Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Tenth chapter of my new novel. Thanks for reading, and all comments are welcome. 
Wayne C. Grantham


      Several miles off the west coast of Freestate California, an old aircraft carrier, the CCGS Davis, once the USS Constellation, taken out of mothballs from the Bremerton shipyard and refurbished in San Francisco, led a convoy of military ships in the open sea, roughly paralleling the coast. There were also a cruiser, four destroyers and four troop ships. They flew the flag of the California Republic. California had restored and reactivated several ships from museums, and bought a few from west coast shipyards effectively abandoned by the remaining United States. The Republic of the Pacific was only too happy to rid its shipyards of several derelict, abandoned military ships.
      As planned, four pairs of ships peeled off from the convoy, each pair consisting of a destroyer and a troopship. One pair turned northerly toward Tijuana. The second pair went westerly toward Ensenada. The other two continued south toward San Carlos and Cabo San Lucas.
      On the bridge of the Davis, crewmen were at their flight ops stations. Captain Hillary Cousteau was in the command chair.
      “Turn her into the wind, Lieutenant,” she ordered. “All ahead flank.”
“All ahead flank, Captain,” the helmsman repeated the order, while manipulating the controls. “Coming about to heading two-four-four.”
      “Flight Deck Commander, commence launch.”
The carrier turned and moved away from the accompanying cruiser. Two surveillance planes launch, one after the other.
An hour later, the radioman in the carrier’s bridge slid an earphone back and addressed the captain. “Still no word from the surveillance planes, Ma’am. Their chatter faded out a couple of minutes ago and now I can’t raise ‘em.”
“Mr. Mills,” Cousteau turned the command chair in his direction. “I didn’t work my ass off for the past twelve years to be called ‘ma’am.’ I’m addressed as Captain.”
“Sorry, Captain.”
“Keep trying to raise the planes, if you please, Mr. Mills.” Captain Cousteau turned forward. “And order Boxer to coordinate with the other troop ships so that they all attack together.”
      CCGS Boxer drifted, blacked out, not far from the beach near Ensenada. In the late evening, landing boats, filled with uniformed, fully equipped troops, moved off toward the shore at the four beach cities.
      On a blanket on a beach in Ensenada, a young man and woman were making love. The muffled sound of diesel boat motors gradually increased.
      Ethel pulled away from Fred’s kiss. “Mmmmf! Don't those boats sound kind of close?”
      “So what?”
      He kissed her again. She responded for a moment, and then broke away again.
      “They sound really close!”
      The landing craft ran aground at water's edge. Troops spilled out and ran toward the first row of buildings on the boardwalk. Fred and Ethyl lay on the sand in the dark, naked, unnoticed by the troops as they ran past in the dark. They would never know how they were not noticed by the California invading force.
      One hundred-fifty yards beyond the blanket upon which Fred and Ethyl lay huddled together, now shivering more from fear than from the slightly chilly evening, the dim lights of a beachside restaurant were now partly obscured by the running soldiers.
Eduardo Caldwell and his wife were part of a party of eight enjoying wine and appetizers, along with several other groups and couples were enjoying a late dinner in the expensive restaurant. Others were in the lounge drinking and enjoying conversation. No one noticed the approaching horde until they broke through the doors and windows and started shooting into the ceiling.
A lieutenant shouted over the confusion. “Everyone raise your hands and back toward the wall....”
Eduardo and at least half of the other revelers dropped to their knees and drew handguns of many kinds. Eduardo immediately took aim at the Lieutenant. The shots from at least a dozen handguns were not fired into the ceiling.
      The lieutenant's head disappeared in the reddish fog of its liquefied contents. Even more men and women quickly produced sidearms and simultaneously started shooting and diving for cover. The firefight caused the soldiers to duck behind whatever they could find. Several individuals were killed and wounded on both sides. The Lieutenant's helmet clattered, spinning to the floor in front of a young grunt. The helmet still contained the bloody upper skull of the unfortunate lieutenant.
      The employees and patrons of the restaurant kept firing on the soldiers as they retreated from the building.
      At approximately the same time, landings also took place in Tijuana, San Carlos and Cabo San Lucas. Freestaters at the scene of the other locations learned of the attacks by means of their cuffs or other kinds of communication devices.
California troops advanced through the streets and beachside buildings, and into the towns. Freestaters fought as they retreated before the better equipped California Guard troops.
Casualties mounted on both sides.
After two days of sporadic fighting against armed civilians, the landing force established defensible perimeters within the four cities of the invasion.
      Before morning, the California forces began setting up command posts on the captured beachheads near Tijuana, Ensenada, San Carlos and Cabo San Lucas. In Ensenada, Major Storch commanded the landing party and now was setting up his office in a captured bank building while his troops set up fortifications, sleeping tents and a mess, using a nearby fast food cafeteria, in the surrounding area.
Unable to operate the Freestate computer that had been built into the desk he had chosen for himself, the Major was busy setting up an older California laptop computer thereon. The major’s aide, a lieutenant, was trying to set up a printer on a nearby table. A noncom stepped up, stood at attention and saluted.
“Corporal Smith reporting, sir!”
“Your report, corporal?” Major Storch returned the salute.
“Unable to make radio contact with the Coast Guard, sir.”
“Have you checked out the radio?”
“Yes, sir. The radio is fully operational.” The corporal said apologetically. “All I can get is a hissing static.”
“Er, well....Keep trying, corporal. Dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir!” Corporal Smith turned smartly and left the office.
A radio tech addressed Captain Cousteau as she observed the movements of her fleet from her command chair on the bridge of the Davis.
“Captain, Yosemite reports that her shelling is being disrupted. Her radar shows dozens of small aircraft, probably drones, flying patterns between us and the beach. Our shells explode in the air in their proximity.”
The captain turned her chair to face the radioman. “Give Yosemite my compliments and advise her to pause firing, if you please.”
      “Aye, aye Captain.”
“If they surrender at the sight of your weapons, hold fire and we’ll take them into custody,” the platoon sergeant ordered over their internal radios as they stepped off the troop carrier. The vehicle lifted off immediately as the last of the dozen battle-suited militiamen stepped off the ramp. “If they resist, defend yourselves. Be careful, and best of luck!”
The platoon marched off toward the enemy encampment.
An hour or so before reveille, there was a feeling of uneasiness among the California troops. Many were awakened without realizing why. It began as an unidentifiable stir that sounded far away. Soon, it became obvious that it was the sound of slow marching, but in no regular step. Before the noise got much louder, many of the soldiers were dressed and armed. Some of them moved up to fortify the lines occupied by the perimeter sentries, unsure of what they faced.
There was a light fog, accentuating the sparse lighting in the hastily-erected compound, and it was mildly damp and chilly to those having to be out in it.
No one could have expected what rounded the corners of several of the abandoned and battle-damaged buildings into the invaders’ view.
The thunderous sound of a loudspeaker drowned out other sounds. “You have an opportunity to surrender now,” boomed the voice which seemed, in the fog, to come from all directions at once. “Lay your weapons down and walk toward the Militiamen with your hands in full view.”
Some of the soldiers stood wide-eyed, searching in every direction for the source of the voice. Others covered the now-standing forms facing them, with their rifles. They waited for orders.
Major Pennice, the commander of the San Carlos garrison, came striding up to the fortification nearest the middle of the array of Freestate Militiamen. He couldn’t believe what he saw in the early light of dawn.
The Freestate Militiamen were over eight feet tall, fully secure in armor colored in various ways, apparently to each individual’s own taste. One was white, styled to look like a very large Star Wars Imperial storm trooper. Another looked like a Sioux warrior. A third looked like a Keystone Cop. Others were painted to resemble other characters.
“Fire on them!” ordered the major. “Fire at will!”
Immediately as the first volleys were fired on the armored Militiamen, hell was unleashed. Most Militia armor had short-barreled mini guns mounted at the hip. Some had a mortar or a grenade launcher on a shoulder. A few militiamen opted for a rocket launcher, also on the shoulder. The difficulty with these last three was that they couldn’t carry much ammunition. Thus, the mini was the weapon of choice for the militia.
Although the battle suits could be damaged if hit in small spots in the elbows, ankles, knees and hips, a rifle bullet couldn’t pierce the armor. The Freestate militia returned fire with small bursts. The California Guard suffered severe casualties. The troop carrier above repeated its order to drop weapons and surrender. Seeing how heavily they were overpowered by the Freestate militia, the remaining California troops complied.
Two of the Freestate Militiamen had fallen and were struggling to get up, but had non-functioning limbs, caused by lucky hits. One was helped to his feet by others. The second had a malfunctioning leg and had to be picked up and carried away to the troop carrier, which had landed nearby.
“We’re getting something on the radio finally, Captain,” the radioman said, looking up from his console.
Captain Cousteau turned to face the radioman. “Proceed, if you will, Mr. Mills.
      “The caller is from Freestate, Ma--er--Captain. A Leftenant Houston, I think he says. He wants....oh, shit....”
“Please, Lieutenant!”
“He says they have captured all of our troops in the four invasion beachheads. There are casualties and many wounded. As partial reparations, they’re going to confiscate all their weaponry and equipment. We’re told to send in unarmed landing craft for the surviving soldiers, and coffins to pick up the dead. They want an answer in an hour.”
Captain Cousteau paused for several seconds in thought. “Ask the Leftenant what assurances we have that our landing craft won’t be confiscated, as well.”
After relaying the message to the shore, he listened for a moment and answered the captain. “According to him, you have his word as an officer and gentleman that we’ll be allowed to reclaim our troops. Wait. He further states that they have no need for our equipment. It would be sorely obsolete in their militia.”
“Bastard!” Captain Cousteau spat out. “Tell him the boats will be sent after they are refueled.
“Radio Redding, Alarcon, Cranston and Boxer to ready their landing craft for the pickup. Order them to keep all armaments out of sight and not to even show them unless attacked.”
 “One more thing, Captain. He must insist, he says, that the boats must arrive, and depart during full daylight. Uh, further, he states that there should be an officer with each landing group. He assures you that the wounded are being cared for as if they were their own.”
After the injured California troops were treated and stabilized, they were kept comfortable until the next morning, when the CNG landing craft arrived to pick them up.
After the pickup craft groups were docked, the Freestate Militia officer at each of the four sites advised the California Coast Guard officer of the surrender terms.
“All of your weapons and equipment are to be surrendered, as spoils of war. That will, of course, include the two pilots you sent to invade our airspace, and their aircraft. The Governor of the Republic of California is to be billed for the cost of the damages, as soon as they are quantified. This warrant has been sworn out for the arrest of Governor Fred Ballou for multiple counts of murder, the exact number yet to be determined.”
Copies of the warrant and the terms of surrender were handed to each of the four CCG officers at each of the four landing sites.
“Freestate California sincerely hopes that future dealings with the Republic of California will be conducted in the letter and spirit of free trade and good will.”

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The ninth chapter of my new novel. Thanks for reading, and all comments are welcome. 
Wayne C. Grantham


      The battered yellow-brown HumVee exited the San Diego storage garage, Mars driving. He’d taken a few minutes to take some money out of his safe and some gold and silver in a money belt “just in case.” He paid his storage rent for a few months in advance against the possibility that he could figure out a way to get the Olds across the border Wall.
He drove the HumVee out of the storage garage and left. He drove along the streets of downtown San Diego, into the Gaslamp District, and parked the HumVee in front of the building which contained Valerie MacDougal’s loft.
      He picked the security lock to get into the place, and was not terribly surprised that the crime scene tape had been pulled off the door and was hanging limply down to the floor. It could have been like that for many days, since no one would enter this hallway except to enter this apartment.
As soon as Mars opened the door, he saw that Valerie's loft had been trashed. It was almost unrecognizable as the one he and Regis had examined....only a couple of months ago. He paused and listened, his sidearm in his hand. Shortly, listening and hearing nothing, he realized he was alone in the apartment, and holstered his weapon. Furniture was turned over and torn apart. Knick-knacks and books were strewn about the floor. After scanning the room for anything interesting that might have been left behind, Mars stepped over the rubble and carefully made his way to the bedroom.
      The bedroom was torn up in similar fashion, with the bedding torn off and the mattress and box spring cut open; innards strewn about. The computer was gone and her clothing was torn up and tossed about the room.
      Mars pulled his sleeve back and entered instructions to his cuff. He aimed the cuff at various items in the room, and waved it up and down, side to side. As he neared a broken stereo receiver on the floor, the cuff beeped.
      Mars popped the back cover of the receiver open, to find a mini cd stuck to the inside of the case. He pressed a key in his cuff; a slot opened. He slid the disc halfway into the slot. Amid winking led's, the cd spun for a few moments and was ejected into Mars’ hand.
The screen on the cuff said, "Disc copied," then "Data sent." He pocketed the disc.
      Mars tapped in more commands. He punched in a number. A phone buzz was heard.
      There followed a click and a voice, “Hey.”
“Are you in the market for southern electronics?”
      “Who's askin'?”
      “You lost your contact,” Mars muttered. “I'm a contact.”
“I’ll need face time. Meet me at Waltzing Matilda on Fifth at eleven. You know it?”
      “I know the place. Eleven tonight.”
While the San Diego theater crowd was in the theaters, the dark mustard HumVee moved slowly along Fifth in heavy traffic. Cars were cruising, their drivers looking for what men look for at night. The sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians, going in and out of the many restaurants, bars and hotel lobbies. There was a lot of activity, with many small groups of friends clustered here and there. Some had money, others were trying to get maybe a little more than their share of it the easy way.
It was a warmer-than-usual summer evening, with a clear sky and no fog. Light jackets, or no jackets were the norm. Women took full advantage of the warm evening to show themselves off to, and maybe a little beyond, what modesty allowed.
Mars turned the HumVee onto the less busy J Street, then into a parking space on the curb. He got out and looked back at the HumVee he’d been driving. That had to be the ugliest-colored vehicle on earth, he thought. He turned and got lost in the sidewalk traffic.
      He stepped into an alcove under a carved wooden sign in the shape of Australia, on which was written, “Waltzing Matilda” bracketed by images of a pair of kangaroos. It was a fairly clean, upscale place, not smelling as badly of stale liquor as many, similar barrooms. The pub was hosting a moderate crowd, many of whom were lined up at the bar. Most of the rest were dancing jerkily to classic techno played by a bored, yet absurdly animated DJ at the side of the room, opposite the bar.
      Mars stopped the first cocktail waitress he saw. She was a buxom thirty-five or so, attractive but for too much makeup and too many tattoos. He waved a fifty in her face.
      “Booth in the back?” he shouted over the music.
      She took the fifty, stuffed it into an already well-filled bra. “Sure,” she said around a wad of chewing gum. “Follow me.”
Watching the waitress’ exaggerated hip movement, Mars couldn’t help a quiet chuckle, as he though of the phrase. “Walk this way.” She showed him a booth with a view toward the front door. “Name’s Linda,” she continued as he sat down. “What’ll you have?”
      “Iced Bushmills. A man'll be looking for me. Short blond hair. Forty or so.”
      As Linda walked away, with the same well-practiced, exaggerated hip motion, two rough-looking characters slid into the booth, a thin, wiry, much tattooed guy beside him; a sneering, unclean-looking young woman with several piercings opposite.
      “You the electronics man?” asked the punk, his foul breath following the sound of his reedy voice.
      “Yeah, I sell brain implants to morons.” Mars smiled sweetly. “You in the market?”
      The punk threw a shoulder, pinning Mars against the wall. The girl produced a straight razor.
      Mars looked at the girl. “Does beer leak out from the hole in your lip?”
      “We work for Willie,” she hissed. “He wants your resume.”
      “Then he can ask me.”
      The punk grabbed Mars' throat, banged his head against the back of the booth.
      “He wants us to get it.”
      Mars grabbed the girl’s wrist. “That’s just about enough from you two dipshits!” He pulled her arm, followed by the rest of her over the table, slashing Art's cheek with the razor, just under his eye and across the bridge of his nose. He broke the girl’s forearm as he threw an elbow into Art's throat. He shoved the gasping, bleeding Art onto the floor.
      “A little about my experience.” Mars sneered as he got up from the booth, giving the girl’s wrist a little twist as he released it. She gave a quiet squeal as she dropped the straight razor.
      “I guess Willie doesn’t want to see me after all,” he said as he turned toward the front door. Before he reached it, he found himself facing Linda, who put her hand on Mars’ bicep, stopping him. “Willie still wants to talk to you.”
“Funny way to show it,” he said sarcastically.
Linda guided Mars to a door behind the end of the bar. Mars drew the SISA as he opened the door.
      Linda left him as he passed through the doorway into a large card room with several tables, most of which had games in progress. Several of the poker players ducked under their tables as the saw Mars’ pistol held pointed upward. A bouncer approached Mars, his hands held clear of his body.
      “Excuse me, senor.” Said the bouncer; the biggest Latin he’d ever seen. “There will be no problems in this room, senor. You will not need your weapon,”
      Mars gazed about the room. Seeing nothing immediately threatening, he holstered his handgun. “Then it’ll be up to you to see that there are none.” He spotted Willie Hahn playing solitaire at a corner table. He followed the bouncer between the card tables to Willie’s location.
      Willie watched Mars approach, looked down to place a black jack on a red queen; looked up again as Mars reached his table.
He smiled one of those automobile salesman smiles. “You”
      Mars remained stoic. “That was a shitty welcome.”
Willie kicked out a chair. “Wanted to see how you react.”
“Well, ya little shit,” Mars growled as he lifted Hahn out of his chair by the necktie, upsetting the table, cards, drink and all. “I reacted on those two little turds of yours, and I can react on you, too.”
Mars dropped the necktie. Hahn fell back into his chair, barely keeping from going over on the floor.
“All right. I apologize.” He wheezed, loosening his tie around his throat. “Sit. Whaddya got that I need?”
      Mars spun the chair around and sat on it backward. The bouncer, who came up quickly, but not quickly enough, picked up the table and put it back into its place.
“You need a new welcoming committee, but I ain't got that,” Mars said. “One of the things I do have is a covert surveillance system. A lot better than the one you have now.”
A waitress placed a drink that looked like whisky on the table in front of Mars, which he ignored, and a replacement for the one that spilled. He skipped a small button across the table toward Willie, who slapped his palm down to stop it.
      “Stick the input button anywhere. As you see, it looks like the head of a Phillips screw. You put a few of ‘em around the room, they give you audio and video--very clean. I have....”
      “I got bugs up the ass,” Willie said. “Whaddya got that I don't have?”
      Mars chuckled. “Bugs up the ass? ‘Fraid I can’t help you with that.” He played with his glass, but didn’t pick it up. “You don't have this bug. Scatter three or four buttons high on a wall in the bar. Run the output through the software. You can zoom it in so that you can read the denomination of the money a guy's waving at the bartender. You control volume and magnification from your computer in your office with a joystick that comes with the package.”
      “Zoom? Directional control? Impressive, if true. Ok, what about the sound?”
“The bug picks up everything. The software can isolate a voice in a crowd. A Harley goes by in the street, you can isolate it and make it sound like it's in your office.”
      “You're bullshitting....”
      Mars interrupted. “Maybe you don't need this kind of resolution. I know I can interest Brinks; Pinkerton....”
      “Wait a minute! I'll hafta check. What’s it gonna cost? How do I get aholda you if I--“
“You have my number,” Mars continued to idly play with his drink. “A package that’ll fully cover the barroom here will cost $1,400,000.”
      “A lot of money.”
“In gold, at current market rates.”
“In gold! You’re kidding!” Willie said loudly. He lowered his voice as he noticed several card players turned to look. “Where am I gonna get a mil-four in gold?”
“C’mon Willie.” Mars said calmly. “If you really are that stupid, you don’t want to let your friends know it....”
      “If you don’t have more than that in your safe right now, I’ll be surprised.”
      Willie gave Mars a look. “Just how well do you know me, anyway? And how did you find it out?” He tensed as if to jump out of his chair. “And just who the fuck are you?”
      “I just know your type, Willie.” And a lot more than that, Mars thought, but he doesn’t need to know that.
      Mars got up. “I have some other stuff, but I thought you might like something like this. How about glasses that can magnify faraway objects like binoculars, but look like ordinary eyeglasses? Anyway, I gotta go. Give me a call.”
      “Wait! Can I get a demonstration?” Willie asked, examining the button closely. “I need to see how it works.”
      “Sure.” Mars took a liquid crystal screen, about 7 inches by ten, a little over an eighth of an inch thick, from inside his jacket and set it flat on the table.
      “Press the button onto the wall behind you. It’ll stick.”
      Mars touched “buttons” on the screen face, and it lit up with a panoramic view of the room. Sliding his finger in little patterns on the screen face, he was able to bring up the image of a card player about four tables away. He focused on the man’s poker hand: two aces and ten-four-deuce.
      “....And raise you fifty,” was heard coming out of the device.
      “Shit, that’s incredible!” Willie muttered as Mars maneuvered the image to show a hundred dollar bill peeking out of the waitress’ cleavage.
      Mars picked up the screen and stood abruptly, leaving Willie, still gaping with his mouth open, at the waitress across the room.
Minutes later, back in the driver’s seat of the HumVee, Mars worked with his cuff. Tuning in the pickup from the button he left with Willie, he listened to a conversation between Willie and the Governor.
“....And if that thing is anywhere as good as you say, I want to fill the state capital building with bugs. This’ll be too cool!”
“I’ll try and get ahold of the guy and make a deal.”
      “Try, my ass! Get him! And get me that system.”
      The phone clicked off. Mars smiled.
      “As I thought,” Mars muttered. “Straight to Sacramento.”

Monday, December 10, 2012

The eighth chapter of my new novel. Thanks for reading, and all comments are welcome.
Wayne C. Grantham


An aerotaxi stopped in front of a private hangar at the Tecate airport. The taxi was a silent flying car, capable of carrying up to six passengers behind the driver. It was stylized, with chrome and body sculpturing reminiscent of 1960’s American ground cars. It was painted a two-tone yellow and red.
Mars got out, still limping clumsily with his electrosplints and a cane. He started toward the office door, but turned as he noticed an open hangar door, a man working on a small, ancient single-engine aircraft just inside. Stepping just inside the great doorway, he saw that there were two other planes in the building.
A little distance from the small plane, there was a large twin-engine craft. It looked like an old passenger plane. After studying the plane for a minute, Mars realized that it was an old Gooney Bird--an army C-47, also from the World War II era. It had several inspection doors open and an engine exposed.
Beyond that was a sleek, modified US Navy WWII Corsair, which had been repainted a shiny black with gold accents. He slowly walked around the little plane, admiring what he soon realized was an old classic Piper. The sheet metal cowling had been removed from around the engine.
“About a hundred years old, isn’t it?” Mars asked as he came around to the nose of the plane, where the man was torquing the bolts on one of the heads.
“A 1945 Piper Cub, fully restored and flight worthy,” said the mechanic, unable to keep the pride from showing on his face. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m told that I can find a pilot named Smitty Alvarez at this airport.”
“That’d be me.”
“Are you a World War II aficionado?” Mare asked, gazing again at the old aircraft.
“This period produced aircraft with a lot of personality. They’re fun to fly and fun to restore.” Smitty said.
“My name is Mars Marlowe, Detective Lieutenant of the San Diego Police, now working for Dos Rios. I’m working on a murder that took place in San Diego, a little over two weeks ago.” Mars stepped around to the other side of the plane, which allowed him to face Alvarez.
“The murder had a smuggling aspect to it, which made me think of you.”
“How so?” Smitty asked. He stopped tightening the bolts and took a fist grip on the torque wrench, slapping it into the palm of his other hand.
“You’re obviously involved in smuggling. Perhaps Miss MacDougal was a competitor?”
Smitty started slapping his hand with the wrench. “Maybe you’d better explain that, Marlowe. Are you accusing me of killing Valerie?” he asked. “Smuggling isn’t even a recognized concept, much less a crime, here in Freestate.”
“It was you who killed the pilot of the helicopter I was in the other day.”
“You were in that chopper?” He said. Then, after a moment, he added. “See that empty space over there?” He pointed to an open area of the hangar, beyond the other two aircraft. “The plane that belongs there is scattered all over the California desert. That was self defense.”
Mars waved his hand over his visible medical gear. “You see I’m a bit of a wreck, myself.”
“Looks like you were lucky. I watched that chopper go down.”
“You were in violation of California law,” Mars said. “You were failing to comply with a lawful order from a legal authority.”
      “Fuck California law! Fuck your legal authority! I don’t accept the morass you call a legal structure. I had business in--none of your business.”
      “It's standard procedure to turn or shoot down unauthorized planes attempting to cross the border without authorization. The pilot was doing his job,” Mars explained clearly and patiently, as to a child.
      “Fuck his job, too!” was Alvarez’ reply. “He blew up my plane and he was about to shoot me out of my parachute. I was defending myself.”
      “I’ll admit that his decision to fire on you in your parachute was a bad one. I tried to get him to shear off and let you go. On the other hand, you’d have saved yourself some trouble if you’d have turned away and gone to a nearby airport in San Diego....”
      “Look, Marlowe,” Alvarez pointed the wrench at Mars. “I don’t give a rat about California law. You say you work for Dos Rios. I’m a client. Valerie was also a client. I know....knew Valerie. Anything I can do to help, I will....but let’s not talk any more about California law.”
      “Ok, truce. The point is moot now, anyway.” Mars said, in an attempt to ease the tension. “What do you know about Ms. MacDougal? What was she doing in California?”
       “She was importing Free State electronics for sale in California. She was becoming quite wealthy, in fact.” Smitty answered, trying to suppress a hint of envy.
      “Smuggling’s a risky business.”
      “Valerie was very good at self defense. Spent a lot of time working at it,” Smitty said, shaking his head sadly. “Lot of good it did her.”
      “She was ambushed,” Mars said. “It was at least three men lying in wait. Not much one person can do against those odds, although she put up a damn’ good fight.”
Mars left the airport and took another taxi to his apartment. As he stepped out of the taxi, he reminded himself that he wanted to purchase a new sidearm to replace the old Para he’d been issued in San Diego. It was very dated, here in a place where most folks carried sidearms and the market was quick to offer innovations to attract the many customers looking for something new and better. He remembered seeing a weapons shop not too far away, so he limped gingerly off in that direction.
Mars stepped into the weapons shop, thinking that his old .45, as good a weapon as it had been, would have to be set aside in favor of some newer technology. It was time to see what Freestate had to offer.
He was perusing the glass cases, looking at the various handguns in the glass case when a middle-aged man, beard reaching his chest, graying blond hair reaching his shoulders and tied around the crown with a blue, rolled up bandana, entered from a rear room.
“He’p ye?” He asked.
“I guess it’s time for a new sidearm,” said Mars, still eyeing the many weapons, large and small and everything in between.
 “How d’ye plan to use the weapon?” The salesman asked. “D’ye want a gun to use, or to just hang on yer hip?”
“Well, I hope I won’t have to use it, but working for Dos Rios....”
The guy interrupted. “Y’work fer Juanita? Why didn’t ye say so! Some folks call me Gunny, but I wish they wouldn’t. I’m Olaf.”
“Funny,” Mars remarked. “The rangemaster at the San Diego PD range calls himself Gunny.”
“All rangemasters call themselves Gunny. You mean Al Ericksen? Is he calling himself Gunny too, now? I’d go up there and whip his ass, ‘cept I’d get arrested ‘fore I got to ‘im.”
Olaf reached out his hand, and Mars shook it.
“Mars Marlowe,” he answered, trying to concentrate on the storekeep and peruse the many weapons within the glass cases simultaneously. “I just dropped in from California....”
“Haw, haw!” Olaf burst out with a booming laugh. “You the San Diego cop that crashed up by the Wall?”
“That’d be me! Miss Chen got me out of the hospital and talked me into working for her.”
“You must be a good ‘un. Juanita usually calls California cops stupid thugs, or worse.” Olaf kept up the jovial smile that was almost a chuckle, as he talked.
“She had a few choice comments for me too, at first.” Just then, Mars spotted a weapon that looked like the one Miss MacDougal had owned. He pointed. “Olaf, let me look at that one. I saw one like that recently, and got a chance to handle it, but not fire it.”
“This is an Alvaro’s Small Arms .50 caliber caseless with twin magazines. A fine weapon, but hard to control in full auto.”
Olaf opened the case and drew out the large handgun. He dropped two magazines from in front of the trigger guard onto the counter top and opened the action. After inspecting the breech through the magazine port, he offered it to Mars, handle first.
“This th’ one?” he asked.
Mars checked the breech, and then worked the action a couple of times. “This is the one.” He hefted the weapon a couple of times, aimed it at the wall clock, looking at the sights and checking the balance.
“Y’wanna try ‘er out?”
“Sure,” Mars replied, still getting a feel for the weapon in his hand. “Where do I have to go?”
 “Just step out back to th’ patio. There’re some targets out there. Y’ can’t use bangers, and don't shoot anything structural or shoot over top o’ the mountain.”
Olaf handed Mars a box of ammo. Mars examined the box. “McSorley Cartridges. 25 .50 Cal CSLS. Full Copper Jkt Lead.”
“Target ammo. Feels th’ same’s th’ good stuff. Try ‘er out.” Olaf held the door open.
      Mars stepped up to the firing bench, loading both magazines while looking over the targets downrange. He loaded eight rounds each, and slid them into the slot in front of the trigger guard until both magazines snicked into place. After jacking a round into the chamber, he fired three slow rounds at a pig silhouette about two hundred yards away. The first shot puffed the dirt just left of the silhouette. The second hit the pig with a dull thunk. The third missed just above the pig. Holding low, he fired three quick rounds; the puffs tracked upwards, all three missing the pig silhouette. He tried it again, they tracked higher. The third round hit way up the hillside. Mars unloaded the weapon and went inside.
      Mars handed the pistol back to Olaf, action open, magazines removed.
      “It gets pretty wild as the magazines empty out and the gun gets lighter.
      Olaf turned the weapon over, looking at the barrel. “Ya’d prob’ly get use’ta it if ya shot it more. I c’n port th’ barrel f’ya.”
      “Nah.” Mars shook his head. “I hate those. Blind you in the dark.
      “OK, let’s try this’n.” Olaf pulled another weapon from the case. It was similar, but slightly bigger, with a longer barrel, and all gray metal. He showed Mars the action. “It's a SISA. Fer San Ignacio Small Arms. Stainless. Weighs a mite more. Same caliber, same cartridge.”
      Stepping back outside, Mars checked and loaded the SISA. He fired several single shots and a few short bursts, emptying the weapon and reloading. He found it much easier to hit the pig, even while firing three-shot bursts. As he prepared to take the gun back inside, he did a double take. Wait! No brass to pick up.
He’d always been able to relax after a particularly stressful day’s work by sitting down at his workbench and reloading some ammo.
Time marches on, he thought. Satisfied with the weapon, Mars opened the action and reentered the store.
      “This one, I can enjoy. How much?
      “Two bits,” Olaf said, running a wad, saturated with solvent, through the bore of the first handgun a few times.
“Two bits?” Mars looked at Olaf in disbelief. “I saw a Sierra just like this for one seventy-nine.”
      “There ain't no Sierra like this,” Olaf said, wiping out the solvent with a dry wad. “You c’n have it f’two thirty-five.”
“And you throw a box of ammo and a pair of extra mags.”
      “We-elllll,” Olaf tugged at his curly beard dubiously. “I won't make much on it, but....done.”
      Olaf reached out his hand, Mars shook it.
      “You can skin me by selling me a cross-draw shoulder rig and a pair of magazine pockets. “Charge it to Dos Rios,” he said.
      The following afternoon, Mars and his new partner got out of an aerocar in Ensenada, in front of a five-story modern building. There was plenty of glass on the front face of the building, and a spacious atrium/sitting room with a salt water aquarium, populated with several brightly-colored tropical fish, which they passed as they entered. The aquarium comprised one wall. There were several sofas, easy chairs and low tables arranged around the central walkway entrance to the building. Mars, no longer wearing the leg splint, was still limping with his briarwood cane as they walked through to the elevators.
      Mars had been partnered with another of Juanita’s insurance investigators, a young woman introduced as Annette O’Malley. “She looks young, but not much gets by her,” was part of Juanita’s sales pitch to Mars.
      Mars argued against the need for a partner, “She’ll only slow me down,” he said. “I don’t want to be responsible for an inexperienced rookie, nor do I want to have to argue with a veteran who already knows everything.”
      At last, he gave in to Juanita’s pressure that he’d have a second pair of eyes. She turned out to be a very fit, athletic young woman fully as tall as Mars’ five feet nine inches. She was an attractive blonde, and a smart, yet practical dresser.
“She also has far more knowledge of Freestate tech and local customs than you,” Juanita added. “And, there will be times when you’ll want a witness.”
      Mars and Annette O’Malley exited the elevator on the third floor and followed a hallway a short distance to an apartment door. Annette pressed a button next to a speaker.
      “There is no one home. May I assist?” said a robo-voice.
      “Dos Rios. Annette O’Malley. Investigation.”
      “Verifying,” the robo-voice said.
After a five-second delay, the apartment door clicked open. Mars followed Annette inside. They passed through a short hallway with a coat closet into a large, luxurious living room. The living room....indeed the entire apartment was decorated in 1930’s art deco style. The room contained an entertainment center, the controls to which were installed in the casing of a thirties-style stand-up radio. There was a recessed conversation pit with a stainless steel fireplace and a wet bar.
“I'll give this room a once-over,” said Annette.
      Mars went toward a door opposite the dining area. “Maybe there's an office.”
      The apartment had two bedrooms, the smaller one having been turned into a library. Mars spent a moment looking over the bookcases, finding a few titles he had in his own library. In San Diego, he remembered. There were two easy chairs in the room, with art deco-style reading lamps above and behind. At the back, facing a window with a view of the beach, there was a large desk with a built-in computer.
Mars went through drawers of the desk, examining a few of the items within and putting them back. He turned the computer on. The monitor slid up out of the desktop, showing a mountain pasture scene. He tried to get into the documents files, but they were password protected.
Annette entered the room and looked over his shoulder. “I have her passwords in an emergency file,” she said. “Just a sec.”
She lifted her sleeve and tapped at her forearm computer. “Ok. She only used three.” She wrote them on a notepad, pushed it over to Mars. “The first one opens the computer.”
“Thanks.” Mars typed in “19dodge68.”
“Copy the memory into your cuff. We’ll take it with us,” Annette said, leaving the room. “I’ll check the kitchen.”
Mars, still in the early stages of using the “cuff,” the wrist videophone, computer and camera that he’d first seen on Valerie MacDougal’s wrist, had to concentrate to get the computer’s memory to empty into his device. Hampered by the sling immobilizing his right arm, handling the controls of the cuff was quite a task. When his cuff finally indicated he’d saved the computer’s contents, he erased the computer entirely and turned it off.  
Meanwhile, Annette was quickly going through the cabinets. They were well-stocked with food and utensils, but nothing of relevant to the case. She moved on to the bedroom, where she looked through the closets and dressers. Nice clothes, a couple of spare weapons and a moderate supply of ammunition, but nothing to capture her attention. Hearing the click of the front door latch in a way that sounded like the intruder was trying to be quiet, Annette quickly rejoined Mars in the library.
The little fat man who was well paid to kill Mars Marlowe was not the sort to confront a foe and conquer him face to face. He would win no fights, he feared any sort of direct confrontation. Yet he had killed several men--with no thought for collateral damage. He set a measured amount of explosive against the wall behind which was the rest of the apartment. The timer was set for only fifteen seconds. He wasn’t heard entering the apartment, nor was his silent snicker heard as he started the timer. Then, in his haste to escape the area, he let the door latch click as he opened it to let himself out.
      “I heard. C’mon.” Thinking the intruder was still in the apartment, he took her arm. “We have what we need and we don’t need a gunfight here.”
      He led her through the bedroom and they quietly slipped out onto the veranda. He removed his arm from the sling to be able to use his arm, hoping he could use it effectively and that he wouldn’t re-injure it. They helped each other climb down to the first floor patio. Annette, in truth, was helping Mars more than the other way around.
Just as they planted their feet on the ground floor patio, the building erupted above them. The explosion rolled them out onto the beach, and they were pelted, and finally buried as burning debris rained down on them. Mars tried, with partial success, to protect Annette with his body.
Morning found Mars back in a hospital bed, lying face-down, with burn dressings on his back and legs, electronic sleeves around his knee and ankle, glutures holding several cuts closed. Annette entered his room wearing an apparatus similar to the one Mars had only recently removed. Her electrosplint was a small one, wrapped around her foot and ankle. She also had another small electrosplint on her left elbow, which was immobilized in a sling, and dressings on her hands and right shoulder. She had black eyes and a bandaged nose.
“Thanks, Mars,” she said. “I know it would’ve been worse for me if you hadn’t gotten me out of there.”
      She bent down to kiss Mars’ lips, his head turned to one side. Mars started to respond, but pulled back with a grimace of pain.
“Ow!” he blurted, then tried to smile. The attempted smile also hurt. “Ow!”
“Ooh! Does that hurt?”
“Yes.” He said with a grimace.
“Ow! She cried. Then, she bent to kiss his forehead, carefully trying to miss two glutured cuts.
“Ow!” he said again, but reached up to put an arm around her.
Neither of them noticed the doctor, who stepped into the room behind Annette. “You two keep that up and it could become embarrassing.”
Annette stood up too quickly, grimacing with pain while flushing with embarrassment as she stepped back from Mars’ bed.
“Oh! I wasn’t going to....I guess the close brush with death made me go off just a bit,” Annette said sheepishly. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right, Miss O’Malley.” The doctor answered, smiling. “It’s just that we vidmonitor every room, and we wouldn’t want to have anything embarrassing placed in the hospital record.”
 While Annette stepped back and smoothed off her hospital robe, the doctor checked the readings on the computer and the life signs monitor. After clucking about for a few seconds and making an entry into the computer, the doctor excused herself and left the room.
“I’m sorry, Mars. I guess almost dying makes you do stupid things,” Annette said as she patted her hair into a semblance of order.
“And I’m sorry to have been less enthusiastic that I wished to be,” his smile looked crooked around the glutured cut under his lip.
“No, it’s not funny. It’s more important than that. I’m your partner. That was unprofessional, and I apologize.” She paused for a moment, formulating a question. “Do you get banged up this often in San Diego?”
“Law of averages is catching up.” He smiled. “You?”
      “A first. I’ve never encountered a mad bomber. There aren’t many murders in Freestate.”
      “Have you learned what happened?” he asked. “Anyone else hurt?”
      “Six apartments were destroyed or seriously damaged. The two next door residents were injured. They’ll be ok. Fortunately, no one else was home.”
      “I got a name,” he smiled gingerly. “I saw it while copying the main drive. So, our trip wasn’t a complete waste.”
      “Valerie's killer?”
      “Maybe. One of her biggest customers. We have to consider her smuggling as part of the case.”
      “So, the investigation leads us back to California?”
An aircar flew silently over the Wall, and a couple of miles over the border mountains. Just beyond the Wall, the car swooped down and landed on a rarely-used dirt track.
      Annette flipped a few switches on the aircar's dash panel. She drove the car to a turnout amongst a small stand of live oak trees, and parked.
“Just ahead is Highway 94. About a quarter-mile to the left along the highway is the Dogpatch Motel, an old inn where you can wait for a taxi.”
      Mars, now dressed in clothing more normal in California, took her hand. “I’ll be in touch.”
“You now have it within your power to blow Freestate off and go back to your old life...” she said.
      “I have a lot of thinking to do,” he said gently. “It’s no small thing, leaving the country you lived your whole life in. Freestate has some very important advantages, though. If I do go back, it'll be after all debts are paid, and in the wake of proper goodbyes.”
      “Be careful. And put it on the record that I do hope you come back.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The seventh chapter of my new novel. Thanks for reading, and all comments are welcome. 
Wayne C. Grantham


            The first thing that entered his very fuzzy consciousness was the smell he could only describe as “clean.” The bed Mars lay in was very comfortable, making him delay opening his eyes for a few moments. When he did open his eyes, he found himself in a room bathed in a soothing light. After a few moments of self-orientation, began to focus on the place in which he found himself. It was a hospital room, different from others he’d seen. A nurse, a short, somewhat stout middle-aged woman, wearing a white dress, stood at a computer with her back to him, checking readouts on a four-foot wide computer screen. Several graphic displays were spread across the wall screen; a heart monitor was the only one he was able to recognize.
He raised his head slightly and looked himself over. His left leg, immobilized, was in a sleeve that seemed to grow out of the mattress. It was slightly elevated and felt warm to his skin. His right arm was in another, tight at the wrist and elbow and shoulder, fully immobilized, but not uncomfortable. The sleeves over his leg and arm had tubes and wires attached. He also noticed several bandages and dressings on other parts of his body. The nurse, seeing increased activity on the monitors, turned. She was a matronly, fiftyish woman of Hispanic descent.
A band inside the sleeve immobilizing his right arm, tightened. It felt like a blood pressure cuff.
            “Bueno. You are awake,” she said. “My name is Conchita. I am your physician. Please don't try to move too much. It will hurt a lot and you might reinjure yourself. You have a broken collar bone, a fractured forearm and a compound fracture in your left leg. You also have many cuts, abrasions and bruises--some of them deep. You have a partially healed bullet wound in your left forearm, which was reopened by your fall. The cuts and the bullet wound have all been cleaned and glutured, but too much movement could pull them open.”
            “Where am I, Darlin’?” Mars, a big smile on his face, voice slurring, asked.
            “You are a patient in the Lopez y O’Flynn Trauma Center in Tecate, Freestate California,” Conchita replied, a note of pride in her voice. “Doctora Conchita O’Flynn, at your service. You are under the influence of a pain killer and a sedative.”
            “Good pain killer. I don’t feel any pain....” Mars tried to sit up. “Oof! I found the pain!” He clenched his eyes and screwed his face into a grimace.
            “Lay back and relax, Mr. Marlowe,” the doctor reached over and gently pushed him back into his pillow. “The pain killer isn’t strong enough for that, and I don’t want you to re-injure yourself.”
            Conchita moved to Mars’ bedside. She held a little cup containing a couple of pills to his mouth, and another with some water.
            “What’s this for?” He asked, turning his head away from the cup.
            “To help you relax and to help you heal faster. Your earlier medications are expiring.”
            “I have damn little choice but to relax, in this rig.” He answered.
            “You will mend faster if you are not tense. You will be able to return to your normal activities sooner, senor.”
            “Then, thank you, Doctor Conchita,” Mars forced a smile, with an attempt to rise, followed by another grimace, showing his pain. He allowed her to give him the medicine, and slugged it down with a swallow of water.
“You have a visitor waiting to see you on a legal matter. I have told her that you are recovering from severe trauma, and because of your sedation, may not be at your mental best. Do you wish to delay her visit until tomorrow?”
            “A legal matter, eh?” Mars chuckled. “Perhaps I’m an illegal alien?”
            Conchita laughed. “It would not be that,” she said.
            “Sure, I feel fine, if a little happier, probably, than I should. Send her in.”
            The doctor left and returned in a couple of minutes with a fortyish woman, well dressed in what might pass as a business suit—but not in California. It looked like a blend between a business suit and a sun dress. Skirt just above the knees, it was light, both in weight and in its pale turquoise color, with a jacket over a white open-throat blouse.
“So,” she began as she entered the room and saw Mars lying in the bed, “you are the gentleman who dropped in from the sky.”
“I’m Detective Lieutenant Eric Marlowe, at your service, Ma’am. Sorry I can’t stand and shake your hand.”
“I understand, Lieutenant.” She bowed her head slightly as she introduced herself. “I am Juanita Chen, owner and chief investigator for Dos Rios Protective.”
Juanita Chen was a tallish woman, with very quick, perceptive eyes and fine Asian features. She wore her bright black hair loose, but tied away from her face.  
“Charmed, Miss Chen.”
“You might not think so shortly. You are being held to determine your responsibility for the destruction of a Cessna 180, belonging to one of my clients, and the death of the other man in your aircraft.”
            “Go easy, Senorita Chen.” The doctor cautioned. “As I said before, he is under sedation.”
            Mars tried to move; once again pain lanced across his upper chest and shoulder. He tried to smile even more broadly at the very attractive investigator, while trying to hide a shooting pain caused by his movements. “Call me Mars. Feel like going dancing soon’s I get outa here?”
            Miss Chen gave Mars a sour look. “This is a serious situation.”
            “Perhaps this should wait....,” the doctor began.
            “Where’s Horiuchi?” Mars looked around the room.
            “Horiuchi?” Chen asked.
            “The copilot.”
            “There were only two of you in the wreckage. Well, you’d been thrown free of the helicopter.” Chen replied. “A search party scoured the area and found no one else, though they did find tracks leading away to the west. One of my men followed the tracks until they disappeared in a rocky area. We had no reason to believe these tracks were relevant.
“We have your sidearm,” she continued, “and the pilot's. We'll soon know if you shot him”
            “Do you have the weapon belonging to the pilot of the Cessna? He’s the one who killed our pilot,” Mars said.
            “If that's true,” Juanita replied, “it'd be a case of self defense. We'll soon know.”
“Not in California, it isn't,” was Mars’ retort. “Eddie Yarborough was an officer in the California Border Patrol.”
            “You're not in California now.” She said California as if it left a bad taste in her mouth. “Our legal system makes sense. No one has any rights not shared by all. Not you, not me, not even the governor. Being an ‘officer’ means nothing here, unless in the militia, and on duty. No one may initiate the use of force against another.”
            “Just a....” Mars started as he attempted again to sit up again. He fell back in pain.
            “Lie still!” commanded the doctor, gently pressing his chest down on the bed. “Do you want to be here all week?”
            “How long will I be here?” he asked.
            “You could leave in a couple of days, with portable meds and instructions on their use, except that you're being held by Senorita Chen.”
            Mars looked at the younger woman. “Your holding me here is an initiation of force,” Mars pointed out.
            “Very good, Gringo! You learn fast! Don’t worry, if you are found innocent, you will be reimbursed for your loss. Having observed the heart monitor as you speak,” Chen broke in, “I’m inclined to believe you are telling the truth as you understand it.”
            “You're involved,” she continued, “in the destruction of an aircraft insured by Dos Rios Protective. You also owe this establishment for its services. If the scenario you describe proves to be true by means of the physical evidence, this is what we have: Your pilot initiated an attack against the Cessna, destroying it.
“The Cessna's pilot returned fire from his parachute, killing his attacker. You crashed in Freestate California. The dead pilot is responsible for the destroyed Cessna, therefore the wreckage of the helicopter will go to Senor Alvarez, for whatever it's worth. He’ll be happy to learn that it didn’t burn. Dos Rios will cover the difference. It looks like you'll only be responsible for your debt to this medical facility.”
“Well,” Mars smiled. “I’m sure I can handle that! Let me call my bank.”
Both women laughed.
            “California money?” Juanita snorted.
            “This hospital does not accept or even recognize California currency as a value.” Conchita said. “I don't know anyone who does. If you have any California silver or gold, we can deal.”
            “What's wrong with California money?”
            Juanita stood and slapped the back of her one hand into the palm of the other, in the pose of a lecturer. “If they didn't get ink all over it, one could write a grocery list on it.”
            “I have some US minted gold and silver coins up in San Diego.” Mars said.
            “That would work. You might even be able to get a premium for them, for their numismatic value, but.....they are not here.” Juanita Chen replied.
            “Then, how can I pay?”
            “You get a job” Juanita said. “What can you do?”
            “I'm a homicide detective. I'm working on a murder in San Diego. My partner was killed. I need to get back there and finish the investigation.”
            The next morning found Mars reading a bedside monitor, finishing his breakfast with some difficulty, holding his fork with his left hand, which had become somewhat usable, for all the fact that he was right-handed. His muscles were very stiff and sore, he guessed that he was now off the painkillers.
He was wondering when he’d be able to get out of bed, if for no other reason than to use a real toilet in privacy, when Conchita came in and began looking over his readouts.
Moments later, Juanita entered.
            “Good morning, Marlowe,” she said, pulling a chair toward the hospital bed and seating herself. “Good news. You're cleared of the murder of the helicopter pilot. It turns out that he wasn’t actually shot at all. Apparently Senor Alvarez’ bullets merely smashed the helicopter’s wind screen and the flying shards cut him up badly. He was killed in the crash, of a broken neck.
”I can release you from custody, but you can't leave the country for a time. I'll want you to tell me what you know about this Horiuchi fellow.”
            “....Which leaves your responsibility to this hospital,” Conchita interrupted. “I'll get you a detailed tally when you’re ready to leave tomorrow, but it'll be between a half and one rand.”
            “How much in dollars?” Mars said while trying to load some beans on a tortilla.
            “A rand is a troy ounce of pure gold,” Juanita said. “I suppose that’s about ten thousand of your dollars....this week.”
            He held the clumsily-filled tortilla up, about to take a bite. “But you treated me, even though I have no money....that’s any good here.”
            “Of course,” Conchita laughed lightly. “We treat stray dogs too, Mr. Marlowe. I'll get you into a set of portable electrosplints in the morning, and you'll be free to go.”
            “And the bill?”
            “You will pay us when you can.”
            The next afternoon, after Mars had his new portable splints installed, Juanita Chen showed up. After she spoke for a few minutes with the hospital administrator, she met Mars in the lobby.
            “I’ve paid your hospital bill. I’d rather have you owe me than owe the hospital. What Dos Rios will owe you in reparations will lower your debt to us.  I have a proposal to offer you,” she said. “First, we have to get you some clothing that’s in better repair, as well as more fashionable.”
They walked to a nearby men's clothing store. Inside, the clothing was colorful, with Spanish, Mexican and Indian styles. Mars was wearing what was left of his business suit, damaged by his fall from the helicopter, and torn open at the leg and shoulder areas to accommodate his splints. An apparatus applied his weight above his knee on his broken leg. He stood in front of a triple mirror and was being measured up by a clothing salesman.
“Don’t you have any American clothes?” Mars asked, looking at the racks dubiously.
            Juanita laughed.
      The salesman dropped his eyes to Mars’ groin. “Aren’t you getting tired of sweaty balls all day, and that...that belly cinch of yours?”
            “Point taken,” Mars chuckled. “But it’ll take a while before I’ll get used to looking like a peacock.”
            “Peacocks look that way to attract pea hens, Mr. Marlowe,” she reminded him with a coy smile.
            It was while Mars was changing from his tattered suit into his new clothing that he found the envelope into which he’d placed Miss MacDougal’s Freestate money he’s found at the crime scene and at her San Diego loft. He showed them to Juanita.
            “Hold on to them,” she said as she counted up the amount. “We need to talk at my office.”
            Juanita walked along a sidewalk with Mars limping alongside. Mars was wearing a dark green kilt that fit over and partly concealed his leg apparatus and an Irish tartan poncho that covered a t-shirt and his handgun. It was all topped off with a fedora with a bald eagle’s flight feather tucked into the band.
            They entered a building and crossed a large lobby, filled with coin-operated video gaming stations and with a knick-knack stand on one side. They walked to an elevator.
The Dos Rios offices were on the tenth floor. They stepped out of the elevator and into the foyer of Dos Rios, they entered the office which had Juanita Chen’s name on the door. Juanita sat at her desk and offered Mars a chair.
            “I’m prepared to make you an offer, Mr. Marlowe”
            “Forget the offer, Miss Chen. I want to get back to San Diego. I’ll find a way to pay my damned hospital bill.”
            “It's your Wall.”
“But you can get through it.”
            Juanita tapped away on her desk surface while they talked. Mars couldn’t see the computer screen which has risen from the desk surface when she started it. He briefly wondered what she was doing.
            “Off the record, of course we can.” Juanita looked up from the monitor. “The Kennedy Border Wall was as foolish a plan as any hatched by the Gringos in this century, but you won't learn any secrets until you've become committed to Freestate.”
            “I'm a prisoner?”
            “You’re not a prisoner. Well, you are, in a way.” She eyed him through a businesswoman’s eyes. “I believe you are an honest and intelligent man. I have a couple of reasons to want you to stay--at least for a while. Hear me out, and if you reject my requests, and find another way to pay your bills, then you’ll be able to leave.”
            “Reasons? What are your reasons?”
            Juanita  continued talking while working at the computer. She pauses for a moment to read the screen.
            “Says here you're well thought of by your peers in San Diego PD, but you're regarded as a kind of a renegade by your superiors....”
            Mars shifted forward in his chair. “You can get my service records?’
            “....You'll need employment. You can learn to investigate claims.”
            “Me? An insurance dick? No....Where's the police department. I'll apply....”
            “Other than local security patrols and our competitors, we are the police. We don't have jack-booted civil servants sucking money out of people's pockets. We don't go harassing joy girls like you....”
            Mars stood. “....I don't roust hookers. That's vice....”
            “Of course you don’t,” Juanita commented sarcastically, with mock patience. “At Dos Rios, we protect our clients' persons and property. We recover losses caused by criminals, accidents or natural occurrences. Any claims we can't recover, we pay off. We try very hard not to have to pay off, and that brings us to the reason I brought you to my office.”
            “I'm investigating two murders--my partner and I were working on the murder of one Valerie MacDougal, a Free Stater who worked in California.” Mars sat down, splaying his hands over his knees. “My partner was killed, I think as a result of this investigation.”
            “Come to work for Dos Rios,” she continued, “and your first assignment will be the MacDougal murder. She was a client, and we don't like our clients murdered. As a bonus, you might find the solution of this case may contain clues to help you solve your partner’s murder. Does this interest you?”
            Mars only paused for a few seconds. “You have a deal.”
            Juanita extended her hand, which Mars shook with his left hand. “Then the money in your pocket will be your first two months’ pay.”