Deep in the heart of Maryland Sector 27, five point seven miles from the former Fort Meade, Municipal Building X32A sat like a giant frog overlooking its scummy pond. Sergeant Homer Arbogast considered the image quite accurate in a number of ways. He was a poet, was Homer, Bachelor of Arts in Literature from Princeton, Class of 2124. Twenty years as a cop since graduating summa cum laude had done little to dull his bone deep appreciation for the nuances of the English language.
To a true poet, X32A could only be a frog.
The bizarre building had been been erected in 2050 after plasteel had come into vogue. Its architect had definitely taken liberties. With a third floor that projected out over Fourth Avenue to serve as the head with a pair of oversized skylights placed roughly where eyes on a flesh and blood frog would be…yep. Frog. Then there was the widened base which housed escape proof jail cells as well as the bomb shelter entrance, a monstrous frogtail sitting smack at the edge of Candy Avenue. Bigtailed frog, this Muni Building.
All of which suited the Sergeant to a T, because Homer Paul Arbogast was a bigtailed man. He belonged here.
Out there in the street, an east wind blew fiercely, but the frogman didn’t care. When Hurricane Moson made landfall two years earlier, the damage added up to nearly a million lives lost and more than a trillion dollars in property damage. Cops, looters, and National Guardsmen had worked overtime for months. Stuck smack in the center of all that, the ugly police building known far and wide as the Frog hadn’t budged. Neither had Arbogast. His big white frogtail in big blue pants had stuck like glue in his big brown chair.
He’d been a desk sergeant for the past four years, and he took his work seriously.
At the moment, he was alone except for a pile of neverending paperwork and one civilian woman who’d just come in the front door. She was quite obviously waiting impatiently for him to quit pretending he hadn’t noticed her arrival. Signing forms was always good for that, giving the impression of doing important things while the no doubt unimportant citizen fumed or fretted or whatever. It told him a lot about visitors to his pond, the different ways in which they handled themselves while being ignored. One had even managed to smuggle a plastic pistol in past the metal detectors.
He remembered that rather well, a squat black former alderman who’d lost it completely after seven point three minutes of waiting and tried to shoot the arrogant sergeant where he sat.
Fat chance. The big man behind the desk was obese, not stupid. Not slow, either. Even as the would be assassin made his draw, Homer’s foot had slammed down the button beneath the desk. It took less than half a second for bullet proof glass to rise on three sides of the desk, high enough to stop the first incoming small caliber rounds yet low enough for the burly cop to return fire over the top with his Crowd Tamer stunner.
True, one of the Assistant D.A.’s had been walking by in the hallway at that moment and got stunned as well, but the entire P.D. considered that a bonus.
When he finally got around to looking up, his visitor had taken a seat in one of the chairs by the wall. Her long legs were crossed. She regarded him with…amusement? Definitely amusement. It took a moment to notice the eyes because of those legs. She wore a long, fringed denim skirt over pumpkin colored cowboy boots. He’d have thought that an affectation except for one thing. Boots like that cost big bucks, and they always came with leather soles. Always. These had extra tread added, rubber or composition. For longer wear? Better traction? Both, probably. He revised his opinion immediately.
“You’re Nails Hendrix?”
“Sort of.” Her voice was throaty and musical at the same time. “Nails is my pen name and also my nickname. My parents weren’t that cruel, though. My birth certificate says Corolla Hendrix.”
“Hunh.” Arbogast put his hands in the air, palms upward in an expression of disbelief. “You were named after an antique Toyota?”
Her puzzlement showed, and he realized how young she must be. Twenty-four, twenty-five max. He’d known the notorious Sling Sleaze columnist had to be female, but a kid? No, never a kid. Definitely a full grown woman, this one.
“Never mind. Toyota went out of business about the time you were born. I used to study car histories as a hobby. It’s a long story.”
“Oh.” She smiled uncertainly. “Well. Before we get down to business, Sergeant, I have to tell you it’s not often I catch a man staring at the soles of my boots.”
He blushed. Had he been that obvious, or was she simply that good? “it’s the tread, Ma’am. I’m willing to bet a whole lot of people underestimate you.”
“Because of my boot tread?” Incredulity replaced uncertainty. “You picked all that up just from my boot tread?”
“Not just the tread, Ma’am. The whole package.”
“Oh. Okay.” Somehow that made it all right, though for the life of him the Sergeant had no idea why. Before he could even consider the matter, however, she whacked the ball back into his court. “Well, you’re right, they do. Underestimate me, I mean. But not you.”
She snickered. Actually snickered! He was almost certain he’d never seen a snickerer before. “I’m not exactly a lady. And there are a lot of brain-dead po-po’s out there. You just don’t happen to be one of them.”
It was his turn to be puzzled. “Po-po’s?”
“Police. A cousin used to call anybody in a uniform a po-po. Guess it stuck.”
“Hunh.” He rubbed his jaw, took a moment to wish he’d shaved before coming in this morning. Five o’clock shadow in midshift. They both sat for a while, each inwardly basking in the other’s compliment, both too professional by half to let such a pleasant emotion affect business at hand. Nails, not that surprisingly, outwaited him.
“All right,” he said finally, breaking silence and thus losing the contest, “Coffee’s on the burner there. Help yourself and lay it on me.”
She let that pass but did get up for the coffee. He could see the way she moved now. Yep. He was impressed.
“Good enough. I couldn’t do Homey, but I can do Homer.”
It was his turn to let it pass. “Go on.”
“Homer…are you aware of my column in last Sunday’s edition?”
“Of the Sling Sleaze?”
“That’s who I write for.”
He steepled his fingers, nodding acknowledgement. “Yeah. I read it. Quite a few of your topics result in work for my department later on. I find it pays to see what sort of muck you’ve raked up. Key points were that Guild personnel had burglarized an A.S.P. hideout and that suit should be brought against the Guild forthwith, along with criminal proceedings.”
Now she was definitely pleased. She sipped coffee through lips that could have easily made her a living on the street and continued.
“Precisely. Ecxept of course–as I did not state in the article but we all know–no one in authority is going to tackle the Guild.”
He nodded. Expert lobbying reinforced by bribes in the right places made the organization untouchable, a fact known to media and law enforcement personnel from coast to coast.
“Yes. We all know. Which not only derails any criminal investigation but any civil suit as well since no judge would convict.”
“And you want me to do…what?”
She studied the toes of her boots as if seeing them for the first time. Witbout raising her gaze, she spoke quietly. “Nothing too bizarre.”
“Go on.” He was intrigued now; anything that could get this woman to come to an old cop for help had to be something indeed.
“Off the record.”
“Ah.” He tapped a command sequence on the keyboard never far from his left hand. “Will Level Three do?” Level Three security guaranteed no record would be made of what came next, a Right To Privacy benefit of the Confidentiality Act of 2106.
“Level Three is fine. Okay then. I suppose a lot of the public still doubts the existence of A.S.P., or even the Guild for that matter, but mainly the masses out there just don’t care. They’ve got their own problems, like what they’re going to eat and where the rent money is coming from. In their minds, an elitist conflict betweeen big money service providers to the rich and an underground organization formed primarily to yell about said service providers actually hurting themselves in the process–well, it takes some really creative writing to keep them buying newspapers at all.”
Homer snorted. “Heck, Nails, most of them don’t realize newspapers still exist. If it’s not on the holofeed, it’s not real to them.” More than ninety percent of all households in EC were barely getting by if that. They’d fight over satellite entertainment access or the closing of a local town, riot over government clampdown on prescription pain meds, but why give a rat’s bony rear about anything the upper echelon richies were keeping to themselves? Better the gold plated snobs should wipe themselves out entirely. Yay rah.
“Yes. And from their viewpoint, they’re dead right. The problem is, I’ve studied constitutional and natural law, and worse than that, I have eyes.” She took another swallow of rapidly cooling coffee and grimaced. “The trouble is, if we let this one go, I think the last of our freedoms are out the window.”
He suddenly realized he didn’t much like where this seemed to be headed. “How so?”
“Because for the Guild to have the power it does, lobbying and bribes just aren’t enough. It has to be something other than what it seems. Something…not our friend. Not the friend of liberty.”
He raised both palms in a gesture for her to stop a moment. “Hold on, girly. What it might or might not be is one thing. What you want me to do about it is another thing entirely, and I wish you would cut to the chase. The suspense is killing me.”
She twinkled at him. “I’d say it’s the doughnuts that are killing you.”