The wind blasts rain into my face as I turn the corner onto Tamar’s street. I push my hands deeper into my pockets and press forward, snugging my chin down into my collar in a futile attempt to keep the rain out of my neck. It’s still mid-afternoon, but clouds racing by overhead have grown so thick that the lights from Tamar’s marquee gleam and flicker in the water streaming down the road as if it were already late evening.
The car park is nearly empty and the guard is missing, but when I pry open the unguarded club door I am greeted by the familiar wall of light and noise. Derrin, our usual afternoon bouncer, leans against the entryway wall, pulling on his vaporizer. He rapidly twists it off and tries to hide it in a pocket when he recognizes me, but the scent of jelly doughnuts still hangs heavy in the air. Gem, the desk girl, flashes me her usual smile, then goes back to reading a gossip column on her eper.
“Sorry, Tal. I though—“
“Save it,” I mutter, making no effort to keep him dry as I shake water from my arms. I can’t blame the man for wanting to escape the miserable cold and rain, but I can make him uncomfortable so he doesn’t become complacent and start abandoning the door in better wether. I pull back my sodden hair and cock a thumb towards the inner doors of the club. “We still open?”
“Yeah. Tamar said we ought to keep running at least until evening. Hell, way it’s looking out there we might end up keeping some folks through the storm.”
“You sticking around if that happens?”
Derrin shrugs. Reaches for the vaporizer in his pocket, then catches himself and tries to make the motion look like he’s just smoothing his uniform. “Nothing stopping me. Ya’ll provide meals and keep me on the clock, I’m happy to pull a few days straight.”
“I’ll let Tamar know if I see her.”
I push through the inner doors and pick my way across the dance floor, being careful to move behind customers rather than blocking their view of the stage. Fiona’s on the prime stage right now. Nice enough girl. Smart too. Last time we sat down to review her contract she told me she’s estimating five more years working for Tamar and her investments should be sufficient to retire, assuming the markets don’t crash. She could retire sooner, but she prefers to stick with dancing rather than joining the ranks of Tamar’s manikins. I’d like to see that. Tamar is careful who she picks, more cautious than most club managers, but even she can’t stop some of the boys and girls who come through here from buying into the fantasy, from believing that their clients actually care about them as people, rather than entertainers. That always ends in tears, and occasionally in me having to deliver a short, pointed lesson on the brutality of the world.
Half way across the floor my eyes lock on a familiar face around the far side of the stage.
It’s Vakha. He’s sitting at the stage, drinking a cocktail and idly sliding house chits towards Fiona as she performs.
“Quit blocking the show!” an angry voice calls. I startle and look around to see a willowy redheaded woman leaning forward in her chair and waving for me to move aside. Nodding apologies, I quickstep across the room and pause by the backstage door.
Looking back towards the stage, I see that Fiona has taken the bait and departed the pole to put on her floor show for the man I took to be Vakha. I can hardly see his face past her gyrating body, but I manage to catch a few glimpses between undulating limbs. The resemblance is certainly there, but he isn’t Vakha.
He can’t be Vakha.
Vakha is dead.
I thumb the lock and push though to backstage, nod sullen greetings to the performers who call out to me, and stump down the hall and up the steps to my office. I should have just gone around to the private door on the side alley, but that would have meant another minute trudging through the rain and wind. Still, it would have saved me hallucinating a dead man in the middle of Tamra’s club.
I push open the door to my office and see Vahka sitting in my chair with his feet on my desk.
“Talbot Liu,” he says. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
My knees go loose. I lurch to the left and catch myself against the wall, then regain my composure just enough to stumble to the worn green velvet sofa. The dark is rising. The cold hand that grips my throat and punches me in the gut repeatedly until I suddenly have to piss.
“You’re pretty easy to find for someone who lives on the edge of the law. Most of the scum in this city at least have the decency to hide but you…” he waves a hand over his head in a circular sweep that encompasses my rooms, Tamar’s club, maybe the whole district. “You have a neon sign pointing right to you.”
I grit my teeth and manage to sit upright, bracing my clammy palms on my thighs so I don’t collapse into a ball of quivering nerves. I get my face under control and glare at Vakha. “You are supposed to be dead.”
“Was that your plan, Talbot? Were you working with her all along?”
“Working with who?”
“Iris. I should have known it. That was all too convenient. You showing up at my car. The tip coming in just a few hours later from your contact.” He swings his feet down to the floor and leans forward, brushing epers and pens and an empty bourbon bottle to the floor as he rests his elbows on my desktop and jabs an angry finger at me from across the room. “You set me up to get killed. Guess Iris didn’t count on me activating the whole crew, did she?”
The shakes and chills are mostly under control now, but my gut is churning and a deep, throbbing headache is setting up house at the base of my skull. There’s something I am missing here, starting with how Vakha got into my rooms. Correction: Starting with how the fuck he is still alive.
“Where is it?” he asks.
“Where is what?”
“Don’t play dumb Talbot. I know who you are. I don’t even have to step down into your gutter to do it. All it will take is a few calls and I can get this shitty whorehouse bought out from under you.”
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about, Vakha. Is it Vakha? I saw you die there in the hotel. Saw your brains decorating the wallpaper. How is it you’re sitting here?”
Vakha sighs and folds his hands in front of him. He leans forward, as if preparing to whisper to me, but speaks with plenty of volume for me to hear him room across the room. “Listen, Talbot. I can’t tell you everything, not even half of everything. My employers are extremely worried about the girl.”
He grimaces. “I shouldn’t have used that name. It’s just a nickname some of the scientists used. Really a mistake on their part. Truth be told, I shouldn’t not even call the missing property a girl. I ought to call it product N-Nineteen.”
“Product.” This is getting stranger and stranger. It’s one thing to look for a nameless lost girl, another to team up with a corporate stiff to try and find a missing experiment of some sort. But this is getting seriously weird. “You said product before. Back when we were discussing terms. Something about her DNA being doped to interfere with any tests.”
“What is she?”
“It,” he says, emphasizing the inhumanity of the pronoun, “is a prototype weapons platform. The body is a biological sheath grown over a metaloceramic skeleton. The head is supposed to be filled with an advanced telepresence server wired up to a rudimentary brain stem, allowing the operator to sit safely in an office while their body infiltrates enemy compounds.”
He pauses and waits silently with one eyebrow cocked.
I decide to deny him whatever question he is expecting. Instead, I push myself up from the sofa and take an unsteady step forward. A smile quirks the left corner of my mouth. Made it through a whole attack without even hearing from the daemon. Score another point for Talbot. I shuffle across the room and pull a mug from the shelf above the Koffee maker, then pour myself a drink.
I don’t offer him one.
Eventually, the reborn Vakha continues his story. “Unfortunately, one of the scientists got the idea that the flesh puppets he was building had rights and allowed this one to grow a brain. It’s dangerous, Talbot. You saw what it did to Vakha. I don’t know how you got out of there alive, but you are fortunate.”
“So you’re not Vakha?” I ask, sipping my Koffee and trying to decide whether it would be better try and talk this man into leaving or if I should just kill him and dump his body in the rain.
He laughs bitterly and shakes his head. “No. Don’t be stupid, Talbot. Vakha I are partners. These faces,” he waves a hand across his profile, “were part of our last assignment.”
“This a part of your last job too?”
With that I toss the implant that the girl ripped from Vakha’s neck onto my desk.
The lookalike shouts a complex stream of profanity and jumps up from my desk chair as bits of gore splatter off the snarl of implant wires. I only just catch the flick of his eye, but it’s enough of a warning.
Just barely enough.
The lookalike’s companion must have been hiding in the toilet when I came in. Before I can get my knife out, the hidden accomplice has a wire around my neck. The warning I got was just enough for me to get a hand up between the wire and the front of my throat, but the would-be assassin has leverage on his side, especially when he slams a knee into my back. I slam the cup of hot Koffee over my shoulder and am rewarded with a slackening of the wire and a stream of profanity. It’s not enough for me to get away, but plenty distraction for me to slip a blade form my sleeve and drop it into my now free hand.
“You’re done, Talbot,” the lookalike snarls, stepping up in front of me. He’s got the implant in his left hand and a fully extended stun stick in his right. “Thanks for bringing this, but I’ve had enough of your interference.”
The wire relaxes and the accomplice steps back, probably so Vakha’s lookalike can hit me with the stun stick safely. I lunge back, bringing up my knife, but then the stunner hits me and it’s like a hammer slamming into my right shoulder. My arm spasms and I drop my knife, then fall right on top of it. Now I’m laying on my face, right arm useless as a limp sausage, trying to not piss my pants for the second time in five minutes.
Vakha’s lookalike kneels down beside me and grabs the hair at the top of my head, craning my neck back until he can look into my eyes.
“I’m going to string you up with a cord from one of these bleeding retro lamps. I’m going to sit right there on your desk and watch you twitch like a hooked fish until your neck snaps or you run out of air.”
Lucky for me I still have my left hand.
I find the hilt of my knife with my left hand and just manage to wrap my fingers around it before Lookalike’s accomplice grabs the back of my jacket and hauls me up. It’s exactly what I need. The angle is awkward, but it doesn’t take a lot of dexterity to slam a six inch blade into a man’s gut and haul it up until it bounces off his sternum and slips back out.
Lookalike gags out a scream as his guts take a swan dive to the floor. It’s enough to surprise Accomplice and he lets go of my collar. I take that as an invitation to spin around and perform some impromptu plastic surgery on his face, but my whole right side disagrees, owing to its recent introduction to an overload of electrical current. My attack swings wide and I and up sticking my blade into his shoulder.
That’s when I see his face.
This one looks just like Vakha too.
He lashes out and catches me on the jaw with a solid fist, knocking me back so I stumble into the pile of viscera that Lookalike has just dumped onto my otherwise spotless floor. My boots slip atop a length of intestine and I trip over Lookalike’s legs, then tumble to the floor.
Accomplice snarls at me and rips the knife from his arm, unleashing a spurt of blood.
Out of the corner of my eye I spot Lookalike clawing at his stomach, vainly trying to repack the guts that are now tangled around both of our ankles. Laying beside him is the stun stick.
I lunge towards him and grab for the stun stick just as Accomplice stalks towards me, knife raised. He’s slowed by the widening pool of blood and viscera, and I manage to roll over and bring the stun stick up between us just as he clears the puddle and brings my knife down in a savage, two-fisted strike. The prods strike him in the chest and he spasms, practically throwing my knife into my lap as the electric charge blasts through his whole body. He collapses atop the stick, nearly driving the handle down into my chest, but I manage to shunt him to my left and roll up to my knees.
The stick is whining softly, capacitors recharging in preparation for another strike.
“I’ll kill you,” Accomplice snarls as he tries, unsuccessfully, to push himself to his feet.
“You’re welcome to try,” I reply.
Then I ram the tip of the shock stick into his face and press the trigger.
I don’t know if the discharge kills him, but it certainly destroys at least one of his eyes and knocks him out.
I’ve just managed to crawl over to my desk and pull myself upright again when I hear feet on the steps leading down to the club. I turn, raising the shock stick and expecting to see the third man I thought I had spotted downstairs. After this encounter, I’m convinced again that that guy was actually part of the gang.
Instead it’s Tamar I see standing in the doorway, clutching a sublethal defense pistol in her trembling hands. She looks from the mess on the floor to me and opens her mouth in mute question.
“Looks like Ethie bit off more than she expected,” I mutter.
“That’s what all this is?” she gasps.
“I think so.” I collapse the stun stick and tuck it into the left pocket of my coat, then turn and gingerly pick up the bloody bird nest from my desktop. “Think it has something to do with this.”
Tamar reaches into her bodice and pulls out a small, rose gold earbud. She screws it into her right ear as she steps closer, carefully avoiding the pool of blood. Her eyes widen as she spots the blood on the wires. “Lidia, have Derrin do another sweep to make sure that the troublemaker is gone.”
A pause. She tries to keep her eyes from straying to the mess I’ve made, but they keep creeping back.
I lean against my desk and inspect the tangled bodies. Accomplice might still be alive, depending on his tolerance for taking a couple million volts to the face, but he’s not moving. Lookalike might have a few more minutes remaining before clinical brain death, but he’s stopped thrashing and appears to be slowly leaking out the last contents of his abdominal cavity.
“Fine. Send housekeeping to Talbot’s office. Then check the security recordings. Your team let two of the bastard’s accomplices up here. Yes, I’m sure. No. He took care of it.”
She taps the earbud off and looks to me. “You alright?”
“It’s going to take a bit to get this cleaned up. You want to come over to my rooms?”
I shake my head, feeling the slightest twinge of what might be guilt at the corner of my mind. This was why the girl told me not to go home. “No. I need to disappear for a few days.”
“But the storm—“
“Will cover my escape. I doubt that Security’s recognition systems can track me through this much rain. I’ll just be another guy in a coat coming out of the club. The drones won’t even be able to fly in this weather.”
She looks like she wants to argue. Knowing Tamar, part of her probably wants to come with me. It took a lot of nerve for her to leave Federal territory and apply for city residence, even more for her to make the journey on her own and set up this place. I’m more comfortable with the bloodwork that is sometimes the price of doing business, but anyone who thinks Tamar is soft is likely to find themselves nursing a broken nose or an emptied bank account.
“Fine. Stay safe.”
I stuff the implant into my right pocket and step into the mess to retrieve my knife. You’d think that all this blood would trigger another attack, but the daemon has been pushed back into its corner, kept at bay by a blast of pure adrenaline.
At least, that’s the story I tell myself as I cross my office and start washing off my knife in the bathroom sink. I’ve got others, but this one is still in fine condition. If I make it through the next week alive I’ll probably scribe a commemorative note into it and add it to my collection. It’s not often one of my blades is almost used against me.
“You’re doing it again,” Tamar says, breaking my concentration.
“Doing what?” I say, irritated.
“Talking to yourself.”
“Everyone talks to themselves. You do it. I’ve seen you.”
“Yeah, but not everyone lives their life half a step away from a psychotic break.”
I lean my head out of the bathroom and point at her with my knife. “That’s not very supportive.”
“I don’t have to be supportive, Tal. You just spilled some bastard’s guts all over my floor, and you haven’t even explained why identical triplets came to my club tonight intent on roughing you up.”
“Triplets?” I ask.
There’s a knock at the door. I turn off the water, dry my knife on a hand towel, and slip it back into my sleeve as Tamar lets a couple of cleaners in to begin disposing of the bodies. This isn’t their official job. Tamar’s is pretty respectable as far as pleasure houses go, but every now and then there’s a corporate officer who has a heart attack or an elected official who gets to rough with one of the manikins and it’s just better for business if they are found dead in their own bed, rather than our establishment.
“Christ Tal, did you have to make such a mess of it?” asks one of them, a middle aged woman named Henrietta who has been cleaning toilets and dumping bodies in the city longer than I’ve been alive.
“Lay off it, Hen,” Jamal says, before I can reply. “You alright man?”
“Fine enough.” Not really, but it’ll do for now.
“You’ve got a lot of blood on you, man.”
I nod to Tamar and walk towards the door, pointedly ignoring Jamal’s obvious statement. So far I’ve managed to keep my wits about me and stay calm, even though I really want to climb into a vat of enzymatic cleaner. These two are so similar they must have been custom grown, so there’s a good chance that they are engineered to have heightened immune systems, but that doesn’t mean that they are clean. Their guts alone could be rife with…
“Tal!” Tamar is standing in front of me, hands on my shoulders.
“You just checked out.”
I look around. Henrietta and Jamal are both gone, and the bodies with them. The floor is still a mess, so they’ll be back soon. “How long?”
“Probably three minutes. You just sort of slowed down as you walked past. Then you stopped and stood frozen in the middle of the floor.”
“And you just left me there?”
Tamar shrugs. Grabs my arm. Leads me towards the door to the staircase. “You looked like you needed to think about something. Besides, it kept you out of the way while the bodies were hauled out.”
The staircase hasn’t changed in at least a dozen years. The same dim electric light illuminates the same yellow striped wallpaper, stained in two lines from the touch of dirty fingers where the railing should be and the accumulation of vape residue in the upper reaches. Tamar leads me down slowly, staying a step ahead of me because the space isn’t wide enough for two. An industrial dub rises up to greet us, heralding the dual performance of Vivica and Anton. On a normal night I might be down there, keeping an eye on the crowd from my favorite seat at the bar. Now and then I might have to leave my seat to escort a potentially troublesome client from the premises.
“You sure you want to leave?” Tamar asks.
“Yes,” I reply, without hesitation. “I shouldn’t have come back here.”
“What if they come back?”
The rear door to the club stands before me. Outside, I can hear the rain battering against the dark streets as the wind whistles through the buildings. “Keep the club open. Turn on the cameras and stream everything to the network. I don’t think they’ll come back if everything is public.”
“And what about you?”
The door rattles in its frame.