by William Levy
Young girl, coming of age, classic murder mystery, near future w/genetic prejudice.
|Copyright 2015 William Levy
I wasn't impressed by the skinny specimen sitting across from us. Sallow skin turned slightly orange with overused tan cream. Thinning black hair topped a narrow face with close set, beady eyes. Top off this winning mix with a special something that makes you think of sweaty weasel. Even the nicely tailored suit couldn't balance the furtive glances that indicated a scavenger at heart. Somehow he managed to make the cheesy white duraplast bench at the food court look cheaper.
Of course, my opinion could've been influenced by the faint scowl of disgust he aimed at yours truly as the uninvited slob joined us.
But I like to think I'm above that sort of pettiness.
"Mr. Victor? I'd like to speak to you on a matter that…"
"With. Speak with me. Unless you're interrupting my prandial outing to deliver a tedious monologue or an equally dreary ominous warning, the word you wish to use is with."
See, I might be the new kid, but I learn fast. I've gotta be above it all, just to keep things balanced, 'cause he hardly ever is.
"Uh, well, I suppose…" Weasel stuttered.
"And as far as what you would like, in all probability it's of little consequence to me compared to what I'd like, which is to eat these onion rings with the proper reverence due such an elegant delicacy." Finishing the soliloquy with a small harrumph, Mr. Victor twisted his wheelchair slightly clockwise. Delicately selecting a choice, golden-shelled specimen from the grease-soaked cardboard tray, he examined it closely while pretending to ignore our crass intruder.
Holding it aloft with a flourish, the hefty gourmet pointed at it with a single stubby finger. "Notice, Rarity, while crispy enough to maintain its shape, it lacks overtly crusty edges."
I decided to play along. The weasel's face was turning a interesting shade, showing more pale rose than dull orange. "Very nice, Mr. V. Do you think it was pre-heated in a microwave, or flash baked?" A small bite from my imitation lobster egg roll helped cover an unprofessional giggle at this point.
“Hmph, poor, callow youth.” Victor shook his head in gentle sorrow. “This, according to my sources, was double deep fried, an ancient but now virtually ostracized cooking style which might possibly have involved the use of unsanctioned, mayhaps even forbidden, non-vegetable-based fats.”
Weasel-boy was keeping it under control, but just barely. "Sir, I apologize for interrupting your meal, but this matter's very important."
Mr. Victor popped the carefully chosen onion ring into his mouth and chewed, sighing blissfully. He gave no outward sign that the rude Weasel person existed.
"I was told presenting you with this would emphasize the vital nature of my offer." The tacky man reached in his stylish overcoat and I stiffened, relaxing only slightly as he pulled out a small blue slip of paper.
He moved to hand it to Mr. Victor, but I intercepted it smoothly with a gloved hand. At this point the boss tried to continue the bluff that unhealthily chopped, breaded, and weirdly cooked stinky bulbs were of infinitely greater interest, but his heart wasn't in it any more. Curiosity's a major mojo monkey on the back of brains like him.
The routine they'd taught me was pretty simple. A flash of ultraviolet from a tiny scope didn't reveal obvious bio-organic impurities. After a quick sniff, I dropped it in a thin sealed plastic bag from my vest and passed it on. My nose isn't the most sensitive, but after several months of daily training with Polly I can find darn near any of the common contact toxins.
You can't be too careful; there’s lotsa clever crazies out there, y'know?
Methodically wiping his fingers on a napkin, Mr. Victor regretfully accepted the little sack, holding it up to the inadequate food court lights. Heavy eyebrows raised, he frowned and reluctantly turned his full attention to the weasel jerk.
"This is a check. More properly, a bank draft. For a considerable amount of money. Twenty million new dollars." Speaking carefully, like he was talking to a small, slow child.
Weasel nodded, waiting. Keeping his mouth shut seemed to be working, and the little guy was at least smart enough not to take a chance now.
"I hardly think the Highlands Mall food court is a proper venue for this level of transaction."
Yeah, right. Gonna turn down the big bucks, because we're in the wrong building. This from the guy who had me remove a little light from inside the new 'fridge to save money.
Mr. V licked his thick lips, capturing a stray grain of breading before continuing. "Why didn't you contact my office for a more conventional appointment?"
"It was felt that there was a greater safety valuation in this initializing contact if it were kept very low key, sub rosa, for implementational security, and…"
"Enough! What's your name?" Mr. Victor suddenly demanded.
"Uh..." Weasel visibly flinched. "Jackson, sir, you can call me…"
"Insultingly obvious flummery! But very well, Mister Jackson. Your supervisor is a dolt."
"Huh?" Jackson (I suppose I should stop calling him 'weasel', even if it suits him better.) appeared confused. "How do you know..?"
"I don't need to know precisely who your boss is, to know what size of fool he or she is." Mr. Victor paused for a sip from his Freezer cup. "Low key, indeed; the very phrases you use bray loudly to anyone of moderate intellect your involvement in public relations or sales. This means your boss selected you not for your irrelevant skills but rather as the next step along a confounding trail of culpability for equal virtues of expendable scapegoat and deniablity."
"Deniablity. Is that a proper word?" I murmured, finishing my egg roll. This earned me a scornful glance as the big man continued.
"Safety and security? It's truly better here than in my office?" He was on his own roll now. It's inspirational to watch. "I'm a consultant, a problem solver of the highest grade. Your boss thinks my office security might be compromised?" He snorted derisively. "How good could I be, then?" Turning to me. "Rarity. How many agents are currently watching our little outing?"
I played it up, idly scanning the crowd, even though through the micro-ear-piece cyber feed from Madison I already had the answer. "Let's see; there's Harrison, from NSI, Gonzales from the FBI, Barret from Brazil, Pan from New Persia, Ivar from the Europolsec, Gregory from the KGB, and that new girl from China; no sense bothering to learn her name. They change their agents almost weekly. It gets a bit confusing." I added apologetically. "Those are the high profile players. Did you want all of the corporate, organized crime, and lesser neo-political watchers as well? We can hit two dozen total on a good day." Of course I deftly left out any mention of our own people, Polly and Madison. If he didn't already know about them, Weaselboy wasn't getting any freebie tags from me.
"The mall really likes it when we visit. Nearly doubles the crowd at the food court on a slow afternoon." I finished with only the slightest evil grin.
Jackson looked downright ill at the potential audience to his intended secret meeting.
Mr. Victor finished him off. "So in conclusion, we might've done this at a time which didn't interfere with my digestion."
Speaking from experience so far, I don't think a cast iron meatball with lava sauce could interfere with his digestion. But he was right; rude is as rude does.
Then again, twenty million new dollars is twenty million new dollars…
Sighing, Mr. V cast a last longing look at the recyclable tray holding his rapidly cooling illicit treat, then turned back to his not quite verbally disemboweled victim. "What vital service is this princely sum supposed to purchase?"
"Nothing." Jackson said, recovering a tiny measure of spirit admirably.
"Nothing?" Mr. Victor repeated suspiciously.
"Yes, sir, nothing." Jackson was getting a bit of his own back, and tried not to show how much he was enjoying it. "We want to hire you to do nothing whatsoever for the next twenty-eight days. Other than any outstanding and maintenance contracts, of course." He hastily added.
"Basically, no new contracts, then, for the next four weeks." Mr. Victor stroked the neatly groomed patch of reddish fuzz on his heavy chin. "And for whom would I be doing this oddly defined nothing, if I accept?"
"I can't tell you that. In addition, you must agree not to investigate where the money came from, if you accept."
It was obvious he was thinking it over. There's a certain appeal, I admit. Shut down everything for a month, farm out some of the check-up work; take a break, maybe even a vacation. Tour the free-range burrito farms of exotic New Jersey. Could be pretty soft.
But I dunno; I didn't like it. Even to a newbie like me it felt wrong.
The initial light of greed in his eyes was fading as the big guy answered. "Preposterous. I've no way of knowing what opportunities are coming my way over the next month. For whatever purpose you've made this offer, it's obviously only a pitiful fraction of what your people hope to profit by my absence from consulting. Given the apocalyptic greed dominating corporations currently, it's undoubtedly in the hundreds of millions. At least."
"It could even have something to do with an absurd political farce or moronically complex criminal activity." He made a sour face. "You could even be from a less capable firm, seeking to entangle me and ruin my reputation."
Ooh. I was wondering when the streak of paranoia would kick greed in the cajones and make a grab for the controls. Still, I could see the effort it took as he thrust the little baggie with the big, big cashier's check back into Mr. Jackson's startled hands.
"Go back to your shadowy masters and report miserable, abject failure, hireling." Mr. Victor growled. "My time isn't for sale, only my answers."
Mr. Jackson stood. For a moment I thought the weasel was f'sure gonna say something dark and dramatic as a parting snark. But he just nodded and walked away.
"Rarity?" My teacher slash employer murmured softly.
"Already on it, Mr. V." I answered smartly.
He grunted, turning back to his onion rings, a muscular digit poking the cooling mass optimistically.
I popped open my cellphone, using the nicknames we'd agreed on for that day. "Cee and Bee, this is Dee. Evac soonest. On the look-out for long shots."
Without waiting for a reply I hit a number I'd preset on the way over. "Mall Security? This is Ms. Rarity, calling for Mr. Victor, We have a situation crimson, repeat crimson. Uh-huh. Right. Entrance Four. He'll be there in under five."
Fortunately, Mr. Victor was one of the original investors in the Highlands Mall. Polly told me he'd made it a point to become generously acquainted with the security staff during holidays.
You might think arranging for extra warm bodies on our side as we beat a hasty retreat is paranoia and a waste of paid favors. Shows your lack of healthy fear. People who offer big, tasty carrots usually get their way. When bribes fail, an equally large stick tends to get used fast and hard. Funny how the rules are the same in the penthouse and the gutter.
The boss ate another ring, made a face, and rolled over to drop the cheap tray in a trash can. Sucking thoughtfully on his custom-blended organic strawberry Freezer, the wheelchair-bound gourmet sighed. "Good, but not great. The bloom died with the warmth. Perhaps I could suggest a lighter frying oil mixture…" His eyes abruptly lost their thoughtful cast.
A small red dot drifted across his left shoulder toward the center of his broad chest. I stepped in the way and it jiggled across me, unsuccessfully trying to slide past my frankly skinny form.
Even the bullet-resistant Dragonskin vest under my jacket doesn't add enough curves to take this girl out of the waif class. It's okay; being underestimated works for me.
“Take cover behind that pillar.” Mr. Victor calmly ordered.
“Not gonna happen.” I replied bluntly. “A pawn's job is blocking attacks on the king, right?”
“You're not some expendable game piece, you're an underage trainee!” He snarled quietly while still studying the crowd. “And this impudence will go on the report!”
“Which you don't get to write if I screw-up.” I answered tersely, whipping my gooper out of a jacket pocket and scanning the area through the signal-chipped targeting goggles.
Ten meters away, a teen in loud retro-punk flashed a cheap hand-held laser pointer at us again and made an obscene gesture. He giggled loudly. Obviously a distraction; sucker working for the bad guys. Dweeb probably already blew his pay and more than a few brain cells on the latest party drug mix.
A flicker out of the corner of my eye as I grimaced at the jerk. I turned just in time to catch sight of a small charcoal-black ball arcing down from an upper level of the mall.
So the sniper sight gag was definitely that; an old trick. But re-cycling's very chic.
The ghost stump of my tail twitched painfully as I fired two computer-augmented shots. Even with cyber-assisted aim, one missed and auto-exploded into a cloud of dust, dunno which. But the one that hit was square on. Air catalyzed resin enveloped the target, and the mushy impact caused it to veer sideways, landing about five meters off. A wet 'fump!' noise as it hit, and the rapidly formed almost impenetrable translucent ball expanded to cantaloupe-size as it hardened.
Wow. Big boom-boom. That would've done more than a little food court redecorating.
Reloading the squat cartridge automatically, a suspicious thought crossed my mind even as Mr. Victor called out. "Rarity!"
Damn. Double feint.
Several bullets whined past and I spun. Too slow. A glaze of pain and I pitched forward, curling on the cold tiles, still trying to get a shot at the not-actually-a-teenage punk who was suddenly moving forward a heckuva lot less awkwardly .
'No fair! Stealth skill is my gig!' I thought hazily, tried to focus.
Our assailant flashed a confident grin. One of his hands now held an old fashioned detector-proof plastic automatic, the other a twin to that deadly black ball. He snickered and squeezed the explosive, triggering it, pulled his arm back for an underhand delivery.
I tried aiming my gooper, but there was some sort of fuzzy red-black stuff I couldn't see through. I settled for waving it in his general direction and pulling the trigger. My numb fingers didn't like this plan and decided not to cooperate.
Fortunately other defenders were still on the clock and the punk's hand with the grenade took a hit, coated with a splat of fast spreading resin. He dropped the cheap printed-out gun and clawed frantically at his encased arm. It didn't do any good. The explosive went off, pulverizing his fingers. The otherwise nearly impenetrable newly formed container flew off the remainder of his arm, ricocheted wildly around the court like a cheap, blood-fueled rocket.
The would-be killer screamed, clutched the explosively amputated limb, then suddenly stopped. His legs buckled, and he plopped on the floor. The doofus just knelt there quietly on gore-soaked linoleum as the first of the Mall security people came running up and grabbed him.
Madison was suddenly here. The tall dark man snapped his fingers near my face.
Think so, anyway. Couldn't see them very well. The fuzzy stuff was thicker.
“M'kay.” I just smiled and closed my eyes as he yelled for a gurney.
Good old Madison. Always looking out for bystanders. Hope whoever needs that stretcher didn't get hurt very badly…