CHAPTER 39 : Contract Killer
Challis kept Segarini and Albie waiting in the Nanovit reception area for longer than the assassin found comfortable. “Let them wait,” he had told the front desk. “Don’t give them any reason. Wait fifteen minutes and then send them up.”
He was feeding Ginger and saw no reason why Segarini should imagine he could just drop in without any advance warning. Besides, he couldn’t quite forget the time he had spoken with Segarini when the man was clearly out of his brains, and neither did he care for the way he had leveraged the price of the job for which Challis had commissioned him.
When the front desk receptionist finally confirmed that Challis was free, Segarini was so furious that he had to take his spite out on someone and Albie was the nearest. As his assistant started to rise, Segarini grabbed the little man’s arm. “Don’t move,” he hissed. “You can stay here.”
Albie settled down again. Truth to tell, hadn’t been looking forward to the confrontation between his boss and Challis, and was relieved to be able to miss it.
When Segarini arrived at the lab his vision of striding in to initiate a confrontation had to be abandoned when Challis deliberately took his time allowing him access.
By the time Segarini was standing directly in front of Challis’ work station, the Nanovit scientist was staring intently at a plain black document box from which he looked up for no more than two seconds. “Ah, Segarini,” he said. “What brings you round these parts?”
It was only by a supreme effort of will that Segarini was keeping Bhalak at bay during this exchange, but he knew he had to remain calm and rational to deal with Challis.
“I don’t like being lied to,” he said.
“Nobody does,” conceded Challis. “Who’s been lying to you?”
“Me? Tell me about it.”
“Smiddy is keeping company with Mercy Woo,” stated Segarini. “You neglected to mention that fact when you took me on to eliminate Smiddy.”
“Well now,” replied Challis. “That is interesting. The reason I neglected to mention it was simply that I didn’t know. You’ve obviously started earning your fee, even if you haven’t yet disposed of him.”
“You seriously expect me to believe that?” demanded Segarini.
Challis was finally paying one hundred per cent of his attention to Segarini. He stared directly into the assassin’s eyes. “As far as I knew, Elfin wanted Smiddy killed because he had offed two of eir dispatch drivers. It was pure revenge, to the best of my knowledge. Not untypical of Elfin.”
The pair locked eyes silently while Segarini tried to absorb the implications of what Challis was telling him. “You mean…”
“I mean precisely what I said,” confirmed Challis. “What you’re telling me about Smiddy and Mercy Woo sheds a whole new light onto whatever’s going on here.”
Segarini was still unsure that he could believe a word Challis was saying. “You’re telling me that you knew nothing about this?”
“I brought you in because I had too much else on my mind. Elfin instructed me to have Smiddy killed, but I didn’t want to get bogged down in that kind of sordid little detail.”
“And you thought I would?” asked Segarini, clearly more than a little offended.
“It’s what you do,” pointed out Challis. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“OK. I hear you,” replied Segarini, “but ‘sordid detail’? People like you have no idea. You don’t understand that I have an eminently transferable, eminently valuable, skill set.” Segarini’s voice was dropping in tone, becoming rougher, more aggressive. “Talents such as mine are in demand all over the planet – whether it’s the mafia, the CIA, the Taliban, the British Secret Service, Mossad, I can go anywhere.”
“I’d like to say I’m impressed,” retorted Challis, “but in your line of work aren’t you always just waiting for someone faster, smarter, better to arrive?”
Segarini snorted derisively. “The guy who kills me doesn’t have to be better than me. He just has to be standing behind me for a couple of seconds before I know he’s there. I can live with that. It’s just dumb luck.”
Challis chuckled. “Or he could be standing in front of you.”
The chilling expression that now contorted Segarini’s face made Challis instantly aware he had touched a raw nerve in the homicidal sociopath standing opposite him. He concluded it was time to attempt to calm him down.
“As I said, I wouldn’t have known where to start,” he began. “But your skills which, let me assure you, I do appreciate, made you the perfect choice. And if I had known then about the complexities which you have now made clear to me, I would have doubled your fee.”
Segarini laughed out loud. “Doubled my fee? You just don’t get it, do you? What I’m telling you makes this not just a contractual blip. I’m no longer interested in being your employee. You and me, we’re going to become partners.”
“Are you trying to make me more beautiful?”
Even given his unique access to Rother’s mind, Kane found the question confounding but, thankfully, the journey to the Hu Foundation HQ on Union Street in the back of the blacked-out van was giving them a little time and opportunity to communicate without too many external distractions.
“Strange question,” he responded.
“Is it?” asked Rother. “Well, yes, I suppose it is. I’m just trying to get a better grip on what’s been happening to me. You’ve restored my face pretty much back to its original appearance, I know that, but I just found myself wondering if you’ve been tempted to make any … improvements.”
“I’ve told you before, I have no directly equivalent concept,” replied Kane. “Beautiful is one of your notions that eludes accurate definition for me. I’m still working on it. When you use it in the context of humanoid appearance it has something to do with regular, unblemished features, particular ratios relating to the size and shape of eyes, lips, ears and such. But then you also use it to describe music, weather, aromas, paintings …”
“OK,” conceded Rother. “I can see the problem. How about if I phrase it like this – are you trying to make me better?”
Something that felt like a long drawn-out sigh travelled from Kane to Rother before the symbiote said, “We’re not trying to do anything. We just are. We just do.”
Recognising that this particular line of enquiry wasn’t going to lead him anywhere, Rother attempted to change direction. “How do you think Coral’s strategy is going to work out?”
“I’ve already offered to calculate the odds against Coral’s plan working,” said Kane, “but you called me Spock and didn’t want to know the result.”
“Fair comment,” said Rother. At a loss for any other obvious topic to explore, he ventured, “We didn’t really resolve the big issue, did we?”
Kane’s response came at him as a tangled web of conflicting emotions from wry humour to mental anguish. “You mean the overlooked pachyderm in our shared space?”
Rother couldn’t stop a sympathetic smile from manifesting itself on his lips.
“I know,” said Kane. “I’m getting better at anthropomorphic humour, don’t you think?”
“Your rate of progress has been nothing short of astonishing,” agreed Rother. “And it’s not just humour. You’re just a few weeks old but already you’ve overtaken me in so many ways. I really can’t even imagine what’s next.”
“There’s no need for you to imagine it,” replied Kane. “You can be part of it.”
“I wish … I wish I …” began Rother, but he found himself unable to complete his thought. For the first time since he and Kane had joined together he sensed a brief moment of utter silence, complete stillness, between them.
“That’s how it will be,” Kane told him. “After I have gone. It will feel like that.”
Rother realised that, for no reason he could immediately think of, tears were forming in his eyes.
“No, don’t cry,” said Kane. “This is what you wanted. This is what you need.”
Kane’s thoughts only intensified the feeling, and Rother made no attempt to wipe the tears away. “I thought I was the grown-up,” he managed to say.
“I thought I was the child,” said Kane.
An outside voice brought the moment to an abrupt end. “Looks like we’re there,” said Coral. “Union Street. Everybody ready?”
Simultaneously, Rother and Kane realised they were not ready, would never be ready, could never be ready, because the wheels were turning with an inexorable motion. Once they were inside the Hu Foundation building there could be no going back.
As they heard the doors of the van creaking open, Kane sent one more thought to Rother. “I don’t think I could make you more beautiful.”
“Doogle,” asked Mercy, slipping her arm around their shoulders. “Are you OK? Are you crying?”
Kupferberg was gazing into the face of his daughter for the first time in over a decade, and could hardly believe what he was seeing.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said. The last time he had seen Kristina she had been a cute, cheeky ten year old girl, but the face on his integrated screen belonged to a startlingly lovely young woman.
“Typical,” she replied. “Nothing else about us ever mattered to you. We barely existed as anything more than a collage of stereotypical glossy style rag feminine attributes.”
“Kristina, darling, no, no,” he protested.
“Daddy, darling, just fuck off,” she responded. “I’m calling you for one reason and one only.” The young woman swallowed hard in order to compose herself enough to say the next two words. “Mum’s dead.”
Kupferberg fell silent.
“The funeral was last week,” she continued. “We didn’t invite you because mum had asked me not to. She didn’t want you there. She was right. I’m only calling now because I think you should be told. Formally, legally, told. It’s not an emotional thing.”
Despite the fact that Kupferberg had never been good at detecting the emotions of other people, he could see that Kristina was struggling to keep herself together. “Oh, my darling,” he started.
“Don’t you ever ‘darling’ me again,” she spat, then collected herself once more to state, “Cancer, if you want to know. Breast cancer at first, but eventually it spread everywhere.”
“Of course I want to know,” he tried to assure her. Then, realising she had fallen silent, he added, “And what about you? How are you?”
She had closed her eyes, but now opened them to stare accusingly at him from the screen. “If I imagined for one second that you actually cared, I’d tell you. And if you were one millionth the father I used to hope you might be, you’d know. We’re done.” Without another word, she cut the connection.
Kupferberg’s head was spinning, but as soon as Kristina’s face was gone, it was replaced by Starkrost. “The box is with Challis.”
“The box with the contract,” explained Starkrost.
“Oh. That box. Of course.”
Kupferberg was disorientated. Not only was his brief encounter with Kristina disturbing him, but Starkrost had failed to arrive with the shot of Crank Max he had promised. Between the two, Kupferberg was finding it hard to focus on anything else.
“I’d better come down,” said Starkrost. It took barely a couple of seconds to extract a vial of his Crank Max from the fridge, and then he set off at a good pace for Kupferberg’s quarters. It was clear to him, even after just a couple of exchanges on the tele-link, that The One’s state of mind was deteriorating rapidly.
Kupferberg was slumped in his favourite chair when Starkrost lurched in. “Here,” he said, holding the vial up for Kupferberg to see, “this is what you need.”
“Did you ever meet Audrey?” asked Kupferberg while Starkrost was preparing the injection.
“My wife, Audrey,” stated Kupferberg. “Evil bitch. Great legs. We had a daughter.”
“Hold still,” instructed Starkrost as he jabbed the needle into Kupferberg’s upper arm. “I didn’t know you were married.”
“Three years. Naples. She was just sixteen when we got married. We had a daughter, Kristina. She’s dead.”
Starkrost feigned as much sympathy as he thought Kupferberg would buy. “Oh, I’m so sorry. To lose a child…”
“Not Kristina, you dipshit,” shouted Kupferberg. “Audrey! It’s Audrey who’s died. Cancer.”
“When was this?”
“Couple of weeks ago, I think. Kristina just told me … oh, that’s so good. I can feel it kicking in … she’s much prettier than her mother ever was.”
Starkrost was beginning to realise that this news had only just come to Kupferberg, and it was derailing him faster and further than before. “You’ll be OK in a minute,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
“I don’t even know where she was calling from,” said Kupferberg. “Can we get the call traced?”
Starkrost took a long, deep breath, laid a hand on Kupferberg’s forearm and attempted to steer the conversation back into a more productive direction. “Sure. I’ll get a trace on it right away, but meanwhile, the box is with Challis. We can activate it any time now.”
CHAPTER 40 : Sweet As The Punch
Smiddy’s punch, when it landed on the side of Doogle’s face, was much more powerful than he had expected. As he toppled backwards onto the top of Kintsugi’s desk he tried to remember how this bizarre charade had started and where it might be leading. Fortunately, Kane remembered it all clearly.
It had first been outlined to them by Coral back in the Metreon Center when she said, “Actually, I’ve been thinking…”
As she spoke, it had quickly become obvious that she had been thinking long and hard to devise a strategy that could put their haphazardly thrown together quartet onto the front foot. The skinny bleached-blonde cult runaway had, in the space of ten minutes, sketched out to them the skeleton of a plan which involved using Kane’s ability to move from one body to another, along with his gift for manipulating the thoughts and actions of those bodies, to gain control of the major players ranged against them.
“It might seem like we’re up against impossible odds, huge corporations with vast resources,” she had said, “but ultimately isn’t there just a handful of prime movers – Kupferberg, Kintsugi, Elfin Nano – maybe a couple more, who we need to eliminate so that we stand a good chance of turning this whole thing round?”
“Eliminate?” queried Rother. “You’re talking about killing them?”
“I’m talking about rendering them ineffectual,” she corrected him. “Nobody needs to die.”
“Just for the record,” interjected Smiddy, “I wouldn’t mind…”
“Nobody,” re-iterated Coral, “needs to die. Not if we do it right.”
Details of her plan had been firmed up in Alamo Square Park, and the final nuances had been worked out in the back of the blacked-out van on the way to Foundation HQ. Smiddy’s five finger smack into Rother’s cheek had been among those last-minute nuances.
As the quartet was hustled unceremoniously into Kintsugi’s office, they played for time by admiring the wrap-around window views out towards the bay, while Coral improvised a distraction by tucking a silver statuette from Kintsugi’s desk into the waistband of her denim miniskirt.
“Hey you, girl,” yelled one of the security goons. “Put that back. Put it back right now.”
The brief commotion that ensued was all that Smiddy and Rother needed to edge themselves together beside Kintsugi’s desk.
“Get your filthy hand out of my pocket you perv,” shouted Rother, turning to face Smiddy and pushing his face with his right hand while trying to establish a modicum of balance on the desk with his left.
In a few scant seconds they managed to drum up a convincing conflict, spiced with choice expletives and flailing arms. Alarmed, Kintsugi pushed his chair back, but he was still in easy grabbing distance when Smiddy’s fist connected with Rother’s cheek.
Sensing Rother’s confusion, Kane assumed control of his host’s bodily motor functions and stretched out to grasp Kintsugi’s wrist, hoping it would appear as nothing more than an attempt to maintain some balance. He squeezed tight and pulled the Foundation boss over towards them as they rolled across the desktop.
The whole deception was evidently convincing enough for the security contingent, two of whom lurched dutifully forwards and attempted to separate and subdue Rother and Smiddy, but succeeded mainly in causing further mayhem, a tangle of writhing bodies on Kintsugi’s desk, enabling Kane to maintain his grip for seconds longer than he needed to make the transfer.
It was not long, however, before the security men had secured both Rother and Smiddy, enabling Kintsugi to shake off Kane’s grip. Rother, by now, was feeling considerably more clear-headed.
“Did we get him?” he thought, and was genuinely surprised, disturbed to receive nothing back from Kane. “Well, did we?” he asked as the realisation dawned that Kane was gone. He was alone in his head.
He looked around and saw that all of the others had their eyes fixed on Kintsugi, waiting for some clue to indicate whether or not Kane had already taken him over. He remembered how with Alex, the nurse in Bayview Aurora Residence, it had taken a little time for Kane’s duplicate to gain complete control.
Like the others, he turned his eyes towards Kintsugi, who was now sitting in his chair with his head bowed so that his chin was virtually resting on his chest.
The silence that had descended on the room was disturbing, uncomfortable. Rother wondered if perhaps he and Smiddy should resume their fake fight to keep the security team distracted.
Then, just as he decided that continuing the ruse would be a viable option, Kintsugi raised his head, opened his eyes, smiled and said, “So, you thought you could gain control of me?”
“Shit,” said Mercy.
“Partners?” gasped Challis. He stared at Segarini with a mixture of fear, horror and incomprehension.
The assassin’s news that Smiddy and Mercy Yoo were working together had come to him as a genuinely game-changing revelation, but before he could take its full implications on board, Segarini’s entire personality seemed to have started undergoing a terrifying transformation. Worse, there was now an increasingly predatory look in Segarini’s eyes which chilled the blood in Challis’s veins.
“What are you staring at?” he asked, instinctively raising one hand to shield his huge green eyes while he reached out for the box with the other.
The response which emerged from Segarini’s twisted lips was unintelligible to Challis. There were no words at all, just an extended bestial yowl of uncontrollable craving. Challis had no way of knowing that the assassin was now more Bhalak than Segarini, or that the original purpose of their meeting had now been superseded by a carnal desire which could only end when Bhalak’s uncontrollable hunger had been sated.
All he could clearly see was that Segarini’s hand was slowly extracting a long, thin-handled spoon from the top pocket of his jacket. “Your eyes,” he wheezed. “How fabulously green.”
Less than three miles away, in The Belonging’s Tempel on Lobos Creek, Kupferberg and Starkrost were listening to the unfolding ordeal, virtually spellbound, via the bugs Starkrost had managed to secrete in Challis’ lab.
“Is that really Segarini?” asked Kupferberg. “He sounds completely different.”
“As far as I can make out,” replied Starkrost, “there’s nobody else in the lab. It must be Segarini.”
“So what’s wrong with the man?” asked Kupferberg. “Bi-polar or something?”
“From the rumours I’ve heard about Segarini,” said Starkrost, “you could start with tri-polar and work your way up from there.”
“What’s he doing there anyway? He could completely fuck up the box.”
Starkrost put a finger to his lips to indicate that they’d learn more by listening than by speculating. The first voice they heard was Challis, sounding terrified. “Get back. Get away from me.”
Segarini did not reply, but his rasping snarl came through loud and clear.
“What’s that? Get it away from my face…” Challis’s words were cut short by a scream of agony, followed by a throaty gurgle and eventually a hideous silence.
Neither Kupferberg nor Starkrost could deduce what was going on. They continued listening intently until finally a voice that was recognisably Segarini’s said, “Ahhh! The luscious schloop of an eyeball exiting a forehead. Can there be a more satisfying sound?”
Kupferberg and Starkrost turned to stare at each other in horror. Both had led unsavoury lives, both had benefitted from crime and violence, but the graphic realisation that they had just been listening to the removal of an eyeball from a human head came as a profound shock to them both.
The shock, however, did not linger. Kupferberg dispelled it with his next words, “But what about the box?”
Well aware that there was no point to her words, Mercy nevertheless yelled them out at the top of her voice. “You can’t hold us like this! I demand to see my lawyer.”
Smiddy laughed out loud. “I don’t think the Foundation gives a shit about your legal rights,” he said. “We’re here til they’re done with us.”
“Or til we’re done with them,” responded Coral defiantly.
Mercy closed up the front of her red blouse, three of whose buttons had come undone when the Foundation security men had bundled the trio out of Kintsugi’s office and into a small stationery cupboard across the hall.
“Smiddy’s right,” she conceded. “They’re holding all of the cards right now. I can’t believe Kintsugi wasn’t affected by Kane. That should have worked.”
The threesome had been manhandled out of the office after Kintsugi had inexplicably declared that they had not managed to gain control of him. The newly appointed Foundation Cogent boss had then ordered his men to remove Mercy, Coral and Smiddy, leaving him alone with Rother. “Leave that one with me,” Kintsugi had said. “I’ll start with him.”
“But you’re right,” continued Coral. “We do have legal rights. We’re American citizens. They can’t just ignore that.”
Now it was Mercy’s turn to laugh sardonically. Much as she had come to love and admire Coral in the few short days they had spent together, it was obvious that the girl remained an innocent in so many ways.
“No,” she repeated, quietly. “Smiddy’s right. We’re done and dusted.” Then, after a brief pause, she shouted out again, “I want my lawyer! You can’t do this to an American citizen.” Dropping her voice again, she said, “But we don’t have to let them think they can make us knuckle under.”
Coral looked at her, clearly confused. “No, you’re wrong. We do have rights. Of course we do…”
Mercy shook her head. “What rights? Right to live? Right to work? Right to Free Speech? You have no rights. We have no rights. There’s no such thing as rights. Who gave you these rights?”
Coral was quick to respond. “They’re enshrined … is that the right word? … enshrined in law. They have to give us our rights.”
“Who’s ‘they’?” countered Mercy. “You think the Foundation is ‘they’?”
Coral stared at her angrily but said nothing.
“Let me tell you something,” continued Mercy. “Rights do not exist in nature. They’re an unnatural construct, created by sophisticated, rational beings … us … who do not want to accept that we are all animals. We create laws in the hope that they will make society, or civilisation if you prefer, function more smoothly. No mouse ever demanded that a cat respect its rights.”
Coral was turning her head from Mercy to Smiddy and then back again, unable to accept what she was hearing.
“I’m sorry Coral, but we invent rights. They don’t exist in nature,” said Mercy.
“That’s the second rime you’ve said that,” pointed out Coral, “but we’re not animals. We don’t live by the law of the jungle.”
“In here we do,” interjected Smiddy. “Kintsugi and his like know perfectly well what rights the law gives us, but they don’t care. They don’t have to care.”
Coral turned her back on them and took a deep breath. “We’re getting out of here,” she insisted. “Rights or no rights. Laws. No laws. They’re not going to do this to us.”
Mercy and Smiddy turned to face each other and both broke into huge grins. “And on that, if nothing else,” said Mercy, “we can all agree.”
Elfin brought eir hands together, each one bent into a cup shape, so that the pair formed a hollow sphere between them.
Ey looked at the shape for a long while, opening and closing the sphere from time to time. Ey was finding it a very satisfactory shape to observe and to manipulate, and easily lost eirself for whole minutes in contemplation of what it might be used for.
Ey felt a curious nagging sensation in the back of eir head, something telling eir that staring at eir hands was not entirely normal. When ey could bring herself to look around eir high-vaulted chamber ey noticed that there were people and machines moving about, but ey was finding it hard to remember why. Occasionally someone or something would approach eir, stand in front of eir, bow, move their lips and make gestures ey could not interpret.
Something, ey knew, was very wrong. It took an enormous effort of will to stroke the top of the middle nut on the right hand side of eir neck, opening a direct channel to Challis. To eir dismay, there was no response. “Challis?” ey said. “Challis, are you there? I need you.”
Ey had no way of knowing that Challis was dead and growing colder on the floor in front of his work station.
By the time the lights high up in eir main chamber started winking out, Elfin was thinking about what a bad little girl ey had been when ey had disobeyed eir mother and disturbed the robins in their garden shed. Ey thought how good it would feel, how much better ey would feel, if ey could only draw the clean blade of a razor slowly across the back of her arm. This, ey remembered, was a thought ey had not felt in some long time. She smiled at the memories.
A Rob1n flew down and perched on eir arm. Its cold feet felt good on eir pale skin and its tiny claws digging in brought eir some relief. Without thinking about it, ey cupped eir hands again. “Come on,” ey said to eir mechanical friend, encouraging it to move closer to eir face.
“There we are,” ey cooed, as it hopped into eir right palm and bent its legs to perch while Elfin brought eir other hand over the top. Even when the little bird was completely enclosed, it made no effort to escape, and Elfin found it impossible resist an urge to tighten eir hands so that the sphere between them grew smaller and smaller.
Ey found herself briefly distracted by a flashing red light on eir personal comms screen. Ey brought eir tightly clasped hands up to her lips and said, “Something’s wrong,” but ey had no idea what to do about it.
Ey found eirself staring intently at the digital displays on eir screen, all of which were displaying rows of zeroes. “That can’t be right,” Ey thought to eirself. She had no way of knowing that, with Challis dead, there was no-one to re-set her controls.
An instant later the tight grip of eir hands loosened, eir palms fell open, and she collapsed to the chamber floor, allowing the Rob1n to fly out, up and away.
Reaching a height of about eighteen feet, the tiny lights in the back of its eyes went black and the Rob1n fell, a dead weight, back down to the floor, landing just inches from Elfin’s outstretched fingers.
CHAPTER 39 : Contract Killer