INSIDERS : Chapters 45 and 46 – gripping pandemic-based sci-fi thriller nears its conclusion

CHAPTER 45 : Back on the rails

“We need somebody who can break this deadlock,” said Oliver Mayhew. “And we need him now.”

Clustered around the desk of Nanovit’s chief solicitor Mayhew sat a newly established ad hoc committee of six men and three women.

In the days since Elfin’s collapse, and the death of Challis, Nanovit Knowledge had managed to limp along under the caretaker leadership of the organisation’s legal heads. Now, finally, Mayhew had succeeded in cobbling together a small team which, he hoped, shared between them the skills and experience necessary to put the show firmly back on the road.

“For my money,” he resumed, “you’re the likely candidate.” He looked directly at Butch Carver. “Elfin trusted you. You’ve done a good job of running Dispatch. You’ve got people skills. You’ll need someone with high level techspertise to help you penetrate Challis’s systems, but Nanovit has no end of alpha nerds you can use. Get yourself a plug and play dilbert.”

Carver shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m not so sure …” he began.

“Me neither,” said Mayhew, “but I’m volunteering you, so you’d better shape up and get on with it. We need to know exactly what Challis was getting up to in that lab of his.”

It seemed to Mayhew that the meeting was going rather better than he had anticipated. The first ten items on the agenda had proceeded smoothly. “Now, moving right along, the next item on today’s agenda is this totally weird claim from … what’s it called … The Belonging? Who’s across this?”

Horst Blenheim, a fat, balding member of the committee, looked up. “I’ve been keeping an eye on that,” he said. “You might recall that we had the opportunity of perusing a contract signed by Elfin and Challis with The Belonging.”

“Oh, that,” observed Mayhew. “Something about Nanovit making use of some followers of The Belonging, cult people, for research purposes.”

“That’s the one,” said Blenheim. “We didn’t get much time to examine it. Elfin and Challis wanted it rushed through, so we were only afforded an opportunity to scan it somewhat superficially…”

“Blenheim,” said Mayhew. “You’re an idiot. You’ve always been an idiot. You’re going to tell me there was something in the small print, a clause your people overlooked.”

“It was rushed through,” protested Blenheim, avoiding Mayhew’s glare by looking down at a sprawl of documents on the desk before him. “There was really no time…”

Blenheim’s excuses were the last thing Mayhew wanted to hear. “How many times have you told someone always to read the small print? Let me guess. The contract had some sort of ‘notwithstanding’ clause specifying that in the event of the deal never being activated The Belonging would be entitled to compensation either in the form of monetary recompense or as a substantial portion of shares in Nanovit.”

Blenheim said nothing.

“Get the fuck out of my sight,” shouted Mayhew. “And don’t come back until you’ve found some way, some loophole or whatever, to negate that clause.”

Blenheim clumsily gathered up his papers and backed out of the room. “OK,” resumed Mayhew. “Item twelve, this half-assed communication from some woman called Kristina Kupferberg. She wants an urgent meeting but doesn’t say why. Who is she?”

The room fell silent. “I asked a question,” said Mayhew. “Who is this Kristina Kupferberg?”

A voice finally piped up, but Mayhew didn’t register who it came from. “I think Blenheim was dealing with that one also.”

“Totally fucking typical,” groaned Mayhew. “Somebody get him back in here right now.” Suddenly, the meeting didn’t seem to be going quite so smoothly.

September was winding to a close when Mercy and Coral decided it was time to return to the Wave Organ. They strolled along the waterfront and looked out, over towards Alcatraz.

“I promised we’d come back,” said Mercy. “Sorry it wasn’t sooner.”

“You were right. It is beautiful,” said Coral, while they tried to remember exactly which of the organ pipes they’d dumped her tracker into. “You remember that day on Pier 39?”

“How could I forget?” replied Mercy. “The day we met.”

Coral smiled and reached over to take Mercy’s hand. “You changed my life that day.”

“And you mine,” said Mercy.

“But before you ran into me, I’d been wandering around on the other side of the pier, the Eastern side.”

“OK,” said Mercy.

“I stood for a long time staring out into the bay, looking beyond Alcatraz, and I saw an island way off in the distance.”

“Beyond Alcatraz?” asked Mercy. “Angel Island?”

“No, further East. Towards Berkeley. I’d never noticed it before.” She pointed out into the bay and Mercy could just make out an outline. “Didn’t know it existed, but I Googled it right then and there and it’s called Port Cullis Island.”

“OK,” said Mercy, beginning to wonder why Coral was telling her this. “So?”

Coral hesitated before continuing. “It’s not a real island.”

“What? I can see it. Over there.”

“No. I mean it just didn’t exist until 1935. It’s man-made. Artificial.”

“Really? Wow!,” said Mercy, straining to see the distant outline more clearly.

Coral hesitated before resuming but, once she started speaking, it was hard to stop her. Coral explained that Port Cullis Island had been constructed during the great railway expansion era of the 1930s. It had been one of the most ambitious projects of its time, intended to provide a rail link across the bay from San Francisco directly to Berkeley. Disastrously, the project had to be abandoned because a rival venture, the construction of the Oakland Bay Bridge, was completed in 1936, rendering a bridge to Berkeley commercially unfeasible.

“So, the island was never completed?” asked Mercy.

Coral nodded. “You’ve got it.”

“Got what?” Mercy was now thoroughly confused.

Coral sighed. “Come on, Mercy, you’re the smart one. There’s an abandoned island out in the bay, two miles long, with a railway track running virtually from one end to the other.”

“They actually built the railway?”

“Boys and their toys,” laughed Coral. “Men with too much money desperate to outdo each other. In the end though, the Oakland Bay Bridge made more economic sense, so Port Cullis Island was abandoned, complete with a couple of miles of long, straight track and one state of the art mid-30s locomotive, nothing less than a Union Pacific M-10000 streamliner.”

Mercy grinned. “I’ve absolutely no idea what that means,” she laughed, “but it sounds impressive.”

“You’ve got to kind of admire their macho determination,” resumed Coral. “The consortium that built Port Cullis Island tried right up to the last minute to make it look like a viable project. The streamliner was their last ditch manoeuvre. It was an impressive beast but, ultimately, the economics just didn’t stack up.”

Mercy intervened. “So today we have the Oakland Bay Bridge,” she said, hoping she was summing Coral’s lengthy history lesson up.

“You’re missing the point,” resumed Coral. “Today we have Port Cullis Island, two miles of track and a virtually unused vintage Streamliner.”

“You’re not going to let this go, are you?” asked Mercy.

“OK. I can see I’m going to have to spell this out. Here’s the billion dollar question. What does Robert Kupferberg love almost as much as he loves thirteen year old girls?”

“You’ve actually got a response from Nanovit?” asked Kupferberg.

“Just an acknowledgement,” replied Starkrost. “I’m nudging them a couple of times every day but I get the impression it’s still pretty much chaos over there. I’m told they’ve set up some kind of steering committee so I’m hopeful things will start to move now.”

“They’re keeping us at arms length then,” observed Kupferberg. “Surely they must realise we have a valid claim to ownership?”

“Some legal department drudge, name of Mayhew, he’s the significant honcho,” explained Starkrost. “I get the impression he has two speeds – painfully slow and dead stop.”

“Keep on their tails,” ordered Kupferberg.

“What about the girl?” asked Starkrost.



“She’ll be back.”

“I don’t doubt it, but how do you want to play her?”

“When that becomes your business, Luci, I’ll let you know.”

Starkrost mulled it over in his head, trying to dream up something to say that wouldn’t reveal his involvement with Kristina, but might draw some useful information out of Kupferberg. “She’s very beautiful,” he said. “Is she really like her mother?”

“You never knew Audrey, did you?”

Quite rightly, Starkrost felt that the question was not just loaded but consciously passive-aggressive. “No, I didn’t,” he replied, hoping it was the right response.

“Let’s keep it that way,” snarled Kupferberg. “I’m more interested in how much she’s like me.”

Again, Starkrost felt an undisguised hostility from Kupferberg, but he was not quite ready to back off yet. “She seemed very bright to me,” he suggested.

“From an acquaintance lasting all of several minutes,” pointed out Kupferberg.

“I just meant…”

“Frankly, I don’t care what you meant. If she’s anything like me, she could be a formidable challenge.”

“You see her as a challenge?” asked Starkrost. “Your own daughter?”

“I don’t really know. It’s possible, isn’t it? Turns up out of the blue and starts cosying up to me. Says she wants to be in my life…”

“Well,” said Starkrost. “She is your daughter. Just lost her mother. Maybe she’s adrift. Maybe she needs to find someone she can trust?”

“Or maybe she’s my daughter and she’s a lot like me,” retorted Kupferberg.

Starkrost could visualise the scheme he had been cooking up with Kristina beginning to come apart at the seams. “You think?”

Kupferberg’s expression softened just a shade, and he arched one eyebrow. “Like I said, I really don’t know. Anything’s possible. Like you running out of Crank Max, for example.”

Inwardly, Starkrost breathed a sigh of relief. The conversation was back on territory where he felt more comfortable. “Never gonna happen,” he promised.

“Great news,” said Kupferberg. “Tell me this … how come I never see you taking a hit?”


“And you didn’t think it was worth telling me about her?” demanded Mayhew.

Recalled to the assembled committee, Blenheim was sweating profusely while valiantly trying to smile in the face of Mayhew’s inquisition. “You threw me out of the meeting,” was the best he could muster.

“I threw you out fifteen minutes ago,” shouted Mayhew. “When did Kristina Kupferberg first contact you? I assume it wasn’t fourteen minutes ago.”

“Yes, yes, you’re quite right,” conceded Blenheim, his smile having completely evaporated. “It was two days ago. Tuesday.”

Mayhew thumped the desktop for the third time in the course of their conversation. “So the daughter of the devious leader of a weirdo religious sect who claims he owns a majority stake in Nanovit contacts you two days ago to say she wants an urgent meeting, and you decide it’s not worth mentioning to me?”

“Well, I suppose, I mean, I thought she was probably just another crazy grifter trying to screw a percentage out of Elfin’s death.”

“And you didn’t notice that her surname was the same as the founder of The Belonging?”

“Well …”

“Don’t give me any more of your ‘well I suppose’ brain farts. One a day is one too many. I don’t like what I’m smelling here. It’s either the start of some kind of pincer movement by these Kupferbergs, or else the pair of them are operating independently. Either way, we need to know which it is, and the quickest way to do that is to get Kristina Kupferberg in here for a meeting. She’ll be the weaker link of the two. I want complete profiles of both of them on this desk when I walk in through that door tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir,” said Blenheim.

“No, Blenheim, I don’t want ever to see your bloated anatomy defiling this building again.” Mayhew looked around the room and settled on the face of the one individual he thought might be capable of converting Blenheim’s pig’s ear into something resembling a silk purse. “Miss Feratu,” he said, “accompany Mr. Blenheim to his office and relieve him of anything he has pertaining to the Kupferbergs.”

Miss Perfect Feratu nodded and smiled. To anyone watching, it would have seemed as if she’d been expecting just such an opportunity to fall into her lap since the day she was born. It was, she believed, long overdue.

CHAPTER 46 : Poetry In Motion

Coral typed the word ‘Kristina’ into the filter on her messages inbox, and commenced a leisurely look back over the communications they’d exchanged in recent days.

The first one, as she’d remembered, was couched in somewhat vague terms. “Hi. My name is Kristina Kupferberg. I believe we may have certain interests in common.”

That had been enough to get Coral searching for whatever she could find online about Kristina Kupferberg. There wasn’t a lot and much of what there was didn’t immediately endear her to Kristina. “Poor little rich girl,” was Coral’s first assessment but, as the digital crumbs began assembling themselves in the file she had made, Kristina became more intriguing. The estranged daughter of cult guru Robert Kupferberg, she’d evidently had some brief but high profile affairs with minor celebrities, several of them being influencers. She’d undergone abortions, taken part in a couple of widely publicised social media spats, and occasionally haunted the society pages of glossy magazines.

It was only when they started communicating more frequently, that Coral decided there could indeed be benefits to be derived from getting to know Kristina better. After all, they did have interests in common, the most significant being that both of them considered her father loathsome. On the deficit side, Coral was understandably suspicious about why Kristina had chosen this moment to approach her, and what she hoped to gain from any relationship that might result.

A subsequent, rather more detailed, message in which Kristina revealed that her hatred of her father extended as far as a longstanding inclination to kill him, threw Coral for something of a loop. She could not deny that she too would be happiest in a world from which her abuser was removed, but she was unwilling to progress their relationship further on that basis without first consulting a more impartial observer.

Although Mercy had become her closest friend, Coral was certain that neither she nor Rother would even consider any course of action which was aimed solely at exterminating Robert Kupferberg for reasons based primarily on revenge. Matthew Smiddy, on the other hand, was the kind of man for whom practicality usually trumped morality. If killing Kupferberg was the simplest way to eradicate their last remaining enemy, Smiddy might very well get behind that.

“But first,” she told him, over a coffee in The Poet’s Cafe at San Francisco Public Library, “I want to meet Kristina face to face.”

Smiddy had taken a long, slow look around the cafe and nodded approvingly. “Yes, this place would be great,” he agreed. “Tell her you’ll meet her down here in the basement, and we can scope her out from one of the upper balconies. You’re buying the bagels. The ones with the cream cheese.”

It had been that easy. Just a couple of days later, once they had satisfied themselves that the young woman sitting alone in the basement cafe was indeed Kristina Kupferberg, Coral had joined her while Smiddy remained observing from above.

They talked inconsequentially for a quarter of an hour, sizing each other up, until, out of the blue, Kristina said, “I can help you kill him.” There was no trace of macabre humour in her face or her voice. “I know exactly how to set it up.”

From that bizarre moment, there had been no going back. Both women knew what they were hoping to achieve, and neither doubted the other’s commitment to the objective.

They were on their third cups of Javiva Blended when Kristina threw in the question that sealed their grim covenant. “Do you know the one thing my dad likes better than fourteen year old girls?”

“Thirteen year old girls?” asked Coral. Neither of them were joking, but Kristina shook her head.

“Locomotives,” she said.

At that moment the entire plan came together in Coral’s head.

Miss Perfect Feratu, having liberated all of the Kupferberg documentation from Blenheim, wasted no time in seeking out Butch Carver. She found him in the lab formerly occupied by Gregor Challis.

“Seems to me,” she told him, “that you and I could both benefit from a little mutual co-operation.”

Carver looked up from what had been Challis’ main workspace. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m really up to my eyes in this. Can we talk some other time?”

Undiscouraged, Perfect settled down a little way along the desktop from Carver, carefully placing herself under a downlighter which ensured he couldn’t fail to notice how delightfully her full-length skintight champagne-coloured dress clung to her curves.

Carver appraised his colleague from her strappy black Raynibo stilettos all the way up to the intertwined undulations of her carefully messy bun and said, “You do know I’m gay, don’t you?”

“Ah well,” she said. “You win some you lose some.”

“OK, Madame Feratu, let’s say you’ve got my attention for maybe the better part of the next two minutes. If there’s something you want to say, do it now.”

She shifted uncomfortably on the desktop, crossed her legs, smoothed down an imagined imperfection on one of her eyebrows and said, “We’ve both been singled out by Mayhew, right?”

“Sure.” Carver was listening, but his gaze was fixed on the screen directly in front of his eyes.

“So we’ve got that much in common.”

“Doesn’t feel like much to me,” observed Carver. The screen he had now arrived at showed several links to projects Challis had been working on, and he felt more inclined to be digging into those than shooting the breeze with Feratu. As a colleague, she was someone for whom he had never had much time, but he was willing to maintain the appearance of being interested in what she was saying. He looked up, beckoned her to come closer and asked, “What do you make of those?”

She leaned forward and cast an eye over the screen. “Swarm?” she said. “Elfinator? Datadrom? Kupferberg? Rob1ns? Segarini? How should I know?”

“This is what Mayhew wants me to figure out. It’s all the stuff Challis was working on before he died. Which of them sounds most interesting to you?”

Feratu pulled away and sat up. “I don’t know,” she said. “Kupferberg? I mean, he’s got me digging up stuff on the Kupferbergs, and right away here’s Challis with a file on them. That could be useful.”

As soon as Feratu alighted on the name Kupferberg, Carver found himself disinclined to open up the link. “Nah,” he said. “Elfinator – if that’s about what I think it might be about, it sounds really interesting.”

He double-clicked the link and up came what appeared to be a control panel, a visual display representing the implants in Elfin’s neck, the one every Nanovit employee had seen time and again but whose functions remained largely unknown.

“Woah!” said Carver. “If I can get to the preferences, maybe we can find out what those were for?”

“You think that’ll help? You think that’s the kind of thing Mayhew’s looking for? Surely he’s more interested in the Kupferbergs and whatever they’re up to?”

Carver turned to look Feratu square in the eye. “You know and I know that Mayhew’s a cretin. He really doesn’t know what he wants to know. He’s just thrashing around hoping you or me might come up with something to save his decrepit ass.” He paused briefly then asked, “Tell me this – are you aware of what happened to Elfin?”

“Ey died,” stated Feratu.

“After ey died,” said Carver. “The interesting stuff is what happened after ey died.”

“Such as?”

“They couldn’t find a priest who would deliver last rites on a body which appeared to be semi-cybernetic. Or a mortician who was willing to embalm her or even to casket her. She spooked them all, because of what Challis had done to her.”

“So what happened?”

Carver grinned a twisted grin. “They eventually tracked down a fam ily tomb in London, in Highgate Cemetary, where Karl Marx, George Eliot, Christina Rosetti, Malcolm McLaren, George Michael … loads of others …. are buried. On top of which it’s said to be haunted by the spirit of a vampire.”

“Oh my God,” said Feratu. “Really?”

“Yes, really,” smirked Carver. “So you believe in vampires do you?”

Feratu averted her eyes and did not reply, so Carver continued. “The upshot was that they shipped her mortal remains off to Highgate and passed the problem of what to do with her on to the family solicitors. They say no-one attended the entombing.”

Still Feratu could not bring herself to say anything. Carver returned his stare to the screen. “There’s nothing that says Preferences,” he declared, “but this one could be interesting – Re-set.”

Without waiting to hear any more from Feratu he clicked the link but, apart from several disappointing bleeps, nothing much seemed to happen except that the word Re-set changed from red to green.

Five thousand miles away, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, what was left of Elfin Nano attempted to sit up in eir coffin. Eir forehead battered forcefully against the lid, eir desiccated, decaying neck snapped and eir entire control panel implant came adrift with nothing more than a faint blue electronic flicker to indicate that it was now forever disconnected.

“Shit,” said Carver. “I was hoping for more.”

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