Lieutenant Riley Smith lived in a tall building full of humble apartments for middle class families--the kind of building that housed its own grocery store and a couple of retail floors for its residents. It had a cookie-cutter lobby with an information terminal and teller machine situated just inside for marketing pre-paid cred cards and balance inquiries. The small shop just beyond would offer slightly marked up items, charging its customers for the convenience of shopping in their own building. There was heated competition by banks, grocers, coffee sellers, and others to have their services in the lobby of a residential building. It was the kind of situation that made companies richer and their customers’ budgets a little tighter.
Julian double-checked at the information terminal to be sure he knew the right floor to go to, then strode to the elevator and rode up to the forty-seventh floor. It was a quick, soundless journey and within a few seconds, the doors opened with a cheerful ding. Unit 4730 was unfortunately on the far end of the building, so he had to loop around the outer hallway until he came to the correct door. He pressed on the door's buzzer and waited.
After only a slight pause, the door slid opened and Julian found himself being hugged tightly, Riley’s hands patting his back with enthusiasm.
“I was just thinking to myself the other day, ‘fuck man, I ain’t seen Julian in ages!’ And what do you know, here you are!”
“Is this any way to treat a commanding officer?” Julian asked, though he was glad to see he was welcome.
Riley pulled back and sloppily stood at attention. “This better, sir? Want me to salute too?” he asked, presenting his middle finger.
It was amazing how some people never changed. Despite all the years he had been in the service, the lieutenant was still one of the least serious people Julian had ever met. From his rounded cheeks to the smart little mohawk down the middle of his head, Riley looked more like a punk kid than a decorated military police operative. The stripe of hair was poison green and neon pink this time. Julian had to remind himself that this was someone to be taken seriously. Unlike him, Riley had joined the SPD after leaving the military police; he monitored black market trafficking from home, and it wouldn’t have surprised Julian to find out that Riley had as much information at his disposal as the Surge did.
The two of them went inside his apartment and the door slid closed behind them. Riley's home was sparsely furnished with assorted things he’d probably either gotten handed down through his family or that had been left by the previous tenants. It was easy to see where he actually spent his money: along one wall was a huge screen that was fed data from several terminal units. Most of them were news feeds with a few security feeds from the building in one corner
“That’s new,” Julian noted, pointing to the screen.
Riley smiled wide. “Yeah, beautiful, isn’t she? Mamma was worried I’d strain my eyes browsing the CommNet as much as I do. If you want bigger font though, you have to go with a bigger screen.” He sat down in his desk chair, spinning around playful for a second before looking back up at Julian. “So, what brings you to my swinging bachelor pad?”
“I’ve got a high priority mark I’m looking for. I was thinking maybe you could find him for me. Phineas Maxwell, youngest son of James Maxwell.”
Riley whistled, impressed. “The James Maxwell?"
Julian nodded. He was used to getting this response when he dropped that name; Maxwell had been a district representative since he was twenty, head of several successful committees dealing with transportation legislation and general welfare laws. His public face was respectable and the only side of him that Julian was inclined to comment on.
"No fucking way. Why’d they hire you to do it? You'd think if the guy's kid went missing they'd have half the police force looking for him.”
“The fewer people who know the truth, the better he can twist the situation to best fit his political platform,” Julian mused cynically, unable to help himself. “You know how politicians are. Public image first, everything else second. It doesn’t bother me, though--I’ve got plenty of resources. Like you. So, can you help me out?”
“Sure thing, just let me get signed in.“ The lieutenant began pulling up pages and files. “Any ideas who or why someone would take the kid?”
“None. He's probably a run away, but that doesn't rule out the possibility that he got tangled up in something else.”
Riley sighed, fingers flying over the keyboard. “Yeah, ain't that the truth of it. I'll just do a broad search then. I take it the family checks out?"
"It's not a domestic issue." Julian leaned his elbows on the back of Riley’s chair. "Phineas's mother is alive but not particularly close to her son. She gave him over to Maxwell before she quit working as his maid to stay at home with her other kids--I hear she has quite a few of them. She wanted him to have a privileged life and he's certainly got one. Besides, Maxwell’s a smart guy--smarter than most--and you know how much I hate giving any elected officials credit. He would have had his personal attendees find out if the mother knew anything before he ever asked for outside help.”
"Yeah, those public figure types are real paranoid, I guess. The fewer people in their business the better." Riley popped his fingers, the signal that he was ready to get to work. "Well, I'll need just a decent physical description to begin the search. This is a private thread where people do their kiddy shopping. It’s all in code, but I’m up-to-date.”
Julian blinked in half astonishment. “If the government knows about the thread and if you can decode the messages, why haven’t you brought down the system yet?”
“This is the only avenue we have to keep tabs on the trade. If we take down everyone in this ring, the ones who’re left will just build another one and it’ll be even harder to track down and crack a second time. We get more work done if we leave the existing structure intact.”
“So you guys deem it as a necessary evil.” Julian shook his head, still damp hair falling over his shoulder and against Riley's chest. “Now I remember why I decided not to join the SPD.”
Twirling the stray hair around his fingers, Riley smiled at his reflection in the terminal's screen. “And here I thought it was the conduct code.”
Julian stepped away slowly, giving his friend a playfully admonishing look. “Back to business, Ri’.”
“Yes, sir.” Riley input Phineas Maxwell’s physical description to his search criteria: 5'2", short red hair, blue eyes, pale skin. It was fortunate for them that it was not a very common combination; the search didn’t take long as it checked very known bulletin in the thread for that description.
The results blipped on the screen with a computerized sound: nothing.
There was no sign of Phineas on the black-market.
Julian smiled to himself a little, feeling relief pass over him. “Well, at least I can wipe that off my list of possibilities.”
Julian leaned back against the desk, facing his friend. “What do you mean?”
“Phineas Maxwell is a high profile mark. You might not advertise someone like him on a general forum. Might be that they’d only tell people at the show rooms.” Riley sat back, legs stretched out in front of him. “If you want to be one hundred percent sure, you’re going to have talk to the dealers themselves.”
“No.” Julian shook his head. “I’m not going to a place where they parade kids for sale. I couldn’t keep my cover in a place like that.”
“Well you can’t go in guns blazing, either. These people are armed, too, and if they even for a moment thought you were a cop or something, you’d be dead in a matter of seconds.”
Julian pushed away from the desk. “All the more reason why I shouldn’t go.”
“What if the kid’s there, though? Phineas Maxwell gets sold at a show room auction and there’s no way to trace him.”
Julian stopped, fists balled at his sides. Ten thousand credits wasn't nearly enough of an incentive to go through with this kind of thing. But Riley was right. “...Fine. You get me in. Tell me where and when.”
Riley nodded and got to work. “Okay, looks like the big guys are coming out tomorrow night, so you’re in luck. It’s invitation only, but I can get an extra pass if you go as my alter ego, Darrell Brinkley. Only thing you need to know about Darrell is that he’s a three-time sex offender with time served for assault and attempted murder.”
“Sounds like a wonderful human being.” Julian rubbed his face, the idea of going undercover still less than appealing. His stomach felt knotted and empty. “Don’t suppose I can tempt you to accompany me.”
“If I could, I would, but I only get the one alias. I don’t like the idea of you being alone in a place full of freaks any more than you do. Could be rather than kill you, you end up as an item for bid if they figure you out.”
“No really, don’t try and make me feel any better about this. Honestly. You’ve done enough.”
“Sorry.” Riley smiled sheepishly and stood up. “How about we go get something to eat and I walk you home. I should teach you some of the new slang they use so you’re not walking in deaf.”
“Oh, please, I know what you really want.” Julian smirked and leaned in closer, walking his fingers up Riley’s chest. “You want your cut.”
“Well...payment is always the more lasting aspect of helping you. High profile mark, I bet there’s quite a reward and, knowing you, there’s something sitting in your account already.”
Julian sighed and headed for the door. “Fine, but I’m paying you by the work, not the mark. This didn’t take you long at all. Couple hundred tops, just because it’s something I couldn’t do even if I wanted to.”
Riley smiled and wrapped his arm around Julian to escort him out. “Sounds fine by me, seeing as I’m the one with a steady pay check here.”
With a sour expression, Julian followed him out of the room and out of the building.
The words and expressions he was taught were misleading and plain; somehow, he had expected something more sinister from the black market. Then again, these people made a living off of making their jobs sound as inconspicuous as possible. No matter how simplistic, though, it felt vulgar to use the terms.
They spent a couple hours at Julian’s apartment, printing out maps and blueprints of the facilities he’d be visiting and familiarizing him with names and faces of the prominent bidders. It was the kind of work that wore Julian down fast and within hours he’d zoned it all out.
That night was harder to sleep through then most. Julian’s dreams were haunted by visions of his brother. It started innocently enough: the two of them were playing on a back stairwell in their father’s estate. Julian was barely a teenager while his brother was quite a bit smaller. This stairwell didn't exist in reality, but Julian knew where it was supposed to be--he also knew that they weren't supposed to be playing there.
Their ball bounced down the stairs and around a corner, out of sight, and before Julian could stand to retrieve it, Phineas had darted out of sight, too, sprinting to get there first. He disappeared around the corner and while Julian waited, the sounds of the ball and Phineas’s footsteps were lost. Cautiously, Julian wandered down the steps, hand gripping the handrail as he tried to find his way through the dark.
He was too afraid to call out his brother’s name. This was the staircase those people used; it was dangerous and if their father found out they were there, they would be in a great deal of trouble. It was best to keep silent, and wade through the darkness hoping it was all a game and Phineas would pop out at any minute to scare him.
There was laughter at the bottom of the stairs. Julian put his hand over his mouth to keep himself from breathing too loudly. He stepped quietly, willing his eyes to adjust to the darkness. It wasn’t his brother’s laughter--it belonged to several other voices, all much deeper. The bottom of the stairs was coming. He put out his foot to take another step only to find he was already at the base. The sickening falling sensation in his stomach made his skin crawl.
There was light spilling out from under a door beside him. The laughter was louder now and shadows periodically moved across the sliver of light. With a shaking hand, Julian grasped the doorknob and put his ear to the door, trying to hear more clearly. There was whimpering, sad and pathetic from a scared and tiny voice. Julian threw open the door, body shaking in anger as he made his presence known.
Phineas was covered in blood and naked; one of his assailants was thrusting between his legs while two others held his tiny body down. Julian stood frozen, his mind rebelling against what he was seeing. Then Phineas made a particularly pained noise and Julian stepped forward, a rage building inside him that pushed his own fear far away. He screamed and began to run towards the assailants, but it was as though he were caught in a web. His legs hardly moved, his arms swung in slow motion and his voice was swallowed by the air. He fought and fought against the invisible restraints, crying in frustration as the sounds of the men rang in his ears, louder and louder.
He continued to try until strong arms wrapped around him from behind and his eyes snapped open wide to see that the clock on his nightstand read 3:4 7am in blood red. He could hear his heartbeat in his ears and let out a shaky breath. Lips kissed the back of his neck apologetically.
“Sorry. Were you having a bad dream?”
Julian turned his head slightly, forcing a smile. “It’s fine, Riley. Thanks. Sorry if I woke you.”
Riley shook his head a little, yawning, then pulled him closer against his bare chest and rested his head against Julian’s shoulder.
Julian stared at the clock, trying to burn the images out of his mind along with the fear that accompanied them. He lay there until the clock showed 5:00 am and began singing the same damn song it played every other morning. He felt Riley stir as he flicked it off and pulled himself from his companion’s arms to make a retreat to the shower. There, the warm water seemed to scald away the anger and grief of his dreams, leaving him numb. It was all just a dream, after all. Phineas was clever and bright, and far too skinny for anyone to see any illegal use for. As bony and mentally fragmented as he was, Julian didn’t really think he would be up for auction that night. He was just being thorough in his investigation. He told himself this over and over again as he washed himself. He was never really sure how much of it he believed.
He was quiet through breakfast, off in some other world that was not permitting visitors any time soon. Riley apparently felt that was his cue to leave and went about locating his socks. He paused at the door once he was all tucked and tied. “You’ll start coming around more now, right? Not just going to forget about me until you need me again. Right?”
Julian looked up at him, not really sure how to answer that.
Riley sighed. He looked at the floor for a minute then shook his head. “That’s just how it goes I guess. You’ll at least call me, right? Tell me you got home alright tonight and if you found him?”
Julian nodded. “Yeah. I’ll call.”
Whether Riley believed that or not, he just smiled a little and walked back over for one last kiss. Then he left, wishing Julian luck before the door closed behind him.
Julian spent the rest of the day studying his printouts and taking short naps when the information started to muddle together. When the time came, he got dressed in something of moderate respectability--nothing as pretentious as a suit and tie, but a clean shirt, pants and a simple jacket. It was the kind of outfit that showed he didn’t want unnecessary attention and gave the impression that he had money but was not eager to demonstrate how much. The jacket did well to conceal the gun strapped to his shoulder, as well as the one tucked into the back of his pants. After forcing himself to eat something, he went down to the station and boarded the tram. From that point on, everything was a blur.
Somehow his feet knew the way from the station where he disembarked and he was at the building from his printed maps, giving his password to the fat, balding man looking down at him through the camera before he was even aware that he was at his destination. As the door opened, he made himself tuck all his personal feelings and fears behind him. He was Darrell Brinkley now.
Through the door was hell itself.
It has been a warehouse at one time or another. The loft was now a sitting area for the well to do, while the floor was divided into a stage area and an open area for the milling guests. It still had all its original fixtures; the harsh metal scaffolding, riveted I-beams and lighting that swirled through a haze of cigarette smoke made it seem more like an industrial dance club. People talked loudly, taking drinks and food from trays being carried around by servants while other patrons found pleasure in glory holes along the back walls that fed into the holding pens for the items up for bid.
No. They weren’t servants or items. They were children.
Julian bit his lip hard to keep himself together. If he did anything, they’d know he wasn’t one of them and then who was going to find Phineas? He tried to find something else to look at, something to draw his attention away from how useless he felt in his surroundings.
With so much motion all around him, the first thing that caught his eye was a lone stationary man leaning against the wall. The piercings in his lip, eyebrows and ears shone slightly as the lights swirled around the room; a tattoo of barbed wire crawled up across his cheek from his neck, where it wrapped around and disappeared under the collar of his bomber jacket. He looked like a rebel from a movie: a tough-talking loner looking for something to distract him from normal life. If they’d been anywhere else, Julian wouldn’t have hesitated to approach him if he felt he wouldn’t get punched in the face. It was a shame someone so enigmatic and appealing was probably a pedophile.
“Darrell, was it?”
Julian turned and looked at an aging man dressed smartly in a newsboy hat. He recognized him from the photograph in his file. “Hm? Oh, yes, Darrell Brinkley. You must be Robert Harkins. It’s a pleasure to meet you finally.”
Harkins smiled and shook his hand. “What do you think?”
Julian looked around, forcing a wide smile. “Quite a turn out. And such well-behaved Collars. I’m impressed. I’ve heard good things, though--that’s the only reason I bothered coming. Last thing I need is to step into a sting operation.”
“Don’t we all.” Harkins ushered him to follow. “Don’t worry, our security net is the best there is. We have the most up-to-date databases available, and they’re capable of referencing every person who comes in here with public record information. No one gets in who doesn’t belong.”
Julian nodded, trying to look impressed. “So I heard. I was wondering, though, if there was anything special up for bid tonight. Something I should hold off for till the end, before spending all my money.”
“Everything we sell here is unbeatable by other standards.”
“I’m looking for something more...high profile. Heard I might be in luck if I wished to purchase a young boy here who used to belong to some very important people.”
Harkins looked at him hard for a minute, then chuckled coolly, his gaze frighteningly kind in a room full of vulgarity. “I can see you are a well-informed man. Come this way. I’ll give you a sneak peak of tonight's prize.”
Without a second thought, Julian followed Harkins towards the back storage rooms.