Plight of the Transformer is a story told in eight episodes, posted serially by me, your nefarious host, Cheeseburger Brown. Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8
"Ain't I a stinker?"
Our story continues:
Order is order; chaos is chaos. Their shared border can be hazy.
In any other circumstance I would have aborted the mission immediately -- I had compromised my security envelope by being seen on an evening the target was occupied, news certain to be shared between friends; and I was being stalked by a ghoulish beggar who had managed to tail me directly to my base of operations.
Unacceptable. Utterly unacceptable.
But did I have any alternative? I was in the field without support, with none but the Sovereign to report to. I had no access to additional intelligence, no method to check whether the assignment's integrity had truly been punctured or whether it simply teetered on the verge thereof. I was close enough to smell the chaos, and it made me afraid.
The beauty of chaos is that it can throw you a line, via pat coincidence. The wonder of randomness is the unimagined permutation.
In my mind I thanked Christ the moment I saw Mick.
He did not, of course, see me. I was obliged to put my head above the surface by choosing to sit across from him at the cafe. He looked up from his newspaper frowning. "Listen," he groaned in American English, "if I want to play checkers I'll ask, got it? Is that alright with you? Jeez. I'm just trying to drink a coffee, you know?"
"How did you find the coffee in Basrat?" I asked lightly.
Mick squinted at me. "Where the hell is Basrat?"
"You came to my show. I'm in the theatre. We performed a tragedy, if memory serves: the tragedy of Major Frazer."
Mick drew his large hand across his stubbled cheeks, then pursed his lips. "Tennyson Goddamn Smith," he decided ruefully.
"Actually, the G is for Geoffrey."
Mick chuckled. "Holy Hell, how're you mixed up in all this?"
"Kiss my ass. You're hunting him, too."
"I'm not a goddamn amateur, Smith. Jeez."
I sipped from my coffee and raised my brow. "Uncle?"
Mick blinked. "That means nothing to me. Is he your man?"
"He's the man my man orbits. You know me: I'm a bit part player."
He sighed and relaxed a measure, then sipped from his cup with relish. "That's good. We're chasing different tigers."
"Fine," I said. "Then we needn't discuss the matter further. Our paths are crossing without meaning. In that light, how nice to see you. You're looking well. How are the children?"
He shrugged. "I saw them at Christmas. They're getting big." He coughed over a smile. "You know you look like Super Mario, right?"
"Super Mario? You know. He's a videogame hero. Ever heard of Donkey Kong?"
"I'm afraid not."
"You're getting old."
"That's unkind. I can play thirty to seventy without serious prosthetics. Eighty, with make-up."
Mick laughed. "So what do I call you?"
"This face is Vincenzo Nunzio."
He passed his beefy hand over the table to shake mine. "Pleasure to meet you, Vince. I'm Reagan Anderson."
"Honestly, that's the worst name you've ever had. Where do you come up with this garbage?"
"Jeez, I don't know, Smith. Some computer programme picks them out. What do I look like? An engineer?"
"You look like a lonely tourist."
"Bingo. Name of Anderson. Friends call me Ray."
"Hey, at least I don't look like a videogame. Give me a break, Mario."
Franco walked into the cafe. Despite my consummate professionalism Mick saw the flick of my eyes. "Why don't we go someplace and have a drink?" I suggested abruptly.
Mick stirred his coffee with his finger, then tasted his finger. "That's your guy, huh?"
I stood up and gathered my jacket. "Let's not dally, Ray."
He grunted, downed his coffee, and pushed back his chair. "You buying?"
He grinned. "God save the Queen."
At the tavern we let our hair down a shade. We sat in a dim corner beneath a speaker playing tinny folk music, and beneath its cover we spoke English in quiet voices. Mick filled me in on how the Basrat caper unfolded after my exit and we both laughed like hyenas as we imagined what must have been going through Dick Cheney's mind when he had that bucket of camel manure dropped over his head. "The best part is," chuckled Mick, "nobody ever caught me. I got away with it clean."
"You're a sophomoric fool," I told him, still laughing.
"Yeah," agreed Mick. "Ain't I a stinker?"
We ordered another round. "Do you have an objective or are you scouting?"
"Scouting," he said, putting aside his glass. "Why, what's up?"
I shrugged and regarded my drink. "Let me level with you, Mick. I'm on a small footprint mission -- quite small, in fact. I haven't got a horn to blow but I'm afraid there might be some leakage."
"I'm undecided. I'm being followed."
"An ugly beggar. It's hard to imagine he's of consequence but it's equally hard to ignore the possible threat. I'm being tailed by a leper."
"You want me to run some interference for you?"
"Mick, it would mean a lot. Honestly, I have only four days left -- if you could keep this creature out of my hair, just until..."
Mick held up a hand. "Don't worry about it."
"You'll do it? I mean, do tell me if it's an imposition --"
"Forget about it," he grunted forcefully. "I'm at your disposal. I'm not on a schedule. And I'm hard-pressed to deny somebody's who saved my life once or twice, even if he is a stuck-up limey douche."
"I'm ever so grateful, Mick."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." He drank again, then tapped out a Marlboro and lit it up, puffing thoughtfully. "You mind if I pick your brain a bit? Help me connect some dots?"
"If I can help, naturally."
"Does the name Solomon Habibi mean anything to you?"
"He was feeding me information from the inside, but I lost him in Naples."
"The inside of what?"
Mick chewed the inside of his cheek, then drew on his smoke again. "Shadow shippers."
"It's a covert shipping network. These guys move anything anywhere. Borders are nothing. I'll be damned if I know how they manage it. Sometimes when we manage to snag something it turns out they've gone to so much trouble and expense to cover it up it amounts to economic suicide. The only thing that makes sense, I figure, is they're running the high security jobs at a loss by riding them on the back of smaller jobs with fat margins. The only problem with that is, when you do the math, to make it work it must mean these guys are bigger than big."
"What are they shipping? Arms for Al-Qaeda?"
"Smith, that's the damnedest part. Sometimes it's arms but usually it's not -- it's a whole battery of industrial components and half of it isn't even controlled."
"So the secrecy itself is the key, rather than the contents."
"Right, exactly. But some of it's been downright weird."
Mick paused, rubbing his chin. He licked his lips and said, "If you can answer me straight, say so."
"Very well," I replied, leaning in.
He dropped his voice to a rustle: "Have you got any guys on the Moon?"
I blinked. "I'm sorry -- the Moon?"
"Yeah, Smith," he sneered irritably. "You know the thing -- big, white, floating in the sky at night. The goddamn Moon."
I chuckled drily. "I can honestly tell you, Mick, that as far as I know Britain is actively pursuing no projects on the Moon. You'll have to tell me why you ask, of course."
"Sure, I'll tell you. What the hell? We intercepted a shipment from the shadow network and seized a bunch of parts and aerospace sub-assemblies in August..."
"Is someone attempting to make a secure launch?"
"That's the kicker, Smith. I sent all the crap along to our boys in the lab, and they tell me the components are covered in a thin layer of lunar dust. Do you follow me? If it's a secure launch, it's already happened."
"Good Lord. That is peculiar."
"No shit. So now I'm here on a hunch. Basically, it looks like the shadow shippers have broken from their usual pattern. My guess is they're doing someone a favour -- bending their own rules to accommodate someone who doesn't take no for an answer. The operation is sloppier than usual, which gave me my in. Now I'm lying in wait until the delivery comes."
"No idea. But you can feel echoes of activity across their whole damn web. Something very important is coming through Pontevecchio soon, and I'm going to be here when it does."
I raised my brow and finished my drink. "There's more going on in this sleepy town than meets the eye."
Mick upended his own glass then wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. "Smith, as far as I'm concerned the whole goddamn world is a sick whore in a milk-maid's dress -- the more innocent a thing looks the more work someone's put into making it look that way."
Together we walked back to my room at Locanda al Fiume and Mick helped me pack my things. We took a taxi across town to a quaint bed and breakfast called Con Maria sandwiched between the bus station and a vacant lot. "I'm up on the third floor," narrated Mick as he hauled my baggage up to the second landing. "I'm right over you, so knock something smart on the ceiling and I'll be in your lap before you can sneeze."
I unlocked the door to my new rooms and Mick dumped everything on the bed. He straightened and moped his brow with a hand-towel from the washroom. "You don't travel light, do you?"
"I can assure you I've brought only the bare necessities of my craft."
"Uh-huh." He popped a smoke into his mouth and lit up. "So what's on your agenda now?"
"This evening I'm scouting the entrance of the estate I must penetrate, to assure myself there are no additional security measures I haven't prepared for."
"You're a careful guy."
"Yes, I am. And you can abet my care by standing guard here to assure that the beggar hasn't followed us from Locanda al Fiume."
"And if he has?"
"I need you to keep him off my back tonight."
"You want me to capture him? Maybe we could find something out." He smiled darkly and cracked his knuckles.
"Let's not descend to the last resort without suitable provocation. For all I know he may have marked me for robbery, nothing more. Unless the situation changes, I recommend observation only."
"Yeah well, you know best, Smith. This is your bag. But..." he hitched up his shirt and removed a polished Magnum, checking the load. "...Just in case."
I pressed my lips together grimly. "I'm quite sure that won't be called for."
Mick shrugged as he replaced the gun. "You know what the Boy Scouts say, Smith: always be prepared."
Thus reassured I went about my business, dressing against the drizzle and stowing my equipment in my slicker: infrared goggles, parabolic microphone, umbrella, bird-watching book. So prepared I spent the next three hours crouching amid the shrubberies outside the gates of Uncle's estate, its expanse invisible to me behind steep stone walls. I arrived in time to see the members of the day staff who didn't live on the estate exchange places with members of the night staff. Curiously, a crew of construction workers was also admitted through the gates at a late hour.
The entrance mechanism was elementary: visual recognition based on familiarity with the staff (and, doubtlessly, checked against records if need be) allowing access to a fingerprint scanner. Once cleared by the scan, the guest uses a magnetic key-card to clear the gate and any additional boundaries within the estate their clearance allows. All of this took place under the watchful eyes of dozens of closed circuit cameras.
A quartet of guards with dogs patrolled the wall, spaced out so that any given section was monitored by human eyes and canine noses no more than ten minutes apart.
A cakewalk, in other words. I had no serious reservations.
Upon my return to Con Maria I was concerned to see wet footprints on the landing before my door. My mood of optimism fizzled. I pressed my ear to the door, but heard nothing. Cautiously I crept away and proceeded to the third floor to tap on Mick's door. It was unlocked, but no one was inside.
I withdrew my parabolic microphone and aimed it out the window, through the floor, down the dark stairwell toward my own room. I heard nothing but night.
After tiptoeing back to the second floor landing I again spent a few moments listening to my room with the parabolic mic, my eyes closed. I could detect only a soft, regular drip. I concluded that I hadn't closed the faucet tightly enough.
No creature stirred.
I unlocked the door and slipped inside, then pawed through the unfamiliar darkness until I found the bedside lamp. Even before the light came my nose had found the disquieting metallic scent of spilled blood in the air.
Mick lay over the bed. His throat had been cut. His body was draining out onto the warped floorboards, a slow but steady stream working down his arm and dripping from the tip of his pale finger to sprinkle against the night-stand.
An insistent part of my mind cried: Abort, abort, abort!
I am accustomed to paying myself great heed, so without thinking another thought I unzipped my suitcase and began unloading my infrared goggles and bird-watching book into it, then swept my make-up kit together and dumped it in overtop. Next I swung around and threw open the closet to grab my overcoat.
I leapt back before I even knew why.
Someone knew how to be quiet enough to evade the parabolic microphone. Someone knew how not to breathe. And, as I stumbled backward into the night-stand, someone rose out from between the hangars.
The lamp fell. The bulb flashed and died.
I was halfway to Mick's corpse to feel for his gun before the someone swept over me, wrenching my arms behind my back and pressing my face into the pillow with a move as swift and expert as it was brutal. I cried out, but my cry was swallowed by the fabric.
My attacker leaned into me, his hot breathing just inches from my ear. "Now," pronounced a low, gravelly voice, "sit still and shut up, Englishman, or I'll pull out your organs."
The smell of his breath was beyond description.
The beggar had me.