Coffee on the counter, oilskin on the hook, Mondu hopped over the low gate and stepped up to the register. A customer – short, Asian, and heavily scarred – sat on the wicker chair in the small lobby. Seeing Mondu return from his coffee break, the man stood, meticulously folded his newspaper, and strode over to him like a man who’d forgotten to take his rejuvs for a few years. Knotty joints—a man with arthritis eating his bones like a…what did they call those fish? Prianahs—piranhas—something like that. Poor cunter. Somebody should’ve given him the facts of life while he could have taken advantage for cheap. Nanobot joint lubrication was painless—leg transplants weren’t.
“Helgretes, amigo,” Spanish never set well in his mouth, and he didn’t dare try Portugese. English was bad enough—the mishmash creole he’d learned in the bowels of the Nigerian IT world was his first language, and he liked it that way. Efficient, short phrases stolen from English, Afrikaans, Mandarin, and half a dozen programming languages cobbled together to express thought elegantly, simply, and directly. Still, he had to make himself understood as best he could—as long as he worked the counter. “What service can we give for you, sir?”
The man set his Panama hat down on the glass-top display case—real glass, too, not the cheaper and stronger Fullerine composite—and tapped his finger over a gaudy native bracelet. The term “native” was used loosely—the Yanomami and Awa maintained show settlements as tourist attractions, but aside from their sentimental and commercial devotion to family history, they had long since melted into the South American Confederation’s pot.
“Que é o preço?” A voice like cracked sheepskin. Mondu could understand the question perfectly well—programming AIs for hierarchical metabase bots required a dozen different languages. Speaking it…well, that was quite another matter.
“Good. I need this here.”
“Having a ticket?” Mondu hadn’t seen the man in before, but the boss might have dealt with him. The item he wanted wasn’t one Mondu had logged in, so it was possible the customer was trying to reclaim a pawned item.
“No. I have not been here before. How much?”
The customer rifled through his pockets and pulled out a ring, setting it on the table. “Here.”
“Gold.” Mondu placed the ring under the scannerscope, sampling its purity and checking to make sure it didn’t have a tracking mark that he’d have to remove. “Good good. Straight swap plus ticket. Good for you?”
Mondu printed the claim number, carefully and by hand, on the ticket alongside its trade value. The man would have three days to reclaim the property before it went on general sale. He listed the price value of the swapped bracelet as the redemption value, and handed it to the customer.
The man took it without meeting his gaze, and shuffled out as if every step pained him.
Aside from his gait, he didn’t look that old—but then, neither did Mondu. Cheap rejuv kept looks from meaning much—had done since as long ago as Mondu could remember. People looked the age they wanted to, and that’s all there was to it.
The rain still came. It felt safe. The thing he’d missed most about life back home after he left was the rain. His city, Calabar, grew up right out of the middle of the rainforest in southern Nigeria where, when the air wasn’t thick enough to chew, it rained. The rain always felt right. Here, even though between the canopy and the clouds he rarely saw the sun, the rain felt close. It felt like all the parts of home that he actually missed—and there weren’t many of those.
The thatch did leak a bit, here and there. The boss kept a bunch of cotton towels under the counter to keep the glass clean. Mondu wiped the glass down, and then settled on a stool at the end of the counter, leaning up against the reed wall. He couldn’t really tell where his sweat ended and the humidity and rain began, but he didn’t really care. His coffee, still warm enough to drink, stank of too much cinnamon and over roasting, but the bitter smoothness slid down his gullet like chicha.
From his perch he had a view, through the door and the rain, of the cafe patio. The array of umbrella-hooded small tables were usually abandoned—at least since the rains started—but not this week.
The man arrived in a Fedora hat and trench coat to keep off the rain—far too warm for this weather. For the third day in a row, he drank his coffee with his hat set on the table as if reverence required his head remain uncovered in the presence of the ramshackle canteen knocked up out of corrugated metal and banana leaves. Rain or shine—mostly rain—he showed up precisely at 1200 and left precisely at 1250, as if he were billing by a psychiatrist’s watch. A tourist might have stayed two days waiting for his guide to arrive for his trek through the jungle. A professional’s schedule would have varied depending on the needs of the day. This man was more precise, and three days was too many.
Mondu studied him for a while, wondering if he would stand and come into the shop. For days now the stranger’s eyes had scanned the environs as if he were waiting for someone. All that time, the one place Mondu hadn’t caught him looking was at the old hockshop. If he was here for one of the boss’s special services and wanted the boss to do it personally, he’d be waiting a while till the boss got back from his jaunt to Sao Paulo to see his mistress.
The afternoon stretched on—no further foot traffic came in through the door. A couple of calls rang in on the antique phone—actually rang, like a bell—freelance guides checking in for loitering clients, tourists calling in advance asking if they had steel machetes, and the like.
He wished he had a computer. He hadn’t been on the net in almost six months—for all he knew the universe had been and gone in that time. He wanted a new wetware cube and a terminal to hook up to it just as it was decanted. Use the delicate chemical signals to coax the fiber lines into place, stimulate it right to lay down the language strata, etch the programming onto the protoneurons, and come out the other end with a custom AI well suited for the ordered task. He missed the communion with the emerging mind, the challenge and precision of the work—the artistry.
Night came on with a slackening of the rain. Mondu closed up the shop and made his way through the file room where he took his dinner of tapir, Brazil nuts, banana chips, and mango before climbing into his hammock. It wasn’t much, but it came free with the job. Besides, if he was going to live for a six month rotation in a nature preserve he might as well get all he could out of the experience.
It didn’t hurt that it was a more comfortable way to sleep than any bed he’d ever used.
Morning found him snoring lightly with a cockroach on his head. Sometime during the night he’d shifted his arms, flopping them outside the deep valley created in the cloth by his body, and holding open what was otherwise effectively a cocoon for keeping out the bugs. When he cracked his eyes open against the light, he saw the sectioned abdomen of the creature squatting comfortably over his left pupil. Nothing in the world looked bigger than an Amazonian cockroach, but when you woke up enough mornings with them sitting on you, or crawling over your coffee maker, they lost their effect. They really weren’t much more than small, creepy-looking six-legged birds. He flicked it off his forehead and rolled out of bed, landing squarely on his feet.
The rain wasn’t falling, but the humidity hadn’t taken much notice. It’s suffocating moisture meant the night had offered no relief from the heat, so he stripped down to skin and soaped yesterday’s grime off his body, then dusted himself head to toe with antifungal talc before slithering back into a pair of camo BDUs and a three-sizes-too-big white silk button-up. He grabbed a papaya out of the tree that grew out his back window and chewed it over while he opened the shop and planned his day.
Not that there was much to plan. No tour groups were due through for another four days, and the casino wouldn’t be open until they were in town, which meant there probably wouldn’t be anyone coming through the shop who needed to go into hock to cover their debts. It was even less likely that people would be through for souvenirs or deals selected out of the display cases of previously pawned items.
If business was slow again today, he might tempt fate and slide out early with a blowgun and a machete for a walk through the jungle. He still had a few hunting tags for the season—perhaps he’d bag a tapir and make a bonfire for a spit-roast. The village folk might like the odd excuse to gather during the long stretches of rain. He didn’t know for sure—they weren’t a sociable set. But, even if only a few showed up it would help – he was running low on books to read during the evenings.
Mondu found a mount plate in the boss’s office, and used it to display the gold ring from the day before. Front and center in the display case, he should be able to move it when the next pack of tourists came through—it might make a good wedding ring, and there were always one or two couples looking to stage memorable nuptials in front of a banyan tree or down by the river.
As the day dragged on, Mondu perched himself up on his stool against the wall and digested a trade paper he’d printed up in Rio—no PPDs allowed for residents in the preserve, so all his reading material was dead tree. There was no lack of trees to print them on, not in the Amazon. Nor, he thought as he nipped back to the old-fashioned outhouse privy, for toilet paper. No saddles and suction here, no built-in bidets, just a handful of paper to get enough of the crap off to keep his ass from staining his shorts. It wasn’t really sanitary—but then, what in the 20th century had been?
As he was marking his place in the book and pulling up his drawers, he heard a loud rapping on the counter.
“Si Senor. Une momento, por favor.” Mondu grabbed his book and meandered out from between the hallway of inventory shelves and around the corner to the front of the store.
There, at the display case-cum-counter, stood the man in the rain. His white Fedora rested loosely in his hand on the counter, and his half-bald head glistening with water beads under the hot, old-style incandescents.
“You speak English?” An American. In the six months he’d been here he hadn’t seen a lot of Americans.
“Sid sid. I speak English okay.”
“Good. This ring here, how much?”
The man nodded, then he chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully. “And this here?”
“The machete, or the stylus?”
“The machete. I have some hunting I may need to do.”
“Do you have a license? We supply them.”
“I do. Freedom of movement is important to me.”
Mondu’s face broke into a broad smile. The man was looking for one of the boss’s special services—a passport, probably, but it could be national ID, or a false account, or any number of other things. It was a chance to do something fun. “We have many tools available.”
The customer nodded. They understood each other. “My needs are specific—as you can see from my suit, cleanliness is important to me.”
“Will you need privileges?”
“No. Just cleanliness.”
“Understand. Take this,” Mondu handed over a pencil and a paper form. Based on the boxes he checked, the man didn’t just want a passport, he wanted an identity. He checked the whole sheaf—biometrics included.
“This should do me fine.”
“Not a problem.” He produced a deck of cards from his pocket and set it on the table. With his left hand he cut them, then dealt the first card to Mondu, face up. “Put this through your assay—it should settle the bill.”
A playing card? Mondu slid the card off the tabletop and threaded it into the assay scanner he’d used the day before to determine the molecular structure of the ring.
“Set it to x-band.”
Mondu complied. Under the low level X-ray bombardment, the card showed platinum in the ink. A lot of platinum. The boss set the store’s exchange rate at twelve hundred credits per ounce. Mondu looked back up at his customer. “You have how much?”
“Two decks.” Mondu nodded and did some quick mental calculations. It would more than cover the fee.
“Two decks for a full ID jacket.”
“Stand in front of the register, please.” Mondu flipped open the camera port concealed in the cash register. “Eyes straight forward.” The customer complied, and Mondu snapped the photo.
The customer donned his hat and tipped the brim to Mondu. “I’ll see you this evening.” Without another word, he turned and walked out.