Here's another snippet from one of the six books I'm working on at present. The writing's going well, ratcheting up in volume as I get back into the swing of it.
This excerpt is from the sixth volume in the Maxwell Saga military science-fiction series, titled Venom Strike. Briefly, Steve Maxwell is in command of a disguised warship. He's assigned to help a private detective who's figured out where a hoard of pirated artworks may be stashed. It's been a lot of fun researching this novel, because I've never written a detective story, and a big part of the book is how the private detective goes about his work - particularly in a space station environment.
In this excerpt, the detective has gone planetside to trace someone that may or may not be able to provide information about something important - he doesn't yet know what. However, others are after the same person - more to the point, something he may be carrying. Complications ensue.
Tom emerged from the Planetary Terminal to find a light, soft rain falling. He stepped away from the building and let the drops pour over him, face upturned, eyes closed, ignoring the chill, reveling in the feeling of real, actual weather. Around him many others who’d just come down from orbit were doing the same thing.
Funny how a man living in space starts to miss sunshine and rain – even a good hard storm, he mused to himself, grinning. If anyone ever figures out a way to create weather patterns on spaceships and space stations, he’ll make a mint! He shook his head and straightened, glancing down at his wet clothes. Screw it! They can dry out at the apartment.
The light was beginning to fade as evening drew in. He summoned a robocab, entered an address two blocks from his planetside apartment building, and passed a credit chip over the reader. As the autopilot accelerated away from the terminal, Tom marveled – as he always did – to see so much open space. Corvus, capital city of Carncrow, seemed bigger and busier every time he visited it; but even so, it couldn’t be compared to the close confines of the space station.
The cab was halfway through its forty-minute journey when his comm unit chimed. He wrinkled his scalp muscles to activate his ear-mounted Personal Digital Assistant.
“Mr. Haggard, I have a message from the lady you met last night. This circuit isn’t secure, so I can’t speak plainly. The person you are seeking was, in turn, looking for someone from this planet. You understand?”
“Yes.” Tom frowned. He hadn’t mentioned Mulligan to Meghan, or that he hoped to get in touch with the spacer. That meant the Dwyers must have learned about him through their surveillance of Mrs. Abaya or the Mamushi Triad people.
“We’ve learned that local people were hired this afternoon to recover something from that person. We don’t yet know who they are, how capable they are, or how quickly they may move.”
“I understand. Thanks for the heads-up.”
“Good luck, Mr. Haggard. Be careful.” There was a faint click as the circuit was broken.
There goes my evening, Tom thought ruefully. He’d hoped to relax over several beers and a mammoth steak at a local restaurant he favored, but if others were looking for Mulligan, he’d better try to get to him before they did.
The micro-apartment wasn’t in his name. It was on the twentieth floor of a building on the edge of the central business district, where rents were higher but access to most places of importance was easier. He put down his suitcase, dropped his wet garments into the autolaundry, took dry clothing from the closet and put it on, then considered his options. Given the Mamushi Triad’s reputation – and demonstrated capacity – for violence, it would be prudent to anticipate trouble and prepare for it.
He removed the top drawer from a dresser next to the fold-down bed, reached into its cavity, and pressed a hidden switch. With a subdued click a panel above the drawer folded down, revealing three shallow boxes resting on a ledge at its base. He reached in and removed them.
The first box contained a pulser identical to the one he kept on the space station, complete with suppressor, holster and ammunition. He checked the power pack and nodded with satisfaction. Its capacitor, like those of the other equipment in the boxes, was kept fully charged by its proximity to the induction charger resting on top of the dresser. He loaded the pulser and placed it in its holster, ready to put on.
The second box held a fat wallet containing an ID card in the name he’d used to rent the apartment. It was registered in the planetary records, so that any official inquiry would show it as genuine – something that had cost him a pretty penny to arrange. The wallet also held a prepaid credit chip in that name, a wad of cash and a dozen gold taels. Next to it lay a few prosthetic items to disguise his appearance to match that of the ID card, another jammer to disrupt wireless surveillance cameras and networks, and a spray bottle of DNA neutralizer.
He left the third box on the dresser as he heated a pre-packaged meal in the kitchenette. He ate it hurriedly while watching a news bulletin on the holovid. The weather forecast was poor. Storms were moving in from the east, and heavy rain, thunder, lightning and hail were forecast to hit the city within half an hour. He scowled. It would make his task tonight much less enjoyable. On the other hand, if anyone was watching him or trying to follow him to find Mulligan, the heavy weather would make their job much more difficult.
Tossing the meal tray in the disposal slot, he returned to the boxes. He put on the prosthetics – heavier eyebrows, colored contact lenses, a slightly bulbous nose extension and a mole on his left cheek – to disguise his appearance, slipped the wallet into his pocket, and donned a heavy overcoat. It meant he had to carry the pulser in an outer coat pocket, because he wouldn’t have been able to reach it in its shoulder holster beneath the coat, but that couldn’t be helped. Into the other coat pocket went a tightly folded Fleet-issue weatherproof knee-length poncho, complete with hood, and the jammer, already switched on.
He opened the last of the three boxes, revealing half a dozen security nanobugs of the same type that guarded his stash on the space station, plus a clip-on transmitter, a pocket-size remote control unit, and a spray injector of antidote for the paralyzing neurotoxin that coated the miniature darts fired by the bugs. He switched on the transmitter and clipped it to his shirt, then activated the nanobugs using the remote, making sure to leave them unarmed at first. They passed all the power-on checks and dispersed to their pre-programmed locations around the room. They paid no attention to him as he walked about, so he knew the transmitter was working correctly. As long as he wore it, the bugs wouldn’t mistake him for an intruder.
He pulled on waterproof gloves, thin enough to allow his fingers almost complete freedom of movement, and took a peaked soft cap from a hook next to the door, to keep as much as possible of the rain off his face. Standing in the open door, he used the remote to arm the nanobugs, watching them rise up on their legs; then he closed and locked the door behind him, dropping the remote into his capacious coat pocket. Only when he was in the elevator on his way down did he switch off the identification transmitter, with a strong mental note to make sure he switched it on again before trying to re-enter the apartment.
The city autobuses were less filled with commuters than usual, he noted as he stepped aboard the first to arrive at his stop. Presumably most people had left work a little early, to get home before the worst of the bad weather arrived. The autopilot flashed acceptance of the trip token he inserted into the slot, and the bus pulled away as he sank into the nearest seat.
The rain grew steadily heavier as the autobus moved out into the suburbs. By the time it reached the terminus where it would turn around to head back into the city, the last of the daylight had left the sky. The night was rent by flashes of lightning, and the windows trembled to the boom of thunder. Tom stayed in his seat as the few remaining passengers disembarked, hunching their shoulders against the rain and muttering curses. No new passengers boarded before the bus commenced its return journey towards the center of town. Tom relaxed a little. He could now be fairly sure that no-one aboard the autobus had been following him.
Twenty minutes later, he got off the bus on a street lined with strip malls. Cheap eateries, pawnshops and used clothing stores vied with each other for the meager income of the workers living in the run-down low-rise apartments and tenements behind the malls, interspersed with a few individual dwelling units and duplexes. Tom paused to get a quick meal at a take-out stall, not because he was hungry but to gain time to survey his surroundings. He hurriedly shoveled the food out of the box and down his throat, not bothering to taste it as his eyes scanned all around him. He made a mental note of a robocab rank across the street in case of need. A block further down the road a nightclub was already blasting the evening with a thudding bass beat, noisy groups of teenagers jiving under the awnings of the adjacent shops in the strip mall as they tried to persuade the bouncers to admit them.
He tossed the empty container into a garbage can as he walked down the road towards the tenements, dimly lit by intermittently working streetlights. The driving rain pounded on his hat and face and ran down his overcoat in streams, soaking the bottoms of his trousers and his shoes. He cursed softly as drops of water dripped from his hair, creeping past the upturned collar of his coat, finding their way into his shirt, running down his back, making him shiver. He consulted a map on his comm unit and made his way deeper into the maze of side streets. Only an occasional vehicle passed, most of them autovans making their last deliveries of the day, bumping over the badly-maintained, rutted road surface. In this area there’d be few private vehicles, he knew.
He turned a corner and glanced down the road, counting building numbers. More than half of them weren’t clearly posted or illuminated, as required under municipal regulations, and the street’s lights were all out; but he could see enough to estimate that his destination should be in the next block. He set off towards it.
As he approached, a small van coasted silently to a halt in front of him at the head of a narrow alley separating the two blocks. It wasn’t showing any lights. Moved by a sudden impulse, Tom shrank into the doorway of an apartment building, peering out into the gloom. He saw the van’s interior light come on as two doors opened on its far side. Three figures got out, closing the doors behind them. The driver remained behind the wheel, power unit still humming gently, watching his companions as they walked down the block. Tom took advantage of his preoccupation to move closer, crouching behind a dumpster on the corner, wrinkling his nose in distaste at the smell coming from the garbage inside.
The three figures stopped outside a small house, glancing at the illuminated ‘327’ on the postbox at the gate. Tom suddenly realized that it was the same address he was seeking, even as they drew black objects from their pockets. One opened the gate and they filed through it towards the front door of the house. What the hell do I do now?, Tom asked himself feverishly as his hand went to his overcoat pocket, coming out with his silenced pulser. If they’re also armed, there’s no way I can take on four of them!
He waited on tenterhooks behind the dumpster, straining his ears. He thought he heard a door open, followed by a couple of muffled thumping sounds and a scuffle… then silence. The van driver continued to peer down the street, his hands below the level of the window so Tom couldn’t see whether he was holding a weapon. Better assume he is, he cautioned himself grimly. I doubt those other three were taking calling cards out of their pockets.
Three seemingly endless minutes passed, until one of the shadowy figures reappeared at the gate of the house, holding a flat object wrapped in what looked like a plastic garbage bag. He hurried down the sidewalk to the van. As he approached, he called softly, “We got them both. Here’s the painting. The others are checking to see if there’s anything else worth taking.”
The driver replied, through the open window on the far side of the van, “Put it in the back, out of the way. Don’t want anyone sitting on it, do we?”
The other laughed as he walked to the back, fumbling with the catch on the cargo door. Tom moved to the rear of the dumpster, watching as he lifted the plastic-wrapped object, which looked to be about half a meter long by a third of a meter wide, and laid it carefully on the floor of the load compartment. As he straightened and reached up to close the door, Tom stepped silently out from behind the dumpster and clubbed him hard behind the ear with the butt of his pulser. Without a sound, the figure folded forward. Tom grabbed him and laid him silently on the roadway, then closed the cargo door.
The driver hadn’t noticed anything over the noise of the wind and the rain. He was still staring down the sidewalk towards the house, paying no attention to the rear of the van. Tom moved soundlessly down the side of the van until he was at the driver’s door. He shifted his feet to be sure of his balance, then reached for the handle and yanked the door open suddenly.
As the driver started in surprise and began to turn his head, Tom reached inside with his left hand and grabbed his collar, hauling him halfway out of the door as his right hand came down. The butt of the pulser thudded hard between his eyes, and he moaned aloud, trying to bring up his hands. Instantly Tom hit him again, even harder, in the same spot. His eyes rolled up and he slumped, only his seatbelt holding him inside the van. Tom reached over his limp body and pressed the catch, releasing the belt, allowing him to tumble out of the seat onto the road.
He glanced through the van towards the house. The two remaining figures were coming down the path from the house to the gate. There wasn’t a moment to lose. Tom jumped into the van, slammed the door, and gunned the still-running power pack.
With a squeal of tires on wet pavement, the lightly loaded van jumped out of the alley, lurching over to one side as Tom hauled the wheel around to head back in the direction from which he’d come. Through the open windows on the other side of the van, he heard shouts from behind him, followed by several muffled popping noises. The rear window shattered, spraying shards of safety glass in all directions, and a hole suddenly appeared in the windscreen in front of him as a pulser bead blasted the length of the van.
Tom ducked, keeping his foot hard down on the accelerator, and hauled the wheel over again. The van lurched into another side street. He twisted left and right through a few more streets, trying to head in the general direction of the main road, cursing to himself as adrenaline coursed through his veins. It had been a long time since he’d last been under fire. I’m getting too old for this crap, he told himself bitterly.
After he’d covered a couple of kilometers, he pulled up along the side of the road in an area with no street lights and jumped down. Opening the rear cargo door, he pulled out the plastic-wrapped object, shaking shards of glass from it. The open end of the bag had been taped down, but not tightly. He pulled roughly at the tape, opening the bag wide enough to glance at what was inside beneath the interior light of the van. It was a painting of some sort, on a board with what looked like copper or brass sheathing around its edge – pretty close to what Mrs. Abaya had described.
He closed the cargo door and carried the painting to the front of the van. He laid it on the driver’s seat, took the poncho out of the pocket of his overcoat, then took off the coat and wrapped the painting in it before sliding it over onto the passenger seat. He put on the poncho, pulled the hood over his head, then climbed into the driver’s seat once more and gunned the power pack. At least he’d now look different when he got out again on the main road.
He emerged four blocks above the noisy nightclub he’d noted when he arrived. He was struck by a sudden inspiration, and turned the van in that direction. He pulled into an open parking spot near the club, and left the powerpack running, the doors unlocked and the lights on as he got out of the van. Retrieving the painting, he set off in the opposite direction, pulling the hood of the poncho well down to prevent any of the loitering teens, or the security cameras along the strip mall, getting a clear look at his face.
He knew a group of youngsters would be sure to seize the opportunity for a joyride – hopefully before any of the men who’d been in the van could figure out where he’d gone. The youngsters would doubtless drive it around for an hour or two before abandoning it, in the process getting their DNA and fingerprints all over everything, obscuring the traces of his presence. With luck, if they were old hands at the game, they’d burn the van to destroy all evidence of their involvement – so much the better, as far as he was concerned.
He circled around behind the strip mall, jogged two blocks, then turned back towards the main road. Approaching the corner, he peered around to find that he was now at the rear of the robocab rank. He looked up and down the street, but couldn’t see any sign of dark figures similar to those he’d last seen at the house. He hurried over to the first of three robocabs waiting at the rank and climbed inside, closing the door behind him to shut off the interior light. An automated voice asked, “Your destination, please?”
Rather than speak aloud, which would result in a recording being made of his voice, he picked up the stylus hanging from the map display by a cord and used it to highlight a tram terminus about five kilometers to the west. The voice said, “Destination accepted. The charge will be twenty thalers. Please select your method of payment.” Instead of using a credit chip that might be traced back to him, even under an assumed name, he took a twenty-thaler note from his wallet and fed it into the payment slot. A brief pause, then, “Payment accepted.”
He sank back into his seat, fumbling to fasten the safety belt. As soon as it clicked shut, the robocab started moving. As it passed the nightclub, he noted gratefully that the van was already reversing out of the space where he’d left it. It looked like half a dozen teens had crammed into it. They were hanging out of the windows, heedless of the rain, gesturing at their friends, cat-calling to them, laughing wildly. Have fun, kids, he thought to himself with a smile. Just get away from there before those four guys arrive. They’ll want that van back, and they won’t ask for it politely.
There will, of course, be many complications to come. The fun part is figuring out how private detective complications might affect a space warship, and vice versa. It's entertaining for me as a writer, so I hope it'll also be entertaining for my readers.