Another short story this week. This one is called Least Respected.
‘That’s Lucy. Lucy Willows.’ I shiver in the cold air of the morgue: it smells like lemon, antiseptic, and whatever disinfectant they use to mask the scent of sickness and death. But it’s in the space around me, carried along with the incessant hiss of the ventilation system.
That’s all this backwater planet brings: death.
White walls surround me. Seventeen years ago, I stood in this claustrophobic room as a distraught young girl of six, newly arrived on Entusha. A morgue attendant stood beside me as I watched my parents’ bodies file past. ‘Come along, Isabella,’ she said leading me through another door. ‘You shouldn’t be here.’ She scanned the hallway and gnawed on her fingers. ‘Where is that damn social worker?’
Funny how I remember the slobber of her chewing her fingernails more than anything else about that day.
The room seemed much larger then, I guess everything seems bigger when you’re a child. But now it feels too small for the four of us: me, Detective Byron Abene, the morgue attendant, and Lucy.
Tears form in my eyes as I stare at my friend lying outstretched on the table. A white sheet is drawn back, exposing her from the shoulders up. Long blonde hair falls flat around her head. Her face – serene and beautiful in life – looks swollen and unsettled in death, as though her parting had been anything but easy.
‘What happened?’ I say forcing the words out.
‘I’m sorry, Miss Grace.’ Detective Abene places his hand on my arm. Although the words appear automatic, something in his tone makes me feel as though a part of him cares. ‘You’re registered as her next of kin, but I need to know if there is anyone else we should contact, Miss…’
‘Please, call me Isabella.’ I wipe away my tears and attempt a smile, but the lump forming in my throat prevents it. ‘No. There’s no one else.’
‘No family to notify? No boyfriend?’ It sounds like an accusation, as though Lucy and I are to blame for being orphans.
‘As I said, there’s no one. I’m sure the records show that her mother died when she was five, and there was no father to speak of.’
‘When did you last see her?’
‘Last night, we were at Club Tusa together.’
‘Where you work as prostitutes?’
I close my eyes and shut out his question. Any notion I have that he might care leaves me. Lucy wasn’t some common prostitute. She was Earthborn. She deserves better than some jumped up Entushian Detective judging the way she lives – lived her life.
‘Was she working?’ he says again. The air of entitlement and money clings to him like his over-expensive woollen suit. Not a natural find on Entusha. Hell, the import tax alone on a suit like that would pay for my fare home to Earth. No wonder he made Detective so young. A rich kid playing at being a cop.
‘There were a few men she talked to. None I thought she’d go home with.’ I shake my head. ‘She left after only a short while to meet someone. Ron, Ronnie, maybe. But I didn’t get the sense it was work related.’ I remember the grin on her face, the sparkle in her eyes when she told me she’d see me tomorrow. ‘She was happy.’
‘Did she tell you why?’
I reach beneath the sheet and clasp Lucy’s hand. ‘She was always happy. Positive. She didn’t need a reason. It was her nature.’
‘You were taking Halleam?’
The question unsettles me. It feels like another accusation. ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ The euphoriant has long since left my system. With the comedown overshadowed by the death of my friend, all that remains is the telltale dry metallic sensation within my mouth.
He pulls a record console from his pocket, scrolls through some notes on the screen before turning it to me. ‘The preliminary autopsy reveals abnormally high levels of Halleam in Miss Willows’ system. So much, that she went into cardiac arrest.’
I feel the blood drain from my face. No, this isn’t right. I look around the morgue for somewhere to sit, but find nowhere. ‘That’s impossible,’ I say. ‘I took Halleam last night, not Lucy. I offered, but she refused.’
‘She must have taken some later.’
‘She didn’t take any with me, and I don’t believe she took any later, certainly not enough to kill her.’ The thought doesn’t sit right. I look at Lucy, the most alive person I’ve ever met. ‘She would never overdose’
‘I know this is hard for you to accept, but your friend OD’d. It happens.’
‘I don’t believe that. Have you found the man she was meeting? Have you questioned him?’ I look into Detective Abene’s eyes and all I find is dismissal. ‘You’re not even going to investigate are you?’
‘Your friend OD’d. You need to accept that.’ He sighs and puts the console away. ‘Look, the truth is, no one cares about a dead prostitute.’
‘I care,’ I say as I squeeze Lucy’s lifeless hand, then place a kiss on her forehead. ‘And I intend to find the truth of what happened.’
Three hours later, I find myself in a shuttle on the way to Club Tusa. Night has fallen and streams of Entushians scurry about like ants in the arid dust. No moon circles the planet. No stars brighten the night sky, at least not in the city.
The constant hum of engines, the flitter of discordant lights, and the oppressive chatter of the two million colonists encased within the city limits, batter my senses. I close my eyes and remember the day I met Lucy in the orphanage.
‘Leave her alone.’ Lucy charged at the bullies who pushed me to the ground. Streaking towards them and striking out at the largest with her fist. He surged forward to retaliate, only to be restrained by the other orphans. There was no shame in terrorising someone your own age, but fighting a diminutive girl of five was a different matter.
We became inseparable.
I was six when my parents dragged me across the galaxy to the distant planet of Entusha. Through the transport window, I managed one last look at Earth – bathed in sunlight, her perfection floated amongst the stars – a majestic blue marble swirled over with clouds.
For 21 years, 4 months and 16 days, tears lay frozen against my cheek; the soft warm pressure of my mother’s kiss caressed my forehead.
‘Sleep tight, Isabella,’ my mother said when she placed me is stasis. ‘It won’t be forever. We’ll return when the time is right.’ Those were her last words to me. All lies. The truth is, she was never going home.
I was still a little girl of six when I awoke to the sound of alarm bells ringing, emergency personnel surrounding my parent’s pods.
Mechanical failure I heard them say as they checked my vitals. Mechanical failure, two simple words and I lost everything.
But Lucy changed that. She’d taken away my loneliness. Together we could do anything. Together, we would get back to earth.
Now she’s gone, and I will never see her smiling face again. Never hear her laughter. Never tell her that she was my whole world. My home.
My mind returns to the present as the shuttle pulls up outside Club Tusa. Tears stream down my face in the unashamed way only a child allows — Damn, I hate feeling sorry for myself. I wipe them away and thank the driver for the courtesy of his silence with a hefty tip.
Located at the northern edge of the city, Club Tusa is built within the cavernous rock face. Crowds line the pavement waiting to get inside. Entushans with outlandish costumes and weird hair: dyed purple befitting the latest trend. A flashing neon sign bathes them in luminous pink.
After a nod to the doorman, I slip past and enter the packed club. People stand around chatting. They dance under pulsating lights. The world they know hasn’t come crashing down.
Noise bombards me, and the scent of drugs, alcohol and sweat mingle to make me nauseous as I push my way to the bar, and call to the barman. ‘Val, you seen Tex?’
‘In the cellar.’ He gestures to be understood over the music and points to the back of the club.
I’m not sure Val can hear me, but I wave my thanks before making my way through the throng and into the employees’ only area.
The corridor lies empty. A fluorescent light flickers through a small window in the cellar door. Rusty hinges creak in protest as I hold it open and call down the stairway into the twisted catacombs that house the cellar. Nobody answers.
‘Hello. It’s Isabella.’ Still no response.
The muted thumping of the bass thrums through the wall, and vibrates through my fingers when I grasp the banister. As I descend the concrete steps into the coldness of the cellar, the door screeches behind me then clicks shut.
Wine racks lines the maze like tunnels and cast giant shadows in the dim light. The rotten egg stink of sulphur follows me as I step along the dirt floor towards the area where the beer kegs are stored, and pumped through lines to the taps above.
A chill creeps up my spine and I find myself straining to hear even the slightest sound in the heavy air. The muffled music from above now just a distant memory. I jump at a grating, scraping sound, followed by the shuffle of feet, then reach my hand into my shoulder bag and grasp the pulse-pen within.
‘Tex. You there?’ I wonder if the pen works: renders a person unconscious. Too late to test it out now. The shuffling gets closer. A glint. The flash of a silhouette in the bottles. My grasp on the pen tightens.
‘Hell, Isabella. You scared the life out of me.’
Tall, muscle-bound and brooding, Tex epitomises crazy stalker. I retreat a step, but my hand relaxes its grip on the pulse-pen when he pulls the plugs from his ears.
‘What are you doing here?’
An excellent question. ‘I’m sorry. I did call.’ I gesture to the earplugs in his hand. ‘I guess you couldn’t hear me.’
‘Yeah. No worries. Forgot to take them out.’ For an instant we stand facing each other, then Tex purses his lips. ‘I heard about Lucy,’ he says. ‘She was a good kid.’
‘That’s why I’m here.’ I shiver in the cold air and wonder if I made the right choice to approach Tex alone. But, hell, I have my trusty pulse-pen, and it’s not as though I have anyone to come with me. ‘I figured if anyone knew anything, it would be you.’
‘What d’you mean?’ he says more than a little defensive.
‘She OD’d, Tex.’ I shake my head not believing my own words. ‘At least that’s what I’m told.’ I glance up into his eyes, but he turns away. ‘We get our Halleam from you.’
‘Hell, people can get that stuff in any bar on Entusha.’ This time he does look at me. ‘Don’t put this on me.’
‘People can, but we don’t,’ I say, ignoring the unveiled threat in his gaze. ‘We only come to you.’
‘Yeah, well, not recently. Lucy hasn’t had any in over two weeks. Said she was taking a break.’ Tex hesitates. His glance drifts around the cellar looking at the racks of wine bottles without seeing them, but then something crosses his face and he turns to me frowning. ‘OD’d. On Halleam. Are you serious? That’s damn near impossible and you know it.’
He’s right. I do know it. Lucy had to be murdered.
‘Could she…’ Tex grabs a bottle of wine and pulls the cork before taking a long swig. ‘She wouldn’t have killed herself. Would she?’
My head spins, and with nausea rising in my stomach the chemical stench of synthetic wine threatens to overwhelm me. A metallic tang floods the back of my mouth before I quench it down. ‘That’s ridiculous,’ I say, brushing down my dress and composing myself. ‘Don’t even think that. No-one loved life more than Lucy.’
‘Yeah. You’re right. I’m sorry.’ He offers me the bottle, but I turn it down with a shake of my head. ‘But OD’d. Maybe if you took a huge dose. It would have to be the purest form of Halleam, but there’s no way you could pick that up round here. No way.’
‘She was murdered, Tex. It’s the only thing that makes sense.’ I trail off hearing my own hollow voice.
Tex seems to consider my statement for a while before downing another swig of wine. ‘Have you spoken to her boyfriend?’
Her boyfriend. How could I have not known? I look for a place to sit but find nowhere in the labyrinth of catacombs. As though sensing my need, Tex rounds a corner and returns a moment later with an empty cask for me to rest on.
‘Take a drink.’ He forces the bottle into my hand as I take a seat. ‘They’ll catch the guy.’
The red liquid tastes as bitter as the thoughts in my head. ‘Catch him. They’re not even looking.’
He smirks. ‘Maybe not. But we are.’
Despite myself, I return a smile, realising I’m not as alone as I thought. Funny how Tex had gone from being my prime suspect to my only ally. ‘You’ve met Ronnie? Know where we can find him?’
‘Nah. Saw the back of him once. Some rich guy in a fancy suit. Lucy said he was eyeing a position in the Governor’s office.’ He lays a hand on my shoulder. ‘I’ll ask around. Someone will know something.’
I turn to him. ‘I didn’t even know she had a boyfriend. My best friend, and I didn’t know.’
When I leave the club, the thought that Lucy had a boyfriend nags at my mind. How could I have been so wrapped up in my own affairs that I didn’t notice?
At my apartment, I’m about to punch the code in my lock, when an image of Lucy stumbling through the door laughing sends a rush of warmth over me. The planet goes silent to my ears, the hiss of the ventilation system stills. All I hear is Lucy’s laughter, her musical voice calling my name. Like the sun, she radiated joy and light on everyone around her.
I look along the corridor towards Lucy’s door. Always close. Always there when I needed her. She would’ve had a reason for hiding a boyfriend from me. Maybe answers lay inside.
Twenty easy steps take me to her apartment. I enter the code into the keypad and let myself in. The motion sensor lights respond to my presence as I shut the door, enclosing myself with the sweet fruity scent of Lucy’s perfume.
The room abounds with mementos: Holo-photos depicting fond memories, a battered degrading image of her mother, a globe of Earth, synthetic replications of plants that grow there. A strange tranquillity settles in the air. A stillness that awaits the energy of Lucy’s presence.
I set my bag on the breakfast counter separating the living and kitchen area, before my gaze alights on the Holo-screen terminal lying on the black cubic sofa. While the pad of my footsteps echoes the beating in my chest, I fight the feeling I’m invading Lucy’s privacy: a valued commodity when you spend your childhood sharing a room with thirty other orphans.
A deep inhaled breath calms me and I focus on the notion of Lucy’s trust. With the supplied knowledge of her key-codes and passwords, she didn’t intend to hide things from me. Well… a boyfriend, maybe, but nothing else. Did she?
Relieved at the validity of her password, I stare at the Holo-screen as it comes to life. I scroll through her search history, discard the ones relating to new feeds, show times, restaurant reviews. But then something causes me to pause: Trans-Earth. Why would Lucy be searching Trans-Earth?
Then I notice one of the pages detail the confirmation of a communication. I enter the contact details and await an answer not knowing what to expect.
‘Greetings from Trans-Earth.’ A soft female voice answers the call. ‘How may we serve your transport needs?’
‘I wonder if you could help me?’ I pace the room and worry at the tension in my voice. ‘This is Isabella Grace. I’m calling in relation to Lucy Willows.’
‘Ah. Yes, Miss Grace. I can confirm that your passage to Earth is reserved on the next shuttle, leaving in one month.’ I freeze in my tracks as she continues. ‘We have the deposit for both yourself and Miss Willows, and the balance will be due one week prior to travel. The details have been forwarded in a communication with Miss Willows.’
Overwhelmed by what I hear, I thank the woman, end the call, and adjust the Holo-screen to display Lucy’s communication logs. Sure enough, I find the documents from Trans-Earth detailing transport arrangements for both Lucy and myself. The implications of this discovery astound me: how on Earth did Lucy hope to get the money to pay the outstanding balance?
The desire to run away, to hide from all that’s happened, shakes me as one thought repeats itself over and over in my mind: She was doing this for me.
Whatever got her killed, she was doing to get me home. I’d never wanted anything more than to return to Earth, but not at this cost. Not without Lucy.
Wrapped up in my thoughts, I almost miss the communication logged with the medical centre from two weeks previous. With blurred vision, I open the link. My heart breaks as the words “Pregnancy: Positive” come into focus.
I’m resting on the sofa destroyed by loss when the door to the apartment opens. ‘Detective. I’m glad you’re here.’ I stand and fumble with the Holo-screen terminal in my hands. ‘Does this mean you’re investigating?’
‘Miss Grace.’ Detective Abene gives me a quick glance, then casts his eye about the room.
‘She was pregnant. Lucy was pregnant. She would never have taken Halleam knowing that.’ The words rush out.
‘Indeed,’ says Detective Abene. ‘That does, however, bring up the possibility of suicide.’
I shake my head. ‘Lucy would never kill herself.’ Scanning through the communications, I bring up the documents from Earth-Trans on the Holo-screen. ‘She booked passage to Earth. For both of us. Both of us, Detective. Why would she do that if she intended to kill herself?’ As I say the words I realise how much the idea had implanted in my head since Tex brought up the possibility. But there was no way. No way. ‘It all has to connect with her boyfriend, Ronnie. If we find him, we find the answers.’
Detectives Abene’s eyes lock on the screen. ‘How about some tea?’ he says after a moment. ‘Then we can discuss your findings.’
A wave of relief washes over me now the Detective is willing to look into Lucy’s death. I perch on the sofa as he walks into the kitchen area, opens the cupboard and removes the tea jar and two cups.
With his back to me, he turns his head towards the screen and asks, ‘Is there anything else useful on there? A communication from Ronnie perhaps?’
The log of communications flash across my vision, but nothing else stands out.
‘Here. Drink this.’ Detective Abene hands me the cup and sits across from me on the other side of the coffee table.
‘Thank you.’ I take a long sip, surprised at the sweetness, but enjoy the scent of honey and the warmth it brings me. ‘There must be some way to trace Ronnie? Private calls, not logged here. Witnesses that saw them together.’
‘Indeed,’ he says again. ‘The case is officially closed, but maybe with my new position in the Governor’s office, I can pull some strings to get it re-opened.’
The Governor’s office. Tex mentioned the possibility of Ronnie working there. I stare into his eyes as he takes a drink from his cup.
As I take another sip from mine, I realise his lack of hesitation. He went straight to the tea and cups, didn’t ask, didn’t open any of the other five cupboards, went straight to their location.
With a smirk on his face, he places his tea on the coffee table and stands. As I lean forward in a move to do the same, my head snaps down – I yank it upright as my cup crashes into the table with an ear-shattering clatter.
‘Halleam,’ I say, my tongue dry and swollen. As my lips start to tremble, I realise I’ve had too much.
I stand, then feeling as though I’m looking down from a great height, I reach out to steady myself on a wall that seems to melt with my touch. For a moment I wonder where I am, then it all floods back to me in a pulsating wave. The expensive suit. His knowledge of Lucy’s apartment. Her pregnancy – why hadn’t he mentioned it?
‘Detective Byron Abene.’ The words float above my head as though whispered in another place, another time. ‘Ronnie.’
He laughs. I hear the fragmented sound and see a jester’s smile distort his face. ‘Should have left things alone,’ he says. ‘Lucy mentioned you were tenacious.’
‘You’ll never get away with this.’ I stumble around the room, edging away from his shapeless mass pursuing me like a dark cloud.
‘She wanted to marry me, you know. Thought I would because of the baby.’ While I try to focus, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a stoppered vial. ‘When that failed, she turned to blackmail. Thought I’d pay for the two of you to return home.’ He snorts and flashes a cold smile. ‘Well, at least the two of you will be together. A tragic suicide after your loss. Not that I need to make up a story, nobody cares about another dead prostitute.’
Then everything changes, the room becomes a part of who I am. The colours flare: Earth spins and blazes a magnificent blue. The replicant plants grow – their luscious green wraps me in serenity.
Then I see Lucy.
My angel. Unbound hair billows around her head in a golden halo of waves. Her love beams out at me. Shining. Glowing.
‘I care,’ she says, then places a gentle hand on my shoulder-bag and beckons me forward.
On unsteady legs, I wobble to Lucy. My fingers alight on hers, when Ronnie’s hand wrenches me backwards by my hair and flings me to the floor. The strap of my bag gets caught in the fall and pulls it to the ground with me.
I flail, claw at Ronnie. He sits on my chest. Pins me. The more I struggle, the tighter his knees press into my sides.
‘Just stay still and this will be over in no time.’ A large hand grasps my chin as he pops the cork from the vial in his other hand.
With a twist of my head, I see my bag lying to the left and inch my fingers towards it. If I can reach inside.
My fingertips alight on a metallic pen shaped object and I pray they have found what I’m looking for. Gripping with all my strength, I pull it from the bag and swing it towards Ronnie’s head.
A brief flash from the tip of the pulse-pen as it impacts. His body jerks, and Ronnie falls to the ground unconscious.
I catch the vial of Halleam before it tumbles from his grasp, and wonder at the sad tale of a heartbroken boyfriend killing himself following the tragic loss of his girlfriend, and their unborn baby.