Please Help Support CTTA By
Checking Out Our Sponsers Products
After reading Mr. Bryce's story you will come to find out that Pulp Fiction extends far into the future...
By S.C. Bryce
The truck swerved, barely missing my car, its driver mouthing obscenities.
"What a grotesque caricature of a human being."
"Newark is full of them," I agreed.
"How do you account for that?"
"What do you mean?"
We parked in our usual spot in front of Charles Pascal's 2-D theater, an anachronism among the super-multiplex-aramas and their hordes of wanna-be-hip teenagers, like the ones lined up at the new theater across the street. There was no line for the 2-Ds. The marquee announced two films: "Replacement Killers" and "Risky Business." We bought tickets for "Replacement Killers" even though we’d seen it four weeks in a row because Tom Cruise made Cyril question his sexuality. Inside, stale popcorn formed puffy mountains behind a glass-paned booth and a carnivaleque sign. I got an extra large with artificial butter that squirted sickly from the machine. I shoved a stack of napkins in my pocket and added a soda to my order. The theater darkened as we entered and found our customary seats. I waved to Steve Compen, a fixture at Pascal’s and the only other patron. Cyril coolly ignored him, the residue of a partially remembered argument.
"I mean, why have we become a nation of churlish savages?" Cyril asked, as always picking up the thread of conversation exactly where we’d left it.
"You presume we have."
"Is there evidence to the contrary?" I didn’t answer. "I didn’t think so," Cyril said.
"Well, maybe your social mores are outdated. Maybe you can’t recognize the pattern of politeness today."
"You presume there is such a pattern."
I hated when Cyril threw my words back in my face. I never knew whether he was baiting me or just entertaining himself. The two were not mutually exclusive: Cyril loved to argue. "There always is, but sometimes only an insider can see it."
"I’m not an insider?" he asked.
"Well, if you can’t see it, you must not be."
Cyril mulled that over during the previews. I ate my popcorn and read the movie's opening credits, waiting for him to speak. "It’s because we live in an anonymous world," he finally said.
I took a sip of soda. It was already flat. "Anonymous?"
"Yes. Individuals don’t know individuals anymore. We go through life with a small circle of friends, barely more acquaintances. Because we don’t know each other, we can’t respect each other’s individuality. We don’t see friends or potential friends; we see strangers, and strangers don’t have personality, feeling, or experiences. They’re sub-human."
"You’re saying we’re rude because we no longer interact on a personal level?"
A wadded napkin hit the back of my head and Compen yelled, "Shut up, morons! The movie’s starting!"
I threw the wad back, nailing Compen on the shoulder as he ducked. His candies spilled in a waterfall, pelting us on the ankles as they bounced down the angled floor. "I think there’s more to it."
Cyril sipped his soda.
The movie was predictable, not because it was uninspired, but because that was the fifth time I’d seen it. I couldn’t wait until the theater got something else.
When the lights came up, we filed out. I said good-bye to Compen, then Cyril and I headed over to the next stop in our weekly ritual, “The Choclat Bar.” We waited outside for a table and I dreamt about sumptuous artificial desserts.
"We’re completely apathetic," Cyril continued, the movie only a hiatus from his philosophical dialogue.
I stopped listening to read from the menu posted in the window. Scrawled in red was “NEW! ‘Super Rich’ dark choclat, even MORE FLAVOR than REAL chocolate!" Time to be bold, I decided.
"Aren’t you listening? What do you think of that?"
I went back to the last bit I’d heard. "You’re right. It’s easier to be obnoxious to someone you don’t know."
"Exactly." I’d made Cyril’s day by agreeing with him.
We followed the waiter who beckoned us to a table. We ordered immediately.
"Take that kid at the theater for example."
"My point precisely. The concessions kid. Did you even notice what he looked like?"
I had an image, but only of popcorn and the sign. I remembered that he stood behind the popcorn bin because a shadow passed over the kernels. I tried to picture him filling my soda. "Striped shirt, right?"
"No, that was the sign. He was wearing a blue shirt. He had brown hair and eyes. Looked like he was in high school."
The description didn’t sound familiar. "I remember now."
"Yeah." I suck as a liar. I looked over Cyril’s shoulder at our waiter, who’d moved to the table behind us. "Well, how about you? What does our waiter look like?"
Cyril caught himself just before he turned around. His faced screwed up in concentration, then embarrassment. "I don’t know, I was talking."
Our choclat came. Cyril made a point of thanking the waiter. The super rich wasn’t any better than the regular choclat, but it was good. After Cyril left a more generous tip than the waiter deserved, we left to make our pick-up of bodies for the Cabal. Tonight's list was short: one still in a dumpster near the Passaic.
We drove to Penn Station and the Gateways. The buildings were abandoned once investors realized that Newark’s renaissance was only temporary and raced out like rats off a sinking ship. I turned off the headlights and stopped next to the dumpsters by the broken security booth and shattered cameras that guarded the sublevel parking lot. I popped the trunk and we hopped out.
"You don’t seem particularly interested in social isolationism," Cyril said doggedly as we put on our surgical gloves. I gave him points for persistence.
"It's not that." I climbed into the dumpster while Cyril kept an eye out for the police. I ignored the stench and squishing under my shoes. "I don’t see it as the earth shattering problem you do. People complain about bad grammar, but languages change, evolve. Manners are no different." I kicked aside a rat and piled stinking garbage bags into a corner until I hit a carpet. "Pay dirt." I maneuvered the poorly rolled carpet so that Cyril could haul it out.
"Now the Cabal are traditionalists. No one uses carpet anymore but them," he said. "It’s plastic everywhere else."
"Yes, but it doesn’t have mystique."
"It also costs a lot less."
"Yes, but that ties into the respect thing. These guys respect their traditions and this guy enough to get real carpet instead of just offing him and dumping him in plastic."
"I think they’re just showing off the fact that they’re the richest organization out here."
"Maybe," he said, unconvinced.
I pushed while Cyril pulled the carpet roll over the edge of the dumpster. Cyril lost his grip and the carpet fell onto the street with a wet thud, exposing the body inside. I climbed out of the dumpster while Cyril tucked the guy back in. His body was thick and fat, the pale skin stretched tight like a balloon; he'd been in water for a long time before being left for us to take to the crematorium. Black hairs covered his arms, along with bloody tears where fish must’ve snacked. If it weren't for the bullet holes, I would've thought he was a plague victim.
Cyril tried to re-roll the carpet. "Heavy mother. Come here and help me."
"You smell that?" I asked, covering my nose with my sleeve and stepping back. The carpet's fall released the corpse’s stench in a toxic cloud. "That’s why they should’ve used plastic. Then we wouldn’t have to smell this."
"You see that bloat? He sure sopped up a lot."
"Shut up, Cyril." I wasn’t generally squeamish, but the guy was disgusting and I’d eaten not long ago. Salt, butter, soda, and choclat churned in my stomach and the more I thought about keeping everything down, the sicker I got. I ran to the Passaic River and puked.
Cyril looked concerned when I got back. "You okay?"
"Yeah. Let’s hurry up."
Cyril finished re-rolling the carpet, covering it with a plastic tarp to protect against the smell. We shoved the bundle in the trunk and pulled off into the deserted city streets.
Cyril stared at me. "You don’t look so good."
"I can drive if you want."
"All right." Cyril was skeptical. I was lying again, but he knew better than to push me, so he let his frown talk for him.
I hung on until the smell seeped through the tarp. We opened the windows and put on the fan, but it didn’t go away. I confessed. "I’m going to be sick again."
"Well for Christ’s sake, pull over!"
It was too late. I leaned out the window and let fly, trying my best not to spew all over the side of my car.
“Look out!" Cyril yelled, and I slammed on the brakes. I didn’t know what I was supposed to look for until I hit it. It flashed briefly, then cracked a headlight and rolled under the wheels, sending the car into a lurch. I skidded to a hard stop. My head hit the car door. Cyril’s airbag went off, popping him in the face. He fought with it until it deflated.
“Damn." I’m not sure which one of us said it. I wiped a trickle of blood from my hair and we got out of the car. It started to drizzle. Behind us was most of a little girl. Her chest was crushed and blood dripped from her mouth. Cyril picked up her arm from the side of the road and tossed it with the rest of her.
“Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I didn’t see her,” I pleaded.
“Tell that to her family.”
“What was she doing in the street anyway? She should be in bed.”
“Sure, blame the parents.”
“Why are you trying to make me feel bad?"
“You should feel bad."
I looked around. There was no one in sight; I’d picked the street because it was dark and rarely traveled. Still, I worried there was a street rat somewhere. I hoped he couldn’t make out my face or license plate. “What are we supposed to do now?"
“Under ideal circumstances, we would call an ambulance or the police. But an ambulance isn’t going to help her and the police will take us in." He scratched at his hair. “Particularly when they get a whiff of what’s in the trunk."
“Take her with us?"
Cyril shrugged. “We can burn her with the others." He grabbed the girl by the waist and I took the arm. We wrapped her in another tarp and put her in the trunk. "Well," he added, "there's no vomit on the car. That stuff eats through paint."
“What do we do about the blood?" I asked, seeing the stains in the street.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s already started to rain."
We climbed back into the car and continued on our rounds. My hands shook as I thought about that kid. Cyril lit a cigarette, and I was grateful that it masked some of the growing odor from the trunk. “If you don’t mind me saying so, Cyril, you seem a little callous about the fact that we just killed a kid. I only mention it," I added quickly, “because of your lecture on incivility."
“First, you killed the kid. I was merely along for the ride. I offered to drive and I tried to warn you. Second, I'll be pondering the premature loss of a unique light in the universe when we put her into the fire. Third, if I could apologize to her family without getting a lethal injection, I would."
“It seems inconsistent to me."
Cyril shrugged, a habit that was starting to annoy me. “I’m a complex person."
We finished our pick-ups in near silence, tying the trunk shut because it was too stuffed with corpses to latch. Worse, we were late getting to the crematorium because an accident stopped traffic for an hour. The road to Crematorium 6 was, as typical, deserted. John Monk was waiting, theatrically checking his watch. “You’re late."
“No kidding," Cyril said.
“How many tonight?"
Monk scratched his head. “Air HIV, okay? I was ready to toast ‘em anyway."
I nodded. “You can do that."
“Okay, bring them in."
Cyril and I started unloading the trunk, each throwing a body over our shoulders. We followed Monk into the crematorium. Every time I went to Crematorium 6, I got a creepy feeling from the sterile building. Sometimes I thought it was haunted, by ghosts or disease I wasn’t sure. Maybe Crematorium 6 was less forbidding during the day, when employees scurried through its halls. I wondered how Monk could stand being there by himself.
We passed rows of massive treatment furnaces, each with a label telling the burner what disease the chamber was set up to scour from the corpses. We passed Influenza (Asian) Waves 1-9, Influenza (E. Europe) Waves 1-4, Ebola Waves 1-4, and Ebola Wave 5 on the way to HIV (Airborne). More furnaces filled the other wings of the complex.
“You’re almost out of furnace space," Cyril said, looking around.
“I know, but all Ebola will be consolidated soon. The new multiwave treatment finished testing earlier in the week."
“Just in time for another terrorist to release something."
“‘One step behind’ that’s our motto."
In front of the furnace was a slot. Monk pulled a lever and a steel body board slid out. I dumped my load, laying the wrapped body flat. Monk reversed the lever and the body board retracted, taking with it the corpse. An air lock hissed shut behind it. Monk punched in a code and the body was transferred from the board to a metal belt that jerked to life and rolled the corpse past a second air lock. It opened just long enough for us to see the body tilt and fall, joining the heap waiting to be treated and burned. Then the process repeated and Cyril dumped the tarp-covered little girl and we watched her fall too. Another trip from the car took care of the other bodies and Monk began the treatment cycle. We listened to the chemicals rain inside the chamber, killing everything in their path. Monk lit a cigarette, contraband with real tobacco and nicotine. Its smoke was fragrant, filling the hall like incense.
“You boys smell like hell. Even to a burner."
I scowled. Cyril shrugged. “You should smell his car."
As always, we waited during the chemical treatment. I watched Cyril leaning, eyes closed, against the wall. I couldn’t tell if he was being true to his word and thinking about that little girl or just dozing. After twenty minutes, the treatment cycle ended and Monk set the chamber on burn. Once that was done, there was no chance of someone collecting evidence; not that there was evidence left to collect.
“Well," he said, “that’s that. Let’s go."
Cyril’s eyes snapped open and we headed back to the car. I pulled a wad of pre-counted bills from my pocket for Monk. He counted again it in front of me like I would cheat him. I shook hands with him anyway; the insult wasn’t worth parting on bad terms. Cyril and I drove away, the stench slowly fading into the night. Some would linger until I got the interior sterilized again; the smell of the dead clings. I dropped off Cyril at his place, reminded him that I was going on vacation, and drove home to my apartment.
I was tired and hungry. There was enough milk to have a decent sized bowl of cereal, but I didn’t have any cereal, so I just drank the milk. It was starting to turn sour and I wondered if my stomach would go into another rebellion. After a few minutes, nothing happened so I dumped my work clothes down the incinerator shaft, took a shower, and plopped into bed, exhaustedly listening to the rain sprinkling on the roof. My vacation had begun.
I didn’t pack until the next day. I wasn’t taking much since I was going to a nude resort in Thailand. I threw in some toiletries, Don Quixote, and a couple of video games and reminded myself to pick up a bottle of “Melano-Not! the Ultimate Sunscreen” at the airport. I turned off the lights and told the roaches to enjoy themselves. I dropped my car off at Gail St. James’s garage for clean up, telling her extra heavy on the chemicals and paying her in advance. She liked that. I had just enough cash for the cab to the airport and a burger.
In Thailand, the resort wasn’t as entertaining as I hoped. Most of the people were “clean living” types that hadn’t invested in lipo, preferring exercise even though it wasn’t as effective. When Cyril called, I wasn’t even upset.
“What do you want?" I pretended to be angry out of principle.
“Uh, we really need to meet."
“You remember that kid?"
“The little girl in Rector Street, or again with the guy from the movie theater?"
“The little girl."
“What about her?" I pictured her body, still wrapped in tarp, falling into the furnace.
“I know who she was."
“Yeah. Lily, Varian Barish’s daughter."
My stomach cramped into a know and I got goosebumps all over. I threw Don Quixote into my beach bag and grabbed my towel. “No shit?"
I tried to remember everything I’d ever known about Varian Barish. Not one quality gave me hope. Varian Barish was born into a multitude of crime families and consolidated her power through a series of gruesome deaths. She was a empress whose territory included much of the Southern Hemisphere from the Gulf of Mexico to south Asia, even pockets of Europe and Canada. Long standing rumors had it that killing off her family was not the worst she’d done, and new rumors were added to the list constantly.
“You still there?" Cyril asked.
“We should meet," he repeated.
“Atlantis," he agreed and hung up.
The great thing about using “Atlantis" as a code word is there’re a trillion places it could refer to. Since that new island was christened “Atlantis", every city in the world had a dozen sites using the name. But our Atlantis didn’t have anything to do with Atlantis at all. It was just a short and random way to say, “Meet me in exactly 48 hours at Eddie’s Bar & Grill in Johannesburg. And don’t tell anyone where you’re going."
Paranoia set in on the way back to my hotel room. I was in Varian Barish’s territory. Did she know who I was? Would she accept that Lily's death was an accident? How angry would she be that we’d treated her kid like a carrier, dumping her in Crematorium 6 where she’d become part of an anonymous mound of ashes and hauled out to North Dakota for mass burial?
I didn't bother to check out of the resort. I dressed, packed my bag, and hopped the first bus heading toward the border. The bus wasn’t crowded so I got a row to myself. I shifted through my stash of IDs. I settled on Lee Brown, owner of a two-bit pool hall in San Jose and a usually lucky alias. I realized I’d fallen asleep when the bus pulled into Vientiane station the next morning and I didn’t have any memory of getting there. The driver let us out for breakfast and checked the tickets of tourists waiting to board. I figured Laos was as good a place as any to catch a flight to Africa, so I bought three new outfits, changed in the men’s room, and jumped in a cab to the airport.
Good ol’ Lee Brown. There was a flight leaving for Cote d’Ivoire within the hour. I faked back problems and boarded early so I could get a good look at who came in after me. No one looked ready to drown me in the chemical toilet, but I wasn’t taking anymore chances. I spent the flight keeping a steady, casual eye out. Once we landed, I headed to the airport bathroom and changed again. From the airport, I took the rail to South Africa. I'd be two hours late to meet Cyril at Eddie’s. He’d be angry because to give him a reason for being there so long, he’d have to order some food and Cyril hated Eddie’s food.
No matter what Cyril said, I loved Eddie’s Bar & Grill. You always knew you were close because the smell of sauce and burning meat wafted down the street to greet you. And there was the take-out garbage that got denser as you honed in. The oversized door swung easily in its hinges, like a saloon in a cowboy film, only instead of cowboys, semi-darkness and acrid smoke greeted you and stung your eyes. Once you got used to it, you could see the rows of diner tables and chairs with red vinyl seats, most split open and bleeding lumpy cushion. In the back was the grill that made Eddie’s a landmark. Flames rose two feet, hissing and snapping as cooks beat at them with giant metal spatulas to rescue blackened meat. As far as I was concerned, Eddie’s made the perfect burger: marinated, black on the outside and red and juicy on the inside, and no ketchup or any of that crap smothering it.
I spotted Cyril sitting near the jukebox, staring at his untouched hamburger with the drama at the grill playing out behind him. He scowled when he saw me, his eyes bloodshot.
“You’re late," he said as I sat down.
“I know. Sorry about that."
“I can’t believe you made me wait for you in this hell hole."
“Geez. I said I was sorry."
“Yeah, well. Can we get out of here? I’m going blind from the smoke."
“Can’t I get a drink first?" I asked, but Cyril snarled. “Okay, okay. Forget it." I grabbed his hamburger and a fistful of coarse brown napkins, and tossed some money on the table.
It was cool outside as the harbor breezes rushed over Johannesburg. I stuffed down the cold hamburger in a few sloppy bites. Cyril grew more relaxed the further away from Eddie’s we got, but he didn’t look any healthier.
“I hate that place," he said.
“You can chose the place next time," I promised even though he would pick a place I hated to punish me.
“Damn straight," he said, pulling up next to a park bench and sitting down. “What now?"
“I don’t know. How do we even know it was Lily? That we’re not getting ourselves worked up over nothing?"
“We know because after you left, I ran into Cristina Baylor at the Tango Queen. She wanted to ask my advice. We went into a private room and she told me that Frank came home unexpectedly the night before."
“He was supposed to be in L.A."
“Anyway, he’s upset. He won’t tell her what’s wrong or why he’s back. She worries he’s back on pills, so when he’s asleep, she goes through his stuff. But instead of pills, she finds photos of guards, a woman, and that little girl. Cristina’s too sweet to recognize them. She shows me the photos and asks if Frank’s having an affair. But it was Varian Barish and Lily. Dumb bastard or whoever hired him must’ve by some miracle snatched Lily, hauled her back for ransom, then promptly lost her in the street where you splattered her."
“That’s not good."
“No. It’s not," Cyril agreed.
“So what do we do now?"
Cyril chewed his fingernails. “It's been four days since Frank snatched Lily. They must know Frank brought her to Newark, and that she’s dead. Right now, they’re either wondering who killed her or they already know and, as we sit here, they’re tracking us."
That wasn’t promising. Worse, it confirmed my feelings, but I tried to be optimistic. “No one knows we killed her."
“You killed her," he corrected. "And John Monk knows."
“Not necessarily." Monk saw a body wrapped in a tarp. Still, if he guessed one of the bodies we dumped was Lily, he would have sold us out. The bastard might’ve been in a penthouse somewhere counting cash already. There was also the possibility I’d worried about at the time: a witness. Maybe Frank was chasing his paycheck and saw her get hit. If they caught him, he would've blabbed. I suggested that to Cyril.
“Maybe," he agreed. “If so, we’ve got even less time."
We sat quietly, trying to think of something positive and watching the sea gulls fight over wire trash bins.
“I wonder if there’s some way we can survive this," I said, breaking the silence.
“Besides getting plastic surgery and moving to Antarctica?" Cyril asked, as if that would work.
“Seriously. Who could save a pair of star-crossed guys from Varian Barish?"
The sea gulls bickered as they settled down for the night, covering the trees and lamp posts. A runt was ousted from a statue, his castle of dung and patina.
“Varian Barish could," Cyril said suddenly.
“She’s not going to."
“Maybe we could change her mind."
“I hope you’re going to follow up with a realistic suggestion."
“No," he said sadly. “That was it."
“Fine. If that outrageous idea is our only plan, then let’s figure out how it could work."
“Why not?" I asked, somehow becoming champion of the stupid idea.
“Because she doesn’t have an incentive not to gut us."
“That’s true," I admitted. “What would be a strong enough incentive for her?"
“Not another kid."
“Frank. We could give her the stupid bastard and whoever he was working with."
“Well, not everything that happened was his fault." I felt obliged to point that out since Varian Barish was undoubtedly of the same opinion. “Besides, she probably has him. Does she have any enemies we could deliver? A politician? Intelligence officer? Family enemy? Meter maid? Anyone?"
“I can't think of anyone she hasn't already gotten to herself."
“You’re very depressing," I said, irritated. “You sound like you’re determined to let her shoot you off this park bench."
Cyril didn’t answer. I looked more closely at him. When I saw him in Eddie’s, I thought he looked terrible because of the smoke. But we’d been outside for an hour, and he still looked terrible.
“You feeling okay? You look like crap," I said.
“Seriously, Cyril. You look like crap."
“Once again, I thank you."
“Okay, what do I care?" I was pretty surly myself. I ignored him and he ignored me, and we went back to watching the sea gulls. Or rather, the lone sea gull still awake, gliding over the harbor, swooping down to investigate scraps. It got boring quickly. “Got a room yet?"
“Me neither." The bird caught a current that carried it further over the water. I lost it in the darkening sky. “Well, let’s go get one."
I got up and Cyril followed groaning. We went to an old hotel with a reputation for being quiet. Lee Brown got a double room on the third floor and paid in cash. I took a quick shower. By the time I was done, Cyril was passed out. I checked that the door was bolted and chained before going to sleep too.
A ray of light hit me in the face as the sun rose. It was early and Cyril was still asleep, out cold like a man in a coma. I washed up and left to get Eddie’s breakfast special and enjoy the cool Johannesburg morning.
The city was a sharp contrast from Newark. Newark was a decent town once, but fell into disrepair and never recovered. Well-meaning politicians and philanthropists couldn’t wrestle it free of the crime, poverty, and corruption entrenched in its dark streets and burnt out buildings. Johannesburg, on the other hand, was built and sustained by gold and gems. It borrowed the Danish model to clean up its slums and egalitarianize, and was now one of the best cities in the world. It was a tough call between this and Lee Brown’s San Jose pool hall, but I had more than once considered retiring here. Came every chance I got.
Then I was shot in the arm. I didn’t realize I was shot at first; I fell face-down on the sidewalk, my steak ‘n eggs popped out Eddie's styrofoam container like a greasy jack-in-the-box and homefries flew everywhere. There goes breakfast, I thought, stunned. I tried to get up, but pain tore through my arm and ran down into my fingertips. My vision narrowed and darkened like I was going to faint and I realized I’d been shot.
I panicked. I forced myself up and ran, tripping and stumbling, weaving and ducking. I moved quickly through the near empty morning streets. I was easy to spot, so I prayed the working stiffs would come give me some cover.
I was a member at the local Y, so I high-tailed there. It was being renovated, and its back wall had been replaced by plastic. The construction workers hadn’t arrived yet, and I slipped inside. The construction area was lit by a handful of security lights and was pretty quiet, but over my panting I heard voices and machinery below me. I never admitted it to Cyril, but I liked the Y. I even kept a locker there. I closed my eyes and pictured the layout of the building. The weight room was below me. The pool was in front of that. Locker rooms were upstairs.
I held my arm close. It was throbbing and my run hadn’t helped. I would’ve fainted from the pain if I hadn’t been so terrified. I tried not to think about the blood that made my skin wet and sticky. It was congealing and I hoped that was a good sign, like the bullet hadn’t hit an artery and I wasn’t going to bleed to death.
It was late enough that most of the early bird crowd was gone. I slipped into the nearby stairwell. A receptionist and a guard sat up front -– what passed for security at the Y -– but they couldn’t see me from their desks. I jogged up the stairs and into the locker room, making sure I wasn’t leaving a trail of red behind me. There was no one at the lockers inside. I slid a stool in front of the door, where anyone coming in would tip it over.
I went to the first aid cabinet, its red plus sign a beacon on the wall. There was a mirror next to it and I sidled up to take a look at myself. Blood stained my shirt from my arm to my fingertips and soaked into the waist of my jeans. My face was pale and dripping, like the time I had the stomach flu and spent nearly a month puking chicken soup and crackers.
In the first aid cabinet were gauze and bandages, tape, alcohol, smelling salts, and half a dozen other things. I took a cautious whiff of smelling salts to clear my head. Gingerly, I cut off my shirt with a pair of surgical scissors. At the row of sinks, I grabbed a bar of disinfectant soap, and turned the water up. The heat was a mixed blessing, but getting the gooey blood off was a godsend. Better, the wound wasn’t as bad as the amount of blood suggested. The bullet took a chunk of meat and skin out; it didn't sever an artery. I grabbed the plastic bottle of alcohol, tried not to think about what I was doing, and soaked a gauze pad with it until it dripped. I clenched my teeth and put the gauze on the wound.
Instantly, I dropped the bottle. I staggered back, my vision peppered with light. Pain ran down to each fingertip and into my chest. I wanted to scream, but all I could do was sit gasping against a row of lockers. Then I heard laughing in the hallway.
The stool, my makeshift alarm, crashed to the ground. “Oops!"
I grabbed my cut shirt, recovered the bottle of alcohol, and crawled to the farthest row of lockers, still clenching my teeth. I propped myself against the metal and waited.
“You’re so clumsy."
“I wasn’t the one who left the thing there."
“Whatever." His companion's shoes squeaking on the tile, as he walked through the locker room.
“You want to shower here or go home?"
“Home! You think I want to use these showers? Please. Athlete’s foot I do not need." I heard him pull off the padlock and open the locker. That’s right, I thought. Go home. I tasted blood in my mouth; I must have bitten my tongue.
“Well, how about we pick up a light lunch on the way. We can eat in the Jacuzzi."
There was more laughing and the snap of a towel. This was why I didn’t tell Cyril I was a member of the Y; between the Y and Tom Cruise, he’d have a breakdown. They finished quickly and left.
I replaced the stool in front of the door and went back to work on my arm. I dabbed the fresh blood off with gauze and bandaged my arm as best I could. Then I downed a few painkillers and found my locker.
Inside was ID for “Roger Butler,” who I made up to join the Y. Out of habit I'd left plenty of clothes, along with the remains of a bottle of soda and a bag of cookies. Moving as quickly as I could, I changed into jeans and a T-shirt, throwing on a jacket to cover my bandage and a nice pair of leather gloves. I swiped a garbage bag from one of the bins, wrapped the clothes I'd been wearing inside, and tossed the bundle into the garbage along with the old soda. The cookies I pocketed; there was a chance they were still good.
I went back to the surgical scissors and, to alter my appearance a little more, gave myself a hair cut. I clogged the sink, but managed to get the hair far enough into the drain that it couldn’t be seen. I shoved the rest of the good clothes into the gym bag, raided the first aid cabinet for as many supplies as I could, double-checked that I’d cleaned up okay, and left the Y.
The morning commute was in full swing. Cars and buses buzzed past, bicyclists and pedestrians fought over the sidewalk. I was certain I’d lost any pursuit before I made it to the Y and now, with my new look and in a crowd, I felt safe. Across the street was a HotDog Hideaway!, my favorite chain restaurant. Remembering my steak ‘n eggs sprawled over the sidewalk, I stopped in for breakfast.
I used the pay phone to call Cyril, but he didn’t answer. I ate my hotdogs and wondered what to do. Somebody’d shot me; I presumed that wasn’t random. The only enemy I could possibly have had in Johannesburg was Varian Barish, who could be anywhere she wanted. What did that mean? She knew about Cyril’s and my involvement -- however inadvertent -- in Lily’s death. She knew we were in Johannesburg. She was pissed. I wondered if bad fortune made me run into her people on the street or if she knew about the hotel. Was Cyril asleep, in the shower, or dead? I called again, and again, there was no answer. If Varian Barish knew about the room, couldn’t she have come there and murdered us in our sleep? Why wait until I was a mile away and in public to shoot me? That didn’t make sense, so I must’ve been in the wrong place at the wrong time and the opportunity was too good for her goons to pass up. I had to go back to the hotel for Cyril and hope Varian Barish hadn’t found it. I grabbed my gym bag and left.
I was careful walking back. I took the long way, doubling back on my tracks, and scanning the crowd for eyes that lingered too long and faces that hid something. I was terrified, but alone.
At the hotel, I loitered in the lobby, pretending to read the paper, making sure there wasn't a look-out waiting for me. I tried to call Cyril again, but there was still no answer, so I took the back stairs to our floor. I cracked the stairwell door and peeked into the hallway. All was quiet. I decided to risk it since I'd come that far.
With a mixture of false bravado and caution, I walked up to the door and unlocked it. I wished I’d had a gun, but I didn’t, so I just swung open the door and hoped no one was waiting to kill me and laugh about how stupid I was to come back. Part of me actually expected to die, but no bullet ripped open my chest so I walked in, shut the door, and checked the bedroom.
It stank of vomit. Cyril, pale and sweating, was asleep underneath a mound of blankets. I sidestepped the puddle on the carpet and pulled the blankets back. Cyril twitched and shook, his hair matted.
"Geez, Cyril! What happened?" I asked, but he didn’t respond. I tried to get him to drink some water, but most of it spilled down his shirt. I went to the bathroom and wet some towels. When I got back, Cyril had half-heartedly replaced the blankets. I threw them to the floor and spread the cold towels across his body.
We had a major problem: Cyril wasn’t mobile and we needed to get out of the hotel fast.
I packed his stuff, rummaging through it as I went. He told me the night before that he was under the alias Carter Galvan. I looked at his other IDs, but I had no idea if any were safe anymore. I decided to get rid of them all. Cyril would be my Philip Bolson. Fortunately, he was so sick that no one would be able to tell the guy on the ID wasn’t him. They’d assume that’s what he looked like when he wasn’t feverish and covered in vomit. I compared the photo to me. With my hair cut, it wasn’t obviously me either.
I stuck Philip Bolson’s paperwork in Cyril’s wallet and, because Varian Barish would trace the calls from the room the minute she found it, I went to the lobby payphone to call an ambulance. I told the dispatcher a man had been found on the stairs. I ran back up the stairs to the room. I grabbed Cyril’s and my bags, threw them over my shoulder, and hauled Cyril out of bed. He was limp and unbelievably hot, like he’d been trapped in a sauna. I half-carried, half-dragged him from the room into the stairwell. There we waited for the paramedics, Cyril moaning and clawing at his stomach and me holding my arm where the blood was soaking through the bandage after the strain of moving Cyril.
"It’s gonna be okay," I whispered as they rushed into the stairs below us.
The first paramedic’s nametag said she was from Harborfront Private EMS. "What’s the problem?" her voice was slightly muffled by her face mask. She sounded like she spent time in the military.
“I don’t know. I was coming from the gym, and I saw this guy. He must’ve collapsed. I went downstairs to call you." It was difficult to sound distanced, as if Cyril was a stranger and not my best friend.
"You know his name?" she asked as her partner hauled up equipment and starting pulling cords and tubes from a black bag.
She searched Cyril’s pockets and pulled out his wallet. "He’s got ID. Let’s hope Mr. Bolson’s got his insurance card on him." I prayed I put it in there, and sighed when she found it. "We can take him."
"Stand back, sir," said the partner. "We’ll handle it now." He tore off Cyril’s shirt, strapped sensors to his chest, and put an oxygen mask on his face.
"Is he going to be all right?"
"Sure. Thanks for your help." They flipped open a collapsable stretcher, rolled Cyril onto it, strapped him into place, packed up their equipment, and carried him out.
Cyril was gone in less than three minutes. There was nothing left of him but sweat marks on my gloves. In my panic, I never took them off. Distastefully, I stripped the gloves and dumped them in the stairwell.
I waited another fifteen minutes then left.
I walked two miles before stopping at another pay phone. There was a tattered Yellow Pages hanging from a metal cord securing it to the booth. I brushed it aside in favor of the electronic directory. I typed "H-A-R-B-O-R-F-R-O-N-T" and took another pair painkiller while waiting for the list the directory would bring up. Harborfront Private EMS was fourth. I dialed the call.
A man answered.
"My cousin was just picked up at the Oxford Inn Hotel by your service. Do you know which hospital he was taken to? His name’s Philip Bolson."
"Please hold." There was a click and the news chimed in. It was raining again in Montana. "Radin-Morgan General."
"Thanks." I hung up and hailed a cab.
Radin-Morgan was neat, compact, and "futuristic." Unfortunately, the future it predicted never came about, so it just looked weird and dated. I walked past the ancient guard at the front desk; I don’t think he even saw me. The public locker room was just around the corner. I dropped off our stuff and set off to find Cyril. His glassed-in room was ominously located in the infectious diseases ward. His blinds were open, so I could see him lying in bed, surrounded by blinking monitors. He had an IV stuck in his arm and a tube running up his nose. His door read "NO ENTRY" and had a biohazard sign. The doctor told he was positive for Ebola Wave 5.
"I’m sorry, Mr. Butler. This must be devastating for you," she said.
"I don’t believe it." I was in shock.
"I need to know how he caught this. There may be others at risk, so it’s important. Have you spent time with him recently?"
I answered mechanically. "We just met up him yesterday."
She wrote it down. "When did he first show signs of sickness?"
"I don’t know. He was definitely sick yesterday."
"Was he in contact with anyone who seemed ill in the last two weeks?"
I shook my head. "Not that I know of." It was unlikely Cyril picked it up at Crematorium 6 -– designed to prevent transmission. Maybe we'd picked up a carrier on our rounds. I remembered the fat guy from the dumpster the night we hit Lily Barish. Cyril tucked him back into his carpet roll while I puked in the river. He had lesions.
The doctor continued, “I’m concerned not only about Mr. Bolson, but also about you. You may have picked up the virus."
"What?" I hadn’t thought about that. I thought back to our rendezvous at Eddie’s and was guiltily grateful that Cyril hadn’t touched his burger before I scarfed it down. Maybe I’d be spared. I looked at Cyril and wondered how far he’d progressed. He must’ve been in agony, far worse than the pain from my gunshot wound. He might die, his guts dissolving in his body. I asked the doctor about that.
She sighed. "I’ll be honest with you, Mr. Butler. He’s already passed the initial stages. We’re bringing down his fever, but hemorrhaging began in his spleen and liver before he came in. We’ll work hard to save him. We’ve administered the new mutliwave treatment and, now that we know it’s Wave 5, we’ll start wave specific treatment." She looked at Cyril wrapped in his hospital sheets. "He’s lucky he was brought in when he was." She sounded unconvinced and turned back to me. "Which is why I’d like to start your treatment right now. With a few injections, we can probably head it off. That is, if you test positive."
I didn’t test positive. I was lucky and ecstatic, which made me feel guilty. Cyril was upstairs with Ebola liquefying him, and the virus might yet kill him. I’d never see him again and he’d never sail around the world like he dreamed. I spent the night on a bar stool, nursing carefully spaced drinks.
Breakfast was more HotDog Hideaway! Then I went to the post office. I stuffed my and Cyril’s IDs in an envelope to Penelope Rabinowitz, a friend self-exiled in Mexico City, with a note "Cash out to Michael Ferrentino." Penelope would transfer all accounts under those IDs to the new alias. The new ID would be sent to my P.O. box.
I spent two days waiting for the new ID and trying to figure out how we could to escape Varian Barish, all the while trying not to think too much about what Cyril. I go to the hospital to see him again, but he was so drugged he didn't recognize me.
"The good news is that the virus has slowed."
"Does that mean he's going to be okay?"
The doctor looked upset and I got the feeling she was deciding how much I could take. "Mr. Butler, let me be completely frank. Your cousin is not going to make it."
I stood there, blank. How can you react to news like that? That your best bud, the guy you work with, hang out with, and fight with, has had it. It was the worst news I'd ever heard. I knew Ebola was serious business; that's why terrorists used it. But I didn't realize how much I hoped that Cyril was going to be okay, in spite of the odds, until she snuffed out that hope. My head spun and I was suddenly incredibly hot. I wanted to punch her in the face so that blood would gush from her nose and she would feel half as badly as I did. I must've balled up my fist to do it, too, because she glanced uncomfortably at my hands and shifted in her squeaky shoes.
She cleared her throat. "Uh, Mr. Butler, I'm sure this comes as a terrible shock."
"Gee, Doc. You think?"
"Um." She started again. "Mr. Butler, the virus had progressed too far. If he'd come in sooner, if we'd had better luck ..." She continued, but I stopped listening. There wasn't anything she could’ve said to make me feel better and she knew it. After a last attempt at consolation, she gave up.
"How much longer does he have?"
She shrugged, reminding me how much I was annoyed when Cyril did that and how much I'd miss it when he was gone. "A few days. We're trying to keep him comfortable. He's declined euthanasia, so we'll wait it out."
I watched Cyril through the large window. He was propped up with pillows and breathing hard. I wished he were awake and I could talk to him to know that he was alive; something to reassure me that Cyril hadn't been reduced to a moth-eaten body in a stupor. But that was all he was. I left.
All night, I thought "This is the end." The same phrase over and over, like repetition would make it comprehensible. By the next morning, I prepared to make my last visit to Cyril. I was calm and rational, maybe in denial. I thought things like "I'm glad it’s not me," and "Better to stop going to the hospital anyway if I want to stay ahead of Varian Barish," and "My bullet wound's healing nicely."
I packed my stuff and took it with me to the hospital so I could leave Johannesburg right after my visit. I was surprised to find Cyril awake. He looked like crap as, I supposed, he had a right to. His skin was pale gray with dark hollows under his shrunken eyes that made me think of old ghoulie films. Moisture beaded on his upper lip, a bubble moustache meaning he was feverish. Beeping machines surrounded his bed. I stayed behind the red "no-cross" line on the floor and wore bio-hazard gear.
"How's it going, Cyril?"
He licked his lips and said in an odd, rolling voice, "How do you think, stupid? And apparently the name's Philip Bolson."
"Okay, okay." Sheesh, I thought stupidly, Cyril's pretty hostile.
"What are you doing here anyway? She's probably traced me, you know."
"I guess I wanted to say good-bye."
I felt awkward then because, really, what do you say to a dead man? Luckily, Cyril kept talking.
"I've been thinking, maybe I can bail you out of this mess."
"I doubt that very seriously."
"Don't be a jerk."
"Then don't you be a Fermat, telling me you have a grand solution but croaking before you share it," I said, lapsing into our standard rhythm.
"That's a callous way to talk. It's hardly my fault I'm dying; you should be more sympathetic. After all, we're practically family. Did you talk to your mother like that when she was on her deathbed?"
"Damn straight you didn't." He coughed, thick and wet, wheezing a bit toward the end. He mopped his face with a damp towel and I regretted being a wiseguy. "Back to what I was saying. The Cabal, those traitorous bastards, must’ve had us pick up a carrier to make us sick, right?" I agreed. "But they don't know I was the only one who got it. Now if Varian Barish knows we got tangled up with Lily, then she's going to have a talk with the Cabal. They'll tell her they already took care of us for reasons of their own by making sure we picked up Wave 5. Of course, she tracked us herself to make sure. Varian Barish will find out I'm in the carrier ward waiting for the Grim Reaper. For all she knows, Ebola could've gotten you already."
"So, maybe you were brought in around the same time I was. Weakened by the shot in the arm, you died faster and were already sent to the furnace. She won't have reason to believe otherwise, particularly since my demise will be totally legit. She might even get here in time to see me off."
I shuddered. "I don't think you'd want that."
"What difference does it make?" He sounded bitter.
"Well, for one thing, I don't think you want her to torture you."
He shrugged, sick and pathetic. He'd lost weight and I saw his collarbone peeking out beneath his hospital gown. "Torture is an historically unreliable method of obtaining information."
"Maybe, but she does it for fun."
"It's hard to get pleasure out of torturing someone who's delirious more often than not. And she's not going to easily find someone to come over here and get my Ebola all over him." He pulled his arms from beneath the blankets. They shook with effort, covered in sores where the virus had eaten through his skin. I took an involuntary step back and Cyril smiled, the action setting off more wet coughing. He spat in the bio-hazard container, and wiped foamy blood from his mouth. He tried to hide it, but I saw pain in his eyes.
I asked him if the doctors were giving him enough drugs.
"Yeah. You caught me in between doses."
"That's good," I said hollowly. Soon, Cyril would join Lily Barish in the North Dakota ash piles. I wanted to streak to the nearest decontamination shower and stay in the chemical water until my skin sloughed and peeled. And I hated the part of me that feared Cyril now that he was a carrier.
"You'd better leave," Cyril said. His speech slurred as a new wave of medication pumped into his veins.
"Yeah." No matter how much I wanted to run, I couldn't move an inch.
"Don't worry about Varian Barish. Mock up a John Doe in the morgue, send him to the burners and, if I'm still around when she shows up, I tell her the Cabal got you first." Cyril quieted down and closed his eyes. My heart pounded, filling my ears with thumping; I thought he was dead. Then I saw the blankets moving gently, rhythmically, and I knew he wasn't that lucky. I couldn't understand why he didn't take the euthanasia; I would have killed myself in an instant.
When I left Cyril's room, I'd never been so miserable or so happy to be alive. I was disgusted with myself for being torn. I should’ve had no thoughts for myself. I should’ve been concerned only with Cyril’s welfare. Yet even as I thought, I lingered in the decontamination area and vowed to be more diligent with my vaccinations in the future.
After decontamination, I went to the morgue to put Cyril’s plan into action. By-passing Radin-Morgan General's security was simple. All I did was steal a clip-on ID, wave to the guy in uniform reading the paper, and act as if I went to the hospital morgue everyday.
I walked past the ID lab to see the set up. Through the pair of swinging doors with large windows, I saw there was only one guy, drinking coffee dangerously close to the equipment. Bodies formed "in" and "out" categories.
I went to the employee locker room to figure out what to do. I needed a valid death certificate to stick on a John Doe in order to convince Varian Barish I'd gotten bumped off by Wave 5; a fake would not do. The problem was that I had to do that in the ID lab. And I couldn't just bop the lab guy over the head, because then he'd just tell everyone that some psycho attacked him in order to doctor ID cards.
I picked some locks, hoping to come across something that would help me. I collected a decent watch, two cans of soda, a candy bar, and a beat-up novel before I hit the jackpot: a vial of Seraphim, a liquid barbiturate. After only a drop, you'd star as Adam in your own psychedelic Eden. As I refined my plan and prepared to find a body, I donned a lab suit and mask from a locker. I also grabbed the receipts off some dry cleaning, stuffed the Seraphim in the breast pocket of my suit, and headed to the morgue proper. I wasn't confronted until I was in the cadaver storage area, checking toe tags of bodies laid out on gurneys by the dozen.
"Can I help you?" A guy peered through the doorway.
Startled, I hit my head on a dead guy's foot. The stiff's leg bounced on the metal tabletop with a hollow bang. The gurney shifted and squealed, but the inevitable bum wheel kept it from moving far. "Hey. Yeah. I'm from the ID lab. I heard you got a carrier John Doe down here that we're supposed to run through the database." I waved the dry cleaning receipts at him like they were my pick-up orders.
"You must be new. We don't keep carriers down here. They go to the vault for special handling. We just have those two drowned Johns over there." He pointed to the corner of the room where two bloated bodies lay blue and rigid.
"Oh." I felt like an idiot. I looked at my authoritative documents, the laundry tickets, pretty easily appearing baffled. "Someone screwed up."
He shook his head sympathetically. "Not the first time."
"Tell me about it." I folded up the tickets and shoved them into my belt. "Well, as long as I'm here I might as well take one of those drowned Johns right now."
"Be my guest." He left, probably to the bowels of hospital and a corpse laid out on an autopsy table, skin pulled back and ribs cracked open like a half-eaten Thanksgiving turkey. I grabbed a John Doe and maneuvered his gurney through the rows of cadavers and to the ID lab.
The gurney hit the lab's swinging doors with a thud and the lab guy groaned through his mask. "Not another one."
"Yeah," I said, convincingly apologetic because I was about to drug him silly. Most likely, he would be found by a fellow technician and fired. "You want 'im over there?" I nodded toward his "in" bunch.
"Yeah, that's good."
I wheeled my John Doe across the lab to join some equally sorry looking stiffs. Once he was parked, I walked over to the lab worker, fumbling to pull out my dry cleaning slips. "I gotta get your signature, okay?"
He reached out, but I banged my hand into his coffee cup, "accidentally" spilling the coffee all over the slips. "Geez! I'm sorry," I said, catching the cup before it hit the floor.
"Your slips are ruined," he said, seeing the ink run.
"Oh, man. I'm gonna catch it from those guys. Look," I said like I'd just thought of it, "let me have them re-do this paperwork. I'll be right back, okay?"
"Hey, can I buy you another cup?"
"Okay. I'll be right back." I left quickly still muttering about how sorry I was and how much trouble I was going to get.
The vending machine produced a steaming cup of coffee. I poured in the Seraphim. One drop was good, but I couldn't trust him to finish the whole cup of coffee, nor did I have time. I put in a third of the vial, swished it around, and hoped for the best.
The guy was surprised to see me back so soon.
"Yeah, they're back there working on the paperwork. It'll take a couple of minutes, but I didn't want you to have to wait on that coffee." I handed it him. "I'll be back in a few."
I made to leave, but doubled back in the hallway. I wished I had a periscope so I didn't have to risk being seen, but instead I had to make do with darting glances. Finally, he drank. After I was certain he had a few swallows, I timed five minutes and went in.
The lab guy was staring intently at the floor. Slowly, He leaned over until he fell flat on his face. I noticed he'd had half the coffee. I jumped into his chair and swiveled to face the monitor. The screen read, "INSERT SAMPLE". I plucked a hair from my eyebrow. Wave 5 usually killed so fast that it didn’t show up in a hair sample, so hair was safer should someone feel the perverse need to retest it. I took an empty slide from the table, stuck the eyelash on, added a drop of a blue dye, and topped it off with a thin slide cover.
I pushed the slide into microscope/mini-scanner machine attached to the computer. The machine whirled and twittered. The screen asked, "DOE NO."
I went back to my Doe waiting on his gurney. He had a small toe tag that I ripped off and took back to the computer. "215-568-9981," I answered.
"JOHN DOE 215-568-9981," the screen read, and listed a bunch of information. I tried to type over "CAUSE OF DEATH: ASPHYXIATION BY DROWNING".
"CORRECT ENTRY? Y/N"
I hit "Y" again and got a blank, so I filled in "END STAGE EBOLA (WAVE 5)" and hit enter, confident Cyril’s scheme would work. Then my stomach hit the floor and I knew my mother would say I jinxed it.
"ENTER AUTHORIZATION CODE"
I went over to the lab guy, still laid out on the floor. His plastic ID tag had an employee number, so I typed that in.
"INVALID ENTER AUTHORIZATION CODE"
I wasn't panicked. Most people, like me, have very simple passwords. I'd never be able to get into anything if most of the combinations, codes, account numbers, and other stuff I had to remember weren’t easy for me to deduce. I typed in his first name.
"INVALID ENTER AUTHORIZATION CODE"
I wished I knew his birthday, something personal like that, but he didn't have his autobiography sitting around. I thought about his job. Maybe he had a sense of humor about it.
"INVALID ENTER AUTHORIZATION CODE"
"INVALID ENTER AUTHORIZATION CODE"
I tried "CADAVER," "STIFF," "RIGORMORTIS,” and "REAPER" without success. Radin-Morgan didn't have a limitation on the number of passwords I could try before the system crashed, but I was starting to give up. All the creeping around the morgue, ransacking the employee locker room, stealing a dead body, and OD'ing the ID guy were about to be for nothing. I stared at him, like I might be able to see the authorization code through his skull. His eyes were open and he was making a thick, foamy puddle of drool.
"CODE," I typed.
"ENTRY CORRECTED CAUSE OF DEATH: END STAGE EBOLA (WAVE 5)" The instructions for disposal of the body were automatically changed from the default about consulting the family to "IMMEDIATE INCINERATION" with notification afterward.
Relieved, I checked over the other information. Height and weight were close enough to mine to leave. Hair, eye, and skin color were all pre-filled as "N/A." The categories were relics of the days when those things were permanent. I sat back nervously while the computer searched the database of 7 billion people for a match to the DNA in my hair. I'd been in the hospital a long time and my efforts would be moot if Varian Barish were waiting in the lobby when I walked out.
The screen blinked. "MATCH FOUND". My name and social security number appeared, along with next of kin. They even had an outdated photograph.
I okayed the match and printed out the paperwork. As I put the toe tags on the body, pulled the hair sample from the computer, put the appropriate ID sticker on the slide, and placed it in a pile with others that waited to be filed, I realized that I was officially dead. The police would tell my sister. We weren't close by any means; I hadn't spoken to her since she told me I was a destructive influence on her kids. Still, I suddenly realized that I missed them. Jake should have graduated from high school by now, and the twins were probably gearing up to go. I wondered what they would feel when they heard I died, and a carrier no less. My sister would say she wasn’t surprised.
Gurgling from the floor brought me back into focus. I wheeled my John Doe, now ID'ed as me, to the hospital's crematorium. The resident burner was on a potty break, but I'd seen John Monk in action enough times to work the equipment. I used the password of my self-sacrificing friend in the ID lab to send "me" to the fire.
I dumped the borrowed lab suit and mask back at the employee locker room on my way back to the public locker room where I'd left Cyril's and my stuff. Slinging our bags over my shoulder, I went to hail a cab. It was dusk, with alternating bands of orange light lingering in the west and heavy storm clouds moving toward Johannesburg. I would have preferred the dawning of a new day.
* * *
I am a coward. I'm certain Dante designated a circle in hell for my kind. For seven months, I was Michael Ferrentino, running an ancient pub in the south of England that I bought for a song. It was a beautiful place to be in exile. My pub was near a small dock where local fishermen, working mostly from habit, brought their catch to show my cook. Later, he'd whip up a storm of fish 'n chips while my bartender poured drafts.
I bought a house too. Most of it dated back to the 1800s, with an even older central room and stone hearth. It had an acre of countryside where my neighbor kept two cows and a dozen multicolored chickens. The house was only minutes away from the town proper via narrow, walled lanes that forced drivers into blind curves and on-coming traffic. The town was a vacation paradise. City dwellers flocked to their summer townhouses that lined the cliffs of the town like dormitories, staring out to sea. The apothecary told me they had once been Coast Guard barracks. I don't know if that was true, or just something told to transients.
Cornwall’s peacefulness was a narcotic I greedily sucked down. I really became Michael Ferrentino, reacting naturally when someone called "Mick!" and adopting the life like I'd been born to it. I walked through the streets without fear, nodding to strangers, waving to neighbors. I was part of the nameless masses Cyril and I always decried, the ones that worked all day and paid their taxes. This, I thought, is how the rest of the world lives. This is how my sister lives. I liked it.
I didn't think much about Cyril. I didn't think about whether Varian Barish administered his last rites, or whether he died eaten inside out by Ebola. I didn't think about whether Varian Barish was coming after me or found something to distract her. I didn't wonder who in the Cabal stabbed us in the back and why. The past was dead.
But I slept terribly, with haunting images of Cyril creeping into my mind. He would be in his hospital gown, his face gaunt and boney, and he would point at me accusingly, or sneak up behind me to lean over my shoulder and place his sunken face against mine. He would cough up blood and organs onto my clothes, show me oozing sores on his arms, and mouth words I couldn't understand. Sometimes the dreams weren't bad. Sometimes we would go out to the 2-D theater. I'd park the car, then we'd make jibes at the people at the 3-D and argue over which film to see. Sometimes, we'd go to a bar or be back in school. Once I woke up laughing, until I remembered he was dead.
Cyril would keep haunting me until I took up his cause, figured out why all this misfortune befell us and gave a little payback. It was just like him to nag me into insanity; Cyril never let anything drop. Still, I didn't do anything. I figured that Cyril's accusations were not too high a price for being alive.
I kept that logic going as long as I could.
One morning when I arrived at the pub, my cook looked up from examining fish and asked me if I'd heard what happened. The tabloids said woman had been murdered in her condo in Mexico City. Although not otherwise newsworthy, this woman was internationally renown for hiding criminals, ex-politicians, terrorists, and all sorts of others. The authorities were eager to get their hands on her. She was so good at disappearing, though, that they'd never been able to locate her. Someone else did.
They said she'd been tortured; fingernails and toenails pulled out, fingers and ribs broken. One eye seared shut with a metal rod. Skin neatly sliced with a thin blade to produce lots of pain and little blood. It was a collage of a master technician. Maybe she talked, maybe her torturers got bored. They finished her off by jamming a hook up her nose and whisking it around, like Egyptian embalmers, until her brain liquefied. The police found it dribbling down her shirt like overcooked oatmeal. My cook couldn't remember her name; the rag lying on the bar said it was Penelope Rabinowitz.
I freaked. Then I reminded myself that Penelope dealt with very bad people and her heinous demise might’ve been unrelated to the fact that she set up phony IDs for me. This was not necessarily the work of Varian Barish. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that my doom was upon me and, before I knew it, I was in the public library searching the web for anything else that happened since I left Johannesburg.
The last seven months had been bad ones in Newark. Frank Baylor, the dummy that snatched Lily in the first place, was found flayed and crucified; his wife, Cristina, hung next to him. My mechanic, Gail St. James, was found drawn and quartered in her garage. The old 2-D theater where Cyril and I went every week burned to the ground. Pascal’s charred skeleton was discovered chained to a radiator pipe.
As I read, a lump in my stomach grew, festered, and spread. I went cold. There was only one explanation for the carnage: my ruse in the morgue hadn’t worked. Varian Barish was hunting me. After I disappeared from Johannesburg, she went to Newark for clues. Starting with Frank, then moving to old haunts and acquaintances, she'd tracked me to Penelope. I wondered what Penelope told her. I would have told Varian Barish anything she wanted to know and a lot she didn't care about. I thought about my sister and her kids. There was no news on them. I didn't dare contact them, but I couldn't let Varian Barish kill them. I also realized that if Varian Barish knew I was alive, then the Cabal almost certainly did too. Either way, someone would be coming to visit.
Cyril was going to have his way. Since I couldn’t hide from Varian Barish and the Cabal much longer, I decided to confront them. If I couldn’t bargain with them, I could hope for a quick death as a reward for turning myself in. I didn’t let myself think of the possibility of anything worse.
I told my cook I had a family emergency and I'd be gone indefinitely. He promised to take care of the pub and my house. I packed my stuff and flew back to Newark. Every step I took toward the plane I wanted to turn back. I forced myself to stop the inconclusive soul searching about futility and destiny, pain and fear. It was only a matter of time before Varian Barish and the Cabal did me in. The situation was greater than avenging Cyril. My hunters killed people, and I couldn’t allow more to die so that I could spend a few more days as Mick Ferrentino.I’m not certain that I would’ve cared much before Cyril got sick. I would have thought of them as casualties of war. Now, no matter how much I wanted to sit on the dock laughing with fisherfolk, I couldn’t do it if it meant someone else was going to suffer. Cyril would think the transformation worth a philosophical discussion.
Hours later, I walked out of the airport in Newark. I hoped I wouldn't be recognized, but I wasn't afraid. I was going to do right by Pascal, Penelope, Gail St. James, and Cristina Baylor. They died in my place after all. Frank Baylor could go to hell for dragging us all into this mess.
I figured out my rough plan on the plane. I knew why Varian Barish was after me, but not why the Cabal betrayed us. Once I had all the information, I could figure out which organization to approach. My first stop was a slum in Newark where neither police nor the Cabal went. It was filled with carriers and addicts who debased themselves for a fix. I traded cheap liquor for two vials of contaminated blood from a junkie. Then I looked up a couple of eco-terrorists that Cyril and I met a few years back while doing rounds. Over a few pints and memories later, they sold me everything I needed.
It was good to have weaponry and cockiness after hiding out, I told myself, psyching up for the job. It was facade but it worked. I felt like the old me again, not Mick Ferrentino. Mick would never track a member of the Cabal's middle-management like Leon Hill to his apartment. Mick wouldn’t catch him on the crapper flipping through a magazine, hammer him in the gut and face with a sauce pan until he choked on his teeth, stab him in the jugular with a needle filled with junkie blood, and threaten to hit the plunger. Of course, I wouldn't normally do such things either, but there I was, newfound humanity on the fritz.
"Well?" I asked Leon.
"You didn't even ask me anything, you prick,” He spat.
Careful not to jostle the needle too much, I hit him again with the pan. He was right though; I hadn't asked. "Why did the Cabal have us pick up a carrier?"
He spat at me again. I wasn't sure if he was putting up a brave front or not as intimidated as I hoped. I moved to depress the plunger, just enough to assure him that I'd really do it.
"How do I even know that’s junkie blood? You probably took that it from the Red Cross."
He was getting bold, wondering if he could take me before I could unload the syringe. Frankly, I was wondering the same.
To hell with this, I thought. I slammed him with the pan until the handle snapped. He was dazed, so I backed off, pulled out a pistol, and blew off two of his toes. He howled and grabbed his foot, toppling off the toilet.
"Are you going to tell me or make me shoot chunks out of you until there's nothing left?"
"You know damn well why we stuck you with the carrier, and you damn well deserved it." He mumbled something I couldn’t hear.
"What was that?"
I shot him in the ankle. The joint popped and blood exploded across the tile. Leon screamed, alternatively clutching his wounds and spewing curses. I let him think about what else I might do to him before I asked again, "Why did they do it?"
"Cyril figured it out, man." He gasped and I knew I’d been too harsh, but I wasn't in control of myself. I had totally cracked. "He picked up that brooch from one of them scientists the boss got sick of and popped. Cyril found the brooch, ran an ID of the guy and a few other stiffs you'd been picking up, and he figured out everything. Or was going to. But what were we going to do, man? Shoot him? Call in more attention? Hell no. What better than a bug? Baggers are bound to catch something sometime."
"What are you talking about?"
Leon looked at me like I was crazy. His blood had splattered over clothes and onto the bathroom tile like a Jackson Pollock. "You don't know, do you?" He started laughing. He was hysterical. "We assumed with you an' Cyril being so close. But that bastard didn't tell you jack. You almost got Wave 5 for nothing."
"Tell me what?"
"I'm not going to tell you, mother-"
"I'll kill you if you don't."
"Don't even try to screw with me. The minute you walk out of here, I'm going to tell the Cabal you’re back and begging to be taken down. You gotta kill me."
"Maybe, but I could make it so miserable that you beg me to finish you." He taunted me some more, but his bravado was fading. I went into another world where I watched myself work him until he could talk no more, although he'd become eager. It was strange to see myself do horrible deeds. I stared at myself in morbid fascination, waiting to see what I would do next. A year ago, I would have sworn I wasn’t capable of standing over a man and callously experimenting. Yet I was doing it, sickened by the pleasure part of me took in the act. I wondered if Varian Barish felt this way her first time. I wondered if I could ever be Mick Ferrentino again; with this kind of blood on my hands, could I be an ex-patriot barkeep on the southern coast of England?
I didn't kill him. I injected him with the junkie blood when he passed out and called him an ambulance. At the hospital, they would test his blood and tell him he was a carrier. Maybe treatment would work; maybe not.
Outside, I watched the ambulance pull up, lights flashing and sirens blaring. The crew rushed in and, a few minutes later, hauled Leon Hill out on a stretcher, covered with a coarse brown blanket. I left, feeling the lump in my coat pocket where I had tucked the proof that Leon offered me. I tried to picture Leon's face when he woke up, realized that he was alive and a carrier, and wondered what the Cabal would do when they learned he'd ratted them out.
Leon told me Cyril got me stuck deep in this mess and left me to fend for myself without a clue as to what was going on. I couldn't believe it. I was almost dead because of the jerk, and he wasn't even alive for me to kick his butt. Between Leon’s rantings and some deduction, I learned what set off the Cabal. A few months before we picked up the carrier, Cyril pinched a diver's watch a stiff. Then he started noticing that a couple of the stiffs we picked up had diver's watches. Cyril researched one stiff, who turned out to be a marine archeologist. Turned out that the others were divers and marine archeologists. One guy's claim to fame, such as it was, was finding an intricate brooch, 24-karat gold and encrusted with gems, with the goldsmith's mark faintly visible. It was from sixteenth-century Spain. More accurately, it was on its way to Spain when its ship sank in the Caribbean. The ship was never recovered. Except it was about three years before this guy turned up on our rounds. Cyril also learned that all the commercial treasure hunting outfits in the Americas were bought by mysterious purchasers.
Cyril assumed that the Cabal was behind these goings-on, but couldn't figure out why. After all, why would the Cabal gamble on finding shipwrecks? Being Cyril, he investigated. When he discovered that more than one-fourth of all the gold ever minted was under the waters of the Caribbean and Atlantic, he knew how the Cabal became the richest organization in the U.S. The Cabal, still an upstart parvenu, was sucking the treasure from Varian Barish's waters and competing with her using her own money.
The treasure hunting companies had a general sense of where many of these shipwrecks were. What they didn't have was funding to retrieve it; the Cabal did. That the ships were in Varian Barish’s empire didn’t deter the Cabal; it made them cautious. Three small, ordinary-looking ships cruised the sea under the Cabal's command, nonchalantly scooping up unimaginable wealth. Jewelry and artifacts were sold through discrete auction houses, gold and silver were molded into new bars, and loose gems were sold to wholesalers to end up in Fifth Avenue windows.
This secret cache got Cyril killed. Cyril hadn't known half of what Leon told me, but enough for the Cabal to eliminate us. The same information could save me. Varian Barish might let me live in exchange for it. Maybe she would keep the Cabal busy explaining themselves and they wouldn't have time to come after me.
I took a flight out of Newark to Panama, where Leon told me Varian Barish was holding court. I headed to the hotel nearest her estate the moment I landed and reviewed my options. The Barish family fortress perched defiantly on the hill where explorers first saw -– simultaneously –- the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Although the city expanded to meet the Barish house, it granted the estate wide berth. The fortress was a monstrous European mansion with ochre towers and bright white trim. Gardens and neat lawns surrounded the house, which was ringed by an iron fence at the base of the hill. A single, heavy gate with a tiny guard tower protected the winding drive.
My hotel had an unobstructed view of the Barish house, and I surveyed the property through a pair of binoculars. A close up of the windows showed that behind the bulletproof glass and expensive curtains were walls with trompe l'oeil design and just enough light to make it appear that the window looked into a room. Not many would have noticed that the Barish house effectively had no windows; those that did would know enough to mind their own business. Infrared and MIMIC-busting views were even more useful. Three fuzzy guardhouses dotted the lawn. An electric fence ran inside the iron fence around the perimeter. Guards lounged beneath rooftop satellite dishes or leaned on mounted machine guns and grenade launchers. Depressed, I put down the binoculars and the images disappeared.
Over several days, I confirmed Varian Barish's personal vehicle: an armored Bentley escorted by two SUVs. One day, on impulse, I followed them to a trendy Asian restaurant. I lagged behind, walking in after I activated my personal mobile MIMIC unit on loan from the eco-terrorists. MIMIC was a wonderful thing. A techie once explained to me how MIMIC copied data of objects around it and projected the data onto the desired target as camouflage. I paid closer attention to his warnings than his explanations: avoid complicated surroundings and move like a sloth.
Slowly, I skirted the edges of the restaurant, staying away from patrons and staff. Varian Barish’s guards were outfitted with MIMIC-busting glasses and at times I crawled to avoid their gazes. After heart pounding minutes, I made it to the back of the restaurant with my camouflage bubble uncompromised. Without a real plan, I slipped into the ladies' room. I took an assertive position -– my guns aimed squarely at the door and a cyanide pill tucked in my cheek -– and waited. Unmoving against the tile, I was invisible.
My arms were cramped when Varian Barish’s guard opened the door. A quick glance under the stalls would have convinced most that the place was empty, but she scanned the room anyway. Her dark glasses clicked as they searched, her head moving slowly to face me. Her eyes widened when she saw through my MIMIC and found a blurry pair of gun barrels almost touching the side of her face. She jerked instinctively, stopping when she realized that the movement gave me a clear shot at Varian Barish behind her, just inside the doorway. The door swung shut, leaving the three of us in awkward silence. I backed out of kicking range of the bodyguard.
“Well. You are not here to assassinate me, or you would have fired by now,” Varian Barish said, looking right at me. I had the uncomfortable sensation that she could see through my MIMIC. “Anything to say to before I kill you?”
Her confidence in the face of gun barrels unnerved me. “I’d like to speak to you –" I stopped mid sentence, realizing that one of her eyes was artificial: a MIMIC-buster that gave her a fuzzy image of me. I lowered the guns immediately and felt the reassuring shell of the cyanide capsule in my mouth. “I’d like to speak with you a minute. Then if you still want to kill me, go ahead.” I had nothing to lose by trying to bargain; all I had to do was bite down to escape her and the Cabal. At least there’d be no torture for me, or anyone else on my account.
I was succinct. “The Cabal is dredging your oceans for gold to buy your business out from under you.” Her eyes narrowed as I explained the process. At the end of my breathless presentation, she asked for proof. I handed her the parting gifts from Leon Hill, the pouch seeming to wink into existence in Varian Barish’s palm as I pulled my camouflaged hand away. She pulled out a pair of emerald encrusted earrings and a folded inventory.
Her face was a cool mask. “I assume there’s a reason why you daringly infiltrated a public restroom to tell me this at gunpoint rather than come to my office."
"I wouldn't have lived long enough to tell you." I rolled the cyanide between my teeth as I deactivated MIMIC. Her face became rigid as she saw me clearly. "I want a pardon."
"No," she said, her lips barely moving. "The payment for Lily's death should be harsh and lingering, not mere words." She fingered the recovered earrings. “Still, some reward for your revelation seems appropriate.” She looked hard at me, then smiled. “There is a price for freedom from the past. You may choose your method of payment: swallow your poison and die easily, or cut off your hand and live."
"What?" I stammered, hoping that I hadn't heard correctly.
She didn't repeat herself.
Once again I faced my cowardice. For an instant, I though to kill Varian Barish were she stood. But her calm disdain (and her bodyguard) made me wonder if they could cut me down before I lifted my guns to fire. Even if I could, I'd still have to face the Cabal. Her offer meant I could walk away, leaving my problems with the Cabal to Varian Barish and safe from her. My other choice was to bite down, but preserving my life was a big part of why I was here, after all. A hand seemed a small price; after all, Penelope, Pascal, Cristina Baylor, and Gail St. James all paid more.
Varian Barish knew my choice without me saying a word. "Get a cleaver and the ‘out of service’ sign for the restroom," she ordered without taking her eyes off me. Her guard took my guns before she left. Moments later she reappeared, tools in hand. She handed Varian Barish the cleaver.
"Spit out that pill," Varian Barish told me, balling up a wad of paper towels. "Bite down on this instead."
Woodenly, I spit the poison capsule onto the tile floor. Her guard placed the wad of towels in my mouth, holding my tongue in place and nearly gagging me. She locked my arm flat on the countertop. Varian Barish hovered over me like a butcher, savoring the moment, before handing me the cleaver. Nearly choking, I started at my hand like it was an alien thing. The fingers instinctively curled into a tight fist, bracing against the bodyguard's grip. The skin mottled as the blood struggled to circulate, reminding me of Cyril's lesions. This is where it ends, I thought, pouring all the incarnations of myself into the clenched hand, making it a vessel of every contemptible act I committed. When only Mick Ferrentino remained, I raised the cleaver above the vile organ and brought it down.
The blade bit cleanly through muscle and bone before sinking into the porcelain. The hand flopped into the sink and sat in a pool of thick, red blood. Pain rushed through me like a tsunami. A few, disjointed images later, I crumpled in shock. I remember hot blood splattered over the sink and floor, the tiles like ice pressed against my back, Varian Barish tossing the stained cleaver into the sink, the bloody groove in the porcelain, her final instructions to her bodyguard, "Clean up this mess."
I woke, hours later, in a hospital bed beneath starchy sheets and a thin cotton blanket with the scent of flowers wafting in from an open window. My arm was tightly bandaged and slung against my chest. I didn’t feel uncomfortable; painkillers still lingered in my system. I pulled off the gadgets and monitors attached to me, got dressed, and fled back to England.
* * *
After two years of tinkering, my new hand was finished, crafted from seeds of skin and bone over polymer scaffolding. I'd never be Vladimir Horowitz, but that was fine. I lived in a world without the Cabal or Varian Barish, a member of the faceless masses. The day my doctors pronounced me healed was notable for another reason. It was the anniversary of the biggest gang war the U.S. had ever seen: all the Cabal's 236 members and affiliates were murdered in a single day.
It was good to be free.