By Mary Robinette Kowal
The moment Tuyet walked into the Dagenais’s compartment, she knew something was different. The usual pack of dogs swarmed around her, distracting her, before she figured out that the compartment smelled different. Not bad–not like the times they had left everything piled in the sink for her as if they were having a contest to see who could goad the other into doing the dishes. Nor the time they’d fired the dog walker and didn’t bother to walk the hoard of dogs that Hélène kept. But they paid her to come once a week to wipe their counters, load the dishwasher and tidy the compartment. So she’d kept her head down, asked herself what Kant would have done, then said screw the philosophy and wiped up the dog shit and urine.
Kant would not have done that.
This time the compartment smelled good–like one of them had cooked instead of flashing dinners. More likely they’d added a chef to their list of status symbols. That had to be more impressive than a cleaner like her. If they’d been one of her students back at the university in Ho Chi Minh, she would have raised questions about Buddha and his teachings on wealth and living in the now.
The dogs eddied around her, each begging to be petted. They understood Buddha. Poor things–did anyone pay attention to them?
Cody Dagenais stepped around the corner in a towel, his blond hair slicked back with water. He jumped when he saw her. “Tuyet. I forgot today was your day.”
She looked down, away from his perfect body, keeping her eyes low as befitted a servant. She needed this job in order to stay on Cordova Station–she kept Vien in the front of her thoughts, using the image of her son to push the sight of Cody’s sculpted abdomen away. “I’m sorry, sir. Do you want me to come back later?”
“Um…no. No, this is fine.” He turned to the hall and hesitated. “Actually–I’ve got a client today. Sorry, I wasn’t thinking. Would it be too much trouble to come back? The vacuum, you know.”
A client? When he was wearing nothing but a towel? Tuyet kept her face clear of her doubt. Hélène must be offstation. “It’s no problem. I could do everything except vacuum, if you’d like.” Vien had a doctor’s appointment tomorrow; she wasn’t sure how she’d fit a return trip in. “Would later tonight be all right?”
“Sure. Say, how’s that son of yours doing?”
Hélène would never have asked that–but then Cody had always been the nice one. Even if the tabloids said he had “married up” into the Dagenais fortune, his wife did not deserve him. “Vien was doing better right after your massage, but he’s had a bit of a setback. I’m sure he’ll pull out of it.” Her son had to hold on until she could afford a body harvester’s rates.
“Maybe I should stop by more often, if the massages seem to help.” And right there, that showed what sort of man he was. Learning about Vien’s condition, he’d offered to give him a massage once a week and now–now to come more often…
“Oh, we wouldn’t want to impose.”
“Nonsense. He’s a good kid.” Cody knelt to fondle Missy, the keeshond. His towel fell open to show the inside of his strong thigh. “Listen, don’t tell Hélène– Do you want some veal? It’s prime grade organic. Hélène got it on her last trip earthside, for the dogs and cooked it once–she hates the smell and’ll throw it out. I hate to see it go to waste.”
“I–” Tuyet did not know what to say. On the level where she lived with the other service staff, they got algae and simple processed foods. Only occasionally could she afford something fresh, something real; with the veal, she could make a decent bowl of phò for Vien. And yet, to accept food seemed like charity while the massages seemed like a kindness.
Cody blanched at her hesitation. “I’m sorry. It’s not against your religion or anything is it? Or is it that I’m offering you dog food?” He swept a perfect hand through his hair. “I’m an idiot.”
“No. No.” Tuyet gripped the handle of her cleaning bag for safety. “It’s a very kind offer.”
“Great!” Cody stood, catching the towel before it slipped off of him. “It’s in the freezer. Just grab a couple of packets when you’re finished.”
“No problem.” He winked from the doorway. “It’s the least I can do. We work you too hard and, trust me, you will not enjoy scrubbing down the kitchen. Hélène…” He shook his head. “I wish I could keep her out of the kitchen.”
Tuyet grimaced as she scrubbed the dried blood on stainless steel counter. Stainless, ha! Cody had not been kidding about the kitchen. Not that she minded having a paycheck, but they could have used a cleaning bot, just this once.
But that would ruin using her as a status symbol and Hélène wouldn’t stand for that. She had embraced the New Primitive movement with the rest of the fashionable set. Everything in the compartment that could be done by hand, was–but not by Hélène. She wouldn’t take a chance on spoiling her nails.
Tuyet re-wet her sponge, watching the water carry a pink stream down the recycler like a pallid rendition of the spill. Placing the sponge back over the dried puddle, she leaned into it, trying to force the stain up. She muttered one of Pierce’s maxims of pragmatism while she worked, “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” The stain’s effect, she reflected, was ultimately to buy Vien a new set of lungs because without it, she would not have a job and without a job, she would not have the right to stay on Cordova station. This was the only place that had the possibility of healing her son. So therefore–she wiped the counter clean–she blessed and thanked the stain for existing.
Dotty gnawed a bone in the corner.
“Shoo, dog.” She shook her head at the Dalmatian and turned her attention to the retro-trendy linoleum floor. It was covered with dog prints, pieces of smashed bell pepper, and today, tiny polka-dots of grease and blood. You’d think they had kids, the way the floors looked. Tuyet went to the closet for the mop and bucket, counting her blessings that Hélène wasn’t home today.
As nice as Cody was, she hated the days that they were both home, bickering with each other about stupid things like who had fed the dogs, or who had lost the remote. How such a tiny woman could be such a giant bitch was beyond understanding. There were days when Tuyet wanted to turn her over her knee for a spanking.
Tuyet stared in the closet stupidly. The mop was where it was supposed to be, but not the bucket. They couldn’t have cleaned something, could they? Leaning the mop against the counter, the sink tempted her as an alternate mop basin, but if Hélène came home before Tuyet had finished, there would be shrieks and cries of contamination and tomorrow there might not be a job. And that was not an effect she wanted from the missing bucket.
She knelt, scrubbing the linoleum with the sponge and thanking the station’s architect for the hard varnish on the floor. In places, she used her thumbnail to pop spots off the floor. The perfect French manicured hands of Hélène would never stoop to a task like this. The whole thing was probably one more bizarre territory dispute between the two. Some people would be better off divorcing.
Tuyet had splurged on some onions on the way back to the efficiency compartment she shared with Vien. Cutting a slice off the ginger root she grew in a pot of sand over the sink, Tuyet glanced at her son. Vien slept on his cot, laboring to breathe even at rest. He was tall for his age, but had lost so much weight since the Stevens-Johnson syndrome had destroyed most of the mucous membranes in his body that he looked like a stalk of dessicated bamboo. State health care had not been able to do more than keep him from dying.
She put the onion and ginger over the electric burner, wishing that open flame were allowed in space. The electric burner never charred the onion quite right. She shrugged–she was making the phò with veal, it wasn’t as if it were going to be perfect anyway, but it would beat another dish of cultured algae.
As the rich caramel smell of the charring onion permeated the corners of the compartment, Vien twitched and opened his eyes. Lifting a corner of his oxygen mask he tried to sniff the air. “Are you making phò?”
She nodded. “Cody had some extra veal. I’m sorry it’s not beef.”
“When did you see him?
Tuyet busied herself with filling a pot of water for the broth. “At the market after I finished at the university.”
“Oh.” Vien accepted her lie without hesitation. “I like him.”
“I do too, Cabbage.” If Cody weren’t tied to Hélène she might have entertained thoughts. Who was she kidding? She did entertain thoughts.
Tuyet opened the white paper packet of veal and sighed with pleasure at its marbled surface. Such a nice man. She sliced off a piece to make the broth, saving the rest to go with the noodles. While the soup simmered, she helped Vien into his wheelchair. His black hair stuck out in a dry halo around his ears. If she touched him, he might crumble. “Have you talked to Dad today?”
He nodded and adjusted his oxygen mask. “I told him I was bored. He said I should go to class with you.”
Not for the first time, Tuyet wished that she were not carrying this lie about her job, but Vien had been so upset at the thought of her cleaning compartments that she had lied to him. Her ex-husband prided himself on never lying, so she had been forced to lie to him as well to maintain the fiction. He would not have been so cavalier with his truths if he could see Vien turn blue as his scarred airways closed when he cried.
Tuyet tucked a blanket around Vien’s withered legs. “Well, I’ll see if we can find something fun to do. Do you want to help me make the phò?”
He brightened perceptibly. Handing Vien the wooden spoon, Tuyet let him stir the broth while she sliced the charred skin from the onion and ginger.
“Hey, Mom? What’s this?” Vien held the spoon out with a pink shell on it.
Tuyet leaned closer to look. It was a fingernail with a perfect French manicure. “I’m not sure, Cabbage.” She picked it up. No wonder Hélène had stopped wanting to cook for her dogs; she’d damaged her precious nails. It looked like Hélène’d torn it right out of the nail bed. But if Tuyet told Vien, he might refuse to eat the phò. “It’s probably part of the shipping package.” She flicked the nail into the trash before he could look at it again.
She slipped the onions and ginger into the soup and kissed Vien on top of the head.
“Mom!” He squirmed under her touch. “I’m too old for that.”
“I know.” But she wanted to hold onto him as long as she could.
As she worked through the compartment, the dogs ran in front of her trying to hide from the vacuum. Fred, the black Lab, backed away, barking the whole time. Missy tried to hide behind the sofa, leaving a great clump of her gray fur on it. But Dotty pushed open the door to the massage room.
The dogs were not supposed to be in there.
Tuyet shut the vacuum off. “Dotty. Silly girl. Come here.” She snapped her fingers trying to get the Dalmatian out of the room. The crazy dog resolutely ignored her, trying to bury her bone in the corner.
In the distance, the front door opened. Half the dogs ran off, barking in greeting. Dotty did not budge from the corner. Beyond the dog, the white mop bucket sat in prim order.
Tuyet had to get her out of there before Cody or Hélène saw her. She darted into the room, intent on hauling Dotty out. In the living room, Cody greeted the dogs; Tuyet thanked her lucky stars that it wasn’t Hélène.
The Dalmatian’s sleek fur offered no purchase. Missy, the keeshond, bolted into the room. Tuyet waved her hands at the fluffy gray dog. “No! Out!”
“Tuyet?” Cody pushed the door of the massage room farther open, blocking the rest of the dogs with his body. He had clearly come from an event of some significance; his bare arms had been brushed with bronze powder, highlighting the line of each muscle. The high-waisted trousers of this season accentuated his narrow waist and firm buttocks. He smiled. “They giving you trouble?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I know they shouldn’t be in here.”
“Happens all the time.” He waved her words away and smacked Dotty lightly on the rump. “Go on.”
The dog looked up as if surprised that she were even in the massage room. He pointed at the door and both dogs trotted out without protest. Tuyet’s jaw dropped.
Cody shrugged. “Hélène wanted them, but they did obedience school with me.” He reached out and then arrested his motion, his hand inches from Tuyet’s head. “Your hair is falling.”
She reached up, suddenly warm, and grabbed the clip, which had slid down to her neck. Her hair clung to her face and skin. “Thank you.” She tried to restore order without a mirror.
“Here. Let me.” Cody stepped behind her and gathered her hair in his hands. “I do this for my clients all the time–actually…” He dropped her hair and the weight slapped against her back like a wave. “Do you want a massage?”
“I–” Sweat crept down her spine at the unexpected question.
“C’mon. You came back because of my stupid scheduling. It’s the least I can do.” He took her by the hand and led her to the massage table. “Just undress to your comfort level and I’ll get out of these fancy duds.” He must have been able to see her hesitation because he smiled again. “Honestly, you’ll be doing me a favor. I hate these events but with Hélène offstation, I have to attend them. You’ll help me work off some tension.”
“I–” Tuyet knew she should refuse, that it was inappropriate and yet…where was the harm? She could find none. “Thank you. That would be lovely.”
“Great.” He pulled the door shut behind him.
Tuyet undressed down to her undergarments and slid under the sheet on the massage table. Some part of her kept pointing out that Hélène was offstation.
Cody’s hand touched her back. Tuyet jumped. She had not heard him enter. “Sorry,” he said.
He undid the clasp on her bra and laid the straps to the side. The hiss of spritzer made her jump again as Cody put oil on her back. Why was she so tense? So Hélène was gone; it was just a massage.
For a moment his touch was gentle, and then he pressed down forcing the air out of her lungs. The inside of her skull lit in striations of white and red. Something in her spine cracked.
“The interesting thing about massage is that it can sometimes release toxins in the body. Poisons that a person might not even know they were carrying around.” Cody’s hand glided down the length of her spine and then pushed upward. Her skin burned as it stretched with his movement. “What fascinates me is that you’ll feel great after the massage and then this illness will turn up later. It might seem unrelated.”
Like her son. “Do you think Vien should stop the massages?”
“Oh no.” Cody gripped her shoulders and pushed them into the table. “Not yet.”
Pinned to the massage table, Tuyet could see only a circle of the floor. Another perfect fingernail lay under the table. A spot of blood stained the table leg.
Cody put his hands on the base of her skull. She tensed.
“Relax.” He rolled her head in easy circles. “I’m not going to hurt you. But I have an offer to make.”
Tuyet could not stop staring at the fingernail on the floor. She tried to resist the line of cause and effect from it to the fingernail in the veal. “What offer?”
“I’d like to give Vien a pair of lungs.”
Tuyet tried to raise her head, but Cody held her down. He pressed her face into the headrest with one hand and stroked her long hair with the other. “You have beautiful hair, you know. You should wear it down more often.”
“What did you mean, about the lungs?”
He took her arm and twisted it behind her, digging his fingers into the space under her scapula. Hot and cold vibrated through her shoulder and into her pelvis. “You have money saved for the operation, right? But you’re still saving for the lungs. I’ll give them to you.”
“Why do you–?” She turned her head to look at him and the heat shot down her left leg.
Cody wore only a towel and a pair of latex gloves. He raised an eyebrow and shook his finger at her. “You need to relax or this will hurt. Why do I have a set of lungs? They’re Hélène’s. As was the ‘veal.’ And the blood.”
Tuyet vomited. She couldn’t turn fast enough; her dinner spattered on the table and dripped to the floor.
“I’m going to have to ask you to clean that up before you leave.” Cody sighed and patted her back. “Look, it’s very simple. I’ve set you up. You’re going to take the fall, but if you go along with it, then your son can have her lungs.”
“Why would anyone think I killed your wife?”
“Because. Her blood is under your fingernails. The package of meat I gave you is at your house. The only sticky thing is the motive, but her lungs make that easy.” Cody straightened her arm slowly and pulled on it. Her shoulder developed spaces within it that should not be there.
“I. Don’t. Have. Her. Lungs.” Her hands felt like they were covered with blood. She pulled against him and tried to turn, but he would not let go.
“No. But a stasis chamber rented in your name does. I hope you don’t mind me using your computer when I was massaging Vien.” Cody smiled again. “You really should wear your hair down more often.”
“I need to go.” Under her nails she could see the tiny spots of blood she had scraped up. Tuyet pushed into a half sitting position. Her bra dropped on the table.
“The trouble with murdering someone on a space station is that disposing of the body becomes very difficult. I’d been encouraging Hélène to get bigger and bigger dogs. They took care of most of her, but eventually someone will start looking for the rest. If you cooperate, you can have her lungs.” He ran his hand up her arm, digging into the tendons there.
“And if I don’t?”
“Then I’ll tell the police that I suspect you and you’ll be arrested much, much faster. Believe me, I’ve planned this very well.” Cody held out his hand, keeping one on her hand. “Give me your other arm.”
“No.” She leaned back against him.
“You’ll be unbalanced if I only do one side.” He frowned like a petulant boy. “Come on, Tuyet. We aren’t finished yet and this might as well be pleasant.”
“I don’t want anything from you.” She twisted in his grasp, but he held her as easily as she could hold Vien.
“Sure you do. You just haven’t admitted it yet. You want the lungs. Think, Tuyet. If you turn me down, then the lungs sit in the stasis chamber until the police find them. Will they do anyone any good, then? No. You won’t help anyone by doing that.”
Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings… Hélène and Vien were nearly the same size. It would be a good match.
“What would I have to do?”
“There’s my girl.” He squeezed her hand. “Now give me your other arm and I’ll tell you how to retrieve the lungs.”
Trembling, Tuyet held her hand out to him.
Vien ran past her chasing a hoverball. “Mom! Watch!” He whacked it with his paddle and it sped straight into the goal.
Tuyet set the handiwipe down and applauded. “Well done!” The wonder of watching him run again had not once left her in the three months since his operation.
“Is that your son?” Another mother sat down on the bench next to Tuyet.
Tuyet nodded, barely taking her eyes from Vien. She ran the handiwipe over the ends of her fingers, trying to avoid the spots where she had rubbed the skin raw.
“Where did he get his new lungs?”
For a moment longer, Tuyet watched her son before turning to the woman. She held out a badge, her id and rank rotating ad infinitum in the holo over it. “I’d like to ask you to come to the station with me, Dr. Phan.”
The urge to scrub her hands again became almost overwhelming. Tuyet turned away from the detective and looked back at Vien, running. “May I tell my son where I’m going?”
“Of course. We’d like him to come in too.”
Vien laughed in response to something one of the other children said. His laughter arced clear and beautiful through the air.
The detective stood. “Let’s go, Dr. Phan. Call your son.”
They could do nothing to Vien. He was an innocent in all of this. Tuyet had known the effect of her actions when she had accepted the lungs. “Vien! We need to go.”
He scowled but came without question, running all the way. Deep full breaths filled his chest. He grinned when he got to them.
Tuyet took him by the hand; his sweat dripped onto her raw skin and burned. She clenched him tighter.
Vien squirmed. “Mom! You don’t need to hold my hand.”
“I know, Cabbage.” Tuyet fell into step beside the detective. She wanted to hold onto her son as long as she could. Whatever happened, the price had been worth it.
“Where are we going?” Vien asked.
The detective looked at him and said, “What do you know about evidence?”
Originally appeared in the anthology Gratia Placenti edited by Jason Sizemore (Apex Publications, 2007)
More from Mary Robinette Kowal:
Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of Shades of Milk and Honey Tor, 2010). In 2008 she received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer and has been nominated for the Hugo and Locus awards. Her stories appear in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and several Year’s Best anthologies. She is the Vice President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Mary, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor, recording fiction for authors such as Elizabeth Bear, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. She lives in Portland, OR with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Visit www.maryrobinettekowal.com for more information.