The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

“That’s gone, now. All gone. Him and us, Friendship; everything.” She glanced in the direction of an artfully concealed chrono.

“You’ve still got time left that you paid for. You sure you don’t want to . . . ?”

Her words as she spoke them to him now were as hard, as cold and drained of emotion, as any Cardenas had ever encountered. Even if he were inclined to pursue some nonpolice activity with her, her tone would have killed any interest he might have had.

“No.” His reply was full of empathy as he rose from the sand. “You’ve done everything I’ve asked of you.”

Beneath the form-fitting material of the dress, her lethargic shrug was barely perceptible. “I’ve told you everything I can remember. There isn’t anything more. Now there never will be.” Lower lip quivering, she tried very hard to smile. “If you really don’t want me for anything else, I could really use the next hour to myself.”

“Why don’t you just quit for the night?”

Her response was more of a twitch than a laugh. “Yeah, right,” she replied tartly. “I’ll just go up to whoever’s running the front desk now and turn in my timer for the rest of the evening.”

“I can get you off.” The Inspector uttered the claim with quiet confidence.

“Why bother?” Her tone was brittle as she headed for the door that led to the bathroom. “I’m already coged.” Whether from indifference, numbness, or house rules, she did not bother to close the door behind her.

On his way out, Cardenas made sure to strew compliments in his wake. It was all he could do to help her, since she would not let him arrange for her to take the rest of the night off. No one accosted him as he stepped outside the entry to the Cocktale and started up the street in the direction of the tube station. It would be light out soon. As he left the sextel behind, he was more mystified than ever. Clearly, it was more than the chance to live on pilfered funds that had drawn Wayne Brummel to Surtsey Mockerkin. It was her daughter. Knowing that, it followed naturally that it was twelve-year-old Katla who The Mock really wanted back.

What business was she involved in, this quiet girl whom her former sochemates had spoken so well of? What work had she been doing for her father? A versatile, talented tecant could do many things.

In this instance, enough to get other people killed.

In spite of all his street and spinner work Cardenas was unable to come up with a single reliable, pursuable lead as to the whereabouts of Surtsey Mockerkin and her daughter. If they were hiding somewhere in the Strip, their identities were not registering on any of the usual trackers. Official inquiries through customary channels had turned up nothing. Mother and daughter had vanished utterly from public ken.

Which meant they were hiding out somewhere. Unless The Mock’s minions had already caught up with them. Or some other interested cartel like the Inzini, or the Ooze. The extraordinary and unexpected interest in Katla Mockerkin made the Inspector only that much more anxious to find her. What kind of business would someone like The Mock entrust to the care of a twelve-year-old, even if she was his own daughter and an acknowledged tecant?

Running and hiding from someone like The Mock would require intelligence, street smarts, and plenty of money. It was now evident that Surtsey Mockerkin possessed all three. Having eluded the attentions of her dangerous and no doubt enraged husband for this long, she was clearly determined to continue doing so. The fact that she was not specifically hiding from the police would not make the job of finding her any easier.

At least he now had some idea of why she was running. Knowing that allowed him to adjust his search parameters accordingly. But it was rapidly becoming plain that if he was going to find them before The Mock, he was going to have to seek help outside official channels.

It was one reason why he repeatedly turned down the array of desk jobs he was offered at regular intervals. Nice, safe assignments in climate-controlled cubicles that would allow him to spend the remainder of his years until retirement in comparative comfort and safety. Nice, dull, boring assignments that were suited neither to his soul nor his temperament. It was not so much that he loved the street as that he could not seem to do without it. The Strip was in his blood. That was only appropriate, he knew, since he had left so much of his blood in the Strip.

Which was why, not to mention how, he found himself striding imperturbably down an unmarked, unnamed street in a corner of the Strip as far removed from the comforting lights of downtown Nogales or Sanjuana as Mocceca’s Mall was from the dark side of the moon. The pose and posture he adopted were deliberate. Look too purposeful in such a setting and you risked making yourself a target. Appear lost, and you became a target by default. But affect an air of nonchalance, and the brains behind the eyes that invariably tracked your progress from corners and crannies, windows and zipwalls, would pause to reflect.

Here, they would conclude, was someone who flashed confidence like a gun, and loaded it with attitude. So while some might covet his clean clothes and hidden assets, the furtive inhabitants of the Bonezone hugged their hiding places and let him pass unmolested.

The Bonezone was a low-priority area for patrols, “low priority” being bureaucrat-speak for “a place taxpayers don’t give a damn about.” Certainly Cardenas encountered no fellow federales as he wended his way deeper and deeper into the ‘zone. Piles of ergonomic trash overflowed recycling bins and filled alleyways, uncollected but not unsifted. Stray cats devoid of implanted ident chips prowled and yowled among the organic garbage excreted daily by dozens of small food shops and cheap apartment buildings. Qwilk shops hawked the latest in electronic fills and gadgets, much legal, some less so, and usually but not always out of sight, unpleasant but sought-after paraphernalia that did not belong in private hands.

It was a testament to Cardenas’s guise that he was not immediately spotted and identified as a federale. The shopkeepers and restaurant owners and beggars and contemplative but wary scaves and skim artists took him for a veteran visitor, one knowledgeable and experienced in the ways of the ‘zone. They harangued him openly, soliciting business or charity according to their station, but otherwise left him alone to pursue his agenda. Bareheaded and hunched forward, he advanced with hands in pockets, unsmiling and apparently lost in a world of his own. None were ready to run the risk of interrupting his fixation, whatever it might be.

Had they known his intended destination, he would likely have drawn even less attention. In the bowels of the Bonezone, there were many cults, not all of them benign. It was the experience of professional thieves that fanatics usually made chancy victims, and in any case, carried little worth stealing.

One of the few blessings to be found in the ‘zone was the absence of the pestiferous motile adverts. There was no point in squandering good advertising money on barely-citizens who possessed little in the way of disposable income. On the distaff side there was the noise: an omnipresent drone of cut-rate electronics, buzzing sensoria, mindless street chatter, and loud, sometimes lethally loud, vit and music. Blocking out the ‘zone drone as best he was able, he concentrated on finding his way through a maze of small streets and passageways long since neglected by the district public works department. Assuming the place hadn’t moved, his spinner could have led him to his intended destination straight away. But pulling a police spinner would be a bad way of maintaining the kind of anonymity that kept one integral this deep in the Bonezone.

A pair of dogs crossed his path, snarled, and continued on their way out of sight behind a darkened apartmento off to his right. The schnauzer had two artificial front legs, while its companion cocker flaunted a pair of miniature reception dishes in place of ears. Both wore broadcast collars, indicating that they were not strays. Someone had taken pity on them and, instead of having them put down, had repaired them enough to survive on the streets. Biosurge talent was plentiful in the ‘zone, even if most of it was focused on procedures that would get a legitimate practitioner locked up and his license revoked.

As Cardenas walked, he found himself brooding on the meaning of “friendship” as it had been related to him by Coy Joy. Had her paramour Brummel been speaking metaphorically of it, or had he been referring to an actual place? A check of Strip place names as well as a more exhaustive search run farther afield had found no urb, no street, no development named Friendship within a couple of hundred kirns. There was a Friendship, Pennsylvania, and a Friendship, Iowa. Even a Friendship, Manitoba. Contacting the local registries in each community had identified no recent relocations who could conceivably be taken for Surtsey and Katla Mockerkin. If Brummel had been speaking of another actual place, it lay outside the boundaries of the Namerican States.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster