Authors: Mr Mike Berry
The harvesters got out and Whistler greeted the team leader of the receivers, a tall greying man in his fifties named Detherin.
‘Hey,’ she said, shaking his hand. Whistler and Detherin were long-time professional acquaintances, and she liked him well enough. ‘We got more goods for you. He’s a pretty boy, this one.’
‘Good stuff – let’s take a look,’ replied Detherin.
As they went to the van Detherin noted the numerous scars in its armour.
‘What happened to you?’ he asked, walking around the vehicle. He put his whole hand into the tear in the front. ‘Wow. What did this?’
‘Ah, we’ve been playing cops and robbers again, I’m afraid. S’nothing. Look at this guy.’
Detherin followed Whistler into the van where Tallen was unconscious on the stretcher, firmly strapped down. Tec had bandaged the wound in his arm. The harvesters had debated whether or not to mention the strange graze if they weren’t asked. They had decided that honesty was the better part of business.
‘Nice,’ said Detherin. ‘I’ve never seen a skin-mod like it. As always, your taste is excellent.’ He reached out to stroke the shining orange dragon skin and peered at the life signs readout above the stretcher.
‘Yeah,’ said Whistler. ‘Only weird thing is this…’ She reached out, unpinned the bandage around Tallen’s upper arm and peeled it back to show him the wound. Detherin stared at it closely before answering. Even on the sterile cotton pad the blood had remained unmixed with the green fluid. They formed two separate stains like butterfly wings. ‘Strange, eh?’
‘Yeah, weird,’ he said thoughtfully, and then he shrugged. ‘We’ve had some contaminants recently.’
‘Really? What sort of contaminants?’
He laughed. ‘Damned if I know. I’m just a glorified Goods-Inwards department.’
‘Well let’s get him into your evil lair and get your evil money into my bank account.’
‘Oh,’ said Detherin apologetically, straightening to look Whistler in the face. ‘You have to go and see Smith first, I was told.’
‘What?’ This was very irregular. Whistler had only met Smith in person twice in all the years she had subcontracted for HGR.
‘Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing, really,’ said his voice while his eyes said something altogether different. ‘Just you, though. The others can sit in our lounge for a bit. I’ll start my guys looking at this,’ he indicated Tallen, ‘then when you come back I’m sure we can deal with the money. Once Smith has authorised it, of course.’
‘Of course,’ said Whistler, more cuttingly than she had intended. ‘I’d best head into the dragon’s den then.’
‘I’ll tell her you’re on your way.’
Whistler went out and informed the others of her unplanned meeting with the regional head of HGR. They looked concerned but agreed to stay put until she returned. Tec’s head was a worried yellow colour. It occurred to Whistler what a bad poker player he would make. She bade them behave themselves and got into the elevator. It demanded an iris scan and she told it to take her to the penthouse office of Mrs. Smith. It confirmed her clearance for this and the doors sighed shut. The gees smoothly increased as the lift accelerated into the distant heights of the tower, then smoothly decreased until finally it reached its destination.
Whistler stepped out onto a finely woven carpet of colour-shifting fibre optics between two armoured guards. They demanded her gun from her. She didn’t hand it to them, instead laying it carefully on the meranti side table where it contrasted dangerously against a company brochure showing beautifully-smiling, newly-modified women.
‘Nice,’ said one of the guards in a metallic voice that issued from some unseen speaker in his suit. One gloved hand reached for it.
‘Ah!’ Whistler coughed, stopping him. ‘I wouldn’t touch it.’ And leaving it at that, she strode past the butterfly-winged receptionist, who avoided her gaze and turned to announce her arrival into an intercom. Whistler knocked loudly on the huge double doors that led into the office of Mrs. Smith.
The doors opened seemingly of their own volition and Whistler walked in. The office was huge and high-ceilinged. A dome-shaped skylight gave onto the actual roof of the tower. A khaki-coloured gyrocopter swept overhead and away into the sky with a container clutched beneath its fuselage. The room was decked in chrome techno-gothic architecture. A huge slope-sided dais rose from the centre of the floor and upon this sat Mrs. Smith, drumming her fingers on the glass surface of the built-in desk. Her hair was tightly scraped back, her eyes were sharp flints – her general demeanour filled the room with sinister brooding. She was regarding Whistler coolly.
‘Whistler,’ she said. ‘My hired thug, skirmisher and supplier all in one. The unseen arm of HGR.’
‘Please sit.’ Whistler obeyed, sighing impatiently, and seated herself in the much lower supplicant’s chair. It was surprisingly uncomfortable, probably designed to hinder the concentration of the interviewee. ‘There was a problem with your last offering.’ Smith arched her fingers and awaited a reply.
Whistler let her wait, meeting her gaze. ‘What?’ she said after a while.
‘What, indeed,’ mused Smith, more to herself than to Whistler.
‘You don’t know? What the fuck? Am I getting paid or not?’
‘Three questions in one there, Whistler,’ admonished Smith, actually wagging a finger. Whistler wanted to bite it off. ‘One – not yet, but we are working hard to determine the exact nature of the problem. There is not really much to work
‘I don’t know what you mean. I only talk two languages – violence and money. If you can’t rephrase your statement within either of those frameworks, I guess we’re done.’ She started to stand, furious now, and sure that she was not to be paid.
‘Sit,’ said Smith with such quiet authority that Whistler found she had done it without even thinking. ‘Two – rather too general a query, I’m afraid. Perhaps we’ll come back to that. Three – not, I regret. I can’t even give you recyc value for that last piece of shit you brought me.’
‘The fuck!’ Whistler cried, incensed now. She cared not that technically this was her boss she spoke to. ‘That was good meat, Smith. The wings, yeah? Good meat! Good product! Fifty-thousand plus on any market, even black.’
‘I can’t even let you take it to resell by yourself, I’m afraid. I’m sorry.’
This – an actual apology, unprecedented from Mrs. Smith – placated Whistler a little, as Smith had known it would. She watched as Whistler deflated into her chair, palms spread in resignation. She noticed that the harvester was still clenching her jaw angrily, but the readout on her desk told her that Whistler’s heart rate had fallen slightly as the fight went out of her. Crisis averted and the flying knife perched on a moulding near the ceiling could sleep until another day.
So what’s wrong with it
?’ insisted Whistler. ‘Is the damn thing contaminated? Drugs? It can be cleansed, surely. Every bloody thing off the streets is contaminated with something. You clean it, right?’
‘Right. Usually. But we don’t know what this is. It’s something different. Some new organ from the black market. It seems to resist examination. We have some good people working on it, but until we know it’s safe we have to withhold payment. We have the product in cryo – if it passes, you’ll be paid.’
‘But that could be weeks, years or never, yeah?’
‘I’m afraid so, yes.’
‘Some way to treat a trusted subcontractor, man. Is there a fucking union I can join?’
Smith didn’t laugh although she admired Whistler for trying to make light of the situation. ‘The man with the wings – Leo Travant, he was called, by the way, is not the only case we have found. You know Two-Ton Pete and his team?’
‘Yeah. Amateurs. They step on our toes from time to time.’
‘Yes, well, they brought in a young woman contaminated with the same tissue last week, and another yesterday.’
‘So what, though? There’s always something new out there.’
‘Yes, but this is different.’
‘I told you. It resists examination. We don’t know what it does or where it comes from and until we know, payment is to be withheld. This is not public knowledge, you know. Pete’s team are not a party to it. All they know is that the produce was contaminated. We told them disease.’
‘So am I going to have a problem leaving here then?’ asked Whistler bluntly, studying the face of the woman poised above her.
‘No, no, nothing like that, I assure you. We wondered if you could help to...get things rolling again.’
‘How?’ asked Whistler, although she thought she already knew.
Smith’s face took on a distant look and Whistler knew she was listening to a call over DNI. Smith breathed deeply, steeling herself, and Whistler knew that it wasn’t good news.
‘Your new one has it, too.’
‘Oh that’s fucking
! Tell me what you want.’
‘We want you to find out where it’s coming from, if you can.’
‘The new organ.’
‘Yes. We will offer any help we can, but to be honest it’s likely to be minimal.’
‘I just bet it is.’
‘You know we have to be cautious with regards to our involvement in certain
. It’s down to you and your team.’
‘Right. And if we sort this, we get our money?’
‘Well, the good news is, I can offer you an intel fee. One hundred thousand up front. One more if you find the source.’
‘We could be on this for months, though. Two hundred doesn’t equal what we’d usually generate in that time. Nowhere near.’
‘Maybe you’ll solve it within the day. I really don’t know. Anyway, take it or leave it.’ Smith began to tap at the keyboard on her desk as if to indicate that the conversation was concluded.
‘Right,’ said Whistler decisively, looking about herself. ‘Right! I’ll get the fucker who’s behind this. I’ll sort it out and we’ll get our money. But who was the guy? Leo. If we’re going to find the source, we need to trace him, I guess.’
‘Right – of course. Here are the details, what we know, on Leo Travant. I’m afraid we don’t know much, really. And some pictures of the unknown organ. As I mentioned, we haven’t been able to successfully scan it. He worked at Smithson’s, near here.’
‘If there is an answer, we’ll find it. I guess we have no choice.’
‘That’s the spirit. I have already transferred the first hundred to your account.’
She passed Whistler down a data spot. Whistler flicked it back to her. Smith fumbled, dropping it, and part of Whistler’s mind rejoiced –
Ha! Was that a glimmer of humanity, Smith?
stood and made to leave. ‘Send a copy of the data to the van, would you? Me being a meathead and all.’
Smith let it go and bent to her keypad again. ‘Of course,’ she said without looking up.
Whistler shook her head and swept from the room, the doors struggling to open in time. She stopped in the reception room to collect her gun.
‘It’s been looking at me funny,’ complained one of the guards.
‘You were probably acting suspiciously,’ said Whistler, grabbing the gun with a taloned hand and dumping it into her jacket pocket. ‘It does that.’
‘Where the hell did you get that thing anyway? I don’t know that you should have that in here at all.’
‘What are you, my mum? I’ve never even been asked to remove it before,’ answered Whistler emphatically.
‘Honestly I’m surprised by that,’ said the guard, shaking his head.
Whistler smiled, exposing her pointed fangs and got into the lift. She waved to the guard and the doors closed. The lift scanned her eyes again and began to descend. She watched the layers of tower unstacking through the single five hundred metre-tall window. Far below her, gravpods could be seen like bright beads thread upon bracelets of roadway. She had almost stopped being angry and her mind was now obsessively chewing on the problem at hand. Leo had been his name. The wings. Smithson’s. Someone would know. Someone would know where the extra organ had come from. Whistler’s team would find them and make them talk. And make them stop. Stop everything, if necessary.
You don’t mess with my bank balance.
The gun in her pocket sensed her vengeance like a shark sniffing blood in water. Its sleek metal body was humming gently against her.
At the very bottom of the tower, back in the basement where Material Receipt was housed, the lift stopped and Whistler got out into bright lights and a hospital-clean corridor. She found the others in the lounge as expected. Spider and Sofi were sparring gently and Roberts was beating Tec at pool. There was a holo of the new Jenni James film running in one corner. Quadruped aliens cavorted through the holo pursued by shouting marines, one of whom appeared to be holding his detached arm in his remaining hand. Everyone turned to greet her.
‘Bad news, guys,’ she said, waving them into silence. ‘We’d better roll. Work to do. Did they take the product?’
‘Yeah,’ said Tec. ‘What’s going on?’
‘I’ll tell you in the van.’
‘Some files came through from Smith,’ said Tec. ‘I didn’t know if I was supposed to look.’