This is Chapter 2 of the story Titania’s Purse.
Lunch was at an out of the way diner. Not the Taproom at the Drake, but I didn’t care. The burger was good and they used real grease for the fries, not that canola crap mandated by the Health Department. I made a note of the place for attention later. We sat across from each other in a booth with cracked red vinyl cushions. I sat facing the door where I could look over Franklin’s shoulder and see the exit. Habit. We were the only customers. It was nine thirty in the morning; a bit early for the lunch crowd, late for the breakfast rush. All the same, the waitress had taken one look at me and hustled us to a booth in the back.
Halfway through lunch, Franklin took a call. He excused himself for two minutes, and then returned with an envelope. He slid it to me under the table. A bit melodramatic, but I let him have his moment of drama. The envelope contained two brand new untrained biochips. Franklin had more resources than I gave him credit for.
Biochips were the micro-DNA processors that allowed the C.O.P.S. – the Computer Operated Patrol System – to function. Each chip could carry on thousands of parallel operations. They could be ‘trained’ to operate a patrol machine as smoothly and efficiently as a human cop could function. Their exact make-up was top secret and possession of untrained biochips was a crime punishable by five years in a reeducation camp. They were also valuable trade goods in a certain off-the-books sector of the economy.
“Thanks. You’re a true friend, Jack.” I used his first name to make sure he knew I meant it. If you’d cultivate a man’s loyalty, flatter his vanity, as Charlie had once said. In Franklin’s case it wasn’t just flattery. He went out on a limb with the Department of Public Safety every time he hired me. Between the two of us, we’d busted ten C.C. homes and put some truly nasty people out of business. I needed the money he threw my way and the busts hadn’t hurt his career, either.
“Just be careful with those things,” he said solemnly. “I can’t help you if they catch you with them.”
“No worries, Jack. My problem.” I popped a last fry into my mouth. “Thanks for the lunch.”
I stood up to leave as he slid his Universal Debit Card into the reader to pay the check. He stopped me with a touch on my shoulder. “You did a good thing today. Tito. I’m sorry if Clancy hurt you.”
“‘It’s not enough to help the feeble up, but to support them after’,” I said, borrowing Charlie’s quotation voice. Franklin looked puzzled. “Shakespeare. If you want to do a good deed, Jack, help Cassie find a decent home. I owe her.”
I left the diner, my thoughts running down the road with Charlie as they often did after a job. God, but I missed that old man and his quotations from the Bard. I’d been a smart-ass bum when he’d found me on the streets two years ago. He’d taught me the value of family and honor. He was on the run from the DPS himself these days, a Blank with no records or identity. And I was now the Fixer in his stead.
It had been rough those first few months. I didn’t have Charlie’s flair for drama or his ability to intimidate. But I’d found my own way to do business. I’d learned to use my ‘disability’ as an advantage. Like these jobs for Franklin. I could infiltrate a custodial home without raising suspicion. I had practiced my Dumb-Dwarf act until it was second nature. Once I had enough evidence, I’d whistle for Franklin and another abusive home would bite the dust. Franklin paid in much needed credits.
More often, pay was in favors, courtesies as Charlie used to call them. That’s the way the business worked–a favor for a favor. Value for value. I did a favor for a client and they would owe me one as well. Some were big, most were small, but always there was an exchange of value. That’s something else I’d learned from Charlie. No such thing as a free lunch.
I took a cross-town bus to Harlem Avenue, transferred to a southbound number 23, and settled into a window seat. The bus wasn’t full and the few passengers ignored me. I liked it that way. It beat the Look. Spuds knew the Look well – the head to toe sweep of the eyes, the pained expression coupled with the hint of revulsion in the eyes, followed by the careful mask of politically correct pity.
I watched the neighborhoods slide by. This was working class Chicago. The Normies here were resigned to their safe if boring existence. Those that had jobs lived carefully modest lives lest their jobless neighbors report them for conspicuous consumption – a sure ticket to a tax audit. Everyone was assured of a safe and comfortable existence as long as they followed the social norms. “The nail that stands out gets pounded down”, and everyone knew it.
I got off at Ashland and walked the last few blocks to Rosie’s place. The building had started life as a gas station and repair shop. It had gone belly up when the government had mandated all-electric cars. Now it housed Rosie’s warehouse and small fleet of delivery trucks, a legitimate business. And a front for his real business.
I banged on the door and a skinny guy with long blond hair answered it. He held a baseball bat, even though the Cubs hadn’t started spring training yet.
“Hey Clarence, whattaya know?” I said.
“Hi, Tito. You looking for Rosie?”
I nodded and he opened the door wider and waved me in. “He’s in the office.” He pointed toward the back of the garage.
I said thanks and headed that way. There were two trucks in the garage, up on lifts over the grease pits. Men moved back and forth from the trucks to the door to the back storage room carrying armloads of plastic wrapped bundles. More men squatted under the trucks, unpacking the bundles from the hidden storage compartments in the wheel wells and handing them up out of the grease pit. I took care not to notice the activity as I crossed the open bay and knocked on the office door.
“Heya! Da door’s open,” a voice called from the office.
Ambrose Olongopo was the biggest human being I’d ever seen. He perched on a bar stool that looked ridiculously small under his massive bulk. Gold chains hung from his thick neck and disappeared below the open collar of the orange Hawaiian shirt he wore. Black tattoos covered arms as thick as my thighs and sketched a zigzag pattern up one side of his face.
Rosie and I shared a common heritage from the Pacific islands. But where he had inherited the massive size of his Tonganese ancestors, my family on Guam had mingled with the Spanish generations ago. We tended to be smaller and fine boned.
“Hafa adai, Rosie,” I called as I entered.
“Hafa’ Tito, you little tau-tau.”
“Who you calling little?”
He laughed, showing white teeth filed to points. “You still got da tau-tau, da devil, in you guts, heya? What you want?”
“Trade. The usual.”
He shook his massive head; the gold chains around his neck tinkled slightly with the motion. “I dunno, Tito. Times gettin’ tough. Maybe da price go up, yah?”
“Maybe not. It’s for Sarafina. You wouldn’t want to cheat an old lady would you?”
His face assumed an expression of exaggerated distress. “Now dat’s not fair. I wanna talk-talk an’ haggle a bit, an’ you gotta hit below da belt.”
I laughed at that. Rosie was a smuggler and dealer in contraband. He’d buy and sell anything. But he had a soft spot in his pirate’s heart for Sarafina. He’d never been serious about haggling with me anyway. It was just a way to save face. I passed him the two chips. He reached into a big box behind his chair and pulled out four cartons of Italian cigarettes.
“Dese tings gonna kill dat ol’ lady one day.”
I shrugged. “She’s all alone except for me, Rosie. Smoking’s about the only pleasure she has left.”
“You tell her Rosie say ‘Hafa’ an’ she still owe me a lasagna, yah?” He pushed the box of contraband back under the desk and reached into a cooler at his feet. He extracted a bottle of fruit juice and twisted the top off. He handed it to me as he reached down and got one for himself.
“Sure thing.” I paused to take a long swig from my bottle. “Any word from Raratonga?” I asked carefully.
He shook his head. “You family safe, Tito. No news is good news, yah?”
I nodded but wasn’t happy. Dad and Javier had made it to Tonga, but I’d heard nothing for months. I didn’t know how long Consolidated Genetics’ reach was, but they had worldwide operations. I just had to trust Dad to know when it was safe to come out of hiding.
We’d gathered evidence of their illegal human cloning operations but didn’t know whom we could trust to take the information and go after C.G.’s directors. It hadn’t helped that Dad was officially dead and had been the one to get the program started many years earlier. Or that Charlie was now wanted for a string of murders that had followed in our wake as we ran down the data. The real killer was dead but had been high up in the C.O.P.S. directorship. There was no telling who else in law enforcement Consolidated Genetics had bribed.
We finished our drinks in silence. Rosie knew the score and would keep our secret. The fifty biochips I’d paid him to smuggle Dad and Javier out of the country helped, but I suspected he was just as happy to tweak the tail of the government tiger on his own. Especially when there was little that connected him directly to Dad or Charlie.
I said good-bye to Rosie and made my way home. It wasn’t a long walk and the crisp air cleared my head. The streets were clean but empty this close to Blanktown. Smart citizens avoided being seen within blocks of that area. Blanktown was less a location that a state of existence. There was an area here on the near west side of the city that was its epicenter, though. Within its square mile of streets lived transients, illegal migrant workers and the true Blanks – people with no official existence in the government data banks. Some were addicts and juicers who had dropped out or never been catalogued. Some were anarchists and libertarians who preferred a marginal existence to a controlled one. A very few were the crime bosses who ran the place, people with enough juice to have their records wiped from official notice. I was a very tiny minnow swimming around its edges. I had no illusions about my ability to survive there full time.
The air was turning colder by the time I reached home. I climbed the stoop to the three flat where Sarafina and I lived. She owned the building and I rented the first floor apartment. The middle floor was vacant. All of its utilities were rerouted to my flat giving me beefed up electrical and netlink access.
I was winded by the time I’d climbed the three flights to her door. She must have heard me coming. She opened it before I could knock. Sarafina Nostopolito was a small birdlike woman, painfully thin but quick of movement with sparkling eyes and surprisingly strong voice. In her youth she’d been famous as Sara Nestor, primary female lead for the Folger Shakespeare Troupe. But VR netlinks had killed live theater, and the Plague had killed her family. She was alone now except for me and her photographs.
She stood in the doorway to her apartment, a cloud of cigarette smoke surrounding her. “Tito! How wonderful. What did you bring me?”
I held out the cigarettes and she clapped her hands like a child on Christmas morning. “Oh, thank you, dear. I was running low again.” She was almost never without a cigarette in her hand, a hard habit to maintain. Tobacco had been illegal since I was eight years old.
“Won’t you come in?” she asked. “I’m making grain pie.”
I was sorely tempted. I loved the rich custard pie stuffed with sweetened wheat berries and chunks of dark chocolate. But lunch was still heavy in my stomach and I was tired and dirty. I wanted a shower and a nap.
“Some other time, Sarafina,” I said. “I’ve been working and I need a nap. Rosie says ‘Hafa'”
She laughed. “And he still wants his lasagna, that old pirate.”
“Yes, ma’am. Can I come for pie and coffee tomorrow?”
“Of course, dear. Oh, I almost forgot. You had a visitor. She said she’d gotten your name from Rosie and wanted to talk to you about some work. A very pretty little thing she was, too.”
I wondered why Rosie hadn’t said anything about a job. Sarafina had only a vague idea of what I did. Just that I performed services for people. I didn’t want her knowing the seamier side of the job. She handed me a glossy card.
Titania’s Purse it read. Objects of Wonder, Secrets of Beauty from the Faerie World. I flipped it over. There was a net locus and a vidphone number on the back.
I looked at the front of the card again. As I watched it changed, morphing into images of elves and faeries holding colored jars of ointments and crèmes with prices scrolling under them. Each flip of the card brought up a new image until it cycled through all the files and returned to the original printing. It was a nice effect, probably expensive. Whoever ran this VR store was doing pretty well. Good news for me.
I returned to my own apartment. The front room looked out on the street through big bay windows. I’d salvaged much of Charlie’s furniture after the C.O.P.S. had smashed the place up. I’d reframed the Seamus Murphy painting as well. The oversized seascape and spare furnishing gave the room a nautical appearance that I liked. I went to the netlink in the corner and checked my account. Franklin had deposited the credits already. I was flush for a little while, even after I paid the utility bill.
I walked down the long hallway to my room, stripped off my clothes and turned on the shower. Soap and hot water stripped away the grime of Clancy’s hellhole, but a deep sadness and feeling of futility remained. What did it matter if I closed her down or a dozen like her? I was still a Spud to most of the world. At best an object of pity. At worst a reminder of a loss so terrible that most Normies chose to forget it and bury themselves in mindless pleasures. No room there for unpleasant truths like me.
I dried off and put on fresh jeans and a sweatshirt. I picked up the card. Titania’s Purse. Interesting name; it showed more than the average level of literacy. I went back to the netlink and activated the avatar program before entering the vidphone number. I don’t use an avatar to talk to people I know, but for new customers it helps reduce some of the shock at my true appearance. Until we had an agreement, all they’d see was a cartoon of a handsome dark haired man with vaguely Latino features.
She answered on the second ring. Sarafina had been right. She had white-blond hair cut in a short bob that framed her heart-shaped face. Her deep blue eyes were set above high cheekbones and a thin delicate nose. She peered into the link.
“Horacio Guzman?” she asked. Her mouth was a little wide, thin lipped with perfect white teeth.
“That’s me. Forgive the avatar. Until we have an agreement, I prefer to keep my face hidden. It may save some embarrassment for both of us if I don’t agree to help you.”
“Why do you think I need help?” Her words were subtly accented. European, maybe Slavic or Russian. I’d spent enough time in Blanktown to tell. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say.
“You wouldn’t look for me if you didn’t. I understand Ambrose Olongopo referred you. What’s your connection to him?”
She looked around her as if someone were watching, then lowered her voice. “I make various beauty aids. They are sold in some of the finest VR malls. But many ingredients are difficult to get at reasonable cost. Mr. Olongopo helps supply them. He said you were a man to be trusted.” Again her words and speech pattern suggested she wasn’t a native Chicagoan.
“Your name?” I asked.
“Titania Pedenko. It’s why the shop is called Titania’s Purse.”
“Ukrainian. By birth at least. I am a citizen now.” The pride in her voice was touching.
“‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over canopied with luscious woodbine'” I said softly, quoting from the Bard.
“”With sweet musk roses and with eglantine'” she finished. “You know the play?”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I wondered if it inspired the name of the shop as well.”
She nodded and grew serious, as if she’d made a decision. “I need your help, Mr. Guzman. I must find my sister.”
“Is she missing? Perhaps the police would be better.”
“No. They will not help. I haven’t seen her in almost twenty years, not since we came to this country. We are orphans, adopted from the Ukraine through an American charity, but by different families. The Plague struck just after we separated and I haven’t heard from Irina since.”
“Was the family in the Plague zone?”
She nodded. “They were from Woodland Park, a suburb of Denver.”
“Forgive me for being blunt, Ms. Pedenko, but are you sure your sister is still alive?”
“I think so.” Her eyes clouded with tears. “I don’t know. The adoption records were sealed. I don’t even know the name of the family who adopted her, only the date and the location. The authorities say they are very sorry, but the records are sealed and cannot be opened without court order.” Her accent deepened as she became more emotional. “I have tried to get the order but have no ‘standing’ they say. Not even as sister.”
I thought for a minute. Adoption records were under the jurisdiction of the Department of Social Welfare, but DPS could access them in a criminal case. Franklin might be able to help there. He could at least to get me into the Denver system. I could then find out the names of families adopting children on the date Titania knew. I could cross reference that with the survivor lists from Woodland Park and get an idea if the sister had survived. Tracking her down might be harder but I knew someone who could help with that, too.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do. Did Rosie tell you how this arrangement works?”
“I have money. I can pay.”
“I’m not interested in your money. It’s traceable and I work outside the system. If I am not successful in finding your sister, we part ways – no harm, no foul. But if I succeed, you will owe me a favor, a courtesy, which I may collect at the time and place of my choosing. It will be task or an object that is within your ability to provide and once complete will cancel your debt. Failure to perform this service when asked will result in serious consequences. Is that understood?”
“What sort of consequences?”
“I have considerable resources at my disposal, Ms. Pedenko. ‘The bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; the words expressly are “a pound of flesh”.”
Her eyes widened and she swallowed hard. She nodded. “I understand.”
“Can I always reach you at this number?” Again, she nodded. I had her give me the date of the adoption and any other information she could remember. It wasn’t much.
“I’ll be in touch.” I reached out and broke the connection.
I checked the clock. It was just after one in the afternoon. Plenty of time. I called Franklin. He picked up on his mobile link, voice only.
“What do you want, Tito?”
“Hi Jack. I need a favor.”
“I’m not going to like this, am I?”
“I need a login code for the Department of Social Welfare, adoptions division. DPS has those in case they need to track next of kin, right?”
“Those are for criminal cases, Tito.” He sounded weary, not angry. I took it as a good sign. “You need a case number for access.”
“But if we had a legitimate case number we could get in.” I opened a window to my credit account and looked up the case number for Clancy’s arrest. It was part of the documentation DPS used to authorize my pay.
“Yes,” he said cautiously.
“I really need one of those login codes, Jack.”
I thought fast. “I think Cassie has family in Denver. She said some things that made me think she has a sister who was adopted when their parents died.”
“Why is that girl so important to you?”
“She didn’t deserve what Clancy did to her every day. She’s sweet and good-natured, never hurt anyone. And she kept Clancy from smashing my skull while you were sleeping in your car.”
He sighed and I knew I had him. “Okay. I’ll send you the code under a different name. This better not get back to me, understand?”
“Sure Jack. Thanks.”
A few seconds later, my mailbox dinged and I had the code. I logged on to the DSW site and searched adoptions near Denver for the date Titania had given me. I got thirty hits. I narrowed it down to four year old girls, which left only three. And only one of those was from Woodland Park. A family named Stevens had adopted a little girl named Irina.
I was about to log off when a thought struck me. I tried to shut it out, but couldn’t shake it. I entered a new date, two and a half years ago, eight months after my eighteenth birthday. Adoptions near Denver – forty two. Newborns – twenty eight. Mother’s name – I stopped, a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. If I did this, I would be betraying a promise I’d made to someone I’d once loved. Still loved if the tightness in my chest meant anything.
I entered the name: Marie Williams. The document flashed on the screen. Baby girl, born just before midnight. Healthy. Adopted out the following day. Family – Moore, residents of – Evanston, Illinois. My head spun and my heart pounded. She was only a few miles away. My daughter.
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