The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

As he chatted with his visitor, Mingas was working his way through a Pilly sandwich. The Strip delicacy was a Philly cheesesteak served with red and yellow chilies instead of the usual onions, and jalapeno cheese in place of Swiss. Grease stained the self-heating wrapping. A brown droplet clung stubbornly to the shopkeepers lower lip.

“So what can I sell you, Inspector-sir? A nice picture of the Golfo?” Moving out from behind the counter, he indicated a row of imitation Zuni fetish necklaces. Instead of small animals strung on silver and carved from turquoise and jasper and other semiprecious stones, these were garlanded with glowing plastic reproductions. Each fingernail-sized creature boasted a tiny, glowing LED eye or two. “See,” Mingas pitched, “when you touch it, each fetish makes the cry of the particular animal being portrayed.” He demonstrated by gently squeezing a miniature bear between thumb and finger. Through the necklace’s integrated playback unit, it promptly emitted a terse, muted growl.

“Very clever. I’ll take this one.” The Inspector’s response brought a look of satisfaction to Mingas’s face. Hypatia would get a kick out of it, Cardenas decided. Sure, it was touristy, but it was cleverly designed and reasonably well-made. Probably factured right here in the Strip, in one of the giant souvenir workshops that tended to congregate in the Palenque industrial subdivision.

As Mingas ran the box containing the necklace through the gift wrapper, cocooning it in prismatic plastic, Cardenas amused himself by examining a rotating display wheel stocked with holos. “There’s something else I’d like to buy.”

Eagerness suffused the shopkeeper’s voice. “If I don’t have it, I can get it in on twenty-four-hour notice, sir.”

Cardenas did not look away from the holos. “An acquaintance told me a busybody infomaniac like yourself might know something of the present whereabouts of a woman and her daughter named Surtsey and Katla Mockerkin.”

Mingas finished wrapping the necklace, handed it over. “Here you are, Inspector-sir. No charge.” His tone had become stilted, his smile forced. “I am a most firm believer in supporting my local police.”

Now Cardenas did turn away from the holo rack. His eyes bored into those of the proprietor and his words grew clipped. “If you know anything about me, then you know that I’m in-to-it. That means I can tell when someone is holding back on me. I don’t have time to back-and-forth with you. The two women are in real danger, and I have to find them before her ex-husband does. One person has already died. George Anderson, also known as Wayne Brummel. The man she was living with. That’s one too many.”

Mingas looked away. “I don’t know anything about what you are talking about, Inspector-sir.”

“You’re lying.”

“That is not a crime.” Mingas remained defiant. “If you believe that one person dead is one too many, consider that my own death would make you feel twice as bad.”

Cardenas cast a perfunctory glance over his shoulder. “There’s nobody here but tourists and local cleanies. The girl is twelve and hasn’t harmed a soul. I’d like to see her, at least, safe and seguro.”

“I know my rights. You cannot arrest me for pleading ignorance.” Mingas stared back at him.

“No, I can’t. But I can for something else.” Cardenas started to draw his spinner. “Give me a couple of minutes.”

It was a contest of wills the shopkeeper was preordained to lose. Mingas slumped. “I like to listen to things. People, adverts, vit clips, waftwire. All kinds of things.” He was apologizing for a legal but socially disreputable addiction. “A place like the Mocceca is perfect for that.”

Cardenas paid for the necklace. “What have you heard? Do you have any idea where they might be now?”

The proprietor glanced out his rear window. The young Amerind couple sitting at one of the porch tables were intent on their drinks, their snakesnacks, the view across the lake, and each other. Not once had they looked away from one another to peer into the shop. Mingas lowered his voice anyway.

“The lady and her daughter could be anywhere. I have no idea where, or if, they are. There’s vapor about them, that’s all. Gazehaze. But this woman’s toyman Anderson, the dead one?” Cardenas nodded encouragingly. “He had a rep for throwing lots of credit around, and not always with his lady. Vapor is that he was a habitual at half a dozen sextels from Agua Pri to Sonoyta.” Mingas leaned closer. “Vapor says he had one special seguro in his stable. Hooker named Coy Joy, who pines her bliss regular at a registered copulation citadel called the Cocktale.”

“I can find it,” Cardenas murmured dispassionately.

“Find it by yourself, sir.” Mingas moved back behind the counter, as if it could somehow shield him from the Inspector’s penetrating gaze, and from a category of perception people knew about but did not understand. “But however you do, please do not mention me or my business.”

“What establishment?” Cardenas picked up the packaged necklace and left as quietly as he had come.

The fact that the Cocktale was registered made it easy to find. It was one of a dozen similar establishments scattered among bars, love shops, and restaurants that featured private booths with accessories far more sophisticated than salt and pepper shakers. There were also a couple of sanctioned gloomers. The latter did not advertise their presence, but those in need of their special services knew how and where to find them. Designed to accommodate heavy hitters, they provided a safe place for users to indulge their addictions without fear of hurting themselves or any innocent citizens. A client could bring his own paraphernalia, or rent. Same went for the hit of choice. Designer straitjackets were available in all sizes, or custom-fitted.

Compared to the wary atmosphere that hung over the gloomers, the sextels were positively sedate. Within the individual or group rooms that honeycombed the larger establishments, Cardenas knew, the ambiance would be another matter. There, colors and sounds and scents would fill the air, suffusing the senses with an aura of unhindered and unrestrained desire. Or one could liberate oneself in surroundings that reeked of quiet tradition. Whatever a customer wanted, the sextels were ready to supply. There were still some things, Cardenas reflected, that could never be simulated no matter what grams or how much crunch your home box had at its disposal.

The induction tube had deposited him just outside the Sexxone. On one side of the station stretched a row of maquiladoras, within whose regimented bowels the evening shift was still laboring away. Exiting, the workers could go home, have something to eat, or indulge in more lubricious pursuits according to individual tastes. Cardenas headed in the opposite direction from the station. According to his spinner, the Cocktale was located at the far end of the xone.

It was busy, though the real crush would come when there was a shift change at one of the nearby assembly plants. Better to find the woman he sought before her schedule was booked. That was assuming, he knew, that she was onsite now. Just like the maquiladora plants, the amative establishments that served their employees operated on a twenty-four-hour work schedule.

A detour heads-up appeared in front of him. Following its instructions, he turned down a side walkway. He had gone less than twenty meters before it struck him that something was not as it should be with his fellow pedestrians. Probably no one else would have noticed it. But an intuits schooling involved the sharpening of all the senses, not just those commonly employed by a fellow human.

The people moving around him, enjoying the warm evening air, looked normal, acted normal, sounded normal. Only one component of normalcy, in fact, was missing.

None of them smelled.

Stopping, he reached out to grab the arm of a solitary, well-dressed oldster who was heading in the opposite direction. His fingers closed around a fistful of air. At the same time, the old man smiled wickedly at him—and vanished. So did the couple approaching from behind. So did the walls, and street, and the glowing signs advertising the delights of the amatory establishments he was passing.

Except—he was not passing well-lit public businesses. He was not on a designated detour, but in an alley. Not proceeding according to a route prescribed by the department of public works, but heading down an increasingly narrow and isolated serviceway that was little more than a crack between buildings. The detour was an illusion. A very adroit one at that, he reflected as he turned to retrace his steps. Nothing more than an expensive miragoo.

The woman holding the projector that she had just switched off slipped it into the small pack that rode on her back. Silver-and-niobium earrings jangled softly as she brushed long black hair away from her face. Standing next to her was a second Amerind, a tall male. The headband encircling his forehead and holding back his dark hair flashed a steady stream of readily recognizable, three-dimensional southwestern symbols. Reaching up, he idly brushed the tips of his fingers across one side of the band.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster