A Prequel Short Story
In Dave Swavely’s upcoming novel Silhouette, Michael Ares is a war hero hired and given a license to kill by an autocratic regime determined to “keep the peace” in a post-quake San Francisco of the future. He faces a gauntlet of trials on his way to either death or glory, including the impossible dilemma of investigating a murder where all the evidence leads back to him. This is the story of an episode from Michael’s past that is mentioned in Silhouette and comes back to haunt him during the events in the novel. And it is a story about some fine lines that are very hard to walk.
Keren Reyes was convinced that the man sitting at a table in the Embarcadero Plaza was the killer--something about a mask, which she would explain to me when I arrived. So I parked far enough away and stayed out of his line of sight as I walked to her position. Many of the citizens of San Francisco knew my face, and the man would definitely recognize me if he was a peacer as Reyes suspected, because that would mean we worked for the same company.
The term “peacer,” which had become the post-quake moniker of choice for our law enforcement officers, was considered ironic by our critics, and would indeed prove to be so in this case, if it was one of us who murdered and mutilated three people in cold blood. Especially if those in charge of him were okay with it.
Reyes was a peacer herself, and a good one who had proven trustworthy through years of experience with the Bay Area Security Service (BASS for short). So I had taken it very seriously when she told me her theory about the perp being an employee—seriously enough to ask her to keep it between us at this point, and seriously enough to leave the castle to deal with it myself. I wasn’t on the streets as much as I used to be, now that I was an “executive peacer,” so it felt good to strap on my guns and possibly see some action for a change. And as it turned out, I wasn’t disappointed.
As I made my way toward Reyes’ position, I slipped my glasses on and reviewed the news report (if you could call it that) that she had sent me, which was a big part of my motivation to handle this myself, in a discreet manner. BASS’s most vocal critic on the net had the same theory as Reyes, but for different reasons—unless he was just lying and using the murders as an excuse for more of his blatant propaganda, which was quite possible.
Either way, Harris was a PR problem waiting to happen. He was the leader of a group of “revolutionaries” (we called them “squatters”) who invaded and made their home in our Red Tunnel, one of three big ones in a system of underground passages that BASS had installed in the months following the quake. The tunnels snaked out to various parts of the city from the thirty-story above-ground headquarters we had built on the top of Nob Hill, known affectionately as the castle. The access provided by the tunnels was a key tool in maintaining order in the city and establishing our authority over it in those early days. It’s a good thing we developed better ways to mobilize, because this one was now controlled by a twisted version of Robin Hood and his merry band.
Within days of their invasion of the Red Tunnel, Harris and the squatters had impressively managed to overhaul the power and water systems so that they could live in that portion of the tunnel, and they had armed themselves sufficiently so that the only way we could remove them was by lethal force. And since they had already been flooding the web with propaganda against us (and now from right under our nose), BASS leadership made the decision to leave them there, at least for the time being, rather than make them martyrs. One example of such propaganda was the video of Harris that I was now watching in part of the view inside my glasses. I had seen it earlier when Reyes first sent me the link, but had to review it again because it was hard for me to understand everything that the freak was saying.
“Hotter than Hellboy, with news in the Babellian dialect of the Entertainnet, featuring features from today and from the sacred dawn of modern media, A.K.A. the century before this one. Bringing you some more Tabloid Dirt on the BigAss and their Nazi tyrant, and this one hits close to home. You know I get by with a little help from my friends,” he sang that part. “Some of them were doing a Milk Run into the city by the bay-ay,” singing again, “and they never came back.”
Harris’s tattoos stretched out toward the viewer and morphed into pictures and videos of two naked bodies, one male and one female. They were inked all over like he was, but with gaping wounds and drying blood interspersed with the body art. The male body had been castrated, and the high-res, close-up images left nothing to the imagination.
“You may have Total Recall that on December 6 of last year we found the corpse of one of our fellow civil rights champions in a Crime Alley in the city. She was martyr to a god no one believed in...”
He sang the last line, which was from a popular Prisoner song that I actually recognized, unlike the last one. But I was pretty sure the lyrics had nothing to do with how he was using them.
“Some of us are Handy Dandys with ballistics—remember I was a peacer (insert laughter) myself at one time, and others among us have worked for the COPS too.”
When he said “insert laughter” as he always did when he mentioned the word “peacer,” he also made the gesture that he was in the habit of thrusting out every time he said that word: the index and middle fingers backwards, then just the middle finger. It had become so effortless by now; he probably did it in his sleep when he dreamed of his former days at BASS. And when he mentioned COPS, one of his tattoos become a shaky hand held camera view of a policemen accompanied by a song with lyrics that said, “Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do when they come for you?”
“So we showed you how the bullets that killed our Newsomer almost surely came from a BASS gun,” Harris continued. “Her only crime was buying food, giving us this day our Daily Bread, and she ended up like a slimer in Ghostbusters.”
More music in the background, this time “Who ya gonna call?”
If the woman who died was indeed one of the squatters, I thought, then buying food was not her only crime…everyone in the Red Tunnel was breaking numerous laws by invading and living on our property.
Harris went on: “So after we exposed this billionth abuse of authority by the Sodamn Insanes who run this city, the next Mercy Killing—meaning they killed another of our angels of mercy—was done by Mack the Knife instead of a gun. And now The Third Man has gone missing, and no body has been discovered yet. We obviously pulled back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, so they had to change their Modus Operandi to keep us from more proof of what we all know—that these peacers (insert laughter) are trying to silence us one by one. The Silence of the Lambs! Speaking of the Wizard of Oz, again, Cha-Ching!, they’re too much like the Cowardly Lion to come in here and face us all like men, so they have to wait until we’re Alone in the Dark and act like the Cereal Killers they are. That’s all a so-called ‘peacer’ is, you know. He’s a Psycho Killer, Qu'est que c'est, fa fa fa, fa fa fa fa fa fa…”
I turned it off, though French words in a song were probably easier to understand than his media-speak. But I knew why he did it—he received money from the advertising departments of the big entertainment companies, credited automatically to his accounts every time he made reference to one of the products they produced or distributed. Plus I’m sure he simply enjoyed the fetishistic integration of the popular arts into his life, as all super-geeks did—especially the entertainment of the twentieth century, which to them was “the sacred dawn of modern media,” as he had called it.
Now the only window open in my glasses was the one on the top right that showed Reyes’ position relative to mine, so I rounded a building and went into a side entrance until the two blips were next to each other. Then I moved my finger on an arm of the glasses until the tracking window closed and the brightness increased, so I could see her better in the dark restaurant. It was closed in the middle of the night, of course, but she had requested access because it afforded the best view of our mark, and of the elaborate monument he was sitting near.
The original version of Vaillancourt Fountain had been completed in 1971, a forty foot high and twice as wide conglomeration of long square concrete tubes that twisted around one another. 30,000 gallons of water were pumped through the tubes from the pool at the bottom, then poured out of their open ends to start the cycle again. The water had been shut off by the city several times to save the high electricity costs, but protests always brought it back until it was finally destroyed by the earthquake. The art value of the fountain had also been highly controversial—some considered it a gross monstrosity and others thought it was unique and daring. Saul Rabin, the founder of BASS and current dictator of the city (also known as “The Mayor”), had been one of its fans, probably because the sculptor was from Quebec, the city his parents had immigrated from. Saul had also proposed to his wife at the fountain, so he had it rebuilt after the quake. And he rebuilt it twice as large and ostentatious, as a symbol that San Francisco was better now than before he came to power.
“Thank you for coming, sir,” Reyes said. She was an attractive Salvadoran woman, older than she looked, if the water cooler gossip at the castle was to be believed. “Did you watch Harris’s shtick?”
“Yes,” I answered. “He blames BASS every time a squatter is killed or goes missing, of course, which happens to criminals all the time without us helping them along. But this time you think he might actually be right, so tell me why.”
“The last known sightings of the victims in the first two cases were here in the Embarcadero area,” she explained. “One seen by a witness walking out of the Plaza and the other captured on a surveillance camera while waiting to board a ferry in the nearby docks. So I staked out the Plaza and saw this…”
I opened a link that had just appeared in the glasses, and half my view was now a surveillance video that Reyes had recorded with her own pair. This was one reason why net glasses were standard equipment for all peacers, because video recording was so crucial to our work, and external cameras didn’t have the infamous blinking problem that went with contact lenses and optic cyberware. “If you blink, you might miss it” had been a very effective advertising slogan for the glasses and goggle companies.
The video showed a thin male figure emerging from inside the Vaillancourt Fountain (the original had three walkways through the tubes, and this new version many more). Then it highlighted a larger male figure following him as he headed toward the water and the famous Ferry Building, a landmark that had also been rebuilt after the quake, its clock tower duplicated but its bayside building now fitted with a parking lot on top and large bays down below for the ferries, which were an important means of transportation and commerce before the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges could be repaired. The ugly neon sign facing the bay, which used to say “Port of San Francisco,” was now replaced with a permalight one that said “City-State of San Francisco.”
The video rewound abruptly, to the frame where the man’s figure was the largest, and zoomed in on him. He was wearing one of those solid head pieces that extended down over the eyes to house a pair of net glasses. They were sometimes worn for decorative purposes (somewhat of a fad) but more often to conceal a TMS coil that was marketed as a substitute for drugs. It could be activated to treat depression and other chemical imbalances in the brain, but also for recreational use. The head piece looked like the top of Batman’s cowl, but without the ears protruding from the top. The man’s clothing was nondescript, but that didn’t mean anything, because mine and Reyes’ were too. We peacers seldom wore uniforms, because we had high tech ways of recognizing one another, and preferred to intimidate criminals with the idea that we could be within reach at any time.
“I wasn’t sure at the time whether he was really following him to the ferry,” Reyes continued. “And I was merely watching for patterns, so I didn’t tail them. But when I heard that a third squatter was missing, I played a hunch and checked the BASS tunnel maps.”
I raised my eyebrows as the video disappeared from my glasses, surprised to hear her report go in this direction.
“I found out that there’s a small tributary from the Red Tunnel that stretches to underneath the fountain.” My eyebrows rose even further. “It was sealed a long time ago, but I’m thinking that the squatters re-opened it, and have been using it as a secret passage to the city, perhaps especially when they want to ride the ferries without being surveilled.” That made sense, because I knew Harris’s people were involved in a lot more crime than he ever admitted. Who knows what they were smuggling across the Bay, especially from the ruins of Oakland.
“So that’s why you’re thinking the killer could be one of us,” I said.
“Yes. I suppose some other scenarios are possible, like intra-squatter conflict, but there’s only one that seems probable, from motive and opportunity. Three bodies are too many for this to be random or accidental. I think they were executions, and I think he’s waiting for the next one.”
She nodded toward the figure at the table in the Plaza, which looked a lot like the one in the video, especially when I telescoped the view in my glasses and saw that he was wearing that same kind of head piece. So I decided to trust her instincts long enough to let my mind go down the route she was suggesting, imagining that a peacer was killing defenseless squatters one by one, without authorization. This wouldn’t be the first time something like this had happened—there was a fine line between legal and illegal murder when the cops had a license to kill.
“What are you thinking, sir?” Reyes asked, because I had been silent for a while.
“I’m thinking what I would be doing, if I was the killer.”
“The different MOs in each case are hard to explain,” she said, abbreviating the Latin idiom that Harris had used in his report.
“Maybe he’s learning as he goes,” I said. Like Harris had suggested.
I thought a little more, then told Reyes that I’d test her theory on my own, because of the delicacy of the matter. I told her to take up a position in another location, because if the killer ran, I thought I knew where he’d run to.
I stepped back outside and walked behind the buildings, out of sight from the perp again, but toward the other side of the fountain. As I did, I called the castle and asked for the best tech available, and soon an older, gray-haired man named Nathan Aaron was on the line.
“Only do what I ask,” I said to him. “Not the usual global data searches, and especially not peacer locations.” Depending on what happened, I didn’t want others to know if the killer turned out to be BASS, and for a number of reasons I didn’t want there to be a record of it. And I didn’t want to take the time to go through the whole database in my glasses, so I’d have to find out who he was the old fashioned way—by taking him down and questioning him.
I told Aaron, “Scan the Vallaincourt Fountain in the Embarcadero for surveillance devices.”
In just a few moments (he was good), the tech informed me that there were camouflaged micro cameras at each of the exits, and one near the center. I asked if he could tell whether it was BASS equipment without seeing to whom it was registered, and he said it didn’t matter because it was definitely not BASS equipment. This threw me a bit, but then I realized that a peacer could have simply purchased his own, in order to avoid the kind of confrontation that I was about to have with him.
“Can you hack the cameras without the owner knowing?” I asked. “And give me access too?”
“Are you kidding?” was all he said, and soon there were five tiny screens visible in the left half of my glasses. By now I was standing on the far side of the fountain from the perp, and I had to speak louder and turn up the audio in order to hear the tech above the din of the flowing and falling waters. I told him to loop the camera at the closest entry point, and when he did, I switched my glasses to night vision and walked into the corridor. There was no one else inside the fountain at this late hour, the homeless having been effectively scared away by BASS’s zero-tolerance policy, but I knew that during the day many people, especially children, enjoyed the maze-like adventure of viewing the fountain from inside. It was engineered so that you could see the waters from almost anywhere in the walkways, and you certainly could hear them well.
After making a few turns, including a wrong one that ended in a blank wall, and some winding steps downward, I found the camera that was watching the squatters’ hidden tunnel entrance. While Aaron had it temporarily looped, I located it on the wall near another dead end. It was a clear strip stuck to the concrete, about the size of a Band-Aid or a stick of gum, and the tech informed me that it was equipped with night vision as well, and a proximity alert. While its owner couldn’t see me, I explored the floor near the dead end and discovered the tunnel entrance, its outlines hidden by tiny holo projectors near the corners that looked similar to the camera on the wall, but were even smaller. It would be interesting to find out how they opened it from this side (probably by remote), but that wasn’t the reason I was here right now.
I crouched on top of the tunnel entrance, turned my head slightly away from the camera, and told Aaron to release the loop. Then I stood and moved slowly past it, like a squatter emerging from the tunnel. I could almost hear the proximity alert beeping in the killer’s ear—assuming Reyes was correct in her theory, and this wasn’t just a wild goose chase.
Then I crouched near the end of my little hallway, so I was able to make use of either corner, depending on which way the perp came. I moused the arm of my glasses to arrange the camera feeds, so I could tell which entrance he used. Then I told Aaron to watch the perp, and waited.
The masked man didn’t move from his seat in the Plaza, which I expected, because if he was the killer, he would be waiting until someone emerged from the fountain. He would be watching the same camera feeds I had in my glasses, to see which doorway I exited. But he continued to not move for such a long time that I started to think this was a wild goose chase.
Then he stood up and moved toward the fountain.
“Bingo,” I said to Aaron, and without explanation told him to unplug and give me some privacy. He did, after telling me which entrance the perp was using, and from which direction he would approach my position. I maximized that camera view at that entrance and watched as the man pulled a handgun while entering the fountain. It looked similar to the two boas I wore on my belt, which were the weapon of choice for many peacers, but I couldn’t tell for sure.
Still crouching, I leaned on the corner to the side he would be approaching and placed one of my boas on the floor so that the sight pointed in that direction. Then I accessed the sight wirelessly in my glasses so I could stay behind the corner, but see around it. I switched the other boa from killer rounds to stoppers, and held it ready to fire around the corner.
The gunsight’s view was looking down a long corridor that eventually reached another dead end (this was the “basement” of the fountain), but there was an opening in the right side, with steps leading up. I could see the far end of the bottom two steps, and knew this was an ideal setup because the perp would have to step off them when he entered my line of fire, the laws of physics guaranteeing that he would be at least slightly off balance when I fired on him. My idea was to knock him down and perhaps disarm him with a few stopper rounds (they were very good at that), then question him, and if he was a peacer, try to untangle the ethical knots that would present. If he was some other kind of criminal, it would be very simple—arrest him and lock him up in the cathedral that was also on top of Nob Hill, which Saul Rabin had turned into a high-tech jail after the quake. And if the masked man resisted arrest, I would shoot him with the killer rounds in the other boa. (That was the legal kind of murder in our new world order.)
Any notion of simple went out the window when I saw a proximity alert flashing in one of the tiny windows from the other perimeter cameras, and soon realized that a couple of lovers had been strolling by and decided to walk into the fountain. They were heading in our direction and could easily overtake the perp, which would complicate things considerably, so now I knew for sure that I needed to take him down as soon as he arrived, and before the couple could be caught in the fray.
Thankfully he arrived at my position before the couple did. I couldn’t hear him coming down the steps because of the sound of the fountain waters, but I could see him plain as day when he stepped off of them into the hallway. That seemed a bit clumsy for a peacer, but he may have not been at the top of his game, especially if he was being medicated. And he certainly wasn’t expecting his prey to be expecting him, let alone ready to shoot him.
I extended the boa I was holding around the corner, down low near the sight on the other gun that I was looking through, and fired three times. I could see the unmistakable blur of the stoppers as they each unfolded into a rubbery X shortly after they left the gun. At least one hit the man before he dove back up the stairs, but I could tell right away that he was not incapacitated, and that he might have held on to his weapon. The unsteadiness of my bent wrist and the awkward angle of the gunsight camera were to blame, but I hadn’t been ready to risk getting shot myself. Stopper rounds against killers was not a fair fight.
So I wasn’t sure what to do at this point, until I heard a scream from around the far corner and up the stairs. The masked man now had the couple as hostages, and the higher ground, so I probably should have let him leave to make sure of my own safety. But my military and police instincts prevailed and I picked up the killer boa, switched it with the other in my right hand, and moved out into the hallway.
I was halfway toward the opening to the steps when I heard the perp’s voice from them.
“You must be BASS,” he said, “because the squatters would never use stoppers.”
“Michael Ares,” I said matter-of-factly, and then prepared to move much faster when I reached the next corner. He paused after I said my name, which may have meant he was a peacer, but maybe not, because many of the criminals knew me as well.
“Don’t follow or identify me,” he said, “because my authorization comes from higher than you. And I know you will not fire again while I’m holding these two.”
While he was speaking, because it would be hard for him to shoot and talk at the same time, I dove across the opening with my head pointed up the steps toward him, and rolled out of his sight when I hit the ground on the other side. Then I quickly curled up and crouched near the corner, so I could fire around it again if I needed to.
What I had seen in that brief second of reconnaissance was him standing at the top of the stairs, holding the two women in front of him by their collars, with his gun over the shoulder of the one on his right. My frantic mind flipped through my options, which weren’t many, but he made that all moot with his next move. A tiny gas pellet bounced down the stairs, already emitting its gray fumes into the air around it. It landed a few feet from me and stopped spraying, but I had to move back along the wall behind me, toward the dead end, because the gas was slowly expanding in my direction.
“We’re leaving,” he shouted. “If you want to live, wait till the gas dissipates. Or if you hold your breath and try to run through it, you’d better go the other way, because I’ll be dropping more behind me.” I thought it unlikely that it was lethal gas, which was very hard to come by, and this stuff looked a lot like the kind that we used to knock out criminals. But I couldn’t be sure.
Nevertheless, I stepped quickly away from the gas to the dead end of the hall, drew in a deep breath, then stepped back quickly to the corner. I peered around it, and when I could see that the perp was gone from the top of the stairs, I took off after him. I followed the trail of gas through the twisting corridors until I ran into another dead end. He had thrown a pellet down that hallway to misdirect me. I turned back and became increasingly disoriented in the dark, the gas distorting the night vision in my glasses and perhaps fogging them too. I tore them off, and had to feel my way with the one hand that was encumbered by the glasses, because I was covering my nose with the other one. My lips and teeth started to hurt because I had been clenching them together so tightly.
Finally, though, when it seemed I could hold my breath no longer, I found the exit and shot out into the city air, never more grateful for it. I bent over double and sucked in a fierce breath, and before I could stand up a body came flying into me from behind and bulldozed me to the ground. I had barely gotten the wind into me when it was knocked out of me again, and the tackler clasped me like a wrestler to keep me on the ground.
“What the hell?!” I yelled when I realized it was one of the hostages, and at the same time realized that I was still clutching both guns, despite everything that had just happened. (That was definitely the military background.) I spun around under her and pointed the boas at her head until she stopped struggling and sprawled backwards on the ground.
“What…,” I said again.
“He told me to delay you, or else he’d kill my girlfriend,” she said, gesturing toward the bay. I looked that way and saw the perp almost to the Ferry Building, dragging the other woman by the arm.
“I don’t think he will,” I said as I gathered myself, stood up, and tucked the boas back into my belt.
I started to move toward the Ferry Building, slipped the glasses back on, and said “Call 904, Keren Reyes.” Immediately a large portion of the glasses depicted Reyes’ view. To show me that she had done what I instructed, her eyes were fixed on an imposing barrier that slid into place on the bottom floor exit of the Ferry Building parking garage, to block any cars from leaving. I told her what I wanted her to do now, and watched through her glasses as she jogged to a concealed spot around the corner from the garage’s elevator, which led to the roof.
“What happens if he’s parked on the ground floor?” she asked.
“If you’re right, which I’m thinking more and more that you are, he’ll be parked on the roof.”
She used the same trick I had done with the sight of one of her guns, but with more efficient results. For when the masked man and his hostage approached the elevator, confirming my educated guess, she stepped out with the other gun and put it to the back of his head. He raised both hands. She took his firearm, then pulled the woman away from him.
“I only want her,” she said to him, and followed my instructions by heading out of the garage with the hostage. But she looked back for a while as she moved away, so through her glasses I could see the man shrug in bewilderment and enter the elevator. I turned off her feed and stood on the street outside, situated so that I could watch the roof but also be close enough to the garage exit that I could get there quickly if he tried to drive out and was stopped by the closed barrier.
That proved to be unnecessary, however, because soon I heard a familiar sound from the roof and saw a sleek black car rise into the night sky from its parking place there. It turned away from my position and headed out over the bay.
“Well,” I said to nobody. “I guess we know he’s a peacer now.”
The flying cars, commonly called “aeros,” were the sole property of BASS and were used exclusively and only by our agents. The Sabon antigravity technology that powered them had been invented by a Silicon Valley company that was under Saul Rabin’s “protection” since the earthquake, so he owned the rights to something the rest of the world wanted, which made him one of its most powerful people. He was also one of the most enigmatic, which I had to admit even though he was my boss and benefactor, and I was wondering if he knew and approved of what the masked man had been doing.
I began walking back to my own aero to find out.
On my way to the car, I called the castle and asked for a different tech, to keep the knowledge of this case spread out. I told this one to scan the BASS database and The Eye (our satellite system) for an aero that was at the Ferry Building a few minutes before and was now somewhere over the bay. She almost immediately found it, and identified the peacer as Malachi Stein (Mal for short), a man who had been at BASS before I was and whom I did not know much about, except for his other nickname and a few rumors that went along with it. The tech also informed me that Stein had just landed on the northwest corner of Alcatraz Island, and now I was almost totally sure that I knew what the man had been doing.
I was glad that I hadn’t called the other tech again, because he and Stein both had Jewish names and may have had a relationship with one another. There was a small but noticeable contingent of God’s chosen people in the employ of BASS, presumably because their background, if not their own beliefs, fit better than others with the Mayor’s moral values. The fact that he hired me to a high level position without knowing me first always puzzled me, but perhaps it was at least partially explained by my military background, which ingrained into me some of those values, like justice and loyalty. His senior executive peacer, Darien Anthony (known to me as “D”) had learned them preparing for and playing professional sports, and Saul’s son Paul, who was the vice president and head of operations, had learned them from his father. D and Paul were the only two men above me, except for the old man himself, and it was they who would need to make a decision about this situation.
I called D when I reached the aero, because he was primarily responsible for peacer hiring and firing. Paul had the authority to do so, but had his hands full with the business and science ends of BASS, and usually deferred to D on personnel matters. I also called D because I was a bit closer to him, and although I considered Paul a friend, I was less comfortable with waking up the “crown prince” at this hour of the morning.
As the car hummed to life and lifted off from the street, D’s groggy face appeared on the right side of the windshield.
“This better be good,” the handsome black man said, scratching his head.
“I know who killed the three squatters that Harris has been bitching about,” I said.
“Okay, good. You got me up for that?”
“It’s a peacer.”
He paused a moment, then he said, “So?”
“So it could be a big PR problem for us.”
“We are a big PR problem,” he said, and he would know, because along with Paul he handled almost all our interactions with the media. This was another reason he had been hired, no doubt, because Saul himself was notoriously inept at that. “We’ve survived worse before. We’ll insist it was necessary, and people will believe what they want to believe. And criminals like the squatters will fear us even more, which is the point of the peacer force anyway.”
“I don’t think it was necessary,” I said.
“All the more fear then.”
I was disappointed in my friend’s reaction, but not surprised by it. “Will Paul see it the same way?” I asked.
“More so,” he answered, scratching his head again.
“This peacer could be unstable,” I said, trying a different approach, which seemed to work. I could see him become more attentive. “His name is Mal Stein. Didn’t you and Paul have a nickname for him?”
“Yeah, Franken Stein,” he said, chuckling. “because of his medical record. He’s had a lot of operations and medications. We considered laying him off at one point because it just seemed excessive. But you talk about a PR problem…fire someone for a mental illness they can’t help—supposedly—and you’ll have a firestorm of activists at your door. Besides, he’s always been very loyal to BASS.”
“To a fault?”
“Maybe. But he’s only been a problem for criminals, as far as I know, and never for us.” He thought for a moment. “Tell you what. Why don’t you talk to him, make sure that whatever latest treatment he’s on is working okay, and that he’s not gonna turn against us. If that’s the case, then we want to stand behind those who are standing for BASS.” That was something the old man had said, more than a few times. “Talk to him and report to me and Paul at our supervisory meeting on Thursday. I’ll inform Paul in the meantime, and we’ll make a decision then.”
“Okay. Get some sleep.”
“No thanks to you,” he said, and hung up.
By now my aero was over the bay and approaching Alcatraz, which BASS still maintained as a lucrative tourist attraction, with almost two million paying customers per year. I called up peacer locations as an overlay on the windshield, and was surprised to not see a red dot on the northwest corner, in light of the information I had just gotten from the tech. Had Stein left already? I asked the windshield for recent movements, and then saw a red line stretching from somewhere near my position to the abandoned Model Industries building on that part of the island. I zoomed in and saw that Stein’s aero had disappeared into the inside corner of the L-shaped structure, which again confirmed what I thought he had been doing, and that he was probably cleaning it up.
As I floated past the long New Industries building, which had been built by the prison after some inmates had escaped from the Model Industries one, I thought about how symbolic it was that Stein had chosen this place to do his dirty work for BASS. Saul Rabin always liked to point out, as an illustration of some archaic principle, how the buildings on Alcatraz suffered far less damage than anywhere else because they were “built on the rock.” The Model Industries building served his illustrative purpose even better than the others, because it rested right on the edge of a huge cliff face at the edge of the island.
I set my aero down on the other side of the concrete building from the cliff, with my headlights pointing into the opening that Stein had entered, which was on the bottom of three stories. The light clearly exposed his parked aero inside the opening, and him standing on top of it pulling some kind of tarp off the ceiling. He looked toward me and shielded his eyes for a moment, but then just kept on working. I pulled my boas around to the front of my belt, the one loaded with stoppers near my right hand, and exited the aero, leaving the lights on so I could see the scene.
As I approached, I noticed that he wore at least one gun on his belt—his jacket rode up as he reached toward the ceiling and revealed it. But I knew he would only draw it if he was really crazy, because I had the light behind me, making my figure a difficult silhouette to target, and the glasses inside his mask would obscure his vision further.
“What you have here is a classic blind kill box,” I said as I entered the building, and watched him as he continued pulling the tarp from the adhesives that attached it to the ceiling. “The first squatter you saw coming out of the tunnel, you forced her into a dark alley and shot her, leaving the body. But the squatters found it and made some noise about the ordnance, so the second one you brought here and killed with a knife, after you had some fun with him.” The pictures of the castrated victim flashed through my brain as I made my way slowly around the parked aero.
“You hung the hard polymer canvas so The Eye couldn’t record it, and then you threw the body out the window on the other side, so that it would bounce off the cliff and end up in the bay. You probably weighted it, but the creatures in these waters are famous for sending corpses back up.” They often chewed at the limbs that were attached to the anchoring device, thereby freeing the body to float to the surface.
I rounded the front of Stein’s aero more quickly, not wanting him to be between me and the light, and I crouched next to a pile of three zippered silver bags, which were the size of human bodies, but empty.
“So then you brought the third squatter here and sent him over the cliff in one of these handy weighted sheaths, and he’s still down there.” I moved toward the back of the aero and stopped at a spot where the light was at my back, but I wasn’t blocking any of it that was on him. “Too bad you have to stop now, just when you have your system perfected.”
“I don’t have to stop,” he said, and then jumped down off the back of the aero, pulling the rest of the tarp from the ceiling, and started to fold it up. “I’ll just find a new place that you won’t know about, so you won’t be tempted to talk about it or come looking for me. Which you won’t.”
“Because you don’t want to mess with me, and you sure as hell don’t want to mess with my boss.”
“I am your boss, Mal. Or at least one of them.”
“No, you’re not,” he said as he finished folding the tarp and was stuffing it into the back of the aero. “You’re a newbie who can’t possibly understand the way we work at BASS, and how the Mayor wants things done.” He turned to faced me now, the black half-cowl reflecting the light from my aero. “Those squatters are blaspheming his name every day they stay in the Red Tunnel and vomit their rancid puke onto the net. We would never have allowed that in the early days.”
“That was a time of extreme emergency,” I said. “Things have settled down now. We need some semblance of justice.”
“Saul Rabin is justice in this town,” he pointed at me, “and those who oppose him deserve to die. It’s as simple as that.”
“You talk about him like he’s God.”
“To me he is God,” Stein said, his mask nodding up and down. “The Mayor is my savior, that’s for sure, more than any Jesus H. Christ on a cross. I was trapped in the Tenderloin after the quake hit, and my family and friends were dying one by one, and I would have been next if the peacers hadn’t come in with guns blazing. They didn’t have any time to ask which criminals should live and which should die, and we still don’t have time for that.”
Maybe that was one of the reasons Saul brought me to BASS, I thought. I wasn’t saved by him, so I can be a little more objective than those who were.
“You’re not saying that you actually have authorization from Saul Rabin himself,” I asked, “for what you’ve been doing?”
“Not directly,” he admitted as he resumed his work, hauling the body sheaths into the trunk of the aero. “But the Mayor doesn’t have time to make operational decisions himself—he trusts in us peacers to do what’s in the best interest of BASS.” That was another thing I had heard the old man say.
“How’s that helmet working out for you?” I said, gesturing toward his headgear. “I understand you’ve had some problems, in the past.”
“I’ve never been better,” he said between grunts of effort as he dragged and lifted the heavy bags. “I’m so glad to be done with all the medicines I’ve tried since the trauma I suffered in the quake—I could never get those pills just right. This contraption sends waves into my brain, or something like that. But I’m feeling a lot better and thinking a lot clearer.”
“I don’t agree, Malachi,” I said as gently but firmly as I could. “I think you’re done at BASS, and I think you should receive a class-C dismissal that says you’re not fit for law enforcement. So no one else will hire you for this kind of work.”
He finished loading the trunk and faced me.
“Well, it’s a good thing you can’t do that to me,” he said. “I work for the Mayor.”
“Actually he’s delegated all such decisions to a team of three men, and I’m one of them.”
“Good luck convincing Paul Rabin and Darien Anthony that they should fire someone who’s doing exactly what they want to be done.”
“Stranger things have happened,” I said. “They’re the only ones who have to be convinced. And when so much power is in the hands of so few, it cuts both ways. It’s great when it goes your way, but when it doesn’t, not so much.”
“It will go my way,” he said defiantly, “and even if it doesn’t, I’ll appeal to the Mayor, and then you’ll be the one who gets cut.”
“In that case, as you so graciously said to me,” I turned away from him and walked toward my aero, “Good luck.” There was no point in arresting him, because I realized he could be right, and this all might end up being a bigger black eye for me than for him.
I kept walking with my back turned toward him, because I was convinced that he really expected to survive this, and therefore wouldn’t cause me any harm. But I did have the rearview feature activated in my glasses, just in case.
I took off from the Rock without incident, and was barely in the air for a minute when I knew exactly what I was going to say at our supervisory meeting the next day. I already had composed and rehearsed one particular line in my mind.
Thursday arrived, and with it the regular meeting with Paul and D, where we tried to make as many executive level decisions as we could in an hour. We had gathered so many times in this conference room on the twenty-fourth floor of the castle, that we no longer even noticed the awesome view of the city through the transteel wall on one side of it.
I waited until an appropriate time, and brought up the situation.
“That reminds me,” I offered. “I talked to Franken yesterday.” I used the nickname intentionally, so they would be thinking about the man’s instability.
“What did he say?” Paul asked.
I took a moment to respond, trying to remember the exact words.
“‘I’m sick of this place. I’d like to burn it down. I’m sick of the old man, and I’d like to slit his throat and drink his blood.’”
Paul and D looked at each other and snickered.
“I’m not surprised,” Paul said. “He’s on about ten different drugs, the second five balancing the first five—you know how it goes. He can’t be held responsible for his actions right now, but he also can’t be an agent anymore.”
“Let him go, and give him a class-C,” Darien suggested, looking at Paul, who nodded.
After the legal notice of the class-C termination was delivered to Stein, he used up every favor he had ever earned from other BASS employees to get a video of a final desperate appeal to the notoriously reclusive Saul Rabin. I didn’t see it, but I assumed it said something like, “I don’t know what Michael Ares said about me to get me fired, but I am your most loyal man, have always been, and will always be.”
The Mayor did watch the video, but merely out of deference to the man’s many years on the force, and his response was very brief:
“Malcolm, I am grateful for your service to our company. However, I don’t have the time or energy to micromanage or second-guess the operational decisions of my executive peacers. I have to trust they are doing what is best for BASS.”
Stein must have stalked me for days after that, seething with rage but patiently waiting for his moment of revenge, because he managed to catch me at one of the few times I was actually vulnerable. I had walked out of the castle after work to visit the Occidental Cigar Club a few blocks away on Pine Street, as I often did after I had smoked some of those legal cigarettes and found them less than fully satisfying. The recent invention of those High Lights, as they were called, was truly a wonder of chemical engineering, simulating the effects of nicotine without the carcinogens. But for me and many others, they still left something to be desired.
That’s why Occidental had been able to rebuild their business about ten times larger after the quake, and had a constant stream of customers ever since. Saul Rabin outlawed smoking when he came to power, as other parts of the Americas had already done, but made an exception for a few establishments like this one, which he had frequented during his days on the police force. So people could buy and smoke cigars and pipes at Occidental, but it was only legal on their property—in the Club itself or on the patios outside.
After enjoying a nice Warlock cigar while I watched the end of the sunset from an upper patio, I walked up Pine Street and cut across Joice to California. I always went this way, because the beginning of Joice Street was a hidden gem in the San Francisco landscape, appreciated by the locals and thus preserved during the reconstruction of the city. It was a small rainbow-shaped alley with about fifty steep steps on the Pine Street side, and a paved path almost as steep on the other end.
The masked man who was following me didn’t confront me as I walked up the steps or crested the hill, but when I was halfway down the slope on the California side. So he had the high ground, and I was at a serious disadvantage from the start.
“Ares,” he called from behind and above me on the hill, and I turned to face him. “No words or guns are necessary.”
I knew what he meant, and it was exactly what I had expected from him. He wasn’t stupid enough to try to kill me, or even cut me up, because BASS would exact a very inevitable and final retribution on him if he did. But if he took his anger out on me with his own hands in a fair fight, the worst he could expect would be a brief incarceration in the cathedral. And he probably thought I would be so shamed and embarrassed by a beating that I would drop the whole thing and not even report it, so that no one would know what happened.
On the other hand, I was thinking about the positive effects a beating might have on him, not the least of which was that he might realize who he was up against and give up on the whole revenge thing. So I pulled back on the bottom corners of my jacket with both hands to show him that my boas were on the back of my belt, and he did the same. I knew he had been required to hand in his BASS guns when he was terminated, but he still might have one back there, because many peacers kept their own personal weapons at home.
A couple of pedestrians crested the hill behind the masked man, but then ran away when they saw us facing each other down.
Stein opened the floodgates on the anger that had been percolating inside him, and rushed toward me down the hill. The rush turned into a low double-legged kick at the end, the recklessness of which surprised me, but not enough that I couldn’t crouch and take most of the impact with my crossed arms. If he had hit my legs from any angle, which he was hoping for, I would have been crippled at least temporarily, and the fight would have been extremely short. But as it was, I merely toppled backward with a modicum of pain, and he was spun sideways when he landed.
In a moment, we were both back on our feet, too close now for any more of that flying crap. I blocked a blow and ducked another, then dodged a kick to the groin. I had three openings during this flurry where I could have struck at him, but instead I used each of them to move a little farther to his side, so we would be in a more even position on the steep hill. I think this was the key to the whole fight, because if I would have retaliated while staying below him, he could have taken me out. Maybe. But thankfully, my special forces training, which he didn’t have, included tactical strategy. I was able to think before I hit.
The next block with my right forearm was followed by a battering ram of my elbow to the center of his mask and the upper half of his face. I drove the sharp point of my elbow into it with the force from my upper arm, shoulder, back, and my whole body as I turned into the blow.
Stein’s mask was split in two places as he staggered back, and a piece of it hung loose like it was about to fall off. And it did fall off when he shook his head as if he was trying to clear his mind. Then he surprised me again by diving head-first into my mid-section, driving us both to the ground. This was, of course, a big mistake, because now I was connected with the ground and had all the leverage. I smashed the side of his head with the same kind of upper-arm shiver and brought my knee up into his crotch at the same time, which weakened his grip and sent him rolling down the hill about five feet.
I made my first mistake by standing up right away, to show him I was unhurt, instead of watching him closely. He must have realized he couldn’t win, because when he rolled over onto his back, he proved to be more stupid than I had thought by coming up with a gun in his hand. Before he could fire, however, a shot rang out and the X of a stopper round slammed into his arm, sending the gun flying. Keren Reyes was standing near the top of the hill with her own gun pointed at the man, who was now holding his injured arm and rocking back and forth in pain.
When he got over the initial shock of being shot, and looked at me, I patted the front pocket of my jacket, where my glasses were sticking out just enough to be filming whatever was in front of me.
“She’s been monitoring me when I go out,” I said with a gesture toward Reyes, and a shrug of my shoulders. “I don’t mind a fair fight, but only with equals.”
I told him that he could leave, but if I saw him again, there would be no mutual sparring, just a bad case of police brutality.
About a week later, Paul forwarded me a net clip of Harris interviewing the latest addition to the squatters’ ranks:
“You say you want a revolution,” he started out singing, with his voice superimposed over the original music. “Well you know, we all want to change the world. And the world is changing, Friends! Hellboy Harris here with our new friend Mal Stein, who after fifteen years as a BASS peacer (insert laughter) finally had enough of the bloody tyranny at the Fortress of Intolerance and decided to join the Good Guys.”
At first I was surprised by this, but then I wasn’t, as I thought about it more.
“So tell us, Mal-man,” Harris continued. “You used to be on a steady diet of Hate Muffins toward the brothers and sisters here in the Red Tunnel, but now we are fam-i-ly, get up everybody and sing! What happened?”
“I realized what you’ve been saying about BASS is all true,” Stein answered. He wasn’t wearing anything on his shaved head, except for some new tattoos, to match the other new ones on his nearly naked body. I wondered if he’d been trying some new kind of “medication” that he hadn’t been allowed to use while employed by us, because he seemed at least a bit stoned. “You are a prophet…and a real hero, Brother Harris. The bravery you have shown by standing up to The Man is…is…is without peer.”
“Well, thangyouverymush,” Harris said, while tilting his head down and raising one eyebrow. “I feel like one of the Blushing Brides...”
I didn’t hear much of the rest of the interview, because I was trying to remember a famous quote by the activist Yuan Cheng about “when my God doesn’t believe in me,” or something like that. I looked up the English translation in a second window in my glasses, and found it:
“There is no finer line between love and hate than for whatever we worship. Blind devotion is driven more by the needs of the devotee than the quality of the object. A god who rejects you can easily become a devil to you, and a devil your god.”
That was even more appropriate than I’d expected.
As I closed both windows, and this brief chapter in my life, I glanced at the note Paul had appended to the video link.
“Franken Stein indeed,” it said.
“We created a monster.”
Copyright © 2012 by David Swavely