Chapter Ten: Miller
Captain Shaddid tapped the tip of her middle finger against her thumb when she started getting annoyed. It was a small sound, soft as a cat's paws, but ever since Miller first noticed her habit, it had seemed louder. Quiet as it was, it could fill her office.
"Miller," she said, smiling as if she meant it. "We're all on edge these days. These have been hard, hard times."
"Yes, sir," Miller said, lowering his head like a fullback determined to muscle his way through all defenders, "but I think this is important enough to deserve closer - "
"It's a favor for a shareholder," Shaddid said. "Her father got jumpy. There's no reason to think he meant Mars blasting the Canterbury. Tariffs are going up again. There was a mine blowout on one of the Red Moon operations. Eros is having trouble with their yeast farm. We don't go through a day without something happening in the Belt that would make a daddy scared for his precious little flower."
"Yes, sir, but the timing - "
Her fingers upped tempo. Miller bit his lips. The cause was lost.
"Don't go chasing conspiracies," Shaddid said. "We've got a full board of crimes we know are real. Politics, war, system-wide cabals of inner planet bad guys searching for ways to screw us over? Not our mandate. Just get me a report that says you're looking, I'll send it back up the line, and we can get back to our jobs."
Shaddid nodded and turned back to her terminal. Miller plucked his hat from the corner of her desk and headed out. One of the station house air filters had gone bad over the weekend, and the replacement gave the rooms a reassuring smell of new plastic and ozone. Miller sat at his desk, fingers laced behind his head, and stared at the light fixture above him. The knot that had tied itself in his gut hadn't loosened up. That was too bad.
"Not so good, then?" Havelock asked.
"Could have gone better."
"She pull the job?"
Miller shook his head. "No, it's still mine. She just wants me to do it half-assed."
"Could be worse. At least you get to find out what happened. And if you maybe spend a little time after hours digging into it just for practice, you know?"
"Yeah," Miller said. "Practice."
Their desks were unnaturally clean, his and Havelock's both. The barrier of paperwork Havelock had created between himself and the station had eroded away, and Miller could tell from his partner's eyes and the way his hands moved that the cop in Havelock wanted to get back into the tunnels. He couldn't tell if it was to prove himself before his transfer went through, or just to break a few heads. Maybe those were two ways of saying the same thing.
Just don't get yourself killed before you get out of here, Miller thought. Aloud, he said, "What have we got?"
"Hardware shop. Sector eight, third level in," Havelock said. "Extortion complaint."
Miller sat for a moment, considering his own reluctance as if it belonged to someone else. It was like Shaddid had given a dog just one bite of fresh meat, then pointed it back toward kibble. The temptation to blow off the hardware shop bloomed, and for a moment he almost gave in. Then he sighed, swung his feet down to the decking, and stood.
"All right, then," he said. "Let's go make the station safe for commerce."
"Words to live by," Havelock said, checking his gun. He'd been doing that a lot more recently.
The shop was an entertainment franchise. Clean white fixtures offering up custom rigs for interactive environments: battle simulations, exploration games, sex. A woman's voice ululated on the sound system, somewhere between an Islamic call to prayer and orgasm with a drumbeat. Half the titles were in Hindi with Chinese and Spanish translations. The other half were English with Hindi as the second language. The clerk was hardly more than a boy. Sixteen, seventeen years old with a weedy black beard he wore like a badge.
"Can I help you?" the boy said, eying Havelock with disdain just short of contempt. Havelock pulled his ID, making sure the kid got a good long look at his gun when he did it.
"We'd like to talk to" - Miller glanced at the complaint form on his terminal screen - "Asher Kamamatsu. He here?"
The manager was a fat man, for a Belter. Taller than Havelock, the man carried fat around his belly and thick muscles through the shoulders, arms, and neck. If Miller squinted, he could see the seventeen-year-old boy he had been under the layers of time and disappointment, and it looked a lot like the clerk out front. The office was almost too small for the three of them and stacked with boxes of pornographic software.
"You catch them?" the manager said.
"No," Miller said. "Still trying to figure out who they are."
"Dammit, I already told you. There's pictures of them off the store camera. I gave you his fucking name."
Miller looked at his terminal. The suspect was named Mateo Judd, a dockworker with an unspectacular criminal record.
"You think it's just him, then," Miller said. "All right. We'll just go pick him up, throw him in the can. No reason for us to find out who he's working for. Probably no one who'll take it wrong, anyway. My experience with these protection rackets, the purse boys get replaced whenever one goes down. But since you're sure this guy's the whole problem... "
The manager's sour expression told Miller he'd made his point. Havelock, leaning against a stack of boxes marked, smiled.
"Why don't you tell me what he wanted," Miller said.
"I already told the last cop," the manager said.
"He was selling us a private insurance plan. Hundred a month, same as the last guy."
"Last guy?" Havelock said. "So this happened before?"
"Sure," the manager said. "Everyone has to pay some, you know. Price of doing business."
Miller closed his terminal, frowning. "Philosophical. But if it's the price of doing business, what're we here for?"
"Because I thought you... you people had this shit under control. Ever since we stopped paying the Loca, I've been able to turn a decent profit. Now it's all starting up again."
"Hold on," Miller said. "You're telling me the Loca Greiga stopped charging protection?"
"Sure. Not just here. Half of the guys I know in the Bough just stopped showing up. We figured the cops had actually done something for once. Now we've got these new bastards, and it's the same damn thing all over again."
A crawling feeling made its way up Miller's neck. He looked up at Havelock, who shook his head. He hadn't heard of it either. The Golden Bough Society, Sohiro's crew, the Loca Greiga. All the organized crime on Ceres suffering the same ecological collapse, and now someone new moving into the evacuated niche. Might be opportunism. Might be something else. He almost didn't want to ask the next questions. Havelock was going to think he was paranoid.
"How long has it been since the old guys called on you for protection?" Miller asked.
"I don't know. Long time."
"Before or after Mars killed that water hauler?"
The manager folded his thick arms; his eyes narrowed.
"Before," he said. "Maybe a month or two. S'that got to do with anything?"
"Just trying to get the time scale right," Miller said. "The new guy. Mateo. He tell you who was backing his new insurance plan?"
"That's your job, figuring it. Right?"
The manager's expression had closed down so hard Miller imagined he could hear the click. Yes, Asher Kamamatsu knew who was shaking him down. He had balls enough to squeak about it but not to point the finger.
"Well, thanks for that," Miller said, standing up. "We'll let you know what we find."
"Glad you're on the case," the manager said, matching sarcasm for sarcasm.
In the exterior tunnel, Miller stopped. The neighborhood was at the friction point between sleazy and respectable. White marks showed where graffiti had been painted over. Men on bicycles swerved and weaved, foam wheels humming on the polished stone. Miller walked slowly, his eyes on the ceiling high above them until he found the security camera. He pulled up his terminal, navigated to the logs that matched the camera code, and cross-referenced the time code from the store's still frames. For a moment, he thumbed the controls, speeding people back and forth. And there was Mateo, coming out of the shop. A smug grin deformed the man's face. Miller froze the image and enhanced it. Havelock, watching over his shoulder, whistled low.
The split circle of the OPA was perfectly clear on the thug's armband - the same kind of armband he'd found in Julie Mao's hole.
What kind of company have you been keeping, kid? Miller thought. You're better than this. You have to know you're better than this.
"Hey, partner," he said aloud. "Think you can write up the report on that interview? I've got something I'd like to do. Might not be too smart to have you there. No offense."
Havelock's eyebrows crawled toward his hairline.
"You're going to question the OPA?"
"Shake some trees, is all," Miller said.
Miller would have thought that just being a security contractor in a known OPA-convivial bar would be enough to get him noticed. In the event, half the faces he recognized in the dim light of John Rock Gentlemen's Club were normal citizens. More than one of those were Star Helix, just like him, when they were on duty. The music was pure Belter, soft chimes accompanied by zither and guitar with lyrics in half a dozen languages. He was on his fourth beer, two hours past the end of his shift, and on the edge of giving up his plan as a losing scheme when a tall, thin man sat down at the bar next to him. Acne-pocked cheeks gave a sense of damage to a face that otherwise seemed on the verge of laughter. It wasn't the first OPA armband he'd seen that night, but it was worn with an air of defiance and authority. Miller nodded.
"I heard you've been asking about the OPA," the man said. "Interested in joining up?"
Miller smiled and lifted his glass, an intentionally noncommittal gesture.
"You who I'd talk to if I did?" he asked, his tone light.
"Might be able to help."
"Maybe you could tell me about a couple other things, then," he said, taking out his terminal and putting it on the fake bamboo bar with an audible click. Mateo Judd's picture glowed on the screen. The OPA man frowned, turning the screen to see it better.
"I'm a realist," Miller said. "When Chucky Snails was running protection, I wasn't above talking to his men. When the Hand took over and then the Golden Bough Society after them. My job isn't to stop people from bending the rules, it's to keep Ceres stable. You understand what I'm saying?"
"I can't say I do," the pock-marked man said. His accent made him sound more educated than Miller had expected. "Who is this man?"
"His name's Mateo Judd. He's been starting a protection business in sector eight. Says it's backed by the OPA."
"People say things, Detective. It is Detective, isn't it? But you were discussing realism."
"If the OPA's making a move on the Ceres black economy, it's going to be better all around if we can talk to each other. Communicate."
The man chuckled and pushed the terminal back. The bartender paced by, a question in his eyes that wasn't asking if they needed anything. It wasn't meant for Miller.
"I had heard that there was a certain level of corruption in Star Helix," the man said. "I admit I'm impressed by your straightforward manner. I'll clarify. The OPA isn't a criminal organization."
"Really? My mistake. I figured from the way it killed a lot of people... "
"You're baiting me. We defend ourselves against people who are perpetrating economic terrorism against the Belt. Earthers. Martians. We are in the business of protecting Belters," the man said. "Even you, Detective."
"Economic terrorism?" Miller said. "That seems a little overheated."
"You think so? The inner planets look on us as their labor force. They tax us. They direct what we do. They enforce their laws and ignore ours in the name of stability. In the last year, they've doubled the tariffs to Titania. Five thousand people on an ice ball orbiting Neptune, months from anywhere. The sun's just a bright star to them. Do you think they're in a position to get redress? They've blocked any Belter freighters from taking Europa contracts. They charge us twice as much to dock at Ganymede. The science station on Phoebe? We aren't even allowed to orbit it. There isn't a Belter in the place. Whatever they do there, we won't find out until they sell the technology back to us, ten years from now."
Miller sipped his beer and nodded toward his terminal.
"So this one isn't yours?"
"No. He isn't."
Miller nodded and put the terminal back in his pocket. Oddly, he believed the man. He didn't hold himself like a thug. The bravado wasn't there. The sense of trying to impress the world. No, this man was certain and amused and, underneath it all, profoundly tired. Miller had known soldiers like that, but not criminals.
"One other thing," Miller said. "I'm looking for someone."
"Not exactly, no. Juliette Andromeda Mao. Goes by Julie."
"Should I know the name?"
"She's OPA," Miller said with a shrug.
"Do you know everyone in Star Helix?" the man said, and when Miller didn't answer, he added, "We are considerably larger than your corporation."
"Fair point," Miller said. "But if you could keep an ear out, I'd appreciate it."
"I don't know that you're in a position to expect favors."
"No harm asking."
The pock-faced man chuckled, put a hand on Miller's shoulder.
"Don't come back here, Detective," he said, and walked away into the crowd.
Miller took another drink of his beer, frowning. An uncomfortable feeling of having made the wrong step fidgeted in the back of his mind. He'd been sure that the OPA was making a move on Ceres, capitalizing on the death of the water hauler and the Belt's uptick in fear and hatred of the inner planets. But how did that fit with Julie Mao's father and his suspiciously well-timed anxiety? Or the disappearance of Ceres Station's supply of usual suspects in the first place? Thinking about it was like watching a video that was just out of focus. The sense of it was almost there, but only almost.
"Too many dots," Miller said. "Not enough lines."
"Excuse me?" the bartender said.
"Nothing," Miller said, pushing the half-empty bottle across the bar. "Thanks."
In his hole, Miller turned on some music. The lyrical chants that Candace had liked, back when they were young and, if not hopeful, at least more joyful in their fatalism. He set the lights to half power, hoping that if he relaxed, if for just a few minutes he let go of the gnawing sense that he had missed some critical detail, the missing piece might arrive on its own.
He'd half expected Candace to appear in his mind, sighing and looking crossly at him the way she had in life. Instead, he found himself talking with Julie Mao. In the half sleep of alcohol and exhaustion, he imagined her sitting at Havelock's desk. She was the wrong age, younger than the real woman would be. She was the age of the smiling kid in her picture. The girl who had raced in the Razorback and won. He had the sense of asking her questions, and her answers had the power of revelation. Everything made sense. Not only the change in the Golden Bough Society and her own abduction case, but Havelock's transfer, the dead ice hauler, Miller's own life and work. He dreamed of Julie Mao laughing, and he woke up late, with a headache.
Havelock was waiting at his desk. His broad, short Earther face seemed strangely alien, but Miller tried to shake it off.
"You look like crap," Havelock said. "Busy night?"
"Just getting old and drinking cheap beer," Miller said.
One of the vice squad shouted something angry about her files being locked again, and a computer tech scuttled across the station house like a nervous cockroach. Havelock leaned closer, his expression grave.
"Seriously, Miller," Havelock said. "We're still partners, and... honest to God, I think you may be the only friend I've got on this rock. You can trust me. If there's anything you want to tell me, I'm good."
"That's great," Miller said. "But I don't know what you're talking about. Last night was a bust."
"Sure, OPA. Anymore, you swing a dead cat in this station, you'll hit three OPA guys. Just no good information."
Havelock leaned back, lips pressed thin and bloodless. Miller's shrug asked a question, and the Earther nodded toward the board. A new homicide topped the list. At three in the morning, while Miller had been having inchoate dream conversations, someone had opened Mateo Judd's hole and fired a shotgun cartridge full of ballistic gel into his left eye.
"Well," Miller said, "called that one wrong."
"Which one?" Havelock said.
"OPA's not moving in on the criminals," Miller said. "They're moving in on the cops."