Lewji was pretty sure Stav Benthik had an office somewhere. He was also pretty sure he knew who Stav worked for, but in neither case did he make the slightest attempt to confirm or deny his assumptions. Stav was a customer, a special, valuable customer, and Lewji’s business ethics deemed customer privacy utterly sacrosanct.
Of course, he hadn’t worked for Stav, lately. The last job had been… about two years ago. A simple delivery, handled with the unobtrusive discretion that Lewji thought of as his trademark. He’d made the delivery, he’d checked his credit balance a couple of hours later. The payment had been there. He hadn’t heard from Stav since, which wasn’t too surprising.
The downeast stratline had brought him into the commercial sector of the city’s Kedwalit node. Kedwalit was a virtual warren, left over from Lyad’s precolonial settlement, and there was only the one stratline platform and damn few working slideways, so he’d have to take pedways most of the way.
Stav had once, six years or so back, intimated that if Lewji wanted regular employment, he’d be accommodated. That was after a particularly tricky series of contracts, finally culminating in some bottom line work, which again, Lewji had handled well. He didn’t much care for bottom line work, though he’d undertake it as needed to complete a contract. And he was very good at planning and executing undetectable and convenient “accidents” when needed.
There’d been talk of a bonus, which Lewji turned down— a matter of policy. He set his fees, with minimal negotiation, and they were ‘inclusive.’ So Stav had hinted about regular employment, which Lewji’d been briefly tempted by, but it would probably have involved more travel than he’d want. Junari was younger then, and he didn’t like leaving her alone with his mother too long. The old woman was a terrible influence.
He’d just said he currently wanted to spend more time with his daughter than regular employment might allow, and hoped that wouldn’t be misinterpreted. Stav’s employer, he felt, would be bad people to get crossways of. But Stav had seemed to understand. He’d noted that “the bosses” were pleased with Lewji’s work, and would find some acceptable way of showing it.
A few months later, Junari taken Academy quals and come out near the top. Even with top quals, there was no guarantee a kid could get a good Academy slot; there were never enough slots available. But a recommendation, from some senior ’crat in the Lyad Retsa Education & Training division Lewji’d never heard of, had tipped the balance.
Since then, Stav had occasionally asked about “your girl’s” progress at the Academy, in a glancing sort of way. Lewji had mixed feelings about that. On one hand, he was fairly sure there wasn’t much Stav’s employer didn’t know about him, and probably Junari, and probably his mother, as well. And letting him know they knew… that could be a sign that they regarded him as a trusted associate, or just that they knew which strings to pull. Or both.
He checked the marker coming up for the next slideway— Malgar Conduit. When the slideway ended, he turned into the crowd, walking mostly against the tide of homebound shift-changers. It was still daycycle, but in this neighborhood, most businesses kept their nightcycle lights on all twenty-four. Many of them had music blaring over the pedways, as well, just a fraction of a decibel below the “public nuisance” threshold.
The Old Aurigan was about a kilometer from the intersection, but the slideway on this section of Malgar hadn’t operated for years. Instead, it had become an informal market point for casual vendors of everything from sex to toothpaste. The gaffers swept through often enough to keep things “casual,” (no one sold anything they couldn’t pick up and carry away fast) but some of the vendors had occupied their particular pitches for years.
Lewji kept to the pedway. About halfway there, the ambience began to change. Not spectacularly, but definitely. The competing strains of music were just a little less loud, a little less strenuous. Aimed at a crowd that could remember the musical fashions from a couple of decades ago. There were fewer EZshops, cleaning establishments, fast eateries, tempsculp parlors, and more betting shops, oases, and sit-down eateries. Light displays were a tad less garish.
And there, on the corner of Malgar and East 112th, was his destination. Unobtrusive, and a little shabby. No display lights, just a sign, and a dusty display window with an ancient still life of wine carafes and fake Chendillian food items, to which some wag had added a few pieces of formidable-looking cutlery, a joke appreciated only by those in the know. It didn’t even look open, this time of day. But Lewji passed his hand over the sensor and the door opened.
Inside was very different. Clean, for one thing. The lighting level was low without being dim, and the décor, though old-fashioned, was relaxed in character and had once been expensive. There were few patrons, this time of day—a table of four on one side of the main dining area, another deuce by an archway that led to the back premises, two women sitting at the end of the bar nearest the front door, and a man sitting at the far end of the bar: Stav Benthik.
“Lewji. Good to see you.”
“Glass of caldos?” Stav lifted the small footed glass in front of him suggestively.
Lewji sat down, nodded to the bartender, and accepted a similar minute glass of the very strong apple cordial. He disposed of it properly, and eyed Stav with patient enquiry while the little fireball he’d swallowed spread through his torso, up his spinal column, over his scalp, and brought a mild sweat to the back of his neck.
“There’s a Small-Cluster conference coming up. On Farn-Amli.”
Lewji put on his negotiating face, and nodded. A Small-Cluster conference? That was out of his usual sphere of operations. He ran a few quick mental calculations on why they might need a freelancer, and came up with some interesting totals. This would not be a small job.
“We’d like to get you in place well before the conference opens, and keep you there throughout. Multiple targets, multiple objectives. Tiered.”
“So what are we talking about, in the way of time, here?”
Stav’s eyes rolled upwards as he worked out some internal calculation. “To Farn-Amli… The conference itself… You’d need to leave fairly soon. Then figure, twelve- maybe thirteen hundred hours altogether, including travel time.”
The negotiating face didn’t slip, but Lewji considered the eight or nine weeks—that would be pretty much the entire offterm. Granted, Junari would be at that Starna Lake Camp for five of those weeks, but still, he’d hoped to spend more time with her, when Camp was over. Maybe take her on a trip to Lyad Center, let her pick out some upend clothes for her final year at the Academy.
On the other hand, a job of this size and complexity could be lucrative. Even on a half-subsidy, the Academy wasn’t cheap.
“Tell me more.”
Stav lifted an eyebrow. “I can do that. Under an erase agreement.”
Lewji didn’t care for erasure, but it didn’t have many long-term side effects any more. It was just annoying. You always knew something had been erased, if not what. Like an itch you could never scratch. And because of the way erasure worked, it had to be text. No verbal, no questions and answers— that left different memory traces, problematic for erasure.
“All right. Erase agreement.”
Stav poked at his wristcom. “Okay, you got it. Want a beer while you’re looking it over?”
“No thanks,” Lewji was already pulling up the readfield, adjusting it for the dim light in here. Stav shrugged, signaled the barkeep for a beer for himself, and turned to watch the holostage above the bar, where coverage of the Retsa Cluster finals in the Central Axis Peiball League was underway.
The text rolled out on the readfield. It was a complex job. A couple of deliveries. Sensory recording. Observation. And…
Oh, great. Sex work.