Then, as swiftly as they had appeared, mechanical and riding master were gone, disappeared down the aperture. Walking to the edge, Cardenas could hear the tinny clattering of the cobbled-together vehicle’s metal feet as the homemade transport ensemble skittered away under the street. Not a true antisoc, was Feral Dick. By choice he stood, or rather scuttled along, outside both belief systems.
The Inspector checked his spinner. It was still comatose, but not dead. A few minutes more or less and he would be back on line opto, with full access to the NFP box. If, he reminded himself, the dead Inzini had not been lying. There was no real reason for her to have done so, since she and her equally demised partner had intended for the spinner’s owner to be far deader than his apparatus prior to its return to service.
A glance down the street disclosed only wandering citizens. There was no sign of the routed Ooze from Oz. He knew he ought to use a public comm to report in, to at least relate what had happened to him. But without the spinner he could not impart a true picture of his assailants. And if he waited too long, the woman he sought might go off shift—or worse, be visited by Inzini, Ooze, or some hypothetical other who shared in this sudden and unexpectedly irresistible interest in the whereabouts of Surtsey Mockerkin and her daughter.
Who were the Amerind assassins working for? The Mock, or themselves, or some other as yet unidentified group with an intense interest in Surtsey Mockerkin and her daughter? The same speculation applied to the Ooze. The more antisoc outfits that expressed a lethal interest in the pair, the more anxious Cardenas was to find them—first.
If he had to wait for a chance to talk with Coy Joy, he could do so just as effectively while simultaneously checking out her visitors. Turning, he headed back down the street in the direction of the Cocktale. This time he stayed close to groups of slumming cleanies. He also made a point of taking the measure of his surroundings every few steps, to ensure their reality. He had no intention of wandering mindlessly into another deceptive, misleading miragoo.
The Cocktale was easy to find. Located on the main street, right where Mashupo Mingas had indicated, it was squeezed in between the Featherdome and California Nights. Unlike some of the personnel hard at work within, all three establishments boasted fronts that were models of restraint. Their external lighting was subdued, signage was static rather than animated, and no lascivious adverts came barreling out of Madison ejectors to carny casual passersby. Though it had been a long time since he had worked a pleasure xone, Cardenas knew that not all sextels were alike. Based on what he remembered, these three neighboring businesses occupied a niche designed to appeal to upper-middle-class, or possibly lower-upper-class, clients.
Across the street, the enormous Rara Aves took up the better part of several city blocks. A joint Asakusa-Chubasco N.A. operation, it flaunted its wares as brazenly as it did its staff. Cheaper, less discreet, and downright Vegasian in its appeal, it boasted a steady stream of customers anxious to partake of its offerings, both hard and wet. In addition to satisfying one’s lust of the moment, a patron of the Rara Aves could also spend the night alone, gamble, and consume in-house subsidized food and nonsexual entertainment. A one-stop international chain discount entertainment center for the employees of the maquiladoras, it enjoyed a solid reputation and was especially favored by blue-collar workers. There were franchised Rara Aves throughout the Strip, each virtually indistinguishable from the next. The merchandise on the shelves in Agua Pri was the same as that on offer in Elpaso Juarez, or Sanjuana, or Brownsville.
Although the sex trade had been legal in the Strip for more than half a century, there remained those citizens who for a great variety of reasons favored anonymity, not to mention a more personal style of service. This was to be found in confidential enterprises such as the Cocktale and its neighbors, as well as in those exclusive establishments that catered to the very rich. What was advertised on the outside was frequently supplanted by what a prospective consumer was offered within.
Furnished in period antiques from the late twentieth century, the outer waiting room was occupied by perhaps a dozen men and women. Some were waiting to penetrate, as it were, the inner recesses of the institution, while others were relaxing and having a rest subsequent to concluding their activities. One did not have to be an Intuit to tell which were which. Sauntering in, Cardenas drew an occasional fleeting glance from would-be and ex-customers. He was particularly taken with a middle-aged couple who sat on a couch, thoroughly engrossed in a vit program from a hundred years ago. It had no color, and was playing back on a vit the size of a small vehicle.
The unobtrusive lighting was tinted a soft pink, as if some deviant physicist had found a way to rouge photons. Landscapes on the walls showed scenes from Europe and South America. A picture of some French castle appeared lifted from a standard tourist brochure, until one noticed the orgy taking place in the courtyard. A southern Chilean forest scene conjured up memories of a visit to the Rockies, until you looked closer and saw what was taking place among the trees. Not to mention with the trees. Cardenas examined them with interest. They were very cleverly manufactured and, within the bounds of the subject matter they presented, surprisingly tasteful. Staring at them, he was not in the least embarrassed. This was not a place in which anyone should be embarrassed.
Off to his left, a well-stocked shop beckoned, proffering offerings unavailable even through a private box. The desk he approached was no different from what one might find in a well-appointed, mid-price hotel—provided one discounted the subtly writhing figures that comprised the expertly wrought sculpture clinging to the back wall. Attesting to the vitality of the Cocktale’s business, there were three clerks: two women and one man, all clad in formal phototropic clothing that peekabooed strategically whenever they moved.
The woman who greeted him was in her late twenties. Though she was attractive, he knew from experience that she had been hired for her ability to process vertically integrated services; otherwise she would not have been stationed up front. Off to one side stood a silent, pale monolith with folded arms. The bouncer was as big as Hyaki. Cardenas suspected he was present more for show than action.
If the management frequently required the services of someone that size, then they had already failed in their responsibility. Obstreperous clients were more easily dealt with by simply flooding a room or hallway with narcoleptic gas.
“Welcome to the Cocktale, sir. How may I help you?” Her welcoming smile was practiced and professional.
He smiled back. In a place like the Cocktale, if you did not smile, no one would take you seriously. “I think I’m in the mood for something a little out of the ordinary.”
The girl nodded. Without missing a beat, she leaned forward and whispered (a nice, if wholly unnecessary touch, Cardenas thought). “Someone’s told you about us, then. They put you straight. The Cocktale didn’t get its reputation by slamming solely straight.” Her lips were close, her perfume weeping synthesized pheromones. “Did you have anything specific in mind, sir? Whatever you wish, if we can’t provide it on the spot, we’ll send out for take-in. You can rely on our guaranteed rapidio delivery of whatever you wish within the hour, drawn from the full resources of the Strip. Just tell me what you want, sir.” He tried to, but she was full steam into her spiel, so he decided just to let her run down.
“You want it, you need it? The Cocktale has it, or can get it. Are you interested in sex with tactiles? We offer the latest military technology adapted to our exclusive specifications. You can stipulate tints, ambiance, fragrances, and sound, from music to purring. Or if you prefer something a little louder, rest assured all our apartmentos are rigorously soundproofed. If you’d prefer to solo in comfort, we have instant unrestricted world box access. Just online are some new designs from Chengdu based on ancient Han scriptures. Originally fantasy, of course, but with our omniphonic projectors all things are possible.”
She continued to smile at him, waiting for a response, trying to ‘ size him up. Cardenas offered no assistance, waiting for her to run out of suggestions. She seemed nice enough, for a procurer, and if he interrupted her well-rehearsed sales pitch it might cost her merit with her employers. The deliberately cozy feel of the salon notwithstanding, he did not doubt for a minute that the entire conversation was being remotely monitored.
“We also offer a full range of standard morphs,” the girl continued, undaunted by his continued silence. “Male, female, animal. We have two registered eeLancers on staff ready to build a custom morph dedicated to serving your personal needs.” Her whispery come-on sank even lower. “For a price, I might be willing to provide the template for mastering a child morph. Semi-licit, guaranteed not actionable, bond posted by our own legal department.”