“Contrary to statements made by some commentators, the Tunneler’s role is not merely one of transport. He is the ambassador of all humankind…If the Tunneler is to succeed, he must be charismatic, moral, and above all, lawful.”
Interdimensional Ethics: A Guide for Tunnelers, 2nd ed.
Not many things scared me. Well, all right, a hell of a lot of things scared me. In my line of work it came with the territory, same with dismal pay and unsavory customers. But only one thing made me so nervous you could use my forehead as a swimming pool.
They looked innocent enough, sure, all warm and soft. And if you were lucky, maybe one of them would cuddle up to you real nice, purring like a kitten, and you’d think you were finally being rewarded for all those good things you did in your life.
Of course, it was around that time you realized you’d done no good things in your life, there was no way you deserved this, and before you could scream she would reach into your chest, pluck your heart out, and neatly rip it in two.
So when Detective Vivian Reed sashayed into the interrogation room on those long legs, wearing a slender pantsuit that gave me a pretty good idea how impressive all her curves were, my heart dropped somewhere into my intestines.
She let the thick manila folder drop to the table, sending a resounding bang echoing through the interrogation room. Through supreme force of will I managed to avoid flinching, instead making a show of picking the dirt from under my fingernails.
The room didn’t do much to inspire confidence. It was dark as a coffin and even less friendly. A video camera on a tripod sat in the corner of the room, switched off, while a dull fluorescent light bulb hung above my head. I could feel the heat radiating off it. It wasn’t the only thing making me sweat.
Detective Reed put her hands on the table and leaned over me, her face set in a look that suggested I was a mauled rat brought in by her dogs. Which I supposed, in a way, I had been. She had the sort of slender face you felt you should have to pay to look at, and dark hair trimmed into a neat bob cut. Her dark skin was cast into shadow, but her eyes glinted as she fixed me with a look.
“Mr. Franco,” she said, while I busied myself staring at the way her lips moved, “We’ve got some questions for you.”
It was the standard cop line. What it really meant was: “We know what you did, or we want you to think we do, and by God you’re going to tell us or you’ll be facing the hurting end of our boots.”
I swallowed. The folder she’d dropped onto the table between us had my name on it, Miles Franco, in clean black text on a white label. I couldn’t work out for the life of me how it was so thick.
A page had spilled out, showing a mug shot of me from when I was about thirteen, after an alleged theft that was almost entirely not my fault. I looked a lot more pimply in the picture than I did now, but I still had the same narrow face and the mop of dark, curly, maddeningly uncontrollable hair.
Sweat pooled in the armpits of my shirt, but I tried to play it straight. “Vivian—”
I shrugged as if the difference was unimportant. “I’ve been asked many questions by your fine police department over the years. But I can’t say I’ve ever come out of a Tunnel with that many officers pointing guns at me before.”
She didn’t speak. Instead, she pulled out the chair opposite and calmly sat down. Tenting her fingers, she stared at me like a lioness about to pounce. Hell, she could probably smell my fear. Since I’d been working when they hauled me in here, I was still in my old suit, and now the tie around my neck felt a hell of a lot like a noose.
“Mr. Franco, I’d advise you to take this seriously.”
I decided to do as she said. Sometimes I was smart enough to know when being a smartass would get me in trouble. The cops in Bluegate weren’t particularly worried about things like ethics. Most of them were on the take, and the rest thought police brutality was a legitimate way to extract a confession. So I sat back in my chair, resisted the urge to wipe my forehead, and forced a smile onto my face.
Detective Reed opened the folder and flicked through the pages. “This isn’t the first time you’ve been arrested for smuggling Vei, is it?”
“Vei? Those weren’t Vei. Just a few souvenirs I picked up.” All right, so I wasn’t totally done with being a smartass.
She continued to page through the folder. “All these arrests, but no serious charges. You live a charmed life, Mr. Franco.”
“What can I say? Lady Luck must have my number.”
“Not this time.” She jabbed at the table with her finger. “This time, Mr. Franco, we have you dead to rights.”
She was right, of course. It’d been a lousy damn job from start to finish. The client was the acquaintance of someone I’d helped out a few years back, a Vei woman who’d come practically begging me to bring her family to Earth. She claimed she didn’t have much money, and I was feeling stupid and generous, so I did the job pro bono. Maybe she’d spread the word, I figured, drum up more business for me. God knew I’d had barely a handful of paying jobs in the last two months. Plus, it wasn’t supposed to be difficult job; all I’d have to do was go there, pick the family up, and bring them back.
As it turned out, they weren’t the kind-hearted immigrant Vei family my client had made them out to be. It took me two days to track the entire family down. One of them took me for a human con-man and tried to stove my head in before I could calm him down. Another of them, a little girl, alternated between clinging to my leg and trying to run away.
I should’ve known. Vei were flighty and unpredictable at the best of times, and I’d never tried to transport that many of them before. I was so exhausted I could barely keep the Tunnel open on the way back, and when we finally emerged into the damp basement of my apartment building, I found half the goddamn Bluegate PD aiming pistols and shotguns at me.
As evenings went, that wasn’t one of my favorites.
There were legal ways of bringing Vei to Earth, but my way wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t a bad guy, or at least I didn’t think I was. Tunnelers took on all sorts of jobs, not all of them nice. Some smuggled booze and Ink and guns, but not me. I stuck with Vei and the occasional easily-hauled exotic metal or chemical that would’ve faced a hefty levy going through Customs.
Anyway, there wouldn’t be any need for the likes of me if it didn’t take a bribe the size of Bluegate itself to get through Immigration. Only a few were rich enough to pay that, and none of them made their money saving baby seals or caring for orphans.
But somehow I didn’t think that excuse was going to fly with the cops. Detective Reed was watching me, waiting for me to speak. I opened my mouth to demand a lawyer when the door to the interrogation room opened and a man built like a tank strode into the room.
“Miles,” he said, grinning, “I knew we’d get your ass one day.”
My mouth was already aching from all these forced smiles, but I pretended to be happy to see Detective Todd. A few years back he’d got me out of the clutches of a crooked cop who liked me for a weapons-smuggling charge, and managed to get me set loose with a rap across the knuckles for a minor Tunneling-related charge.
Walter Todd pulled out a chair from the table, spun it around, and sat on it backward with his arms folded over the chair back. With his gray-streaked hair and his faded leather jacket, he looked like something out of a 70s cop show. A cigarette dangled from his lips, filling the room with smoke and probably breaking a bunch of healthy workplace regulations, but he didn’t seem too concerned.
Detective Reed glanced at him, her face a mask, then returned her icy stare to me. I ignored her, choosing to focus on the friendlier cop. “Seems like you could find better asses than mine, Walt. I saw the hookers you guys had cuffed out in holding.”
Todd winked at me and pulled my file away from Detective Reed. “Pretty impressive pile, don’t you think, Vivian? Have you told him yet?”
“Told me what?” I asked.
Their demeanor was making me shifty. The good-cop, bad-cop thing was standard, but I still couldn’t work out what I was doing here. The time on my watch said it was just after 9 p.m., so it was probably closer to midnight. Why the hell had they bothered to bring me into the interrogation room now, instead of letting me kick up my heels in a cell for the night? Chances were the Vei family I’d smuggled in had already been deported, and it wasn’t exactly murder they were trying to get me to confess to. Vei-smugglers never did serious jail time. Why all the effort?
“We want to talk to you about Ink,” Detective Reed said.
Aw, hell. A fresh wave of sweat broke out across my forehead, and I could swear I felt my blood pressure ratchet up a few notches.
I couldn’t go to prison. It wasn’t the criminals that scared me. It was the walls. The bars. Christ, I couldn’t live in a box.
If they were going to try to pin an Ink smuggling charge on me, I was screwed. Ink was a nasty drug, as expensive as it was addictive. It was like heroin with a dash of methamphetamine, something that drowned your mind in black while making you wild as a pissed-off baboon. As the bread-and-butter of the drug trade in Bluegate, it made a lot of wallets thicker, and not just the gang members’.
“Look,” I said, cringing at the panic in my voice, “I don’t touch Ink, all right? Too many risks.”
“Does he look like a risk-taker to you, Vivian?” Todd asked.
“He sure does. You’re sweating, Mr. Franco.”
I wiped the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand, and Detective Reed smirked at me like I’d just signed my confession.
“You’ve got to be bullshitting me,” I said. “That’s why you had me brought in here? Look at my record, damn it. There’s not one Ink-smuggling charge on there. It’s not my style!”
Todd chuckled. He seemed amused by my bug-eyed stare, the bastard. “Calm down, Miles. I’ve seen pigeons that are tougher to spook than you. We’re not here to bust you.”
“You already busted me once tonight,” said. “Sorry if I don’t take you at your goddamn word.”
Detective Reed tapped her fingers on the table in an annoyed gesture. For some reason, I noted she didn’t wear a wedding ring. “Mr. Franco—”
“Just call me Miles, will you? This ‘Mr. Franco’ thing is getting annoying.”
“Mr. Franco,” she said again, with a touch of vindictiveness in the words, “Does the name Doctor Dee mean anything to you?”
“My doctor’s name is Roberts, and he got struck off for some dodgy organ trading scheme. Cheap, though.”
Nervousness was making me babble, and I wasn’t particularly keen to hurry this conversation along. It was never good when a cop asked you questions like that. It meant they wanted something. I’d seen plenty of pictures in the newspapers of police informants floating in the river, and I could almost guarantee all of them had started their snitching careers with a conversation like this.
“We got a handful of references to this Doctor Dee in drug busts we pulled off these last couple of weeks,” Todd said. He stroked his clean-shaven chin as he talked, a habit he’d had as long as I’d known him. “Seems he’s been offering jobs to a couple of the local dealers if they defect from their own gangs. The ones we got to before they were snuffed out said there’s a new product hitting the streets soon.”
“So?” I said. “There’s a new variation of Ink every few years. There’s always some chemist tweaking it.”
Todd shook his head. “This is more than a tweak, Miles.”
“Chroma, they’ve been calling it,” Reed said. “We haven’t got our hands on a sample yet, but word is it’s powerful. Really powerful. Gang violence is already up. If this thing is what they say it is, there’s going to be war in the streets over the supply and distribution.”
I didn’t know how they could tell when there was more violence in the city; it’d be like trying to find a flaming marshmallow in the middle of a forest fire. But right then, that wasn’t my main concern.
“All right, I get the idea, and I have a feeling I know where you’re going with this. I’m leaving.”
I stood up, and so did Detective Todd. “Easy, Miles. We’re offering you a chance to get out of this mess you’re in.”
“You’re the ones who got me in this mess in the first place.” I’d driven right out of nervous a few miles back and now I was accelerating into angry territory. I wouldn’t let them lock me up. “A dozen Vei come into Bluegate illegally every day and you guys have never given a damn about it before. This is a goddamn set up.”
“Calm down, Mr. Franco,” Vivian Bloody Reed said.
She probably knew saying that would just wind me up more. “To hell with that, I’m pissed, and you’d better get used to it.”
They didn’t get used to it. Todd reached across the table with an arm the size of my thigh and shoved me back down into my seat. For a second it felt like a small building had fallen on my shoulders, but then the pressure was gone, and Todd was back on his side of the table.
The rage dulled slightly as the rational part of my brain reminded me about not being a smartass. I was neither tall nor well-built, and Todd could divide me into several pieces with his bare hands if he chose. I forced myself to silence and sat still like a good little boy. Christ, there wasn’t even a window in this room.
“That’s better,” Detective Reed said. “All we want you to do is consult on the case. You do a good job, and all this…” She pushed my file to the side of the table. “…all this goes away. We’ll drop the charges from today. If you’re lucky, you might even get paid.” I scowled, but she continued anyway. “Our best chance of tracking down this Doctor Dee and find out where he’s going to bring in the Chroma is to hit his distribution network. Which means—”
“Tunnels,” I finished. Ink—and most likely this Chroma—couldn’t be made on Earth. Our reality was too stable, and Ink was just too damn crazy. It was a Vei drug, though it had hit the human drug market hard, just as alcohol had hit theirs. So that meant this Doctor Dee would be bringing his Chroma in from Heaven.
It wasn’t the actual Heaven, of course, the one with angels and pearly gates and long lists of who’d been naughty and much shorter lists of who’d been nice. The name had been coined by some wiseass soldier in the first exploratory team. Then the media got hold of it, and the name stuck.
The soldier must’ve been being sarcastic when he named it. Heaven was a truly messed up place, the kind of place that drives men mad. Reality wasn’t stable there, and everything was malleable. Entire textbooks had tried to describe Heaven, and I’d yet to read one that even came close.
Still, for me, the name fit. There was nothing like the freedom of being in a place where even the laws of physics weren’t enforced.
But why in the seven hells did the cops want me on this? They’d gone to a hell of a lot of effort to bring me in. I was surprised they didn’t go one step further and stick a dog leash round my neck. The Police Department had their own Tunnelers, upstanding men of the finest caliber, not lowly freelancers like me. Why did they feel the need to dredge me up from the gutters?
Detective Reed must have seen the look on my face. “Truth is, we’ve run into a brick wall on this, Miles. Even our informants have gone quiet. You’ve got contacts in the Vei community, and most of the freelance Tunnelers out there are no more than drug trafficking scum. Todd tells me you’re different. He vouched for you.”
“That’s the kind of gift I can do without, Walt. Next time, just send me a box of wine.”
Todd shrugged and leaned back in his chair. “Your choice, Miles. I got a nice pair of handcuffs ready for you if you don’t want the job. But I warn you, them animals tonight are a wild bunch.” He jerked his thumb toward the door, back to the cells where the drunk and stoned waited to be processed. “Someone forgot to feed them and they’re a bit cranky.”
Being backed into a corner didn’t sit well with me. My palms grew moist as I chewed over the options in my head, as if I hadn’t already made my decision. I didn’t much like getting told what to do, but being stuck in a cage, well, that’d snap my mind clean in two. Plus, I had a feeling they wouldn’t allow much Tunneling in prison.
I sighed. “Christ. Let me get some shut-eye, and we can start tomorrow.”
The detectives got to their feet, and I followed suit. Todd grinned again and slapped me on the shoulder with a hand that could pass as a bear’s paw.
“Sorry Miles, no such luck. We start tonight. Go home, get changed, and be back here in an hour. We got work to do.”
I bit my tongue to keep from yelling. I hated cops.