The shape inside the glass coffin was disintegrating even as they watched.
It heaved, a glistening red human shaped mass, squirming shining flakes falling away with every feeble movement. Wallowing in the viscous crimson sludge of its own disintegration, each movement brought a sickening sucking sound. It rolled, as if trying to turn on its side and curl into a fetal ball, but the movement was too much for it.
Sackett licked his lips, glancing at the others, all of them contained in their environment suits. They all stared with varying degrees of awe and horror.
“How long?” he asked thickly through the suit mike, but they could hear well enough without it.
“Not long,” Pradesh, the thin Indian woman replied, staring at the form. She eyed its rapid disintegration. “Not much longer.”
The shape before them seemed to register their words. A shapeless head, facial features all but obliterated turned towards them.
A hand slapped wetly against the glass panel closest to them. They stepped back. But it was already disintegrating. Fingers sliding off, leaving separate smears as they drifted down to join the writhing viscous goo that the figure seemed to be dissolving into. Only a palm remained pressed against the glass.
“Wh…. wh….” the figure tried to speak. “Whhhyy…” the word dissolved into an incoherent moan.
“Jesus,” someone whispered, their voice staticky on the suit intercom. Sackett glanced at the others, but couldn’t tell which one had spoken.
Finally, it fell back, the arm flopping into the liquid sludge. They stared as the form slowly lost all semblance of humanity, breaking down visibly before their eyes. A shape that might have been an arm came away, squirmed for a second, and then dissolved. Soon, all there was a rough ridge rising from the sludge, and then that too sank.
Sackett stepped forward cautiously, staring into the thick broth. He imagined that he could smell it. There was no trace of anything human in there now.
“All right,” he said finally. “Neil, let’s see to disposing of the remains. Indra, let’s set up for what we can learn from this.”
One by one, the suited figures in the room went about their tasks.
Inside the tank, the contents bubbled and shifted and stirred with liquid motion. Inside the tank, there was nothing left that could be called human.
But it wasn’t dead either.
* * * * * * *
The autumn wind blew blustery gusts down the length of the track. It plucked at the handbills fixed to the sides of the clubs and hotels, tore at the carefully worked hair of the hookers and drove the occasional wino farther into his doorway.
It wasn’t quite cold yet, but everyone knew that it wouldn’t be long.
The girl looked like a panhandler, in her torn jeans and ragged T-shirt, as she sidled up to Gerald. He tried to step around her, but she neatly kept herself in front of him.
“I don’t have any change,” Gerald told her.
“I don’t want change,” she said, “take me to a movie.”
“What?” he asked.
He glanced around. It was still light out, comparatively early on the track. Up the street a couple of hookers studiously ignored the well dressed, middle aged man talking to the street kid. There were only two theatres on the track, one a twenty-four hour porn operation.
“I want to go to a movie,” she said, “where it’s warm and dark.”
“I’m kind of busy,” he told her.
Which was why he was walking down the track, he thought sourly, trolling for hookers before heading home to a safe, boring regular life.
He looked at her carefully. You could tell straight away that she wasn’t a hooker, her hair looked too wild and ungroomed. Whatever prostitutes wore or did, almost invariably their hair was meticulously styled.
“Just a movie, it won’t take you long, you don’t have to stay or anything.”
She looked like a teenager, Gerald decided, fairly young. Attractive, but for the dark circles under her eyes and the unhealthy pallor of her skin. She was thin, almost approaching gauntness, and she seemed to shiver as she clutched her arms around herself. The way the fabric pulled across her chest he could see the shape of her small breasts with its hardened nipples pushing through.
Drugs? He wondered. Or is she naturally that way? You couldn’t tell with kids.
“I just want to be someplace warm for a while, before the clubs open.”
So that was it, or part of it: A raver arrived a little too early, looking for some shelter before party time arrived. Maybe looking for a few dollars in spending money. Drugs maybe, he thought, ecstasy or PCP.
“What’s your name?” Gerald asked abruptly.
The girl hesitated for a second, “Melissa.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Melissa. I’m Mike,” he told her, taking her hand, it was like ice. She must really be cold, he decided.
“Hi Mike,” she stepped closer and grinned shyly at him. Good teeth, he noticed. Bad teeth had always turned him off.
“Well, Melissa,” Gerald said, “I’m not sure that you’d like the kind of movies around here.”
“S’okay,” she said distantly, her voice soft and husky, she was looking at one of his shirt buttons, playing with it absently with two fingers. Her feather light touch was electric.
“I don’t mind em, I just want to go someplace dark and out of the way.”
Gerald felt his heart begin to pound. Street kids, he thought, you could do anything with them.
Abruptly, she switched to a soft whine, “c’mon, let’s go to a movie.”
A dozen nervous little scenario’s flitted through his mind. She could be leading him to her friends, to a mugging. Or it’s a vice squad entrapment. Or cops will be in the theatre and catch them at something. Or people will see. Or she’s a pickpocket. Or she has diseases. Street kids were dangerous, anything could happen. They weren’t like hookers, where both sides knew the rules.
Against this was the vague and amorphous promise of what might happen in the theatre. The scent of unknown and unformed pleasures.
It worked both ways didn=t it? You could, if you were careful, go a lot further with a street kid than a hooker would ever allow.
“All right,” Gerald told her.
She smiled at him.
Together they walked to the theatre. Gerald found himself walking nervously, with an edgy spring in his step. Unsure of how close or how far he should be from her as he walked with her.
Ho hum, he tried to broadcast to any unseen watchers, I’m just going in this direction, she’s not with me, we just happen to be going in the same direction.
Up the street a black hooker with immense dreadlocks and tight leather shorts, strutting around with thigh high red leather boots, turned and glared at them.
The porn theatre was an old grey building. Once a union meeting hall, it had, in the sixties been converted to an art house alternating Ingmar Bergman with psychedelic fantasies.
That had been a long time ago, the hippies had moved on.
Porn houses were on the way out too, he thought. Between home video and those little video peep show arcades, their audience was gone. This was probably one of the last ones.
Who came here now? He wondered. Bums looking for a place to sleep? Hookers who couldn’t afford a room? Were there drug deals down the aisles? Surreptitious homosexual acts by frightened and insecure men in the washroom stalls?
The poster beside the ticket booth was protected by scratched and faded Plexiglas. It advertised something called “The Search for Sandy.”
Gerald caught a momentary reflection of himself in the Plexiglas. Tall, a little overweight, balding and fortyish, he looked like an uncle taking his niece to see the “Lion King.”
As she stood behind him, he bought two tickets. The young man in the booth, a university student by his looks, gazed at him with indifferent contempt, before returning to study his textbook.
The lobby was empty, drab walls laced with plastered cracks and fading posters from bygone days. He recognized Antonioni’s “Blowout” and “Zabriskie Point.”
Melissa impulsively took his arm. He jumped, suddenly conscious of his wallet in his right pocket. She’d seen him take it out, she’d seen how much was in it.
“Maybe later you could give me some money, and I could get us some popcorn and stuff,” she said, pressing herself against him briefly.
Gerald’s heart pounded like a hammer.
“Sure,” he replied.
The concession stand was at the front of the lobby, opening into the ticket booth, so one person could handle both. There was stale popcorn, and chocolate bars covered with a thin film of dust.
You could do anything with street kids, he thought.
Gerald abruptly recalled an episode, months back, where he’d picked up two kids hitchhiking. Twelve and thirteen year olds, a boy and a girl. He’d paid them twenty dollars to have sex in his back seat while he watched. Then he’d paid the girl another ten dollars to blow him.
“Afterwards,” he told her, “I’ll give you some money to get some.” A plausible excuse for both of them to disappear.
It seemed to be the right thing to say. She pressed her body close to his again, and this time, he put his arm around her.
The movie was already showing. On the screen above two women were naked and fondling each other. The theatre was all but empty, save only for a couple of raincoat types in the front rows and an unconscious wino in the far corner.
His mouth dry with lust, Gerald lead the girl to a central seat in the back. He was careful to seat her on his left side, away from his wallet.
Gerald had always found porno theatres too oversize for his taste. Nipples the size of manhole covers, acres of pore ridden skin stretching over flab, penises like vans surging into cavernous mouths and vaginas that had lost all semblance of human anatomy. Pornography, he thought, should stay in the home.
They sat blankly for a few minutes staring at the cyclopean figures on the screen, the image jumping occasionally, in worn out sprockets. Listening to the rasp of an ancient soundtrack filtered through an even more ancient sound system.
She wasn’t going to do anything on her own, Gerald decided. Experimentally, he put his arm around her, pulling her close. She complied with his touch, continuing to watch the screen.
After a few moments wait, he placed his other hand on her thigh. Still no reaction. Carefully, he began to knead her thigh, moving his hand up and down her leg in slow increasing circles. As one arc reached her crotch, he spread her legs, they parted easily. A gentle pull encouraged her hips to slide farther down in her seat, so that he could run his fingers between her legs.
She stared fixedly at the movie screen. Maybe, he thought, she doesn’t want to acknowledge this. Maybe it’s just something unpleasant that she figures she has to do.
He was okay with that, he thought generously.
He tired of pawing the unyielding denim of her crotch. He slid his hand up her T-shirt until he was touching the smooth skin of her belly. The texture of her skin felt cold and strange.
He took her hand and guided it onto his erection, squeezing her hand rhythmically against his pants until she began to do it on her own.
Then he returned to her T-shirt, sliding his hand further up until he cupped her breast, flicking the nubbin of a nipple with his thumb.
She looked at him then, and then down at herself. With her free hand she pulled the T-Shirt up, until small pale breasts and dark nipples were exposed to the ghost light of the movie screen. Smiling, she took his hand from her, in both her hands.
Pulse throbbing, Gerald waited to see what she would do next.
She brought the hand to her mouth. His fingers squirmed as her lips formed a little “o” as if eager to learn which of them would slip into the wet mouth. She pressed her lips to his wrist.
The touch was like being hit with a sledgehammer. Shock waves travelled up his arm, numbing it. Gerald grunted and tried to pull away, but her grip was like iron. He made it half way to his feet before the strength seemed to go out of him and he sat back heavily. A creeping numbness spread over him, paralysing him.
Under the numbness, Gerald felt the oddest sensation of swirling. An image of water flushing down a toilet or sink appeared in his mind. It was as if within the shell of himself, he had suddenly turned to liquid and was swirling away down the drain, through his wrist.
Then the numbness blotted even that out.
They sat there together. His wrist pressed against her mouth, her jaw working slowly, as she watched the copulating figures on the screen with complete attention and total indifference.
Eventually, she released his wrist, folding his hand neatly over his wet crotch. She hugged him, placing a small perfunctory kiss on his cheek before pulling away.
He sat there, in the darkened theatre, his body slowly cooling off.
She walked out a side door, absent mindedly stuffing the cash from his wallet into her pocket. The wallet she casually tossed into a dumpster as she passed by.
The girl didn’t return to the street. Instead, she continued down the alley, walking just off the centre of the sloping concrete that formed the alley road.
Without seeming to hurry, she walked away from the porn theatre, making turns at random. It was windy out, but her hair barely moved. If she was cold, she gave no sign. Coming out between two buildings, she stepped onto a street. People walked past, ignoring her. Incuriously, she looked up and then down the street. Abruptly, she turned left, down the street, until she reached the corner and waited. The walk signal flashed, she crossed, headed left again, and then slid between two buildings.
She never looked back.
Memories drifted through her mind. She ignored them.
It was getting dark.
There was a grizzled old middle aged man up ahead, rooting in a dumpster. The shopping cart beside him was loaded with debris. She sidled over to the other side of the alley to pass him.
Street people were dangerous sometimes. Unpredictable.
He looked up and saw her and grinned. His teeth were yellow and broken.
* * * * * * *
“It’s a bugle,” Mark said. He held the instrument up to the light. Behind him, in the Goodwill store, shoppers browsed through mounds of second hand clothing.
“I know it is,” said Alice. Alice was middle aged, with hair prematurely grey, she stood at the counter.
“We just got it in a couple of days ago. Some old gentleman from the Elmwoods part of town died, and his family donated his personal effects. He was in the war. That bugle is probably fifty years old.”
Mark shook his head in disgust. “No respect. No respect at all these days,” he said. “This should be a heirloom, not tossed out like trash.”
Alice shrugged, “people have no sense of history. So: do you want it?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, what can you do on one of these things except reveille?”
“You’re a musician,” Alice argued, “I’m sure you can find a use for it.”
“I just don’t know, I’ve already got way too many instruments at home. I don’t even know where I’d put this.”
“Well,” Alice said, “if you don’t take it, we might just wind up throwing it out with the trash. Or maybe put it in with the children’s= toys. There isn’t a lot of call for fifty year old horns.”
Mark looked at her and back to the bugle. He chewed his lip uncertainly.
“Do you mind…” he asked, gesturing with the bugle.
She shrugged. “Go ahead.”
Mark blew a couple of notes on the bugle. The horn blared in the store, briefly starting a baby crying in its mother’s arms. After staring a second, most of the shoppers returned to browsing, picking through second-hand and sometimes threadbare clothing, searching for a fit or a look.
“It’s got a sound all right,” Mark said doubtfully. AI could probably use it for something interesting on a back track.@
“It might be you or the trash,” Alice prompted.
“How much do you want for it?” he asked.
“Call it five dollars,” she said, “it’s getting late and I want to go home soon.”
“I guess that’s all right,” he told her, “I don’t need it now, though. On my account? I’ll be doing some work here this week.”
“That’s all right,” she told him, “I’ll put it aside for you.”
Mark handed the bugle back.
“A real piece of history here,” she said, “I’m glad it’ll go to someone who’ll respect it.”
“Uh huh,” he nodded. “Speaking of history, have you seen the Historian around?”
She shook her head. “Not so far today. If I see him tomorrow I can tell him that you’re looking for him.”
Mark shrugged. “Don’t bother, I’ll probably find him before then.”
He picked up his gym bag and slung it over his shoulder.
“I’ll be by for it next Thursday.”
“Be seeing you then.”
As Mark walked out of the store, he stepped right into the centre of a wind devil. For a second a cascade of red and yellow leaves swirled brightly around him, before scattering in every direction.
He ran his hand through his thinning hair, he was only twenty-eight. It would be a few hours before his gig, he decided, he might as well look around for the Historian.
* * * * * *
The man came in off the chartered airplane. He was middle aged, trim with Spartan athleticism, wearing a conservative black suit and carrying a stylish leather briefcase. He moved with the easy grace of a trained killer, but there was something contemplative in his bearing. In another time, another place, he might have been a warrior monk, or a travelling philosopher.
The man who waited for him at the airport was younger, leaner. He exuded menacing professionalism. He wore sunglasses most of the time because he’d learned his eyes made people nervous.
They nodded to each other. The younger man didn’t offer to take the briefcase, the older one didn’t proffer it. Without speaking, the younger man turned. Together they walked to his car.
The younger man held the passenger door open. The older man got inside. He waited patiently as the door was shut and the younger man walked around and sat in the driver’s seat.
“Secure,” the older man asked. The briefcase was on his knees. He flipped it open, and activated the laptop computer nestled within.
“It’s a rental car, selected randomly, about two hours ago.”
There was no guarantee that it couldn’t have been tracked in that period of time. But still…
“Sheffield,” he said.
“Dermott,” the younger man replied.
“Situation on point?”
“We have an…event. I’ve got just about no information beyond that.”
Dermott gave a location. The address meant nothing, but the older man registered them anyway. They could do a search later.
“It’s sealed now,” the younger man said.
“Parties?” Sheffield asked.
“Nobody. We’ve got some possibles for a ground crew, some of them might be running loose.”
Sheffield nodded. “Scoop them, bring the ops team in. Others as needed.”
Sheffield considered this.
“Sounds like a three or four. Could go as far as a two,” he paused. “We’ll deal with it as a level three, subject to upgrading. Basic local team. Remote team. Set up some pipelines and we’ll see who we need.”
He entered commands into the laptop.
“We’ll do what we can, then we’ll sit around and wait for people to start dying.”
“Let’s get started,” he said.
* * * * * *
Carol arrived on the street early. The light was fading, but it was still day. Only one hooker was out, a black girl named Trace.
Carol approached the black hooker.
Trace glanced at her and then looked back to the street with studied nonchalance. But she didn=t walk away.
In the subtle codes of the street, that was an acceptance, if not an invitation to approach. Carol walked up and stood beside Trace.
“You’re out early.”
“Girl’s got to make a living,” Trace said softly.
“You’re always early,” Carol replied. She didn’t work every day, but on the days she did, she was always one of the first girls on the street. She kept her eyes open and watched things. It made her useful to talk to.
“Has the van been by?” Carol asked.
She was referring to the street workers van, the ones who passed through, trying to look after hookers, passing out condoms, getting information. The working girls didn’t like social workers generally. Except for the van girls, they were unwelcome intrusions, checking up for welfare, checking up for childrens services, or health services.
Carol worked for childrens services, but carefully stayed out of the regular hookers lives. Her beat was the runaways and street kids that sometimes infested the streets. The hookers considered them nuisances at best, getting stoned, committing assaults, making noise. Or competition, too young, too willing, too cheap. Bad for business, either way.
The girls thought it was her business to help get rid of their problems. It bought her a grudging, very grudging acceptance.
Trace was one that she could speak to regularly.
“How’s your girl.”
Trace grunted, not looking at her.
“Family worker’s coming by to do a home study next week.”
“It’ll be okay.”
“Doesn’t mean that I have to like it.”
“Saw a new kid hanging around,@”Trace volunteered suddenly.
“Girl. Not a chicky.”
Chickys were the girls, often from affluent homes, that just played at being on the streets. They wore designer rags and sported expensive piercings. They might all play at it, but at the end, they had someplace to go home to and you could see it in their eyes.
“Runaway? Fresh?” Carol asked.
The recent runaways were the easiest to reach, the ones who were at the same time most accessible to intervention, and most vulnerable to predators. They came to the street knowing only that wherever they were heading, it was better than wherever they came from.
Reached quickly, approached right, you could get them off the street, into something that would allow them a normal life.
“Not this one. Hard core. Long time.”
“What does she look like?”
Carol pulled out a cigarette, lit it and puffed.
“Fuck! Don’t smoke around me, okay?” Trace snapped.
“Sorry,” Carol said.
Trace didn’t reply. Didn’t even look at her.
Finally Carol let the cigarette drop and ground it out under her shoe. Trace glanced down at it and nodded slightly.
“Skinny. Pretty but not too pretty, you know what I mean. Long hair. Walks around in an old jeans and T-shirt, looks grunge. She went into the porno theater with some guy.”
Which was why Trace was so irritable. One of the street kids was poaching on her territory. This girl sounded like a hard case, a feral scavenger. Sell a little, steal a little, deal a little, she’d have enough skills to survive, and enough arrogance to think that was all she needed. Pull her off the street, and she’d be back two weeks later.
“So do something about her, okay,” Trace concluded.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“You do that….” Trace replied. She glanced directly at Carol. “You gonna stand here all night? I gotta work.”
* * * * * * *
“What’s your name darling?” he asked. His face was dirty and lined and yellowed like very old parchment, a few days growth of silvered bristles punctuated his jaw.
She stood across the alley from him.
“Melissa,” he said, “that’s a nice name. I’m George. Old George, you don’t have to be worried about me. No Ma’am.”
She glanced at the shopping cart beside him, piled half way full with junk.
He followed her eyes for a second.
“I’m not one of the crazies around here. That’s for business. I’m a businessman. I take what people throw away, and I find uses for it. You’d be surprised what people throw out.”
He grinned at her. “I’ll show you.”
He started rummaging in the shopping cart.
“C’mere,” he glanced up at her, “I’ll show you something.”