His companions were less flashy in both dress and appearance. The girls tracked the Inspector’s approach uneasily. The smaller boy tried to make up for his lack of subgrub size and stature with inflated bravado.
“Whatch you wereing, homber?” the kid piped up brazenly.
“Yia, it suits you,” added one of the girls. Her companion giggled. Both of them were still salvageable, Cardenas decided. But preado recovery was not his job.
“Nice night,” he offered conversationally.
“Was,” growled the bigger boy, the evident leader of the loitering quartet. “Until you arribed.” His was not a very intimidating growl. The subgrub’s voice had not yet changed yet.
“Still is.” Hands in the pockets of his lightweight windbreaker, Cardenas smiled back. “I wouldn’t portage a chopwire like that in my back pocket. Somebody waves the wrong sine wave and you’re likely to lose a piece of your ass, egoista.”
The kid’s boldness drained away like hygen gas from the belly of a long-range Gemmer as one hand whipped reflexively to the single wide pocket sewn into the rear center of his pants. “Chingaringa!” one of the girls exclaimed. “The homber’s a bomber!”
“I don’t want what you got,” Cardenas continued reassuringly. “I want what you don’t got.”
“Habla me,” the boy muttered warily. “What you need, fedoco?”
Ignoring the ebb and flow of laughing, chattering, squealing nightlife that flowed around them, Cardenas concentrated on the leader. So thoroughly deflated by now was the subgrub that he did not even glance up as a befuddled blancblanc, or anglo-saxon male, came stumbling out of the Wanrow parlor. The two girls and the other boy fought hard to avoid staring in the dazed cleanie’s direction. The citizen staggered off into the brightly lit Sonoran night, unaware that he had just avoided a likely spizzing.
“I’m looking for a Vetevenga subgrub about your age goes by the name of Wild Whoh. Skinny Afranglo, green brush hair with a querymark, venerates the Muse. Also a twelve girl, nonzafado, who likes to vete with him. Katla Anderson.”
By turns sullen and fearful, the boy’s voice had shrunk to a whisper. “Don’t sabe the grub. Same for the girl-child.”
Cardenas could lower his voice as well. “Don’t try to fak yakk me. You get hauled downtown with a chopwire, you’ll end up spending a couple of noches in the blender. You know what happens in there.”
This time when the boy looked up there was real fear in his expression. One of the girls plucked at his hand, but he shook her off. “Wild Whoh thinks he’s chingaroon, but he’s not real nin. He just likes to play at it so the Vetevengas will let him ambulate with them. I don’t know the girl. That’s verdad, homber.”
Cardenas knew it was so, just as he had known that the boy had been lying earlier. “Where can I find him?”
Clearly tired of the federale’s inhibiting presence, the other boy finally spoke up. “Whoh’s a major Noburu guru. He’s got a completed belt and maybe half a dozen nodes to go with it. When he’s not floating with the nins, he likes to drift around the Melarium. You know the Melarium?”
The Inspector nodded. It was a popular meeting place offering a thousand different kinds of libations, many legal; loud music, occasionally legal; and magsuit dancing for those who wanted to float rather than cling, legal depending on the degree of mutual consent.
He straightened. “Thanks. You’ve all earned a couple of bene points. Might come in handy someday.” He turned to go, but not before favoring the deflated leader with a final, unflinching stare. “Go owling if you must, but I’d ditch the chopwire. That’s so so serioso.”
The Melarium was one of the most popular nightspots in Greater Nogales, as well-known to the police as to the public. It was another place where cleanies and toilers could mix, where engineers and mask artists and humble assemblers could mingle and converse without laboring beneath the burden of class preconceptions. In the glow of alcohol and stims, all citizens were equal.
He stood for a while watching the parade of people that flowed into the building and oftentimes came wobbling out. Hygen-powered private vehicles pulled up outside the entrance, emptied their excited, chattering passengers, and whisked themselves off to the nearest available parking spot. Assemblers and other commuters too poor to afford private transport arrived on foot from the nearest induction station, as well-dressed or better so than their more affluent fellow citizens.
Cardenas amused himself by observing and cataloging the amazing range of body language on display. When he’d had enough, he headed for the main building. Not for the main entrance but the side, away from the crowd. He was looking for wannabes, for those too poor or too young or too agro to be granted admission to the Melarium. He was looking for nins, and it didn’t take long to find them.
With their tattooed skulls or elaborately braided hair, their sometimes wispy and often in-your-face-insulting attire, their threatening accoutrements, the ninlocos intimidated ordinary citizens without speaking a word. They knew it, and so when a lone middle-ager sauntered casually in among them, the assumption on their part was that he was either insane, drunk, stim-stymied, or something else. This outsider didn’t act insane, did not totter as if drunk, did not babble incoherently like one stim-stymied. That left Something Else. They were instantly suspicious.
No one was surprised to learn that the man who had boldly come among them was a federale. But federales were too smart to plunge solo into a ninloco congregation. That suggested a fedoco who packed Something More on his Something Else. Along with their hate, there was hesitation. Cardenas used the time to ask questions.
Directed from the side to the rear of the Melarium, whose very structure seemed to pulse with the music and energy pounding within, the Inspector fixed Wild Whoh in his stare the instant he set eyes on him. The crossoed querymark was a dead giveaway. That, and the finished Noburu belt the kid wore proud and prominent around his waist. An integrated caster would link it to the muse glasses that covered much of the boy’s face. His lightweight Striker slack strips rainbowed from deep purple to transparent according to how the light from the street struck the phototropic material. He wore no underwear. A plain filtered vest glowed with a series of querymarks that matched the one shaved into his head. While several girls were clustered around the prominent subgrub, none was Katla Anderson.
Placating muse motes or no, Whoh didn’t like what he could see of the heavily mustachioed man who was striding toward him. With his prepube Rare Birds clustered protectively around him, he waited to see what words would bring.
“Hoyo, homber,” he essayed from behind his glasses. “This is a free street, and we’re not bothering anyone.”
“You Security?” The girl who spoke indicated the throbbing mass of the Melarium, whose minimum age limit she and her companions did not meet.
Cardenas shook his head and ignored her to focus on the boy. “You Wild Whoh?”
“Who asks?” the boy responded warily.
By way of reply, the Inspector lifted his left arm. The sleeve slipped down to reveal his ident bracelet, flashing with a much wider than usual sequence of LEDs. Cardenas had adjusted them to pulse to the opto. Though he tried not to show it, the boy was impressed.
“Like I said-so, it’s a free street.” Stepping to one side, he made a show of making room for the adult to pass. “Don’t step in any fedoco.” A couple of the girls giggled.
Cardenas ignored the predictable juvenile rudeness. “I understand you like to vete with a prepube named Katla Ander—”
The mention of the girl’s name produced an instant and extraordinary change in the hitherto confident nin. He shoved the nearest girl at Cardenas, who caught her reflexively to keep her from falling. At the same time, the subgrub’s vest blew up as its owner pulled a tab that deliberately destabilized the composite magnesium fibers woven within. Momentarily blinded by the light, the equivalent of several dozen prehistoric camera flashes going off at once, Cardenas flinched. The girls screamed and rubbed frantically at their eyes as Wild Whoh spun and made a mad dash for the looming architectural mass of the Melarium.
As he fought to clear the fading purple and yellow spots from his eyes, Cardenas followed on the run. How the kid expected to get inside the building, the Inspector wondered as he gave chase, he did not know. But the subgrub would not have fled in that direction without having a specific rata hole in mind. Anyone else would have remained dazed by the disorienting flash, wondering which way the boy had fled. Cardenas knew where the kid was going because he had been looking and leaning in the direction of the Melarium just before imploding his shirt.