CHAPTER 17 : Black Is Black
Kupferberg had pulled his chair away from the table and was now sitting beside the window, watching the city drift inexorably into night.
He was looking down at the tele-link on his right wrist, planning what he should do next. As he sat there, he was singing under his breath, “All night, all day, angels watching over you, my child.”
The particular angels he had in mind were Castor and Pollux, the pair he had assigned to assassinate Mercy Woo. In his mind, as he sang, Mercy was the child. By now, he assumed, if his instructions had been carried out, Castor and Pollux would be dead, or as good as. “I do apologise,” he said quietly, imagining himself talking to their corpses. “But you failed me.” However, as soon as those words had left his lips, he found himself regretting his decision to have them killed. They had been, after all, faithful believers, and had proved their loyalty to him on many previous occasions.
He swiped a finger over his tele-link and said, “Flip. Get Lucifer.”
Instantly, a thin, sallow face appeared on his link. “The One.” said the face. “How can I serve you?”
“Castor and Pollux. Are they dead yet?”
Lucifer Starkrost’s face took on a sorrowful aspect. “I regret to have to tell you that they have not yet been executed,” he reported. “It will be attended to at once.”
“No, Luci, no,” snapped his leader. “I have decided to spare them. Let them live, and do not under any circumstances apprise them of how close they came to termination. I will reprimand them myself when the opportunity arises.”
Starkrost was enormously relieved. “The One’s wishes are my wishes.” As Comms Controller for The Belonging, he had been alarmed by Kupferberg’s order to kill them. It had seemed completely beyond the remit of his function, but he had accepted it rather than openly defy The One.
Kupferberg cut the link abruptly and returned his thoughts to the more pressing matter of how best to approach the problem of Mercy Woo’s continued existence.
He thought back to the first time he had come across her name. It had been some days earlier while scanning routinely through the daily report he had been sent on the latest potential believer acquisitions. He had been struck immediately by an edited transcript of an unusually long encounter between a young Belonging Vanguard Analysis Servicer, Leda, and a potential believer, Mercy Woo.
The pair had spoken for almost an hour on Pier 39, both unaware that their encounter was being monitored through Leda’s implants. The transcript had been flagged up for Kupferberg’s attention by Starkrost initially because of its unusually long duration and, on closer examination, it seemed evident to him that there were indeed causes for concern in their interaction.
First of all, Mercy Woo had, at several points, encouraged Leda to question why she was a member of The Belonging. Leda had, like every Vanguard Analysis Servicer, been carefully prepped on how to deflect such questions but, as their talk had continued, it became clear that Mercy Woo’s words were having an effect. Leda seemed to be relaxing her guard, as if forming an inappropriate bond of trust with her. Rather than Leda convincing Mercy to take part in an initial survey, the tables were turning. Leda was opening up to Mercy in ways that Kupferberg found alarming.
Already by this point, he had become sufficiently concerned and intrigued to minimise the transcript and search online for Mercy Woo. Of the handful of Facebook and Twitter profiles that had come up, only one seemed a likely candidate. Educated to degree level at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in South Korea, she now lived and worked in San Francisco as a researcher specialising in virology. She had posted a few videos and photographs, re-posted several others, but didn’t appear to be a frequent user of social media. She was also, he noted, strikingly easy on the eye.
Switching back to the transcript, he had reached the point at which Leda had opened up and told Mercy her real name. “I’m Leda now,” she said. “That’s what they called me. But I was born Coral Shannon. I suppose I’m Irish somewhere back along my ancestry, but I never knew my parents.”
“So you’re an orphan?” asked Mercy.
“Was,” replied Coral. “Until The Belonging took me in. I was thirteen. They gave me a name, made me feel part of a family… showed me how to walk the walk and talk the talk.” As she spoke those words, Coral raised her head up and assumed a noticeably more upright posture. She stared at Mercy with a look bordering on defiance.
“I’m sorry,” said Mercy. “I don’t follow. What do you mean?”
It took a few minutes, but eventually Mercy was able to extract an explanation of sorts from Coral. “Walk the walk and talk the talk”, was among the basic tenets of The Belonging, a simplistic, easily memorable catchphrase which sounded strong and meaningful but, ultimately, meant nothing. With a little encouragement, Mercy was able to draw out a couple more examples. The one Coral seemed to remember most clearly was, “Black is black; white is white.”
Mercy said nothing, but she was immediately concerned about the potential racial undertones of those words. As concise little nuggets of language, they appeared to be pithy and undeniable, but taken together they had undercurrents which alarmed her. They were not just frightening, but frighteningly clever manipulations of communication.
An awkward silence was developing between them so Mercy decided to say something. “So what about grey? Is there no grey?”
Coral replied like an automaton. “If we walk the walk, then grey is naught.” As she spoke she was anxiously fingering the thin leather belt that tightened the skirt around her waist.
Clearly this was another of The Belonging’s simplistic slogans, and Coral’s regurgitation of it suggested that the ‘re-education’ which had transformed her into Leda had been highly successful.
“You believe this?” asked Mercy.
Coral nodded but looked away into the corner of the room. “I did.”
“And now?” inquired Mercy.
“And now, I don’t know,” said Coral.
Reading those words, Kupferberg had become even more interested in Mercy Woo. How had she got under Leda’s skin so quickly? Was there more to this woman than had been obvious at first glance?
That had been how he first came to initiate a deeper investigation into Mercy Woo, which led him to her relationship with the freelance psychotherapy journalist Douglas Rother, and to her position at The Hu Foundation.
It was a small step from there to the conclusion that this was a woman who might prove to be a serious threat to The Belonging. Could it really have been just a coincidence that Leda had encountered her? Or had Mercy Woo somehow engineered their meeting to acquire information about The Belonging? She was after all, a virologist, and the 2019 pandemic had turned many believers into doubters.
The more he had turned these ideas over in his head, the more he had become convinced that she posed a real threat to everything he had achieved with The Belonging.
Having reached this conclusion, he had assigned two of his Angels, Castor and Pollux, to eradicate the threat, but they had failed him.
He was still sitting at the window when his tele-link had vibrated and flashed an incoming message warning. “The One. Forgive this intrusion but believer Leda appears to have deserted The Belonging,” said the face of Lucifer Starkrost on its screen. “Our media monitoring team has logged a news item about her on Local Channel 7, describing her as a runaway.”
Kupferberg had then watched the Channel 7 video, and it set his mind racing even faster. What if Mercy Woo was not merely a danger, but actually the reason for Leda’s defection from The Belonging? What then?
CHAPTER 18 : Mercy Dash
Having agreed to meet with Coral, Mercy scrawled a brief note for Doogle to explain where she was going. She left it prominently displayed on their living room table, held in place by a pepper grinder. She also left a message giving the same details on Doogle’s phone.
As she left the apartment, she stopped briefly at the door to look back and make certain she had placed the note in a position where he was sure to see it if he returned. “When he returns,” she said, to convince herself. She was far from certain that going to meet Coral was a smart idea, but felt she had exhausted the immediate possibilities of locating Doogle and told herself again that there was still the possibility that he might turn up while she was out.
She made her way back to her E-Class and set off, hoping against hope that Doogle would call her while she was on the road. The journey passed without incident, except that her drive to the refuge took her through Union Square where she was intrigued to see that despite the lateness of the hour, there was a long queue snaking from the entrance to Shoppingness all the way to the end of the block and then out of sight around the corner.
Her initial surprise at the sight evaporated when she remembered the ads that had been running on tv, radio and online for several days trumpeting the arrival of the new limited edition Belonging tees. They were set to go on sale the following morning, so presumably the queue consisted of the early birds, willing to sleep out all night to be among the first to get their hands onto and their contours into the latest Belonging merch.
“Crazies,” she said aloud. Despite owning, and still occasionally wearing, a knockoff v-neck Belong tee she was very much of the opinion that these people were suckers.
As she cruised past she could see them anxiously checking their wrists. Those whose wrist IDs or ID Passes were coded with the letters EQ would have lowest priority, those with MORE had higher priority. Those with MOST didn’t even have to wait in the queue. They had all earned their priority ratings from the number of ‘blessings’ they had bestowed on The One. ‘Blessings’, of course, was no more than a euphemism for financial contributions.
“I guess,” thought Mercy, “a generation dumb enough to worry about Credit Scores is dumb enough to be suckered by The Belonging.”
This new tee range, however, did sound intriguing, even to Mercy. According to the ads, they were made from a specially developed new material weave which enabled the slogan to change. The word ‘belong’, for example, could evolve randomly into ‘be long’, which in turn could become ‘belonging’ or just ‘longing’.
What surprised her even more than the length of the queue was that so many San Franciscans could apparently afford upwards of $1,000 for a black tee with white print on the front. Maybe it did change as advertised, but Mercy still considered it well out of her price range, even allowing for her increased salary.
She turned off of Union Square and parked in a space almost directly across the street from the unprepossessing dark grey door into the Grace Volunteer Refuge, tucked in between a couple of upscale stores. She was welcomed in by Mrs. Ingleby, the volunteer she had spoken with on the phone, who took her through to a small room where Coral lay asleep on a single bed.
“Someone to see you, darling,” said Mrs Ingleby.
The girl opened her eyes, swung her long legs over the side of the bed and sat up but, when she looked at Mercy, there was no sign of recognition.
“Hi, Coral. Do you remember me? Pier 39? Candy floss?”
Coral smiled, but shook her head. Mercy and Mrs Ingleby exchanged sympathetic glances but it seemed to Mercy that Coral’s condition had deteriorated since they last met. The girl had been pretty but fragile, on the frail side of slender even then, but now she seemed emaciated, her skin dry and flaky, her long platinum blonde hair thin and dirty.
Mercy tried again. “Pier 39? We had candy floss together and we watched the sea lions.”
Coral looked up again and studied Mercy’s face. “Sorry,” she said. “So sorry. Have you come to take me back?”
Mercy shook her head and sat down on the bed beside her. “Do you want to go back?” Coral said nothing. Mercy looked up at Mrs. Ingleby and asked, “Has she eaten anything?”
“Nothing. We’ve tried but it’s like she doesn’t trust us, or doesn’t trust the food maybe. So we’re really just trying to keep her warm and comfortable and hoping to find someone who knows her.”
Mercy explained the little she knew about Coral to Mrs. Ingleby who sighed despairingly. “We get quite a few of these,” she confirmed. “Usually young girls. Not specifically from The Belonging, but a lot of cult kids in general. They’re all damaged, one way or another. We’ve got seventeen lost souls in here at the moment and three of those are cult kids.”
Coral was still staring into Mercy’s eyes when, unexpectedly, her face lit up. “Candy floss,” she said. “Yeah. You bought me candy floss.”
“That’s right,” said Mercy, delighted. She could not resist slipping an arm round Coral’s shoulders and giving her a gentle squeeze. Coral took her other hand and squeezed her fingers in return. Mercy turned the girl’s hand over to get a better look at something she thought she had seen on Coral’s wrist. “What’s that?” she asked.
Coral didn’t respond but Mrs Ingleby explained. “It’s a plaster.”
“Did she hurt herself?”
“No, it’s not self-harming, nothing like that.” Mrs Ingleby seemed reluctant to explain any further but Mercy pressed her. “It’s not something we should really do,” revealed the volunteer. “The insurance doesn’t cover it, and it’s probably a violation of individual rights…”
“What is?” demanded Mercy. “This sounds, well, irregular, to say the least. What have you done to her?”
Mrs. Ingleby looked away. “A lot of these kids,” she began, “they can’t look after themselves so sometimes we have to do things to help them.”
“Such as?” asked Mercy, becoming increasing concerned and confused about what was happening to Coral. Had the girl climbed out of the frying pan only to fall into the fire? She began to wonder about the Grace Volunteer Refuge. She had never even heard of it before she’d spoken to Mrs. Ingleby earlier that day. “What are you people?”
Mrs. Ingleby was clearly uncomfortable but, after few seconds of hesitation, she continued. “We have a young man, a doctor, who comes by the shelter a couple of times every week. He examines our new arrivals, checks them out, makes sure they’re not suffering from any infectious diseases and such.”
Coral, realising they were speaking about her injured arm, now pulled her hand away from Mercy’s. “He’s a nice young man, a lovely boy, Doctor Vincenti,” continued Mrs. Ingleby. “He doesn’t charge us anything. He does it all free, even though he’s probably breaking the law.”
“Does what?” persisted Mercy.
“He does little operations. Only if it’s absolutely necessary,” said Mrs Ingleby. “He shouldn’t. He knows he shouldn’t, but the people who find themselves in here can’t afford medical insurance…”
“Good God,” said Mercy, drawing Coral a little closer. “What has he done to Coral?”
Mrs Ingleby drew a very deep breath before carrying on. “Coral was unconscious when she was first brought in. Dr. Vincenti examined her while she was still asleep and he noticed, well, … irregularities … under the skin of her wrist.”
Mercy felt she could guess what was coming next. She had heard of cases like this, read about them online.
“She had some kind of tiny monitoring device embedded in her wrist,” explained Mrs. Ingleby. “Somebody was tracking her. Dr. Vincenti told us and advised that it would probably be in the girl’s best interest if the device was removed. We’ve had this before, usually with the cult kids, like Coral.”
If what Mrs Ingleby was saying was true, and Mercy had no way of knowing, what the doctor had done was probably for the best. “So the doctor surgically removed the tracking device?” she asked.
Mrs Ingleby nodded. “It was a very small procedure. Nothing major at all.”
“But completely illegal.”
“Completely,” conceded Mrs. Ingleby. “But sometimes we have to do these things in the best interests of kids like Coral. They’re so vulnerable. Dr. Vincenti risks being struck off, or being sued, every time he does this kind of thing.”
In the light of Mrs Ingleby’s explanation, Mercy felt a little more relieved. If it was true, the doctor and the refuge had done the right thing. “If it’s true,” she reminded herself. Gently, she took Coral’s hand again. “Can I take a look at your wrist?”
Coral didn’t pull away, and nodded her agreement. Mercy delicately lifted the edges of the plaster and could see the small scar that had been left after the removal of the monitoring device. It didn’t prove anything definitively, but it did seem to square with Mrs Ingleby’s version of events.
“Please,” implored Mrs Ingleby, “don’t tell anyone about this. We could get shut down.”
Mercy was thinking fast, trying to decide what might be the best thing to do in these decidedly strange circumstances. “Have you still got the tracking device?” she asked.
“In the office safe,” said Mrs. Ingleby.
Coral’s voice, unexpectedly loud and clear, stopped their conversation in its tracks. “The angels will be coming for me,” she said.
CHAPTER 17 : Black Is Black