Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 45

Chapter 26

Lajos Irvine’s boss George Vickers had done one thing right, at least. The two assistants he’d provided Lajos looked to be a lot more capable than the numbskulls he’d been provided the last time his superiors decided he needed support.

That had been Isabel Bardasano’s doing. The now-deceased former head of Alignment Security had normally been as sharp as they come. But that time, the fieldcraft of the meatheads she’d handed Lajos had been so bad they’d given themselves away to the targets as soon as they encountered them. Being fair to Bardasano, she’d been in a hurry and the only forces she had immediately at hand were some of Mesa‘s security people. They hadn’t been part of even the outermost layers of the Alignment and were accustomed to dealing with seccies. They’d also had the vicious nature and the overconfidence that normally infected a “security force” whose brutality and violence was unchecked by anything remotely like “legal rights” on the part of their victims. A very little bit of that was enough to turn even once-intelligent human beings into arrogant, head-breaking thugs, and Lajos’ hastily assigned “backup” had been at their trade entirely too long.

To make things worse — not to mention terrifying — the targets in question had been the deadliest bastards Lajos had ever run across in his entire career. One of them, especially. That maniac had gunned down all three goons in that many seconds — no, probably less. Lajos didn’t remember too well because he’d been so frightened.

He’d been even more frightened a short time later when the two targets dragged him into a tunnel and had a short discussion over whether or not to kill him. That they’d do so without hesitation had been manifestly obvious. Lajos still woke up sometimes with nightmares of the cold gaze of the gunman. Those black eyes had been as merciless as a spider’s. He’d never forget them.

This time around, though, the higher-ups seemed to have had their heads screwed on straight. These two agents were part of the Alignment and had the earmarks of people with experience in the field against serious opponents. They were the police equivalent of elite special forces, not uniformed goons. Lajos didn’t have any doubt that the men would handle themselves just fine if it came down to rough stuff. Which, hopefully, it wouldn’t. Lajos had no romantic notions concerning violence. If all went as planned, his transactions and dealings with Mesa’s seccie underworld would be as banal and unexciting as grocery shopping.

Lajos finished reading through his notes and turned away from the monitor. “I’m thinking our best bet is to approach either Jurgen Dusek in Neue Rostock or go the other way and see if we can get someone in Lower Radomsko interested.”

Neue Rostock was at the center of the seccie districts in the capital. It was a heavily crime-ridden area and Dusek was the district’s acknowledged crime boss. Not the only one, but what ancient gangsters would have called the capo di tutti capi.

Lower Radomsko presented a different picture. It was also well into the central areas inhabited by seccies and was, if anything, even more crime-ridden than Neue Rostock. But its underworld was disorganized, dominated by a multitude of small gangs none of whom recognized any master.

“I’d go for Neue Rostock,” advised Stanković. “Dealing with Dusek will be a lot easier than trying to deal with that mob of crazies in Lower Radomsko.”

Martinez issued a little grunt, which seemed to indicate his agreement.

Lajos leaned the same way as Stanković, but for the moment he decided to play the devil’s advocate. “Yeah, that’s true — but so is the corollary. If things go wrong, dealing with Dusek will be a lot less easy. I’ve never dealt with the man before, but I know a lot about him. By all accounts, once you scratch that gangster-politesse veneer of his you’re dealing with Attila the Hun’s first cousin. He’s the mean one in the family, by the way.”

Stanković chuckled. “Yeah, I’ve heard the same thing. But…” He turned his head sideways a little, to give Lajos a slanted gaze. “Don’t take this the wrong way, boss, but I don’t think you’ve had much experience in Lower Radomsko.”

“None at all,” Lajos agreed. “Personally, that is. I know a fair amount about it, though, just from –” He waved his hand. “Stuff.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. The thing is, you really have to spend time there to get a good sense of it. Freddie and I never did ourselves but we worked with a Mesan security agent — one of the Tabbies — who’d spent years there. The stories he had to tell…” He shook his head. “The place is a shithole.”

Lajos leaned back in his chair, his interest rising. “Go on,” he said.

“It’s…” Stanković groped for words.

“Fucking lunacy,” provided Martinez.

His partner nodded. “That’s about right. It’s just chaos, boss. You’ll think you’ve made a deal, gotten some sort of arrangement — this happened to the Tabby three times, I’m not kidding — and the next minute some other asshole has shoved his way in and you’ve got to start all over. One of those times he told us he wound up having to deal with four gangs. And it wasn’t any big money deal, neither.”

“Just looking for a runaway slave,” said Martinez. “The bounty amounted to pocket change. But for the sorry-ass screwballs in Lower Radomsko” — he rubbed a thumb and two fingers together — “what you and I would call pocket change is worth killing over.”

“He got the runaway, eventually,” said Stanković. “But not before five people had been killed — one of whom was the runaway herself. Got her throat cut by one gang just so another one wouldn’t get the bounty.”

“Screw Lower Radomsko,” said Martinez.

Lajos laughed and raised his hands in a mock gesture of surrender. “Okay, okay, guys. I’m convinced. Neue Rostock it’ll be, then.”

Lajos was pleased. More than a decision had been arrived at here, he knew. A working relationship had been moved forward, too. He’d been worried about that a little. Lajos’ entire career had been as a lone wolf. He had no experience handling other agents and hadn’t been sure if he had the skills or aptitude for it. Judging from the friendly expressions on the faces of Stanković and Martinez, though, it seemed he did.


“What’s up, boss? Did you get the results from — “

Seeing the people already sitting in Anastasia Chernevsky’s office, Zachariah McBryde abruptly stopped talking. When he got the summons to report to Chernevsky — which came via personal courier, which was unusual but not unheard-of — he’d assumed she wanted to discuss one of the projects they were working on.

That couldn’t possibly be what she’d summoned him for, though, he now realized. Two of the four scientists in the room had no connection to the work he was doing, and he didn’t recognize one of them at all. The only reason Zachariah even knew she was a scientist was because the lab coat the woman was wearing had the tell-tale signs of a working garment.

But the icing on the cake was the presence of Janice Marinescu. He hadn’t seen her since the meeting where she informed Zachariah and Anastasia that Operation Houdini was being set underway.

He got a sharp, sinking feeling in his stomach. The experiments he’d been running lately had been difficult enough to keep his mind focused. As time went by with no further notice or even mention of Houdini, he’d managed to half-forget about the issue. And now here it was, back in full force. There could be no other reason for Marinescu’s presence.

“Okay, we’re all here,” Marinescu said. “The five of you in this room are the people from this science project who’ve been selected for Houdini. Anastasia Chernevsky in in overall charge of the center. Three of you” — she glanced briefly at Zachariah and the two scientists he knew — “are task force directors, and Gail Weiss is… let’s just say she has special skills we don’t want to lose.

“As you’ve probably already guessed, Houdini has just gone from alert status to active status. The first division is already being taken off-planet. Unfortunately, we’re evacuating a lot more people in a shorter span of time than we’d foreseen. That means we’re forced to use avenues of exfiltration that we hadn’t planned on originally. Many of us — including all five of you in this room — will be evacuated via Manpower shipping.”

One of the task force directors, Stefka Juarez, made a face. It had been an involuntary reaction and the expression left her face within two seconds, but Marinescu spotted it and gaze her a hard gaze. “Is there a problem, Ms. Juarez?”

She didn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “It’s a little late in the day, don’t you think, to discover you have qualms about Manpower’s activities. You’re in the inner layers of the onion and have been since you were a teenager. You’ve known for years — and if you had any disagreements you certainly kept them quiet — that the Alignment’s longterm goals required the development of genetic slavery. And still do — and will, for several more generations.”

She stopped and gave all of them that cold gaze. “The same goes for the rest of you. So if it turns out — which it has — that you have to be exfiltrated by ships from the slave trade, deal with it. You may have been able to keep your hands clean in your scientific work, but others of us — me, for one — have not enjoyed that luxury. You’ll forgive me if I don’t have any sympathy for your current plight. Which, as plights go, isn’t much.”

She stopped to look at each one of them in turn, for a second or two. “Do any of you have anything you want to say?”

All of them were silent. Chernevsky and Gail Weiss shook their heads.

“Very well.” Marinescu had her hands folded in her lap. Now she unclasped them and pointed at the door. “When you leave here, each of you will be escorted by a member of the Genetic Advancement and Uplift League to a briefing room. There, you’ll be given the details of your evacuation route. Everything you need to know except the exact time of departure and the specific ship you’ll be taking. We won’t know that for a while yet. Right now, we’re only halfway through scheduling the evacuation details for the second division.”

The third of the task force directors, Joseph van Vleet, was frowning. “How will we know –“

“– when to leave? The same member of the Uplift League whom you’ll meet when you leave here will come and notify you. They will also accompany you throughout the evacuation. Every stage of it until you reach your final destination.”

Once again, Juarez grimaced. Zachariah barely knew her, since their work was in areas quite far removed from each other. He couldn’t help but wonder, though, how someone who’d been made a task force director could have such abysmal social skills.

“Is that really necessary?” she asked.

Marinescu looked at her the way a predator studies the weakest member of a herd. After a short pause, she said: “The very fact you ask that question demonstrates that it is.”

She turned her eyes onto the rest of them. “Do I need to explain again — how many times has each of you been briefed on Houdini? at least three — that the whole point of the operation is to prevent our enemies from learning anything about the Alignment. I should say, as little as possible about the Alignment and nothing at all about the inner layers of the onion — or even the onion’s existence. The only way to be sure of that is to follow two essential guidelines.

“First, no one outside the group selected for Houdini can know anything about it. That means nobody. That includes spouses, parents, children, siblings, cousins, friends — nobody. Secondly, nobody can be left behind who does know about Houdini. Nobody. Not. One. Single. Person.”

She paused again, to scan all of their faces. Looking for weakness, hesitation, indecision, vacillation… anything that would trigger her predator’s instincts. Her own gaze was pitiless.

Zachariah held his breath. The moment was… dangerous. Really, really dangerous.

“If you don’t understand exactly what that means,” she continued, “let me explain it to you as clearly as I can. If you tell anyone about Houdini who is not part of it, that person will be eliminated. So will any person that that person might have told. I stress might have told. We will bend the stick in the direction of caution, be assured of that.”

She nodded toward Anastasia. “If Director Chernevsky tells her husband or any of her three children, to give a hypothetical example, all of them will be eliminated. Including herself, of course. Violating the tenets of Houdini will be considered high treason. Do you all understand me?”

Anastasia’s face was drawn, but she nodded curtly. So did Zachariah and van Vleet. Weiss and Juarez just stared down at the floor.

“Just to be clear on this. ‘Telling anyone’ will be interpreted as broadly as possible. So don’t try — don’t even entertain the possibility in your dreams — to let your family and friends know you’ll be leaving by some circuitous or indirect means. Do not tell them that you’ll be going on a long trip soon due to your work. Do not give them unusual gifts. Do not take them on sudden vacations. Do or say absolutely nothing that is in any way out of the ordinary. And don’t doubt for a moment that you will be under surveillance. We will know if you do.”

She paused again. “I repeat: do you all understand me, in every particular?”

This time, everyone nodded.

“Good. Now, as to the second issue. It may turn out — this is not likely, but it can’t be ruled out altogether — that at some point in the evacuation, through no fault of your own, you become compromised. If that happens, the member of the — the Gaul, to hell with circumlocutions, will see to it that you do not fall into enemy hands. You won’t have to do anything. It will be done for you. If you need me to spell that out, I will do so.”

Again, the pause. By now Zachariah just wanted to get the meeting over with. He felt like he’d been beaten on the head with a club. Beaten on his spirit, rather — or soul, if he had one.

Marinescu was not one to let anything slide, however. “I repeat. Do any of you need me to spell out what this means?”

All five of them shook their heads.

“Good. Director Chernevsky, if you would lead the way? You will be followed by the others at five second intervals in alphabetical order. After Chernevsky, Juarez goes, followed by McBryde and Van Vleet. Ms. Weiss, you go last.”

Chernevsky was already on her feet and heading for the door. After a slight hesitation, Juarez got up and followed. After the director passed through the door, Juarez glanced at her timepiece. Five seconds later, she followed.

Zachariah did the same. When he came through the door, Anastasia was no longer in sight. Juarez and her escort were already well down the corridor.

One of the three Gauls still waiting stepped up. “Task Force Director McBryde, I will be your escort. Come with me, please.”

Zachariah recognized him, but he couldn’t remember if this one was Zhilov or Arpino. But the man was already moving down the corridor so he didn’t ask.

He didn’t suppose it mattered anyway. He felt a lot like a man being led to the scaffold. Under the circumstances, would you ask the executioner his name? It seemed like a waste of time and effort. In the nature of things, your relationship with your executioner was fleeting.