Tuesday, October 20, 2015

An Excerpt from the Sci-Fi Mystery Levels by D H Richards

Omnimystery News: An Excerpt courtesy of D H Richards

We are delighted to welcome author D H Richards to Omnimystery News today.

D H's first in a new series of cross-genre sci-fi mysteries is Levels (August 2015 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we are pleased to introduce you to it with an excerpt, the first two chapters. You can also Enter To Win a copy of the book by visiting this post!

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THE CRIME SCENE WAS PRETTY UNREMARKABLE. The dead man who lay behind the small counter — neck blown out, an array of blood splattered behind him — had contracted Talbot before, offering simple collection work for deadbeat credits.
  The small shop was in the jewelry district. It was no more than 10 feet wide and, with the back room, only about 20 feet deep. Two beat cops milled nervously around the dead man.
  The family must have called me right after they called the cops, Talbot thought as he took in the scene. No sign of a break in … the dead man knew the shooter. The glass cases were intact, nothing stolen. It looked like a hit. Talbot was about to ask what detective was assigned when she walked in the door.
  You could always tell Protocol Dicks: they dressed better and had an air of simultaneous boredom and superiority about them. He could see right away she was not from Level 29; her demeanor was all Protocol. She scanned the place and focused on one of the beat guys.
  "Ricky," she said offhandedly, "go get the kit from Officer Kinderman's mobile."
  "Uh, that's Kinderweiss …"
  She did not register the man's objection. "And also have him call the coroner. And you, out, no civilians, this is a sealed area." The woman had turned to look at Talbot, who was standing to the left of the front door.
  "I'm not a civilian, detective."
  "Who are you then?"
  "I represent the family of the deceased. I'm here to make sure the department does its best to find the man's kill —"
  "You the polish, eh?"
  Talbot smiled a wide grin. The polish was not a 29 term.
  "You're not local department are you?" he asked trying to sound casual but inwardly bracing for a fight. "Upper levels I would say … 35 — 36?"
  "Thirty-four. How did you know?"
  Talbot smiled again; he had overestimated the level on purpose. He had assumed 33 or even 32 but was glad he'd overshot a little. Nothing like a little compliment to get off on the right foot with the detective.
  "Down here we're called the assist; the polish is upper level. Also, your clothes …"
  She momentarily looked concerned, "What about them?"
  Talbot filed that away: she was concerned with her appearance but not vain, just wanted to be sure she looked the part. Talbot eyed her up and down briefly. She had the trim look of a woman in her early thirties, petite but not especially short — five feet six or seven, he figured. Her brown hair was styled with salon quality and she wore a crisp suit that showed off her body but not in a suggestive or trampy way. Her appearance reflected control and precision. This he could work with.
  "They're a couple credits above what the average person 'round here can afford."
  "Look, Mr. …"
  "Singh, Talbot Singh," he smiled and offered his hand.
  She shook it perfunctorily. "Mr. Singh, you need to leave. Or at least go onto the street. I can assure you this case is in good hands."
  "No doubt, Detective … ?"
  "Detective Olson."
  "I promise to not interfere."
  "It's not a request Mr. Singh. Out — now."
  "Detective —"
  "If you don't go I will ask Officer Kinderbody to escort you out."
  "Kinderweiss can vouch for me."
  "Mr. Singh," any attempts at civility had left her voice, "now!"
  "Okay, leaving. Only, don't be mad at me when you realize the huge mistake you've made," he shrugged, betting she was someone who hated to make mistakes and the lack of control mistakes presumed.
  She opened her mouth and then closed it, a hesitant look crossing her eyes. "What mistake is that, exactly?"
  "The victim," he nodded toward the man slumped against the wall behind the counter. "He's holding a playing card."
  "A gang hit."
  "Which one? I thought 29 was pretty free of gang activity."
  "Gangs, yes. Activity, not so much. It's not this level, probably lower."
  "Which one?"
  "Ahhhh, well," Talbot smiled again, prompting a deep frown from the detective. "You see that is where I can be of service. I have … I wouldn't say friends, but people I know down in lower levels."
  "How low?"
  "Twenty-five … 24 … even 19."
  "Great, thanks. I'll take that into consideration. I can get our gang activity people to look it up."
  "How long will that take? A week? More?"
  "Perhaps, not that it —"
  "I can get it to you tomorrow morning, the latest."
  "Mr. Singh, you need to leave. Kinder … Kinder guy!"
  "No need to blow, Detective. I'll go. Just be careful. I know this may look like just another hit —"
  "And why wouldn't it be?" She held her hand up to stop Kinderweiss, who looked at Talbot and rolled his eyes in annoyance.
  "Sloppy work. They broke the window and the lock, the victim was going for a weapon. All pointing to a perfectly normal crime scene." Talbot picked up the playing card, turning it over in his hand. "Except …"
  "What's wrong Mr. Singh?"
  Talbot looked up at the posh detective from level 34.
  "You. You, Detective, are all wrong."
  Olsen tilted her head as if looking at a strange bird in a cage. "Go on," she smiled slightly.
  "What are you doing here, all the way down on this level? My guy here, the dead guy? He's good people. Been running this store for 20 years, never any problems — probably because what he sells is low-rate junk, but still. And now he gets hit and instead of some third shift decker, they send Ms. Uptown herself. I'm not trying to make trouble, Detective, but so far this whole thing just reeks of something."
  Detective Olsen did not say anything, she just held out her hand to take back the card. Talbot held it back, his eyes questioning.
  She sighed. "Orders from above my pay grade Mr. Singh. Turns out the super's daughter goes to school with his granddaughter or something."
  "A climber, huh? Who knew?"
  "What's wrong with climbing?" Olsen bristled.
  "Nothing, especially if it gets you upper-level deckers down on low-level jobs like this." Talbot replied absently, focused on using his watch to scan the playing card's back. He looked up to see Olsen's curious expression. "Cards are coded, by gang, by time." Talbot explained. "I should be able to tell you who left this, or at least the folks someone wants you to think left it."
  Olsen's eyes narrowed. "You really can get that by tomorrow?"
  "Sure, probably. Have to go down to 19 but, you know, might be a bit of fun sightseeing down there."
  Olsen gave a small hollow laugh. "Braver than me. Here, Mr. Singh."
  "Friends call me Talbot."
  "Yes, well … Here — my card." She tapped her watch. Talbot felt his watch ding, signaling receipt. "Use it to come up tomorrow."
  "This'll pay?"
  "Yes, it's a pass. One time," she added with a warning in her voice.
  "What about my fare up from 19?"
  "What about it? You want play with the big boys then pony up Mr. Singh," Olsen said.
  "You ever been up beyond here?" Olsen asked.
  "Once. Family vacation to 32 when I was eight. It was about the same, if you ask me."
  Olsen looked around and shrugged. "Yeah, 34's pretty much like this."
  "How far you been up, Detective?"
  "Forty," she replied. "Same as you: little vacation."
  "They say there's a park on 40."
  "Yes, went there."
  "And? Did you see any of it? The sky?"
  She shrugged. "Could have seen it, not sure. If I did it was very far away, maybe another … what, 10 levels?"
  "I hear the city is up to 70 total now."
  Olsen made a noncommittal noise. "Well, Mr. Singh, if you find anything see me tomorrow. Don't call — security protocol, you know. And don't bother coming if you can't find anything. This is low priority."
  "Sure, okay."
  Olsen smiled tightly and then made a gesture towards the door.
  "Oh, yeah, right. Pleasure, Detective." Talbot turned on his heel and left the small shop.
  The little jewelry store did not sit on the street but rather in a small collection of shops set behind a glassed-in alcove with tables, chairs, and a small coffee stand. Passersby could and did walk by, oblivious to the police activity. But people from the neighborhood looked, and whispered to each other. They knew something had happened.
  The man in the jewelry store was proprietor Jay Mill, a fixture in the area who sold affordable jewelry in plain boxes. Although many people frequented his tiny shop, few wanted to boast they actually bought trinkets from him; Mr. Mill did not barter in the high-end items. But he was friendly, outgoing, and, importantly, unpretentious. Talbot knew that people around the area did not take well to climbers: people who pretended to be better than they were.
  The area was officially known as area 19 level 29, but most people called it Assembly. It's what people did there: worked in large assembly plants. They would take parts made elsewhere, usually on lower levels, and put them together, everything from large elevator engines to small, biostic takeout food boxes. The level was six stories tall — not luxurious, but tall enough. He knew from forays below that levels shrunk in height as you went down.
  The level was well lit, reasonably clean, and the air — to his mind at least — fresh enough. It helped that level 28 had multiple air handling factories. Assembly was, in short, an unpretentious place that did not suffer pretentious people well.
  Talbot had grown up on the level, part of a large family; extended in all directions except for his. His mother and father still lived in the apartment he grew up in, but they never had any more children after he came along. He had cousins upon cousins but his family was always the small, three-person unit.
  Despite the six-story buildings that rose all around him and that expanded outward for miles, space was at a premium. Seventy-four million people, give or take a few, lived on level 29. Mill's jewelry shop was small not just because it sold small items. Everywhere Talbot looked was crowded with people, goods, and buildings — but mostly people. He liked it this way. He could lose himself quickly in the crowds or just as quickly find people he knew. He had honed this ability over the past 10 years as a professional assist. And before that, as a young teenager he had helped Mr. Hammaud, a friend of the family who had also been an assist.
  The job of an assist was simple: to make sure that when things happened to a family, those things went as well as could be expected. Strictly speaking he was not a lawyer or, to use a very old term, a fixer. Instead he … well, assisted families that could afford to hire him. When a family had one of their own get picked up by the police, he would be there to make sure the police did their job and the family member kept their mouth shut. If there was a dispute within the family or between families, he acted as the middleman, solving whatever issue had come up between them. He might have to help people get licenses to operate a business or help negotiate the purchase of an apartment — the latter always a tricky proposition.
  Rarely did he have to represent a family in the case of death. Natural death was handled by the funeral houses. Only twice before had he interceded for murder, and in both cases it was domestic violence. And in both cases he represented the person who had done the killing. Mr. Mill was a different circumstance and Talbot had a small knot in the pit of his stomach because of it. He was in uncharted territory. He had learned early on that when facing the unknown, go slowly and carefully.
  As he wandered the streets of Assembly's shopping district he considered what little he knew: Mr. Mill, a third-rate jewelry man, had been gunned down in his shop. The killing exhibited signs of a gang hit, down to the playing card left near Mr. Mill. Beyond those simple facts … Talbot had known Mr. Mill his whole life; the man had never caused even the smallest amount of trouble. Jewelers were often known to fence goods or pass through dirty credits so the fact that Mr. Mill was so clean was remarkable in and of itself — and a problem.
  The presence of the 34th level detective was sending off loud sirens in Talbot's head. He had never seen one come down, unless, and here his mind snagged, unless they were investigating a crime in which the perp was from level 29, certainly not the victim. The connection that Olsen had offered rang hollow with Talbot. He made a mental note to speak with Mr. Mill's widow as soon as he could. He would not have pegged them — or more specifically, one of their children — as climbers.
  Around noon, after grabbing a quick lunch of nasi, Talbot made his way towards the apartment he shared with his parents. He squeezed himself into the tiny elevator that rose up to the fifth floor. He smiled wryly each time he hit the number five button on the elevator. His father had often told the story of how they had initially been offered an apartment on the sixth floor, but he had turned it down, fearing that people would accuse him of being a climber by trying to get as close as he could to the 30th level.
  As Talbot made his way into the apartment the lights inside flickered on. The apartment was large and well kept. The main room was a standard 10x10 foot with its entryway kitchen, the sofa bed where he slept, and the large panel screen on the wall. At the end of the room was a doorway into another 10x10 foot space that housed a bathroom and his parent's room, plus a small storage area. He grabbed a bottle of something fizzy and sweet from the fridge. He sat down at the small counter that separated the kitchen from the main room and punched up his father's number. Seconds later a small, gray-haired man with a neatly trimmed white beard flickered into view on the small screen hanging from the kitchen ceiling.
  "Tal! Such news. I heard about Mr. Mill. Was it a robbery?"
  "Hey, Pops. Not sure yet. Looks weird. I wanted to tell you that I have to go down a few levels this afternoon. I may not be back until after dinner."
  The man on the screen, who was carefully pasting brightly colored paper into what seemed like a wooden book, looked up.
  "How many?"
  "Uh, well, you know … a few."
  "How many?" His voice was steady but demanding.
  "To 19, Pop."
  Talbot sighed and tried to smile. "Pop, I'm not 10. I can handle myself. I need to ask a few guys questions is all."
  "So this Mr. Mill was tied up in gangs?"
  "I never said."
  "No reason to go to 19 unless it's for gangs, Tal."
  "Yeah, well … so anyway."
  "You tell your mom yet?"
  "Of course not, that's why I called you."
  The old man did not smile; instead he stared for a moment at the screen and then bent back over his work. "Don't be a fool, Tal. See you after dinner then."
  "Thanks, Pop."
  Talbot ended the call and took a long sip of the drink. He knew his father was only being protective, but sometimes he wondered how it would be to live on his own. He was almost 30. He figured if he got married he could move out. Maybe. But that wasn't on the horizon right then. He could never afford to rent a place on his own — assuming he could find one. His parents had spent 35 years paying down on the one they lived in now. Well, he could always dream. Or find a new girlfriend.
Under the eternal orange-blue glow of the day-lights that tracked over each street, Talbot made his way to E-station 1138. The E stood for elevator, the main way around the city. Levels were connected by thousands of elevators. The system was pretty simple. It was always free to ride down; it was the ride up that cost. And the further you went up, the higher the cost. A ride up to 30 might cost the average person a day's wage. To get to 34 might cost half a year's wage. Vacation packages often helped to reduce the cost, but they also came with chip implants. When your vacation was done you had to ride back down, or the IIP — Internal Immigration Protocol — would track you down within minutes.
  And even if one saved up wages to ride implant-free to the upper levels, living in the upper levels would be impossible. Not only was everything more expensive, jobs were impossible without the proper documents and scans. People did it all the time, but it took a concentrated effort. Often families would pitch in to send one member, often the brightest or most talented son or daughter, to school a level up hoping they could climb. Those left behind were almost always resentful, so the term climber was usually spat out of people's mouths.
  Going down, however, was free and often too easy. Lose your job, gamble too much, run afoul of the protocols and you could find yourself settling down, moving a level or more down to escape debt or to find easier, less skilled work. Branches of families that settled down were often erased from collective memory and never mentioned, as if they had died. Going down was free and dangerously easy.
  But like the vacations up, going down was not just one-way. Talbot loaded up a transit card with the credits he would need to come back from 19. For him the 10 levels would cost about half the fee he was charging the Mill family. But he figured it was an investment. He could find out about the card and then zip up to 34 to see Olsen. After that … well, the future was a bit cloudier. But he felt that the money spent would come back to him somehow. He chuckled; thinking like this was probably why he hadn't been able to save for his own place.
  Talbot had picked the station on purpose. One of the older stations, it was a little shabby but bottomed out on 19 near where he needed to go. No sense landing blocks away and putting himself on those streets more than he needed to. No sense being a fool.
  The doors to the elevator were open. The car, roomy with large glass windows, could easily hold 100 people. It had 10 rows of benches in the middle and benches all along the perimeter. He never understood the reason for the large windows. The only view going down or up was the concrete tube that held the lift rails. He guessed the large windows made it seem less claustrophobic.
   It was midafternoon so the compartment was almost empty. Large signs posted all around the station and in the compartment gave strict warnings about re-upping if needing credits on the transit app. Talbot checked his watch for the 100th time, looking to make sure the transit balance was still loaded.
  He chose a seat on the perimeter and glanced up at the schedule. This particular lift was an express, only stopping at 24 before hitting 19. It was slowly filling with an assorted group of people. It was a midday crowd; Talbot knew that in the evening, when he hoped to return, the lift would be full of people coming back from work in the heavy metal factories on 19 and the heavy industry on 24. Most would be mid-level managers or salesmen checking up on production; few, if any, would be line workers.
  The lift was not even a quarter full when the doors closed. The compartment shook slightly and began its descent. The ride down was almost comically anticlimactic for such a large moving room. It stopped with a small shudder at 24, where most people got out. The few people left studiously avoided making eye contact with each other. Within minutes they would dart out of the lift on 19 and make their way into a place few willingly went.
  When Talbot left the lift and climbed up the short flight of stairs into the street he felt calm, almost at home. It was not his first time on 19. His mentor, Mr. Hammaud, seemed to have frequent business on the level. While not the sort of place one would want to linger in, 19 was not as bad as its reputation.
  The level was home to smelting plants and chemical plants, the kind of dirty work that people on upper levels needed but did not want near them. Like those on 29, 24, or any level really, most people lived their lives free from drama or much crime. But unlike a level like 29, the attitude of the protocols was a bit more relaxed on 19. Although shrouded in myth, 19 was home to several of the better organized gangs, which were basically businesses that ran the goods society wanted and craved, but if you believed the moral authorities were not proper. From what Talbot knew, they supplied people on many levels, at least up to 29. They provided the drugs, code, mechs, and people that those who could afford to used.
  But Talbot was not there to procure or even to judge; he just needed information and knew where to go. The man, another jeweler, was ensconced in a store possibly smaller than that of the deceased Mr. Mill. He was a large, fleshy man with a wheezing cough. Talbot had been introduced to him about 10 years earlier by Hammaud. Even then the man seemed as if he would seize up and die at any moment, but here he was 10 years on still wheezing and coughing, still alive.
  Talbot pushed himself into the small store. He almost had to lean over the glass showcase in order to close the door behind him. The large man behind the case gave a hearty laugh, somewhat forced.
  "Mr. Singh! What do I owe the pleasure? Come to shop for an engagement ring?"
  Talbot was not sure why the man winked. Still, he forced out a smile, not wishing to get off on the wrong foot. "Strictly business, sorry to say." Glancing down at the cheap and gaudy trinkets in the case below he was really not sorry. "On a case."
  "You work too hard, sir. This is why you are not here buying jewelry for some lucky bird, no?"
  Talbot smiled, but another glance down made him shake his head.
  "These are the finest rings, I wish you would let me show some instead of being so dreary with all of your business, Mr. Singh."
  "Yes, well, my client has been murdered."
  "No! Such a shame, murder. Never ends well for anyone involved, does it? But why are you down here bothering me? Was it a crime of passion? Did I sell her lover jewelry?"
  Talbot gave a small laugh; someone might be driven to murder if they got one of the rings in the store as a gift. "No, he was a jeweler himself. But I think it was a hit."
  "Ach, now that is bad. A hit? Why? Not a robbery?"
  "This was left." Talbot projected an image of the card from his watch. It floated above the counter as the fleshy man leaned down to examine it.
  "Huh, a calling card you think?" The jeweler propped himself back up, his expression inscrutable.
  "Seems like. Seems like something one of the organizations from 19 might leave behind."
  "Now, what would one of our local businesses want with a jeweler from 29?"
  "That is the first of many questions, so I wanted to see if you could tell me which group this is from? Can you tell by the markings on the back?"
  "Yes. Very clear. It is Treasure group, for sure. But strange still …"
  "Treasure?" Talbot knew about them, but wanted to find out any information the jeweler might have on them.
  "They move drugs mostly — narcs, alteragents. Why worry with a jeweler. He a user?"
  "Not that I know of. Plus if he was, why hit him? If he owed money that would be a local problem."
  "I'm beginning to see why you have a lot of questions, Mr. Singh. But this is a little out of my area. I will send you to a man I know. A man who can confirm the card and also, perhaps, read the details."
  "Oh yeah, I meant to ask —"
  "I do not keep up enough to be able to read the backs, just the group signs." The man pushed a small card across the counter. Talbot looked surprised the jeweler didn't just tap the address to his wrist.
  "Some things are best left off the electrical, Mr. Singh," he said with a wry smile. "This man, Mr. Geertz, should be able to help you. But I have to warn you, he is the suspicious type. Show him my card; perhaps that will help."
  "Thank you." Talbot took the card and scanned the address. It was not in a place where he would normally go.
  The man saw his look. "You'll be okay. With the factories around there will be many people in the streets. Now, when you do find that special lady, come back to me, I will give you a good price!"
  Talbot left the small store with an uneasy feeling. It was already three in the afternoon. He knew that a level like 19 did not dim their lights but still, it would be unwise to stay too late. Once workers drifted back home or to other levels, the streets would be empty. So he took a deep breath and called up a projection map. It was another 10 blocks. A little far, but Talbot didn't mind walking. Plus he felt safer in the streets than he would on a conduit line below.
  As he walked Talbot marveled at how different, yet similar, this level was to 29. He remembered learning in school that two hundred years earlier 19 was the top level of what was then a metropolis of less than a billion. City planners had built a gaudy, luxurious level to celebrate the ever-burgeoning growth of their megacity. The only trouble was that within 25 years more levels had been added and the appeal of living on 19 faded quickly. The whole architecture of the city changed with 19. The level was only four stories high giving a cramped, oppressive feeling. After 19, planners built taller levels, with more stories for buildings. They also designed better lighting and better ventilation. The air in 19 was hot, sticky, the light overhead a sickly shade of yellow.
  The buildings, faded and barely kept up, belied the level's once-grand status reflected in the ornate stone and plaster work, spacious entry ways, large front windows. Talbot wondered what the average apartment looked like. He had heard they were larger than those on 29. By the time the upper levels had been built it became more about packing people in than style. He often wondered what it would be like to try and get a place here, although he knew the tradeoff of having to live on 19 would not be worth the larger living space.
  Most of the residents he passed seemed threadbare and haggard. The bad air and pale light wore on people. Talbot knew the factories here were not as modern or pleasant, if that was the word, to work in as those on 29. The materials handled — heavy metals, caustic chemicals, and a decided lack of the most up-to-date mechs — meant people came into contact with the killing material. Most people here lacked other opportunities, or rather, other legitimate opportunities. They could sink to even lower levels or they could turn to crime. Running illegal goods was dangerous but plausibly less fatal than handling lethal chemicals and poisonous metals.
  Hustling down the dingy streets, Talbot made good time to the address the man had given him. It was a grey building with large smoky windows and a curiously small entryway. Elaborate plaster sculptures graced each side of the door, the chipped and worn faces of long forgotten Hindi gods and goddesses. Equally chipped and faded gold lettering on the door announced it was the home of Cultural Imports and Exports, Inc. Talbot pushed his way through the heavy glass door into a cramped foyer. A small elevator sat to the side.
  It made Talbot nervous that he had to go up to the third floor. He would be off the street, a quick exit denied. He made a mental note of where the stairs were. He wondered if they were blocked or not. No one was in the lobby area. The building almost seemed deserted and it was only around 4 p.m. — another strange sign. He pushed the elevator call button. The compartment was almost as small as the one in his apartment building. He felt trapped during the short trip up.
  It was with some relief that he got out of the tiny space. But his relief was short lived. The building was getting increasingly strange. He began to realize the lack of people was no accident; few businesses would willingly set up shop here. The ceilings were low, barely above his six-foot frame. The lights were low, making it difficult to see numbers on the doors that lined the short hallway.
  He found the door he was looking for tried the handle. Not surprisingly, it was locked. Talbot knocked. A moment later the door opened a sliver revealing a tall, thin man with solid black hair and red eyes. He said nothing while looking Talbot up and down. When he began to close the door, Talbot stuck his foot in the frame.
  "Are you Geertz? I have this card. I was told you might be able to help me."
  The man took the card, glanced at it, and handed it back. "What is it you want?" His voice was just above a whisper.
  "Uhm, I have a card … a playing card. I'm told you might be able to tell me about the markings."
  The door swung open and Talbot cautiously eased in. The man was already walking away toward a small desk set against the window on the opposite wall. The room was large, cavernous even, but aside from the desk and the chair completely empty. The man stopped at the desk, which was also bare, and turned around. He was wearing a long, black leather coat, buttoned up against a slight chill in the room. Talbot wondered why he didn't simply adjust the room's conditioning.
  "Show me what you have."
  Talbot made his way across the room and with a flick projected the card in front of the man. The card's red back shimmered in the light. For the first time Talbot could swear he saw the minute red markings making up the elaborate design actually move.
  "Treasure, but you knew that, even the jeweler you saw can read that. Where is this from?" Geertz tilted his head at the projection, a slight smile on his face.
  "It was found on 29. On the body of my client."
  The man's eyebrows raised. "You a protocol?"
  "Talbot Singh, assist for the family of the deceased."
  "Go on."
  "Mr. Mill ran a small jeweler's booth. Quiet type, kept his nose clean. Found this morning shot in the head and neck. The card was on his chest."
  "Was the store robbed?"
  "No. Mostly cheap stuff, but nothing you'd leave if you meant to rob. It was made to look like a gang hit."
  "Made? You seem uncertain. There is this card, after all."
  "Yes, there is some other stuff, nothing much," Talbot lied, not wanting to give away too much too soon, "It just seemed odd that a group from 19 would hit a guy like my client."
  "Groups here do business up there, as I'm sure you know."
  "But they don't normally hit. They let locals do that work … usually."
  "You said the hit was this morning?"
  "Overnight I guess, early morning."
  The man glanced down at the card floating in space and then back up to Talbot. "Mr. Singh, either you are an accomplished liar or a fool."
  "I can assure you I'm neither Mr. Geertz," Talbot said crisply.
  "Well, no fool at least, although you deigned to come down to our level."
  "Not my first time here, I know what."
  "No need to establish cred with me, Mr. Singh. I'm not sure what game this is or for that matter who is even playing, but I suspect you are a pawn and about to get trounced on by a stronger piece."
  "Why? What's wrong with the card? Is it fake or is it real?"
  "Real enough, although not real and certainly not correct. This card you are showing me is over a year old. It's possible that it would have been used as recently as six months ago, but not this morning, not by a Treasure."
  "You sure?"
  "Of course."
  "I designed it, Mr. Singh. Now, why don't you tell me what is really going on here?"
  "I told you what I know, Mr. Geertz." Talbot let out a deep breath. He tried to quell a rising sense of panic he felt rising from his stomach. "Look, I think you are right. Maybe I'm a pawn here. Someone is playing with this case. None of this adds up. Maybe it's another group, trying to throw off the scent." Talbot knew he was fishing, if only Geertz would bite.
  "No, not another group. They wouldn't be able to make this card — or at least make it this right."
  "Then who?"
  "You tell me, Assist. Who has the ability to know about and make something this correct and yet out of date?"
  Talbot's mind raced. If not a gang then only protocol would be able to.
  "Hey, wherever you're leaping to, I'm not there, Mr. Geertz. I don't get involved with protocol matters. Never have. I think it's best for me to go now."
  "No, stay. I think I want you to meet some people." Geertz flicked his wrist to reveal a small watch. Talbot did not wait to see what was next. As fast as he could he turned on his heels and bolted for the door.
  Making it out into the hallway he saw a door at the end of the hall begin to open. He quickly made his way down to the other end to where he hoped there were stairs. It took two pushes, a light one and then one with full body force, before Talbot was able to get the stairway door to open. As he suspected, the stairwell was full of garbage, discard furniture, old electronics. Grabbing the rail guides, he swung himself down the flights of stairs as fast as he could. He was already on the second floor when he heard the door he'd just pushed his way through burst open. He heard a voice shouting for him to stop.
  He went faster.
  Within seconds he threw himself down the last flight of stairs, still swinging on the guide rails over the piled junk. A side exit door was remarkably free of junk. This time Talbot did not even try, he aimed a kick at the door and it swung wildly open into a narrow alley way.
  Without ever looking back he ran as fast as he could up the alley towards the cross street at the end and ran smack into what seemed like a human wall. A very large man, the very definition in of meathead was blocking his way. Talbot staggered back and felt someone grab his arm and drag him back into the alley.
  Talbot struggled for a moment and then winced as the person holding his arm twisted it, forcing Talbot to bend over almost double. He felt someone smack him hard across the face.
  "Stop fuckin around, idijit!"
  Talbot twisted up, trying to see who had hit him. It was a short bad man with a large belly. Next to him was the man mountain Talbot had just run into. There was at least one more person holding his arms from behind.
  The balding man had a burn stick hanging from his mouth. Talbot wondered for a second what sort of mixture was in there and how dangerous the man would be if Talbot tried to run. A quick flex by the man holding him chased away that thought.
  The bald man sucked in a hit of vapor and then slowly let it out. The sickly sweet smell was foreign to Talbot. The man tapped the side of his head.
  "Hey. Yeah, he's here in the alley. Sure."
  The man looked at Talbot, took another drag, and then aimed a swift punch into Talbot's chest. Talbot cried out but quickly stopped, screwing his eyes shut as the pain raced through him. When he opened his eyes again the man in front of him was smiling. He took another drag and this time aimed a kick at Talbot's shin. Talbot was ready and took in a sharp breath but made no sound. The man's smile faded slightly. He was sizing up where to hit next when Talbot heard a voice behind them.
  "Enough, Mr. Parker!" It was Geertz, who came around next to the bald man and stared at him until Parker slinked away out of Talbot's range of vision. The man mountain remained.
  "For not being protocol you sure do run like a little bitch, Mr. Talbot Singh, 121 Wright Building, Apartment 215b, which you share with your … mother and father. Nice."
  Geertz's gaze shifted and Talbot could tell he was looking at a readout projected onto his cornea by an Icep, an intra-corneal electronic projection implant device. No wonder the office had been bare; he had all he needed inside his head. Talbot also knew such a device was difficult to get and very expensive: a good 10 years wage for someone like Talbot.
  "So you know I'm not protocol." Talbot wheezed, his head still down, the pressure still firm on his arm.
  "You are not, but it doesn't mean much. Still, no harm, no foul. And we're interested, Mr. Singh."
  "Interested? About what?"
  "This card, the murder of your client. Why pin this on Treasure?"
  "I don't know." Talbot coughed and tasted blood. He hoped it was from the smack.
  "Let him up."
  Talbot felt his arm released and he slowly stood up. Geertz leaned in, his narrow face and red eyes close to Talbot.
  "You will know, Mr. Singh. You work for us now, clear? Do what you need to for poor Mr. Mill, but you report back to me first what you find."
  "Sure, whatever."
  "Don't' fuck with me, Mr. Singh. I'm not the fucking type. Besides, go around me and there are bigger fish out there. Much bigger fish."
  "Okay, alright, I get it. So, uh, my normal fee is —"
  "How much is your life worth, Mr. Singh?"
  "Waived. The fee is waived. Of course."
  "Trust me, Mr. Singh. Trust me and things will go well for you. Now, scurry back up to your version of safety. I'll be in touch." Geertz motioned the man mountain to move.
  Talbot nodded and walked, as best he could, back down the alley to the street. He made a point of not looking back. If they were following him it would just depress him more, and if they weren't he would worry about why they weren't.
  He reached the lift without incident. He figured his face was beginning to bruise. He'd have to check in at a Medrac when he got back to 29. Another expense. He was beginning to regret the entire trip.

— ♦ —

For more information about the author, please visit his website or find him on Facebook.

— ♦ —

Levels by D H Richards

Levels by D H Richards

A Talbot Singh Mystery

Publisher: D H Richards

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)BN.com Print/Nook Format(s)

Talbot Singh helps people with their everyday problems, from birth to death, even after death in the case of his latest client, found shot in his jewellery shop. What appears to be a routine gang hit quickly unravels as Singh travels through the many levels of the city he lives in.

Each level its own sealed off world with millions of people. The only way to move between levels is to have money and some people will do anything for money, even commit murder.

Levels by D H Richards


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