Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sky Wheels (or Old Derby Girls Never Die)

[Author’s note: The following story is self-contained, but two primary characters also appear in the earlier “Return of the Judi.” This can be found at ]

**  **  **  **  **  **  **  **  **  **  **  **  ** **  **  **  **  **  **  **  ** 

I’m Security Chief Byron Lasko at The Worldview Arms, an orbiting hotel owned by Cosmocorp, a Kiribati corporation. If you’re reading this, I’m almost surely “the late Security Chief Byron Lasko.” Multiple electronic and photonic copies of this record are tucked in places no one should find while I’m alive, but which will be examined if I unexpectedly cease to be in that happy condition. I’ll delete the files myself if I survive until retirement: I don’t want to repeat Charlie Peyton’s mistake by leaving them behind. You’ll learn about Charlie shortly.

“Private cop in space” sounds like an exciting job, doesn’t it? It isn’t most of the time. How much crime happens on a space station after all? Not much. Everyone realizes there is nowhere to run. Theft is pointless since the item will turn up on the scans when the thief boards a shuttle for earth. So, no one bothers. My primary function is to give guests a sense of security rather than any greater reality of it; some folks just feel better seeing a blue uniform and a badge. Other guests don’t have any affection for badges, of course, but they also know my interests are strictly limited to the station, so I don’t trouble them much; international criminals are as welcome as any other guests so long as they pay their hotel bill and keep their noses clean while they are here. Oh, I break up an occasional bar fight or intervene in the odd domestic dispute, but otherwise I read a lot and watch old movies in my office. Only once did I investigate an honest-to-goodness homicide, but you won’t find any record of it. It took place in the hotel pool. I solved the case, too, but Cosmocorp ordered me to keep quiet about it. Murder is bad for business. The hotel doctor, who received a nice bonus that year, pleased management by listing the cause of death as a heart attack. She also thereby pleased the widow, “Cadence Trang,” though her name had been Judi Bentley when I knew her years earlier. Yes, Judi (or Cadence, or whatever her real name was) did it.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the classic 20th century image of a space station: a big, spoked wagon wheel in the sky. Partly out of practical considerations and partly as homage, this was precisely the original design of The Worldview Arms. The design simplified artificial gravity: the spin of the wheel simulated one-fifth g at the outermost level.

Shortly after the shooting death – excuse me, heart attack – of Nguyen Trang, the hotel expanded with the construction of a second wheel. The wheels were connected at the axis, and also by four walkway tubes at the rims; the tubes allow guests to walk between wheels under pseudo-gravity rather than awkwardly detour through weightlessness at the axis.  The original ring was given over almost entirely to bedroom suites, though it retained the spherical swimming pool at the weightless hub. The new wheel, called B-Ring, is where the action is. Running the full circumference is an unobstructed 4-meter wide aisle called The Boulevard. Open to The Boulevard are multi-level restaurants, bars, view decks, dance floors, a casino, a spa, and more. Perhaps inevitably, the casino is named The High Roller. Management offices – and mine – are also located in B-Ring. At the hub of B-Ring is the shuttle terminal.

The hotel is a roaring success with the superrich rocket set. These are the only people who can afford it. For years, I met no one with less than $100,000,000 in assets, other than hotel personnel and a few of the guests’ playmates. So, it was a pleasant surprise to learn that Cosmocorp had booked a sports event on the station:  the Atlantic City Blackjacks and the Dundee Hells Gaels women’s roller derby teams would compete for the newly created Universe Cup, using The Boulevard as their track. How management had come up with this idea was beyond me, but I was looking forward to a change of pace from the usual arrogant self-important snobs who normally occupied our guest rooms.

On the scheduled day of arrival, I ascended D-Spoke of B-Ring to the docking terminal. D-Spoke has a ladder. Guests rarely use it, but it is faster than the elevator, and the low gravity, dropping to zero at the hub, makes the climb a cinch. I emerged from D-Spoke and tucked myself out of the way in a wall nook in the terminal. I always like to see guests arrive in person, and I especially wanted to do so this time. The station is freer of cameras than the typical earthside hotel – our guests value privacy – but cameras are in the terminal, and the security computer watches through them in its own unique way; it pings me on my wristband when it identifies a security interest.

The airlock hissed as it equalized pressure between the terminal and the shuttle. The airlock door slid open. A shuttle flight attendant I had seen many times before emerged. She wore a severe gray uniform and the name tag “Barbara.” She floated out into the terminal and took hold of a guide rail to stabilize herself. Normally, she guides guests one-by-one along the rail to the elevator. The raucous passengers on this flight, however, were having none of it. They tumbled out of the airlock into the zero-g. Most wore team jerseys. Chattering and laughing, they pushed off walls and somersaulted as Barbara called repeatedly for their attention. Not all the shuttle passengers joined them; several waited patiently in the airlock. None of the patient ones were in jerseys. I guessed they were media people assigned to cover the match. An athletic red-headed woman wearing a brown jersey with the number 73 and the moniker “Steel Raina” floated up to me face-to-face. Her tresses flared out in every direction.

“Hello copper,” she said with finger flick to my badge.  The flick was enough to start her drifting slowly backward. “Are you on a stakeout?” she asked.

“I’m station security, not technically police,” I answered.

“I’m feeling more secure already. Technically.”

“I just like to see who comes aboard the hotel,” I added.

“How conscientious.”

Barbara meantime was pleading. “Please get on the elevator. We’re on a schedule.”

Raina kicked the wall and sailed into the elevator as though she had done it a hundred times before. “OK, come on ladies,” she called out.  Others followed.

“The elevator takes only ten at a time,” Barbara said. “Some of you have to wait for it to return.”

Barbara’s instruction was ignored. Blackjacks and Gaels alike crammed into the elevator shoulder to shoulder.

Barbara sighed and said, “You’ll be re-entering gravity, so orient yourselves with feet to the floor. Hotel staff will meet you in the lobby and guide you to your rooms. She pressed the “Close” button next to the elevator doors rather more forcefully than necessary. She turned to the people in the airlock. “Please remain there until the elevator returns.”

The folks in the airlock were compliant. When elevator returned, they permitted Barbara to guide them one at a time. Last out of the airlock was a woman in a very expensive black and lavender jump suit. Her pony-tailed hair matched the black of her suit. My wrist band beeped a security warning. My stomach warned me too.

As soon as the doors shut, I descended D-Spoke, easily outpacing the elevator. I expected a visitor to my office. Back behind my desk, I scarcely had finished posting a quickly composed order on the Hotel InfoCenter than my office door opened without a prior knock.

“Hello Judi,” I said. “Planning on murdering anyone today?”

“No, but the day is young, and you are unpleasant. At least I think the day is young. You go by Kiribati time, don’t you? And, by the way, my name is Cadence Trang.”

“Still? Haven’t you grown tired of that one yet?”

“Not while I still can sign checks with it. Byron, you are being shockingly rude, not that that is any surprise. The tragic death of my husband in the hotel swimming pool was a heart attack. Your own station doctor said so. If you accuse me of murder in front of any witness I will sue you for slander.”

“A slander trial would mean revisiting the circumstances of your husband’s death in front of a judge. Yes, why don’t we do that?” I suggested. “Somehow, I don’t expect it to happen. But far be it from me to be disrespectful to a guest, so I’ll not mention in public the terms by which your marriage ended.  And, though you always will be Judi to me, I’ll call you Madame Trang in public as a courtesy.”

“I shall be sure to recommend you for Employee of the Month.”

“Thank you.”

“My recommendation would carry weight, too – as would a recommendation to fire you if I give one of those. I’ve become a Cosmocorp stockholder since we last met.”

“Have you? So, in a sense I’m working for you. Noted. Why are you here, Judi? I thought today’s flight was derby and media personnel only.”

“I am derby personnel.”

“You are a skater?” I asked skeptically.

“Of course not. I’m sponsoring this event. I became a Cosmocorp stockholder in order to help lock in the deal.”

“OK, you’ve surprised me. Sports events don’t strike me as your kind of investment. Is the profit as big as all that?”

“No. I’ll lose money,” she said. “Quite a lot of money.”

“A second surprise. Judi, you don’t do things on whimsy or just for fun. There must be a payoff of some kind. Are you sure there will be no bodies in the hotel pool?”

“I’m sure.”

“The pool is closed for the next few days anyway. I’ve already logged the order on the hotel InfoCenter. I gave the reason as ‘safety concerns.’”

“Byron, stop harping on the damn pool! This time I want to save a life.”

“How novel. That makes three surprises in a row. Your words ‘this time’ are close to an admission about last time, by the way, but we’ll let it pass. Whose life do you plan to save, Judi?”


“Is your life in danger?”

“Yes.  So is yours. The years tick by.”

“Well, there’s not much to be done about that,” I said.

“Maybe there is, and I want your help.”

“Somehow I expected you would. I just didn’t know for what. Judi, I already did you a ‘for-old-times-sake’ favor on your last visit.”

“Maybe you have it in your heart for another. If not, consider doing it for yourself.”

Judi withdrew a leather-bound booklet from her bag. She turned open the front cover and slid the book over to me. A grainy, black-and-white photograph of a woman in roller skates was pasted inside. The name “Malice B. Toklas” was penciled beneath.

“I saw you lurking in the terminal, Byron. Did you happen to notice this woman?”

“Yes. She’s number 73 now, not 41. And her name is Steel Raina, not Malice B. Toklas. Why the retro uniform and gear? What team is this?” I asked.

“The team was Atlantic City, but not the Blackjacks. It was the Splinters, which disbanded in 1979. As for the look, it wasn’t retro in 1942.”

“Was she at a 40s theme party or something?”

“No. The picture was taken in 1942.”

“Nonsense. Either the woman was playing dress-up or the photo is faked,” I said.

“Neither. I bought that journal from the great granddaughter of a woman who had been married to the man who wrote it. She’d recently inherited it along with other antiques. The great granddaughter said she went to a Blackjacks bout in AC, saw the curious resemblance of Malice to Raina, and thought I might be interested. She called me up in Singapore.”

“Why you?”

“She said she saw me listed in a Fortune article about wealthy heiresses.”

“And so she offered to relieve you of some of the burden of your wealth. Judi, when did you start falling for this kind of thing? Did she sell you a bridge while she was at it? Is there a treasure map in here, too?”

“Don’t be sarcastic. You’re not good at it.  Byron, the records for the journal’s author check out. Charles Peyton was a real person who skated on the Atlantic City Splinters from 1939 to 1943. Men and women both were on the team back then, and one of the Splinters was a Malice B. Toklas. The local sports pages of the time mention her repeatedly. I’ve had the journal analyzed for age. The paper and ink are over a century old. So is the photo. Another thing: Malice’s real name supposedly was Alice Widmer. I found Alice’s birth certificate dated 1917.”


“I dug some more and found Alice’s death certificate, also dated 1917. The real Alice died as an infant. The authorities back then rarely checked one record against the other like they do today, because they’d have had to go physically to the courthouses to do it; so, claiming the birth certificate of someone who died in childhood was a common way for people to fake new identities.”

“I acknowledge your expertise about faking new identities,” I said, “but that just means some skater a century ago might have had a phony name.  It’s also possible you found the birth certificate of the wrong Alice Widmer. Even if you found the right one, odds are Malice changed her name because she was fleeing creditors or a crazy ex or some such mundane thing. As for the age of the materials, a journal like this can be counterfeited using vintage supplies from antique shops.”

“But you yourself said it’s the same woman.”

“Which, once again, means the photo is probably faked. But, even if the photo is genuine, which is not established, people do look alike sometimes. I’m sure if we look through enough 1942 photos, we can find a face like yours, too. And mine. It is easier to believe in this sort of coincidence than in a 150- year-old derby skater. Besides, even if this were true, which it is not, what do you hope to gain by it?”

“Don’t be dense. Youth, Byron, youth. With all our modern methods of analysis and bioengineering, we can find out exactly why she doesn’t age, and we can duplicate it. Byron, we don’t have to grow old. But we can’t reveal it to too many people, or someone will try to take the secret away from us and keep it for himself.”

“I am stunned that you believe a single word of what you are saying. When did you become this gullible? Or this desperate?”

“Read the journal Byron. Please.”

I shook my head, but said, “OK, I’ll do it to indulge you, Judi.”

“I knew you still had a sweet spot for me.”

“Don’t rely on it.”

“I’m going to check into my room. Then I’m going to the bar for a drink. I could use one. Catch up with me there when you are done reading the journal.”

After Judi left, I picked up the leather booklet. It emitted a slight aroma of decay. I felt the paper. The pages were brown with age but were intact. I opened to the first page and began to read.

I’m not sure who will read this or when. I suppose I’m writing this for you, whoever you are. Whenever.

I’m Charles Peyton. Fans of the Atlantic City Splinters, the city’s roller derby team, know me better as Tom Pain, the second best skater on the team. I usually skate pivot. The Splinters are a team with more heart than talent. We lose 8 out of every 10 bouts, but we always put up a fight. The fans love it when we do eke out a come-from-behind victory. Actually, come-from-behind is the only kind of victory we ever have. The best skater on the team is a redheaded tomato who calls herself Malice B. Toklas, and she is the reason I’m writing this message and warning.

The first thing that crossed my mind on the day Malice walked into the rink and tried out for the team was that now maybe we’d start winning more bouts. OK, it was the second thing that crossed my mind. She’s a looker, you see, with long red hair like Rita Hayworth.

Maybe I’d better back up and tell things from the beginning. My parents died when I was young, but I made a comfortable life for myself in Princeton, NJ. I did until the ’29 Crash anyway. I not only lost my money, I lost my wife of only two years. No, she didn’t die. She left me for some bureaucrat in Trenton who at least had a steady job. I can’t say I really blame her.

For the next few years, I worked wherever I could get a job. Starting in 1937 I became a handyman at a roller skating rink in Atlantic City. The place was pretty popular with kids and the dating crowd. The boss let me skate for free when there was no work to do, and I got pretty good at it.

Roller derby was still pretty new. A guy named Leo Seltzer had invented it in ‘35. Teams were popping up everywhere and were drawing crowds. Leo’s stroke of genius was to put men and women on the teams. They trade off during the bouts.

In 1939, my boss decided to cash in on derby. He installed a banked track and bleachers. He and a few other investors got in touch with Leo and set up new derby team called the Splinters. I could have stayed on as handyman, but I figured, “What the hell?’ and tried out for the team. I made it. That’s less impressive than it sounds. The first year, anyone who could stand upright on skates would have qualified. The Splinters joined a league division that covered 6 states. We were skating professional bouts before the end of ‘39. We traveled mostly by bus. The other teams liked to play us because they usually won, so we helped their records.

That’s how it stood for two years. Then the Japs hit Pearl Harbor, and half the team either signed up for the service or got defense jobs. Suddenly, we needed new skaters. I tried to sign up myself, but I failed the physical. I had too many injuries from derby. There’s an irony in there somewhere.

In the last week of December in ’41 a redhead walked into the rink with a pair of skates slung over her shoulder. She called herself Malice B. Toklas. I sneaked a look at her application to see her real name. It was Alice Widmer from Grover’s Mill. Her tryout was something to see. It was like watching the Nicholas brothers dance. Backward or forward, one foot or two were all the same to her. Her crossovers were perfect and she 360ed on a curve while staying rock-steady. The coach sent four Splinters out on the track to block her, but they barely slowed her down. The coach was ecstatic. He asked where she had played before. She said nowhere. He didn’t believe her and neither did I, but he made her a Splinter there and then.

Malice is the team’s biggest asset, but she’s far from perfect. She plays rough, which the fans always like, and sometimes that’s the only thing that keeps her from being fired. I don’t just mean that she gets taken down sometimes. We all get knocked on our cans: you can’t cheat Newton. In the last bout against the Philadelphia Declarers, for example, Snow Spite knocked her over the rail into the front row. The guys there gave Malice more of a hand than she needed to get back on the track. They didn’t realize how dangerous that was. No, that’s not the problem. The problem is inconsistency. She’ll be a powerhouse on the track for a while, and then suddenly it’s as though she forgets how to skate derby. To make it worse, she slacks off always when just a few points would make the difference between a win and a loss. It is weird, and the coach gets apoplectic with her about it.

For a while I suspected she was shaving points for her bookie, especially since she seemed always to have more cash than the rest of us. No one ever saw her place a bet or gamble, though, and, besides, there was another possible explanation for the dough: sometimes after bouts she’d accept dates from guys who came up to her from the audience, and they always were tough-looking mugs who flashed green around. Never the same one twice, either. Well, I’m not one to judge.

The skating name “Malice B. Toklas” made me wonder if she really preferred the dames anyway. If so, it was no one on the team. She got along OK with the lady Splinters, but wasn’t close to any of them. She mostly kept to herself. Just to take a chance, I asked her out once myself. She was none too gentle with the no, so I let it drop.

OK, that’s not entirely true. I didn’t ask again, but I didn’t fully let the idea drop either.

Everything changed in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is a tough team, so we were getting beat, as usual, but we weren’t getting beat by much, and Malice was the main reason it was close. Then, in the second half, the men had a couple good jams. When Knock Holiday did a grand slam we edged ahead a few points. When the dames went on the track, though, Malice started messing up. She let jammers slip by her and let a blocker she should have dodged knock her down. Brooklyn took back the lead. It was as though she was deliberately holding back. But why? Didn’t she realize that if the Splinters had a winning season she’d be a celebrity as our star player? Then it struck me: maybe that was precisely what she wanted to avoid. I could think of a dozen reasons why someone might not want too much attention. She might even be wanted by cops somewhere or something.

At one point, a Brooklyn fan yelled something at Malice in Italian that must not have been very polite. She shouted something back at him that made his buddies laugh. It was the first I knew she could speak Italian. I wondered what kind of name Widmer was. German? They’re allies of the Italians. That’s when an even crazier idea hit me. What if she was a Nazi spy?

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. “What are you nuts?” But you know, the more I thought about it the less nuts it seemed. Our team travels all around New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. We’re always near places like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Philadelphia shipyards, Picatinny Arsenal, the Pittsburg steel mills, the Colt factories, Baltimore Harbor and so on. There’s plenty to spy on, like ships leaving the harbors, and there are things to sabotage, too. Then there were those tough men with the cash. Who knew what they really were about?

After the bout, which we lost by 7 points, she didn’t take the bus back to Atlantic City. I overheard her say to one of the women that she wanted to spend the weekend in New York. She’d get back on her own. I told the driver the same thing, and so did a couple other guys. I didn’t run off to grab the next subway to Manhattan like they did. Instead, I hung back at the arena and stayed out of sight to see what Malice would do. Was I was using the Nazi spy idea just as an excuse to follow her? Maybe. But whatever her game was, even if it was just another one of her dates, I wanted to know.

She waited until the bus pulled away from the arena, and then walked in the direction of Coney Island. I followed as far back as I could without losing her, which I nearly did a couple times. She didn’t walk a straight route but wandered this way and that. She went on streets and through parks and neighborhoods where a woman shouldn’t be walking alone at , if you understand me. The darker, more deserted, and scarier the stretch of pavement, the more she was likely to turn onto it. Hey, I felt uncomfortable walking there. What kind of Dumb Dora was this?

What I was afraid would happen happened. On an otherwise deserted street, I saw a man jump out of an alley, grab Malice, and pull her in. I ran to help. When I got to the alleyway I halted at the corner and peered into it to see how many of them there were; I’m not a coward, but I’m not stupid. I saw the silhouette of just the one attacker, and Malice didn’t need any help with him. He was flat on his back, and Malice stood over him with a brick in her hand. She dropped the brick, bent down, flipped him over and lifted his wallet. She must have sensed something, because she turned her head toward the alleyway entrance. I quickly pulled back and then ran between two parked cars where I crouched and hid. I heard her footsteps. She stood by the alleyway for a while, looking for me I suppose, and then walked off. I don’t know if she collected any more wallets that night. I waited until she’d turned the corner at the end of the street, and left. I rode the subway to the bus station and bought a ticket back to AC.

I suppose I should have called the cops, but I didn’t. What I’d seen nagged at me, but I didn’t work up the nerve to follow her again until after a bout in Pittsburg. Once again, Malice had kept the score close, but held back in second half, provoking a tirade from the coach who pulled her out of the game. We won this time, maybe thanks to that decision. I noticed Malice didn’t get on the bus after the bout, so I told the driver that I’d find my own way home and got off. Two of the women laughed. They knew Malice had stayed behind and I suppose they made the connection.

At first it was a repeat of Brooklyn. I don’t know Pittsburg like I know New York, but again she chose to take her stroll on some rough-looking streets. I kept as far back as I could. She sauntered right past a gang of five drunken boys old enough to be drafted before the end of the year. They gave Malice some cat calls, but she ignored them and kept walking. They let her pass. Real gentlemen. I wasn’t so lucky. With me they got all quiet until I was right in front of them. Suddenly, my face was on the concrete and toes were kicking me in the ribs. I felt my wallet leave my back pocket. A toe connected with my head and I passed out.

I groggily came to as a toe tapped my face. I expected another full kick to follow. Instead, the toe tapped again. I opened my eyes, turned my head up, and saw Malice. Three of the young men lay on the sidewalk. I guess the others got away.

“This is yours, I believe,” she said, holding my wallet out to me.

“Thanks.” I pushed up onto my hands and knees and took back the wallet. I hurt all over.

“You’re following me,” she said.

“Yeah.” There was no point denying it.

“That’s not a good idea.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” I said.

“We passed a tavern a couple blocks back. It should still be open. Let’s go get a beer.”

It was a working man’s bar with a musty odor that overwhelmed even the cheap beer. One middle-aged man with gray hair and half his teeth whistled at Malice as we passed the bar. She ignored him. We sat in a booth.

“I’m not walking over there,” the scowling bartender called to us. He was at least 250 pounds and a scar extended above and below his eye patch. His appearance gave him some credibility.

I walked over to the bar. “Whatever is on tap.” The bartender poured two of something. He smelled as though he’d been sampling the wares.

“So, why were you following me?” Malice asked when I sat down again.

“Flag and country.”

“Excuse me?”

“I thought maybe you were … um… a spy.”

“A spy? You think I’m selling secret derby information to the enemy?” she asked.

“Well, no. But our bouts take place near a lot of war industry.”

“There’s a war on. Everywhere is near war industry. There’s no way to avoid it.”

“Maybe,” I conceded.

“Have you followed me before?”

“Yes. Once. In Brooklyn.”

“And what did you see?”

“I saw you beat up a thug. You stole his wallet. Actually, you baited him.”

“Why didn’t you call the police?”

“I figured he sort of deserved it.”

“Do you still think I’m a spy?”


“What do you think?” she asked.

“I think you’re a vigilante. It’s a pretty dangerous sport.”

“More dangerous than derby?” she asked with a smile. When I didn’t answer, she added, “It’s more fun because I don’t have to hold back.”

“I knew you were holding back on purpose. Why?”

“I have my reasons.”

“Damn, I just had a screwy thought.”

“Another one? What?” she asked.

“When you signed with the team you said you were from Grover’s Mill.”

“You’re quite the busybody, aren’t you?”

“I suppose. But were you joking when you wrote that?”

“Why would it be a joke?”

“Because Grover’s Mill is where Orson Welles said the Martians landed in that radio broadcast of his a few years ago.”

“So first I’m a spy and now I’m a Martian?”

“I only asked if you were joking,” I said.

“Yes, actually I was. I’m surprised you picked up on it.”

“I’m a science fiction fan.”

“I can tell. But I’m not a Martian. I only feel like one sometimes. You know, like an outsider. I was born here on planet earth though – to human parents.”

“Do they live in Jersey?”

“They died a long time ago.”

“Mine, too. I have an ex I’m still on speaking terms with, but her new husband doesn’t like me much. That’s natural enough, I suppose,” I said. “Look, Malice, I don’t believe you are a spy or a Martian.”

“How open-minded.”

“But you’re not like anyone else I ever met either.”

“I’m sure that’s true.”

“You are hiding something. You’ve all but admitted it. I’m not your enemy, Malice. Besides, I owe you because of tonight, so I won’t turn you in even if you are wanted by the cops. So, tell me, what’s the deal?”

“Maybe you should mind your own business. It would be a lot healthier for you.”

“You’re pretty when you threaten.”

“Cut the baloney. OK, Charlie, I’ll clue you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you if something bad comes of it. Let’s see how open-minded you really are. Why do you think I’m good on skates?”

“I reckon you’ve been skating since you were a kid.”

“No, I was full-grown before I started. I got my first skates in 1886.”

“1886? You can’t be more than 25 years old.”

“I was born in 1682.”

It was the craziest thing I ever heard. It sounded like something out of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but she said it so matter-of-factly that I found myself half-believing it.

“I never get sick,” she continued. “My bones are almost impossible to break. My teeth grow back; I’m on my fourth set now. And I’m strong. I’m twice as strong as you are. I’m not invulnerable, mind you. I’ve come close to dying lots of times, but so far I’ve survived all the scrapes.”

“But how is this possible?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I wish I had a better answer, but I don’t. I think it’s just some chance phenomenon – something that wouldn’t happen again in a million years. My parents got old and died at normal ages. My brothers and sisters did, too. I didn’t. I don’t have an explanation.”

“Who else knows about this?”

“No one currently alive, except you. I learned very early to keep it to myself. The neighbors in my little Alpine village got suspicious when I was only 40 and there was still the occasional witch hanging back then, so I left. Ever since, I’ve moved and changed my name whenever I started looking too young for my supposed age. It’s getting harder to start over these days with all the ID papers, fingerprints, social security numbers, and the like, but it can be done.”

“No one would hang you today for being a witch.”

“Maybe not. But they’d put me in some hospital while they poke and prod me to find the secret of youth. I can’t give them the secret. I don’t know any secret. I’m just a freak. So, now that I’ve told you, what am I going to do with you?”

“You could try bribery to keep me quiet,” I said.

“Are you asking me for money?”


“Oh, I see. You prefer older women, do you? And if I say no?”

“You’re taking me seriously. Don’t. Sorry if I was out of line, Malice. Your secret is safe regardless. I was just making a pass by making a bad joke. Hey, I’m a guy. Besides, I think you’d break my neck if I tried to blackmail you.”

“So I would. OK, Charlie. So long as we understand each other: no threats, no bribes, no blackmail. You say you owe me. Well, then, there is one way you can pay me back. Keep your trap shut about this.” Then she said something that threw me more than all the wild stuff she’d said so far. “We can find a place for the night and take a greyhound to AC tomorrow,” she said.

“Uh, when you say ‘we’…”

“I mean we.”

It turned out I do prefer older women. Who knew?

So, why risk Malice finding this journal and putting an end to our cozy set-up? The trouble is this. Malice hasn’t survived two and a half centuries by trusting people, or by letting them grow into threats. I can see in her eyes that she is wary of me. What does she feel for me? Not love. Maybe an amused tolerance. Well, mistrust breeds mistrust, and I’m worried about what will happen when I stop amusing her.

I don’t want to be a double-crosser. I still owe her for Pittsburg, so I won’t reveal her secret while I’m alive. But just in case Malice arranges for something to happen to me, someone should know the truth, so I’ve written this. A few minutes from now I’ll wrap up the journal in brown paper and drive it over to my ex’s place with instructions not to open it unless I have an accident. I’m sure she’ll think I mean a derby accident.

I suppose it’s possible that the package will be forgotten even if I croak, and no one will open it for years and years. That’s OK, too, because Malice will still be there. There is time enough for justice.

How Judi had taken this for truth? Just as a precaution, in case Judi started any trouble over this, I scanned the journal into my computer. I slipped the original into a drawer and left my office in search of Judi. I found her at The Black Sky Lounge. I sat at her table.

 “OK, I’ve read it, J… Madame Trang.”

“What’s your opinion?” she asked.

“The author’s syntax could be better.”

Judi didn’t deign to respond.

“OK,” I continued. “It’s a science fiction story. You say the paper and ink are 1940s. Well, the 1940s were the Golden Age of scifi: Asimov, Campbell, Heinlein, Clarke, and many many more. Charles Peyton – Tom Pain – probably wanted to join them. Charlie didn’t get published, that’s all. Most writers don’t. Maybe he and this Malice woman wrote it together as a lark. HG Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs both used first person narration sometimes. That doesn’t make any of their stories true.”

“What about the photo?”

“If you are asking why Steel Raina looks something like Malice B. Toklas, it’s just a coincidence – or the great granddaughter who sold you the booklet faked it.”

As if on cue, Raina and several of her teammates, trying to get the feel of one-fifth gravity, rolled past us on the Avenue.

“So, you’re not going to help me.”

“Help you do what? Detain Raina? I have no authority to do it even if I wanted to.”

“But this is the one place we can be absolutely sure she can't get away. I have influence with Kiribati officials. I can get you authority.”

“You mean you can bribe them. Maybe. It doesn’t matter. My answer is no. All I’ll do for you is refrain from warning Raina that you are stalking her. That’s a bigger favor than you might think, and I’m doing it only because we have a history.”

“You’re a fool, Byron.”

“Very likely, but not about this.”

“Where’s the book?” Judi asked.

“My office.”

“OK. It’s probably safer there. I’ll pick it up before I leave the station.”

“As you wish.”

The rest of the day prior to the bout was uneventful. I broke up an argument between two cameramen before it came to blows. That was all. Soon, the teams were assembling.

I was standing by the rail in The Black Sky overlooking the Avenue as the Kiribati national anthem filled the station. The announcer introduced the skaters. I could see the oversize monitor in the High Roller across the way. It would display the action that was out of my direct sight, which was, of course, the majority of it. The announcer explained the modified rules on this one-of-a-kind track. The whistle blew and the first jam began.

The images on the monitor were misleading. The cameras made it look like there was a crowd, though of course there was no crowd. The small clots of people here and there along the Avenue were kept in the shots whenever possible. Of the skaters, only Raina was entirely sure-footed, as though the peculiar artificial gravity didn’t bother her at all.  Her ducks, weaves, and crossovers were flawless, and she was fast. She caught on quickly that the faster she went the better centrifugal force worked for her by grounding her. The low gravity meant the hits had exaggerated effect. A Dundee blocker sent AC jammer Jane Ire sailing into the “crowd” in the High Roller. The monitors replayed the hit over and over. For all her skill on wheels, Raina didn’t dominate the track or rack up points as she should have. I wondered if she was shaving points for a bookie. I remembered that this was Peyton’s thought about Malice B. Toklas.

The bout was close. With five minutes remaining, Raina took a hit that sent her into the tables at the Food Court. She limped off the track at the end of the jam and didn’t reappear during the bout. She was replaced by Girl-illa. Dundee Hell’s Gaels nudged out a 2-point victory in the final jam when the AC jammer was in the penalty box. I wondered how hurt Raina really was. Did she deliberately take herself out of the final minutes in order to avoid excessive celebrity?

The after-party was in the Black Sky. I stayed nearby the lounge until the party was well underway just in case there was any ill will, but the two teams were pretty convivial. Judi was nowhere in sight. Neither was Raina. This coincidence should have alarmed me sooner. I’m losing my instincts on this chronically law-abiding station.  With a bad feeling, I returned to my office and rang Judi’s room. Nothing.

I ran a search for her name in the hotel databank for dining reservations or room service. A reservation popped up for “Cadence Trang” in the swimming pool.

I called the front desk. “Did you OK a reservation at the pool?”


“I put the pool off limits.”

“Your authority is not absolute,” the 22-year-old night manager stated with hauteur. “You are a glorified hotel detective, nothing more. Madame Trang is an important client and I overruled you.”

“Don’t you know about her husband?” I asked.

“What husband?”

The self-important pipsqueak had no clue what I was talking about. He had been on the station only a month and knew nothing of “Madame Trang’s” previous visit.

I hurried to the A-Ring and ascended B-Spoke to the pool. In the middle of the sphere of water floated Judi, her eyes wide open. Her worries about aging were over. I already knew how management would insist on playing this. Suicide: lonely widow drowns herself in same the pool where her husband died of heart failure. Sensational, yes, but not scandalous.

After making the necessary calls to the station doctor and the nearly hysterical manager, I descended B-Spoke and looked in on Judi’s suite. “Suite” was a generous description. On earth, Judi probably had walk-in closets that were larger. The room had been ransacked. I proceeded to Steel Raina’s room. There was no one there. I returned to the Black Sky. Raina had joined the after-party. She looked refreshed. I approached her.

“Miss Raina?”

“Hello again copper. Just call me Steel or Raina. No ‘Miss’”

“Could you accompany me to my office?”

“I could.”

“Let me rephrase. Please accompany me to my office.”


We descended steps to the Avenue.

 “I see your ankle is better,” I said.

“I usually recover quickly.”

In my office, I sat behind my desk, and Raina settled into the same chair in which Judi had sat.

“So, what’s up?” she asked.

“Do you know who Cadence Trang is?”

“I saw her on the shuttle. I understand she sponsored the bout.”

“That’s correct. Do you know where she is?”

“How would I know that? She can’t be too hard for you to find. This is a space station.”

“Madame Trang is floating in the hotel pool. The doctor will pronounce her death a suicide.”

“Well that’s too bad. So why did you ask me where she was?”

“To see what you would say. You know, Judi and I had a thing once.”


“That was Cadence Trang’s real name. You know about aliases, don’t you Malice?”


I withdrew the journal from my desk drawer. I faced it toward Raina and opened it to the photo.

“I believe you were looking for this in Madame Trang’s room.”

“I knew I shouldn’t have trusted Charlie,” she said.

“His mistake was trusting you.”

“You know nothing about it! I didn’t kill him. We were out hunting for thugs one night. We did that for sport.”

“I know. He mentions how you saved him from a gang in Pittsburg.”

“Does he? Well, one time in Baltimore he was acting as bait, counting cash as he walked down the sidewalk. He made the mistake of getting out of my sight. I never saw him again. I figure a gang jumped him and dragged him into a cellar somewhere. So Charlie didn’t make it, that’s all. He knew the risks. If you don’t believe me, check the crime records for 1943. You’ll see him listed as a missing person in Baltimore.”

Baltimore is out of my jurisdiction, but if I fingerprint Madame Trang’s room, what will I find?”

“I’m admitting nothing, Mr. Lasko.”


“OK. Byron. But I think you should know that Madame Trang – Judi – was going to kill you and plant evidence on me. She was a little annoyed with you for some reason. She was going to control me by threats of criminal charges and with Charlie’s journal. Her death saved your life and prevented the ruination of mine.”

“I believe you. In fact, I even believe you about Charlie.”

She looked at me curiously. “May I have the book?” she asked.

I slid over the journal.

“I don’t understand.”

“I told you, Raina. The station doctor will declare Judi’s death a suicide.  There is no crime as far as any authorities are concerned. As for the journal, I have nothing to gain from showing it to anybody.”

“You could get revenge for Trang – for Judi.”

“Wasn’t she planning to kill me?”

“Yes. I can see how that might dampen your thirst for payback. I’m sorry about Judi anyway,” she said.

“Yes, well you know how complicated it can be with exes.”

“Is that it? Can I go?””

“Yes. I just wanted to know the truth.”

“You know, you kind-of remind me of Charlie.”

“How so?”

“It’s not just looks. Besides, it has been over a century and my memory for faces isn’t perfect. It’s more that both of you have a similar I-could-have-been-much-more-than-this-but-I’m-just-not pathos about you. I find it appealing,” she said.

“There’s no accounting for taste.”

“Well, you know where I skate. Maybe you should come down and see me sometime,” she said.

“Maybe I’ll do that. For old times sake.”

No comments:

Post a Comment