None of their leads on Orlov had any immediate results and the first appointment they could get with Chadwell wasn’t until the next morning, so Priyanka took Marco to his first dinner at a steak restaurant.
“Many in my family won’t eat vat-grown beef,” she said, “but I figure that if it was never a complete cow, it doesn’t count.”
The sight of jaked people outside the warren was unusual enough that Marco was having his dinner under a partial screen formed by a napkin artfully draped on the table next to Priyanka’s purse. He couldn’t remember having steak before going into the warren, and he thought this was the most delicious thing he’d ever eaten.
“How does your family feel about you being a cop?” he asked.
Priyanka’s parents would never refer to her as a “cop;” she was an Inspector-Centurion of the Federal Cohort of the Justice Department. They had a deeper fetish for titles than Kobick did.
“They wanted me to be an engineer, and that’s how I started in school. Then I did an internship with the state police. I was fascinated by how a simple technical problem could become much more challenging with the introduction of human venality.”
“Yeah, people are more squirrelly than code.”
“That’s what my mother couldn’t understand. When I saw the Cohort in action, I knew where I wanted to be.”
“No disrespect, Centurion, but some of your colleagues seem as . . . venal as many of the folks who end up in my precinct.”
Priyanka agreed with Marco, but she was too well-practiced in decorum to say so.
“And you, Detective? How does one become a policeman in the warren?”
“There’s no academy, if that’s what you mean. Technically, you need to be nominated by the police commissioner and approved by a majority of the precinct council, but it’s never as clean as that. I mean, all authority derives from Warren Administration, right? So WA holds an implicit veto over everything, so the trick is just to stay off their radar. In the end, I guess it boils down to cronyism.”
“I’m sure your community is better off for your service, Detective.”
Marco wondered about that. His “community” was filled with bitterness, most of it justified. He felt his greatest satisfaction came when he was able to protect the weaker residents from the stronger (which, as often as not, included Warren Administration). Realizing that no one in the warrens ever enjoyed wine this rich, Marco started to feel a little self-conscious, and he was relieved when Priyanka suggested that they should bring the meal to a close.
Her colleagues often remarked that Priyanka’s condo seemed small for someone of her station, and she was proud of her contribution to urban density. To Marco, of course, even her tiny kitchen seemed immense. She had installed the WA habitat on her dining table, connecting power/data through a normal wall jack, and a tiny water/sewage line to the sink.
“I’m told the accommodations are thoughtful and generous,” said Priyanka, letting Marco down at his “doorstep.”
Marco’s experience with Warren Administration’s generosity was rich and colorful, but he decided this was not the time to share it with his hostess. He walked to the entrance then turned to face her. “I’m sure it will do nicely.”
“Well, Detective, if you’ll be alright, I am obliged to file my daily reports.”
“Thank you, Centurion. Good night.”
Priyanka watched Marco admit himself to the habitat with his thumbprint, then retired to her bedroom, which also housed her personal terminal.
Even with her prolix attention to detail, Priyanka couldn’t make her report of their investigation very lengthy. She spent a fruitless hour trying to find more traces of Orlov, but then, without making a conscious decision, she sequestered her connection to the Cohort network behind a proxy client and found herself browsing her personal library, hoping to find something to take the edge of the day’s frustrations.
Marco was surprised at how relieved he felt to be in an environment made for his scale, even one as spare as the WA habitat. He wrote his brief report and sent it to Lockeridge, who sent a curt acknowledgement that closed with “Don’t get comfy up there.”
He tried watching some Stream, but whatever proxy the habitat was on was pokier than his home connection. Perhaps Priyanka would let him tap into her net.
Marco’s phone rang; he was curiously glad to see that it was Cowan.
“Enjoying Big Sky?” asked Cowan.
“It’s like being in an amusement park run by dinosaurs. Hungry ones.”
“How’s Mukhopadhyay’s appetite?”
“She’s been the height of professionalism.”
“Can she find out what you need to know?”
“I can’t imagine anyone more likely to do so. We’ll see tomorrow.”
“Got a little more for you. Forensics finally dusted Payne’s field clinic and while you won’t get the final report for weeks, I can tell you they got a prelim ID for what has to be your mystery nurse.”
“Let’s have it.”
“Nicole Blythe, 24, entered the warrens twelve years ago when her dad, Grover Blythe, took the rap for the Szalinski Equity scandal. Mother committed suicide rather than be jaked. Dropped out of school eight years ago, no current address, no known connection to Payne.”
“How do we know she wasn’t just another victim?”
“According to Lockeridge, we don’t. But that’s because he doesn’t seem to care that Papa Blythe’s unindicted partner was our friend Hamilton.”
“Send me what you have on Mr. Blythe.”
Marco called Priyanka to give her the extra lead on Chadwell, but she didn’t pick up. He gave it another ten minutes of jerky Stream, then tried her again. He stepped out of the habitat and walked to the edge of the kitchen table. There was a light visible underneath the bottom of Priyanka’s door.
He could have easily left her a voice or text message. Instead, Marco retrieved his survival pack and acquainted himself with the climbing gear. He secured a line to a rail on the habitat exterior, then lowered himself to the tile floor. It was a longer drop than the ventilation shaft above Payne’s field clinic, but Marco was determine to prove (to whom, he couldn’t say) that he could navigate this world on his own.
He had to lie flat and pull his pack after him to make it under Priyanka’s bedroom door, but he wasn’t prepared for what he saw when he stood up. Someone was lying on the bed, but from the floor Marco couldn’t immediately identify them. A bare leg, bent at the knee, indicated that the person was lying on their back. A thicket of irrepressible dark hair obscured the face. A display across from the foot of the bed showed a rather enthusiastic porn video, and the rhythmic tremors and rapid breathing from the bed forced Marco to conclude that its occupant was pleasuring herself.
The video portrayed an elaborate bondage scenario, set in what Marco took to be the late 18th century. The Marquise was having her way with her maids, the field hands, and—if Marco correctly interpreted the implications of all the blindfolds—her elder brother. Initially paralyzed by the novelty of the situation, Marco told himself he would only wait long enough to confirm that the bed wasn’t occupied by an intruder. When Priyanka finally gave a labored moan, he started, then scurried back under the door.
It seemed to take an eternity for Marco to re-ascend to the table, alert to any sound that might herald Priyanka’s approach. Once back at the habitat and the climbing line stowed, Marco felt plausibly at ease, until his phone rang and jolted his heart.
“You called, Detective? I’m sorry I didn’t answer; I was preoccupied.”
“No worries, Centurion. I have some additional information for your research of Mr. Chadwell.” Marco relayed the substance of Cowan’s discovery.
“I agree that this increases the grounds for investigating Chadwell, but he would have to be severely inartful in his answers tomorrow to give us anything to link him to Ms. Blythe.”
Marco did his best imitation of Kobick’s nasal tone. “I have every confidence in your inquisitorial acumen, Centurion.”