Sam Nero and the Case of the Disappearing Daddy
Part 1 of 2
by Jane Jago
The name’s Nero, Sam Nero. Private eye and augmented android. Me and my holographic sidekick, Sugar, operate out of an office on the fifty-fifth level of The City. We do okay. But some days are a bit bumpier than others…
When a dame whose everyday walk is as smooth and studiedly sexy as a big jungle cat, and whose make-up is as immaculate as a well-pressed designer suit, arrives in your office at a shambling run with her face all over tears and snot it’s a safe bet that something pretty bad is wrong.
I was lost in thought, with my feet propped on my desk and my hat tipped way down over my eyes, when my office door was thrown open in a dramatic fashion. I barely had long enough to wonder why in the hell my holographic door was now making an eldritch shriek, when Katie Scarlett O’Halleran and her exceptional bosom landed almost in my lap. She was crying, and her face was a mess.
She grabbed me by the lapels and tried to shake me.
“Sam. Sam. You have to come. Somebody has taken Daddy.”
I sat bolt upright and squared my shoulders. Anybody brave enough to mess with Mister Aitch was certainly a big fish, and I guessed I was about to go shark fishing. I grasped the sobbing girl by her slender shoulders.
“Calm down Katie Scarlett, and tell me what happened.”
“I already told you,” she all but screamed, “somebody has taken Daddy.”
“Details Katie, details.”
I gently compelled her to sit down, and held onto her until her chest stopped heaving and she took two steadying breaths. Then I got the bottle out of my drawer and poured her a stiff one. Her teeth chattered against the side of the glass, but the act of drinking calmed her almost as much as the bourbon.
“Daddy’s personal alarm sounded about an hour back. Me and the twins ran, but his office door was locked. When we broke the door down he was gone, and there was blood all over.”
“Okay,” I said, although I didn’t think anything was okay. “Where are the twins now?”
“Flirting with your holographic floozie. We set droids to watch on the office and came straight here.”
I decided now was not the time to react to the slur on Sugar’s character. Instead, I reached into the locked drawer of my desk and pulled out two extra weapons, a mini blaster that I stuck in my sock, and a weighted sap that slipped into my pocket.
“Let’s go then.”
The twins and Sugar were in animated sign language conversation.
“Sugar,” I said, “if anybody comes looking…”
“I don’t know where you are, and I certainly never saw these folks.” She flashed me that empty-headed smile that I knew hid a mind like a steel trap and wiggled her assets. I gave her the raised eyebrow and we left.
The trip down the glides was tense and silent. Katie had herself together but she was only holding by a thread, while the twins obviously looked to me for a lead. I’ll admit it. I was worried. So much so that I didn’t even bother to exchange words with the young chancer who thought it would be a good idea to put his hands on Katie Scarlett; I just broke his wrist before I threw him off the glide. Myk gave me the thumb, and Zig grinned a tight grin.
At Hood’s Bar, everything looked smooth on the surface, the booths were full, the bar droids were just about run off their feet, and the holographic pianist was playing that damned song. Again. The undertones of worry were there if you had the eyes to see them, though. The droids were jittery, and every security guy had a hand on his weapon. Oh yeah. It was tense and they were all looking to Sam Nero for a lead.
“Office,” I said and followed Katie Scarlett’s long legs down the familiar corridor. She signalled to a guard droid, who opened the door.
“You all wait here.”
I strode into the office then stopped in my tracks. The blood was wrong, it smelled wrong. I rolled back the plastic ‘skin’ from my fingertip and bent to touch the red fluid. It was blood all right, but not human blood. It was rat blood. Somebody had recently killed one of the rats that inhabit the tunnels that honeycomb The City. So why was that blood artistically splattered all over O’Halleran’s office?
I turned and closed the office door. I spoke softly.
“Okay Mister O’Halleran, what gives?”
A panel behind the desk opened and the big shark himself stepped out. He was a little dusty, but unharmed, and he held a blaster in one big fist. Seeing it was me, and I was alone, he pocketed the weapon. His flat, killer’s eyes regarded me unblinkingly for a second.
“You have just presented me with a problem, Nero.”
“How so?” I leaned one shoulder against a bit of door that wasn’t smeared with rat blood and lifted a brow at the hulking killer.
“I got information that you had taken money to kill me. And that Katie Scarlett was in on the deal.”
“So you decided to disappear?”
“I did. And I heard my little girl screaming. And now you come in here quiet, with your hands empty. And I don’t know what to think.”
“Try thinking that you’ve been had.”
He regarded me for a long moment.
“Maybe I have. But what to do about it.”
I examined my fingernails for a long minute before giving him my blandest stare.
“Go back in that cubbyhole and await developments. Or…”
“Or find out who set this up.”
“And how do you suggest I go about that?”
“Think for a start. Think about who would benefit if you thought Katie Scarlett had betrayed you.”
O’Halleran stared at me. His eyes were lightless and unreadable. Then he nodded.
“I’ve thought. And now we have to catch the bastard.”
“You narrowed it down to one?”
He shook his big head ruefully.
“Not that simple. Gotta be family. Nobody else benefits. Nearest is my sister and her slimy bastard of a husband. But it don’t quite fit.”
I waited as something came across his countenance, something he didn’t like too much by the looks of him. When he said nothing I pulled my brave together and spoke up.
“Okay, Mister Aitch, what does fit?”
He looked at me with something akin to loathing, but I gave him back stare for stare and in the end he dropped his eyes.
“I got a cousin, his mammy died when he was just a button and my ma and pa brung him up as their own. We was like brothers. He has a son, a smooth handsome son…”
He stopped speaking, and I kept my mouth shut too, knowing that this glimpse of O’Halleran’s humanity was a dangerous thing to have seen. He was quiet for a while, but when he did speak his voice was as coldly unemotional as it always was unless he was talking to Katie Scarlett.
“All right, Nero. You are supposed to be the best. Catch the bastard for me. I’ll pay whatever.”
“I’m working for Katie Scarlett right now.”
His face worked for a moment.
“I suppose you are. So now what?”
“That depends on you. Can you get out of here unseen?”
“Once you are out, where can you get to?”
“My private apartment, upstairs. You will need a key card to get in,”
“Doesn’t Katie Scarlett have one?”
“No. She has her own apartment and I don’t have a key to that.”
I thought he probably did have a key, but deemed it prudent not to voice that thought. He handed me a card and turned to go back through the panel.
“One hour,” I said to his retreating back, and he nodded.
Once the panel had shut gently behind him I opened the office door. I gave Katie Scarlett just the merest suspicion of a wink before coming out and carefully closing up behind me. I looked at the two big droids.
“Nobody goes in there without my say-so. That’s nobody.”
They looked to Katie for approval and she nodded.
The bigger of the two spoke.
“That means not even Miss O’Halleran?”
She nodded again.
“Sam will have his reasons.”
“I do have. For now you need to speak to all the staff Katie Scarlett, assure them that everything is being taken care of.”
“I can do that. And you will be?”
I waved my fingers and she swallowed.
“I prefer to call it exploration.”
She managed a wan little smile, and turned away with a deliberate swing of her hips.
“And Katie,” I spoke to her retreating back and she turned to look over her shoulder. “Don’t speak to any family members.”
She showed me her even, white teeth in a taut grin
I waved Myk and Zig after her, then went back into the blood-spattered office. Twenty minutes got me everything I needed to know and I went in search of Katie. I found her sitting at the bar moodily sipping what looked to be a very large martini. I must have raised an eyebrow because she pushed it towards me.
“Virgin, Sam. You can taste it if you don’t believe me.” She didn’t sound too fond of me so I favoured her with my best overgrown schoolboy grin.
“None of my nevermind, Katie Scarlett,” I said pacifically.
“It could be your nevermind if you wanted,” her voice turned into honey being poured over warm rocks and she licked her full lower lip with an adorably pointed pink tongue.
I leaned over and swatted that portion of her excellent backside which wasn’t resting on the barstool.
“Behave, Katie Scarlett. There’s a game on.”
For a second she pouted, but underneath the flouncing and posturing she’s daddy’s daughter through and through, so she sat upright and regarded me flatly.
“There is? Then it’s about time I was told who’s playing.”
“I guess it is about time I filled you in. But not here. And not quite yet.”
Her diamond-bright gaze raked my face as sharply as a set of painted fingernails. Whatever she saw in that face must have satisfied her because she nodded briefly.
“In twenty minutes or so, if everything pulls together.”
She crossed a pair of silk clad legs and crooked a finger at the bar droid.
“I’ll have a proper martini, and Mister Nero will have a bourbon on the rocks.”
The droid almost bowed before scuttling off.
“What’s with the barkeep?”
“Oh. They all think Daddy is gone. And that makes me the boss. And they aren’t sure they like the idea.”
I grinned. “And why would that be?”
“Because I have an eye for detail, and I don’t have patience with anyone or anything that doesn’t do its job.”
“I just bet you don’t.”
The bar droid came back with the drinks and she flashed it a dazzling smile.
Katie Scarlett took a sip and inhaled the icy vapour.
“Sam,” she said and her voice was kinda soft and appealing, “am I ugly?”
I looked at her assessingly allowing my eyes to caress her creamy skin, and I was rewarded by a rosy blush that spread up her long throat and mantled her cheeks.
“No,” I said, “and you know you aren’t. But that’s not the question is it?”
She met my eyes bravely. “It isn’t. You know what the question is.”
“I do. But I promised your daddy that I wouldn’t explain.”
We finished our drinks in silence, and I looked at my watch. I was just beginning to think I would have to ask for a few more moments when the cellphone in my pocket bleeped. I pulled it out and the readout was what I was waiting for. I stood up and offered Katie Scarlett my arm.
She looked puzzled for a second then put one red nailed hand on my sleeve. I signalled Myk and Zig to follow us and we made our way to the private elevator.
“Where to?” I could feel the waves of puzzlement coming from her rigid figure.
“Your daddy’s apartment.”
“Okay, but we won’t be able to get in.”
I lifted one eyebrow and Katie gave a small moue of defeat. She put one slim hand to a palm plate.
The elevator moved with a silky smoothness that spoke volumes of money and maintenance. The doors hissed open and the four of us stepped out into a white painted foyer with a thickly carpeted floor. Opposite us was a set of double doors, painted to look like wood, but if I’d have been a betting man I’d have put the farm on them being plasteel.
I took the card out of my pocket and applied it to the almost invisible plate beside the doors. Katie Scarlett opened her mouth, but I forestalled her with a finger across those delicious red lips. It almost went without saying that the door which slid open wasn’t even in the same wall as the imposing looking ‘entrance’. I chuckled inwardly as I shepherded Katie and the twins inside, the door closed behind us and we found ourselves in another elevator. It was a quick trip, I guessed one floor only.
This time the door opened into a big room, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a view over the rooftops of Level 39 to where trees and grass grew in the only municipal park in this level.
“That you, Nero?” a voice called from what I guess was the kitchen.
Katie Scarlett swayed like a leaf in the wind and I braced her with my hands around her slender waist.
“Yes it’s me. And I have your daughter with me.”
O’Halleran barrelled out of a door to our left and grasped Katie Scarlett in his brawny arms. I signed to Myk and Zig and the three of us went to enjoy the view. The low-voiced conversation behind us went on for some time, and it seemed to me that Mister Aitch was having some small difficulty pacifying his little girl.
I heard the staccato snap of high heels crossing the floor and Katie’s hand sneaked into mine.
“If I asked nicely, would you lend me a shooter, Sam?”
“What happened to your little stingy gun, babe?”
“Had to lose it when I shot some kid through the leg.”
I laughed. “Taking liberties was he?”
She nodded. “Now. About that shooter.”
“No. I’m not lending you heat so you can shoot your daddy. No matter how pissed off you are.”
Her laughter was lazy, and throaty, and warm.
“I wasn’t really going to shoot him. Just wanted to scare the cold bastard as much as he scared me.”
“Fair enough. But the answer is still no.”
She left hold of my hand and I heard her walking back to daddy, only this time her footfalls didn’t sound so all-fired mad.
Myk put a big hand on my shoulder and I turned to see a smile in his eyes. He signed “good work,” and we fist-bumped.
We carried on looking at the trees as they speared their way into the ‘sky’ until the voices behind us finally wound down. I turned to see Katie Scarlett with her arms around her father and her face buried in his shoulder.
“Not crying, I hope. You’ll mess your face up good if you are.”
“Nope. Not cryin’ just settlin’.”
O’Halleran motioned to a big table that looked as if it might have been made of real tree wood, and we all took seats. There was a bottle in the middle of the table, and a tray of crystal glasses the like of which I didn’t think I had ever seen before. Katie Scarlett poured ten-year-old bourbon with a lavish hand.
“And now,” she fixed me with a steely gaze, “I think Mister Nero has some explaining to do.”
Zig signed something to her, but the moves were so quick and so subtle that I didn’t catch any of it. Whatever it was brought red flags of embarrassment to her cheeks, and she cast down her eyes.
“Sorry Sam. Uncalled for.”
I handed around my best good old boy grin.
“No worries, babe. And I do have some explaining.”
I touched my wrist unit and Sugar appeared in the vacant chair at the foot of the table. O’Halleran licked his lips, and that riled me.
“A little respect, now, or we walk.”
He glared at me for a long moment, and opened his mouth to say who knew what, but Katie Scarlett forestalled him.
“Manners Daddy. Sugar may only be a hologram, but she is still entitled to be treated respectfully.”
The big man subsided and I nodded to Sugar.
“We are here,” she spoke briskly and not at all in her usual breathy little girl voice, “to talk about why anybody might find it worth their while to poison Mister O’Halleran’s mind against Sam and Katie Scarlett. I have some information that might clear things up a bit.”
As soon as she stopped speaking a short movie played itself out on the white wall opposite her chair. It was night and two figures walked along an unfamiliar street. The woman was wrapped around the man like a morning glory vine, and they stopped under a convenient street lamp for a bit of canoodling. The man’s hands were all over the woman, and as she lifted her face to be kissed Katie Scarlett’s features were revealed. Then the man turned his head.
For an instant Katie Scarlett stared, then she sprung up from her seat like a vengeful goddess.
She’s fast, but I’m faster and I was on my feet in time to catch the clawing hands and hold her away from me as she kicked and screamed. It took her a goodish while to recognise that she was getting nowhere, and soon as she started running down I transferred both of her wrists to one hand and used the other to lift her chin.
I made my voice hard.
“Katie Scarlett, you need to stop acting like a baby and just listen to me. You’re all over snot and you’re making an exhibition of yourself. Capiche?”
For a long moment her reaction hung in the balance, then I felt the tension leave her body. I handed her my handkerchief and she blew her nose firmly. She made to hand the crumpled square of linen back, with the ghost of her three cornered smile hovering above her lips.
“You keep it babe.”
“Thank you most to death, Sam. But who? That’s not me? Isn’t you either is it?”
“No. It isn’t either one of us.”
“Will somebody please explain,” Mister Aitch sounded both bemused and dangerous.
“It’s simple, if you think instead of reacting,” Sugar’s icy tones acted like a douche of cold water. “Somebody, somewhere spent a lot of money setting Sam and Katie up. You wanna know who?”
“Oh. I want to know all right.” The big man looked at his daughter. “You gonna forgive me?”
She gave him the cold eye for a moment, then smiled a sad smile. “I guess I gotta. I almost believed it was me myself.”
Sugar watched them tolerantly for a while before bringing the meeting back to order.
“At first Sam and I thought the security camera footage was completely faked, but we were wrong. That camera saw what we saw. So how was it done?”
The picture on the wall grew bigger as it zoomed in and focussed on the man’s hands. At first it blurred and shook, before steadying and sharpening.
Katie caught on before her father.
“Why, it’s a droid.”
Mister Aitch stared at the wall.
“So it is. And a pretty darned expensive one.”
Katie shrugged. “It’s good, but they can never get the fingernails quite right.”
I found myself looking at my own hands, then I dragged my gaze away to find Sugar smiling at me. I smiled back and dropped her the ghost of a wink.
Mister Aitch leaned his elbows on the table.
“What else you got to tell me?”
I took over.
“What about who made the droid and who paid him to make it?”
“Now you are talking.”
I signed to Myk, who left the room walking quietly.
Katie quirked an eyebrow at me, and I showed her my blandest face.
The silence around the big table hadn’t quite gone on long enough to be uncomfortable when Myk returned with a bundle wrapped in a sheet slung over one shoulder. The bundle was wriggling. He set it down and the sheet fell away to disclose a thin man, who was trussed up like a joint of beef and had his mouth taped shut. I walked over to him and untaped his mouth. I wasn’t too gentle about it.
“If it isn’t my old buddy Cletus, android tinkerer to the scum of the earth.”
He sneered at me, so I slapped him. Once. It was no more than an open-handed slap, but it rocked his head on its thin neck.
“Manners,” I admonished.
His eyes slid around the room and finding neither support nor sympathy he attempted a shrug.
“Why am I here.”
Before I had the chance to answer, Katie was at my side, moving like a sleek, dangerous cat. She ran one pointed fingernail down his cheek.
“Oh. I think you know why you are here,” she purred.
The skinny guy lost every vestige of bravado and his face paled. He swallowed noisily and I could see the adam’s apple bobbing up and down his scrawny throat.
“You have,” I said quietly, “about ten seconds to start talking before I let my little friend here do her worst.”
He opened and shut his mouth a couple times.
“Nine, eight, seven….”
He slid from Myk’s grasp in a boneless heap. Katie Scarlett sorta poked him with her toe.
“Fainted, who’d a thought it…” she turned on her heel and headed back to the group at the table, where Sugar offered a congratulatory upturned thumb.