Slog ended with only one of the primary characters left alive. The last line of the novel seemed an appropriate place to stop. Perhaps it was. Yet, we don’t always know when to quit. By fits and starts, a sequel of sorts emerged from my typewriter (yes, typewriter: it was that long ago), eventually reaching novella length.
There didn’t seem to be much to do with it. Slog 2 wandered too far from the story arc of Slog simply to be appended to that novel as a fifth chapter, but it nonetheless was a sequel and a sequel wasn’t much value if no one had heard of the original. So, it joined several other unseen manuscripts in a drawer. There it remained for a couple of decades. I dusted it off after a limited print run of Slog, and included it in the print run of Trash & Other Litter, but it must have confused readers who hadn’t read Slog, which surely was most. (“Most” ought not to conjure up a large number in this instance.) If there is any appropriate place for it, this probably is it, with the original Slog just a click away. (Print versions of both remain available.)
Slog 2 picks up in New Jersey, a former Quebecois territory damaged by missiles launched from Selena’s desert commune. It is populated largely by criminals exiled from Canada.
Bonnie filled a shot glass and slid it across the bar. For once Max wasn’t swigging Old Yeller, the foul banana wine produced locally in the southern colony of New Jersey. Old Yeller was the leading export – perhaps the only export. Tonight Max was splurging on Canadian Mist.
“So what’s the occasion?” Bonnie asked.
Max looked at the bartender Bonnie. She was trim, and her shoulder length pale blonde hair flowed fetchingly. He was one of the few men in town who hadn’t asked her for a date. Unattached young women were rare in town, rare enough for two professional girls of very dubious qualifications to keep full schedules. He struggled to focus his eyes. Bonnie wore a tee shirt and jeans. She looked good in them. She would have looked good in anything. She reminded him of Lana.
“My wife’s birthday,” he said at last.
“Is it?” Bonnie answered. “You’re from BC, aren’t you?”
“Your wife is waiting for you back there?”
“Which is it?”
“She’s buried there.”
Bonnie poured him another drink.
** ** ** **
Max put his feet up on his battered desk. Today’s hangover was different from the usual banana wine hangover. Banana wine left him sick to his stomach until mid-afternoon. Today he felt as though his limbs and eyelids were made of lead, but his stomach gave him little trouble.
The day was hot. Every day was hot. Ever since the sun turned up its thermostat in the previous century, the weather along the northeast coast of North America was tropical. He had been in town two years but still wasn’t accustomed to the dampness of the place. He looked out the window of his second floor office overlooking Main Street. The smallish town once had been called Chester. Before that, it was called Black River. Everything old was new again. There was a river. It was black. The colonial architecture of the buildings refused to look appropriate to the jungle setting.
The call for private detectives in Black River was sporadic at best, so his work load was light, but it was the only business he knew. Max pulled a bottle of Old Yeller out of his drawer. He wondered if the hair of a different dog would help.
He tapped the ashes of a cigar in the general direction of a large gold ashtray. He missed. Eyes closed, Max blew smoke at the ceiling. He wished he could wear a hat and trench coat like the private dicks in 1940s movies, but in this climate he would die of heat exhaustion in an hour. He also wished a Mary Astor or a Lauren Bacall would walk in his door once in a while.
When he opened his eyes, a thirtyish woman stood in front of him. She stood authoritatively, which isn’t the easiest of tricks.
“Max Gunther, I presume?” she asked in a raspy voice. The accent was French.
Though not as pretty as Bonnie the bartender, she was attractive in her own way. She was slender and probably in her mid-thirties with short cut natural brown hair. She was dressed in khaki and knee-high leather boots – a tourist’s idea of practical attire for the muggy climate of New Jersey. She carried a thick folder tucked under one arm. He guessed she had money. She had the peculiar disregard for grace of those who are accustomed to being financially secure.
Max tried to speak, but instead he croaked as phlegm caught in his throat. The remnants of civilized manners restrained his impulse to spit. He swallowed, sipped banana wine from the half-empty bottle, cleared his throat, and tried again.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“So I gather. What is that foul thing you are burning? It can’t be tobacco.”
Max looked at his cigar. “I don’t know. Around here it is usually best not to ask.”
Max stubbed out the cigar in the ashtray.
“Is that ashtray gold?” the young woman asked.
She sighed. Max was more convinced than ever the woman was rich. Rich people always seemed annoyed that gold was no longer scarce on a per capita basis. It was used in the commonest objects.
“What may I do for you ma’am? Stray husband or stray cat?”
“Neither. Missing person.”
“Well, I’m an investigator extraordinaire. As I’m the only one in town, I think the description is fair. This town is too small for anyone to hide in very long too, so I probably can help you. Who might the missing person be?”
“As in Selena Custer war criminal?”
“No, not as in. That Selena. The Selena from South Dakota. The sister of Aeneas Custer. She didn’t use the last name Custer though.”
Max missed a beat before answering, “Every police department and bounty hunter in the world has been looking for her for years.”
“Well, they haven’t found her.”
“You know the only people who say they’ve seen her say they have seen Elvis too. She’s probably dead.”
“I believe she is still alive, and not in the company of Elvis.”
“Ma’am you are from out-of-town. I know because I would have recognized you otherwise. You have traveled to a backwoods colonial village to ask a two-bit shamus to find an international criminal for you.”
“Do you charge only two bits?” she asked.
“No. But why have you done this?”
“Who is more important than why.”
“You are not inspiring confidence in me, Mr. Gunther. You haven’t asked who I am. I thought at first you didn’t because you knew, but you just indicated you didn’t recognize me.”
Max tried to place the face but failed.
“Clarissa Clairmont,” she said after letting him hang for a minute.
The gears meshed in his head. “As in Clairmont Industries?” he asked. “CI owns the largest banana plantation in the colony.”
“Yes. I see you’re a customer,” she said, indicating the Old Yeller.
“Then I’m even more baffled. Not only are one of the richest women in the world you even run some organization that does nothing but hunt down war criminals.”
“You refer to The Justice Foundation.”
“Right, So why do you need me? Do you have reason to believe Selena is in Jersey?”
“The light dawns at last. I believe she was here. Maybe she still is, but I doubt it.”
“Why don’t you bring in your own team?”
“I have.” Clarissa dropped the folder on his desk. “They ran background checks on every female in this colony between the ages of 15 and 50. I also ran checks on men of the sort who might be her accomplices.”
Max opened the file and saw his name on the first sheet. There was a mug shot and a synopsis of his criminal record.
“To my knowledge, I’ve never met Selena.”
“I believe you. However, you know some of the people in this file personally, and so might detect something we missed. Once again, we’re also looking for accomplices.”
“Well, I’ll do what I can, but even you say she probably isn’t here. The bounty on her is $1,000,000, isn’t it?”
“That is another reason to believe she is dead. For $10,000,000 bounties, people turn in their grandmothers.”
“Depends on the grandmother, doesn’t it? And the grandchild.”
“Perhaps. What makes you think she ever was in town?”
“Before I say any more,” said Clarissa, “I need to know I can trust you” she said. “There are unpleasant consequences to revealing confidential matters.”
“Threats are unnecessary. You obviously know my history. Whatever my faults, I never once betrayed a client.”
Clarissa dropped a wad of cash on the desk.
“Does this make me a client?”
“This makes you a client.”
He reached for the money. Clarissa put her hand on his and dug her nails into the top of his wrist.
“I don’t tolerate betrayal. Not from employees. Not from business partners. Not from friends. Not from lovers. Not from anyone. Do we understand each other?”
“I understand you.”
She released his hand. He slid the money across the desk and dropped it into a drawer. He shut the drawer without counting the cash.
“Selena sent a radio message from a place very near here. That is confidential information.”
“Selena sent you a radio message?”
“No, she didn’t radio me. She radioed the Martian colonies.”
Max thought at first she was being sarcastic. She wasn’t.
“Did she get an answer?”
“Are there Martian colonies?” he asked.
“Since when was there any possibility at all?”
Clarissa sat down a wooden chair alongside the desk. The chair creaked.
“In the years before the world went to hell, the US had a project to send settlers to Mars. The Russians and Chinese had similar plans. The world was falling apart, but no one would co-operate on anything, so all the projects were hush-hush.”
“Why the secrecy?”
“Economies were collapsing. Whole populations were dying off. Survivors might have gone into full revolt if they knew their governments were wasting resources on a space program instead on controlling the plagues.”
“And why were they wasting resources?”
“There was a possibility that human life might end on earth. They saw Mars as a possible lifeboat for the species.”
“But Mars is uninhabitable.”
“Yes and no. It is warmer than it used to be, now that the sun is in overdrive, but at night it still is colder than anyplace on earth, and there is no oxygen to speak of. Plants that could be food crops were being engineered to live there though. There is plenty of CO2 for them on Mars: more than on earth.”
“But air, water.”
“There is ice in the subsoil. Oxygen can be made by electrolysis for closed environments and even those plants would help a little. Everyone would have to live in airtight shelters.”
“Sounds like a merry little life.”
“It sounds awful, but it is life.”
“Did it happen? Did any settlers reach Mars?”
“I don’t think so. There wasn’t time. There wasn’t even enough lift capacity for all the necessary cargo. There is some indication the Americans were working on atomic propulsion to solve the problem, but the program – and the USA -- collapsed before it was finished. I’m As far as I know, the Russians or Chinese ran out of time too.”
“But Selena thought otherwise?”
“She apparently hoped otherwise anyway.”
“How did she learn about Mars? I never heard of all this before.”
“She had access to a lot of old secrets.”
“Yes, unfortunately including ICBM arming codes.”
“So, how do you know about the Mars program – or her radio message?”
“There is an organization called Viastellarium,” she said.
“Some kind of cult, isn’t it?”
“So some call it. When I was younger… well, I was involved in it.”
“That seems out of character.”
“You don’t know anything about my character. I’m still technically a member of the inner council of the organization, even though I no longer participate. The members’ interests are space related. Some members carry on about conspiracy theories involving ETs and governments. Mostly it is a bunch of nonsense.”
“I’m relieved to hear you say so.”
“Don’t underestimate them. Some of the group’s research about UFOs and old space programs can be extremely good.”
“How did you get involved? With them”
“I had my reasons. The important thing for you to know is that some members of our group are on the lookout for ET activity: UFO sightings, cattle mutilations, strange radio signals, and the like. They have some pretty good equipment. They picked up signals from New Jersey directed toward Mars.”
“But the message could have been from kids with access to some fancy equipment. What makes you think it was Selena? Did she say, ‘Selena calling Mars!’?”
“Very nearly. The operator called herself Diana. You know your mythology.”
“Not really. She was a huntress or something.”
“Yes, and a moon goddess. Another moon goddess was Selena.”
“Some people are really named Diana,” he said.
“If this person was, the lead is a dead end.”
“I see. I don’t suppose you were able to pinpoint the transmission source.”
“We were. It was an old industrial site out in the swamp at the edge of the blast zone. There is a map in your folder where the site is circled. I’ve been there. There is nothing much to be seen. One of the buildings is in fair shape as is some transmission equipment and a big dish on the roof. No sign of recent use or occupation.”
“And you want all this kept secret.”
“Just the information I’ve given you. You can talk openly about trying to find Selena all you like. Just don’t reveal the lead I’ve given you about the broadcast to Mars.”
“Very well, Miss Clairmont. I’m on the job.”
“That makes me feel so much better. I’ll be staying at the Brick Tavern Inn for a few days. Tell me what you have found out before I leave. I hope you are as successful as your cat.”
She gestured at the open window. Max’s cat Casper sat on the sill with a small iguana in his mouth.
** ** ** **
The files on local residents contained some surprises, but none which Max considered useful. Black River was too small for Selena to pass herself off as a native. More than a few residents had been court sentenced to “internal exile” here, as he had been himself, but none had political histories that made them likely to side with a war criminal. None was Dakotan.
Max read the fact sheet on the bartender Bonnie Danbury. She had run away from home in Edmonton at 15. She turned up in Toronto three years later where she was arrested for solicitation. There were some other minor scrapes with the law in the next few years. A poor mug shot and fingerprints were included in the file. Max was surprised to read she was not just the bartender; she was a part owner of the Brick Tavern in Black River with a loan from some Greenland corporation. Evidently she had savings from her trade in Toronto.
** ** ** **
Max sat down at his usual stool at the bar in the Brick Tavern Inn.
“Hello, Max,” Bonnie said brightly. “Canadian Mist today?”
“No, just some of the old poison.”
“You got it.” She poured him a glass of Old Yeller.
“It’s empty in here tonight.”
“You know weekdays,” she said. “May I ask you a question?”
“I was going to ask you one.”
“May I go first?” she asked.
“Were you talking to Clarissa Clairmont today?”
“Why do you ask?”
“She checked in this morning. Took the whole second floor. I saw her go in your building.”
“So the answer, obviously, is yes.”
“What did she want?”
“She wants me to find Selena.”
Bonnie laughed. Then she said, “You’re serious.”
“That’s what I asked. Maybe she thinks Selena is here.”
“Seems unlikely. She probably would stay in this inn, and no guest fits the description.”
“You never mentioned to me you were part owner of this place.”
“You never asked, and I didn’t mention it now.”
“The Greenland lender…”
“…is none of your business.”
“Right. Could I have a bottle of Old Yeller to take with me?”
She reached under the bar, pulled out a bottle and slid it over to him. He put down some of Clarissa’s advance.
“This should bring my tab up to date.”
Max carried the bottle by the neck on the walk back to his office/apartment. At his desk he dusted the bottle where Bonnie had touched it and lifted her fingerprints onto tape. He compared them to the ones in the file. They matched. He didn’t expect anything different, but it was best to cover all bases.
Max considered the transmission site, an old industrial park 15 miles to the east through difficult jungle.
The easiest way to navigate around New Jersey normally was in flat-bottomed airboats. Overland hikes through the jungle were grueling by comparison. The site, however, was east of Morristown – known as Morrisbourg during the Quebec occupation. One of Selena’s nukes had missed the town by few miles but was close enough to have destroyed it. Max was amazed the industrial park had survived. The jungle around the town must have absorbed a lot of the shock wave. No waterway formed a direct access from Black River, so the quickest route down to the coast and then double back up toward Morristown from the direction of New York. Max rested his head on his arms on his desk as he thought. Before he knew it, he was asleep.
There was a knock at the door.
“The door’s open!” Max said, forcing his eyes open.
Bonnie entered carrying a ledger.
“I saw your light was still on. I brought this for you. It’s the inn ledger. I doubt you’ll find anything in it that is useful.”
“I agree, but thank you anyway.”
Bonnie dropped the ledger on the desk. She sat on the desk and picked up the map from the file lying open on the surface.
“What is circled here?”
“Someplace I want to check out.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Bonnie leaned forward as she looked at the map. Her hair hung down only a few inches from Max’s face. Some of the aroma of the bar lingered there, but underneath was something else, something familiar. Lana had used the same shampoo as Bonnie. The same cologne too. He became lost in the aroma until Bonnie hit him.
“This is none of your business!” she shouted, holding her fact sheet.
“I’m sorry, but a detective’s job is to look into things that are none of his business.”
“Then your job is vile.”
“Why did you kill your wife?”
The brutal question startled Max. She obviously had read his fact sheet too.
“You’ve learned plenty personal about me.” She plucked his fact sheet out of the file and flicked it at him. “Answer me or you can find another bar to get drunk in.”
At present, the Brick Tavern was the only bar in Black River. Max took a deep breath before answering.
“I was a PI in Vancouver. A client came in my office. She said she felt her husband was cheating on her. Typical case. Her concerns were justified, as they usually are whenever anyone hires me. I followed the husband the next day. On his lunch break he went to a motel room where he met his lover.”
“His lover was my wife.”
“Had too much love in her heart to spend it all in one place, did she?”
“Don’t joke about it please.”
“So what did you do? Break in and gun her down?”
“No. I sat in my car the whole time they were in their room. Normally I would take pictures through the window – infrared if the shades were drawn. Not this time. I just sat there.”
“She didn’t die because you just sat there.”
“No. When lunch hour and their date was over, I saw them walking through the parking lot together. Then I don’t really remember much until the jolt of the tires.”
“What about the guy?”
“I missed him. I didn’t want any defense representation. I kept saying I was guilty. The judge required I have one, saying she doubted my capacity to make reasoned decisions. She let my assigned lawyer plea bargain to second degree murder. The judge sentenced me to exile. Here I am.”
“No prison? The judge didn’t consider you a danger to society?”
“I guess the judge figured the circumstances weren’t likely to repeat.”
“Did you ever wonder if you were set up?”
“Yes. By someone who knew the case involved your wife. The guy’s wife, for one. She may have been hoping you’d kill her spouse, but you hit yours instead. Do you miss her?”
“Lana? Yes, I miss Lana.”
Bonnie leaned down and kissed him. He had just explained how he killed his wife, and Bonnie was kissing him. Max was confused. He was acutely aware of the ring on his finger and a part of him wanted to push her away. Yet she smelled so much like Lana. Did Bonnie know he was thinking of Lana?
** ** ** **
Max could smell the rich aroma of coffee beans. Lana would be by the coffee pot in her favorite slippers with dog faces sewn on the toes and the pajamas with the Minnie Mouse pattern. Outside the house was an clear and perfect Vancouver day.
Max felt a paw on his eyelid. He forced his eyes open and saw the face of a white six-toed cat. Casper meowed loudly. The room was sweltering. Vancouver was 3000 miles away. Lana was not there. Yet the aroma of coffee was not in his imagination. Bonnie had left, but not befor making coffee. The pillow to his left was dented.
They had opened the Old Yeller bottle the previous evening. Max had drunk most of it.
Casper meowed again. Max forced himself up on one elbow. Max realized that he had smelled better in his life. No wonder Bonnie had left. He decided he had better not skip a hot shower this morning. In New Jersey there was no such thing as a cold shower.
He felt sick as he struggled out of the bed. He set out some dry food for Casper and a fresh bowl of water.
He entered the tiny bathroom and turned on the “cold” water. It was lukewarm. He stepped in. He shaved while standing in the shower. The blade was old and he had to press the razor. He drew blood twice. He stepped out and trimmed up the shave in the mirror.
He dressed in his least dirty clothes and walked into the front room which served as his office. There was a note on his desk from Bonnie.
“Investigate your client first,” it advised.
It was good advice. If he had done so back in Vancouver maybe he would have discovered things in a different way and Lana would still be alive.
Max went to the library to see what he could find on Clarissa. The internet wasn’t very functional these days, but flash drives with digital magazine publications were physically delivered to library on an irregular basis. Scanning the business news and othr publications, he confirmed what he already knew: Clairmont Industries was a major player in the Canadian economy. The business had been founded by Clarence Clairmont when Quebec was the dominant power in North America. The company, relied on salvage as much as on manufacturing. It provided a wide array of goods from shampoo to diesel engines. Clarence was in Montreal when it was destroyed. His daughter Clarissa, until then more socialite than businesswoman, inherited the firm. To everyone’s amazement, she proved to be hard-headed and competent, steering the company through the dismal post-war period. She helped organize The Justice Foundation to track down war criminals.
The gossip sheets filled in what the business news left out. They recorded Clarissa’s early exploits as an archetypical spoiled and rebellious young heiress of an aloof widowered plutocrat. The party girl had gotten engaged to a cult leader her father hated the day after her father married to a lounge singer named Brandi. Brandi was vaporized in Montreal with Clarence. Clarissa’s fiancé was killed the same day in the attack on New York.
Clarissa’s fiancé had been an oddball, to put it kindly. Born Jacques Fremont, he changed his name to the binary number 10101 at the age of twenty-one. 10101 founded a cult called Viastellarum. In a lengthy and barely readable tome, which all cult members were required to purchase at full price, he revealed that space aliens were responsible for the climatic cataclysm. They had altered the sun to make the earth’s climate hotter, thereby making it more suitable for themselves. They also were responsible for the plagues that had wiped out most of the world’s human population.
Yet, 10101 claimed the aliens were not evil so much as self-involved. They didn’t hate humans as such. He was in psychic contact with them and they told him so. It was possible to win them over as friends. The way to do win them over was to love them. He meant this physically as well as emotionally. 10101 advocated biological union with aliens to form human/alien hybrids who could enrich both our cultures. 10101 declined to deny rumors that he himself was one such hybrid. Outsiders assumed he was the source of the rumors.
Clarence Clairmont was not amused by Clarissa’s involvement with any of this, which Max guessed was the idea.
After the attacks, Clarissa publicly and lavishly idolized her father, putting statues of him in front of all the Clairmont offices. She refused all comment about her former fiancé or about Viastellarum. Clarissa’s remark to Max that she was still a member of the inner council was more than was revealed in the papers.
Max rounded out his research by brushing up on the Dakotan War, including a review of the Custer memoirs with their first hand descriptions of Selena by her brother Aeneas. He also read the transcript of the Aeneas’ war crimes trial.
Max remained in the library until closing time. He had enjoyed the day.
** ** ** **
On his walk back to his office, Max stopped in front of the Brick Tavern. The building was over two hundred years old. The painted white columns in front were so peeled and chipped they appeared to have feathers. Max entered the building.
He walked to the bar and sat down on a squeaky stool. The ceiling fans were only marginally effective at relieving the oppressiveness of the heat. Bonnie poured a banana wine.
“Hello, ladies man.”
“Hello. I missed you this morning,” he said.
“Some of us don’t have the luxury of sleeping in half the day.”
“I suppose not.”
He sat looking at the glass in front of him. He picked up the wine glass and inhaled the fumes. They felt harsh but good in his lungs. He imagined the wine sliding down his throat and spreading relaxation throughout his body. He knew if drank one he would drink ten.
“Something the matter with your drink?” Bonnie asked.
“I shouldn’t drink today. Or tomorrow.”
“So why are you at the bar?”
“I haven’t got my body to agree with my head yet.”
“I never trust my head. It is wrong more often than my body.”
Max placed his hands on the bar to push himself away but he couldn’t put strength into the shove. He lifted his right hand toward the glass in front of him. It stopped an inch away. He withdrew it.
“Bonnie, could you tell the cook to make me a burger? And just bring me some water.”
“Water? Real food? Are you feeling all right?
The burger wasn’t bad. He didn’t dare ask the ingredients: some bush meat probably.
“Bonnie, if you were Selena, where would you be?”
“Why are you asking me?”
“You are a resourceful young woman who has had to fend for yourself, much as she has. You have a perspective I lack.”
“Thank you, I think. I don’t know. Dead, probably.”
“I suspect you’re right, but assume not.”
“Dakota. It’s her home, isn’t it?”
“Wouldn’t anyone living there know her and turn her in for the reward?”
“They’re her friends who probably hate outsiders. They have no place to spend reward money.”
“Is Miss Clairmont upstairs?”
“Yes. She was out all day. Looking at her banana plantations I guess. She came back soaking wet and angry.”
“From the rain.”
“It rains nearly every day, detective.”
A beefy guard at the top of the stairway blocked Max. A second guard went down the hall to announce Max’s presence. He returned in less than a minute.
“Miss Clairmont will see you. Second door on the right.”
Max entered the hallway and knocked on the door. Clarissa opened it and waved him inside. The room was air conditioned, but was still uncomfortably warm by northern standards. Clarissa was freshly showered and wore a wildly colored bathrobe. Her hair was still damp. She sat on the bed. Max stood.
“So, Mr. Gunther, did you find Selena?”
“So why are you here?”
“I want to go to Dakota.”
“I want a 20th century climate. What of it?”
“I can’t do anything about the climate, but maybe you can arrange the trip for me. Or maybe not. I was sentenced to remain in New Jersey for ten years, and there are eight years to go.”
“But you believe someone with my connections might be able to arrange a work release.”
“Do you believe Selena is in Dakota?”
“I don’t know. But if you are serious about finding her, that is the place to start.”
“My people already looked in Dakota. Why would you succeed where they failed?”
“Time has gone by. Also, people may be willing to talk to me because I am not the authorities or with your Justice Foundation.”
“Mr. Gunther, I hired you to look around locally because you are the only detective in town. To be blunt, you are a broken-down wife-killing drunk. Why should I hire you to do anything outside New Jersey when I have other more qualified people elsewhere?”
“Because they’ve run out of ideas or you wouldn’t have come to me at all, not even to look for you locally. They’ve found nothing. Can I do any worse?”
“I’ll look into it. Come back tomorrow evening.”
“Perhaps we should discuss rates.”
“No we shouldn’t. If I hire you, you will be compensated appropriately. Let yourself out.”
** ** ** **
Max dripped perspiration by the time he reached the riverfront. The shirt had lost the faint trace of Bonnie from when she had worn it earlier in the morning while making coffee. Max walked up to a fisherman cleaning his boat. It was a thirteen-foot sea skiff with a wide beam and a shallow draft, a design that was a reasonable compromise for a boat intended to face bayous and open sea. He recognized the boat’s owner as a frequent customer at the Brick Tavern.
“Trent, isn’t it?” Max asked.
“Trevor,” he answered without looking up.
“Right. Knew it was a ‘T’.”
“You know your alphabet.”
“Right. Is that Miss Clairmont’s?” Max pointed to a large green tent twenty meters downriver.
“Was the Clairmont Industries symbol on it a clue?”
“Uh… Yes. Are you willing to take a passenger in your boat for a day trip?”
Max showed Trevor Clarissa’s map.
“You’d be better going overland,” he said. “By river we’d have to go all the way out to Perth Amboy and then double back inland. Even then I’d only get you close.”
“That’s OK. I’d like to do a quick run past New York City too.”
Trevor stopped cleaning.
“There is nothing worth seeing there. And this isn’t a cruise liner.”
“If it’s worth fifty to you, it’s worth one hundred.”
In the new currency this was piracy. His retainer from Clarissa would be all but used up.
“Done. We’d better leave right now or we won’t be back by dark.”
Trevor checked the engine and topped up his fuel.
“Let’s get going,” he said.
As they motored through the backwaters of New Jersey, Max reached over the side and let his hand drag in the black water forming a five fingered wake.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
Max withdrew his hand.
The Black River joined with the Raritan River. On both banks the jungle was thick and dark. Max sweltered despite the breeze coming from the motion of the boat.
“We should have brought Julie Adams,” Max commented.
If Trevor got the reference he didn’t acknowledge it.
As they neared the coast the riverbanks became more varied. A few hardy farmers had hacked ragged fields out of the luxuriance here and there. These burst with cotton, maize, sweet potatoes, hogs and cattle.
Further on the farms gave way to weedy piles of rubble. The piles grew larger and more frequent as the boat neared Perth Amboy.
The boat approached Bayonne. The green thinned out. Weeds were too thin to conceal blackened cinders and fused glass. The official reports after the war estimated five thousand people died in and around New York City in the attack. Max somehow felt their presence.
New York already had been losing population before the attacks. An annoying truth of the modern world was that the wealth of the old world was largely unusable. The first wave of settlers bit into the Big Apple and broke their teeth. The infrastructure was too damaged to be of any use. The most economical use of old cities was as raw material for new ones.
The skiff puttered north past Staten Island and entered New York Harbor. The island of Manhattan hunched unimpressively ahead. Max once read that the first H Bomb test at Eniwetok in 1952 had vaporized the island. Manhattan Island, being largely granite, survived, but its famous skyline had been scraped off. The only humans licensed to be on the island now were a handful of miners.
“Well, there it is,” said Trevor “I told you there was nothing to see. Do we turn upriver into Jersey now?”
“No, not yet. Head up the East River. I want a better look.”
“I don’t know yet.”
The boatman sighed but turned the craft east. As the boat skirted the Battery, Max caught a whiff reminiscent of burnt toast. He spotted a small plume of smoke and dust. From its location, he guessed it was from the gold mine at the site of the old Federal Reserve Bank of New York. At current prices the mine operators wouldn’t get rich quickly. He wondered if the ash tray in his office had come from here. Then he wondered what would happen if he turned a Geiger counter to it.
The boat traveled up the East River between banks of blackened rubble. Masonry bases for the vanished arches of the Brooklyn Bridge were sheered off at the water line. Amid the desolation, Max felt the weight of Selena’s crime in a way he had not before.
The boat passed the site of an organization once called, apparently without irony, the United Nations. It was indistinguishable from the rubble surrounding it. Max picked up Trevor’s binoculars and scanned the shore. To his surprise he saw movement. It was a man fishing.
“Uh, Trevor. Can we pull into shore?”
“Over there by the fisherman.”
Trevor killed the engine. Extracting an oar from under the seats, he stood up and paddled toward the water’s edge. He also used the oar to sound the depth. More than once the oar touched solid chunks less than a foot under the water. He maneuvered to a satisfactory mooring next to a concrete abutment some 50 meters south of the fisherman.
“Wait here,” Max ordered.
“Worried I’d leave you?”
“Just making sure.”
Max clambered onto shore and picked his way over the debris to where the fisherman sat. The man wore filthy frayed jeans, a battered jacket and a wide brimmed hat. He didn’t appear to notice Max. Not wanting to alarm the fellow, Max scuffled and crunched loudly as he proceeded over the broken ground. The fisherman took no apparent notice.
“Any luck?” Max spoke up as he stopped several feet in back of the man.
“Not much,” the fisherman answered calmly without a turn of the head, “How about you?”
“I suppose that is open to debate.”
“Debate this. Resolved: the fisherman won’t catch any fish until the tourist boat gets out of here.”
“Ah. Well, we’ll be gone soon.”
“Won’t we all?”
“A philosopher fisherman.”
The man turned his visage in Max’s direction. Max jumped. It was as though the fisherman’s facial features had been rubbed blank by an eraser. The face was hairless. Skin covered where the eyes should have been, the nose was nonexistent, and there was a thin slit for a mouth.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Max managed to say at last.
“I didn’t realize. You are a bomb survivor.”
“A regular Sherlock Holmes, aren’t you?”
“A better guess than you think. How close were you to ground zero?”
“Zero, I guess.” He waved generally to the right. “There.”
“Yet here I am.”
“Why weren’t you vaporized?” Max asked skeptically.
“Because I attempted suicide. Life is funny, isn’t it?”
“I don’t understand.”
“I walked to the Manhattan Bridge and jumped off. I was having a bad day. I wanted to drown. As it happened, my body didn’t. Your body fights back hard against intentions of that sort. I hit the water feet first and plunged down deep, but I couldn’t bring myself to inhale water. The water was black. I couldn’t see a thing. Then the water was incredibly bright. That was the last thing I ever saw clearly.”
“But you couldn’t have stayed submerged long enough without drowning.”
“But I did. Something grabbed my shirt -- I guess a piece from the collapsing bridge. It dragged me deeper. My lungs were bursting and I forgot all about suicide. My shirt tore and I desperately tried to swim up. I came up in an air pocket beneath some wreckage. More of the bridge I guess. I didn’t feel much pain even though I was hurt bad. The nerve endings on my face must have been fried. The water was hot. I didn’t know what was going on but I figured I’d better stay put. I found a way to wedge myself so I could rest with my head in the air pocket. Then I passed out. When I woke up, the water seemed cooler. I dove back below the air pocket and found a way around the wreckage up to the surface. I’ve been living here ever since.”
“But how do you manage?”
“Just do. I drink from the East River for water. I guess that should kill me too, but it doesn’t. I learned to fish and do other things. I get by. I’ve sort of put the suicide thing on the shelf for now.”
“Lucky you. Anything else you wanted to know?”
“Yes. Before the attack, did you ever hear of a cult leader who called himself 10101?”
“That idiot? I haven’t thought of him in years. He had some big meeting in town the day I jumped off the bridge. It was people like him who made me want to do it.”
“You met him?”
“I saw him at a distance. I never met him face to face. I guess that’s out of the question now.”
“Yes, he was killed.”
“Not what I meant. I’m surprised he didn’t survive. People like him usually do. Any other question?”
“No, I suppose not. Is there anything I can do for you before I go?”
“You wouldn’t happen to have a good cigar on you.”
“I have a lousy cigar.”
“Thought I smelled it.”
Max reached into his pocket and extended the cigar toward the fisherman. The man reached out and plucked the cigar from Max’s fingers. It took a moment before Max realized what was wrong with this.
“This may seem like a stupid question,” he ventured, “but can you see?”
“So maybe your eyes are OK under the skin flaps. Look, a surgeon might be able to do something for you.”
“‘No thanks?’ Why ever not?”
“‘No thanks?’ Why ever not?”
“I’ve seen enough.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I don’t expect you to understand,” said the fisherman
“Not done punishing yourself?”
“So you’re Sherlock and Sigmund all in one.”
“Anything else I can do?”
“Stop scaring the fish.”
“Stop scaring the fish.”
Max clambered back over chunks of concrete and bricks. Trevor scowled as the boat rocked while Max clumsily boarded.
“Where to now?” asked Trevor.
** ** ** **
The boat tied up at the edge of a shallow lake where the remains of hangers stuck up out of the water. Trevor said it was Morristown Airport. The outlines of corporate jets could be seen in the mud on the old runways which formed the bottom of the lake.
“Cross Columbia Turnpike,” Trevor said with a hint of sarcasm.
Max hacked his way through the thick vegetation with a machete Trevor had lent him.
Max found nothing resembling a turnpike, but he did come upon a straight path on which only short vegetation grew. The overhang of the trees made the path a long tunnel. Max followed a narrower path that he hoped was the driveway to the old corporate complex he sought. He reached a broader area of short vegetation and guessed it was once a parking lot. Beyond it was a low brick building, covered with vines but seemingly intact. An enormous satellite dish, also tangled in vines, was on the roof next to an array of solar panels covered with greenery. Piles of decaying matter surrounded the panels as though someone once had cleaned them.
Max found the front door. The steel door was unlocked, it was frozen in place by rust and vines. Using the machete, he hacked away the vines out and pulled with all his strength. The door opened a two feet and then jammed. It was wide enough. Max entered. He walked down a dark hall. Old cameras pointed dead eyes at him. Double doors ahead were open. What little light there was came from light pipes running through the ceiling. The room was filled with computers, all of them dark and quiet.
At the keyboard of one was a human body decayed almost to a skeleton. Another station looked less dusty. Selena, Diana, had made the broadcast to Mars from there. Max knew the solar panels couldn’t didn’t provide enough power for all this equipment. It was obvious no one had used the equipment recently, probably not since the broadcast. He left the building and forcefully pushed the front door shut behind him.
Max was silent on the boat trip to the coast and back up to Black River. As the boat neared the town the sky was a deep red. Whatever Clarissa’s real motives in hiring him, if Selena was alive, Max wanted her. No one simply should walk away from the devastation she caused. For the first time since his exile from left Vancouver, Max wanted to bring justice to someone other than himself.
** ** ** **
Max entered his apartment. Bonnie stood by the kitchenette. She poured a cup of coffee and brought it to him.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Who is minding the bar?”
“Beverly is filling in tonight. Sit down.”
She led him to the tattered couch against the wall and sat next to him.
“You are soaking wet and you smell terrible,” she said.
“You’re pretty cute yourself.”
“You do a lousy Mae West. Max, what are your plans with Miss Clairmont?”
“Miss Clairmont? I don’t think she is interested in me.”
Bonnie smiled. “No, you jerk. What about the job?”
“I’ve asked her to send me to Dakota, if she can arrange it.”
“She can arrange it. She will, too. Max, I want to go with you.”
“Thanks for your enthusiasm! Let’s say because I want to keep you out of trouble.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look, Max, I don’t know what that woman’s game is, but I do know that you aren’t important to her at all.”
“What I mean is, you are just a tool for her. If you break, she’ll just replace you. You need someone who is looking out for you, not for her.”
“Why would you want to look out for me?”
“You need to work on your self-esteem. OK, if you need me to give you an unsentimental reason, let’s say I want to have an adventure. See the world. I’m tired of living in a frontier town in the jungle.”
“You have a life here. You own your own bar and inn.”
“The finance company is the true owner. Beverly can run the place while I’m gone. I’ll let her keep the profits for the period.”
“I’ll have to convince Clarissa.”
“What did I do to deserve you?”
“Let’s not discuss that.”
He leaned over to kiss her. She crinkled her nose and held him back with a hand to his chest.
“Drink your coffee. Then shower. Then try again.”
** ** ** **
Max felt refreshed after showering and trying again. He walked along the dark street to the Brick Tavern Inn, gathering his thoughts for Clarissa.
“Can I help you, Max?” asked the matronly Beverly as he passed within sight of the bar she was tending.
“No thanks. Visiting a guest.”
She smiled and nodded.
Max walked up the flight of stairs. The same burly guard stopped him at the landing. The seersucker suit he wore was too small.
“I have to frisk you.”
“You didn’t the last time.”
“This was pointed out to me.”
“You’ll excuse me if I don’t take your word for it.”
“You are excused.”
The guard did not smile, but frisked him roughly. “OK. Second door on the right.”
Max eased past the guard. He tapped on the second door gently. Clarissa answered, this time fully clothed in khaki.
“I’ve been expecting you. I’m told you’ve been detecting.”
“You’ve been told correctly.”
“Turn up anything?”
“I met a blind fisherman.”
“I’m not looking for a blind fisherman.”
“No, ma’am. Have you considered my proposed trip to Dakota?”
“Already arranged. You’ll be officially in my custody when outside the boundaries of New Jersey.”
“I see. I have a request.”
“Yes. I have a partner.”
“Bonnie. She has to come with me.”
“Sounds more like a demand than a request. Are we talking about the bartender downstairs?”
“What about a juggler and acrobat?”
“I won’t be needing either of those. I’m not asking for more money.”
“We haven’t discussed money.”
“No ma’am. I mean I’ll pay her out of whatever you were going to pay me.”
“Pay her for what, exactly?”
Max didn’t have an answer.
Clarissa sat in silence for more than a minute.
“She is pretty, isn’t she?”
“I’ll have to make a second arrangement for her because of her exile.”
“Alright, call mea romantic. Tell her she is coming too. Each of you pack only a single bag that you can carry easily. We leave tomorrow.”
Max wasn’t sure why Clarissa had agreed so easily, but he doubted it was because she was romantic. What she said sunk in.
“Tomorrow?” he asked. “My lease, my bills, my cat… I need a little more time.”
“You have no time. Leave all those things to me – to my assistants actually. Tomorrow. Meet me here at 10 AM. Don’t be late. Let yourself out.”
Bonnie was not upset by the timing though Max had been sure she would be.
“It is odd Clarissa is so ready to accommodate my requests, isn’t it?” he asked casually. Bonnie caught him off guard with a swift cogent answer.
“She has political ambitions.”
“Of course. Rich people get bored with the money,” Bonnie said. “Sooner or later they all want to taste the power – they want to be PM. Most will settle for a seat in Parliament.”
“How does this tie in with me. With us?”
“The Dakotan war criminals are her gateway issue. She wants to get the public to think of her politically rather than purely as a rich businesswoman. Pursuing unpunished Dakotan war criminals plays well, especially in what’s left of Quebec. She’ll get publicity and mileage out of a Selena hunt. Ottawa doesn’t show much interest in the subject, so the issue is wide open for her.”
“Why the official disinterest?”
“I’m guessing some deals were cut with Dakotans: free passes on the war crimes in exchange for help on accesing the missiles. A few low level criminals were jailed as window dressing.”
“How do you know all this?” Max asked.
“I read the newspapers. Your unsavory past will interest the papers, if only the tabloids, more than just any detective. So will mine. That’s why she agreed to you and me on the trip.”
“So you think she this is a publicity stunt for her?”
“I’m willing to bet on it.”
“Don’t our unsavory pasts have a downside?”
“No. She’ll look open-minded about giving us a second chance. She might even finance a TV movie about us if meet some dramatically tragic fate.”
“You think she will arrange one of those for us?”
“Selena might, if we really find her.”
“Thanks. You have an intriguing perspective.”
“One of the advantages of looking like a bimbo is the low expectations people have of you. I don’t like it when you have them though. Raise them.”
“Only if you promise to keep the bimbo diguise. You know, if you are right about this all being a publicity stunt, there is no way we’ll find Selena. She’ll hear about us in advance all and stay out of our way.”
“Makes you wonder if Clarissa really cares, doesn’t it?. By the way, did you discuss pay with her?”
“I told her I was cutting you in for 50%”
“50% of what?”
“I haven’t a clue.”
** ** ** **
Max and Bonnie arrived at the Brick Tavern on time, but found Clarissa already waiting at the curb. She wore a pith helmet and goggles in addition to her usual khaki.
“Hello, Miss Clairmont,” Max said. “I thought you said 10 AM.”
“I did. This, I presume, is Bonnie.”
“Yes, ma’am. We met when you checked in.”
Clarissa assessed her quickly.
“She’ll do,” Clarissa said.
“Thank you ma’am,” Bonnie answered, trying to keep her voice flat.
“I saw your tent boathouse on the river the other day. Will we be sailing immediately?” Max asked.
“We’re not sailing.”
“You’re not proposing going overland.”
“No, I’m not. We’ll fly. Are you afraid of flying?”
“I don’t know,” he said. Bonnie simply smiled.
A few hundred living people in the world had flown. Max wasn’t one of them. Several lighter-than-air ships had been produced in Quebec years earlier, but the Montreal based factory had been destroyed with the city.
A carriage hitched to a donkey pulled to the front of the building. The two big men who had guarded the steps and hall emerged from the inn pulling steamer trunks behind them. They wore seersucker.
“Those trunks are flying with us?” Max asked. He had taken the admonition to carry a small bag seriously, as had Bonnie.
“No. They are going by water if that is alright with you. Climb aboard.”
The carriage jolted forward and carried them toward the river. Branches scraped the carriage and swatted the driver and passengers after they left the main street. Max envied Clarissa’s headgear.
The carriage arrived at the large tent at the river’s edge. What Max had assumed was a temporary boathouse was in fact a hanger. Clarissa’s two-engine float plane was docked outside of it. Max doubted there were more than a dozen heavier-than-air aircraft operating in the world. A trim and pale young man with glasses waited by the riverbank. Max didn’t recognize him.
Emblazoned on each side of the plane was the elaborate purple and white Clairmont family crest. A man Max took to be the pilot was doing a pre-flight.
“Head for the bushes if you need to. We’ll be in the air a long time,” advised Clarissa.
“Oh. I see your point.” Max took her advice. Bonnie did not.
After his quick return, Max was the first to board. The plane rocked as he stepped on the pontoon. He gripped the doorframe and hoisted himself into the back seat. Clarissa unexpectedly climbed in next to him. The pilot and Bonnie seated themselves up front.
Max closed his eyes. The sweet and sour smell of gasoline and oil permeated the passenger cabin. He now knew the answer to Clarissa’s question. He was afraid to fly. He opened his eyes. In the middle of the river an alligator swam lazily. He wondered what would happen if one of the floats hit the alligator during take-off. Would the plane nose in and capsize? Dying of alcoholic self-indulgence was one thing, but providing a snack to an alligator was another.
The two engines squealed and started. The plane lurched as did Max’s stomach. The pilot maneuvered into the middle of the river. He throttled up. The airplane accelerated toward a row of trees at a bend in the river. Max tensed for a smash. Calmly, the pilot veered right and kept the craft in the center of the river. A logjam loomed ahead. Max closed his eyes and waited for the floats to strike the logs and rip away. No crash occurred. Opening his eyes, he saw the plane already was several feet above the water and rising slowly. As he spotted the tall trees ahead he unconsciously tried to give the plane extra lift by pulling up on the under-cushion of his seat. Despite the futility of this gesture, the trees passed beneath. Max looked out the window. The earth fell away.
“Are you alright, Mr. Gunther? You look like your cat,” said Clarissa.
“Oh. Yes. I’m fine,” he said unconvincingly. “I hope you found Casper a good home by the way.”
She pointed between his legs.
Max bent over and peered beneath his seat. There was Casper in a wood and wire cat box. Quiet until now, the animal wailed plaintively when he saw Max’s face.
“You brought him along? You are cat lover?” Max asked.
“No, I hate the murderous little things. My PR men recommended it.”
“I’m not sure it is a good idea,” he said.
“Should I throw him out the window then?”
“No.” In order to get his mind off the cat and the flight, he turned to business. “Some Dakotans are still in prison. I’d like to talk to them.”
“I assumed you would. Arrangements already have been made.”
“Good. Are we going to South Dakota first?”
“In case it has escaped your notice, this is a float plane. South Dakota is a desert. We’re going to Quebec.”
“Where in Quebec?”
“Where else? The city of Quebec. There isn’t much else left. You will meet with the war prisoners there.”
“Do you know if one of them is named Jennifer? There was a guard named Jennifer mentioned in the Custer memoir.”
“I’ve read it. No, she isn’t one of the prisoners, but she should be. The army prosecutor, of all people, declined to bring charges.”
“Why? Did she help locate the missiles?”
“You sound as though you approve of that trade.”
“Isn’t it better we controlled the missiles quickly, even if it meant we went easy on some low level Dakotans?”
“Well, I don’t want to argue politics.”
** ** ** **
From the air, Quebec City looked ragged. Roofs were missing or collapsed on most of the structures, and fires had taken a toll on many blocks. The current population occupied only a small fraction of the town in noncontiguous neighborhoods.
Max was terrified by the descent to the river. He was not able to judge altitude. Every time he was sure the pontoons were about to touch, the plane descended further. The sudden deceleration when the plane did hit the river caught him by surprise. He felt as though the plane was about to flip the tail over the nose. It didn’t. The pilot turned and taxied the aircraft toward a dock on the riverbank.
A small crowd waving microphones, cameras, and writing pads waited at the dock. Bonnie was right. Clarissa had alerted the press.
The right pontoon bumped against the dock. Someone outside opened the door. The Bonnie and the pilot disembarked first followed by Clarissa.
“Come on,” she ordered.
Max took a breath. He sidled out. He planted a foot firmly on the dock and was relieved he didn’t stumble in front of the cameras. Lost in his own thoughts, he failed to register a question from one of the reporters. Bonnie nudged him from behind.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?” he asked the an improbably young reporter.
“Yes. Does your career as a criminal give you special insight for catching Selena?” she asked.
“I didn’t make a career out of crime, but perhaps my experiences will help in subtle ways.”
The rest of the questions were directed at Clarissa. Clarissa suddenly announced the conference was over. Two burly men, apparently Clarissa’s local bodyguards, cleared a path to a waiting stretched 4-wheel drive SUV with darkened windows. One opened the back door. Clarissa directed Max to the back seat and climbed in next to him. Bonnie got in front next to the driver. The pilot remained behind.
“Why are you acting like a zombie?” Clarissa asked Max.
“Well, snap out of it.”
“Where’s my cat?”
“Someone will follow with the luggage.”
“Don’t call him luggage to his face. He knows when you are insulting him.”
The SUV entered downtown. Max found the drive on the severely potholed streets almost as alarming as the flight. Max had to grant the Quebec rubble was prettier than the ruins of most cities.
The car pulled in front of one of the few charmless buildings. It was clad in blackened brick.
A man in an ill-fitting uniform approached with the self-important air of a minor official with a bad self-image. Clarissa rolled down the window. The man leaned into the window. Even though Max was buffered by Clarissa, he could smell the Old Yeller on the fellow’s breath.
“Is this the wife-killer?” he sneered.
“Yes,” Clarissa responded, “it is.”
“I hope you know what you are doing.”
“I always know what I’m doing, officer,” she answered.
“Corrections officer. A sergeant.”
“I stand corrected, sergeant.”
“You’re sitting, ma’am.” He was sure he had made a witticism.
The sergeant looked at Max with disdain. Max got out of the car and held out his hand. The guard failed to shake it.
“Catch up with me when you’re done,” Clarissa ordered Max.
“You are leaving?”
“Where will you be?”
“You’re the detective. Find me. Out! Go to work!”
Max stepped away from the car. As he turned back for a final comment, the window rolled up and the vehicle pulled away.
“You fit right in with the scum in there,” said the guard.
“Let’s hope they agree.”
“Come on,” the guard grunted.
Max followed the sergeant into the building. The interior was dark and grimy. They walked through the reception area and entered a corridor. There, a second guard opened a steel-reinforced door with a traditional large key. Max and the sergeant passed through to a second door. This one was entirely of steel with a single peephole penetrating it. The door had only a steel cross bar for a lock. The guard lifted it and waved Max inside.
“They’re at the far end. Shout when you are ready to come out.”
“And if you don’t hear me?”
“I’ll be back at feeding time.”
Max entered the cell block. The steel door clanged shut behind him. The block was occupied solely by four Dakotan prisoners. More conventional prisoners were kept in separate wings. Narrow barred windows allowed just enough light into this section to raise it to the level of dreary. Max wondered if the cells were so very different from the caves in which the Dakotans had lived in the Black Hills.
At the far end of the center walkway, two women occupied one cell directly across from two men in another. All four pretended not to notice him. Max approached the cell with the women. A thin blonde sat on the bed reading The Northern Nose, a seamy tabloid. The other prisoner, whose hair was black with streaks of gray, was doing push-ups. She was muscular.
“Ladies,” Max said.
The exercise buff answered, “Don’t bet on it.” She stopped at the upstroke and looked up. “They told us we were getting a visiting from a wife-killer. Are you the Prince Charming?”
“A man commits two murders and is back on the street. What is the world coming to? What do you want?”
One of the men across the aisle spoke up. “Wasting your time, bud. Don’t have the right equipment for them, if you follow me.”
“He’ll bend over for you, though,” she answered.
Max was encouraged. At least they were responding.
“This mixed sex cell block arrangement doesn’t seem appropriate,” said Max. “No privacy.”
“Prince Charming is a prude,” commented the blonde. “Oh, but of course. It’s what the murders were about, isn’t it?”
“Not an issue,” one of the men said. “I wouldn’t touch those two even if there weren’t any bars between us.”
“You bet your ass you wouldn’t,” the dark haired woman answered.
“OK, OK,” Max intervened. My name is Max Gunther. I’m a private investigator. Clarissa Clairmont hired me find your old boss Selena.”
All four laughed.
“You know, you should be in here,” the blonde said, “not us. We were soldiers following orders. What you did was your idea.”
“You may have a point. I don’t make those judgments.”
“Oh, but you do. You’re hunting Selena, so you’ve made a judgment about her.”
“It’s a job.”
“You mean you’re just following orders?”
“I don’t want to spar with you. I just want to ask some questions. We really know very little about Selena. We don’t even have a photograph. We have sketches and contradictory descriptions. Did all of you know her personally?”
“Of course,” one man said.
“Why are you helping him?” asked the dark woman.
“I tried to kill her boyfriend too, Ma’am. There was no sexual prejudice involved.”
“Oh, well it’s alright then. You’re a sick bastard.”
“No argument. Look, guys, I work for Clarissa Clairmont…”
“You’ve told us. We’re happy for you.”
“…and she has a lot of pull. Maybe she can get you out of here if you help her, or at least she can make things more comfortable.”
“Bullshit. She would be the last one to help us,” said the darker woman.
“Why not talk to the man,” asked one of the men. “What’s the difference? No one else even pretended to offer us help.”
“What can you give me to work with? What was she like? What was her taste in music? What was her favorite food? Anything.”
The blonde looked at her cellmate. The latter shrugged.
“Well, she liked men,” said the blonde.
“That’s why lover-boy over there is a liar,” added her cell-mate. “He doesn’t meet the definition.”
“Shut up! I don’t care what any of you think,” lover-boy said with a shrug.
“What’s your name?” asked Max.
“Ralph. That’s Bob. Those are Jill and Natalie. Jill’s the muscle-bound hardass.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” said Jill.
“What can you tell me, Ralph?”
“You mean how she was in bed?”
“Well, she wasn’t like the She Hulk over there. She was the opposite: feminine on the surface but hard underneath.”
“Why aren’t there any photos of her?” asked Max.
“We weren’t much on photography in Dakota. Is the ‘wanted’ poster of her still plastered everywhere?”
“In post offices.”
“The poster sketch is pretty close. Dark hair. No tattoos. Good figure but not a jaw-dropper. She wouldn’t really stand out in crowd.”
“How long were you lovers?”
Jill and Natalie snorted in harmony. Bob kept a neutral expression.
“Well, we connected once after a party, before she got sober. She was pretty wild when she was young.”
“I’ve heard. Did you help her escape Dakota, Ralph?”
“No. All four of us here were in the missile control bunker when those troops from Quebec burst in on us. Selena was miles away.”
“So you never saw her again?”
Bob answered tentatively, “Maybe she was in the crowd during our trial. Maybe not.”
“You mean here in Quebec City?”
“When we were being led into the courthouse, I thought maybe I saw her. I might have been wrong. She wore her hair funny. Ponytail. Dark glasses. Whoever it was gave us a thumbs-up. It was one of Selena’s gestures.”
“Did the rest of you see her?”
“No,” said Natalie.
“Did you report this?”
“No. Why would I? The Frenchies wouldn’t have let us go regardless. We’re the ones who physically turned the keys and fired the missiles, you know. Besides, I thought maybe she was working on an escape for us.”
“I guess she wasn’t. So, Selena could be living right here in Quebec?”
Jill answered, “We told you we don’t know.”
“Why were four of you at the missile site? Isn’t a crew just two?”
“Shifts,” said Ralph. “Selena wanted twenty-four hour coverage of the controls. The missile control room was a long way out in the middle of nowhere, so Selena rotated teams of four every two weeks.”
“You all heard Selena’s command to fire?”
“It was hard to miss: a red light and a buzzer.”
“Not a voice command? You fired on the basis of a red light and buzzer?”
“That was the prearranged fire order,” said Jill.
“Do any of you know a woman named Jennifer? One of Selena’s personal guards.”
“We called them warriors, not guards. Yeah, of course I knew her.” Ralph answered. “Wasn’t my type.”
“You mean you weren’t hers,” said Jill.
“Did you know her, Jill?”
“Yeah. We weren’t friends though,” answered Jill. “Why, what does she have to do with anything?”
“I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Thank you.”
Max turned to go.
“That’s it?” asked Natalie.
“Yes. I’ll tell the authorities you helped.”
“Oh that just fills me with hope,” grumbled Jill.
Max walked back to the steel door.
There was no response. He tried calling by rank.
The only response was a snort from Jill.
As he stood waiting, Max became aware of a biological urge.
“I don’t suppose there are facilities in here,” Max said.
“If by that you mean a toilet, there’s one in every cell,” said Jill.
He tested the door of the nearest empty cell. It was unlocked. He used the stainless steel toilet in the corner with as much discretion as he could manage. He then returned to the main door and sat down on concrete floor to wait. The better part of an hour passed. Max caught the aroma of frankfurters and beans. The sergeant swung open the door. He entered the wing with a tray in his hand. The hot dogs looked like rubber.
“Should I bring a plate for you?” he asked Max with a grin.
Max scooted out the door. The second guard opened the outer door for him without more delay.
Clarissa hadn’t trusted him to find her after all. An ancient blue Volvo station wagon waited outside. The back door on the passenger side was tied shut with baling twine. Max walked up to the open passenger window and peered inside. The driver wore a chauffeur’s black suit. His sunglasses were much too dark to be practical.
“Are you waiting for me?” Max asked.
“On pins and needles.”
Max opened the front door and slid inside. The leather seat was shredded. The end of a spring coil jabbed into his buttock as the car pulled away from the curb and bounced along the pitted street.
“Take me to Miss Clairmont.”
“I know where to take you.”
After bouncing through decayed but picturesque neighborhoods for twenty minutes, the Volvo pulled up to an architecturally incongruous structure at the highest point on Grand Allee Avenue. The fiercely modern building was capped by a glazed disc, looking like some impossible flying saucer.
“Where are we?”
“Le Concorde,” said the chauffeur. “This is where I was told to bring you.”
Max reached for the interior door handle but found it missing.
With exaggerated formality the driver exited, walked around to the passenger side, and opened the door for Max.
Max stepped out. A doorman in a uniform appropriate for a field marshal opened the door to the hotel. The lobby interior was clean, simple, modern, and elegant. A man of prissy appearance seated in a leather chair facing the door raised his eyebrows over his newspaper. He put down the newspaper and stood up.
“I’m Elsworth. Miss Clairmont has been waiting.”
Elsworth led Max to the elevator and pushed the top button.
“Quite a hotel,” Max observed. “Are there are enough travelers anymore to keep a place like this in business?”
“No. But Miss Clairmont uses a floor for her offices and another for residential use.”
“This is the headquarters of Clairmont Industries?”
“In the sense that Miss Clairmont’s office is here, yes. The official headquarters is across town.”
The elevator opened up at the saucer section. Inside was a restaurant with a superb view.
Elsworth escorted Max to the window table where Miss Clairmont sat. She was finishing an artichoke appetizer.
“Ah, Mr. Gunther. Sit down,” she ordered.
Max and Elsworth complied.
“Where is Bonnie?” Max asked.
“She chose not to dine with us.”
“You’ll have to ask her yourself.”
An absurdly overdressed waiter placed a dish of sizzling escargot in front of Max. Another arrived with a wine bottle. The fellow stooped over Max’s shoulder to pour. Max put his hand over the glass. Max was aware Clarissa was talking, but he couldn’t understand a word. The aroma of the wine absorbed his attention.
“Could you bring me a ginger ale, please?” Max asked the waiter.
Clarissa stopped speaking and looked at him with curiosity.
“I said, did you get anything useful out of the prisoners?” she repeated.
“Yes. I’d like to see any surviving news footage taken outside the courthouse during their trial. Ones which show the crowd?”
“Selena was in the crowd.”
“Are you certain?”
“One of the Dakotans thought he might have seen her.”
“Thought he might have? You’re stretching. No matter.” Clarissa waved a fork at Elsworth. “Take care of it.”
He nodded as he gripped a snail shell with a caliper spoon.
Elsworth put down his utensil, and left the table.
“You seem less skeptical than I expected,” Max said. “Miss Clairmont, did Canadian authorities protect Selena? Are they still? If so our investigation will not be welcome in high places.”
“I’m in a high place.”
“You are not the government.”
“Not at the moment. As to your questions, maybe and I don’t think so. If they did help her, it’s likely they afterward just let her disappear.”
Elsworth returned to the table.
“CBC is sending over clips from outside the courthouse during the Dakotan trial. They say there aren’t very many. Their operations were still pretty disrupted at the time. A digital copy of what they have will be delivered within the hour.”
“Very good, Elsworth.”
Elsworth beamed at the praise. Max was tried to assess the relationship between the two.
“You can stop scrutinizing us for a moment, Max,” said Clarissa. “Here comes the pheasant. Enjoy it. No more business for a while. You too, Elsworth.”
Max’s didn’t speak a word until he was done with the delicately prepared dish. Crème brulee and coffee followed. During desert a messenger arrived with a small package from CBC.
By the time Max finished his second cup of coffee, he was satisfied and sleepy. The caffeine barely helped. No bill arrived at the table. Clarissa stood up and beckoned them to follow.
At an elevator marked with her family crest, Clarissa entered a code on a keypad. The doors opened. The elevator took them down a single level. The interior doors opened to a steel outer door with a second keypad. Elsworth tapped a code and pushed. The door swung open. They walked onto Clarissa’s residential floor.
The décor was more traditional than in the rest of Le Concorde. Stained wood panels lined the walls and tiffany lamps hung from the ceiling. Elsworth opened double doors to an oak paneled media room where a large television screen was set into the wall.
Clarissa sat down on an overstuffed black leather couch and padded the cushion next to her.
“Have a seat, Mr. Gunther.”
Max sat as far away from her as the couch would allow.
Elsworth opened the CBC package and inserted the memory device into a slot in the TV. The screen lit up with images of a crowd milling outside the Quebec courthouse.
“According to CBC, there aren’t many minutes of this,” he said.
There were enough minutes to bore all three viewers. Almost by chance, Max noticed a gesture by a member of the crowd.
“Hold it!” Max ordered. “Back up. Stop. Play again.”
On screen the four Dakotan prisoners were led up the courthouse steps to loud jeers. The camera panned the onlookers.
“There. Freeze it. Can you enlarge the image of the woman in the sunglasses?”
“To the right of center. She has aviator sunglasses and is giving a thumbs-up.”
Elsworth manipulated the remote. A fuzzy picture of the woman filled the screen. The woman had dark shoulder-length hair. Bangs and glasses obscured her features.
Clarissa leaned forward. “You think that’s Selena?”
“Are you going to confirm it with those prisoners?”
“No. They have reasons to lie to me – to say what they think I want to hear so I’ll reduce their sentence.”
“What makes you think you have any influence whatsoever over their sentence?”
“I don’t but I promised to try, so I’m trying now. Can you help them?”
“No and I wouldn’t if I could.”
“I figured. I would like to show the picture to the guard Jennifer in Dakota.”
“Play the rest of the clips, Elsworth,” she said.
Elsworth zoomed out the picture and resumed play. On no other pans of the crowd did the dark haired woman appear.
“Find the picture again and make a still out of it,” she ordered.
“It’s not much better than the sketches,” Elsworth said.
“It’s better,” Max responded. “Biometrics. With even a fuzzy photograph we can calculate her exact height by comparison to known physical surroundings. We can estimate her weight and get facial measurements.”
“But you don’t know this is Selena.”
“True, which is one reason I want to speak to Jennifer. Travel to the Black Hills is still restricted, I presume.”
“It is, but I have authorization for you. You leave tomorrow.”
“Bright and early. I suggest you get some sleep. Show Max his room, Elsworth.”
Elsworth stood up. Max followed him back to the elevator. His room was two floors below.
“Oh, where’s my cat?” Max asked as Elsworth handed him a key.
“Don’t worry. We didn’t have him for dinner.” Elsworth strode off.
Max was pleased the lock was an old fashioned mechanical one. He turned the key and entered. Cool air flowed around him. He hadn’t expected air conditioning. Bonnie, wearing PJs, held Casper.
“I’m glad to see you. These people creep me out. So what is going on?”
“The trip to Dakota is tomorrow.”
Bonnie put down Casper. “Tomorrow? I thought we’d have more time. Well, come lie down and relax.”
Max complied. The crisp air, the long busy day, the linens engulfed him. He fell asleep almost at once.
** ** ** **