Second Death, A Novel

January 5, 2009

Chapter Six

Filed under: F) Chapter Six — David Halpert @ 1:04 am

Part Three – The Ankh, the Djed, and the Was

Unreal City’ was an umbrella term for a standalone system with discreet transparency, allowing the user to access information while simultaneously filtering everything out. With their hasty egress from the program, the Mirrorman’s environment self-destructed, decompiling in on itself before finally shutting down. Sparks invaded Harlan’s eyes. What woke him? Was it the intense searing of human flesh or the cosmic star that blinded his eyes?

He shielded his face in agony, hugging the Berber carpet after flinging off his VisorGoggles. ‘trodes still clung to his fingertips as the headgear banged against the floor. When his sight came to, he watched Luna convulse back and forth on the adjacent chair like some radioactive herring. He braced his forearm on the carpet (the shotgun’s barrel digging deep into his shoulder) and struggled to get his footing. A serpentine tube of fiberoptic cables stretched from the back of her head. Harlan grabbed the lightweight butt of his shotgun and fired point blank at the faggot of wires.

Luna collapsed on the table. The aroma of gunpowder overtook the chamber.

The empty shell casing dropped to the ground burning Harlan’s left forearm in the process. He packed his deck into the duffel bag alongside the shotgun and useless VisorGoggles. The signal feed was, no doubt, severed from his position, lost in the haywire that was the Mirrorman’s shadowrun. The mission’s success was the farthest thing from his mind. Luna’s survival was paramount, even if it meant sacrificing all that came before him. After failing to wake her up, Harlan rushed to her handbag, loading a single round of barbiturates in the pneumatic gun’s chamber. Rookie mistake. No stimulant intake before jacking in ultimately translated to a more difficult resuscitation.
“Damn it girl, you should’ve known better,” spurted Harlan, probing his cheek with his tongue. Sometime during the shadowrun he had swallowed his stick of hyperbase. He unfurled Luna’s arm, pressed down the iron nozzle, and pulled the trigger. She awoke gasping for air, pale and numb. In the meantime, he summoned an Odyssey elevator with a wave of his hand, while slinging the duffel bag around his shoulder.

With time running out and adrenaline wearing thin, Harlan pushed Luna into the return shuttle, making sure Sector Nine’s secretary was nowhere in sight. The door rose closed, the hydraulics kicked in.

“Christ Harlan you can see?”

“Apparently so.”

Harlan chalked up his unexplained eyesight to his encounter in SeaCal. The virus that had taken his vision years ago had most likely given it back. Or was it a gift? He wasn’t sure. Delusional freezeframes sparked in his head as he practically dragged Luna across the abandoned subway terminal.

“And when exactly were you going to tell me you underwent DNI treatment?”

“You know the thought never came up. Hang on a moment. I need to rest.” They pressed on, kicking tabloid newspapers ankle-deep in their wake. Luna vomited in the transit’s underpass, stumbling on the platform’s dimpled yellow rubber lining. The remaining cables dangled from her neck.

“We need to get you to New Bedlam.”
“I’m fine. I don’t need to go to a fucking hospital. Give me a day. I’ll be right as reign.” Her pallor personified the cold deadness that was direct-neural interface. Harlan parted her dyed hair, the blackened roots beggining to show. The metal spigot was wedged deep in her neck between the medulla oblongata and the spinal cord. He traced his fingers ‘round the circular jack lining Luna’s skin and gripped the entrails snaking down her back. However, none of the cartridges in her pack were sedatives. Like it or not, the plug had to be removed to prevent infection.

“This might sting a little.”

She screamed from the back of her throat, a manic, dispirited screech. Her echoes reminded Harlan of a lulling void, the kind familiar to experienced cyphers like himself. With the cable free Luna became deadweight, crouching in a fetal position against the tiled wall. If he wanted to get the truth out of her, now would be the time.

“Start talking. The truth”

“I went in for DNI treatment four years ago on my own dime. When I saw you wore VisorGoggles I didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t want to inadvertently sabotage my case before it even started, so I decided to just let things be. Put yourself in my shoes. What would you have done?”

“What about Blithe’s will?”

“Blithe didn’t know about it. When I told you I didn’t know about the stipulation in his will I was telling the truth. I had no idea that part of my inheritance involved going in for DNI.”

“You’re full of surprises aren’t you?” Harlan handed her a bottle of mineral water from his duffel bag. Some color returned to Luna’s face and her high fever cooled down somewhat. It wouldn’t be long before the authorities at Sector Nine would be coming for them looking for answers. “What about the Mirrorman? Do you know anyone who’d want to kill you?”

Luna shook her head.

“Besides Fusion Corp. not many. My best guess is that it was a plant like you said. Maybe it was the same person who killed Blithe. Who knows? If you hadn’t been there with me I’d have been killed.”

“Does that mean you’re not leaving?” Luna raised her arm and Harlan helped her to her feet.

Modern subway terminals relied on crowd farms for power, panels of translucent flooring that turned kinetic energy into electricity. With the exception of a few scattered emergency lights, the station was flooded with darkness. They slumped through the subterranean labyrinthine, combing the walls for moisture and gas leaks. Harlan knocked three times on Hiro’s Apartment and the doorknob retracted from the wall.

“Honey we’re home,” called Harlan, slumping passed the apartment’s threshold with Luna closely in tow. He threw the duffel bag onto a heap of empty computer towers.

“Good evening detective,” said a voice from the far corner. The only working lamp in Hiro’s shelter turned on, an upside-down electric sconce fixture. There were two men occupying the apartment, with Hiro nowhere in sight. The first, lounging in the stained velvet armchair Luna occupied earlier, cross-legged and stoic, was an older Japanese man in a double-pleated off-white suit and black alligator-skin loafers. The bodyguard that stood behind him had Legionnaire status, ensuring his position as ‘protector’. Harlan recognized the diamond insignia tattooed near his jugular, and probably had more weaponry on him than Luna and Harlan combined. If only he hadn’t put his weapons in one place, foolish.

“Glad to see everything’s in order,” continued the seated man. “Everyone’s safe I take it.”

“Where’s Hiro?”

“He’s fine. Tucked away nicely in the next room. I gave him an enzyme inhibitor. He won’t be waking up anytime soon.”

“What do you want?”

“A moment of your time. Keep your hands at your sides where I can see them and everything will go smoothly.” Luna was unconscious, slouched along the harvest gold wall. From his vantage Harlan gauged the butterfly knife magnetized to her inner thigh, attempting to grab it would be futile.

“Who are you?”

“You’ve been a busy boy, Mr. Novak. Embezzlement, assault, murder on a massive scale.”
“I didn’t blow up Little Tokyo.”

“We know,” said the seated man, “that’s why we came to see you.” He fished into his breast pocket and tossed a crumpled envelope into Harlan’s hands.

“What’s this?”

“An advance on your payment. And that’s only a portion of what you’ll receive. You’ll get the rest when you complete your mission.”

“What about Luna?”

“She’s coming with us. She’s integral to the operation’s success.”

“If this has to do with Blithe. Why do you need me?”

“Blithe was only one factor in a greater master plan. One that can destabilize the natural order of things. I need you, Mr. Novak, because for the past several weeks you’ve been working very closely with Ms. Veca, and whether or not you agree to this mission is besides the point.”
“Yeah, why’s that?”

“Because you’re one of the good guys detective. And despite what you fear, what you may encounter as the unknown, you shuck that aside in the name of justice. We know you too well Mr. Novak.” From his pants pocket, the seated man removed a half-eaten bag of trail mix, gnawing minute handfuls with porcelain-veneered teeth. Harlan’s time with his quartet of cyphers was over, that he knew for certain. His future, on the other hand, was another story. After a fresh change of clothes and downloading

Aiko to his deck, Harlan bid farewell to Hiro’s apartment for the last time.

“First things first, we gotta get to a hospital.”

#

Before they left Harlan injected Hiro with a shot of dopamine giving them twenty minutes lead time before he woke up. Luna was immediately admitted to New Bedlam shortly after their departure. At first glance, the opulent whites and array of fluorescence was a kind of shellshock for Harlan. He’d seen varying degrees of decadence — smoke, rust, grime, ash, dirt, dust, and the like — but was stunned by the mandatory cleanliness the hospital took upon itself. Depth perception was a real quagmire without the aid of his VisorGoggles. His first priority: connectivity. Being disconnected was the equivalent to being stranded on a desert island packed with thousands of people. He’d have to do something about it.

There was less foot traffic at night. Harlan felt a roughness in his jacket pocket strolling through the hospital’s lobby. Once the nameless man and his protector were seated in the waiting room, Harlan went to the restroom to remove it. Without a combination of neons and strobes to guide him maneuvering through the hospital was proving cumbersome. He regained his composure after stumbling three times on his way to the gift shop, purchasing a fresh pack of cigarillos, a disposable cell-phone, and a few other personal amenities.

Harlan accessed a public kiosk with his back towards the waiting room. It was a standard vinyl-surfaced obelisk near an enclave of convex windows that overlooked the sector’s midsection. The interface was of foreign design. It took a moment to contact Aiko, her avatar drenched in a rainbow of media-suns. He plugged his deck into the kiosk and the other end into his cell-phone. She dissolved onto the widescreen terminal, wide-eyed and shaken.

“Jesus, Harlan, you look like shit. Where the hell have you been? You know how I hate being cooped up in that thing.”

“Glad to see you too sweetheart. Surprised you even recognize me.”

“Who else would’ve rescued me? Take it the mission didn’t go quite so smoothly. You look a little worse for wear.”

“I’m on eighteen hours no sleep. Listen until I get my hands on some new gear I’m gonna use this phone for in-and-out communication.” Harlan inputted the activation code and loaded a hundred dollar’s worth of minutes into the device. After ordering an instant coffee from a nearby Dutch automat, he returned to the terminal’s monitor. The roughness in his jacket was a restaurant-style napkin with Luna’s lip stamp in the corner. In the center were the words D I V E S — T H E A N K H stenciled in dark turquoise eyeliner. He remembered the soft press of her lips before jacking in, the quiet malaise of Sector Nine’s databank, the slip of her hand into his jacket pocket.

“You can reach me at this number. Do me a favor. Keep an eye on Hiro for me for the next twenty-four hours. Don’t try to contact him. Don’t give him any leads. If he tries to find me throw him off the scent by sprinkling a few red herrings his way but that’s it.”

“What’s the magic word?”

“I’m serious Aiko. You saw the guys in Hiro’s apartment. Now I don’t know their angle yet but I’ll contact you soon with further info.”

“It can be done.”

“Oh, and another thing. If the others try sniffing around for me, Prodigy, Snow, Durango, do the same for them. In my absence they’ll think I pilfered whatever it was we were supposed to steal from Sector Nine. With any luck they’ll think I’m dead.”

“I’ll do what you ask but you owe me one.”

“I owe you shit.” The gauze surrounding Harlan’s eyes absorbed whatever sweat accumulated. He sipped his coffee with shaking hands, waiting for Aiko to respond. Harlan didn’t inform Aiko where he was or about Luna’s condition. He didn’t want to jeopardize his situation any further than it needed to be. He eyed the two men from around the terminal using the napkin to wipe his palms. “Don’t let me down girl.”

The duffel bag was stored in a rental locker four floors below his current location. Luna was hospitalized only meters away from the room where she allegedly killed Mario Juarez. Without causing too much suspicion Harlan returned the deck to his jacket, making sure it didn’t slump when he walked. The dark roast coffee warmed his right hand as he slumped down in ergonomic pleather.

“Does he ever talk?” said Harlan to the Japanese man, whose bodyguard stood erect behind him.

“Had to get his throat removed. Can’t say a damn word.”

“Maybe that’s for the best,” said Harlan, gingerly sipping his drink. “Does he ever sleep?”

“Can’t. Insomnia.”
“Well that makes two of us.” Harlan was surprised to find cigarillos being sold in a hospital gift shop. He waited a few seconds for the directed filtration to kick in then sparked a fresh one to concentrate.

“So what should I call you? I think I deserve the right to know the name of the person who broke into my apartment.”

“First of all, detective, it wasn’t your apartment. It was Hiro Patel’s apartment. But we’ll get to that later.”
“Then what can you tell me?”

“I can tell you we were contacted by a woman from Sector Nine,” he answered, straightening his collar. “No doubt she found it quite intriguing when a detective showed up to claim Blithe’s inheritance. Don’t feel too bad. There was probably a sight on every person who so much as thought about breaking into that place. What intrigued us was the fact you escaped.”

“That happens when you try to electrocute someone in cold blood.”

“It was a timed pulse. Purely a failsafe measure. Neither of you would’ve been killed. But I assumed, like most detectives, you’d have DNI status.”

“You thought wrong. I’m not like most detectives. And Luna’s condition in there is not exactly what I’d call failsafe.”

“But she’s not dead. Not until you sent that shock through her system. She’ll recover in a few days. Besides, we’re on the same team, looking for the same thing.”

“I know,” said Harlan.

“You know what?”

“I know that if you knew how Blithe was murdered you wouldn’t have sought us out so quickly. And if you thought we had anything to do with his death, Luna and I would be in jail by now.” The protector stared fixedly into Harlan’s eyes while his companion appeared indifferent to the situation entirely. A smile widened on the seated man’s face, subtly rubbing the stubble on his chin. “What I’d like to find out is what Blithe has to do with you.”

So what it really comes down to is what you know, thought Harlan.

“My name is Hosaka.”

At first hearing this Harlan’s heart jumped in his throat, the Yakuza seeking vengeance for the death of their members and most valued virtual property. But that wasn’t the case.

“I would think this would be more of a symbiotic relationship Mr. Novak. We deal the goods, and you serve your part by providing us with information that led to Blithe’s death. That’s the agreement.” Harlan sent him a wry smile but the stranger chose to ignore it. Instead he removed a single cigar case of monogrammed gold. “And don’t worry about Luna. We’ll fix her right up. Same goes for your eyes. I know a great plastic surgeon. As soon as Luna’s recuperated we’ll have to pay them a visit. I just hope there’s no permanent damage.”

“I tend to work better alone.”

“That may be detective, only it would lead us both to nothing but a bunch of empty answers. Whether you like to admit it or not, Luna is the key to many of those answers. This isn’t about the murder of one anymore, but the survival of many.”

“What are you talking about?”

“They’ll be time to explain later. Right now your health is our first priority.”

“Then I have a few demands.”

“All right.”

“First I want to undergo DNI treatment. If your boys can deliver the goods like you say they can, I’ll need to bring my A-game to the table. Hacking isn’t just some leisurely sport for me. It’s a gift. I see things other people don’t. Patterns, codes, strata of information, like I was programmed to act and react to any situation. So naturally I will need a replacement.”

“Done.”

“I’ll need a new top-of-the-line workstation also. And, as a token of good faith, I think a change of wardrobe is in order.”

“We’ll see what we can swing. In the meantime, Hotei will be your on-call bodyguard. He’ll be your eyes and ears from this point onward.” Hosaka answered his headset, excusing himself while igniting the cigar. Harlan basked in the afterglow of the hospital’s fluorescence, reminiscing of his times with Luna and how they now seemed so small, how fragile Luna had become in a mere couple of hours. He rubbed his eyes, using a hospital site map of variant neons to focus, and traced a grimy finger to her room.

#

They called him ‘The Guardian’. In a world where the lowest perception was the ultimate reality, Mr. Hosaka didn’t wholly exist. Hotei attached to Harlan like a parasite, following his every move, but Hosaka simply vanished less than ten minutes after they separated. He was a myth, the guardian. Inner circles heard of stories — rumors really — circulating of a person who would one day transcend the corporeal shell of skin and bone, surpass human intelligence, and become something greater; the soul of a new machine. And as far as Harlan knew, Hosaka was the man to do it.

Luna was sleeping when he entered her chamber. The honeycomb framework of the hospital allowed for maximum space with minimum wastage, fireproof insulation and independent mechanisms allowed for quick detachment in case of catastrophe. Harlan snaked his arm into Luna’s purse, downloading the contents of her datapad before she woke up. Color returned to her face somewhat even with all her makeup removed. Wired tubing infused facial orifices with compressed oxygen. The usual antiseptic aroma of the hospital was quickly replaced by the lily-scented pheromones in Luna’s hair as she stirred herself awake.

“Hey, how are you doing?”
“A little groggy. Where am I?”

“You’re in the Level III trauma center of New Bedlam Hospital. You collapsed shortly after we arrived at Hiro’s apartment.”

“How long was I out?”

“About four hours. Doctors said it’ll be a couple of days before you make a full recovery. That pulse from Sector Nine gave quite a jolt to your system. But for the time being they’re going to wean you off the stimulants with some methadone. Make you clean eventually but withdrawal’s going to be a bitch.” Luna rose slightly, rubbing her forehead from a sudden onslaught of a headache. Harlan opened an ionized bottle of water, pouring small amounts into an oversized Dixie cup.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” said Luna tersely, combing through her purse.

“Looking for this,” began Harlan, opening his jacket to reveal her pneumatic gun in his underarm holster, “I took the liberty of temporarily relinquishing your gun until you’re in a position to make decisions with a clear head.”

“Is that right? So you’re just going to keep watch on my room twenty-four hours a day. Is that it?”

“No, that’s not it. But our circumstances have changed slightly since our last encounter.” Harlan circled around the room, pulling the violet armchair to her bedside in order to speak quieter to her. “We escaped Sector Nine all right and made it to the terminal fine, but shortly after I…we returned to Hiro’s apartment there was some unexpected company there waiting there for us. Two men. A man named Hosaka and his bodyguard.”

“Did you kill them?”

“Believe me I would have. That is to say, I would have if I didn’t have you in my left hand and the duffel bag in my right. Thank God I didn’t though. They seemed more interested in Blithe than about killing.”

“What else is new?”

“I’m serious Luna. If we’re to get through this next juncture you’re going to have to be functioning. Believe it or not, I know a little something about DNI, enough to realize that when mixed with enough stimulants the combination can be fatal.” Harlan threw a sepia-stained dossier onto the bed and Luna thrust forwards, snatching it with outstretched arms.

“What the hell is this?”

“The life of one Mr. Hosaka. I didn’t ask for the file. He thinks it to be a gesture of good faith. That if we’re to work together in the future there should be no secrets between us.”

“There’s no picture here,” noted Luna, scanning the file.

“Impressive isn’t it? Reads more like a missing person’s report than a Feds rap sheet. It seems our friends at the CIA don’t have much of a clue than we do about him. Even his name. However, they seem convinced Hosaka exists. But instead of building a profile based on his crimes or physical characteristics, they try to piece it together through like events, coincidences, in an attempt to reverse engineer his identity. As far as they’re concerned he’s guilty until presumed innocent.”

“At least we know it. His true name anyway. Why’s this important?” Harlan tossed two additional dossiers on her lap as he washed his palms in a nearby enamel sink.

“Because we’re in the exact same boat. It appears one of Hosaka’s favorite hobbies is seeking out the world’s greatest hack-jobs and paying them off to do his bidding. Fortunately there’s enough in those files to have someone locked away for a lifetime.”
“Why is that fortunate for you then?”

“Because they don’t have much on me. You, on the other hand, are a whole other story. Once Blithe was killed all bets were off in terms of freedom. Why is it fortunate Luna? Because he can’t risk turning either of us in without getting himself caught.”

With Harlan’s vision coming into effect he realized the true extent of Luna’s condition. The dark circles beneath her eyes were contrasted only by the paleness of her skin. She’d lost weight in the weeks of their camaraderie, and the added stress brought on by Hosaka and his companion didn’t help her recovery, only hindered it. And the paranoia (that seemed so natural to Harlan) gradually took hold on Luna’s sense of reality to the point where the real seemed lurid and untrustworthy.

“So that’s your great plan. You standing there perched at the foot of my bed until I’m all better.”

“No. My plan is to go in for DNI on Hosaka’s dime. Your seven days are up, Luna. Whether or not you’re going to be there with me is entirely up to you. Under one condition. That you’ll be clean and sober when you finally make that decision. Until then, Hosaka’s bodyguard is going to keep tabs on you to make sure you don’t leave the hospital.”

“You son of a bitch,” spat Luna, doing her best to restrain herself.

“Now don’t make me ask the doctors to strap you to the bed. Or I could just unleash a small sedative into your system with your own gun. Kind of poetic don’t you think?” Before she could respond to Harlan’s request he pumped 30ccs of diazepam into her forearm, hoping there were no ill-effects as a result of the drug.

#

Luna’s treatment consisted of a VR regimen to trick her synapses into recovery. He hoped the infirmary’s staff wouldn’t take in account the harlequin paperbacks and dog-eared fashion magazines (left accidentally by the previous patient) as a representative sample of Luna’s psyche, having her subjected to moonlit soirees in Tuscany, or clichéd seductions of some media mogul until the toxins drained from her brain. The therapy was a variant of lucid dreaming, remarkably similar to the unconscious maladies Harlan experienced to improve reaction-time.

Hosaka’s imaging software successfully masked Luna’s signature from authorities, and was akin to the thermo-optical camouflage she used weeks before to kill Mario Juarez. Otherwise her actual presence was easily disguised through forged documents and the like. Luna only managed to escape from Hotei’s sight once, and even then she didn’t make it passed the third-floor elevators or rouse enough suspicion to get caught.

“You’re saying there’s nothing on Hosaka that I can use as leverage.”

“Look babe, like I told you before, there are thousands of people named Hosaka out there matching the physical description you submitted, both as handles and true names,” said Aiko from the clinic’s public kiosk. “Want my advice. Take whatever Hosaka says with a grain of salt and try not to question his motives so much. I’m having a hard enough time keeping your friends at bay.”

“Which one’s giving you the most trouble?”

“Who do you think? I’ll contact you if I get any leads.”

The clinic was a rented ward in the sector’s east end, a two-minute venture by private shuttle that Hosaka was more than happy to shell out for. Luna took a little over eleven days to sober up, now with their situations reversed. Harlan was still extremely nauseous as a result of the anesthetic. His vision blurred and he felt as though he could vomit at any moment. Hotei remained in the waiting-room until he was settled. Fortunately for him the surgery went off without a hitch. Feeble power surges interrupted the procedure momentarily, but never fully postponed it. A backup generator was always present during office hours.

“Would you relax,” said Luna. “The doctor said the last thing your body needs is any unnecessary stress.”

“One thing I hate worse than setting foot in a hospital is being a patient in one.”

She offered him a champagne flute of fresh orange juice and he took timid sips. Harlan traced the rim of his port through the gauze taped to his neck. The skin surrounding it was swollen and tender. He was so unused to feeling pain. The sensation brought back fond memories of when Luna slashed his forearm at the onset of their first encounter.

“By the way Harlan, I never got to ask you. What’s it like? You know, being able to see for the first time in three years?”

“VisorGoggles are a poor man’s substitute for sight,” he admitted. “I just hope DNI will do more for my brain than what the VisorGoggles did for my eyes.”

“How do you suppose it happened?”

“Fuck if I know.” Unlike New Bedlam the Jarvic Clinic catered to the obscenely rich despite the recent price drops in DNI treatment. Harlan was instructed by doctors not to twist his neck by more than ten degrees, for risk of infection. The fear of sepsis alone was enough to make him turn his whole body to Luna before answering. It would be another week before Harlan could jack in, more than enough time for the wounds to heal. “But enough about that. What I’m more interested in is if you’ve made your decision yet. Whether or not we’re still in this thing…together?”

“Jesus Harlan. I was so doped up on morphine I can’t remember anything after entering Sector Nine.”

“Do you remember the shadowrun? What the Mirrorman said before we jacked out?

“Vaguely.”

“He said, ‘I can give you all the answers you seek but it will come at a great cost’ but it was you who wanted to know the truth Luna. You were the one who made the decision to stay already. You’re not going anywhere, are you?”

“And leave you to your own devises, not bloody likely.” Luna wore a light-khaki miniskirt cropped slightly above her shins with an embellished scoop neck tunic and a striped vest underneath. She died her hair to its original sheen, a glossy seal brown, and her skin appeared lively with a fresh coat of makeup. “So what do you think Hosaka’s hiding?”

“More than he can handle. Something irks me about him. I can’t put my finger on it.”

“What did he say while I was out?” Harlan explained the deal they agreed to while the short-lived coma incapacitated Luna. The dossier he perused earlier did little to ease his suspicions with Hosaka, even with Aiko’s help. Luna removed a prescription bottle from her purse, taking two capsules of methadone to take the edge off. The suspense alone was enough to make her relapse.

“And you just went in for DNI,” continued Luna, allowing the pills to take effect, “Plus we’ve got no place else to go. That last thing we need is another pissed-off person coming after us.”

#

It was night. The Ritz International was a library hotel with rooms set up along the Dewey Decimal System. Harlan was to meet Hosaka at the French café in the lobby but not without a warm shower, a good shave, and at least three hours of solid sleep. He’d been shopping with Luna the entire afternoon and she decided to continue with Hotei. Its theme was erotic literature. Renoir and Degas reprints decorated each wall in spray-painted gold frames. Harlan grabbed his leather jacket off a statue of Priapus and headed for the ground level.

He wore an Armani pin-stripe jacket with matching pants and a pair of Oakley sunglasses due to his light sensitivity. Depth perception was still an issue, the serpentine patterns of the lobby floors were hypnotic, seductive, causing him to stumble frequently on his way to the café. In the nearby restroom Harlan replaced the bandage behind his neck with a fresh square of gauze, antiseptic spray, and four strips of masking tape.

“You’re talkin’ about setting a dangerous precedent detective,” said Hosaka, nursing a Singapore Slim. “Unless I’ve accidentally misread you in some way.”

“Let’s face facts. You wanted the best. And the best required, at the very least DNI, a bodyguard, and complete and total sobriety. So don’t insult my intelligence and tell me that this is another simple shadowrun.”

“All right Mr. Novak, what do you wish to know?”

“Why have you taken Luna and me under your wing?”

“Are you aware of the Dives?” Harlan shook his head. He took a sip of Evian from a table glass with a lemon wedge floating on its surface. Hosaka swiped a stone of rose quartz across the acrylic table, adding the drink to their tab.

“The Dives are a triad made up of three very powerful entities. The first was Blithe who, as you know, headed BioThermoFlex Enterprises, better known as BTF. The second was the President of Fusion Corporation, the medical conglomerate owned by one Dr. Wittenberg. The final person to that triad, however, is still unaccounted for. We have it under good authority that this third person does exist. And we think you and Luna are the closest people to have come into contact with him or her.”

“It all comes down to the Mirrorman doesn’t it?”

“‘For it is only in death that one can see clearly’. That’s the closest our people have come to contacting him. It’s some type of moniker. That shock you experienced in Sector Nine was our fault but whatever else happened inside the construct was Him.”

“So who are you?”

“Hotei and I make up a branch of Interpol specializing in cyber-crime. Really not much difference than your average band of cyphers except for better coordination and greater reach. In a nutshell, we help the people who can’t help themselves.”

“That’s all well and good but we both know Interpol or, any other form of government body for that matter, wouldn’t be this interested if Big Brother didn’t have stake to a larger claim, a greater purpose. So quit breaking my balls and get to the truth.” The waiter presented Harlan with a shrimp cocktail and Hosaka with a sample platter of escargot, caviar, and a tumbler of diluted bourbon.

“The truth is money. No matter how far we reach it won’t make up for our financial shortcomings. Money isn’t just power, it’s agency, and the Dives have plenty of both to dispense with.”
“You’re talking about laundering, racketeering?”

“You know for a young guy detective, you’re pretty old-school. No. What I’m talking about is something far greater, a three-part system. The first is codenamed the Ankh, the symbol of life, believed to be developed by Blithe, now deceased, but has remained closely under wraps. The second we’re calling the Djed, the symbol of stability, was created by Wittenberg. The third — and potentially the most dangerous of the triad, orchestrated by our not-so-known collaborator — we’re calling the Was, the symbol of power and dominion.”

“And what does this have to do with me?” Harlan felt the low vibrations of his disposable phone in his breast pocket but choose to ignore it. The butt of his nine millimeter pressed hard against his chest, straightening his posture from an ache that ran down his spine.

“To whom Mr. Novak? If we’re talking about the average individual here than you’re more than comparable. But you’re also privy to a lot of sensitive information that may be of some use to us. That’s where Luna comes in. We think she might still have connections to Blithe’s work database.”

“You want me to keep an eye on her.”

“More than that. We want you to hack Fusion Corp.’s central mainframe and obtain the knowledge for our benefit, or should I say, prevention.”

“What do you think I am some kind of runner? Listen, if Interpol had as much reach as you claim it has, you wouldn’t need a two-bit cypher like me to break into its network. And if you were truly with some sort of government body, you’d have no problem walking up to Fusion Corp.’s door with a warrant and obtaining this so-called ‘Djed’ you describe.” Harlan was out of cigarillos, so prior to his meeting with Hosaka he swiped the remainder of Luna’s Meia-Noite regulars. They tasted of mint, tobacco, and fresh strawberries. “Now I’m not going to pry into your affairs. I figure if I wait long enough the truth will come out. Until then I see no reason why we can’t get along famously.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Hosaka, spreading caviar with a butter knife. “It might interest you to know then that this Djed was stolen from Fusion Corp. nearly a week ago. So even if we did get a warrant it would do us no good. But there’s another matter we need to discuss.”

“And that is?”

“Did Luna ever speak of Blithe being involved in something called the Lazarus Project?”

“Not directly. It was mentioned in passing. Before our trip to Sector Nine Luna received an automated email from Blithe ten days after he died. Whatever that project entailed, it was enough to put Luna and me in serious danger. So out with it. Tell me what I’ve been missing.”

“The Lazarus Project is the Ankh but only part of it, and if my sources are correct we’ve managed to obtain said device from BTF without a trace of suspicion on their part.”

“What type of technology are we talkin’ here?”

“The small kind,” answered Hosaka wiping his lips with a monogrammed linen handkerchief.

“What, implants, ports?” Hosaka leaned closer, tucking in his chair.

“Smaller.” Harlan rubbed his neck, forgetting, even for the slightest instance, about his recuperation. “Think nano.”

“You’re serious.”

“Deadly. About four months ago, we received word from underground sources that something of a breakthrough occurred at BTF. And when I mean breakthrough I mean big. Nanite reconstruction. The ability to send this world into the diamond age, and probably destroy it in the process.”

“So what’s the problem if you have the damn device?”

“The problem is the product that emerged from it.”

“Product? Let me guess WMDs, bioengineered super-viruses, what are we working with here?”

“Try human.”

“Human?”

“Four of them. BTF thought it couldn’t test the adaptability of their products effectively unless they sent them against real-world conditions. So what did they do? Shucked them to the streets with nothing more than a thousand dollars and an ID card, and implanted trackers within each of them. The problem was they adapted too quickly. DNI ain’t got nothing on these guys. One of them turned up dead not too long ago. The other three are still out there amongst the general public with no signal in sight.”

“And who exactly ordered this impromptu execution?”

“Blithe did, inadvertently of course. BTF wanted the project dismantled once word got out of his murder, that, and anyone connected with the project.”

“You mean Luna?”

“No, but there was someone else. A man that called himself Ash Wednesday.”

“Explains why I couldn’t find a trace of a permanent record online, why Ash was classified as being under witness protection. He didn’t want to be found.”

Hosaka nodded.

“So you’re cleaners,” continued Harlan. “Ash contacted me maybe a week ago. Claimed someone poached his entire inventory. And from the list he supplied me there seemed to be no shortage of pirated software, viruses, and blueprints of new technology to more than satisfy his clientele.” The waiter delivered Harlan with a disposable ashtray of corrugated tin and he eagerly snuffed out his cigarette. “And if what you’re saying is true, that he’s only been operating for less than four months, we might have a bigger problem on our hands. Because whoever stole Ash’s stash could do some serious damage with it.”

“I’m glad you’re starting to see the light detective. Do you still have a copy of his inventory?” Harlan informed him that with only his deck available it would be a while before he could produce a copy. “Well then, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we Mr. Novak.”

“When was the other one killed?”

“More than a week ago, blunt force trauma to the skull. Bastard didn’t stand a chance. But this one’s different.”

“Yeah, how so?”

“Because we weren’t the ones who killed him.”

“Then who did?”

“You killed him Detective Novak. His handle was Randall Ozwald and he worked out of Sector 43.”

“Explains why the fucker wanted to kill me,” said Harlan, scratching his crotch. “I guess Fusion Corp. had nothing to do with it. Doesn’t explain why Ash didn’t try to kill me?”

“Maybe the Dives weren’t the only people plotting against one another. Maybe these doppelgangers had different priorities. That’s a scary thought huh, free will, the power to choose.”

All Harlan could think about was the last message Ash delivered through the holographic spigots that lined his apartment. The War is Coming, he remembered, lined in scribbled phosphorescence, and the Ankh.

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