Sometime in the fall of 1996 I got an inkling of how to fix the story, and finally got around to doing it on New Year's Eve, finishing it JUST before I ran out of year. Somewhere along the way, I scrubbed out everything in it that was specific to Shadowrun, and just left it generic cyberpunk. The bit about the tattoo, which MAKES the story, didn't occur to me until we were eating supper that evening.
And since about half of the people who read this story don't seem to get the last line, here's a hint: Think of the nastiest possible interpretation of the contents of the package that you can come up with... and you'll be right.
The Spider and the Widget
There was a time-- no lie-- when the only reason a player would put his axe in a hard shell was to protect it from the loving care of roadies and baggage handlers. And then the shell was only plywood and a scuffcoat. Can you believe it? Putting down hardwon coinage for a box that couldn't stop the carryover from the next house? Not with my money.
And I know for a fact that they still make shells that don't have an ironware slot-- prestige things, for the man who's so hot he doesn't have to carry his own iron, can hire the meat to haul it for him. Must be nice.
Me? Why'd you think I play the sax? Well, no-- but the case is nice, just the right middle between too small to hide behind and too big to carry. Holds my horn, couple of centuries for the ninemil under my coat, and a half-century for the cut down sweeper that rides in the lid. Course if I ever have to reload with my head down I'll be looking for work soon as the smoke clears, even if the house is still standing; that's just too ragged, even for a knuckle-faced player like me.
I'm not saying I don't like it ragged-- I like my entertainment as much as the next man does. But I make my living with the sax, not the sweeper-- man's got to have some standards. I'm a player, not a shooter, and that's all there is to it. Well, okay, sure, but everybody's got his price, right?
Don't think so? How about if I say that the price may not be money? How about if that jane over at the bar-- yeah, the one with the legs-- were to come over and sit in your lap and smile and ask you real nice... what would she be likely to get? No promises, no bargaining, just... asking. I think you see what I mean. Everyone has his price, one way or another.
And that's pretty much the way it happened. I was sitting at the bar, waiting to run the last set and trying to decide if I wanted to go home drunk or stoned or solvent. None of the three was likely to last until sunrise.
"Blight?" said a voice off my right shoulder. It was an interesting voice, low and feminine and just a bit stained by noxious chemicals. I turned to face its source without saying anything. "Roger Bensen, alnas Blacklight Bensen, alnas Benny the Blight?"
The speaker was a jane with green eyes to drown in, two meters of oriental cyber-elf and three quarters of it leg. My better judgment told me to ignore her and finish my beer. My better judgment doesn't understand these things. I humored it by taking a second look before I said anything.
Her head was shaved except for a ten centimeter strip down the center, but the hair she had was close to a meter and a half long, black as despair and tightly braided. There was a datajack behind her ear. Her black skinsuit was trimmed with red harlequin stripes; the belt over her left hip implied respectable iron riding on her right thigh. She wanted to look dangerous, and did-- but it's a whole lot safer to be invisible.
I turned back to my beer and said, "Once."
"I need a detailer."
I shook my head. "I'm out of business."
"That's rich for detail work."
"I need copious details."
"You need copious tranqs."
She sighed. "I know a man who has a widget. He thinks it's worth a bucketful. I also know a man who wants a widget. He is willing to pay three buckets full. If I give these men this information, they will throw me some scraps. If I can carry the widget from one to the other, I get to keep two buckets. No legal troubles, no unhappy customers, lots and lots of pretty money."
I could feel the hook in my mouth; I rolled it between my teeth. "This widget would not happen to bear a certain resemblance to the surface of the sun?"
The hook had a very sharp point. I clenched my teeth around it and asked, "How deep is a bucket?"
"Ten-sixth," she said, setting the hook, and I felt it rip through the skin under my jaw.
"Two meg less expenses? What do you have for front money?"
"A few hundred. That's why I need you."
I clenched my teeth again and sighed through my nose. "I have a set to play. We will both live much longer if you are gone before it's over." I walked over to the stage and picked up my sax.
She didn't leave.
She said her name was Spider, and her idea of "copious details" meant that I did all of the work-- I fronted the money, I cased the drops, I hired the muscle. Her contributions consisted of the identity of the widget, which she would not share with me; the name of the seller, which she would not share with me; the name of the buyer, which she also would not share with me; and a truly amazing body, which she shared with me with great eagerness whenever I started to complain. I've worked under worse conditions, though it took me a while to get used to the tattoos.
There were three of them, spiders with bodies the size of a spread palm, one each perched on her right shoulder, left hip, and right knee. They had meter-long legs that wrapped and wove over most of her body. I have no idea if the name or the tattoos came first.
The idea was to set up a meeting with the seller, hijack the meet, sell the widget, then pay off the seller with the proceeds of the sale and a promise that the thieves had been "dealt with." As long as the seller cared more about the money than his pride, it was a walk. If the seller wanted to see dead thieves, we had trouble. Spider swore the seller wouldn't be a problem, and if I didn't believe her there was no game.
I suspended my disbelief until the buy was going down, and I got a good look at the seller through my riflescope. I fired a warning shot into the pavement, which was according to plan. My hired snipers did the same, which was according to plan. The meet kissed the street, which was according to plan. I climbed down and made the "Do not be stupid and you will not be hurt" speech, which was according to plan. And then I shot Spider in the back of the knee. I told Spider's escorts-- the ones I had hired-- to disappear, and they did.
The seller was tall and blonde and as Nordic as Loki... but he was still Yakuza. They called him Crippled Dragon after the broken winged monster that was supposed to be tattooed on his back; I didn't bother to check. He wasn't local, and he was new since the last time The Blacklight had run, but I kept my ears open. Spider must have figured I wouldn't mark him, and planned on giving him my head-- he was going to demand someone's.
I helped Crippled Dragon to his feet, showed him the waste paper that was supposed to be his payment, and said, "Uncountable apologies. I was misled by this... vermin." I indicated Spider. "She claims to know of someone who will pay three times your price for the... item. She would not tell me who the buyer was, but I am sure she will tell you, if you ask her properly."
Crippled Dragon smiled ever so slightly. "If that is true, then I am in your debt." I shrugged. "I dislike having debts." I shrugged again. "You may go now," he said, and then gave his own escorts instructions to bind and gag Spider. I went.
About two months later someone left a package for me inside my flop, which is a pretty good trick in itself. Make that two packages, one on top of the other. The little one contained almost a third of the pretty money Spider had promised me-- a ten point finder's fee on the final sale. The bigger package contained a wall hanging: tattooed leather on a canvas backing.
I knew there was a reason I had shot Spider in the left knee.