by Quentin Long
©2010 Quentin Long

Part 1 -=- Part 2 -=- Part 3

Home -=- #31 -=- ANTHRO #31 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-
This TBP (Tales of the Blind Pig) story is part of the life of cheetah-morph Jubatus Acinonyx. Other stories of Jube are A Good Run of Luck (which appeared in Anthro #7), Second Heat (in Anthro #22), and Christmas Rush (in Anthro #26).
Go here for info on the TBP setting

   Homework. Birdbrain did a decent job on all 40 phonemes; tiger-boy did better; foxy lady did best of all. I flatly will not think about how her voice is gonna end up sounding. The bug’s—Borman’s—stridulation is a little iffy, but not bad for a first shot. Dennison? My questions for him amount to an abbreviated Piscine Anatomy 101 final exam, and he aced it. 25 answers dead-on correct, the other two technically invalid but strongly arguable anyway. As for Jenny… she’s outta here. All her paperwork and computer files are in order, not that anybody noticed her turning in any forms or anything. None of my business anyway (he says, with a shrug).
   As for the class itself (number four in a series of ten—collect them all!): Anthony sounds better than I do, goddamn his near-intact throat. I give 10:1 odds in favor of the bastard regaining full human speech before the final class session. Calgonetti? Phonemes he’s got down pat, but he can’t quite manage to put ’em together into honest-to-God speech. Funny, that. Chalk up another one for ‘self-imposed mental block’, and I go out of my way to rub salt in his wound. He’ll thank me for it later, right? Borman actually surprises me by stridulating recognizable phonemes; only three of ’em, granted, but I didn’t think he’d be able to swing it at all. Not this early, anyway. Good sign. Dennison turns out to have an internal swim-bladder, complete with swatting muscles, and he demonstrates it with a kind of “ahh-eee-ahh” that more-or-less spans an augmented fifth.
   And then there’s Zelinski. Her eyes aren’t as bright as last week; her vocalizing is decidedly worse than before; and she fumbles with her voder like she’d only just started using the damn thing yesterday. Oh, and I could tell her scent was ‘off’ (including what the ‘new’ chemicals were) before she stepped into the classroom. I do the math, and the answer is clear: She’s drugged. Given the data I’ve already acquired re: the Zelinski household, there’s exactly 1 (one) person who could’ve done it to her: Alison Zelinski, her ‘loving’ spouse. You think I’m pissed off? Damn right I am. Nobody has the right to fuck up someone else’s free will like that! I stifle my anger for the duration of the class.
   This week’s homework is pretty much a rerun of last week’s; more phoneme-practice, singly and in combination. When the rest leave, I ask the vixen to stay. She gives me a vague look: “I muost gho homm,” her voder says. “Mizz Awl-lee dee-uz-int wand me tu ss’tay owwit laid.”
   “Maybe so, but she also wants you to relearn how to talk, am I right?” Zelinski pauses, then makes with an uncertain nod, and I go on before her voder can say anything else: “You need a little extra attention right now, is all. That’s what we’re going to do tonight, and if Miss Allie doesn’t like it, you just tell her it’s my fault, how’s that?”
   I keep an eye on the parking lot while I talk—an occasional momentary upshift, nothing the fox even can notice in her drugged-out state—so I see the TransportElegance limo as it pulls in. Good thing Zelinski rather likes the idea of having some time away from home: Her face slides into an off-kilter grin, and her voder says, “Ohh khay!”
   “Great. Now, sit down and close your eyes; I’ve got a big surprise for you.” She obeys. I upshift. Four-point-eight clock-seconds later, she’s in the back of my car, seated in front of a big-ass computer display with Newspaper Tycoon VII running. The rent-a-thugs in the limo think Zelinski’s still in the Shelter; I brought her down so fast they didn’t—couldn’t—percieve anything. I could care less if they try to look in the Extremis; there’s a couple aftermarket features that normally let me sleep in private, but they work just as well now. Specifically, the electrochromic film on the windows (currently set to Total Eclipse), and the cab divider in front of the cargo space.
   Zelinski makes with a little squeal of delight when she opens her eyes. “There you go!” I say. “The game is set up for voice commands by default, but you can also use mouse and keyboard, if you’d rather. Need any help?” Apparently not—her fingers dance on the keyboard as she dives right in.
   “Thank you,” her box says, “but I don’t believe that will be necessary.” Interesting: Her skill with the voder is distinctly higher now than it was a couple minutes ago. Good.
   My cellphone has a wireless link to the Extremis’ video cameras; that’s how I know when the rent-a-thugs leave their vehicle for the Shelter. Absorbed in an orgy of virtual capitalism, the vixen doesn’t even notice when I drive off. The rent-a-thugs won’t be following us—not with their distributor cap in my glove compartment, they won’t. Upshifting can be useful at times…
   At this point, I’m not sure what the deal is with Alison Zelinski. Sure, I know what she’s done to her ex-husband, but I don’t know why, and the ‘why’ matters. Well, I’ll find out soon enough.
   Moving right along: Most people think the “Betty Ford Clinic” is just a punchline, what with all the rich actors and singers who supposedly go there to detoxify or whatever. Wrong. The Clinic is very real, very discreet, and damned good at what they do. And they’ve got a SCAB-friendly branch office in the west end of Pennsylvania. A couple hours of air-conditioned driving, and foxy lady is safely deposited there. The staff was quite professional, even while enrolling an unscheduled client at 2 AM. Wasn’t exactly ‘no questions asked’, but that’s okay; what with all my poking around the Zelinskis’ private affairs, I had the right answers.

   So. It’s 9 AM Wednesday. By now Alison Zelinski’s got to know that her gendermorph hubby has evaporated. Odds are, she hasn’t slept. She’s probably shitting bricks wondering when the ransom note will arrive. Wish I could’ve seen her face when my e-note did arrive in her inbox…
   FROM: J. Acinonyx (fiver@jubatus.nucom)
SUBJ: re: Mary Zelinski’s vocalization
I’m afraid that Mary’s progress in class has been disrupted by a set of problems beyond my capacity to solve. Accordingly, I have taken the liberty of securing an outside specialist who can help her overcome these problems. I would like to speak to you in a private conference, at your earliest convenience, about preventing a recurrence of these problems. When would be a good time for you?
   Heh! I think I hit just the right chords; aside from the none-too-subtle hints that I know exactly what she’s done, I’ve all but confessed to the kidnapping. And best of all, the language is sufficiently innocuous that no lawyer or judge could regard the note as evidence of anything nefarious. How long will it take Zelinski to decide that her only option is to talk to me?
   I get her answer at 2:26PM. She wants to meet this evening, her place, 8 o’clock. As usual, I got clock-hours to kill—oh, joy. In between working on my legit contracts, I make contact with the Zelinski home network. Well, well: Miss Allison has been researching me, much good may it do her. Security protocols are unchanged, which just means that if she is planning any surprises, she’s doing it offline. Do I have a plan? Damn straight I do. No point wasting time in conversational parry and riposte. Instead, I’m gonna blitzkrieg the bitch—hit her fast and hard, from multiple directions at once, changing attacks before she can adjust or reply. Considering how easily I torque people off just because, it’ll be interesting to see how bad I can rattle somebody when I work at it. All of which assumes there’s no armed resistance or whatever. If there is, no problem: I upshift and nuke it, after which Zelinski gets my undivided attention.
   The clock-hours crawl by…
   8PM—showtime. The Zelinski house is a bloated, two-story carbuncle with a bunch of underground floor space; when I ring the bell, the front door is opened by a familiar-smelling rent-a-thug. His demeanor is designed to intimidate, not that I give a damn. He says, “Miss Allison will receive you in the living room,” and leads me inside.
   The living room turns out to be an interior chamber with a good chunk of one wall taken up by an oversized flat-plasma display. Once I’m there, a female voice says “Thank you, Marcus. That will be all,” and thug-boy leaves as we both sit down. This voice belongs to a female norm, straight black hair, semi-dark skin tone. Judging from her scent, she’s a little shaky, uncomfortable, and trying not to let it show. Let’s see how fast I can coax a reaction out of her. “I’m… my name is Alison Zelinski,” she says.
   “Jubatus,” I reply.
   “Would you…” She breaks off with a sigh. “I’m sorry, this is all so complicated…”
   Shrug. “Seems pretty straightforward to me. Your hubby SCABbed over seven months ago—different sex and species. She’s been stoned out of her gourd ever since, courtesy of you. I’m curious, how many doctors did you go through?”
   “Excuse me?” Hmmm… steady pulse and scent… nope, her confusion is just an act. This isn’t the first time my SCABS-heightened senses have come in handy.
   “How many doctors?” I repeat. “Before you found one who didn’t care what he did to Mary, as long as your checks cleared.”
   Okay, now it’s a genuine response: High-end anger. “Mister Jubatus, I’ll tha-”
   Her words are drowned under my “Shut up, bitch.” My voice may suck rocks, but I can definitely go Loud when I feel like it. “You may not be old enough to remember date-rape drugs, but I sure as hell am, and the only difference I see is that you married your victim first!”
   “I—you—” From ‘calm’ to ‘stuttering, with pulsing vein in forehead’ in under 7 clock-seconds. I love it when a plan comes together. “How dare you!”
   “How dare you, lady!? Go play the Righteous Indignation card somewhere else, ’cause I’m not interested. What I’ve got on you, I could nail you to the wall in court yet—and I just might.”
   It’s working. I can practically smell her brain cells burning out as she almost keeps up. “You—you’d never win!”
   I give her a nasty smile, heavy on the fangs. “Bets on that? Imagine your face plastered across the front page of every newspaper in a 1,000-mile radius, not to mention all the broadcast media and net coverage. Think of all the editorials. Visualize the Zelinski name permanently associated with cute stuff like anti-SCABS bigotry, chemically-mediated enslav-”
   —attack: threat level high: 12 o’clock—
   —oh, hell. It’s not the first time this has happened: My instincts trigger an upshift without my say-so, because they don’t like something in my immediate vicinity. In this case it’s Zelinski, floating in midair, with hands poised to do some damage. Physical assault? Gosh, I must’ve hit a very sensitive nerve. I could tear her several new assholes… but instead, I just move around to lean on the back of her chair, resume a tempo of 1, and watch her land, clumsily, on the couch I just vacated.
   Confused, she looks around, and I speak when her eyes meet mine: “That was your first free shot at me. Hope you enjoyed it, because nobody gets two.”
   “Bastard! I’ll sue—”
   I laugh, a cruel, venomous noise that shatters her focus. “Hah! Go ahead and try, for all the good it’ll do you. Face it: Whatever you do, you can’t stop me opening a can of worms you’d much prefer stay closed. Me, I could care less about bad publicity—can you say the same? If you think you can possibly fuck up a SCAB’s social status any worse’n it already is, feel free to try. Who knows, you might even be able to come up with something that’s not prima facie grounds for a libel suit. Should be fun.”
   “You…” I can smell fear, anger, concern, and confusion fighting it out in her scent. Fear wins. “Alright. Do your worst, you monster.”
   “Says the bald ape who arranged a permanent brainwashing prescription for their own spouse,” I retort. “Alright, Mrs. Zelinski. I’ve got half a mind to sic my lawyer on you anyway, but I’m a reasonable man. Play it straight with me, I’ll return the favor. Fuck with me, and I will own your sorry ass. Your choice.”
   Fear and guilt: A powerful combo. They’re both on her face and in her scent. Eventually, she gets herself under control again. “What… what do you want?” she asks.
   She’s defeated, alright—her scent confirms it—so I get down to business: “I want the truth. Why is Mary a drugged-out zombie?”
   Zelinski kind of sags in her chair. She sighs, doesn’t (can’t?) look at my face. “I… no one ever intended…”
   A few seconds after she trails off, I kill the silence: “I’m not hearing a ‘why’.”
   “It’s… complicated…”
   “You already said that,” I point out. “Feel free to start at the beginning. Alternately, how about I just leave, wait ’til Mary’s done getting detoxified, and let her decide how many new orifices I should rip out of your hide? Your call—pick one.”
   She goes for ‘start at the beginning’. Takes her an unnecessarily long time to spit it out: Hubby SCABs over (fur and tits), goes nutbar over the gender thing, needs to be sedated for his/her own protection… and ever since, Zelinski makes sure hubby gets a fresh dose whenever she’s too close to sober.
   “You… didn’t know Martin before,” she says, as if her words were threading a minefield. “He was… difficult to live with, not—”
   I cut her off. “So. Fucking. What. If Mary wants to be permanently blitzed, fine, but guess what? That’s not your goddamn decision, lady! So here’s the deal: As of now, Dr. Gordon is off Mary’s—”
   “What gives you the right to interfere with the private affairs of this family!”
   Zelinski shuts up when I look directly into her eyes. She glares right back. Both of us are way the hell pissed. Her anger is cold like liquid helium; mine is hotter than a deuterium-fusion torch.
   Zelinski breaks first. When she lowers her gaze, I speak up, as inexorable as a glacier: “What, exactly, gave you the right to interfere—I spit that word out with a freightload of sarcasm—“with your spouse’s mind and free will.”
   Her scent goes heavy on shame, with a side order of fear. No other response.
   Okay, fine. “Like I was saying, here’s the deal. One: You will sever all connections, professional and otherwise, between Mary and Doctor Gordon. Two: You will accept whoever Dr. Derksen recommends for Gordon’s replacement. Three: You have no say whatsoever about Mary’s medical needs—you will do anything the new guy says, agree to anything they recommend, and generally treat the new guy as if they’re the Voice of God Himself. Four: If, at any time in the future, I find out that you have ever again so much as dreamed about interfering with Mary’s medical treatment…” Here I whisper, as lethal as a sack of cobras: “I. Will. Destroy. You.”
   Zelinski crumples in silence. Her eyes glint with highlights that weren’t there before—poor fucking baby.
   I give her 15 clock-seconds; still no reply.
   I’m out of there. Nobody gets in my way, not Marcus the thug or any other hireling. Fine by me. The mood I’m in, I’d go through them. Not a good idea to leave a trail of broken bodies. I give the Extremis a once-over when I get to it; nope, no signs of tampering. Only then do I let myself relax. A little, anyway.
   On the road, I don’t think about what I just did. I don’t want to think about it. I just drive. I want to—no. Bad idea; I don’t want to get drunk.
   Well… maybe just a little…

   It’s none of my business, of course, but I keep an eye on the foxy lady over the next few days. Just to make sure Miss Alison stays the hell away from her ex-husband’s treatment, is all. And wouldn’t you know it, Zelinski makes quote, remarkable, unquote, progress. Think it might have something to do with not getting pumped full of mindfuck drugs on a regular basis? Funny how that works. Even so, the Ford medics insist on keeping her there “for observation” for another 8-10 days, minimum… which means she’s going to miss a class. Maybe two.
   In other news, I close 5 more contracts before next Tuesday. 33 more to go; I might run out before the tenth class. Hey, I am taking it easy—I haven’t accepted any new clients since I started teaching the class.
   Speaking of which, this session (the fifth) has a guest lecturer: Donnie Sinclair. And while he’s scribbling at my students, I fill in for him behind the counter at the Pig. That’s the pound of flesh he demanded before he’d do what I asked. I hate the idea; I mean, I don’t do crowds! But since it puts a three-foot-wide faux-marble countertop between me and the customers, it should be okay… right..? Aside from that, I have no idea how Donnie creates and maintains the Pig’s SCAB-friendly atmosphere—so I won’t even try. Instead I’m going to pour the booze, keep a paranoid eye on everything, and stomp on anything that smells like it even might be trouble. I just hope I can stay alert until closing time; for whatever reason, SCABS left me with a half-hour-long sleep cycle. Mind you, I don’t have to conk out that often. I can actually stay up five hours at a time, but that’s kind of like a norm staying up for five days solid… well, that should be enough. Hopefully. I’m pretty sure, anyway.
   Having a few weeks’ advance notice, I did my usual obsessive prep work beforehand. The cash register is a late-2016 NCR job, tablet-style touchscreen; before I’m through, I know it better than Donnie himself does. I’m packing 47,583 different drink recipes on a PDA, complete with recommended ingredient substitutions for when stuff runs out, and the thing happens to be equipped with a wireless internet hookup in case somebody wants something outside the onboard library. More recently, I confirmed that the Pig’s supply database is 100% up to date (I double-checked each item myself). Come the fatal Tuesday, I make sure the lavatories are fully loaded—which is trickier than you might think, since the Pig’s bathrooms accomodate a wide range of SCAB body types. Comfortably, yet. I also stash a couple dozen pounds of beef jerky behind the counter; the kind of calories I burn, I’m gonna need that protein…
   And then it’s showtime.
   The hours pass in a blur. Jesu Christe, there’s a shitload of customers—I sometimes have trouble keeping up with the orders! Upshifting doesn’t help, because I have to understand what all you damn slowpokes are saying. And that means my tempo needs to be real close to 1 most of the time…
   I keep a watchful eye on the crowd.
   “Gimme a Stattenvorl.”
   I take orders.
   “Three shots of Jack Daniels, straight.”
   I make change.
   “Vodka martini for me, an’ a Purple Ray for the li’l lady.”
   I pour booze.
   “—tellya, I wuz on top’a th’ world—”
   I hate it. Sob stories from self-pitying morons—gaah! I pay those twits as little attention as I can manage. Most of ’em take the hint and stay the fuck away from the counter; occasionally I delegate one to Wanderer or somebody via an upshifted note in their glass.
   I keep a watchful eye on the crowd.
   “Atomic Firewater!”
   I take orders.
   “Scotch and soda, heavy on the soda.”
   I make change.
   “—you gonna do about it, runt?”
   Oh, fucking joy. I quit pouring. Commotion by the dart board; there’s a St. Bernard-derived animorph SCAB who can’t aim worth shit, lost a bet, and is now proving himself to be a welching asshole and a mean drunk.
   I point one finger ceilingward. “’Scuse me a sec,” I tell the customers I haven’t gotten to yet. Then I zip over to the big dog, telling him, “You lost, Bernie. Pay up and deal with it.”
   He’s, like, six-foot-thirteen and 380 pounds, none of it fat; me, I’m five-eleven and forty-odd kilos. Seeing this as he turns to look down at me, Bernie makes with a contemptuous grin. “Who’s gonna ma-yeee!!!”
   There’s an instant cloud of ozone and burnt fur—I didn’t let Bernie see my TASER, but he damn sure felt it. He hits the floor like a 380-pound sack of dog food. Upshift, extract his wallet from a pocket, downshift, hand the wallet over to the norm-looking guy that beat Bernie. I say, “Take your winnings out of this,” then I upshift again, this time so’s I can haul Bernie’s ass out the front door. We cheetahs are stronger than we look—we have to be, since our legendary top speed is muscle-powered—and besides, I’ve found that local gravity gets weaker when I upshift. Put ’em together, and I’m not even breathing hard when I set Bernie down on the sidewalk outside the Pig.
   Once more behind the counter, I inhale dried meat, downshift, and pick up where I left off—elapsed time 8.6 clock-seconds in all. “I’m back. You there, what do you want?”
   I keep a watchful eye on the crowd.
   “Make mine a Jumper Cable.”
   I take orders.
   “Bacardi 151 on the rocks.”
   I make change.
   “Irish Coffee.”
   I pour booze.
   Time goes on. The clock-hours spin and gyrate…
   …and suddenly I blink, confused at what I see before me. Minotaur? I ask myself. That’s—hold it, what’s Donnie doing here..?
   Ah. Right.

   The place is damn near empty, only a couple of stragglers still hanging on; I must have signaled Closing Time already. Thank any applicable god… Oh, yeah. Must ask… “Hhhh…” I stop, close eyes, swallow, restart. “How’d the class go?”
   Donnie shrugs, then gives me an interrogative “Mmm?”-and-look combo.
   I’m tired. My head hurts. “If you’re asking how my end of the deal went, it sucked. I have no idea how you can stand doing what you do. Can I go now?”
   Donnie looks at me with some inscrutable bovine expression. He nods.
   I do likewise myself, no words. I manage to drag myself out to the Extremis, get inside, and lock up before I collapse…

   Week 6: Nothing much happened. Okay, I did lose another student, but it’s all good… I guess…
   On Thursday (that being July 29th, if you’ve lost track), I get a call from out of state—the Betty Ford Clinic. Guess which of their recent patients put in a request to chat me up, personal-like? Right—her. No reason given. Well, what the hell. I got time to kill, like always, so I agree to do the conversation today. I make time for it (and I do mean ’make time’), and at 5 PM, I’m in Mary Zelinski’s private room at the Clinic.
   She screws up her face a little, concentrating, and says—she honest-to-Thoth says!—”Hhhee-rhho, Tcheu-baddhuz.”
   I smile and nod. “Hello yourself, Ms. Zelinski. The voice needs work, but not too damned shabby. Y’know, if you wanted to let me know you’re dropping the class, you could’ve just sent me an e-mail…”
   Despite herself, the foxy lady smiles. Only for a moment, but it’s there. And then she goes on: “Iiayy, wrrahndtuu… hrraauuw!” A frustrated yowl. Frowning, she picks up her voder, which just happens to have been lying on her nightstand, and lets it speak for her. “Yes. I’m dropping your class. This is about something else. What happened to my wife?”
   I wasn’t expecting that. If I had eyebrows, I’d raise them. “It matters?”
   Angry and some other emotion fight it out on Zelinski’s face. Angry is losing, big time. “I’m not sure any more,” her voder says in its incongruously level tone. “I’m not sure I want to know. But I must know. And you can tell me. Can’t you?”
   Oh, rapture and fucking joy. “Yeah. I can. But just remember, you asked for it…” And I make with an infodump. I give Zelinski the whole story, everything from when I first read her file to when I hammered on dear little Alison. The foxy lady doesn’t interrupt; she sits there and absorbs it all without making a sound. And then I’m done…
   “…back to the Pig, to get smashed. Well, as smashed as I can get, anyway.”
   At this point, Zelinski isn’t the least bit angry. She’s kind of hunched over into herself; her voder lies, forgotten, on the bed next to her.
   I wait a bit, then kill the silence: “You asked. I answered. Is that it?”
   The vixen pulls herself together. “Yes,” her voder says, “that’s enough.” Then her fingers pause over the talk-box. A few moments later, it recites the words she’d been typing; it gets as far as “I wish” before she hits the ‘abort’ button. She starts over, her hands a little shaky: “Tank you mitt sir Jubatus. You comforted my suspectings. Please lever me out lone.”
   Which I do. The Ford Clinic staff wants to debrief me; I blow off most of their questions with variations on, “Ask the foxy lady—it’s her call.”
   And then I’m on the road again, driving back home.

   Nothing much happened for the next week or so, and that includes during the next class session. Fortunately. I’ve been on the short end of too damn many surprises already…
   Wait, there was one thing: The bug. Borman. He can actually stridulate isolated syllables! He sounds lousy (still better than I do, damn it), and it sucks up so much of his attention and concentration that changing to a different syllable is a major feat… but when all is said and done, he can talk. It’s just a matter of practice, honing his currently-primitive skill.
   Well, whatever: I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, to coin a phrase.

   Okay: Week seven. So I’m coming in for today’s stint at the West Street Shelter. I’m not three steps past the front door when this lightly morphed rat-SCAB, a new addition to the staff, says Splendor wants to see me in her office right away. What does she want from me? Hell if I know—but ‘in her office’ means it’s a private conversation, and that cuts way back on the number of alternatives…
   By the time I open her office door, the short list is down to about three possible agendas. I close the door. Splendor’s just beginning to greet me; I interrupt her, saying, “You want I should work somebody over.”
   She blinks. “What makes you… never mind. Actually—”
   Some things are best stopped before they start. I cut her off again: “Not interested. Go find someone else to play shock trooper. I’m sure there’s plenty of people around here who’d love to put a hurting on some asshole who desperately deserves—”
   “That’s exactly why I want you for this job!” Her turn to interrupt, it seems.
   My turn to blink.
   “Okay…” I finally say. “You’ve piqued my curiosity. Explain.”
   “Thank you. First, some background.” She opens a file drawer, pulls out a manila folder, hands it to me. “Read this.”
   Upshifting, I follow her advice. ‘This’ is a collection of eyewitness reports—seems that Splendor has an unofficial network of informers all over the City. It’s mostly surveillance on the comings and goings of various lowlifes, but there’s also some educated guesses on what said lowlifes will be up to in the near future. Hmmm… if I’m reading this right, it looks like the West Street neighborhood’s been relatively low on criminals for a while, and a gang from outside the City is planning to move into what they perceive as a vacuum.
   I close the folder, slip back to a tempo of 1—”Done.”—and return it to her. “Alright, that’s the background. So what?”
   “I know the local thugs, and I’ve gotten most of them to stop committing their crimes in my neighborhood.”
   “Bully for you.” I’ve got an uncomfortable feeling I know what’s on her mind, but—”And I should get involved… why?”
   She gestures at the folder. “The Cargill Mob. If they establish a presence here, it will be… well. Let’s just say it would be best for all concerned if they don’t. I want to dissuade them with a show of force; give them a demonstra-”
   “No. I flatly refuse to play enforcer.”
   “Will you let me finish!?” she says, glaring at me. Well, what do you know—the snake-lady actually has a temper. I gesture for her to continue; she does. “I’ve set up a meeting with Jocko Cargill,”—head honcho of the eponymous Mob, says her files, real name ‘Giocomo’—”and I want to be accompanied by people who I can be absolutely certain will not initiate any hostile action.”
   “Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I say without much sarcasm. “So what do you want from me?”
   “You’re welcome. And I want you to serve as bodyguard.”
   Damn… Hadn’t considered anything even close to that…
   “Frankly, I’d be a fool to trust Jocko as far as I can—” BLAM!
   —attack: threat level extreme: 2 o’clock—
Shit! The whole south wall’s erupted with itsy-bitsy explosions. The instincts upshifted me to a tempo of 35-40, somewhere up there, and the ambient noise Dopplers down like always; I can see…
   Holy limping Hephæstus—I can see the bullets moving!
   It actually takes a couple seconds of my time before I snap out of it and get to work. Numero Uno: Digital camera from my vest, aim it at the wall’s exit wounds, leave it floating in midair at1,000 shots per clock-second. Numero Two-o: Shpritz a layer of DeadGlove (inert polymer in a spray can) on my hands, grab bullets out of the air, store ’em five-to-a-mylar-envelope. Would’ve preferred individually-wrapped, but I ran out—wasn’t prepared for this many projectiles! Numero Three-o: There’s a second wave of airborne crap (shards of window glass, wood chips, nails, yada yada), so I sweep it all to the carpet and bury it under several dozen pounds of books to make sure it don’t go noplace it shouldn’t ought to.
   I retrieve my camera—good, it’s still got 91% free RAM—and there’s nothing visibly moving at the moment, so I downshift to a tempo of 1 so’s I can hear if there’s any more bullet-in-flesh impacts. There aren’t any, but I do hear screams and wails from casualties, damnit! Well, hell; they probably won’t die in the next few clock-seconds, so I upshift to a tempo of 35 and avoid the jagged remnants of windowpane in the frame as I go outside to get some good shots of a late-model Chrysler, nicely framed between a lamp post and a dumpster; driver and two passengers, shabby paint and no discernable plates. Oh, and a pair of rifle barrels sticking out its side windows, complete with muzzle flash and more fucking bullets on the way. The car’s tilted forward, which means the sons of bitches are braking to give themselves more time to shoot.
   Fine. I move in, camera k’chnkk-ing away as it stores images of the bullets and their source, and when I’m in range, I reach inside the car; grab the front gun by its chamber; and pull the fucker out and down, with the kind of force you’d expect from muscles that can shove a hundred-pound mass around at 70 MPH. Next up is a re-run with the back-seat firearm.
   Both guns are firmly lodged in the dirt, barrel-first. The guys who were holding them have a bunch of fingers sticking out at real weird angles. Fuck ’em both. I’m busy—the guns may be harmless now, but there’s all the bullets they already fired… okay, got the last one. My envelopes now hold seven bullets apiece.
   Hungry now. I inhale a slab of beef jerky from my vest while I plan out my next move…
   By the time I’ve made my decision, the dudes-in-car are starting to react to the abrupt change in their immediate surroundings; there’s the beginnings of shocked/worried expressions evolving on their faces. Hmm… the car’s not so tilted as it had been… betcha the driver’s floored it. I grin as I extract a genuine Swiss Army Knife from a vest-pocket, unfold the (diamond-hard, waterproof, corrosion-resistant, tungsten/vanadium alloy) cutting blade, and slash a diagonal gouge all the way across the tread of the driver’s side front tire. Not waiting for it to finish blowing out, I do likewise to the driver’s side rear; then I step back onto the sidewalk, resume munching on shriveled meat, downshift to a tempo of 1, and watch the wreck change from ‘incipient’ to ‘actual’.
   As per my unwritten script, the car—driver’s side, at least—drops to the pavement with a hell of a clang and a shower of sparks. Then it makes with a metal-on-asphalt shriek all the way to its 45-MPH collision with the dumpster. Oooh, no airbags! That’s gonna leave a mark…
   I finish my snack, keeping an eye on the perps in case someone feels like doing something cute; nobody does. I upshift high, strip all three assholes down to their underwear, expend an entire pocket-sized roll of duct tape making damn sure the perps are gonna sit tight where they are, clean out the glove box and trunk… and for an encore, I downshift and call in the whole sorry encounter to the local police precinct.
   Citizen’s arrest is a good thing, right?
   Waiting for the cops to show, I drop back to my default tempo of 6 and amuse myself checking out my loot. No discernable ID on any of the trio—such a surprise—so we’ll just have to see what their photos, fingerprints, and DNA (from impromptu blood samples) say about the matter. Again, the car is plateless, and there’s no VIN either. As for the guns, they look like they could be Izakawa ‘Divine Wrath’-model automatics. That, or else homebrew jobs. I sure hope it’s the latter, since I happen to know that Izakawa doesn’t do firearms for any civilian market.
   Onward to happier thoughts. Let’s see… the clothes look to be generic off-the-rack Target. Residual scent is mostly drowned under cheap-ass cologne, so there’s not so much chance of getting olfactory ID off of it. Just one of the tricks criminals have learned for dealing with a post-SCABS world…
   …ah. Someone’s approaching—correction: Splendor’s approaching. I downshift to match her tempo.
   “Nice day, huh?” I say.
   She grimaces a little. “Hardly. It seems I’m not the only one who felt a show of force might be appropriate.”
   “Seems like,” I agree. “The timing’s pretty interesting, though. It could be coincidence… but me, I bet Cargill had your office wired for sound. Not sure when.”
   Splendor nods. “That makes sense. Perhaps we should relocate this discussion to a more secure place?”
   “No point. I mean, he’s already eavesdropping, right? So he’s gotta know his boys got way the hell hammered on, by someone who’s literally faster than a speeding bullet. He may not be sure what other tricks I have up my sleeve, but I, for one, will be happy to help him learn—the hard way. Of course, that’s assuming Jocko Homo has the balls, not to mention the requisite lack of functional brain cells, to suit up for Round Two.”
   Splendor’s eyes widen, just for a moment, about halfway through my last sentence. Then she gets it and puts a subtle smile on her face. “I… see. I trust you know what you’re doing…”
   “Always,” I state flatly. “And I know something else: That fucknose is toast.”

   The next few days are kind of busy, and not just because of my unfinished contracts (29 and counting) and speech-class-related stuff and helping Splendor deal with the listening devices. To begin with, I pore over police records and the snake-lady’s files—but that’s maybe a couple of clock-hours at most. No, what really occupies my time is what I do with the data thereby gained: I smash hands.
   See, the cops have a pretty good idea of who-all is on Jocko’s payroll, and what their particular duties are. Just because the authorities don’t have enough hard evidence to nail a guy in court, that doesn’t mean they’re clueless about why he should be nailed in court. And if you’re curious about why the police might grant a puny civilian—i.e., me—access to this sort of sensitive information? Two reasons:
   First, money talks.
   Second, it seems I got a bit of a fan club in blue. Something to do with all those meticulously detailed complaint reports I keep filing any time some jackass messes with me or my property. I’m told that last year, about17% of all City trials for SCAB-related hate crimes used at least some data from one of my complaint reports—make it 23%, if you’re only interested in convictions.
   The point is, I got a line on Jocko’s whole organization. His entire chain of command, from him and his most-trusted seconds all the way down to his lowliest footsoldiers. And I also got several dozen of the freelancers he’s most likely to call when he needs a little extra manpower.
   Put it all together, I got me a good, long list of targets to hit… and hit them, I do. With a pair of bricks. At a closing velocity well in excess of the speed of sound.
   I tap each of their hands twice. Hit Number One, the bricks are parallel to the plane of the palm; Hit Number Two, they’re at right angles. Locating a target’s never difficult. After that, I do my business, leave a card, and bug out.
   The card, you ask? Just something I whipped up on a cheap-ass laser printer I bought, used for this one job, and melted to untraceable slag immediately after. Each card bears six words—”TELL JOCKO HOMO TO GET LOST”—and a single letter, “J”.
   No, as a matter of fact I couldn’t just waste ’em all. Three words:

Got it?
   Aside from that, leaving Jocko’s crew mostly-intact is a good thing. There’s a lot to hate about organized crime, but one thing they get right is, you take care of your own people. ’Cause if you don’t… well, either you take care of them, or else they take care of you. Not to mention, a rep for fucking over your underlings makes it a lot harder to get replacement thugs when you need them.
   So. If I’d left Jocko with a pile of corpses, he’d just bury ’em and that’s it. But he’s got a pile of cripples instead, so he’s got lots bigger problems—like medical expenses for the victims, rent and food for their families, yada yada yada. Unless he’s just crazy, he must deal with all this stuff.
   Well, maybe Jocko is batshit insane; doesn’t matter. Crazy or not, he still needs warm bodies to do his business, right? Which means he needs a whole new ‘army’. And if people know how badly he screwed his last gang, who the hell’s gonna want to sign on with his next gang? Answer: No-fucking-body. And no, Jocko can’t just lean on people to ensure silence. Not while all the guys who would be doing the actual leaning are in hospital with mangled hands, he can’t…

   Splendor catches up to me a couple days after the drive-by (remember the drive-by..?). Another tete-a-tete in her office, which is where two of the five bugs were. She did what I would’ve suggested if she’d asked: Left ’em all in place, just paying attention to prefabricated sound tracks rather than ambient sights and sounds. But as I walk through the door this time, she welcomes me with a gesture that (by sheer coincidence, I’m sure) switches off the ‘bug bamboozler’ I installed in this room. Confusion to the enemy, hm? Okay, I can play along, I muse to myself with a subtle hand gesture that she picks up on.
   “Thank you for your promptness, Jubatus,” she says. “How many eavesdropping devices have you found?”
   “Two, I think.”
   “You… think.”
   And then she makes with a disapproving look, so I put on a show of annoyance: “Damn right, I think! You got any idea how old this place’s wiring is? There’s all kinds of components that the only reason I could even recognize them is, I’m old enough to have seen ’em back in the ’90s! And further-”
   The phone on Splendor’s desk rings. Twice. She picks up before ring #3, saying: “West Street Shelter. Splendor speaking.”
   I hear the voice from the handset, real clear. “Hey there, Miss Splendor! How ya doin’? I heard’ja had some trouble just recent.”
   Having heard that voice on some police surveillance recordings, I recognize it as Jocko Cargill; not sure about the snake-lady. “I am doing well,” she says in a professionally-controlled tone that doesn’t give away a damn thing. “If you’d care to tell me what business you have with the Shelter—”
   “Yeah,” Jocko interrupts. “I got business with you, alright: One’a your freaks dissed me, real bad—and it ain’t the kind of thing you can clear up with an apology. I know the little pussy’s there, so how’s about you put ’im on the line, huh?”
   “Ve-” she begins. A momentary upshift lets me confirm there’s no incoming assaults; when I revert back to the normal tempo, she’s turned on the speakerphone function, and she’s saying, “-ell. He’s here now.”
   “Jubatus,” I say to the ’phone, playing my part. “Who are you, and what do you want?”
   “I want a cheetah-skin rug, Mister Juba-”
   “Well, if it ain’t Jocko Homo!” I break in. “What’s crawled up your ass, Mr. H?”
   “Ha, fuckin’, ha,” he replies. It’s hard to tell, what with the audio distortions of the telephone system, but I think his level of irritation just got boosted a notch or two. Good. “Funny, kitty-cat. Real funny. Lemme tell you what I do to little pussies that stick their noses where they don’t belong: I skin the fuckers alive.”
   “You and what army?” I sneer back at him. “Get real, Jocko—you ain’t got shit, and we both know it. Face facts: I am the fastest SCAB alive. You can’t threaten me—not when I can outrun any bullet on the face of the Earth! Hell, I can catch your damn bullets and throw ’em right back in your face!”
   “You’re dead, you goddamn pussy!”
   I give Splendor a ‘thumbs up’ gesture as I hammer the needles deeper beneath his skin: “Go ahead, Homo—lose your temper. Blow a gasket, that’s a good little thug. Let your blood pressure rise until your arteries explode. I’ll be sure to dance a jig of grief at your funeral, and piss on your grave.”
   I hold my hand up, warning the snake-lady not to interrupt, for the few moments of heavy breathing it takes Jocko to regain a semblance of self-control. Which he does: “Okay… Okay… You got me goin’ there, I admit it. Not too bad—for a fuckin’ animal. Enjoy it while you can, Mister Kitty, ’cause you won’t enjoy nothin’ after I’m done with you!”
   “So you can tag somebody that can break the sound barrier under his own power? Not!” is my smugly confident reply. “Try a gas weapon, Homo. A poisonous cloud is a lot harder to dodge than a bullet, and maybe I won’t zip through it so damn fast it doesn’t have time to affect me.”
   “That’s real fuckin’ hilarious, Mister Kitty.”—and now he pauses, just for a very short moment—”In fact, you’re a goddamn comedian, ain’t’cha? Well, it wouldn’t be polite of me to keep you from laughin’ it up, so I’ll just say g’bye now.” And he hangs up. I think about Jocko Homo’s pre- and post-pause vocal overtones, as much as I could hear them over the telephone, as Splendor turns the ‘bamboozler’ back on with a heartfelt exhalation…
   “Well,” she says, “that was interesting. May I assume there was a reason you insisted on giving Jocko the bright idea to try chemical weapons?”
   “Damn straight.” I grin mercilessly. “Look: We SCABs have an insanely wide range of biochemistries, right? What that means is, you can spend however-many megabucks developing a weapon that takes out one SCAB—but you got basically no idea whether or not it’s gonna affect any other SCAB! So let’s say you’re a weapons researcher who’s just been handed a pile of cash to come up with an equalizer that’ll work on people like us. Do you spend it on chemical weapons, knowing that it’s a fucking waste of resources, or do you spend it on new and improved projectile weapons, which are guaranteed to work on almost all SCABs?”
   She thinks it over a moment, and likes the answer: “In other words, you goaded Jocko into wasting some of his remaining resources on an intrinsically futile gambit.”
   “Bingo! Got it in one.”
   “Unfortunately, I believe there’s a flaw in your thinking. What’s to keep Jocko from attempting to acquire one of those experimental projectile weapons you spoke of?”
   I shrug. “Calculated risk. Assuming Jocko manages to get his hands on any military hardware at all, I’m betting he won’t get more than one or two pieces, if that. And the more he focuses on me in particular, the less he’s gonna be able to do to anybody else. Put it this way: Which would you rather deal with—one or two superguns, or 150 Glock pistols?”
   “I see…” Splendor just looks at me for a clock-second or so. “You’re determined to play lightning rod, aren’t you.”
   “Better me than one of you slowpokes,” I reply. “What’s your point? I’m pretty much the hardest target you’ve got, so why shouldn’t I paint a bullseye on my chest?”
   “No reason at all,” she says in a neutral tone. “Thank you, Jubatus.”
   “For what? Premature much?” I grimace. “Save your gratitude until after we’ve dealt with the problem at hand.”

   Look, Jocko’s no Jubatus. If it was me plotting an assault on the Shelter, I’d have researched the place in exhaustive detail ahead of time, including all of its resident SCABs and their combat-useful abilities. I’d also have worked up about 14 layers of contingency plans in case Something Went Wrong. And in particular, I would not have allowed my targets any breathing space whatsoever after my first attack. Then again, maybe Cargill did have a Plan B—Splendor doesn’t think so, but, y’know, for the sake of argument? So maybe the guy did have a backup plan, like I said—but I got my counterattack in before he could push the button.
   Maybe. Maybe not.
   Either way, I’m not about to let up on him. For one thing, I’ve only tagged 68% of the targets on my list, and if you’re a slowpoke (which everybody else associated with the Shelter is), just one disgruntled twit with a high-powered rifle is all it takes to ruin your whole day. For another thing, three of said targets have already bolted and run, apparently the moment they heard about what happened to my first victims. Or… did they run away? Could be Jocko ordered ’em to go elsewhere and pick up a few 55-gallon drums of industrial-strength Whupass. Again, Splendor doesn’t think Jocko’s subtle enough (or smart enough) to do that; I’m inclined to agree, myself. Nevertheless, it’s a loose end that needs to be tied off before it trips up anybody who matters. I’ve uploaded a few spiders to the Net, to keep an eye on the runners’ financial activity; nothing big, just what I need so’s I’ll have a little advance notice if/when they make a suspicious purchase wherever, or they return to this fair city, or yada yada yada.

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