"Freedom of the individual means that you can raise a loan on your own body--but if you default the mortgagee can reclaim your body, terminate you and recover the cash in spare parts sales!
"Gregory's troubles begin when a scientist comes to him fleeing from the dreaded debt collectors. Best news is that Blake and Mona are scheduled to reappear."
--WEST HERTS & WATFORD OBSERVER
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By Richard Engling
Copyright © 1989 and 2001 (revised) Richard Engling
NAL PENGUIN, INC., New York and HEADLINE BOOK PUBLISHING PLC, London published this book in an earlier version in 1989 and 1990 respectively.
Private investigator Gregory Blake entered his office to find his secretary in the center of the room, everything turned upside down around her, files thrown everywhere. The chairs lined up in a row, tipped over near the wall, legs sticking up. Drawers lay stacked next to his desk, their contents spilled out on its top. There was something almost orderly about the chaos, as though the most polite of cyclones had blown through the room.
Mona looked up at him and smiled a slight, crooked smile. “There’s no mistaking it,” she told him. “Somebody’s been in here.”
“Well, this is a kick in the ass,” Blake said. “I hope they got what they wanted.”
“At least we know they’ve been here.” She often kidded Blake that he was probably the only boss in the city who still made his secretary file paper in an old-fashioned metal cabinet.
“Go ahead and laugh,” he told her. “If this were on the computer, they wouldn’t even have had to walk in here.”
“You know that isn’t necessarily true.”
“Maybe I know that. But I’m not so sure.” Blake was really less concerned with computer theft than with his own dependence on machines. He wanted to be able to reach into a file any time he wanted, Mona at work or not. “At least we haven’t lost all our files,” he said.
She looked at the paper scattered over the room and laughed. “Nope. Plenty of those left. But something here must be missing.”
“I don’t imagine they turned the place upside down to amuse themselves,” Blake agreed. He picked up a large manila envelope from his desk. It had no writing on it. Blake noticed it was sealed, probably the only thing in the room that could make that claim. He smelled the seals for traces of chemicals and held it up to the light. He rattled it, shook it, and felt along its surface. It did not seem to be dangerous.
“What have you got?” Mona asked. “The Trojan Horse?”
He carefully opened the envelope. From inside he pulled a few sheets of newspaper that were dated from five months before. He looked them over. There were no marks on them, no sections cut out. Among the articles he noticed the name of his “old friend” Murray, but nothing else.
Mona moved over to look with him. Blake caught the warm fragrance of her scent and noticed uncomfortably that he enjoyed the closeness of her body. He’d noticed that more and more over the two years she’d worked for him. She put her hand softly on his forearm as she examined the clippings. He looked at the gentle curve of her eyebrow, and felt pleasure at her touch.
He handed the newspaper to her and stepped away. “What do you think?” he asked.
“It’s not yours?”
“Then I think it’s a time-waster,” she said. “They leave a phony clue to keep you busy while they do whatever they do.”
“Could be,” Blake agreed. “Whoever left this doesn’t seem to be in the business of doing us favors.”
“By the way, a John Dwight called this morning. He said he’s president of Midland Waste Reclamation.”
“I know John,” Blake said.
“I thought you might. Anyway, they had some sabotage out there last night.”
“At the plant?”
“Yes. In Lincolnwood.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
“I don’t think anyone was hurt, but he didn’t want to say much on the phone. I promised him you’d be out there sometime this morning.”
“Good,” Blake said. “I’ll enjoy seeing him again.”
They heard a knock at the door. Mona answered to let in a tall, blond fellow. He began to speak, then stopped when he noticed the chaos in the room.
“Are you Gregory Blake?” he asked doubtfully.
Blake looked him over for a moment. He looked like a California beach boy movie star. His clothes were rumpled, but of fair quality. And he was pale—paler than his blondness would have made him naturally.
“That’s right,” Blake said finally.
“The detective?” the man asked.
“You’re in the right place,” Mona smiled. “We’re just trying a new filing system.” Blake thought he noticed her wink at the guy.
“It looks like you have enough trouble already,” he said.
“Don’t worry about this disaster,” Mona assured him. “Blake’s the best in the business.”
The man sidestepped as the detective grabbed a chair and flipped it upright. He stood still in one clear spot on the floor and watched silently as Blake righted the chrome and leather furniture.
“Have a seat,” Blake told him, indicating the chair he’d set closest to his desk. “Start sorting this garbage, will you?” he asked Mona.
“Sure,” she said, still with a slight smile in her eyes. Blake knew the closer she could get to the middle of the action, the better she liked it. And she seemed to like looking at this new client, as well. There was a clear sharpness to his features and a wary intelligence in his face. But there was something about him Blake didn’t like.
He swept the mess off the top of his desk into two empty drawers, then sat down. “How can I help you?” he asked.
The man shrugged as though the situation were slightly ludicrous. He crossed his legs and looked sidelong at Mona behind her desk. She nodded encouragement.
“I’ve developed a valuable piece of new equipment,” he told the detective. “An elemental processor. There’s nothing else like it in the world. What I need is protection for a week while I set it up, operate it, and deliver a product. After that I’m in the clear.” The phone began ringing and Mona answered it.
“Sounds simple enough,” Blake said. “Who’s trying to bother you? Why do you need protection?”
“Do you really need the details?” the man asked impatiently. “How about if you just take me and my equipment somewhere safe?”
“Just a minute,” Mona said into the phone. “Blake, this man insists on speaking to you. He wouldn’t give his name. He says it’s an emergency.”
“One moment,” Blake said to the blond man. He reached automatically for his phone before realizing it was not on the desk. He glanced at Mona who raised her eyebrows and pointed downward with her index finger. He found the phone under a pile of papers beneath his desk.
“You got a guy named Jeremy Scott in there with you?” the voice on the phone asked.
“Who’s this?” Blake asked.
“We’re in the same business,” the voice said. “Jeremy defaulted on his HRL. We got to pick him up. You hold him for us, you get the standard payoff. Just don’t use a buzzer. We need him clearheaded.”
“What’s this guy look like?” Blake asked, glancing blandly at the man in his office.
“He’s a tall blond guy in a bum’s suit. Looks like he could’ve been on TV.”
“Sorry,” Blake said.
“Come off it. We know he’s at your place.”
“Maybe he got delayed. Give me your number, and I’ll ask him to phone you.”
“That’s not funny, Blake.”
“Sorry.” He hung up before the other man spoke again, then sat staring at the customer in his office.
The man stared back, beginning to look apprehensive. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I make it a practice not to do business with dead men, Mr. Scott,” Blake said. “It makes it hard to collect my bill.”
“I’ll have the money in a week,” Scott said. “I’ll pay you and the loan without a problem.”
“The gentleman on the phone said you’d already defaulted. They want to come and pick you up. They want to lay out your organs in the deli counter window.”
“The loan doesn’t default until Monday. I’ll have the money in a week.”
“Jackass!” Blake said. “A week is too late. You knew what you were signing. I ought to let them chop you up.”
Scott pulled himself up and squared his shoulders. “It was a gamble. I knew that. But the pay-off is big. I’ll double your usual fee.”
Blake looked at him coldly. He hated the stupidity that led anyone to sign a Human Resource Loan contract almost as much as he hated the collectors and detectives who picked up the defaulters for easy bounty money.
In an earlier period of wild deregulation, Congress had made citizens the legal arbiters over the fate of their bodies—in certain instances, at least. By clever manipulation of the voluntary euthanasia law combined with the rights of citizens to will their organs to the recipients of their choice, a person with healthy organs could take out a loan with only his body as collateral. If he defaulted, collectors picked him up, doctors plucked out his organs for transplants, and the cadaver was dried and ground for fertilizer. Toxic pollution kept the demand high. The whole business made Blake sick.
The process was clearly illegal, but each of the participants—banks, doctors, and collectors—covered the legality of their specific contribution, and there was no one left to prosecute. Anyone could sign his life away for a pile of quick cash. And yet one practically had to have a doctor’s prescription to buy a pack of cigarettes.
Usually Blake just stayed out of HRL situations, figuring anyone stupid enough to sign one deserved to pay the price. But he didn’t like the way that collector on the phone had said they were in the same business. And he’d said not to use a buzzer on Scott. That was odd.
Collectors wore buzzers on their palms, like the novelty shop toys that shocked the gag victim with a handshake. This latter day buzzer, however, was a hypospray jet injector, a device that shot a stream of fluid through an orifice of fifty microns. The collectors slapped the buzzer onto a victim’s forehead, injecting a chemical through skin and bone that ulcerated the frontal portions of the brain. The personality and will were destroyed, but enough of the cerebrum remained to keep the body living for several days—plenty of time for doctors to ravage it for spare parts.
The detective looked at Scott again. He didn’t trust the man.
“Isn’t there something you can do for him?” Mona asked.
Blake looked at her in surprise. She seemed truly concerned. He hadn’t liked the way Mona looked at the guy, and now he realized that that was part of his resentment toward Scott. Since Blake studiously avoided on-the-job romance, he thought he’d better drop the on-the-job jealousy, as well. But most of all, he hated that a collector thought he would accept bounty money.
“Come on,” Blake said finally. “We’d better get out of here before they’re busting down the door.”
Scott stood up. “Thank you, Mr. Blake,” he said coolly. “I was a dead man without you.”
“Yeah,” Blake agreed. He turned to Mona. “You better take the rest of the day off. The collection boys aren’t going to be happy when they find we’re gone.”
“I can handle them,” she said. “I’ve got to get though these files and see what’s missing. It could be important.”
Blake hesitated. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “But don’t let them in. And if you get a chance, take a look at that paper.”
“I think it’s a time-waster,” she said lightly.
“Probably, but maybe not. Give Jake Fishman a call and tell him I’ll need his help. I’m taking Scott over there. Then I’ll get over to Dwight at Midland Waste.”
“Good luck,” she said.
“You, too. And whatever you do, don’t shake hands with a collector.” He winked at her.
“Buzz me later, if you get the chance,” she replied, arching an eyebrow. Blake winced.
“All this jocularity is doing nothing to boost my confidence,” Scott told them.
“Too bad,” Blake said. “Lock the door behind me,” he told Mona.
Blake led Scott down into the basement of the building, making sure they were neither seen nor followed. The first thing to do with Scott was get him out of sight. Blake planned to hide him at Fishman’s for a time while he worked on more pressing concerns—like taking care of Dwight, a real paying client—and finding out who’d ransacked his office. Paying the rent and protecting himself came before the problems of an egghead who’d signed his life away. But Fishman would keep Scott safe until Blake could do more.
Jake Fishman was an odd-jobs man. Blake had used him a number of times in the past, mainly to dredge up information, to pass messages or money, and occasionally to keep someone safely locked up—and not always willingly.
Blake led Scott to the door of a basement maintenance room. He used a key to open the door and unscrewed a flat metal panel from the lower wall inside. He turned off the overhead light before he removed the panel, then shone a pocket flashlight beam into the opening.
“You first,” he said to Scott. “It’s an air duct to the Crosstown Subway. Be careful of the edges on that hole.”
Blake watched the other man fit himself into the air duct. It felt good having Scott drop down the passage first. When he didn’t want to be confronted at the doors to his building, the unfinished tunnel made a good escape—but Blake was not the only one to use it. He didn’t like running into strangers, since no one had any legitimate reason to be down there. If bullets started flying when they dropped through the ventilator, Scott would be the first to take them. Blake’s client might bleed, but at least his organs would be safe from collection.
He followed Scott into the duct, climbed down a few rungs of the emergency ladder, and pulled the metal panel back into place. He lowered himself into the dark, his eyes blinking wide and nonsensically against the blackness, until he felt the last rung beneath his foot. After that came ten feet of empty space and the floor of the abandoned subway tunnel below. He climbed down hand over hand, hung from the last rung, and dropped onto Jeremy Scott’s back. The blond man cried out, and Blake clapped his hand over the client’s mouth. He pressed his lips close to Scott’s ear and whispered: “You make another sound down here, I’ll slit your throat.”
“Someone told me contacting you would be a mistake,” Scott whispered angrily.
Blake let it pass and looked up toward the ladder and duct overhead. Invisible. Even people who’d come through more than once couldn’t find this entrance. Down the tunnel he could see more easily. At long intervals, safety lights shone from behind wire mesh guards, illuminating small sections of the elliptically-shaped tunnel, creating a series of diminishing archways of light punctuated by long passages of dark. Blake knew they would have a long walk, probably an hour and a half before they reached Fishman. They walked in silence, the impatient Scott several yards ahead of Blake.
On the left side, occasional short alleys opened onto a parallel tunnel meant for train traffic in the opposite direction. It was from one of these alleys, as Scott stepped into an illuminated section of the subway, that he heard a voice telling him to stop.
Scott yelped his surprise. From the darkness of the passageway emerged a large, broad man carrying a gun. He grinned with the pleasure of having the upper hand.
Blake froze in the darkness where he had not yet been seen. “You looking for a train?” the big man asked Scott.
Blake recognized the voice at once. It was Billy. Blake looked at him carefully. The big man’s face looked thin and his eyes were sunken. He looked a little shaky on his feet. Billy was a strong-arm man that Blake had hired in the past. A nice guy. Mona especially liked him. Nobody had seen him in a while—and now he looked strange. His short, brown hair was normally combed straight back and neat. Now it looked matted and dirty. A few days growth of whiskers on his square chin accentuated the unusual redness of his lips. The rims of his eyes and even his bulbous nose had taken on a red tinge, as well.
“What do you want?” Scott asked. Blake hoped he would have the sense not to look back, not to give Blake’s presence away before he assessed the situation.
Billy smiled derisively. “I work for the mayor’s office. I keep these empty tunnels secure.” Billy gestured with his pistol to the blond man, his voice slightly slurred. He took a step forward and cocked the gun. The shadows from the wire grid on the light slid down over him like prison bars. “The mayor said I should collect from you. I need some money.”
“Blake, where are you?” Scott said in panic. “Where’s my protection?”
“Blake?” Billy said, dumbfounded.
The detective sighed. Damned fool clients, he thought. “Don’t shoot anybody, Billy,” he said aloud. “It’s me.” He stepped slowly into the light.
“Oh, crap, Blake,” Billy said. “I need cash. This guy has got to give me some money.”
“Sorry, Billy,” the detective said.
“Come on. Don’t make a big deal. Put it on this guy’s expenses.”
Scott backed off a few steps.
“He ain’t a client,” Blake told him. “This is my brother-in-law. I’m helping him hide from my sister.”
“Listen,” Billy stammered, “you don’t have any sister. I know that. So don’t bullshit me. I had this guy pegged fair and square.” He gestured toward Scott with the pistol.
“Don’t let this idiot shoot me, for God’s sake,” Scott yelled. “Can’t you put down that gun?”
“If you don’t give me some money,” Billy told him, “I’m going to smack you in the head and take it.” He lifted the gun threateningly, but Blake jumped forward, grabbing Billy’s gun arm and kicking sharply into his kneecap. Billy screamed as his pistol blew a slug into the tunnel wall, deafening all three men. As Billy fell, Blake knocked the gun away and jumped in with a knee on his solar plexus and the tip of his stiletto tucked under Billy’s chin. From its point of contact, Blake’s knife drew one small drop of blood.
“Now I want you to come round to my office tomorrow, Billy. We’re going out for a drink, and you’re going to tell me why business is so bad you got to pull this kind of crap.” Blake could tell by his breath Billy had been drinking quite a bit already.
“I say we shoot him right now.” Scott stood with the recovered pistol clutched in both hands.
Blake looked at him, then looked back down. “And I’ll explain to you how I took a nitwit like this for a client,” he said.
Billy grinned nervously as the detective got off him. He wiped the blood from beneath his chin as Blake took the gun from Scott. Blake tossed the pistol back to Billy. Scott looked dumbfounded.
“Are you crazy?” the blond man asked. “What’s to stop him from doing it again?”
“If he does, he knows I won’t buy tomorrow,” Blake said.
Scott turned angrily away, then noticed Billy hobbling off into his tunnel. “What?” Scott said in surprise.
“No more noise,” Blake said, leading the way on again through the tunnel.
They walked a long time through the alternating light and dark, avoiding the large pools of water underfoot, and watching for figures in the side tunnels. They stopped silent when Blake heard noises, which he usually decided were the scrabbling of rats.
When it finally came, the change of smells gave great refreshment: Fresh air blew in their faces stripping away the wet cardboard aroma of the tunnel. The darkness ended finally, opening into a large abandoned pit meant someday to be a crosstown subway station. They climbed up the steep road that the heavy equipment operators had built. No trucks had driven it in some time.
The Crosstown was a study in the Chicago style of public works. The plan was to provide good transportation from the Northwest to the Southwest sides of the city, with easy connections between Midway and O’Hare Airports. A good idea. However, subway construction had halted two years earlier, tangled in legal right-of-way and funding problems. And the only part of the underground tube that had been started was the least important part—the spur to connect the main part of the Crosstown with the center of town, hooking under Blake’s building through to the fashionable Near North Side.
In building the spur, the city had found it necessary to condemn and knock down a whole section of slums—which is why, Blake thought, this spur had came first. The slums were an embarrassment to the city. As the Near North’s popularity spread to neighborhoods further west, the slums stood as a fatal barrier to rising property values. Too many poor people in one spot. Too much crime.
The city had not found it necessary to knock down the modern building that housed Blake’s office, however. They had managed their construction past it, though it was as close as many of the slums they had knocked down.
At the top of the incline, Blake unlocked the fence gate leading to the street.
“How did you get that key?” Scott asked him.
“I didn’t,” Blake answered. “I cut off the construction company’s lock and replaced it with my own.”
Scott laughed appreciatively as Blake closed the gate behind them and made it secure again. He looked around, following the detective. “I think I know where we are,” he said.
“Good for you,” Blake replied. He led the way up the block to a small coffee shop.
“What’s this? You’re stopping for a late breakfast?” Scott asked.
Through the large plate windows Blake glanced over the five booths and the two small round tables inside. Customers hunched over on the stools at the counter like people doomed to a life of gruel. One of the customers was a man he wanted to see. Beyond him, the cook flipped eggs at the grill.
“Business,” Blake said. He pulled the door open and pointed Scott back to the sixth booth, out of sight in the corner. Then he sat on an empty stool next to a gray-headed man reading a newspaper.
“Know anything about a sabotage last night? It was at a waste reclamation plant, up in Lincolnwood,” Blake said, looking straight forward.
“I know enough to wonder what the hell you’re doing on the street,” the man said quietly.
“What does that mean?” Blake said.
“Stay seated and don’t look at me,” the informer told him. “Don’t try to contact me. I don’t want to get dragged down with you.” He got up, turning away from Blake as he rose, and left the shop.
What the hell? Blake wondered.
The cook set a plate of eggs on the counter. “Where’s Bowens?” he asked.
“Where? This is his breakfast. Where’d he go?”
“Didn’t say,” Blake said.
“Shit,” the counterman replied. “You hungry?”
“No.” Blake looked at a headline on the newspaper Bowens left behind: “Plans for Apocalypse Eve Blocked by Council.” Blake had heard this on the radio. The television preacher Reverend John Lightbearer had convinced some huge faction of the population that not only was the Apocalypse coming, but that it would arrive this coming January 25th, one month after Christmas. Seven years ago when he had announced the date, it had probably seemed like a good idea. The Reverend Lightbearer served up an impressive array of portents and predictions based on biblical passages, and his popularity had soared. But what would he do after the date passed?
That question did not appear to trouble the Reverend. He was planning huge outdoor prayer services in cities across the nation for the coming January 24th, “Apocalypse Eve.” (That he would choose to plan anything outdoors on a January 24th in Chicago demonstrated his fragile hold on reality). But the Chicago City Council did not look favorably on his request to use Grant Park. Belief in the coming Apocalypse had affected more than just devote Christians. Fringe groups had already begun to create public disturbances, and many feared trouble if such an event were allowed to take place.
Blake flipped the paper over. “Police Investigate Bank Bombing,” the front-page headline read. “Seven Killed at First National.” A large color photograph showed bodies strewn in the rubble.
People, Blake thought. They’ll do any damned thing. He got up, signaled Scott, and walked outside. The blond man joined him.
“Let’s go.” Blake led the way down the street, heading back southeast.
“You get what you wanted?”
“No,” the detective told him. Blake wished the informant had stuck around. Since he was delayed in getting up to Dwight’s plant, he’d hoped to go with a lead already in hand. Instead he got a warning that made no sense.
“We need to pick up my equipment,” Scott said. “You told me we were going to somebody named Fishman. Is he going to help us with that?”
“No,” Blake said. What was it about Scott? He was good-looking, obviously intelligent. Why did Blake’s mind’s eye insist on seeing him as the high-school president of Future Scientists of America, surrounded by pimply technology nerds running arcane computations? Because he’d signed an HRL?
“I’ve got other commitments,” he told Scott. “You’ll have to sit safe at Fishman’s for a while.” The scientist grunted his irritation.
“What does your machine do, anyway?” Blake asked.
“It’s an elemental separator.”
“An elemental separator.”
Blake stared at him.
“It’s a simple concept,” Scott said impatiently. “Every compound is made up of elements with specific atomic weights and charges. Each compound, at the molecular level, has a weight and charge determined by its atomic makeup. With a machine programmed to attract molecules of one specific weight and charge while repelling all others, one can extract pure substances from adulterated ones.”
“That’s what it does?”
“As simply as I can put it. Unless you want a more technical explanation.”
“I got the picture,” Blake said.
“When will I get my equipment?” Scott asked.
“When I’m done with my other business, we’ll see about picking up your machine.”
“I’ve got to have it right away, Mr. Blake. There are adjustments to make.” He snorted a laugh. “You can’t expect me to just sit and play cards with Mr. Fishman.”
“Listen, Scott,” Blake said, pushing his client out of sight into an alley. “Deep down inside,” he patted his chest for emphasis, “way deep down in my heart, I feel like a jackass for having anything to do with you.” Scott tried to protest, but the detective raised his left index finger for silence and cupped his right hand gently over the man’s mouth.
“Starting Monday, Mr. Scott, you will be an outlaw. You signed the paper. The bank has the right to repossess your ass. If I were a right-minded individual, I’d turn you in, collect the reward, and take my secretary out to a well-deserved dinner.” Blake released Scott’s mouth and wiped his hand on Scott’s shirt.
Scott smiled oddly. “I don’t think you like me, Mr. Blake.”
“There’s no percentage in you,” Blake told him simply. “A man who won’t pay his bill when his life depends on it gets a lousy credit rating in my book.”
“But why are they after me already? This is only Thursday.”
“You tell me.”
He walked back out of the alley and down the sidewalk, Scott following. After the second block, they went past a man sprawled on the ground like a fallen scarecrow, his head propped against the wall in an attitude of drunken repose. Across the street a woman sat on the curb, her purse emptied on the ground beside her, bobbing her head like a quizzical sparrow.
“Has she been robbed?” Scott asked. The woman began howling in an incoherent guttural rasp. The man bellowed behind them and rolled off the sidewalk to kick his legs twice. The woman threw her purse.
Blake looked into her face and saw the horror of her eyes. “Jesus, God,” he said. He dug quickly into his pocket and pulled out a slender case with two capsules in it.
“Quick, take one of these,” he told Scott. Blake opened one of the capsules and sniffed a pinch of thalamin powder up each nostril. It burned like hell, but he couldn’t take any chances. He wanted it working fast. Then he put the capsule back together and swallowed the rest of it dry. Scott stood, still holding the thalamin in his hand.
“Hurry up,” Blake told him. “You want to be gibbering like these poor gooneys?”
Scott looked at it. “I can’t,” he said. “I’ve seen what happens to people from this stuff.”
“Don’t be an idiot. Look what happens without it.” The woman on the curb began rubbing lipstick all over her face.
“I’m a scientist,” Scott explained. “I can’t afford to lose my edge of clear thought.” He stopped and looked around. “I don’t smell anything. It’s probably blown away.” At that moment the breeze picked up a sheet of dirty newspaper from the gutter and swirled it toward them like an airborne dervish. From around the edge of a grocery store ahead, Scott saw the faintest wisps of yellow fog curling in the air. “Oh, shit,” he said. He tried to take the antidote capsule, but in his haste, dropped it. The capsule hit the sidewalk, bounced on the edge of the curb, and arced through the sewer grating like a tiny Olympic diver.
“I dropped it,” he said.
“That was the last one,” Blake told him. He could feel the thalamin turning the air viscous, slowing him down, making him dull and woozy. That would change soon enough.
“How long can you hold your breath?” he asked Scott, grinning stupidly. Then he felt the sting of QDT on his eyes. He smelled its acrid flavor: like barbecued bug spray.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” Scott said. Blake forced himself to dive hard and tackle his client before he ran away. He held him to the ground as Scott’s senses began to scramble.
QDT, originally developed by the army, had become a popular “disambulant” with police and military forces all over the world. It affected its victims like an airborne LSD—and certainly left them “disambulatory.” It knocked everyone on his or her collective ass.
“I may have to start playing nursemaid now,” Blake said slowly, though he suspected Scott could no longer understand, “but I’ll be damned if I’m going to chase you.” Scott began making small noises to himself, and the detective got up. “You won’t get far now,” he said.
Blake felt the first rush of QDT fighting with the antidote in his system. All his drowsiness fled as though he’d shot a heavy dose of amphetamine. He’d have to be careful. His thoughts would come fast again, but they’d be skittish and unreliable.
He wondered who’d put QDT in the air. There hadn’t been riots, so it probably wasn’t the National Guard. The police? Fishman would know. He had to get Scott safely to Fishman’s.
Blake walked up to the grocery store. A middle-aged man with a Manager patch on his uniform lay on his back near the door moaning, “Oh, no.” Blake leaned over him, and the man shrieked in terror.
“I know how you feel,” Blake told him. He flipped one of the shopping carts over the barriers, wheeled it back to Scott, and hoisted the wriggling man into it.
“Get to Fishman’s place,” rattled on in Blake’s mind. “Stick to original plan.” Blake wheeled his load swiftly away.
The detective knew why Scott had hesitated to take the thalamin. When the drug first hit the underground market a number of political dissidents had taken it too often. Excessive use of thalamin left them permanently dull-witted. The police then found it easy to capture and lobotomize them, turning their bodies over to redemption centers and collecting the exchange for themselves. By one means or another, police never lacked for exchange organs. And thalamin was still illegal without a permit.
Blake pushed on with the cart, using alleys like cockroaches use the insides of walls, trying to stay out of sight. Being mobile and coherent in a QDT “control zone” led to questioning by the police—something Blake definitely wanted to avoid.
Website TitleWebsite URLhttp:// KeywordsBut there were worse problems. When the police deserted a “control zone” and the incapacitated victims were left helpless at the site, the results were sadly predictable. Up at mid?block, five gang kids swung into the alley like jackals smelling blood.
Blake let his head bob twice as the cart with Scott swerved into the brick wall of the building to his right. Blake moaned and twisted his head as he banged the cart into the bricks like a violent spastic. The police would not be deceived by his act. One look at his eyes and they’d know. But the boys he might be able to fool.
He allowed his head to loll in their direction. The gang members all wore gas masks: customary QDT looting attire. One had a pistol stuck in his belt, one dragged a chain, and the other three carried bags for raiding the stores.
The lead boy pulled the gun from his waistband and held it high over his head. The others stopped behind him. He gestured graciously toward the two men. Scott rattled himself violently in the cart while Blake hung his head slantwise, watching the boys out of the corner of his eye.
“What have we here?” the boy with the gun exclaimed. The others laughed as he pranced up to the men. “It’s another couple of gooneys!” Through the gas mask, his voice sounded like it came from a tin can. He looked like some horrible human insect.
Gang kids had originally coined the term “gooneys.” It sounded so appropriate for the awkward victims of QDT that “gooneys” had been taken into general usage.
As the boys approached, Blake lurched sideways against the cart and lolled his head, moaning again.
“Let’s string up their balls for bow ties.” The boy with the chain leered at them. The detective picked up his head and let it roll back. They had gathered in a semicircle around him like a pack of wolves.
“Just get their wallets,” a third said. Blake saw this was one of the bag boys. He swirled further so his back rested against the cart’s handle and his arms hung forward like an ape’s.
“Before we make any decision, my friends, let’s see how much they’ll pay for our protection,” the gun boy said. He walked up to Blake and reached his arms around behind him to feel for his wallet. Blake grabbed the boy’s gun and slapped his gas mask straight up off his head. Blake’s fingers fumbled in drug-panic, but he held on to the pistol and spun the boy around, putting a chokehold on his neck. He pressed the gun barrel to the boy’s temple and looked at the other four, who had frozen. Blake watched the chain-carrier’s surprise turn to a challenging smirk. The kid he held whimpered, and Blake felt the warmth of blood on his trembling wrist. The gas mask had caught the kid’s nose on the way up. Blake saw from an angle the boy sported a new, red mustache and goatee.
Blake’s heart pulsed at tremendous speed as adrenalin continued to pile onto the confusion of QDT and thalamin in his system. He forced himself to speak slowly:
“I think you boys came shopping to the wrong store.” Blake’s body trembled and his hands shook continuously. He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
The chain boy’s smirk deepened. “Look at this guy,” he said. “He ain’t going to shoot nobody. He’s scared shitless.”
Blake felt the danger of being so misread. As a kid, he’d survived some trouble himself, and he wanted to let the boys down easily. He wished suddenly there were more QDT in the air to take out the one he held, but Scott had probably gulped the last blast concentrated enough for the job.
The first boy blew some blood out of this nose and then spat, trying hard to keep the trembling out of his voice. “Shut up, you asshole,” he said to the chain-carrier. “He’s got a gun to my head.”
“He’s harmless as a fly.” The kid began reeling in his chain and smiling directly at Blake.
“He busted my nose!” the first one said, sounding on the verge of tears.
“You was too sloppy.” The three other boys backed off as the kid began to swing the chain over his head, quickly letting out links to increase his range. Blake kicked the first boy’s feet from under him and knelt hard on his back. With two hands he pointed the pistol at the chain-swinger.
“Now it’s you . . .” Blake started, but the slap of the links stung his hands, and the pistol rattled onto the pavement. They dove simultaneously with the boy’s hands reaching it first. Blake pulled him up by the wrists hard, knocking him backwards off balance. As he fell, the kid jerked the pistol suddenly from Blake’s grasp, and it slapped down into his own gut at the moment it discharged. Blake snatched the gun away.
Beneath the goggles of the mask, the boy’s face twisted up in pain. “God damn it! God damn it!” he cried. He curled up like a hemorrhaging fetus. Blake stuffed the gun in his pocket and ran down the alley, pushing Scott in the cart.
“Take care of him,” he yelled back at the four other boys, who were still paralyzed with shock. The sound of Blake’s voice broke them out of it, and they all ran, disappearing between buildings and behind garages.
“You shits,” the wounded boy shouted, having pulled off his gas mask for air. “You chickenshit pigs!” he yelled.
Blake ran on, then shoved the cart into a garage. The overhead door had broken off its runner on one side and hung down diagonally. He leaned against the back wall, out of sight. The horrible drugs and tension shook his body, then suddenly seized his middle like a gigantic hand, squeezing everything up out of his stomach. He was hallucinating now, he realized, as he saw his vomit swirl. He stepped away from the mess and wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve. Some of the QDT had gotten through his antidote barrier.
He felt bad about the kid and angry that his reactions had been slowed. He couldn’t escape the boy’s tin-can voice repeating: “God damn it!” in his mind.
Blake inhaled deeply through his nose and smelled the burnt wire odor of his own chemical sweat. He looked around and saw odd swirling shapes in the dark corners of the garage. Over his vision floated a film of tiny colored dots, turning the world into a study in pointillism. He felt his skin tingling, especially in his face, as though he were faint. He had to take it easy now, calm his blood.
Then he noticed the sound of crickets. Thousand of crickets chirped in the garage around him. The racket deafened him to all else. He put his hands over his ears, but that merely changed the tone of their buzz. Dammit, dammit, dammit, they chirped. Blake’s stomach twisted, and he bent over, retching dryly. He looked at the vomit on the floor. It moved toward him! He was sure of it. He stepped back with a shiver of fear and turned away. Then Blake saw the wounded boy. He was sitting in the shopping cart, his entire front drenched in blood. He saw the boy’s chain wrapped around his gas mask neck. His tongue hung out, blue, and his eyes gazed blankly dead. Blake lurched away in panic. When he looked back at the shopping cart, his client was in it again, pulling at his upper lip with his fingers. The detective sat down on a cinderblock with his eyes closed and waited for the sound of crickets to subside and his vision to return to normal.
He remembered being the kid’s age. He remembered working on Jacky Valdez’s old Dodge in the garage behind the Valdez two-flat when they were kids. Blake had been adjusting the extension light over the engine. He turned to grab his soda and saw a head silhouetted in the dirty garage door window—a head wearing the Raider gang’s short-brimmed cap. The Raiders had been pressuring Blake and Jacky to join. Now they were watching them. Somewhere outside a car’s tires squealed.
In a moment’s bravado, Blake grabbed a broken pellet gun from the workbench and pointed it at the window. The head bobbed back in panic, then flashed out of sight in a scream of automobile tires and human pain. Blake pulled out the cord on the extension light, and the two boys cowered like criminals beneath the door window.
The Raider boy’s skull had split like a dropped melon when a speeding car knocked him to the alley. The boy in the car was a Street-King proving his bravery by cruising Raider turf. It took six months for the two gangs to stop killing each other over the accident. Young Blake joined the Raiders in guilt, but he never confessed his part in the death.
Blake thought back to the gang boys who’d just attacked him. Through the chemical fog in his brain, the memory of the shooting in the alley had lost its hard sense. Had it been a hallucination? He pulled the gun out of his pocket. It still felt warm. The gun looked very real. It had happened all right. He found a tube of glue on the floor of the garage and carefully filled the gun’s barrel and chamber, wiped it for fingerprints, and put it under a flowerpot against the wall.
When Blake dragged the cart with Scott back out into the alley, the shock of seeing the wounded boy not even a block away almost pushed him back into hallucinations. He’d felt as though he’d run miles from the shooting.
“You assholes!” the boy screamed, his voice fading into pain at the end. Blake hesitated, then started moving toward Fishman’s again. The kid looked too feisty to accept anything but hate. That spirit ought to get him through the bullet wound, at least.
[End of excerpt. The rest of the novel is available as a free e-book at www.richardengling.com. Register there for publication news, and additional free stories.