The deal was set for a wretched hotel in the midst of the favela. Supposedly this neighborhood was casino drive. Macau for the working class. Minus glitz, security and first-rate dinner entertainment, of course.
The poor couldn’t care less. They gambled for gambling’s sake and they loved it. Even if it meant gambling in dingy, unmarked, vermin-infested venues where all the tables were rigged. To the poor a jackpot was more than money: it was the bright light of salvation at the end of a long, grim tunnel. Marx had it all wrong. The slot machine, not religion, was the opiate of the masses.
It disgusted Fulton.
Despite his years of experience an infinitesimally small piece of him still clung to childish hope for a better world. A fractional remnant of unbridled optimism. It urged him to take the slum dwellers aside one by one and run them through a crash course in probability concepts. At which point they’d realize gambling was a terrible way to strike it rich and sign on with the cartels instead.
The more Fulton thought about it the more he wanted to take his tiny spark of hope and drown it. His guts sank inside his abdomen, as if he’d swallowed a lead ingot.
Bad enough AEGIS lured him down here for a black market deal. This was a black market deal in the slums. In narco territory. Already he missed the armored personnel carriers parked outside his hotel. Even that pain-in-the-ass checkpoint in the lobby with its metal detectors and x-ray machines.
The meeting place was virtually indistinguishable from the block housing around it, save a neon sign advertising HO EL in electric blue letters. The L on the end flickered like a strobe. Its T looked to have burnt out years ago.
Fulton pulled the augmented overlay down on his lens. Ordinarily he’d get tags all over the place. Here? Nothing. Not a single, solitary tag. You’d get as much from the Mark I eyeball.
Fulton didn’t like that. He didn’t trust his eyes.
There were three of them all together: him, Emily the contractor and her translator, Luis. Three of them all alone in the narco-infested slums, where promising career paths included street chemistry, murder for hire and kidnapping tourists for cash.
Emily stopped them outside the lobby for a pep talk. “Here’s how it works. I have a room booked. The broker will meet us there.” She turned to Fulton. “You’ll give the app a once-over in the room. If you’re happy I’m happy. We pay the broker and we go home. Don’t worry about anyone else. They’ll think either we’re buying drugs or you’re here to fuck me.”
She’d dressed for the second scenario: heels and a fitted overcoat with a hem that stopped halfway to her knees. Everything in black. Maybe there was a skirt underneath. Maybe lacy, overly-elaborate lingerie. Maybe nothing at all. The point was to give you pause and get you thinking. Classic military misdirection.
“If something crazy happens,” Emily concluded, “wait for me before doing anything stupid. I’ll be faster, anyway.”
Go team, Fulton thought bitterly.
Clouds of cigarette smoke lingered in the lobby like jungle fog. A bored young woman manned a front desk scarred with Spanish-language graffiti. Fulton could only guess at meaning: where to find a cut-rate blowjob, who to call for smack. He considered dialing up Espanol Made Easy. Text recognition had improved with recent updates. But really what was the point? Obscene trash was obscene trash. Better leave it to some cultural anthropologist in need of a thesis. The app was lousy with idioms, anyway.
The girl at the desk ignored them. She remained absorbed in her mobile.
The rest of the lobby had been crammed full of archaic slot and video poker machines. Unshaven croupiers in ill-fitting tuxedos staffed a pair of threadbare roulette tables. The mechanical racket from the slots reverberated in the enclosed space. The noise made Fulton feel as though he’d stepped into a pinball machine. Everything around him seemed to jingle, ping and whir.
There were maybe a dozen players spread throughout the casino. All men. They repeated the same bets over and over. Bet, lose, repeat. No one said a word. None of them acknowledged the new arrivals.
“Customers play while they wait for girls,” Emily explained. “The desk sends an SMS with a room number when it’s their turn.”
Fulton spared a glance at the desk clerk, still mesmerized by her phone. This was clearly the kind of place where people weren’t interested in noticing things. Probably went out of their way not to notice things.
Hence no one objected when Emily led Fulton and Luis straight to the second floor without checking in.
It was your standard budget hotel room: two queen-sized beds, a beat-up desk and a wall-mounted A/C unit. A flat screen television hung in one corner, its screen speckled with suspicious-looking stains. The walls were thin enough Fulton could hear the slot machines in the lobby. If people were having sex in the next room over (not even loud, depraved sex but uninspired, long-term relationship-type sex) it would be like they were writhing in bed next to him.
“This is a brothel,” Fulton said.
“Every hotel here is a brothel.”
Luis laughed. He flashed a mouth full of tobacco-stained teeth.
“I like these places,” Emily said. “No one asks questions.”
Each time Fulton met with Emily it was like meeting a slightly different woman. He’d begun to think of her as living Barbie doll. Same woman, countless outfits and careers: Corporate Floozy Barbie, Spook Barbie, Motel Hooker Barbie. Perhaps this, too, had something to do with military misdirection.
“What’s the matter, doc?” Emily asked. “Dirty sheets make you squeamish?”
Fulton ran his index finger along the comforter. “Researchers have done studies on these. In motels. At a Super 8 in Montreal they found bacteria growth twenty-six times normal levels.”
Indeed, who knew what strange, drug-resistant strains of venereal disease might lurk within the comforter’s folds?
Emily didn’t look impressed.