by Robert Derie
It's the first real dog day of summer, and the streets of Seattle are baking. Somewhere up above, the sun is a baleful red eye floating above the haze of smog that had descended on Downtown. Puddles of last night's filth evaporate quietly in the gutters outside my destination: Club Penumbra. A few late patrons stumble out, blinking at the glare, and I caught a draft of cool, stale air. I enter, eager to get indoors.
I haven't visited Club Penumbra in years. The stereotypical place-to-be for shadowrunners had finally become cliché. But it's been too long since my last mission, and cred was running low. This is where the principal wanted to meet. My eyes adjust to the darkness and the scattered lights. I take off my respirator to taste the air: sweat, booze, and the faint tang of ozone. It's colder and cleaner than outside.
My Mr. Johnson is occupying a booth, drinking what looks like a red martini with a cherry in it. I study him before approaching: Anglo, with silver hair and blue eyes. By the lines in his face and the slightly-prominent veins on his hands, I guess him to be in his forties-though with modern medicine, he could well be twice that. He was corporate, and that meant cred. I walk over to introduce myself.
"Good morning. They call me Sticks. Our mutual friend said you wished my help in a certain matter, Mr. Johnson."
I sit down opposite him, hands visible and flat on the table.
"Mister John... ? Oh, yes. He did say you were someone who could help." The man sighs. "I do hope you can help me, Mr. Sticks. I'm in a terrible state about the whole matter."
Great. A newbie. This close, I note a few more details: a slight Australian accent and a string tie held by a clasp that combined a Celtic knot with a circuit board. Maybe Mr. Johnson worked for NeoNET. Or maybe he'd worn it so I'd think that.
"I'll do what I can. Our friend only spoke in very general terms about what you wanted me to do. Something about a missing family member?"
I couldn't see any weapons on him. He could be wearing form-fitting body armor, though.
"Yes, in a manner of speaking. It's my dog, Chester. He's been kidnapped!"
Mr. Johnson dexterously pulls a hologram out from the inner pocket of his jacket.
"Chester is very rare, you see. A male Australian kelpie. He just came into his full growth and is ready to breed. The Australian kelpie has become very rare now, what with the troubles down in the old commonwealth, you know. I bought him from a farm in New South Wales. He's such a dear animal. Very close to me. It would be horrible if anything happened to him."
Mr. Johnson sniffs, then pulls out a monogrammed handkerchief to dab at his eyes.
I study the hologram. Brownish-black fur, a somewhat long neck, lean body, thin limbs and very prominent erect ears. It looked like any other dog to me. The hologram went through a three-second loop of the canine's ears swiveling to some sound from an unseen source, eyes following the ears by a fraction of a second.
Johnson leans close, his voice no more than a whisper.
"Personally, I suspect foul play. Many other dog fanciers were very jealous of him, and just recently I received a very generous offer for Chester from an anonymous buyer, which of course I turned down. Unfortunately, circumstances prevent me from investigating through... normal channels."
I nod at that. I was a corporate citizen once, and I know how it works. If he asks corporate security to investigate, his superiors see it as a waste of resources -- and they'd think far worse of him if he resorts to contacting Lone Star. Apparently Gio, our mutual acquaintance, has convinced him I'm a private and confidential investigator of some sort. Works for me, so long as the Johnson's cred is good.
"I will recover your dog for you, Mr. Johnson. The cost will be a hundred and fifty nuyen per day, five days payable in advance, and a thousand nuyen when I return the animal to you. Do you find those terms acceptable?"
If he wants his dog back, he's probably willing to pay for it. Hopefully, he's too damn green at this to know he can haggle.
"Well... yes, that sounds reasonable. Send me your account number and I'll forward your advance."
We spend a few seconds tapping codes into our respective commlinks, and somewhere in the Matrix a couple of numbers shift from one databank to another. A pop-up window appears on the edge of my vision, confirming 750¥ had been transferred into an account I hold under a fake SIN at First Nations Bank. The download completes almost instantly.
"Does the dog have an implanted RFID tag or anything of that sort?" I ask.
"Oh, yes. It was the very first thing I tried when I discovered he had been abducted. But the tracking program hasn't been working." He sighs and takes another sip of his drink.
"I'll need a copy of the program, the hologram, a list of anyone you suspect might have been interested in the animal, and your commlink number. I'll keep you informed of my progress," I say as I stand up to take my leave of Mr. Johnson.
I watch him order another drink -- his eyes fixed on the hologram in his hand -- while I strap on my respirator. Business done, I step out into the heat. It isn't a big score, but it is something to tide me over until I get a real mission. Time for a little legwork.
Data mining isn't my specialty, so I kill hours trawling the Matrix with word, trideo, and image searches. Mr. Johnson's list reads like the membership rolls of two or three breeding clubs . . . hell, before I started searching, I didn't know what a breeding club was. No Australian kelpies had suddenly appeared on the market for sale or breeding, and no one who was looking for one had suddenly stopped looking. The image search turns up a match: a hologram of Mr. Johnson and his dog at a competition one month ago. Looks like his real name is Hutchison.
The RFID's tracking program looks simple: let it run, and it'll ping the RFID implanted between the dog's shoulderblades and give you a location within a meter. It wasn't working. Either the dog was out of range of AR, or the chip had been removed or blocked. I could hire a hacker to crack the program apart -- and I might end up doing that -- but hackers are expensive and I wasn't exactly flush with cred. So far, the Matrix wasn't providing many leads.
I go to visit the Seattle Metroplex Humane Society. Rows on rows of mutts stuck in smelly little cages, waiting for their turn to die. The worker I meet is wearing a HazMat suit and insists I sign a release before I can browse the cages. The dogs near the front aren't too bad. Usually pups -- clean, healthy. A couple kids are there, picking out one to adopt. The sick, crippled, old, and just plain mean are kept in the back. Monsters throw themselves against the cages as I pass, working themselves into bloody froths, and I can pick out gang signs tattooed on their flesh. One dog must have come from Glow City; its flesh is a mass of tumors and weeping sores, and it's pissing something pink as I stalk by.
Near the end of the hall, armed MHS workers are removing dogs from their cages and guiding them into the back to be put down. The guy in the HazMat suit fits another bullet in his breech-loader as his coworkers lead in another stray.
"We used to use drugs, y'know? But it turns out bullets are cheaper." HazMat man sounds cheerful as he puts the gun up to another mangy skull and pulls the trigger. Some people really like their work, I guess.
I look all through the cages, but I don't find anything resembling the hologram in my pocket.
Nothing but dead ends, so far... but I do know somebody who might know somebody.
Soon's Barbecue is one of the more upscale restaurants on the outskirts of Little Asia. Close enough to Downtown to attract the discerning businesspeople who work there, but only a block away from Little Asia's smorgasbord of whores. Soon's customers pick 'em up like after-dinner mints. It's also my favorite place to eat in the entire sprawl. My old friend Phah is working there as a waiter. With any luck, I could get the information I need and a good meal at the same time.
Back before I left the company, Knight Errant had me infiltrate a gang they were looking to bust up. Phah joined at the same time I did, and we went through the initiations together. Real bonding experience. I made sure Phah got out of the way before the hammer came down. He shows his gratitude by getting me meals at Soon's. Works for me.
I'd changed into my best suit to blend in with the wageslaves coming in on the lunch crowd, but I go around the back and let myself in through the door to the loading dock: the maitre d' and I aren't on the best terms. On the way to the kitchen, I pass a slaughtering room where two undercooks had strung a dog up and were beating it to death, and found Phah taking an order out. He got me a table near the kitchen and a couple cans of Kirin 2.0.
Half an hour and two beers later, Phah's shift ends and he returns with a tureen of soup, two bowls, a bottle of the hot Korean fish sauce called nak mam, and more Kirin. We eat in silence. Maybe it comes from growing up on rancid soy products fished out of garbage cans, but Phah and I are really truly serious about food. I don't even ask what it was until we were finished and sipping beer.
"Bo sin tang. Soup made from shredded dog meat and skin, served hot. Good for your health. One of the lunch crowd ordered it and sent it back when he found out what it's made of."
I watch Phah roll his eyes. He hates to see good food go to waste.
"It's good. You serve a lot of dog around here, man?"
I let my left hand scratch a scar on my right wrist. Phah's eyes followed suit and did the same thing to the identical scar on his wrist. Time for business.
"Sure, omae. We serve the best dog in town. Traditional Korean cuisine, dog," he says, a bit of pride in his voice.
"Lot of Amerinds in here too," I note.
"Boss has been expanding the menu. Lot of the tribes ate dog before the Anglos came. Now you've got the new Amerinds acting old school, wanting to taste what great-great-great-great-grandpa did. Brings in the Tribals, too. Even the pinkskins."
He sneers. Phah is big on any history related to food and hating Anglos. Probably because he's at least half Anglo himself. So am I, come to think of it.
"So you guys serve dog. Where do you get them?" I ask.
Phah raises an eyebrow as he drains his beer, but he doesn't say anything. Maybe he took it the wrong way.
"New mission," I explain. "Salaryman's dog disappeared, maybe kidnapped. But whoever it was didn't leave a ransom demand. That says to me that whoever took the dog had somewhere to offload it."
"Figure maybe old Soon's was that desperate for dog meat, eh?" Phah laughed. "Nah, Sticks. We buy ours legal. Premium dog, raised right here in Seattle. None of the street mutts either."
Phah's brow wrinkles in thought as he opens another new can. I keep nursing my fourth. I can't afford to get shitfaced in the middle of a job.
"I'll tell you what, though... there is someone I know. Not our usual supplier, but sometimes a very valued customer asks for something specific, y'know? Here, let me get you her number." Phah is, if anything, worse at computers than I am. It takes him almost a minute of fiddling with his commlink to send me the number.
I have one more question I have to ask before I go. I'm curious.
"Hey Phah, why do they beat the dogs to death? There must be an easier way to do it."
"The boss is traditional. You could smother it, or slit its throat and let it bleed out, but beating the dog releases adrenaline, flavors the meat. Old Korean practice. It's supposed to be good for your virility too. Eh, eh?" Phah delivers the last line with a comical bit of eyebrow wagging.
I leave through the back door, same way as I came in, and Phah gives me a baggie of kitchen leftovers to take home. I wire him two hundred nuyen on my way out the back. It's still hot as hell outside, but it's gotten darker. I see storm clouds rolling in over the omnipresent smog, and the air feels heavy. I crank up the filter on my respirator -- hopefully a little oxygen will help clear my head after those beers -- and start walking.
The number Phah gave me is an unlisted commlink number. I don't exactly feel like calling it up blind, which means more Matrix work. I'm not great with computers, so I get others to grease the Matrix monkey for me. Daly, for example, is a secretary at Lone Star and a real wiz at that hacker stuff. Better yet, Daly owes me a little favor, so I call it in.
I ask Daly to run the number Phah gave me through Lone Star's reverse directory, but it turns out he's already familiar with it: the commlink of Miriam Xiu Liu.
"She's the owner of Obedience First, a local canine training facility. Raises a couple breeds and trains 'em -- helpers for the blind, K-9 for some of the smaller security corps, guard dogs, that kind of thing. Maybe something shady on the side."
Daly's voice sounds pissed. Speaking of which, that beer was really starting to kick in.
"Uh-huh. How do you know her?" Dammit. Someone showed me how to hack the public toilets in Downtown once, but I forgot. No way I'm wasting 2 nuyen on one now.
"We keep an eye on everyone who supplies the other security agencies in our jurisdiction. Look, I gave you enough, okay? I'm not supposed to tell this stuff to civilians."
Right. So Lone Star keeps tabs on the others cop corps. Makes sense. I sidle over to a handy empty alley and lean up against the brickwork. The air stings a little on my exposed flesh, but I'm past caring.
"What breeds does Obedience First deal in?"
"Bernese Mountain Dogs, Greyhounds, and Australian Kelpies."
"Okay Daly, we're square."
The soft ping of a disconnect signals the end of the conversation. Rude bastard. Obedience First covers a couple acres up in Snohomish. It isn't raining just yet, so I have the cab drop me a block away and walk in. Hopefully, I don't smell too drunk. The secretary isn't thrilled to see me, and even less thrilled when I ask to see his boss. I bluff a little and tell him it's about a special delivery for Soon's. Must be the magic word, because not five minutes later I'm shaking hands with Miriam Xiu Liu.
Xiu Liu turns out to be a petite woman with Asian eyes, a Mediterranean nose, a pale complexion, and a shock of electric blue hair. She looks to be about the same age as I am, and she speaks English with a slight North Seattle accent. Maybe it's the beer goggles talking, but I find her very attractive.
"You say you're here about a delivery for Soon's Barbecue, Mr. Sticks?"
"Just Sticks, please, Ms. Xiu Liu."
"Call me Miriam, Sticks."
"All right, Miriam. A very valued customer has asked Mr. Soon to prepare a special meal for him and some guests."
I scratch my throat, revealing the hints of Yakuza-style tattoos on my left forearm. Hopefully, she'll assume I'm connected with the local gumi.
"I see." Miriam leans against her desk, arms crossed over her chest. "And what sort of livestock are we talking about?"
"A purebred Australian Kelpie, male. The client was very specific."
I watch her brow crease, and note the slight downturn at the corner of her lips.
"You people are ridiculous. I don't know how you found out about my occasional delivery to Soon's, but the old man always comes in person to pick up the meat. I told your people before: I won't be blackmailed. Either meet my price or leave me alone."
Dammit. This wasn't going right.
"I believe you have me mistaken for someone else, Miriam. I'm looking for a dog. This dog." I pull out the hologram and hold it out to her. "That's it."
Miriam eyes me critically, then examines the hologram. "Turn around, Mr. Sticks. Slowly. No sudden movements," she says.
I do. Behind me, three dogs watch me intently. I didn't even hear them come in. One of them -- an Australian Kelpie, unless I missed my guess -- grins at me, showing off a set of sharpened chrome teeth and a lot of healthy pink gum. I turn back around.
"You see, Sticks, I could have you killed if I wanted. But I'm not going to, because I think I know who took your dog, and anything you do to them will benefit me."
Miriam's left hand types on a virtual keyboard, and an AR display forms in front of me. The AR window shows a small building. It looks completely innocuous, right down to the wage slave removing some AR graffiti from the razorwire fence.
"This facility was set up a week ago. At first, they wanted to buy my dogs. Then they wanted to buy my business. When I wouldn't sell, they tried to break into my kennel."
"They build cybermonsters. Aussie Kelpies and other herding dogs are prime security animal material, but well-trained and well-bred herding dogs are rare these days. When they cannot buy them, they steal them. Then these people use extensive implants to augment the animals. The process also drives the animals psychotic."
"Is it worth it? I mean, it must cost a mint to reverse-engineer human implants for animals."
"Your naïveté is almost charming, Sticks. How do you suppose they test implants before they're approved for human use? Animals. Before any product reaches human testing, it's already been field tested by a legion of rats, dogs, and apes."
Miriam Xiu Liu's eyes meet mine.
"I believe this is where you will find your dog, Sticks. Now please leave, and never return." She pauses to let that sink in. "Or I'll let my dogs eat your testicles, rape you, and then I sell the simrecording to the Choson Ring for their next double-feature BTL."
The lab Xiu Liu showed me was in Everett, and on the outside it looks like just one more little industrial park. But little corp industrial parks can't afford to hire Knight Errant to patrol their offices twenty-four hours a day, or that AR-inhibiting wallpaper that prevents the tracing program from locking on the dog's implanted RFID tag. I'm a little worried about astral security, a patrolling spirit or something, but that's just a situation I'll have to deal with that when -- if -- it comes up.
For the last two days I'd been squatting on the fifth floor of an abandoned apartment building half a mile away, popping caffeine pills, staring through the scope of my paintball gun, and pissing in empty water bottles, staking the place out. I had no doubt that this corp was Mr. Johnson's anonymous buyer. My eyes feel raw and itchy as I set the alarm on my commlink. I've made my plans for tonight, and I don't want to oversleep.
It's getting dark when I wake up. Suiting up in my old armor and uniform feels kind of weird -- never figured I'd be sporting a Knight Errant badge again, not after the way I left the company. I pick out my best ID and load it into my commlink, make a few practice swings with the tonfa, and snap it in place. Ready as I'll ever be.
Shift change on the front gate occurs at nineteen thirty-two. I snip through the razorwire in the back while all eyes are on the front, and then slip into the shadows around the corner, holding my tonfa at the ready. Six minutes and change later the first patrol comes around the back of the building, right on cue. I hit the first guard so hard his helmet cracks; the second guard is so busy watching him crumple to the ground, he doesn't see me until my tonfa hits him in the solar plexus, then right across the back of his exposed neck.
I strip them of their commlinks and passkeys, and then let myself in the back door. The unconscious guards won't be missed until check-in in ten minutes, and I slip one of their commlinks on. Good, it's still logged into their network. The interior layout was a mystery to me, but the local network contains a pop-up map to help security contain intruders. With the map, it took me three minutes to find my objective.
Chester lay strapped to the operating table. Four limbs of black-painted metal end in wicked claws pointed up to the sky, and what black fur he had left was crisscrossed with antimicrobial sutures. His nose and tongue looked organic, but something about the shape of the head didn't. Cyberskull, most likely. At the sight of me, the dog whines softly and wags his tail. I hope the principal doesn't mind a few improvements.
Club Penumbra doesn't allow pets, so I arrange to meet the principal around back. His car must be on autopilot, because there's no one at the wheel and he steps out the back. Chester is on the end of his makeshift leash, spraying the traditional area of the wall. Supposedly, Maria Mercurial had pissed against that same spot after her first show here.
The tearful reunion between master and man's best friend doesn't go so well.
"What is that?" Mr. Johnson says.
"Your dog. Chester, purebred Australian Kelpie. The kidnappers intended to use him as a security animal, after extensive implants."
"But... wait, I must see... " he says.
My employer goes down on his knees in the filthy alley, picks up Chester's tail and takes a good, long look.
"Oh, no." Tears were in his eyes. "They neutered him! The bastards... he's worthless now!"
I cough politely.
"I'm sorry your animal has been, ah, fixed, but I've completed my mission and I would like the remainder of my fee."
Hutchinson turns apoplectic.
"Your fee? Your fee! You worthless, bloody low-born gutterscum! Don't you understand? This animal is worth nothing to me now! He can't breed! I won't pay you one red cent! You and that -- that beast can go to bottomless perdition for all I care!"
Hutchinson tries to storm off, but I extend my staff and trip him before he can get to the car. I bring the staff down a centimeter from his head and watch my former Mr. Johnson flinch.
"My money. One thousand nuyen. Now."
He looks scared enough to pay. Then the sirens start, and his smile is an ugly thing.
"Money be damned. I've called the police. They'll take you away!"
Dammit. The sirens get closer. I bring my staff down again, but this time on his throat. By the time the police arrive, all they'll find is a miserly corpse. I gotta talk to Gio about giving me deadbeats like Hutchinson.
I run, and Chester follows. It's a dead sprint down the back alleys to Little Asia, but I don't really know where we're going. We stop a block from Soon's. The respirator hums, trying to keep up with my breathing. Chester sniffs the garbage with serious interest.
Now what the hell do I do? No money, and now I've got a dog. Maybe I can sell the dog. Not that I know where to start. All those dog fanciers would probably react the same way Hutchinson did. I make a call to Gio, the fixer who got me into this mess. I watch him on the AR call-screen, tapping away at something.
"I'm afraid I can't help you right now, Sticks. Biz is backed up."
"Fuck your other biz, Gio. You gave me a deadbeat." I explain about Hutchinson.
"Hmm, all right. Won't even charge it against your account."
"You're a real piece of work Gio. Let me have it."
"Well, there are a number of lucrative markets. Livestock is one you've run into already, but from the sound of things the animal doesn't have a lot of meat on it, and they pay by the kilo. You could fatten him up, I suppose."
I don't even know how to take care of a dog, much less a dog with more high-grade implants than most veteran runners.
"Sims. Most of the syndicates have a bestiality BTL or two on the market. They pay a premium for well-trained "actors." Oh wait, the dog is fixed, right? Damn. Well, maybe one of those sims about being an animal."
I watch Chester as he stops sniffing and pads over to me, metal claws clicking on the ground. He's holding a piece of rebar in his jaws, and drops it at my feet.
I reach down to pick it up, and Chester's tail starts wagging. What the hell does he want me to do? I toss the worthless chunk of metal away. Chester leaps at the rebar, catches it in his jaws, and brings it back. I throw it harder this time, and again Chester fetches it. It's like a game. I start thinking while we play.
"Pit fights are a possibility," Gio continues. "The market is always hungy for 'amateur talent.' A few of the gangs in the Barrens raise mutts and beat them to make them mean. Trained dogs usually last longer, and carry a higher price. Dogs with implants are always in demand at the Coliseum."
A pit-fighting cyberdog, eh? Not many shadowrunners can say they have one of those. Could be a serious asset. Take him home; let him chew on my old clubs... I wonder how much he needs to eat? He'd be a nice security system. I'd like to see some gangers try to break in and steal my stuff with Chester around!
"But, if you take my advice, xenotransplants are the way to go. The implants and organs in your animal must be worth a small fortune to certain street docs and veterinarians. Here, I'm sending you an encoded file with a number you can reach someone at. Her name is Butch. I really must be going now, Sticks. I'll call you when I have work."
I barely register the disconnect as Chester stares at me with his dark brown eyes. Break him up for spare parts? Just like that? No. I'll try the pitfighting thing. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
I freeze when Chester starts to growl. Three Knight Errant officers are coming down the alley. One is a female ork armed with a stun gun, the other two are male humans with long poles that have loops of wire at the end. Looks like the boys at the lab want Chester back. How the hell did they find us? Then it hits me: the RFID tag. Damn. Well, they won't get my dog without a fight.
Just as I whip out my extendable staff, Chester launches himself at the one with the taser. The humans advanced on me, and I fall back. It's one thing to beat up two guards when you have surprise and a weapon drawn; it's something else to take on two armed, aware opponents working together. I fence with them a bit, feeling out the range of their poles. When one of them makes a move for me, my staff breaks his right wrist, forcing him to drop his weapon.
My follow-up is interrupted when the second officer gets the loop of his pole around my neck, and tightens it. I try to hit him with my staff, but he's out of range. The first human takes it away from me with his good hand. I can't breathe. I try to grab the loop, but my hands are too damn heavy. I can't see...
I wake up to warm, greasy rain on my face. My throat burns, and I rip the loop off of my neck. Must have passed out. But where are the Knight Errant officers? Where's Chester? I look around the alley and open my eyes wide to adjust to the low light.
Chester's snout is buried in the intestines of the ork woman; the bodies of the other two are nearby. The dog is covered with gore, and pulling out wet, slippery bits of meat from the ork's stomach. He stops feasting to look up at me. His eyes glow yellow-green. Chester wags his tail.
I can't take him home. There's no way I could control him. I fetch around for that piece of rebar, and hold it up. Chester comes bounding over, jumping up and down on spring-powered legs. I hold the rebar up, and reach down with my other hand to pet Chester. He looks up at me with brown eyes, totally trusting.
A shock goes up my arm as the rebar penetrates his left eye and into his brain. The dog dies almost instantly. His implants take a little while longer to stop twitching.
I make my way back to Soon's, but somehow I don't think I'm up for any more dog. Not for a while, anyway.