Lenz Tio sat on a stool next to the beaten copper top bar of the Merry Hart, staring abjectly into his half-empty glass of imported Earth-Irish whiskey. The Tullamore was a pricey purchase, but necessary now that he had no job to speak of. The amber liquid gave off the familiar aromas of better times, and right now, he needed it. This was glass number three in his series of neat doubles, and he was feeling decidedly warmer than he had been when he came in. A rain had picked up as he left the Sisters’; cosmic timing, he thought bitterly. He was soaked to the bone by the time he made it to his rocket car, and hadn’t dried much on the short, window-fogging ride over to the Hart. The whole way he could think of nothing, just static, like the sound of the rain pelting the windscreen, or the hiss and crash of the thunder now rumbling through the city.
The jukebox was off, and the bar was quiet, what with it only being eleven in the morning. The only other patron was a weathered looking old man who sat opposite Tio at the other end of the bar. He had been nursing some sort of piss-yellow, headless beer for the better part of an hour as he read from the tablet he had sat on the bartop. Tio sighed and absently swirled his glass in his left hand, watching the whiskey slosh around in an inviting lazy whirlpool. When the liquid had settled he upended the glass and swallowed half of what remained, letting it rest awhile in his mouth and scorch his gums before he swallowed. There was no more fire as it went down, the first two doubles had seen to that, but a satisfying warmth spread through and out, almost taking his mind off the throbbing pain in his shoulder. He’d been bandaged up by one of the Sisters’ medical staff, and had received a script for some pain meds he planned on cashing in as soon as he was done feeling sorry for himself. At this rate, he might pick them up in a year or twenty.
“Are you…,” a voice behind him paused, “Mister Lenz Tio?”
Tio jumped, startled by the sudden interruption from his reverie, and turned to see a young woman, bobbed, brown hair damp and black from the rain, holding a clip board and a small package wrapped in water-spotted paper. “I am.”
She smiled, a seeming automatic gesture, and extended the tablet clipboard for his signature and IDN. He scribbled them both in with his left middle finger, and took the package when offered. Another smile, a “have a good day”, and she was off and out onto the street. Tio watched her out the front bay window scurry through the downpour to a waiting delivery van with MarsXPress printed on the side. And like that, the brief interruption was over and Tio was left mildly bewildered and holding a package that smelt very much of damp cardboard. He shrugged, took a pull from his glass, and thumbed open the paper to reveal a cell phone. It was one of those cheap numbers, a burner, favoured by drug dealers and people who lived paycheck to day after paycheck. They were a convenient way to keep from being tied down with any official paperwork, and came preloaded with enough minutes to be just this side of useless. The main point for them anymore was to be used as a tethered hotspot for Internet access on the go. Most places on Mars had open and free wi-fi, but with these little gadgets, you could spend your time online in relative anonymity, which was more than you could say for, say, the nearest public library, who kept full and meticulous records of who was looking at what porn and when.
Just as he was thinking to check the return address on the package, much less how someone would know to deliver to him at his local pub, the phone rang. Startled, Tio stared at it for a moment before pushing the call receive button and answering.
“Hello, Lenz!” A deep voice boomed from the microphone. Tio imagined a beast of a man, all barrel chest and hair.
“I’m sorry, you have me at a bit of a disadvantage. How did you-”
“Nevermind all that. I’ve got an important proposition for you.”
“I’m not sure that I’m overly inclined to take proposals from strange phones. Sorry.”
“Hang up and you’re dead.”
That was a quick turn, he thought. Tio scanned the room, but there was no one looking at him, not even the old man at the other end of the bar. Even the bartender was in the basement, hooking up a keg. He was, more or less, completely alone.
“Look, I don’t know who you are, or what you want, but-”
“You’re sitting on the third stool from the right of the back door. You are in your uniform, even though you legally can’t be caught wearing that, anymore. You’re on your sixth shot, and are probably due for another drink in the next five minutes. If you so much as move to get up,” the voice threatened, “you will die. Do I make myself clear?”
Tio finished his drink and cleared his throat. “Clear on everything but the threat, to be perfectly honest.”
“Of course, where are my manners? You are familiar with the Quadromega cartel, yes?”
“Quite,” Tio said bitterly. They had been a thorn in his side since he first signed on to be a Solar Marshall. They ran guns, drugs, bodies, whatever anyone was willing to pay for. They had a nasty habit, too, of disposing of anyone who got in their way. There were also rumours of Marshalls and others being on the take, giving away key information, or turning a blind eye when excessive force would more than be justified. For Tio, they were some of the worst scum in the System.
“Very good! Then we can skip any further formalities and move right on to what you can do for us.”
“What makes you think I’ll do anything for the cartel? I’m a-” Tio stopped. He was about to say he was a Solar Marshall, but he wasn’t, not anymore. That still hadn’t fully registered.
“Yes, yes, you’re an upstanding citizen and qualified boy scout. Look, do you want to go home today, or do you want to take a one-way trip to the morgue? I’m not offering twice.”
“Fine,” Tio waggled his glass at the bartender when she appeared, in the universal language of refill. “What’ve I got to lose, right?”
“Right! So, Mister Lenz Tio, we have reason to believe that you were in contact today with a Mister Destyn Wu. Is that correct? Of course it’s correct, don’t answer. What we need to know, and conversely, what you need to know, is where is Mister Wu currently?”
“Fuck if I know,” Destyn nodded to the bartender and took a sip of his new drink. “Bastard got his money and left town.”
“That’s very unfortunate.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he took another drink. This interruption was getting annoying. Not only had they threatened his life, but they were starting to threaten his enjoyment of a very pricey drink.
“I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation, Mister Lenz Tio.”
“Oh, I understand, alright. I’m being strong armed by the fucking mob just an hour after losing my fucking job. This day is going fucking swimmingly, thank you. I don’t know anything about that Wu asshole, and I don’t know why you have to keep on threatening me.”
“It comes with the job. And I do as well.”
“I don’t follow.”
“I have a job for you, Mister Lenz Tio.”
“What, me? Get in snuggly with the cartel?”
“Snuggling or not, that’s up to you. But we need a man found.”
Tio knocked back the rest of his whiskey in a single gulp. His eyes watered and he regretted it immediately. But he was getting pissed off, and quickly. “A big soft fucking target for anyone with half a mind to take down. That’s me alright. Fine. Look. It’s been a long morning.”
“I can understand that, Mister Lenz Tio. And I can make it a very short afternoon if you’d like.”
“You’re really good at the threatening voice at the other end of the phone thing, you know that?”
“I pride myself in my work. A black car will be coming around front in three minutes. You will get in this car. You will not ask any questions. You will go where it takes you, you will do what you are told, and if you’re a good boy, that’ll be the end of it. Sound fun?”
“Just fucking peachy.”
“Good. I’m glad we’ve come to an understanding.”
“Mm,” Tio hiccoughed into his sleeve. “The pleasure’s all mine.”
There was a click, and then silence. Tio twisted his back, cracking his stiff spine, and reached into his back left pocket for his wallet. He pulled it out, and fished out a fifty credit note, leaving it on the bartop under his empty glass. It was just a few steps to the exit, and by the time he had made it outside, sure enough, a black car was pulling up. The windows were illegally tinted, and he could make nothing of what was inside. The driver’s side passenger door opened and, shrugging in defeat, Tio climbed inside. His first thought was that it was a very nice car. His second thought was that, being owned by the Quadromega, of course it was going to be a nice car. His third thought was, suddenly, that he very much needed a piss. But that would have to wait. A very unfriendly looking dwarf was seated opposite him. Without a word, he handed Tio a brown catalog envelope sealed with a metal clasp. He undid the clasp, and pulled out an old-fashioned paper document. Tio’s eyes widened as he read, both his eyebrows rising.
“Is this for real?” He asked no one in particular.
“Yes,” said a familiar, deep voice. “This is for real.”