Marriage. I've never understood it. It's always seemed like trying to share a meal meant for one: someone usually ends up hungry for more. It can end in happily ever after, sure, but it can also tear apart the closest of relationships, ruin the best of friendships. It's a risky thing to take a chance on, is what I'm saying.
But what do I know? My name's Juno Steel. I have no shortage of blindspots, and romance is one of them. The inhabitants of Hyperion City don't set a great example, either. I've had more than my fair share of cases involving distrustful divorcees, envious exes, and paranoid partners.
As for my personal life - well, my track record speaks for itself. Maybe I used to think otherwise, but turns out romance just isn't for me. We shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath.
One person I've definitely never mentioned in the same breath as romance is Mick Mercury. My problem, my past, and my friend, all rolled into one disastrous package.
And yet, here we are. Mick's engaged, and I don't know if I'm happy for him or not.
I was sitting in my office. I'd just gotten off the comms with a guy who wanted me to investigate which of the neighbors's dogs had knocked up his pet retriever. I told him that, as tempting as the case sounded, he'd be better of getting a simple genetic test done on the puppies at his nearest convenience store.
I barely hung up when the door to my office flew open. "JJ!" Mick Mercury greeted, grinning. "I - oh."
I sat up straight. "Mick?"
Mick's gaze were fixed on my eyepatch, but he quickly looked away and started staring at my office as though it was the most interesting thing he'd ever seen. "Your office - I gotta admit, I was expecting something a bit bigger. And snazzier." He stepped forward and nearly stumbled on a stack of papers on the floor. "And neater."
"Yeah, I haven't had the energy to do any cleaning lately." I was grateful he didn't point out my eyepatch, and tried to convey that by getting straight to the point. "Take a seat, Mick, and tell me why you're here."
Mick sat down heavily in the chair across the desk. It creaked as he said, "I need to talk to you and Sasha about something."
"Only half of that's coming true," I said. "Sasha's a busy person."
"I know, I tried calling her but she isn't picking up. Then I thought maybe you'd know how to contact her. 'Cause, you know, you guys are both - you guys do that kind of secret stuff." Mick waved a hand.
I frowned. "Me and Sasha don't talk."
"Come on, Juno. This is really important and really urgent." Mick clasped his hands and let them fall to my desk with a dramatic thump. "You've got to."
I weighed my options. Sasha would be angry at me - but so what? She didn't like me much these days, anyway. One unauthorized call wouldn't make a difference.
I turned the volume on the comms all the way up - that way, we both clearly heard her first words to us:
"Juno. I told you only to use this line for emergencies." Sasha's voice sounded strained, like she was talking on the comms while lifting weights, but she still managed to sound annoyed.
"Sasha, it's me!" Mick said.
"Mick," Sasha said with a sigh. "I see. What is it? Make it fast; I'm currently carrying a passed out tour guide to safety."
"I'm engaged," Mick said.
I swear two thoughts popped into my head at the exact same time: Are you kidding? and Even Mick's love life is going better than mine.
"What?" Sasha said after a pause. I could practically see her forehead crinkling up, in that way it did. "You're engaged?"
"Only a little! She asked me, and I told her I'd have to think about it." Under his breath, Mick mumbled, "I did say yes a couple seconds later."
I waited for Sasha's reaction, but all I could hear from the comms was wind blowing and Sasha snapping in the distance, "Where is the paramedic?"
I turned my attention to Mick. "No offense, Mick, but you never seemed the marrying type to me," I said. "What's so different about this girl?"
"Nothing," Mick said with a shrug. "She's just the first to ask me."
A grunt came from the comms, and I heard the sound of something heavy being dropped onto a soft surface - a stretcher, maybe. "There," Sasha said. "Now I can rejoin the conversation. Mick, you're engaged? "
"Hey, you don't have to sound so surprised!"
"You're really going through with it?" I asked.
"I was going to. But then I started having second thoughts, and that's why I came to you guys. What should I do?"
"Well, first, congratulations are in order," Sasha said. "But if you're having doubts, you should ask yourself if you love her enough to marry her."
"Uh," Mick said, sounding perplexed, as if he'd never considered the question. "I like her okay. I mean, we're friendly enough with each other."
I rolled the one eye I still had. Seemed to me the decision shouldn't be so hard. Flip a coin if you have to, but make up your mind. You either liked a person enough to live with them for the rest of your days, or you didn't.
Or, sometimes, liking them wasn't the deciding factor.
"Have you done any background checks on her?" I asked.
"I don't need to do background checks on her, Juno, I know her. Remember when I did shoe-shining?"
"The second or third time?" I asked with a scoff.
"It was almost a year ago, so the third. I shined her shoes almost every day back then. I wouldn't call us friends, but we knew each other. And then a couple weeks ago, we ran into each other again. And then the dating sort of happened after that."
"A couple weeks!" both Sasha and I exclaimed.
"That's kind of what I was thinking, but Maeve thinks there's no time like the present. I think she's really serious, she's already entered us into this couple's gameshow called Honeymoon Knowhow. Starts in about seven months." Mick continued on obliviously. "She says we can cream the competition."
"That's it," I said. "Something's up. I'll look into her. What's her full name?"
"Maeve Valentino, but - this is kind of an overreaction, Juno."
"Doesn't matter. I'm looking into her."
Mick turned to the comms. "Sasha, tell Juno he's being ridiculous."
"Sorry, Mick," Sasha said, "but I'm with Juno on this one."
"While I sincerely doubt she's dangerous enough to warrant a full background check, it's still worth knowing more about her, if she's so important in your life. And if you've only known her for two weeks, then perhaps we'll uncover something important you didn't know. Juno, let's begin our investigation tonight."
"Woah," Mick said. "Before you two go all secret agent on me, at least give her a chance. She has her -" Mick coughed "- quirks, but she's a normal gal. Maybe we can all have lunch together."
"I can rearrange my schedule for tomorrow and stop by," Sasha said immediately.
"Just tell me when and where," I said. I really did have a bad feeling about this Maeve Valentino. Besides, Rita was starting to get pushier about me not taking a case in weeks. It'd be good to get out of the office, good to have a distraction. My coat still smelled of cologne.
"You guys," Mick said, sounding exasperated but also touched. "Alright, I'll ask her if she's free."
"So you're Mick's closest friends?" Maeve Valentino asked, smiling as she stood to greet us. She shook Sasha's hand, then mine. It was cold. She peered at my eyepatch but said nothing. Sasha had reacted similarly. I guess it was one of those things people felt uncomfortable talking about. Well, good.
Maeve Valentino was well into her forties and looked like a cat, sleek and sly. She wore a fluffy white fur coat that had seen some wear. All she was missing were about four extra eyes.
But that wasn't what I first noticed about her. No, the first thing I noticed was the smell. She smelled like a mixture of cleaning detergent and old syrup. Not immediately unpleasant, but - odd.
Sasha paused, looking at Maeve with an unreadable look in her eyes before saying, "Yes. I'm Sasha Wire, and this is Juno Steel." She was being unusually handsy, clapping Maeve's shoulders as she spoke. "What a - unique scent you're wearing!"
Maeve smiled. "Thank you. I have a friend who works at Errol's Perfumery, and they send me their newest, most exclusive scents."
So that was one of the quirks Mick had mentioned. Hopefully this was the worst of them. For some reason, though, I doubted it.
We were having lunch at a place just outside Oldtown. Mick had chosen it, apparently because their beer is great. I suppose it's as good a reason to choose a restaurant as any other. The place seemed alright: there was a respectable number of patrons, though none of them dressed as lavishly as Maeve. Our table was off in the corner.
We all took our seats, Maeve and Mick across from each other on the inside, Sasha and I on the outside. Sasha continued, "So tell us a bit more about yourself."
"Well, I love clothes," Maeve said. "Shopping's one of my favorite things to do."
"And how did you and Mick meet?" I asked.
"Oh, we -" Mick began.
"I'm not asking you, Mick."
Maeve laughed. "Well, he used to shine my shoes, a few years ago. Even then I liked him. But I was married at the time. After my late husband passed away -" she paused to dab at her eyes "- I decided I didn't want to lose any chances. When Mick and I met again, we struck up a conversation. We ended up going on a date. And I knew he was the one." She laughed again, and Sasha and I exchanged glances.
"Aw," Mick said. "I didn't know that! I thought you were super annoyed with me at first."
"Yes dear, your memory can be faulty," Maeve said, a tad impatiently. "But how we met doesn't matter so much anymore, now that we're getting married." Suddenly she was smiling again. I didn't trust people who could change so effortlessly between emotions. Too easy for them to be hiding something.
"Man, I haven't even started thinking about the wedding yet," Mick said. "Maybe we should splurge a little. After all, you only get married once - well, give or take."
"Darling," Maeve said, "I've told you, I don't like spending our money on things we don't need. I'm a woman of simple tastes." She absentmindedly smoothed her fur coat, which might have gone for a thousand credits had it been new.
"I see," Sasha said, and I could tell from her voice that she was also not liking Mick's fiance. "Oh, and here's the waiter."
"Are you ready to order?" the waiter asked us, turning to Sasha expectantly.
Maeve said loudly, "I'd like the Rustian salad, please. And a beer, while you're at it."
"Squash pizza for me," Mick said, passing in his menu. "And a beer for me too."
"What the hell," Sasha said. "I'll have a beer as well. Just that - already had lunch."
The waiter turned to me.
"Water," I said. "And a blue moss salad."
No sooner had the waiter walked away when Sasha said. "Oh, Mick, did you check whether the squash pizza contained garlic?"
"Oh, don't worry about it - you really don't need to worry about your breath getting worse," Maeve said to Mick, rolling her eyes.
I raised an eyebrow. "Mick's deathly allergic to garlic."
Maeve flushed and frowned at me. "Oh, yes, I must have forgotten."
"I forgot to check," Mick said sheepishly. "Should I ask to see the menu again?"
"No," said Sasha. "I suddenly remember seeing that it doesn't contain any."
Mick seemed happy enough with that, and began chattering again. Meanwhile, Sasha's and my gaze met across the table. She had an urgent look in her eyes, and I tried to return it.
So far, Maeve hadn't acted like a newly engaged woman who was in love with her fiance. She seemed to know little about Mick beyond superficial details, and whenever he spoke she seemed like she was tolerating him. Whether this was simply a bad relationship or something more complicated, though, remained to be seen.
After lunch, Sasha and I said our goodbyes. Mick asked if we could stay longer and we said we couldn't, citing busy work schedules.
But we both rushed back to my office, where we ruminated and griped about Mick's fiance.
"She didn't even know he was allergic to garlic!" I said. "He brings that up all the time. I'm telling you, Sasha, something's up."
I was pacing, while Sasha sat in my chair. She looked out of place in it, but at the same time comfortable: like she could start peering up at me at any moment, asking if I had a case for her. Was that how I looked to my clients? It was less intimidating than I'd expected.
Sasha nodded. "True. She seems to only love the high life - you heard her talk about her perfume. It was the most passionate she sounded all lunch."
"Tell me about it," I said. "How does Mick stand it? You know, I'm not even sure he does; he was breathing through his mouth for almost the entire time."
"True love in its purest form," Sasha said with a snort. "So she obviously loves money and fancy things. And part of why she's marrying Mick is so she can win the money from the gameshow. I don't like it, but this is a pretty straightforward case."
"There's something else going on," I insisted, as my pacing speed slowed. "Obviously she used to be rich. But for whatever reason, she's not anymore. How far will she go to get her money? We need to look into her husband's death."
"But then why marry Mick? There are easier ways to get rich," Sasha said. "You're drawing connections that aren't there, Juno. Maybe her judgement really is bad. And that's how she lost her money, and that's why she's marrying Mick. As long as Mick's okay with that, we shouldn't interfere."
"Maybe," I said. "But we need to cover all our bases. And I'm telling you, something doesn't add up."
Sasha nodded reluctantly. "He is our friend. We should make sure he's not in danger."
I made an affirming noise. I didn't like the thought of Mick being caught up in some scheme. I hoped this really was just a hapless relationship he'd fallen into. But we'd pulled his ass out of danger a million times; why should I expect this time be any different?
I sighed inwardly. I liked Mick, sure, but he was always pushing it. Why did he have to meet this girl? Why did he have to say yes? Maybe Maeve wasn't the real problem here.
I didn't say any of this out loud, of course. What I said was, "Alright, then you can keep looking into her background. I'll talk to Mick and try to find out more about their relationship."
"Sounds like a plan," Sasha said, then spun once in my chair. "A spinning chair, Juno, really?"
"I didn't choose it," I rushed to say. "And I don't spin in it, anyway. Well. Not much. Only if a case worked out really well, and then that's only if no one else is in the room."
"Then let's hope this little investigation will warrant a spin," Sasha said, as she stood up.
I woke up blearily and frowned at my comms. My eye socket throbbed, and I winced. "What, Rita?"
"Your friend's here to see you. Says you invited him. Where are you? You ought to know, it's just not polite to stand up your friends."
I looked at the clock and groaned. I'd had trouble sleeping all night, and my dreams were plagued by nightmares. And now I'd overslept.
I wish I could say it was the first time this had happened, but my sleep was getting worse and worse.
"Tell him I'm on my way, Rita," I said, looking around for my pain medication. "I just need to - I'll get it together, I promise."
Rita's voice softened. "Okay, see you soon, Mr. Steel."
I met Mick in my office. Before I could even apologize for being late, he said, "Is this about Maeve?"
I indicated for him to sit in the chair across my desk, and he did. "Come on, Juno, you don't have to be so mysterious."
"Fine, you've got me," I said. "How did you and Maeve meet?"
Mick continued to look mystified. "Didn't you already hear the story yesterday at lunch?"
"Yeah, but I want to know your side."
Mick shrugged. "Well, it's the same thing. About a year ago, I shined her shoes pretty regularly, almost every day. I'd hang out near that perfume shop she likes and she'd pay me a couple credits. But, uh, even though I know what she said the other day . . . I don't think she liked me much."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Our conversations were mostly one-sided," Mick admitted. "But I talked to all of my customers like that - it's actually why I got fired, if you can believe it."
"Unbelievable," I said dryly.
"I know; fired for making small talk? The world's changing. Anyway, Maeve almost never said anything to me back then. And to be honest with you, Juno, I couldn't wait to get finished with her shoes. You think her perfume was bad yesterday - man."
"What changed?" I asked.
"I don't know. Maybe after her husband died she had a change of heart. And I might not love her, but she's alright to be around. Being married could be interesting. Maybe I'll like it."
I frowned. "What do you know about the husband?"
"Not much," Mick said. "The only thing Maeve told me was that he got laid off at work. Made her mad. And then after he died she was left to take care of herself, which was tough 'cause she doesn't have a job. But Maeve likes investing and stocks and all that stuff, she made back her money."
"How enterprising of her," I said.
"Lately, though, there's been some sort recession-thingy this past year, right?" Mick looked at me in askance and I nodded impatiently. "It's not been good for her. It's why she wants to go on Honeymoon Knowhow. They give you a million credits if you win. She's planning to use the money to take her friend Errol - you know, from the perfume place - on a vacation."
Seeing my expression, Mick leaned forward. "Look, I know how this all sounds. But it's really okay. We know where each of us stands. I feel like you and Sasha are worrying too much. I mean, I've made a lot of bad decisions. Maybe this is one. But it's still my choice."
"That's not all," I said. "It's bad enough she's so money-hungry. But Mick, she got angry at her husband, and then he died. Doesn't that sound suspicious to you?"
"Stop right there," Mick said, crossing his arms. "Don't jump to conclusions without asking Sasha her opinion first."
"What, do you trust her more than me?" I said, my words coming out like shout.
"Right now?" Mick said. "Yes."
I glared at him. "I'm going to talk to Sasha," I finally said.
"Thanks," Mick started.
"And then you'll see I'm right," I snapped.
"Juno, something is seriously wrong here," Sasha said.
I'd pestered her into meeting me in person, and she'd reacted by picking me up in a cab to who knows where. I tried to crane my neck towards the computer to see our destination, but Sasha was having none of it.
"Thank you," I said. "So you agree that the death of Maeve's husband is suspicious. Oh, and I've been looking at her husband's autopsy - drug overdose. Sure, he was taking the drug for his heart condition, but we can easily find some proof -"
"No," Sasha said. "You don't understand. I don't think it's greed alone that's motivating her. I had a couple interns look into it. I didn't expect much initially, but I think - especially after hearing about your conversation with Mick - I think there's something else she's pursuing."
I laughed in surprise. "Come on, Sasha. Lots of things are complicated but Mick isn't. He made a bad call with his life choices. Again. That's all there is to it. Maeve lost money after the recession, she's going to use Mick to win the money from Honeymoon Knowhow, and as soon as that's over she'll kill him!"
Sasha said. "Just listen to me. Maeve's been at Errol's Perfumery all day, and she's still there. There's being obsessed with fancy perfumes, and there's being obsessed with fancy perfumes. And -"
"So what?" I said. "Sasha, this is ridiculous. I don't care whether Maeve's been to a hundred perfumeries. Mick's screwed up again. It's no more complicated than when he got locked in that closet when we were kids."
Sasha reared back, staring at me with a look of disgust in her eyes. "You're a real piece of work, Juno."
I stared back at her. I meant what I said: Mick always screwed up. It was a constant in my life, like the radiation waves outside of Hyperion City or the worn coat I always wore. Of course Mick would get engaged to a murderer. Of course he'd get engaged at all. Why the fuck would he do that? Didn't he realize how badly that road would inevitably ended? Love was real but preserving it was another issue entirely. It was impossible, like trying to keep a single raindrop pristine in the creases of your palm as the rest of the world drenched you in downpour. It was pointless. It was unfair.
I remembered Peter, and wished I hadn't. Sasha was still looking at me, and I realized I didn't want her to leave.
"How did you know she's been at Errol's Perfumery all day?" I asked, voice subdued.
Sasha laughed shortly. "You're really off your game, aren't you. I put a tracker on her coat when we met for lunch, I thought you knew. " She looked down at her wrist. I realized she had a tracking screen on her watch. I hadn't even seen it until that moment.
"No," I said. "I've been missing a lot of things lately."
Sasha smacked my shoulder. "Well, get your head together! We can deal with you and your plethora of issues - which far outstrip Mick's, if we're being entirely honest - at a later time. We're arriving at Errol's Perfumery right now and we're going to this out." She opened the door of the cab.
I followed her out the door, almost meekly. "I thought you said you didn't think this was serious."
"I did," Sasha said. "But I'm also able to change my mind as things develop. Now come on."
We stepped out of the cab onto the sidewalk. Before us was a tall, gleaming building with the words "Errol's Perfumery" on it in neon lettering. It was still midday. The streets were busy. We would have to be careful not to draw attention.
Sasha was watching the crystal doors. "Perfect timing: she's walking out right now," she muttered, as she began to stride forward. I followed.
Maeve Valentino was walking out of Errol's Perfumery, calling behind her: "- I'll just, I'll just stop by tomorrow and see you then." She stopped when she saw us, and there was a pause before her face broke out into a smile. "Fancy seeing you two here!"
"Maeve Valentino," Sasha said, moving closer, angling her body so that passers-by couldn't see our faces. "We need to talk."
"And what if I'm busy?" Maeve said. She shouldered her shopping bag.
"Unless you want to get arrested by a Dark Matters agent," Sasha said, showing her badge, "you'll talk to us."
Maeve's lips thinned immediately, the smile dropping off her face like a hot coal. Her eyes darted to me. "Is this a joke?" she asked, voice still pleasantly modulated.
"Juno," Sasha said cautiously.
I hesitated before making my decision. My hand shot out to grab her arm, right as she lunged at my shoulders, apparently intending to shove me to the ground and make a run for it. I glanced above us. Security cameras? I wondered. Sasha shook her head ever so slightly. Of course. She probably had a team cutting and looping the security feed right now.
Maeve made a sound of disgust and shook of my hand. "Fine, but make it quick. And we're not talking out on the streets like this."
"How fortunate. I have a taxi right here," Sasha said.
Maeve sighed. "I guess I have no choice." She left the door swinging and stomped over to the cab.
We all got in. Sasha told the computer to drive around the block, and off we went. Maybe we shouldn't have talked in the cab, though, because the close quarters made Maeve's perfume even more overpowering. Today she was wearing something that smelled like fake flowers and brine.
"I know you're Mick's friends, but this is a bit much," Maeve said. "What do you want?"
"I like your directness," Sasha said. "But I can't let you marry my friend. I know what you did to your first husband."
"Oh please," Maeve said. "Do you know how much nasty gossip about that I've endured? You're saying nothing new."
I leaned forward, impatient for Sasha to get to the point. "And we know what you're planning to do to Mick!"
"Marry him?" Maeve said.
"You're planning to win the money from Honeymoon Knowhow!" I said, voice rising. "And then once you've done that, you're going to kill Mick so you can keep the money to yourself!"
Maeve laughed. "Sure. Sure, why not. I'm a greedy old lady, who'll kill just for money. When I told you I like nice clothes I didn't think you'd take it this far."
"That's not all," Sasha said, shooting me a look. "I know - we know about Errol."
The blood drained from Maeve's face. "Wh-what?"
"I know you like money," Sasha said, "but you love Errol. But Errol only loves money, don't they?"
Maeve's eyes narrowed.
"You've done all this - killed your husband, plan to kill Mick - for Errol. You're trying to make them jealous and you're trying to make them want you," Sasha said.
Maeve's shoulders were stiff. "You don't know what you're talking about," she said.
Sasha leaned forward. "Listen. I've got people looking into you as we speak. I can prove you killed your husband, especially now that we've figured out your motive. If you don't believe me, go ahead: get out of the car. But I'm not sure you want to risk it."
I watched them - Maeve trembling, Sasha cool as you please - and thought that maybe Mick was right to trust Sasha over me.
"All you need to do is break it off with Mick," Sasha said. "Only that. We won't turn you in."
Maeve turned her eyes to me. "And what if I say no?" she asked.
"Stop playing games," I told her. "This is our friend's life at stake."
Maeve Valentino deflated. She looked like a cat that had been tossed into a pool of water. "Fine," she growled. "Fine. I'll break it off tonight. I couldn't care less about Mick Mercury, anyway. Errol will -" she was talking more to herself now "- Errol will understand." She raised her voice. "Driver, stop here!"
She stomped out of the car, and I took a deep breath of relief. Then I turned to Sasha.
"How did you know this was all because of Errol?" I asked.
"Research," Sasha said. "And I'm good at reading people. I know when someone's lovesick, all of their actions take a different slant. Sometimes they need a wakeup call."
I avoided her eyes and muttered, "I'm not lovesick."
"Fine," Sasha said. "But don't try to persuade me that this was all about Mick. You've got a lot of problems to sort out, Juno, and, thank goodness, I'm not the one responsible for solving them."
"I know," I said.
She told the taxi to take us to Mick's place, and we rode in silence for a while.
Mick wasn't the one at fault in this situation, I realized. I could hardly blame him for being tempted by marriage. It promised so much.
No, the real screw-up was Maeve Valentino, for falling in love and then acting on it. She'd murdered her husband; drowned herself in money and false hopes so that Errol would love her for it. She should have known it would suffocate her in the end.
We should all know that, and yet. We let ourselves visit the Perfumery every day. We let Peter Nurayev lead us into a hotel room because we're just so goddamn grateful. All we can do is hope that there are people like Sasha and Mick who'll be around at the end of it. Until then, we make do.
I turned to Sasha. "You're still going to arrest her, right?"
Sasha cracked a small smile. "What do you take me for?"
When we told Mick everything, he didn't seem too upset. A little disappointed, but a little relieved too. We went out for lunch together, this time without Maeve. I even had a beer. It felt like old times. But the Sasha had to leave for work, and Mick's busy finding another job, and - well, I had an office to clean.
So that's it, then. Mick didn't get his happily ever after with Maeve, but that's for the best. No one gets happily ever afters outside of stories, anyway. In the real world, in Hyperion City, you're much more likely to find a murderer than a princess. A spy rather than true love.
I've finally finished cleaning up my office. It's not much, but it's enough for now. After I finished, I spun once in my chair. I deserved it.