Del was right. Everywhere Nio might want to go was only five minutes away. Raffe’s Day and Night was a further ten outside town. The sky darkened completely on the drive. The last glow in the west faded and the clouds obscured the stars. Other than the occasional distant car or porch lamp, the blinking red lights of the deep core miner was all Nio could see.
The self-driving sedan wasn’t stock. It was a custom Maybach, a luxury vehicle unlike any Nio had seen. The leather was plush. Both buckets seats in the back reclined and had their own screens. The on-board computer announced their ETA every few minutes. It was meant to be helpful. To Nio, it seemed like a countdown. With a final satisfied ding, the vehicle pulled into a crumbling asphalt lot behind a tall windowless bar at the corner of a state highway and a numbered county road. The neon sign on the pole out front was missing several letters.
“Out,” Dalrymple ordered.
Enough salt had been poured onto the nearly-empty lot that little remained of the snow. At the back was a dilapidated fence separating the lot from the cluster of unmarked camping trailers in the field beyond. Trees bordered them on two sides. A four-foot gap between fence poles connected the bar with the trailers. The path between was worn to dirt.
A bouncer in a suit coat and turtleneck came out to greet them. He looked like a parody of himself. He even had slicked-back hair. He opened the door for Nio and held out his hand like she was a celebrity stepping onto the red carpet. Truly and her blue skin walked quickly inside. Dalrymple took up the rear.
Nio was wanded. The paddlelike device chirped over her boots.
“Take them off,” Dalrymple ordered.
She looked down at the slushy, wet gravel under her feet. “Seriously?”
“Nothing wired,” he told her.
“They’re not powered. It’s just stupid smart clothes circuitry. I’ve never connected them to anything.”
“They can store data. Take them off and throw them in the dumpster.” He nodded to the solid steel behemoth resting obliquely in its own wooden cage at the back of the bar. It smelled like a landfill.
On one hand, it was ridiculous. On the other, Nio had to admit, some kinds of “smart clothes” recorded enough information about their environment that they could be useful for law enforcement. There was no way to know, which meant the simplest rule was to ban them all.
She slipped off her unlaced boots and tossed them one at a time into the dumpster. They resounded off the metal wall. Her socks were soaked instantly. Tiny pebbles poked her feet. She felt so much smaller.
The solid steel double doors were opened and Nio was pushed into a large square storage room weakly lit by fluorescent lamp. The walls were painted seafoam, which gave everything a sickly look, including the rack of plastic-wrapped sex dolls that took up most of the left wall. Despite that most of their proportions were ridiculous, some of them looked completely real. Nio wasn’t sure she would be able to tell if one of the twenty or so leaning figures had been a real body.
The doorway at the other end of the room led to a hall paneled in faux wood. The open floor of the club was at the far end. Music thumped. The doorway to the kitchen opened on the left. A large-bosomed waitress dressed like a sexy referee walked out carrying food in a plastic basket. Halfway between the kitchen and the storage room, a staircase broke off to the right. It was short, not quite tall enough to lead to a second floor. At the top, past the closed door, was a dim, low office overlooking the interior of the high-ceilinged strip club. The far wall was entirely made of tinted, floor-to-ceiling glass. On the right was a large desk facing two chairs. Truly waited in one. Her skin was now completely magenta in color and seemed to glow in the UV light from the stage. Her tail curled under the chair. On the left was a leather sofa and a short hall to a private washroom. By the light under the door, it was apparently occupied.
“Have a seat,” Dalrymple ordered. His head nearly touched the low ceiling.
Nio strolled to the couch. The walls of the office were covered in framed pictures, none more than eight or nine inches across. Most held pictures of smiling patrons. They recounted the entire 90-year history of the establishment, which used to be called The Day Club, then The Day and Night, now Raffe’s Day and Night. Apparently, it had been perpetually popular with hunters.
Hanging on the wall behind the desk, occupying the place of honor, was a girl-sized bright pink Hello Kitty shotgun. Nio stared. It was ridiculously out of place.
“Pheasant,” a woman said.
Her voice had a country accent, but the pitch was too high. Nio turned. A little person with fake boobs and permed blonde hair stepped out of the washroom. She looked to be in her 50s. She was barely three and a half feet tall.
“The shot gun,” she explained. She passed too quickly for Nio to get a read. “It’s for hunting pheasant. It was a gift from an old client of mine. In my day, we had exactly two industries: Sturgis and the pheasant run. A girl had to make her year working those. I’m Raffela. And you are?”
“A kidnapping lawsuit.”
“She didn’t have any ID, boss,” Dalrymple said. “Just the phone.” He handed it to her.
Raffela took it with her to her desk, where she stepped up a kind of footstool to her chair.
“Let’s see what we have here.”
She put Nio’s phone on a small electronic pedestal, like a wireless charger, and waited for a response. The device used the phone’s number to identify its owner and to collect all available information from any number of online data brokers—not just name, address, and vitals, but credit scores, hobbies,
But there was no number associated with Nio’s phone. It exclusively used Parfait, meaning it relied on a voluntary, peer-to-peer anonymizing network and didn’t access commercial cell towers.
The pedestal beeped and turned red.
“Interesting . . .” By the look on her face, Raffe had never seen that before. “It seems you’re a ghost.” She turned to Dalrymple. “Where’s the kid?”
“Get him up here.”
Dalrymple nodded and poked his head out the office door.
Raffela stood elevated behind her desk and shook her head at Truly, who fidgeted in the chair. Her tail twitched like a cat’s.
“Darlin’, we were so worried. Couple more days and we woulda had no choice but to call the police. What were you thinkin’?”
“I don’t know,” she said, clearly nervous.
“You could get into a lot of trouble, holding someone against their will like that. Whatever you two were arguing about, boys or whatever, I guarantee it wasn’t worth it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Truly breathed.
There was a knock on the door.
“Come!” Raffe called.
A teenager in tight jeans entered sheepishly. He was skinny. He looked Southeast Asian. His finely coiffed hair curled over his head like a breaking wave.
“Have a seat,” Raffe said. She waited for him to comply. “Did you know about this?”
The kid looked to Truly like he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say.
“It’s not his fault,” she said.
“Quiet.” Raffe waited for the kid. “Well?”
“The sequence musta been bad.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Off the mod boards.”
Raffela made tsk-tsk sounds. “Now Guillermo, why would you do something dangerous like that?”
“I scanned it,” he protested. “I don’t know what happened.”
“What did you use?” Nio asked from the couch.
“Kitkat,” the kid said coolly. “And Base10. And a bunch of custom shit you don’t know. I was careful. I know what I’m doing.”
“Kitkat and Base10 are good,” she said.
Guillermo raised his hands. “See?”
“But?” Raffela asked her.
Nio leaned forward on her knees. “But off-the-shelf anti-virus apps only compare random snippets from a digital sequence with a library of known threats. And they reduce everything to an algorithmic fingerprint first so home computers can handle the complexity. It’s a good screen. It’ll catch most of your run-of-the-mill malnomes. But RNA isn’t like computer code.”
“I know that,” Guillermo objected. “Boss, I—”
“What does that mean?” Raffe asked.
“It means there are very difficult and clever ways of hiding malicious seqs, if one is so inclined. The coding strand can be read in both directions. And there are snip sequences, junk bits removed after translation. To be fair to your artist”—she nodded to the kid—“the guy who posted that sequence was very clever.”
“Boss, just listen. I—”
Raffela raised a tiny hand. “Go back to the ranch and take care of her. Understand? The last thing we need right now is more trouble.”
Everyone watched him go, head hung like a scolded dog.
Raffela turned to Truly. “You’re working later, are you not?”
“Then you’d better go get cleaned up. You look like a steer’s ass.”
Truly glanced once to Nio, as if terrified at what she might say, and stepped out.
Raffe sighed deeply. She stepped back down to the floor and walked to the windows overlooking the club. The two small circular stages at the back, both with poles, were empty. The main stage, which jutted from the wall into the center of the room, had poles at both ends. Twirling around one was a pale topless woman who appeared to be about eight months pregnant.
“Guillermo’s a good boy,” Raffela explained. “His mom is a doctor in town. Came over from the Philippines. Worked real hard. Her son is smart as a whip, like her. Graduated high school early. But he’s all she has. She spoiled him something awful. If he goes off to college or gets a real job, they’ll expect him to work. He’s never had to work. Whereas with me, he gets to be the envy of every teenage boy in the state. But he doesn’t have the stomach to keep with this line of work. One day he’ll realize that.
“Truly, on the other hand, is a pistol. She’s my Gogo. Real popular last season—after the movie came out. And she looks the part. I have to hand it to her, she went all-in. I admire that kind of commitment. That’s what it takes to make it in this business. Unfortunately, she’s hasn’t even been at it a year. She hasn’t learned how fickle the clients can be. The novelty of that character will fade, but it takes the CRISPR, what, three years to completely wear off? I don’t pay for reversals. She’ll have to get the horns taken out herself. Her forehead may never look completely right. But who knows? They’re just soft plastic. Maybe she’ll get lucky.
“Roxie, on the other had”—Raffela pointed to the stage—“is one of the smart ones. There’s a small but perpetual market for a pregnant dancer. Not everyone likes that kind of thing, but the fellas that do . . .” Raffe shook her head. “Rox realized it after she had her last kid. Made more money then when she had her figure. Guillermo’s really quite a clever kid. He got online and figured out how to fit her with a saline sac. Non-surgically, in her uterus. He even included a little plastic fetus inside that expands with the fluid, like the toys my kids used to have. Open the plastic egg and soak the dinosaur in water and watch it grow. And it’s attached to the sac via a fake umbilical cord. As part of her act, she holds a light against the side of her belly so her clients can see the ‘baby’ inside.”
“What happens when they realize she never gives birth?”
“Most of them don’t hang around that long. But I think maybe you underestimate the power of fantasy. That’s what we sell here. You met Beckham. She was gonna be my three-breasted angel. She came up from a club in Florida and was all-too happy to change her appearance. Probably hiding from an ex-boyfriend. Some of my girls don’t have the best taste in men.”
Was, Nio thought. Raffe had used the past tense.
“It’s getting harder and harder to tempt the little perverts out of their caves. They’re catered to online—every possible fetish. Our only edge is to offer them something they can’t get digitally. Something they can actually touch. Still, if it wasn’t for the mining platform, I wouldn’t have a business. Men come up from Texas and California for seasonal work and get tired of being stuck in the barracks. I know it isn’t much”—she looked around the room lovingly—“but without this little place, a lot of my girls would get pushed into a seedier trade, if you know what I mean.”
“Isn’t that what the trailers are for?”
Raffe held up her small hands. “Honey, what happens in the private trailers is nunna my business. I merely rent ’em to consenting adults.” She gave Nio the once-over. “So now you know all about me. What brings someone like you all the way out here?”
“Whatever the kid injected her with, is calcifying her soft tissues.”
Raffe turned and walked around her desk in thought. “And the cysts?”
“I don’t know. But whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen in the next several hours.”
“Well, all I can say is that I’m so glad you brought her back to us. I hope you’ll let me give you a small reward.” She opened a side drawer. “How does five thousand sound?”
Nio sat back and the leather couch creaked. “You’re gonna pay me five grand to forget I came?”
“No, I’m gonna give you a reward for helping bring one of my girls back.” Raffe set the crisp stack of bills on the desk. “Just take the money and let Mr. Dalrymple know where you’d like to go.”
“That’s very generous.” Nio stood. “Be nice to see the town, since I’m here.”
Raffela covered the cash with a hand. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”
“Oh? And why’s that?”
“Why, because it’s moving day, of course. Everything will be closed, silly. But we can take you up to Fargo. Lots to see up there.”
“Is that right?” Nio and Raffe looked each other in the eye. “And what’s gonna happen to the girl?”
“Which one?” Raffe asked with a vapid smile.
“I promise we will do everything earthly possible to help that poor girl. I really can’t thank you enough for your concern.”
Nio glanced to the money, then to Dalrymple, who stood silently with his hands crossed in front of him. She turned and walked to the windows.
“Six guys out there,” she said.
“Well, it is a Thursday, you know.”
Nio did the math in her head. Even if they had a hundred times that on Friday and Saturday, it would still take Raffela 40 or 50 years to afford the Maybach. But stripping’s a cash business, one of only a handful left. Who’s to say how many men showed up that day? Who’s to say whether they dropped a thousand in bills or ten times that much? Big cities have vice squads and forensic accountants to worry about, but out there . . .
“How many cops does the county have?” Nio asked.
“What does that matter?”
“Five in the city and 12 with the county sheriff.”
“You know them all by name? Donate to the fraternal order? Renew your liquor license promptly every year?”
“I’m not sure I like what you’re suggesting.”
“Modding is illegal in South Dakota, isn’t it?”
“It’s illegal to purchase and it’s illegal to provide, but it’s not illegal to possess, as long as you got it elsewhere. Can’t exactly turn our fellow citizens away at the border, can we?”
“In other words, if it came out that you were providing illegal mods, it would give law enforcement a reason to take a hard look at the club.”
Whatever else she was running—prostitution, at least—Raffela was also laundering money. If she got in trouble with the police, her silent partners might start to wonder what she would say to avoid a felony charge. That meant the business with Beckham had to quietly disappear. Raffe had even told Nio how. Beckham was from Florida. Who’s to say she hadn’t returned suddenly? Turnover was probably high in a job like that. It seemed well known she was running from a violent ex. If she disappeared, he would be the first suspect, especially if there was any evidence she had made it back to Florida—say, if her credit card was used at a gas station there.
“You’ll like Florida,” Nio told Dalrymple. “Very pleasant this time of year.”
Another drawer opened. Raffe set a pearl-handled .22 pistol on the desk.
“This didn’t need to be any more difficult than it already is,” Raffe said softly. “Those two have already made me one helluva mess. I’ll have to deal with Truly later. Can’t have two of my girls go missing at the same time. Guillermo is another story. He’s young, and that makes him cheap and pliable, traits I admire in an employee. But it also means he sometimes thinks with the wrong head, especially around girls that know how to turn it. His momma is my ace. She’ll make sure his name is never attached to anything criminal, which means I don’t have to worry about him.
“You, on the other hand, are a conundrum. No driver’s license. No credit card. You’re like a ghost.” She picked up Nio’s phone. “I see from the little icon here that you’re running Parfait. Maybe you didn’t think us country bumpkins knew what a layered encrypted communications network was. It’s interestin’, though, for what it tells me. This little icon tells me you thought it’d work out here. But since it doesn’t, probably not since Sioux City, that tells me there’s not a soul on God’s green earth that knows where you are right now. Ain’t that right?”
Dalrymple stepped forward and put a hand on Nio’s shoulder.
“Get rid of her. Make sure there’s nothing left.”
He gripped the back of her neck and motioned stiffly toward the door. He kept ahold of her neck as they walked down the stairs to the wood-paneled hall, where a man was peering into the kitchen.
“Bathroom’s are at the front,” Dalrymple said.
It was Del. He froze for a moment when he saw Nio. He looked at her socked feet.
Del pointed with his thumb toward the front. “I’m from Mayberry’s. Everything’s stacked in the shed. You’re all set for when it thaws. But you’ll have to get the sod then.” He held up a bill. “Who gets this?”
“Give it to the bartender,” Dalrymple said.
For a moment, Del and Nio’s eyes met.
“Right.” He nodded and took several steps backward before turning for the front.
Dalrymple watched him go.
He tugged Nio toward the back to the storage room, where a man in overalls had laid several of the life-sized sex dolls on the floor. The back doors were open, and he was loading them into a van. A cook walked in then carrying a plastic rack full of glassware. He passed without looking at Nio and she kicked. Glasses flew over their heads and everyone looked up reflexively, including Dalrymple, and Nio pulled as he was momentarily distracted.
She made it out the door, where the cold, wet gravel of the cracked lot stuck her soles like daggers. She ran as fast as she could, but seemingly impossibly, a hand grabbed her shoulder as the tray of glasses hit the floor. Nio was yanked hard 20 feet backward, where she landed hard on her back and smacked her head on the floor.
“Ow . . .”
A glass rolled and stopped at her ear as she heard a staccato of clicks. Dalrymple’s left arm had split into evenly spaced curved sections with accordion metal between. They were snapping back together, one after the next. He flexed his hand, like it was stiff.
Nio had felt his hand on her neck, twice. It had definitely been flesh and blood. She had assumed the other was as well. But it was cold, and Dalrymple’s arms were covered by a heavy coat and gloves. Nio remembered him standing in Raffe’s office, his arms crossed in front of him. She had thought he was simply being imposing, but it seemed then that it was more likely a habit—holding up the artificial limb, which must be heavy.
Her supposition about its weight was proved correct a moment later when it landed as a fist in her face.
another rough cut from the novel-in-progress I’ve been calling Science Crimes Division.