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"Two hundred dollars," the man said, his eyes trying to look cool and watchful at the same time, and making a fearful mess of both. He wasn't talking about what I was trying to sell. I wasn't even in New Richmond yet. It was after eight o'clock at night and I was losing patience and running out of time.
"Bullshit," I said. "Fifty is the rate."
The man laughed with genuine amusement.
"You been away or something, man? Shit, I can't barely remember when fifty dollars was the rate."
"Fifty dollars," I said again. I guess I was hoping if I said it often enough I'd end up neurolinguistically programming him. I was standing in front of a door, a door which was hidden in the basement of a building in the Portal settlement, the high-rise nightmare of ragged buildings and shanty dwellings which surrounds New Richmond. I was there because this particular building had been constructed right up against the exterior wall of the city, inside which I needed to be. I'd put up with being frisked on entry by the street gang which was currently controlling the building, and had already paid twenty dollars "tax" on my gun. I didn't have two hundred dollars. I barely had a hundred, and I was in a hurry.
The man shrugged. "So go in the main entrance."
I stuffed my hands into my jacket pockets, fighting back anger and panic in equal measure. "And don't be thinking about bringing out your gun," he continued, mildly. "Cos there's three brothers you can't even see with rifles trained on yo ass."
I couldn't go in the main gates, as he well knew. No one came to this part of the Portal town if they could enter New Richmond through one of thelegitimate entrances. Going in that way meant running your ownCard through the machines, thus broadcasting your name to the cops, the city administration and anyone else who had a tap on the line.
"Look," I said. "I've been this way before. I don't need a guide, I just need to get past you. Fifty dollars is what I have."
The man turned away and signaled into the darkness with an upwards nod of his head. I heard the sound of several sets of feet padding out of the darkness towards me.
"You still piecing your action from Howie 'The Plan'?" I asked, casually. The footsteps behind stopped, and the man turned to look at me again, eyes watchful.
"What you know about Mr. Amos?" he asked.
"Not much," I said, though I did. Howie was a medium-time crook operating out of the eighth floor. He ran some girls, owned a bar, and had pieces of the drugs action so far down the chain that he was tolerated by the real heavy hitters above. Howie was a fat, affable man with a surprising shock of blond hair, but he was fitter than he looked and knew how to keep a secret. Late at night, when most of the customers were gone, he'd been known to sit in with his house blues band and play a hell of a lot better than you'd expect. He didn't have the Bright Eyes, but he could have. He was a stand-up guy.
"Just enough," I continued, "to tell the wrong people about some of the deals they don't know he's into. And if he thinks that information came from you guys, well . . ."
"Why would he get to thinking that?" the man asked, though he was losing heart. These guys were below bottom-rung lowlife: hardly on the ladder. They most likely didn't even know where the ladder was, and had to use steps the whole time. Running this door was as close as they got to operating in New Richmond. Guys like this don't want to tangle with the jungle inside. It bites.
"I can't imagine," I said. "Look. Fifty dollars. Then on my way out I give you the other hundred fifty."
For all he knew I was never coming out, but fifty was better than no cash and a lot of potential grief. He stepped aside. I peeled the notes off, and he opened the door.
"And an extra twenty," I added, "if you keep any mention of me off the list you sell to the cops."
"Don't know what you're talking about," he said stonily, but there was a change in his attitude. "But I'll take your twenty."
I nodded and walked through the door. It shut behind me, and for the first time in five years I was inside New Richmond.
The door led into an old service corridor, which meandered towards the lower engine block through miles of dank and creepy corridors. There's nothing of value to be had there, and that's why nobody had cared when external construction had covered up the entrance. The one thing no one was going to be trying to do was get the engines going again. There's an old story which says one of the original repair drones still toils away down there somewhere, grown old and insane, but even I don't believe that.
For a long time the door was forgotten, and then somebody rediscovered it and realized its potential value as a covert entrance to the city. An adjunct to the service corridor leads via the exhaust ducts to a hidden and little-known staircase, which leads up to the second floor of the old Mall.
But I wasn't going to be going that way. I quickly followed the corridor for two hundred yards, past panels etched and stained with rust. It's eerily silent down there, perhaps the only truly quiet part of the city. The corridor took a sharpish right turn, and you could see the dim and intermittent lights in the ceiling disappearing towards the next turn, about half a mile ahead. Instead of following the lights I gathered myself and leapt upwards, arms straight above me, hands balled into fists. They hit a panel of the roof and it popped up and over, revealing a dark space beyond. I took a quick glance back to ensure no one was watching, jumped up again and pulled myself up through the hole.
When I replaced the ceiling panel I was left in a darkness broken only by yellow slivers of light which escaped through cracks in the floor. I straightened into the slight hunch which is required for New Richmond's lost ventilation system, and hurried forwards into the gloom. Every now and then I heard some fragment of life floating down from the city. An aged gurgle, soft clanks grown old, the occasional ghost of speech caught accidentally in some twist of corridor above and echoed down to the graveyard below. I had always felt that walking this corridor was like creeping through New Richmond's ancient and barren womb, but then I've always been a bit of a moron.
After about half a mile I passed under one of the main entrances. You can tell because of the sound of hundreds of feet coming in, going out. I stood underneath the entrance for a moment, remembering. I used to come the covert way sometimes for kicks, or for some particular purpose, but the main gates are the way you enter if you want to appreciate what you're getting into. You walk into a foyer which is twenty stories high, a taste of the opulence you can expect if you've got clearance to go above the hundredth floor. There used to be glass windows on all of the levels which tower above you, but they were walled in once they'd become low-life areas. It's like standing in the biggest and gaudiest shower cubicle of all time. You walked up to the desk, ran your ownCard through the machine, and established your clearance. I used to live in the seventies, and so I'd walk over to one of the express elevators, get in, and be shot up into the sky.
Not tonight. Tonight I was threading my way like a snake through endless tunnels, and I wasn't going to the 72nd floor because there was nothing left for me there. I was in New Richmond because I needed money, and had only one way of getting some. I was going to go in, get the money, get out--and then turn my back on Virginia for good.