At nineteen the rain had stopped so that the climate technicians could take a coffee break, but the gutters were still flooded. On the main boulevard downtown the water was level with the pavement and a thin film of it washed over the top of the kerbing. A traffic robot in shining black rubber from boots to helmet sloshed through the flood on its way to the shelter of a sodden awning. My rubber heels slithered on the pavement as I turned into the narrow lobby of the Fulwider Building. A single light burned far back, beyond an open once-gilt elevator. A case of prosthetic teeth and dental appliances hung on the mustard-coloured wall. I shook the rain off my coat and looked at the flickering display of the building directory next to the case of teeth. Numbers with names and numbers without names. Plenty of vacancies or plenty of tenants who wished to retain anonymous. Cut-rate cyborg conversions, shyster detective agencies, small sick businesses that had crawled here to die: online schools that would teach you to be a robot technician or a screen writer, if the network inspectors didn’t catch up with them first. A nasty building. A building in which the smell of stale cigar butts would be the cleanest odour.
The elevator stank of warm piss and stale beer and cheap cigarette smoke. I went past it, the clandestine air of the building prompting me, found the fire door and pulled it open. The fire stairs hadn’t been swept in a month. Bums had slept on them, eaten on them, left crusts and fragments of greasy printed paper, matches, a gutted imitation-leather pocket-book. In a shadowy angle against the scribbled wall a pouched ring of pale rubber had fallen and had not been disturbed. A very nice building.
I came out at the fourth floor sniffing for air. The hallway had the same mustard walls and the same memories of low tide. I went down the line and turned a corner. The name: "L. D. Walgreen - Insurance" showed on a dark pebbled glass door, on a second dark door, on a third behind which there was light. One of the dark doors said: "Entrance".
A glass transom was open over the lighted door. Through it the sharp birdlike voice of Harry Jones spoke, saying: "Canino? … Yeah, I’ve seen you around somewhere. Sure."
I froze. The other voice spoke. It had a heavy purr, like a small fusion generator in a basement. It said: "I thought you would." There was a vaguely sinister note in that voice.
A chair scraped on linoleum, steps sounded, the transom above me squeaked shut. A shadow melted from behind the pebbled glass.
I went back to the first of the three doors marked with the name Walgreen. I tried it cautiously. It was locked. It moved in a loose frame, an old door fitted many decades past, made of low-grade plastic and shrunken now. I reached my wallet out and slipped out a thick hard rectangle of plastic, an old-fashioned credit card. A burglar’s tool the law had forgotten to proscribe. I put my gloves on, leaned softly and lovingly against the door and pushed the knob hard away from the frame. I pushed the card into the wide crack and felt for the slope of a spring lock. There was a dry click, like a Titan icicle breaking. I hung there motionless, like a lazy fish in the water. Nothing happened inside. I turned the knob and pushed the door back into darkness. I shut it behind me as carefully as I had opened it.
The lighted oblong of an uncurtained window faced me, cut by the angle of a desk. On the desk, a bulky terminal screen took form, then the metal knob of a communicating door. This was unlocked. I passed into the second of the three offices. Rain rattled suddenly against the closed window. Under its noise I crossed the room. A tight fan of light spread from a centimetre opening of the door into the lighted office. Everything very convenient. I walked like a cat on a mantel and reached the hinged side of the door, put and eye to the crack and saw nothing but light against the angle of the plastic.
The purring voice was now saying quite pleasantly: "Sure, a guy could sit on his fanny and bitch what another guy done if he knows what it’s all about. So you go and see this peeper. Well, that was your mistake. Eddie don’t like it. The peeper told Eddie some guy in a grey ground-car was tailing him. Eddie naturally wants to know who and why, see."
Harry Jones laughed lightly. "What makes it his business?"
"That don’t get you no place."
"You know why I went to the peeper. I already told you. Account of Joe Brody’s girl. She has to blow up-system, she ain’t got the fare. She figures the peeper can get her some dough. I don’t have any."
The purring voice said gently: "Dough for what? Peepers don’t give that stuff out to punks."
"He could raise it. He knows rich people." Harry Jones laughed, a brave little laugh.