by Michael Kingswood
I was just tallying up the invoice for my latest case, an easy job for a little old lady down on the station’s third level, when Jason commed for entrance to my office.
I’d known Jason for a couple years, and when he commed the image of his face popped up into the upper-left corner of my vision, courtesy of the database implants I’d had installed last year. Made forgetting names and faces a thing of the past, but sometimes it could also be annoying. Like now, when I had been busily deciding whether to charge Ms. Gorant for the gratuity I’d had to slip to a security guy or just let it slide.
So I tried to ignore Jason’s comm. Maybe he’d go away.
But he commed again a few seconds later.
Screw it. I’d let her pass on this one. Swiping the gratuity entry out of the invoice, I made a sweeping downward gesture with my left hand, and the holo of the invoice file compressed down into the stainless steel top of my desk and winked out.
My office was not what you’d call spacious. Just a few meters on a side, barely larger than a closet in some people’s homes. But I owned it right out—or as much as anyone could really own anything on a space station that was owned entirely by the government of the Qorathi Empire—and I’d made it into my own little slice of…well, not quite heaven, but at least something that worked for me.
The desk was directly in front of the door, and L-shaped so that I could swivel my chair to to the right to face the little brown and white sofa where clients could sit without exposing myself. That also gave me plenty of leg room. And plenty of room to conceal a couple of pieces on either side of the L, so one was always easy at hand, whichever way I was facing. Just in case.
Behind the desk, or to the right if I was facing the couch, I had my file cabinets and a vidscreen, and just to the right of those was the little blue sliding door that led to my back room, which had just enough space for a bed sized for one—two if you really liked snuggling—and a head compartment that I had modified to include a little shower apparatus in it.
I even had a real potted plant in the corner next to the clients’ couch, which opened flower buds from time to time throughout the year, giving the place a more organic fragrance than the typical after-scents that the atmosphere processors on the Engineering levels lent.
It was pretty much everything a guy could need or want.
Except for maybe a kitchen. But I’d never been a good cook anyway, and Tamra’s place down the corridor had the best chef on the station. So screw it.
The latest comm from Jason was still registering on my implants. I keyed up the security camera I had mounted in the corridor above my door. On the vidscreen above my file cabinets, live video from outside sprang to life and I saw Jason standing there, his head swinging left and right as he shifted from foot to foot noticeably.
Either he really needed to use the head or he was damn nervous about something.
Sighing, I slipped my hand beneath my desk to the button that controlled the door’s locking mechanism, and turned to face front.
The lock snapped open with an audible CLACK, and outside a quick buzzer would have sounded. A second later, Jason had the door pushed open and he slipped inside, closing it as soon as he was through.
Jason was a little bit taller than me, but skinny. The kind of guy who’d never become acquainted with the weight room, but also had a metabolism that kept him lean. He was lightly tanned, with long, thick black hair and deep brown eyes, and he wore an olive green jumpsuit and magboots. A black faux-leather belt cinched the jumpsuit around his waist, and the thigh pocket on his left leg bulged with something or other.
“Hey, Suresh,” Jason said, his eyes dancing from me to the couch to the door to my back room and back in a frenetic scan that confirmed it in my mind: he was scared.
“Jason,” I said, keeping my voice calm and gesturing at the couch for him to sit. “How’s the recording coming?”
Jason blinked, then some of his nervous energy faded as my comment changed his thoughts for a second, and he flashed a hint of a smile.
He worked up on the cargo docks, but he’d always fancied himself a musician. And he had a side gig playing his keyboard and singing in the various bars and clubs that scattered the station. From what I’d heard he made alright money doing that, and he’d developed a bit of a following.
He’d given the station a bit of a stir a couple months ago though, when he launched a campaign to help fund his first privately-recorded and distributed album. He’d put up advertisement messages on the various boards, sent out emails to everyone he knew, pimped it at his gigs. Said he had the distribution all lined up; just needed the money for recording and production. He’d offered a bunch of perks and goodies for people who contributed, depending on how much they gave. It was the talk of the station for a few weeks.
Hell, I’d even contributed a little myself; just enough to get the album, not for anything else. I figured what the hell. He and I weren’t exactly friends, but I didn’t think ill of him. And he could play that keyboard pretty well. So why not help a brother out?
And from what I heard, he’d crushed it. Brought in far more money than he asked for.
Now he just had to produce the thing.
Jason sank onto my couch, and the smile he had started to wear slipped away. He slouched forward, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands together. His eyes lowered to look down at his hands, and he shook his head.
“Need your help. I have to get off the station, without anyone knowing I’ve gone.”
I wasn’t entirely surprised he was in trouble, based on how he was acting. But I was surprised by the request. I cocked an eyebrow at him. “Why?”
He looked back up and me, and blanched when his eyes met mine. “I’m in trouble, man.”
He flinched slightly at my tone—I didn’t even try to hold the sarcasm back—but after a second he shrugged slightly, and his eyes fell again. “I owe some people money. I thought I’d make enough from the album thing to be able to get the album produced and pay them back, and it would all be good. But…” He shook his head.
My other eyebrow rose to meet its fellow on my forehead. “You took in about double what you asked for.”
“Yeah. Well, about that…”
Oh for the love of… I shook my head in disgust. “What, did you blow it all on strippers and dust?”
“What?” He jerked upright, looking at me with an expression like I’d just called his sister a slut. “No!”
“So what’s the problem?”
Jason’s nostril’s flared; I had pissed him off by that dust comment, apparently. But at least he wasn’t talking in a self-pitying mumble anymore. “The problem is that production costs are more than I thought. I blew through most of the money I got, and the album’s only two-thirds done. And I still have to pay for the extras that I offered to the higher-tier backers. And then this morning, Carpenter’s men told me he wants his money. Now.”
“Carpenter? You owe money to Carpenter?” If that were the case, it was bad. Very bad. You didn’t mess with Carpenter, not on Gilroy Station. Hell, not any place within two jumps of this system.
Jason nodded, some of his anger leaving as he considered his predicament again, and not my accusation.
“How much do you owe him?”
“But I heard you brought in almost ten thousand from your fundraiser. How much do you have left?”
Jason just looked at me, silently.
I sat there for a long several moments, considering. He really was in big trouble. It was hard to tell which direction was worse. On the one hand, he had taken a lot of money from people living on the station, making promises to them he apparently now was not going to deliver on. I’m not a lawyer, but to me that sounded like fraud.
On the other hand, he owed Carpenter the equivalent of four months’ wages for a guy who worked the docks, like Jason did.
A man could get thrown in prison for fraud, for a long time. But not paying Carpenter… That would get you spaced.
Ok, no question which was worse, after all.
I shook my head. “Should have paid him off first.”
Jason snorted agreement. Then after a second, he shook his head. “No. I was going to pay him, soon as the album was out and I started getting royalties. No problem, at all.”
I just looked at him. Even after all that had happened, he couldn’t actually be that dumb, to continue justifying like this.
But maybe he was, because he looked back at me defiantly, like he really thought he’d done nothing wrong.
I sighed. “So you want me to smuggle you off the station.” Shaking my head, I said, “What is it you think I do, Jason?”
“What do you mean? You’re a private dick.”
I nodded. “Yeah. I do investigation. If I help you run out on your contributors, I’m an accessory to fraud and maybe larceny. I don’t do crime. You want crime, you go to Carpenter. You want an honest investigation, within the law,” well, not always within the law to be honest, but close enough for deniability; and he didn’t need to hear that right this moment, “you come to me.”
“Carpenter?” Jason looked taken aback. “But I can’t – “
“Right. You can’t go to him to ask for help in getting you away from him.” I blew my breath out in a soft whistle, and leaned back in my chair. “Sounds like you’re screwed.”
Jason frowned, his eyelids fluttering in a quick succession of blinks as he processed what I’d just said.
“You know what the worst part is?”
He shook his head.
“Worst part is I won’t get my copy of your album.”
He blinked. Cocked his head to the side. Then he grinned, as the import of what I’d said raced—as quickly as anything could race—through his head. “Yeah? I didn’t know you backed me. Thanks, man!”
I just stared at him, narrowing my eyes into the look that I knew from experience made me appear a very dangerous fellow to cross. And not just as an act, either. I couldn’t believe what he’d just said. He didn’t even know who had backed him??
How in the hell could he think he would fulfill – ?
I took in a long, deep breath, to calm myself. Held it. Then let it out slowly.
Jason, meanwhile, had lost his momentary smile. He’d actually recoiled deeper into my couch from the look I’d given him. Right that second, he looked like he wanted nothing more than to bolt out of my office.
Too bad for him my door locked automatically when it shut.
I let him squirm for a few seconds as I considered the situation. I could just tell him to get out, and let him take his chances with either Carpenter or the law. It would serve him right.
But you know what? I really did think he played that keyboard well. And I wanted to hear his album.
And, while he wasn’t exactly a friend, I didn’t really want him to end up being spaced either. Or sent to prison. Though let’s be honest: he would never live to go to prison.
And…maybe I could work a little something for myself in this, too.
I nodded to myself and stood up from my desk chair.
Jason made to get up as well, but I put up a hand, and he froze in place.
“Ok,” I said. “Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to stay here. I’m going to go talk to Carpenter.”
“Carpenter?” Jason sounded shocked. “But – “
“Shut up.” I reached down beneath my desk and pulled out the right-most of the guns I kept concealed there. Jason’s eyes widened when he saw it, but when I just lifted up my shirt and tucked the weapon into the holster I always wore on my right hip, he relaxed again. A bit.
“Ok. I’m going to try to cut you a deal. Probably take an hour or two. But if you’re not here when I get back, the deal’s off.”
His eyes flicked from the spot on my hip where the gun was now hidden beneath my shirt to my face, and he nodded. Then his eyes moved to my desk.
Was he wondering what else I had stored in here? Maybe money?
Well, I did have a stash of money in here. But he’d never find it in its hiding spot. And as for the other gun, the mechanism locking it in place beneath the left side of my desk was keyed to my DNA, and wouldn’t unlock for anyone else. So he could muck about with it all day, and never get to the piece.
Still, it couldn’t hurt to lay down the rules plainly for him, since he apparently wasn’t all that smart.
“Don’t touch anything while I’m gone. You can watch the televid and use the head. Nothing else. Got it?”
He nodded again.
“Ok. I’ll be back soon.”
With that, I headed toward the door, and the station beyond.
* * * * *
I’ve worked with Carpenter before. I didn’t know if Jason knew that or not, but it didn’t matter.
No one who does business in my field on Gilroy Station could have avoided crossing paths with Carpenter. In my case, I’d dealt with him twice on behalf of clients and again for a job he wanted done. Mostly above-board, and not at all unscrupulous. He knows my boundaries, and has never even attempted to get me to cross them.
So we knew each other. Wouldn’t say we were friends, but there was at least a healthy professional respect there. I was counting on that to give me an in to try to help Jason out of his fix, and as I rode the lift up to the first deck, where Carpenter kept his offices, I went over my pitch to him at least four times.
The first deck was much different than the lower level where I resided. The corridors were broader, the overheads higher, the LED lightning more closely approximating the natural light from a G5 star. Even the gravplates in the deck seemed more uniform, but maybe that was just an illusion caused by all the other niceties that were so much better than what I was used to.
Carpenter’s offices were opulent, as fitted a man of his stature. Officially, he was CEO of the system’s largest shipping firm, and had branched out into real estate development and domestic manufacturing.
But of course, that was just a front to conceal, and assist, his real business.
Still, as I strode into Carpenter’s corporate offices I couldn’t help feel like I was being warmly welcomed into a peaceful and honest realm of commerce, bent only toward doing its best for the benefit of its clients and shareholders both. But that only lasted a few seconds. Then I began glancing over my shoulder, looking for the knife that was heading toward my back.
Or the bullet.
Since I was known there, I managed to skirt past the initial layer of receptionists and lackeys. But I couldn’t just waltz past Justine, Carpenter’s executive assistant. She was mid-40s and still attractive, with lush blond hair—that had to have been dyed to conceal growing gray—rolling past her shoulders and a shapely figure that didn’t at all reflect the five children that I knew for a fact she had borne her husband. As I approached, her sparkling green eyes narrowed and she smiled at me cautiously, shifting so that the green blouse she wore closed a bit at the collar.
Almost like she expected me to try to steal a glimpse, or something.
“Mr. Ramantha,” she said by greeting, and arched an eyebrow at me. Sitting there behind the thick mahogany desk that marked her domain, she made no qualms about who was in charge in this place. “I don’t believe you have an appointment.”
I grinned at her, trying for the charming gambit. “Just wanted to see you again.”
The other eyebrow rose to join the first, and her lips compressed.
So much for the charming bit. I cleared my throat. “I need to see him. It’s an urgent matter, concerning Jason Ramsey.”
She just looked at me for a few seconds, and I could see the wheels turning in her head. On the one hand, Carpenter didn’t like to be disturbed without an appointment. On the other hand, she knew I had done jobs for him in the past. And her eye had twitched slightly when I said Jason’s name. She knew Carpenter was interested in him, if not the exact reason why he was.
Justine nodded. “One moment.”
Then her eyes went unfocused. I recognized the expression of a person conducting subvocal comms over implants; she was communicating directly with her boss.
A moment later she blinked, and her eyes turned back to meet mine. She nodded slightly. “Mr. Carpenter will see you.”
She gestured toward the wide faux-oak double doors to the left of her desk, which led into Carpenter’s inner sanctum. Smiling at her, I nodded, then proceeded toward the doors. I saw her left hand drift beneath her desk, and then a buzz and click announced a lock disengaging. Then the door swung open inwardly.
Carpenter’s office was five or six times the size of mine, and paneled in what was either very good faux oak or the real thing. Either way, it would have cost a small fortune to bring it up here onto the station. The left-hand wall as I entered was dominated by bookshelves that were crammed full of hardback tomes beyond immediate count: yet another indication of the man’s wealth even if the panelling hadn’t been enough. His desk was broad and deep, made of darkly stained wood, and faced the doors before a wall of pure transparent plasteel that looked out into the starscape beyond the way a planetbound executive’s would look out over a picturesque countryside.
A trio of beige upholstered stuffed chairs sat around a round table that was stained the same shade as Carpenter’s desk between the doors and the desk, to the right a bit; a more informal place to meet than in the two similarly upholstered chairs sitting directly across from his desk and facing it.
Carpenter himself was a man who, unlike Jason, had seen the inside of a weight room before, many times. Word was he had played rugby in his youth, and though he was in his 50s now and his belly strained the buttons of the grey pinstriped suit coat he wore over a white shirt and red tie, he still had the broad shoulders and barrel chest that spoke of many years of exertion. His face was round and he had closely-cut yellow-brown hair, and hazel eyes, and the lines around his mouth suggested a man who liked to smile and laugh.
When I stepped in, he rose from the chair he was sitting in—one of those surrounding the round table—and placed the book he had been reading down atop the table.
“Suresh,” he said, extending his hand to me. “Nice to see you again.”
I knew from experience that his grip was beyond firm; every time I shook hands with him I had to thrust my hand as deeply into his as possible, or my fingers would be crushed to the point of breaking. I did the same this time, inwardly bracing myself against the pain in case I didn’t go far enough before he began the squeeze.
“Mr. Carpenter,” I said simply, and squeezed as the vice grip came down around my fingers. I didn’t let my relief show when I realized I had, indeed, pushed far enough.
But I could see from the amused twinkle in Carpenter’s eyes that he knew what I was thinking. Still, he had the grace not to say it. He just released my hand and gestured toward the other chair at the table. As I settled down in the proffered chair, he spoke again.
“So you’re here on behalf of Mr. Ramsey,” he said, shaking his head. “Wish I could say I wasn’t upset with him.”
“Yes well,” I said, and leaned forward toward him as he also sat. “You have reason. I’m here to see if we can work out an arrangement.”
“I don’t see what’s to work out. He raised a lot of money with his fundraiser. He needs to pay what he owes.”
That was true enough. But…
“I don’t disagree. But there’s more to the situation that makes things…complicated.”
Carpenter raised an eyebrow, and I laid it out for him.
When I had finished, he leaned back in his chair and blew out a long, exasperated breath. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
I shook my head. “I wish I was.”
“So you mean to tell me that not only does he not have enough money to pay me, he doesn’t have enough to finish his recording?”
Carpenter looked away, toward the plasteel wall the looked out onto the universe. “Son of a bitch,” he said. He paused for a second, then looked back at me. “You know I backed his fundraiser? At the highest level.”
I blinked, utter surprise forcing me to silence for several seconds as I processed what Carpenter had said.
I flashed back to the days when Jason had been running his fundraiser. The highest tier had been for five hundred. Which meant…
“He owed you four thousand, and you gave him five hundred more in the fundraiser?”
“You didn’t add it to his debt, just gave it?”
He nodded again.
Carpenter shrugged. “What can I say? The man plays a mean keyboard, and he’s got a great voice.”
No argument there. Except it was another indictment again Jason, because if he had realized Carpenter had given him five hundred in the fundraiser, surely that would have queued something in his head to question what was going on with the debt he owed.
But then again, I’d already established that Jason wasn’t so smart. So…
I shook my head. One thing at a time.
“Can we agree we’d both rather see him finishing his album and getting it out to the world earning money than see him try to breathe vacuum?”
Carpenter raised an eyebrow at my forthright statement, but he nodded. He had a distinctively curious expression on his face.
“So how about this. You front him the rest of the money to finish producing the album and to make good on the rewards to his backers.”
Carpenter opened his mouth, to object no doubt, but I held up a hand before he could say anything.
“Hear me out.”
He shut his mouth. Though he did not look happy.
“You manage him while it’s being finished. Make sure he keeps on the straight and narrow. Then when it comes out, you get the proceeds, both revenue from royalties and from concerts, until his debt is paid plus….let’s say twenty percent.” I raised an eyebrow. “Simple interest.”
Carpenter snorted, but made a gesture that said, “Keep going.”
“After that, you get 40% for the life of the album.”
Carpenter sat silently for a half minute, pondering. Then he shook his head. “That’s a lot of risk to take on my shoulders. For all you and I know, the album might not earn anything beyond what it already has.”
“Then Jason works for you until his debt’s paid, with interest.” I raised an eyebrow. “Simple interest,” I said again. And again Carpenter snorted. I continued, “But I think neither of us believes it won’t do well. If you add a little bit more funding for marketing in the surrounding systems, it just might catch on big. And then…” I left the rest unsaid, but spread my hands and raised my eyebrows at him.
The corners of Carpenter’s mouth were beginning to turn upward slightly. “That’s more money out of my pocket, Suresh. I’d need more of a cut on the back end.”
“How much more?”
I shook my head. “Fifty.”
I hesitated, then nodded. “Done.”
Carpenter leaned back in his chair and inhaled, then let out a long slow sigh. “This could turn out to be a good thing,” he said. “I run Jason’s musical career. Get most of the proceeds…” He raised an eyebrow. “This goes well, I might open up my own label, hmm?”
I shook my head. “No. This is just for this one album. After that, he’s on his own.”
Carpenter’s satisfied expression dropped a bit. “Not sure I like that. He’s not exactly a reliable man. Once I’ve made the investment to get him off the ground I don’t want him screwing it up in later efforts.”
“That’s between you and him. Later. If he wants to sign on with you again in the future, fine. But for this deal, I’m not committing him to anything further.”
“What, you don’t trust me?”
I didn’t answer, just looked at him. Truth was, I didn’t trust him. And though Jason and I weren’t friends, I had no intention of signing him into indentured servitude to this man. Paying him back, and giving him a piece of the action for his trouble? Sure. Forcing Jason to work with him forever? Not a chance.
After a few seconds, Carpenter shrugged. “Fine. He’s free to do what he wants after this first album, as long as I get paid back with interest first.”
I raised an eyebrow, and he chuckled. “Simple interest,” he added, sounding amused. “But,” he held up his finger, “if he starts to produce his second album before I get my money back, I get the same cut of the second.”
That seemed fair. I nodded. “Agreed.”
“Well,” Carpenter said, and moved to stand. “I suppose all’s well that ends well.”
“Not quite,” I said, not moving.
Carpenter paused, then settled back down into his seat. He eyed me sideways. “What else is there?”
“My cut,” I said.
His eyebrows rose.
“He’s not my friend,” I said. “I’m only doing this because I didn’t want to see him spaced, and I like his music. I think I should get a finders fee.”
Carpenter’s lips turned downward slightly. “How much?”
“So I only get fifty-five.” There was the beginnings of anger growing there, and I hurried to clarify before that anger began to blaze.
“No, you get your sixty-five. My ten percent is on top of that.”
The anger fled, and Carpenter nodded in understanding. “So sixty-five to me, ten to you, and twenty-five to him.”
I nodded. “But if it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer he not know about my cut.”
Carpenter just looked at me for a moment, then said. “So he thinks I get seventy-five, but in reality I’m kicking back ten to you. And then in subsequent albums, if we continue working together?”
I shrugged. “Like I said, that’s between him and you. I don’t want any part of it after that. If you two decide to keep working together, give him a ten percent raise, to sweeten the deal. Or keep the seventy-five. Doesn’t matter to me.”
Carpenter burst out laughing, then he held out his hand, and we shook.
I didn’t push far enough this time, and left feeling like my fingers had been broken.
* * * * *
“Seventy-five percent?” Jason’s voice was higher-pitched than normal, disbelief arguing with relief and then with resistance as he responded to my summation of the negotiation with Carpenter.
“Sorry man,” I said, as I unholstered my gun and slipped it into its clip beneath the desk, then settled back down into my chair. “He was rather irritated with you. I tried to get him less, but…” I spread my hands helplessly. “Best I could do.”
Jason nodded slowly. “Yeah, guess so.” He looked away from me, toward the vidscreen, which he had turned to a sitcom while I was away. He wasn’t really watching it, just looking at the flashing images as he thought for a second. Then he said, “Still, it sucks he gets so much. I was thinking this would be my big break, you know?”
“Yeah, well, it beats being a fugitive. Or sucking vacuum.”
Jason blanched, and looked back at me. He nodded again, more quickly this time. “That’s for sure.” He drew a breath, then rose. “Thanks, man, I really appreciate the help. You’re a real friend.”
I didn’t let my skepticism show about that. We hadn’t really been friends even before this incident. So I just made a vaguely dismissive wave of my hand. “It’s no big deal. Just happy you’ll get to produce your album.” I paused, then added, “and keep breathing.”
Jason shook his head. “No, man I mean it. You really saved my ass.” He bit his lip, thinking for a second. Then he nodded to himself, coming to a decision of some sort. “Look, I don’t have much money. But how about you take ten percent of what I make from the album?”
I blinked. I hadn’t truly expected he would make this kind of offer. But as long as he was… “You’re getting twenty-five percent. So you mean I get ten percent and you get fifteen, or I get two point five percent and you get twenty-two point five?”
Jason looked askance at me, then he shook his head. “Two percent’s bull crap. You deserve more than that. Straight ten.”
“So Carpenter gets seventy-five, I get ten, and you get fifteen. That doesn’t seem fair to you.”
Jason snorted. “Like you said, without you I wouldn’t be getting anything.”
Spreading my hands, I leaned back in my chair and put on my deepest look of appreciation. “Jason, I really don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t say anything. You saved my ass, man. Thank you.” He extended out his hand.
We shook, then he left my office.
As the door closed behind him and the lock clacked back into place, I considered that this had turned out to be a pretty good day all around. On instinct, I opened my invoicing program up again, then swiped Ms. Gorant’s file open.
Pretty sure she deserved a discount, this time.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: