Jeffrey R. Butler
Metallic scent, electric ink. Glowing sigils flow across my chest, a lost alphabet, new circuits illuminating tribal patterns.
Joey was the only one I trusted to do the mod, what with half my works being old-school, and all of them custom. I still had implants for christsakes, laid in when doped nanotubes were still bleeding edge. Joey had been doing my work since University, since before the expulsion. Not that they’d been able to prove anything.
I was here because I’d spent the last six months banging my head against a wall of circuits and code, and the burn of the tattoo was my reward. I’d finally worked it out.
Black Hole, my band, would love it.
Sure, Sonic Death and The Happy Torturers had managed to get some crazy holographic effects using bulky external signal amplifiers. They even made all the clunky equipment work for them, part of their whole TechDeathMetal aesthetic.
Black Hole was a more stripped down sound, a stripped down idea. We’d be able to do costume changes, even identity changes, with the flip of a switch. A neural implant made it a thought.
Joey didn’t like that idea much. “You think that’s wise? I’ve heard stories of spooks using the neural implants to control people.”
“Yeah, which is why they’re hardened and insulated, otherwise my head would have blown up when you turned those on.” I gestured at the electromagnets that Joey needed to follow the board inking process. “Besides, they’d have to do a another full implant to control the existing one.”
“They could…” said Joey, flipping a switch.
“Yeah, but if it’s possible, the neural switch I’ve put in makes no difference. And I made sure the band got as good as I did.”
“I guess so, man. Anyway we’re done here.”
As the hum of the magnets faded, so did the glow of my newly inked circuits, and I was left with my traditional ink. They were mostly Tlingit and Haida, but I had a few Yakuza rip-offs done years ago to keep up my street cred, back when I worried about that. Now I was the one who decided what had cred.
I nodded towards the now quiet machinery. “New MRI assembly?”
“Yeah, Doc Johnson needed some work done on a new gamer inlay. Some good work but ugly as hell. I prettied up the circuit pattern so it’d look good on skin and took it out in trade. He even helped me with a few tweaks.”
I looked at the machinery again. It had been modified a fair bit but… “Those are Janssen 1340s, aren’t they? Solid work.”
“Yeah, and they have room for custom upgrades. Now quit stalling.”
I flipped Joey the bird – he smiled. I swung my legs off the side of the couch and shuffled over to his workstation. I placed my right hand against the neural interface and picked up the memory stick between my left thumb and forefinger. The computer desktop overlaid my vision, the real world appearing only as a faint image on my retina. I turned down the overlay intensity so I could still see Joey, and activated the program install. I waited.
“Well?” Joey said.
“Yeah, yeah, give me a fucking minute. That was a big board, you know. Neural inhibitors or not, that still fucking stings.”
“Yeah, well wait until you get the real ink – no neural inhibitors for that, you pussy.”
“Whatever, ya fuckin’ sadist.” I paused, made a few keystrokes to move the install along and said, “So, you heard that new track from Biloxi? Shitty drums, but that girl’s got one kickass voice,”
“You’re just a sucker for a pretty voice, but yeah, it’s not bad.”
“And you’re just a snob – you think that if it isn’t incomprehensible then it’s a sellout.”
“What I think, is that good art isn’t easy,” said Joey.
“Depends on the art,” I said.
“Even simple is hard. You love all that Zen shit, you should know that.”
“Hard to do maybe, not hard to understand. You just want to have something the masses can’t touch,” I said.
“I don’t mind if the masses touch it, I just object if they get it grimy with use. I mean, Jesus, using Iggy Pop to sell Hummers?” said Joey.
And that was just too good a straight line to miss. The program had finished installing, and I had some old Iggy files in memory, so I did the video and audio overlays and sang, “Your skin starts itchin’ once you buy the gimmick.”
Joey fell out of his chair, his eyes wide, and then he laughed. “It works, man, even the facial when you talk! You did it, you really fucking did it! And you’ve got the audio boards in perfect sync.”
I walked over to the mirror and ran my hands over ‘Iggy’s’ face. There was a little distortion, but not much. The algorithms adjusted quite well, so I didn’t look like I was burying my hands into my face. But it would need some tweaking. I turned around; I wasn’t a small guy, but sure enough I now had the build of Iggy, skinny as a scarecrow. The holograms made my body smaller, covered parts of me with the image of empty space. I pushed it.
Joey made a strangled sound as I disappeared, and I moved quietly to the other side of the shop and turned off the field.
“A god-damned cloaking device. You could be a Klingon.”
I flipped on that image for a second.
Joey goggled and laughed again. “Christ man, I’m tempted to take up burglary.”
“If it were that simple so would I, but no one trusts cameras these days; they can be hacked too easily, and I haven’t managed to discover antigravity. Yet.”
“Well, yesterday I would’ve laughed at your ego, but today… man. This blows the hell out of anything that Jenkins ever did for the Torturers.”
Two days later I was back in Joey’s shop with the band, who were getting the new holo-board inked in and tested. Pitch nailed the interface fastest, but that didn’t surprise me as she spent a lot of time in the online MUDs. It was where she got a lot of her dress sense – sometimes cool, often very, very bad, but it worked for the band. And if you didn’t have a lead singer with a tendency towards fashion crimes, then you might as well go mainstream. Zeke and Billy figured it out soon enough though; they were music geeks and loved the technology as much as I did, already the two of them had their heads together, Billy’s mohawk brushing against the dead platinum that Zeke argued was a stylish haircut. I was looking forward to seeing what they would do with the system; they were playing with some random visual effects, streaks of colour, flashes of lightning and the like, and chatting about how they’d link with some of their audio boards.
It was Pitch who wanted some ink to show off the new board, not hide it. “What the fuck?” I asked, thinking that the boards were too flash.
“What the hell is this, eh?” she asked. “Is this something I can just take out, or get a cover up?” She walked closer to Joey, who was still working on Ned, and as she approached the humming magnets, her board started to shimmer, just above her root chakra. I tried to ignore how sexy it looked. I had always found Pitch a bit too distracting for my mental health, but knew better than to try to get involved. Being a lead singer means always being a tease, everything, everyone a challenge.
“How’s it going, Ned? Holding up OK?” she asked.
“I’m good, Pitch,” said Ned. “I think you should do it, maybe get some magnets onstage to amplify the glow.” He paused, and then continued, “It looks sexy.”
“It’s part of me. Instead of my past on my skin, it’s my future.”
I laughed. “It’ll be an obsolete future in a few years.”
“Then I’ll get upgraded. Or not. Either way it’ll be my skin, my ink. Electric or indigo.”
The next day Zeke told us his plan. That was Zeke, he was the one who kept all of our rather strong personalities pulling in the same direction. How such a sweet guy ended up with a gutter mouth like Billy was one of the more bizarre romances I’ve seen, but it seemed to work for them.
None of us objected, except Billy – but that was to be expected especially since the plan involved Vijay, who owned the legendary Revolver on Queen, a man Billy had never liked. We talked about some of the details and then rehearsed it in our little shitbox studio. The next day found us heading downtown to implement ‘the fancy-assed plot’ as Billy called it. The rest of gang was keen on the ‘plan,’ but all I was thinking about was sinking my teeth into their huevos rancheros, Vijay made it with chutney that made mornings worthwhile.
“Vijay,” Zeke called out as we came in.
Vijay turned. He was a tall East Indian chap, rail-thin with a face of a Punjabi warlord and he could be one of the most intimidating and foul-tempered people I’d ever met. A handy thing when you run one of the most successful alt-rock bars in the city. He saw Zeke he broke into a giant gleaming white smile. “Zeke baby, you finally come to your senses and decided to leave that rabid dog you’ve been dating?”
“The rabid dog is right here, you ass-licking piece of shit,” said Billy helpfully.
“Ah, as charming as ever, you poor excuse for maggot fodder.” Billy and Vijay barely tolerated each other; the absence of fisticuffs was only for Zeke’s sake. Then Vijay gave me and the gang a quick glance. “Ah,” he said, “I see you’ve brought the whole posse. How delightful.”
Zeke said, “Shush, be quiet and go sit down,” before I could say a word. “Vijay and I are going to sit down like adults and chat, hmm?”
I heard Pitch mutter “Fuck” under her breath, and I exchanged a glance with her. Apparently Billy wasn’t the only one who found Vijay annoying. Ned smiled and looked away. I glared, but he seemed impervious to my Jedi powers.
We all sat down, and one of Vijay’s typical waitresses – sexy, pierced and tattooed – took our orders. It turned out that she and Pitch knew each other, so while they chatted the three of us slowly starved and rapidly slid into caffeine withdrawal. It wasn’t all bad though, it gave Ned and I a chance to ogle without a dirty look from Pitch. Billy had other concerns and kept shooting irritable glances at Zeke and Vijay (I noticed they already had their coffees). Shortly after the waitress left with our orders, Billy said, “Now.”
And we all activated our ink. Pitch had dressed down, and was now done up in full technofetish with an unnatural amount of cleavage and glowing black eyes giving off little wisps of smoke. Ned took on the look of a ragged, desiccated mummy, bits of bandage still clinging to his face, Billy was supposed to take on the look of a wolf boy, all shining pelt and nasty claws, but I guess Vijay’s comment got to him and instead he became a walking health hazard, his clothes torn and stained, a huge and dripping rat on his shoulder while cockroaches skittered over his skin and in and out of the rips in his grease-stained trenchcoat.
Pitch stuck out her tongue and fired some Sith Lord lightning from her fingertips at him. Billy smiled with cracked yellow teeth and even Pitch couldn’t resist.
I’d opted for a cyborg, something I considered appropriate given the many generations of implants I had in me. Even if the laser shooting from my eye did end a foot or so from my body.
We were expecting a good reaction from Vijay, but he had his back to us so it was the waitress who was coming back to the table with our coffees who saw us first. At the sound of a strangled scream and smashing crockery (“There goes our coffee,” muttered Billy”) Vijay turned abruptly.
“Rebecca, what the fuck,” began Vijay, then, he stopped for a moment and stared. Then he said, in a long, low, exhalation, “Bhenchod” which I took to be some sort of Hindi curse. He turned to Zeke and said, “Yeah, I can give you a Friday night. How about two weeks from now? You can go up between the Thrills and Narcoleptic. Narcoleptic’s always late anyway; they claim that it’s part of their shtick, but I’ll enjoy making them pay the price of it.” He walked towards us, his glance shooting from one to the other. Finally he settled on Billy, “So does this special effect only reveal your inner selves, or will I have to live with this piece of trash on my stage all night?”
Billy changed so fast that it made my eyes ach, and instead of the wolf boy that he’d designed there was a full, bloody-mouthed werewolf with claws that swept within a hair’s breadth of Vijay’s gut.
The waitress behind him screamed again and even Vijay jumped back a foot, startled and a bit pale. Billy let all of his illusions drop and grinned at Vijay. Then he turned to the waitress and said, “Sorry about that, can I give you hand cleaning up?”
Vijay cursed under his breath and then, “Don’t bother, I’ll help her out. Brunch is on the house – it’s not often that I am so thoroughly entertained this early in the morning, even if it is by the likes of you.”
* * *
The night of the show, I saw Vijay at the bar arguing with the burly drummer from Narcoleptic. He gestured at the stage and I caught his eye and he grinned, a big shit eating grin, as I worked the boards for the band. The crowd was going wild, and there was a constant flash and glow as cellphones sent images of us on stage, bringing in crowds in realtime. We were a hit.
After that we were doing two or three gigs a week in T.O. and then toured for a month in the States, including three gigs in New York.
We got back into Toronto late Wednesday night and dropped the gear at the studio. We were lying around on the battered furniture, throwing back a few desultory beers, when Billy, who had gone out in search of salty snacks, burst into the studio only a couple of minutes later with a copy of ‘inSight’ clutched in his hand.
We’d made the cover.
I watched Billy bounce around the studio, giving everyone a big kiss on the lips (including me; he was a good kisser, but could use a shave) saving Zeke till last. “Baby, you did it baby, you got us to the big time.” yelled Billy, and then leapt into his lover’s arms, toppling them both to the dusty floor. We all laughed, but when they started to pull at each others clothes Pitch poured half of her beer over their heads.
“I’m as fond of a little boy on boy as the next girl, but I’d like to see this article that you two are bumping and grinding all over.”
Billy laughed again, bounced to his feet and gave Pitch another kiss – she actually looked a little surprised at the intensity of it. Zeke got to his feet, blushing furiously, and tried to look nonchalant about an obvious, and given how tight his pants were, probably highly uncomfortable erection.
I looked around, trying to capture the moment in my mind. Pitch trying to look hardcore and driven, but with a grin constantly sneaking onto her face. Zeke serene and content, his gaze focused on Billy still hopping and dancing around the studio singing “We are the Champions” at the top of his lungs. I knew that I had a huge shit eating grin on my face, but what was most memorable for me was Ned’s reaction. Phlegmatic, burnt-out Ned had a spark in his eye that I’d never seen before. Like there was some hope in the world after all, something good and real. I wondered what sort of junkie that he’d been – I mean it wasn’t as though he never touched anything; he’d still drink, or take a hit on a toke now and again, but nothing excessive. And he’d always felt a little dead to me, but it seemed as though our walking corpse had some life in him after all.
“Pretty cool, eh Neddy?” I said over Billy’s terrible singing.
“Yeah,” he said, and then for emphasis, “Yeah.”
* * *
After that, we started to see the mainstream at our shows. It was at our gig at Arisen, a big venue in the industrial lands near the lakeshore, that it became obvious. Guys in suits, girls in miniskirts. Not our usual black on black crowd. I even thought I recognized a couple of the suits, from other shows.
I was about to ask Ned, but he was already staring at them with a peculiar intensity. The deadpan look that he had when I first met him was back in force. “Noticed our serious boys from the ‘burbs have you?”
“Yeah,” said Ned, “not sure if that’s what they are though.”
“You expecting trouble?”
He shook his head, “No, just remind me of my old crowd.” He smiled and looked at the band tuning on stage. “But fuck the past, eh? We’ve got a future. Don’t we?”
His tone threw me, “Um hell, yeah, we’re the bomb. Look around you.”
He smiled and headed towards the stage. But I noticed that his path through the crowd carried him well away from the guys in the black suits.
When we’d hired Ned he’d seemed a bit of a burnout. And a bit old, but he was a hard drummer and rock-solid. Nothing seemed to rattle him. Not the crowds, not the club owners or bouncers. So I didn’t know what to make of reaction to the suits. Maybe he was a disgraced derivatives trader, a refugee from Bay Street. I smiled at the thought of Ned in a suit.
Still, I started looking for them at other shows and I began share Ned’s unease. They weren’t at all of our shows, and when they did show up, they blended with the young wannabe hip crowd. But whenever I saw Ned looking tense, or just a little too flat, I’d look closer, and sure enough, there they’d be.
Then Aria offered us a record deal. Turned out that one of the suits that Ned had been worrying about was from the label. That night Ned got drunker than I’d ever seen him.
“You ever worry that someone might use your electric ink to do shit? Rob banks or plant bombs or stuff like that,” he asked me.
I laughed. “Fuck, I’ve thought of doing that. But nobody knows this shit like me. My old Prof at York might’ve but he blew his brains out over some faculty politics. But even if they could, it would be fucking idiotic, no one relies on video anymore. It’s too easy to hack.”
“So you couldn’t really use it that way?”
“Nah, not unless you developed all sorts of biometrics shit.”
“Sure, but why would I?”
“No reason.” He paused. “You wouldn’t, would you?”
I looked at him, shook my head at the oddness that was Ned drunk. “No man, I’ve got no interest in that shit. Besides, why would I rob a bank, the band keeps up like this and we’ll own the bank.”
He smiled at that and said, “We are so going to kick ass,” and then he leaned to one side of his bar stool and puked.
* * *
Billy and I were sitting around arguing about some of the levels
on the ‘Hot Tamale’ track, when I met him the first time.
“Richard Howard,” he said, “from Aria. I’m very happy to meet you. I hear that you’re the best sound guy in the business.”
His smile seemed genuine and his handshake firm, but to call me the best sound guy in the business was bullshit. I was good, no question, but I wasn’t the best. The band kept me on sound because I understood how it worked with the holoimages. So I didn’t trust him from the beginning, the vibe was all wrong. He was too eager, too positive and had too little sleaze. A sincere suit; I should have known then.
It didn’t get any better with time either. At first it was just my own paranoia – I’d been in the business long enough to see what the big labels could do and everytime he came by. I was constantly expecting the hammer to drop: a cut in studio time, canceling the contract, or, god help us, a discussion about market numbers with gentle suggestions about changes in our ‘artistic direction.’ None of it helped my temper; I was irritable and Zeke was frustrated with me, since Howard was our main contact from the studio.
Ned, though, seemed to share my distrust. “The son of a bitch keeps asking me questions about the electric ink and I sure as hell don’t want him using it for some other band.” I complained to him one day, “And how does he so much about this shit anyway? I’ve quizzed him and he just avoids my questions.”
Ned looked worried, well, as worried as Ned could look. Then he gave a ghost of a smile. “Why don’t you ask Pitch to explain it?”
“Pitch? She doesn’t... Oh.” I smiled.
So Pitch explained the holoboards, which she was happy to do, delivering a steaming pile of technobabble on demand. Some of it even made sense and was perfect to snow someone with a hacker-lite understanding of the technology.
So I was happier, for a while. Then Pitch decided to practice her skills at cosmetic holography, flirting with Howard and showing more cleavage than should have been mathematically possible. Which sent my mood into another tailspin. Made worse by the way he kept praising her for technical ingenuity while he stared at her tits. Hell, technically they were my tits; it was my work that made them.
The others got used to him, even Ned, who just seemed happy that he was talking to Pitch about the boards. But I couldn’t stop complaining about him and his stupid baritone.
Finally Pitch snapped at me. “Oh, why don’t you just kill him, then?”
I smiled, “A great idea,” and activated my boards. Zeke shook his head while Billy laughed. Pitch just looked a little disgusted.
I looked in the mirror and saw what they saw – Howard – well almost: mine was a bit of a caricature. Howard was tall and well built, but stiff, like he had a stick up his butt. On me, well, you could see the stick. He had sandy blonde hair, though a bit thin. Of course, I made it look like a bad hair transplant. His suits, usually grey or navy blue and utilitarian, were now too tight and poorly tailored with cheap, patent leather shoes. His face, square and strong, I made lantern-jawed and a little stupid.
“Lovely, lovely, you kids are doing a bang-up job,” I said, the voice more nasal than Howard’s plummy baritone. “But I know I’ve offended your wise technician and I’m willing to pay the price.”
And I grasped the short blade I’d conjured, slipped it into and across my belly. Guts spilled onto the studio floor.
Ned walked in, looked at the guts and said, “Nice to see the old traditions are still alive.”
I felt better after that; my frustration at the situation had an outlet. The rest of the week the boys and I had considerable fun inventing ever more elaborate deaths. One night, Billy, in an exceptionally perverse mood, programmed something new. When I clove Billy’s version of Howard from head to toe with a flaming sword the separated halves of his body boiled maggots, even as he kept walking towards me. It was fucking eerie; I was torn between the urge to run or to hurl, and slammed a neutral image on my face and looked around. I wasn’t the only one that looked way too calm. In fact Ned was the only one looking like himself, and he gave the impression of someone who found such horrors boring and distasteful. Like he was too jaded to be scared shitless like the rest of us.
When we all realized that we’d been projecting the ultra-cool faces and we started to laugh, cursing Billy as a sick (if brilliant) bastard. Then Pitch made the fatal mistake of saying, “Oh I don’t think our Mr. Howard’s that bad.” Did we have fun with that.
A couple of days later though, we did manage to come up with something that bothered Ned. I had just devised another lovely vignette with Billy culminating with Howard’s head exploding. Then we ordered a couple of pizzas.
“Jesus,” Ned said, “how can you guys eat after that?”
Billy shrugged, “Dunno, creative energy expenditure I guess. I’m always hungry after a big illusion.”
I laughed. “That’s because the electric ink works off your body’s energy – ATP coupled. Heh, I could come up with a new weight loss program – look pretty to be pretty.”
* * *
Later that week the album was essentially done. There was still some technical work, cleaning up and prepping the tracks for production, but the thing was pretty much in the can. So the band decided to take a short holiday and I decided to go out and celebrate with a bit of a bender.
I took Ned along. I was beginning to feel like an old-timer and he seemed like good company. We wandered into one of the big nightclubs, and that’s when I saw her. Dress of midnight blue, cut low and cut high, hair of jet, Christ, she was gorgeous. Obviously in from the 905, but not with a man, just a gaggle of girlfriends. I gave Ned the wingman signal and went in kamikaze. And who’da believed it, she had a thing for sleight of hand and I was drunk enough to show her a few tricks with the board and she was primed. Ned seemed to be working his own charm with the friends. With a nod we left them and went off to her place, which wasn’t the 905 after all, but high on the waterfront, lake view and shit.
By the time I staggered home, I felt like I’d run a marathon. I was stumbling up the walk when I saw Pitch and Ned on my front porch, sharing a cigarette, and all the alarm bells in my head, every foul instinct from my bad youth, started raising an infinite amount of hell.
Ned was pale, shock evident on his face. Pitch wasn’t. She was green, and when Ned gave a quick wave I saw blood and I just knew it wasn’t his. I looked at Pitch closely and saw Ned’s fingers pushing hard against her side. One of the fingers seemed to sink in farther than it should and I realized where that blood was coming from. I felt sick but had enough sense to get my keys and help them upstairs.
“They were in my apartment when I got home,” said Pitch. “They tried to grab me but I threw the banshee effect at them. The volume was low but they weren’t expecting her, that’s for sure. One of them was Howard.”
Things started clicking into place, and not just for me.
“He wasn’t from a label, was he?” said Ned.
“No… I don’t think so,” I said.
“We tried calling Zeke and Billy’s place. Someone answered but it wasn’t either of them.”
“Fuck,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Ned. Pitch just winced.
“We have to get to the hospital,” I said.
“Don’t be a fucking idiot,” she said through gritted teeth. “They’ll be looking for us there.”
Ned interjected, “She’s right. The ‘label’ knows she’s hurt and they’d know to cover the hospitals. And I don’t get the impression that these guys are hurting for manpower, ya know. There were four of them at her apartment.”
We both turned towards him; he looked funny. Something was swimming to the surface of his eyes, and it occurred to me that there was more than one way to burn out. “I know someone,” he said. His voice was harder, but rusty, a tone that he’d not used for some time. “It won’t be a safe place, but he might be able to help.”
I was lost. I looked at Pitch, but she had her own problems right now. Her eyes were closed tight, fighting the pain. I nodded, not daring to speak, frustration and anger boiling inside of me. We shuffled her outside and into the back of the van, making her as comfortable as we could among the amps and power cables. We thought about tossing them, but instead we used them to keep her from rolling around in the back while we drove. We knew we’d be moving fast.
Ned made the calls. He had to go through a couple of people to get the location, but he’d known roughly where it’d be. It was so damn odd, Ned being decisive, but by the time we hit the 427 he had his directions. It wasn’t an area of town I knew, but then I’d avoided suburbs ever since I moved out of my parents. But where the ‘burb I’d grown up in was all manicured lawns and three car garages, this had row houses with peeling paint scattered like birdshit amongst the rusting apartment towers. We got off at West Mall and went north, pulled into the back of a shabby strip mall and rang the bell.
The battered door opened, and a greasy shape with slick hair and dandruff blocked the way. The smell of tobacco and grass rolled out of the place. “Neddy boy, never thought I’d see you again. But that don’t look like your blood, boyo.”
“Can the small talk, Gerry, get the stretcher – she’s in the back.” Ned nodded his head towards the van.
“That’s my boy. Your levity brings a smile to my face.”
I was about to get annoyed, but as he was talking he was wrangling a stretcher with surprising efficiency. In short order we got Pitch into the back of the storefront.
It was a scene from the obsessive-compulsive renovator’s handbook. Studs and joists were exposed, but everything was sparking clean and bright. Finished surfaces painted white, plastic sheeting draped everywhere.
Gerry saw me looking around. “Lovely décor, eh? All very clean, and if it’s under sheeting, it’s sterile. I’d use glass walls, but they’re heavier to pack if it becomes necessary, if you know what I mean.”
We rolled the stretcher next to a hospital bed surrounded by equipment and shrouded by plastic. Gerry pulled on a couple of ropes and the plastic rose into the air through an extensive series of pulleys, and suddenly it was a small operating theatre. We opened one side and transferred Pitch to the bed; she groaned a little, but softer, weaker. I gritted my teeth for her.
“When did this happen?” asked Gerry – he was concentrating now.
“About two hours ago,” said Ned. “She’s strong.”
“Yeah,” said Gerry, very, very focused on Pitch. I wasn’t comfortable with some of the examination, but I didn’t know enough to object. Ned seemed a bit more knowledgeable.
“Don’t let your… interests… get the better of you, or even you wouldn’t be able to patch you up,” said Ned
“Neddy, you gone soft?”
“Not when it counts, Gerry, got me?”
“Jesus, a boy can’t even have his fun any more.”
Ned took a step forward.
“I got it, Ned, I fucking told you I got it. Now let me work.”
Two hours later he was done, and Pitch was sleeping, or passed out. I couldn’t tell. I was trying to figure out what to do next, whether it would be safe to leave her here, when Ned pulled out a stack of cash, some U.S. currency, a few in Euros, and handed it to Gerry. “Supplies,” he said.
Gerry grunted, leafed through the bills and passed Ned some ampoules, pills and bandages. We loaded Pitch and drove towards the highway.
“We need a place,” said Ned.
“One of the fans…?” asked Ned.
And then both of us together: “Alistair.”
We pulled into a strip club by the airport to call because they always had payphones. The line was fuzzy; Alistair bounced his calls through shifting exchanges.
“Who is it?”
He paused. “How do I know that?”
“Look,” I said, “I ignore your idiot rules, when they’re idiotic. Right now, well – no names, no locations.”
There was a pause. “Blue and gold, north of 401.”
“Got it,” I said.
I hung up and Ned looked at me. “He’s parked at that fucking Scandinavian furniture store up near Bayview,” I said. “And let’s hope that anyone listening doesn’t find the location any easier to figure out than their assembly instructions.”
We tried Zeke and Billy again, nothing; we looked at each other, a little sick, and then checked messages, one for each of us. My, weren’t we popular.
Ned let me listen to his. “Mr. Wheatly? Ned Wheatly. Well, we did a background check on you, and let me say that it would be in your interest, as well as that of your band mates, if you were to come in and chat with us. We know you have the girl, and we would like her too, along with her board designs. Call soon.” They left a number and a name. Richard Howard.
My message was from the police. They were looking for the band members, as witnesses to a supposed ‘incident.’ Ned did make a call to check the number Howard had left. It was part of the anti-terrorism branch of CSIS. The alternative news feeds had reported that the branch facilitated the work of American agents in Canada and while Ottawa denied it, no one really believed them. Ned and I believed that we were in deep shit.
The drive up was quiet, it was after evening rush hour, thank god. Ned and I both looked back frequently at Pitch in the back seat. She still looked pale, but her breathing was quiet and steady.
Alistair’s Winnebago was at the far end of the parking lot, in shadow, beside a small utility building. The parking lot lights nearby were conveniently dark. Alistair was most deft at finding concealment in plain sight. He came out just as we drove up dressed, as always, in pinstripe pants and white shirt open at the collar.
“Well, well, well. I haven’t seen you in this much trouble since you got kicked out of school,” said Alistair. “Looks like old habits die hard. ”
“Cut the reminiscences, Alistair.” I said, “We have more serious problems than a hack of some prof’s encryption algorithm.”
“That just happened to be for the military?”
“One, it was for their recruiting department, not combat, and two, I don’t give a shit – will you help us or not?”
“Alright, alright, jeez, a boy can’t even have a little fun these days.”
Ned and I exchanged looks.
“I need an upgrade to my ink,” I said. “I have an idea for a new interface.”
Alistair shook his head. “Jesus, I had twenty-three patents by age thirty, and you still blow my mind. No wonder your parents were so pissed when you got swallowed by the underground.”
“No worse than you – you see half the shows on our tour,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Alistair, “but I’m a paranoid schizophrenic. What’s your excuse?”
We were all laughing when Pitch staggered from the van. “Wha’s so fuckin’ funny? Zeke and Billy are missin’, prolly perm’ently, and you goofballs are havin’ a fuckin’ sharing moment?”
Ned and I froze. It was Alistair who moved. “Jesus, Pitch, come in – the bunk has clean linens so you can sleep there. And don’t you worry, we were just laughing about our revenge on the bastards who did this to you.”
Pitch took a step, and the drugs kicked in. She staggered and Alistair caught her. “Thas alright then,” she said, and passed out.
Alistair carried her inside, looking as protective as a bear with its cub. He kept watch over her that night while Ned and I discussed options.
“The key,” said Ned, “is to find out how far this whole thing has gone. Over the last twenty years intelligence agencies have spent so much time chasing terrorists that they’re beginning to act like them, fractured into specialty units that look like terrorist cells. Fear of infiltration justifies the firewalls between units, so it’s degraded into a world with the unofficial motto, ‘make it happen or make it go away.’ So if this is still inside Howard’s unit, we need to make sure they can’t take this operation any further.”
“Fuck Ned, how do you know all this?”
Ned looked at me, “It’s enough to know that I know. We are fucked if this goes outside of this unit. We have to figure out how to stop that from happening.
“And do what? Kill’em all? Jesus I don’t want to think about that. Besides, we need to figure out what happened to Zeke and Billy. If they were taken, we need to figure out how to get them out.”
Ned paused a moment, and studied his hands intently. Flexed them twice and then, “If, IF, they’re alive they’re in a safehouse for interrogation. Someplace the unit uses to do its dirty work, they should have filed a report, proof of progress and all that, but they won’t list the location – it’s the kind of place where the ‘off the books’ things happen.
I’d drop all this now and just run, but they’ll want to tie up loose ends and those loose ends would be us. These guys are not the boys in blue; they’re international security, more privateers than police. If we don’t hit them first, and hit hard, they’ll rip us all to pieces. And I’m not being metaphorical.”
I looked at Ned for a second and then sighed. “What do you think we need to do?”
“You need to hack into the agency and find out who knows what.”
“I can do that,” I said.
“Then it’s time for some recon.”
I used Alistair’s rig to hack the number Agent Howard had left. I prepped the code and sent it back up the line. I breached the first firewall and the information flowed like a river, with me looking for the source. It sounds simple, but wasn’t – I’m just that good. My family was disappointed in me for a reason.
The Rapid Cover Unit was small, with a few researchers and a handful of field agents. The Unit helped agents establish multiple identities quickly and easily using the newest techniques. It all looked pretty trivial to me.
I made the mistake of saying this aloud.
Ned said, “Look, man, don’t be a fool. These guys might be minor players, but they’re trained, observant and ruthless. They managed to find you and your innovations in all of the hype and noise of the entertainment business. They may have gotten details wrong, but they got us all, and if it hadn’t been for one night of drinking, we’d all be sitting in a containment cell somewhere. By now they probably know that you’re the key, especially if they have Zeke and Billy, so we’d better just get this ball rolling.”
I didn’t have much to say after that.
* * *
The next day Ned and I were sniping at each other with increasing frequency. We were frustrated; we needed to get rid of the Rapid Cover Unit without looking like we’d done anything. The last thing we wanted was more people involved.
It was Pitch who came up with the solution, and a good thing too.
"Don't do anything; get them to do the work for you." She was using her “stating the obvious" voice as a change from her “fuck off, I’m sick” voice.
“And how do you propose we do that, delirious one?'' I asked.
Pitch giggled; she really was delirious. "Be at one with your enemy, silly. You're the one who’s always going on about that eastern philosophy and shit."
And it twigged in my moderately thick brain.
Ned whacked himself on the forehead. "I'll get working on the sound files.''
Pitch nodded sagely and then threw up into the bucket beside the foldaway bed. Secondary infections are a bitch.
Two hours later I was sniffing ozone once again as Joey added another board. He’d made the run from his shop to Alistair’s RV after Alistair had dropped by. Joey was trying to act cool, but I knew he was getting a kick out of the scene. Luckily he’d also had some run-ins with the police a few times, so he did understand about keeping his mouth shut. The new board ran from the back of my wrist down to my thumb and it hurt like hell. Even Joey knew that this one stung, and it was a tough one, so he was concentrating. Alistair was busy implementing the other half of my latest design, a hand-held card. Once Joey was done I headed outside the RV for a drink and a cigarette, and I heard Ned cursing inside. This was only the second board he’d had implanted and he was definitely not enjoying the process. I didn’t blame him.
“This thing better work,” said Ned.
“It’ll be anything you want it to be,” I said.
“It’ll look like anything, it won’t be anything.”
“Whatever. I’m not trying to give you a gun, I’m trying to make you magic. Houdini, not Robocop.”
We started working with the cards right away. I felt the burn under my skin as we initiated the uncured circuits. We had a little fun with it, imaging business cards and stuffed animals. When I tossed Joey a light saber I knew we were ready to start digging after our Agent Howard.
* * *
Ned and I were camouflaged as a couple of burnouts looking to fail their driver’s tests at one of the Ministry offices downtown. CSIS occupied two floors of the same building.
We clutched our numbers – along with the rest of the hapless
applicants – and kept our eyes on the elevators. The chime rang and the
elevator doors opened to reveal today’s winner. She was a big girl and a good
match for my size. She had her security badge awkwardly clutched along with her
cigarettes in one hand, and her coffee in the other.
We followed her through the revolving doors and as she fumbled to find her lighter I bumped into her from behind, and the card fell, along with her smokes. I scooped the card and then just stood there, fingers twitching, staring blankly, as I processed the information on it.
Ned stepped in quickly and turned on the charm. “Sorry ma’am,” and picked up her cigarettes, offering them to her. “My brother’s having trouble with his medication and is a little out of things these days. Can I give you a light?”
“Um, I really need that card,” she said.
“Oh, ah, yeah. Could you just give him a minute? The doc said to try and not disturb him too much when he gets like this.”
My fingers went a little faster. I almost had her biometric information. She stepped forward to take her card.
Ned moved towards her. “No please, let me. He gets a bit freaky sometimes.” He stood in front of me and waved his hands in my face. I could barely see him through the retinal overlay. He gave me a shove, but he was careful not to disturb my typing hand.
“I need that card now!” said the woman.
“What?” I said, still caught in the last of the flow of data. “Oh yeah, yeah, sorry. Here.” And I passed it over.
She snatched it from me. “These things are for security, you know.”
“I hear you, ahh…” and Ned peered at the card, “Abigail. My brother’s really having a rough time right now. I’m sure a perceptive lady like you can see how messed up he is.”
I muttered, “I’m not that bad.”
Abigail stared at us a second, and her expression softened a little. Then she took a close look at the card and said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude, but they’ve been very strict lately.”
Ned smiled and held up his lighter. “Well at least they let you out for a smoke now and again.”
She smiled back, and accepted the light. “Now and again.”
“Rough day?” asked Ned, as he lit his own.
* * *
A few hours later ‘Abigail’ got a few strange looks when she came back in the office. It was after 5:00 – the time we’d chosen when we’d discovered, as we’d chatted over a smoke, that Abigail wasn’t one to work late. So I just hunched over the takeout I’d brought to fuel my ‘overtime’ and bitched until my coworkers had their fill and straggled home. Logging onto Abigail’s computer was a snap since I had a copy of her key card and thumbprint. I didn’t even try to crack the paranoia level encryption on the Rapid Cover Unit’s server, but went around it, sneaking through the cracks between off-the-shelf admin-ware and the secure systems.
Following Ned’s advice, I looked for the incident report the night our lives went to shit. And while there was mention of a reconnaissance of our homes (it was a bit eerie to read just how much they knew about us) there was no mention of the shooting, or of Zeke and Billy’s capture. Absolutely nothing. And the report was filed, of course, by Agent Howard. Time to find out a little bit more about the little shit.
Just as I was to starting to get into the details of his file, a man walked out of one of the offices. He was balding and overweight but remarkably light on his feet, like a linebacker just out of training. He gazed around the office, a smug and proprietary look on his face. And saw me.
“Abigail!” he said. “Working late, are you?”
“Yeah,” I said, improvising in a minor panic, “Agent Howard got quite short with me today. He wanted me to finish up some case summaries.”
“Ah, well, our Agent Howard is a fine worker, though he can be a bit over zealous at times.” And without warning he swung around my desk. “So what’s he obsessing about this time?”
I had started closing windows as soon as he started talking to me, but everything was moving slow because I was working through a hack. The first thing he saw was the search page of the personnel records database.
“You don’t have the authorization for that,” he said. His voice was suddenly hard, the muscle under the padding of good humour.
I started to sweat, I could hide it with the hologram, but that didn’t stop the nausea I was feeling . “I don’t even know how I accessed these files,” I protested. “This damn computer keeps dumping me places I don’t want to go.”
“Ah,” said the man. “Not that you’d want to peruse personnel files, eh?”
I let some of my tension show then. A little blush, some sweat on my upper lip and forehead.
“Well,” I stammered, “I may have read a few lines of one of them, but I couldn’t see anything much.” I put my hand on the screen to turn it towards my interrogator and clicked on the ‘next’ button. As the window came up, it flickered as I ‘pushed’ the hologram. But the screen was too large for the range of my hologram. The ‘restricted’ sign that I placed was too small and you could see the file around the edges; Howard’s. Go figure. Still, I couldn’t see anything of significance.
“Well, it looks like you’ve managed to find your way to your nemesis. Coincidental, eh?”
“Ahhhmm,” I said.
“You know that this is a serious violation of protocol. I’m going to have to call security about this.”
I panicked, not knowing what to do, but suddenly I thought of Pitch flirting with Howard, and shifted more of Abigail’s bosom into view. “Can’t we consider this an exchange of favours?” My attempt at seduction wasn’t helped by the fact that I was in the body of an overweight, middle-aged, female, chain smoker.
The man stared at me for a few seconds. Hard. Then the voice took on a forced levity. “Well, just don’t let me catch you at this again, even if it is our Agent Tightass. If you’d gotten in, I’d have had no choice, but as it is we’ll consider this as payback for your help on the Padwar project.” He took a breath and seemed to let the tension of the moment go. Then, with a literal wink and nudge (heavy enough to make my chair move) he breezed off.
I spent a while recovering from the shakes and started digging. Howard was definitely going to pay.
Howard’s career read like a CSIS recruitment pamphlet. An engineer with a doctorate in PolySci, he’d been recruited by CSIS right off campus. From there he’d climbed the ranks, until India. There he’d run into a local asset, one Savita Agrawal, and developed a relationship.
It was all there in his psych profile.
Client has expressed hostility to the idea he has been the subject of another agency’s profiling activities. Evidence of this failure of perspective can be seen in one of his increasingly frequent and hostile outbursts. I have included a sample here to illustrate:
“Savita may have done some work for the R&AW, but that doesn’t mean that she was out to track me. She was just there on routine surveillance. Jesus, India surely has the right to send their own agents to their own parties. Was I not supposed to talk to anyone? Would that have helped me blend in with the embassy staff eh? Is that policy at Foreign Affairs? It would certainly explain some of the messes they’ve created. Are they the ones who complained, I was being too diplomatic for the diplomatic service?”
“Would that explain why you had dinner with Ms Agrawal on fourteen separate occasions, including several late night forays to the club district and one weekend together at a resort just south of Mumbai?”
“Okay, the resort thing was out of hand, and you’ll note that I stopped things after that.”
“But you still keep in contact.”
“Yeah? So? You’ve surveilled my emails with her, you’ll note that I’ve never revealed any confidential information.”
“You’ve discussed internal relationships.”
“I’ve complained about my fucking boss, is that now against the law?”
“Are you suggesting that this is circumspect behaviour in an intelligence agency?”
At this point the client began shouting and left the interview. I feel that it would be appropriate to remove the agent from active fieldwork and place him in a domestic assignment until such time as he regains perspective.
So he found himself stuck in the rather obscure domestic Rapid Cover Unit.
Howard’s attitude hadn’t improved in his new unit. Apparently he’d been the lead on a bit of encryption tech developed by Narayan Padwar in Saskatoon (“Aha,” I thought to myself when I first read the file, “Abigail’s favour”). It had been classified and then declassified, with minimal paperwork for either step, despite Howard’s objections. It seemed that the Unit Director, Andrew Phillips (the burly man from the office as it turned out), enjoyed appropriating technology for vaguely defined national security reasons and then distributing the ‘peripheral’ (read repackaged) technologies to companies controlled by his friends. And however questionable Howard’s judgment regarding Savita, he was still a ‘by the books’ kind of guy. So he filed a complaint, but Phillips loved running the Unit just the way it was. The movie studios used a lot of these transferred technologies so he got to meet the ‘important’ people and to bang the occasional starlet. It all drove Howard crazy, but Phillips had the political chops to keep him in his place.
If we were going to find Zeke and Billy, then Howard was the key.
It was time to push our G-man over the edge.
* * *
“We’re calling you on behalf of Mumbai Telecom and we were wondering if you would be willing to take part in our survey on cell phone use?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have time right now, have a good day.”
“Could I speak to Ms. Agrawal, please?”
“Congratulations, you have won…”
“Do you people always have to call me during dinner? Good day.”
“You know,” said Pitch during a script planning session, “this would be fun if it wasn’t real.”
“Sometimes I think you missed your true calling,” said Ned.
“No, no I most definitely did not,” said Pitch, more serious than I’d ever heard her. We went back to work.
“Who is this?”
“I’m calling on behalf of…”
“Enough?” asked Pitch, “She’s getting rather annoyed.”
“Yeah, that should do it,” Ned replied, and he sent me the compilation file.
“All right,” I said, “did you want to try it out?”
“Sure thing.” Pitch cleared her throat, not that it made any difference, and said, “Would you like me to get you some tea?” in the slightly exotic British accent of the Indian upper-class.
* * *
‘Savita’ walked into the restaurant. She wore a red dress, clingy, but not tight, every movement suggestive. Her hair was up, dark and shimmering as a raven’s wing. She turned slightly, talking to the Maitre D’, and we saw the dress was cut to expose an expanse of dusky and luminous skin, from the ringlets at the nape of her neck to the dimples of her lower back
I heard a small sound from a table close to ours and saw Howard staring. As was everyone else in the restaurant. I took a drink and glanced at Ned.
“She’s got style, eh? No matter who she’s wearing.”
I nodded, not trusting my voice. It was obvious that Howard was in a similar situation. He stood and gave Savita a kiss on each cheek and waited for the Maitre D’, to seat her.
“Wow, Savita, you look great,” Howard managed. I was impressed; I wasn’t even verbal yet.
“Why, thank you Richard. How nice of you to say so,” she said, gazing at him through eyelashes as graceful as a butterfly’s wings.
Howard was lost again. By then the restaurant, which had gone rather quiet with Savita’s entrance, started to regain the normal hum of conversation, and this helped break Howard out of his reverie.
“You’ve let your hair grow,” he said. “It suits you.
Pitch spent a moment fussing with her curly locks. “You think so? Well, perhaps I’ll keep it just for you.”
“I thought you said you disapproved of long hair on Indian women,” said Howard. I believe you said that you considered it too stereotypical.”
“Oh, I couldn’t be bothered to grow it of course – it’s all extensions. Still, it’s a bit of a trial.” She smiled sweetly. “But I’m glad you like it, after all this time.”
I didn’t know what it was, but I really didn’t like the way she was flirting with Howard. It all seemed a bit too… sincere.
“Well, I didn’t really think I’d see you again, despite my hopes,” said Howard. “You were always affectionate, but I rather thought that I misunderstood the situation in Mumbai.”
“Oh?” said Savita with a wicked smile. “And what situation was that?”
“Ahhh, well, we… umm.” said Howard eloquently.
“Oh, Richard,” laughed Savita. It was a good laugh. “You always were so easy to fluster about these things. I never thought I’d see you again either. After all, you left Mumbai in rather a hurry, so I assume things went poorly for you, which is why I never really responded. And while I’m terribly fond of you, I’ve never been one to dwell on things I can’t have. I am a realist after all. But I’m here now, so…”
“So, what does bring you here?” asked Howard, his carefully cultivated suspicious nature showing some traction.
“Work. A possible deal with one of the film studios here,” said Savita. “Apparently there’s some sort of magic special effect coming to market from a government agent gone rogue, and I’m trying to broker a deal with some folks out of L.A.”
“Ah, now I know why you really wanted to see me,” said Howard. “You seemed a little more subtle in Mumbai.”
“And what did that get me? I didn’t get you, and I got tagged as an Indian asset, which set me back quite a bit, let me tell you. Sometimes one has to be bold.”
“A change in strategy?”
“More a change in tactics.”
“There are easier ways of making money, you know,” said Howard. “Legitimate ways.”
“Perhaps, but the money’s never as good. And you know, I do truly enjoy finding things that we can use. In fact, I’m quite good at it.”
“We?” asked Howard.
“Oh, Ricky… India of course. Just because I work freelance doesn’t mean I don’t care about my own country.”
“How altruistic. I guess you haven’t changed that much.”
Savita’s voice hardened. “Look, Richard darling, this is one of those things you never did really understand. I’m the one who decides what’s important to my country. Not some bloody bureaucrat who acquires technology for his own benefit. I’m being honest with you because of what we’ve shared.”
“I won’t betray my country, Savita, not even for you.
“Oh please, Richard, do spare me the melodrama. Point one: if it’s really, really big, well, it will end up at the American NSA, no matter who gets it first. Point two: if you bring this technology into your office Phillips will sell it to the same buyers that I do. Point three: if I sell it to the Indian government, well, they’re allies with the West and they’ll share eventually, and that means Canada gets it. Point four: if I succeed I’ll get rich and you might just get a piece of that,” and here Savita put her hands over Howard’s. “Help me, Richard. At the very least you’ll be able to screw Phillips.”
“And you as well I suppose. Jesus, I guess I should be impressed that you’ve done your homework, but I don’t like being played.” said Howard. “
“Richard, Richard,” said Savita, “you can have me anyway, you always could. I wasn’t the one who held back in Mumbai. Fucking you was never part of my assignment. You weren’t that important; I was just getting a personality profile. And I did. You’re an uptight, loyal, repressed and passionate WASP, and I have a perverse taste for that in my men. My schooling, I suppose. Damn near got you too.”
“I should have let you, all things considered,” muttered Howard. Then a bit more loudly he said, “I don’t remember you being this… forthright in Mumbai. You seem so… different.”
Pitch laughed. “You mean crass. Well Richard, we’ve both changed a bit since Mumbai.”
Howard looked down, then looked at Savita. “Not through any choice of mine. The agency won’t listen to anything I say. If the source is suspect then everything they say is crap. They’d fire me, but they need someone to do the grunt work. I’ll show the fucking bastards, I’ve got a couple of … aces in the hole.” He smiled – it wasn’t pleasant. “I’m still willing to do right by the Agency if they do right by me, but unless they do, I’m going to do the right thing, my own way. “
Pitch smiled and gave a look that would have melted my spine. “Oh Richard, you always were obsessed with honour.”
“I’m just sick of Phillips using his position to help his friends and fuck actresses. It used to be easy to decide what was the right thing to do.”
Then Pitch leaned forward and slid her hand a little further up Howard’s arm. “I’d like to help you decide what you want,” she said with a mischievous smile straight out of Bollywood, “if you’ll let me.”
Howard’s hand jerked. Then stopped. He looked at Savita for a moment and she gave him no more than an enigmatic half smile. Finally, he reached across the table and grazed his thumb across Savita’s cheek. “Yes,” he said.
Dinner ended abruptly.
“She…” I said.
Ned signaled the waitress for another round.
* * *
Pitch came in as Ned and I were struggling to get ready for our next meeting. Ned, the bastard, just gave her a bleary grin and a thumbs-up.
She looked at me, a smug expression on her face, and I managed to keep my reaction under wraps. “Feeling better, I see,” I said, “I’m sure that Zeke and Billy would be happy to see you out and about.” I had the satisfaction of seeing something flicker in her face. But only for a moment.
“Oh yes,” she said and stretched. “And you’ll be pleased to know that the hologram holds up even under the most exhaustive physical exertions. And now that you’ve got your digs in at the person who’s been shot and pimped in the call of duty to her friends, I’d like to give me and my stitches a rest.” And she headed to her cot.
“Score one for Pitch,” said Ned quietly.
I gave him a sour look, stomach churning in guilt and anger. Ned ignored it and concentrated on the next step. Otherwise all the shit we’d been through would be for nothing.
Ned and I were planning a ‘chance’ encounter. When we’d picked through Phillip’s personal files we’d been fortunate enough to run across a name that we both knew – Simon Jenkins. He’d started years ago with the Torturers but he’d moved to work on special effects in the movies and become a name.
We’d never met him but had heard the stories. So we dug up footage, interviews and the like, and we had voice and appearance.
‘Jenkins’ ran into Phillips at Ouzo, the formerly hip restaurant in Yorkville. “Johnny,” I said, “fancy meeting you here. You been holding out on your old friends? Tired of parties and all that?”
A pause. “Simon, Simon, how are you? Haven’t seen you about for a while. Saw you were nominated. Good job,” said Phillips.
“Thanks John, thanks so much. But you’re avoiding the issue. I’ve heard stories and I want to get in on the game. It is my specialty, don’t you think, and I can get you top dollar. The nomination opens doors, eh?”
Phillips blinked and I swear I heard everything click into place when he did. “Simon, you know how these things work. I have… obligations, as you well know. But I assure you that you, my man, are at the top of my list just as soon as any of the material is available for release.”
“Good to hear, good to hear. Oh, you’ve likely heard that we’ve got a new project coming to town with Scarlett. We’ll see you at the wrap party?”
“Wouldn’t miss it, Simon.”
* * *
Pitch had lunch with Howard the next day. “You were wondering if the agency would play you straight weren’t you?”
“I don’t think that they will. Phillips has been meeting with buyers,” said Savita.
“What? Already? He knows nothing.”
“Well darling, that hasn’t stopped his type before has it? And certainly the agency doesn’t seem to be doing anything to stop him. And, I think that people may know that I’m hunting his quarry.”
“He’s moving a bit fast, isn’t he? Perhaps he’s been given free reign, maybe he’s not the only one fucking starlets,” said Savita.
“Do you have any proof?
‘Savita’ slid her iPod across the table. “Watch and learn.”
We watched Howard go pale.
* * *
We were ready. Or more precisely, Agent Howard and the Rapid Cover Unit were ready; all of them on a hair trigger, looking for one last chance at the prize. So I sent an e-mail to Howard, telling him I was ready to deal. I was quite proud of it. It managed to be both whining and demanding, exactly what you would expect from a silver spoon rebel. It was a bit of a risk, but Pitch was convinced that between her charms and Phillips’ schemes, he would come to Savita with this news.
He did. “If those bastards won’t play straight, well, neither will I. I want to play by the rules you talked about before. I’m happy to serve my country, but by my own standards.”
Pitch laughed. “See? Setting policy is fun.” And she kissed Howard to seal the agreement. “More fun than a handshake,” she said and handed him a disk, full of my reaper code. “This will make you a free Agent.”
“Just like you,” he said.
She kissed him again. “Yes.”
* * *
We leaked the meeting to Phillips through ‘Jenkins’ and Phillips played our game by playing his, pulling his agents into the mix. It meant that the whole situation would be finally, truly, closed. We set a meeting down by the dockyards, just for effect. Sometimes I’m a traditionalist.
I stepped out from behind a container, myself for the first time in some time. “Agent Howard, I assume?”
“Well you’ve certainly led us on a merry chase, sir,” he said.
“But you have some assurances for me?”
“Yes and no. Your running has rather compromised the situation. It turns out that my superior has become rather infatuated with the idea of selling you out to his own contacts.”
“What the fuck?” I asked. “So who can I trust?” I didn’t have to fake my frustration with the situation.
“Who won’t make you just disappear? No one inside the system. Trust me, you don’t want to end up like your missing band mates.”
My mouth worked a bit then, the two-faced son of a bitch was still pretending he didn’t have his ‘couple of aces’ locked away somewhere. Finally I could get something out.
“So what?” I said, voice strangled. “Then who the fuck am I supposed to work with?”
“You’re frustrated,” said Howard, “I get that. So am I. So I’ve brought in someone who can help us both. Savita?”
And right on cue, ‘Savita’ stepped out. I frowned; it was remarkably easy for me to do, seeing them together.
“And who the fuck is this?” I asked. Part of me really wondered.
“She’s my contact.”
“So you’re turning on your own agency?” I scowled at him. “Why should I believe you?”
“Because you don’t have any choice. You want to trust the agency? Go ahead and you’ll end up like your little faggot friends.”
I was seething, pretending that he wasn’t the one with the ‘couple of aces in a hole’. If the bastard had hurt Zeke and Billy, I’d rip his throat out. “Fine.” I said.
And then I heard the scuff of a shoe off to my right. Time froze for an instant. I felt the cool breeze off the lake; saw the moon, briefly obscured by clouds scudding across the night sky; was aware of the pavement, rough and potholed still holding puddles from a morning rain.
I turned, my heart hammering hard in my chest and saw Phillips, any sign of the good old boy I’d briefly met as Abigail replaced by body armor and a scowl. Phillips spoke, “Alright, I’ve heard enough. Take them all,” and time flew.
I could see agents, faces obscured by night vision goggles, but still recognizable from the RCU database, surrounding us. There had to be at least a dozen of them, and I could only hope that the hologram field extended as far into the near infra-red as theory predicted.
I felt panicked. But we had planned for this and I managed my line. It was an easy line. “Bastard,” I screamed at Howard, “you set me up.” I ran, pushing an image of myself off on a tangent and cloaking myself, hoping that it would keep me safe from the press of surrounding agents. A couple of them ran to intercept my image and stared, flummoxed when it disappeared.
Pitch moved as well, initially leaving her image behind her, standing in place beside Howard. A brief hint of solidarity. And then, as planned, the image of Savita gave a little wave and sprinted away. But not before one last comment, “Well Richard, looks like things slipped through your fingers once again.” It was her voice, not Savita’s and definitely not part of the plan. A few agents went in pursuit of Savita and the rest of them moved towards Howard.
Howard’s face flashed confusion and suddenly went absolutely blank. He looked to one side and shouted, “Follow me.” And two more agents stepped out from the crates. I recognized them from the files I’d hacked: McCulloch and Singh. They moved stiffly, awkward, but somehow familiar. “Great,” I thought to myself, “a complication.”
Both Pitch and I had moved fast enough (we did have an unfair advantage) to elude the loose ring of agents. Howard was only a moment behind us and I heard him snarl when he charged after Pitch, knocking one of Phillip’s agents sprawling as he ran into the maze of ship containers.
As soon as Howard disappeared from general view Ned popped up from behind one of the other storage units, wearing Howard’s face and screamed, “Backstabbing bastards, you’ll fucking pay for this,” and fired dramatic shots from his fake gun at the agents before dropping back out of sight.
I moved around the periphery of the agents as they were seeking cover and drawing weapons. I began throwing illusions of agents pulling guns on each other or images of Howard into the midst of the agents. Pitch and Ned were doing the same. There was a great deal of chaos as the agents started to shoot at each other, their natural paranoia running rampant. Blood began to flow.
I approached two of them on the periphery of the bulk of the action and discovered Singh and Mculloch hunkered behind a few barrels and cast a quick strobe of light above them.
Ned saw my signal, as well as the agents’ faces, and stepped out from behind one of the containers looking like Howard. They stared at him expectantly, but their postures seemed wary. Howard’s allies confused me, neither agent was known to be particularly close to him but they’d responded to his commands earlier. But none of that mattered now.
I cloaked McCulloch with invisibility and, taking his form, stepped out from behind the barrels, pointed my ‘gun’ at Singh. Singh looked at me for a moment, incredulous. Then there was a shot and I heard a curse and I felt McCulloch dash away running from Ned’s gunfire. The sound was enough to make Singh panic as well, and he dashed away.
Suddenly I felt a presence beside me and was filled with a sudden dread, thinking an agent had found me. I cloaked, knowing it was probably too late, but it was Ned. I let my cloak drop and he grabbed me and shoved a real gun into my hand; he must have grabbed it from one of the fallen agents.
“Keep moving,” he said.
I moved around another container to see Phillips pointing a gun at Singh. I lifted my gun. I knew, absolutely knew, what had to happen, but my finger refused to pull the trigger. I must have made some noise, because Phillips suddenly turned, his gun moving between Singh and me.
“Throw down your weapons you bastards, and you might get off easy, but do it now.”
There was a flash of light from above me and then I saw the side of Phillips’ head blow out.
I felt my gorge rise and I knew that I was about to throw up. But then I saw Singh, empty-handed, move towards me. I panicked and fired. What I saw then did make me throw up. The hologram around Singh flickered and died and lying there in a pool of blood, was Billy, scarred and battered, like Howard had been trying to dissect the technology right out of him.
“Fuck,” Ned said from above me.
I slumped on the ground, clutching my gun, knuckles scraping the pavement and vomited, attempting to empty the guilt inside.
After that I hid until it was quiet.
* * *
We had agreed beforehand that trying to regroup at the dock was impossible; instead we were to meet in the alleyway behind our old hangout, the Rhino. We knew both the bar and the alleyway well, so we hoped it would be easy for us to see if we’d been followed. I got there to find Pitch pacing back and forth by the kitchen entrance, smoking, looking frantic.
“Hey Pitch, you okay?” I asked.
“No I’m not fucking okay,” she said, “I shot someone today. They’re fucking dead; I can’t believe I ever agreed to this. They’re fucking dead. And guess who it was?” I felt my shame well up, none of it had gone as I’d wanted. I’d planned it, but it had all gone to shit.
Before she could confirm my awful suspicions, there was a distortion in the air to my left and suddenly Ned was there. “Howard’s still alive,” he said. “Everyone else is either dead or wounded. Even without the full bodycount, it’s such a mess that CSIS will hush up the whole thing. Make the incident, and the agents involved, just go away. But Howard’s still out there.”
“Fuck,” said Pitch, “and he’s got the ink. So I’m a killer for nothing”
“C’mon Pitch, that place was chaos. How could you know that? asked Ned.
“Because he was invisible.”
“Fuck,” I said.
Pitch continued. “It happened just before everything got quiet. I saw McCulloch, one of the guys with Howard. He saw me, and even though I had the gun Ned gave me pointed at him, he kept coming at me. He was waving his gun around and moving his mouth but nothing came out. I didn’t know what else to do so I fucking shot him.” And she collapsed to her knees.
I looked at Ned but he had taken a step back, eyes wide, face pale. I knelt down, put my arm around Pitch’s shoulders and she trembled. Then she looked up at me, grabbed my shirt and took a breath.
“It was Zeke, I barely recognized him, he was a mess of scars. And Howard saw me do it. The son of a bitch thanked me for cleaning up his mess. His voice was right beside me, and I couldn’t see him.”
“Shit,” I said, “But none of the other agents…”
“Well none of the other agents had Zeke and Billy to tear apart cell by cell did they?”
I looked at Ned, he was trying to light a cigarette, his hands shaking. Finally he succeeded, and took a drag, exhaling and slumping down the wall so he was at the same level as Pitch and I.
And then my frustration, fear and shame finally coalesced into a pure white anger. It was a relief really. So much time planning, all that work and the fucker who was responsible for turning my life to shit, who conned my friends into killing two of the sweetest people I’d ever known had gotten away. It was hot and fierce and felt like I’d finally found my best friend.
I stood, and started pacing. “That bastard, we’ll make him pay. I swear to god I’ll gut him like a fish. Feed him to the maggots – Billy was right, it was what he deserved, right from the beginning.”
Pitch stared up at me. And then she was shouting. “Are you fucking crazy? We’ll never find him. He’s been planning this, and playing us right from the beginning.”
“He didn’t know…”
But Pitch cut me off. “He knew enough. He planned for betrayal on every side. And we don’t know anything about what he’s planning next.”
“We know enough,” I yelled. “We can track him – search his house and office again. We can hunt him down and kill him.”
“Oh please,” Pitch sneered, “I saw Ned save your ass. You froze. And what if you kill the wrong guy, Howard’s got the ink, remember?”
I shook my head, trying not to think of Billy’s body.
“What are you saying, that we should have sided with Howard?”
“Well maybe we should’ve, maybe Zeke and Billy would still be alive.”
“Oh sure, we could trust the guy who cracked open their skulls to put in a control chip. He’s a right stand-up guy.”
Suddenly Pitch slumped. “That’s just it, Howard’s a monster; we can’t go up against him and win. I mean look what he’s done to us already.” And she gestured at Ned, crouched on his heels, head in his hands, the cigarette burnt down to his fingers.
I took a breath. “I can’t, I just can’t let him go. He’s stolen my life’s work, killed my friends. I can’t.”
Pitch took a step back. “Revenge gives me nothing. Thanks to Howard and you and this whole fucked up situation, I can’t be who I was, but I can, look like, be, whatever I choose. And I choose the life I had before I ever met you.”
And with a shimmer, she was gone.