Waking up hurts. My body and mind ache like I drove a knife into them… repeatedly. I fall off the couch, forgetting I’m not in bed, and send the coffee table towards the middle of the room. The glasses drop with a crash, but Robert is ready with a brush and dust pan. Staggering to my feet, I make my way into the white-walled bathroom and vomit in the shower. It turns on automatically and cleans my mess, but while I’m here I may as well get in.
Taking off my clothes is a challenge, but I finally get them off and step in. I press one of the tiles on the wall and the water pressure builds. Pressing another tile, part of the wall behind me comes out, and I sit and let the water run over me as though it can cleanse away the grime of another night spent swimming in vice. There is a lurch in my stomach and I vomit again, burning my throat and sinus. I quietly weep while trying to get the muck off my feet.
Finished and dried off, I walk out into the hall and into my room right across from the bathroom. I take a cigarette from the box on my nightstand and light it. I take deep drags as I open my closet to pick out something nice for the track. Behind me there is a loud beep, and then a large holo-screen pops up.
“Goddamn it Papiernik put some clothes on,” the commander’s voice booms. “There are women present.”
I turn to see his secretary wide eyed. “I’m getting dressed, and you’re the one who barged in… Delphi close your mouth.” I press a button on the wall and my cloths rack spins around.
“How goes the investigation?” He is trying to block me from view but Delphi is peeking under his arm.
“I met a source last night and I’m heading to the track to investigate the pit crews.” I take a pair of underwear from the drawer between the two racks and put them on. I can actually hear Delphi tsk and walk out of the room.
“Are you going to tell me who the source is or do I have to compliment your ass before I get an answer?”
“You can if you like, but I think I’ll keep it to myself ‘till his information runs dry.” I grab a pair of pants and pull them on. “How is Mrs. Romdar doing?”
“I’m doing fine sweetheart.” Her voice is muffled; she must be sitting in front of the commander’s desk. “Boris won’t say it but I will, you have a very handsome ass.”
“Honey this is official business,” he says rather lamely, then adds in his signature gravel. “Get out.”
Finally dressed, a gray sports coat over a white shirt, I drop on all fours and search under my bead for my shoes. There are only lefts on this side of the bed, so I take one and make a pair on the other side. Dropping the spent cigarette in the trash, I pluck up another and light.
“You don’t look so hot son.” The hidden kindness in the commander’s voice churns my stomach.
“Rough nights mean rougher mornings.”
“You know I have a whole closet full of Dicks that could take the case for a while. I think you need to take a rest,” he says.
Rest, that’s code for a trip to the chem-doctors who clean you up and buff you out to your original shine. “I’m fine boss. I can handle my own.”
“If you won’t say who you talked to, at least tell me what you talked about.”
“As we know the races themselves are legal. All the competitors are highly skilled drivers with top of the line crews. My source says that the show is tightly organized—“
“Fixed you mean?”
“Yes, fixed. They know who is winning, who is losing, who is the baddie for the day, even which racer is going to wipe out. Needless to say they don’t fuck around with their money, so having a blast take out half the track either means some outsider doesn’t think racing is fun or some insider has a bigger paycheck outside the track.”
“Well if that’s all you have, you need to get you lazy ass down there and make some loose lipped friends.”
I nod at him; he has a look like he has more to say, but just leans back and cuts the connection. I stand there looking at the spot where the holo-screen was, glad that he didn’t bring her up.
There is a clink of ice on glass; I look over to Robert holding up a glass of whisky. I thankfully take it and drain half the glass in one gulp. I need to get to the track and talk to the pit crew before Brightmen can stick his nose into anything. There is another lurch in my stomach, so I make my way to the bathroom, grabbing another cigarette as I walk out the room.
I place the glass and unlit smoke on the counter and turn to the toilet, it burns terribly and I feel my eyes about to burst. That’s three, no more foulness… for now. I walk over to the sink and let the water run while I inspect myself in the mirror. The shadows under my eyes accentuate the crow’s feet, my brow has a crease in it and my hair is a shade lighter than it was a few months ago. Though the rest of face is free of wrinkles, one has to laugh to have those lines.
Taking a cloth from the counter, I soak it and use it to wipe away my cheeks. I toss it into the hamper and open the medicine cabinet; from it I take a lighter and a dark brown phial. I light the cigarette and take a drag before placing it in the ashtray near the hand soap. This phial looks like the ones they used in the den back on Graton; Rye the vender only had the best. I pull off the cap, which holds a glass drip rod, and place it on my tongue. It froths and foams in my mouth and after a few seconds I spit it out into the sink, minty.
Placing the cigarette back in my mouth, I take a last look at myself. This being could pass as presentable on most planets. I walk into the hall again, taking my coat from the hook on the linin closet, and make my way into the living room. The ceiling is morning light and the place is spotless, thanks to Robert of course. My belongings sit on the coffee table waiting to be plucked and placed in various pockets. Spectacles go on the face, gun in the holster, notebook in the left side, credits in the right, badge in the inside breast pocket and ring… ring stays home.
I make it to the door when the sudden feeling of forgetfulness sets in. There is a soft beep, and I find Robert coming this way with my cigarette case, an ash tray, and my forgotten glass of whisky. “What would I do without you Robby,” I say, stubbing out the butt, emptying the glass and checking the case for the Pridon before putting that in my right inner coat pocket.
With the center button pressed on the door, it splits open revealing my craft. I take my seat and wait for the door to close before taking out another cigarette and lighting it. There is a noise like a fuse being lit and bam, I’m off towards Helfye, passing mammoth cargo and starships alike. My craft zips me to the main cab traffic, other O.R.B. personnel take the quicker way but like this I avoid the dirty looks from the civilians. As I enter the atmosphere the glass around me tints to prevent me from going blind, no need since the fog of smoke could protect me just fine.
Once I’m low enough I open the top of the craft. It slides back into itself, letting a plume of smoke out to distract the drivers behind me. Their angry horns almost bring a smile to my face. The track is twelve miles away in sector fourteen on the outskirts, or as I call it the dead region. I hate it there. I can still remember my first night in Helfye was spent there. None of the venders trusted me, and one told me to wait for her in the outskirts while she found a good supply. Bitch didn’t tell me there were packs of sharp-claws running wild. I lived so she sent word all around that I was ok… still got her arrested.
During the day the city isn’t interesting; all the best places are closed, and you can see all the animals walking the streets, waiting for tourists to drop their guard on a cold lonely street or their kindness into coin collection tins. The further out I go the smaller the buildings get, by the time I make it to sector ten it’s nearly empty. Sector thirteen is all farmland, not food but other commodities. When a mild wind kicks up a cloud of dry earth I know I’ve hit bat country. The top goes up.
Moments later the track is in sight, and my god it’s huge. Touching the left side of my spectacles the female voice speaks, “The Conquerors Arena, also known as Hell Fire, is the largest Arena of any kind in this galaxy. Holding well over five hundred thousand spectators and having a twenty mile track filled with hairpin corners, ascending and descending terrain, single car tunnels and an unforgiving and unpredictable internal weather manipulator, making it the most dangerous in the cosmos.
“Many racers have ended their careers on this track, though the only fatalities since its opening three hundred years ago had occurred only two weeks prior when star racer Metri Miro’s car suddenly exploded during a three-day race. The flash nearly brought down the entire eastern side of the track, taking the lives of fourteen thousand fans. Luckily for the other racers, Metri had a six mile lead and they left the track virtually unscathed.”
The closer the craft gets to the arena the more I can imagine five hundred thousand people fitting inside. Suddenly the com-system blinks on, and a meek voice echoes around me, “Hello Leo, welcome to my Hell Fire. I assume you are going to want to have a word with the pit crews without me present, completely understandable. You find yourself in a lucky position, because you see I need to take care of some business regarding high stakes bet between four wealthy… I mean reputable guests of mine.”
“That’s alright Brightmen. I’m sure I can find my way to you.”
“Nonsense, I wouldn’t want you getting lost and seeing more then you should young man.” I hate the way he laughs. “There will be two escorts waiting for you at the entrance. They will bring you to me when you are done having a look around, goodbye.”
I hate having babysitters; this is not what I planned at all. Oh well, I guess I have to find a way to be alone with the crews. The entrance to the Arena is a monumental arch; the tunnel is lined with golden monoliths of previous victors holding their retired racers above their head.. The spaces between them hold smaller archways, all numbered with seating information. The arch opens up to reveal what I can only describe as the inside of a marble cathedral. The craft begins to descend and finally comes to a full landing at the valet.
When I get out there are two sets of hands waiting for payment. Not looking at the valets, I flash my badge and the craft finds parking on its own. It doesn’t look like the babysitters are here yet; I might be able to find my way to the garage without having to deal with a tail. All around me are betting booths with enormous queues. These must be the five credit bets; I make my way through the sea of statistics, probability and luck.
I walk up to an empty booth; a familiar girl sits behind the counter immersed in a book that looks older than me. All I can make out is a gloved hand reaching for something before she notices me and tucks it away. “Hello sir, are you ready to try your luck? Or are you too intelligent for luck and have the full proof system to break the bank. However it is you are going to bet, from myself and all of the people here in the Conquerors Arena, we salute… hey didn’t I see you in Sam’s?”
“Yeah you were sitting up close to the piano.” My eyes move to her slick hair, it’s purple now. “Weren’t you blue then?”
“Yeah, but I like changing it at least once a day, a girl has to look nice, don’t you think?”
Yes I do, I wonder if she babysits. “My name is Leonardo Papiernik, what’s yours?”
“Ella Sabia. It’s nice to be formally introduced to you.” She chuckles and holds out her hand, I take it and give it a shake. “Geez I’ve never shaken a hand while being flirted with.”
“This isn’t flirting, sweetheart,” I say with a smile. Still having a hold on her hand I pull it up to my lips and kiss it. “I’m looking for the garage and it would be nice to have a beautiful guide. Who knows we might even get sidetracked.”
“I can only leave when I’ve taken enough bets, I need one more.” She says with a cute pout.
With a quick glance at the little silver plaque on the counter, I see the minimum bet is four thousand credits. Pulling out my badge I pass it over the plaque and bet on the first team that pops out. This is business so it should be on O.R.B. credit, right? She begins to pack up when I notice two large men in dark suits coming out of an arch; I pull up my collar and follow her to the cashiers.
After dropping off her things she takes me though an arch with a sign reading employees. In the long hall other women dressed like her zigzag around each other carrying gold, precious stones, and suitcases with handcuffs on them. I’m glad my spectacles can tint themselves; it would look awfully suspicious if they could see me blinking photos.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what are you going to the garage for?”
“I want to interview the crews.” That’s not a total lie.
“Oh, the press isn’t allowed back here you know,” she giggles and takes my hand, “but I promise not to tell if you don’t.”
“You have my word, doll.”
“Has anyone told you that you sound like an old movie? I like old movies.” She yanks me into another arch; it turns out to be a lift. Pressing a button we shoot upward and she loses no time in attacking my face with hers, being smaller then I am doesn’t stop her from overpowering me. By the time the lift opens she is standing there with a devilish smile. I’m there stunned with half my shirt unbuttoned and my spectacles askew. She walks out first, and I follow a bit more cautiously now.
“Ok so the garage is down this hall, make the first two lefts and take the last door on the right.”
“You’re not tagging along?”
“Of course not silly, anyway this is where I stay,” she says, leaning against a door. Grabbing my collar she pulls me down and kisses me, or licks my tensile, I’m not quite sure. She takes my hands and places them firmly on her hips; I don’t do anything so she helps me a bit by sliding them down to her backside.
I can’t do this… I need to get to the garage. “Whoa Ella, what did I pay for down there?”
She pushes me back; her face is livid with disgust. “Fuck you man! A girl can’t show a bit of interest without pigs like you thinking she’s turning a trick.” She opens her door and slams it in my face. I’m sorry.