NEON LIGHTS OVER SODOM
ELEANOR R.F. JORDAN
She was the first client to make me wonder about fences.
I could pretend that I’d like to make some sly comment about the tone of her legs or the nervous but somehow sexy pout on her face as she entered my closet-sized office– it seems appropriate somehow– but the truth is I find the idea nauseating. Call me new-fashioned, but I don’t care about your legs– I just want your credits. But I digress.
It was raining outside as she entered; I hardly heard the door click home in its frame through the fog of the novel I was tearing through. She looked blonde, rich, and nervous– a phrase that belonged on my business card in those days. I put down my tablet; she put down her purse.
“Magnusson Insight Services?” she asked. I nodded, and she sat down at the desk opposite me. “I wish I could say that I’m pleased to meet you, but–”
“Hardly anyone is; it’s no chip off my shoulder.” I slid my standard contract across the desk, which doubled as a screen. She seemed surprised by my brevity, but not unpleasantly so: it freed her from the obligatory small talk neither of us wanted to make. She read the contract in one careless sweep, then pressed her fingertip to a small black square on the corner of the document; her signature and an invoice of a thousand credits flashed across my side of the desk. I risked an observation: “Short on time?”
“No– well, just tired, I suppose.” She leaned back in the chair, pulling her hair loose from her collar in a golden wave. Her eyes, dark and steady, roved my face in search of something. Whatever it was, I doubted it was handy; at that moment, I was wondering how long it would take to get back to my book. She relented. “I need you to find someone.”
“Rey. My sibling,” she clarified, wringing her hands together. “About my age. They’ve been gone for a week. They live here, in South Dominion.”
“They’re a nemo, then,” I replied. Her face flushed red, but she nodded. “That’s why you came to me.” She said nothing. The rain pounded against the metal shutters of the window, sloughing off into the street in rhythmic waves; two stories below, an ad-bot on the sidewalk shrieked the merits of Soft-Touch Brand Personal Blood Tests. She found some words.
“I figured… well, they’re like you, so–”
“Save it; I’m not offended. Can you tell me anything else?” She paused, still flustered, then offered a few tidbits of info– appearance, address, and so on.
“I didn’t catch your name,” she added.
“Marigold, Ada.” She did not offer her hand. I confirmed the sibling’s name and address once more, taking a note on my tablet, then gestured for her to leave; she did so, gladly. After a minute of quiet musing, I observed her crossing the street from my window; the neon lights over Sodom rendered her hair into a kaleidoscope of colours. Then she was gone. I pulled on my yellow rain-jacket; I was on the clock.
An hour later on the dot, I arrived at Rey’s address. It was a stubby hidden street called Aurumview– a decidedly grand name for a cluster of identical concrete apartment buildings. Only a single artery of the city’s neon blood traced the street this far back, casting the block in a tart magenta that hurt to look at. I crossed into the complex.
Rey’s room, six-zero-seven, was guarded by a lanky man sporting a grey sweater and a frown. I pegged him as the landlord; his type, sallow but pushy, wasn’t rare. When he saw me coming, his sullenness momentarily gave way to curiosity. “Hey, sugarspot. Are you lost?” he asked. He straightened up to assert his full height; even then, he was insect-like in his posture. I thumbed towards the door he was staking out and raised an eyebrow. “Oh, Rey’s not in. But you can wait with me ‘till they come back if you like. Ladies drink for free.” He winked.
“I’m not a lady,” I asserted. The moment he heard my toneless voice, his expression withered back into an acidic frown.
“Oh, you’re a nemo. Never mind: I don’t bump plastic freaks with buzz cuts.”
I ignored him and indicated the door again. “Rey’s not in?”
“No,” he confirmed, “I was just in there. Empty. They haven’t paid the rent this month– last month, neither,” he added, as if trying to justify his invasion. I shoved past him into Rey’s room. He began to protest, but I flashed my badge– a gold card with a white emblem of an eye– and shut the door in his face. He rattled the knob, spitting slurs into the wooden panels; I turned the deadbolt. Our conversation was over.
Rey’s apartment was small, as most rooms were back then. It was hard to discern which area served what function, on account of the explosive mess of fast-food wrappers and dirty clothes that littered every surface. There was a bed, buried under pizza boxes, with a television balanced on its foot; otherwise, the unit was devoid of furniture. A single window cast the room in the street’s aggressive pink light, leaving the dark as opaque as deep night. An hour of searching yielded only a few more notable details: a paper bag full of pneumatic syringes, a torn hospital bracelet, and a broken pair of handcuffs. Among these artifacts, I could make a handful of assumptions. Unlike their sister, Rey lived in poverty; considering the rate of abandonment in negender children, this was not surprising to me. Between the catastrophic mess and empty syringes, I thought it likely that the money they did make was spent on drugs; probably cocaine, or triffid. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the handcuffs. The incidence of crime among nemos was actually lower than that of binary folk– and, of course, having no sex characteristics made kinky behaviour broadly unviable. For the time being, I disregarded the fact of the handcuffs.
In my contemplation, I wandered towards the window– the rain helped me think, for reasons I had trouble articulating. I looked out over the street. The apartment had a single virtue; it was one of the few places in Sodom– perhaps Dominion as a whole– where you could see over the perimeter fence without light pollution rendering the distance in a hazy dream. Beyond the wall, a plain of black glass like a mirror stretched deep into a perpetual fog, monolithic but somehow calm. In the dark, the reflection gave an eerie appearance of a sudden drop; an abyss with no start or finish, only a fade into the oppressive neon cloud. Something in me suddenly longed to walk on that abyss: if I could not belong in here, perhaps I could belong out there. I tore myself away from the view. I was on the clock.
I looked up the hospital named on Rey’s discarded bracelet with relative ease. It was a public insurance clinic, and it was within walking distance; I doubled down on the ‘low-income’ theory. I made the walk to the clinic in silence, appreciating the patter of rain against my plastic coat. When people drew near, I looked down, the hood of my jacket placed firmly between us; when ad-bots peeked at the data on my tablet and began to spew personalized ads into the street like dirty laundry, I pretended to look around, as if the sudden energy in the air didn’t terrify me. In other words, it was uneventful.
My first impression of the clinic was not ideal; long before I saw any kind of entrance, I was treated to a huge overhead sign depicting a crude caricature of a nurse riding a giant syringe in a suggestive straddle. I tightened the reins on my disgust and crossed the threshold.
The waiting room was white, bright, and packed full of people– three things I am not overly fond of. Fortunately, the receptionist was very receptive to my badge, and let me into the clinic promptly; the active nurse, on the other hand, was not quite as receptive.
“I can’t show you a patient’s file without their express permission or a written warrant,” he said, straightening his white smock with indulgent care. “Those are just the rules.”
“Marigold is missing,” I argued, “so they can’t give you permission– and if I have to wait for the Department to approve a warrant, they won’t be giving permission for anything ever again.” He continued to fiddle with his uniform, but he seemed to be eyeing me a little more nervously then. “If they turn up dead somewhere, what am I supposed to say? A nurse didn’t let me do my job?”
“Now, hold on, mister–”
“Not a mister,” I insisted. I reached for my badge again; he flinched and took a step back, genuine fear flickering across his face. Frustration, hot and bright, bubbled up in me. “My name is Soni Magnusson, and I am a private investigator. Yes, I am negender; no, I’m not going to attack you. I’m not an animal.”
The nurse went on the defensive. “I didn’t say you were! Why are you so angry?”
That question ricocheted in my head, over and over, a violent church bell clanging against my ear: Why are you so angry? Why are you so angry? Why are you so angry?
With considerable strain, I shoved my irritation down into all the pits and valleys of me; I would deal with my own problems later. “I apologize. Would you please let me see Rey Marigold’s file? Time is of the essence.” The nurse stepped back from the tablet with visible misgivings; then he stalked away, muttering to himself about policy. I tapped my badge against the screen, opening a Department-issued database search program. I typed ‘Marigold, Rey’; there was one file logged at this clinic, detailing Rey’s visit with a set of oncologists and an endocrinologist. Also on record were a set of radiation exams. I tried to expand the file, but the program asked for a doctor’s signature– and, as aggravating as humans can be, they’re downright flexible next to computers.
I backed out of the program and walked out of the clinic. The visit wasn’t a total loss: Rey’s visit with a team of oncologists suggested concerns about cancer– relatively common in Dominion, where the level of background radiation was higher than most megacities. But their visit to an endocrinologist was more puzzling: as nemos didn’t produce sex hormones, there were few reasons to visit a doctor specializing in such. My running theory was testosterone; as a steroid, it can mask the muscle atrophy associated with cocaine use. But I knew even then that this theory was purely speculative: I had no real reason to suspect cocaine use other than their income level. This case was getting complicated, but I had other leads. I made some calls; I was on the clock.
With drugs on the mind, I followed the trail of syringes. There were four authors I knew of in Rey’s neighbourhood; although I cased them all, one in particular seemed to recognize Rey.
She met me in the alley next to Aurumview. In the dark, where the neon didn’t touch, I could make out a baggy coat, dark hair, and big blue eyes. I sketched Rey in vague terms for her. She smiled; her teeth were almost clinically white.
“Nemo, were they?” She asked, although she almost certainly knew.
I nodded. “They were. One of yours?”
Her smile widened with secretive pride. “One of my favourites.”
“Co–? Heavens, no. Much pricier than that.”
I thought back to the hospital file. “Hormones?”
“Estrogen,” she confirmed. “I guess they wanted to be more… ladylike.” She said the word as if its texture disagreed with her. Her eyes settled on me. “Heaven knows why. I thought they were perfectly fine as is.” She took a step towards me in the shadow of the buildings; as she approached, the neon light turned her blue eyes as red as the moon. If I were an associative person, I might’ve thought she looked like the Devil himself; instead, I wondered if she thought about the plains of glass at night.
“I should go,” I said.
“So soon?” she replied. She took another step closer. I reached around the back of my jacket, looking for my stun rod. “I still want to chat. It doesn’t have to be here.”
“I’d rather not,” I said. An ad-bot rolled clumsily into the mouth of the alley; its shadow was elongated by the pink neon lights, stretched out into an umbral titan. I could feel the handle of the stun rod on my waist; I grasped it, ready to pull.
“You’re a pretty one too, you know. I wonder if you were a woman in the womb before the drugs kicked in.” She was within a metre of me; I could see her carefully polished fingernails glimmering. I felt the anger I’d stowed away so carefully begin to surge up again like acid: anger for the nurse, and for Ada, and for the dealer; anger for myself, anger for them, anger, anger, I practically wanted her to touch me, to give me an excuse to slam her full of electricity–
“Back off,” I said.
“Should I?” she said.
“Best Estrogen Deals Near You,” the ad-bot said. “Secure Estrogen, Estradiol, Progesterone, Best Deals, Best Prices! Work for Men, Works for Women, Works for Nemos! Best Deals, Best Prices! Be the Woman You Were Meant to Be! Be a Woman! Be a Woman! Be a Woman!”
She smiled; I did not. “Maybe next time,” she said. Then she left. I turned and left too; I was on the clock.
I briefly worried that Ada wouldn’t see my message until the next day, but when I arrived at my office, my worries were proven unwarranted. Ada was already waiting by the office door. “The paint on your window is chipping away,” she noted. “Now it just says ‘Man son I sight vices’.” I ushered her in and closed the door behind us.
It was raining outside when we entered; I hardly heard the door click home in its frame behind us. Then we were seated on opposite sides of the table again, just as we had begun.
“Rey,” I said.
“Yes?” she replied.
“I found you,” I said. She stood up, and I stood with her.
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about,” she tried. Already, the expression on her face was crumbling. I gently reached out and took her arm; she didn’t resist. I turned it over, pulling back the sleeve of her ritzy sweater to reveal a spotty purple bruise on her inner elbow.
“Injection marks. You don’t look like you’re tweaking,” I explained. “Nor in remission.”
“I have a condition,” she whined.
“So do I. You couldn’t get coverage in a legal clinic, so you’ve been burning through cash buying estrogen from a black-market author. You hired me to look over your tracks– to make sure that Rey Marigold was missing before you started your life over again as Ada Marigold, Rey’s older binary-born sister.” I let go of her arm, just as gently. She shrank back into the chair at her feet. “Am I wrong?”
Slowly, she shook her head. I sat down too, picking up my tablet. I swiped through a list of forms, looking for one in particular; then, after looking it over briefly, I touched my finger to the black square on the corner of the document, affixing it with my signature. I slid it across the table-screen to Ada.
“Just wanted to be sure I had everything straight,” I said.
“Legal Declaration of Disappearance?” she read.
“In order to fulfill our contract, I either have to produce Rey Marigold or give you one of those certificates, signed by myself– a certified investigator. As I see it, Rey Marigold no longer exists.” I risked a rare smile. “I’m very sorry for your loss. A refund of a third of my price will be sent to your account within a business week.”
She shook her head, a smile of her own touching her painted lips. “Keep it.” She stood up. I took a note on my tablet, then gestured for her to leave; she did so, gladly. After a minute of quiet musing, I observed her crossing the street from my window; the neon lights over Sodom rendered her hair a kaleidoscope of colours. Then she was gone. I pulled off my yellow rain-jacket; I was off the clock.
I lifted the shutters of the window and looked out; it was the first time in a long time I had done so properly. I watched the horizon of the city on the east, dotted with a violent spectrum; then I turned to the west, where I could just barely peek over the fence that corralled Dominion. I thought on the titanic mirror of blackness, pictured myself careening across its ebony surface as if on wings of glass; I thought on how, eventually, if this downpour never ceased, the plains would fill up and an ocean would swallow our technicolour blight. I wondered if the fences were to keep the night out, or to keep us in– or, whether there were any fences at all. I never did leave Dominion, but I wondered– and I wonder now if wondering was, in the end, enough.