the survivor lists from Woodland Park and get an idea if the sister had survived. Tracking her down might be harder but I knew someone who could help with that, too.
"All right," I said. "I'll see what I can do. Did Rosie tell you how this arrangement works?"
"I have money. I can pay."
"I'm not interested in your money. It's traceable and I work outside the system. If I am not successful in finding your sister, we part ways - no harm, no foul. But if I succeed, you will owe me a favor, a courtesy, which I may collect at the time and place of my choosing. It will be task or an object that is within your ability to provide and once complete will cancel your debt. Failure to perform this service when asked will result in serious consequences. Is that understood?"
"What sort of consequences?"
"I have considerable resources at my disposal, Ms. Pedenko. 'The bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; the words expressly are "a pound of flesh"."
Her eyes widened and she swallowed hard. She nodded. "I understand."
"Can I always reach you at this number?" Again, she nodded. I had her give me the date of the adoption and any other information she could remember. It wasn't much.
"I'll be in touch." I reached out and broke the connection.
I checked the clock. It was just after one in the afternoon. Plenty of time. I called Franklin. He picked up on his mobile link, voice only.
"What do you want, Tito?"
"Hi Jack. I need a favor."
"I'm not going to like this, am I?"
"I need a login code for the Department of Social Welfare, adoptions division. DPS has those in case they need to track next of kin, right?"
"Those are for criminal cases, Tito." He sounded weary, not angry. I took it as a good sign. "You need a case number for access."
"But if we had a legitimate case number we could get in." I opened a window to my credit account and looked up the case number for Clancy's arrest. It was part of the documentation DPS used to authorize my pay.
"Yes," he said cautiously.
"I really need one of those login codes, Jack."
I thought fast. "I think Cassie has family in Denver. She said some things that made me think she has a sister who was adopted when their parents died."
"Why is that girl so important to you?"
"She didn't deserve what Clancy did to her every day. She's sweet and good-natured, never hurt anyone. And she kept Clancy from smashing my skull while you were sleeping in your car."
He sighed and I knew I had him. "Okay. I'll send you the code under a different name. This better not get back to me, understand?"
"Sure Jack. Thanks."
A few seconds later, my mailbox dinged and I had the code. I logged on to the DSW site and searched adoptions near Denver for the date Titania had given me. I got thirty hits. I narrowed it down to four year old girls, which left only three. And only one of those was from Woodland Park. A family named Stevens had adopted a little girl named Irina.
I was about to log off when a thought struck me. I tried to shut it out, but couldn't shake it. I entered a new date, two and a half years ago, eight months after my eighteenth birthday. Adoptions near Denver - forty two. Newborns - twenty eight. Mother's name - I stopped, a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. If I did this, I would be betraying a promise I'd made to someone I'd once loved. Still loved if the tightness in my chest meant anything.
I entered the name: Marie Williams. The document flashed on the screen. Baby girl, born just before midnight. Healthy. Adopted out the following day. Family - Moore, residents of - Evanston, Illinois. My head spun and my heart pounded. She was only a few miles away. My daughter.
I'd promised Marie that I'd never try to see her or find the child. We knew there was no way they'd let her keep it. A Spud raising a Normie child would open too many uncomfortable questions. Besides, at seventeen and legally disabled, she had no say in what happened to the baby. Her family had handled the whole thing. Quietly, respectably, but above all secretly.
I'd kept that promise for two and a half years. Now it stuck in my throat like a stale crust of bread. Marie, I know what I swore to you back then. I remember telling you to forget me. To be free and not let them own you through me. I never thought I'd have this chance. Forgive me.
I logged off of the DSW site after noting the last known address of the Moore family. I checked the survivor roles from the Plague zones. They're still open, a kind of public memorial to the chaos of that time. There's a name finder and an update function as people are located, or die of other causes. A few minutes search turned up the Stevens family, all three of them, alive and well in Grand Junction. Irina was married now; she’d changed her name to Forbin, but still lived near her adopted parents.
It occurred to me that I'd never asked Titania why she needed to find her sister. Those had been her words: I need to find my sister. I decided to keep this information to myself for now until I could ask Titania why.
I made a note of the names and last known addresses. A quick check of phone listings confirmed that Irina Forbin still lived in Grand Junction and had a listed netlink and vidphone number. I saved the file and logged off.
I sat there in the front room for a long time, watching the street until the sun went down. I'd just broken a solemn promise. I could live with that. Regret it, sure. But the regret would be private. If I took the next step, there would be no going back. Even if Marie never knew, our daughter would.
The room grew dark and I turned on some lights. It was still early enough in the evening to call Titania. She answered almost immediately.
"You never told me why you needed to find your sister." I said without preamble.
"She is my sister. Why would I not want to find her?"
"Why now? It's been twenty years."
"I don't see that it's your business why. I hired you to find her."
My temper flared. "You don't hire me, Ms. Pedenko. We agree on a contract, an exchange of mutual value. Before I fulfill this contract, I need to know that your sister wants to be found. And I need to know your reasons for finding her after all this time. Otherwise we can cancel the arrangement now and you will owe me nothing."
"No, wait. I will tell you." She paused as if considering her words. "Irina was two when our parents died. I was four, the big sister. We were two years in the orphanage in Kiev. When we came to this country, we had no family, no roots. The people who adopted me were kind and gave me a home and an education. They let me keep my name and my language. There were Ukrainian people in our neighborhood, Irving Park. Do you know it?" I nodded through my avatar. "But my adopted father died ten years ago. My mother, just last year, so now I am twice an orphan."
"And Irina is your only family now."
She nodded. "But it is not just for me that I look for Irina. I have a daughter, Diana. She is almost three. I want her to know that she has connections in this world. Right now this is not important to a child. But when she is older, she will need a family. I want Irina to know her niece. Do you have family, Mr. Guzman? Do you know how it feels to be without them?"
She hit home with that. I knew the need to feel connected to someone, even if they were ten thousand miles away. I had lost Dad and Javier for many years. Found them, only to lose them again. But at least now I knew they were alive and safe. And that they cared about me.
"All right, Ms. Pedenko. Give me a day or so. I should have something for you." I broke the connection before she could say anything more. I knew I would keep the contract. How could I not? Titania, and especially Diana, needed to know about Irina. If the three of them met and decided they didn't want to stay in touch, that was their decision. But both Irina and Titania deserved a chance to make that decision for themselves, didn't they?
But what about me? Didn't I deserve the same? My daughter was out there, not far away. She had no idea I existed. I remembered the years after Dad disappeared and the feelings of worthlessness that colored everything I did or said. I wouldn't have her thinking that her parents had simply abandoned her.
The rationalizations all seemed reasonable, sitting there alone in the dark. I would go to Evanston and find her, become a part of her life. I'd make sure she knew where she came from and that I cared about her. I shut out the small voice in the back of my mind that tried to tell me I was being selfish. That this was a bad idea. That I'd made a promise. I went to bed resolving to speak to Irina the next day. Then I'd go to Evanston and find my daughter.
The morning was bright, clear, and cold. I took it as a good sign. Grand Junction was an hour behind Chicago so I waited until almost ten before calling the number I'd found for Irina Forbin. The spinning Muninet logo filled my net matrix, as an electronic ring tone chimed for several seconds. Then a face appeared, replacing the Muninet logo
She had her sister's high cheekbones and deep blue eyes. Her face was full and ruddy, as if she spent a lot of time outdoors. Her hair was as dark as her sister's was light.
"Irina Forbin?" I asked.
"Speaking." She peered at my avatar.
"You were adopted at the age of four by Charles and Shirley Stevens. You have a sister named Titania."
There was a long pause. "Who is this?"
"My name isn't important. Your sister asked me to find you. What I need to know before I tell her anything is whether you want to be found."
She gasped. "Titania? You know where Titania is?"
"Yes. She wants to find you. I won't violate your privacy without your permission. If you want to make contact with her, I'll tell her how to find you. Otherwise, I'll cancel my agreement with her and you won't hear from me again."
"Tatania? My big sister? But why? Where has she been and why now?"
"She was adopted by another family. Her adoptive parents have died and she wants to reconnect with her family--with you. She has a daughter. She wants you to meet your niece. DO you want to see them?"
"Yes. Yes, I do." She paused. A suspicious tone entered her voice. "Who are you? What do you get out of this?"
"Nothing from you. Your sister will contact you." I logged off. Long explanations only confused things. Irina wanted to be found; that's all I needed to know.
My next move was to contact Tatania. She must have had my number in her ID list because she answered, "Do you have some information, Mr. Guzman?"
"And good morning to you, too."
She flushed. "Forgive me. It's just that after last night . . ."
"Forget it. I found your sister. She and her family are in Grand Junction, Colorado. She's waiting for your call."
I gave her the number and address. She started to gush her thanks, but I cut her off. "This completes my part of our contract. I will contact you when it's time to repay the debt."
She looked nonplussed, but nodded her head. "Thank, you.” She tilted her head and regarded my avatar. “You are not so hard as you pretend to be."
"Maybe not," I said, smiling in spite of myself. "But I will collect on your debt."
I logged off and checked the time: ten-fifteen. Plenty of time for what I planned to do next.
I put on my boots and a hooded parka. The sky was clear but the air was cold, below freezing, and I didn't know how far I might need to walk. I checked the Moore's address in Evanston and cross-referenced it with the netlink directory. They still lived there.
I quivered with excitement as I rode the L north to Howard Street. I was going to see my daughter. She was near. She was part of me, part of Marie, and soon I'd see her.
I caught a northbound bus at the Howard street RTA center and took it along Sheridan Road as far as Dempster, then walked east, almost to Lake Shore. The house was relatively small compared to its neighbors. A black wrought iron fence surrounded the front yard, ornately worked with a leaf design. There was a gate across the driveway and a green van parked next to the house.
I stood at the corner of the yard, looking toward the house. The windows were large and the curtains open to let in the morning light. The front door was brick red with a small wreath of dried flowers hung from the knocker. It looked clean and warm and inviting. I started forward toward the gate.
"Lucy, where are you?" a woman's voice called from the side of the house near the car.
With a peal of shrill laughter and a churning of tiny legs, a child ran across the yard toward me. Her hair was black, tied back in short pigtails. She looked back at the woman who was rounding the back of the van and laughed again.
"I see you, little girl," the woman said, laughing herself. "I'm going to get you."
The girl laughed again and ran faster. She was near the fence, now. Close enough to touch. I stood still, watching her. She caught sight of me and stopped, staring. The look was curious, no fear in it. I was a new thing in her shiny, safe little world. A thing to be seen and understood. I smiled at her. She smiled back, then looked at her feet, suddenly shy.
"Lucy?" The woman was closer now. She could see me and a tiny note of concern had crept into her voice. I stepped back from the fence and kept the hood of the parka pulled low. To the woman, I must have looked like a child myself. Bigger, older that Lucy, but still a child. Not a threat, just someone who didn't belong there. I stepped back again as she came up to the fence and swept Lucy into her arms. The child hugged her neck playfully, then turned to look at me. She reached out to me, opening and closing her tiny hand.
The woman looked at me curiously. "Hello?" she said in a pleasant voice. High pitched, as an adult would address a child. "Do you live around here?"
Now is the time, I told myself. Throw back the hood. Tell her who you are, who Lucy really is. The baby is yours, part of you and Marie. She should know. I said nothing. I stood peering out from under the hood until she began to be uncomfortable again.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
I nodded. I think she caught a glimpse of my face. She pulled the little girl tighter to her side and turned slightly away from me.
"Where do you live?" she repeated. I pointed west, back the way I'd come. "Well, I think you'd better go home now." She turned and walked back toward the house. Lucy looked at me over the woman's shoulder and waved bye-bye.
I turned and walked away. After half a block I stopped, my breath coming in short gasps. I clenched my fists. Tears filled my eyes and I sobbed. I turned to go back, but knew that I couldn't. What did you expect, idiot? Show up unannounced with your face and expect to be welcomed? That would have worked well. Throw back the hood and scare the little girl half to death.
I walked to the end of the block. I tried to turn around and go back. Again I stopped. Marie had known this would be the way of it. Lucy was beautiful. What Marie and I might have been, in another place and time. She was free, safe, loved by her new parents. That much was plain even to me. Let it go, I thought. 'Absence from those we love is self from self- a deadly banishment'. So be it. Marie and I could never be together, not in this world anyway. Some part of us would go on in Lucy.
It was late afternoon when I got home. The ride had been long, lonely and thought filled. I'd made a decision. I booted up the avatar program and placed a vidphone call to Titania Pedenko. She answered immediately.
"Yes, Mr. Guzman. What can I do for you?" Her tone was cheerful, but there was a slight quaver in her voice. Anxiety perhaps.
"Did you get in touch with your sister?"
She smiled happily. "Yes. We are going to meet in St. Louis next week. With our children. Diana will have cousins! It is so wonderful. Thank you again for what you have done."
"How nice for you," I said. "But it's time to collect on your debt."
She nodded. still smiling, trying to look serious. "I understand. What do you wish me to do?"
"When we first spoke, you offered me money for my services. I checked your finances. You have a successful business but live quite modestly. Most of the business profit goes to expansion of the company."
"That is correct," she said, her accent suddenly heavier. "I have few needs. Of course I put money aside for my daughter, for her education and in case anything happens to me. How much do you require for your service?"
"You misunderstand," I said. "I want nothing for myself. I want you to set up a trust for someone and fund it on a regular basis, say a half percent of your yearly business profit. The money will be kept in trust for sixteen years. No information will be transmitted to the beneficiary or to anyone else. At the end of the sixteen years, you may stop paying into the trust and turn the money over to the beneficiary. I'll have a lawyer draw up the documents and you can review them. But you will sign them."
She cocked her head and looked into the netlink. "I will do as you say. We had an agreement. And I consider the amount a small price for finding my family again. But why do you do this? Who is to get this money if not you?"
"A little girl who, like you, was adopted when her parents were unable to keep her. I'll give the lawyers her name when they draw up the trust. Understand me: you are not to attempt to contact her, nor will you reveal where the money came from, even after the terms of the trust have expired."
"This little girl, she is special to you?"
"Just abide by the agreement, Ms. Pedenko."
She was silent for a long moment. "I would like to see your face, Mr. Guzman. Never fear. I will not give you away if we meet on the street. But you are a very interesting man. I would like to see your real self."
I hesitated for a second, then shrugged and disabled the avatar program. To her credit, she didn't gasp, or look away or even blink twice. She looked into my eyes and gave a solemn nod.
"I understand. I will do as you ask, Mr. Guzman. And if I may, I would like to meet your daughter when she is grown. She should know something of her father." With that she reached out and broke the connection.
"I'll be damned," I said to myself. I shut down the netlink. I would call Rosie tomorrow. He had a troop of lawyers in his pocket. One of them would draw up the trust for me, no questions asked. He'd say I was fafata, crazy. But then, he said that all the time.
I left my apartment and went upstairs to Sarafina's. She opened the door in a small cloud of cigarette smoke.
"Tito! Come in, come in. I just made some fresh coffee and there's a big piece of pie with your name on it."
"Thanks, Sarafina. I need a little comfort food right now."
She smiled and put an arm around my shoulder. "I know, dear. Come tell me all about it. That's what family is for."