[Note: a few spoilers within for The Ultra Thin Man, book one.]
I watched with some amusement as Alex Richards hurriedly put on his pants, barely staying vertical, while the girl he’d been having sex with took her time. In her late twenties, the girl had to be fifteen years younger than Richards. She had a markedly different attitude about the whole adultery thing, simply draping her blouse strategically on her upper torso as she lay on a heavy blanket on the concrete floor.
I looked away. It was hard to see in the low light anyway, although my antique digital camera still had an excellent low-light sensor and an extremely high ISO rating. The old digitals had about reached their peak in the late 2030s. I was lucky to find this one.
The hour was very late, one o’clock in the morning, and I was anxious to get this over with. The abandoned warehouse on Seattle’s waterfront smelled of stale fish and salt, and for all its space, I felt claustrophobic amidst the crates, concrete columns, and scattered debris. My head hurt, and it might have been from the smell, or it might have been because it had been a while since I’d had a good shot of Temonus whiskey.
I dangled my camera from its strap, swinging it slightly, as if to remind Richards I had the goods on him, that his wife would finally get the answers she’d hired me to find. He looked at it as if he thought my antique digital camera was a joke.
Asshole Alex, his wife called him.
Easy duty, really. I got to stay on Earth, I didn’t have to deal with aliens, good or bad, I didn’t have to answer to the Network Intelligence Office, and I didn’t have to come into contact with imposters and body doubles.
Richards cinched up his jeans. Thin, almost scrawny, he looked down at the girl on the blanket, who still made no move to get dressed. Well, I hadn’t been investigating her, and Liz Richards hadn’t wanted any names. Just high-resolution photos and a confrontation with him. Yes, a confrontation. She assured me he was not only an asshole, but someone who avoided conflict. Weak and wimpy, she said.
“So Liz hired you?”
“Slapped the cash right down on my desk,” I said.
“Paid you in full, said bait the son of a bitch and rub it in his face, didn’t she?”
“Son of a bitch wasn’t exactly what she said.”
“Yeah, I can just imagine. When?”
“Just yesterday, near the Eighth Avenue Apartments, where you two live. It didn’t take me long to find you because she knew about this warehouse.”
Richards had just pulled on his green T-shirt. “We used to come here back before—”
He broke off, and I knew he’d been about to say before most everything moved off world, to the other colonies in the Union. She’d filled me in about his dreams to move to Helkunntanas, of all places, and start his own business. It had never happened, and he’d become disgruntled and sullen.
“Not very smart,” I said, “coming back here with your girl.”
He pointed at my camera. “You get good pictures with that piece of crap?”
“You wouldn’t understand the importance of a good antique. Don’t worry. It caught you and lover girl right in the act.”
The girl on the carpet moved a bit, up on one elbow, her blouse slipping a little. She pulled at the fabric and repositioned it, releasing a slight odor of lilac perfume.
“So you’re a private detective,” Richards said.
It was almost a question, with quaver of surprise in his voice. As if he expected me to be something else. I didn’t like him one bit. “Private as they get around here.”
I was who I was. Dave Crowell, man of intrigue and mystery, part-time savior of the Union, and still no big cover story on the flashroll mags.
“It’s fun keeping an eye on people, isn’t it?”
I shrugged. “Pays the bills.”
“You must get bored, if this is what you have to do to make a buck.”
“My clients keep me company.”
“And your secretary, no doubt.”
He was fishing for something, but I couldn’t imagine what. “Can’t afford one. If I don’t have clients, I talk to myself. Or my mom.”
He picked his belt off the concrete. When he straightened, he had a faraway gaze. Then he raised an eyebrow, and his pupils did this quick darting to and fro thing. An odd tic that seemed almost familiar.
“Your mother,” he said. “Really.”
The stupid shit. “She lives in Montana, but I can still talk to her.” I really didn’t like this guy, and not just because of what his wife had told me. He was slick. And condescending. And, yes, he was an asshole.
I did have a partner, and I did talk to him. Tonight, I’d left him standing guard at the warehouse exit. But I didn’t mention him to Richards.
I spent a moment thinking about my backup. Given that his wife had called him weak and wimpy, I let my guard down and played with him. “I can assure you the camera’s good. Seriously, look at it.” I held it out to him and he glanced at it a moment. It’s not like he knew how to use an old antique. He wouldn’t know how to delete the files, and he couldn’t escape the warehouse, so the hell with it. In the space of a breath, however, he grabbed it and ran into the darkened warehouse.
“God damn it.” I headed after him. “Richards, where the hell you going?”
He’d run the wrong way, toward the back of the giant warehouse, so I’d be able to reel him in like a big fish. A slippery but stupid fish. He was fast, though. Now a shadow in the distance, he disappeared behind some large cargo containers, his footsteps echoing as he ran.
When I reached the containers, he had totally vanished. Running, I heard nothing but my own steps and breaths. He must have stopped and hidden behind the containers to wait me out.
I leaned against a graffiti-marked concrete column. Only one overhead florescent light worked, but it flickered like a strobe. I squinted in the direction I’d seen Richards go. The only exit was behind me, guarded, so at length I would corner him and retrieve both my camera and my proof. It would be lovely not to have to give Liz Richards her money back.
I almost always chose the cheating spouse cases. They beat missing-persons cases, which were nearly impossible to solve. These days, missing persons were missing because they’d fled to one of the other seven worlds of the Union, totally out of my jurisdiction. These days, I didn’t deal with Union-threatening plots from aliens conspiring from places unknown. I avoided all mention of the Ultras, the aliens who, a year ago, had threatened the Union of Worlds.
Well, there was a special cocktail created in their honor. For a short time, I ordered nothing but Ultras. They came in a special glass. You got two in that glass, separated in the middle by a thin membrane that dissolved after you’d quaffed the first half. Novelty shit. A sort of self-imposed punishment, maybe.
Oh, and I worked with an alien, but that was different.
Now when I had my camera back, things would be better. Even better if I had that whiskey.
Movement caught my eye. A flash of something—a chance glint of light off my camera?—near the high back windows, close to more stacked cargo containers. I jogged forward, nonchalantly. He was an unfaithful husband—I didn’t need stealth, and I didn’t fear for my life.
“Come on, Richards,” I said. “You’re not getting out of here with my camera.”
Asshole Alex was not in front of the containers, so I whipped around behind them, hoping to surprise him, and I ran headlong into a wall.
The giant formidable wall barely grunted as I rebounded from it and landed hard on the concrete floor. A massive torso and an angular head bent down and looked at me with a menacing grin.
He couldn’t help the menacing grin, owing to the fact that he always looked menacing.
“Forno,” I said, shaking my head.
“Crowell,” my alien partner growled.
I ignored the Helk’s offered hand and unsteadily rose. As a Second Clan Helk, Tem Forno wasn’t the biggest, but the difference between First and Second Clan didn’t matter much to humans. Many humans, whose attitudes toward the aliens were less than favorable, liked to call them Hulks.
Forno wore a gray overcoat that had once belonged to my old partner Alan Brindos. The Helk version of him anyway.
“You’re supposed to be guarding the front door,” I said. “What’re you doing back here?”
“I got lonely.” Forno towered over me.
“Hulks don’t get lonely.”
“No?” He scratched his head, the only part of him free of fur. “Okay, so, the girl? She left the warehouse—no clothes on, I might add—and I got scared.”
I sighed. He was shitting me; he wasn’t afraid of most things. “Where’s Mr. Richards, Forno?”
“Not in this warehouse anymore.”
I really would have to give Liz Richards her money back—minus the retainer—if I couldn’t produce a visual of what I’d seen her husband do.
“How’d he get by you?” I asked.
Forno looked hurt. “You really think he could get by me?”
“Through the only door,” I said, pointing that way.
“If you don’t count the side door.”
“What side door?”
“The one on the side.”
I stared up at him, not sure I wanted to hurt myself trying to slap him. I’d practically have to jump to reach his face anyway. “Please just tell me.”
“Relax, I scooped it out earlier. It’s a separate room attached to the warehouse.”
Maybe my eyes were adjusting to the light. I could see the side door now, not too far away. “Scoped, Forno. You scoped it out.”
“I’m just messing with you. No other exit from that small room. Nothing but some crates in there. He went in a few minutes ago, and can’t have come back out without going by me. I can understand how you missed it.”
I looked back the way I’d been chasing Richards earlier and frowned. “You sure he went that way? I’d been following him this way.”
“Saw him clear as morning.”
“You didn’t just go in there and drag him out?”
“What for? Figured you had all the photos you needed.”
“He has my camera.”
“How’d that happen?”
I glanced away. “Never mind.”
“So Network Intelligence gave you those nice shock capacitors in your fingers, but they didn’t give you a retinal camera? I thought those were standard-issue for agents. I wouldn’t trust those old digitals, myself.”
“No retinal cameras for borrowed hounds,” I said. “And I didn’t want the caps. Tthey made me install them.”
“And now you don’t even charge them up.”
I glared at him. “I don’t work for the NIO anymore.”
I was happy doing private jobs now, even if I had to do them without my old partner: the one I’d killed—out of necessity—to stop an alien invasion.
I was going to say that someone had to pay the bills. Working on our own without the NIO tracking us did that—when work was steady. But Forno didn’t really need the money I paid him. He had plenty of credits from his life on Helkunntanas, thanks to a short undercover career with their intelligence agency—the Kenn—and from his often suspect dealings with underworld contacts.
Forno cocked his head toward the side door. “Asshole Alex is still in there.”
So, Forno leading the way in that old overcoat, we walked past a few shipping containers and pallets. I hadn’t thought about Alan Brindos for a long while, not wanting to remember the details of his death. The Ultras had been altering humans, Brindos himself transformed into an exact copy of the Helk terrorist, Terl Plenko.
“Mr. Richards!” Forno called into the side room.
I had to stop, unable to peek around my own personal Helk. “Move through the door,” I said. “So I can get through?”
He moved, and I entered a room a quarter of the size of the main warehouse, and high windows and high ceilings also dominated these premises. “Stay at this door, please? So you can see the main warehouse.”
“You know, it’s nice to walk around in these buildings without ducking my head,” Forno said, raising his arms high. “Ceilings almost as tall as my old place on Helkunntanas. Maybe you should’ve opened an office in one of these instead of that old artist studio.”
I ignored him and scanned the room. Not as many florescent lights worked in here, making the room darker, but I could literally see most of the room at a glance. To be honest, I was surprised any of the lights worked at all, or that electricity still flowed. Dozens of clustered rectangular crates, stacked about five high, occupied the middle of the room. Nothing else was in here.
“Those don’t look anything like the containers in the main room,” Forno said from his place at the door.
“Mr. Richards?” I said impatiently. “There’s no need to draw this out any longer. Pictures or no, your wife will be contacting you.” More likely, her lawyer would be contacting him.
No answer. The silence unnerved me, and I looked back and found Forno’s shadow.
“You have your blaster?” he asked.
In answer, I pulled it from my coat pocket and stepped nearer the boxes. “Forget the door and come in here. If he’s gone, he’s gone. We’ll figure that out later.”
Forno came to me, concern wrinkling the leathery skin of his face. Then he lumbered to the first stack and knocked on it. “Wooden.”
I knocked on a crate too. “They sound hollow—could be empty, but I don’t know.”
“You don’t think—”
I no longer cared about Mr. Richards. “Top one. You can reach it.”
He nodded, turned, and easily lifted the top crate from the nearest stack. He didn’t even grunt, either lifting it or setting it on the floor. Pausing, he squinted back at me.
I waved my blaster at the crate, giving him the go-ahead.
Forno wrenched off the lid, which clattered to the floor. He looked up, relief in his eyes.
“Empty?” I guessed.
“Okay.” I swallowed, mouth dry, my head still pounding. “The rest of the stack.”
Soon, Forno had all five containers opened, and all of them were empty. I frowned, but in the overall scheme of things, a cache of empty crates in a warehouse didn’t mean something was amiss. Most of the large cargo containers in the main warehouse were probably empty too, or filled with things forgotten, useless to a city port that had long ago closed up shop. The remaining ports now housed drop shuttles that ferried humans up to Egret Station to make connections to the colony worlds through the jump slots.
Worlds Apart, and Committed to Union. But a little less committed to Earth.
With the stack torn down, the other stacks clearly formed an uneven circle, as if to call some demon to the center. Except there were no candles, no chalked-in diagrams. I eased into the circle, and there, in the middle of the stacks, was a single crate.
Forno had come in behind me, and when I turned toward him, I stepped on one of his clubbed feet. Not that he noticed.
“Like the others?” he said, in what passed for a Helk whisper.
I braced myself, raised my blaster, and waited for Forno to lift the lid.
I had expected a body to be in this one, and indeed a body was in there. Forno slipped to the right to allow me a better look. Although dark, I easily made out some of the details of the body inside.
It was definitely dead. A human male with short black hair, clad in jeans and a green T-shirt.
“Alex Richards,” I said.
Forno snorted in my ear. “There’s no way, Dave. I saw him go in here. The dark’s messing with you.”
I reached in my pants pocket, found my mini pen light, turned it on, and shined it inside the crate at the corpse’s face. “It’s Richards, all right.” The hairs on the back of my neck bristled.
But there was something not right about him.
At the collar of the T-shirt, the pen light showed something dark. I leaned in, putting my face closer to Alex Richards.
“There’s writing,” I said.
Forno, who couldn’t see, nudged me. “What’s it say?”
I used the pen light to pull down the collar of the T-shirt. The message was crisp and bold, a single word neatly written along his collar bone. It looked like blood.
I really hadn’t expected it. I’d hoped to avoid anything more like this for as long as I lived. There was an instant when I expected Asshole Alex to open his eyes, laugh, and call me the most gullible person who’d ever lived, but I’d seen enough during the past few years to know better.
“Damn it,” Forno said, “what’s it say?”
The single word on Alex Richard’s collar bone really pissed me off.
“Ultra,” I said.