The Lucky Stripes Job (The Operative)

My office door was swinging open, slowly and quietly. Now, you gotta understand: I’ve got a squeak in that door that I’ve been training up for years now, and every time the super fixes it I put it right back in. It’s one of the hidden alarms of a professional paranoid, and the fact that someone had troubled to silence it had me on instant alert. With my left hand I turned a page to cover the sound of my right unclipping a slugthrower from under my chair arm. The door had stopped; it was now or never time.

“Good book, Marty?”

I swore under my breath as I put the gun back. “One of these days, Maher, you’re gonna get yourself killed being cute like that. Don’t you know it’s not nice to sneak up on people?”

Maher stuck his hairy face around the door and grinned at me. “Hell, since when am I nice? Since when are you?” He opened the door — it squeaked, I noticed — and came the rest of the way in, sticking out his hand for a shake. I half stood, did the expected, motioned him to a chair. He left the door open as he sat down. My pulse was still clocking about a buck twenty.

“So. Thanks for the unexpected surprise and all, but what can I do for you, Maher?” I waved my hand around the dusty room. “As you can see, I’m a busy man.”

He grinned again at that. “I got a job for you, Marty — that is, if you’re not too busy. What else? I mean, you got a lovely broom closet here, but it ain’t got much for the discerning tourist. Not even a window. With what you charge, you could afford better.”

“Sure, but I never even use all the luxuries I have, so why upgrade? Tell me about this job, willya, and stop busting my balls.”

This time, the message was concealed inside a pack of smokes. Lucky Stripes; never heard of ’em but what the hell; it’s a big universe. “Smoke all you want, pal; just make sure to leave one inside. That’s your signal; contact will ask for one. Key word is “Terangui”; can’t get Luckies there for love or money. Rigger bar; Southgate Bar and Grille. Eight tonight.”

“Fair enough. Why use me? I’m expensive.”

Maher grimaced. “Staff cuts. I’m down to three full-time agents on-planet, and I’m one of ’em. The more I hire out, the bigger the staff budget gets for next year.”

I guess that sort of argument must make sense if you work for the government, and technically that’s what I was doing so I decided my curiosity was satisfied. We shook hands and Maher took off.

I hesitated a minute before strapping on a slugthrower, then decided not to. Bring a gun, someone might get shot. I put on my coat and hat, and grabbed my book on the way out. Better safe than sorry.

My office is in the commercial district, which isn’t exactly crowded after normal business hours. A few corner bars were doing a brisk business, and so was one hot dog stand over by the tube station. I waited in line and got one with onions. Big spender; that’s me.

This time of day it’s easy to spot a tail. Everyone else is going from the bars and offices to the tube. I was walking against foot traffic, and so was the skinny guy with the nose half a block back. Just to see how good he was I crossed the street in the middle of the block, then paused at a corner trash can to look back as I tossed my hot dog wrapper. He was bad, all right. That pointy nose of his marked him; add the nonchalant way he avoided looking at me and he stood out like a working girl at a debutante ball.

I briefly considered confronting him but — hell, I didn’t care who he was or what he wanted. I wasn’t being paid enough to care. Besides, do that and there’s always the chance someone will get hurt, and I didn’t want it to be me. Instead, I decided to lose him in the tube.

It’s easy to lose a tail, and the tube system makes it easier. Downtown, there’s a station every two blocks; you wait your turn, hop in a capsule, press a button and you’re off. I hit the crosstown button three times, one uptown, one back, and one down, all of which moved me sideways four blocks. I popped back out, jogged south to the next station, and grabbed another pod toward Southgate. No sign of my tail whatsoever.

A clever tracker would have anticipated this and followed me by my credit chip, which got an automatic charge every station I passed through. I thought over my next move as I whisked along toward my appointment. It’s all done by pressurized air, so the trip is nearly silent — normally a perfect place to read, but I needed to stay focused.

The Southgate neighborhood is an extension of the city that juts out between the commercial spaceport and the cargo hub heading south. That way, every gram of cargo has to pass through city limits even if it’s destined for somewhere else on the continent, which means a tiny tax at both the Space Gate and Southgate itself. They really do get you coming and going. The plus side was, it would be easy for me to send off a decoy.

I exited the tube near one of the street markets that dot that part of the city and strolled through until I found a used book stand — spacers love to read, so there’s always something interesting available. I picked up a dozen that looked good and had the man wrap them for me. I made a couple of other small purchases, went to a nearby delivery service, bought an extra-large packing crate, put the books inside, and had it rush-shipped to my office downtown. Anyone watching my credit charges would see my trail end in that crate; if they didn’t know the nature of what I was doing, they’d be forced to expend resources to try an intercept. It wouldn’t be the first time a courier got himself shipped home in a box, though doing so voluntarily is a bit of a novelty.

That thought gave me an idea. Just in case my tail had caught up (unlikely but possible) I paid cash to one of the drivers, laid down in the back of his van, and got myself delivered a couple blocks away. From there, it was a quick walk to the bar. If anyone was still behind me when I got there, they were damned good.

There’s a special feeling you get in a spacer bar that’s the same no matter what world you’re on. The lighting is always dim, the surfaces shiny and clean, and the people come in every shape, color, and size you can imagine plus quite a few you can’t, not even in your worst nightmare. The cocktail of smells that hits you when you walk through the door can range from intoxicating to downright brutal.

A rigger bar is different. Spacers are pilots and techs, the occasional passenger or purser, engineers and gunners and navigators. Riggers, on the other hand, are the grease-monkeys, loaders, and fitters without whom the whole system would break down overnight. It’s bigger than the difference between officer and enlisted; think instead welders versus duct tape and you’re halfway there. Everyone else in the joint was wearing coveralls and web belts; my hat and coat branded me instantly as a class enemy. I didn’t mind at all; I wanted the attention. Can’t signal someone if you blend in.

Paying cash, I ordered two Lucky Lagers at the bar, ostentatiously lit a Lucky Stripe cigarette, and wandered back to a table by the door. It was my Lucky day, I guess. I doffed my hat, dug out my book, and tried to look boring. Eventually people stopped staring at me.

“Spare one of those? I haven’t had one since that time we offloaded on Tanascuis.”

It was my old friend with the pointy nose, this time in a dirty spacer’s coverall. I’d half-expected him to show up despite all my precautions; that’s what happens when an operation is blown. Someone at Maher’s office must have leaked the details to the opposition, whoever that was today. Or, hell, maybe it was my office that had been bugged. Hard to say.

There was still no gain to be had from a confrontation. I tapped the last one out and lit it for him, then made a show of crumpling the empty packet up and dropping it on the floor. “Things’ll kill you,” I said. Then, as he stooped to recover the pack (God; how obvious can the man be?!) I grabbed my hat and scooted out the door. I was around the corner and out of sight in seconds.

His pointy nose emerged first, followed by the rest of him, and he looked around nervously before hurrying off up the street. I waited, knowing what would come next, and it did: a second figure, this one female, came out a moment later and started following him. I caught up, moved in next to her and offered a cigarette. Startled, she looked at me and gasped. Huge eyes, tiny chin, perfect complexion: in that coverall she looked like a blue collar Disney princess. I took her by the elbow and steered her into the mouth of an alley.

“H-how—?” she finally got out.

“How’d I know it was you I was supposed to meet? I didn’t. Still don’t,” I said, waving a different crumpled pack under her nose. What, you didn’t actually think I gave it to pointy-nose, did you?

“Oh. Right. Uh, Tanascuis. No! Terangui!”

I nodded. “Fair enough,” I said, and tucked the pack deep into her purse. “Better stay out of sight,” I advised. “They know about the package, but not what you look like or they’d have waited to get it from you. If I were you, I’d see where this alley leads.” Then, without looking back, I made myself scarce.

I sipped my drink in the darkened apartment and waited for the door to open, and eventually it did. “Hello, Maher,” I said when it closed.

“I take it things didn’t go well,” he said. You’d think he’d at least have the decency to look surprised. Then again, maybe he did; he’d left the light off. In the gloom he mostly looked tired.

“Not so much,” I replied, and filled him in. He sat down in the chair opposite me, poured his own drink, and lit a cigar as he listened. When I told him about the girl, his face fell even further.

“Dammit! She was one of them, Martin!”

“Settle down, Maher; you’ll blow a blood vessel, and then I don’t get paid. Sure, I knew she was. He was way too obvious; the opposition made sure I’d see him before I ever got to the meeting. They knew I wouldn’t trust him, so they sent her out as bait. Lord knows where the real courier is, but at least you didn’t lose the message.” With that I handed him the original pack of Luckies. I’d gotten decoys back in the market — Morleys, in a red and white packet with black lettering. Similar in dim light, especially when crumpled up.

Maher sighed and nodded. “So. Now we know for sure there’s a leak in my office. That’s what I was afraid of.”

“I figured that was why you came to me in the first place.”

“You figured right. Good thing, too; we couldn’t afford to let this fall into the wrong hands.” He eyed me for a moment over the rim of his drink, then took a swallow. “Any interest in helping me root out the culprit?”

I shook my head. “I’m done for tonight. You know me: My job ends when I hand off the package. I’ll send you my bill.”

I left him there, all alone in the gloom of an apartment not worth turning on the lights to see. That’s why I work for myself; I get to leave the job at the office when the day ends. I headed toward my own grim little rental, where I too would brood alone over my solitary whisky until dawn.

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