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Chapter 8

Looking around the office of his new boss, Lajos Irvine started counting the ways.

The ways his new boss was so much worse than his old one, Jack McBryde.

True, his old boss had turned out to be a traitor. But if you left that one flaw aside, he’d been a real pleasure to work for. Lajos hadn’t appreciated how much so until he’d had some months to fully explore the depth and breadth of his new boss’s qualities.

Using the term “qualities” loosely and understanding that the term was neutral. A fetid odor was also a “quality.”

To start with, there was the fact that Lajos had been waiting for twenty minutes for George Vickers to make his appearance. Why had the man bothered to set the meeting at this hour in his own office if he hadn’t planned to be there himself?

If this had been a one-time event, Lajos would have assumed that Vickers had been delayed unexpectedly or had simply been absentminded and forgot the time. But it wasn’t a one-time occurrence, it was an every-time occurrence. Vickers was wasting the time of his subordinate for the sole purpose of showing him who was the boss.

Not that there would have ever been any doubt about it, which made the whole exercise purposeless as well as annoying.

As a genetically engineered specialist developed to infiltrate the societies of genetic slaves, Lajos Irvine was officially the equal of any other specialty line produced by the Alignment. Unlike the agents produced for the External Bureau, who were indistinguishable from general utility slave lines except for their special slave numbers, Lajos was a full member of the Alignment. Not the very innermost circles of the onion, true—although that was not precluded for him in the future—but he was still a genetic slave in form only. He’d been given prolong treatments, for instance.

Formalities aside, though, there was still a deep-seated prejudice against people like him that permeated the Alignment. Not all people shared it—McBryde hadn’t, for one—but many did. And even leaving the bias aside, the fact remained that Lajos was a specialty line and George Vickers was an alpha line.

There was no chance, no matter what his accomplishments might be, that he’d ever wind up replacing Vickers in this office—so what was the point of this rigmarole?

Everything about the office reminded Lajos of what a jackass his new boss was. His eyes fell on the wall behind Vickers’ desk. The equivalent of that wall in Jack McBryde’s office had been decorated with a few paintings and some simple images of the McBryde family. Jack himself had been in a couple of the images, but no more than that.

That wall had vanished, destroyed with the rest of Gamma Center. This wall, in contrast, was solid Vickers territory. Every single thing on the wall was about him. His images—fancy holograms, these, and expensive ones at that—and his awards and certificates and decorations. The only other people in the holograms on the wall were those of Vickers’ associates whom he obviously felt enhanced his own prestige. Some were his immediate superiors; others were images of people who were apparently very high up in the Alignment.

Then there was the desk. Jack McBryde’s desk had been a beehive of activity. There would have been three or four virtual screens up and running, and half the desk would have been covered with slips and sheets of papic. Jack had been fond of the old-fashioned way of taking notes.

“I don’t know why but I think better when I’m chewing on an idea I’ve written down myself.” He’d given Lajos a grin and added: “Would you believe I’ve even been to the paper exhibit in the Museum of Science and Technology?”

“What’s ‘paper’?” Lajos had asked.

Jack had picked up a sheet of papic. “It’s what they used to use instead of this. Looks just like it—they let me pick one up—but it feels a little different. Coarser. They made it out of pulped wood, you know.”

Lajos had made a face. “Sounds awfully unsanitary.”

“Oh, the paper was safe enough. The manufacturing process was destructive, though. Poisoned the environment like you wouldn’t believe. Once they figured out a way to make plastic biodegradable they got rid of paper.”

Vickers’ desk looked like it ought to be in a museum itself. The expanse was completely empty except for one virtual screen which simply displayed the agency’s logo—as if anyone who had the security clearance to get in here in the first place wouldn’t know where they were.

Other than that, there was simply a nameplate perched on the corner of the desk. A big nameplate, reading:

George Vickers

Assistant Director

Central Security Agency

Perhaps most telling of all, the nameplate didn’t face the visitor. It faced Vickers—or would, whenever the Great Man finally made his entrance.

Vickers had to have some genuine ability or he’d never have been given this post. The Alignment gave short shrift to bosses who were incompetent. But, so far at least, Lajos hadn’t seen any evidence of it.

The door to the office swung open and Vickers came in.

“Ah, there you are,” he said, as if Lajos hadn’t been sitting there for the better part of half an hour and Vickers had been looking for him.

Damn, he missed Jack.

A thought, needless to say, that he kept entirely to himself.

* * *

After George Vickers finished his explanation of Lajos Irvine’s new assignment, there was silence in the room for at least half a minute.

From the self-satisfied look on his face, Vickers assumed that the silence was due to Lajos striving mightily to absorb the subtleties and profundities of the strategic thinking involved.

Instead of, as was actually the case, Lajos striving mightily not to burst out with sentences that would be:

a) True.

b) Emotionally satisfying.

c) Useless.

d) Damaging to his career.

He knew that much from the beginning, but he couldn’t relinquish the sentences for half a minute.

That is the stupidest— Most of the sentences began with that clause.

What imbecile came up with this idea? Variations on that theme constituted a good two-thirds of the sentences.

What is the fucking point—

He finally managed to bring himself under control enough to utter his first words aloud.

“Uh, George, in my experience criminals make it a point to know as little as possible about anything that might be dangerous and brings them no income. As informers—on political activity, that is—they’re about as useful as—as—”

He tried to come up with an analogy. Sewer rats and alley cats wouldn’t do because such animals might actually provide a modicum of useful information. The absence of either one in an area might indicate the presence of a terrorist cell, for instance.

Or a big, mean dog, more likely. But there was still the possibility of usefulness.

Criminals? One of whose characteristics was the inclination to lie as a first reaction to any question and another of which was that most of them were damn good at it.

And another of whose characteristics was that they were prone to violence.

“That raises another issue,” he said. “I’m not trained—”

“Relax, Lajos,” said Vickers, waving his hand in a genial manner. Or what he took to be one, anyway. “We’re going to be providing you with some assistance. Nobody expects you to match muscle with hooligans.”

Great. I’ll be saddled with brainless goons. Which meant his already slim chances of turning up any information by infiltrating the Mesa seccy underworld just went on a starvation diet.

“But what—”

Vickers waved his hand again. The gesture, this time, was firm; decisive; not genial at all.

“It’s been decided, Lajos. Just do it. We haven’t gotten anywhere in weeks following the usual methods, so the powers-that-be upstairs”—he pointed at the ceiling, in blithe disregard of the fact that CSA headquarters was two miles to the west and there was nothing on the floors above them except a lot of computers and clerical workers—“have decided to try a flanking approach. It’s obvious that our firm and decisive measures have driven the terrorists to bay. They’re huddling in their shelters, now. If they want to do anything, they have to use criminals as their intermediaries. So—”

His chest swelled a little. “Operation Capone.” He bestowed a sly smile on Irvine. “I came up with the name. Capone was a notorious Roman gangster in ancient times. The orator and philosopher Cicero even talked about him.”

Operation Capone. Lajos had never heard of anyone by that name. What he did know was that all you had to do was lop the “e” off the end of the name and you had a castrated rooster. A near-mindless critter that made a lot of noise and couldn’t accomplish a damn thing.

* * *

After he left Vickers, Lajos went down to the mess hall in the basement. He did have his own office in the building but he didn’t like to use it. The room they’d given him was more like a cubicle with delusions of grandeur than anything he’d call an “office,” and Lajos didn’t like feeling cramped whenever he had to do any serious thinking.

And serious thinking was called for here. Whatever he thought of them, orders were orders, and the basic law of hierarchies applied just as much to the Alignment as to any other institution in human history.

Shit rolls downhill. If this idiot scheme came apart at the seams, or just came to nothing at all, Lajos would be the one blamed. Not George Vickers. Not whoever on high gave Vickers his orders. Certainly not any of the Detweilers.

Poor put-upon Lajos Irvine, that’s who’d get the fault laid at his feet.

The first thing he had to figure out was his cover identity. None of the ones he had already established would work well in this assignment.

Thankfully, the powers-that-were hadn’t been stingy as well as stupid. The budget Vickers had given him was enough for Lajos to set himself up in whatever identity was most likely to be successful.

Forget being a robber, contract killer, any of that business. Lajos had neither the skills nor the temperament to pull off such identities successfully. Not long enough, anyway. Even Vickers was willing to allow that this maneuver was going to take a fair amount of time before it produced any results.

A fence, then. And he’d have to be selling something fairly exotic, in order to explain why no one in the criminal underworld in the capital’s seccy quarters had run across him before.

So . . . sell what? Drugs were out. Sure, there was always some sort of new design pharmaceutical coming on line, but that was a very well-established market with well-established suppliers. Well-established suppliers with a long and well-deserved reputation for violent retaliation against newcomers and interlopers, to boot.

No, it’d have to be something less obvious. Stolen art was a possibility. But the problem there was the market was too upscale to be likely to prove very helpful in tracking down Ballroom terrorists in hiding.

Lajos didn’t think there were nearly as many such terrorists as his superiors seemed to be believe, anyway. Not ever—and certainly not now, after the savage reprisals carried out in the seccy areas following Green Pines. Anyone even remotely suspected of having ties to the Ballroom had been targeted, and the authorities had been indiscriminate in their application of violence. The way they looked at it, “collateral damage” was just another term for a job well done.

Lajos estimated that somewhere around two thousand people had been killed, and at least twice that many badly injured. He was quite sure that most of the casualties had had no connection to the Ballroom, but some of them would have. The point being that he didn’t think there were really that many terrorists still at large, and they’d be deep in hiding and . . .

Casualties. Fatalities. Desperate need for money . . .

Body parts and tissues. That was the market he’d aim for. There was a small trade in such goods in seccy areas. More modern medical methods were available and not even that expensive, but there were always some people who wanted to stay off the official grid for one reason or another. For such people, going to an established hospital for regeneration treatments posed too much of a risk, even compared to the risks of undergoing primitive organ-replacement surgery in unlicensed clinics.

The market was too erratic and marginal to have a well-established network of fences in place. There’d be some, sure, but they’d be freelancers. What the underworld called gypsies. Savage, often, but they’d be individuals or very small groups, not large gangs. The goons Vickers had promised to provide Lajos should be able to handle any problems of that nature that came up.

And he’d certainly not have any problem coming up with a supply of goods to sell. Not with the resources of the entire Mesan penal system at his disposal. Mesan authorities had no hesitation when it came to using the death penalty as a means of disciplining the population. Lajos wasn’t sure of the exact number, but there’d be at least half a dozen people being executed every month. Their bodies were normally cremated, since the body parts and tissues market was too small to be of interest to the giant corporations that dominated the planet—and the wealthy individuals who ran those corporations had other and better means to provide for their medical needs.

Just a little change in methods, for a while. Cut up the executed corpses to provide Lajos with the supplies he needed, cremate what was left and hand those remains over to the grieving relatives when there were any. Would anyone bother to weigh the ashes and try to calculate if everything was accounted for? Not likely. Not that class of people. And if they did, so what? Nobody cared what they thought anyway.

His spirits were picking up now. This . . .

Was still a stupid idea. But at least it’d be workable, wouldn’t pose too many risks—and, who could say? Maybe he’d even turn up something.

Hearing a slight noise behind him, he turned in his seat and saw that two men had just entered the mess hall and were headed his way.

Large men. The muscle, obviously.

When they reached the table, one of them said: “Vickers sent us.”

“We’re supposed to give you whatever help you need,” said the other. “I’m Borisav Stanković,” he said. “Call me Bora.” He pointed a thumb at his partner. “This is Freddie Martinez.”

Martinez nodded.

Lajos rose from the table he’d been sitting at and stuck out his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

“What’s the job?” asked Stanković, once the handshakes were done.

“Sit down and I’ll explain it to you.”

* * *

After he finished, Stanković and Martinez looked at each other.

“Piece of cake,” said Stanković. Martinez nodded.

A promising start, Lajos decided.

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