The girl looked to her friend for help. They were silent for a long minute. Then the one called Rose spoke up, though with obvious reluctance. She did not meet the visitor’s gaze. “Katla’s hard to talk to, sometimes. It’s not like she’s rude: just quiet. But sometimes— sometimes she’ll tell us where she’s been when she’s not here.” The not-quite-woman’s voice had fallen to a whisper, as if she was afraid someone not present might somehow overhear the conversation.
“She likes to focus with the crazyboys.”
Cardenas exhaled softly. “Katla Anderson is twelve. That’s too young to be focusing with the ninlocos. They would laugh her off. She’d slow their pulse.”
Malaga was shaking her head. “Not the subgrubs. They’ll take you if you’re eleven.” Aware that she might have divulged too much forbidden knowledge, she added hastily, “That’s what I induct, anyway.”
The Inspector straightened. Subgrubs were loose, casual groupings of antisocs not yet old enough to be initiated into a real gang. Despite what the girl had told him, he had never encountered or heard of one as young as eleven being admitted to the clique. But twelve—at twelve you would be tolerated. Thirteen to fourteen was the average age of a subgrub, after which you moved on up to a real ninloco gang, went cleanie—or ended up solo on the Strip. Or dead.
Subgrubings were fluid bands of mature children and immature teens with no real structure or organization. Unlike the ninloco gangs, members owed allegiance only to one another. Bonds were formed through friendship and dissolved as casually as they were begun. Serious crimes were rarely perpetrated by the kids involved. Most turned to antisoc activities out of boredom, not conviction. They were delinquents rather than felons.
It was a good time to catch them out, before their lives started spiraling down the toilet. Especially a bright, apparently promising kid like the Anderson girl.
Drawing his spinner, Cardenas requested the names of all the known subgrub factions reported to swirl within a ten-kim radius of the school. Beyond that, a twelve-year-old would start to find herself in alien territory. “Gobreski,” he recited aloud as the names appeared on the screen. “Narulas. Pinks, Habaneros, Terravillas. The Lost Perros. Vetevenga. Socratease. Convirgil.”
“Vetevenga,” murmured Rose. “That’s the one. I don’t know where they focus.”
“There’s something else.” Cardenas shifted his attention to the taller girl.
“She—Katla mentioned the name of one antisoc a lot. A boy.” Rose shot her friend a warning look that was ignored. “Como’s himself ‘Wild Whoh.’ I—we—met him once or twice. He was never enrolled here, but they let him audit a few classes. Whenever he was here, he and Katla would hub.” Raising one hand above her head, she held it out, palm facing down. “About this tall, kind of skinny. Short green hair, usually. Crossoed querymark shaved into the right side. One time I remember him saying he was fifteen—but I think he was boasting. Afranglo skin and features.” She touched her left ear. “Always wearing a muse when he wasn’t in session. Passing out nodes like some bigtime Noburu-san.”
“They were a good match,” a still-hesitant Rose added. “He was even weirder than Katla.”
The Inspector recorded the info. “You’ve both been very helpful. Thank you.” He turned to go.
A hand clutched tentatively at his sleeve. It was Malaga, for the first time looking very childlike. “Katla—she’s okay, isn’t she?”
“I hope so. I like to think so. If she should happen to focus anywhere around here, would you let me know? My name is Inspector Cardenas.” He did not have to provide a number. How to deal with and make use of the authorities was one of the first things children learned in soche.
It was clouding up when he left the school. More monsoon weather, he reflected. More rain. It would untidy his day, but he didn’t mind. Only a mental objected to rain in the desert, irrespective of how much purified desal they extracted and pumped north from the shallows of the Golfo.
Antisocs tended to lead largely nocturnal lives. Subgrubs were no exception. Calling in his intentions via vorec, he headed not for the office but for home. If he was going to chase grubs all night, it would behoove him to take a nap.
ZAP-ATA AVENUE NEVER SLEPT. IT WAS WHERE the resident seeds of this particular pie-slice of the Strip came to play when they were in the mood to get a little spizzed and spazzed. Cleanies and antisocs, citizens and ninlocos, admins and techies and eeLancers mixed freely, their social differences temporarily set aside, bound together by a mutual desire to saturate themselves in a scintillating sea of tempormorality.
In search of a little illicit entertainment? Try a Texmexsexhex. Stimulating, but safe. UL-approved (though maybe not by Good Housekeeping). Feel the need for speed? Pilot a Disony mickeyed personal induction capsule around a 100% safe obstacle course at velocities designed to slap your lip flaps right back over your cheeks. In the mood to vitalize a little agro? Don a Karash stimsuit and take a run through any of hundreds of artificial environments, obliterating bad aliens, bad lifeforms, bad carnivores, and for a quick under-the-table, over-the-card supplemental fee, your spouse (scan-suitable 4X6 required; holos preferred) along the way.
Sample the cuisine of all seven continents, from Triobriand trochus tortellini to St. George krilliabase, Mamiraua cupurucu ice cream sundaes to a Blue Hyacinth mochanocha shake (twice the plateau caffeine, three times the lowlands sugar, and you can’t taste the guarana until you start to come down). Choose your Samerican rodent barbecue: cui to capybara. Food, food, food, some of it crude, some of it lewd, a little of it even brewed.
Speaking of drink, the irritatingly persistent motile advert whispered knowingly in the Inspector’s ear as he wandered down an open off the main boulevard, half-liter blended brews are only a triplet apiece during happy hora at Robusto’s Cafe, third court on your right, you can’t miss it. Flailing one arm, he waved the hovering electronic hawker away. Had he chosen to do so, he could have grammed his bracelet to broadcast a frequency that would have warned such nuisances away by identifying him as an on-duty officer of the NFP. Doing so, however, would allow certain elements of the population to pick up the specified carrier wave and thereby take note of his presence. Federales like himself who preferred to operate beneath the cloak of comparative anonymity were thus compelled to suffer the same glut of omnipresent advertising as any ordinary citizen.
Like any popular nighttime lair, Open No. 64 was saturated with adverts. Music filled the still-superheated air, not all of it commercial jangles. He found himself humming along with a popular contemporary enchanto. Emerging from a notably sediddy bistro that boasted proudly of its favorably reviewed Burmese-Cajun cuisine, a laughing young couple nearly ran into him, drunk on the wine of young love. He smiled tolerantly and stepped out of their way. Giggling, they tried not to stare too long at the bright-eyed older man with the imposing whiskers as they continued on past him, staggering up the street arm in arm. He hoped their happy condition would not leave them with a hangover.
As he had always done, as he did better than nearly anyone else in the department, he melted into the crowd, one more unremarkable presence among many that cried out for attention. With his bracelet hidden beneath the cuff of his shirt and in the absence of blue cap or blazer, he was one of the last nightcrawlers on the street that any of his fellow pedestrians would have identified as a federale—much less a senior Inspector. Blending in had always been one of his abilities. It was not one readily measured on the Department aptitude or skill tests. Superiors and colleagues alike valued it highly nonetheless. A great deal of what Cardenas could do was not quantifiable. This sometimes bothered the bean-counters, but not his fellow cops.
Four kids were loitering outside a Wanrow parlor, hoping to see someone thrown out so they could help him up and, in the process of rendering assistance, maybe pick the disoriented Wans pockets. To anyone else on the street they appeared to be doing nothing more than standing and chatting. “Anyone else” did not see them as Cardenas did. Their attitudes, their posture, even their body odor told him they were intent on doing some moderate mayhem.
The oldest of the group was a boy of fourteen. A black pigtail curled down each side of his head, and the skullcap he wore was decorated with ancient symbols that ripped defiance in Hebrew. Likewise the tattooed Aramaic obscenities that covered most of his exposed right arm. It wasn’t much of an arm—not at fourteen. But the promise of burgeoning nastiness was there. A Yesvit, Cardenas decided. A wannabe aiming to join one of the two or three organized orthodox ninloco gangs that roamed the western half of the Strip.