INSIDERS – CHAPTERS 23 and 24; Gripping #vaccine/virus #sci-fi adventure #novel in serial form

CHAPTER 23 : That’s My Girls

It had not taken long for Lucifer, employing all of the illegal resources available to The Belonging, to locate a registration number for Mercy Woo’s E-Class. From there it was a simple matter to determine the vehicle’s location.

“She’s just left the Grace Volunteer Refuge off Union Square, travelling north up Kearny Street,” he told Kupferberg.

“Where’s she headed?”

“Hard to tell. Looks like she’s going up towards Russian Hill, or maybe North Beach. I can keep tracking her on street cams until she arrives somewhere.”

“Do that,” ordered Kupferberg. “What about her partner, Rother?”

Lucifer reluctantly had to admit that, so far, he had found no trace of Rother. “We’re monitoring their apartment on Valencia Street but there’s no sign of him there as yet.”

Kupferberg was not pleased. “Have you asked any of his neighbours when they last saw him? Or any local shopkeepers? Anybody on the street?”

“That’s all underway,” Lucifer assured him. “As soon as we get anything I’ll let you … wait a minute. Let me check something.”

“Check what?” demanded Kupferberg.

“Leda’s tracking implant,” said Lucifer. “I’m just getting it up onto my screen. Yes. I thought so. Leda’s implant stopped transmitting earlier today. I’m sure its last reported location before it shut down was … yes it was … it was Stockton Street, just off Union Square.”

“Just like the Volunteer Refuge,” stated Kupferberg. “That’s good…”

Lucifer interrupted. “Forgive me, The One, but there’s more. It looks like the implant started transmitting again just a few minutes ago. It’s currently heading up Kearny Street…”

“Excellent, Luci. I thought it was too much of a coincidence for Mercy Woo to turn up so close to the same location as Leda. How fast can you access the streetcams along Kearny?”

“Doing exactly that as we speak,” confirmed Lucifer. “If I can get into one at an intersection, where she stops or even slows up … I should be able to see if she has a passenger…”

“Patch it through to me up here as soon as you get it.” Kupferberg was elated, already thrilled by imagining the charge he would get from dealing with both troublesome women at once. “And get a couple of Angels on their tail right away. Castor and Pollux, ideally. I’d like to give them an opportunity to redeem themselves.”

“Understood,” said Lucifer. “I’ve got into a camera up beyond the junction with Pacific Avenue. Should be patching through to you now. The women are in a Mercedes Type E coming onscreen anytime now.”

As Lucifer spoke the words, Kupferberg could see the Type E slowing up as it approached the junction. Through the windscreen it was easy to make out both driver and passenger. “That’s my girls,” laughed Kupferberg. “Gotcha.”


“How’re you feeling?” asked Mercy Woo, glancing across to the passenger seat.

Coral didn’t immediately reply. She was staring blankly out of the side window, lost in her own thoughts.

“Are you OK?” asked Mercy. “You haven’t said a word since we got in.”

This time, Coral responded, turning to face Mercy. “Honestly? I really don’t know. It’s all too confusing.” Tears were rising in her eyes.

“You know you can trust me, don’t you?” asked Mercy.

“I hope so,” replied Coral. “You seem nice, but, you know, I thought I could trust the guys at The Belonging…”

Mercy nodded. “I get it,” she said. “You already didn’t know who you could trust, and then I come along and steal you away from the Refuge and drive you off to who knows where…”

“I just don’t know,” mumbled Coral through her tears. “I remember you from the Pier. You seem nice, but really, I don’t know you, do I?”

“You’re right,” agreed Mercy. “And, honestly, I don’t know how to prove to you that I’m on your side. Except that I am.”

“I really want to believe you. I really do.”

Mercy found herself at a loss for words, but felt she had to say something. “Then just trust me for a little longer. Can you do that?”

Coral was clearly distraught, and it was immensely frustrating for Mercy that she really could not take her eyes off the road for long enough to look into Coral’s face. “I don’t know,” was Coral’s reply. “I don’t even know where we’re going…”

“OK,” answered Mercy. “That I can tell you. Would you like me to tell you that?”

Coral nodded her head, only a slight movement but enough that Mercy caught it out of the corner of her eye.

“OK. Have you ever heard of the Wave Organ? It’s on the bay up in the Marina district. We’re going there first of all. It’ll take about ten minutes to get there. We’re going to dump your tracking device into the Bay there so The Belonging can’t track you.”

“Wave organ?” repeated Coral. “No, I don’t think…”

“You just have to trust me, Coral,” insisted Mercy. “Ten more minutes and you’ll see. Believe me. Then I can take you to somewhere you’ll be safe. Maybe my apartment…” She could tell Coral was still doubtful, but hoped against hope that she could somehow convince the girl, somehow keep Coral with her until she was sure nobody was on their trail. “We’re almost at Columbus Avenue,” she said, talking just to fill the awkward silence. “We’ll take a left there, up past the City Lights bookshop…”

“City Lights?” asked Coral. “I know City Lights. It’s probably my favourite bookshop…”

Mercy exhaled a sigh of relief. She was beginning to feel that perhaps she was getting through to Coral. “Me too! It’s coming up on the left, but I’m afraid we can’t stop. We’ve got to get to The Wave Organ.”

City Lights was the faintest of connections, but Mercy could tell that it meant something to Coral. They had a shared interest. Maybe she could build on that.
CHAPTER 24 : Mayonnaise

Elfin was completely captivated by eir Rob1ns. They had started building a nest in one of the kettles which Challis had installed high up on the walls in the Great Hall at NanoVit Central, and Elfin was relishing the magnificently hi-def view of them on eir tablet screen.

Something, however, didn’t seem quite right and, annoyingly, Elfin couldn’t put eir finger on it. Tearing eir eyes away from the screen was quite a wrench, but Elfin couldn’t ignore that ey had other pressing matters which required eir attention.

Summoning Challis, ey decided to utilise the few moments before he arrived by addressing eir thoughts to the drive to pitch Nanovit’s Raven Bug initiative at the global market. Although Raven Bug was not yet officially launched and, in truth, was still some way from being completely evaluated, Elfin was already using not just every existing major form of social media, but also paid-for celebrity endorsements, specially composed songs in several musical genres, sponsorships of specially written comic books, meticulously targeted bribes and gifts for tv and online anchors, presenters, researchers and producers, and much more to spread the name.

Now, ey was turning the fertile imagination which had steered Nanovit to its current dominant market position, to more direct forms of not so hidden persuasion. Having already instructed eir research units to compile a list of the heads of major companies, nations, religions and other organisations, Elfin was narrowing that list down to determine which of them might be most susceptible to the intimate chemistry of a face to face encounter.

Hovering over any of the names on the list opened a 300-word pop-up profile. It was too soon, ey rationalised, to go after any of the world’s Top Ten billionaire movers and shakers, so Elfin immediately discounted Bezos, Musk, Gates, Zuckerberg and their ilk. What ey needed was a successful but less prominent, more easily accessible influencer.

Before too long, eir gaze fell upon the name Robert Kupferberg. According to the profile he was an exiled German Jew living in San Francisco. He was also the founder of a religious cult called The Belonging which boasted of having over 10,000 believers. Best of all, he had a string of arrests on charges ranging from sexual harassment of minors, petty larceny, through to fraud and drug trafficking. In every case he had walked out of court with nothing proved conclusively against him.

“How can I be of assistance?” asked Gregor Challis, who had sidled quietly up and was now standing before Elfin.

“I’ve warned you before,” Elfin told him, “not to do that. Don’t come sneaking up on me like that. Get out of my space. Back off, five paces, minimum.”

Keeping his eyes defiantly on em, Challis did as Elfin instructed, moving back by precisely six steps, but making each as small as he dared.

“You’re one arrogant little fuck, Challis,” Elfin chastised him, narrowing eir wide eyes as ey spoke. “Don’t look at me like that. If you weren’t so annoyingly useful I’d have you disposed of.”

“Understood,” replied Challis, his eyes still fixed on eirs.

“I don’t need you to understand,” Elfin corrected him. “I just need you to do.” Ey paused and inclined eir face a little towards his until he reluctantly lowered his gaze. “Now, here’s the thing. Not only does Mr. Jong remain unaccounted for, but we still have not yet ascertained the full extent of what he knew about the Hu Foundation’s Acceleration Project. Two of my Dispatch Drivers, Haggis and that other one …”

“Peem,” interjected Challis, raising his eyes again.

“When I need your input, I’ll let you know,” spat Elfin. “Peem, yes. Haggis and Peem are dead, killed by that fuckwit Smiddy. I want him dead, and I want chapter and verse on whatever Mr. Jong knew about the Acceleration Project. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

In the forefront of his mind, Challis was thinking, “Release the swarm!” but he managed to stifle the urge to speak those words aloud and, instead, he replied with a subdued, “I do.”

Elfin smiled indulgently. “Good,” ey said. “Because it’s entirely your responsibility to make sure all of this happens. You can start with Carver in Dispatch.” As ey was speaking, it suddenly came to Elfin what was troubling eir about the Rob1ns.

“Will that be all?” asked Challis, striving for nonchalance but achieving something closer to insolence.

Elfin shook eir head. “Not quite,” ey said. “The Rob1ns. They’re wonderfully diverting and all that, but they’re not quite as perfect as I first thought they were. You should have told me. You really should.”

Challis looked at Elfin, aiming to appear as if he genuinely didn’t know what was coming next.

“Cut the coy. It doesn’t suit you.” Elfin said. “Your Rob1ns don’t shit, do they? Real robins, the kind I love, shit. We need to fix that, don’t you?”

Challis nodded in mute agreement.

“Say something, Challis.”

“Yes,” he said. “Frankly, I eschewed any defecation option because I thought you might not want the Great Hall soiled by excrement.”

“I have staff, Challis.”

“Quite,” said Challis. “Of course. I will attend to it…”

“Needless to say, it doesn’t have to be actual bird shit,” stated Elfin, “but it has to look like bird shit.”

Challis suppressed the huge sigh that was building inside him, and managed a smile that manifested itself on his lips like a leer. “How true,” he said. “Would you have any preferences?”

Elfin shot eir response back at him instantly. “Mayonnaise.”

Challis nodded and muttered a quiet, “Yes.”

“Not salad cream,” said Elfin. “And I told you before, don’t look at me like that.”

Mr. Jong Min-Jun’s medical file from Reddington-Hall Surgical was informative, and gave Smiddy several potential leads, but it still left much unanswered.

He was being treated at Reddington-Hall for what appeared to be a genetic disorder which they were having difficulty diagnosing. Their reminder letters were ostensibly just requesting that he should come in to discuss the results of a recent series of tests, but Smiddy wondered if there was more.

The latest test results were, for the most part, routine, and showed Mr. Jong to have a very strong heart, no unduly alarming medical conditions, an acceptable BMI and blood pressure, no obvious allergies, remarkably good eyesight, exceptional motor functions. Superficially he was a perfectly average male in his mid-30s, except that he was a little more than average. His results were so good that they had set Dr. Reddington wondering if they were correct.

Men of Mr. Jong’s age in sedentary office jobs tended to be a little overweight, maybe displaying signs of hypertension, perhaps higher than ideal blood sugar counts. None of these things were too disturbing, but a complete lack of any of them in Mr. Jong’s results had set off little alarm bells in Reddington. Nothing serious, but enough to make him want to see Mr. Jong again.

The reminders, Smiddy concluded, might be attempts to get him to return for further, more detailed examinations. And the fact that Mr. Jong had consciously ignored both reminders could imply that he didn’t want to be examined in any greater depth. If so, why?

Smiddy kept turning these thoughts around in his brain. The Foundation was known to be an employer which provided excellent medical care for its staff, so why might Mr. Jong have sought out an independent, private company to examine him? Did he, for some reason, not trust The Foundation’s doctors? Or had there been something he did not want them to know?

Scanning again through the documents in the medical folder, Smiddy noticed that, although the only phone number shown for Mr. Jong Min-Jun was a now defunct mobile, there was also an emergency contact – one of his co-workers – a virology researcher by the name of Mercy Yoo.

“Not far now,” Mercy told Coral.

“Not far to where?” asked Coral, evidently still disoriented.

“The Wave Organ. Remember I told you about it?”

Coral shook her head. “Not really. You told me we were going to go there, but you didn’t really explain what it is, or why we’re going there…”

Mercy realised Coral was right. “Yes. I’m sorry. It’s just, there’s so much going on. I’m going to make a left onto Bay Street in a minute, and the Wave Organ isn’t too far from there.”

“Yes, but what is it?” persisted Coral.

Between keeping her eyes on the road, and continually checking her rear-view mirror in case anyone was following, Mercy was finding it hard to keep Coral as well informed as she should be. “OK,” she began, “I think you’ll love it. I like going there sometimes, just to sit and listen. Technically, I think it’s called an acoustic sculpture, and it’s out on the end of a jetty in the bay.”

Just after she turned into Bay Street, Mercy thought she caught sight of a black Lincoln sedan in the rear view. It had been a hundred yards or so behind her E-Class since the Francisco Street junction on Columbus, where it had turned left just as she had done. Rather than alarm Coral, she chose just to keep an eye on it and continue talking about the Wave Organ. “I think it was built in the 1980s, and it’s really just a bunch of concrete and marble pipes sunk into the ground on the jetty. When the waves lap the bottoms of the pipes, they sort of force air up through the pipes, and it makes weird sounds, like some kind of random music. Does that make sense?”

“I suppose,” replied Coral. “But tell me again, why are we going there?”

Mercy was about to respond when her phone started to beep and, instinctively, she hit the pick-up button.

“You don’t know me,” began the voice coming through the car stereo system, “but I think we can be of use to each other.”

Mercy immediately regretted having picked up. “Are you in that black Lincoln behind me?” she demanded.

“What?” asked Smiddy. “What black Lincoln?”

“Never mind,” answered Mercy, realising that Coral was already turning her head to look back along the road. “I’ve got your number. I’ll call you back when I get a chance. Goodbye.”

She disconnected from the call just in time to hear Coral anxiously asking, “What’s that car behind us? Is it following us? Is it the Angels?”

Thinking fast, Mercy started to indicate a right turn and said, “Don’t worry, Coral. We can shake them off,” then slowed to a stop at the next junction.

“That’s a green light,” warned Coral. “You can’t stop here.”

“You think?” replied Mercy. The Lincoln slowed down behind them and Mercy had to keep switching her eyes from the rear-view to the traffic lights to the vehicles ahead of her and on the side roads. “Now, Coral, please shush for a minute. I need to focus on what I’m doing.”

“That Lincoln has stopped right behind us,” said Coral.

“Shush,” repeated Mercy. “I’ve got to time this just right.” She noted with a measure of satisfaction that the Lincoln was now also signalling for a right turn.

As the lights changed, Mercy slowly moved forwards as if to turn right and, once she was satisfied that the Lincoln was doing likewise, she slowed to a stop halfway over the junction, and held her position until the lights began to change again. “I must be crazy,” she said. “What am I doing?” Just before the cross-traffic started to move, she twisted her steering wheel round to the left and hit the accelerator. “Now,” she was praying to the driver of the Lincoln, “Be a good boy.”

One of the cars to her right hooted angrily as she executed her unexpected swerve to the left. “Beautiful,” she said, as the Type E picked up speed.

The Lincoln, meanwhile, was still turning right as the cross-traffic was looming closer. Mercy saw a space that she could squeeze into and accelerated again. Coral was looking back over her shoulder and shouted, “Perfect!” Completely wrong-footed, The Lincoln was hemmed in by oncoming vehicles and had no chance of recovering.

Mercy sped up still more, ran one orange light, passed another junction and then turned right. “I can’t see him,” confirmed Coral. “I think you lost him.”

Mercy whooped with delight as she consulted her satnav to figure how best to get herself back on the road to the Wave Organ. “There’s a sign here to the Wave Organ,” stated Coral. “It’s the next right.”

“Thanks, Coral,” responded Mercy, “but I’m going to overshoot the first Wave Organ exit and then come back down towards it from the other direction. We really don’t want to give those guys in the Lincoln any sense of where we’re headed.”

“But you lost them back at the lights,” Coral pointed out.

“Whoever they are, they’re professionals. They’ll get back on our tail as soon as,” said Mercy. “Let’s make it as hard for them as we can.”

Seven minutes later, Mercy was pulling the Type E off Yacht Road and into the Wave Organ parking lot. Clambering out, there was still no sign of anyone following them. “OK,” said Mercy. “We’ve got to walk – run – the last couple of hundred yards along the jetty to the Organ.”

The two young women set off at a clip along the pathway with Coral finding it hard not to stop to gawp at the lights along The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island out in the bay. “I swear we’ll come back and do that when this is all over,” promised Mercy. “First we’ve got to get rid of your tracker.”

“It’s not what I imagined at all,” said Coral as they descended the wide stone steps leading down onto the Wave Organ.

“Yeah?” asked Mercy. “What did you expect?”

Coral shook her head, then brushed her platinum hair back off her face. “Not this.”

Mercy laughed. The tide was in and the organ was producing its random wave-powered music at a decent volume. “We’ve timed this quite well,” she said. “Sometimes you get here and it’s not doing anything. It just depends on the waves.”

“I can hear it!” announced Coral, running towards a group of five embedded concrete and marble tubes.

“It’s mostly made of recycled street granite and cemetery marble,” explained Mercy. “Amazing, really, but we can’t hang around.”

Pulling out Coral’s tracker, she sat down beside her and said, “Where would you like to dump it?”

“This one,” said Coral, indicating the pipe she had her ear up in front of. “Are you sure this’ll cut off the signals?”

“That’s not entirely the point,” replied Mercy. “If it cuts off the signals, OK, but if it doesn’t it’ll lead those Belonging creeps on a wild goose chase out here. Anything that wastes their time is fine by me.”

Coral nodded. “I’d like to stay. You promise we’ll come back?”

“I already did. We’ll come here on a sunny day and just hang out and drink Cranberry.”

“Pomegranate,” said Coral. “That’s my poison.”

“Deal,” said Mercy, “but we’ve got to go.”

Arriving back at the car park, they were pleased to see no sign of the Lincoln and Mercy leaned in through the passenger side window to open the glove compartment. “I’m sure I had it last week,” she said as she rummaged around.

“Had what?” asked Coral.

“This,” Mercy replied, triumphantly holding up a small roll of black insulating tape. “Have you got any scissors?”

Coral quickly produced a pair of nail scissors from a back pocket in her skirt. “That’ll do in a pinch,” said Mercy, already striding towards the front of the car. “A couple of little strips of this and we’ll have a new number plate.”

“Isn’t that illegal?” asked Coral.

Mercy was already at work on the front plate. “No more illegal than inserting an electronic tracking device in your arm. No more illegal than trying to kill me in the Hu Foundation parking lot…” She stood up and admired her handiwork. “If The Belonging are using my number plate to track us, that should foul up their plans.” She started out towards the rear of the car.

“Is that what you think they’ve been doing?” asked Coral, following her along beside the vehicle.

“I don’t know. Probably,” answered Mercy. “Probably some combination of that and your tracker.” She was now at the rear end of her Mercedes, cutting off another strip of black tape. “And they’ve likely also hacked into the streetcams, so have a look in the backseat. See if my black Goosunny hoodie is in there, and my old Dodgers’ baseball cap.”

Moments later they were tying up each others’ long hair and quick-changing into their improvised disguises. Coral insisted on the Dodgers’ cap because, “Well, at least it’s not The Angels.”

Mercy managed a small chuckle. “Pull the brim down,” she suggested. “It’s not exactly Sherlock Holmes, but it’s better than nothing.”

As they climbed into the E-Class, Coral asked, “Where to now?”

Mercy sighed. “I wish I knew. I had it all worked out up to this point.” In her head she was considering the options, but none of them were leaping out as obvious choices.

Coral seemed crestfallen. “I thought we were going to your apartment?”

“Yes, we were,” agreed Mercy, as she started the car, “but I’m not so sure now. I’m not sure it’s safe.”

“So where’s safe? Where could we go that would be safe?”

They sat, both staring out of the front windscreen. “Somewhere they can’t find us,” mused Mercy.

“‘They’ being The Belonging?” asked Coral.

“‘They’ being anybody,” said Mercy.

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