Stupendous Tales

The Stairs Outside My Office

I sat in my office, which wasn’t much of an office, studying my dingy curtains and the dust on the surface of my desk which hadn’t been disturbed by a customer sitting down to negotiate with me in what seemed like an awfully long time.

I was a private detective, that’s what my licence said, framed on the wall behind me, looming over my head like a golden halo with its fancy scrolls and official seals: Licensed as a private operator in the four quadrants of earth by the Terran Space Authority. Which was just a lot of bureaucratese that meant the stormtroopers looked the other way when I jimmied open a window or punched a hoodlum out in the street.

It wasn’t much of life, but then again, I wasn’t much of a person. I’d been on the moon for fifteen years, before coming back to earth. The moon takes a lot out of a man, no doubt about it. You sign a contract, and for seven years, and seven years again, you belong to them body and soul. I was a guard, riding up and down the elevators that took the miners into the core. The miners weren’t human. No human being could survive the temperature and the pressure that blasted the ore-face a hundred miles below the crust. We’d found the miners on Jupiter, swimming through the murky gas compacted to the consistency of mud far inside that giant. They were like monkeys, these sailing sacks of gas, and easily trained to work the machinery deep inside the lunar tunnels. Occasionally though, they went off the rails, slightly mad, snapping the machinery and corroding it with their emanations. Then you had to blast them. That’s where I came in.

Fourteen years of frying gaseous membranes kind of colours your view of the universe. For one thing you can never forget that smell, or get it off your skin. There’s no one much to talk to when you’re at work, just those gibbering sacks. I had to quit after fourteen years, or I’d have gone crazy—really crazy, not the kind of waking derangement everyone suffers on the moon. I stuck around one year at the lunar base, cashed in my pension and started up an outfit trading in the ore the mines produced. That failed within six months. I had to wait another six, sleeping in the air ducts and scrounging food before I could hitch a ride off the rock and back to earth.

The P.D.’s certificate was easy to get. A few of the old guards from the rock were in with the stormtroopers, doing the easy work like guarding the compounds where the pursuit vehicles were kept, or riding with the payroll from the bank on Friday afternoon. The stormtroopers always demanded their pay in cash. Funny, maybe they knew something the rest of us didn’t. But what do I know? I hadn’t had a customer in what seemed like months. I’d take payment cash, credit or in kind. Hell, I’d take a customer on for a kind word, just to keep from going rusty. I was studying patterns in the dust on my desk, like they taught us to do on the moon—looking for the flow of energy and direction in what was seemingly random—when I heard the door open on the street that led to my office. I waited for the step on the stairs. My office was on the second floor. My dingy curtain hid a window that looked out on the sidewalk. If I had enough energy, I would get up and part the curtains and look down at the doorway to my office. Someone had opened it and not yet climbed the stairs. It could be a customer, indecisive, maybe even a little embarrassed about coming to see a private dick. Then again, it could be trouble.