CHAPTER 31 : The Rumpus Room
Gregor Challis was beginning to wonder if perhaps things were moving too fast.
Everything had seemed so much simpler just a few days earlier when he could focus on perfecting his Raven Bug Swarm, but lately he was finding himself distracted not only by the time-consuming complications of modifying Elfin’s Rob1ns but also by having to keep one eye on Segarini’s progress towards assassinating Smiddy.
The swarm was almost ready to go into full production. The factory just outside of Trivandrum in Kerala was already pressuring him for a start date, and a couple of suppliers were quibbling about prices for components. These were exactly the kind of administrative details that Challis abhorred having to become bogged down with, especially when he’d sooner be working on the intricacies of the Raven Bug navigation algorithms.
Elfin, however, was continually harassing him to complete work on perfecting the Rob1ns while Segarini was providing precisely the opposite kind of annoyance, by failing to keep him updated.
No matter how often he reminded himself of Elfin’s problems – both medical and psychological – he was finding it more and more difficult to sympathise with eir. He was increasingly tempted to make use of the additional internal anatomical modifications which he had surgically inserted without eir knowledge while ey was unconscious on the operating table during the installation of eir implants. The stated intention of those implants had been to help her maintain a better level of stability, and keep her medical issues at bay, but an ongoing harmonious existence with Elfin seemed to be less likely with every passing day.
And now, Mr. Kintsugi Jun-woo of the Hu Foundation had insisted on a clandestine meeting to discuss his proposed deal. The pair sat shoulder to shoulder on high stools at the bar of the Rumpus Room on 6th Street, trying to appear inconspicuous. With Kintsugi conservatively attired in a dark Ralph Lauren business suit and Challis swaddled in his outrageously puffy Moncler/Owens asymmetric quilted coat, inconspicuous was not a look they had any hope of pulling off.
“Feeling the cold?” asked Kintsugi.
Challis ignored the remark and knocked back a slug of his Moscow Mule. “So what’s this deal?”
Kintsugi sipped on his Bud and turned to look Challis in the eye, but the scientist was staring straight ahead. “You evidently don’t care for beating about the bush…”
“My time is precious.”
“I appreciate that,” said Kintsugi. “OK, then, let me cut to the chase. I need your precious time. All of it.” He outlined, in as much detail as he deemed prudent, the dilemma facing him with the Acceleration Project, then asked, “What do you think?”
Challis still did not look at him. “I think you’re a cretin.” He paused to let the insult sink in. “But I also think Elfin is insane. On balance, I’d sooner be a partner to a cretin than a wage-slave to a lunatic.”
Kintsugi felt relief flooding into his chest. “That sounds like a good starting point,” he said.
“It might be,” replied Challis, “but I don’t believe you understand exactly how much I can bring to this partnership.”
“So tell me.”
Challis shook his head and finally turned to face Kintsugi. “No. Let’s say we have reached an understanding. Let’s even say we are going to do business together. But we don’t yet have a deal.”
Kintsugi turned away and shot an anxious glance into the darkness of the Rumpus Room.
“Don’t panic, Mr. Kintsugi,” resumed Challis. “I just need to think over the details of how we’re going to set about putting your Acceleration Project back on track. I’ll get back to you before the day is over.” He pulled up the long zipper on his quilted coat, downed the last drops of his Moscow Mule, slipped off the barstool and offered his hand to Kintsugi.
The businessman twisted his stool round and leaned back against the bar as he offered his hand in return. “Six o’clock,” he said.
Challis did not bat an eye. “I said before the day is over.”
Without another word, Challis turned on his heel and headed for the exit. Kintsugi watched him go, drained his can of Bud and stood up. He looked over towards two men seated at a table not three yards from where he and Challis had been sitting, and said, “Stand down.”
“No, he said third right,” corrected Kane. “Turn back.”
Rother had never been good at telling his right from his left and, under pressure, his ability to remember lists of instructions had always been abysmal. “Sorry,” he said as he spun round, only to collide with an elderly patient coming out of a side door. “Oh, God, sorry,” he said, instinctively reaching out to prevent the old lady from falling down.
To his surprise, she seemed quite steady on her feet and, when his hands closed firmly on her shoulders she stared him straight in the face. “I didn’t mean…” he began but then noticed that she didn’t seem to be seeing him at all. He let go one of her shoulders and waved a hand in front of her eyes.
“This must be what you call somnambulism,” Kane said. “Fascinating. I hadn’t expected to see it in action so soon.”
“I don’t want to wake her,” replied Rother. “It can be disturbing for a sleep-walker to be woken.”
“We really don’t want to be delayed,” pointed out Kane. “Just gently turn her round and point her back towards her bed.”
As Rother tried to turn her, her eyes remained fixed on his face and she began speaking. “They’re still here,” she said. “Can’t you see them?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Rother, as calmly as he could.
“Oh, good,” she replied. “If you can’t see them, they can’t see you.”
“I think maybe it’s bedtime,” suggested Rother.
“Yes,” she agreed. “Bedtime.” And started walking back through the door.
“OK, she’s fine,” said Kane. “Let’s get moving. It’s next right and then the elevator.”
Thankful that no alarm had been triggered, Rother continued following Kane’s instructions until they reached the clocking-in machine. Rother passed Alex’s ID laminate in front of the scanner and breathed a sigh of relief when it registered perfectly. “Through the door,” said Kane, “up the steps, and we’re out.”
“Where do you think you’re going?” demanded a voice from behind.
It felt to Rother as though his heart had stopped. He froze where he stood and could not bring himself to turn round.
“What should we do?” asked Kane. Along with the question, Rother could sense a feeling like hair standing on end. Clearly Kane was rattled, and Rother was reminded again of how young and inexperienced his symbiote was.
“It’s just a few more steps,” thought Rother. “I’m tempted to keep going.”
“Is that wise?” asked Kane.
“Don’t even think about going out of that door,” insisted the voice.
Rother decided to try a bluff. “It’s OK,” he said. “Just going out for a smoke.”
“You cannot leave through that door,” warned the voice.
Summoning up all his courage, Rother turned and smiled, but couldn’t immediately think of anything to say.
“Yeah. The lock’s seized up,” said the stranger, returning Rother’s smile. “I’m just coming to have a look at it. You’d be best using the other door, at the far end of the room.” He pointed off to the left.
Rother felt the blood returning to his face, and looked off in the direction the man was indicating. “Oh,” he said. “Yeah. Great. Thanks.”
“No problem,” replied the stranger. “Glad to be of service. Some parts of this place are so old, they’re falling apart. It’s a full time job just keeping it ticking over.”
“Thanks again,” said Rother as he started moving towards the other door.
The Jade Garden Tea Room was located on a narrow lane tucked between Washington Street and Clay Street, not far West of the Nanovit Knowledge Institute’s HQ in the heart of the Financial District.
Elfin had chosen it as a rendezvous for eir breakfast meeting with Kupferberg partly on the grounds that it was within easy walking distance, but ey nevertheless rode there in eir Lamborghini Aventador stretch.
Having been unable to sleep, Kupferberg had left The Tempel just after 6.00am and walked East at a leisurely pace along Lake Street in the bright sunlight. He arrived at the tea room a few minutes ahead of Elfin, checked how many paces he had notched up and how many calories he had burned, then ordered a small pot of imported Brockley Breakfast tea, plus one slice of dry toast.
From his pavement table he enjoyed the sight of Elfin alighting from eir limo. “Looks like a woman to me,” he thought as he stood up and extended his hand towards eir.
“I was thinking we’d sit inside,” ey said, pointedly looking past him to the interior, while brushing away an imaginary fly from eir face.
“It’s such a lovely morning…” began Kupferberg, but Elfin had already attracted the attention of a waiter and was indicating a table she preferred the look of. “And bring Mr. Kupferberg’s things.” she ordered.
It was now clear to Kupferberg that the staff knew her well. Evidently, he concluded, she had selected the tea room to make it appear they would be meeting on neutral ground when, in fact, it was one of eir longtime stamping grounds.
“Round One to you,” he thought as he reluctantly returned his toast to its plate and stepped out from behind his table to follow Elfin into the shady interior.
As they settled into their seats at a corner table, Elfin leaned slightly forward and sniffed the air. “Brockley Breakfast?” ey queried. “Why would you come to a Japanese tea room and order English tea?”
Kupferberg’s patience was wearing thin. “First, you chose this restaurant. Second, I happen to like Brockley. Third, they sell it.”
Elfin’s eyes widened and she inclined her head slightly backwards, but did not reply.
A pretty, waif-like girl in tight jeans who looked almost too young to be in employment approached the table. Kupferberg found it hard to keep his eyes off her. “The usual?” she asked.
Elfin stroked one of the nuts on her neck, and nodded. “Now, Mr. Kupferberg, let’s get down to business.”
An awkwardly long pause followed, leaving Kupferberg wondering if she expected him to speak first but, just as he was about to open his mouth, she began. “I’m recording this meeting.”
Kupferberg depressed a touch pad on his integrated tele-link. “As am I.”
“Good,” said Elfin. “We understand each other.”
“That remains to be seen,” replied Kupferberg, wondering why this woman – and he did think of eir as a woman – was setting out to antagonise him from the get-go.
For eir part, Elfin was wondering exactly the same thing about him.
It was Elfin who next spoke. “I believe we have interests in common.”
“Tell me about them.” He accompanied his blunt rejoinder with the hint of a smile which he hoped indicated that he was willing to consider eir proposals.
Elfin read the smile as an indicator of smug indifference, but carried on. “I have a product which I’m ready to bring to market. You have a sizeable following of devoted believers. I think we can work together to our mutual benefit.”
Kupferberg immediately relaxed. Finally he felt he was beginning to understand what Elfin wanted, and could imagine ways in which he might profit from this situation.
The waiter returned, placed a pot of tea, two dark Raku ware bowls and a white linen cloth in front of Elfin, which she acknowledged with a slight bowing of her head.
“Koicha,” said Kupferberg, to establish that he knew something about Japanese tea. “Should we not really be seated on mats?”
“Ideally, yes,” agreed Elfin. “But this is San Francisco. Besides, I can hardly imagine that kneeling comes naturally to you. Or comfortably.”
Even though it was accurate, Kupferberg resented the suggestion that he might not be as flexible as he once was, but he was determined not to let Elfin feel ey had successfully niggled him. “How thoughtful of you,” he said. “Now, you said you had a product ready to bring to market. I presume you are referring to the Viral Expedient project under the control of Gregor Challis?”
Elfin had been about to pour some of eir koicha into one of the Raku ware bowls but stopped and carefully replaced the pot on the table. “You seem tolerably well-informed,” ey acknowledged.
“And you want to use my believers as some kind of worldwide distribution network,” predicted Kupferberg.
For a few moments, Elfin’s lovely features had seemed slightly disturbed, but on hearing those words eir face brightened again. “Distribution network?” she repeated. “Absolutely not.”
Kupferberg realised he had been wrong-footed again and he did not like it. “So …” he began, but broke off, unwilling to say anything that might further expose his vulnerabilities.
Elfin quickly put him out of his misery. “I don’t need a distribution network,” she stated. “I need guinea pigs.”
“We need to get out of here right now,” said Smiddy.
“If you say so,” responded Mercy.
“And we should really do it without attracting Segarini’s attention,” continued Smiddy. “Which is probably impossible.”
“Comforting,” said Coral.
“So let’s do the other thing,” reasoned Smiddy. “Let’s leave as conspicuously as possible and hope that Segarini won’t want to draw too much public attention to himself by following too close in our wake.”
“Strategy,” said Mercy. “I like it. Can you fill in any of the blanks for me and the K?”
“The K?” queried Coral. “Oh, me. I like that.”
Smiddy shot them both impatient, dismayed looks. “There’s nothing funny about any of this,” he stated. ‘That man will kill you in between mouthfuls of San Francisco’s finest sausage if wants to. We just have to hope that he decides on a less public method of extinction.” He stood up, endeavouring to make the movement appear as casual as possible. He signalled to the nearest busboy. “This table is a disgrace,” he said. “You can’t seriously expect us to eat off of this germ culture breeding ground?”
The startled busboy took a couple of steps towards them but was quickly intercepted by a diligent waiter who had been hovering unobtrusively nearby.
“Who’s in charge here?” demanded Smiddy.
Segarini began to rise from his seat but quickly changed his mind. This, he decided, was not the time or place.
The waiter was trying to apologise to Smiddy, but he was being ignored. “Let’s go, ladies,” said Smiddy, pulling Coral’s chair out for her. “I can remember when the St. Regis could be relied on as one of the best hotels in the city.”
As the trio headed towards the reception area, heads were turning all over the restaurant and the noisy rattle of breakfast cutlery dropped down a notch as the diners stopped to gawp.
Having recognised his prey as soon as the distraction started, Segarini immediately understood what was going on but, as Smiddy had hoped, he was too smart to carry out a multiple slaughter in such a public arena. He smiled at his breakfast date and said, “Excuse me, Cyndi. I have to go to the men’s room.”
Already though, Smiddy, Mercy and Coral were making their way out of the hotel. The reception clerk was barely halfway out from behind his station, and it was clear he was not going to get to them before they made their exit.
“Get out front,” instructed Smiddy, “and immediately double back into the car park. But don’t run.” Segarini’s way across the restaurant floor was impeded by befuddled staff, none of whom seemed to have any idea of how to handle the situation.
Once outside in the bright sunlight, the trio executed a smooth turnaround and were under cover of the car park entrance within seconds. Glancing back to be sure that Segarini was not on their tail, Smiddy shouted, “OK. Now we run. Lead the way Mercy.”
CHAPTER 32 : The Law Of Gravity
Lucifer Starkrost sat hunched over his workstation, compulsively picking imaginary specks of dirt from the sides of his index fingernail, when his tele-link beeped.
“I’m on my way back,” Kupferberg told him. “We need to meet.”
Kupferberg was striding purposefully along Lake Street, heading for The Tempel, wrestling with the thorny question of how best to proceed in the wake of Elfin Nano’s extraordinary proposal, and ignoring the fact that his heart was pounding.
“Sure,” said Starkrost. “What about?”
“She’s completely insane,” stated Kupferberg. “You told me her man Challis was crazy, but how can I form any kind of alliance with a deranged woman who wants to use my faithful as guinea pigs for her vaccine experiment? She’s as demented as a dog in a hubcap factory.”
“You keep forgetting,” pointed out Starkrost, “that Elfin is not a woman. Ey’s a non-binary individual.”
“I don’t give one translucent bowel movement which pronoun she wants to be known by,” shouted Kupferberg as he passed under the Veterans Boulevard intersection, “That … creature … has kangaroos loose in her top paddock, and she wants to use my followers as guinea pigs.”
“Well,” said Starkrost, briefly mulling the idea over, “is that necessarily such a bad thing?”
Wiping beads of sweat from his forehead, Kupferberg was finding it hard to make much sense of anything Starkrost was saying.
“I’ll be there in about half an hour,” he barked, breaking off the connection.
Mercy, Coral and Smiddy were making good speed towards Mercy’s E-Class when a smugly smiling uniformed parking lot jockey appeared directly ahead of them. His eyes flicked up and down as he tried to match any of their features to the in-house facial recognition idents on his hand-held.
“Ms Yoo,” he announced as he approached. “Nice to see you again.”
Mercy continued straight past him. “You’ve never seen me before, sonny boy,” she said. “And likely never will again.”
He wasn’t ready to give up though. “Yeah, but I know your brother, Stamford,” he quipped.
It was a line Mercy had heard far too often in bars all over town, and had hoped never to hear again. “Yeah, yeah, Stamford U,” she shot back at him. “Hi-freakin-larious.” She extended her index and middle fingers and wondered what it might feel like to ram them so far up his nostrils that they could push his eyeballs out from the inside. “Nah,” she decided. “No time.”
“I knew this was going way better than we had any right to hope,” said Smiddy as they left him behind.
Mercy hit the remote and pulled open the driver’s side door as they arrived by the car. “Can I drop anybody anywhere?” she asked.
As he slammed a back door behind him, Smiddy responded, “Just get the hell out and go like the devil’s on your tail, because he is.”
They were still accelerating as they hauled out into the open air where they were dismayed to catch sight of an enraged Segarini watching them go.
“You’re gonna have to dump this car,” said Smiddy as he peered out of the rear window at Segarini’s receding figure.
“You think I’m made of money?” retorted Mercy, leaning over to open the glove compartment in front of Coral who immediately reached inside and pulled out the roll of black tape. “We can pull over after a couple of blocks and do another makeover.”
“I’m not sure,” objected Smiddy. “I don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to like it,” said Mercy. “This is not your 55 grand ride.” She paused for only a moment before confessing, “Actually, it’s not mine either, but I don’t much relish having to explain how I mislaid it to the Hu Foundation finance department.”
Smiddy shook his head in disbelief. “If Segarini finds you, you won’t have to explain anything to anybody ever again.”
“Point taken,” conceded Mercy. “I’m still not dumping it. By the time Segarini can get a search started we’ll have a new number plate.”
“Another new number plate,” corrected Coral.
Smiddy couldn’t suppress a laugh. “You women,” he said. “You’re crazy. But you’re my kind of crazy.”
Ir wasn’t until he had settled himself back down in his lab, with Ginger crawling slowly up his left arm, that Challis felt comfortable enough to think seriously about the deal he had been offered by Kintsugi Joon-woo.
“So, Ginger,” he said, cupping his gloved right hand in front of his favourite spider to change her direction, “What do you think? So many options. For one, I can help Kintsugi recover his escaped virus, get it back under control and partner him in his new company.”
Ginger had stopped moving and appeared to be considering how she should proceed. “Or I can stick with Elfin and use the Swarm to deliver eir Viral Expedient.”
Ginger extended a front leg to touch Challis’s black glove. “Or I can have Segarini eradicate Elfin, and then I can take over Nanovit…”
He gently pushed Ginger back, ignoring her attempts to bite through his thick glove, until she accepted that she might as well go left. “Good girl,” he said. “You know, I do believe I forgot to feed you this morning. I think I’ve got some scarab beetles ready for you, if you like. Or how about a cricket?”
Placing his arm alongside her terrarium, he brushed Ginger off his sleeve and into her home. “Kintsugi may be an idiot,” he mused, “but he’s an idiot with access to money and power. I could find ways to use him.” Reaching into a large kilner jar, he pulled out a shiny black Scarabaeus sacer beetle and transferred it into Ginger’s terrarium. “Mmmmmm, tasty,” he said but, disappointingly, the spider paid it no heed.
“Elfin, ey’s quite smart in eir own curious way, has eir uses I suppose, but ey’s mad as a box of frogs. Never really know what ey’s thinking.”
His communicator beeped and, almost inevitably, it was Elfin. “Progress?” ey asked.
He was furious with himself for not having checked-in with Segarini as soon as he had returned to his laboratory. “I’m expecting to hear at any minute that Smiddy has been taken care of,” he told eir.
“And the Rob1ns?”
Challis could hear from eir chilly tone that ey was at least as vexed about eir artificial birds as ey was about Smiddy. “I’ll have the improved versions up with you before you know it.”
“Trust me, I’ll know it,” ey corrected him, disconnecting before he could respond.
“Did I say a box of frogs?” he hissed in Ginger’s direction. “I meant a box of seven-legged scorpions on flakka.”
Disgruntled by his conversation with Elfin, he called Segarini. “So where are you right now?”
When the assassin’s voice came through, it sounded as if his device was malfunctioning, cutting out repeatedly. “What did you say? Outside the St. Regis? Was that it?”
Segarini’s terse reply was even harder to understand. “Sounds like you’re breaking up …” said Challis. “It’s distorted. I really can’t make out a word you’re saying.”
“Must have seen the Giants here eight, maybe nine or ten times,” remembered Rother, looking across King Street towards the Willie Mays statue outside Oracle Park. “Did you know Willie never actually played here?”
“I do now,” replied Kane. “You’re a strange species, aren’t you?”
“If you’re the norm,” Rother told his symbiote.
“The things that matter to you …” began Kane, but Rother was not prepared to let him finish the thought.
“You’re what, a couple of months old at best?” he asked. “What do you know?”
A surge of something resembling the sensation of hearing chalk scraping down a blackboard emanated from Kane as it said, “Actually, I already know a great deal. None of it particularly useful to us in our current predicament. Can I suggest we focus our attention on what we’re going to do next?”
Rother knew that Kane was right. He made himself look away from Oracle Park to take in their wider surroundings. “Sorry,” he said. “You’re absolutely right.”
The sensation coming from Kane became immediately somewhat more soothing, like the feeling of pulling the sleeve of an angora wool sweater up a bare forearm. “By the by,” noted Kane, “did you notice that your reticular activating system became unusually stimulated during our most recent communication? The one about how much I know.”
“The things that matter to you…” thought Rother. Kane didn’t immediately respond but the feeling that came from him was the nearest thing Rother had observed so far to the sound of a baby chuckling.
“We should keep moving,” he said. “Get away from here. And I want to contact Mercy.” He pulled Alex’s phone out as he turned and started off along 3rd Street towards Union Square. “What did he say was his phone password?”
Seconds later Rother was punching in a text. “The law of gravity…” he began.
Lucifer Starkrost was tearing open his fifth sachet of hand sanitiser for the day when Kupferberg burst into his room, breathing noisily and attempting to scratch an itch on his back which he clearly could not reach.
‘Wearing off, is it?” asked Starkrost. “I keep telling you that shit’s gonna kill you.”
“Why d’you keep this place so bloody hot?” countered Kupferberg.
Starkrost checked his hand-held. “68 degrees,” he said. “Perfectly normal.”
“Well I’m too fucking hot,” insisted Kupferberg, pacing to and fro across the floor.
Starkrost shrugged. “It’s wearing off faster all the time,” he stated.
Kupferberg ignored the comment and demanded, “What did you mean about it maybe not being such a bad thing if Elfin used my followers as guinea pigs?”
“Well,” said Starkrost. “If you think it through…”
“Do you really imagine I haven’t thought it through?” shouted Kupferberg. “I’ve been thinking about nothing else since I left that godforsaken tea room.”
“How’s your blood pressure? What’s your heart rate?” asked Starkrost.
Kupferberg rolled his eyes into the top of his head. “OK. I get the point. You think I’m coming down. Just tell me what you meant.”
“There’s a bigger picture,” said Starkrost. “Play along. Give her what she wants.” As he watched, Kupferberg was becoming more agitated, blinking his eyes, twitching his fingers.
“Give her what she wants?” Kupferberg shouted back. “You think I’m insane?”
“It’s our way into Nanovit, our way into the big leagues,” persisted Starkrost. “And, yes, I think you’re insane.”
It was clear to Starkrost that the long walk from across town while his last boost of crank was wearing off had depleted Kupferberg’s energy levels to a point where he was at severe risk of collapse.
With perfect timing, Kupferberg lurched forwards pointing an accusatory index finger at his Comms Controller. His lips were moving but no coherent words were forming and his face took on the anguished appearance of a calf belatedly registering that it was on its way to the slaughter.
Starkrost watched him clatter to the floor like a tree hewn down by a chainsaw, and couldn’t resist saying, “Tim-ber.”
Turning the inert figure over, Starkrost loosened Kupferberg’s shirt and slapped his face hard, more for the pleasure of it than in any hope that it might revive him. Checking his pulse, he noted that it was, as he had known it would be, racing but also beating erratically.
He dragged the limp figure across the room and hoisted him up onto a bunk. “Beddy byes,” he whispered.
CHAPTER 31 : The Rumpus Room