COUNT ZERO INTERRUPT – On receiving an interrupt, decrement the counter to zero. WILLIAM GIBSON
1 Smooth Running Gun
3 BOBBY PULLS A WILSON
4 CLOCKING IN
5 THE JOB
7 THE MALL
9 THE PROJECTS
11 ON SITE
12 CAFÉ BLANC
13 WITH BOTH HANDS
14 NIGHT FLIGHT
17 THE SQUIRREL WOOD
18 NAMES OF THE DEAD
20 ORLY FLIGHT
21 HIGHWAY TIME
24 RUN STRAIGHT DOWN
26 THE WIG
27 STATIONS OF THE BREATH
28 JAYLENE SLIDE
30 HIRED MAN
32 COUNT ZERO
33 WRACK AND WHIRL
34 A CHAIN ‘BOUT NINE MILES LONG
35 TALLEY ISHAM
36 THE SQUIRREL WOOD
1 Smooth Running Gun THEY SENT A SLAMHOUND on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT.
He didn’t see it coming. The last he saw of India was the pink stucco facade of a place called the Khush Oil Hotel.
Because he had a good agent, he had a good contract. Because he had a good contract, he was in Singapore an hour after the explosion. Most of him, anyway The Dutch surgeon liked to joke about that, how an unspecified percentage of Turner hadn’t made it out of Palam International on that first flight and had to spend the night there in a shed, in a support vat
It took the Dutchman and his team three months to put Turner together again. They cloned a square meter of skin for him, grew it on slabs of collagen and shark cartilage polysaccharides They bought eyes and genitals on the open market The eyes were green.
He spent most of those three months in a ROM generated simstim construct of an idealized New England boyhood of the previous century. The Dutchman’s visits were gray dawn dreams, nightmares that faded as the sky lightened beyond his second floor bedroom window You could smell the lilacs, late at night. He read Conan Doyle by the light of a sixty watt bulb behind a parchment shade printed with clipper ships He masturbated in the smell of clean cotton sheets and thought about cheerleaders. The Dutchman opened a door in his back brain and came strolling in to ask questions, but in the morning his mother called him down to Wheaties, eggs and bacon, coffee with milk and sugar.
And one morning he woke in a strange bed, the Dutchman standing beside a window spilling tropical green and a sun light that hurt his eyes. “You can go home now, Turner We’re done with you You’re good as new.
He was good as new. How good was that? He didn’t know. He took the things the Dutchman gave him and flew out of Singapore Home was the next airport Hyatt.
And the next. And ever was.
He flew on. His credit chip was a rectangle of black mirror, edged with gold. People behind counters smiled when they saw it, nodded. Doors opened, closed behind him. Wheels left ferroconcrete, drinks arrived, dinner was served.
In Heathrow a vast chunk of memory detached itself from a blank bowl of airport sky and fell on him. He vomited into a blue plastic canister without breaking stride. When he arrived at the counter at the end of the corridor, he changed his ticket. He flew to Mexico. And woke to the rattle of steel buckets on tile, wet swish of brooms, a woman’s body warm against his own.
The room was a tall cave. Bare white plaster reflected sound with too much clarity; somewhere beyond the clatter of the maids in the morning courtyard was the pounding of surf. The sheets bunched between his fingers were coarse chambray, softened by countless washings.
He remembered sunlight through a broad expanse of tinted window. An airport bar, Puerto Vallarta. He’d had to walk twenty meters from the plane, eyes screwed shut against the sun. He remembered a dead bat pressed flat as a dry leaf on runway concrete.
He remembered riding a bus, a mountain road, and the reek of internal combustion, the borders of the windshield plastered with postcard holograms of blue and pink saints. He’d ignored the steep scenery in favor of a sphere of pink Lucite and the jittery dance of mercury at its core. The knob crowned the bent steel stem of the transmission lever, slightly larger than a baseball. It had been cast around a crouching spider blown from clear glass, hollow, half filled with quicksilver. Mercury jumped and slid when the driver slapped the bus through switchback curves, swayed and shivered in the straight aways. The knob was ridiculous, handmade, baleful; it was there to welcome him back to Mexico.
Among the dozen odd Microsofts the Dutchman had given him was one that would allow a limited fluency in Spanish, but in Vallarta he’d fumbled behind his left ear and inserted a dustplug instead, hiding the socket and plug beneath a square of flesh tone micropore. A passenger near the back of the bus had a radio. A voice had periodically interrupted the brassy pop to recite a kind of litany, strings of ten digit figures, the day’s winning numbers in the national lottery.
The woman beside him stirred in her sleep.
He raised himself on one elbow to look at her A stranger’s face, but not the one his life in hotels had taught him to expect. He would have expected a routine beauty, bred out of cheap elective surgery and the relentless Darwinism of fashion, an archetype cooked down from the major media faces of the previous five years.
Something Midwestern in the bone of the jaw, archaic and American. The blue sheets were nicked across her hips, the sunlight angling in through hardwood louvers to stripe her long thighs with diagonals of gold. The faces he woke with in the world’s hotels were like God’s own hood ornaments. Women’s sleeping faces, identical and alone, naked, aimed straight out to the void. But this one was different. Already, somehow, there was meaning attached to it. Meaning and a name.
He sat up, swinging his legs off the bed. His soles registered the grit of beach sand on cool tile. There was a faint, pervasive smell of insecticide. Naked, head throbbing, he stood. He made his legs move. Walked, tried the first of two doors, finding white tile, more white plaster, a bulbous chrome shower head hung from rust spotted iron pipe The sink’s taps offered identical trickles of blood warm water. An antique wristwatch lay beside a plastic tumbler, a mechanical Rolex on a pale leather strap.
The bathroom’s shuttered windows were unglazed, strung with a fine green mesh of plastic. He peered out between hardwood slats, wincing at the hot clean sun, and saw a dry fountain of flower painted tiles and the rusted carcass of a VW Rabbit
Allison. That was her name. She wore frayed khaki shorts and one of his white T shirts. Her legs were very brown. The clockwork Rolex, with its dull stainless case, went around her left wrist on its pigskin strap. They went walking, down the curve of beach, toward Barre de Navidad. They kept to the narrow strip of firm wet sand above the line of surf.
Already they had a history together; he remembered her at a stall that morning in the little town’s iron roofed mercado, how she’d held the huge clay mug of boiled coffee in both hands. Mopping eggs and salsa from the cracked white plate with a tortilla, he’d watched flies circling fingers of sunlight that found their way through a patchwork of palm frond and corrugated siding. Some talk about her job with some legal firm in L.A., how she lived alone in one of the ramshackle pontoon towns tethered off Redondo. He’d told her he was in personnel. Or had been, anyway. “Maybe I’m looking for a new line of work
But talk seemed secondary to what there was between them, and now a frigate bird hung overhead, tacking against the breeze, slid sideways, wheeled, and was gone. They both shivered with the freedom of it, the mindless glide of the thing. She squeezed his hand.
A blue figure came marching up the beach toward them, a military policeman headed for town, spitshined black boots unreal against the soft bright beach. As the man passed, his face dark and immobile beneath mirrored glasses, Turner noted the carbine format Steiner Optic laser with Fabrique Nationale sights. The blue fatigues were spotless, creased like knives.
Turner had been a soldier in his own right for most of his adult life, although he’d never worn a uniform. A mercenary, his employers vast corporations warring covertly for the control of entire economies. He was a specialist in the extraction of top executives and research people. The multinationals he worked for would never admit that men like Turner existed...
“You worked your way through most of a bottle of Herradura last night,” she said.
He nodded. Her hand, in his, was warm and dry. He was watching the spread of her toes with each step, the nails painted with chipped pink gloss.
The breakers rolled in, their edges transparent as green glass.
The spray beaded on her tan. After their first day together, life fell into a simple pattern. They had breakfast in the mercado at a stall with a concrete counter worn smooth as polished marble. They spent the morning swimming, until the sun drove them back into the shuttered coolness of the hotel, where they made love under the slow wooden blades of the ceiling fan, then slept. In the afternoons they explored the maze of narrow streets behind the Avenida, or went hiking in the hills. They dined in beachfront restaurants and drank on the patios of the white hotels. Moonlight curled in the edge of the surf.
And gradually, without words, she taught him a new style of passion. He was accustomed to being served, serviced anonymously by skilled professionals. Now, in the white cave, he knelt on tile. He lowered his head, licking her, salt Pacific mixed with her own wet, her inner thighs cool against his cheeks. Palms cradling her hips, he held her, raised her like a chalice, lips pressing tight, while his tongue sought the locus, the point, the frequency that would bring her home Then, grinning, he’d mount, enter, and find his own way there.
Sometimes, then, he’d talk, long spirals of unfocused narrative that spun out to join the sound of the sea. She said very little, but he’d learned to value what little she did say, and, always, she held him. And listened. A week passed, then another. He woke to their final day together in that same cool room, finding her beside him. Over breakfast he imagined he felt a change in her, a tension.
They sunbathed, swam, and in the familiar bed he forgot the faint edge of anxiety.
In the afternoon, she suggested they walk down the beach, toward Barre, the way they’d gone that first morning.
Turner extracted the dustplug from the socket behind his ear and inserted a sliver of microsoft The structure of Spanish settled through him like a tower of glass, invisible gates hinged on present and future, conditional, preterite perfect. Leaving her in the room, he crossed the Avenida and entered the market. He bought a straw basket, cans of cold beer, sandwiches, and fruit. On his way back, he bought a new pair of sunglasses from the vendor in the Avenida.
His tan was dark and even. The angular patchwork left by the Dutchman’s grafts was gone, and she had taught him the unity of his body. Mornings, when he met the green eyes in the bathroom mirror, they were his own, and the Dutchman no longer troubled his dreams with bad jokes and a dry cough. Sometimes, still, he dreamed fragments of India, a country he barely knew, bright splinters, Chandni Chauk, the smell of dust and fried breads
The walls of the ruined hotel stood a quarter of the way down the bay’s arc. The surf here was stronger, each wave a detonation.
Now she tugged him toward it, something new at the corners of her eyes, a tightness. Gulls scattered as they came hand in hand up the beach to gaze into shadow beyond empty doorways. The sand had subsided, allowing the structure’s facade to cave in, walls gone, leaving the floors of the three levels hung like huge shingles from bent, rusted tendons of finger thick steel, each one faced with a different color and pattern of tile.
HOTEL PLAYA DEL M was worked in childlike seashell capitals above one concrete arch. “Mar,” he said, completing it, though he’d removed the microsoft.
“It’s over,” she said, stepping beneath the arch, into shadow.
“What’s over?” He followed, the straw basket rubbing against his hip. The sand here was cold, dry, loose between his toes.
“Over. Done with. This place. No time here, no future.”
He stared at her, glanced past her to where rusted bed springs were tangled at the junction of two crumbling walls.
“It smells like piss,” he said. “Let’s swim.
The sea took the chill away, but a distance hung between them now. They sat on a blanket from Turner’s room and ate, silently. The shadow of the ruin lengthened. The wind moved her sun streaked hair.
“You make me think about horses,” he said finally.
“Well,” she said, as though she spoke from the depths of exhaustion, “they’ve only been extinct for thirty years.”
“No,” he said, “their hair. The hair on their necks, when they ran.”
“Manes,” she said, and there were tears in her eyes. “Fuck it.” Her shoulders began to heave. She took a deep breath She tossed her empty Carta Blanca can down the beach.
“It, me, what’s it matter?” Her arms around him again. “Oh, come on, Turner Come on”
And as she lay back, pulling him with her, he noticed something, a boat, reduced by distance to a white hyphen, where the water met the sky. When he sat up, pulling on his cut off jeans, he saw the yacht It was much closer now, a graceful sweep of white riding low in the water. Deep water. The beach must fall away almost vertically, here, judging by the strength of the surf. That would be why the line of hotels ended where it did, back a long the beach, and why the ruin hadn’t survived. The waves had licked away its foundation.
“Give me the basket
She was buttoning her blouse. He’d bought it for her in one of the tired little shops along the Avenida Electric blue Mexican cotton, badly made. The clothing they bought in the shops seldom lasted more than a day or two. “I said give me the basket.”
She did. He dug through the remains of their afternoon, finding his binoculars beneath a plastic bag of pineapple slices drenched in lime and dusted with cayenne. He pulled them out, a compact pair of 6 X 30 combat glasses. He snapped the integral covers from the objectives and the pad ded eyepieces, and studied the streamlined ideograms of the Hosaka logo. A yellow inflatable rounded the stern and swung toward the beach.
“Turner, I ”
“Get up.” Bundling the blanket and her towel into the basket. He took a last warm can of Carta Blanca from the basket and put it beside the binoculars. He stood, pulling her quickly to her feet, and forced the basket into her hands.
“Maybe I’m wrong,” he said. “If I am, get out of here. Cut for that second stand of palms.” He pointed. “Don’t go back to the hotel. Get on a bus, Manzanillo or Vallarta. Go home ”
He could hear the purr of the outboard now.
He saw the tears start, but she made no sound at all as she turned and ran, up past the ruin, clutching the basket, stumbling in a drift of sand. She didn’t look back.
He turned, then, and looked toward the yacht. The inflatable was bouncing through the surf. The yacht was named Tsushima, and he’d last seen her in Hiroshima Bay. He’d seen the red Shinto gate at ltsukushima from her deck.
He didn’t need the glasses to know that the inflatable’s passenger would be Conroy, the pilot one of Hosaka’s ninjas. He sat down cross legged in the cooling sand and opened his last can of Mexican beer. He looked back at the line of white hotels, his hands inert on one of Tsushima’s teak railings Behind the hotels, the little town’s three holograms glowed: Banamex, Aeronaves, and the cathedral’s six meter Virgin.
Conroy stood beside him. “Crash job,” Conroy said. “You know how it is.” Conroy’s voice was flat and uninflected, as though he’d modeled it after a cheap voice chip. His face was broad and white, dead white. His eyes were dark ringed and hooded, beneath a peroxide thatch combed back from a wide forehead. He wore a black polo shirt and black slacks. “In side,” he said, turning. Turner followed, ducking to enter the cabin door. White screens, pale flawless pine; Tokyo’s austere corporate chic.
Conroy settled himself on a low, rectangular cushion of slate gray ultrasuede. Turner stood, his hands slack at his sides. Conroy took a knurled silver inhaler from the low enamel table between them. “Choline enhancer?”
Conroy jammed the inhaler into one nostril and snorted.
“You want some sushi?” He put the inhaler back on the table. “We caught a couple of red snapper about an hour ago”
Turner stood where he was, staring at Conroy.
“Christopher Mitchell,” Conroy said. “Maas Biolabs. Their head hybridoma man. He’s coming over to Hosaka.”
“Never heard of him.”
“Bullshit. How about a drink?”
Turner shook his head. Silicon’s on the way out, Turner. Mitchell’s the man who made biochips work, and Maas is sitting on the major patents. You know that. He’s the man for monoclonals. He wants out YOU and me, Turner, we’re going to shift him.”
“I think I’m retired, Conroy. I was having a good time, back there.”
“That’s what the psych team in Tokyo say. I mean, it’s not exactly your first time out of the box, is it? She’s a field psychologist, on retainer to Hosaka.”
A muscle in Turner’s thigh began to jump.
“They say you’re ready, Turner. They were a little worried, after New Delhi, so they wanted to check it out. Little therapy on the side. Never hurts, does it?”
2 MARLY SHE’D WORN HER BEST for the interview, but it was raining in Brussels and she had no money for a cab. She walked from the Eurotrans station.
Her hand, in the pocket of her good jacket, a Sally Stanley but almost a year old, was a white knot around the crumpled telefax. She no longer needed it, having memorized the address, but it seemed she could no more release it than break the trance that held her here now, staring into the window of an expensive shop that sold menswear, her focus phasing between sedate flannel dress shirts and the reflection of her own dark eyes.
Surely the eyes alone would be enough to cost her the job. No need for the wet hair she now wished she’d let Andrea cut. The eyes displayed a pain and an inertia that anyone could read, and most certainly these things would soon be revealed to Herr Josef Virek, least likely of potential employers.
When the telefax had been delivered, she’d insisted on regarding it as some cruel prank, another nuisance call. She’d had enough of those, thanks to the media, so many that Andrea had ordered a special program for the apartment’s phone, one that filtered out incoming calls from any number that wasn’t listed in her permanent directory. But that, Andrea had insisted, must have been the reason for the telefax. How else could anyone reach her?
But Marly had shaken her head and huddled deeper into Andrea’s old terry robe. Why would Virek, enormously weal thy, collector and patron, wish to hire the disgraced former operator of a tiny Paris gallery?
Then it had been Andrea’s time for head shaking, in her impatience with the new, the disgraced Marly Krushkhova, who spent entire days in the apartment now, who sometimes didn’t bother to dress. The attempted sale, in Paris, of a single forgery, was hardly the novelty Marly imagined it to have been, she said. If the press hadn’t been quite so anxious to show up the disgusting Gnass for the fool he most assuredly was, she continued, the business would hardly have been news. Gnass was wealthy enough, gross enough, to make for a weekend’s scandal. Andrea smiled. “If you had been less attractive, you would have gotten far less attention.”
Marly shook her head. “And the forgery was Alain’s. You were innocent. Have you forgotten that?”
Marly went into the bathroom, still huddled in the thread bare robe, without answering.
Beneath her friend’s wish to comfort, to help, Marly could already sense the impatience of someone forced to share a very small space with an unhappy, nonpaying guest.
And Andrea had had to loan her the fare for the Eurotrans.
With a conscious, painful effort of will, she broke from the circle of her thoughts and merged with the dense but sedate flow of serious Belgian shoppers.
A girl in bright tights and a boyfriend’s oversized loden jacket brushed past, scrubbed and smiling. At the next inter section, Marly noticed an outlet for a fashion line she’d favored in her own student days. The clothes looked impossibly young.
In her white and secret fist, the telefax.
Galerie Duperey, 14 Rue au Beurre, Bruxelles.
Josef Virek. The receptionist in the cool gray anteroom of the Galerie Duperey might well have grown there, a lovely and likely poisonous plant, rooted behind a slab of polished marble inlaid with an enameled keyboard. She raised lustrous eyes as Marly approached. Marly imagined the click and whirr of shutters, her bedraggled image whisked away to some far corner of Josef Virek’s empire.
‘Marly Krushkhova,” she said, fighting the urge to pro duce the compacted wad of telefax, smooth it pathetically on the cool and flawless marble. “For Herr Virek.”
“Fraulein Krushkhova,” the receptionist said, “Herr Virek is unable to be in Brussels today.”
Marly stared at the perfect lips, simultaneously aware of the pain the words caused her and the sharp pleasure she was learning to take in disappointment. “I see.”
“However, he has chosen to conduct the interview via a sensory link. If you will please enter the third door on your left.
The room was bare and white. On two walls hung un framed sheets of what looked like rain stained cardboard, stabbed through repeatedly with a variety of instruments. Katatonenkunst. Conservative. The sort of work one sold to committees sent round by the boards of Dutch commercial banks.
She sat down on a low bench covered in leather and finally allowed herself to release the telefax. She was alone, but assumed that she was being observed somehow.
“Fraulein Krushkhova.” A young man in a technician’s dark green smock stood in the doorway opposite the one through which she’d entered. “In a moment, please, you will cross the room and step through this door. Please grasp the knob slowly, firmly, and in a manner that affords maximum contact with the flesh of your palm. Step through carefully. There should be a minimum of spatial disorientation.”
She blinked at him “I beg ”
“The sensory link,” he said, and withdrew, the door closing behind him.
She rose, tried to tug some shape into the damp lapels of her jacket, touched her hair, thought better of it, took a deep breath, and crossed to the door. The receptionist’s phrase had prepared her for the only kind of link she knew, a simstim signal routed via Bell Europa. She’d assumed she’d wear a helmet studded with dermatrodes, that Virek would use a passive viewer as a human camera.
But Virek’s wealth was on another scale of magnitude entirely.
As her fingers closed around the cool brass knob, it seemed to squirm, sliding along a touch spectrum of texture and temperature in the first second of contact.
Then it became metal again, green painted iron, sweeping out and down, along a line of perspective, an old railing she grasped now in wonder.
A few drops of rain blew into her face.
Smell of rain and wet earth.
A confusion of small details, her own memory of a drunken art school picnic warring with the perfection of Virek’s illusion.
Below her lay the unmistakable panorama of Barcelona, smoke hazing the strange spires of the Church of the Sagrada Familia. She caught the railing with her other hand as well, fighting vertigo. She knew this place. She was in the Guell Park, Antonio Gaudi’s tatty fairyland, on its barren rise behind the center of the city. To her left, a giant lizard of crazy quilt ceramic was frozen in midslide down a ramp of rough stone. Its fountain grin watered a bed of tired flowers.
“You are disoriented. Please forgive me.”
Josef Virek was perched below her on one of the park’s serpentine benches, his wide shoulders hunched in a soft topcoat. His features had been vaguely familiar to her all her she remembered, for some reason, a photograph of life. Now Virek and the king of England. He smiled at her. His head was large and beautifully shaped beneath a brush of stiff dark gray hair. His nostrils were permanently flared, as though he sniffed invisible winds of art and commerce. His eyes, very large behind the round, rimless glasses that were a trademark, were pale blue and strangely soft.
“Please.” He patted the bench’s random mosaic of shattered pottery with a narrow hand. “You must forgive my reliance on technology. I have been confined for over a decade to a vat. In some hideous industrial suburb of Stockholm. Or perhaps of hell. I am not a well man, Marly. Sit beside me.”
Taking a deep breath, she descended the stone steps and crossed the cobbles “Herr Virek,” she said, “I saw you lecture in Munich, two years ago. A critique of Faessler and his Autisuches Theater. You seemed well then...”
“Faessler?” Virek’s tanned forehead wrinkled. “You saw a double. A hologram perhaps. Many things, Marly, are perpetrated in my name. Aspects of my wealth have become autonomous, by degrees; at times they even war with one I another. Rebellion in the fiscal extremities. However, for reasons so complex as to be entirely occult, the fact of my illness has never been made public.”
She took her place beside him and peered down at the dirty pavement between the scuffed toes of her black Paris boots. She saw a chip of pale gravel, a rusted paper clip, the small dusty corpse of a bee or hornet. “It’s amazingly detailed...”
“Yes,” he said, “the new Maas biochips. You should know,” he continued, “that what I know of your private life is very nearly as detailed. More than you yourself do, in some instances.”
“You do?” It was easiest, she found, to focus on the city, picking out landmarks remembered from a half dozen student holidays. There, just there, would be the Ramblas, parrots and flowers, the taverns serving dark beer and squid.
“Yes I know that it was your lover who convinced you that you had found a lost Cornell original...”
Many shut her eyes.
“He commissioned the forgery, hiring two talented student artisans and an established historian who found himself in certain personal difficulties... He paid them with money he’d already extracted from your gallery, as you have no doubt guessed. You are crying...”
Marly nodded. A cool forefinger tapped her wrist.
“I bought Gnass. I bought the police off the case. The press weren’t worth buying; they rarely are And now, perhaps, your slight notoriety may work to your advantage.”
“Herr Virek, I – “
“A moment, please. Paco! Come here, child.”
Marly opened her eyes and saw a child of perhaps six years, tightly gotten up in dark suit coat and knickers, pale stockings, high buttoned black patent boots. Brown hair fell across his forehead in a smooth wing. He held something in his hands, a box of some kind.
“Gaudi began the park in 1900,” Virek said “Paco wears the period costume. Come here, child. Show us your marvel.”
“Señor,” Paco lisped, bowing, and stepped forward to exhibit the thing he held.
Marly stared. Box of plain wood, glass fronted. Objects.
“Cornell,” she said, her tears forgotten. “Cornell?” She turned to Virek.
“Of course not. The object set into that length of bone is a Braun biomonitor. This is the work of a living artist.”
“There are more? More boxes?”
“I have found seven. Over a period of three years. The Virek Collection, you see, is a sort of black hole. The unnatural density of my wealth drags irresistibly at the rarest works of the human spirit. An autonomous process, and one I ordinarily take little interest in...”
But Marly was lost in the box, in its evocation of impossible distances, of loss and yearning. It was somber, gentle, and somehow childlike. It contained seven objects.
The slender fluted bone, surely formed for flight, surely from the wing of some large bird. Three archaic circuit boards, faced with mazes of gold A smooth white sphere of baked clay. An age blackened fragment of lace. A finger length segment of what she assumed was bone from a human wrist, grayish white, inset smoothly with the silicon shaft of a small instrument that must once have ridden flush with the surface of the skinbut the thing’s face was seared and blackened.
The box was a universe, a poem, frozen on the boundaries of human experience.
Box and boy were gone.
“Ah. Forgive me, I have forgotten that these transitions are too abrupt for you. Now, however, we must discuss your assignment .
“Herr Virek,” she said, “what is ‘Paco’?”
“I have hired you to find the maker of the box.”
“But, Herr Virek, with your resources ”
“Of which you are now one, child. Do you not wish to be employed? When the business of Gnass having been stung with a forged Cornell came to my attention, I saw that you might be of use in this matter.” He shrugged. “Credit me with a certain talent for obtaining desired results.”
“Certainly, Herr Virek! And, yes, I do wish to work!”
“Very well You will be paid a salary. You will be given access to certain lines of credit, although, should you need to purchase, let us say. substantial amounts of real estate”
“Or a corporation, or spacecraft. In that event, you will require my indirect authorization. Which you will almost certainly be given Otherwise, you will have a free hand I suggest, however, that you work on a scale with which you yourself are comfortable. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing touch with your intuition, and intuition, in a case such as this, is of crucial importance.” The famous smile glittered for her once more.
She took a deep breath. “Herr Virek, what if I fail? How long do I have to locate this artist?”
“The rest of your life,” he said.
Forgive me,” she found herself saying, to her horror, “but I understood you to say that you live in a – a vat?”
“Yes, Marly. And from that rather terminal perspective, I should advise you to strive to live hourly in your own flesh. Not in the past, if you understand me. I speak as one who can no longer tolerate that simple state, the cells of my body having opted for the quixotic pursuit of individual careers. I imagine that a more fortunate man, or a poorer one, would have been allowed to die at last, or be coded at the core of some bit of hardware. But I seem constrained, by a byzantine net of circumstance that requires, I understand, something like a tenth of my annual income. Making me, I suppose, the world’s most expensive invalid. I was touched, Marly, at your affairs of the heart. I envy you the ordered flesh from which they unfold.”
And, for an instant, she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.
A wing of night swept Barcelona’s sky. like the twitch of a vast slow shutter, and Virek and Gdell were gone, and she found herself seated again on the low leather bench, staring at torn sheets of stained cardboard.