|Requiems for the Shadow People
by Mark Van Sciver
© Mark Van Sciver -- all rights reserved
Author's Note This novel is a work of fiction. The names of some characters that appear in it will be recognizable to people who frequent the home of the greatest transformational fiction archive on the Internet: Thomas Hassan's Transformation Story Archive.
When I created the bar, The Blind Pig Gin Mill, I peopled it with characters named for their counterparts on the TSA-Talk list. Everyone was good-natured about letting me put them in my universe and I would like to thank them publicly. However, it should be noted that in this story, their thoughts, actions, and ideas are mine alone, and may not represent how they feel about life, the universe and things in general.
There are already over a hundred stories by many talented list authors written or set in the TBP universe. This is the eighth in a series of stories I have written that will eventually span the first hundred years of the Blind Pig universe. Through the course of these stories, I plan to reveal the origins of the Martian Flu and humanity's eventual fate in relationship to SCABS (Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome). If any of this interests you, you might want to read or reread Tails of the Blind Pig; A song of hand music; The man who knew himself; and O, Come All Ye, which are located in the Blind Pig section of the Transformation Story Archive.
Finally, I would like to say a special word of thanks to the following folks who appear in some shape or form in this novel: Brian Erik Coe; Copernicus; Jack DeMule, who is my friend as well as a story character; Eddie Glover, y'er preggers this time, me lad; Thomas Hassan, thanks for the feedback and encouragement; Kim Liu, who hates cowboys but let me make him one anyway and who I did horrible things to in the course of this story; Regal, the inventor of Splendor, my favorite TBP character next to Donnie Sinclair; John Sleeper, Bob Stein, how many people are lucky enough to get a disease named after them; Wanderer; and Bryan Derksen, after playing all those bad guys in so many stories got to be the hero. Thanks guys!
Mark R. Van Sciver November 1998
In an alleyway choked with rotting garbage, Sarah Beidler settled in for the night.
Neither time nor SCABS had been particularly kind to her. Twenty-two years earlier ... less than a year after contracting Martian Flu ... Sarah awoke one morning to discover that the face she saw every morning for the first 31 years of her life had become a stranger's. She watched in horror as her body transformed from a petite 5'2" middle school teacher from Comstock, Iowa, to a seven-foot, 981 lb. hulk ... vaguely resembling a ill-matched cross between a human and an elephant.
Her once flawless skin gradually coarsened, attaining a pebbly-textured, grayish-brown hue. At the same time, her height and girth expanded dramatically. Her reddish-brown hair fell out in clumps, leaving only a few tufts on the top of her now expansive skull. Her ears flattened and broadened into fleshy palm fronds and the musculature of her mouth and jaw restructured itself from that of an omnivore to herbivore ... including two incisors that grew into the semblance of elephantine tusks. Finally, her nose thickened and lengthened into a mock caricature of an elephant's snout, leaving her denied of both human expression and human speech.
No longer able to stand upright on two legs alone, Sarah lumbered through the world on the thick elephantine stumps that were what remained of her arms and legs. No longer human, and not quite an animal, Sarah was trapped in the twilight world that anyone who has contracted the Martian Flu fears ... not one thing or the other, and belonging to neither.
Sarah Beidler was one of the unlucky ones. Like many SCABS she was morphlocked into a form, unable to change or alter her appearance. And like so many others in this state, she found herself slowly, but inexorably, bereft of family and friends. To plain and simple folks from a small town like Comstock, SCABS ... like AIDS, like venereal disease, like leprosy ... like any disease that left frightening or fatal marks upon its victims ... SCABS was something that happened to someone else. And somewhere else. It happened to people who had something wrong with them to begin with.
First acquaintances disappeared. Next, friends. Then one day, Sarah noticed that her husband flinched whenever she reached out to him. On a Tuesday morning, she arose and found the house empty. Her husband and children were gone. With nothing and no one to anchor her to her hometown, Sarah gathered a few meager belongings in a towel. Using her trunk, she locked the front door of her home and placed the key under the mat and left Comstock, and her former life, behind. And so Sarah was cut loose from the mooring that had anchored her life. She found herself cast adrift along with other human flotsam until time and travel brought her to the city.
A city gave you something no small town can . . . anonymity. And anonymity was what Sarah craved. A place where no one knew her, or her past. In time, Sarah became just another SCABS animorph that couldn't "cut it" in the real world ... hardly noticed or cared about by norms, or even by other SCABS.
Whenever Sarah needed money for alcohol, she'd hire herself out as a day laborer, earning enough to keep herself drunk for a few days to a week before needing to work again. The great strength of her bulky body, coupled with the amazing dexterity of her proboscis, made her a popular worker in construction circles.
But to Sarah, a job was only the means of getting enough cash to purchase a few hours of brain-numbing unconsciousness under the ministrations of Mr. John Barleycorn. Public parks and empty lots still provided enough grass and branches for forage, as long as the cops or park rangers didn't spot her. All she needed money for these days was alcohol.
In the blustering squall of a late October rainstorm, Sarah pulled the oversized shawl that covered her shoulders over top of her head. She also adjusted the ragged remains of an oversized dress ... her last remaining affectation and link to her lost humanity. She carefully arranged flattened boxes in a manner to keep the worst of the rain off her.
She knew she should go to the shelter on West Street, but that was too much trouble. After all, she had two bottles of wine. Besides, she was in no mood for a lecture from her well-meaning friend, the snake girl, who ran the place.
"Ah, my little snake girl!" she thought.
Just thinking of her made Sarah mentally smile. Her memories dredged up images of the tiny waif girl with red hair whom Sarah found huddled in an alley all those years ago. She remembered the little girl with the pretty face and smile . . . a smile that faded when life and the street seemed to put a permanent scowl on the girl's features.
She and the little snake girl made quite a team in those days. They even had a semi-permanent home made of cast-off wood and pallets over behind Foster's Warehouse. The snake girl awoke the dormant maternal instincts that Sarah had been suppressing with alcohol over the years. Sarah remembered cold nights with the girl curled up asleep in the crook of Sarah's trunk, of listening to the girl's wishes and dreams, of a Christmas when the girl stole her friend a comforter from a queen-size bed.
Sarah still used it as a shawl.
As she lay in the darkness tipping wine into her mouth with her trunk, she wordless hummed a tune from an earlier time in her life ... when men in starched western shirts, and dark-cleaned boots square danced with women in bouncy crinoline skirts at church halls on Friday evenings.
Fly in the buttermilk ... Shoo, fly, shoo! Fly in the buttermilk ... Shoo, fly, shoo! Fly in the buttermilk ... Shoo, fly, shoo! Skip to the Lou, my darlin'.
Two bottles of Thunderbird later, the only sign that distinguished Sarah from a trash heap was the sight of her long snout weaving back and forth in the night air like a drunken snake. It's doubtful if she either noticed or cared when the unmarked half-ton truck backed into the alley and lowered its elevator ramp. Four dark-dressed men alighted and formed a half-ring around the recumbent woman.
"Get a prod," one whispered.
"Don't be a fool, dere's an easier way." another answered with an odd accent. This one pulling a paper-wrapped bottle from his coat.
Walking up to semi-conscious woman, he unscrewed the cap from the wine bottle and spilled some of its contents around the tip of Sarah's snout. As she inhaled the fumes of the cheap wine, her red-rimmed eyes opened and tried to focus her surroundings. A far away voice seemed to be calling to her.
"Want more wine, honey? C'mon . . . C'mon . . . come wit' us . . ."
Sarah lurched unsteadily to her feet, her snout moving back and forth in front of her as she tried to focus in on the source of the alcohol.
"Here's some more wine, lass" he called out softly in a singsong voice. He waved the bottle and backed up toward the truck. With the innocence of the lamb, Sarah followed the scent of wine until she stepped on to the truck's elevator. Slowly, she rose until she was even with the bed of the truck.
From inside, the voice called to her to come " . . . just a little farther."
Sarah followed the sound of the man's voice into the darkness. Behind her, the door came down with a crash and bolted. From inside the truck as it pulled away came a crackling electrical sound as if a cattle prod was being applied to naked flesh ... that and the dull screams of the elephant woman.
And so Sarah Beidler, formerly of Comstock, Iowa, passed from the familiar environs of West Street. And in all the world, no one noted her passing; no one missed her, or even noticed she was gone.
Except for one person.
CHAPTER 1: WEST STREET
Have you ever noticed that when people talk about cities they often describe them as living things? How often have we said things like, "the heart of the city," or the "eyes of the city," or described some service as the city's "lifeblood." But just as every city has its heart, brains, blood, there must, by nature, be a section where the waste is flushed.
In the city of the Blind Pig Gin Mill, that area is known as West Street.
A 1906 Chamber of Commerce pamphlet describes West Street as:
"A modern Mecca for all business and commercial concerns. Convenient to all city docks and rail lines, the West Street Business District stands as a proud beacon representing progress and Modern City life ... built for today, built for the future."
Approximately 126 years later ... after two World Wars, one panic, one depression, 14 major and minor recessions, and five downtown renaissances later ... dawn rose over the skyline of West Street.
West Street: five consecutive blocks of dingy, bleak, run-down, and abandoned buildings.
West Street: little more than a stop over for people engaged in prostitution, drugs and other crimes of the city.
West Street: a refuge for the homeless and adrift.
West Street: where it doesn't matter if you're norm or SCABS, because on West Street the only real label you carry in this neighborhood is being one of the "poor."
West Street: an unending line of boarded up and dirty storefronts. Except for one place. Because even sewers have to exit somewhere.
On West Street, there's one place where even the hopeless can have hope. The sign in the window says it all: West Street Shelter ... Everyone welcome.
On the roof of the four-story building that houses the shelter is a small rooftop water tank that once serviced the millinery that operated there from 1910-31. At the turn of the millennium, just before West Street's current collapse, this end of town harbored a small art community. The building's last owner ... a minor artist of the retro-jessehelmsian school ... converted the tank into his art studio. Today it serves as an apartment for the shelter's director.
In the early light of dawn, a woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a tee shirt nightgown, sniffed the morning air and looked out over her domain. A tall redhead with flawless white skin, many would call her beautiful if not for a perpetual scowl that seems to crease her face. She sipped at a cup of coffee, more from habit then from any real need for sustenance.
Her name is Splendor. At least that is the name she adopted on West Street. In those days, her home was the corner of the adjacent block where West Street crosses Racine Avenue. In those days, Splendor was an item to be purchased for an hour or an evening.
Splendor was a prostitute. Just another whore. Only this one was a herpamorph with exotic snake skin scales and a tongue that men ... and women ... paid top dollar to experience.
But Splendor had secret, one she shared with no one. In those days, before she knew better, she called herself a succubus ... for although she ate and drank as others did ... she drew no sustenance from it. Rather, she discovered that only through contact, intimate contact, with others could she draw the energy she needed to live. She also discovered she possessed an ability to manipulate the chronological age of people with whom she had contact.
Caustic, angry, sarcastic on the outside, she nonetheless loved and was loved by her fellow West Street denizens, whether SCABS or norm. Pimps and other shakedown artists gave her and her friends a wide berth when word got out on the street that people who messed with Splendor's friends got hurt . . . or worse.
Just ask people what happened to a pimp named Jello-Jimmy who was found alone inside his locked apartment crushed to a pulp after beating a SCABS hooker named Beaver Alice to death. Or to Stuart "Weasel" Kelly, a norm who used to get his kicks roughing up the West Street homeless until he was found dead in his car with his pants around his ankles, bloated to nearly twice his normal size. The only marks they found on him were two tiny puncture marks on the tip of his "whatsis."
Yet it was the near murder of her best friend, an animorph named Sally by a two-bit wanna-be despot named Councilman Robert Atwell Barnes that changed Splendor's life. After luring Barnes into her flophouse room for the night, Splendor used her power to permanently reduce the man into a six-year-old boy.
But her revenge nearly backfired when Barnes used his transformation to stir up anti-SCABS hysteria among norms and launch a bid for the mayor's office. Only a desperate last minute plan concocted by SCABS discover, Dr. Robert Stein, and Splendor derailed Barnes' campaign. The cost was the loss of Stein's identity, for to achieve their goal, Stein allowed himself to be rejuvenated into a boy, and it seemed that he had lost his polymorphic abilities forever.
That should have been the end of it. Splendor went back to her corner outpost, but she didn't stay there long. Stein wouldn't let her. He sensed that underneath her diamond-hard shell was a sensitive and brilliant woman. What's more, what Stein really sensed was the raw, surging unrestrained power of a rogue polymorph. Slowly from behind the scenes, Stein tested and trained Splendor: first, to recognize her power; second, to use it; and finally, to control it. Splendor, true to form, fought him tooth and nail all the way. When Stein decreed that the limitations of his "second childhood," coupled with the limited research resources available to him in the city, it became imperative for Splendor to relocate to a facility that could help her.
With his worldwide contacts among the polymorph elite, Stein opened doors and raided resources to study Splendor's condition and explain her extraordinary power. In return, Splendor went to school. At first, she wouldn't even entertain the idea of leaving West Street, but taking his cue from the proverb of the mountains and Mohammed; Stein decided let Splendor win battles as long as he won the war.
Although she refused to discuss her youth and family, she did admit that she developed SCABS very early and that she left home very shortly after. But where she came from and what her history was, she wouldn't say.
Stein arranged for Splendor to spend a year at the University of Alberta where the best and most brilliant SCABS scientists were working on untangling the Gordian Knot of how SCABS worked and why it effected people differently.
What they discovered about Splendor astonished them; her body literally sustained itself by drawing off small amounts off another person's bioelectrical field. Like a snake, she really only needed to feed once every two weeks, provided she wasn't overexerting herself. While it only took a small amount of energy to sustain her, she couldn't draw energy at will, or if it was injurious to her meal's health.
The researchers suspected a correlation between Splendor's unique feeding needs and the fact that she developed SCABS while still pre-pubescent. She also made vague reference that her birth mother was one of the few survivors of the Great California earthquake of 2012 and subsequent meltdown at the Palo Alto nuclear plant. But lacking any corroborating evidence, they finally gave up their overt search for answers and merely noted Splendor as the first known person in the worldwide database to have developed this SCABS anomaly.
They also determined that while the act of physical sex allowed her body to take the energy it needed from anyone ... norm or SCABS ... under special circumstances she could draw her nourishment directly from contact with polymorphs trained in how to form the energy field she needed.
But the learning was more than one way; in the course of the examinations, researchers discovered that Splendor had a base IQ of 171. Inside of three months, Splendor had completed every requirement needed to receive a high school diploma equivalent. The taste of education was like a narcotic to her and she began a personal self-improvement project devouring education with an intensity she'd never experienced before.
The University of Alberta offered her a full scholarship in any discipline she chose to enter, but Splendor had another idea. She had already decided that her home was West Street and she was determined to return to it. Remembering her early years on the street, she was determined to set up a shelter where anyone who wound up on West Street could go for a decent meal or a place to sleep. She chose a building close to her old corner, as a reminder herself where she came from ... and where she could just as easily remained.
She threw herself into her new goal of establishing a center. Unknown to her, Stein secured a grant for the project directly through the head of GDM International. Splendor's opened the shelter, established a board of directors from both the SCABS and norm community and took on the day-to-day management. She also applied and was accepted into the prestigious psychology program in the state's university system. True to form, in less than five years, she had a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, Summa cum Laude, and a Master's Degree with honors in Psychology, and had begun work on her doctorate.
So in some ways, she blamed school for missing the problem for so long. But mostly, she blamed herself.
Splendor was extremely good at blaming herself.
For years thereafter, she tried without success to remember when she first noticed some of the long-time and familiar faces of West Street began disappearing. At first, she chalked it up to the transient nature of West Street, but then, long-time denizens began disappearing as well.
As director, Splendor kept an account of every SCABS and norm who used the shelter. When she first consulted the records, there didn't seem to be discernible pattern to the disappearances. There was, only she didn't recognize it for a while.
As near as she could determine, people started disappearing nearly a year earlier. She couldn't track every transient, but she was able to determine the whereabouts of many of the shelter's regulars. The first person she definitely identified as missing was an exotic animorph prostitute named Otter Annie.
Annie, who possessed the fur of an Amazon River otter while retaining overall human features, was a popular girl for patrons whose tastes in women tended toward the hirsute. She'd shown up on West Street after Splendor left the trade and, after being a regular feature on the street for over four years, abruptly disappeared about eight months earlier. The only two other notes Splendor had on Annie were that she was morphlocked in otter form and a known alcoholic.
After Otter Annie, Splendor started noticing a sickening yet familiar pattern: at least two or three people a month were going missing from West Street. Last March, a homeless bruinmorph and a teenage petty thief named Bennie Iguana disappeared. In April, two exotics ... an animorph silver fox-girl named Kelle disappeared from her corner ... and a TG/minxmorph named Enrique who was last seen getting into a john's car.
May was the worst: first, a homeless day worker morph-locked in semi-pygmy rhino form; then a TG exotic named Michael; followed by Jin Yuan, a recent illegal from Canton, China, who understood little English and spoke none because he was morphlocked with the torso, wings and head of a flamingo. The fourth to disappear in May was a newly developed SCABS named Joseph who manifested as nearly a fully formed Kodiak Bear, except for one human arm and leg.
The disappearances continued through the summer months: a musk oxmorph named Consuelo, two entomorphs and an ostrichmorph named Jamaal in June, an armadillo girl, a female to male TG named Kawanna, and another bearmorph. July and August slowed down ... only two definite disappearances during these months: another bearmorph and marsupial wolfmorph. In September, the disappearances picked up again with four homeless animorphs missing and another TG drug addict.
Splendor closed the ledger and rubbed her eyes. As near as she could tell, nobody was missing this month and, if she could help it, no one would. She spent the next week patrolling the district, badgering and cajoling the denizens to come to the shelter at night, or at least to band together for mutual protection. Splendor also kept a sharp lookout for strangers entering or hanging around in the district. She was partially successful, but she knew in her heart that far too many West Street people simply didn't care ... either for themselves or for others ... too many years of booze, blows and drugs had numbed whatever sense they had of "community."
She was especially worried for her friend, Sarah Beidler, a loner by nature. Sarah hated the shelter. Her large bulk made living in human-size dwelling claustrophobic for her. Splendor knew that the few times Sarah agreed to come in were only because of her love for her former foster child.
Business always picks up at a homeless shelter when the weather starts turning cold, especially if there is rain on top of it. So, the morning after a storm was usually a busy one for Splendor and her small staff of helpers. They had only a few hours to clean up after clearing breakfast and arranging the sleeping areas before having to prepare for lunch. Splendor was at her desk in the small third-story room that served as her office when a mutt caninemorph named Jimmy-Bark came to her doorway.
"Arr-rah . . . graawn," he woofed in his best attempt at human speech.
"What, Jimmy? I can't understand you."
"Arr-rahh . . . graawn," he repeated. Then seeing she still didn't understand him, he pointed to an old photo on the wall. "Arr-rahh! Arr-rahh!"
"Sarah? What about Sarah? Has something happened to Sarah, Jimmy?"
"...essss," he said, pointing toward the door.
Splendor felt a white-hot knot form in the pit of her stomach as she sprinted down the stairs. When she and Jimmy reached the street, he pointed the direction she should follow. When they reached the Foster Warehouse, Jimmy stopped as Splendor entered the side street alone. To the untrained eye, it looked like any other trash-filled alley, but to a woman like Splendor, who had spent years living in alleys like this one, something stood out.
She turned over the flat boxes and watched two empty wine bottles roll free. She also saw a rain-soaked bed cover balled up on the ground. She carefully picked it up and carried it with her back to the shelter. She asked one of her helpers to have the comforter cleaned and returned to her. Then she went up to her office and sat quietly at her desk for a few minutes. From her purse, she removed a small address book. Punching up the vid-link, she said, "Get me 3542@211003." The perky tones of the automatic operator only darkened her mood. After a moment, the vid blinked and man's face appeared on the screen.
"Why, hello, Splendor, this is a surprise."
"C. R., we've gotta talk."
The man frowned and stood up. The vid adjusted the picture to show the casually dressed man was in a large well-lit office.
"Sure . . . Is there a problem?"
"Nothing I want to talk about on the vid. I want to see you in person."
"At the Pig?"
"I'll call Donnie and get a private booth. Do I need to bring anything?"
"No, I'll see you there at two."
She broke the link, opened her desk, retrieving her ledgers, and went downstairs.
"Becky!" she called to her assistant. "I'm going out. I don't know when I'll be back. You're in charge until I do."
CHAPTER 2: THE ADVOCATES
One month later, the president and CEO of GDM International ... a man called C. R. ... was seated in his office wearily rubbing his eyes as the antique ship's clock on his desk quietly chimed 8:30 a.m. He was in an old wooden rocker that had come from his great-grandmother's farm in Wisconsin. He kept the chair to remind him where he came from.
C. R. had been in his office all night. He was tired ... bone tired, mind tired, soul tired and body tired ... and it didn't appear that he'd be getting rest any time soon. On the sofa next to him, a small homely boy with red hair, gently snored.
The vid-link on his desk lit up and a man's face appeared
"Howdy Boss, did you get the package I expressed?"
"Yes, Regal. I've had Bob's people analyze it. I'm afraid they confirmed many of your suspicions."
The man on the vid merely nodded.
In the years since the first reported cases of SCABS, sociologists and psychologist worldwide noted an interesting phenomenon. A significant portion of Martian Flu victims, well above 50 percent, adopted single name personae after the onset of SCABS. Sure, there were plenty of people who went by their full names, like Donnie Sinclair, Tony Cheval, and Brian Eirik Coe. But there were even more people who went by a single name. Some ... like Slipstream, Rydia, or Wanderer ... chose nondescript names. Others ... like Weremoose or Spots, or Cheetara ...incorporated the changes SCABS had made in their lives, and how they wanted to be known to the world.
For some, a single name "handle" became a bulwark ... a refuge behind which a person could hide, forget, or runaway from a former life. For just as many, their name became their personae, for it could not be denied that many, if not the outright majority, enjoyed the added dimensions that SCABS brought them.
Ask somebody like Copernicus as he's chasing prey at 30 miles per hour in his Deinonychus-raptor form during carnivore hunting season. Ask him if he wishes he'd never developed SCABS. Or ask the Lupine Boys if they'd give up their ability to wolf-morph. Yet, Regal's case was different. Everyone knew he was SCABS, but his name had as much to do with "attitude" as it did with his condition. Regal was a private investigator ... a PI, a Gumshoe, a Chandler.
Regal was a hard case ... an animorph mongoose detective. Lighting fast in mongoose form, with all the tenacity and balls you'd expect from a creature that tangoed with cobras. He didn't depend on SCABS to do his job. Sure, the morphing power that SCABS gave him was useful, but it didn't substitute for brains and legwork; Regal excelled at both of these.
Regal used the vid's pan feature to scan the room. A smiled creased his face when he noticed the sleeping boy.
"Hey, Ugly! Wake up," he shouted. "All the beauty sleep in the world ain't going to improve your looks!"
The boy yawned and rubbed his eyes.
"Bite me, Regal."
"Such language from one so young."
"Knock it off, you two," said the man in the rocker. "How's Brussels, Regal?"
"I'm not there anymore. I'm in Austria . . . at Herr Hassan's place in Vienna, in fact. I've shown him the materials and he's making contacts within the European contingent on another link, but he's listening to us."
The boy, still yawning, went to the bar and poured a glass of milk. "Did you finish reading the reports I brought you, C. R.?" he asked.
"Yes. And I don't like it. Are your people sure, Bob? Could they be wrong?"
"No, C. R., it's conclusive. The DNA tests were positive."
When he saw how despondent C. R. looked, the boy added gently, "Look I didn't want to believe it either, but between the disappearances Splendor documented, and what little concrete evidence Regal has uncovered, we've got to face facts ... we've got a problem ... a potentially big problem."
"I know. If word of what's going on gets out among the general population, we'll have SCABS-norm riots on our hands that will make the Humans First troubles seem like a picnic. We've got to stop this now."
The boy nodded his agreement and Regal looked off to his right and spoke a few moments to the unseen Hassan.
"Thomas and I think you're right, Boss. He's just handed me a list. He's only had a few hours to work on this ... and it only covers west and central Europe ... but it appears a number of cities in different countries has experienced unexplained disappearances among the indigent SCABS population over the past few years. And always with the same pattern ... exotics and homeless. Now, it's moved to the States."
"You know, I'd hate to think how long this would have remained undetected if Splendor hadn't been so observant," the boy said.
"No, not just Splendor," Regal interrupted. "That reporter, Lisa Underwood, has been sniffing at the edges of this story. Splendor wasn't . . . discreet in who she mentioned the disappearances to. Underwood hasn't put two and two together yet, but she will. Dumb she ain't! She's discovered quite a bit on her own. Lots of folks, SCABS and norms, trust her. When she's around, people talk."
C. R. pursed the tips of his two index fingers to his lips in deep thought for a moment, then slapped the top of his desk decisively. "It can't be allowed!" he said firmly.
"It's your call, Boss, how do you want to play it?" Regal said.
"I want it stopped. I want the supply and the suppliers. Do you understand? I want the source found and put out of business. I want it ended . . . permanently! And I want it done NOW!"
"You got it, Boss," Regal said. "I've already started after the brains of this outfit. Whoever they are, they're smart. Looks like they only raid a city once ... and only for a limited amount of time. Then they lay off from revisiting the same site for a couple of years. It appears they stay a few months to a year, kidnap selected victims, and then shut down the operation and move to the next location."
"So, Regal, you're thinking that this is the only place they're operating at present?" the boy asked.
"Don't know, Ugly," Regal nodded. "Could be. Think about it . . . they're supplying a discreet select service to a rich clientele. Low supply equals higher cost. It's simple. Plus there's less chance of getting caught when they're dealing with a group of people nobody cares about anyway."
C. R. bristled, but Regal continued, "It's the first law of conservation: Don't over hunt. They snatch only a few SCABS from each location. It doesn't raise anybody's suspicions ... after all, SCABS homeless drift in and out of places like West Street all the time. God only knows how long this group's been operating before we chanced on them."
"We've got to get to them before they skip the city. It could take us months to track them to their next site," C. R. said.
"By my reckoning, they'll be operating about eight months to a year in our location before moving on," Regal said.
"Then it ends here!" C. R. said. "Regal, I want you back here on the next shuttle."
"No, Boss, you're not thinking straight. Sure, I could be back there in a few hours, and I probably will have the guys your looking for in a week or two. But that doesn't solve the problem."
C. R. frowned, but Regal continued, "You've got to look at the big picture, Boss. Think of a skink. It's this little lizard with a real special defense mechanism. It sits out there in its tree, doing its own thing, until a predator comes along and says to himself, ...Gee, I'm hungry; think I'll have skink for lunch.'
"When the predator ... say a bird ... grabs at Mr. Skink, he runs off . . . but leaves his tail behind. The bird gets a part of a meal all right, but Old Mr. Skink gets away and grows himself a new tail. If I come back home, all we'll wind up with is the skink's tail. I've just got to concentrate on catching the whole lizard . . ."
After a moment of tense silence, the boy added, "Regal's right, C. R. You've got to stay focused on the big picture."
"All right!" C. R. said angrily. "That doesn't mean I have to like it! Regal, I'm charging you with cutting off this organization at the neck!"
Regal nodded, adding, "I'm inclined to think that we'd better start laying the ground work for what we'll do if this story gets out."
C. R. said, "I've been thinking of that. If the story gets out, the basic cover story is a slaver ring ... involving persons so far unknown ... are kidnapping indigent SCABS and selling as chattel to overseas countries with little or no SCABS-rights protection. That's close to the truth anyway.
"But the only people ... and I repeat ... the only people that know the full story are the four of us. No one else ... including Splendor . . . especially Splendor . . . is let in on the real story without checking with me first. Agreed?"
He looked at the boy who nodded yes and then to the monitor.
"Thomas and I agree," Regal said.
"It's settled then!" C. R. snapped and broke the vid-link.
What followed was an awkward silence. The boy returned to the sofa and finished his milk. His companion continued to rock back and forth in his chair in deep thought. Seeing his friend wasn't in the mood for talking, the boy sighed and picked up a book with the imposing title "Principals of Astro-Physics" and began reading intently.
About 40 minutes later, the office intercom buzzed. When C. R. made no effort to answer it, the boy closed his book and crossed to the desk.
"Yes, Molly," he asked.
"Excuse me, Dr. Stein, Ms. Splendor from the shelter is here. Shall I send her in?"
"Yes," he answered. "And Molly, please don't call me Dr. Stein . . . I'm trying to stay incognito. Couldn't you just call me Bob, or Bobby . . . or even Honey-bun, like you used to?"
"Sure, Dr. . . . I mean, sure Honey-bun," Molly answered with a giggle.
A moment later the door slid open and Splendor entered the room. She was dressed in a red pantsuit with white silk blouse. Her heels made her look even taller and more imposing than she was naturally. Bob sighed at the sight of her. He was still years away from puberty, but what he lacked in physical "equipment" he made up for in mental desire.
The sight of the diminutive Nobel Prize winning scientist, for once, removed the frown that always seemed to appear on her face, and Splendor smiled. She waved absently to C. R. as she bent over and lifted the boy in her arms and kissed him. It was not exactly the kiss of an adult toward a favorite child, but with the kiss of a woman for a man.
"Stein, Stein," she sighed, still holding him tightly in her arms. "Oh, I miss you!"
"I miss you, too, Splendor. Sorry I don't get to town much these days, but my new work is keeping me pretty busy."
"What new work?" she asked with a suspicious smile.
"Don't you know?" C. R. said, joining the conversation. "Seems old Bob here's going to be taking a trip."
"A trip? Where?"
Little Bob blushed giving him a red face to go with his red hair.
"Mars . . ." he mumbled.
"Mars! I'm going to Mars . . . at least, I'm pretty sure I am. The brains at the International Space Council think I'd be a natural for the first manned Mars mission. They think they've located a likely spot for the origin of the Mars meteor. And since I'm still pretty much of an authority on Martian Flu and SCABS, they want me to tag along."
"But you're still just a kid!"
"Well, I won't stay one! Besides, it's not like we're leaving tomorrow. The project hasn't been funded and the shuttle vehicle is still on the drawing board. Those details alone will take a five or six years. By the time the ship leaves, I'll be well past puberty, and nearly 20 again by the time we land on Mars."
"But you're no space man!"
"I'm back in school under an alias as a boy genius. I'm learning to be an astronaut. When I finish MIT next year, I head off to Japan to learn the bio-medical systems we'll be using, and then I top it off advanced geologic studies in Copenhagen."
"Oh, Stein, I'm so proud of you."
As he continued to blush, the boy added, "What they don't know yet is I plan to design and smuggle a specially adapted environmental suit on board. I plan to walk ... or better yet ... trot on Martian soil as an equinemorph. That REALLY will be a first!"
The three stood smiling at each other for a moment, then the smiles faded into an awkward silence as they remembered the business that brought them together.
"So what are you going to do about my people?" Splendor asked finally.
"We're working on it," C. R. said noncommittally.
"Not good enough. I want to know what are you doing?"
C. R. sighed and briefly outlined the decision just reached.
"That's it!?! Regal's going to find this unknown somebody while my West Street people get snatched? Not fuckin' likely!"
"Please Splendor, we've been all through this," Bob tried to reason with her. "The Consortium . . ."
"Consortium! Bullshit! As far as I'm concerned, the Consortium is doing jack! I've never understood you guys. You go to all the trouble of developing a secret SCABS network and, when a crisis occurs, you do nothing!"
"That's not fair," Bob countered.
"Isn't it? Isn't it, Stein? Well maybe I was wrong. The problem with the Consortium isn't that it won't take action . . . it won't take action for people like my folks. That's it, isn't it? If people ... well-known SCABS ... went missing, you guys would pry this city open like a can to find them. But not homeless SCABS! Nobody cares about them. That's the problem with you guys . . . you high and mighty polymorphs . . . and all the other SCABS. People like the folks on West Street are an embarrassment to you . . . reminders of how it was only the luck of the draw that separates you from them.
"They're not even people to you are they? You pay them as much mind as you would your own shadow. That's what they are to you . . . they're shadow people ... dark shadows on darker walls. Garbage you step over or go around," Splendor said, so angry now that tears formed unbidden in her eyes.
"But not to me! These are my folks! My people! My friends! And if the fucking Con-SOR-tium doesn't give a rat's ass about them, I'll do the job myself! I'll find the sonnavabitches that are messing with my folks and I'll kill 'em. I swear it, I'll kill ...em all."
"Splendor, you can't go out after them alone . . ." Bob started to say.
"CAN'T I! CAN'T I!" she screamed at Stein. "Who's going to stop me? You?"
"No, Splendor," C. R. answered quietly. "Bob can't stop you. But I will. I head the Consortium. If you cross me on this, I'll stop you hard. HARD!"
Splendor clenched and unclenched her fists in impotent anger before sitting down. Stein looked from one to the other before going to the bar and getting Splendor a glass of water. She looked at her hands and saw the mottled scaly skin she tended to lapse into whenever she was angry or upset. It was some indication of her anger that she was flicking her tongue to taste her environment without realizing it. With her heightened snakemorph senses, she could almost taste the emotions in the room.
From the boy she could taste a sense of love and concern. And, yes, fear as well, for Stein held a deep-seated and repressed fear of snakes. She smiled. Then she turned her senses toward the man but all she sensed was an iron wall of resolve. He was right, she didn't have the power to resist him. He was too powerful. Then as she willed herself to calm down, she wondered how the human race survived before the Martian Flu. SCABS with mammalian, reptile, avian, or other animal backgrounds could often sense moods in others. It helped you decide when to fight or when to fly. She sensed no compromise at all in the man next to her. No room for her to work her will.
Slowly she relaxed, allowing her anger to unwind, the way they had taught her at the University of Alberta. Her skin mottling faded and became the flawless white skin that was her trademark as a humanoid.
"All right," she admitted.
"Splendor, you're wrong about me. They aren't shadows; they are real people to me, too ... every last one of them. My mother died in the original epidemic. And my dad, you see, they didn't understand SCABS at first as well as they did later. My father developed gills and choked to death on fresh farm air. But if that hadn't of killed him . . . well, let's just say that if there had been a West Street in those days, Dad would have probably wound up there."
After an awkward moment of silence, C. R. said with a half smile. "That being said, whaddya say, let's go get these bastards!"
Bob's jaw dropped and Splendor turned her head so fast her neck bones crackled.
"Wha . . . wha . . . wait a minute, C. R.," Bob stammered. "What about the plan? What about what Regal said? The big picture. The skink! Remember the skink! Regal's got to concentrate on getting the head of the ring."
"You're right, Bob, that's exactly what I want Regal to do. But Splendor's right, too. We're going to help catch these bastards. And, if possible, free the people they've kidnapped. It's just going to be harder without Regal's help."
"But you said . . ."
"I said I wouldn't allow Splendor to do it alone. I didn't say anything about sending her out with some help."
"So who do you have in mind?" Bob asked.
"Well, not you for sure, Bob. You're starting to look too much like the unknown boy that Barnes supposedly shrunk. I don't need the added headache of someone stumbling across that particular skeleton on top of my other problems. I'm out too, for obvious reasons. I can't even begin to think of asking anybody from the usual Pig crowd. I was mulling all this over before Splendor came in. Right now, I'm leaning toward asking Bryan Derksen."
"Bryan!" Stein exclaimed.
"Derksen!" Splendor added.
"Yes, Bryan. He's smart, reasonably athletic, and his morph form of choice is one we already know is high on the list of desirable targets for our kidnappers. And, most importantly, he's been out of town for so long, and changed so much, that nobody will recognize him."
"Yeah, all that's true," Bob countered. "But aren't you forgetting the fact that he's morphlocked in bug form?"
"Cockroach, to be specific," C. R. said. "And since this group seems to have a particular interest in bug morphs, Bryan's a logical candidate."
"Yeah, but Bryan's kinda . . ." Bob said.
"Kind of what?" C. R. shot back. "Let me tell you something about Bryan ... he's not the "rug" that people who have been walking over him all these years think he is. Sure, Bryan's got problems . . . issues he has to deal with . . . but the only thing wrong with Bryan . . . is Bryan.
"Bob, you knew him in the old days: he was the quiet, shy, unassuming, but brilliant young man . . . unsure about his ability, his appearance, his intellect . . . so self-conscious he probably startled himself when he looked in the mirror. His brains carried him a long way. At the outbreak of the Martian Influenza crisis, he finds himself at the center of a wonderful research facility where he can work all alone without bothering anyone or having anyone bother him ... looking for answers and trying to solve the puzzle of SCABS. For a man like Bryan, it's a perfect life.
"Then one day, Bryan comes down with a cold, but it's not a cold. Pretty soon, he's diagnosed with Martian Flu, but he pulls through with flying colors. He worries about SCABS ... specifically he worries about deformity. But, lo and behold, our little ugly duckling scientist finds out he's a swan. He goes overnight from being Dr. Bryan Derksen, M.D., research scientist . . . to Bryan Derksen the sixth most powerful polymorph on the North American continent (or seventh, if the truth were known).
"Can you imagine what that must have been like for a shy guy like him? People ... strangers and friends ... are after him for favors and . . . whatever. Bob, for christsakes, you had him performing tricks in the Blind Pig like a circus act!
"So there he is ... twisting himself up inside, full of doubts and no self-confidence. Pretty soon, he's convinced himself that people are going to see through his facade and not like the "real" Bryan Derksen.
"And so, how does his mind finally resolve the conflict of what the world expects, and how he sees himself? Well I guess you know how . . . Bryan subconsciously uses his tremendous polymorphic power as the means to make his outward appearance reflect what he sees as himself inside.
"And what did we, his friends, do? We ignored him. Tough luck, Bryan! Stuck as a roach? Too bad! Write when you have time. Good-bye. And off we pack him, back to Alberta . . . feeling like a bug. Looking like a bug. Because we treated him like a bug!"
C. R. rubbed a hand across his face and added, "Look, I'm not blaming anybody. God knows there's enough guilt to go around. But we allowed Bryan to wall himself behind this cockroach form for more than two years, and we've done damn little to help him. And with each molt, a little more of his humanity slips away. Did you know, after his last one, he lost the power of human speech? Now he doesn't even have to worry about talking to us. He's completely alone in his own private world. He mostly just makes clicking noises now, and communicates mainly through his laptop.
"In fact, to my knowledge, the only real and ongoing contact he has with anyone in this city is with a norm . . . that reporter, Lisa. I don't know the whole story, but she evidently helped him with some kind of personal trouble in Spokane about 18 months ago. So, yes, I have thought a great deal about it, and, yes, I think Bryan would be a big help. Bryan can help us ... and just as important, we can help him. Show him that he's still a part of our world. And we'll let him do it on his own terms, and in his own way."
"Bryan's okay with me C. R., but will he do it?" was Splendor's comment.
"I think so. In fact, I've lap-linked with him earlier, before I knew many details, and he made the offer himself.
"But I don't plan to send him in alone. I think we need to use two teams. Bryan, as a morphlocked bug, is high on the list of targets for this group. He's a natural target, and he plans to make himself even more of one. But for the other team, I have something else in mind, something a little subtler. That's where you come in Splendor; I won't let you go in alone, but I will let you work on this, if you'll agree to be part of a team."
Splendor nodded yes.
"I'll have to work with you and drastically alter your appearance. We've got to make you unrecognizable to even your closest friends on West Street."
"So do you have someone in mind for the other person on this team?" she asked.
"Yes, in fact, I do," he answered. He arose and went to his desk. Rummaging around in the middle drawer he found a business card and handed it to Splendor. With little Bob looking over her shoulder, she turned it over.
It was a plain white card with a single graphic of a chess piece ... a knight ... in the upper right-hand corner. There were six words on the card:
Kim Liu Electronic System Security Consultant
CHAPTER 3: THE RETURN OF PALADIN
Every city has one . . . a roadway from Hell. In the city of the Blind Pig Gin Mill, it's called the Scorkyll Expressway. During morning rush hour ... which runs weekdays from 5:30-9:30 a.m. ... the Scorkyll resembles more of a parking lot than a roadway.
Enterprising roadside vendors make a reasonable living selling food and drinks from vehicle to vehicle. The fact that the roadside coffee is cheap helps keep tempers down in what should be a frustrating drive ... that and the general knowledge that assaults with vehicles are a felony ... tend to keep things on the roadway at a simmer rather than a boil.
The assault laws were a holdover from the turn of the century when the expressway earned the nickname "Surekill Distressway" after several disturbing incidents of road rage. Nowadays, people get by with good old fashion cussing and an occasional rude gesture if they think the cops aren't looking. Because the drive is so bad, employers had to adjust. Now office workdays tended to start around 10 a.m. and end at 3:30 p.m.
Transportation manufacturers responded by including more and more business functions in vehicles as standard equipment so that travel time wouldn't necessarily be down time. Gone were the days when people could say with conviction that they did their best thinking while alone in the car. These days, between vid-links, sat-links, Net access, and a host of other "necessities," most people yearned for their offices where they could get a little peace and quiet.
In the vast expanse of non-moving vehicles going nowhere on the Expressway this particular morning was a rather beat-up ...23 Nis-Olds containing one distracted passenger.
It was some indication of how nervous he was because Kim Liu was tapping the steering wheel at a different tempo from the music he was listening to on the synthesizer. When he realized what he was doing, he shut off the music. He switched the controls of the v-hic to autopilot, punched in the destination and leaned back. He loosened himself slightly from the shoulder harness and, lacing his fingers together, cracked his knuckles, and let loose with a satisfied sigh.
This morning's interview was a big opportunity for him, and he knew it. Almost out of the blue, he'd been asked to bid on an exciting project with Astral Communications, a multinational company specializing in Ghost Programming ... a new type of file and programming system that embedded and executed programs on systems and through systems without appearing or accumulating on the drives.
The were millions of possible applications for this type of software ... so called "Caspers" ... especially in business, since a company could now dedicate nearly all of its available computer space to the quadrillions of bits of information accumulated on customers, marketing, accounting, and sales over the years.
Of course, there were other, more sinister uses, Caspers could be used for, like industrial espionage, and that's where experts like Kim came in handy. Kim was a system security specialist ... often called computer moles, since their job was burrowed into network systems (metaphorically speaking) to discover underlying and potentially damaging system problems.
About seven years earlier, when Kim had first set up his business in the city, he'd already seen the potential of Caspers and well as the problems their use could engender. He undertook a rigorous regime to train himself as a specialist in tracing faults and error codes in programming the computer didn't even know it had.
Kim had learned the key lesson of business early: find a need and fill it. Long before most small consultants began learning about Caspers, he was already something of an expert. Yet he didn't seem to thrive as much as other, less talented free-lance computer moles did. Part of it was his attitude. He absolutely, without exception, refused to do business for companies with government or military connections.
He gave no explanations and made no exceptions. Since he refusing to take on contracts with government agencies or the military, Kim's inroads into the larger field of experts had been somewhat limited. But given his ongoing health problems, Kim didn't mind. He was his own boss, working his own hours, in his own business. He was subject to no one's whims but his own, and he like it.
Life was good.
Still, he was hoping to make a good impression on the Astral folks, so to dispel any lingering apprehension, he tried to will himself into relaxation. He closed his eyes and could feel the power within him begin to focus. The immediate result was a blinding stab of pain behind both eyeballs. Kim groaned as the pain intensified.
"Not now," he thought. "Not now!"
He reached above his head and grabbed the headset for is VR hook-up. He adjusted the plugs in his ears and the visor over his eyes and nose.
"Liu. Kim. Load VR program 6-A and execute," he said, activating the v-hic's internal computer system.
Immediately, his surroundings shifted from the inside of his car to a deserted tropical beach. He walked across a strand of white sand to a lone cabana chair just out of the reach of gentle rolling waves. He stretched out and allowed the sounds of the waters relax him. Slowly, the pain subsided. Kim stood up and looked about him, sigh and reached up and removed his headset. Immediately, the sight and sounds of the city returned, but he was more inclined now to let them slide by him unnoticed. He brushed a few imaginary flakes of dust from the sleeve of his black jacket. He reached up and flicked a switch on the console and the windshield shifted from refractive to reflective. He examined his image. What he saw didn't displease him ... a thin (he called himself "wiry."), thirtyish, American male of Chinese descent standing roughly 5'7". His thick shock of black hair was combed smartly to one side. At a time when 92 percent of all Americans used laser-optics to correct vision defects, Kim still affected old-style black frame glasses over dark brown eyes.
Black hair, black shirt, black pants and black shoes ... people tended to remember Kim when they saw him. He re-placed the VR headset on his head, but this time the program he activated was not a tranquil beach scene, but a western scene seen the viewpoint of a man sitting astride a great black horse. Softly, as he rode, Kim began to sing to himself:
"Have Gun Will Travel" reads the card of a man A knight without armor in a savage land His fast gun for hire needs the calling wind A soldier of fortune is the man called, Paladin
Kim had a secret wish. When he was a small boy, his grandfather, a media critic for a local Baltimore media station, got him hooked on an obscure entertainment genre that preceded the Net-Vid systems called television. Kim remembered long and lazy Saturdays when Grandfather and he would sit and watch 50-, 60-, 70- and 80-year-old TV programs.
Kim was often proud of the fact that he was one of the few people in his generation that knew who the old-time television stars were. Kim's own particular love was for the great westerns of the 1950s and 1960s: Gunsmoke; Bonanza; Wild, Wild West; Big Valley; Cheyenne; and, Bat Masterson; were among his favorites.
Most people harbor a secret fantasy of what or who they wished they could be. In his heart of hearts, Kim wanted to be the dark-garbed hero of an ancient television program "Have Gun Will Travel" . . . a man called Paladin.
Paladin ... he was more than a two-fisted, he-man with a gun ... he was also a cultured and principled champion of justice who stood up for the little guy in the face of overwhelming odds. Paladin was a thinking man's hero, as likely to use his brain to solve a problem as a gun. Kim liked that. Paladin was one of the earliest anti-heroes ... dressed completely in black ... yet representing the side of good . . . a "knight without armor" as his theme song suggested.
Kim totally related to this now obscure footnote in entertainment history. So much so, that he had taken to wearing black whenever possible and affecting a small Knight's chess piece on his business card as a homage to his hero. So during the remaining 53 minutes of the drive, Kim continued working his way through a VR adventure he created for himself. In this one, he once again was playing the role of his hero. He had already saved a small rancher being forced off his property by a ruthless railroad company. And he was just dealing a hand of poker, trying to exposing cheating by the crooked banker's oldest son, when the v-hic signaled that he had arrived at his destination.
As his Nis-Olds pulled into the parking lot of the Astral Communications campus, Kim removed his headset ... totally relaxed and self-confident. When a man has already stared down six armed men, what was there to worry about a job interview? He was extremely pleased and viewed his V-R success as a good omen for his chances at Astral. He parked his v-hic in the visitor's lot and went to the entrance. After enduring the usual number of scans and probes needed to get access to a high-tech center, Kim was admitted. He went to the receptionist.
"Excuse me, my name is Kim Liu. I'm a freelance system security consultant. I have a 11:30 appointment with Mr. Poe."
After a few minutes, an older man, perhaps 50, came out to greet Kim.
"Good to meet you, Mr. Liu," Poe said, smiling and extending his hand at the same time. Kim shook it and thanked him for the chance to make a presentation.
"Call me Al," Poe said, motioning Kim to follow.
"Call me, Kim."
For the next 40 minutes Kim made a presentation on how he could ... based on his previous experience and success at other companies ... almost guarantee a 12 to 26 percent improvement in system operations if he was given the chance to "mole" Astral's systems and condense programming. Kim was a little disconcerted that Poe didn't seem to be paying all that much attention to him, and seem distracted. When he thought Poe wouldn't notice, Kim took a quick look around the room and spotted what he took to be a vid-camera.
"So Al's not the boss," Kim thought to himself. "Somebody else is watching and sizing me up."
Sure enough, a moment or two later, the vid-link chimed and Poe excused himself and hit the private monitor line. After speaking briefly, he broke the connection.
"Well, Kim, that was some presentation. As you already guessed, the big boss was watching us, and he wants to meet with you personally and go over your proposal. If you'll follow me, I'll take you to him."
Kim followed Poe through a series of different turns, going deeper and deeper into the complex. At checkpoint after checkpoint, both he and Kim were thoroughly examined and questioned before being allowed to proceed. Finally, they turned into a corridor that ended at an elevator. Poe withdrew a card from his pocket, swiped it and punched in a code. Then he submitted his hand to a scanner to verify his DNA. After all this, the door opened. Kim waited to Poe to enter, but he motioned Kim inside.
"This is a private meeting, Kim," he said. "I'll come back for you after you finish with the boss." With that, he reached inside the door and pushed a button on the panel. The door slid closed and Kim felt himself descending. He looked at the panel and saw there were four subfloors beneath him. He was only moderately surprised when the elevator went past the fourth sub-floor and continued descending. He was surprised when the elevator stopped going down, turn 45 degrees to the left, and proceeded to move in a horizontal progression.
After another moment or two, the elevator stopped and the doors opened. Kim entered a large, dark room. Barely visible in the darkness surrounding him were bank after bank of Quantum-Cray computers. Kim whistled silently to himself; it was an expensive and impressive display of technology. He was literally surrounded by billions of dollars of equipment. He likened it to the feel he had when entering a great cathedral. A console station with two chairs dominated the center of the room. A man was seated in the chair facing the console, busily typing away on a keypad.
"Have a seat," the man murmured. "I'll be with you in a minute."
Kim sat quietly for a moment as the man finished his task. Finally he stopped, glanced at the screen and, seemingly satisfied, used his finger-mouse to hit enter. The vast computer banks within the room seemed to groan as they began to execute their instructions. The computer matter-of-factly announced "Assassin protocol initiated, 26 minutes to completion." The man nodded to himself and looked up at Kim whose jaw dropped.
CHAPTER 4: MEMORY LANE
"Hi, Kim," said the man.
"YOU!" he sputtered. "What are you doing here?"
"Well, actually, I own this place."
"But you . . . You're . . . YOU own Astral!"
"We all have our secrets Kim. We're all different things to different people. Yes, I own Astral Communications . . . among other things. In fact, I actually own quite a few things. Astral. GDM International, lots of things. Al Poe, he sort of runs Astral for me."
"But you . . . I've seen you . . . at the Blind Pig. You're . . ."
"What I am in other places doesn't matter. Here ... and now ... I'm just C. R. Think you can handle that?"
At his momentary shock passed, Kim nodded, but added, "What's this all about?"
"How would like an exclusive contract to mole not only Astral's systems but most of GDM subsidiaries here in town?"
Kim's nostrils flared slightly.
"I thought you would. You see Kim; we both have something the other one needs. You have the skills and abilities to make my profitable companies even more so. And I have the resources to make your life infinitely less ... how should I say ... ...On the edge . . .'"
"Why me? There must be 20 or 30 other people in this city alone who could do this job."
"Yes, that's right. But they lack your . . . discretion. The fact is Kim, I could use your help with a problem."
"So . . . you in trouble or something?"
"No, not me. It's a problem that, if it becomes public, could quite possibly rip apart our society and make life miserable for SCABS ... not only here in the states, but also around the world."
"It sounds awfully dramatic. I still don't know why you think you need someone like me . . . with your resources you could have your pick of any computer specialist in the country."
"That's true. But I have other reasons for wanting you. Perhaps I should explain.
C. R. stopped for a moment as if to gather his thoughts and then continued: "Once upon a time, a very patriotic young norm joined his country's armed forces. This was back in the days when the military weren't as willing to let SCABS into the ranks. This particular young man was smart ... not brilliant ... but way ahead of many of his compatriots in the ranks ... especially in computer technology.
"Back in those days, the government still had it in its head that it could control the spread of the Martian Flu. In a series of medical blunders, the Army decided to try to develop a vaccine using a supposedly weakened form of the flu. Our young soldier was one of the guinea pigs selected to try the vaccine ... of course, he and his fellow soldiers never knew they were intentionally given the Flu.
"Fortunately for our young man, after a few weeks in the base hospital, he was returned to duty seemingly no worse for the wear. But then ... as far as the army was concerned ... the worst the happened, our poor soldier developed SCABS. He was lucky though, he feel in that smallest of all groups known as polymorphs. He wasn't a particularly powerful one, but he was a polymorph nonetheless. And that made him valuable to his military superiors.
"It seems that the Army couldn't get beyond the notion that there had to be some sort of practical military use for SCABS outside of shock soldiers made up of ranks of elephant, rhino, hippos and gorilla morphs. They experimented early with trying to mass-produce polymorphs ... that didn't work. Nor did any of a hundred other types of cockamamie schemes they hatched then ... or are trying to hatch now.
"The fact is that all we've been able to learn about the flu and SCABS in the last 30 years is negligible. Every major industrial country on the planet devotes a significant portion of its medical research into the problem, and so far no results. On top of that, my organization has been gleaning the best of the research and we've not done any better either. The fact is I doubt either of us will live long enough to see a vaccine developed for the Flu, let alone any progress toward controlling or modifying it.
"But I digress. When the army finally realized that its bioresearch was bupkiss ... some twisted, Mengele-type named Cochran came up with a scheme to try enhancing polymorphic abilities through surgical means. But to do so, he needed a supply of test subjects. A top-secret search was made of all branches of the armed services and they turned up nine polymorphs with low to moderate skills ... one of them was our young friend.
"What they told these men and women was that some surgical alterations to their brains and the addition of some subdermal appliances, their polymorphic abilities could be increased a hundred-fold. What they didn't tell them was that neither the technology nor the techniques had ever been tested.
"Cochran's brain modifications experiments showed negligible results. And those he inflicted his "procedure" on paid a terrible cost for his spurious research. Of the nine soldiers: four died on the operating table, one lapsed into a permanent vegetative state, and two went insane. Of the two survivors: the first, a young woman died of a catastrophic brain hemorrhage two months after the surgery; the second survived ... with some interesting results.
"My people examined Cochran's data after his death in a military plane crash. We did some statistical projections ... you might be surprised to know that we projected a 100 percent failure rate ... statistically, the one success Cochran had shouldn't have survived at all, but he did. The soldier's polymorphic powers increased dramatically, just as Cochran promised, but whether that was because of Cochran's work or despite it, we still don't know.
"But as far as the young man's abilities, the fact is he went from being a mediocre polymorph to elite level status within weeks of his surgery. What's more, unbeknown to his military superiors he developed the ability to spontaneously change or modify the molecular substructure of inanimate materials. The downside was the surgery and prosthetics put an unnatural burden on our young soldier's brainstem causing excruciatingly painful headaches that intensified according to how much power he used.
"With out going into too much detail, the army did its best to exploit the unique abilities of its newly enhanced polymorph. Of all the others they attempted to duplicate Cochran's techniques on ... and believe me they tried many times ... no other candidate survived the operation. Our young soldier thrived. He had already demonstrated an aptitude for computer systems. They trained him well. So well, they never suspected him of moling into their systems and discovering what had been done to him."
The console on the desk beeped and the computer intoned "Program complete ... enter to execute."
"Let me bring his story to a close," C. R. said. "In a nutshell, our young soldier ... after realizing what had been done to him and the others ... used his talents and abilities to absent himself from the services. He's not been seen since, although the military authorities have been actively searching for him for over nine years."
"And what has this to do with me?" Kim asked, hoping his voice didn't betray his panic.
"Nothing. Like I said, it's just a story."
C. R. motioned Kim to look at the terminal screen. A young man's face flashed on and Kim felt every hair on the back of his neck rise.
"Funny thing about computers," C. R. went on. "Almost everything about us is located on somebody's data base. Our whole lives. For years people have tried to use computers to beat the system ... you know ... wipe out past mistakes or indiscretions. But no erasure has ever been 100 percent effective . . . at least, until now."
As Kim watched, the computer listed search and erasure protocols. Finally, it signaled it had completed its task.
"A moment of silence would be appropriate," C. R. said. "We've just witnessed a funeral."
Kim cut his eyes sharply at C. R. and looked toward the direction of the elevator exit.
"I've uploaded and linked via World-Net the latest in fuzzy logic assassin viruses. Every reference referring to the person's whose picture and files were on that screen has been erased from every data base in the world."
"You're right, Kim. What you saw never happened. And it will keep on not happening, in case anyone else tries to start a file on that man or in the outside chance it missed a system somewhere. For all intents and purposes, that young man has been given a clean slate."
"What do you want from me? If this is blackmail, why bother? You certainly don't need the money!"
"We don't blackmail people, Kim."
"Who the hell is this ...we' you keep referring to, and tell me what you want from me?"
C. R. stopped and looked down, studiously rubbing both of his thumbs against his forefingers. After a moment, he said, "Kim, I represent a group ... a consortium of fellow SCABS ... from nearly industrialized country in the world."
"So what are you guys, some sort of secret society bent on world domination?" Kim said sarcastically.
"Not quite," C. R. said with a half smile, which turned serious. "We're more of an information sharing concern than an action group. You remember a few years back when all that trouble started with the Human First League? It wasn't the first time, or the last, that SCABS have been exploited or mistreated. We represent only a very small minority of the human population, yet because of our unique differences, we're feared, mistrusted, or in some cases, persecuted.
"Mainly using money from my various holding and my inroads within the information community, I've fund quite a bit of R & D into SCABS through the Consortium. We only have one goal ... funding research into the SCABS phenomenon and trying to discover how it works and why. If we succeed with that, then maybe we can help some of the people who don't find SCABS the blessing we who can control our changes do. We, that is my colleagues and I, are not all that concerned about national boundaries; we freely share our findings among ourselves.
"Hell, nearly all the people, companies and governments associated through the Consortium have no idea we even exist ... we're sort of just a brain trust. We don't interfere or meddle in politics, and our aims and goals are very limited ... we're also very adept at keeping our private affairs private as you witnessed a few minutes ago with that young soldier."
"So what are you after? Are you recruiting me into this Consortium?"
"No, I'm afraid membership is a little more select. What I need is your help with a problem that has arisen."
C. R. took some time and explained the disappearances among SCABS indigents and how widespread they suspected the ring to be.
"If it's kidnapping, why aren't you taking this to the police?" Kim asked.
"It's not that simple," C. R. answered. "We have strong reason to suspect that it goes far beyond simple kidnapping."
He crossed to the console and took a small box. Opening it, C. R. removed a round white ball and tossed it to Kim.
"It's a cue ball," Kim said. So what?"
"Do you know what they are made of?"
"Some kind of polyurethane I suppose."
"Yes, today, they are. But a hundred years ago, most pool balls were made from ivory ... the best came from elephant ivory."
"So what's your point?"
"Well, we all know that it's impossible to get at any existing sources of animal ivory. Every elephant, whale and walrus left on the planet has been tagged with a transmitter collar and their DNA is on record. Plus there's an immediate automatic death sentence for anyone caught in possession of articles and artifacts from an endangered or exotic species. Yet that ball in your hand is made of elephant ivory ... and it's not an antique. So, where did it come from?"
C. R. let Kim work it out for himself. A moment or two later, a look or pure horror and disgust illuminated him. He dropped the cue ball as if it were burning his hand.
"Do you mean . . . do you expect me to believe . . ." he stammered.
"Yes," C. R. answered. "I'll show you the results of the studies if you like. That cue ball is made of modern elephant ivory, but with one twist ... it also contains unmistakable strands of human DNA."
"Sweet Jesus," Kim said softly.
"You see, Kim, we're looking at a problem that goes far beyond simple kidnapping. We've been able verify that certain SCABS-types ... draft animal morphs, insect morphs, large land and sea morphs ... are being grabbed and shipped overseas to non-aligned countries. These poor people are being sold into virtual slavery. Forced to do jobs that are too dangerous or expensive for normal people or equipment. Some insect morphs, especially those with hard carapaces, fetch a high price in countries still using dangerous nuclear power programs. With their natural resistance to radiation, insect-morphs make great workers in these plants.
"But there's more to this ... there are people in this world who can never have enough. They are people who must have the best, rarest and most expensive items in order to show the world that they are as important as they think there are. A black-market has risen up among members of the rich and powerful. How much do you think some people might pay for ... say a chess set ... made out of authentic ivory? Or, perhaps, other exotic or illegal . . . animal items?"
"Sweet Jesus," Kim repeated.
"Precisely. Right now, our best operative is in Europe trying to track down and permanently end the operations of the group responsible for these depredations. Almost all our energy and resources are geared toward that end. But even as we speak, the minions of this organization are operating somewhere in this city. I can't use the police, because if this gets out there are bound to be SCAB riots demanding protection ... and, unfortunately, that's bound to create a backlash of anti-SCABS feelings among the norms. But I'm determined to stop the local kidnappers ... but I need your help.
"What I have in mind is a two-fold operation. Given you're a very low-profile individual and not too well-known outside your immediate circle, I would like to place you into a position where you may be able to help us infiltrate the local criminal organization and compromise any computer systems they might have. With a few alterations to your general appearance, I plan to set you up as a criminal network computer mole specializing in illegal export items.
"What makes you think these criminals will come to someone like me who's unknown?"
"Well Kim, I have great faith in your abilities, for one thing ... that and the fact that the police chief is in the process of shutting down every known criminal computer mole in the city."
"Why would he do that," Kim asked suspiciously.
"Let's just say that the chief is in sympathy with our aims, but he can't overtly help us."
"I can't keep wondering ... why me? You know so much about me, you must also know that my polymorph powers won't be of much use to me in this type of situation . . . even a moderate use of my power can incapacitate me for anything from an hour to a day."
"I'm well aware of that. Believe me, it's as much your computer skills as your polymorph powers that makes you essential to this plan. Anyway, I don't expect that you'll have much use for your polymorph skills in this endeavor beyond one essential function."
"And what would that be?"
"Have you every had occasion to come across the rather remarkable woman who runs the homeless shelter down on West Street?"
Kim frowned for a moment, then said, "The red head? Kind of attractive . . . always looks mad at something?"
"That's her! Her name is Splendor. She'll be going on this assignment with you for protection. She was the one who first noticed the disappearances. She knows the town and, most importantly, she knows the streets."
"What good will she do me? If she's so well known, how are we supposed to keep this low profile you want?"
"My plan calls for her to drastically alter her physical appearance. I don't think even her closest acquaintances will recognize her in form she and I have cooked up."
"You're a polymorph, you know the kind of power I'd have to expend to keep her in that form. I'd be a basket case inside of a day. How am I suppose to do the job you want and protect her at the same time?"
"I must have neglected to mention that Splendor is a polymorph, too, albeit an unusual one," C. R. said.
He took a few minutes to brief Kim on Splendor's unique abilities, before adding, "Besides, you misunderstood me. I'm not sending you to protect Splendor; she's going to look after you."
"You confidence is my abilities is underwhelming," Kim said bitterly.
"Your mistaken, Kim. I have the utmost confidence in you. But I've seen your medical records ... and I know your long-term prognosis. Quite frankly, your health isn't up to this on your own ... I know it and so do you ... people's lives may depend on whether you can hold up your end of this assignment. I'm banking on the fact that it can, but Splendor is my insurance."
"So I'd be nothing more than a battery for her?"
"That's an interesting way of putting it, but yes. The technique for converting some of your energy to a form she can access is difficult but not impossible to learn. But it does require a person with polymorphic skills to accomplish. That's the other half of the equation that makes your participation in this venture vital.
"The stress of keeping herself in a form other than her own will cause her to use up her energy at a much faster rate. She may wind up needing energy from you daily ... more if she overexerts herself mentally or physically.
Kim sat silently for a few minutes thinking, his hand held fist to chin while his elbow rested on the console top. What did he owe these people ... or anybody for that matter? Why should he get involved in things that weren't his business? He picked up the cue ball and rolled it in the palm of his hand. He let his mind open slightly and began focusing his power on the ball. Slowly he let his consciousness meld with the organic matter of the ball.
C. R. watched Kim in fascination, trying to determine what Kim was attempting to do. He saw the polymorph inhale sharply and release his breath in three stuttering gasps. Then a lone tear formed at the corner of Kim's left eye. He blinked as if waking up and set the ball down.
"I'll do it," he said quietly.
C. R. nodded.
"You mentioned a two-part plan earlier. What else do you have in mind?"
"Another colleague of mine has entered the West Street community as an indigent. His name is Bryan Derksen. He's also polymorph who's mentally locked himself into the form of a giant cockroach.
"Sounds like Kafka."
"Good point. But he's trying to make himself ripe for a snatching by our kidnappers. We've planted a very low-level biomarker within his carapace. It has a very limited range and can only be picked up by a single receiver. Anything more high tech than that might get him discovered. These people aren't stupid, nor do they take chances. You should be able to track Bryan over a block or two, but that's it. There will be no other help.
"Like I said, we're a bunch of intellectuals not secret agents. The only person in my organization with the ability to pull this off is Regal, and he's in Europe trying to find the people responsible for these attacks against SCABS. Also subtle, we ain't ... if we try anything fancier we'll probably tip them off and they'd shut down and move to a new city. And I want it ended here. Given our limited resources for an operation like this, this seems to be the best course."
"So that's it then?" Kim said, half expecting more.
"Yeah, ...fraid so. By the way, I don't suggest your trying to contact Bryan directly. If and when he has anything to report, he'll find a way to pass it on to you."
"You must have been pretty sure of things to have brought me here and sprung this on me," Kim said with a smile.
"Well, I make it a point to learn as much as I can about the people I deal with. It helps me to understand them better."
"And what did you learn about me that made you so sure I'd say yes."
C. R. handed him a card. Kim took it and turned it over, laughed and put it into his shirt pocket.
"When do I start?"
C. R. handed him a folder.
"Meet me at this address. We have a lot of work to do. I want you on the street as soon as we can get you there."
"How long do you think this operation may take?"
"There's no real way of knowing, but I expect it could take several months. We'll look after your apartment and business. And I promise that, when this is over, your Astral contract will more than make up for your business losses."
Kim turned and started heading toward the door. C. R. reached out and touched Kim on the shoulder. "What happened to you when you were holding that ball?"
"I can't rightly explain what I do, but something in Cochran's modifications allow me to connect with residual bio-fields in organic objects."
"What did you sense from the cue ball?"
"Pain. A lot of pain. That tusk was extracted from a living being without any anesthetic. I want these bastards."
"Me, too," C. R. said wholeheartedly. "Oh, and Kim . . . Splendor knows about the kidnappings, but we've decided it would be best not to tell her about our other suspicions. We believe that her passion would overcome her. She could wind up making rash decisions regarding her life and yours. And above all, both of you must keep your wits about you if we're going to succeed."
Kim didn't say another word. He re-entered the elevator. Poe was waiting for him at the ground floor. They walked wordlessly through the building. At the entrance, Poe shook his hand and wished him luck. In the parking lot, Kim used his remote to deactivate his v-hic's security system and got in. He strapped himself in and punched a pre-set to get him back to his apartment. He had a few loose ends to tie up in the next few hours.
He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out the card that C. R. had given him. It looked like any other standard business card. But this one had an etching of a black knight chess piece on it and seven words: Have Gun ... Will Travel, Wire Paladin, San Francisco.
Kim snorted. He reached up and put on his VR set. No sense wasting the ride home. Soon he starting to sing softly to himself:
"Paladin, Paladin Where do you roam, Paladin, Paladin Far, far from home . . ."
CHAPTER 5: FLOTSAM
Every day, tired old trains creep into the city railyard across tracks laid down more than 173 years earlier.
Few people ... few Americans, that is ... remember the romance of the great trains. The American love of speed and newness has no place for the old workhorses of an earlier age. Yet, even in 2032, the city's life still depended on the rail system, even if no one knew, or appreciated it. The fact is that well over 70 percent of all the goods and materials needed to keep the city running still arrived by rail. It was still the fastest, cheapest and most reliable means of keeping the city operating.
The city railyards hold an atmosphere from another era. Smells of oil and coal, ozone and steel, earth and concrete, produce, fertilizer, chemicals, meat, are all blended together to form the unique aroma of the yards.
Of course, there are other commodities imported and exported through the railyards of this and every other city ... human flotsam. Even in the 21st century, rail travel is still the preferred mode of transportation for most of the nation's homeless population.
The rail companies still raise hell if they are forced to officially "notice" that people are riding the rails as they did during the Great Depression a century ago. But an unofficial truce exists between the railroad and the small but persistent number of people who travel America by freight rail.
Early one Tuesday morning in late fall, the yard foreman, Deebo McCandless, was making his usual inspection rounds. Deebo walked stiffly on his goat legs, not from any deformity caused by the SCABS he developed in his thirties, but from the arthritis in his knees acquired during three years of playing defensive end on his high school football team.
Deebo was a quiet man. A ruminate animorph locked in the form of a two-legged, 361 pound Mountain Longhorn with humanoid features. Despite his form, Deebo preferred the flat lands of the city. "Heights make me dizzy," he'd announce to anyone who asked. At 52, he was a formidable presence in the yards. Generally liked by norms and SCABS alike, Deebo was a kind fatherly sort of fellow ... one of the many millions of like people in the world ... who believes that kindness and compassion begets the same.
Still, he was neither push over, nor a man to be trifled with, as a number of bullies and Human Firsters found out a few years back. During the Barnes' mayoral campaign, Deebo's church ... which he served as its unpaid minister ... had been the target of a number of Human First attacks because it's largely African-American congregation ministered to a large SCABS population. Graffiti and petty harassment was one thing, but when two attempts were made to burn the church hall, Deebo quietly kissed his wife one evening and moved into the church for the duration.
Two nights later he was joined unexpectedly by a huge bullmorph who couldn't speak. With signs and gestures, the bullman told Deebo that he'd heard about the trouble and that he or one his friends would be there every night until people calmed down again. Deebo was never much of a talker and the bullman couldn't talk at all, but they communicated as much as they needed to. Deebo discovered that his new ally owned a bar downtown, and while that thought bothered Deebo just a little, he found he liked the quiet bullman ... especially when he found his friend played pinochle.
That fall, the city simmered uneasily under the threat of mob violence. One night, two weeks before the election, a truck filled with masked young punk norms pulled up in front of the church. They had chosen their time well because most of the cops and firemen were involved in a small riot downtown that was operating under the guise of a Barnes political rally.
Deebo felt himself tensing as the youths ... all carrying sticks, chains, pipes and knives ... slowly began circling he and the bullman. The bullman's head slowly wove back and forth giving the approaching toughs a good long look at curved and pointed tips of his horns. Deebo lowered his head in a classic ram posture, but he knew in his mind that no matter how powerful he and the bullman were, there were only two of them against more than 12 opponents.
Deebo had just whispered a prayer for himself and his friend commending them both to God's care when an ungodly animalistic scream rent the air. Every head turned toward the v-hics. Perched on top of one of the cars was the most devilish creature Deebo had ever seen. Standing upright at nearly six feet tall was a two-legged lizard beast with great clawed hands and feet.
With the casual air of a being that had no fear, the creature leapt from the roof of the v-hic and lifted it's left foot and slowly ran it's great clawed foot across the side-panel, completely shredding the vehicle where ever it's foot touched. With no running start, it leapt over 25 feet and landed on the pavement near the steps. Its cold amber eyes coolly looked over the assembled thugs. Deebo wasn't sure whether to be more scared of the lizard or the mob, but he quickly decided that, whoever the beast was, he was on Deebo's side.
The thug's leader ... a young man wearing a green and red Humans First jacket ... seemed to recover a little more quickly than his friends, yelling that one more SCABS wasn't enough to run him off.
Then the young man made his big mistake. He pulled a short-barreled riot gun from under his coat. Before he was able to bring it to bear the lizard pounced. It's right claw foot knocked the thug to the ground and pinned him, while his prehensile clawed hands snatched the gun and ripped it apart. As the young man screamed and soiled himself, the lizard beast bent forward and grasped his torso in its mouth. In a flash it leapt over the crowd and disappeared into the night ... from the darkness could be heard the sound of the young man screaming, and the sound of something being torn apart.
The crowd was paralyzed. Deebo felt faint himself, but the bullman prodded him back to alertness as the young toughs turned back toward the church. As a group they took a step forward but, once again, out of the darkness, the lizard appeared. Everyone's eyes widen as the creature took up its attack stance and looked over the crowd. Although it never made a sound, its look and posture radiated a "who's next" attitude. It nonchalantly began picking its sharp teeth with one of its front claws before spitting out a piece of red and green cloth.
To a man, the crowd looked down at the remains of their leader's jacket and then up at the lizard who snorted a long blast of air through its nostrils and took a deliberate step forward with its front claws extended. Deebo later swore he'd never seen people move so fast trying to get away. Inside of a minute, the streets surrounding the church were empty and quiet, except for the sound of dogs barking in the distance.
The lizard step forward assumed an upright posture. Soon Deebo realized that the lizard was not morphlocked as he and the bullman were. Within minutes, the creature became more and more humanoid as its claws became hands and his tail retreated. About fifteen minutes after starting, a nude man stood where the lizard was. The bullman removed his great overcoat and offered it to the shivering man.
"Thanks, Donnie," he said.
Deebo saw the bullman make gestures with his hands while the other man nodded his head.
"No, I didn't hurt him. I carried him about a block and stripped him. Then I took him over to the meat packing plant up the street and dunked him in a pile of renderings a few times. The last I saw of him, he was running up Porter Boulevard about twenty feet in front of a pack of dogs."
Donnie snorted and even Deebo risked a cautious smile.
"My name's Kevin Deenihan, but most people call me Copernicus," the young man told Deebo as he extended his hand. "I'm going to warm up for a few minutes, then I'll change back and go out on patrol. I'll be working this neighborhood for the rest of the week."
"Th . . . Th . . . Thanks," Deebo said, shaking hands with Deenihan. "I wasn't expecting help from anybody, but then . . . you and Donnie here showed up. I know the Lord looks after poor fools like me, but I didn't think he'd personally send in the angels . . . especially angels with horns and claws!"
"Don't mention it. We're here because helping you is the right thing to do. We've got to learn to get along together. It might as well start here."
That was the last trouble they had at the church. Even so, the bull man named Donnie stayed with Deebo every night until after the election. Although Deebo didn't drink what he called "spirits," he made a special effort to walk across town two or three times a month to have a soft drink at his new friend's establishment.
Deebo was surprised to see such a mix of people ... norms and SCABS ... young and old ... drinkers and nondrinkers. He struck up a friendship with many of the patrons, including a young man who, like himself, drank nothing stronger than orange pop. When he found out his new friend was a singer, Rev. Deebo and the Wanderer traded gospel songs on a regular basis. He even got used to the sight of Copernicus as a raptor.
Deebo liked his job at the railyard. He felt he was carrying on a family tradition. Deebo was a fourth generation railroad man and proud of it. He especially liked working the early morning shift. He was one of the rare breed that enjoyed greeting the sun as it rose each morning. This day, he was making an inspection tour. Deebo carried a large metal rod that he used to tap against the wheels of each freight car. The sound a wheel made as he struck it told Deebo whether or not the car was seated properly on the rail.
He was humming "Life is Like a Mountain Railroad" as he finished checking a 153-car freight shipment out of Ottawa, Canada. He stopped when he noticed the telltale signs of tampering on the sliding door of a boxcar. The amount of dust and grime on the door told Deebo that whoever had opened this car had done so before it arrived here. He reached up one grasped the slide bar and heaved back the door. He then shined his hand light inside the car.
"Who's ever in there, y'all had better come out!" Deebo called.
He heard a scuttling sound and shone his light in the direction of the sound. His light struck at brown blob trying to hide in corner.
"C'mon, c'mon," Deebo called, but not unkindly, as the brown creature slid toward the box care door. "You can't stay in there ... I got to lock this door."
Finally, a pair of brown wiry antennae poked out from the door followed a moment later by an insectoid head.
"Come on out of there young fella," Deebo called to his reluctant find.
When Deebo caught sight of the bug in the early morning light, he shivered involuntarily. He was no entomologist, but he'd grown up in a three-room cold-water flat over a grocery store, and he didn't need a doctorate to recognize a roach. He stifled an instinctive flinch as the bugman dropped to the cinderstone trackbed.
Rats, snakes and roaches! Deebo had no use for any of those three of God's creatures, yet he forced himself to remember that somewhere underneath the exoskeleton of this creature was a human being no different from he.
Deebo couldn't help but notice that this particular roachman was different than most. For one thing, it was pretty small ... only about half the size of most bugmorphs. It wore a frayed, mud-stained knit cap ... a toque ... on its head emblazoned with the red maple leaf of Canada. Around its neck, suspended on a piece of twine, was a notepad size piece of plastic that the bug evidently used as a message board.
The poor creature was also deformed. Instead of the normal six legs of a roach, this one only had four. Its front two limbs served as its arms. Its second set of limbs helps to propel it along the ground. But it lacked its third set of legs. In their place were two vestigial human legs hanging limply at the creature's side. This forced the small bugman to drag itself along on the ground with its front arms and legs.
"Can you speak?"
The creature chittered briefly and shook its body slightly left to right to indicate no. Despite his innate fear of roaches, Deebo felt pity for this poor creature. He searched his mind for something Canadian to say to the creature. Then he remembered a word some of the guys used to call one of the old line-chiefs . . . a burly Canadian from Saskatchewan . . . what was it? After a moment, he remembered.
"Well, Canuck, welcome to the city. My name's Deebo. Since I don't know yours, I reckon Canuck's a good a name as any."
The bugman nodded affirmatively.
"Sorry, not to be more hospitable, but you can't stay here in the yard. If you need a place to stay, there couple of cheap places over on West and Decker that could put you up. You got any money?"
Canuck nodded and produced a small wad of bills ... mostly three-dollar Reagans ... from a side pack.
"Look here, you keep that money hid, boy, you understand? Not everybody around this city going to treat you right. Here's a card with the address of my church on it. You get into trouble, you come see me. You need a safe place to eat or sleep; you go to the West Street Shelter. They're good folks down there. You understand? You go down the shelter and you ask'em for my niece. Her name's Rebecca. You show her that card. She'll look after you."
Canuck nodded and started to pull himself away. Then he stopped and turned back to Deebo and extended his arm. Although Deebo shuddered internally at the thought of touching a roach, he didn't show it as he shook the bug's limb in friendship.
Deebo locked the boxcar, and when he turned the Canuck was gone. Then he stretched his arms in a lazy circle and yawned. A cup of coffee would taste just right about now, he thought. In an hour or so, the warm rays of the autumn sun would warm his old bones and ease the stiffness in his joints. In the distance, along a chainlink fence that surrounded the yards, Deebo saw a small brown shape climb the fence and drop to the ground below.
"Good luck there, Canuck," Deebo said to himself. And then, glancing up at the sky, he added, "Look after him, Boss."
And that's how Bryan Derksen, BS, MS, M.D., Ph.D. and undercover agent, entered the city.
CHAPTER 6: ENTER WU-2
Kim Liu, on the other hand, was having a rotten day. Or rather, a rotten night. For the fourth time in three weeks, Kim had been tossed in the city jail. And each time the cops threw him in, they seemed to throw him a little farther and a little harder than before.
Now he knew why they called jail the "slammer."
As he sagged against the hard bench on the far side of the holding cell, he thought for the umpteenth time that the first thing he planned to do when this job was over was burn every program, artifact and western souvenir he had. No more Lone Ranger. No more John Wayne. And, especially, NO MORE PALADIN!
Oh yes, he planned to punch C. R. in the nose, too!
The hard-earned peace and serenity that had been Kim's life had been broken ... along, he suspected, with his nose. On the other hand, he had to admit there hadn't been a headache episode since this business started. With a hand pressed against the concrete block wall, Kim pulled himself to his feet and lurched toward the one-spigot sink. He cupped a small amount of tepid water in his hands and splashed it against his face and rubbed. He looked at his reflection in the mirror. His mother wouldn't know him.
Kim had to give C. R. and his friends credit, without using any of his polymorphic powers, they had altered his appearance so much that his few close friends and acquaintances wouldn't know him. In a world where a polymorph could alter anyone's appearance to any shape or form desired for a few short hours, the art of makeup and disguise had become a faded art. The only thing he was grateful for was all their changes were temporary.
First they added lifts to his shoes but only about an inch, but one lift was made a little higher than the other, giving Kim a slight rolling limp as he walked. Then his front teeth were removed and saved and new implants were inserted giving his mouth and face a different contour. After ingesting a chemical compound for several days, his glossy black hair dulled and changed to a dark chocolate brown. Then the back and sides of his head were shaved to buzzcut length while the top was thinned and rounded off as if a plate had been stuck on his head and any hair that showed was cut off.
Then, using micro-lasers, they implanted several small sacks in his abdomen, thighs and buttocks. The sacks were gradually filled with a gelatin compound over the next several days. The result was to give Kim a paunchy, out-of-shape look. They also added sacks just under the skin of his nose and in his cheeks and jowls, puffing out his facial appearance. The crowning touch was his eyes. The disguise specialists finished him off with two mismatched contact lenses that not only corrected his vision, but also ... because one eye was now hazel brown and the other sky blue ... creating a piebald look on him.
But it wasn't the disguise that made Kim's undercover assignment work, it was the extensive and fictitious dossier they created for him and inserted throughout law enforcement systems worldwide. Thanks to the wizards at Astral and GDM, anyone punching up Kim's fingerprints or retinal scans on Crim-net, the international law enforcement web system, would find a rap sheet a mile long for the man now known as Colin Lester Wu II . . . AKA Wu-2.
According to his police dossier, Kim now hailed from the city of Hong Kong and was the supposed illegitimate great-grandson of one of the former British governors. Wu-2 was a fence for exotic illegal imports ... an uncanny international smuggler with the reputation of never being caught. Although never convicted of a major crime, Wu-2's life had been a constant move one step in front of local law enforcement. His specialty was moving banned or illegal goods internationally. Wu-2's modus operandi was to stay only so long in any one place or legal jurisdiction ... set up a deal or two ... and move on to a new location.
Unfortunately for Wu-2, he seemed to have come to the city in the midst of a major crackdown on smuggling by the police chief and district attorney. Virtually all the city's major players in illegal goods had been put out of business for the present, or were under so much police scrutiny that nothing much was moving. When Wu-2 showed up, local forces immediately began hauling him in for questioning every time a purse was stolen, just in case he had any ideas about trying to take advantage of the chaotic situation to smuggle.
Kim was nursing his sore nose ... compliments of an over-zealous rookie ... when he heard the clang of the outer cell doors. A beefy looking jailer opened Kim's cell.
"Get out, Wu, your freak girlfriend's posted bail."
Kim summoned the dignity he felt a criminal of his caliber needed to possess and strode cockily out of his cell. The guard took him to the property room where Kim retrieved his personal effects. He made a show of counting his money. He took a $100 bill from his wallet, and tucked it into the top pocket of his jailer's shirt.
"Little something for your troubles," he said.
The guard smacked him hard between the shoulder blades with a nightstick, dropping Kim to his knees.
"Smartass Chinese son-of-a-bitch," the guard growled, pulling him roughly to his feet but not, Kim observed, making any effort to return the money. The guard took Kim to the release area where, not surprisingly, a small knot of uniformed and plainclothes cops were clustered around the diminutive form of a woman. And what a woman she was!
First, she was tiny, not quite five feet, but that's not what made her so distinctive. It wasn't even her shape, although she possessed an incredible hourglass figure and large perfectly shaped breasts. What made her distinctive was her fur. Growing from her head and extending all the way down her back and covering her buttocks was a flawless mane of the finest Russian sable.
The girl was an animorph ... a sablemorph. Her features ... still perfectly human ... blended the feral features of her animal counterpart, with all the distinctive and desirable features of her gender. Her eyes were gold in color and slightly wide and catshaped, marking her as nocturnal in nature. Her hair was an extension of her fur, although it was longer and more luxurious.
And it was red. Not just red, but sable red ... caressing red ... erotic red ... red that you want to stroke and run your hands through and never stop. It was that kind of red.
Her name was Cinnamon. Cinnamon Buns.
("Why do they call you that?" they ask her. "Because I'm red-hot and spicy," she answers, touching her index finger to her tongue and then placing it on her fanny and making a sound like sizzling bacon.)
Although she obviously delighted at being the center of all this male attention, Cinnamon's eyes formed crocodile tears when she caught a glimpse of Kim coming out of the holding area.
"Oh, Wu-2, honey! What have these meanies done to you?" she asked in breathless voice that amazingly suggested innocence and sex at the same time. She ran to Kim's side radiating an aura of concern, while her pert fanny managed to wiggle provocatively. The back of her pantsuit, which was cut to expose as much of her back and buttocks as was legal in the third decade of the 21st century, which made it easy to show off her sable fur. Slipping her arm under Kim's, she helped him out to the street and into a sports-hi, while still flirting and winking at the assembled cops who follow her, lemming like, out the front door.
After the little red sport v-hic sped off, a grizzled old beat cop spoke for every man there when he said, "I ain't much for SCABS but I think I'd walk four blocks out of my way just to say hello to that little redhead!"
As they sped away from the police station, Cinnamon punched in auto-destination to their apartment. Then she activated the v-hic's windscreens, shifting them from clear to opaque. Then she opened her purse and pulled out a small handkerchief and handed it to Kim. Like a window shade going up, the light and fluffy personality of Cinnamon disappeared, replaced in an instant by the more acerbic mannerisms of Splendor. It was still Cinnamon's pouty sexpot voice, but there was no mistaking the presence of the West Street woman.
"You look like shit," she said matter-of-factly.
Kim, holding her handkerchief under his still bleeding nose, took a long count to ten before answering her.
"Enough about me and my petty problems, has anyone called?"
"Yeah, we've had about a dozen calls from local gangs looking to move merchandise ... mostly small shipments ... drugs and the like."
"No drugs!" Kim said testily.
"No, of course not. I'm just saying our potential clients are probably looking for some kind of proof we can deliver before trusting us with anything substantial."
"Lemme see what they want to move and what we can do," Kim said, pulling out the laptop and starting on preliminary work. He was still working at it when they reached the apartment building Kim used as Wu-2's base of operation.
"I don't feel like going up," Kim said. "Why don't we go down to the Blind Pig for a drink and something to eat."
"Don't be stupid. Suppose we're recognized."
"Now who's being stupid. Who's going to recognize us looking like this."
"Look dummy, just because we look different, doesn't mean there aren't people down at the Pig who wouldn't know us. There's such a thing as a sense of smell . . . or had you forgotten that?"
Kim had, but he wasn't going to admit it.
"I could think of half a dozen people at the Pig who'd know me by smell no matter how I looked," she said. "Hell, in the old days, I'd slept with half of the Lupine Boys. Anyone of them could pick out my scent. So smarten up."
Kim clenched his fists to push down his anger. He really admired this woman. He admired the fact that she had survived her years on the streets. He admired her obvious intelligence and genuine desire to help people who wouldn't or couldn't fend for themselves. But, let's face it, when you got right down to it, Splendor was a PAIN IN THE ASS! He sighed noisily.
"Look, Splendor, I'm tired and I hurt. I've spent most of the afternoon and evening in a lock up downtown. My nose hurts like hell and we've been at this project for almost six weeks and we have nothing to show. We haven't seen nor heard anything from Bryan, let alone C. R., and, the fact is, I miss my life ... that is ... I miss my old life. I'm sick of this whole mess."
"Well, I'm certainly sorry that Mr. Kim Liu is having a rough time," she said icily. I'll bear your feelings in mind the next time a friend of mine goes missing."
The two sat in stony silence for a minute, then Splendor released the latch on her door. By the time it had swung open, every trace of Splendor was sublimated into her alter ego Cinnamon. She rushed over to Kim's side and made a big show of helping him out of the v-hic and leaning on his arm in a suggestive manner. What was not obvious to anyone other than Kim was she was not leaning on him, rather she was helping to prop up the tired and cranky polymorph. He gratefully leaned on her arm and limped to the lift.
Wu-2's apartment was first-rate ... the best C. R. deep wallet could get. Everything in it suggested a man used to wealth and success. It was also loaded to the gills with every piece of modern anti-snooping technology available legally or illegally on the open market, as well as a few from the boys and girls down at Astral that nobody knew existed. As far as the electronic surveillance world was concerned, Wu-2's apartment, computer systems, and vid-links were a black hole ... information went in, but nothing intelligible to law enforcement ... or anyone else ...came back out.
With practiced hands, Cinnamon activated the apartment's internal security systems and, finally, both of them were able to relax. Kim entered a complex series of codes into his personal system and watched a terminal.
"The cops have added nine more cameras and sound systems while we've been gone," Kim observed.
"I know. They've all been counteracted."
Kim grunted. Whole holographic productions featuring he and Splendor would be projected and recorded in lieu of what actually went on inside. Kim had to admit it was pretty impressive. He went into the kitchenette and opened a Pepsi. Grabbing a handful of peanuts from a bowl on the counter top, he sank noisily onto the sofa. Splendor emerged from the bathroom holding a portable med-kit. She calmly and professionally examined his nose and concluded, rather unsympathetically, that it hadn't been broken. Still, she placed a small piece of tape over the bridge, which instantly copied his skin tone and virtually disappeared.
While Kim dozed off on the couch, Splendor went into the kitchen and prepared a light dinner. Kim ate in silence while Splendor sipped on a glass of water. He still couldn't get used to the fact that she didn't need food. True, she would eat on occasion, but she drew no sustenance from it. At first, he vainly tried to engage her in conversation but, if it wasn't strictly related to business, she tended to give either curt answers or ignore him entirely.
The fish she had prepared was extremely spicy ... so hot that it took all of Kim's self-control not to grab his water glass and down it in one gulp. Recently he had complained that her cooking was too bland for his tastes. Evidently, she didn't appreciate his criticism of her cooking. Tonight's dinner was pay back.
"This fish is excellent," he said, only slightly hoarse. Splendor merely bit a piece of ice and crunched it noisily.
It had become a challenge between the two of them. Kim was determined to break through her self-controlled demeanor. While she seemed equally determined to treat Kim like he wasn't even there. Their time in private had become a sort of undeclared cold war ... a contest to see who could get under whose skin ... and how fast. Kim's opening salvo concentrated on the one place he thought her vulnerable . . . her personal life.
"It reminds me of a dish my grandmother used to fix when I was little. Her people were originally from Northern China. They like spicy food, too. Her name was Xiao Lee. She moved back to China after the second big outbreak of Martian Flu . . . that must have been 2018 or thereabouts.
"Grandmother had a real phobia about SCABS. Her husband died from the flu and several of her children developed SCABS. She sort of took it personal and moved back to her ancestral province just to get away from us . . ."
Splendor's eyes began to glaze over in boredom that's when Kim knew he had her. Putting on the most innocent face he could muster, he proceeded.
"Speaking of names . . . I've been meaning to ask you. What's the deal with your name? I mean Splendor . . . what kind of name is Splendor? Is it a first name? Or a last name? Is it a family name? Is there a Ma Splendor and Pa Splendor somewhere?
"It's just Splendor," she said tersely. "Splendor's the name I go by."
"Oh, then Splendor is just an alias. A sort of non-de plume. So, what's your real name? You do have a real name, don't you? I mean, everyone does, so you must, too. What is it then? You always struck me as an Alice or Jane type . . ."
She gave him a glare that could bake enamel, stood up without comment and proceeded to clear the table. The only sign that Kim had touched a nerve at all was the slight shake in her hands.
"Gotcha!" he thought gleefully.
After eating, Kim went back to his laptop and examined the merchandise manifest that he would attempt to smuggle. He decided on two high-priced items for his initiation into the city's underworld. One item was a stolen Jackson Pollock worth about $14.5 million. A South African diamond merchant wanted the painting for his personal collection. Kim concentrated on developing a means of moving it out of the United States. Kim knew he could count on help from C. R. and the magnate's unknown allies in Interpol for help, but Kim, who loved puzzles, wanted to see what he could accomplish on his own.
After about two hours worth of concentration with his computer, Kim hit upon a scheme he thought might work. He called his contact and set up a deal ... $500,000 to smuggle the picture and another million if he delivered it successfully to Kuala Lumpur. He then went to work on a deal to deliver a shipment of illegal computer hardware to a mid-east country engaging in international terrorism. This one was a snap, and Kim, using Cinnamon as his go-between concluded his deal with the country's local attaché just after midnight.
Tired and yawning, the two co-conspirators went quietly into their joint bedroom. Kim retrieved his silk pajamas from the foot of the bed and went into the bathroom to change. After he finished preparing for bed, Splendor took her turn, emerging after 15 or 20 minutes in a stunning low-cut emerald teddy.
"Wow," Kim thought to himself, while every ounce of his self-control was engaged in keeping his face (as well as other delicate portions of himself) from betraying his feelings and emotions at the sight of the woman. As nonchalantly as possible, Kim rolled to one side and closed his eyes to sleep. So far, although the two had shared a single bed since the start of this operation, they had maintained a strict and rigid regime as far as personal contact was concerned while in private. After a few moments of silent personal meditation, Splendor joined him in the bed and turned off the lights.
After she settled in, she called out to him in the darkness.
"I know it's been a long day for you, but it's been more than 48 hours since we did it last time and I need it."
"Ah jeez, Splendor, can't you wait until tomorrow?"
"No, I can't. You know how hard it is for me to maintain this shape ... how much energy it consumes?"
"Oh, for crying out loud," Kim exclaimed, turning on the lights. He sat up in bed and held up the two forefingers of his right hand. He concentrated his efforts and focused his will on the polymorphic powers locked within his body. Slowly, using techniques taught to him by C. R., a small ball of energy formed on the tips of his extended fingers. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead as the energy ball grew. Splendor raised her fingers and lightly brushed his fingers with hers. A snap of electrical energy passed between them and the air smelled faintly of ozone.
Kim rubbed his temples; the dull throb of the first headache he'd had in weeks started pounding away in the area in back of his eyes.
Kim cursed softly and closed his eyes to concentrate. His headache moved quickly from a mere throb to something more akin to having a full-grown alleycat stuffed inside your head scratching the back of you eyeballs to get out. In a sudden rush, Kim blew the air out of his lungs and fell back on his pillow.
"I'm sorry, Splendor, I'm just too tired. If I try anymore tonight, I'll have a stroke."
"Well if that's all there is, then that's all there is."
She got out of the bed and slipped the spaghetti straps of her teddy aside. With a wiggling motion, she slid the silky material down over her thighs until she stood naked beside Kim.
"Wha . . . What are you doing?"
"Well, if you can't do it C. R.'s way, then we'll have to do it the old fashion way. But one way or another, I've got to feed tonight, or I won't be holding this shape in the morning."
Suiting action to words, she pulled back the bed covers and began pulling at Kim's pajamas. For a wild moment Kim thought she was merely trying to get even for the hard time he'd given her over dinner, but with lightning speed, she snatched his pajama bottoms and pulled them down to his ankles.
"Splendor, no wait!"
She straddled Kim and leaned forward, her naked bosom resting on his chest. She reached up and kissed him on the mouth and face. There was no emotion in her action, merely a professional at work. Kim was rigid in more ways then one. Splendor sensed his confusion and leaned her mouth against his ear and kissed it.
"It's just business, Kim. Nothing personal. Just relax . . . I'll do the rest," she whispered.
CHAPTER 7: THE WAYS OF THE STREET
"Yes! That's it. You can do it, Canuck . . . you can do it," the young woman shouted as she clapped her hands in encouragement.
The object of her cheerleading wasn't so sure. He was an undersized cockroach morph attempting to maneuver around the deserted parking lot on a store on a pair of wheels affixed to the underside of his exoskeleton. The roach was Dr. Bryan Derksen, formerly of Alberta, Canada, but here in the environs of West Street ... in disguise and undercover ... he was known simply as Canuck.
He had appeared at the shelter over two months ago with little more than a backpack stuffed with a few belongings, a wool toque on his head, and a card bearing the name of the Reverend Deebo McCandless. That card got him an immediate visit with Becky Holman, the center's acting director and the Reverend's niece. She looked him over briefly and then made a few motions with her hands.
"Do you understand me?" she asked in American Sign Language.
"Yes," the roach replied in kind. "My name's . . . Canuck."
Bryan response wasn't playacting. After one of his molts, he'd discovered that he'd morphed so far into roach form that he'd lost human vocal chords. As a consequence, he'd been forced to learn sign language to communicate at all with his fellow "humans." He wasn't great given his "hands" lacked the flexibility and dexterity of human hands, yet he knew enough to get by, and given his disguise as an young, semi-literate indigent, no one had too much trouble believing his story. Becky accepted his story without a blink; she'd heard hundreds of stories like his over the years. And so, from then on, that's how he was known on West Street ... a half-pint roachmorph named Canuck.
Becky, like all the shelter's employees, was proficient in sign, which was rapidly becoming the preferred means of communication among SCABS whose morphforms precluded the use of human speech. After a few false starts, Canuck was able to convey that he was a young recent SCABS whose family had not been able to care for him in his present state. He gave her the impression that he'd been moving from city to city looking for work and was just passing through. After a hot meal from the kitchen, Becky got Canuck settled in a shelter pallet for his first night in the city.
Before he'd even arrived in town, the conspirators had discussed how Bryan should conduct himself. For him to be successful ... and successful for Bryan meant getting kidnapped ... he knew he'd have to make himself as vulnerable as possible. And to be vulnerable, he had to be alone.
In the days that followed, Canuck met all the current regulars at the shelter. Mostly they're morphlocked SCABS operating under varying degrees of self-sufficiency. Many made a few dollars by panhandling. Most of these people were SCABS whose transformations marked them as too offensive to be officially "seen" by polite society. There were many like this on West Street.
Most indigent SCABS, like Canuck, hired themselves out as day laborers and returned to West Street for the night. These were the SCABS with large or brutish forms that could be adapted to cheap and hard physical labor. Among SCABS and norms alike, they were called "daymules." They were the lowest of the low on both the SCABS and norms social scale and, if a few got hurt or killed on dangerous jobs, no one really noticed or cared.
If Canuck had any doubts about his ability to fit into the strange twilight world of the indigent and homeless, a few nights on West Street cured him. Outside of his first night, he made it a point to sleep on the streets. Each night, a different Dumpster, alley, box or storm drain became his bedroom.
His tough carapace shielded him from the vagrancy of temperature and weather. Even his semi-human legs, dangling uselessly on each side of his body, were covered in the tough sheathing of his cockroach morph form. Still, being forced to drag himself along presented Canuck with a degree of difficulty he hadn't expected when he agreed to be the Consortium's undercover agent on West Street.
Despite his limited handicap ... he'd been as surprised as any after his last molt ... Bryan found numerous jobs that paid him enough for food and the few necessities he found he needed. It was a far cry from his clean and orderly academic life on the university campus of Alberta but, surprisingly, the Canadian found himself happy and reasonably content for the first time in many months. There was simplicity to this life that appealed to him.
No one could say why the city had developed into the nation's unofficial Mecca for SCABS, but it had. Most of the SCABS population were productive and useful (and taxpaying) citizens. But the city's social services department with it's large population of SCABS, stretched to the limits of its financial and staff resources just trying to deal with this one segment of the city's population.
After a few days, a shelter worker introduced Canuck to a city social worker that was assigned to help him find work. He accepted any job she offered him, provided it wasn't permanent. He kept aloof from most people, establishing himself as a loner.
Being a loner suited him ... whether he was Canuck, or Bryan. On a conscious level, Bryan's rational self knew that given his polymorphic ability, there was no physical reason why his human self could not assert itself. But in the deep recesses of his mind, there was a small nagging voice that kept telling him that he had become what he was because that was his true nature.
Pretty soon, Canuck had established himself as a steady, if somewhat slow-minded worker. He worked one week on a trash crew before switching to a construction job. He hopped around the daymule job circuit looking for any clues on the disappearing SCABS. There was method to Canuck's job choices. Each place he took a job had employed one or more of the known missing SCABS. Canuck figured that if he worked at enough of those same places, he might stumble across a lead that C. R. and Regal might have missed.
That's how he found himself working at ProGEN processing. Along with various other insect-morph daymules, Canuck sorted and emptied scrap containers for an animal feed processing plant on Davis Street. Three or four times a shift, an 18-wheeler arrived towing meat or bone scraps from one of the city's meat packing plants. The roach's job was to separate meat and fat which were processed into pet foods and bones which was ground into feed meal for farm animals.
The plant hired daymules because they were cheap and multi-limbed, thus able to sort quicker. Canuck's current two work companions were beetle-morphs. Both, like the roach, were speechless. The foreman at the plant was a norm named Buchler. He hated SCABS.
"Move your fuckin' bug asses!" he screamed whenever ... which was often ... he felt the SCABS weren't moving fast enough to suit his expectations. He kept a sock mixed with sand and marbles in his pocket. Over the years, he'd discovered that sand and marbles left no marks on a bug carapace yet caused vibrations that were painfully debilitating in the short-term for an insect-morph, especially when applied to a limb.
Canuck had received the sock treatment less than an hour into his first day. The blow was applied to the knee joint of one of his vestigial human legs. The pain vibrated out from the blow until almost his entire right side felt numb.
"I ain't paying you to take your fuckin' time to get the job done, you worthless piece of roach crap!"
Canuck attempted to shield his right side from Buchler, which only seemed to infuriate the man more.
"Look at me like that one more time, and I'll step on you like I would any other bug," he screamed and struck Canuck again, this time near his antenna. The blow didn't hurt, but it did scramble the roachmorph's neural patterns for a few seconds. As Canuck twitched uncontrollably, Buchler kick him viciously and repeatedly. One of the other daymules pulled Canuck away until his seizure subsided.
"Why?" Canuck signed to his savior.
"Don't ask," he was told. "In this place, never ask anything."
Over the two weeks, Canuck endured 12-15 hour workdays and repeated blows from Buchler. Each night, reeking of rancid animal flesh, he'd choose an alley or sewer to hole up in until morning. One of the nicer things Canuck had discovered about his form was that stinky rotten things didn't bother him anymore. His current form didn't much care how things looked or smelled. And food? Let's just say, he ate what came his way.
Late one afternoon, Canuck was sorting fat slabs from bones when something caught his eye. The shipment was supposed to have come from a beef processing plant, but one of the carcasses didn't look bovine. He pulled at the mass of twisted and greasy bones until he came up with a leg joint. There was a hoof still attached was freed from the pile.
Horse or mule, he thought to himself, but definitely equine. Although not common, many of the best meat packing operations butchered horses or mules, a common additive to animal feed. Not only that, but among the widely divergent populations of the city, there were a number of SCABS carnivores that consumed horsemeat because it was cheaper than other meats. He was about to throw the bone back when something else caught his eye ... there was something growing out of the fetlock. Had Canuck still possessed hair, it would have risen straight up. He looked at the hoof until the image was burn indelibly into his brain, for growing out of the fetlock was the unmistakable form of a human thumb.
As casually as possible, he tossed the remains into the far end of the bin for later retrieval and went on with his work. Unfortunately, he had been observed. Unknown to him, Buchler had noticed the roach's interest and searched the bin after Canuck. After a few minutes he picked the leg joint, noticed the thumb and whistled softly to himself. He carried the remains to the bone grinder and pushed it in. Then he made a vid-call.
"This is Buchler. I think we have a problem."
When his shift was over, Canuck made his way over to West Street and the shelter. Before going undercover, he'd arranged a simple means of passing notes surreptitiously back and forth between him and consortium contacts. Unknown to most, there was a loose brick in the back wall of the shelter that could be pried loose. He'd arranged with C. R. to drop notes there if he discovered something.
Although his demeanor didn't show it, Canuck was worried. The first piece of firm evidence he'd found in over a month undercover had slipped away from him. The hoof was gone and Canuck couldn't tell whether it was design or accident. He wrote a brief note for C. R. to investigate the plant, but before he could hide the note, Becky saw him.
"Hey there, Canuck! Hold on, I've got something for you," she hollered from the second floor window.
When she joined him on the street, Becky was holding a light-frame aluminum chassis with two toy wagon tires.
"I got to thinking that something like this might help you get around better," she said.
With her assistance, he lifted his rear up and she slipped the chassis underneath him. After some trial and error in trying to attach it, they found that oversized strips of Velcro were the easiest to work with. Becky sewed Velcro on the flaps and then affixed the fastening strips directly to Canuck's body. The contraption worked remarkably well. Canuck found he was able to scoot around much faster after he got used to the thing. After an hour's practice at a deserted lot, he'd mastered the contraption. Becky then went back to the shelter and Canuck started back toward the alley he was sleeping in this week. He'd forgotten about his note to C. R.
When he arrived at ProGEN the next morning, Buchler called him into his office. Waiting inside was two cops.
"Take off your backpack," he was told.
"Mr. Buchler tells us that some tools and things are missing. Would you know anything about that, bug?"
Canuck shook his head negatively.
Oddly, it was Buchler who opened Canuck pack and rifled through it. After a moment, he produced several tools and two butcher knives; all stamped "Property of ProGEN."
"You want to press charges, Mr. Buchler?"
The foreman shook his head; then he picked up his cudgel. Both cops turned and closely inspected the calendar on the wall as Buchler struck Canuck a dozen or more blows. Dazed and in agony, Canuck had few memories of being pushed down the steps and being thrown in the back of the patrol v-hic. Only semiconscious, Canuck was only dimly aware that one of the cops tagged him with a standard police barcode marker. Any police scans would now show Canuck as a suspected and potential thief. As they pushed him out of the v-hic, Canuck was warned that the cops would be keeping a close eye on him.
"Not my best day," Canuck thought to himself when his head finally stopped ringing. His pack was gone. So was all his money. He'd lost the wheel sling that Becky had made for him. About the only thing, he still possessed was the toque on his head. Painfully, he dragged himself to the empty dumpster he called home and crawled inside. Tomorrow, he'd start over. He had to.
He was about to drift off to sleep when someone began banging away on the side of the dumpster. He pulled himself up to look over the side. In the shadows, he could make out the figure of a norm.
"Just what do you think you're trying to pull, Bryan Derksen?"
Canuck felt his blood go cold.
CHAPTER 8: RENEWING OLD ACQUAINTANCES
There was no mistaking the voice of Lisa Underwood. She stood before the dumpster, arms akimbo and eyebrows arched, as if daring Bryan to try pretending he didn't know her.
"Go away," he signed.
"No way. What's going on?"
"GO AWAY," he gestured with even more emphasis.
She shook her head and started to speak, but Bryan cut her off.
"Meet me under the Decker Street overpass in an hour. Tell no one you've seen me. Don't be followed. Go away now."
With that, the roach ducked back into his hideaway. Lisa stared at the dumpster for a moment. She was too good a reporter not to realize that something beyond her understanding was going on. She knew Bryan and, what's more, she trusted him. She'd get her answers in an hour, and she was a very patient woman. She exited the alley and made an obvious gesture of patting her skirt, as if she'd ducked into the alley to rearrange her clothing. She used the movement to glance around but no one seemingly was paying attention to her.
Lisa Underwood was a reporter ... a VERY good reporter. She wound up a journalist almost as if she had been put on earth for that very reason. Both of her parents were born deaf-mutes, so she always felt more comfortable expressing herself through written words rather than talking. And her proficiency in American sign meant that she was able to communicate easily with SCABS lacking vocal cords.
Only in her late 20s, she had originally been assigned as a features writer for The Inquirer. One of her first stories was a piece on a watering hole for many of the city's SCABS called The Blind Pig Gin Mill. If her editor was expecting a fluff piece, he was sorely mistaken. What followed was an award-winning series on the "human" face of SCABS. She became one of the first norms to write with understanding about the SCABS condition.
It was at this time that she first met Splendor who was still turning tricks on the streets. Through Splendor, Lisa first came face-to-face with the inhabitants of West Street. She became their first champion in print. All through the upheaval the Humans First movement, her accurate and even-handed reporting won much sympathy for SCABS among the rest of the city's by-in-large norm population. Her work on the self-destructing mayoral candidacy of Councilman Barnes won her a Pulitzer Prize and her own thrice-weekly column.
"From Where I Stand," was the mostly widely read column in The Inquirer, and there was talk of syndicating it nationally. But that mattered little to Lisa, who still went around writing columns on the subjects and people who interested her. She absently pushed a lock of her chin-length brown hair out of her eyes and walked a couple of blocks to a small lunchroom. Ordering a cup of coffee, she tried to wait out the hour before her meeting by writing out her notes on tomorrow's column, but some how her thoughts kept drifting back to Bryan Derksen.
There was a time when everyone, including herself, thought that she and the Blind Pig's Scribbler would wind up together. Certainly there was a mutual attraction, but after a while it became obvious to her that he would not pursue her romantically and, eventually, her feelings for him settled into more of comfortable friendship instead of love. It was at about this time that she first began met and talked to Bryan Derksen.
He was still basically humanoid at that time and although a polymorph, even then, he had a predilection for insect forms. She was attracted to his shy ways as much as his intellect. They even went out to dinner a few times, although Lisa instigated them. You couldn't call them dates, since the most romantic thing Bryan did was shake her hand when he dropped her off at her apartment. Still, she particularly liked a man who could blush, and blushing was something Bryan was very good at.
Then, much to her sadness, Bryan began to frequent the Blind Pig less and less; eventually leaving the city and country to return to his native Canada. He took a research position at the University of Alberta about four years ago. The next time Lisa saw him he had began his long slide into roach morph-lock. She still remembered people whispering about "poor Bryan" and his problems. To her surprise, she never thought of him as an insectmorph. In fact, she was still attracted to Bryan as a person. She chose to see what was hidden beneath his exoskeleton, rather than how he looked.
Unfortunately, it didn't seem to be reciprocal. Bryan studiously avoided her wherever and whenever their paths happened to cross, that is until they both happened to be attending a SCABS Research Symposium in Spokane, Washington. Bryan was a featured speaker. With the worst possible timing, entered one of his periodic molts. He had mistaken the symptoms as stage fright. He hated public speaking even before his insectmorph manifested, and roaches are notoriously skittish.
The first time he realized what was really happening, his eyes had already gone opaque and he was blind. Bolting from the podium, he tried to flee to the safety of his hotel room, but by then it was too late, the molt had begun. Fortunately, Lisa had seen his obvious distress and followed him. Despite his protestations, she helped him to his room and stood guard until he finished the molt and his chitin hardened.
Being vulnerable before others was alien to Bryan, but here, for the first time, he allowed another person to become close to him. In the months and then years that followed, Bryan kept up a routine, but thoroughly distant, relationship with Lisa. It should not have been surprising to him that she, above anyone else, would know and recognize him, no matter his form.
Exactly one hour later, Lisa entered the dark tunnel under the Decker Street overpass. This was a favored sleeping place for both norm and SCABS indigents. It smelled of garbage and human waste. She heard a soft rustling in the darkness and soon made out the form of a bugmorph. She hissed out his name softly and he answered with a chitter.
"How did you recognize me?" he signed.
"I didn't at first. But you have a peculiar way of rubbing your head and twitched your antennae while you're thinking. Once I saw that, it had to be you. Now tell me, what's going on? What are you doing here? Why are you living like this? Are you in some kind of trouble?"
"No. Not trouble. I'm here . . . looking for someone. But you must leave and tell no one you saw me."
"No way, Bryan. Not without some answers."
Then a look of enlightenment crossed her face.
"Oh my God! The missing SCABS! You're here looking for the missing SCABS!"
"Yes. Now will you go away?" "Not likely! Not if I can help!"
"Sure I can. And I'll tell you this Bryan Derksen, I'll help whether you like it or not! Now . . . how will it be?"
Bryan made the gesture that Lisa found so easy to identify and gave the roach equivalent of a sigh. Without mentioning too many details, Bryan gave Lisa an abridged version of his mission on West Street. He told her of his efforts to make himself susceptible to kidnapping and how he and the private investigator, Regal, were working to break up the group preying on the West Street homeless. The goal was to free the missing SCABS if they could be found.
Lisa's reporter frown was working overtime as she digested the information Bryan imparted.
"That jives with some of my own suspicions. Street people around here have been telling me for months that something was up. I've been doing some checking around on my own. Splendor gave me access to her records before she went missing, and I've gone over them more than once.
"It was only after my fourth or fifth review that I noticed the only tie I've been able to find between a few of the cases. It was so obscure; it's no wonder that Splendor missed it. I happened to notice that a number of people were referred to different clinics and agencies for medical treatment and such. So I went back and compared records to referrals. At least five of the missing people were sent, or spent time, at a place called Bosch House."
"Yeah, it's a private mental hospital for the poor over off of Racine," she said, pulling a small notepad from her purse.
"It's been open almost two years. The feds fund it, although I understand it's an international organization. They've got clinics like it in a dozen of major cities worldwide. Splendor's folks sometimes send people there who've got mental, drug or alcohol problems. What little digging I've done show them as a clean operation. And get this, the guy that runs the clinic . . . guess what his name is? Schweitzer! I kid you not, Schweitzer! His first name's, James, I think.
"Anyway, five of the missing people ... indigent SCABS that is ... were admitted at least once to Bosch House before they disappeared. There was a cricket-morph, Beverly; a pygmy rhino-morph, name unknown; Jin Yuan, a Chinese flamingo morph ... that one couldn't speak much English; Joseph, a Kodiak Bear morph; and a prostitute named Otter Annie.
"Now, nothing ties them directly to anything or anyone at Bosch House, it's just the only link I've been able to find among any of the disappearances."
Bryan pondered the information for a few moments and made a decision. What he was about to do exceeded his instructions from C. R. But then C. R. wasn't living in a dumpster every night either, Bryan was. And suddenly, more than anything, Bryan realized how much he wanted both Lisa's help and company.
"I will probably regret this, but maybe I could use your help," he signed.
"That's the spirit! What can I do?"
"First, do I have your word that what I tell you remains confidential or, at least, partially so?"
"To start, I want you to do some discreet checking up on all the suppliers for ProGEN Distributing. See if you can get a look at their billing records and accounts."
"Am I looking for anything in particular?"
"I don't know. But I do want to find out who their livestock distributors are."
"There's something you aren't telling me."
"What we're dealing with may go far beyond just kidnappings. We've come across some evidence that is a lot more sickening."
"Yesterday, I found the remains of a horse or mule in the rendering pile . . ."
"There was a human thumb on the fetter . . ."
Lisa gagged involuntarily.
" . . . sweet Lord," she murmured.
For a few moments, the roach and reporter just stared at each other. Finally, Lisa spoke.
"I suppose this is why you aren't going through the police?"
"Yes, we are afraid that if word of this gets out it could be more explosive that the Human First riots a few years ago," he signed.
"Absolutely! There are still enough norm nutcases out there that would treat news like this as an excuse for open hunting season on SCABS. And let's face it, there are more than a few militant SCABS groups that would like nothing better than to get into a shooting war with norms."
"You got that right."
"You keep saying ...We,' who else is involved?" "I can't go into details, but there is a loose network of SCABS that is working together to unlock the secrets of the flu and SCABS. Most of them are leading science- and business-types. A few years ago, we figured that it wouldn't be too long before our governments or others would try to co-opt and exploit the potential military or economic benefits of the powers that some SCABS possess. We wanted to be in place and organized first, to protect ourselves and other SCABS," Bryan continued.
"But we're not some super-secret all-powerful group. We have a lot of resources, but we're not as clever as James Bond. Something like this is a scenario we never anticipated. We're trying to solve this the best way we can with the people we've got. But most of all, we want to keep it quiet."
"Well then Bryan-old-man, we've got a lot of work ahead of us."
"That's another thing . . . I'm not Bryan here . . . I'm Canuck ... just another homeless kid from Canada. Make sure you don't slip and call me anything else. In fact, we really can't be seen together much. You're too well known and I'm supposed to be a nobody, so keep that in mind."
"So how do we touch base?"
"There's a loose brick on the back wall of the shelter: one side is painted. If either of us wants to meet, put a note with the time and reverse the brick. This will be our pre-arranged meeting spot."
He took her pad and pen and wrote an address and vid-link.
"There's something else," he added. "I'm not the only one working on this. If something happens to me, or I go missing. I want you to contact a guy named Colin Wu or his girlfriend. Her name is Cinnamon. This is important. Do not contact them for anything other than my disappearance. They're trying to infiltrate the distribution network, and I don't want to do anything to jeopardize their work."
"I don't recognize either of their names, how will they know me?"
Bryan's body rocked slightly back and forth in the roachmorph's imitation of laughter.
"The names are unfamiliar, but you know them all right ... the woman anyway," he signed.
Lisa cocked her head to one side, and then she got it.
"Yes. She's disguised as a sex kitten. She's working with a guy named Kim Liu. Do you know him?"
Lisa thought a few moments, and then she pictured him in her mind.
"A short guy ... about my height ... Chinese-American . . . an animorph as I remember . . . tends toward mice, right?"
"That's him. He'll be Wu. Now, they won't be expecting you and I don't want you to go to them unless I'm gone. Just tell them to expect a delivery from Addis Ababa. That's our code sign."
"Then what?" she asked.
"I've got a low-level homing device embedded in my carapace. It's very short range, no more than a few blocks. They're supposed to have the tracker, but they'll have to move fast if they expect to find me . . . and I'd like to be found, if you don't mind. I had planned to tell Becky Holman a little about this, but then you came along, and well . . ."
Lisa reached over and completely and unconsciously threw an affectionate arm around Bryan.
"You're stuck with me, Bry . . . I mean, Canuck! I won't let you down. I'll get right to work on ProGEN. What about you?"
"I lost everything after my firing, so I'm heading back to the shelter and see if I can scare up some work. After that . . . we'll see."
The two had reached the end of the conversation. They both knew it, yet them seemed loathed to leave each other. After an awkward silence, Lisa cleared her throat.
"Well, I better be going. I still have a column to write and research to do."
Bryan said nothing.
"So . . . I'll see you around then," she finished lamely.
"Thank you. Thank you very much," the bugmorph signed and then reached out toward her hesitantly with one of his arms.
"Oh, Bryan," she cried, and threw her arms around him. "You take care of yourself and be careful! I'll kill you if something happens to you!"
Bryan didn't point out the illogic of her words, but they made him feel good. He turned and left. After a moment, Lisa exited from the other side of the tunnel.
Bryan, once again Canuck, made his way to the West Street Shelter. It was dinnertime and he hadn't eaten all day. He moved through the soup line and settled in a corner to eat. As he finished, his social worker ... a rather unpleasant woman named Julie ... stopped in front of him.
"That was a pretty dumb stunt you pulled over at ProGEN, kid," she scolded. "You're not an American citizen, you know. Try stealing again and they'll dump you at the Canadian border so fast, you're little bug head won't stop spinning for a week!"
It was pointless to argue, so Canuck merely nodded.
"Anyway, I have another job prospect for you, if you want it. It's janitor work,
and they specifically asked for a small bugmorph. You interested?"
Canuck nodded again.
"Right! Tomorrow morning, go to this address," she said, handing him a small card with writing on it.
"Ask for Kaye Libisch, she'll get you started."
With that she turned and left him. He picked up his utensil and had just begun to lift a spoonful of soup to his mouth when he turned over the card and read the address of his new employer. His dropped spoon clattered loudly on the tabletop. The name on the card was Bosch House.
CHAPTER 9: GAMBLING LESSONS
"Hit me," Wu-2 said.
"Oh, no, honey, not again," breathed Cinnamon plaintively.
"Again," he insisted.
"Twenty-two," said the dealer. "House wins."
"Damn!" Wu-2 said, tossing back the last of his tonic water, and placing another $500 bet on the Black Jack table.
In the past couple of hours, Wu-2 watched his luck seesaw back and forth ... first triumph, then disaster, then triumph again. At this moment, he was back to disaster. His latest losses put him down about fifteen grand, yet he played with the reckless abandon of a man gambling with someone else's money. Which, in this case, was true, since C. R. and GDM's money were bankrolling this evening's entertainment.
Tonight he didn't care how much he spent. He was here to make an impression. And if the reaction to his performance so far was any indication, Wu-2 was a big hit. He gambled fast and furious. His behavior was quietly outrageous. And he tipped very well. But then he knew he was being scrutinized.
Ever since the late 20th century, cities and states had moved to legalize some forms of gambling. Here in the city, moored in a neat row along the waterfront, were a half-dozen riverboat casinos, each offering patrons "fine family fun and a taste of the authentic Old West." Which was an interesting claim given that the city itself was more than 1,500 miles east and north of anything remotely close to the "Old West."
But that didn't stop hopeful patrons from dropping coin after coin into slots machines, or playing any number of different games of chance designed to separate them from their hard-earned money.
The past eight weeks had been very successful for Wu-2 the smuggler, yet frustrating for Kim Liu, undercover agent. His smuggling successes had quickly established his first-rate reputation among the city's criminal element. Wu-2's work was fast and efficient. He was also, not surprisingly, expensive, but once his reputation for success got around, he was never at a loss for customers.
New customers were the reason he and Cinnamon were at the casino tonight. Since his introduction to the city's nightlife, Wu-2 had received countless number of advertisements and invitations to visit one casino or the other. Most he threw away. But his invitation for an evening on the Natchez Belle was one he could not ignore.
The previous evening, he and Cinnamon were eating at one of Wu-2's favorite bistros when a tall, dark-haired man presented himself at their table and presented a card to him. It read: Ciaran Bourke, Passing Fancies, Ltd., Amsterdam, Chicago, Kyoto, Manila, and Buenos Aires.
"Mister Wu," he said, with a Irish brogue thick enough to butter toast. "Me name's Bourke ... Ciaran Bourke ... dat's Ciar like da word "hear" and an Ann. Dat's Ciaran. Pleased ta meet'cha!"
"Well it's obvious you already know me, Mr. Bourke," Wu-2 said, suppressing the smile he felt forming on his lips. "So may I introduce you to my associate and companion, Ms. Cinnamon Buns."
"The pleasure's all mine," he said as he kissed her hand.
Despite herself, Splendor blushed under the charm of the Irishman.
Wu-2 smiled despite himself when he noticed Splendor's reaction to the Irishman's charms.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Bourke?"
"Why'n sure it's each other we can be helping, Mr. Wu. Me employers wish to speak to you wit' the idea of forming a business alliance."
"An alliance?" Wu-2 asked as casually as he could muster.
"Let's just say that you offer services me employers would like to take advantage of. But this is hardly the time or place to speak of such matters. Would you be a gambling man, Mr. Wu?"
"So den, you wouldn't be opposed to joining me tomorrow evening aboard the Natchez Belle. We'll spend a few hours tempting Lady Luck and discussing matters which may be of mutual benefit to both of us."
"Shall I meet you anyplace in particular?" Wu-2 asked.
"Sure'n you just show up and I'll find you, Mr. Wu. Shall we plan to meet, say about eleven?"
Wu-2 agreed and Bourke stood, shook his hand, and bowed once again toward Cinnamon. "And I'll be hopin' dat you brings dis lovely lass wit' you as well. Till tomorrow ...den."
After the Irishman left, the two conspirators looked at each other. Wu-2 rubbed the side of his nose in deep reflection, but neither spoke. They knew better than to discuss business in unsecured public places. He finished his meal and they rode in silence back to the apartment.
Once inside, Kim burst into laughter. "Mr. Ciar ... like "hear" ... ann Bourke! Can you believe that guy! Well I almost hope that our Blarney Irishman isn't our first contact with our mystery people."
"I don't trust him."
"Splendor, Splendor, Splendor!" he said ironically. "You think I didn't notice him getting to you. He's the first man I've ever seen you get flustered over. Hell, I thought for a minute that you were ready to do a lap-dance on him!"
"Hrumph!" she scowled at him. But after a moment, her face relaxed and she allowed herself a rare smile. "He was . . . cute," she finally admitted. "But I still don't trust him."
"That's my girl!" Kim exclaimed, patting her softly on the shoulder.
The next evening at eleven, Wu-2 made his grand entrance on board the Natchez Belle. He was decked head to toe in the costume of a Mississippi riverboat gambler. His suit was a soft doe-brown color accented with a silk shirt and mauve cravat. A narrow-brimmed top hat of soft brown felt and silver knob cane completed his outfit. Strapped in plain view under each of his armpits were two antique flintlock pistols. One fired a small flag that said "BANG" when you pulled the trigger; the other held Wu-2's private stock of Napoleon Brandy.
To help keep Wu-2's mind focused, the GDM labs had come up with a brandy substitute that smelled and tasted like the genuine article, but lacked the alcoholic punch. This allowed Wu-2 to give the appearance of conviviality while staying cold sober. Mixing his own drinks from a firearm flask only added to Wu-2's already colorful image.
Wu-2 and Cinnamon looked for Bourke, but he was nowhere to be seen. Assuming he was under surveillance, Wu-2 proceeded to the $100 roulette wheel and promptly lost $2,000 on impossible high odd bets. He then moved over to the Baccarat table where his luck improved. He tipped the cocktail girls who brought him tonic water $100 for each bottle. Pretty soon, waitresses were fighting to be at his beck and call.
Just after midnight, the casino manager invited Wu-2 to the high rollers section. He now switched to Black Jack. Over the next hour-and-a-half, his fortunes varied. Wu-2 sat at the table and chewed the ice from his drink. He noticed that the dealer hated it, so he slowly chewed every piece from his glass before ordering another tonic water ... with extra ice. Kim felt it was time for Wu-2 to make a dramatic gesture. He waited until the hand he was looking for came.
When the dealer dealt him two kings, Wu-2 split them and placed an additional $1,000 on each hand. He now had a $1,500 dollar bet on each hand.
"Hit me," Wu-2 said.
The dealer turned up an ace.
"Black Jack," said the dealer, paying off Wu-2's win.
Attention then turned to the second hand. Wu-2 motioned for a card. It was a two of diamonds. The next was another ace. He now had 13 showing. He turned to the people watching his play.
"Anybody want to make a side bet?" he lisped in the slightly slurred voice of someone who had been drinking. Four people took him up on it. He placed four thousand-dollar chips down. Each of the four matched his play. The dealer drew the next card. It was a five of hearts. Wu-2 now had 18 showing. He placed another $5,000 on his house bet and an additional $2,000 on each side bet. One player folded, but the others matched him.
The dealer drew down the three of clubs. Wu-2 had his 21. The dealer flipped his cards; he had nineteen. Wu-2 picked up his winnings to the applause of the crowd. He stood away from the table and bowed to the other players. Leaning on Cinnamon's arm, he moved away slowly from the table, giving every sign of mild intoxication. He glanced a look over at Cinnamon and to his surprise, she gave him a wink. The pit boss stopped Wu-2 and told him that a Mr. Bourke had organized a private poker game upstairs and would Mr. Wu care to join?
Mr. Wu would.
Casino personnel led the pair through a roped off section into the private gaming rooms. In a well-lit room four men sat around a poker table covered in green felt. One of the men was Bourke. When Wu-2 and Cinnamon entered, one of the players, a young handsome man in mid-twenties, rose from the table and motioned Wu-2 to take his place.
"Ah, Mr. Wu, it's glad I am dat you'll be joining us?" Bourke lilted.
"My friends call me Wu-2. And I hope we'll be good friends," Kim answered just as smoothly.
Bourke turned to Cinnamon and said, "I'm sorry dere's not another chair for you darlin' but I asked my associate, young Michael here, to escort and entertain you for a wee time."
Cinnamon was smart enough to know she was being dismissed and acceded graciously enough. She leaned forward and kissed Wu-2 on the cheek.
"Be careful," she whispered, and then added aloud. "Now don't you lose all our money, Wu-2, honey."
She allowed the young man named Michael to take her arm and escort her from the room. She made a point to wiggle as much as possible, just so they'd remember what they were missing by dismissing her. Wu-2 noticed that Cinnamon's charms weren't lost on his card-playing companions.
"It's a remarkable woman you got dere, Mr. . . . I mean Wu-2," Bourke said.
"You have no idea," Wu-2 answered truthfully.
Bourke quickly introduced Wu-2 to his fellow players. One was named James. Wu-2 pegged him as a professional man ... doctor or lawyer ... he wasn't sure. The other was named Lyle. He was strictly organizational "muscle." But Wu-2 would not make the assumption that the man was stupid. None of the three men facing him appeared to be dummies, and Wu-2 knew he was going to have to be on his toes at all times. The Kim part of his mind that he sublimated while playing Wu-2 silently wished Splendor was still here. It surprised him to realize how much he depended on her brains and character strength.
They chatted and made small talk over the first few hands. Kim was a moderately successful player. He played the first few hands cautiously, attempting to gauge the prowess of his opponents. He quickly concluded that James was no gambler. Lyle knew the game but was reckless. Ciaran, on the other hand, was formidable but Wu-2 noted he tended to bluff when not holding anything. Wu-2 played with that knowledge and soon collected a tidy sum in front of him.
"You're more den a fair card player, Wu-2," Bourke admitted finally. "I'm not used to losin'."
Wu-2 shrugged noncommittally, but added, "You bluff too much. I took advantage of that."
Bourke scowled briefly, not liking to have his weaknesses pointed out to him, but he recovered graciously and half-smiled. "Beyond your gambling prowess, you also seem to have a flair for helping items ... how should I say ... move discreetly from one place to another."
Gesturing to his two companions, Bourke continued, "We have heard from some of our associates here in the city dat you are a man to be trusted. Can we trust you with our business, Wu-2?"
Wu-2 smiled and screwed his one blue eye toward Bourke.
"To my certain knowledge, you already have."
All three men froze uncomfortably.
He continued, "As you rightly pointed out. I am good at what I do. I wouldn't be here if you didn't have confidence in my abilities. It's also obvious that you want to move something pretty big . . . or, should I say, you want something moved unseen . . . so you need my skills. It's also obvious you wouldn't go window shopping for my type of services. Businessmen like yourselves would hardly trust valuable merchandize on an unknown quantity. That means you must have used my services surreptitiously."
Wu-2 rubbed his hand across his chin and cocked his head to one side in thought.
"The Vermeer Madonna, for sure. The blackmarket AIDS vaccines to China last month, that's a no-brainer . . . and," he sighed, "I suspect . . . those missile components you didn't think I'd notice were slipped into the Paraguay deal.
"Have I missed any?" Wu-2 asked innocently.
Bourke eyes bore into Wu-2, as if he were trying to read the smuggler's thoughts.
"Sure'n Wu-2, you call me a man dat bluffs. I can't help but noticin' dat you're not as drunk as you made out earlier. It makes me wonder who's bluffin' who here?"
"Call my bet and find out," Wu-2 said evenly.
No one answered him for a minute.
"So, gentlemen, do we put our cards on the table?" Wu-2 asked again.
When he saw he had their complete attention, Wu-2 added, "And as long as we're on the subject, Mr. Bourke, how about dropping that phony Blarney accent while you're at it?"
James and Michael looked at Bourke who continued to stare fixedly on Wu-2. When he finally spoke, his Irish accent much more subdued and natural.
"You were quite correct about the t'ree shipments. How did you know?"
"Trade secret," said Wu-2 blandly. "Let's just say that I have picked up rumors among others who specialize in my work that there was a group more secretive than my most select customers that needed ...goods' moved without asking too many questions. My work to this point has been my gesture of good faith to you as well as my desire to pick up your business."
The three men looked at each other for a moment. The two nodded to Bourke who spoke for the group.
"We need to move a considerable amount of materials out of the country. This shipment cannot, under any circumstance, come to the attention or suspicion of American authorities. Should the contents of this shipment become known, it would be most unfortunate for anyone connected wit' dis enterprise."
"What exactly am I going to move?"
"You don't need to know!" said James, speaking for the first time.
"I beg to differ," Wu-2 countered. "I need to know a lot of things if I'm to do this job. I need to know the bulk, weight, the amount ... any number of variables ... if I'm to come up with a means of surreptitiously smuggling items out of the city, let alone the country. I mean, will this ...shipment' fit on a person, or do I need ship or plane? I need to know the final destination. Surely you can see my need for all this information."
The three men huddled for a few minutes, speaking softly but emphatically among themselves. The man, Lyle, the one Kim figured as Bourke's second-in-command, seemed the most agitated. Bourke made a gesture that cut off the discussion.
"It seems we're going to have to trust you, Wu-2, although my associate, Lyle, objects. Tomorrow we will deliver a package of materials to help you in your considerations," Bourke said.
"Not good enough," Wu-2 countered. "What I need is electronic access into your systems . . . and don't try and look so innocent . . . we both know you'd have to have a net-system to pull off a scheme like this. That's what I'm a specialist in . . . it's what makes me so good at my job. You know all my other clients have granted me access to their computer systems. If you want my services, that's my requirement. Without that access, we can't deal. Without that, let's just say we had a friendly game of poker and go our separate ways."
Kim hoped that he had a great poker face, but he could feel a single bead of sweat rolling coldly down his arched back.
"I can't help but wonder if you're a bigger bluffer than I am, Wu-2," Bourke said finally. "It looks like we're going to have to ...trust' each other. By tomorrow morning, you'll have a computer account set up in our system. We'll contact you with your access codes. Access will be limited until we are convinced dat you've developed a workable plan. Agreed?"
Wu-2 nodded, then added, "Which leads us to the subject of the cargo."
"What about it?" Bourke said suspiciously.
"To develop a plan, I must have some basic information about the content."
Wu-2 could see Bourke carefully weighing his words.
"The shipment will be divided into two parts: one will be bulk items, the second will contain, how should I say, a ...live' component."
"Interesting . . .," Wu-2 said, talking as much to himself as the others. "I take it the bulk items you leave to my discretion as to a means of safely shipping, but the ...live' items raise a few more potential problems. It goes without saying that if we ship them live, you want them to arrive that way."
Wu-2 put his elbow on the table and, balling his fist began rubbing it back and forth across his lips in deep thought. Finally, he asked, "Do you plan to smuggle a human cargo or is it livestock?"
Lyle started to protest, but Wu-2 waved him off. "It's essential to know . . . I need to know how much space to allot as well as feeding and maintenance concerns."
"It's a legitimate question," Bourke admitted, again weighing his words. "I guess you could say it's a little of both.
"We're all men here," the Irishman said, opening his arms in an all-encompassing gesture. "We have approximately 61 individuals ... SCABS of varying persuasion ... for whom this "Land of Plenty" no longer hold any opportunities or ties. Due to circumstances beyond d'ere control, dey seek opportunities in other countries. We're going to help dem achieve d'ere dreams. Any problem with dat?"
"Nope. It's no skin off my nose. As long as I get paid, I'd give Judas directions to the Garden of Gethsemene."
"We'll expect your work to be completed in a short time," Bourke concluded.
"I want to know something," said Lyle, finally speaking aloud. "What guarantee do you give your work, Wu?"
"I guarantee it will be expensive," Wu-2 said.
"Lyle does raise a valid point, Wu-2. The merchandise we plan to ship, if successful, will make us wealthy beyond avarice. If we're caught, the penalty would be our loss of freedom for life at the very least, and our lives at worst. Those are very high stakes. Dis may be just another job to you, but I want you to understand and share our same level of apprehension and anticipation of success. To achieve dis, from dis moment until the successful delivery of our merchandize, both your life and the life of the delightful Ms. Buns are hostage to dis project. You will both be watched. At the first sign of treachery or deceit, your lives will be terminated. Agreed?"
Wu-2, again, nodded.
Bourke continued, "You will make no attempt to contact my associates. If you need to deal with us, you will do so t'rough me. The account will have a means of contacting me t'rough a secured vid-link. If I deem it necessary to meet with you, I'll set up a time and location."
Then, almost as if on cue, the door opened and Cinnamon and the young man, Michael returned. Without a pause, Bourke slipped back into his jolly Irishman routine.
"Ah, Miss Cinnamon, sure dis room has been made a little brighter wit' your return. You're a most lucky man to be having the company of a colleen like dis one.
He bowed and once again kissed her hand, "Till the next time, dear one."
"Wait'" Wu-2 said. "We never finished our last hand."
Wu-2 had three kings but Bourke had a full house.
"I win," said the Irishman.
"This time," Wu-2 observed.
A couple of hours later, Kim and Splendor continued to go over and dissect their experiences during the evening. Splendor had been treated to two floorshows she didn't care to see and then she got to stand and watch Michael play craps. Later, he bought her dinner. She was forced to eat food she couldn't digest and make bimbo small talk to the thug. He was good looking, but a thug nonetheless.
Kim talked to Splendor through the door of their bathroom. Splendor was regurgitating the indigestible remains of her dinner while Kim shouted questions. When she finished, she emerged from the bathroom, patting her lips on a towel.
"The only thing he said that I filed away for future use was a comment I don't think he meant me to hear, or if he did, he didn't think I'd understand," she said. "I was doing my best to show lots of cleavage and ass over the craps table when one of Michael's cohorts started talking to him. The other guy must have said something about me because Michael said, ...Yeah, and the best part is after a few good fucks, I could make a few million off her pelt.' I'm not sure I like the sound of that. What about you? What did you guys discuss?"
Kim outlined his conversation with Bourke.
"That was pretty gutsy," she admitted when he told her of their conversation. "How did you know those earlier shipments were his?"
"Well, that was taking one hell of a chance!"
"Sometimes, you just got to take some chances to get ahead," he said as he removed his two fake flintlocks and placed them on the table. Going to his toolkit, he picked up a jeweler's screwdriver and carefully removed the round buttplate off his toy flintlock. Underneath was a sophisticated looking piece of hardware. He held the end cap up to his eye.
"Completely see-through," he said.
"Did you get it all?" she asked.
He opened his laptop and keyed a few commands. The words transmitting, downloading and saved appeared on the screen.
"Voila," Kim exclaimed, hitting a button. On the screen was a high-resolution audio and visual recording of his meeting that evening. He began to type. Splendor leaned over resting her chin on his shoulder as he wrote.
Dear Mr. Bourke:
I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment this evening that none of us can be too careful in the business we are undertaking. And just you felt the need to take precautions concerning my activities, I felt that I, too, needed more than your verbal assurances that we could concluded our business together safely and satisfactorily. Therefore, I have take the precaution of placing copies of the attached recording of our meeting in an electronic file which will be delivered automatically to a number of highly placed law enforcement personnel worldwide in the event that I, or my associate, Ms. Buns, should meet with an unexpected accident. While I understand your need and desire to keep a tab on my activities, I do have other clients who expect the same privacy consideration you and your associates' demand. Although you may have been most circumspect in all your dealings, I'm sure that you would agree that to have your faces, voices and conversations brought to the attention of the law would not be in your interest. Therefore, you will keep your intrusions into my private affairs not related to our project to a minimum. At the conclusion of our association, the original and all copies will be returned to you for destruction.
Sincerely, Colin Lester Wu II "Wait till he gets that one this morning!" Splendor laughed.
"Yeah, if nothing else, it will make him think twice about letting Lyle or any of his other boys lean too hard on us. But Splendor, I guess it goes without saying that we're in it now. There's no going back from here."
"I know. Do you think you'll be able to find Sarah or the other missing SCABS once you get into the systems?
"If there's information on them in there, I'll find them," Kim said. Then he added, "Look Splendor, I don't want you to get your hopes up too high."
He saw her sad look, feeling guilty for holding back his and C. R.'s suspicions on the fate of, at least, some of the missing SCABS.
"I'll do my best," he added lamely.
She silently took his hand, then said softly, "I know you will. And, Kim, you did good tonight."
He smiled and nodded, "Thanks, Buns."
"It's late. Let's get some sleep," she said.
As they lay in the darkness, Kim still felt restless. The pent up energy from the evening's activities had not yet dissipated. He rocked his leg over the edge of the bed. He looked over at Splendor who was already drifting off. A devilish smile crossed his lips.
"Susan," he said aloud.
". . . huh?" she answered groggily.
"I said, Susan."
"No, I'm still trying to guess your real name. Is it Susan?"
"Go to sleep, Kim!"
"What about Ellen? You could be an Ellen, couldn't you?"
Splendor yanked at the cover disgustedly and rolled over on her side.
"Betty! I'll bet it was Betty! Beverly?"
This time she merely groaned, turned on her stomach and pulled her pillow over her head. Perhaps, for five minutes, there was quiet. Then Kim whispered out softly in the darkness, " . . . Mitzi?"
"Aaaaahhhhh!!!" she yelled in exasperation. She rose on her knees, picked up her pillow, and started beating Kim over the head with it.
"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" she yelled in ever increasing tones. But as she yelled, there in the darkness, where no eyes could see her . . . Splendor was smiling.
CHAPTER 10: BOSCH HOUSE
Canuck had spent the morning cleaning the toilets of the second floor women's ward at Bosch House. He was very good at it. Of course, Bryan had always been a meticulous individual but even he was surprised to discover his aptitude, and even enjoyment, for his current station in life. He'd been working now at Bosch House nearly six weeks.
Becky Holman at the Shelter rigged him another set of wheels after his former boss Buchler destroyed the first set. And Bryan found that it really helped him to move around easily and accomplish his janitorial duties at the hospital.
The hospital was housed in a recently renovated building. Although it abutted West Street, it wasn't considered a part of the slum area. At this point on West Street, the city had made serious attempts to reclaim the area from poverty and decay. About the same time the hospital was renovated and opened, a series of new small factories and warehouses had been built on lower end of West Street down near the waterfront. In fact, the rear end of Bosch House faced the back end of one of the newly constructed warehouses. Bryan could look out the third-story window of the hospital and watch delivery trucks come and go as he mopped the long corridor leading to the psych wards.
So far, his work at Bosch had been nothing except routine. He was surprised to discover how much he liked both the job and the people who worked at the hospital. He felt a little guilty at times when he realized he was spying on people who had gone out of their way befriend him.
Kaye Libisch, the hospital's staff supervisor, was a florid pear-shaped woman in her earlier fifties. She was outgoing and friendly with everyone. Everyone called her Mizz Kaye, although before the advent of SCABS, she had been known as Herbert. She interviewed Canuck for more than an hour, asking question after question about himself and his background. Bryan couldn't help but feel her questions were as much done in genuine curiosity as in any attempt to determine his suitability for the job.
She also couldn't help but notice the police bar-code marker affixed to the top of his carapace. She knew what it was and what it meant. Still she decided to give him the job. He reported to work the next morning but instead of getting right to work, he was first given a complete physical. The staff doctor examining him told Canuck that the tests were routine.
"We've found it best to give all our new employees, who may not have seen a doctor for some time, a thorough exam before we expose them to patients," the young doctor explained. "We don't want them to give you any nasty medical surprises we could have avoided, and we want to protect them from any potential problems as well. You understand?"
Canuck nodded in agreement, as a doctor himself he knew it was a sound medical practice. Tests completed, Canuck began work. First, he was given another barcode strip, which was attached to his right arm. This was his combination identity card and security access pass. It allowed him to enter all secured parts of the building. He provided all janitorial services for the four-story building. Bosch House could hold as many as 30 patients at one time, and its outpatient clinic provided mental health care for a significant part of the low-income community. Keeping the place clean was a big job, requiring someone with a lot of physical stamina and endurance. No wonder they specifically asked for a bugmorph; Canuck doubted any norm (or most SCABS) could endure the work schedule and routine that bugmorphs would shrug off as ordinary.
He began his work at four each morning and often stayed until nine or ten each night. The hospital provided Bryan with all his meals and even offered him a small bed in the basement. He used it on occasion but he refused to move in permanently, still keeping to his "loner" routine. He worked quickly and quietly, trying as much as possible to been unnoticeable.
He had little to no interaction with patients, except to clean up after them. Most of the staff treated him distantly but professionally. Canuck had no complaints. Most of his work involved emptying trash and medical receptacles, cleaning and general maintenance. As a medical man himself, Bryan gave a silent assent to the treatment practices employed at Bosch House.
At least twice a day, Canuck would make the rounds to all the examining rooms and empty the biohazard receptacles. Many times this was just a routine procedure, but the hospital occasionally received patients ... especially among the homeless ... who were suffering from conditions or diseases that could potentially infect others. Here again, the hospital's preference for bugmorph janitors was well placed, especially in employing roachmorphs. Any creature that survived as many mass extinctions as the cockroach would find the handling of mere human biohazard materials a snap.
In fact, norms and other SCABS were in more danger of catching something from Canuck than he was by handling even the most virulent cast offs from a sick patient. Still, the hospital exercised prudent decontamination procedures. Bosch House had a licensed bio-disposal incinerator, which Canuck maintained. After he collected the materials, he took it to the basement disposal and destroyed it. The hard natural sheathing covering his body protected him from exposure to nearly all infectious organisms, but did little to protect others from him.
The hospital had installed a unique showering room to handle this sort of problem. After incinerating the waste, Canuck would enter the shower and his entire outer-casing would be subjected to a rigorous decontamination process. First, his outer shell was exposed to a chemical bath that would have dissolved the flesh of most other creatures. After that came a high-pressure water spray. Then, his carapace was subjected to a re-oiling to replace the natural oils leeched from his outer casing with, of all things, a conditioning shampoo. Finally, he received another high-pressure blast of water and he was back in business. The whole process took about a fifteen minutes. After the first few times, Canuck actually began looking forward to the baths, which he found invigorating.
Early that morning, long before six, Canuck was already at work, cleaning a room in the hospital psychiatric forensic unit. This type of unit was used to house patients on a temporary basis as the hospital staff examined and evaluated them for further commitment or release. He had just finished spraying disinfectant and was mopping it up when two of the hospital's burly orderlies went by. They stopped at the nurses' station and spoke the security guard on duty.
"We're here to get the patient in number six. She's being released," the larger of the two orderlies said.
The guard went with them and after a few minutes, Canuck noticed them come by escorting an obviously drugged arachnidmorph. Canuck vaguely recognized her from the streets. He had inadvertently strayed one evening into an alley she considered her territory. Her keening cries of distress still haunted him. She was obviously mentally disturbed. Lisa Underwood had done a column on her once. Her name was Captain Nancy Harbaugh. Before developing SCABS, she had been one of the first Marine female combat pilots and had earned the Silver Star during the second Korean War in 2016.
SCABS had grossly misshapen her body. She sprouted an additional set of legs and her arms reformed into a spider's front limbs. The worst part of her transformation was that her body, no matter how much translated into the outward appearance of an arachnid, still retained the texture of human skin. The change was particularly cruel to her face, which still carried recognizable features from her former life. She was quite mad.
She had spent the better part of the last ten years in and out of various veteran hospitals. Doctors would get her mental condition stabilized and then she'd be released. Almost invariably, she would immediately drift back into homelessness and her previous self-destructive behavior. But, as long as you didn't invade her personal space, she was mostly harmless. Her veterans benefits check arrived at the West Street Shelter each month. Nancy would pick it up and almost immediately blow it on drugs and alcohol. Because only when drunk or drugged could she forget, even momentarily, her present existence and remember the days when she soared above the earth and its problems.
Bryan watched disinterestedly as the two orderlies escorted Nancy to the elevator. After the door closed, the security guard called to Bryan.
"Hey, Canuck, come over and watch the panel for me. I've got to take a piss!"
Canuck moved in back of the console while the guard hurried up the hallway toward the restroom. He looked at the security monitors, which shifted from camera to camera throughout the building except for the stationary cameras in the lobby and the rear entrance/loading dock. The lobby was empty except for the receptionist and the outside streets were deserted, except for a few empty v-hics. After a few minutes, the orderlies returned.
One of them ... the taller one ... a norm named DeVece called to him, "Hey bug! Go ahead and clean out number six. She's not coming back."
Canuck nodded. When the guard returned, the bugmorph wheeled his cleaning cart down to the now empty room. He stripped the bedding and emptied the trashcans. He was a little surprised when he opened the closet. Inside were a number of Nancy's personal items, including some clothing and a coat. In curiosity, he opened the drawer of the nightstand by her bed. Inside, he found her purse. It had her wallet, around $100 in cash and two uncashed benefit checks.
Canuck stuffed them inside a plastic bag and took them down to the lobby. The staff person at the desk didn't read sign, so using the message board that hung around his neck, Canuck asked the lobby receptionist if Nancy had come out this way.
"Nope, you're the first person I've seen down here since about three this
"Is there something wrong?" a man's voice asked.
Canuck turned and saw Bosch House's director, Dr. Jim Schweitzer, standing in back of him.
"No, sir," the guard said quickly. "The janitor is trying to tell me something, and he's gotten all excited."
Schweitzer, a tall, graying, handsome man in his early 50s, looked down at the pint-sized bugmorph.
"What's wrong?" he signed.
"Nancy . . . a patient . . . left this," he answered, holding up the bag.
When Schweitzer frowned, obviously unimpressed with Canuck's discovery, the bug quickly added, "Her purse, money . . . stuff."
"Oh, I see," he said.
"Have we discharged someone this morning?" he said, turning to the guard.
"Not according to my records, sir."
Canuck then signed his conversation and instructions from the orderlies. Schweitzer called up to the forensic unit and DeVece came down. When asked, the man hesitated but admitted Nancy was gone.
"Well, nobody came out this way," the receptionist retorted.
"No. No, uh. We let her go out the back way. I'm sorry, Doctor. I guess we should have checked her room before she left."
"Well see that this gets back to her," the Doctor said, giving the bag to the orderly. "Handle it personally."
"Yes, sir," DeVece said, and as he turned away, he glared angrily at the roachmorph.
Turning to Bryan, Dr. Schweitzer smiled. "You're the new house maintenance person everyone is speaking so highly of, aren't you? Canuck, isn't it?"
Were it possible for him to blush in his present form, Canuck would have done so. Even as it was, he shifted uneasily from side to side as a gesture of embarrassment.
"Come along to my office," the Doctor said. "I'd like to get acquainted."
For the next forty minutes, Canuck had a pleasant conversation with the Schweitzer. The director's office was neat but spartan. The Doctor told Canuck a little about himself but spent most of his time quizzing the bugmorph about himself and his plans. While there, Canuck was paged; one of the faucets in the third-floor dispensary wouldn't turn off.
"I won't hold you from your work," Schweitzer said as a means of ending the meeting. "Keep up the good work."
As he headed to his basement office to pick up his toolbox, he came upon DeVece exiting the basement boiler room. The man blocked Canuck who was pulling himself along briskly on his wheels. Since he couldn't stand upright with his deformed legs, Bryan only came up to waist height on the orderly. DeVece held up his foot to Canuck's head and stopped him.
"Listen, you piece of shit. You got me in trouble, and I won't forget that. I'll be watching you from here on out. You just stay out of my way."
He pushed Canuck back heavily with his foot. Bryan went back about eleven feet, only stopping when his back wheels hit the far wall. As he walked past him, the orderly spat on Canuck. But Bryan wasn't thinking of insults. He was more interested in trying to figure out why DeVece was down here. No one on staff came to the basement except the janitor. He looked about to make sure the orderly was gone and then opened the door to the boiler room. Pulling off his wheels, Canuck lowered himself down the ladder to the pit that housed the boiler.
There was nothing here. Canuck looked for any sign why the orderly might be in this room. Then Bryan's meticulous nature paid off. Lying on the floor near the boiler was a rod of metal with a hook on the end. It was the tool people used to open the doors of the furnace when it was lit. Canuck always left it standing against the wall. He picked it up and held it for a moment. Then he hooked the right-side dead latch, opened the furnace door, and looked inside. The heat was intense, but the roachmorph could stand a lot more heat discomfort than a human could.
Canuck could make out some foreign materials burning inside. He tried to hook it with the rod, but it was too well burnt. But as he moved the ashes around, he was able to discern a shape that he recognized. It was the burnt remains of a purse. Nancy's purse! Bryan carefully closed the door and placed the rod back in its accustomed place.
He spent the rest of the morning and afternoon working his routine but all the time the vision of the burning purse floated through his mind. He cursed himself for not paying more attention to the security monitors when he had the chance that morning. Try as he might, the bugmorph couldn't remember whether he saw Nancy and the orderlies on camera once they left his floor.
As soon as he finished his tasks for the day, Canuck knocked off work. Taking a roundabout route, he slowly made his way over toward the alley that Nancy was known to frequent. It was deserted. There was a storm drain across the street that faced the alley. Canuck squeezed into the opening and passed the night. Nancy hadn't appeared when he awoke the next morning, or when he checked again that evening or the next day. He made a point to stop by the West Street Shelter and asked if anyone had seen her, but no one had.
Finally he took a piece of paper and wrote, "Find Nancy Harbaugh" and left it behind the brick as he had arranged with Lisa when they wanted to communicate. For two days, there was no answer; then, on his way to work, he found she had left a reply, "Usual place. 9 a.m."
Promptly at nine, Canuck entered the dark tunnel under the Decker Street overpass. Lisa was already there. She wasted no time on small talk.
"Nancy hasn't been seen since last week. I checked with police records and found that she had been picked up for public drunkenness. According to the cops, she had a barcode strip attached that instructed police to deliver her to Bosch House for treatment. They took her there on a Thursday. No one's seen her since."
"Hospital records show her released after six days. I watched them help her leave the following Wednesday," he signed. "But nobody has seen her since. I can't even be sure she left the hospital."
"What do you mean? You saw her discharged?"
"No, I saw Nancy get in an elevator but I never saw her exit the building. At least I don't think I did. But there's one way to check for sure. I'm going to have to review the security tapes for that morning."
"Isn't that dangerous?"
"I don't think so. The tapes are stored on disk and kept locked in Dr. Schweitzer's office but I have keys for that area. Besides, I'll do it late at night when no one is around. Have you found anything about ProGEN?"
"Enough to know that something besides the meat stinks over there! I followed your friend Buchler around for a few days. It seems he moonlights. At least two nights a week he operates a truck with a most interesting route. He always goes to the same four locations: a warehouse on West Street, to Norquist's slaughterhouse, then down to the docks to a shipping company called Passing Fancies Ltd., and then back to ProGEN. Once in a while, he even goes out of town ... Baltimore, Philadelphia and a couple other cities within a few hours drive."
"Where's the warehouse on West Street located?"
"Try looking out the back window of the hospital, you can't miss it!"
"Interesting . . ."
"There's another thing, I snuck in the back of Buchler's truck one night. He was hauling bags of tannin. Do you know what that's used for, Bryan?"
"It's the primary ingredient for curing hides . . . Please be careful, Bryan. I couldn't stand it if something happened to you."
He didn't know what to say. He turned to leave. He was too embarrassed ... not just at Lisa words, but of his own feelings toward her. He paused at the mouth of the tunnel, wanting desperately to say something to her. He turned, looked back and paused as if trying to say something. She stood there beautiful and alone. But then he looked down and saw his shadow ... the grotesque misshapen form of a cockroach.
"Take care," he signed and was gone.
The rest of the day Canuck devoted to the single-minded pursuit of his job. He tried his best to push all thoughts of Lisa Underwood out of his head. He had a job to do and no time to get wooly-headed over a woman he couldn't possibly ever have. Late in the afternoon, he stopped by Kaye Libisch's office with a note requesting permission to buff the floors in the administrative area. Since she didn't understand sign well, he kept his responses short.
"Sure, Canuck," she agreed. "When do you want to do it?"
"After hours. Late night. Won't disturb people. Start tonight," he signed.
From ten that evening until well after 2 a.m., Canuck worked assiduously at his task. He didn't know how long it would take him to review the tapes but he wanted to have work to show for the time he spent here. No one, not even the security guards, disturbed him after midnight. He was completely alone.
Using his master key, he opened the director's office. The hospital's security cameras operated on a continuous tape loop that recorded 24 hours of activity and then downloaded to a computer disk for storage. The security disks were kept in a file cabinet in Dr. Schweitzer's office. Carefully, Canuck jimmied the file lock. He searched through the disks until he found the one he needed. He turned on the director's desk computer and loaded the disk. It revealed what he already suspected. Although Nancy Harbaugh could clearly been seen entering the elevator, she never emerged. At least, not anywhere in the hospital that had a camera. He carefully replaced the security disks and relocked the office.
As he worked the rest of the night, he couldn't help but look out at the warehouse across the back lot from the hospital.
"What's your secret?" he wondered.
At 7 a.m., Dr. Schweitzer arrived at the hospital. He sat at his desk and drank his morning coffee. When he opened the left-hand drawer of his desk, a small green light was flashing. His face blanched. He quickly turned to his computer and typed a security protocol. A small camera hidden in the ceiling of his office showed him that he'd had a visitor last night.
He turned to his vid-phone and made a call.
"Ciaran? It's James. I think our security's been breached."
"How?" Bourke demanded.
Schweitzer showed him the recording.
"Can you handle it?" Bourke asked.
"Good. Don't loose it now, James. We're less den a month from shutting down dis operation. Let's not get careless at dis late date."
"I won't. We'll just add our curious janitor to our menagerie. I'm sure we can find a buyer, even for a midget like him."
After hanging up, Schweitzer went into his private examining room. He removed a vial from his medicine cabinet and took it back to his office. Over the hospital intercom, he called DeVece to his office.
"You were sloppy," he growled at the orderly as soon as he closed the door. He showed DeVece the results of Canuck's late night visit, angrily cutting off the man's attempts to make excuses.
"Never mind. Here's what I want you to do," Schweitzer said, holding up the vial. "I want this compound added to the water spray in the janitor's decontamination unit. Then I want to make sure that he uses it at least three or four times over the next two days."
After dismissing DeVece, Schweitzer called in the hospital's security chief.
"I want you to change the security access strip on the janitor," the doctor said. "I'm concerned about his mental condition. A few small items have been missing lately and he did have that problem at his last job."
"Shouldn't we just fire him?"
"No, we're a mental hospital, we're here to help people. I just want you to be able to tag him wherever he goes in the hospital. And come up with a plausible excuse for restricting his access to places without raising his suspicions. One other thing, make sure you add this code to his security strip when you replace it."
Later that morning, Canuck was summoned to the security office and had his identity strip changed. Routine security procedure, he was told. He didn't think twice about it. Had he been able to read the codes embedded in the strip, he'd have been surprised to find that, in addition to being identified as an employee of Bosch House, he was also listed as a patient. There was also a warning on the strip for police and emergency medical personal that the wearer was suffering from delusional psychosis and was potentially a danger to himself and others. It also instructed police to return him to Bosch House in case of a psychotic incident.
It was a busy day in the clinic. Canuck emptied the bio-waste containers twice before lunch. Dr. Schweitzer ordered the staff to conduct medical checkups on as many homeless people as they could reach. And some of those people had more than SCABS wrong with them.
Bryan was enjoying the spray of the cool water as it drummed against his hard chitin. Later that afternoon, he suffered his first attack although, at the time, he didn't realize what it was. He'd been washing windows in the nurse's lounge when he started to feel disoriented. The next time he was consciously aware of his surroundings, several hours had passed and he found himself on the roof of the building with no idea how he'd gotten there. That shook him.
For the first time since starting work, Canuck left early. He made his way back over to West Street. For the first time during his assignment, Bryan started to worry about his health. Had he pushed himself too hard? He felt he was close to finding some answers and he couldn't afford to be incapacitated now.
After wandering around the streets for several hours, he found himself near the Shelter at dinnertime. He hoped Lisa would be there but no luck. As the bugmorph moved through the serving line, he noticed Ranma was working this evening. She, of course, didn't recognize Bryan in his current form.
Tonight was the quarterly meeting of the Shelter's board of directors. Even though Splendor was gone, things moved as she had set them up. Bryan watched with an ever-increasing sense of loneliness as friends from another time and another world entered and passed by him without a hint of recognition. There was Jon Sleeper, looking busy and harassed. Following him was Dr. Harvey Lembeck deep in conversation with the Wanderer. For a minute, Bryan thought he saw C. R. but then realized it was only Jack DeMule and Brian Coe. Finally, in lumbered the familiar figure of Donnie Sinclair. The huge bullmorph stopped and shook hands with many of the shelter's residents and staff.
Just seeing the owner of the Blind Pig tore Bryan's already deep mood to shreds. Although roaches can't cry, that didn't mean Bryan couldn't feel the emotion. His head bobbed up and down as he tried without success to master his feelings.
"You okay, Canuck?" his dinner companion asked.
Bryan tried to answer but he felt himself beginning to twitch and spasm uncontrollably. He felt himself blacking out again. When he came to, there were four people holding him down. One of them was Dr. Lembeck. He looked around and saw the dining room was a wreck.
"What happened?" he signed.
"You tell me, Canuck." Harvey answered. "Are you okay?"
"Yes. What happened to me?"
"You had some sort of an attack. Are you on medication? Are you taking any illegal drugs or alcohol?"
"No," he answered.
"NO!" he signed emphatically when he saw Harvey's look of disbelief.
"Okay, Canuck. You seem all right now, but I want you to come by my clinic tomorrow and let me check you out. You promise?"
"Yes. After work."
Bryan slept at the shelter that night but his rest was fitful. He was up even earlier than usual and made his way to Bosch House. He tried to let himself in but his security strip wouldn't work. He pushed the night bell and the lobby guard let him in.
"Must be a fault in your pass," the guard reassured him. "Check with the chief when he gets in tomorrow."
Canuck went to his workspace in the basement to see if there were any special assignments for him. The only pressing job was another batch of material for incinerating. After that job was completed, Canuck went to the decontaminating shower. He lingered under the water spray. He kept hoping the cold water would help dispel the cobwebs that seemed to be clouding his mind.
That was about the last thing he remembered.
Three hours later, a police cruiser was summoned to a disturbance on the corner of Washburne and 9th Street. When the officers arrived, they found a diminutive roachmorph had barricaded himself inside of an upscale restaurant. The inside décor featured walls of mirrored glass. The roach had managed to smash every mirror. Had the cops been able to read sign language, they would have noticed that despite his frenzied agitation, the bugmorph repeatedly signed "Ugly out, ugly in."
One of the cops finally got close enough to stun the roach. As his partner held him down, the cop used his scanner to read the bar codes affixed the bug.
"We've got a winner here," he said as be rubbed his swelling eye. "Petty theft and a nut case."
"So do we take him in?" his partner asked.
"Naw. It say to deliver him to Bosch House. Easier on us. Not as much paperwork."
Some time later, Bryan wasn't sure when, he vaguely became aware of his surroundings. He couldn't place it at first. In fact, he couldn't even remember who he was himself. Finally, he realized he was in the holding room in the forensic unit at Bosch House. Bryan tried weakly to move, but all his limbs were restrained by straps. He collapsed again and passed out.
Hours later, the door opened. Schweitzer and DeVece entered. They stared at the unconscious bugmorph for a few moments. Then Schweitzer spoke.
"You shouldn't have spied on me, whoever you are. But it doesn't matter now. In a couple of days you'll be leaving us for a whole new life ... far, far away from here. Enjoy yourself."
After the doctor left, DeVece smiled evilly at the bound bugmorph.
"I warned you to stay out of my way," he told the comatose SCABS.
He kicked Canuck on the side of the head several times. The last blow was hard enough to break the roach's right antenna. DeVece picked it up and let it swing in his hand as he opened the ward door. He looked one last time at the unconscious Canuck, laughed, and locked the door behind him.
In the dreams of his drug-induced psychosis, Bryan found himself wandering through a nightmare landscape. A crowd of people whose faces he couldn't see surrounded him. They were all whispering something he couldn't hear.
Then he realized they were pointing at him and laughing. He looked down and saw he was naked. He turned to run, but the crowd surrounded him. The crowd seemed to tower over him. He looked at himself again, only to realize that he appeared to have regressed to the form of a small boy. Searing pain wracked his body and he felt himself falling forward. He could feel his arms painfully reform themselves into duplicates of his legs. Then another leg of human legs erupted from his sides.
Still completely human, Bryan found himself forced to crawl along like a bug. From the crowd appeared a familiar face. It was Stein. The old Stein. The adult Stein.
"Look at him," the polymorph laughed. "Damn freak! Good for nothing but a sideshow!"
Bryan turned away to see his dead parents staring at him. His mother began to cry and buried her head in his father's shoulder. They were both humiliated and disgusted at his appearance. They turned away from him and slipped back into the crowd.
"Dad!" he tried to call, but nothing but a bug's chitter escaped his human lips. Bryan heard the sound of a piano playing. He saw Jack DeMule, his back to him, seated on a bench facing the keyboard. On the same bench, facing Bryan was C. R.
"Jack and I thought we could trust you. We should have known you'd let us down," the magnate said.
The minute C. R. spoke, Bryan felt himself beginning to shrink.
"Let us down," repeated a scowling Splendor, as he dwindled even further.
"No losers in my bar," Donnie Sinclair said in a clearly human voice.
He turned to escape the judgement of his friends but as he did, a full-length mirror confronted him. To his horror, Bryan's face was thoroughly deformed until it resembled little more than a caricature of a human-faced roach. He continued to dwindle until he was no bigger than a housecat. Through his agony and humiliation, he could her the sound of footsteps approaching. It was Lisa. He tried desperately to speak to her, but no human sounds came out.
"You disgust me," she said, spitting on him.
He scuttled from side to side, trying to find some place to hide. Some place to escape the voices. The crowd were as big as skyscrapers to him now. He truly was a bug now. From the shadow crowd a man stepped out. It was DeVece. He lifted his giant foot. Bryan screamed and screamed as the foot landed heavily on him.
In the dark cell that confined him, the roachmorph slept. The only telltale sign of the nightmare he was experiencing was a slight twitching in his left forearm. Bryan was alone.
CHAPTER 11: SLIGHT OF HAND
"Heigh...Ho!" a high falsetto voice sang out.
"Heigh...Ho!" the same voice answered in a deeper tone.
"Ooooooooo, Heigh...ho! Heigh...ho! It's off to hack I go. Ya, yada, yada, yada, ya, heigh...ho, heigh-ho," Kim sang lustily from his bathtub. He repeated the refrain as he punched keys maniacally on his laptop, which rest precariously on the edge of the oversized tub.
"You're going to electrocute yourself," Splendor said as she sat on the commode, brushing her long sable hair.
"Begone, woman! Lest ye feel my wrath! Besides, this thing is waterproof."
Splendor merely snorted derisively. Kim was in his element. Never before in his life had he found himself so focused. GDM had provided him with top-line equipment, but it was Kim's innate, intuitive grasp of software applications that made what he was doing so fascinating. Kim's was working the systems as if he was a maestro playing a Stradivarius.
It was a far cry from the black mood he'd been in ten days ago, as he tried scheme after scheme in an effort to come up with a plausible plan for transporting Bourke's shipment.
He'd been accessing the fringes of Bourke's network system accounts for over a week preparing for shipping the consignment. From the look of things, it was going to be huge. Kim was more than a little daunted. Since he had yet come up with a workable plan, his system access was somewhat restricted. He wouldn't be able to "mole" Passing Fancies' records until he had total access. And till then, he was stuck!
For the first few days, Splendor watched Kim's mood move from cranky to testy as scheme after scheme was tried and found wanting. She left him to himself as he spent hours before his computer testing out various scenarios for smuggling. Everything idea he came up with failed miserably in the computer simulations. Splendor accepted he was doing his best and let him get away with more than a few slights and insults.
Late one night, long after Splendor had retired, Kim sat on the sofa watching a vid. When he found himself in moods like this, it helped if he put on some old-time comedies or cartoons and let their mindless idiocy distract him for awhile. He'd already sat through two Three Stooges shorts and most of Duck Soup, but at some point, he'd drifted off to sleep.
He awoke to the nasally twang of W. C. Fields. The film was called Poppy. Fields', as usual, played a ne'er-do-well father. In this film, he was trying to raise his young and innocent daughter. At the point Kim awoke, Fields was conning a group of "rubes" using the old shell game. Fields would place a pea under one of three walnut shells and move them around. People would bet where the pea was. The object of the con is to let the person being conned easily guess where the pea is and win a few bets. Then, the when the pot got high enough, Fields would spring the trap on the con and take all the money.
Kim was chuckling at the plot when suddenly a flash of enlightenment crossed his face. He sprinted across the room to his computer and began slamming keys at a fever pitch. He didn't move again for hours. The dawn sun was peaking over the edge of the balcony when he finally straightened up in his chair and felt the bones of his back crack. He'd done it! At least, in theory.
The computer said it would work, and Kim was a man who trusted computers. He'd surreptitiously hacked into a dozen different Quantum-Cray systems around the world and had run nearly 1,000 different simulations against the smartest computer systems in the world. And it worked! At least it did in 986 of 1,000 scenarios. And since Kim wasn't expecting attacks by pirates, meteor impacts, alien abductions, or sea monsters, he was sure his idea was a winner. Still, it would have to be tested, and that meant dealing with Bourke.
Suiting action to words, Kim immediately punched in the secured vid-link connection code to Bourke's residence. Ciaran connected almost immediately. The man never seemed to sleep.
"Go ahead," said the Irishman.
"I've got a plan, but I want to test it under actual conditions."
"What is it?"
"Best you not know for now. I want to go overseas and send a shipment here using my idea. If I pull it off, we'll know it will work on an outgoing shipment."
"What if you get caught?"
"I'm leaving you plausible deniability. I'll leave tracks in one of your subsidiary company records showing I hacked in and used it as my front. It's credible and we know the cops and feds are after me anyway. I take the fall, and you'll know I wasn't the man for the job after all."
Bourke digested the news for a minute and agreed, impressed with the smuggler's apparent "put up or shut up" approach to his job.
"What do you want from me?" he asked.
"Where's the hardest, most difficult place to ship from? The place where the custom folks are the strictest and hardest to bribe?" "Johannesburg."
"Good. I want to be there by tonight. Have your local people contact me when I arrive."
Seven hours later, two Sisters of Charity were sitting quietly in the bustling concourse at Johannesburg's airport drinking tea when a young man in a skycab uniform approached them.
"Excuse me, Sisters," he said politely. "Your transportation has arrived."
The two women nodded, collected their bags, and followed the young man out. At the curb was a van transport. The nuns were soon seen entering the South African offices of the worldwide charities foundation. Not too long afterwards, a Arab man in burnoose and robes left the facility, followed by a woman in tradition Islamic dress, completely covered from head to toe. They picked up a cab and were taken to the port facility of Intercap, the parent company of Passing Fancies, Ltd. Once behind the security of shipping company, Wu-2 and Cinnamon removed their disguises and went to work.
Two days later, a small group of mechanics and shipfitters ... and one gorgeous sablemorph ... looked over the results of their efforts. The maintenance chief, a man named Piet, removed his welding goggles and said, "You know, I think this could work."
"Only one way to find out," Wu-2 answered.
One week later, back in the city, Bourke and his lieutenant, Lyle, stood beside a recently unloaded bulk container cargo ship. The area around the pier was littered with stacks of the huge containers; some piled three and four high. Some of the containers were as long as the forty-foot bed of a tractor-trailer. Those were the small ones. The standard containers were twice that long.
Most of the cargo containers were secured by standard locking mechanisms. However, at least eighteen had more elaborate security seals on them. A huge electric-powered tractor forklift hoisted several of the sealed containers and carried them to the Intercap's pier warehouse. Once alone, Wu-2 motioned to a dockworker. The man ... a rather unremarkable looking beavermorph ... went to the nearest side of the container and ran with his paw along a row of bolts that circled along the bottom edge of the container.
When he found what he was looking for, he removed a demagnetizer from his coverall pocket and placed it over a particular bolt. It came off easily in his hand. He then repeated this procedure on the other three sides of the container. Finally, he took a twenty-four inch, flat-head screwdriver and inserted it into one of the holes. He worked the screwdriver around until he found the slot and turned it slowly. A hissing ... like escaping air ... was the only sound that disturbed the proceedings.
Satisfied with the result so far, the beavermorph went to the remaining three openings and repeated the procedure. When he was done, Bourke motioned an overhead crane operator to lift the container. The top and sides of the container came away in one piece, like the cover for a cake. The contents of the container were now revealed. Bourke whistled appreciatively.
"Ingenious," he muttered. "How did you do it?"
"Vacuum seal," Wu-2 answered. "One of the strongest natural bonds in the world. Odorless, no unnecessary mechanics to get discovered, nearly foolproof and damn-near undetectable."
The pallet that was the floor of the container was stacked with contraband from smuggled cars, to liquor, to pornography. Lyle went over to a small safe and removed a small bag, which he turned over to Bourke. The Irishman opened the strings and poured a handful of glittering crystals into his hand.
"Diamonds," he said. "Just industrial ones this time, but next time . . ."
"I still don't understand . . ." Lyle started to say, but Wu-2 cut him off.
"I got to thinking that the only way to get our shipment out undetected was to have the authorities help us do the job. I got the inspiration from the old shell game dodge. If you can convince your "mark" that they're in control, they'll never suspect you're pulling a fast one. When this container was originally loaded and inspected, it had a completely different cargo inside. We purposely got the toughest, most incorruptible custom's inspector available to bond and secure our shipment. She went through these containers with every test she could devise. But finally, she was satisfied and the bonded security seals were attached. And as every cop, custom's man, and smuggler knows, any attempt to remove or alter a port custom security seal renders it inert and immediately detectable to even the dumbest cop.
"So I had this particular container modified before hand. The bracing bars are high tensile strength carbide steel. I put in an airtight lining and a simple valve system. Then we took a standard compressor and created a vacuum, bonding the bracing bars to the floor. I also made each side independent from the others. The container will hold with two of the seals completely broken and may even hold up with three gone," Wu-2 finished smugly.
"Where's the cargo that's supposed to be in this container?" Bourke asked.
"In the twin to this one," Wu-2 answered. "Only it's not security bonded. All we do is switch them back before customs remove the security seals."
Bourke threw back his head and laughed aloud, slapping Wu-2 good-naturedly on the back. Even Lyle allowed himself a small smirk.
"Ah, Wu-2, me darlin'," he said in his thickest brogue. "Tis blest by St. Patrick himself, I was, the day I met'cha."
"This will work for the bulk items," Lyle admitted. "But we also have some live shipments to get across. What about them?"
Bourke turned to Wu-2; his head slightly askew and waited for the smuggler to answer.
"My associate, Cinnamon, has been overseeing that project while we were here. I take it you were able to make sure the longshoremen unloading the grain were trustworthy?"
"Everyone over dere are my people," Bourke said, turning serious again, emphasizing the "my" and with all traces of his comical brogue gone.
In another part of the port facility, moored alongside huge bin storage areas, was an old Anatolian bulk-grain carrier, the Bellerophon. Cinnamon sat perched on a deck chair overlooking the half-empty forward hold of the ship. Two massive L-shaped pipes had been lowered in the hold and were busily vacuuming up loose grain. She looked up as Wu-2 and the others approached.
"See it yet?" Wu-2 asked.
"Not yet, honey-bun, but it won't be long," she answered.
The three men joined the sablemorph in staring in the hold of the ship. After several more tons of grain had been sucked up, Lyle pointed, "There's it is!"
As they gazed downward, a shape began to emerge from the grain. It looked like the peak of a house, yet it was constructed entirely of steel plate.
"What's dat?" Bourke asked.
"We found that the weight of the grain cause too much stress on the containment chambers and collapsed them, so we added a roof of sorts to distribute the load more evenly and take the stress off the compartment," Wu-2 said.
Soon, enough grain had been removed to allow access to the chambers. With Wu-2 leading the way, the group entered the hold and crossed the remaining piles of grain to the narrow end of the rectangular compartment. Wu-2 released the latches of the container and opened it. From the interior came a raucous sound. The four entered. Inside the front of the chamber were a number of empty containers stacked from ceiling to floor, but just beyond this part of the container were a number of cages containing exotic birds.
"Parrots?" Lyle asked.
"Yep!" Wu-2 said. "Extremely valuable and difficult to import legally. I wanted to show a profit, even for a test run. This seemed to be a good test group."
"How do dey get air and stay alive," Bourke wanted to know.
"The containers are self-contained. The air source comes from the location of the container in the hold. I ran a line from the ship's ventilation system to the container. The power comes from the same system. Again, it has no separate system of its own and, thus, makes it harder for authorities to find unless they empty the entire hold. Of course, there's no access during shipment," Wu-2 admitted."
"How do we feed dem?" Bourke said.
"That'll be the tricky part," Wu-2 admitted. "There's one of two options: one, seal a caretaker in with the shipment, or two, devise a low-tech feeding system, on a timer maybe."
"I prefer the timer method," Bourke said. "How long can we keep dem in this thing?"
"Not indefinitely, but they'd be okay for at least a fortnight."
"I'm very impressed, Wu-2. Your work has exceeded my expectations. You're to be congratulated. We'll commence final plans for shipment. What else do you need from me?"
"The only thing I need now is final system access. I want to prepare manifest and cover papers, as well as false trails and destinations. As you know, creating proper documentation is as much a part of this business as the commodity itself."
Bourke grinned and nodded. Turning to Lyle, he said, "Make it happen."
Looking back to Wu-2, he said, "I expect to conclude our partnership within the next week to ten days. It's time to make arrangements for payment."
"I had anticipated your thoughts along that line," Wu-2 said smoothly, handing Bourke a data-wafer. "This contains instructions and the transmission codes to deposit my fees into various overseas accounts."
"Done and done," Bourke said, slipping back into his thick brogue. He opened his large right hand and spat in it. "In my country, when a men settled a bargain, they sealed the deal by exchanging their spittle in a handshake."
Wu-2 looked at the Irishman's extended hand, shrugged, spat in his own hand and shook with Bourke.
That evening, back in the apartment, Kim had settled into the oversized tub and was happily planting Caspers throughout Passing Fancies Ltd. It would take a day or so, but Kim's various moles would travel along unnoticed and undetected through various legitimate uses of the computer network. Once embedded, Kim would be able to glean all sort of information undetected by any security system he thought Bourke could employ. C. R. had selected well when he chose Kim for this assignment. Few, if any other people could have attempted, let alone accomplished, what Kim had done to Bourke's computer network. He was happily singing the "Heigh-Ho" song, much to Splendor's amusement.
For the first time since Sarah's disappearance, she felt herself relaxing. For the past several months, she had been keyed to the successful penetration and destruction of the SCABS slavers. Now, she could almost feel that the end of their goal was in sight. Sometime in the next twenty-four hours, Kim should have enough access to find Sarah. Splendor was sure of it.
She would never let on to anyone how much Sarah meant to her. She remembered the awful times in California. The death of her mother from radiation poisoning after the Palo Alto meltdown. The relief workers finding the young girl, alive and healthy, in her dead mother's arms. The authorities were tracking down and killing exposure victims before they could carry contamination beyond the death zone. She recalled hiding with her father. She vaguely remembered the sickness, the Flu that altered her life forever.
She could see the day that SCABS first manifested in her young body. Although, not without precedent, SCABS in children below puberty is extremely rare. She closed her eyes and saw her young hands grow mottled and scaled. At first, her father feared the radiation would claim his daughter as it had his wife. But then he realized that his daughter had become an animorph. Almost overnight, this lovely child ... the living embodiment of his dead love ... had become a scaled reptilian caricature of a human. Yet, he still loved her.
It was a bad time for SCABS in northern California. Stein's groundbreaking work with the Center for Disease Control was still in the future. Fear and prejudice was the rule of the day. Between the nuclear accident and the Martian Flu, civil order had broken down. Desperately, Splendor's father tried to get himself and his daughter out of danger ... away from the crowds that were killing SCABS indiscriminately.
Late one night in a storm, he waited by a railroad siding. There was a bad curve along this section and trains slowed down to make the grade. Splendor's father was counting on that fact. He timed his moves carefully. Splendor could still see the fear and desperation in his eyes as he ran along the slowly moving train toward the open door of a boxcar. With a lunge, he thrust Splendor into the moving car. She crawled back to the open door, calling to him. He jumped but misjudged his distance. He looked at her a moment and slid noiselessly under the wheels of the train. The little snakegirl was alone.
She arrived in the city sometime later. In her trip across country, she aged a lifetime. Hunger, abuse and rape were no stranger to the young waif. Then one day she turned up on West Street. On a cold night, Sarah found her. Somehow, the two half-empty souls made one and the two became inseparable. Sarah became the surrogate mother to the young herpamorph.
At puberty, Splendor ceased all need for food consumption. It was only by accident, after being raped at thirteen, did she discover her ability to feed off sexual energy. She also discovered she was no longer morph-locked in snake form; she was now able to shift from snakemorph to full human. It marked yet another turning point in her life. She was determined that no person would ever hold sway over her. And if she had to prostitute herself to survive, it would be on her terms and no others. And so her course was charted. Slowly, over time, Sarah and Splendor drifted apart. But Sarah remained as the only family Splendor had, and she meant to find her friend and free her.
As she sat watching Kim cavort in the tub, she relaxed and let herself re-emerge from her Cinnamon personae. Slowly, over twenty minutes, her natural human form re-exerted itself. Kim looked up and watched as Cinnamon gave way to Splendor.
"God, Splendor, you're beautiful!" Kim exclaimed. She made a noncommittal sound, but inwardly was pleased that Kim thought so. She found herself liking her co-conspirator much more than she would have thought before this assignment. She found him refreshingly honest and happy-go-lucky ... two character traits that she didn't come across on a regular basis.
"I wanted to change," she said, explaining her transformation.
"Do you need a recharge?"
"Not yet. Tomorrow maybe. I just wanted to be me a little while."
It seemed like a reasonable explanation to Kim, who went back to his mining expedition in Bourke's systems.
The water suddenly looked inviting to Splendor. The tub was equipped with whisper water jets and low-level sonic pulses that relaxed even the tightest muscles.
"Do you mind if I join you?" she asked.
"I said, do you mind if I use the tub?"
"Sure, I've been in for an hour. Give me a minute to logout and the tub's yours."
"That's not what I meant," she said, standing and removing her robe and letting it drop to her feet. She stepped lightly into the water and sat one the bench that ran the midpoint of the tub. It was constructed so a person could sit on the center bench while staying in water up to his or her chest. Kim, his back to hers, scooted off to one side to give her room.
He made some self-conscious efforts to finish his work, all the while glancing occasionally, and nervously, over his shoulder at Splendor. She ignored him, sitting motionlessly, with her eyes closed. With a chime that imitated Big Ben, Kim closed the system and logged off the account. He closed the laptop lid and cleared his throat.
"Well, I reckon I'll get out now," he said aloud.
"Not yet," she said, her eyes still closed. "Stay a little longer."
Kim was suddenly and acutely aware how awkward it was to be sitting naked in the bathtub with a beautiful woman. He didn't quite know where to put his arms. Splendor remained oblivious to his discomfort. She continued to keep her eyes closed, as if in meditation. After a few uncomfortable minutes for Kim, she spoke.
"Would you mind washing my back?"
"Su . . . su . . . sure," he stuttered nervously. He picked up a loofah sponge and gingerly made wide sweeping circles across her back. Although he had seen Cinnamon naked on a couple of occasions, this was different. This was Splendor. And Splendor scared the shit out him!
Slowly, she began to lean toward him until her shoulder was lodged firmly against his. She let her head fall to his shoulder. He didn't know what to do. He repeatedly wet his lips, opening and closing his mouth wordlessly. Then he realized she was crying. There were no tears and no sobs, yet she was crying nonetheless. Awkwardly he tried to pat her back. Her right arm went across his chest and she rested her hand on his left shoulder. She turned her head so it lay on his shoulder, facing away from him. "I'm sorry, Kim. Getting close to that time of month, I guess," she said lamely, to cover her embarrassment.
He turned around on the bench so they were both facing the same way, but before he could put a friendly reassuring arm around her, she clutched him. He could feel her soft breasts press against him. After a moment, she regained her composure.
"Sorry," she repeated, wiping her hand against her cheek, although she had yet to shed a tear.
"No problem. Glad I could help."
She smiled at him, and almost spontaneously, they hugged each other in the awkward fashion of two people who didn't quite know how they should be acting around each other.
"You're a good man, Kim. I like you."
"Same here, Splendor."
She bent forward in an awkward attempt to peck him on the forehead and missed. They bumped their heads together instead. For the first time since he knew her, Splendor laughed. Kim thought it sounded as musical as bells. She continued laughing. It was contagious. Soon both were sitting naked in the bathtub, splashing each other like children, laughing merrily. Splendor stopped first and stared at Kim, as if seeing him for the first time.
"What?" Kim said between laughter.
"Is my fly open or something?" he said, starting to laugh anew.
Splendor leaned forward and kissed him. She pulled away and looked at him. Slowly, she kissed him again. Kim opened his mouth into hers and tentatively touched her tongue with his. She responded. She ran her hands up and down his back. Then, they parted. She stared silently at him for a moment and rose from the water like Venus. She held her hand to him and he took it. Together, they got out of the tub and dried each other off. She led him back into their bedroom and drew him on the bed. For the longest time, they just explored each other's bodies, merely touching and caressing. She was surprisingly awkward in her lovemaking, as if unsure of herself. So far, they had limited themselves to their hands and lips. After some time, they paused and lay quietly on the bed facing each other. Splendor had thrown her leg casually across Kim's. She had her head pillowed in the crook of her arm while Kim lightly stroked her hair. Without looking at him directly, Splendor spoke.
"I make no apologies for what I've done with my life. I always did what I had to survive on the streets. It's a cold, hard life. And I've become a cold, hard person. But sometimes . . . sometimes I feel so empty. So alone. It seems like my whole life; all I've ever felt like was a ...thing' ... never a person ... always a ...thing.' It gets to you after awhile, Kim. It makes you feel that you'll always be on the outside looking in to life. It makes me feel that I'll always be an outsider."
Kim started to speak, but she put her finger gently to his lips.
"I've suddenly realized that, one way or the other ... win or lose ... we're entering the endgame. And when this is over, I probably won't be seeing as much of you anymore. You know I don't as a rule let people get close to me. I keep them at arm's length. There's less chance of getting hurt that way. But Kim, outside of Sarah, I think you're the closest thing I have to a friend in this world."
Kim sighed, he felt guilty for not being totally honest with her. He tried to tell her everything ...about the Consortium's opinion on the fate of many of the missing SCABS ... but before he could, she had slipped her arms around his neck. Gently but insistently, she pulled him in closer, finally rolling over on her back with him straddled between her legs.
"I've been fucking most my life, but I don't think I've ever made love," she told him. "Make love to me, Kim. Please . . ."
He looked into her eyes, saw the empty pain. Then he slowly raised his hand and, lightly cupping her left breast, lifted Splendor's nipple to his lips.
Some hours later, Kim was still asleep. Splendor had already awakened and resumed her Cinnamon disguise. Every so often she would slip back into the room and look at the sleeping form of her naked lover. She kept shaking her head, as if she couldn't understand her own feelings. Suddenly, the apartment entry buzzer sounded. She jumped to answer it, hoping to preserve his sleep. It didn't last long.
A few minutes later, however, she was in the bedroom vigorously shaking Kim.
"Get up," she hissed. "There's a man here to see us."
"Who is it?" he asked groggily. "What does he want?"
"He says he's got information about Bryan Derksen. He says he's Lisa Underwood."
CHAPTER 12: SPECIAL DELIVERIES
The morning after Canuck's arrest, the little caninemorph, Jimmy-Bark, was poking through the trash behind Bosch House. Over the years, he'd found a lot of interesting things in trash piles. Some of what he found he sold to pawn shops, and others he kept. He loved bright shiny things and he had done quite a job of decorating himself his bits of discarded jewelry and such.
Jimmy-Bark was slow-minded but well natured; people on West Street looked after him. He didn't bother people, and store and business owners, for the most part, left him alone, provided he cleaned up after his rummaging. When he found a can or bin worth investigating, he'd run his front paw-like hands through until he felt something worth investigating. Today, he was crawling inside the dumpster, feeling his paws, when he came across a flat object that felt like a shingle. It was a notepad-sized piece of plastic with a cord attached, so it could be hung around a neck.
The dogmorph was delighted. He'd seen one like this before. It was just like Canuck's! Jimmy-Bark stuffed his find happily in his tote sack. He fished a little further in the trash and came up with a red and white knit cap with a maple leaf on it. This was even better. Jimmy-Bark pulled the cap over his head. It didn't fit as well as he hoped, but he liked the nice bright colors. A couple of other West Street denizens saw him sporting his new hat and chided him good-naturedly. "Careful, Jimmy-Bark," one of the street corner prostitutes called out, "Don't let Canuck catch you with his hat!"
The poor dogmorph was angry and embarrassed. He was a "good" boy. He didn't steal. And Canuck was his friend. Besides, if the roachmorph wanted to keep his hat, why had it been thrown in the trash? Jimmy just couldn't understand. All he knew is that he didn't want to lose his new hat, so he stuffed it into his sack and only put it on when he thought no one was around.
Three days after Canuck's rampage, the arresting officers were notified that the damages the bugmorph had inflicted on the restaurant had been paid and all charges dropped. The case was closed. The day after that, Bosch House notified city social services that they were on the lookout for another janitor.
That was the nature of the homeless. No one pays much attention to their comings and goings. People come in and out of the shelter, and if there's one less familiar face, who notices? Canuck, being a loner, was missed less than others. Even Becky Holman, as caring an individual as ever drew breath, just assumed that the roachman had decided to move on to another town and other opportunities.
Who notices the shadows when the sun is bright?
Yet, he was missed.
Lisa Underwood was angry.
"Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!" she repeated over and over to herself. It had been close to a week since she'd laid eyes on Bryan and she didn't know whether this was normal, or if he was missing. That's the trouble with the homeless, Lisa decided, you can't keep up with them!
After much soul searching, she finally decided to leave him a note behind the brick. It went unanswered. She made a few discreet inquiries around the shelter, but nobody she asked had seen the bugmorph. Finally, she asked Becky Holman directly.
"Canuck . . .? Hmmm. I guess it's been over a week since he was here ... not since that attack he had, anyway."
"Poor thing. Dr. Lembeck thought he might be on drugs. Little Canuck promised to go see Harvey at the clinic, but I don't know that he did. Better check with him."
She did. But her trip to the clinic was equally fruitless. Although Harvey confirmed that Canuck seemed to have some "episode" ... although he couldn't determine whether it was psychotic or a drug-induced attack. Against her better judgement, she placed a voice-only call to the clinic posing as a bureaucrat from city social services and asked for Canuck. She was told he had quit about a week earlier.
She was at her wit's end. She was almost frantic with fright over Bryan, but still unsure if he was truly missing, or had just taken another job in his ongoing quest to find the kidnappers. There was no way of telling and, if she chose wrong, Lisa could be putting Bryan and the other missing SCABS in even more danger.
She was sitting in a diner a couple of blocks off West Street, despondently stirring a cup of lukewarm coffee. She looked out the window. It was a gray, cold February day. Wet snow was falling. It wasn't sticking yet, but if it continued until evening, ice would be everywhere. She absently watched the people walking by the larger plate glass window. She saw one or two people she knew. The sidewalks were congested with more than people. It was trash day and the curbs were lined with bundles and cans. She saw little Jimmy-Bark loping along, sniffing and searching for whatever he collected.
Jimmy pawed through the trash for a moment and started to head up the street. Lisa absently noted that Jimmy was in need of a new coat; the one he had was too light for this weather. She'd find one at the discount store and have Becky give it to him. At least he had a hat on. He looked in the shop and saw Lisa. His face brightened and the short furry tail that protruded from the back of his pants wagged furiously. He hopped back and forth waving until Lisa acknowledged him. Satisfied, Jimmy moved further up the block.
Looking back later, she recalled something Sherlock Holmes once said to Dr. Watson: "You see, but you do not observe." About five minutes after Jimmy passed by, Lisa slammed her fist down on the counter and yelled, "Jesus Christ!" She snatched up her purse and pad and raced after Jimmy. She caught up with him over near Porter Ave as he searched the bins near the meat rendering plant for scraps.
"Hi, Jimmy," she called out breathlessly.
He wagged his tail but continued his search.
"I was wondering where you got your hat?"
Little Jimmy immediately dropped his head and tucked his tail between the legs of his jeans. He kept looking away, unable to look at her face.
"Jimmy, there's nothing wrong," she reassured him. "I was just wondering if Canuck gave you the hat?"
Jimmy shook his head very quickly back and forth. Lisa knew speech was difficult for the dogmorph but she needed answers. She pressed him.
"Did you find the hat somewhere, Jimmy? Or did somebody else give it to you?"
"Around where, Jimmy? Can you show me?"
Reluctantly, he took her hand in his paw and slowly made his way up West Street. They crossed the back lot of a warehouse and Jimmy pointed at a building . . . Bosch House. Lisa exhaled.
It cost her twenty dollars and a new hat, but she persuaded Jimmy to part with the toque. She held it in her hands. It was dirty, stained and it smelled. But it was Bryan's, and that was a start!
"Oh, Bryan, where are you?" she asked the wind. Stuffing the hat in her pocket, she made her way down to the West Street police station and began reviewing the arrest reports. She didn't see anything mentioning the arrest of a bugmorph. She was about to give up when she came across a disturbance call involving a SCABS roach, but there was no follow-up report. She was told that the perpetrator "had" been taken into custody but had been delivered to Bosch House instead of jail.
"Why?" she asked.
"He had a med-code him that said he was a psycho. Made more sense to take the bug wacko there then throw him in the lockup."
"What about after he finishes at the hospital?"
The desk sergeant checked his Crim-net files and said, "Charges were dropped; he goes free."
"Isn't that unusual?"
"I don't know, Underwood," the sergeant said exasperatedly. "It just says that someone named DeVece came in, paid the damages and fines, and the restaurant dropped the charges. As far as we're concerned, the case is closed."
Her next stop was Bosch House. Lisa was anything if not persistent. She entered the lobby and went to admissions. She told the nurse at the desk that she was stopping here on behalf of the Shelter. Canuck had some mail waiting there and they wanted to get it to him. After checking her computer, the receptionist told her that the roachmorph had suffered a psychotic attack and had been treated and released.
"I thought he worked here?" Lisa said.
"I guess he quit," the nurse shrugged.
"Maybe I help you?" a man's voice said behind Lisa. She turned to face Dr. Schweitzer.
"Hi," she said, extending her hand. "I'm Lisa Underwood ... a reporter with The Inquirer. I'm just dropping off a message for one of your workers."
"I didn't realize that you were a mail carrier, too."
"No, nothing like that. I just told Becky Holman that I was coming this way and that I'd pass a message along. Becky told me a little roachmorph named Canuck work here, is he around?"
"I'm sorry, but I'm really not at liberty to discuss patients," Schweitzer said.
Lisa put on her best "I-can't-believe-this-bullshit" expression and stared at the doctor with a fixed smile on her face. It worked. Very few people can stand silence. Reporters depend on that human trait. If you look at someone long enough with out speaking, nine out of ten times, they'll try to fill the void of silence.
Schweitzer harrumphed a couple of times and then admitted that Canuck had been a patient, but not anymore.
"I tried to get him to stay," Schweitzer said. "I wanted him to try and work out his problems. But he wanted to move on. He said he was going to try another city, maybe Philadelphia or Baltimore. I gave him some extra money and wished him luck. That's the last I saw of him."
Lisa thanked him and told Schweitzer that she'd pass the information on to the Shelter. She hopped a cab back to her apartment. Once inside, she pulled out the toque from her pocket and rubbed it like a kitten.
"Oh, Bryan, what do I do now?"
Then she remembered Splendor and Kim. Bryan had warned her not to go to them unless it was an absolute emergency. It sure felt like one to Lisa. She knew they were posing as smugglers and were undoubtedly under surveillance by local, state and federal authorities. There was no way for her to waltz up to their apartment without arousing suspicion.
Then she had an idea. She called her editor and told him she was following up on a story and would be out of touch for a few days. She picked up the toque and left. Thirty minutes later, she was at the Blind Pig. It was still early; few people beyond the staff were there. She noticed Jack DeMule despondently playing the piano. No help there, she thought. Then she saw the person she was looking for. Lisa walked up to a buxom young woman who seemed to be poured into her dress.
"Edwina, I need some help."
"What'cha need, Sugar?" the buxom waitress asked.
Edwina, the bar's chief of staff, was a morphlocked gendermorph. Several years ago, when she was just plain "Eddie," she had been mugged and transformed from male to female. Although it was assumed that the male gender would reassert itself after a few hours, Eddie remained resolutely female.
Stein paid for a trip to the University of Alberta where the assembled Brainiacs poked and prodded her for a few weeks. His medical records revealed that Eddie ... or Edwina as he now preferred to be called ... had the Martian Flu when he was seventeen, over four years prior. Up to this point, he had never exhibited any SCABS manifestation. It was also a known fact that if SCABS didn't develop within six to eight months, it never did. She was added into the University's database of SCABS anomalies and sent back to the Blind Pig where, for the past few years, Edwina had become the living embodiment of a fourteen-year-old boy's wet dream.
"Can we talk somewhere private?" Lisa asked.
The waitress took her to Donnie's office and closed the door.
"I need to go someplace, but I need a disguise," Lisa said. "Nothing that will draw attention. I was hoping someone around here could do a temporary morph job on me."
"There's no one here now with that much power," Edwina agreed. "Do you have to be something specific?"
"Hmm. Maybe Shirley can help."
"My, ah, roommate."
Edwina grabbed her purse and told Colleen, the other on-duty waitress, that she had to go out for an hour or so. The two women walked the four blocks to Edwina's apartment. Shirley, Edwina explained, was an exotic dancer who worked nights. She'd still be home, Lisa was assured.
Edwina unlocked the door to the apartment and called out her roommate's name. Another drop-dead gorgeous brunette wearing an oversized tee shirt came out of the bedroom, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
"What's up, Weenee? You're home early," she said, pausing long enough to peck Edwina's lips.
It's a funny thing about gendermorphs. Although Eddie's life now involved dresses and make up, and panties ... she still thought of herself as resolutely heterosexual and male. She was still attracted only to females, yet didn't consider herself a lesbian. Her roommate, Shirley, was also a gendermorph, but she was one of the rarer female to male types. As it was, they made a perfect couple.
"My friend Lisa here needs a disguise for a few hours, how about helping her out?"
Shirley made a noncommittal nod and looked over the reporter.
"She's pretty ...fem,' I may have to do quite a bit of altering."
Lisa turned to Edwina. "What's she talking about with the altering? What type of morph is she planning?"
Edwina laughed. "Shirl's a gendermorph like me, only she's got full control. We're going to make a new man out of you!"
"That's one way of not being recognized," Lisa thought to herself.
Shirley took Lisa into the bedroom and instructed her to strip to her underclothes. The doors to the closet were mirrored, so Shirley pulled up a chair and had Lisa sit in it facing the mirror.
"That way you can see what's going on," she said.
Lisa felt more than a little self-conscious sitting semi-dressed between the two centerfold beauties. Shirley told her to relax and hold her hands loosely at her sides. Then the gendermorph closed her eyes and lightly placed her hands on Lisa's shoulders. At first, there was nothing. After a few minutes, Lisa felt the skin where Shirley's hands rested become warm, then hot. Shirley began massaging Lisa's skin. The tips of her fingers grew tacky, pulling at the skin of Lisa's shoulders. The heat, which had been localized in her shoulders, moved throughout the rest of her body. Lisa was becoming warm in more ways than one. She opened her eyes and snuck a peek at her form. There seemed to be no obvious changes at first, although she detected a slight coarsening of her features. Shirley told her to stand.
"You'll see the changes better standing," she said.
Lisa stood and discovered that without realizing it, she'd grown several inches taller. She was now nearly as tall as Shirley who stood about 5'9". The reporter now noticed that her arm and leg muscles were beginning to bulk. Her hips lost some of their feminine flair and her panties grew baggy in the seat as her fanny lost it feminine roundness and achieved a tighter, more masculine dimension. She also noted ruefully that her boobs had diminished substantially.
As her chest began to thicken, she felt the straps of her bra cutting into her. She reached up and released the snap on the front of her bra. She had more pectorals than breasts at this point, and the first sign of chest hair had begun to appear. Her Adams-apple began more prominent and the last of her female fat disappeared from her hips and thighs. Lisa's legs and arms tickled, as the hair there grew thicker. Her nose looked more and more like her father's and she had the beginnings of a five-o'clock shadow. Lisa had grown even taller. Shirley had to reach up to keep her fingertips on Lisa's broad, masculine shoulders. Lisa guessed she now stood at least six-feet tall.
She kept waiting for some sign of the "big" change. Without boobs to block her view, she kept looking down to see if anything was happening, but beyond being too tight for her male body, the front of her underwear remained flat. She kept expecting some reaction in her groin, but outside of the warmth, there was no indication of change. That didn't last long. A pressure seemed to build in her crotch. And as she watched, the front of her panties began to bulge outward. The lump just got bigger and bigger.
Finally, Shirley pulled her hands away and opened her eyes.
"Let's have a look at you," she said. She whistled appreciatively, admiring her own work. Edwina, trying not to laugh, slipped behind Lisa and hooked her fingers on the waistband of the reporter's underwear, pulling them down.
"Let's have a look at what you're packing!" she squealed.
The two roommates stared at Lisa's groin, looked at each other, and whistled simultaneously. The reporter awkwardly tried to cover herself with her hands.
"Over doin' it a little there, aren't you Shirl?" was Edwina's only comment.
"I thought if she was going to all the trouble of being male, she ought to get the full experience."
Lisa looked down. There seemed to be a long hairy snake hanging between her legs. She was staring at it, both horrified and intrigued by its presence.
"Does it just ...hang' there?" she asked.
Both the gendermorphs snickered.
"No, you'll be surprised the first time you find out its got a mind of its own," Edwina laughed.
"We'll have to get her some clothes, Weenee. Get her measurements."
Forty minutes later, thanks to a couple of calls to friends, Lisa left Edwina's apartment with a bicycle, and in the uniform of a Zoomin' Beings messenger. Being male took some getting used to. For one thing, the change in the center of gravity from her hips to her shoulders caused Lisa a lot trouble at first. She rolled like a sailor who'd been at sea for the past year, wobbling from one side to the other. Then her foot slipped off a pedal and she ruptured her groin on the bike's cross bar. After less than an hour as a man, she couldn't wait to be a woman again.
Shirley reckoned Lisa would stay male for at least six hours. That should be plenty of time to meet with Splendor and Kim, she thought. She parked her bike in front of the building that housed Kim's apartment. She knew she was being watched the authorities, but who suspects the delivery boy? Lisa pressed the intercom to Wu-2's flat. He told the woman who answered that he had a delivery for Mr. Wu.
When he entered Wu-2 apartment, Lisa didn't recognize Splendor. This little sablemorph sexpot was as far away from Splendor as Lisa was from being female at the moment. Cinnamon was fluttering around the apartment like an airhead, but before Cinnamon even had a chance to speak, Lisa blurted out, "Expect a delivery from Addis Ababa."
Cinnamon's demeanor changed immediately.
"Who are you? And who sent you?" she demanded in Splendor's more familiar tones.
"It's me, Lisa Underwood. Bryan Derksen is missing and I need your help."
CHAPTER 13: REVELATIONS
First, Bryan felt nothing but a sensation of floating blissfully on still waters.
Then, slowly, he began groping back toward consciousness. At some point, as he struggled through the goopy haze of his delirium, he kept hearing the sound of quacking ducks. He attempted to use his antenna to fix his surroundings but was immediately seized by an attack of vertigo. Had he still been human, he would have thrown up. Since he was a roach, he endured it.
Even semi-conscious, he realized being drugged but was not his only problem. All his sensory input was skewed. The closest human equivalent he could draw was a feeling that the whole world was somehow lopsided.
He tried focusing on his surroundings, until the sound of quacking ducks resolved into human voices. At this point, Bryan couldn't make any sense of what he was hearing but after the horror of his nightmares, it was comforting enough to know that he was still alive. The roachmorph knew that his body was in a losing race with consciousness. As he drifted in and out of his dreamless sleep, Bryan became aware that he was moving.
He seemed to be strapped to a gurney being taken to some unknown vacation. He tried to direct his antenna toward a figure in white, but his sensory input was chaotic. It felt like a bad connection on a vid-link ... the picture was full of static and unfocused. With some concentration, the roach finally determined that the figure next to him was a man . . . a norm. Bryan thought he knew the man. In fact, he was sure of it. The man's name was . . . DeVece . . . yes, DeVece. There was something about DeVece Bryan was supposed to remember, but what?
The next sensation he experienced was falling. No, not like falling . . . more like . . . an elevator! That was it! He was in an elevator! He tried focusing again when he heard the door slide open. Nothing seemed familiar. Even drugged, Bryan realized he'd been held in Bosch House, but this was an area he'd never seen as janitor.
Although he was strapped down, Bryan's front legs remained free. He reached up to rub his antenna, hoping this would "clear" his vision. When he realized his right antenna was gone, he began thrashing. A roach without antenna is blind, and Bryan felt mutilated.
"Hold him down! Goddamn it!" DeVece shouted, as he injected more sedative into the bugmorph. They took him down a long, dark corridor. He was wheeled along until the corridor emptied into a large open area. All around him were stacks of empty cages designed for large animals.
Bryan was wheeled to the opening of a cage and unceremoniously dumped on the floor. Voices were yelling at him, but he couldn't understand what they were saying. One of the norm shapes pointed repeatedly at the open cage. Bryan finally understood that they wanted him inside. He tried to move ahead. But for every step he tried to move forward, he lurched another step to the right. In less than five feet, he'd moved almost in a semicircle.
The big norm ... DeVece ... put his foot on the side of Bryan's head and straightened him out. As the roach lurched ahead, DeVece's foot kept him on course. Bryan didn't stop until his head hit the back of the cage. He heard, rather than saw, it close behind him. This small exertion took all his remaining strength and soundlessly he collapsed, unconscious, to the floor of his prison.
As he locked the cage, DeVece's companion scolded, "I told you that knocking the do-hickey off that bug's head would fuck him up. Now look at him! He goes around in circles like he's missing a wheel."
"So what? It's not our problems. When they sell him overseas, he'll either work, or they'll put him out of his misery. Either way, it's no skin off my ass!"
DeVece's companion stared at the unconscious Bryan for a few moments, then kicked the cage a few times to see if the bug moved.
"Hard to believe this guy was ever human," he concluded.
"You worry too much," DeVece said. "Breathe deep and smell the money! It's losers like him that are going to let us retire rich and early. As for the human part ... take a good look at that ...thing' ... there's nothing human about him. Hell, I almost feel like a humanitarian for helping him out this way."
DeVece gave one final look around the room and hit the light switch, leaving the sleeping bugmorph alone in the darkness. Sometime later, the silence was disturbed by the sound of another elevator. A man driving an electric forklift picked up Bryan's cage and loaded it into the back of a truck. Bryan awoke while being forklifted. He found himself in a well-lit room. White fluorescent light gave it a bright, cheerful look, until you noticed that the room was filled with cages, and the cages were occupied.
Jammed in cage after cage were SCABS of various types ... everything from a muskox animorph to entomorphs like Bryan. Most seemed drugged or restrained in some fashion. The place smelled like a stockyard. A stench of rotting food, urine and excrement permeated the air.
"What a stench!" he heard a voice behind him say. Bryan recognized the voice and, for the first time since he undertook his mission, he was scared. It was Buchler. He tried to feign sleep as his former boss moved around in the front of the cage and tapped it a few times.
"You don't look so good, bug," he observed.
"Are you asleep? Or are you fakin'?" he said aloud. Without warning, he jabbed an injector dart into the joint where Bryan's head plate met the body carapace. A warm, lethargic feeling crept across his body. Bryan scuttled to the back of the cage.
"That won't make you sleep, bug, just keep you nice and calm. You'll get to like the feeling after a while. I've got critters here who come right over to me when I got their shots ready."
Buchler sprayed some water in a bowl on the floor and dumped some garbage for food on the floor, then moved on to another cage. A narcotic ... some sort of Morphine derivative ... the medical part of Bryan's brain sleepily determined. Some time after that, Buchler finished his rounds, turned off the lights, and left.
In the darkness came the mewling sounds of caged humanity. Most of his fellow prisoners were oblivious to their surroundings, either stupefied with narcotics, or locked in psychotic worlds of their own devising. Others were in the thralls of the DTs. Had he been fully awake, Bryan would have undoubtedly recognized several of his fellow prisoners. As it was, he remained blissfully oblivious.
While Canuck slept in his dark prison, his whereabouts were the subject of an ongoing argument in Wu-2's apartment.
"I'm still don't know what to think," Splendor said, looking at the transformed Lisa and shaking her head. "He sure talks like Lisa. And he knows things that only Lisa ...could' know."
"He gave us Bryan's codeword. And it's obvious he knows you. That's good enough for me," Kim replied.
Lisa tried to remain nonchalant, although the effect was lost when she kept trying to cross her legs female fashion. In her present incarnation, she looked ludicrous. Kim couldn't help but smile.
"I wish you'd stop talking about me like I'm not here," Lisa said. "I know you have misgivings. I would too in your case. But Bryan told me to come to you in an emergency, and that's what we have. I don't have three or four hours to sit around here waiting for this morph job to wear off, so either we drop the bullshit, or I'm out of here, and I'll try finding Bryan myself."
"It's Lisa all right," Splendor finally admitted.
That being said, Lisa launched into her account of Bryan's work on West Street and his suspicions about ProGEN and Bosch House. Then she gave a run down on her investigation once she determined Bryan was missing. Once she finished, Kim and Splendor filled her in on their mission and their work to date.
"Pretty neat operation you two are running," Lisa said. "Although I don't remember Bryan mentioning this C. R. fellow."
Splendor, who was seated next to Kim on the couch, squeezed his hand in warning.
"Oh, it's not surprising," she said casually. "C. R.'s just the money man for the Consortium. He's not important really."
That seemed to satisfy Lisa.
Kim picked up his lap-link and punched in a few commands. He placed it back on the coffee table and turned it so Lisa could see the screen. He showed her pictures of all the Passing Fancies people he'd been able to capture with his hidden camera. She didn't recognize any of them until he showed the picture of the man they only knew as "James."
"Schweitzer!" she exclaimed. "That's Schweitzer! The head of Bosch House!"
"I should have guess that," Kim said to Splendor. "I pegged him as a professional man, but I never made the connection."
"What do we do now?" Lisa asked. "Bryan told me you have a short-range tracker. That's the first thing I want from you. After that, I think you ought to take this case to the police. Surely you have enough evidence now to arrest the lot of them."
"Getting the evidence was never the problem," Splendor said. "But the last thing we want is a lot of publicity about people getting away with kidnapping SCABS."
"No, I disagree," Lisa countered. "We ought to blow the lid off of this one and let everyone know what these slimeballs are up to!"
"Look, Lisa," Splendor continued. "This is the first semi-peaceful period between norms and SCABS we've had since the outbreak of the Martian Flu. But just because things have simmered down, doesn't mean its better. We can't afford to let an incident like this become general knowledge. I don't want a single soul to know that it's possible to exploit SCABS and get away with it. God only knows what it could lead to."
"You're over exaggerating," Lisa said.
"Am I?" Splendor shot back in a voice so calm and low-key that it scared Kim more than if his partner had been screaming. "Remember me, Lisa? I'm that West Street whore, Splendor. Remember what I did to Barnes? I thought the direct route was the best route, too. So, I took it. I shrunk the little bastard into a six-year-old. I was so proud of myself. I was sure he'd never bother another SCABS. And look what happened afterwards.
"Look what ...my' actions ... ...my' decision led to . . . the Humans First movement! Not just here. Not just in this country. There are Human First movements around the world. But every one of them started here! Every one started with what I did to Barnes. That's my legacy. That's what I unleashed on the world because I acted without considering the consequences. Do you have any idea how many deaths are on my head for what started with what I did to Barnes? No, not this time, Lisa . . . not this time."
No one spoke for a few moments. The Lisa cleared his throat. "It's hard to argue when you have it put to you like that. I'll follow your lead on this, you have my word."
That settled, Kim went back to his keyboard and began accessing Intercap's systems. It was obvious that the warehouse adjacent to Bosch House was a collection point for missing SCABS, but that wouldn't be the whole story. Kim sent his little computer moles digging throughout the Bourke's system where he was sure he could trace the movements of Passing Fancies' "live" shipment. Within moments, he was oblivious to them and his surroundings.
"He'll be like this for a while," Splendor said. "Can I get you something to eat?"
She put together a sandwich, and Lisa sat at the counter wolfing it down.
"So, how does it feel? Being a male, I mean," Splendor asked.
"Different . . . but the same. It's hard to explain. I mean, I'm still me inside. I may look like a man, but I feel like a woman. The biggest change is this ...thing' between my legs. Honestly, I don't know how men put up with them!"
Splendor nodded sympathetically.
"I'm telling you," Lisa said, pointing toward her crotch. "This thing has a mind of its own. Without any warning, it just goes . . . stiff. And pain ... let me tell you, girlfriend ... you just smack it a little too hard, or the wrong way, and the pain will make you gag."
"So I take it you won't be sorry to change back."
"That's for sure. And while they weren't as big as yours, I miss my boobs," Lisa said ruefully. "I feel naked without them."
During the next hour, Lisa slowly reverted to female. Her six-foot male frame slowly shrunk to her former five-foot-seven female height. She looked ludicrous in her oversized clothes, but she'd look even more ridiculous trying to wear any of Cinnamon or Splendor's outfits. Until she could get back to her apartment, she was stuck in a man's jumpsuit. She'd just have to make the best of it. So in the meantime, the two friends laughed and caught up on gossip.
"So, Lisa. The way you talk about Bryan . . . he's more than just a friend, I take it."
Lisa made a sad smile and sighed. "I'd like it to be. But I don't think he feels the same way about me. I think it's his appearance. He's so hung up on this ...bug' thing, I don't think he realizes that it's the person inside that I like so much. I don't care what he looks like, it's the person Bryan ...IS' that I like . . . I love."
"Have you told him?"
"I've tried to, but every time I've tried to reach out to him, he pulls away."
Their reverie was broken by the sound of Kim swearing in the other room.
"Damn! Damn! Double-Damn!" he shouted. "I'm just too damn smart for my own good!"
"What's the matter?" Splendor asked.
"I was so interested in trying to impress Bourke with my expertise, I neglected to think he'd take extra measures to guard against me hacking him! He must have figured that I could best any high-tech precautions he took, so he's done something I hadn't planned for."
"What did he do?" Splendor asked.
"He's moved almost all the work related to the shipments into low-tech systems!"
"So?" Lisa asked, not understanding Kim's frustration.
"Don't you get it! All the information I need is not on any of Bourke's or Intercap's network systems. It's either handwritten, or on a small stand-alone computer not connected to anything. I can break into anything, but I have to have ...something' to break into. Let's face it, Ladies ... we're screwed!"
"There has to be something we can do . . ." Splendor started to say.
"Sure, there is, if I had enough time! But in case you forgot, the shipment is due to go out sometime in the next 48 hours. I don't even know where to start. They'll wait to the last moment to load the freight shipment ... God only knows on what ship. And there are over thirty ships currently in port that could have been adapted to carry the live shipment."
"It thought they'd use the Bellerophon," Splendor said.
"So did I, but it's gone. It wasn't at the pier. I told you, Bourke is way smarter than I thought. He's not going to use anything that I've been able to touch or access. We're almost back at square one: we know how they're going to do it, but not when and where. And without that information, they'll be able to ship. And forget about trying to break into Bourke's office. We'll never be able to get close enough to Bourke or Lyle personal stuff at Passing Fancies or the casino. It's like a fortress over there."
"I agree," Splendor said. "But we may have a couple of other options to explore."
"Like what?" Lisa asked.
"We might not be able to get to the main players, but there are enough small fish we could snag. For one, I think I might pay a visit to your friend, Mr. Buchler. He's certainly at the low-tech end of the scale. He probably has a lot of information that would prove useful. Kim can pull his address off the computer."
"What makes you think he'll talk to you?" Kim wanted to know.
"Leave that to me. I was also thinking that you two might try to break into Bosch House's records. Surely they're not set up against a mole as good as Kim, especially since they don't have any reason to suspect we have knowledge on Schweitzer."
Lisa and Kim looked at each other and nodded. "Good plan."
Thirty minutes later, the trio had exited the maintenance exit of Wu-2's apartment building. Splendor had shed her Cinnamon body, but was still dressed in one of the sablemorph's outfits. It clung to her by sheer willpower. She applied makeup in the fashion she employed in her days as a prostitute. They also decided it was easier to get around if Lisa fit the clothes she was wearing, so for the second time in 24 hours, Lisa was male again.
"We'll meet at Tays-T Diner in six hours, agreed?" Splendor said to her fellow conspirators. Lisa picked up the tracker to trace Bryan with and left to hail an auto-cab. While they were alone, Splendor looked Kim over.
"How's your head?"
"It's killing me, but I'll survive. Using my polymorph powers really drains me. But it had to be done, and there was no one else to do it. By the way, I've set a couple of dead-man's switches in my systems. Unless I get back to stop it, all the data I've collected so far will automatically be downloaded to C. R. and Regal. That way, even if we fail, maybe they can pick up the pieces."
"Good idea," she agreed.
"You sure you know what you're doing, Splendor? I'm a little worried about this Buchler guy."
"Now don't you go all mushy on me, Kim. I've been looking after myself most of my life."
As she turned to leave, he called out. "Look after yourself . . . Connie."
She stopped and looked at him with a quizzical look.
"Before this is over, I'm GOING to figure out your real name!"
She smiled and she gave him a friendly peck on the cheek. "Not in your lifetime," she said and was gone.
Splendor found Buchler about an hour after leaving Kim and Lisa. As she sauntered into the bar, every head turned toward her. She leaned over the top of the bar so the maximum amount of cleavage was on display.
"I'm looking for a dude named Buchler," she announced to the bar in her most sultry voice.
"I'm Buchler," he piped up immediately.
She ran a long fingernail down his chest and lightly rested her fingertips on his crotch.
"I've got a little present for you from a Mr. Irishman."
"Present? What present?"
She just smiled and placed one of his hands on her breasts. "He told me to tell you that I was a bonus for a job well-done."
The entire bar was catcalling and booing Buchler at the same time. He stood up, put on his coat, and swaggered toward the door. "C'mon, bitch," he said. "Let me show you the best time you'll ever have in or out of bed."
Needless to say, Buchler came nowhere near to living up to his bar boasting.
Splendor lay in the bed next to the snoring man. Quietly, she rolled over and placed a hand on his chest. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Buchler began to change. The lines in his face grew lighter and then disappeared. As he slept, Splendor stripped more than twenty years from him. But unlike other SCABS with chronomorph power, Splendor's changes were permanent. Her sexual encounter with Buchler had given her enough energy to accomplish her work, but it drained her as well. It took her almost an hour to reduce the 50-year-old man to a five-year-old boy.
She pulled away from the tot, who now curled into a fetal position on the bed. After resting a few moments, she nudged the sleeping child. Buchler rolled on his back and yawned.
"Ready for some more?" he squeaked in the soft tones of a child. He must have guessed something was wrong at this point. He opened his eyes to see the naked form of Splendor towering over him.
"What have you done to me?" he screamed.
"Just made your outside the same size as your IQ," she said. "Now, little man, I'm going to ask you some questions and you're going to answer me. Understand? Where have you taken the SCABS you and your friend Bourke have been kidnapping over the past year?"
"Fuck you, bitch!"
Splendor sighed and picked up the squirming child. "I see you need a demonstration."
She carried him into the bathroom and held up the dwindled man to the mirror. She closed her eyes and concentrated. A shudder passed through Buchler who immediately regressed even younger.
"You were five. Now, you're four. Are you going to tell me what I want to know, or are you ready to try for three years old."
"You don't scare me," he lisped through the gapped teeth of his young childhood. "No matter what you do, I'll be back to myself by tomorrow and then I'm going to beat the shit out of you."
"Perhaps you don't know who I am," Splendor said quietly. "Do you remember Councilman Barnes? Do you remember what happened to him?"
Buchler did . . . and his tiny eyes grew wider.
"I see you remember young "Master" Barnes. After I finished with him, he was a five-year-old. And one year later, he turned six and then . . . well, it's too bad he didn't live to his seventh birthday, but you get the picture. When I make someone younger, they stay the age I leave them. Now, once again, where is Bourke hiding the SCABS you helped kidnap."
"I can't tell you! They'll kill me!" he wailed.
She lifted him up and sent a surge of power through him. In a moment, she was holding a three-year-old. Buchler was crying and squirming as he tried to get out of Splendor's clutches. He was only thirty inches tall and weighed about forty pounds. As he struggled to pull away, he lost control of himself and a stream of urine splashed across the front of the mirror.
"All right! I'll talk!" he whimpered, as Splendor gave him a towel to wipe off the worst of his pee. After she questioned him sometime, she was satisfied she knew everything he had to tell her. She picked up the struggling child and put him back on the bed.
"Please make me older again," he sobbed.
"Sorry, it doesn't work that way. I'm afraid it was a one-way ticket."
"You can't leave me like this!"
"You're right. I made that mistake once with Barnes. I won't do that with you," she said as she reached out her hand and grabbed him.
"I want you to remember something in the coming years. You've had Martian Flu but didn't develop SCABS. You're not the first person I've shrunk like this. There's a strong chance that you could develop SCABS this time around. Remember that around puberty. And if there is a God, I hope you morph lock in the form that shows the world what you really are ... maybe a leech or tick. And if you run into trouble, there'll always be a pallet, even for someone like you, down at the Shelter."
Buchler screamed a toddler's cry as he tried to escape but he was no match for her. Another pulse of energy jumped from her hand to his body. Once more he shrank.
Thirty minutes later, Splendor had already showered and dressed. Wrapped tight in a small bundle on the bed lay Buchler, reduced to a newborn and sound asleep. From a phone across the street, Splendor made a call to the city's child welfare authority. Somebody would be by to pick up the infant. If her experience with Barnes was any clue, Buchler would be fully aware of what had happened to him, at least she hoped he would. She wanted him to experience the prison she put him in for the next several years. With any luck, he wouldn't be able to talk for the next 18 months to two years, depending on how bright he was.
She walked six blocks before she called an autocab to pick her up. She stopped in front of a news kiosk that broadcast local and regional reports. She had already started the process of transforming herself back into Cinnamon. She was very tired and low on energy, but she doubted Kim had the power or strength to help her, given that he'd just morphed Lisa back into a male. She'd have to make due on what she had and get recharged tomorrow.
The transformation was nearly half completed when she noted a story on the monitor. Their apartment building was on fire. As she listened to the broadcast, she heard the reporter quote police sources that a bomb was involved and that a known criminal, Colin Lester Wu II and his female companion were in their apartment at the time and presumed dead.
Their safe haven was now gone. There was nothing to do but head over to Tays-T Diner, wait for her companions, and trust that their mission had gone well.
A few minutes after Splendor left, Kim and Lisa entered another autocab.
"How do you come and go so easy. I know for a fact that the cops are watching you big time."
Kim smirked. "Yeah, they're watching me with digital cameras. All I had to do is make the cameras see what I want them to see. As long as the cameras don't see me leaving ... or better yet watch me move around in my apartment ... the cops let me be."
"I also had no idea you were a polymorph."
"That's another secret I like to keep to myself. I'm not very good," he lied. "As you saw when I helped you, using my power causes me physical discomfort. So as long as everyone thinks I'm a mouse animorph, no one bothers me."
Kim pulled a small palm-top computer out of his pocket and plugged into the cab's internal system. In a minute, a schematic of Bosch House was displayed. Pointing to the rear dock, Kim said that this was the most likely point of access. Lisa agreed.
"Before we left, I "moled" a couple of Casper programs onto Bosch's system. We'll be invisible and inaudible to their system. Getting in should be a snap."
"What about staff?"
"Shouldn't be a problem this time of night. I checked the work schedule and they run a minimal staff from midnight to four a.m. Hell, I doubt the guards even make rounds."
The two conspirators crossed the back lot of Bosch House from West Street. Pointing at the warehouse, Lisa told Kim that she and Bryan suspected a link between the hospital and the warehouse. Entering the building was just as easy as Kim predicted. A simple press of a key on his palm-top and the back door opened with a click. They let themselves into an administrative office where Kim used his palm-top to hack into the hospital's network. He found nothing suspicious.
"I'm thinking that Schweitzer wouldn't be stupid enough to put anything that could compromise his position at Bosch House on the hospital network," Lisa said.
"You're probably right," Kim agreed and started a search for Schweitzer's private files.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
"I would, if you'd be quiet and let me work."
Kim concentrated and shut Lisa and the rest of the world out of his mind. To be a successful systems mole, you had to be able to concentrate and remain focused on tracing just a few bits of information lost in a jillion gigabyte stream.
Kim was a VERY successful mole.
After what only seemed a few minutes, he hacked his way throughout all the security systems. It took a little while, but one of Kim's little moles hit paydirt.
"Wow," Kim exclaimed. "Look at this."
On screen were a number of rooms and corridors that didn't appear on the hospital's blueprints.
"It looks like there's an underground tunnel to the warehouse," Lisa said. "How do we get to it?"
"Through the back elevator. I've already called it. It should take us to the sub-basement."
A few minutes later, they had descended to an access tunnel that wasn't even supposed to exist. Lisa pulled out a flashlight and Bryan's tracer as they walked up the dark corridor. It ended at a door with an electronic lock.
"Piece of cake," Kim said pulling out a small device he'd created to electronically deactivate most lock systems. Sure enough, within a minute the lock on the access door opened.
The tunnel led to an underground storage center. Crates, boxes and cages dominated the room. All the cages were empty. Lisa scanned the entire room, but there was no sign of Bryan's signal. The room looked quiet enough, but looks could be deceiving. While Kim looked over the boxes, Lisa opened a series of storage lockers that lined the walls. As he picked up a claw hammer to break into one of the boxes, he heard Lisa call.
"There's an office over here."
Inside was another monitor. Kim hooked into it. In no time he broke through the security firewalls and began busily downloading Schweitzer's files into his system. They came across page after page of private medical histories. Both Kim and Lisa saw names they recognized ... people they knew were among the missing SCABS homeless. There were over 150 names on the list, although the majority had a check mark next to them.
"See if you can find out what that mark means," Lisa said.
Kim tried the direct approach and clicked on one of the marks. A separate entry came up. It contained words like harvest, processing and disposition. A look of horror was painted on their faces. Lisa turned away, nauseous and faint with disgust over what she had just read. She moved away and sat on a box.
"I can't believe that human beings ... people I have known and talked with ... could be capable of what I saw written there," Lisa said in shock.
Kim looked at the Palm-top in his hand and scrolled back and searching for another name. When he found it, there was a mark next to it as well. He took a deep breath and clicked on the check mark next to the name "Elephantmorph ... Sarah."
After he finished reading the files, he downloaded them into his palm-top and sat next to Lisa. He tried to comfort her, but the "her" at present was more than four inches taller than he was and much more macho looking.
"I found Sarah," he said quietly.
He shook his head no.
"Poor Splendor . . ."
"Lisa, it's very important that we not tell Splendor what we've found. It won't help Sarah and the news is liable to make Splendor go off half-cocked. I don't want her taking dangerous chances with her life or ours. I need her focused on the job ahead ... this can't be allowed to distract her."
"That's awful cold Kim. I thought she was your friend."
"More than you know, Lisa. But I have to remember the SCABS who are still alive. I think we can find and free them . . . but only if we keep our heads."
"But she has to be told."
"She will be. I'll tell her. I promise. But not till this is over. The Consortium suspected something like this might be happening. It's the real reason why we must keep this knowledge secret. These people are killing SCABS with traits they consider valuable and they're harvesting their carcasses. I've seen records in there of SCABS bruins killed for their gallbladders and claws, minx and other exotic fur SCABS for their pelts. The list goes on. We've got to stop it here, Lisa. We can't let them these people get away from us."
"Did you find out anything about the shipments?"
"A little, but not much. I hope Splendor's had more luck than us." "What about Bryan?" Lisa asked with a voice that betrayed her fear.
"I found Canuck's name listed. No check mark. It appears he's designated to be shipped overseas."
"Thank God for that, at least!"
Finally, they discovered the lift elevator that they assumed would lead to the warehouse above them. Once again, Kim used his palm-top to access the security cameras. The warehouse was completely empty. As carefully as they snuck in, the two retraced their way out of the subterranean basement adjacent to Bosch House.
"Nothing!" Kim said disgustedly.
"What do we do now, head back to find Splendor?"
"Not yet. I want to go down to the docks. I'm starting to get an uneasy feeling about what might be going on at Passing Fancies and Intercap."
Passing Fancies, Ltd. was located in a retrofitted mid-twentieth century building adjacent to the docks. The building was dark and deserted. Kim wasted little time in bypassing the locks and security cameras. He pushed open the door to Bourke's office. The room was stripped bare. Without a word, he left. Lisa followed as Kim crossed to the docks. The pier around Intercap's warehouse was quiet and dark. No ships or barges were tied up.
"It's pretty quiet," Lisa said. "That's a good sign, isn't it?"
Kim snorted derisively. With out another word, he went back out to the street and flagged an autocab to take them to their rendezvous with Splendor.
When they entered the small diner, they found Cinnamon huddled in the back booth.
"Get in here and sit down," she hissed. "Try not to let anyone see your face." "What's the matter?" Kim asked.
She tossed a newspaper across the table to him. He looked at the picture and headline, then passed it to Lisa.
It wasn't a big headline, but it was front page. It merely reported "Blast kills criminal."
"I don't look too bad for a corpse," was his only comment.
"So we're dead?" Lisa said.
"It appears so," Splendor replied.
"Bourke must have gotten suspicious of us," Kim mused. "He's moving early and he didn't want any loose ends."
"He's taking a hell of a chance, given all the evidence we have on him," Splendor said.
"Can you think of a better way of saying, ...I don't care' than with a bomb?"
Kim replied. "They're counting on being out of the country before the police come
looking for them. They've probably already erased themselves from most information data
systems. They're not stupid. And I know they can afford to hire the expertise."
"Right now, we need a place to hide and come up with our next plan of action," Splendor said.
"What about my place?" Lisa suggested.
Within the hour, the trio was safely ensconced in Lisa's apartment. Splendor had permanently shed her Cinnamon's personae ... it cost her too much energy to hold and the little sablemorph was built more for comfort than for speed. Lisa's male morph had also worn off and she had gratefully tossed aside her coveralls and men's briefs.
"Ah, heavenly silk!" she breathed, as she slipped back into clean underclothes. She settled for a simple dark sweater and slacks for the work ahead. She rummaged through her closet looking for something Splendor could wear, but her friend was too tall to fit anything Lisa had. Finally, Splendor just picked up the discarded coveralls and put them on.
"I've worn worse," was her only comment.
"You'd better come in and watch this," Kim called from the living room.
He was playing the local news. In addition to the reported bombing of Wu-2's apartment, firefighters had been called to the site of a low-income mental health facility. A breathless announcer reported that a fire broke out this evening at Bosch House, over near the West Street slums. According to the Hospital Director, Dr. James Schweitzer, the fire broke out in a storage basement and spread quickly throughout the old building. Through the selfless efforts of the staff, all the patients were saved. Two staff members ... orderlies Vincent DeVece and Carl Burger ... died trying to put out the fire. Firefighters declared the structure a total loss. The fire also destroyed an empty warehouse that stood behind the hospital. Fortunately, the warehouse was reported to be empty at the time.
"Like I said, no loose ends," Kim said grimly.
While the women had been changing, Kim made a few changes of his own. He removed his colored contact lenses and put on his familiar black-rim glasses. Kim's strong brown eyes stared back from Wu-2's face. He also pulled the lifts out of his shoes, so Wu-2's rolling limp was gone. He wet his hair in the kitchen sink and neatly combed it left to right. The rest of Wu-2's appliances would have to be removed by C. R.'s folks at GDM, but with just these few changes, Wu-2 slipped away and a modified version of Kim Liu returned.
"Let take stock of what we know," Kim started. "The shipment is in transit; that much is for certain. Passing Fancies has closed up shop and Bourke is systematically removing evidence and people who might be able to implicate his operation. The destruction of our apartment took out most of the evidence I had. Like our friend Bourke, I didn't put anything related to this operation on a network system. Unfortunately, most of the evidence I had is buried somewhere in the rubble of our building."
"What about the backup files you sent C. R. and Regal?" Splendor asked.
"What little I can check through my palm-top tells me that the bomb was triggered when my system attempted an upload. It's easy to set up. And if you didn't have an idiot for a partner, he'd have thought of it, too," Kim said bitterly. "Bourke has out-guessed and out thought me at every step."
"Let's not go there, Kim," Lisa cautioned. "Hindsight is always 20-20. Besides, how do you know the shipment has started? We went by Intercap and the dock was completely deserted."
"Exactly. That's my point. I had counted on them shipping from Intercap's pier. It's where we did all our tests but as you pointed out, the dock's deserted. Not exactly what you would expect if a big-time smuggling operation were underway. No, Bourke's got another operation going somewhere. Only we don't know where or when!"
"But I thought the SCABS would be smuggled out on the Bellerophon," Splendor said. "The ship was specifically adapted for that purpose."
"I thought so, too, but I checked with the Coast Guard and the Bellerophon sailed three days ago. At least that when she was sighted off Cape May, New Jersey. Nothing else is due to leave Intercap's docks for the next week."
"Has any other ship left?" Lisa asked.
Kim flicked through the information in his palm-top and shook his head no.
"No. No ships. A couple of harbor cutters and a barge. Nothing capable of carrying overseas cargo."
Kim sat fuming while Splendor reviewed the records Kim had been able to store on his palm-top.
"Did you say a barge left?" Splendor asked.
"Yeah, yesterday. So?"
"I was thinking of something you told Bourke when we ran the shipment from Johannesburg. Remember? We went there because their custom people were the toughest, and once they sealed a cargo, the odds of anyone else disturbing it was pretty slim."
"I still don't see your point," said Kim testily.
"I do!" Lisa chimed in. "Bourke isn't shipping directly from here."
"Exactly!" Splendor agreed.
"All right, you two geniuses. If they're not shipping from here ... where then?"
Splendor scanned the information for a few minutes. "I'd say Baltimore."
"Why do you say that?" Kim asked.
"THE BARGE!" Lisa yelled.
"The barge," Splendor agreed. "That's where it's heading. And I've already checked the Bellerophon's last known whereabouts on the Global Positioning System. I'll let you guess where she's tied up."
"Baltimore makes sense I guess, although I would have tried for Philadelphia," Kim admitted. "Ever since the South Asian fly infestation back in 2026, Baltimore locks freight up tighter than a convent school when the fleet's in town. That's probably why they chose it."
He took the palm-top and linked into Lisa's home system. Her equipment wasn't anywhere near as sophisticated as what he used earlier, but in the hands of an expert like Kim, even Lisa's primitive system could be made to shine. Most of Passing Fancies network systems had already been shut down, but Kim searched and located information using his "caspers."
"Bingo!" Kim shouted, turning to Splendor. "You were right, Buns. The barge ought to be arriving in Baltimore by tomorrow evening. And guess what else I found? It appears that Passing Fancies operates a small operation there, too. I think it might be time to bring C. R. and his pals in, don't you?"
"No," she disagreed. "Not until we know for sure. If we do this without checking things out first, we could lose whatever chance we had of saving the SCABS before they leave the country. Even worse, if we tip our hand and we're wrong, Bourke and his pals could just as easily kill the prisoners and dump the bodies overboard. I'm not willing to take that kind of chance with Sarah's life or the others."
Lisa looked at Kim, but neither he nor Splendor noticed her.
"Okay, Splendor. I'll go along with you on this. We'll hop a bullet train to Baltimore. We can check things out quietly and still have plenty of time to get back and alert C. R."
Turning to Lisa, Kim said, "Here's were we part company."
"I'm afraid this isn't an option. You're our only back up if something goes wrong. I'm leaving all my remaining records as well as the electronic journal I've kept since becoming Wu-2. If you don't hear from either Splendor or I in the next twelve hours, I want you to go to the Blind Pig and give this stuff to Jack DeMule."
"Jack DeMule! Are you kidding me! Why waste your time on that bar bum?"
"He's our go-between for the Consortium. Most nights he's at the bar and he's the least suspicious character I know," Kim said. "I really need you to do this, Lisa."
The reporter reluctantly agreed.
Turning to his companion, Kim said, "Well, Buns, I guess we'd better get going."
Splendor turned and put her arms around Lisa. "We'll find Bryan for you, I promise," she whispered and was gone.
CHAPTER 14: OUT OF THE FRYING PAN
Lisa spent the next couple of hours pacing the floors; frustrated at the role they had thrust on her. Inaction wasn't her long suit, but she recognized that lives hung in the balance. She threw herself on the sofa. She'd sat on something. Assuming it was the vid remote, she fished it from under her rump and prepared to toss it on the coffee table. She looked carefully at the object in her hand ... it was the tracking device for Bryan. Kim had left it behind!
She called information to catch the next bullet train to Baltimore, but then she stopped and cut the vid-link. Instead, she called a guy she knew in the Inquirer's research section that owned a pleasure boat.
"Barney, I've got some friends taking the Inter-Coastal Waterway from here to Baltimore. I'd like to surprise them by showing up unexpected. Is their anyplace along the route where they might slow down enough for me to board them?"
"I suppose the best place would be at the locks."
"Locks? What locks?"
"The locks on the old Delaware-Chesapeake Canal, just above Middleton, Maryland. The locks are so narrow you could step on board the boat and not even wet your feet."
Lisa thanked her friend and spent the next few frenzied minutes collecting a flashlight and one of Kim's electronic lock deactivators. Then, just before turning off the lights in her apartment, she picked up Canuck's toque and stuffed it in her pocket. With the package Kim had left in her hand, Lisa drove her v-hic to the Blind Pig. It was amateur night in the family room and DeMule could be heard playing backup piano upstairs for the singers. Not wanting to waste time or call attention to herself, Lisa motioned one of the waitresses over and handed her a package. "When Jack finishes, make sure he gets this."
"Will do, Lisa."
The reporter looked around the bar. She wondered for a moment if she was doing the
right thing ... but only for a moment. Lisa felt the toque in her coat pocket. She had no
doubts when the door to the Blind Pig closed behind her.
It was raining and nearly dark when she arrived at the locks. A pedestrian walkway crossed over the canal just below the locks. Lisa walked midway across the span and pulled the tracer from her pocket. She knew it was short-ranged, so Lisa figured to get as close as she could to each barge as it passed beneath her.
One hour passed, then two. Canal traffic ran in spurts; most were small commercial boats and pleasure craft, but every so often, a barge would slip through. The problem was that Lisa had no way of knowing if the barge she was looking for had already passed through the locks. Hell, she wasn't even sure if Bryan was on the barge at all. But she was determined to find out.
Over the hours she waited, the rain had gone from drizzle to steady downpour. Lisa was thoroughly soaked and cold. She thanked her lucky stars that it wasn't as cold as it could be for February. Still, the air held a hint of sleet and snow in it. She sat in her v-hic in between canal traffic and tried to stay warm. Dusk had deepened and a slight fog rolled in along with the heavier rain.
She had consumed more than six cups of coffee in the past few hours and her bladder was advertising its needs. It was nearly 600 yards to the nearest bathroom. Having been on both sides of the gender divide in the past two days, Lisa was willing to concede that urine elimination was the only distinct male advantage. She was walking back with yet another cup of coffee when she noticed a couple of barges were already passing by on the way to the locks. She dropped the cup and sprinted toward the crosswalk.
The barges were being towed by a small tug. Lisa pulled the scanner from her pocket to scan the barges. The minute she turned it on, the signal light flashed. That meant Bryan! But on which barge? The scanner blinked merrily but couldn't tell her which barge to choose.
Lisa had to make a decision. The barges would enter the locks soon and she had to get on board one of them. The distance between the barges precluded moving from one to the other, so her choice was critical. She wished she had spent more time examining the scanner before now. It seemed to have several functions but she had no idea how to use them.
The barges were in the locks. At most, she had less than fifteen minutes to make her choice and attempt to board without being seen by anyone on the tug or shore. In the top right-hand corner of the scanner was a switch that moved several positions from left to right. She tried moving it to the other positions. The first changed the signal from a flashing light to a beep. The middle position was where it was when she started. The far right position didn't seem to change any thing.
Lisa went back to her v-hic and stuffed a few tools in her shoulder purse. Then she got as close to the canal as she could without being seen in the darkness. Desperate, Lisa held the scanner out at the barges. The light continued to flash. She was about to put it back in her pocket and trust to luck when she noticed the light wasn't pulsing as fast as it had earlier. When she lifted it, if flashed faster.
She pointed it toward her v-hic. Its light pulses were noticeably slower. Lisa then pointed at one of the barges, and the flashing rate picked back up. With a lump of excitement in her throat, she pointed at the other barge. The flashes slowed. "I'm coming, Bryan," she whispered as she jumped the five-foot gap between the side of the canal lock and the barge she hoped held her captive friend.
The barge was coated with sleet. Lisa slipped and tumbled noisily into a pile of ropes and cables used to hold down the cargo containers. She rubbed her left thigh in pain; she'd have a hell of a bruise there tomorrow. Almost immediately, a floodlight from the tug came on and began scanning the barges. Lisa ducked and moved as quickly and quietly as she could to the back of one of the containers.
She could hear men's voices coming over from the tug. They were shining lights over on the barges but didn't seem inclined to make the jump over. After a few minutes, the floodlight went off and things quieted down. There were over a dozen large containers on the barge. Lisa pulled out the scanner and tried pointing it at the nearest container. It blinked at a constant rate. She moved to the center of the barge and then walked toward the bow. Almost imperceptibly, the pulse rate slowed. She returned to midship and moved toward the stern. This time the pulse picked up then slowed again. Through the process of elimination, she chose the third container from the stern. She took several deep breaths and pulled Kim's lock pick from her jacket. She'd watched him use it several times at Bosch House. She prided herself on her attention to detail.
She attached it to the lock as Kim had done and set the scan mechanism on. After a moment, the device had identified the lock system and analyzed it. It then walked Lisa through a series of options to open the door. When she pressed the final "yes," the lock clicked and the door started to swing open. She spun to see if her action had drawn any response from the tug, but all remained quiet.
The air inside the container was fetid and rank with the smells of dung, urine and food. She steeled herself and entered, pulling the door shut behind her. She turned on her flashlight. The container was capable of being locked from the inside, so she did. Running the entire length of the container were animal cages stacked from floor to ceiling. A small walkway ran down the center. Lisa guessed there must be thirty or more SCABS being held prisoner in this container alone.
The first thing she noticed was that none of the SCABS seemed to be moving. She looked inside the cage nearest her. It held what appeared to be a crustacean morph of some sort. Lisa was no expert, but it looked a lot like the spider crabs she and her father used to sometimes catch off the fishing pier in Myrtle Beach when she was a little girl. She saw that the crabmorph had an intravenous tube affixed to its carapace running to a needle at a leg joint. So did all the other SCABS whose cages she checked. There was nothing to do but start at the door and work her way back until she found Bryan.
She was able to immediately pass any non-entomorphs, but the majority of the SCABS held in this particular container seemed to be bugs of one sort or the other. The reporter had covered nearly a third of the cages when she saw a familiar shape in the darkness. She flashlight had picked out a roachmorph, but this one had two small vestigial human legs.
Lisa climbed up to the cage and opened it. There was not enough room for her to sit, let alone stand. She shook the roachmorph repeatedly but he didn't moved. She used her flashlight to spot the I.V. tube. Trusting that she was helping rather than hurting him, she carefully removed the needle from his joint. Now she could do nothing but wait and hope that he would awaken.
She settled in as comfortably as she could in the cramped cage. With her back leaning against the bars, Lisa pulled and tugged at Bryan until the roach's head was resting on her lap. She turned off her flashlight to preserve the batteries. He hand moved across his head. Tears came to her eyes when she found the broken stub of his right antenna. To while away the time, she spoke to the unconscious bugmorph ... just little bits of gossip and news she'd picked up since he went missing. She knew he could hear her but she found it comforting just the same. Slowly, she felt herself drifting off to sleep. She didn't fight it.
The barge finished its crossing from the Delaware Bay to the Chesapeake. Once out in the open water of the bay, the tug made good time until the lights of Baltimore took up the entire skyline. It was just after 10 p.m. when the barges were moored along side a pier. If Lisa had been able to see outside, she'd have noticed that an old beat up Anatolian grain carrier called the Bellerophon was moored a few slips down the quay.
A container crane on the dock attached cables to the containers and lifted them on to the dock. The sudden shift woke Lisa. She could feel the huge container lifting into the air. It settled on the concrete with a metallic clang. None of the sleepers even moved after the jolt, except Bryan. For the first time since she found him, the little bugmorph spasmodically moved his arms and legs. It wasn't much, but it was a start.
Lisa whispered his name and gently shook the roach. She could her the muffled voices of the dockworkers as they continued to unload the barges. Bryan's movements grew move violent as he jerked back and forth and kicked out with his legs. The sharp spurs that ran along his legs cut Lisa a number of times, but she grimly hung on to the roachmorph to keep him from hurting himself in his convulsions. Finally, from the bottom of the molasses jar of his drugged mind, Bryan found the strength to begin the long march back to consciousness.
Bryan made a tentative attempt to move his head. Lisa sensed his movement and relaxed her arm hold. She whispered his name and he nodded groggily. He felt her clenching him even harder than before and felt a series of small taps to the top of his head. It took a moment to register; she was kissing him!
Lisa finally released him and used her now free hands to find her flashlight. In the weak light, she whispered to ask how he felt.
"O.K. Weak," he signed.
Then she pointed to his missing antenna.
"Off balance. Hard to steer and maneuver," he added and then, gesturing to his surroundings, asked, "Where?"
"Baltimore. We ... Kim, Splendor and me that is ... figured out that the smugglers moved the actual shipment out of the city to here."
"You went missing more than ten days ago. I tracked you with the scanner Kim had. He and Splendor are probably outside somewhere trying to stop the smugglers."
With that, Lisa brought Bryan up-to-date on what had happened since his disappearance.
"You came for me. Thank you."
"Of course I came after you, you crazy bug! Did you think I'd leave you?"
"You've always been kind to me. You're a better friend to me than I deserve."
"Why is it so hard for you to admit that people can care for you? Care about you! Care what happens to you!"
Bryan made the side-to-side motion with his body that indicated distress. Finally, he signed, "Look at me! Look at what I am! I let everybody down!"
"You stop that right now, Bryan Derksen! I won't have you talking like that! I'm looking right at you and do you know what I see? I see one of the kindest, most generous, most decent human beings I've ever known!"
"Human being!" he gestured at himself with obvious contempt.
"Yes, human being!" Lisa shot back. "When are you going to get it through that thick carapace of yours that your outside don't mean a damn! It's what's inside that makes you the Bryan Derksen we all like," she said, adding with a whisper, "What some of us love.
"Bryan, I never much thought or cared much about what you looked like! That's not what attracts me to you. Don't you understand that? I love you Bryan. I've loved you for such a long time. I love the person you ARE; I don't care if you look like a Greek god or a cockroach. And I think I would have died if something had happened to you."
To say that Bryan was stunned by Lisa's revelations would be an understatement. To think that anyone, let alone someone like Lisa, would or could care for him in any way but pity was a concept the roachmorph had trouble wrapping his mind around. He didn't, couldn't believe it possible that she could care ... no, love him! Anytime she had reached out to him, he had pushed her away because he refused to believe that anyone could ever love him.
He tentatively pushed his front leg forward in an awkward gesture of touching her. Lisa had been waiting for this opening. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed the hard chitin that encased his head. He had no lips to kiss her back, so he drew her in as tenderly as he could and held her tightly. He could hear her sobbing gently in the gloom. He let her cry herself out, knowing that their feelings for each other would have to stay on hold until after they stopped the kidnappers. She wiped her tears on the sleeve of her jacket and made a weak smile, he signed "What now?"
It was a question with many levels and meanings but Lisa, realizing that Bryan knew as well as she did what they both had to do.
"We get you out of here, that's what!"
"What about them?" he asked, gesturing toward the other cages.
"They'll be freed, I promise."
Carefully and quietly, they lowered themselves to the floor of the container. Lisa watched as Bryan struggled to compensate for the loss of his antenna. He was like a v-hic with bad steering. No matter how straight he started, he constantly moved to the right until he hit something. Lisa stuck her hand in her pocket and felt Bryan's toque. She pulled it out and placed it on his head.
"This belongs to you, I think."
He couldn't even begin to imagine where she'd come up with that! As quietly as she could, Lisa unlocked the container but held the door shut, listening intently for sounds outside. Satisfied they were alone for the moment; she cracked open the door and the two slipped outside.
The snow and sleet of the pier stood in sharp contrast to the hot and humid conditions of the containers. Lisa shivered with cold. Bryan, whose hard roach exoskeleton shielded him from most weather worries, concentrated more on his coordination than the cold. They had just ducked behind some crates when a huge tractor forklift wheeled up in front of the assembled containers and started carrying them off. One-by-one, the forklift carried three of the containers, depositing them in front of the Bellerophon. A large boom-crane lifted the containers and slowly slung them over the ship. As they watched, the crane lowered the containers into the forward hold of the ship.
"We've got to get on that ship," Lisa hissed. "But we'll never get up the gang plank without being seen."
Bryan would need a lot of patience and practice in learning to compensate for distance and depth perception due to the loss of his antenna. He also knew he lacked the luxury of time.
"I can get us on board. Follow me," he signed.
The bugman scuttled to the stern of the ship. He went to the edge of the pier. The ship lay moored about eight feet off the dockside. It was at least ten feet straight up to the deck. Bryan carefully backed up about twenty feet and then motioned to Lisa.
"Climb on my back," he signed.
"What are you planning to do?"
"Trust me," he signaled and took off in a dead run. He was steadily moving to the right as he went forward. Lisa yelled, "left, left" into what she hoped was his ear. He compensated accordingly until he reached the end of the pier and launched himself up and over. He slammed into the hullplates with a bang. Had there not been so much other noise from the cranes, they might have been heard.
Bryan was hanging vertically off the side of the Bellerophon. The spurs of his four roach legs strained to find purchase in every crack, piece of rust, imperfection and bolt that protruded from the ship. Lisa stole a glance down and saw the ship swaying dangerously against the pier. If they fell, they'd either drown in the icy water, or be crushed between the ship and the dock.
Steadily, he worked himself up the side of the hull. Finally his front arms crossed the rail and he pulled Lisa and himself on deck. Lisa slid off his back and looked around. Bryan didn't want to admit it, but he was exhausted. Not only had he been drugged and mutilated, but he'd also had no exercise in more than a week and little food. He let Lisa do the exploring as he attempted to catch his breath.
The stern was deserted. All the activity seemed to be focused on the bow where loading was going on. Cautiously, using whatever cover they could find, the two worked their way toward the open forward hold. There were only one or two hands on deck, so Lisa and Bryan were able to get close enough to look down into the belly of the ship.
Two huge "L-shaped" pipes were lying on the deck. These were used to either pour grain into the hold, or suck it out like giant vacuum cleaners. They appeared to have been used for the latter. The hold appeared empty, except for two of the three cargo containers carrying the drugged SCABS that had already been lowered. Men could be seen scurrying about connecting pipes and sheet metal roofs to the two containers. From the dock, Lisa could hear people attaching cables the third and final container.
"We'd better check out the rear hold," Lisa said. "If we don't see any sign of Kim and Splendor, I think we'd better high-tail it out of here and get the cops."
Bryan was inclined to agree. He was way out of his league and he knew that getting himself and Lisa killed or captured wouldn't help the captives.
As they moved toward the stern of the Bellerophon, Lisa muttered half-aloud, "I told Kim it was a waste of time to leave his information with Jack DeMule. He's probably drunk under the pool table by this time of night!"
Bryan spun around at the mention of DeMule's name. "What did you say about Kim and Jack?" he signed agitatedly.
"Kim had me leave all our records and finding with Jack DeMule over at the Blind Pig. Jack evidently is supposed to get them to your buddy, C. R. But if you ask me, I don't think he could find his ass if he sat on his hands!"
"And you gave it to Jack?" Bryan asked again, obviously excited.
"I gave it to one of the waitresses, she was supposed to give it to him when he finished playing. But that would have been hours ago. So like I said, expecting Jack DeMule to be responsible for anything is a waste of time!"
Maybe there is hope, Bryan thought to himself, completely ignoring Lisa rant.
They moved cautiously to the open hatchway leading to the rear cargo hold. From a catwalk, they could see the hold was filled with corn. They worked their way forward until they came to a section used to house shipboard equipment and machine tools. Lisa picked up a twenty-four inch spanner and slapped it a couple of times across her open palm. It might come in handy if we run into trouble she thought. Then she heard a man's voice behind her.
"Get the bug spray, boys! I knew that shipboard vermin was big, but this here roach is gonna take a lot of squashing."
Without pausing to think, Lisa spun around swinging the wrench in a wide arc. There were two men behind her. Her swing caught the first man, a burly sailor in a faded pea coat, across his right arm.
"Sonnavabitch!" he yelled in pain. His buddy snatched the spanner from Lisa with one hand and punched her squarely in the stomach with the other. She doubled over in agony, retching in pain. She looked up to see that a couple of the other sailors had thrown a cargo net over Bryan and were securing him.
The man who Lisa had struck crossed over to her, gingerly rubbing his arm. He looked at her for a short second and then kicked her twice in the ribs and stomach. She curled up as best as she could to avoid the blows.
"Hold on there, Tom!" one of the men tying up Bryan cried. "That looks like "Grade A" pussy you've got there. Let's not be wasting it!"
Two men then grabbed Lisa and hauled her to her feet, while yet another man tore open her blouse. The man who ripped her shirt reached into his pocket and pulled out a switchblade.
"No need for this," he said, slipping the blade between the fabric holding the cups of her bra and severing it. He roughly began kneading her breasts and licking them obscenely. "Not very big," he observed. "But my dad always said ...any more than a mouthful's a waste of time!'" he guffawed.
She looked over at Bryan struggling in vain to free himself from the net. They had failed in their mission. She had no illusions what her fate would be at the hands of these men. An hour or two of misery and pain and it would be over ... either a slit throat or strangled she figured ... allowing her reporter's instincts and detachment to take over helped hold back her fear and terror. Before it ended, she had one last bit of business she had to conclude, and she didn't want it shared with her captors.
"BRYAN!" she yelled. The men let go of her briefly, looking around to see if another person had arrived. In that few moments, with her hands free, she tapped her right-hand fingers to her chest, crisscrossed her arms, and then pointed her index finger toward the roach.
In a split second, the roachmorph repeated Lisa's gesture back to her. The reporter's fear was replaced with tears as the men grabbed her arms again. As they pulled her out of Bryan's sight, she kept trying to cross her arms and point to him with her hand. "Love you. Love you. Love you," she signed until he was no longer able to see her. "NOOOOOOOOO!" Bryan's mind cried out as he saw the only woman he'd ever loved pulled out his sight. The dreams of his drug-induced psychotic nightmare returned to haunt him. He had let everyone down. And now, the one person in the world that he cared the most for was going to pay the price for his inadequacy. The bugmorph rolled and thrashed in the net, but was unable to free himself. He kept pulling at the net with his front arms while kicking with his rear legs. It was hopeless! Then he noticed something peculiar; he seemed to have more legs down there then he remembered. He looked at the rear part of his body. The vestigial human legs that had handicapped him since his last metamorphosis had transformed into fully formed roach legs and he hadn't even noticed! For the first time in years, Bryan had altered himself. Then he noticed his arms. They clung to the netting in a peculiar fashion for a roach. He held one up before his eyes. Encased in chitin, yet fully flexible, was a human hand.
There was no time for reflection. Bryan looked at his hand for just a moment before his brain said, "Don't think ... DO!"
He concentrated on a shape and slowly his roach form began to alter and shift. Very few SCABS could do what Bryan was now accomplishing. He was altering his form from genus to genus without returning to human form first. Only three or four of the world's strongest polymorphs had ever been able to accomplish this feat. But then, Bryan was the sixth most powerful polymorph then known on the North American continent. In just over ten minutes, a world's record if anyone had witnessed it, two heavy-duty jaw-like pincers pushed through the gaps in the net and cut the quarter-inch hemp like string.
The three thugs drug Lisa from the hold to the crew quarters. Two held her while the third pulled some mattresses off the sling bunks and threw them on the deck floor. However, when he tried to pull at her slacks, she aimed a foot at his crotch. She missed, but scored a direct hit on his shin instead. Cursing, one of the men holding her let go and slapped her repeatedly. Then he grabbed at her throat and choked until she nearly blacked out. Dazed and coughing, she was only able to struggle ineffectively as they removed the remains of her blouse and pulled down her slacks.
They dropped her to the mattresses and cut cards to she who would enjoy her first. Lisa clutched at her throat, trying to get her breath back. She was naked except for her panties. The man in the faded pea coat ... the one she winged with the spanner wrench ... won. She watched him approach her. The world moved in slow motion as her brain tried to recover from a recent lack of oxygen.
Slowly he removed his coat and let it drop to the floor. He knelt down on the floor in front of her and grasped the waistband of her underwear. She weakly resisted, but he put a heavy hand back over her throat and, pinning her, tugged off her briefs. The next few moments were mercifully foggy in her mind and memory but she knew she was being violated.
Bryan had seen which hatch the sailors took Lisa through. Once free of the ropes, he stretched himself to full length. Gone was the brown symmetry and well-designed form of the roach. In its place was a stocky, hard-shelled, and very angry black beetlemorph.
He propelled himself down the corridors. The let the natural sensory acuity of the beetle-form guide his movements. The men hadn't bothered to post a watch or even close the door behind them. After all, who on this ship could bother them? That was mistake number one.
Mistake number two was keeping their back to the door. So intent were they on watching their fellow shipmate rape the struggling woman, they ignored any sound or movements behind them. The first inkling that they might be in trouble was the feel of a large insectoid arm fastening itself to each their shoulders. Before they even had a chance to call out, Bryan lifted them from the floor and cracked their heads on the bulkhead ceiling. Without even looking at them, the beetlemorph contemptuously tossed them over his shoulders leaving them to land unceremoniously on the floor behind him.
Mistake number three was hurting Lisa Underwood!
She was nearly unconscious. The rapist found she didn't struggle as much if he kept a chokehold on her. Lisa's few conscious memories of her attacker were his incessant high-pitched giggling laughter and his foul breath and gap-toothed mouth.
Bryan snaked one of his forelimbs around the sailor's leg and hauled him upside down off the floor. With a whiplash snap of his arm, he shot the rapist across the floor, slamming him into a group of lockers that lined the wall. The man slid down them dazed and bleeding. The beetlemorph turned toward the woman and tentatively, almost shyly, extended a forelimb. He gently touched her swollen face. Black bruises were already appearing on her shoulder and neck. She moaned and opened her puffy eyes. She looked at the beetle with a look of puzzlement. He slowly held a forelimb before her face and signed, "Hello."
"Bryan?" she asked.
He nodded up and down. Looking at her, he signed, "Can you move?"
"Don't know. Think so. Hard to . . ." she said, her voice disoriented. She did not speak for a moment, and then she curled up into a ball. Bryan realized she was in shock and no doubt hypothermic in the cold air of the ship. He found blankets and pillows and draped them over her nude form. As tenderly as he could, he brushed the wisps of hair out of her face as Lisa struggled to get a hold of herself.
Lisa teeth chattered and her lip were tinged blue as she struggled to get some warmth and circulation back into her body. She attempted to straighten out but she moaned in obvious pain and curled up again.
"My stomach hurts bad."
As gently as he could, Bryan peeled back the blankets from her lower torso so he could examine her. Her genital area was coated in blood. Wild red-hot anger surged through him; he spun around and grabbed the semiconscious rapist from the floor. Bryan slammed him as hard as he could against the bulkhead, and pinned the terrified man several feet off the floor with his left forearm. As the man screamed incoherently, the beetlemorph lifted his right forelimb and exposed a deadly sharp spur. He moved his arm back and tensed his muscles. He intended to pin this piece of scum to the wall like a bug in a kid's insect collection.
The sailor was pleading, cursing and screaming for help. Bryan was oblivious to the man's pleas. He could hear nothing, except for one voice. The voice kept saying "No, Bryan, no." He paused and listened.
It was Lisa.
She was calling weakly to him.
"No, Bryan. Don't. Don't kill him. Please."
He looked at her. Looked back to the sailor. He pulled the man violently away from the wall and shook him like a rag doll. He made a motion as if to hurl the sailor against the wall with his full strength. Then, he stopped and looked at Lisa again. He could see the pleading look for mercy in her eyes.
"How do I fight that?" he wondered to himself.
He pushed the sailor back up against the bulkhead, keeping the man's body more than two feet off the floor. Then, he slowly let the man fall to the floor. The sailor breathed heavily, thankful to be alive. The beetle turned to the woman and made a motion or two.
"He says to take off your clothes," Lisa said.
The sailor just stared at her. The beetlemorph, with lightning speed, slammed a forearm spur through the metal of the locker by the man's head as if it was paper. It was the same spur that so recently been aimed at the sailor's chest.
"That means NOW," Lisa added.
The man quickly stripped to his underwear. He started to tug at those but Bryan motioned him to stop. The beetlemorph snagged the sailor roughly around the chest and hauled him up one of the corridors until he found a broom closet with no windows. He found some coated wire on a shelf, quickly trussed up the nearly naked sailor, and tossed him unceremoniously into the cramped room. He returned a few minutes with the sailor's other two companions, both unconscious but similarly trussed. He locked them inside and left them in the darkness.
He returned to Lisa. He went to center room and stood motionless. After a moment, his form began to shift and change. Slowly the beetle was replaced with the naked form of a human. When the transformation was complete, the man stood upright and looked in wonderment at his hands. His flanks still bore the strips of Velcro that Becky Holman put on weeks ago to attach his wheel sling. The man tugged at the strips until they came off. He winced in pain as his now sensitive human skin reacted to the removal of the adhesive strips. He modestly picked up a blanket from the floor and knelt by Lisa.
"Hi. It's me. Bryan," he said, in a voice that suggested she might not know him.
Lisa managed a chuckle.
He turned red and averted his eyes.
"I've always been a sucker for a man who could blush," she said weakly.
"Lisa, I'm a doctor. I know you're in pain; I need find out how bad you're hurt. That means I need to look you over."
"Yeah, Bryan, sure. You just want to see me with out my clothes on," she laughed weakly.
He managed a half-smile and started his examination. He did a cursory external exam and several times pressed her abdomen and lower torso. Each time, although she tried not to show it, Lisa winced in pain. He pulled the blankets up closely around her.
"So, Doc, whaddya' think of the package?"
Bryan didn't mince words.
"Your trachea is bruised but doesn't appear to be permanently damaged. I'll know better after X-rays. And you appear to have several abrasions and contusions on your face and upper torso."
"I sense an impending ...but,'" Lisa said wanly.
"I'm no GYN, Lisa, so I have not idea of the amount of damage, but you're bleeding internally ...there's damage to your reproductive organs and genitalia. We've got to get you to a hospital and get the bleeding stopped."
She began to cry gently. Bryan lifted her in his arms and tried to comfort her. As she cried into his shoulder, he was aware that the storm outside had grown worse. He could hear the sound of sleet tapping against the porthole on the far wall. In her condition, he would be murdering her to take her out in this weather. She sensed his dilemma.
"I can't travel like this," she said. "Besides, the kidnapped SCABS still have to be helped. You'll have to go for the police."
He smiled, grateful she had stated the obvious. He pulled on the sailor's pants for modesty sake and carried a number of blankets and mattresses down to one of the lower decks. He found an empty cabin and carried Lisa down to it. He laid her tenderly on the bed and pulled the key from the lock.
"When I go, I'm going to lock you in and slide the key under the door. I'll be back as soon as I can, I promise."
Lisa didn't say anything; she just opened her arms and held them out to him. As she clung to his neck, she whispered in his ear, "You couldn't before, but will you kiss me now?"
He stopped at the door and turned to look at her one more time.
"I . . . I . . . love you," he said.
"I know," she answered.
He closed the door behind him and locked it. As promised he pushed the key under the jamb and returned to the crew quarters. He hadn't wanted to tell her that the vision in his right eye was blurred to the point of blindness. Obviously, the loss of his antenna was going to have far reaching results in Bryan's life. But that could wait, he still had one good eye and he could function. That's all that mattered.
Once he entered the crew quarters, he stripped and began focusing his mind on a specific form. Fifteen minutes later, Bryan Derksen, cockroach, had returned. But this time there was a difference. This time, it was Bryan Derksen out to protect the woman he loved, and if the world got in his way, the world had better watch it! He pulled his toque out of the net he'd been trussed in and headed topside.
He maneuvered his way back compensating for the missing antenna until he made the top deck. As he feared, the storm had grown worse. Snow and sleet were intermixed. The footing was slick ... for humans that is ... Bryan just adjusted his form and his leg spurs became a little more tractable in this environment. The loading continued on the foredeck. The altercations down below had gone unnoticed and unseen. He climbed the aft rail along side the dock. He couldn't get off ship the way he came, but he'd allowed for that in his recent transformation. Without a second thought, he launched himself forward. His back plates opened and translucent insect wings emerged. He wasn't exactly aerodynamic, but he only had to go twenty yards or so. It wasn't a pretty flight or landing, but his was on the dock and unhurt, that's all that mattered.
He was moving along side of the Intercap warehouse when he realized his newfound confidence had led him astray. He was in Baltimore and had no idea where he was in relationship to anything. He'd find an office somewhere, break in and use a vid-link to call the cops. Surely, they could find him, even if he couldn't find them!
As he moved through the shadows, he saw a custom limo v-hic pulling up. Several men got out. Bryan didn't know any of them. One of the men opened the trunk of the v-hic and hauled out two bodies, dropping them heavily on the pavement. Bryan moved as close as he could as the men drug the two bodies toward the Bellerophon. In the dim light, he was able to determine that the two people from the trunk were alive.
At first, he didn't recognize them ... the shorter of the two was a man with short hair and the other could be male or female ... Bryan couldn't tell since this one had male clothes but long female-styled hair. As they drug the long-haired man through the light and into the warehouse, Bryan caught a glimpse of mottled skin and the outline of female breasts.
It was Splendor!
CHAPTER 15: AND INTO THE FIRE
If the truth be known, Jack DeMule loathed Family Amateur Night at the Blind Pig!
It wasn't that he didn't want to help his friend Donnie get the social club going. But ever since "Furbidden Love" won the Oscar, it seemed that every prepubescent and teenybopper norm girl in the city seemed to come by wanting to sing "Wild Hearts Can't Be Tamed," the love song from the movie.
It wouldn't be so bad, but the movie was just so damn awful! For one thing, the actor who played the lionmorph in the movie ... this year's teen heartthrob, Jonny Willow ... was just a norm in a lion suit. Jack thought the guy looked more like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz than any animorph he'd ever met.
In the film, the hero develops SCABS, is rejected by family and friends, goes to Africa and for some incomprehensible reason becomes King of the Jungle. It seems that all African wildlife had been waiting for this joker to appear and now all animals join together to become brothers and sisters and live in harmony. Lionboy fights evil poachers and land developers, saving the life of the rich and bratty daughter of the film's bad guy. Of course, the SCABS and norm fall in love. Just the thought of the sickening sweet movie made Jack's teeth hurt.
But he hated to disappoint his friends. A couple of years back, Donnie had purchased the building the bar was located in and started renovating it. The Blind Pig stayed in its home in the basement section, but pretty soon a restaurant took its place on the first and second floors. The top floor was a banquet facility divided into rooms that people and groups could rent out for weddings and other special events.
"Sinclair's," Donnie's restaurant, had opened to rave reviews a few months ago. It was the first restaurant owned, operated and staffed completely by SCABS. Through a national search, Donnie had found and hired some of the nation's best chefs. Many of these men and women had been out of work for a long time since few wanted to hire SCABS to cook their food. At first, many came to Sinclair's as a novelty, soon, through word-of-mouth, Donnie's restaurant venture was being proclaimed as one of the city's best kept dining secrets.
The next venture Donnie started was a joint project between him, Deebo McCandless and their norm friend, Mike Prischelli. This trio had decided that Human First movement demonstrated that ignorance breeds hate. They wanted a forum where young norms and SCABS could get together and socialize. So once a month, foul weather and fair, Jack would play back up piano for anyone who needed musical accompaniment at Family Amateur Night every third Thursday from 7 to 10 p.m.
Tonight hadn't been too bad. He'd only had to play that damned song three times. About 10:15 p.m., he wandered back to the bar and ordered a beer from Donnie. He just about got the mug to his lips when the odor hit him. He sniffed the beer with a suspicious face. It smelled like mule piss ... a fragrance Jack was passing familiar with. Donnie and Mike were still experimenting with their microbrewery. They used regulars like Jack to experiment on, knowing that they would give them an honest reaction. He looked up to Donnie whose large bull face was marked with an expectant look.
"Donnie, this might be the finest tasting beer since God created beer, but as long as it smells like urine, I ain't gonna drink it! And neither will anybody else!"
Donnie just sighed a bovine sigh, poured it out, and gave Jack his usual brew. He swigged a good third of the mug and sighed contentedly. Little Colleen, one of the bar's SCABS waitresses, came up to the bar. Donnie handed her a large brown envelope that she gave to DeMule.
"Sorry, Jack, Lisa Underwood came by a few hours ago and dropped this off for you. I was supposed to give it to you during one of your breaks, but I got busy and forgot. I hope its nothing important."
Jack gave her a friendly wave and took the envelope. He couldn't image why Lisa Underwood would be giving him anything. Inside were several computer disk wafers and a note.
Dear Jack: Sorry to leave this for you without speaking personally but this is VERY IMPORTANT. You must get these disk wafers to a man named C. R. as soon as you receive this note. I have been told that you know this C. R. and can be trusted to get him this information. You need to tell him "The shipment is coming from Addis Ababa." He will understand. Please do not forget or put this off. You must do this immediately. Tell this C. R. that Wu-2 and Cinnamon have already left for Baltimore and that I am going after our friend, Canuck. Lisa Underwood
Jack sagged back on his stool as if he were going to collapse.
"Jesus, Jack!" asked the man known to the bar as the Scribbler. "Are you all right? You look sick."
Jack didn't just look sick, he felt sick! His heart was pounding, he was sweating profusely and he felt disoriented. He took a moment, composed himself, and asked Donnie if he could use his office to make a personal call. He closed Donnie's office door behind him and locked it. Then he sat at the vid-link and made a call to a private line. He plugged in the disk wafers and began uploading them.
The man who answered saw Jack and asked, "Why are you calling me on this line?"
"No time to explain. Start downloading the information I'm sending. We'll both read it at the same time. I think we have major problems."
Had he known it, Kim would have sympathized with DeMule's assessment of the situation. Just a few hours earlier, "Boy, do we have problems!" was all he kept thinking as he sat on the high-speed bullet train running down toward Baltimore.
He stole a glance over at Splendor, but she appeared to be asleep. On their way to the station, Kim stopped at the mall and outfitted himself and Splendor for the work ahead of them. Kim was now dressed from head to toe in his familiar black. It had taken some doing, but everything he was wearing from his parka to his shoes was black. Paladin had returned!
Splendor retained the coveralls she had taken from Lisa but allowed Kim to buy her a coat, gloves and hat. After all, she was a herpamorph and was subject to extreme heat or cold. Halfway to Baltimore the weather turned ugly. Rain, then sleet began falling.
Compounding Kim's worries was a massive headache that he couldn't seem to shake. Ever since he expended energy to transform Lisa's gender temporarily, he was unable to shake the awful pounding that seemed to be going on in back of his eyes. It made thinking harder and interfered with his concentration. And right now, he needed to stay focused.
Splendor was also suffering, but in a different way. She was trying to expend as little energy as possible. Between her morphing back and forth to Cinnamon, and the effort it took turning Buchler into an infant, she was dangerously tired. The cold wasn't helping either. It tended to slow her reactions down. She debated on asking Kim for a charge, but she could tell he hadn't recovered from changing Lisa, so she didn't bother.
"What can't be altered, must be endured," she repeated mentally to herself. It was an expression of Sarah's ... a phrase she used whenever something bad happened to the two of them. Sometimes, when things were so bad, that whenever Sarah just raised her elephantine trunk in a certain way, Splendor knew what she was saying. Being tired and having little energy was just another situation that had to be "endured."
She opened her eyes and looked at her hand. Her normally alabaster skin was slightly mottled. She concentrated a moment and the skin returned to normal. She could only hope that the ride to Baltimore would give her enough time to recoup some of her strength.
It was just after 3 p.m. when they pulled into the Baltimore station. Kim called a friend of his ... another computer consultant ... and they used his apartment to hack into the University of Maryland's Quantum-Cray mainframe. It took Kim a couple of hours to crack all the security protocols surrounding Intercap's local operations. Once he was into the systems, he was able to track Bourke's movements within the city.
He called up a city map on the screen and interposed all known Passing Fancies activities. It became clear that there were two distinct locations: one on the riverfront, and a warehouse off Interstate 95.
"I want to check this warehouse out," Kim decided.
"Why bother? We know Bourke must be down at the harbor. That's where Sarah and the others SCABS will be held. That's where we should be heading."
"I already know what's happening there," he snapped back in exasperation. "I want to know what's going on at that warehouse. Something Lisa mentioned to me earlier has got me thinking. She said that Buchler used to make rounds with his truck a couple times a week. He told you as much. I think he must have come here a few times. I want to know what for."
Just after 6 p.m., they hailed an auto-cab and punched the destination of Passing Fancies warehouse into the cab's autopilot. The cloudy day made it seem darker than it was, but the sun was nearly down and dusk was passing. The warehouse was as nondescript as its neighborhood. It also looked deserted. It was nothing more than a cube of corrugated steel. That didn't mean it wasn't secure. Kim counted at least 22 interlocking security systems guarding this seemingly innocuous building.
By now, a regular blizzard was blowing off the Chesapeake. Snow intermixed with sleet swirled around them as Kim patiently disarmed system after system. Splendor shivered with the cold. Her herpamorph blood causing her more discomfort than she wanted to admit. It was no easier on Kim; his headache was compounding his problems. Dim light and cold weather didn't help either, but finally he was in. The door click opened and the two conspirators enter the warehouse.
Kim patted himself on the back. He'd done a masterful job of bypassing Bourke's 22 building security systems. Professional criminals and security experts could have learned a few things from the tricks Kim had thought up and perfected during the course of the investigation. Unfortunately, he missed the 23rd entirely.
On the inside, there seemed to be little at first glance to warrant such elaborate security. It looked exactly what you'd expect a warehouse to look like. There were rows of crates and boxes stacked on pallets. The warehouse seemed to be nearly three-quarters full. In the center of the open floor area was a painted rectangle. A number of boxes and crates were stored within the painted area, but Kim couldn't fathom why.
Splendor called out to him from the front of the building. She'd found an office. The time for subtlety was gone, they simply broke open any desk or file cabinet that was locked and began reading the contents. In what appeared to be innocuous manifests and bills of lading, Kim found confirmation of hellish cargo Bourke was readying for shipping. Splendor was growing more and more impatient. She was in a hurry to get to the dock area.
"I'm sure that all of this is very interesting, Kim, but I really don't care about the trinkets and baubles these bastards are trying to get out of the country, I want to get down to the harbor and finds my people. I want to find Sarah!"
Kim let out a huge sigh. It was time. He knew it was time. But somehow, he hoped it wouldn't be him making this speech. He found he could not look at her; he just stared down at the floor.
"Sarah's not down at the pier," he said quietly. "She never was. She's . . . she's here."
"What do you mean she's here? There's nothing here but junk in boxes. You said the SCABS are being shipped off the Bellerophon?"
"No," he countered. "I said the SCABS that were being shipped overseas are down there."
She cocked as Kim continued to speak.
"Do the math, Splendor. How many people do you figure are missing from the city since these guys started last year . . . 75? 100?
She nodded yes.
"Bourke's own records show that he's operating large and small operations in cities in the northeast corridor: there's Bangor, Hartford, Buffalo, Philly, Norfolk, and us. I prepared the shipment. You've seen the lists. They've only made accommodations to ship about 150 people. There's space for the exotics ... those that will be sold and used for prostitution . . . and there's space for the ones they considered draft animals or hazardous duty specimens."
"So," she asked, still not seeing his point.
"I have records for over 400 missing people."
It took a moment for the information, and the implication, to sink in.
"They've been harvesting SCABS, Splendor. They've been picking and choosing among the most vulnerable SCABS people ... the homeless. If they could find people who had traits or forms that they could exploit . . . people who could disappear and never be missed . . . they took them. Some they kidnapped just as we suspected, but the majority they just killed and processed like any other farm commodity."
She reeled as if struck.
"When did you find out?" she demanded.
"We've suspected something like this all along. We didn't tell you because we thought you'd do something rash and maybe get yourself hurt or killed. Later on, when I got to know you better, I didn't want to tell you because I was hoping against hope that we were wrong, or that Sarah would be among those being shipped overseas."
"I see," she said in a flat voice that scared Kim more than if she'd been angry. "So Sarah's been dead for months and you never told me. Like a fool, you let me go on and on about finding and rescuing her. I knew C. R. could be cold but, somehow, I expected more from you, Kim."
"Splendor, please . . . I didn't know about Sarah. Not for sure, at least. I only found out last night when Lisa and I got Schweitzer's files."
"You said Sarah was here. Where? I want to go to where she is."
"I don't think it's a good idea to go looking for . . ." Kim started to stay, but she cut him off with a look that was so cold, so angry, so hurt, that he simply stopped and said, "Lot 221-B, where ever that is."
As she turned to leave the office, Kim reached out to touch her shoulder with his hand but she pulled it away.
"I'm sorry, Splendor. You've been hurt so many times, by so many people; I didn't want to be another person to cause you pain. I care too much about you as your friend."
"We'll finish this job because it has to be done. For Sarah's sake and the sake of all those other people these butchers have hurt or killed. But when this is over, you will go out of my life and you will NEVER come near me or speak to me again. Do you understand?"
Without another word, and without looking back, she left. She would not cry, Splendor told herself. Tears would not solve anything and only show weakness. She would be strong. Strong for Sarah, strong for the other SCABS depending on her. Besides, tears would drain anger, and anger was a blossom she planned to clutch tightly and nurture.
It took some time but she finally found a crate marked 221-B. It was roughly the size of the desk in her office at the shelter. She put a tentative hand on top of the crate. She could feel nothing but the rough texture of the wood. A search of the general area turned up a clawhammer and a crowbar. She hacked at the wood until she was able to get the crowbar under the lid of the crate and pry open it.
The top of the container was filled with packing straw. She pushed them aside and ran her hands inside until she came across some type of material. She pulled it out. It was a rolled up fur skin, a fox she thought. Then she corrected herself, "No, a foxmorph." She carefully put it aside and continued to search the contents of the crate. She pushed her hands down again and pulled up one hide or fur after another. She tried no to look too closely at any of the hides. She was afraid she'd see the remains of someone she knew. In fact, she tried to keep all thoughts from her head except one. She wished now she had strangled the Buchler baby when she had the chance.
As her hands moved through the straw packing, they came across a familiar feeling ... what she was holding had a texture ... and the texture was pebbled. Her stomach burned as if on fire and she felt faint as she drew up her find. In the dim light, Splendor was able to make out a grayish skin. Attached to a few spots on the hide were a tuft or two of reddish-brown hair. She clutched the hide to her chest and fell to her knees ... all pretense gone.
"Momma," she wailed, her body racked with sobs, with the skin of her foster mother held tightly to her breast. "Oh, Momma, Momma, Momma!" was all she could repeat over and over.
Kim didn't think it was possible to feel any lower than he did. Splendor had trusted him; let him close to her. Let him be her lover. And how did he repay that trust? She'd never speak to him again, and he couldn't blame her. Best to just get the job done as quick as possible and fade out of her life as quickly as possible.
He stopped his work trying to decipher and assimilate all the information he'd stolen from Bourke, but his head continued to pound. Kim caught himself making elementary mistakes. This is not good, he thought. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. It didn't help with the pain. He heard Splendor moving behind him but didn't look.
"I'm not quite finished," he said over his shoulder.
"Wanna bet?" a man's voice answered.
Kim never even saw the two-by-four that struck him across the back of the skull.
Eventually Splendor stopped crying. Eventually, even the bitterest tears run dry. Although she had only begun to mourn for her foster mother, she had moved past her immediate grief. She found a small open box filled with knickknacks and dumped its on the floor. As gently and reverently as she could, she folded Sarah's remains and place it in the box. She cushioned the temporary casket with soft straw and bore it like a pall toward the front of the warehouse.
As she approached the offices she heard a noise and froze. There was movement. Too much movement to be just Kim. Carefully setting Sarah's remains down, Splendor slipped into the shadows. In the dim light of the office, she made out the form of Bourke, Lyle and another man ... Bourke's driver if she wasn't mistaken. She started to slip back among the boxes. She needed a moment to think and collect her thoughts. As she turned to leave, stepping out from a pile of crates in front of her, was a man. He was holding a gun.
"Going some where?" he asked.
Splendor had not survived on the street as long as she did by not being decisive. The words had barely left his lips when she bolted off to the left behind a stack of crates. He fired and Splendor felt a sharp stinging pain across the outside of her left thigh. She didn't pause until she'd put some distance between herself and the gunman. She could hear men shouting to each other. "Hey Michael, who you shooting at?"
"There's a woman back here, I think I winged her."
"Well switch to your airgun, we don't want the cops down here looking for shooters."
Splendor recognized the voices. The man who shot at her was Michael, her escort the night on board the Natchez Belle. The other man was unmistakably Lyle, Bourke's lieutenant. They must have captured Kim. She reached up behind her back and touched the ragged skin around her leg. A four-inch gash sliced across her upper thigh, oozing blood at an unremarkable rate. She was lucky in two regards: her herpamorph form bled at a slower rate in cold temperature and she seemed to have been merely grazed by the bullet.
She move quickly and quietly through the shadows in the warehouse. Splendor wondered if her Kim was dead. She needed time to think. No matter what, she was on her own. She needed a plan.
Kim was lucky to be alive. Lyle and another gang member lifted the semiconscious polymorph back into a chair and began slapping his face trying to arouse him.
"Jay-zus, Lyle," Bourke snapped, slipping back into his thick brogue. "I t'ink you broke his skull. I wanted to question him."
"He'll talk," Lyle said grimly as he continued to slap Kim.
"It's Wu, isn't it?" Bourke asked after carefully looking over the slumped form in black. "I t'ought you took care of him?"
"I thought I did, too, Ciaran."
"I don't like the look of dis. Dere's been too many slip ups dis time; too many people trying to find out what we're up to. We need to get dis shipment out of here and shut down for a couple of years."
"A long lay off can't hurt prices," Lyle observed.
"Dat's da right attitude, lad!" he smiled, slapping his partner jovially on the back.
Suddenly they heard a gun shot from the warehouse floor. Michael shouted that he'd found a woman in the warehouse.
"Dat'll be his tart, Cinnamon. Go find her, lad."
As Lyle started to leave, Bourke placed a hand on his shoulder. "No need to worry about questioning dat one. She ain't too bright. Just make it quick and clean and we'll head down to the dock."
"Keep an eye on Wu," Bourke told the driver.
Splendor took stock of her situation. Her energy reserves were down. She was unarmed and wounded. She was trapped inside the building, outnumbered and outgunned. But they didn't seem to know her or who she was. That could work to her advantage. She knew that she'd never win in a direct confrontation, but she had a few tricks that might even the odds. She looked at her blood as it dropped in tiny splatters on the floor.
"I'm losing too much blood," she thought. She found a place where she could wedge herself in between some crates. There wasn't much room and she was feeling woozy.
"Let me just rest a moment, then I'll move on," she thought as the room began to spin around her.
Michael was slowly working his way down the left side of the warehouse. Lyle was on the right. Between the two, they'd converge on the center of the building in a few minutes. No one would be able to get past them, they thought, especially not a woman!
Michael had only caught a glimpse of the woman before she ran. He'd gotten off a shot and was sure he'd hit her. As he moved down the fourth aisle in his search, he saw a drop of blood lying on the floor. He started to call Lyle but stopped. If he caught or killed the other intruder, it might increase his visibility within Bourke's organization. Michael grinned to himself at the thought.
He saw more blood on the floor and began to follow it. Lyle yelled for a report, but Michael didn't tell him of his find. He came around a corner and saw an object on the floor. Lying on her side a few feet from him was a woman's body. He head was resting on her left arm. She appeared to be unconscious. She also appeared to be nude from the waist up. Michael cautiously approached her, gun drawn, but she never moved. He prodded the back of her head once or twice but all she did was roll limply on her back.
She was beautiful. Michael didn't recognize her. He kept his gun trained on her and grasped her arm with his free hand. He tugged and pulled, trying to yank her body from the crevice, but she appeared stuck. He holstered his gun, took her arm in both hands. The woman moaned. Michael slipped his hands under her underarms and pulled. She seemed to be coming loose from her prison. He stopped to admire her full bosom but noticed her torso looked odd in the poor light ... almost mottled. He started to call out to Lyle when, like a flash, the woman's body wrapped itself around his torso in two complete loops and constricted.
There was a distinct cracking sound as three or more of the henchman's ribs gave way. He couldn't get any air into his lungs. Each time he tried to draw a breath, the coils tightened. His tongue was thick in his mouth and beginning to protrude. He felt a cold hand slip under his chin and lift his head. His eyes dimly made out the face of the beautiful woman. She was holding his limp head upright with one hand and caressing his cheek with the other. She whispered softly to him.
"Do you remember me, Michael? I guess not, by the look in your eyes. I looked a little different the last time. Don't you remember? We were on the Natchez Belle. You bought me dinner. You were talking to one of your buddies about me. I guess you thought I wasn't listening ... or was too dumb to understand. Remember what you said Michael? Something about ...the best part is after a few good fucks, I could make a few million off her pelt'."
"Cinnamon," he gasped.
"Aw, you ...do' remember me ... only the name's Splendor. Hate to state the obvious, but you're dying, Michael. I've killed you. I could make it a little easier on you. Give you a little nip with one of these," she said, pointing to her fangs. "You know, put you out of your misery. Yeah, I could do that ... either way, you die ... it's just a matter of choice ... poison or suffocating."
The henchman looked into the cold eyes of his killer and saw the tips of her now protruding fangs.
Pointing to her fangs, he pleaded, "Please."
Splendor took his face in both of her hands and brushed her lips against his.
"Fuck you!" she whispered in his ear and crushed his rib cage. The rib bones punctured his lungs and heart. She dropped him to the floor. He looked like a broken child's toy. He wasn't dead . . . yet. Without the coils around his body, it was easy to see that Splendor's torso was now nearly three times its normal length. She held herself upright like a snake. By the time her body proportions returned to human several minutes later Michael's body released a death rattle as he choked to death in his own blood.
"That's one, Sarah," she said, pulling back up her coveralls.
She leaned wearily against the crates. She was now desperately tired. Somehow, she had to find the strength to go on. She'd reduced the odds against her, but she figured Lyle to be a tougher match than Michael. He'd call for a different strategy. She began to adapt her body.
Lyle hadn't heard from Michael in over ten minutes. He started to move cautiously toward the last place he'd seen his henchman. He moved slowly and silently. He stopped every few feet and listened carefully. He was finally rewarded with the sound of a woman's labored breathing. He moved to the other side of the box he thought she was behind and raised his gun. The first indication she had of his presence was when the tip of his airgun pressed against her ear.
"Don't move," he growled.
Slowly, she raised her hands in surrender.
"Stand up and turn around ... SLOWLY!" he ordered. He found himself face-to-face with a strikingly beautiful woman.
"Where's Michael?" he demanded.
"Over there," she gestured with her head.
Keeping her covered with his gun, he made the woman take him to Michael. When they reached the spot, Lyle was stunned to see the crushed remains of his former associate lying in a heap on the floor. In the moment he was distracted, Splendor spun around and latched herself to his neck with her mouth. Lyle felt two sharp stabbing pains and pushed her away. With her hands free, Splendor grabbed the hand with the gun and kept him from aiming at her.
Within a short moment, Lyle began twitching uncontrollably and the gun slipped easily from his fingers. His entire body began to contort and spasm. Splendor opened her mouth and allowed him to see the fixed fangs that came down from the roof of her mouth.
"King Cobra," she said. "Not the most powerful venom but most effective. I pumped enough poison into you to kill 100 men. My mother ... the woman you and Bourke murdered ... used to say ...what can't be altered, must be endured' ... guess that's your situation in a nutshell."
Lyle began to spasm violently, pounding his head repeatedly against the concrete. Splendor watch dispassionately as he shattered his own skull on the floor before dying.
Bourke impatiently paced the floor of the office, alternately snapping the fingers of his hands. Lyle should have been back by now. He was loathed to call in more support since he thought it showed weakness. But there was nothing else he could do. More men should be here in fifteen minutes or so. Until then, he'd sit tight and watch the entrance to the office.
Kim moaned and rolled his head from side to side. The injured man felt like he was watching a vid where the pictures and sound jumped around erratically. He felt a hand lift his head. He opened his eyes and was able to make out the face of Ciaran Bourke.
Bourke pulled Kim to his feet. He handed his airgun to the driver and told him to stay alert. He pulled Kim along until they stood on the warehouse floor.
"You in the warehouse," he called. "Your friend here is hurt ... but he'll be dead in one minute if you don't come out. Dis is my only warning."
Bourke pulled another gun from his jacket pocket and cocked it. He placed the barrel against Kim's bleeding head and shouted, "I'm not joking. I'll splatter what's left of his brains."
Splendor heard Bourke's words. She knew it was death for both of them if she came out but she couldn't bring herself to abandon her partner. She cast about for something, anything she could use as a weapon. There was nothing but a couple of bristle-brooms and some twine.
Bourke lifted his gun to shoot. "Time's up!" he called out.
"Wait!" came a woman's voice from the warehouse. "I'm coming out. Give me a moment, I'm wounded."
Bourke could hear the sound of a body moving toward him. There was the wooden tapping of a cane followed by the sound of a foot being drug.
"Stay alert," he cautioned his driver, before shouting aloud. "Mind you, lass, I'll kill your friend here if you try anything funny."
"I won't," Splendor said as she limped from out behind the boxes. The left leg of her coveralls was smeared in blood. The woman could barely stand. She leaned heavily on the handle of a bristle-broom. As she covered the distance between herself and Bourke, he failed to notice a strand of twine that was tied to her wounded leg. She stopped when the string grew taut. Bourke looked her over. It was obvious he didn't know her.
"Where's my men?"
Splendor made a noncommittal shrug.
"What are you doing here; what's your stake in dis?" he demanded.
"Retribution," she answered as she yanked the twine forward. A large bang erupted from the boxes behind her as the twine pulled a box of glasses on the floor. Both Bourke and his driver turned. In that instant, Splendor lashed out with her stick and knocked the gun from Bourke's hand. Kim crumpled to the floor, but there was no helping that. She turned toward the driver who was already raising his gun. She opened her mouth, exposing her fangs. From a distance of more than fifteen feet, twin jets of cobra venom sprayed out and struck him squarely in the eyes. The man screamed and dropped to the floor clutching his face in agony. Splendor turned back and faced Bourke who continued to rub his gun hand in pain.
"One-on-one, now," she observed.
"Aye, lass, dat it would be. Who are you?"
"My name's Splendor."
Bourke nodded his head in recognition. "The shelter woman. I should have known. You'd be Cinnamon, too, I expect. Well, you and your friend, Wu, certainly fooled me, and dat's a fact. Dat doesn't happen often!"
The herpamorph was so weak that she unknowingly began to swing from side to side. Bourke noticed, too, and smiled
"You're done in, lass. Best let me by. Then you and your friend here can go yer way and I'll go mine."
"I think not, Bourke."
"Yer takin' dis much too personal. If it hadn't been me, someone else would have
come up wit' the same idea."
"THEY WERE PEOPLE, Goddamn you! Did you ever stop to think of that?
"No. Not once."
Splendor launched herself at the Irishman. She was running on empty but all she had to do was nip him with what little remained in her fangs and the poison would do the rest. After that, she didn't care. He shifted to one side to avoid her, but Splendor was not to be stopped. Her hands grasped his shoulder and she reared back to bite.
She never made it.
Her hands were locked on Bourke's shoulder as if magnetized and her body was seized in convulsions. Finally, was she propelled backwards as if a rope had been tied around her and snapped back. She crashed into some crates about eight feet behind her and slid to the floor.
She slowly reached up and touched her hair. It was standing nearly straight up. There was a smell of ozone in the air. She looked at Bourke; the thin smile never left his lips. Then it dawned on her.
"Aye, dat I am. Electrophorus electricus ... an electric eel in da the common language."
"You're preying on your own kind!" she exclaimed in disbelief.
"No," he disagreed. "Dey're not ...my' kind. You're not ...my' kind. As far as I'm concerned, SCABS like you as just another commodity dat God threw my way to use as I see fit. A few hundred years ago, the world was empty and full of resources, and people were few. Now the world has limited resources, but lots of people. I look at SCABS as nature's way of restoring balance . . . of returning resources to the land for men of vision to use. To put it another way, think of me as the predator dat circles the herd to pick off the weak, sick and young. It's natural selection in action; I'm performing nature's works."
"I don't care how you dress up the words; it's still murder," Splendor answered.
"Well, dat may be, but if it wasn't me doin' it; someone else would come along."
Splendor tried to rise, tried to move, but she was too weak. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth as she watched him approach. She was powerless to stop or resist. He seemed to sense this because he made no attempt to shield himself from her still deadly fangs. He placed the tips of his fingers under her chin and lifted her head with one hand as his lowered the zipper of her coveralls with the other. She felt his hand cup her breast.
"Now, Miss Splendor, we're going to have a talk, you and I ... dere's things I need to be knowin,"
"You'll get nothing from me, you bastard," she slurred.
Splendor didn't have had the strength to raise her hands, which was not the same thing as saying she couldn't feel things. She felt the tingle of electricity building in his hand. When her body stopped spasming after a moment, Bourke calmly asked her who she was working with and what did they know about his operation. She grimly set her jaw. He sighed and focused his energy once more.
It was a cold sleety night in Baltimore. Few if anyone could be found wandering around the industrial park off I-95 this late in the evening, and on this kind of night. If they had, they might have heard noises coming from the holding warehouse of Intercap shipping and supplies. What they would have heard were screams. A woman's screams.
CHAPTER 16: RETRIBUTION
There was no mistaking it; one of the bodies Bryan watched pulled from the trunk of the limo was Splendor. He could only assume the unconscious man beside her was Kim Liu. It had been some time since Bryan had seen the polymorph, and between the darkness and the prosthetics Kim wore as part of his Wu-2 disguise, it was hard for the roachmorph to tell. But there was no trouble telling who were prisoners and who were captors.
As he watched from the shadows, he saw his two friends dragged roughly along the pier and up the gangplank of the Bellerophon. Although Bryan had never seen Bourke, you could tell who was in charge of this operation. In the blowing sleet and snow, it was hard to hear what was being said, but there was no mistaking the gestures of command.
Without a moment's hesitation, Bryan's plans were changed. In the time it might take him to get help, Kim and Splendor would likely be dead, if their current condition was any indication. Bryan was not a man to abandon his friends, and he was sure that Lisa would support his decision. The thought of climbing back on board the Bellerophon was not very appealing but couldn't be avoided. He waited until the men had gone on board before attempting to cross to the ship himself.
"Well, here we go again," Bryan thought to himself as he launched himself airborne with his translucent insect wings. His second flight was little better than his first, but he was once again aboard ship. Since regaining use of his full power, Bryan had been running on pure adrenaline, but now he was beginning to tire. Norms didn't realize how much energy it took for SCABS to change form. Staying in one shape was easy, but moving back and forth was extremely debilitating. Bryan had morphed several times in the past couple of hours and was beginning to feel the effects of using too much power without resting. When he realized earlier that he had broken morphlock, he'd been drunk with his newly rediscovered ability, making his roach form large and imposing. He realized that in his present circumstance, that size was an impediment, so he reduced his size and mass to the comfortable and familiar Canuck size, but this time he wasn't lamed by useless human legs. Since he had come on board earlier with Lisa, the Bellerophon's crew had rigged a canopy over the hold to keep out the worst of the weather.
Bryan wondered vaguely how long it might be before the rest of the Bellerophon's crew discovered that three of their shipmates were missing. The roach could only hope that the combination of the weather, trying to depart, and the presence of the "big" boss might disrupt normal shipboard routines. The sound of grain being pumped into the forward hold ceased. The roach wanted to get forward to see what was going on, but now there were far too many crewmembers for Bryan to get much closer in his present form. That left one choice. He headed back amidships, back down into the hold of the ship where he had fought earlier. He needed something. Once there, Bryan began focusing his power again.
"When this is over, I'm going to sleep for a week," the polymorph promised himself.
It was the sound of his own coughing that brought Kim back from unconsciousness. His mouth was full of some pebbly substance; some of which he'd inhaled. He spit it out and tried to lift his head. It was a no go. He sensed he was lying on an incline of some sort ... his head facing toward the bottom. He struggled to find the energy to lift himself up, but every movement caused him to slid a little further down the slope and seemed to bury him a little deeper.
The last thing he could remember for certain was being in the warehouse. It seemed that he'd been attacked and injured. With effort, he finally raised his head from the slope. His face felt crusted with the same material that had been in his mouth, and he had trouble seeing. He reached for his glasses but they were gone. He rubbed his face and some of the material crumbled away. He finally recognized it as wheat. But it was soaked in blood. His blood, Kim suspected. He cautiously touched the back of his head, only to find it matted with bloody grain as well. "They hit me with something," he reasoned. "I must be on the ship. This is NOT good."
He tried to move but his head wound made any type of coordination difficult. It didn't take a rocket scientist to know that he was hurt badly. A concussion if he was lucky, a fractured skull if not. And without his glasses, Kim's field of vision was greatly reduced. Yet, he seem to perceive that another body was lying near him. He could only hope it was a fellow prisoner. He slowly, painfully, began to crawl toward the shape.
Splendor was leaning up against one of the cargo containers she and Kim had modified to transport the SCABS prisoners. She was so weak that her autonomic body functions were in imminent danger of ceasing. But she didn't care. The last reserves of her internal energy were gone, drained during her torture by Bourke. She stared blankly ahead unable to do more than breath erratically and open and shut her eyes. Still, they had taken no chances with the deadly herpamorph; she was chained securely to the container side.
Bourke had continued to pump charge after electrical charge into her. He only ceased when he noted that it no longer elicited any response from the herpamorph. Had he realized that she could still feel, even if she no longer had the energy to react, he might have continued. After all, he was furious at all the interference with his well-laid plans. He wanted answers, but his late compatriot, Lyle, had rendered Kim useless with a blow to the head, and now Splendor had gone catatonic. There was nothing left to do but dispose of the bodies ... friends and foe alike.
The bodies of Michael and Lyle were stuffed into empty 55-gallon drums with orders to dump them over the side once the Bellerophon entered international waters. Bourke had other plans in mind for Kim and Splendor. They were hauled into the forward hold. Kim, who seemed near death, was merely tossed in a heap on top of the growing grain pile. Splendor, on the other hand, had proved more dangerous, so he took no chances; she was chained to the cargo container. Once both prisoners were in the hold, Bourke climbed down a ladder and joined them. He ignored the unconscious Kim, but eyed the catatonic Splendor with a mixture of anger and respect. He was holding a rolled up package in his hands.
"I don't know if you can hear me, lass, so I'll make dis short. Looks like you'll be making the trip along wit' your friends in the container. Unlike you, I expect de'll survive the trip. You've made me look bad ... look weak ... in front of me men. You've killed me two top associates, and dat's bad for morale. So instead of just putting a bullet behind yer ear and droppin' you over the side, I'm forced into doing something dramatic. You'll make the trip along wit' the cargo, but when we arrive at our destination, your bodies will be dere to inspire me men to greater diligence."
He turned and started to make his way toward the ladder leading to the deck when he stopped and turned back to Splendor. He held up the bundle. It was Sarah's remains.
"The lads found the crate you opened at the warehouse. One of the "items" was missin'. We looked around until we found dis. I did a little checkin' in our records. A friend of yours, I suppose? Tell you what ... in honor of her memory and yours ... I'll have me a pair of fine boots made out of dis and each time I put them on, I'll remember you." he said mockingly.
Unable to move. Unable to speak. Incapable of any conscious movement or action, Splendor could only watch as her Bourke climbed the ladder with Sarah's skin draped over his shoulder. A single tear fell down her cheek as she watched all that remained of her foster mother disappear for what surely was the last time. A few minutes later she heard a moan. The herpamorph lacked the strength to even turn her head, but she could hear the sound of movement near her . . . it was the sound of a body dragging itself across the pile of grain.
As Kim neared the blurred shape, it took on more and more of a human appearance. Finally, he was able to distinguish the coveralls that Splendor had been wearing. By now, the entire left side of Kim's head was swollen; his eyes nearly shut. He called weakly to her but she didn't answer. When he was close enough, he could see her eyes were open but she neither looked at him nor acknowledged his presence. Surely, she could hear him, Kim thought. His hand touched the dried, caked blood that soaked her wounded leg. He was also able to see evidence of her fight in the warehouse, but he was unprepared when he was able to see the results of Bourke's electrical shocks.
The front of Splendor's coveralls were still unzipped and Kim felt tears well in his eyes when he saw the red, burned, and in some places, blackened flesh on her exposed breast. He struggled to upright himself beside her and weakly called her name. He still got no response. He collapsed along side of his friend, totally spent, yet he knew he had one more service to provide.
He felt around with his fingers until he touched Splendor's hand. Pulling it up to him, Kim once more tried to focus all his polymorphic energy. He felt the little bit of power he had left tingling in his fingertips. It wasn't much, but it was all he had. He pushed his fingers against hers and waited for the transfer. It didn't happen. He tried again, but still there was no response from Splendor.
"Damn you!" he hissed at his partner. "If I go to all the trouble of rescuing you, you could at least help!"
She still refused his energy. Kim decided another tack was needed.
"I never took you for a quitter. But I guess it's a lot easier to give up than fight. I guess that all you are Splendor, just talk."
He saw the familiar flash of anger in her eyes.
"Take the energy!" he hissed.
There was an audible snap as the energy leapt from Kim to Splendor. It wasn't much; in fact, it was pathetic. It was like trying to start a v-hic with a penlight battery. But it was enough to allow Splendor's autonomic functions to resume unimpeded. It took a few minutes but slowly the hand closest to Kim began to move and search until she touched him.
He opened his eyes and looked up at his partner. She stared at him gravely.
"Don't push that psycho-babble on me, Liu. It don't work."
He managed a weak smile at her and she returned it. With a groan she reached over to Kim and pulled his broken and bloody head upon her lap.
"A hell of a pair of secret agents we turned out to be," Kim said weakly.
Overhead, the pipe began to churn wheat back into the hold. It rained all around the two, but they were somewhat sheltered by the roof arrangement Kim had designed for the cargo containers. It didn't take long, however, before the level of grain in the hold began to rise. Slowly, the two partners were being buried alive.
Kim had given Splendor the last bit of energy he possessed. It wasn't enough to make a difference; just prolong the inevitable. Splendor used her hands to keep as much of the grain away from their heads as possible. Her tired brain kept trying to think of options, but there were none. She wasn't aware of it but as she contemplated their situation, she was gently stroking Kim's hair. He noticed; he looked up at her and smiled.
"Well, Buns, this is it. I didn't think it would end this was. I always thought the good guys would win . . . that the cavalry would gallop in at the last minute, just like in the old westerns."
She looked down at him, smiled, but didn't answer. Tenderly she ran her hand along his cheek.
"I'm sorry I let you down, Splendor. I want you to believe me ... I never meant to hurt you."
A moment or two later, as the wheat first started covering his face, Kim began squirming and thrashing in panic. Splendor sought to sooth the panicking polymorph ... stroking his head and whispering, "Ssshhhh. It's all right."
He looked up at her in fear, "I'm scared, Splendor. I'm going to die ... and I'm scared."
"Me, too. But if I have to die, I'm glad it's with a friend," she said. ". . . I'm glad it's with you."
That seemed to calm Kim.
The grain was up to Splendor's shoulders. She struggled to keep Kim's head above it. His body was completely covered. They had only a few minutes left to go. She was grateful that Kim was fading in and out of consciousness. This is it, Splendor thought to herself. Then she remembered that she and Kim had unfinished business between them
"Kim!" she said, shaking her partner.
"What . . . what is it?" he asked thickly.
"Kim! KIM!" she shouted even louder as she tried to stir him.
"Go away, Splendor, can't you see I'm trying to die in peace here?"
"I said, Millie."
"Millie who?" he asked exasperatedly.
"Millie me . . . I mean, I'm Millie. My name, that is. You've been bugging me for months and . . . well, I figured I ought to tell you."
"Your . . . name . . . is . . . Millie," Kim said, turning the word around in his mouth like an unfamiliar taste.
"Uh-huh, Millie . . . Millie Polischuk."
"Yes, Millie Polischuk! And if you ever tell anybody, I'll kill you!"
They both laughed. Splendor leaned over and kissed Kim lightly on the forehead. There was too much grain for her to keep off his face and she could no longer lift him any higher. They'd reached the end, but they reached it together. Somehow, that counted.
"Goodbye, Millie Polischuk. Thanks for everything."
"Goodbye, Kim Liu. Next to Sarah, you're the only real friend I've ever had in this world."
Kim's face completely disappeared under the grain. A moment later, so did Splendor's. But just as her head was covered, a large object dropped from the open hatch above and landed about twenty feet away from where Kim and Splendor were buried.
At that same time, the grain pipe that had been busily covering up the containers was swung away and wheat was now being dumped on the struggling object. Through the dust and grain, you could vaguely make out the thrashing of six legs ... six brown legs ... but they were soon completely buried in falling grain.
Although only a couple of hours had passed since Lisa had freed him from his cage, Bryan felt like he'd been running or fighting for days. He'd barely had time to come to grips with his mutilation by DeVece, his breaking morphlock, or his admission of love to Lisa Underwood. This was a lot to taken in on a good day, and here was Bryan ... alone and outnumbered against a shipload of enemies. There really was only one course open to him . . . he'd take the fight to the enemy. But how?
"Time! I need time. Time to think . . ." the roach kept repeating to himself from his hiding place on deck.
The simple fact is that morphing takes time. Even the best, most powerful SCABS needed time to change their forms. There are so many variables to account for when adopting a genus form. There are size and weight factors. Internal organs and external appearance. All sorts of issues with physiology that had to be accounted for. There were times when Bryan considered the sheer magnitude of conscious thought needed to affect change might be a major factor determining whether or not some SCABS had control over their shape shifting ability. Maybe some human minds simply couldn't comprehend what was needed to morph and got lost and morphlocked in the transition. However, this was neither the time nor place to internally debate the philosophy of SCABS. Time was a commodity in short supply for Bryan Derksen.
True, there were certain shortcuts a really adept SCABS could take, but a simple mistake or oversight could have fatal results. The wrong organ in the wrong body, for example, is still the leading cause of death among animorphs.
Bryan's roach form lacked the dexterity he needed at the moment, so he focused on achieving small humanoid adaptations without compromising the integrity of his insect form. What he wanted for the moment were human hands to open drawers and doors quickly and efficiently. Within minutes, he found an ample supply of the items he wanted and a small satchel that he rigged to sling across his back. He took the time to reassume full roach morph before heading back to the open deck.
As he moved up the corridor, stopping only for a moment by the room that hid Lisa. He lightly touched the door with his fore leg before moving on. There was no time for that now. And if there was no "later," Bryan had already said all he could possibly say to Lisa with his simple "I love you." It would have to do.
He emerged on the icy surface of the deck girded for battle. The irony of the situation appealed to Bryan's love of the perverse. For thousands of years, man had fought a one-sided, losing battle against the roach. This time the roach was taking the fight back to the humans. "Let's see how they like getting stomped this time," he thought to himself.
It's a fact that it takes far fewer men to operate a ship than people realize. Modern ships are highly computerized. The largest tankers and freighters may have less than 20 crewmembers. Even old rust-buckets like the Bellerophon didn't need much help once they put to sea. The entire crew of the old ship number eleven, and Bryan had already disposed of three of them.
Still, there were at least fifteen men on board, the crew, dockhands, Bourke's men and the boss himself. It wasn't great odds, but Bryan had one advantage ... they didn't know he was here. He started his attack at the peripheral edges of the operation. He waited until a crewmember was moving along by himself. Without warning, a large brown shape leapt from the shadows and pinned the sailor to the deck with four strong legs.
Before the man could shout or give warning, the roach had slapped a strip of duct tape across his mouth. Then, using the dexterity of six functioning legs, Bryan spun the man around as he cocooned his prisoner in a bandage of silver duct tape. As he looked down at his prisoner, Bryan casually held the roll on the tip of his forearm. Then in a move that would have made Paladin and Kim proud, he spun the roll of tape and plopped it back into his sack like a gunfighter holstering his weapon, pulled his toque down further on his head, and headed back into the night.
He successfully captured four crewmembers this way before circumstances forced him to change his tactics. Bryan saw some men approaching. The roach scurried up a boom crane that was swung out over the aft deck. Two of Bourke's men, both heavily armed with automatic weapons, patrolled with a casual air of menace. He waited until they passed him before dropping down in back of them. In his human form, nobody would have mistaken Bryan for a body builder, but in roach form, with its superior strength, he easily lifted both men ... one in each forearm... and slammed their heads together. Their heads made a satisfyingly "meaty" sound when they were struck together. Neither man moved after that. After tossing their guns overboard, Bryan trussed the men and put them with his other prisoners. So far, it had been easy, but things were about to change.
As he emerged back on deck, a man's voice shouted nearby ..."There he is!" Immediately, there was gunfire. Bryan's roach instincts took command. He moved faster than he thought possible. Later, he reasoned that to survive the eons, roaches learned ... first move, then figure out whether there was danger or not.
His leap had carried him over the side of the ship. He clung to the steel plates and ran perpendicularly along the outer hull. The footing was dicey but he could cope. He ran thirty feet along the hull before stopping near the stern. He shifted his body around to see if he'd been spotted. Three men with guns and lights were searching the water near the spot where Bryan had disappeared but they seemed to be unaware of his ability to move on vertical surfaces.
It was a mistake they would regret. Bryan turned back and continued to circumnavigate the outer hull. He stopped when he reached the spot on the opposite side of the ship from where he jumped. Slowly he brought his head up over the side. This was an open section of the deck so there were no obstructions between him and the men on the other side. He was grateful now for the wind and sleet, since it helped mask his noise. He climbed up until he was perched on the railing. He grabbed the rail with four of his legs and kept his forelimbs free. He tensed his leg muscles and launched himself forward, opening his wings.
The men at the railing heard the commotion behind them. Over the wind and sleet, they could hear the awful sound of buzzing wings. Bryan was a dark shape against a dark sky. They didn't see him until he crash-landed among them. His right fore arm snaked out and latched to the ankle of one of the armed men. Bryan casually, but purposely, flipped the man over the side of the ship. If he was lucky, the man might even make shore before hypothermia took him. Bryan's body pinned the second man with four of his legs. Slowly the roach lifted his body up. The third man was pushed back against the railing as far as he could. He was a young man, not much more than a boy. He was terrified at the apparition that appeared before him.
The boy was babbling incoherently. He had also wet himself. Bryan took the flashlight from the boy's unresisting fingers and tossed it over the side. The roach pointed to the gangplank and motioned for the boy to go. The young man cautiously slid by him and upon reaching the gangplank, took off as if demons were after him.
"Time for a gesture," Bryan thought to himself. He looked down at the man pinned beneath him. It took only a few minutes to truss him as he had the others.
Ciaran Bourke was an angry man. He'd emerged from the hold after disposing of Splendor and Kim, only to find that several of his men were missing and the crew was in near panic. He had actually been forced to break a man's nose to get the crew calmed down. He'd not been forced to take direct physical action on anyone since he'd left the dockyards of Belfast nearly fifteen years ago. He didn't like it. Bourke's pride at rising above his poor beginnings had been shaken during this enterprise. He already had doubts about the wisdom of moving their harvesting operations into more developed countries like the European Union and, now, the States. Those doubts seemed to be bearing out. Lyle was dead. So was Michael. Of his remaining six men, four were missing. It didn't look good. He tossed Sarah's hide on the deck.
"Prepare to get underway," he growled at the Captain.
The shipmaster opened his mouth to object but quickly closed it after seeing the look on Bourke's face.
It was at that moment that the aft deck crane began to swing. Slowly it moved until the boom had swung toward the front of the ship. One of the men pointed at an object hanging upside-down from the boom-arm ... it was one of the missing men ... covered from head to foot like a mummy in duct tape. That was all the sailors needed. To a man, they bolted over the side of the Bellerophon and disappeared into the night leaving the Irishman behind with his two henchmen.
The operation was over. Bourke knew that. Best if he disappeared into the night along with the crew, smuggle himself and Schweitzer out of the country and pick up the pieces of the organization after that. That would have been the best course of action, but it was one the Irishman would not follow. His pride had been touched. Now, win or lose, he was in it until the end. Only one person would leave this ship alive. Bourke intended to be that man.
He turned to his two remaining henchmen.
"I want you to go down on the dock. Find good hiding places, den wait. If anyone other den me comes down dat gangplank ... kill the bastard! Den destroy the warehouse and the dock facility wit' the explosive charges we've set. Then get to Schweitzer, he'll take care of you. Now, go lads! God bless you!"
Bourke walked carefully but purposely back toward the forward hold. If he was going to fight, it would be in the light. Once under the canopy, he removed his trench and sport coat. He was wearing a dark brown cable-knit sweater. He pushed up his sleeves. His forearms were snaked and knotted with thick muscles. He may have left the docks years ago, but the body he developed loading and unloading ships had not left him. He laced his fingers together and loudly cracked his knuckles.
"Well, den," he announced to the darkness. "It's just you and me now. Winner take all. Are you game?"
There was no sound for a moment except for the grain being dumped into the hold. Then Bourke was able to distinguish the slight clicking sound of someone moving on the sleet and snow-covered deck. A brown shape materialized out of the shadows and joined him under the canopy.
"Sweet Jesus," Bourke muttered, shaking his head in disbelief. "All dis excitement for a fuckin' bug in a funny hat!
"Well come on, Mr. Junebug," he said, motioning with his hands for Bryan to come in closer. "Da sooner I rip yer legs off, the sooner I can get dis ship underway."
The two antagonists circled each other slowly, each sizing up his opponent. Standing upright, Bryan had a couple of inches on the burly Irishman. However, bipedal motion was not the natural form of motion for a roach. Nor was fighting for that matter. Bourke made a couple of tentative jabs at the bug, and Bryan easily evaded the punches. Just when the Canadian was starting to feel a little optimistic, Bourke launched a blinding left hook at Bryan's head that sent the bugmorph skidding back along the deck on his back.
The roach was attempting to flip off his back when he saw Bourke coming at him. The Irishman, a deck ax in his hands, swung from over his shoulder. Bryan avoided it by opening his wings and skipping along the deck on his back. Bourke was still coming at him. Bryan was able to latch a leg to a piece of the superstructure and turn himself upright. This time he was ready for Bourke. As the smuggler swung, the roach's forelimbs snagged the axe handle in mid-descent. For Bourke, it was like hitting a solid wall.
The roach easily pulled the ax out of the man's hands and tossed it aside. His forelimbs grappled with the Irishman. With a casual flip, he flung Bourke over his head and down the deck. The man slid down the icy deck a good twenty-five feet before hitting some machinery.
Bourke was up like a shot and lit off behind the aft superstructure. Bryan followed cautiously. He'd underestimated Bourke once; he'd not make that mistake again. The bug decided it was high time to take advantage of his roach abilities in this fight. Suiting actions to words, he climbed about twenty feet up the side of the superstructure and worked his way around the corner clinging to the wall. He spotted Bourke lying in ambush.
"Two can play at this," Bryan thought, slipping behind the Irishman. He dropped to the deck behind Bourke and attempted to grasp him with his forelimbs. As Bryan made to grab him, Bourke swung at the roach with an object in his hand. A numbing pain shot through Bryan's lower leg and he fell heavily on the snow-covered deck. Before he could recover, Bourke slammed his other leg. The Irishman was holding a length of rubber hose.
Before he could recover, Bourke swung again, this time striking at the stubby base of Bryan's missing antenna. Every bit of sensory information was disrupted. The Canadian reared up instinctively to protect his head. The Irishman dropped the hose and jammed his hand into Bryan's underside where the interlocking plates of his head carapace met the body shell. At this weak point, where the insect's front-facing ventral nerve cord lay now exposed, Bryan received the full force of Bourke's internal electrical discharge. The roach's body went haywire, shaking uncontrollably, as if in an epileptic seizure.
"Much more effective den Mr. Buchler's sock. Mind you, his method doesn't take as much out of a body as SCABS does," Bourke said.
With Bryan temporarily immobilized, Bourke dropped the hose and picked up a sharp-pointed boat hook to finish the fight. Only luck brought the Irishman back toward Bryan on his left side. With his missing antenna, the roach would have never sensed him approaching had Bourke come in from the right. Even so, the roach was still not in complete control of himself when the Irishman slammed the boat hook hard against Bryan's body carapace. It was only the slippery deck footing that threw Bourke off just enough from his intended target. He was aiming at the vulnerable joint between the roach's head and body. At it was, the hook bounced off the hard chitin.
Bryan reared upright, grabbed for the hook, and missed. This time Bourke got a full overhand swing and the hook shattered the chitin and buried itself in the upper part of the roach's right shoulder. The Canadian blocked out his pain. He focused on Bourke. Instead of trying to avoid him, Bryan launched himself at the Irishman. He grasped him with four legs and, using his wings to gain speed and momentum, he slammed his antagonist against the far railing. Bourke went limp with a groan. Bryan backed off far enough to yank the boat hook out of his shoulder. This time he was taking no chances. He grasped Bourke by the shoulders and slammed him several times against the deck. Then he dragged the man over to the forward hold and dropped him near the pipe controls.
Bryan looked down into the hold, but between the falling grain, the dust, and his own diminished eyesight, he couldn't make out any sign of Splendor or Kim. He started to look for the off switch when he noticed Bourke was gone.
Instantly alert, Bryan looked about the deck cautiously. He heard the ominous click of an automatic gun being cocked leapt for the arm of the foredeck cargo crane that hung above the hold as Bourke fired his gun. He was forced to grasp at the boom arm with his wounded arm. He screamed mentally as waves of pain lashed out from his shoulder. He weakly tried to snag the boom with his good arm but he saw Bourke aiming at him. He let go just as Bourke fired.
Bryan tumbled end over end until he struck the bottom of the hold, some twenty-five feet down. He landed on his stomach but the wind was knocked out of him. Before he could gather his wits, Bourke pulled the grain pipe off the cargo containers and began dumping it on top of the roach. The sheer weight of the falling grain pinned Bryan in place. In just a few moments he was almost covered, just the tips of his legs were visible, beating futilely against the onslaught. Soon there was no sign of Bryan at all, other than an ever-increasing mountain of grain to mark the roach's burial spot.
Bourke swayed slightly as he made his way to the edge of the hold. He leaned his arm against the grain pipe and watched as Bryan was entombed under tons of wheat. His body felt like one giant bruise. For whatever else, the bug had put up a good fight. Bourke tried to tell himself that he really hadn't needed the gun but a small but insistent voice in his head disagreed. He sucked back on his sinuses and tasted blood in his mouth. Pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket, the Irishman dabbed his nose and face. He donned his sports coat and put the gun in his outer pocket. He took a last look in the hold.
"Good bye, gents and lady, eternal rest be unto you," he said, and saluted with the tips of his fingers on his forehead.
At that moment, the grain being dumped into the hold ceased to flow. Bourke turned toward the controls and saw a man standing there.
Down in the hold, all was quiet for the moment. The only sound was a few grains still tumbling down from over head and the slight hiss as the wheat in the hold settled. Then a woman's hand shot out from under the surface of the wheat, followed a few seconds later by her head. It was Splendor ... still alive ... and not ready to quit. She couldn't dig out much of her body because she was still tethered to the container. As it was, she could barely keep her head and shoulder above the grain.
She dug around herself searching for her companion. With difficulty, she was able to free his head from the suffocating grain. Kim's lips were blue. She slapped at his face with no response. She pried open his mouth and scraped the wheat out of it. Then she applied mouth-to-mouth, until he cough and spit up even more grain from his lungs. He opened his eyes and looked around.
"If this is heaven, I've been lied to," he groaned.
Up on the deck, Bourke tried to close the distance between himself and his unknown companion.
"That's close enough," the stranger said, motioning for the Irishman to stop moving.
"And who would you be, friend?" Bourke asked.
The man didn't answer but Bourke couldn't miss the gun in the stranger's hand.
"I've got some lads around here, dey'll be coming back on board soon, and dere much better armed den you and dat popgun you're holdin'."
"If you mean the two idiots out on the dock, I don't expect we'll be hearing from them anytime soon. One is tied up and the other one won't answer you if you shout from now till doomsday."
"I suppose you're workin' wit' your friends down in the hold?"
"Let's just say I'm here in a support capacity. And just keep your hands up where I can see them, Mr. Bourke."
Instead, the Irishman placed both hands on the railing.
"You have me at a disadvantage, Mister. You know my name but I don't know yours."
"Does it matter?"
"Regal? That's it? Just Regal?"
"And may I ask Mr. Regal, in what capacity are you here on my ship?"
"You could say I'm here as a one-man court of law."
"Under whose authority?"
"On behalf of 3,263 SCABS you and your associates kidnapped or murdered around the world over the last six years."
"And what are you goin' to be doin' den, turn me over to the police?"
"No. Too many questions to answer. It's not in our interest to have the world knowing that someone like you can murder SCABS for body parts and get away with it for so long."
"So, you execute me in cold blood. Doesn't make you much different from me in my book."
"Somehow, I doubt I'll lose much sleep over that," Regal said.
As he started to move toward Bourke, the private investigator slipped slightly on the icy deck and grabbed a railing to steady himself. The Irishman had been waiting for this. When Regal's gloved hand touched the steel railing; Bourke sent a jolt of electricity through it, knocking the detective off his feet. The Irishman fished in his pocket for his gun but before he could draw it, he looked over at Regal. His eyes widened in astonishment. Far from unconscious or stunned, the gumshoe was already sitting up.
"Rubber gloves," Regal said, holding up his covered hands.
Bourke fumbled with his gun, but in a move that could only be described as "lightening," Regal drew a gun of his own and aimed it at the Irishman's chest. Bourke's eyes widened when he saw Regal's speed.
"Mongoosemorph," he said, answering the Irishman's unasked question. Then, he fired his gun.
The bullet struck Bourke to the left of his sternum, passing up and to the right at a nearly a 40 degree angle, it exited through his right shoulder blade. The impact of the bullet spun Bourke around and he tumbled into the open hold. Regal went to the edge and looked down. There was no sign of the body. Against hope, he called out the names of the four conspirators.
He sighed with resignation and started to walk away when he heard a faint voice from below ... a woman's voice.
Splendor saw a human body fall into the hold. It landed on the far side of the mound, so she was unable to see who it was. The she thought she heard her name being called. In fact, she was sure of it.
"Kim! There's someone topside looking for us." She said, and called out for help again.
"Splendor! Is that you?" the voice called.
"Yes! I'm here with Kim Liu. Who's up there?"
"Hurry, Regal, we're in a bad way. Kim's hurt and we're buried and can't get free."
"I'll be down in a couple of minutes. Is Bryan Derksen down there with you?"
"Haven't seen him."
"Hang tight, Splendor. Help's on the way."
Splendor buoyed up Kim's head from the grain and shook him awake.
"We're going to make it Kim. You were right, the good guys do win, cause here comes the cavalry!"
Her revelry was cut short when she looked up and saw Bourke slowly staggering toward them, fumbling through his coat pocket.
"Regal!" she yelled. "Bourke's down here! He's got a gun!"
"Where is he?" Regal shouted from above. "I can't see him."
Bourke looked at the two trapped conspirators and slowly cocked the chamber of his automatic. Splendor could see the gaping hole in his chest, along with the blood that dribbled from his lips. The man might be dying, but he planned to have company when he went.
Events moved in slow motion. Splendor saw a line drop from the deck overhead. She knew that Regal would slide down the rope but by then, it would be too late. All Kim could see was the huge barrel of the gun aimed at his face. No one seemed to notice the ground behind Bourke seemed to be moving.
Something was rising out of the grain. Something big. Something green. It rose to nearly eight feet. It had immense green bulbous eyes and powerful pincer jaws; its two upper limbs folded back on themselves. Bourke felt the movement and turned just in time to see both of the giant insect's forelimbs open and then slam shut on his shoulders like twin bear traps.
The Irishman grunted in pain as the spines that lined the inner portion of the insect's arms stabbed into his flesh. Even as the creature lifted him off the ground, Bourke was still fighting back, still trying to raise his gun to shoot. The insect's mandibles shot forward and sheared the top of Bourke's head off just below the nostrils. The sound of his skull being crushed was like the cracking of an immense walnut. The remains of Bourke's head dropped from the creature's jaws and rolled to a stop a foot or so away from where Kim was near buried. To his horror, one of Irishman's eyes closed as if winking at him. Kim proceeded to vomit uncontrollably.
Splendor looked up at their giant savior. It was a praying mantis. That meant it was SCABS. It was also wearing a funny wool hat with a red maple leaf. The creature looked down at her and motioned with an arm.
"I'll be damned," Splendor whispered to herself.
At that moment, Regal repelled down the rope, gun drawn. He immediately took in the sight of Bourke's shattered body and the giant mantis standing nearby.
"Don't shoot, Regal," Splendor called out. "It's Bryan Derksen."
CHAPTER 17: SHADES OF TRUTH
Regal stood in the well deck of the Bellerophon and watched the lights of the city growing larger. Already, he could see the pier where the ship would soon be docking. Even at this distance you could tell that there was much more activity going on ashore than you would expect for the arrival of a tired old rust bucket like this one. Although not yet visible, Regal could already imagine C. R. nervously pacing up and down the dock, impatient for the ship and Regal to arrive.
You had to admire C. R.'s chutzpah, Regal admitted. It only took calling in a half-a-dozen political IOU's, a large wad of money, and a couple of well-placed threats to completely erase all evidence and memory of the Bellerophon's port of call in Baltimore. As far as the state of Maryland and the city of Baltimore were concerned, not only had nothing occurred aboard an unnamed ship that was definitely not moored at an unnamed pier two nights ago, most officials weren't willing to go on record admitting that Baltimore even had a seaport.
"That's clout," Regal thought admiringly.
That wasn't to say there were more problems to clean up then Regal wanted to think about. As he stood in the cold night air, he could almost see the ice crystals forming on the ship fixtures. He stamped his feet to get his circulation going and his mind off his immediate problems. In some ways, with the death of Bourke, the easy part of the job was over. From now on, it would be nothing but cleaning up ... and that was always a messy job. Sometimes Regal felt that his sole purpose in life seemed to involve cleaning up one mess after the other.
From the pocket of his trenchcoat, Regal pulled a pint of whiskey and tried to wash the taste of the past few days out of his mouth. Without realizing it, he was shaking his head in disbelief of his own memories. He could still hear Splendor calling him, "Bourke's still alive. He's got a gun!"
"I must be getting old," he thought. "A few years ago, I'd have drilled that peckerhead between the eyes and not used his big-ass chest for a target."
He remembered the sight that greeted him as he dropped into the hold at the end of a rope. There was a large SCABS mantis holding the remains of Ciaran Bourke in one of its forearms standing next to a nearly buried Splendor and Kim. He held his gun on the mantis, prepared to fire, until Splendor told him the bug's identity.
Bryan Derksen! Who'd have believed it! He shook his head and swallowed another shot from his bottle.
When the detective dropped to the bottom of the hold, he immediately scrambled to Splendor and Kim's side. In a few minutes, he'd managed to dig Kim out of the grain and pull him to one side. Splendor was more of a problem, the more he tried to pull or dig her out, the more she seemed to sink in deeper. She was far too weak to help in her own rescue.
"I'm chained to the container," she said, her speech slurred in exhaustion. Regal looked widely around the hold for something he could use to get her free. Bryan must have seen the surprised look on the detective's face when Regal turned around. The mantis was still holding the corpse in his undamaged left forearm. Without a second glance, the mantis tossed the remains aside and settled down near Splendor and started to excavate her. He stopped long enough to form a human hand at the end of its arm and sign something to Splendor; then it resumed digging.
"He says there are some tools in the crew area," she said.
"I'm on it," the detective replied.
Regal climbed the ladder back to the deck and in a few minutes returned with a pair of bolt cutters. He lowered himself beside Bryan and fished through the grain until he found the chain and cut it. Bryan then pulled Splendor free. She immediately crawled to Kim, but the polymorph had lapsed once more into unconsciousness.
"I'll call for a med-evac," Regal said. "C. R.'s been standing by for my signal."
Within minutes he'd made contact and requested medical assistance and evacuation. He looked around the hold. Splendor had Kim's head cradled in her lap, but she seemed in as bad a shape as he was. Bryan didn't look much better. The mantis was leaning heavily against the ladder that led to the deck ... thick insect blood leaked slowly from a wound on his shoulder.
"What's your status?" the med-evac crew inquired.
"I've got three wounded ... all pretty badly," Regal answered. Then he felt a pole fall heavily on his shoulder. He turned to see Bryan standing over him, signing agitatedly. The detective wasn't very proficient in sign, so he turned to Splendor.
"He says Lisa Underwood is onboard, too, and hurt."
"Lisa Underwood! What the Hell is she doing here?"
Bryan gestured some more and Splendor translated.
"He says that she saved his life," she answered.
Then Bryan made a few more gestures.
"He also says that if you ever speak in that tone again about Lisa, he'll pull your arms off."
Regal turned back to the mantis and looked him up and down. "He just might do it," he thought to himself, with a new and growing respect for the Canadian.
Regal felt a thump as the ship was tied to the pier. The dock crew was trying to hoist the gangplank aboard. He waved to C. R., but the magnate didn't notice. Regal still had a few minutes, so pulled his hand-held vid-link from another pocket. He called the hospital where the four conspirators had been taken, a young boy's face lit up on the small screen.
"How are they doing?" he asked with any preliminaries.
"Bryan's in the best shape and that's not saying much," young Stein answered.
Regal grunted and the boy continued, "Lisa's hemorrhaging is under control but she's still on the critical list. Bryan's partially blind in his right eye and he's been speared through the shoulder. On top of that, he's totally exhausted from multiple morphs and exposure. Splendor's in bad shape, too, we can't get any nourishment or energy into her ... it's like she's given up. She . . . she was tortured, too. One of her breasts was . . . burnt. She's on life-support and not breathing on her own. And Kim ... well, his skull is fractured. He's in a coma. They don't think he's going to make it."
Regal nodded to acknowledge the news. "Let me know if there's any change," he said and signed off. There was nothing he could do for the four of them now except finish their work. He saw C. R. come up the plank and the detective moved to meet him.
"Fill me in, Regal," he said, wasting no time on amenities.
"While you were sorting things out in Baltimore, we had the fore and aft holds pumped out. We exposed all the containers. Medical teams are still in there reviving and checking out the drugged SCABS. We saved one-hundred and eighteen."
"Out of how many?"
"One-thirty-three. One-thirty-four, if you count Dr. Derksen."
"What about the records? They show space for 150."
"Lost in shipping, Boss. I figured they either died during the wait in captivity,
or somewhere along the way here."
"Do the survivors know what's happened to them?"
"Not many. A lot of them were homeless ... and that's probably the least of their problems. Most of them were pretty much out of touch with things when Bourke's people grabbed them. The ones I talked to don't even know they're on a ship. They think this is a funny-looking subway tunnel."
"By the way," Regal added. "What about the FBI?"
"The agent-in-charge is around somewhere," C. R. answered. "I haven't met her yet."
With that, the two moved lowered themselves into the aft hold to look around. The SCABS prisoners had been all moved to the forward area and C. R. was able to get a first-hand look at Bourke's handiwork. He toured the opened container briefly, stopping only long enough to stare a moment at six still figures covered by a canvas tarpaulin. As they stood there, a person began coming down the ladder into the hold. It was a middle-aged woman, slightly on the hefty side. She walked over to Regal and put out her hand.
"Good to see you again, Mr. Regal," she said, shaking his hand.
"Same here, Agent Wendt," he replied and turned toward C. R. "Boss, this is Special Agent Kate Wendt. She was our liaison with the Bureau. She worked undercover at Bosch House."
"I've been in direct contact with the Attorney General," the agent said. "She wants this case closed quickly and quietly. She agrees with your concerns, Regal. There could be a great deal of civil unrest if all the details of this incident were revealed publicly.
"So here's how we propose to handle it," she said.
Outside of his first night at the hospital, Bryan spent all his waking and sleeping hours in the chair by Lisa's bed. The beep-beep or her heart monitor was comforting. He was determined to be at her side whenever she awoke. It was hard for the Canadian to get used to just having just two human legs again. He had to relearn all sorts of human behaviors that he hadn't used or needed for the past several years. Just remembering how a human sits in a chair took him some practice.
His right arm was in a sling, but the surgeon assured him that the boat hook had done no permanent damage. They were less reassuring when it came to his eye. Right now, he had a gauze patch over it not so much for medical purposes as to help him not overstrain his good eye. Only time would tell how much use he would regain in that eye.
He had pulled his chair around so the back of it was near the head of her bed. He held her hand in his and dozed off and on throughout the night. He awoke to a soft hand caressing his unshaven cheek. He looked to see Lisa smiling at him weakly.
"How'm I doing, doc?"
Bryan set his cheek to her hand. All he could do was cry.
Stein paced up and down in one of the waiting rooms. Every so often he would stop walking and clasp his hands together and rub them in worry. Asleep in chairs in the waiting room were Bryan's friends Jon Sleeper and Brian Coe. Becky Holman sat quietly in another chair room staring in the direction of Splendor's room. C. R. entered and went immediately to Stein.
"Do they know about me?" he asked the boy.
"Let's keep it that way," he said. "Is she awake yet?"
"The doctors say yes but she hasn't opened her eyes. On top of that, we can't get her to take any energy. I've got two volunteer polymorphs standing by but she won't even try. And in her present state, she can't take in her normal manner."
"She's just being stubborn," C. R. concluded.
"Stubborn. That's what it is. She thinks she failed. She didn't save Sarah and the others, so as punishment, she's going to atone by killing herself."
"What do we do then?"
"I'm going to go in there and kick her in the ass. You got a hand-link? Give me a few minutes alone with her and then call me on a voice only line. I'll take it from there."
C. R. let himself into the room. Splendor lay still on the bed. Her red hair stood in contrast to the white sterility of the room. Her arms were connected to a number of intravenous tubes supplying her body with liquid and pain suppressors. He lifted her left-hand and called out her name softly. Then he focused his power and felt the energy ball form at his fingertips. She neither moved nor tried to absorb his gift.
C. R. sighed and lowered her hand to the bed. He pulled a chair up and sat down beside her bed with his hand on his chin. A few minutes later, the vid-link in his pocket hummed. He switched it to voice only and put it to his ear. He listened intently for a few moments, occasionally nodding his head, as if in agreement.
"Yes, I know," he said in a soft but audible voice. "It just doesn't look good. She's in bad shape. Uh-huh . . . I know Becky will do in the short run, but I'm not sure she either can or wants to run it without Splendor. Uh-huh . . . whatever happens, we'll keep the shelter open for a few months at least. I think we owe Splendor that much. After that, we'll transfer people to other shelters in the city. Yeah . . . I'll call you when it's over."
C. R. cut his link and put the unit back in his pocket. If that hadn't gotten under her skin, nothing would. He sat there a few minutes but there was no change in the sleeping woman. He got up and crossed to the door. He tried. Maybe she was too far-gone to help. He started to open the door when he heard the sheets on the bed move. He turned. Splendor's eyes were still closed but she had lifted her left hand slightly and extended two fingers. By the time he reached her bedside, he'd already focused his energy.
It was nearly four weeks before the city and national media were able to finally interview the rescuers. A much-bowdlerized version of the story had already been leaked out. But between the efforts of the FBI, the international police network, and C. R.'s behind the scenes work through the Consortium, little beyond the "official" story was ever made public.
The news media descended on the hospital, wanting to talk to the four citizens responsible for saving the kidnapped homeless SCABS. The Vids and newspapers had already dubbed them "The Fearless Foursome." The four drew straws to see who would be spokesperson. Lisa lost. She always figured the contest was rigged. All four wanted to preserved their anonymity as much as possible. Bryan reverted to his Canuck form and resolutely refused to speak in anything but sign language. Splendor, although still weak, managed to alter herself to more of a herpamorph form. She affected snake eyes and mottled scaly skin. She also suppressed her red hair, taking on the smooth bald-headed look of a common snakemorph. Kim merely kept all his Wu-2 prosthetics intact. Between that, his glasses and the fact his head was completely swathed in bandages made him almost totally unrecognizable.
The doctors at the hospital had already dubbed Kim their "miracle man." He'd defied all conventional wisdom not just by living, but by actually recovering. Most people with Kim's degree of injury suffered brain damage. Kim seemed to have dodged that particular bullet. Before the surgeons could even consider prosthetics, his skull began to reshape and regrow new bone structure on its own ... and at an accelerated pace. Whether this was with the help of the late and unlamented Dr. Cochrane's brain implants or despite them, none of the neurospecialists would hazard a guess. They speculated that Kim's brain unconsciously took the opportunity to adapt its shape and size to finally accommodate Cochrane's hardware. All that Kim knew or cared about was his headaches were no longer quite as blinding or as frequent as they had been. Of course, he'd not tested his power yet, nor was he in a hurry to do so.
A couple of days before the press conference, the four conspirators were taken to a sitting room in the hospital. C. R. was there, as was Regal.
"Seems I owe you an apology," Lisa said, looking at C. R. "You certainly had me fooled."
"We all have our secrets, Lisa. Mine's not as bad as some. Besides, it allows me more freedom than I would otherwise have."
They were interrupted when two more people joined them. Regal introduced them. One was a senior officer in the city police force and the other was FBI Special Agent Wendt. Both Lisa and Bryan recognized her immediately; it was Kaye Libisch from Bosch House.
"Good to see the both of you again," she said with a smile.
Regal laughed at their surprise.
"You really didn't think we'd be sending just the three of you, did you? Sorry to disappoint you but you were sort of our way of 'distracting' Bourke and company while we gathered evidence."
"Don't let him kid you," Agent Wendt said. "You did much more than that! You provided us with information and records I doubt we could have gotten any other way. Your work is most astounding Mr. Liu. You extracted files we didn't even dream existed. My superiors asked me to inquire if you'd be interested in working with us on a contract basis?"
"No," Kim answered. "I don't do government or military work."
"Well, I won't push you," she said with a smile that implied "we're not done talking yet".
"Anyway, we'd been keeping you all on a very long tether, hoping that Bourke would be so tied up watching you that he wouldn't even notice us. It worked. The only kink in our plan occurred when he bombed Wu-2's apartment. They used a shape explosive with a petroleum vapor charge. It's a particularly nasty, but effective weapon. It not only destroys everything within its killing radius, but it also vaporizes the remains. We never saw you leave, so we thought you were dead. You did such a good job fooling us; we weren't even looking for you until Mr. Regal called.
"And while we were scrambling all around your apartment looking for remains that weren't there to begin with, you slipped out from underneath Bourke's notice and ours. Quite ingenious. We completely missed the Baltimore connection all together."
"What about Schweitzer?" Bryan asked.
"Got away," Regal said.
"We'll find him," Wendt countered.
"He still got away," Regal repeated.
"That may be," Wendt said testily, "But for the time being, we have another matter to resolve. The time has come to establish a story we can all adhere to. I think everyone here agrees that the truth of this matter cannot come out."
She looked around the room and everyone nodded.
"We did have a little bit of good news. When Schweitzer torched Bosch House, I was able to get to DeVece before the fire did. He's in a witness protection program singing like a canary. I've interrogated him sufficiently to know that he was unaware of all the aspects of Passing Fancies' operation. As far as he knew, the slavery angle was all there was to it. We've not told him anything about the murders."
Lisa looked apprehensively at Bryan who clenched and unclenched his fists when he heard DeVece's name.
"What makes you so sure he's not lying?" Kim asked.
We had him in a room filled with . . . remains . . . skins, ivory, things like that. He didn't even bat an eye. No, I'd stake my 20 years in the Bureau that he knew nothing about the harvesting. Bourke, Lyle Sammons, and Michael Olletti are accounted for. Schweitzer has gone to ground, but we'll find him. DeVece is about the highest level person we've got in custody that had any knowledge of what was going on within the organization.
"The only other person we'd like to talk to is Anthony Buchler but he's missing. At least, that's our public statement. A newborn was found in his apartment. We've run some fingerprint and DNA tests and he appears to be our man ... or our babe. At first, we thought some chronomorph had regressed him to silence him for a few hours. But if that had been the case, the effect would have worn off in a day at most. Our Mr. Buchler remains resolutely infantile. Does anyone here have anything they could add to this," she asked, scanning the room. Everyone looked at each other but no one owned up to anything.
"Well," Wendt said in a tone that indicated she knew she'd never get an answer. "To our cover story: A local homeless shelter director notices that people seemed to be disappearing from the streets. She contacts local law enforcement and they, in turn, called in the FBI. Working with law enforcement, the shelter director and her friend, a roachmorph, agreed to work undercover and attempt to gather information or make themselves available for kidnapping.
"The shelter director enlists the help of a local computer specialist, who with brilliant skill, is able to penetrate the criminal's computer systems and gather records and evidence. Unfortunately, the shelter director, the computer specialist and the roachmorph are captured ... along with a member of the local media who had stumbled on the story by accident."
Wendt paused long enough to look at Lisa, but the reporter's face remained unreadable, so the Agent continued.
"Local law enforcement and the FBI closed in on the gang, unfortunately killing all three of the leaders. The head of the organization ... one Ciaran Bourke ... although mortally wounded by police bullets was about to kill his captives when the roachmorph broke free and dispatched Bourke before he could carry out his plan."
Very slowly, Wendt looked at each person in the room, studying their faces.
"That will be the story. It's not quite the whole truth, but it certainly is a shade of it. Any questions? Comments?" she asked.
"Yeah, why are the feds and the city going along with this charade?" Splendor asked.
"Because there are those of us in both local, state and federal government who do care about what happens to SCABS. Because there are quite a few people who don't want to see another twisted person like Barnes rise up out of the mud and launch a jihad against fellow citizens. Because there are quite a few of us SCABS at all levels of government, and in every branch. Did you think I was kidding when I said my name used to be Herbert? Not every gendermorph turns into a centerfold, you know. I had twenty-six great years as a guy. I was a husband and father as well as a good field agent for the FBI. When I contracted the flu and later developed SCABS, I was still a good agent. Later on, I became a good wife and mother. Does that surprise you? I told you the Attorney General had a personal interest in this case ... do I have to draw you a map as to why?"
No one said a word.
"Well I guess that wraps it up," Wendt said, noticing for the first time that a tray of pastry was sitting on the table nearby.
With a sigh that spoke volumes about an ongoing but losing battle against sweets, Agent Wendt picked up an éclair and bit it. With a ring of chocolate and whipped cream circling her mouth, she turned to Splendor and Lisa for sympathy and said, "I really shouldn't. These things go right from my mouth to my ass!"
Her fellow females nodded sympathetically.
Two days later, under the lights of the vid cameras, Lisa repeated the story Wendt outlined almost verbatim. As she finished her story on behalf of her fellow conspirators, one of her media colleagues piped up, "So it that the whole story, Lisa? You wouldn't hold anything back on us, would you?"
Lisa Underwood stopped, looked straight into the camera and said, "Take my word on it."
Which is what they did.
With that, the business which became known publically as the "Addis Ababa Affair" drew to a close. And as Jack DeMule would often say when drunk, "Wound times all heals." Once out of the immediate spotlight, that's what the four were allowed to do: heal and recuperate. Slowly months passed and their lives returned to normal. Out of sight and scrutiny, Regal tracked down and retrieved nearly all the artifacts generated from the remains of the murder victims. It was difficult and, at times, dangerous work. He worked alone as was his wont, only checking in from time to time with C. R.
It was early October, nearly nine months after the night on the Bellerophon, when C. R. entered his office to find Regal at the his wet bar sipping Scotch.
"When did you get back?" the magnate asked.
"A couple of hours ago. I finally tracked down that sable stole and picked up the inlaid ivory panel we were looking for as well."
"Good. Any problems?"
"None I couldn't handle. You'll get a bill from a guy in Prague ... just pay it. And if anyone asks, I haven't been to Baghdad in three years, okay."
"Oh yeah," said Regal casually. "I found Schweitzer."
"WHERE!" C. R. demanded.
"Addis Ababa, of all places ... who'd have guessed it! He'd been trying to make contact with the remains of Bourke's underground organization. I guess he finally realized that someone else had gotten to them first. The poor doctor was all alone in the world."
"When do we go after him?"
"We don't. No point really. He had an accident, it seems."
"Really?" his Boss said suspiciously. "What happened to him?"
"He fell in a bathroom."
"Was he hurt?"
"Not for the first eleven floors."
"Just as well," C. R. admitted. "Anyway, I'm glad your back, there's a wedding this weekend."
"Bryan Derksen and Lisa Underwood."
"I'll be damned."
"We both are, probably. Still, we do what we must."
"You going?" Regal asked.
"Naw, Jack'll represent me."
"What about the remains I brought back?"
"Send them out to Wisconsin like the others; I'll handle it from there."
On the third floor of the Sinclair Building, a very nervous bridegroom was trying, without success, to fix the black tie on his tuxedo. Donnie Sinclair snorted humorously as he watched his friend's premarital panic. Bryan's best man, Jon Sleeper, wasn't too much help. He'd come down with a bad case of bachelor party the night before and his head was still throbbing.
Out among the guests, Brian Coe was ushering people to their seats. Bob Stein was assisting the raccoon morph with the ushering chores. Jack DeMule was behind the banquet hall Steinway, playing Mozart in a very tasteful fashion. Donnie looked out of the curtains in time to see Coe usher Lisa's mother to her seat.
Back in the bridal section, Lisa and her sister put the finishing touches on her dress. Her bridesmaid, wept every time she looked at Lisa.
"You okay, Edwina?" Lisa asked.
"Yep. It's just the damned hormones," the gendermorph answered, patting her swollen stomach. "Ever since Shirley and I decided to start a family, all I seem to do is cry and eat and puke! But I'm happy!"
"I never asked, what made you decide to take the big leap?"
"In a way, you did. After Shirl morphed you male, we got to talking. You know I never could bear the thought of sleeping with a man. But then Shirl and I got to thinking that if it was her, and not a man; maybe that wouldn't be as bad. So she morphed to she-male and knocked me up."
Lisa father came in and signed to his daughter.
"Dad says everyone is ready. Let's go."
At the front of the room, Bryan and Jon stood along with Rev. McCandless. When the couple decided to get married, they had gone to Deebo and asked him to perform the service. Beaming, the Longhorn sheepmorph agreed immediately.
"I need to tell you something," Bryan said hesitantly. "I'm not much of a churchgoer. Not much of a believer, when it comes right down to it.
"Don't worry about it, Canuck, God and me believe in you and that's all that matters."
Every bride looks radiant. Lisa was no exception. She walked slowly up the aisle, locked in her father's arm. Wanderer and the Lupine Boy Choir were singing an Aria. Bryan took his bride's hand and they turned toward Deebo. It was a simple ceremony. The couple signed their vows instead of speaking them, as a remembrance of the first time they ever spoke openly of their love.
Kim sat in the back of the room near one of the doors. He kept looking for Splendor but didn't see her. While in his coma, he was told that she never left his side. Yet, once he woke up, he rarely saw her again. After his release from the hospital, he drifted back to his old life. He was still technically on the Astral payroll, but he didn't have to go right back to work. He dropped by to see Splendor at the shelter a few times, but she was always seemed abrupt with him, so he stopped bothering.
Still, he thought she'd be here for the wedding. Bryan told him that Lisa asked her to be in the wedding but Splendor refused ... refused to even promise to attend. Kim had about given up on the herpamorph when he caught a movement in the corner of his eye and turned to see Donnie signing to an unseen person outside the door. As unobtrusively as possible, Kim slipped out the other door. Sure enough, standing in the hallway, was Splendor, watching the wedding through a reflection in a mirror. He moved up quietly behind her, to cut off her retreat.
"Hi, Buns," he said. "Long time."
"How'd you get out here?" she demanded. "You were sitting in there a minute ago."
"You know, most people start conversations with hello. You're the only person I know that does it with an accusation."
Splendor had the grace to look a little guilty.
"Why don't you go in and have a seat?" he asked.
Her face soften a little and she sighed, "I don't fit in. I don't belong."
"You're the only person that thinks that."
"I'm the only person that counts," she shot back. "Now shut up and let me watch the ceremony." "Fine," he said, grasping her arm firmly and pushing her into the doorway. She struggled, but not too much, and from their vantage point, they got a wonderful view of the wedding.
By unspoken agreement, they skipped the reception after paying respects to the happy couple. Kim shared a taxi with Splendor and when it stopped at his apartment, he offered her a nightcap. He knew as well as she did that Splendor didn't drink or at least didn't get anything from it. But to his surprise, she accepted.
He poured her a rum and coke and she downed it in one gulp. She seemed nervous. Finally, she cleared her throat and asked how he was feeling.
"Fine. Fine," he said noncommittally.
"You know, I never thanked you for . . . what you gave me ... that night on the ship, I mean. It really helped a lot."
"Don't mention it."
Kim sat in his favorite chair, his leg dangling over the arm. Splendor sat bolt upright on the sofa. He finally decided she'd suffered enough.
"You know, Splendor, I really don't remember much after getting hit in the warehouse. I know I gave you a jolt but after that things are pretty fuzzy."
"Really!" she said, her face brightening.
"About the only thing I remember, I wish I could forget ... that's the sound of Bourke's head getting crushed. Now, even the sound of cracking my knuckles makes me nauseous."
"It's just as well," Splendor said. "I was pretty much out of it, too. I might have said a few things ... embarrassing things ... while I was delirious. I wouldn't want you to take them seriously."
"Well then, I guess I'd better get going. Get back to the shelter, that is."
"Sure," he said, walking her toward the door.
Splendor opened it and started to walk out. She stopped but didn't turn around. Instead, she straightened her shoulders and cleared her throat.
"I told you this once before, but I want to say it again . . . you're a good man, Kim. And you were a good friend to me."
"And I always will be, Splendor."
"I'm here if you ever want to talk, or you need a charge," he offered.
She never turned around but she did nod her head. She closed the door herself. He picked up her glass and carried it to the sink. He sat back down in his chair and put on a vid ... one of his favorites ... Have Gun, Will Travel. It had just started when the doorbell rang. He turned off the vid and opened the door. It was Splendor.
"Did you forget something?" he asked.
"Can I come in?"
"Sure," he said, closing the door behind her. "What's up?"
"I was wondering. I mean, I need. Well, if it's no trouble . . . I'm a little run down and could use a charge."
"No problem," he said, closing his eyes and concentrating his power ... with barely a twinge of a headache. He felt her move in close to him but she never touched his fingers. Instead, he felt her lips brush against his. He opened his eyes. She was taller than he was so she had bent over slightly to reach him. She pulled away from him and looked him directly in the eyes.
"When I said I could use a charge, I was sort of thinking . . . if you're interested that is . . . I mean, we could do it the old fashion way," she suggested shyly. Kim smiled and took her hand. Together, they went into his bedroom.
Several hours later, a very worn out Kim walked a highly energetic Splendor to the elevator. They kissed from the time he hit the button until it arrived. When the elevator door opened, she inhaled and before speaking.
"I don't want to fool you, Kim. I don't do relationships. I live alone and I expect to stay that way. This was wonderful and I wouldn't trade what I have with you for anything. But we will never be anything more than two friends sharing some moments of intimacy. I hope you can accept that."
The polymorph nodded. He knew she was right and he agreed with her. Splendor entered the elevator as it was closing. Still that didn't mean that she could always be allowed to have the last trick. So moving as quick as Regal, Kim reached in and gave her a resounding slap on the fanny. She yelped and turned around, rubbing her hand on the sore spot.
Before she could open her mouth, Kim grinned and said, "You take care of yourself there, Millie!"
"You sonnavabitch," she exclaimed as the door closed in her face. "You said you didn't remember anything!"
"No," he laughed. "I said I didn't remember ...much.' But I'd never forget a name like Millie Polischuk!"
It was deep winter in Wisconsin. C. R. plodded through the snow on his way to the memorial site. He came out here almost every time he was able to get home for more than a day. He liked the fact that it was a difficult place to get to. It took effort to get there and, somehow, that enriched the journey.
He'd chosen well. The memorial park sat on top of a large hill with a gentle slope, miles from the nearest human habitation. It was a peaceful place. During most of the year, a small tributary of the St Croix River wound around the base of the hill. This time of year, of course, everything was frozen solid, but even through the snow, you could make out the watercourse.
He reached the entrance. A simple stone marker was inscribed "Shadow Park Memorial." He looked over the one-acre site. With the snow on the ground, it was impossible to see the individual tablets that lined the ground leading away in a starburst pattern from the small nondenominational chapel in the center. Each tablet gave the city or country of origin of a SCABS murdered or killed by Bourke's organization.
The chapel design was simple and open to the elements. A single flame was mounted in the center of a flat round granite wheel memorial located at the center of the chapel. It had one word chiseled in bas-relief on it ... REMEMBER. The inner walls of the chapel were unadorned, except for names. To date, the names of 2,757 of Bourke's known victims were chiseled into the walls. Not all the victims had been interned here. Some bodies or remains were turned over to family members, if they could be found. The majority, however, seemed as homeless in death as they were in life.
C. R. was determined to give them the dignity in death that had been denied while they lived. As they had been recovered or collected, the remains were cremated and the ashes added to the urn kept in the chapel crypt.
In the four years since Bourke's death, Regal had circled the globe more times than most astronauts. He or his associates had tracked down and recovered more than 90 percent of the murdered SCABS remains. Some, of course, would never be found. There were several hundred SCABS ... mostly bear, rhino and the like ... whose internal organs or horns were still used for medicinal purposes or as aphrodisiacs in some parts of the world. Most of those were long gone. Still, at least they had been remembered, if nowhere else but here.
The memorial park had been consecrated, blessed, dedicated and prayed over by every faith or sect C. R. was able to get in contact with long enough to have a representative come out here. He himself didn't know how much stock he placed in issues like faith, but he wasn't about to deny the beliefs of others.
Even the name had meaning. Once, a long time ago, Splendor had told him that he didn't see the homeless as people. "You pay them as much mind as you would your own shadow."
"Shadow people," he thought. Maybe she had been right then. But never again.
On the far side of the chapel, in a separate niche, was the park's only grave. A simple granite stone marked the final resting place of Sarah Beidler. At Splendor's insistence, Sarah's hide and every scrap of bone and ivory they were able to identify as Sarah's through DNA testing were placed in a small white child's coffin and buried here, wrapped in the comforter that Splendor had given her years before. C. R. stopped before the tombstone.
The inscription was simple: Sarah ... Beloved Mother.
A single red rose, completely glazed over in ice, was perfectly preserved atop the stone monument. C. R. smiled. Splendor had not forgotten today's anniversary.
He looked over to the west. The sun had long-since passed zenith. It would be dark in a few hours. He needed to get back to the farmhouse. The copter would be waiting to fly him to the airport where his private jet would have him back in the city by dinnertime. Maybe he'd have his folks drop him off at Sinclair's for dinner. Yeah, that'd be nice. Afterward, he could mosey down to the bar and kill a few hours ... maybe that would take a little of the edge off his depression.
Suiting action to words, he headed back down the hill. His four hooves moved at a much brisker pace than his slow, steady trod up the hill a little earlier. He'd just reached the bottom when he pulled up short. Something was wrong. He had forgotten something. Something important.
"Thursday! It's the third Thursday!" he thought to himself, his long ears flattening against skull in a classic pose of equine frustration and anger.
"Damn it! Family Amateur Night!" he swore disgustedly, as all thoughts of a relaxing evening at the Blind Pig Gin Mill went out the window.
Still, C. R. was nothing if not a pragmatist ... life was too short to get all worked up over something he couldn't change. He trotted off into the woods; the memorial soon lost behind him in the mist and snow. He decided to run a little ... stretch out his muscles ... he took off with a bray. With any luck, maybe he wouldn't have to play that stupid "Wild Hearts Can't Be Tamed." But he wasn't counting on it.
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