P.S.O Jules Stewart
The coordinates Loretta supplied for Justin turn out to be a unit in the Lime Street Exchange Emporium. The main square in the middle is a sea of commuters, everyone on their own trajectory, passing around and in between each other. Most of the units around the edge are food and drink joints, C8H10N4O2, which occupies a narrow stretch along the side of the concourse, is where Justin works.
Three teenage girls are sat on high-stools leaning in towards a young man behind the bar, elbows on the counter, their bottoms barely touching their seats. He is spinning a tale, his gaze shifting to each one of them in turn. Easy enough to see why they find him so captivating. Tall, lean, large blue eyes set in a face not easily forgotten. Something about his lazy grin that reminds me of Peter Cyan, in that game with the giant crabs. Do you remember?
I sit down at the far end of the bar, the girls don’t notice at all, until Justin turns and says,'Hi, what can I get you?’ Then each head turns momentarily to see what the interruption is before returning to fix on his face.
I show my credentials over the network and say, ‘I just need to ask you a few questions.’
‘I work here legitimately. I have a network chip. It’s no crime to work in the Strata and live at street level. I have an elderly relative to care for there. And, as you can see, I have customers to see to here.’ Justin says turning away.
‘I’ve just been talking to Loretta, she thinks you might know the whereabouts of Estelle Fischer. I assume you know she’s missing?’
He immediately turns back, ‘Was she cross?’ He asks.
He nods, ‘I’ve not seen her for weeks.’
'Since the party on the 8th June?' I suggest.
The girls at the end of the bar are staring like they might at a netfiction, watching the conversation play in front of them. Justin transacts their bill on the network and waits for them to leave. Reluctantly they climb off the stools and go.
‘Listen I saw in Newspulse that Estelle had disappeared and if I had anything to tell you I would've come forward. I hardly know her. I met her with Loretta and I’ve seen her twice, maybe three times since then.’
‘Loretta thinks it’s more than that.’ I say
He shakes his head. ‘Estelle wanted to know about Aigburth. She was supposed to come and meet at the site of the old Palm House, under Fort Sefton, a week or so ago but she didn’t show up. I’d invited her to a couple of things and she never came so I wasn’t surprised.’
‘Things? Meetings? Protests?’
‘Learning about the truth. Nothing illegal, not yet anyway, or at least not supposed to be. People need to know what’s going on. You’re all complacent.’
‘Lost a button recently?’ I ask and show him the evidence from Otterspool Skypark.
‘I don’t have anything that has buttons,’ he says.
‘Ever seen Estelle wearing something with buttons like these.’
He shakes his head.
A slap on the counter startles us both.
‘Give me a treble shot of your strongest, damned if I can stay awake in this heat,’ shouts a tall man taking a perch on a stool.
At the same moment the three of us turn to the main concourse. The crowd milling around this central area surrounded by bars and cafes has parted, leaving space around a woman wearing what could be sleepwear and oversized men’s shoes, black leather. It was perhaps the sound of the shoes clomping heavily as they fell from her feet with each step, her toes slipping into them again to take them up and forward as she moved that caught our attention, or the gasps and mutterings of the crowd. She's moving in a circle, with no network to guide her, disoriented. Obviously wandered in from street level, probably St George's Plateau, they gather there. As people have stepped away from her she’s carved a hole in the crowd. Justin walks over to her with a glass of water but as he approaches two Monanzo security officers arrive to steer her back down to the street. Keeping her at arms length they are herding her towards the shaft that leads back down to the ground. Justin steps in front of the procession and the woman flinches back away from him, until she sees he’s offering her water. She hesitates, sniffs the glass and then drinks the water down in one gulp. An astonished murmur ripples across the network.
Justin head down, cheeks red, strides back to his counter. With shaking hands he grabs a cloth and wrings it, knuckles white. His eyes flick across his network stats, two minutes away from his counter will really affect his efficiency rating.
‘You people ignore what’s right under your noses. Far below maybe but life is hard for those at street level. What will you do about it?’ he asks me.
I shrug, ‘I’m just looking for Estelle Fischer. I don’t have any answers. Only questions.’
A man approaches and climbing onto a stool lays an old walking cane with a bone handle on the counter. Justin glances at him and then back to me, ‘I don’t have anything to tell you. She was supposed to show up but she didn’t. And to be honest I don’t really care.’
‘Ok, I’ll need to do some checking of your movements on the afternoon of 16th July. I may need to ask you more questions.’
‘You know where to find me.’
‘I’ll look at your memories of meeting Estelle too, do you have a problem with that?’
He shrugs his shoulders, ’it’s not like I have much choice.’
I leave Justin to tend to his latest customer.