Chapter Two

The Internet is a pretty scummy place. I should know; I’m part of the scum. Maybe that’s why I like the rain so much... It was raining when we left my office and stepped into the slums of cyberspace. Angry clouds rolled across the sky, split by bolts of digital lightning. The rain wasn’t real, of course--just graphical weather effects, usually the result of heavy network traffic--but on my cutting edge video card, it appeared as physical as a White House intern. I often hope that the rain will wash away all the filth, that it will cleanse the Net and me along with it in a flood of purifying water. But somehow, I never feel any cleaner... and I never stop doing the things that make me feel so dirty.

I enjoy them too much.

The feline came prepared. The moment we walked out into the rain, she whipped out a parasol and kept right on walking as if the downpour was nothing more than a light drizzle. As for me, the folds of my cloak were more than enough to protect me from the storm. It was then that I noticed she had a thing for purple: the umbrella she held, the dress she wore, the purse that hung off her shoulder, and even the high-heeled shoes that clicked upon the pavement with each step she took were all a deep, dark violet. Not that there was anything wrong with that; my favorite color was black, but all that bubblegum-hued fur of hers was helping me to develop a fondness for pink.

Like I said, the Internet is scummy, but it’s also full of crap. There’s some good crap, and there’s some really bad crap, but mostly, there’s just useless crap. Well, useless to you and me, anyway, but everything is useful in one way or another. As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The Net has something for everyone, and I’m the guy who can get that something for you, whether it’s a naughty electronic greeting card for your online girlfriend, or some “phat lewt” for your massively multi-player substitute for reality, or the name of the shark in Jaws—it’s Bruce. The Internet is all about information—somebody somewhere wants to know—and information is my specialty. On the Internet, information is power; if that makes me power-hungry, then call me a glutton.

But sadly, not all information is created equal. Ninety percent of the information on the Net is porn, another nine percent is advertising, the remaining one percent is split up among political and religious flame wars, pirated movies and music, and—on those rare occasions—accurate facts. I guess maybe that explains why the server my office was housed on was so run-down; the neighboring IP addresses were made up of a mish-mash of fetish porn sites (most of them German, though I never understood precisely why), vacant domain names offered for sale by cybersquatters, tall neon billboards that advertised such valuable services as penis enlargement and reduced insurance rates, and the personal Web page of a goth girl who called herself “Angel of Death” (but whose real name was Mary-Ann). Considering that these things comprised my usual scenery, the sight of the curvaceous catgirl sashaying her way through the slums with her tail swishing to and fro behind her was a distraction more than welcome.

“So,” I said. “You said you wanted me to do something ‘special’ for you. Just what kind of ‘special’ are we talking about?”

“Queen me,” she said.

“For the money you gave me, I’d have thought you’d ask for more... But whatever.” I unzipped my pants.

She turned away in disgust and said, “QueenMe.exe. That’s the name of the program I want you to find, Johnny. It’s very hush-hush, very top secret.”

“Oh.” Zip. “Well, I guess it must be, because I’ve never heard of it. What’s it do?”

She looked at me out of the corner of her eye. “I thought your services were advertised as no-questions-asked.”

“They are.”

“Then I really don’t see how it’s any of your business.”

“Information is my business,” I said.

“Well, this information is on a strict need-to-know basis, Johnny,” she growled. “And you don’t need to know.”

“I do need to know,” I shot back. “There are could be dozens, if not hundreds of programs with that filename on the Web. I might very well end up downloading a screen saver instead of the hack you want. If you want me to find the right file, then at the very least, I need to know where to start looking. What do you want to hack into? Bank accounts, corporate servers, porn sites?”

She narrowed her eyes and bared her teeth at me in a look of revulsion. “Is that the kind of garbage you usually peddle?”

I shrugged. “Among other things.”

“Hmph,” she snorted. “Very well. If you must know, the hack is for a game.”

“A game, eh?” I stroked my fingers along my goatee; it was a little quirk of mine, something I always did when I was thinking. “Well, if you want warez, then I’ve got warez. So, what are you looking for? An unreleased beta? A CD-key generator? A copy protection crack?”

“Something like that. I’m afraid I’ve already said too much.”

“I see. Forgive me for saying so, but you don’t look much like a gamer to me.”

“Oh?” She seemed amused. “And what, pray tell, is a gamer supposed to look like?”

“They all share certain traits,” I said. “The figure of some buff warrior, ‘elite’ linguistic tendencies, and other cliquish quirks designed to compensate for the fact that, in real life, they’re less popular than a San Fransisco Mayor in Kansas... Point being, you don’t seem the type.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Johnny,” she said, “but I’m afraid that neither I nor my brother fit that particular definition.”

“Your brother’s a gamer too, huh?”

She said something about visiting my shop with her brother once before, but I still didn’t remember him... or her, for that matter. I did business with so many customers every day that it was impossible to recall one individual face out of the countless masses... even if that face was the pink one before me. “Is he any good?”

“The best there is, next to me,” she said, matter-of-factly. “We’re ranked among the top players in the world... but I can still beat him at any game... I will beat him at any game.” She looked over her shoulder at me while we walked down the next street. In the city lights, her eyes shone bluer than my testicles during dinner at Hooters. “But sometimes we all need help to accomplish our missions.”

“Let me see if I understand. You can’t beat your brother at a game, so you’re going to cheat instead?”

“Cheat is such an ugly word,” she murmured. “I prefer to think of it as leveling the playing field.”

Hearing her justify herself like that made me grin. I’d always liked a woman with a loose sense of morality. “Hey, I’ll do the assignment regardless your motive. You see, I’m a firm believer in the lightbulb philosophy: all you have to do is give me the bulb and some directions. I’ll check the socket, screw it in, give it a shock, have fifteen Polish people give it a shot instead... Whatever turns you on, babe.”

She sneered at me. That was typical of my luck; great humor is never appreciated. “So, Johnny,” she said, “can you get what I want, or not?”

“I’m sure I can.”

“Good. When can I expect delivery?”

“That I’m not so sure about, because, like I said, I don’t know how many gaming hacks have that name.” I said. “But I’ll run it by some routes, maybe an old friend...”

“An old friend?” she asked. Her eyes ran me up and down like a jackrabbit; she scrutinized me with disdain, like I was a dog that had just been discovered to have, simultaneously, fleas, ticks, and several other words synonymous with those in the legal profession. “I thought you were a man who knew how to find things.”

“This is a specialty item, and if it’s half as secret as you say it is, then I’ll need some assistance in procuring it for you. I’m going to meet with an associate of mine who will help me begin the search. If you want, you can tag along with me to make sure that he meets with your approval.”

“I think I will,” she said. “Just let me call an ‘associate’ of my own.”

I watched her reach into her purse and pull out a cell phone. At first, I assumed she was calling her brother, so I winced. I had a hunch that he was one of those big, brutish types, the kind of gorilla who would be all too eager to break my face for looking at his sister the wrong way. I once had the misfortune of dating a girl with a brother like that. Long story short, it ended worse than the third Star Wars episode. And damn, is that saying something.

“What’s the matter, kitty?” I asked, trying my best to sound insulted. “Don’t you trust me?”

I swear to Atari, the moment I said the word “kitty,” those sapphire eyes turned into rubies, blazing like fire in their sockets. One of her paws held her already-dialed phone; the other shot forward like a boxer’s jab, grasping hold of the collar of my cloak. She gripped me with the strength of a grizzly and lifted me higher than a Cypress Hill fan.

“Firstly,” she hissed, “the reason I came looking to you for help in the first place was so that I could avoid going through a middleman to get what I want. I am very disappointed that this is no longer possible. Secondly, you’re right: I don’t trust you, not in the least. You’re a sleazeball, Johnny, and that’s why I hired you. I want my friend to come with me so we can both keep an eye on you, as well as this ‘associate’ of yours. And lastly...” She drew me closer to her folded-back ears and her snarling face, baring her fangs at me and growling her words in a harsh whisper. I was certain that she was about to bite my head off. “No one calls me ‘kitty.’ You will call me ‘Aeris.’ Is that clear?”

“Crystal,” I managed to choke out.

Major!” she yelled, her head abruptly jerking in the direction of the phone. Apparently, her brother had picked up. She released her hold upon me, dropping me like a bad habit, and spoke in a crisp, curt tone of voice. “I need you.” Without another word, she snapped the phone shut, and neatly tucked it back into her purse.

“What the hell?” I grumbled, rising back to my feet and brushing the mud and grime from my robes. It wasn’t the first time that a client had made me kiss the pavement, and I had a sinking feeling that it wouldn’t be the last, either. “You didn’t even tell him where we are!”

“Major Payne has an uncanny talent for knowing where I am,” she said. “He’ll find me... He always does.” She looked down upon me with that fanged smirk, and for a moment, I thought that I might still be in danger of losing my head. “He’ll be here soon. So... who is this person we’ll be meeting, anyway?”

“That’s easy, kit—Aeris,” I said, taking a moment to smooth out the wrinkled folds of my cloak. “When you want to find something on the Internet, you either ask me... or you ask Jeeves.”