The Mocking Program
By Alan Dean Foster
Published by Aspect 
August 2002; 0-446-52774-2; 240 pages

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The Mocking Program by Alan Dean Fosterone

First they took his talk. Then his cards. Then somebody boosted his bosillos thorough. After that, they vacuumed his clothes. Then some buitrees did a muy rapido scope-and-scoop, canyoning him from neck to crotch. His kidneys, liver, lungs, testes, and eyes were gone missing. They'd left the heart. Not much of a demand for hearts these days. Not with good, cheap artificial models flooding the market. Titanium or pig-take your choice. After that, he'd been drac'd and boneyed for his recyclable blood and marrow. The pitiful shattered remnants of whoever the hell the poor unfortunate had been lay limp as an oily rag in the steadily drumming-down rain, denied even the dignity of staining the pavement with blood.

Amid flashing lights, assembled vehicles, and grumbling federales, Angel Cardenas stood gazing down at the carcass, imaging in his mind a celestial vision of steaming hot coffee and the old-shoe comfortable booths of a certain café and wondering why the devil he didn't do as Chief Pangborn kept repeatedly suggesting and take early retirement. Fredoso Hyaki, Cardenas's assistant, rose from his crouch, having finished making a recording of the gruesome tableau. Hyaki was half Japanese, half Peruvian, and all huge. A friendly, expansive, baby-faced massif of a man in his mid-thirties, he very much resembled an Incan Buddha. Despite the cosmic arc of his abdomen, he was rock-solid as cured concrete. Grunting softly as he straightened up, he stuffed the recorder into a pocket and summed up the crime scene with a single terse observation.

"Just about enough left for relatives to lay a claim, Angel. Angel?"

Cardenas raised his voice so he could be heard above the Southwest monsoon shower. In the harsh nocturnal glow from the nearby commercial complex, glistening droplets trickled from the ends of his hangdog mustache. The sweet, invigorating rain was the only thing on the street that was uncontaminated. Though if the chemical analyses carried out by the more fanatical Green Verdes and their ilk were to be believed, the summer downpour failed that test also.

 

Would he ever get used to seeing dead bodies on the street? Even after thirty years in the Department, the inventiveness demonstrated by people in slaughtering their fellow citizens never ceased to astonish him.

Why, he wondered amid the lights and night, could I not have been born a dog, like Charliebo?

"I think it must have been easier to be a cop in the old days, when all they boosted from a citizen was his money." He glanced at his companion. "Why are you all wet?" Unlike the other slickered cops milling around the corpse, Hyaki was soaked from head to toe. Rain poured off his round face like sweat.

His partner looked abashed. "Forgot to charge my jacket." Devoid of power, the electrostatic charge that kept water from making contact with a cop's rain slicker was nothing more than a failed promise. Hyaki stood out as the only sopping-wet federale on the dark back street.

Not that the big man probably minded. The monsoon rains that faithfully drenched this part of the Namerican Southwest from July onward through late September made a welcome dent in the otherwise brutal temperature. Cardenas enjoyed feeling the rain on his face. Thanks to the patented efforts of his softly humming slicker, the rest of him stayed perfectly dry.

An advert appeared from nowhere, materializing out of the nighttime to buzz around him like an insistent bee in search of pollen, all the while loudly declaiming the virtues of Newer! Fresher! Better-Tasting! Lime-and-Salsa Posteeto Chips! via a frantic directional audio. He waved irritably at it and it flew off to pester Gergovitch from Forensics. Such mobile attack ads were technically illegal, but like the omnipresent wall posters of yore, whenever they were eradicated from one part of the Strip they quickly put in an appearance somewhere else, endlessly repeating their annoying spiels, vomiting forth discount coupons, and trying to wheedle addresses out of exasperated pedestrians.

Gergovitch stood up in the rain. "Sudden neural interrupt," he was muttering to no one in particular. "Trying to make it look like cardiac arrhythmia." The medoggles that were his principal tool were alive with the readouts that flitted like fireflies behind the lenses. Flickering pastel rainbows danced across his partially shadowed face. Only when he switched off the internal telltales could Cardenas see the man's eyes through the gleaming, sensormaxed transparencies. "At least it was quick." He took a half-hearted swipe at the motile ad, missed.

Stretching from Sanjuana to Masmatamoros, the evolved maquiladora manufacturing facilities and assembly plants of the Montezuma Strip constituted the western hemisphere's largest concentration of industry, commerce, assemblage, cutting-edge technology, and trouble. Poor immigrants from the south collided with development money from the north and infolktech from everywhere. The result was a modest population of very rich people living alongside and lording it over very hopeful, but often very poor people. If you couldn't make it on the Strip, was the word in the soulpools of Buenos Aires and Barreras and Lima, you couldn't make it anywhere. Job security was not guaranteed. Those who failed turned despondent, then desperate, and finally feral. Under such circumstances, with so much glistening, beckoning credit floating around, it was all too easy for a despairing immigrant to slip over the linea. If you couldn't manufacture it, then you stole it and sold it.

That was what had happened to this poor monger's most marketable organs. Someone always needed a real kidney, someone else an unpolluted transfusion. Black-market blood was an easily transportable commodity. So were eyes and viable testes. Cardenas knew that better than most. His own incongruously blue eyes were donations. Legal ones, biosurged into his sockets after his own optics had been bungoed by- But that was old news, ancient history, chip spume. Right now, he had a dead guy to eyedee.

The presence of the federales and the Forensics team on the damp back street drew no crowd. No one was out walking in the rain in the commercial zone of the Quetzal inurb. That was fine with Cardenas and his colleagues. They disliked spectators. The silence left them to do their work unencumbered by yapping inanities. Even better, the media had yet to turn up. Vit anchors, the senior police Inspector knew, disliked the rain. It played havoc with their hair and makeup.

Absent body parts notwithstanding, there was nothing notable about the corpse. It was one of many that turned up on a regular basis, week to week, month to month, as if ejected from the rollercoaster of life by some capriciously snapped safety belt. Individuals who turned up smashed and broken like the unidentified man at his feet were the rule rather than the exception. In the frantic, feverish, frenetic depths of the Strip, nothing went to waste. The street scavengers and the algae wallowers saw to that.

Ellen Vatubua was crouched over the torso of the corpse. Having run a quick scan and found what she was looking for, she was patiently excavating in the vicinity of the exposed left forearm. Nestled there among the bruised muscle fibers and blued capillaries, just under the skin, was a miniscule fragment of insoluble imprinted plastic. Gently removing the head of her probe, she transferred the extraction tip to her specialty spinner and injected her tiny find. Moments later she was reading its contents aloud. Cardenas and Hyaki wandered over to listen.

For a dumpy, middle-aged Forensics spec, her voice was surprisingly sensuous. Alerted to and made aware of this quality, Lazzario in Personnel kept trying to get her to transfer to Dispatch. But Ellen liked being out in the field, and analysis, and preferred working with dead folk to live ones.

"George Anderson. Thirty-two, married, residence four-eight-two-two-three-six West Miñero Place, Olmec." She hesitated as the spinner worked. "He comes up bare as a baby's butt; no record. Not even a commuting violation. Blood type . . ." She glanced up at the everlastingly mournful Cardenas. "You want me to pop the rest of the bubble, Inspector?"

Cardenas shook his head. "I'll read it when the vetted report is posted. Anything of particular interest?"

The owlish spec glanced back down at her spinner's readout. "Records identifies him as a 'promoter,' but doesn't say a promoter of what, and doesn't list a place of business. Only a home address."

"So he works out of his home." Hyaki fidgeted. He was growing tired of the rain. "There's a novel conclusion."

Ellen smiled up at the beatific mass of humanity that loomed over both her and Cardenas. "Like your bowels backing up during stakeout?"

"Run a deep scan." Ignoring the both of them, Cardenas was staring at the body, forlorn and shriveled in the reflected light from the massive nearby structures.

She gaped at him in disbelief. "Why?" She gestured with the spinner that was reading the extracted implant. "This unlucky citizen's whole life is right here, where it belongs, available for casual perusal. In a dry place," she added for emphasis. When no comment was forthcoming, she proposed, "At least let's wait until we get it back to the lab."

The sideways twitch of the Inspector's head was barely perceptible. "Deep scan. Now."

The Forensics spec turned to shout at her superior. "Hey, Gergo! Inspector here wants a scan. Onsite, right now, even though we got the muerto's ident pill."

Gergovitch looked out from behind his medoggles. "He's the intuit, not me. Run it, Ellen."

Making no secret of her displeasure, the woman slipped her spinner into a holder on her belt and removed another tool from a second holster. As she snapped it to life, she muttered, "I thought you freaks couldn't intuit a dead guy. No disrespect intended, Inspector."

Cardenas's tone did not change. "We can't. I don't sense or suspect anything unusual. I just want to leave here confident in the knowledge that nothing's been overlooked."

"Yeah, yeah; sí, sí, siryore." Taking a deep breath, she went to work. Cardenas looked away. Grabbing the body's detailed DNA scan and then running it past Records would take a few minutes.

Hyaki hovered close by; part mutt, part truck, all business. But wet. "Any reason why the scan, Angel?"

Why indeed? What made him worry about dead people as much as live ones? A desire to seek justice? Or was it nothing more than professional pride? Cardenas spoke without looking back, not wanting to distract the irritated spec from her work. He indicated the corpse. "Good hair-expensive transplant graft. Soft skin. Two regenerated bicuspids, maybe more. All nice work." Raising a hand, he gestured at their surroundings. "This is not a nice place. They don't match up." He looked back at his assistant. "Why vape the guy from the inside out, instead of the outside in?"

Hyaki considered. "One kidney's worth more than a truckload of clothes."

"I don't mean that." Cardenas squinted into the rain-swept darkness. "I mean, what's a citizen from a nice, genteel neighborhood like Olmec, an apparent cleanie, doing down in a muck urb like Quetzal on a nasty night like this? Why isn't he home with his wife, watching the rain come down, or the game between Arsenal and Chicago?"

Five minutes later, sensing movement behind him, he turned just in time to confront Ellen. No one commented on the perfect timing of his reaction, least of all the Forensics spec. If anyone could get used to the sometimes unsettling actions of intuits, it was other cops.

Her earlier resentment had given way to a grudging respect, tempered by just a hint of awe. "How did you know?" she murmured.

Cardenas took no joy in the small vindication. He had only been doing his job. "Know what?" he responded encouragingly, even though he already knew perfectly well what.

"That there was something not right about the muerto's ident." Intelligent and perceptive, she was peering hard into the lined face that was half masked by darkness and rain.

"I didn't know. Like I said, I just wanted to be thorough."

"Yeah, verdad." Her attention dropped to the very expensive and very wet apparatus she was holding. "His embedded citizen's ident insists he's George Anderson of Olmec inurb. When I coupled that info with the results of the DNA scan and ran it through Archives, the readout suddenly looked like it had caught the measles. Angry little red pinpricks started popping up all over my nice, clean screen."

"So who is he?" Hyaki asked, vouchsafing new interest. She held the screen up to them as she read. "Depends which you believe: local eyedee or national. Archives says he's really somebody named Wayne Brummel, of Greater Harlingen, Texas. And guess what? It also lists no place of business, only a home address. In Harlingen."

Cardenas blinked at the small screen. "Physical description is a match. At least, it matches what the wallowers left." He glanced past the handheld, at the uninformative and now somehow ominous body. "Same question applies: what's a cleanie like this doing here in Quetzal? And with two identities." He passed her his spinner.

She mated it to her own, waited the necessary couple of seconds for the two police devices to swap the requisite information, and then placed hers neatly back in its holster. "How should I know? You're the intuit." She glanced upward, shading her eyes from the rain. "Weather's starting to clear. Going to be very hot tomorrow." It being late summer in the Sonoran Desert, her comment was worse than superfluous.

"What do you want to do, Angel?"

Cardenas considered. He ought to let Homicide handle it, he knew. Except-National didn't make mistakes. It insisted the body belonged to Wayne Brummel of Greater Harlingen. Subcutaneous idents were difficult to forge. The man's insisted he was George Anderson, of Olmec. Taken together they added up to a real mierde magnet.

He ought to leave it alone, he knew. Follow-up on something like this was not his responsibility. He and Hyaki just happened to have been in the neighborhood when the flash came in. He could leave that particular neighborhood at will. Instead, he opened his spinner and mumbled the phone number imprinted on the dead man's ident into the built-in vorec.

Observing this, Hyaki was not surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised. He'd seen it all before. The Inspector latched onto contradictions like a remora onto a shark. The older man would be unable to sleep until this one was resolved. Dragged along by his superior's persistence, the same would be true of Hyaki.

Still, he tried. "It's late, Angel. Maybe she has her phone turned off."

"Maybe she doesn't." The Inspector checked his bracelet while his spinner dialed the unlisted number. "Yeah, it's too late for socializing. No, it's not too late to learn that your husband's been found dead and boosted on a back street in a rotten part of town."

He turned slightly away from his partner as the call connected. A sleepy woman's voice emerged from the spinner. The screen remained blank: she had her video pickup turned off.

"Yes? Who's this? George?"

The rain had almost stopped. By mid-morning tomorrow the amorphous puddles birthed by the fading clouds would have evaporated completely beneath the relentless desert sun. It would be as if the downpour had never been.

"Ms. Anderson?" Cardenas responded.

There was a pause at the other end. "Who is this? There's no Anderson at this number."

Hyaki made a face. Cardenas's expression did not change. "This is Inspector Angel Cardenas of the Namerican Federal Police. I am presently in the industrial-commercial district of Quetzal, where the body of a man identified as George Anderson, of four-eight-two-two-three- six West Miñero Place, is presently being prepped and bagged for a trip to the Nogales municipal morgue. His subcue identifies him as George Anderson and lists this number alongside that address. If this is not Ms. Anderson, with whom am I speaking, please?"

Another pause, then a guarded response. "How do I know you are who you say you are?"

Now Cardenas's expression did change. "Who else might I be? And for that matter, how do I know you're Ms. Anderson?"

"There is no Ms. Anderson." The voice broke. "How-how did he die?"

Cardenas covered the vorec with his hand and whispered to his companion. "She's panicking." Hyaki just nodded. He could detect nothing suggestive in the woman's voice, certainly not panic. But that was Cardenas. To a competent intuit a dropped vowel, a twisted consonant, spoke volumes. And Angel Cardenas was not merely competent: he was the faz, the very best. Muy duroble.

"We don't know. The wallowers and the scaves didn't leave much. When was the last time you saw him?"

"This-this morning, when he left for work. Are you sure you're a federale?"

"Extremely federale," Cardenas assured her. "So you're not Ms. Anderson. But you know the George Anderson who lived at this number and address?" Again he whispered an aside to the attentive sergeant. "She's crying."

Again Hyaki heard nothing in the voice emerging from the spinner. This time he said so. Cardenas shook his head brusquely.

"Inside. She's crying inside." To the vorec he said, "Please, ma'am. This is a necessary routine follow-up. Did you know the deceased?"

"Y-yes. I know-I knew him. You have no idea what happened to him?"

"No, ma'am. Did you also know a Wayne Brummel? And it would be helpful if you gave us a name, so I could stop calling you 'ma'am.'"

"I don't know anyone named Brummel. I'd like-I want to see him. George. Mr. Anderson."

"The bod- He's being taken to the police morgue, Nogales Division."

"All right-I understand. But I can't come now. I just can't. My daughter is here at the house, and I-I have to take care of some things first. Would-eleven o'clock tomorrow morning be all right?"

Hyaki's whisper ensured he would not be heard over the spinner. "He's not going anywhere."

Cardenas glanced disapprovingly in his assistant's direction. "Eleven o'clock is fine, Ms. Anderson. I'm sure we could all do with some sleep. Have you ever been to the station?"

"N-no, but I have personal transportation. I'm sure my car can find it." She was stammering now. "This is just terrible, and I-I don't know what I'm going to do. What I should do."

"I'll see you there at eleven o'clock then, Ms. . . . ?" Cardenas lowered the spinner and looked up. "She cut off."

Hyaki shrugged. Beneath his disabled slicker, flesh rippled against the night. "Not surprising. You just told her that her husband, or boyfriend, or favorite gigolo, has been murdered. She needs for that to sink in, to do some serious bawling."

Cardenas nodded. "Hoh. That would be the normal thing to do. Except that this is looking less and less normal." Above the mustache, incongruously blue eyes that had once belonged to a beautiful nineteen-year-old French girl gazed up at the sergeant. "Why wouldn't she confirm her name? She must know we can pull it up from Records in a couple of minutes."

Hyaki considered. "You want to go out to the house now?"

The Inspector hesitated. "No, not now. It's late. Let's give her the benefit of the doubt."

"What doubt?" Hyaki was cozing his own spinner.

"Hell, I don't know. Think of something." Turning, Cardenas headed toward the waiting cruiser.

Hyaki found what he was looking for before the doors of the official vehicle slid silently aside to admit the two cops. "Funny thing. City records say there's a Surtsey Anderson living at the same address as our George Anderson. But she told us there was no Ms. Anderson. Ain't that odd? There's also a Katla Anderson, age twelve, listed as being in residence. Undoubtedly not the daughter of George and Surtsey." He slipped the spinner back in his pocket. "Which leaves us with the question of where to find Wayne Brummel."

"On his way to the morgue, apparently, dwelling in silent symbiotic communion with George Anderson. A cleanie who doesn't have a wife named Surtsey or a daughter named Katla." Muttering to himself, Cardenas slipped into the seat opposite Hyaki. Sensing clearance, the door automatically slid shut behind him. Hyaki put the unmarked vehicle in forward and the engine hummed on full charge.

"You want to follow the body?"

Cardenas shook his head. He knew where the body was going. It was not a place he was particularly fond of visiting, especially late on a cool night. He'd spent far too many nights there.

"Forensics needs time to do their work. Not that I think they're going to find anything else of significance. I'm tired, and confused. Let's go to Glacial."

Hyaki turned down the appropriate street. An advert tried to attach itself to the window, careful not to block the driver's field of view. Static charge flowing through the glass drove it away, squealing. The charge, like the advert, was technically illegal. But police work was tough enough without having to suffer an endless parade of flying neonic blandishments for snack foods, vit shows, technidrops, soche services, sporting events, and assorted gadgetry that was as unnecessary as it was remarkable.

The sergeant drove slowly, merging with the traffic. Even though the great mass of commuters used the climate-controlled induction tubes or company-supplied armored transport to travel to and from work, there was always independent traffic in the Strip. With forty million people, give or take ten million undocumenteds, spread out like people-butter from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, it could not be otherwise. But now, approaching midnight, it was comparatively easy to get around. The evening maquiladora shift was still hard at work, laboring in the vast spread of manufacturing and assembly plants and their attendant facilities, and the bulk of the night shift wouldn't come online for another hour yet.

The unmarked police car slipped straightforwardly through the largely silent traffic. A renegade Ladavenz, tricked out to sound like it was running on an internal combustion engine instead of fuel cell and batteries, let out a primal growl as it accelerated among lanes. Though technically breaking the law against late-night noise pollution, the three kids inside were not seriously abusing the opportunity. Cardenas and Hyaki ignored them.

As soon as they skated out of Quetzal, passing the number eightyfive induction shuttle station with its opaque, solar-energy-absorbing walls and unseen commuters waiting patiently within, the looming shapes of the industrial-commercial district gave way to an architectural panoply of codo coplexes and enclosed shopping facilities. Coated in a wide range of solar energy-absorbing polymers, the pastel structures were a spirit-lifting shift in tone from the utilitarian gloom of Quetzal. The Glacial Café was situated at the end of one such pedestrian coplex, backed up against a garage and rapicharge station. Only two vehicles were parked at the latter, topping off their batteries for the night.

Hyaki dodged couples and families as he pulled into an empty parking space. There was a larger than usual number of pedestrians on the street, reveling in the rain-cooled night. Tomorrow, everyone would disappear indoors, when the sun reasserted its ancient dominance over this desiccated part of the world. One couple, feeling no pain, nearly ran into Hyaki as the two policemen approached the entrance to the café. Their eyes widened as they took in all of him. The sergeant hastened to reassure them with one of his wide, beatific smiles. Grateful, they staggered past, weaving more or less in the direction of the nearest mall entrance.

A blast of cooler air enveloped the two men as the door to the establishment scanned their faces. Failing to match them with any known or reputed antisocs, it granted them entrance.

Cardenas was fond of the Glacial. With its retro-2040s Alaskan décor, soft lights, and Brazilian-Namerican fusion menu, it reminded him of the good times of his youth. Married once, he had few dates these days. Relationships often began well, only to end in shock and wariness on the part of his partners when they found out he was an intuit. Explaining that he could not read minds, that he was only making use of highly specialized police training for which he had demonstrated a particular aptitude, did little to bolster a woman's confidence in her ability to feint and jab.

"You know what I'm thinking!" they would exclaim.

"No I don't," he would invariably protest. "Intuits aren't mind readers."

"But you can extrapolate from everything I do, everything I say. The way I look at you, the inflection of every syllable I mouth, how I hold my left hand, the way I . . ." At about that point they would break off the argument to declare, "You knew I was going to say all this, didn't you?"

Protests of innocence were of no use. Most women were convinced that dating an intuit was akin to trying to run through the starting defensive line of the Moscow Dynamo: a girl was simply outmatched before she could get started.

Not, Cardenas reflected as he and Hyaki settled into an empty booth, that the majority of single cops didn't lead lonely lives anyway.

Vitalizing before him, the menu politely inquired if he wanted to null the audio and read about the establishment's offerings in peace. Correctly taking Cardenas's lack of response as permission to continue, it proceeded to recite the late-night specials. Stuffed into the opposite side of the booth, Hyaki was mooting whether to order the tambaqui and chips or fejoada with barbecued capybara.

Not long after their respective orders were relayed to the kitchen, a waitress appeared with Cardenas's keoki coffee and the sergeant's double espresso milkshake. Hot and cold for slim and large, the Inspector reflected as he dosed down on his steaming mug. The confused identity of the corpse they had just encountered collided in his thoughts with the puzzling response of the man's wife-not-wife. One did not need to be an intuit to realize something more than the usual mug-and-drug was involved in the man's death. It was turning rapidly into a bona fide realimad, non compos mental, strain on the brain, jane. Cardenas didn't like that. He liked things direct and straightforward, in the manner of most cops. Neat and clean on the scene. Better if the scan on the dead cleanie had turned up no identity instead of two.

The ganglet of ninlocos arrived before his food did. They swaggered in past the protesting door, the lanky chieflado in the lead spizzing it with a spinner whose ident was torqued to reflect instead of inform. Behind the chingaroon ambulated a group of negs and poses, though which was who and who was which was hard to say at first glance. Hyaki looked over his shoulder, grunted a kata, and wished that their food would hurry up and emerge from hibernation in the kitchen.

Traying chow, the waitress delivered to another table. One of the nins, of inscrutable gender, tweeted at her and accompanied the whistle with an obscene vapowraith that oozed from the lipgrammable stimstick held in his/her mouth. The scented smoke sculpture wrapped itself around the unwilling waitress, wisps of pale suggestiveness clinging to her like glued air until with flailing hands she slapped the last of it away. Laughing at her fretful efforts to maintain her dignity, the nins took over a particularly well-situated table from a pair of uni students. Wholly intimidated, the young couple abandoned it without a word, pocketing their glowing vits and fleeing the restaurant with as much haste as they could manage.

One of the negs reached out to grab a rough handful of the girl's backside as she tried to hurry past. Hyaki started to get up. Cardenas motioned him back down. The neg held on to the terrified student for a few seconds before letting her go. The Inspector knew that he would. The antisoc had strutted a series of raw movements even a novice could have intuited.

When their food arrived, the two officers ate in silence. Like everyone else in the café, they ignored the loud and boorish antics of the ganglet. Collective rudeness was not yet a federal crime. But the ninloco cacophony did nothing to soothe Cardenas's already troubled thoughts, or improve his digestion.

Why wouldn't the woman give them a name she must know they could, and would, soon learn for themselves? Why wouldn't she admit to at least a live-in relationship with George Anderson? Or Wayne Brummel, the Inspector reminded himself.

"Yolaolla! -you-you with the nasty 'stash. You sitting fronteyes with el gordo, there."

Ignoring the intrusion, Hyaki continued to nibble on the last of his fried fish. The yakk was directed at Cardenas anyway.

The Inspector looked up from his bison and eggs. Perpetually mournful eyes regarded the neg. The would-be chingaroon was not quite two decades, all sass and flash. How many kids had he dealt with like this one, busy burning their souls like matches? It was late, he was tired and hungry, and not in the mood to baby-sit. He could have let Hyaki deal with it, but there was always hope. Hope that a small lesson might spark a hint of maturity. Where feasible, words were always more efficacious than an arrest. In jail, kids tended not to talk to other kids about being kids.

"Don't do it." As always, his tone was quiet but firm. A little firmer now, perhaps, than when he had been delivering his supper order to the attentive menu. It was not a response the ninloco had expected. It showed in the fleeting glance he gave his expectant colleagues. "Cay-yeh, homber-you don' ask me no questions. I'm the one hackin' the yakk here."

Picking up his knife and fork, Cardenas resumed eating. "Just don't do it." Brows furrowing, the neg leaned toward him. "Didn' you hear me, homber? Just for the yell of it, what 'it' is it you don' want me to do?" He favored his companions with a knowing smirk, and they smiled appreciatively at their topboy's wit.

Sitting back, Cardenas dragged a cloth napkin across his lips, the slight charge in the fabric instantly disinfecting them. "Well, crazyboy, since you ask, first thing you need to turn off the knife in your calf scabbard. Don't you know that leaving something like that on is dangerous? The safety could slip, and you'd lose a leg." He looked up, past the leader of the ganglet. "The big kid behind you needs to forget about frogging my partner. Even with the slywire he's holding, Fredoso would break his arm. You young ladies," he continued, addressing the now wide-eyed and uncertain pair of poses, "want to leave your ordnance holstered. You don't want to see where mine is, because I don't flash it unless I intend to use it, and you don't want me digging yours out from where you have them supposedly perfectly concealed."

In full verbal if not physical retreat, the chieflado was glaring at the imperturbable Inspector. "Yola, homber, you spazzing, man! We don' got none of what you bubble. We just wanted to toss a little flakchat, sabe? We only-"

One of the girls interrupted him. "Mesmo, Taypa-the homber's an intuit! He's comping your moves!" She and her companion were already backing away from the table.

Smiling while still chewing his fish, Hyaki raised his left arm. The sleeve slid back to reveal a blue bracelet alive with blinking LEDs. One vitalized a symbol morph that halted a few centimeters in front of topboy's face. The ninloco's eyes widened as he focused on it.

"We didn' mean nothing." Looking suddenly less imposing, the bigger boy had turned in the blink of an eye from predator to pound cake. He was backpedaling so fast he threatened to run over the two rapidly withdrawing poses. Eyeing the two soft-voiced men in the booth, the waitress gratefully resumed her rounds.

Full of fish, his bulging cheeks giving him the appearance of a gargantuan chipmunk, Hyaki shook his head sadly. "Kids! Things sure were better in the last century, when there was hardly any juvenile crime."

Cardenas nodded agreement as he shoved his cred into the table's receptacle. Tracking the cred's instructions, it would forward the cost to the departmental billing center in Nogales. He was careful, as always, to leave the tip in cash. That way the restaurant owner couldn't scam any cred off the top. Besides, a cash tip carried with it a certain cachet in the form of nostalgia value.

By the time the two men exited the café, with the door thanking them courteously for their patronage as it closed behind them, the only sign of the ganglet of fearless ninlocos was the faint and rapidly fading fragrance of the poses' perfume lingering on the still-damp night air.

Copyright 2002 Thranx, Inc.
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)

Synopsis

Inspector Angel Cardenas has seen plenty of corpses like the one in Quetzal inurb—just another Juan Doe robbed of his cash, cards, internal organs, and then dumped in a gutter. However, Cardenas soon learns this particular murder is anything but ordinary...

First, the infallible DNA-ID database insists the cadaver is that of two people—local executive George Anderson and a mysterious Texas businessman. Then Anderson's wife and daughter, Surtsey Mockerkin and Katla, turn up missing, their posh suburban home has been retrofitted into a huge time bomb...and at least three mob syndicates from as many continents are competing to capture or kill twelve-year-old Katla.

Who was the dead man, and why is his daughter being hunted? Relying on his training as a nearly telepathic intuit, Inspector Cardenas embarks on a search that leads him from the sex parlors and stimstick clubs of the Strip—where kids are deadly and even music can kill—to an undersea control room where computer crimes are committed by criminal computers.

Finding Katla Anderson is the key to unraveling the deadly mystery, but what Angel Cardenas doesn't know is that the closer he gets to the girl, the closer the assassins are getting to them...

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Author

Alan Dean FosterAlan Dean Foster is the author of more than eighty books, including sixteen New York Times bestsellers. Among his works are the Spellsinger and Flinx series. A world traveler, Mr. Foster lives in Arizona.

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