Read Chimera Online

Authors: Will Shetterly

Tags: #Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Chimera

BOOK: Chimera
7.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

 

CHIMERA

 

Will Shetterly

 


 

© 2000 Will Shetterly

 

Published by CatYelling.

 

Smashwords edition.

 

Cover photos: “City 46” by David Niblack, Imagebase.net and “Girl silhouette in fog” by alegri, alegriphotos.com.

 


 

For Brandi and Brian

 

John M. Ford and Emma Bull contributed enormously in suggesting characters and plot elements for this novel, but neither of them should be blamed for any shortcomings in the final work. I'm also very grateful for advice from my editor, Beth Meacham, and (in alphabetical order, because all their suggestions were wise, even if my execution was not) Michael Engelberg, Alex Epstein, Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier, Erin Mahr, Ricardo Mestres, Kay Reindl, Terry Rossio, and Marv Wolfman. And everything I write owes something to my fellow members, past and present, of the Scribblies: Steven Brust, Nathan C. Bucklin, Raphael Carter, Kara Dalkey, Pamela Dean, Patrcia C. Wrede, and the already mentioned (but never mentioned too often) Emma Bull.

 


 

Chapter One

 

Zoe Domingo walked into my life in the back room of a casino on the edge of Crittertown. If I hadn't had my mind on more important things, I would've turned and looked when a woman asked in a voice like a husky purr, "Chase Maxwell? Your phone message said—"

I knew what it said: "Maxwell Investigations. Please leave a message. And if this is Eddie, you bum, no more excuses. Bring my money to the high rollers' table at Wonderland." It did not say that anyone, no matter how nice her voice, should interrupt the game. But I didn't point out that she wasn't Eddie. I merely said, "I'm playing here," and nodded across the table at the Egyptian cowboy.

He nodded back and said, "I surely hope so."

The game was seven-card stud. The night had not been especially good or bad to me, but that was about to change. Technically, I was playing with three people besides the Sinai Kid: a Japanese salary-man, a chromium-haired borgette with all the latest implants, and an old Nigerian woman who was probably the best player at the table. But this hand didn't belong to any of them. All three had folded, leaving it for the cowboy or me.

He kept looking at the woman behind me. I wondered if they were partners. In my business, paranoia's either an occupational hazard or a recipe for success. Then I realized she couldn't be signalling my hand. The dealerbot would catch any body language or electronic communication between them. The cowboy had been leering at the borgette earlier. All his gaze meant was that the woman who didn't respect my playing time was worth looking at.

But the cards in front of me were more deserving of my attention. I held three big boys who would pay for last month's rent, and the next few besides.

The dealerbot, who looked remarkably like Clark Gable with translucent blue skin, turned to me. "Sir?"

"Let's make this a little more interesting." I pushed all my chips into the middle of the table. "A hundred and fifty K."

The woman behind me said, "If you want to be left alone, why tell clients where you are?"

"Because the normal ones leave a message." I grinned at the cowboy. "What'll it be, Pard? You gonna see that, or fold?"

The cowboy flicked his eyes back to the table. He gave me another lazy smile and said, "Think I'll raise. Say, another two hundred K?" He had the drawl down. Going by the voice alone, you'd think he was one of the folks who had voted to privatize Texas, rather than one of the petroleum princes who had bought it.

He slid two towers of chips across the table, smiled again, and scratched his ear.

People like him get to play the game that way. People like me get to decide whether we'll be good losers or bad ones.

The dealerbot said, "Do you wish to meet the raise or fold, sir?"

Sometimes people like me manage to find Option Number Three. "Hold on." I turned in my chair and saw her for the first time.

You have to forgive the cowboy for staring. A pair of cheap sunglasses hid her eyes, but that only called more attention to her other features: cheekbones like a Mayan princess, full lips, a small, wide nose, skin the color of pale copper, a mop of hair in tangled skeins of black and gold and brown. Her clothing consisted of a short iridescent sea-green jumpsuit and low silver boots, leaving her lean tan arms and legs bare. Her only jewelry was an elegant silver watch on her wrist. Due to her proportions and her effortlessly perfect posture, she appeared to be tall, but the frame of the doorway revealed that she was actually quite short.

I saw the bust of Nefertiti once. If the two women could stand side by side, Nefertiti would look like Zoe Domingo's geeky kid sister.

Many thoughts went through my head. The one out of my mouth was "How much cash have you got?"

She frowned, pulled a handful of crumpled bills out of her pocket, and riffled through them. "A little over a hundred K. But that's—"

I snatched her money and slapped it on the table. "Congratulations. You've hired a detective."

The dealerbot wrinkled its translucent brow. "Sir, you may not increase your stake during a game."

I looked at the cowboy. He shrugged and said, "Hell, this is a private game. We can run it how we want." I could've kissed him then, until he went and spoiled it. He smiled at me. "Go ahead, sport. But that was a two hundred K raise."

The woman who wanted to hire me said, "Gee, too bad," and reached for her money.

I caught her wrist. As she tensed to pull free, I had an instant to register that she was stronger than she looked. Then she relaxed and raised her eyebrows in a question or a threat. She smelled like jasmine, with a hint of something else, something woodsy and wild. I said, "You want to hire me or not?"

"I think so."

"All right, then."

I slid her watch off her wrist, added it to the pile of cash, and pushed it all into the center of the table.

"Hey! That cost a hundred and thirty K!"

"Trust me." She obviously didn't. I whispered, "He scratches his ear when he bluffs."

The cowboy was appreciating the show. I met his sphinx smile and asked, "Good enough?"

He held the watch up to the light, whistled, and turned to my new client. "Cartier. A hell of a timepiece for a little thing like you."

She leaned her head to one side and smiled. "It was a present."

"And I'm sure you deserved it." He put the watch back into the pot, capping the pyramid of chips and cash before us.

The dealerbot said, "Show your cards."

I snapped my three kings down on the table. "Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar. Merry Christmas, pardner."

I reached for the pot—and the cowboy showed his cards: five diamonds.

He said, "Diamond flush. And a happy New Year to you."

The dealer raked the pot toward the cowboy. I watched it go with that feeling that God has just had a good laugh at your expense. When I looked at my client, I saw my reflection in her shades and closed my mouth. Her expression did not suggest she was as impressed with my gaming skills as she might've been.

The dealerbot said, "Ante up."

I stood, dropped a K on the table for the rabbit chimera who had kept bringing me drinks, picked up my jacket from the back of my chair, and headed for the door. My client started after me.

The cowboy called to her, "Hold on, missy. You play poker?"

She shook her head.

The cowboy smiled. "Play anything else?"

She nodded. "Cowboys and Indians. You can be Custer."

I waited for her in the twilight zone between the quiet darkness of the high rollers' hideaway and the carnival madness of the main room. Like most places to spend major money in Crittertown, Wonderland was strictly "humans only," though a few customers must've been gene-checked at the door: I saw two borgies who could've passed for humanform bots at a distance, and a wilder who looked as bestial as any chimera from a discount genomerie.

Wonderland's support staff was evenly divided between bots and chimeras. The bots had most of the positions of trust: dealers, tellers, strolling one-armed bandits. The chimeras provided entertainment and services where flesh made a better impression than metal or plastic. It all follows the laws of profit: No one's going to tip a box that shines your shoes, but I was happy leaving one of my last Ks for the rabbitwoman who had smiled at me as she brought my drinks.

An announcer screamed, "Let's have a big hand for the Chippendogs!"

A troupe of canine chimeras in tear-away tuxedos took the stage at the center of the room. Most of the players ignored them, but I clapped. The client caught up to me then, so I said, "Someone deserves a big hand tonight."

She turned her shades toward me. "Maybe he scratches his ear when it itches."

"I don't want to hear about it," I headed into the crowd.

She followed. "Hey, you want to bet the farm on three kings, no problemo. Where are you going?"

"Out for a smoke."

"What about my case?

"My usual retainer's two hundred K a day."

"That was all my money."

"Then you get a day's work. Nothing illegal. No guarantees of success. No refunds if I deliver in less than a day. What's your name?"

"Zoe Domingo."

I'm paid to be curious about clients' cases, not their names. "Ms. Domingo. Call me tomorrow to—" I finished the sentence with an "Uh-oh."

Coming toward us through the crowd was Arthur Madden, a middle-aged man whose expensive suit and equally expensive grooming made him look like a respectable businessman. The effect was enhanced by the black disk of a datacle tucked in his left eye, feeding him market reports or porn. But a respectable businessman wouldn't have at his heels a glowering two-hundred-pound chimera.

You didn't need to see Bruno's forehead tattoo to know his genetic heritage. Even in a suit that must've cost as much as Arthur's, Bruno looked more dog than man, with a nose and a jaw that met my definition of a muzzle, feral black beads for eyes, and short black Doberman hair that covered most of his visible body.

I grinned, thrust out my hand, and said, "Arthur! Good to see you!"

He ignored the hand. "Max. I hear you dropped half a meg tonight."

I shrugged. "You know how it is. Some nights Luck smiles. Some nights she frowns."

"When you passed my office on the way to the game, did you think of that little loan you haven't paid back?"

"I'm on it. The lady here brought me a big case." I turned to acknowledge her.

She dipped her chin graciously, and Arthur began to smile. The smile faded when Bruno sniffed loudly, then announced, "I don't smell money. Just cat pee."

I frowned at the dogman, then at my client. Hiding an ID tat gets a chimera a minimum of two years in prison, guaranteed. Erasing the tat might get a chimera put to sleep. I couldn't see anything on her forehead. But for all that Bruno was bred for brawn, not brains, I knew he wasn't stupid enough to call a human a chimera if he wasn't sure.

Zoe Domingo leaned toward Bruno and put two fingers under his chin. "Tease a cat—" Her fingernails extended like claws unsheathing, answering any doubts anyone might've had. "—you might get scratched."

Bruno sprang back with a snarl that would've done his grandparents proud.

Arthur looked at me and shook his head. "Max, you want to rent a critter-girl, that's your business. But passing her off as a client—"

I could've walked away from the case then. Some people would say I should've. From a moral standpoint, the catwoman had misrepresented herself. From a legal one, we hadn't signed a contract—and even if we had, under South California law, I couldn't be bound to a contract with a chimera.

But I had taken the cat's money and given her my word. Plus I hated the idea of telling Arthur I hadn't recognized Zoe Domingo for what she was. And maybe, in the part of my soul where there still lived a knight in grimy white armor, I didn't want to turn away a damsel in distress, even if that damsel was only half human. I said, "She hired me, Arthur. You'll get paid."

He frowned. "You think I'm a shmuck?"

"I know your policy on critters. I'll get her out before anyone notices." I patted his shoulder, took the cat's arm, and started for the door.

Arthur said, "You do think I'm a shmuck." Before I could protest, he turned to man's worst friend. "Bruno. Break two of his fingers."

The dogman's heavy hand caught my shoulder. I turned back toward them as graciously as I could.

Arthur smiled at me. "If you're afraid you'll scream, we can go into my office." I really wish I knew what his datacle was showing him then.

I looked around. As I feared, the rest of the Terrible Trio were coming our way.

I'd never heard their names. The larger was hairless and flat-featured, with sharp teeth and a whale tat to tell you he had orca genes. The other was maybe fifty pounds lighter, which wasn't any more reassuring. His coarse white hair and bear's head tat said polar bear plainly enough. They wore conservative business suits like Bruno's—Wonderland was, after all, the kind of place where the family that plays together, stays together. They passed through the gamers and the gaming tables, remarkably discreetly for two creatures who looked like they'd enjoy nothing more than the chance to turn a few humans into a late night snack.

I looked back at Arthur. "We don't need to go anywhere."

"You're sure? If you make a scene, it'll cost you more fingers, maybe some ribs."

"C'mon, Arthur. I only need a couple more days—"

"Sorry, Max. But to show we're still friends, you can pick the fingers."

I looked down at my hands. Broken fingers heal, I told myself without much comfort. If I went to a free clinic, they might even heal straight. Letting Bruno play with two fingers might buy me a week, but which two? You use your little fingers less than the others, yet there would be an advantage to having both injuries on the same hand.

While I was weighing options, the catwoman said, "Bruno. You like being a lap dog?"

BOOK: Chimera
7.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

How My Summer Went Up in Flames by Doktorski, Jennifer Salvato
Is She for Real? by P.J. Night
The Proposal by Tasmina Perry
Favoritos de la fortuna by Colleen McCullough
Jaguar's Judgment by Lia Davis