If we think of ourselves as moral persons, why do we always do the wrong things for the right reasons?
I noticed her as soon as I was through the door, as if she was emitting some sort of signal. Not to me -- maybe not to anyone in particular. Something in the way she sat, the way she sipped from her glass, the way she watched the whole room in the mirror set behind the rows of glasses and bottles perched against the bar.
I stood there in the entryway, letting the rainwater drip from my coat, just watching her. Expecting her to turn around and smile at me.
Which was idiotic.
I sat about three stools away from her. I didn't want to frighten her, or even draw her attention. Gaining attention isn't necessarily a benefit.
I ordered a bourbon from the bartender, and he grunted. He finished wiping a glass, set it down next to the others, and walked down the length of the bar. I put a five on the bar and looked into the mirror.
The woman three seats down was leisurely oscillating a swizzle stick around the edge of her glass. Watching her fingers as they moved. Uninterested. Bored.
She was wearing a blue dress that showed a lot of back, leg, and cleavage. Her wavy blonde hair fell a few inches below her shoulders. Her skin was bluish-green in the bar light. Her expression made me think she was waiting for someone but had given up, knowing they wouldn't show.
Before I was conscious of moving, I found myself sitting down next to her. And immediately felt out of place and awkward; the stools were too close. My leg was almost brushing her thigh. And most of the bar was empty. No reason for my voluntary proximity.
Tactfully, she didn't look up -- rule of the city, the bar -- though I saw her shift in the mirror.
The bartender placed my glass in front of me. I thanked him, looked at the counter, then pointed to where I'd left my five. "That's, um, mine." He nodded, shrugged, and went to pick it up. Feeling stupid, I told him to keep the change. He nodded, like he knew I would say that. Like I should have, for making him walk to get the bill.
I looked at her in the mirror, and she was looking down at her fingers, lazily circling the glass, which was half-empty.
"Could I buy you a drink?" I said, hearing my voice as if it was coming from the other side of the bar, or maybe out on the street.
She looked up, first in the mirror, then at me. She looked amused, curious, nervous. Then smiled. White teeth, pink tongue.
"You could buy me a drink, yes."
I waved to the bartender. "Unless, of course," she said, "that binds some sort of agreement."
I looked at her. She tilted her head, her hand moving from the glass to the counter.
"Pardon?" I said.
"I said, unless that drink binds some sort of agreement. Socially. Or sexually."
I looked at her, feeling my cheeks get warm. Not understanding her, not liking the way she was gazing at me.
"No," I said eventually, looking at her, then her mirror image. Smiling past the rows of burgundy bottles. "I don't think so... I'm not sure what you mean..." Hating my voice, its high resonance inside my skull.
She shrugged, the whole dress shifting on her body like a second skin ready to be shed.
"No, I guess not," she said. "Sure, you can buy me a drink." And she turned back to her glass, and sipped from it. "But maybe I should finish this first," she added, clicking the glass on the bar.
The bartender stopped in front of me, waiting. "Sorry," I said, smiling. "A little later."
I looked at her in the mirror, and cradled my own glass, now empty, in my palms.
She sipped her drink. "That was a line, right?" she asked, her voice as uninflected as if she was asking how far it was to the next subway station. "Asking to buy me a drink. It had to be. Or just an... icebreaker?"
"Yeah. One of those."
She smiled and put down her glass. "Good."
She stood up, and I could only look at the blue fabric of the dress, speculate as to what lay beneath it. My cheeks burned and my throat was sore. I wondered dimly what the hell I was doing there. Avoiding the run, probably.
"I think I'll pass on that drink, though," I heard her say. I mumbled acceptance.
"Let's go somewhere," she said. "Maybe you can make it up later."
The rain had stopped. Though it had been raining before, she had no coat. Her hair wasn't wet like mine, which made me wonder how long she'd been in the Winder. Shit, I supposed, some people never left. She caught my sleeve with a manicured finger and turned down the street, not bothering to see if I was following. As she went, the street lights each provided her a private spotlight. It was hypnagogic.
Reminded me of Mae.
She led me around another corner and down a block, her heels clicking on the cracked sidewalk. I followed her mindlessly, like a confused stray dog. I thought then, fleetingly, about turning and leaving.
Then she turned into a dark niche, an unlit, unmarked opening. I stood behind her there, feeling the night air against my cheeks as it dried my hair. She tapped a keypad beside the door, and it lit up green. I followed her in, closing the door carefully behind me. She hadn't paid any attention to me since we'd left the Winder.
She walked down a hallway lit by dim incandescents, past unmarked doors with filthy glazed inset windows. Like a miniature version of a high school hallway.
My mind jumped up then, my vigilant guard dog, through the mist of bourbon. I wondered where she was taking me, why I was here, who she was, who I was... but only for a moment. These things didn't matter; nothing did. Not really.
Music became louder, and I became aware of it. A deep bass rhythm, a synthetic treble, digitally altered vocals. She turned around and smiled at me, reassuring yet disconcertingly vapid.
She led me through a door at the end of the hallway, and lights exploded. Rainbow psychedelics everywhere, in my eyes and gnawing away at my nerves. The music was huge, inexorable, and too loud, but at the level where my mind refused to register it.
It was a tiny room, a microcosmic bar. And there was a counter, a matte black ledge set against the far wall, dainty leather stools lined against it. There were four tables, each with four prosaic wood chairs, no more than ten people in the entire place.
She sat down on a leather stool; I sat beside her. The bartender, a tall blond kid probably just over half my age, came immediately, ignored me, bent over beside her.
"How's life?" he said, smiling perfect white teeth, and licking at a stray blond hair.
"Much the same, Dog."
"You seen Kleiv around lately?"
"No. Bill overdue?"
"Bet your ass."
"Get us a couple glasses from the special bottle, Dog."
The kid looked at me for the first time, a blank stare, then stood up and laughed. "You got it." He picked up a white towel and walked into a back room, behind a padded door.
"What is this place?" I asked her.
"A little elite club."
"What's it called?"
"Doesn't have a name. Doesn't have much, really. Just a place to go."
The blond kid put down two plastic cups in front of us. I didn't see an actual glass anywhere around us. I sniffed at the contents of the cup, and smelled oranges and alcohol. I looked at her, and she shrugged, then drank it all down. I did the same.
It tasted awful, and put a sting at the back of my throat like a lead stone. I coughed and wheezed, and she only laughed silently, along with the kid.
"What the hell was that?" I asked as I dropped the cup back onto the counter. The kid swept them both up and returned to the back room.
"Special potion. Part vodka, part orange extract. Part aphrodisiac, part truth serum."
I remember laughing at that and slapping my palms down on the counter, then looking up at her through dry eyes. "Why, are you going to ask me some questions?"
"Who's the kid?" I asked, gesturing towards the dark room.
"Rude Dog. You know, a working kid." She looked at me then for a long frozen moment, her face a wooden block. "Do you want to go to bed?" she asked, without a smile or a single movement.
I looked at her face, her body, then her eyes. "Yes," I said, realizing that the drink might actually have included either or both of the last two ingredients.
She stood up, brushing the front of her blue dress as if from habit, then looked away. "Well, come on then."
I jumped up, too quickly. She didn't notice. She walked away, the same gait as before, back out to the hallway. I followed as she stopped at the fourth door, opened it, and went in.
There was an oval queen-sized bed covered in a green wrinkled sheet and a pillow. The tiny table beside the bed held a lamp without shade and a flickering 50-watt bulb. There were three chairs, none of which matched -- kind of like the ones in Rude Dog's bar. A minuscule fridge, with a tarnished and scratched veneer, stood near the corner.
It reminded me, without warning, of a room Mae and I were in once, for about a month.
"Sit down," she said. "If you like."
I did, and she did. I looked at her as she smoothed her dress.
"So what are we here for?"
She crossed her legs, looked at the lamp. "That's up to you. Maybe to talk."
"Oh. So you're going ask me questions now?"
"Perhaps. What's your name?"
"Mute. Like silence."
"First or last?"
"Only, I guess." I waited then, for a few seconds, for her to volunteer her own name. "What's yours?"
"Whatever you want it to be."
I laughed then, but found no humor in my voice or the situation. "This is, isn't it? Like a business proposition going down?"
"No," she said, all seriousness. "I don't do that."
"So what's your name?"
"That's a nice name."
She shrugged, her dress moved. "I picked it out myself."
"So who the hell are you?" I asked, only vaguely feeling my lips make out the words.
"I came looking for you."
"No, you didn't. We ran into each other at the Winder." She smiled then, and it meant something. Betrayal. Upper hand.
"You go there a lot, don't you, Mute?"
I said nothing. Her voice was like a computer, an ATM, an airport loudspeaker. Professional and fluid.
"You weren't there last night, though. I had to wait until two. But tonight you walked right up to me. I couldn't have asked for better."
"What... you were stalking me or something?"
"Like that. In a sense. But not in a bad way. A big sister kind of way. I'm just checking up on you."
"Checking up on me. I don't even know who you are."
"But I know you. At least, the statistics. I read your bio. You're interesting, Mute."
My guard dog barked again, somewhere in my cerebrum, but it was drowned out by a porous sponge, a black fog just behind my eyes. Drink she gave me was drugged, I decided dully. As if in response to my bleak, perplexed look, she spoke gingerly. "I'm here for Mr. Krell."
My limbs petrified and my mind became sand. My eyes glossed over with oil, my pores contracted and fell asleep. I blacked out.
Mae was asleep.
We were supposed to go out. I told her to go back to bed -- it was too cold. The windows were rain-streaked and dirty, the floor was strewn with clothes and cleaning rags and small coins. The rain chattered against the corrugated roof. The electric heater clicked and surged, warming my legs and the bed sheets. Mae breathed. I smoked a cigarette, tracing the fissures in the ceiling plaster with my eyes. I watched Mae breathe. Her body was warm against my thigh. Her skin white and smooth, her hair dark against her cheek. She said something through sleep. "No," I said. It's too cold to go out. Sleep."
The metallic rain. The cigarette smoke, undulating lazily. Mae's rhythmic breathing, warm and sweet.
"Wake up," she said.
"No, too cold out -- "
"Oh, come on. wake up."
Black well, spiraling somnolently.
"I didn't hit you with that hard a dose." Pin-prick light. Red hot pain flare. "Wake up."
Electric light, intense and immaculate. White tiles. Cool plastic or leather against my back. Throbbing pain against my cheek.
"Well, you opened your eyes. That's something."
"You hit me..." My voice, but it came from the bottom of the well, through a cotton muffler.
"I slapped you," said the voice, from beyond my vision. "To wake you up. Now you're up. Any questions?"
"Who are you?" My voice was like mud.
"You forget already? Giovanna. I picked you up at the bar. Come on, you've only been out a couple hours."
I struggled then, my guard dog at full wariness. But my head was a stone slab, my arms bound down by unseen straps, cool and padded.
And her face came into view. Smiling perfect white teeth and perfect pink tongue. Perfect pool eyes, deep blue, cold and serene. A wave of blond hair at the edge of her mouth.
"Right, Mute? We're old friends."
"No," I said. "I don't know you."
"Perhaps not," she said, and her face was gone. Click of heels on linoleum. "But you remember my employer."
I stared at the ceiling tiles.
"Sure you do, Mute. Mr. Krell."
I told the nauseous fear in my mind to shut up. Krell. The run. Skipping town. Leaving Mae. The run...
"He'll be here any minute. I'm sure you two will have lots to talk about." Her face was back, leering and satisfied. "Won't you?"
And then she moved, sharp and extreme, and the pain exploded in my head. The black returned.
Spots like fireworks, soft and dim. From a dull pulse, hollow and warm, comes a room. In the room, seven, nine, thirteen men, dressed in bloody white lab coats. Scalpels in hand, gleaming virginal silver.
White, white, white everywhere. Chlorine bleach odor. Anesthetic tubes and rods, tools and drills, knives and forks.
Me on the white leather table, candles protruding from my chest and eyes. The candelabra. The meal. The lab coat men bend over, candle light flickering fluorescent. Sparkling knives, blood-red cheeks, insane grins.
Bloody ganglia. Wires spew forth from my skull and my rib cage, green and red and blue and yellow. LCD and LED, blinking sporadically. Tiny circuitry pops out of my eyes and my hands and my chest, and the bloody men tie knots in the wires, swing them around, cut and paste, solder and caulk.
They are fixing me, fixing my system, rewiring nerves. I scream, but the walls are soundproof.
Walls crumble to ruins, and the bloody incisions disappear into rivers, tributaries, blue-gray macadam and cement. The night lights up neon, and the hum of business is a lover's song.
"Hey, Mr. Krell, how's things?"
Suited Mr. Krell, impeccable in his dark gray jacket. Mr. Krell, smoking his cigars and watching with icy eyes.
"Things are good. The operation was successful."
"Of course it was. I got a tough body."
"You do now."
The run. The job. Mr. Krell, smoking his cigars. Rewired. Faster and better. New system. Doped up. Ready to run.
The job. First mission.
"I own you, Mr. Mute."
I came to quickly, chemically. Some strong smell out of my vision jump-starting my mind and consciousness. I was back again, under the harsh white fluorescents and the square tiles. Testing the arm straps, struggling futilely, I groaned.
"Welcome back to the world of the living, Mute." Woman's voice. "Giovanna?" I said.
"Indeed, Mute. You've got a visitor, dear."
Krell. "So good to see you again, Mr. Mute."
I said nothing, wishing it all away. My mind leaped and grasped for the tenuous strands of the memory of Mae, the dream.... I wanted it all back.
"You don't say hello to a former employer, Mr. Mute? And, I like to think, a former friend."
"We were never friends," I said, and hated myself for it. Because we had been, almost, if only a flash on carbon paper. And then his face was hovering over mine, the same as before. Close-cropped black hair, undoubtedly slicked back with his short red comb that he kept in the front pocket of his Armani jacket. Ice-blue eyes. Jutted nose, bony cheeks, faintest trace of day-old stubble. And his pout, infamous and capricious, always hiding his teeth, which were yellow and straight.
"I'm hurt you would say that, Mr. Mute," he said, his lips moving the minimum required to produce the words.
"Sure you're hurt," I said. "You must be real hurt. What exactly do you do with defectors, Krell?"
His face was gone again. "We try to get them back on the team, of course. Or, if that doesn't work, we do whatever the circumstances necessitate."
"You gonna kill me?"
"Oh, I doubt that. I've put too much money into that metabolic miracle that you call a body. See, I've made an investment in you, Mute." I cringed as he laughed. "And you turned tail and ran."
There was dense pause, with only the hum of the fluorescents revealing any passage of time.
"Yeah. I hauled ass. You didn't rewire my morals. I had no idea what you had in mind before."
The laugh again, much shorter, more sarcastic. "See, Mute, we had a deal. We've been in this business a long time, you've seen the way the game is played. What did you think? I'd put millions into that body of yours just so you could steal shit for me? You went into this with your eyes closed. Now you have to try conscious reentry."
"You want me to come back," I said languidly.
His face was back, hanging over me, but from the other side. "What the hell else would I want? You're mine, Mute. My machine. I made what you are."
His face was gone. I strained to lift my head, to look around the room, but my head was strapped firmly in place. All I could see was the juncture of the wall behind me and the ceiling tile.
"It isn't bullshit. Maybe someday, after you've repaid your debt to me, maybe then you could leave and pretend to live a normal life. But now you are in no position to negotiate."
"So it's a threat. Go on the juice, or I never leave this room."
Krell sighed, and that startled me; it was a sound I had never heard before. "I hate to threaten old friends, Mute. But yes. Neither of us has a choice."
"Right, Krell. Money's involved. So screw me and screw everybody, because you made an investment."
"Miss Giovanni? Please return Mr. Mute to his unconscious state. I'd like to give him a chance to think about this. I always prefer to sleep on any key decisions."
Crisp tapping of heels on linoleum. And then she was back, with her blue eyes and blond hair and pink tongue. She lifted her arm over my face, and in her hand was a small black box, like an electric razor. Two cylindrical chrome contacts at the top.
"All too enjoyable, Mr. Krell," she said, and the black box disappeared beneath my chin.
"Oh, and one thing," came Krell's voice. "Something to ruminate over. You'll be pleasantly surprised to know that your former companion, Miss Mae Cole, is under our care and supervision. Good night, Mute."
A fist of electric pain, followed by a pool of blackness.
No dreams came. Consciousness returned eventually. Thoughts coalesced in my blood, stream of consciousness metastasized.
I didn't wake up. I thought.
I thought about the operation, about Krell and his run. I was a drug dealer. I had been before Krell, and I was doing it then, on the lam, for money to live. I guess you always go back to the basics.
Krell knew my supplier. Probably owned my supplier. Back then, in Nanking, business was a solid, esoteric plexus. It had rules, axioms, conduct and etiquette, unspoken protocol. An impenetrable clan, and like anything, you knew your clan members. The guys at the top watched the guys at the bottom. Krell happened to pick me out of the genus.
Being good at what I did got me into this shit. Of course, being inadequate might have gotten me a hollow-tip through the skull years ago. I remember his office, the place they made the offer. It's a funny thing, getting a compliment from a kingpin like Krell. You're scared for your life, just going up there, smoking his good cigars. And so relieved when you actually get to leave again that you remember next to nothing that was said.
And with meetings like that, you don't say no. The operation came and went in a week. Heightened senses, accentuated responses, intensified reflexes. A fine-tuned biological machine. On the outside, nothing out of the ordinary, except for the pink ribbons on my chest, concealed easily enough.
And my new system had to be turned on. My switch is betaphenacaine, which I keep in durable hypodermic needles, capped and cased.
And then the run. Krell sat me down in his office, and I was more confident, so sure of myself, knowing that I was one of his official hired men now, no reason to fear the results of unemployment....
I felt a dull aching hate, lying there on the table, strapped down, pretending to be asleep. Because he didn't even bother to desensitize me, start me out with two-bit runs. He was too cocky for that, so positive that I was his faithful possession.
In retrospect, maybe I should have gone along with it all, played the run, killed that guy, one of Krell's business competitors. But it would have changed me absolutely, sent me into an implacable spiral. Killing wasn't something I was ready to cope with, even if I did it every week with the drugs I sold.
Hardest decision I ever made, ever will. Mae.
I knew then what I know now, what they were capable of. And I took my chances, leaving Mae, hoping they would never find her or trace her to me. They did. I endangered her.
I'm an asshole.
Unexpected metallic cold, then piercing electric pain. I opened my eyes to Giovanna.
"Good morning, Mute. Have a nice sleep?" I only stared. Then she moved, and instinctively, I moved my head with her. It wasn't strapped down, and I jumped, expecting my arms to be free as well. No such luck.
I looked around. Plain white room, like a hospital. Giovanna was in black jeans and a white t-shirt now. She sat down on one of two black leather chairs, set in opposite corners along the far wall. In between them, a gray door that looked plastic; probably reinforced and bulletproof.
"You've been out two hours. Probably closer to five altogether. Plenty of time to get your bearings. So now you're supposed to give me an answer, and there's only one that I'm supposed to accept."
The tendons in my neck tightened and ached; I let my head fall back to the padded table. I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the silence in the room.
"Come on, Mute. See, if you don't accept Mr. Krell's offer, I'm supposed to let you ponder it a little more. Unconsciously. And getting there, that's the fun part. I've got all kinds of fun toys. Fun for me, anyway."
I opened my eyes, and rubbed my teeth together, feeling the lingering pain beneath my jaw.
"What about you, Giovanna?" I asked.
"What about me?"
"Why are you here? You aren't the traditional muscle Krell employs. Don't you think you're better than this?"
"Traditional? Like you? A wirehead?" She chuckled. "I'm here because it's my profession. I'm just a working girl, Mute -- but let's talk about you. I can let you off the table right now, if you'd like. Even give you a plug of your drug, if you'd like. All you got to do is agree to come back home with Mr. Krell. Doesn't that sound comfy-cozy?"
"You can't," I said. "You give me the juice, and I'm all over your ass. Doesn't matter how many guns you got, I can be out of here with your head in a box."
"Not quite. You're forgetting an item Mr. Krell has in his possession. Miss Cole."
"Jesus. So it's blackmail, then."
"Pleasant business you're in, Mute. Me, I just get to pick up cute guys at bars, then have my way with them while they're tied to operating tables."
I didn't want to think of Mae, then. Even if I left, killing Mae wouldn't help them get me. For all I knew, they didn't even have her. Probably just using her name as collateral.
"Shit," I said, my voice strained and tired. "Okay."
Giovanna was over me again, without warning. Apparently lost the heels with the change of wardrobe. "Okay, as in okay-we-have-a-deal?"
She gave me new clothes, black jeans and t-shirt, which were both too big. I swore silently, longing for my own clothes: I had a couple of hypos in the jacket pocket. Then I remembered she'd offered me a plug, because of Mae, and what they knew she meant to me.
"So where's my juice?" I asked.
"Oh, funny thing, that. Technically, it's not your juice. An upper, a lot the same, but it won't make you metaphysical. More addictive, nicer effect. No comedown, either."
I stared at her, trying to discern her expression. "Fuck it."
She looked amused, and for the first time I noticed the small gun in her right hand. "I read your bio, Mute. You only swear when you're really pissed."
"Not a good idea to antagonize the girl with the gun, Mute."
Krell was waiting in a suite on the twentieth floor of a grandiose downtown hotel, complete with inch-thick carpeting and a uniformed elevator operator.
Giovanna motioned me down the hall to his room with the gun, hidden beneath a leather jacket draped over her arm. She knocked twice, eyes on me. Krell opened it himself. Cocky son of a bitch.
I sat down in a chair, looked around the room without moving my head. It was a wide expanse of green linoleum that ended in an elevated area, where I saw a king-size bed, a complete entertainment system, and a mini bar. A complete kitchen was to my right, and a bathroom to the left. The ceiling was probably 20 feet up; I figured the place took up a quarter of the entire floor.
Krell picked up a half-full glass from the counter in the kitchen area and walked back to me. "Cherry whiskey," he said, sipping from the snifter. I ignored him, and stared out through the purple-tinted windows, wondering vaguely why anyone would want to look down on a purple city. "Want some?" he asked.
"Well, then, down to business." He walked back to the countertop and picked up a pair of silver tongs. "Miss Giovanna declares you are going to be cooperative. I assume that's correct, or you wouldn't be here."
"I am. But not the way you do business. No blackmail."
He plucked an ice cube from a silver bucket and dropped it into his glass. He turned to me and smiled; he'd gotten a new gold-plated tooth put in since I last saw him.
"I assume you're referring to Miss Cole." I stared out at the Shanghai cityscape and said nothing. "You have to understand my position," Krell continued. "I couldn't have you running around loose, not until I'd gotten my money's worth. That may sound materialistic and shallow, but.... Look, I could give you a speech on what it took to get where I am, but I don't think that's what you're after. Don't worry, Mute. Miss Cole is safe."
"Where is she?"
"We're looking after her back in Nanking."
"How do I know you have her? How do I know that she's still alive?"
Krell scratched his stomach through the terry cloth and sipped his cherry whiskey. "My word, Mute. After all, what good is she to me, or anyone, dead? I wouldn't do that to an old comrade, especially one that I hope will become a valuable new comrade."
"Put me on a plane. I see Mae, or screw everything."
"Already set. You leave in an hour."
I was expecting a tenement, a squalid warehouse of rotting lumber and broken windows, sitting close to the harbor and reeking of dead fish and discarded canned foods. Instead, I stood in front of a condominium, surely not older than my shoes. It was twenty stories tall, had symmetrical windows and terraces, and a sleek black pebbled siding. It looked exactly like the kind of place Krell would live in, or possibly own.
"Lives quite the life, huh Mute?"
I looked at Giovanna, and watched her eyes glimmer as she stared past me at the building.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"Mr. Krell's humble abode."
"What are we here for?"
"Waiting. He's coming in on his private jet in a little while. We're to wait here until then."
"We wait for Mr. Krell, Mute."
I frowned at her as our eyes met. Her eyes changed, from some sort of rapt disbelief, to a weary amusement. "I don't make the rules," she said.
I shook my head and began to walk towards the front of the building. "I don't understand you."
"Me? There's little to understand. At least, for you."
"I mean, you're the bait, the lure, and the hired thug all in one. Is Krell hard up these days?"
"I'm good at what I do. Mr. Krell pays for my expertise. Now shut up, Mute."
We walked up the concrete steps to the double doors at the front. Giovanna held the gun loosely in my direction as she punched in a rapid succession of numbers on a small digital lock. A hypersonic beep, and then the lock clicked. She waved me inside.
We waited an hour. Krell's home was just a miniature version of the hotel suite in Shanghai, a miniature version of every place I ever imagined rich people would live in. Phony and metallic and cold.
The black jeans were too big, and the shirt made my neck itch. I picked at it. "Where are my clothes?" I asked Giovanna, who sat on the other side of the room in an identical chair, and stared at me listlessly, the gun resting in her perfect denim lap.
"Well, these are really bugging the hell out of me. Am I going to get to go shopping?"
She moved the gun to the other hand and hesitated. "Your old clothes are out in the limo, in the trunk."
"Thought you said you burned them."
"Lied," she said, with an evanescent smile. She pulled a palm-sized cellular phone from her suede jacket, and popped it open. "I'll get Pedro to bring them up for you."
She made me change in front of her.
"What, you afraid I'll attack you with one of Krell's toothbrushes?"
"I play safe. Rules of the game."
"Some game," I said, but obeyed. I changed into my old clothes, comfortable, cold, and slightly damp from being outdoors. I did so with as little emotion as possible, avoiding Giovanna's gaze, uneasy about what expression would be on that scalpel-perfect face.
I sat down and left the rain jacket folded over the arm of the chair. I wanted to check it for the hypodermics, but such a move at that point would have given me away. Better to take it easy.
I looked up at Giovanna finally, and she was smiling faintly. "All done?" she asked.
I said nothing for a moment, only watched her. "You have a comment?"
She laughed softly, and her smile faded into a bored pout. "You think you deserve one?"
"It was a nice exchange of clothing you performed," she said, her face a mix of apathy and seriousness.
"Thanks." I lifted my left arm in the habitual motion of checking my watch, which was no longer there. I sighed, and let my hand drop to the rain coat on the chair's arm. "When the hell is Krell getting here?" I asked.
"Whenever the hell Krell wants to." I felt the two small cylindrical needles through the fabric of the coat, safe in the secret pouch I had sewn in months ago. I smiled, then sighed again.
"Oh," I said.
I had slipped my hand into the secret pocket, withdrawn one of the needles and transferred it to my front jeans pocket when Krell came in. I put both hands into my pockets and attempted a look of disgusted indifference as he entered and closed the door behind him.
"Good afternoon, Mute."
"Cheer up, Mute," Giovanna said. "You and Mr. Krell are friends, remember?"
"Bullshit," I said.
Krell gave me a benevolent look of disappointment. "But Mute, I thought we'd put aside our grievances."
"Yeah, my ass. Look, I'll do your runs, however many you think I owe you. Whatever. But the only reason I'm here is 'cause you're threatening me with Mae. So let me see her now, make sure she's okay. Then business."
"Of course, Mute. We needn't be animals." And at that moment, I felt it, raw and intense, like a poisonous lump in my stomach, a rancid dart snaking through me until I could almost bite down on it. The hatred I felt for him, with his smug narcissism and self-complacency. The way he looked down at everyone like he could shape their lives to his satisfaction with his omnipotent hands.
I watched, detached, as Giovanna handed him her phone, and he dialed.
"I thought I was going to see her," I said, struggling to keep my voice uninflected.
Krell only smiled in my general direction, and turned his back.
I waited, and he spoke a few soft words into the phone. Giovanna looked out the window and ran her thumb across her fingernails. I heard Krell say "Put her on," and then he turned around to me, smiled again, and handed me the phone. I took it, my arm strained and full of the poisonous hatred. I smiled dully back at him, and it felt like fire.
"Mae?" I said into the small black receiver. There was silence for an eternal moment, a void of electric blackness from the phone... and then I heard her, soft and timid.
"Mute? Is that you?"
I had difficulty finding my voice, insignificant and sore at the back of my throat. "Yes. God, are you okay? What are -- "
And then she was crying. A surreal static weeping, muffled and painful.
"Mae, are you okay? What's the matter? What are they doing -- "
Then the phone was gone, somewhere in Giovanna's hand, and she was walking back to her chair, one furtive eye still on me. And there was Krell, smiling down.
And Mae was gone.
"What the fuck are you doing to her?" I heard my voice, but it wasn't mine. I could hear my thoughts coming from my mouth, but I made no conscious decision to speak aloud.
"We're doing nothing to her," Krell said without looking at me. His tone hadn't changed the slightest. "She is perfectly safe and perfectly well."
"How do I know that? You're going to let me see her right now."
Krell looked at me. "No, I'm sorry, Mute. We've got a deal. No premature benefits."
I stared at him through burning eyes. "Bullshit! You let me see her, or we don't have a deal."
"No." Krell's ice-blue eyes were now directly on me, his face was stone, and his voice matched his eyes. "Miss Cole is our property until you perform your responsibilities to me, which is precedent, and..."
I didn't hear him. My ears had gelled over, my hatred thick and putrid in my veins. I did not notice that my hands were in my pockets, clenched in trembling fists, my left hand crushing the hypodermics.
And then I did notice, and thoughtless conviction washed over me as my thumb popped the cap off one needle and my hand grasped it. Without hesitation or regard, I plunged the needle into my thigh and emptied it.
The juice burned with equal passion, and it melded slowly with my blood and anger.
Krell talked, calmly and coldly.
Memories of Mae, her frightened voice, her soft skin, her warmth, her soft electric crying... they all reached me at once, as if a side-effect of the drug that now coursed through my blood stream.
Five seconds passed.
Having the juice running through me is, put simply, a weird experience.
It's a common street drug, but a controlled one, so you don't have to worry about purity. They call it bloom sometimes, or rapture, or just junk. It's an opiate, your regular domestic upper. Makes the kids fast, reckless, excited. For me it's different, because of the operation.
Like splicing a nerve. Like crossing the wire. The juice heightens my senses. My nerves burn, my eyes crackle, and I can feel every hair on my body. Then a brief pathos settles over me in an icy spinal wave, and I'm in the domain. I don't usually call it the domain, but I don't know what the hell you would call it.
I feel things I'm not supposed to, like the way my eyelids brush the fluid from my eyes when I blink, the brush of taste buds against the roof of my mouth, and the blood rushing through my veins, and my sweat glands expanding and contracting.
Everything slows down. Technically, of course, I'm speeding up. I'm twice as fast, my reflexes kick in three times sooner. But to me, all of that is bullshit, 'cause the world, it just slows down.
That day, in Krell's posh, frigid apartment, the anger left me. It mutated and mixed with the juice, I guess, but it just stopped mattering. And so did Mae, and so did Krell, and so did everything around me. It was like a switch; once that derm emptied into my thigh, I was on cruise-control.
I know I jumped up and grabbed Krell around the neck before his expression could even change, though I don't remember actually making the effort. I watched vapidly as my hands closed and my fingers clamped down on his perfect Bermuda-tanned skin. My thumbs dug into his esophagus and crushed his trachea after what seemed like eternity. Blood welled over my fingers, and I didn't bother to look into his dead icescape eyes before letting him drop to the floor.
I turned and felt the air circulating through the room, cool and sterilized as it caressed my skin and the hair at the back of my neck. Giovanna was just getting up, an incredulous yet coyly professional grimace crawling across her lips.
Before she had moved another inch, I had her pinned on the floor, her sleek black revolver chill against my palm, the hammer cocked, and the barrel lightly placed against her perfect pale forehead.
"Where is Mae?" I heard the words with my ears, but I also felt my lips form them and the air pass from my lungs into my mouth and out into the open where it mingled with Giovanna's heavy breath and the apartment's neutral undulating current.
Her lips began to move, but it was too slow for me. "I don't want to hurt you, you're kind of cute. Tell me where she is now!"
"The phone, my front pocket, has a last-call function and a display. I don't know where she is." Her lips trembled only slightly, and her eyes remained dry, her face stolid. Pro.
And then the phone was in my left hand, and I was hovering two feet over her, the gun pointed at her neck. She never even shivered.
I tapped the green button on the pad that read LAST, and the small green display lit up with seven numbers, followed by CALL and a question mark.
I didn't dial it, didn't bother phoning the operator or information. I knew the number. It was mine.
I was in front of my old building before I knew how I had gotten there. I looked behind me and saw the limo I had arrived in, and I knew if I were to open its door I would see the driver's blood on the seat, but I didn't remember it. I shouldn't get lapses like that when I'm on the juice.
I turned back to the building and that feeling, stinging and cellular went through me and through the drug, right to where it hurt. I'd been here eight years of my life and it doesn't go away, the gestalt of emotions and memories tying my life wholly to this spot. Nothing more than a ten-story tenement with tiny rooms for rent, crawling with bugs and peeling plaster.
And then it happened again. I was in front of the door to my old apartment, staring dully at the gilt-crusted 303, not recalling how I came to be there. Lapse.
And then again, but much shorter. The door was collapsed inside the room and I was walking in. And for an ephemeral moment I didn't know or care why I was there. Nothing mattered.
I was back home.
There were two of them with mae. I didn't look at their faces as they turned around slowly, so slowly. I just waited for the juice to take control of the situation.
A thought occurred to me as I watched them leap to their feet, so slow they seemed to defy gravity: I should have taken another hit, just for good measure. And I should have, because one already had a gun in his hand and the other was reaching.
I went for the quick one, and I had little trouble shoving his gun into his face. I don't like to kill but the juice told me to get a move on because Thing 2 behind me would be a pretty good shot at two feet.
I was and turning around just as the gun in my hand erupted and the body beneath me shuddered violently, once. And what felt like minutes later the second gun was fired. I thought for a moment there was a lapse, since I couldn't remember pulling the trigger, but then I felt the bullet rip through my left shoulder.
The drug made every nerve sear, and I could feel every shattered cell in the bone. I screamed, pure reflex. But so was jumping to my feet and breaking my attacker's neck with my right hand. He fell, and it seemed that the apartment had never been so quiet. The juice stopped dead, and all adrenaline drained away into an amorphous vacuum in my stomach, surrounded by a raw nausea.
I looked at Mae. Her face was cool and dry, with only the finest trace of shock. A single black strand of hair touched her pale cheek.
I looked down and watched as blood from my shoulder dripped down to the filthy floor where it mingled with dust and the other men's blood.
I coughed once, looked at Mae.
"Mute," she said, her voice slow and smooth. Then the pain in my shoulder receded and the world turned black.
Electric light, intense and immaculate. White tiles. I was sure for a moment that it was all a dream, a sick unconscious joke. I was back in the white cubicle, Giovanna just out of sight, filing her nails or polishing her gun. Krell was on his way, landing in his gray-carpeted luxury jet, coming to talk to me about the run.
But he was not.
Mae bent over me, her face blank for a long moment. She smiled sadly, and one perfect tear slid down each pale cheek.
"Mute, you're okay," she whispered, not a question.
"In a cast. We're at Royal Mercy. The doctors said you'll be fine... I hardly even saw you come in," she said, and then her bottom lip quivered.
"You're okay? They... didn't hurt you?"
"No, dammit." She stood up, walked out of my field of view. I struggled, pushing with my good arm and trying to keep my balance, trying to sit up. When I did, my back crashed against the headboard. No strength left in me.
Mae was looking out the window.
I waited. Minutes, hours.
She looked at me. More tears, new ones probably, glistening against her cheeks. "You don't understand, do you? You can't just keep doing this to me..."
I wanted to ask what I was doing, but maybe I knew. "What's the matter?" I asked, finally.
"You don't get it. Nothing ever works..." And I just stared at her, wanting things to be all right. "There's somebody else," she said.
"I know," I said. But I don't think I did.
I like the rain. It's strange, but I find some sort of comfort in it. I'm getting wet, but I don't much care. Above me to the left, the rain is hitting a blue neon sign. Making it crackle and hiss. And that too, for no reason, is comforting.
I walk. The street is crowded, the sun below the gray buildings. The night life is starting to kick in, people coming out to play in their bars, clubs, joints. Business crowd. I wonder about work. About runs. About getting some money, maybe a warm bed to sleep in.
Across the street, darting into a doorway, I spot Giovanna. Not in her high-gloss costume. One of the crowd. I almost wave, but she's gone. Or maybe she was just the rain. Wet hair is hanging in my eyes.
I need a haircut, or maybe a hat.
Craig Boyko (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sometimes student at the University of Calgary in Alberta. He's constantly being shushed by his next-door neighbor.
InterText stories written by Craig Boyko: "Decisions" (v6n1), "Wave" (v6n2), "Gone" (v6n6), "Ghettoboy and Dos" (v8n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Craig Boyko.