CHAPTER 21 : Ghazal
“The angels?” asked Mercy.
Coral nodded. “They’ll be coming.”
Coral looked into Mercy’s eyes as if she couldn’t believe the question. “You don’t know?”
“You mean, like Hell’s Angels?”
Coral appeared astonished by the question. “The Angels of Retribution,” she said, as if Mercy should have known. “The Angels Of The Belonging.”
Mrs. Ingleby sat down on the other side of Coral. “It’s OK, baby,” she said. “We won’t let anyone get you. They can’t get you here.”
“Do you know what she means?” asked Mercy.
“No, not specifically as such. Sounds like psychobabble to me,” suggested Mrs. Ingleby. “You have to understand, she’s probably been what they call ‘re-educated’. Processed. We used to call it brainwashed.”
From what Mercy had heard about religious cults, it made sense. ‘Re-education’ had long since been a standard tool in the armoury not just of cults, but of repressive regimes, massive corporations and anybody else who felt a need to control individuals by selectively re-structuring their mental landscapes. There had even been accusations that some care homes had used combinations of drugs and re-education to keep patients pliable.
Mercy was unwilling to press Coral for any further details but she didn’t have to. Pulling an A4 sketchpad out of the satchel on her bedside table, Coral said just one word. “Angels!” She opened the pad to reveal some detailed pencil drawings.
It took barely a second for Mercy to recognise what Coral was showing her. “Oh no,” she said. “Did you draw these, Coral?”
The girl lifted the pad up closer to Mercy’s face. “Angels,” she repeated.
“She’s good, isn’t she?” asked Mrs. Ingleby. “Great little artist.”
Mercy had to agree. She was staring at a perfectly rendered illustration of two white-suited men all but identical to the assassins who had tried to kill her in the Hu Foundation parking lot.
Kupferberg stared across the wide table at Lucifer.
“I need you to pay close attention to every word,” he told his Comms Controller. Then, after a pause for dramatic effect, he intoned the following words.
“Centuries of starlight are wounded
every season is autumn
I have no country
we are creatures without self
I kiss my mirror self
the dreams I stare into the night are wounded”
He lapsed into silence and waited for Lucifer’s response.
“Oh, The One,” declared Lucifer. “Such superb words. So rich in meaning. May I ask to hear them again?”
Kupferberg skewered him with an unrelentingly hard, unblinking, stare. “I thought I told you, Luci, to pay close attention? Have you not committed every word to memory?”
Fortunately for Lucifer, he had committed every word to the memory of his phone, out of sight beneath the table. “The One,” he breathed, “I wished merely to hear those words spoken again in your voice.”
“Then why not just play them back from that device you have secreted in your lap?”
Lucifer was about to embark on a further grovelling apology, but he was spared the misery. “Save your lies for another time, Luci,” said Kupferberg. “All I require of you for the moment is that you should find some jobbing craftsman capable of doing justice to my words by setting them to a memorable melody. Something solemn yet uplifting. Anthemic. Do you think you can do that?”
‘The One, certainly I can. I shall attend to it immediately,” promised Lucifer.
Kupferberg shook his head. “No, you will not. Because first, we must deal with the outstanding matter of Mercy Woo’s continued existence. Your paramount task is to locate her and also her partner, Douglas Rother. Understood?”
“Understood, but may I ask what you would have me do once I have located them?”
“Nothing,” commanded Kupferberg. “Simply report their location or locations to me. I will decide how to deal with them. And don’t forget to engage someone who can set my new hymn to a melody.”
“It will be done,” said Lucifer. “Meanwhile, have you any instructions regarding today’s batch of mail?”
Kupferberg looked disdainfully at the pile of envelopes and other papers on the table. “When you first came to me, Luci, I made it abundantly clear that I expected you to bring me only the most essential communications. But, as time has gone on, it seems you have forgotten my instructions.”
He shifted some of the papers around and randomly picked out a glossy brochure. “You bring me this sort of nonsense every day. Look at this one.” He held it up for Lucifer to see. “Raven Bug,” he read from the title page. “I don’t have the time to read pamphlets or catalogues or booklets about products with names like Raven Bug. I expect you to sort the mail out for me, filter out the rubbish, and only bring me the communications that actually matter. If you decide something like Raven Bug matters, then I’ll look at it. Otherwise just bin this sort of garbage.”
Kupferberg pushed the pile of papers across the table towards Lucifer then turned away abruptly. He resumed his staring out into the San Franciscan night, making it clear to Lucifer that their meeting was at an end.
As he made his way back to the Control Center, Lucifer re-played his recording of Kupferberg’s lyric.
“Centuries of starlight are wounded,” it began. “Every season is autumn.”
Lucifer snorted derisively. He had recognised those words as soon as Kupferberg had spoken them. They were lines plucked almost at random from a ghazal, an ancient Islamic form of poetry. Not only were they plucked randomly, but Kupferberg had changed their order and missed out entire sections of the poem. What he had ended up with made no sense.
The original ghazal, wound-i-stan, by the exiled contemporary Afghan-born poet Suhrab Sirat, was inscrutably meaningful, but Kupferberg’s bastardisation of it was mumbo-jumbo.
And, Lucifer realised, it made not one red cent of a difference. The deluded faithful of The Belonging would swallow anything The One chose to serve up to them.
By the time he had reached the Control Center door, Lucifer Starkrost was laughing.
Mercy Yoo took Mrs Ingleby by the arm and drew her aside, away from Coral.
“If what Coral says is true, she is in imminent danger if she stays here.”
Mrs. Ingleby was uncertain. “And you believe what she’s saying?”
“Did you get a good look at her drawings?”
Mrs. Ingleby nodded. “Yes, but…”
“Yes but nothing. Earlier today, two men exactly like the ones she’s drawn tried to kill me…”
Mercy Yoo recounted the assassination attempt to Mrs Ingleby, then said, “We’ve got to get Coral out of here, not just for her safety but for everybody else in this shelter. If those guys come here there’s no telling what might happen.”
Both women looked over at Coral. The girl sat on the edge of her bed with her hands balled into tight fists, and her eyes staring back at them like a child confused by a world that had spun out of control.
“You said you had her tracking device in your office safe,” Mercy reminded Mrs. Ingleby.
All three moved through to the office but just as Mrs. Ingleby crouched down in front of the safe, Mercy said, “No. Wait.”
“What’s wrong? Don’t you want it?”
“I thought I did,” said Mercy, “but it may be that the walls of your safe are preventing the signal from being transmitted. If we remove it from the safe, it may start transmitting again…”
Mrs. Ingleby shook her head. “Doesn’t make sense,” she argued. “It would have been transmitting freely up until the moment Dr. Vincenti removed it and we put it in the safe. So whoever installed it … we’re assuming The Belonging, aren’t we? … will already know where she is.”
“Shit,” said Mercy. “You’re right. Give me a minute to think.” It didn’t take a minute. Ten seconds later she resumed. “Open the safe. Get it out. Coral and I are going on a little trip and then I’m taking her to a safe place.”
Mrs. Ingleby was hesitant. “Where are you taking her? You don’t really know her. I don’t really know you. How do I know I can trust you?”
Mercy Yoo stopped her in her tracks. “There’s no time. Open the safe. I can’t tell you where we’re going because if those cult thugs, those Angels, come here, they’ll make you tell them. It’s better if you don’t know. In fact, it’d be better if you’re not even here when they come.”
Mrs. Ingleby emitted a full-throated laugh. “I can’t leave these kids. I can’t just up and leave here. Coral’s just one. We have seventeen here. They need me.”
“Can’t you call the cops?” queried Mercy.
The volunteer laughed in Mercy’s face again. “You think the Grace Refuge and the cops have little tea parties together? I don’t trust those guys any more than I trust The Belonging.”
Then, just as Mercy Yoo was beginning to despair, Mrs. Ingleby smiled. “Look. I get it. I agree, Coral’s probably safer with you for the moment.” She opened the safe and withdrew the tiny tracking device, offering it to Mercy. “Get the hell out of here and do whatever you have to do.”
“But what about you? What if they come?”
“Mama Ingleby raised her little girl to survive. I’ll be OK.” She smiled again, an even bigger grin than before. “I’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine. Now get the hell out.”
Mercy Yoo stuffed the device into a pocket, took Coral’s hand and started moving towards the door. “You’re sure?” she asked.
Mrs. Ingleby nodded. “You do this job long enough and you wind up with lots of friends in low places. I’ll make a couple of calls. If those Angels show up, I’ll introduce them to some people who can call down some fire of their own and it won’t be coming from heaven, believe me.”
The two women hugged and Mercy Yoo headed for her E-Class with Coral’s left hand firmly gripped in her right.
CHAPTER 22 : I’ve Got A Friend In Me
To Rother’s relief, Mr. Kintsugi and his attendant throng eventually moved away and left him alone in his bed.
“So,” said Kane, “you’re thinking we might be in a Hu Cares retirement facility.”
“It’s possible,” agreed Rother. “You saw that Hu Cares logo?”
“No. You saw it. I perceived it because you saw it.”
Rother frowned. “Sure. Whatever. All I saw was one guy in a Hu Cares lab coat, but it would make sense. If it was the Foundation that kidnapped us, one of their secure care home wards would be a good place to stash me away, at least until they can think of what to do with me.”
The lights in the ward were being dimmed but, with no windows in the room, it was impossible for Rother to tell whether night had fallen or whether his captors were simply encouraging him to sleep.
“We’ve got to get out of this place,” he thought.
“But you have absolutely no idea of how to achieve such a thing,” pointed out Kane.
“Thanks. That’s just what I wanted to hear. I need to think. We need to think. I’m open to suggestions.”
Kane remained silent for such an extended period that Rother decided to change the subject. “Tell me something,” he asked. “What are you trying to do with me?”
“Do?” queried Kane. “Do?”
“Yes, do. You’ve radically changed my body. Altered my internal structure. That’s not just crazy and incomprehensible, it’s terrifying. What’s the point of that? What are you trying to do to me?”
Kane remained uncharacteristically quiet but, just as Rother was considering whether to repeat the question, a ward orderly arrived at the bedside. “Here you go,” he said, brandishing a plastic beaker in his hand. The top of the beaker was sealed and a long plastic straw protruded out through a hole in the lid. “Nice cup of cocoa to help you drift off.”
Rother was about to respond with an automatic ‘Thank you’ when he noticed that one side of the mug was printed with the words ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ in large bright yellow letters outlined in red.
He could think of no more irritating platitude with which a man in his circumstances could be confronted. He was still trying to formulate an acerbic riposte when his eyes fell upon the slogan on the orderly’s t-shirt.
Printed there in white against a maroon background were the words, ’It is what it is.’
“Oh holy Christ,” he fumed. “What is what what is?”
The orderly stared at him blankly. “What?”
It was clear to Rother that his quip had entirely missed its mark. In all likelihood the orderly had completely forgotten which t-shirt he had dragged over his head that morning.
Finally, Kane piped up. “You are annoyed. It has something to do with the words on the mug and the t-shirt…”
“Shut up, Kane,” thought Rother. “I don’t need you to tell me when I’m annoyed. Besides, I’m not annoyed. I’m right royally pissed off.”
Somehow, despite himself, Rother managed to summon up a weak smile which he directed at the orderly. “Could you maybe just set my cocoa down on my bedside cabinet?”
The orderly’s expression switched instantly from utter bafflement to well-practiced sympathetic subservience. “Sure,” he said. “Or I could set it on your tray right in front of you, if you like. It would be easier for you to sip…”
Rother shook his head and managed to make his smile remain in place. “Thanks, but the thing that would make it easier would be if my arms weren’t fastened at my sides.”
“Oh,” said the orderly. “I understand, of course I do, but I’m not allowed…”
Rother’s frozen smile tightened and he said, “Just put the fucking cup on the fucking cabinet. If I really want it, I’ll find a way.”
The orderly did as Rother had told him, then took a step back.
“Thank you,” said Rother, as calmly as he could manage. “You can go now.”
Once the orderly had left the room, Rother turned his attention back to Kane. “And thank you too. I imagine you found much of that incomprehensible.”
“Enlightening,” replied Kane. “I certainly didn’t understand much of it, but it did offer a few fragmentary glimpses of how your mind works. I assuredly don’t know yet exactly why those phrases, the ones you think of as ‘platitudinous cliches’, elicited such angry responses from you …”
Rother laughed. “‘Platitudinous cliches’ indeed. Is that really how I think of them? Well, I suppose it is. If you say it is, then it probably is…”
A rippling, kaleidoscopic sensation of inner warmth emanated from Kane, and Rother thought he recognised it as something akin to his own laughter. “I hate to have to admit this,” he said, “but I think I’m kind of getting used to having you around.”
The sensation carried on as Kane replied, “That’s good, because I’m not planning to go anywhere else in the immediate future.”
Rother was smiling broadly into the dark of the ward as he began thinking back over his exchange with the orderly. “‘Live. Laugh. Love.’ was bad enough,” he said, “but then ‘It is what it is’ just pushed all my wrong buttons.”
“Please, don’t try to explain it,” said Kane. “I understand all of the words, all of the phrases, all of the concepts … but I get the feeling that it might take years before I can put them all together into any coherent explanation of why those words affected you so powerfully.”
“Good,” said Rother. “Wonderful. You know what, Kane? I’m afraid there’s beginning to be the faintest smattering of a chance that you and I could become friends.”
“And that would be good?” asked Kane.
“Honestly, I haven’t got a clue. I can’t quite recall when last I befriended a parasitical self-aware virus. Or how it worked out.”
“I rather like the sound of it,” said Kane. “I think I’d like to have a friend. I think I’d like to be a friend.”
“So you think you know what a friend is?”
“Let’s not make this any more complicated than it already is,” suggested Kane.
CHAPTER 21 : Ghazal