Chapter IX:

City of Brotherly Love

The unsecured credit chip I took off Larry happened to have a lot of credits on it. I mean a lot! It’s a rare case that net’s me that much. And such a round number; fifty-grand. With that I could pay off all my bills and live comfortably for a year. There’s only one thing it could have been; blood money paid in trust to see Delia Crabwack dead. It was the closest thing to evidence I had. But it would do me no good.

I was already working outside the law on this case. Disturbance of the peace, firing an illegally modified firearm, breaking and entering, destruction of private property, withholding evidence, evasion of order, involuntary manslaughter, and that’s me being lenient. I was living on borrowed time. I needed a measure of protection. Some sort of buffer or fall back position, but now the shroud of anonymity was thin, and the protective arm of the law was rapping its fingers on the gavel. It was time to look up some old friends.

I paid Ollie’s fines with the ill-gotten credits. My own credit chip couldn’t cover the two-grand I needed to get him out on bail, to say nothing of the four-and-a-half that would be needed to clear the incident from his record. Since I was misappropriating evidence in the first place, I figured I might as well do it with gusto. Ollie got processed out clean only having to endure the glares from the duty cops.

People still argue against an economics based justice system. To an extent, I agree. Yeah, the rich can get away with anything shy of capital crimes, but taxes are low, civic work gets done, the economy is fairly strong, and instead of jail time we’ve got mandatory service. It’s not pretty. It has a margin of error wider than the Mississippi. But the people spoke, and now they get to live with the consequences.

I bought Ollie and myself an early breakfast and got him to agree to take me to see Keys. The route was certainly roundabout. Little used corridors, an indoor market, a few inconspicuous layers of security, and a good grilling from some very conspicuous guards eventually led us into a warehouse bustling with activity. There I came face to face with a man I’d been avoiding for over a decade.

“Cypher!” Amar Keys greeted me with a warm embrace just to show everyone around us how Keys and I were such good friends.

“Keys.” I said playing along for the crowd. “Years have been good to you.”

Amar Keys was a lithe and energetic black man coming up to a respectable 5’6”ish. He had on a white button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, faded blue jeans, and expensive looking black boots. Being a modest kingpin, I wouldn’t doubt if those jeans were real denim and not the fake stuff they make these days. The thin spider-web scars around his left eye and cheekbone were nicely concealed by wrinkling when he unleashed one of his piano keyboard smiles. It was the same smile his brother, Sly, had and where they got the nickname "Keys".

What? You thought “Cypher” was my real last name? Another little tradition from BGO. Drop your surname to protect relatives not in the gang. Also "Cypher" is a lot cooler than my real last name. Ollie Mancha’s name probably had something to do with his graffiti.

“Can’t complain.” Keys drawled, surveying his kingdom. I saw people, men and women, early thirties to teenagers, moving around crates of miscellaneous swag. Packing, unpacking, sorting, there was too much activity to easily tell what they were doing.

“Keeping busy." Keys continued. "Come to help the other cubs?.”

At that I bristled. “Not a cub anymore, Keys. You know that. Got my shoes back in BGO.”

Keys slowly turned back to me with another smile. “Either you is or you ain’t. Family takes care of its own.” Keys made it just clear enough for me to understand how much of a threat that statement was.

Keys wanted to put me in place, assert dominance in his territory, in front of his people, over some stranger who technically held a bit of seniority. I needed to humor him. I needed him. And I also knew how quickly that "family" could turn on one who didn't tow the line.

“Family’s all I see here.” I said lowering my eyes.

This seemed to placate Keys. "Hear you paid lil' Mancha's tab. Detective job paying good, eh? Walk the land but don't pay taxes?"

This I was expecting. "Just the right place at the right time. Job gets me by. I had the money at the time. Kid needed help. I just wont be buying that boat after all."

Keys gave me an incredulous smirk. I pretended to not notice.

"How's Sly?"

"Oh, dead." Keys said nonchalantly.

"Sorry to hear it." I said repressing my relief.

"Sure you are."

"If I'd known I would have come to pay my respects. Just...you know...I thought he wanted to kill me."

Keys' smile broadened. "Oh, he did."

"Hey. That wasn’t my fault. We both got caught. I spent eight months doing construction."

"But he spent seven months in waste reclamation. Sly knew how to hold a grudge."

"So...what happened?"

"Got in a fight in the street a few months after getting free. Was sad you never came by to get that blade he held for you. Took his anger out on someone else. Got hit by a garbage truck."

"Shitty luck."

We laughed. It wasn’t nice.

Keys walked over a to a desk and sat down in a chair. I waited for him to offer me one before sitting. "What brings you back?"

I was going to say that I wasn’t back. That I wished I didn't have to be there. I wanted to stay clear and clean of anything Keys was working on while surreptitiously exploiting the benefits of an old relationship I had no intention of maintaining.

"I'm looking for roots. And some information."

I needed an ally. Keys' wicked grin showed me he understood.

"Why were you in lock up?"

"A simple misunderstanding."

Keys leaned forward and looked me in the eye. "Why were you in lock up?"

"Breaking and entering. I convinced them it was a mistake."

Keys continued to stare at me for an uncomfortable moment. I held his gaze trying to not reveal there was more to the story. He relented right before I started to sweat. Keys wasn't going to let me go again without getting some hook in me. He just needed to find a juicy one.

"Think they figure what you did?"

"Eventually." I replied evenly.

"You need a room." That wasn’t a question.

"Yes." Neither was that.

Keys pursed his lips in thought before saying. "Got a room for you."

"Thank you." I tried not to gush with gratitude.

"What info you need?"

"Ever hear of a Simon or Delia Crabwack?"

Keys' expression told me he hadn't. My expression told him I agreed how stupid the name was.

"You got a terminal around here?" I asked.

Keys shouted over his shoulder. "Sammy!"

A lady, probably in her mid-twenties, whom I didn't doubt would clean up well when she wasn’t being a tomboy, approached us with an expensive looking tablet. Jet-black hair over skin that could use more sun, she was a little on the gangly side, but not unattractive, with features cobbled together from generations of racial cross-breeding. When she got closer, I saw that the tablet was plugged into a port in her left forearm. I'd seen tablets like that advertised before. They were very hip but cheap pieces of tech.

I raised an eyebrow at Keys. "I didn't realize your operation was doing so well to employ techheads."

Keys shrugged. "All the rage with the kids these days."

Thin, sleek, and completely useless without the human operator, the tablets themselves are little more than a 3D screen, high bandwidth wireless modem, and a software suite. Nothing that small could compete with even modest consumer terminals; not without the raw processing power of the human nervous system they were intended to be jacked into. The combination supplied all the computational ability of a high-end government network at a fraction of the cost, if you didn't count the occasional headaches, rare seizures, and possibly full neurological burnout. If you managed your usage wisely, and made sure to see your doctor periodically, the manufacturer assured you the device was safe.

The more I looked at Sammy the younger I perceived her. She was a careless child following a path with little consideration of the consequences. I had no idea what condition this girl was in, but I could see bags under her eyes. She didn't seem to ever look directly at Keys or myself.

I was worried about Sifu. What position had I put him in?

“What do you need?” Sammy asked in a smoky monotone which was suddenly and inappropriately distracting from my thoughts.

“Can you find me a picture of someone?”

“Details?”

“Simon Crabwack. C-R-A-B-W-A-C-K. An accountant. Mother’s name is Noreen. Sister’s name is Constance.

Address? Employer?

I gave her his home address. I didn’t know his employer.

Sammy pressed a few buttons on the screen of her tablet, and I watched as she stood there staring at it, while I tried to not dwell on the little muscle spasms on different parts of her body. Eventually she turned the screen so Keys and I could see.

“This the guy?” she asked.

My jaw clenched. On the screen was a picture of two be-suited men shaking hands and posing for the camera. The man on the left was Simon Crabwack. I recognized the take-everything-too-seriously expression and drab features he shared with his family. The man on right was the one I saw on the video at Larry and Stubbs'. He looked dashing with his hawkish good looks and I-need-a-punch-in-the-face smug smile.

“Yeah, that’s him.” I said pointing at Simon.

“What do you need this man for?” Keys asked.

“A wo…I was hired to find him. No one has seen him in over a month.”

“Murdered?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. But, I’m pretty sure this other guy is involved.”

“Don’t know who the other man is.” Keys said examining the screen. “But this Simon. Seen him before.”

Finally a fucking lead! “Where?”

“Around.”

You’re an asshole, Keys. “What do you know about him?”

Keys turned to me with his trademark smile and said, “Works for me.”

That's a good hook.


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