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       Hurt World One and the Zombie Rats, p.1

           Stuart Parker
 
Hurt World One and the Zombie Rats
Hurt World One

  & the

  Zombie Rats

  Stuart Parker

  Copyright © 2016 by Stuart Parker

  Cover Design: SelfPubBookCovers.com/Daniela

  Year: 2092

  1 Risk and acquisition

  The Savage Alliance board meeting was being conducted on the fifty forth floor of the newly built Grey Uncle Tower’s in downtown Zurich. The view from the single pane of glass that wrapped the entire floor was one of the most expensive in the world - as much for the quality of its glass as for the picturesque scene featuring Lake Zurich and the distant snowcapped Alps. It was Sheer Diamond glass, strong enough to withstand missile and laser-acid attacks, but more importantly for a company such as Savage Alliance, it was impervious to all manner of X-wave and Sonar spy-intrusion. It helped ensure that what was said within the board meeting remained secure. To the same end, the conference room was devoid of wall paintings and any other forms of decoration. To Haddad Caixa, the Savage Alliance’s President, such niceties were simply not worth the risk they created. Art, he would say, was merely a breeding ground for bugs, of the surveillance kind. And besides, in Caixa’s mind the real art in the room was the power being wielded, the type of power that only came with being one of the world’s biggest companies. A power to influence world events, perhaps even to control them. The truest kind of power: that which was impervious to the law.

  Caixa was tall and slender. He had neatly combed velvety black hair and a neatly trimmed beard. His complexion had a radiant sheen, the frequent plasma skin treatments having removed any sense of aging from his complexion. He was resplendently dressed in an Italian black silk suit. He stood confidently at the foot of Conference Room One’s immaculately polished Mahogany long table. ‘Now ladies and gentlemen’ he said, ‘let’s move on to the main business of the day.’

  The twelve Ministers of the Board sitting attentively around the table were also immaculately presented: to a person they were rich, ambitious and ruthless. Caixa, with all his sleekness and confidence, stood before them as a beacon of success. One of Europe’s super-wealthy. He held his hands out to them. ‘This room has been the location in which many a grand project has been unveiled. Savage Alliance wouldn’t be the organisation it is now if not for most of those schemes having been bold, brilliant and successful. We are gathered here today in this hallowed room for the announcement of the next great venture in our company’s illustrious history.’ He gestured to a woman sitting closest to him at the table. ‘The Minister for Risk and Acquisition will conduct the briefing.’

  President Caixa sat down and the Minister for Risk and Acquisition rose to take his place at the head of the table. She was a demure, intensely serious woman of Middle Eastern extraction. Although quite short, she stamped her presence with bright colour: orange tints in her black shoulder length hair, a fiery red blazer and ebullient opals set into a gold rolo-chain necklace.

  ‘Thank you, President Caixa,’ she said. On the thought-activated table screen she brought up the latest stock results. ‘Fellow ministers, we are all aware of our ongoing positioning to break into the Big Ten Trade Index. You will also be aware that we have been on the verge for quite some time. Our investments in technology, medicine and real estate have all been skillfully managed. But also there have been complications. Our weapons and military medicine investments have remained stubbornly unproductive. The good President put me on assignment some months ago to look into what can be done to spice them up. I have found a small crack of opportunity and I intend to pry it open into a gaping hole.’

  Applause broke out amongst the board members. ‘We were beginning to fear this announcement would never come,’ said the Minister for Employment excitedly.

  The Minister for Risk and Acquisition stared at her dispassionately a long moment before murmuring, ‘I am sure you will appreciate that at this stage and even in Conference Room One confidentiality must be maintained. We have assembled you here not for a detailed briefing but rather for a heads-up. And when the moment for action arrives - which I assure you it will - there are two words I want you to remember: don’t hesitate.’

  The ministers looked expectantly amongst themselves. The Minister for Risk and Acquisition glanced out the window at a drone flittering around the exterior of the building in yet another security measure - set to automatic kill, it was not something to be trifled with.

  President Caixa was meanwhile rising back to his feet. ‘Did you hear that everyone?’ He slammed the table with his fist. ‘Don’t hesitate.’ He let the words soak in. ‘I became President of Savage Alliance with just one goal in mind: to break into the Big Ten Trade Index. And I have assembled the team to do it.’ He looked around the ministers and nodded. ‘You people right here. The codename of the mission is Operation Advance. When your instructions come, you will have a 24 hour window to implement them.’ His eyes bore down on a silver haired man halfway down the table. ‘Minister for Communications, I will want your best work on this one. When we make our play for the top ten, all the world’s eyes will be upon us. I want the messages we send out in return to be meaningful and pure.’

  ‘Will our actions be pure?’ replied the Minister for Communication in all seriousness.

  Caixa shrugged. ‘There will be a pureness to our aggression. But let’s keep that to ourselves.’ He returned his attention to the entirety of the group. ‘As of this moment, I have raised the security level to 5, which means you must remain connected to the System twenty four hours a day. If anyone drops off line for any reason, he or she will be erased.’

  Mouths opened to protest, but no one was so reckless as to let a word slip out.

  ‘Entry into the Big Ten Trade Index will change our lives in so many ways,’ said Caixa. ‘The rules and laws that apply to other companies will suddenly become mere playthings for us. A privileged position of power in which all trade becomes Free Trade.’

  ‘There hasn’t been a shift in the top ten in fifteen years,’ said the Minister for Technology. ‘So, whatever move you intend to make, I can only assume it is significant.’

  ‘I would estimate an additional two trillion New Dollars added to our books,’ said the Minister for Risk and Acquisition, ‘but that is only an element of the operation.’

  ‘Just so long as you are aware we do not have the leverage to raise that kind of purchasing power. Not with any reliable degree of risk management.’

  ‘We are well aware of the kind of leverage at our disposal,’ snapped Caixa. ‘Our plan has been analysed and approved by the Super Strategic Computer. The plan is in fact already underway.’

  ‘Did you receive my report about Missile Abduction Technologies that you requested?’ queried the Minister for the Trade. ‘Is that part of the strategy?’

  Caixa smirked. ‘You have all played your part with your own particular responsibilities and talents. And there is more to do. This briefing must necessarily be limited in its scope but I ask you to keep faith and to know that the company you work for has large plans.’ He turned and marched for the door. ‘Very large plans.’

  ‘Faith?’ murmured the Minister for Finance once Caixa had left the room. She looked sternly to the Minister for Risk and Acquisition. ‘I just hope you know what you’re doing. Playing off against the companies in the Big Ten Trade Index is fraught with danger. It has been tried before by other companies with resources equal to ours and the results have been decidedly ugly.’

  ‘I’m aware of that,’ the Minister for Risk and Acquisition replied, ‘and I intend to buck that trend with a little ugliness of my own. Have a pleasant afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.’ She headed nonchalantly for the door too, leaving beh
ind on the table screen an image of a giant, fearsome looking rat.

  2 A Jungle of death

  Claps of thunder were shuddering through the small Russian made Disposable Jet, the aircraft pitching disconcertedly in the gale force winds. The all too frequent bolts of lightning were illuminating the dense black cloud within which the aircraft was immersed. The lightning was also illuminating the large cracks emerging in the Disposable Jet’s ultra-light wings - the Disposable Jet was simply not designed for the intensity of storm cells. Still, for the pilot and solitary occupant of the jet there had been no temptation to go around the storm. Mas had spent time and money in acquiring the coordinates displayed on her military-grade wrist-computer and she wasn’t going anywhere else. The computer told her there were still ten miles to destination. A red light began flashing on the console panel. Disposable aircraft did not carry sophisticated warning systems at the best of times, and for this base entry model, its solitary warning light could have been in response to practically anything. Mas, however, suspected that it meant her journey was about to fall ten miles short and that at thirty thousand feet above the darkest corner of the Panama Jungle her journey was about to become vertical. She tied back her long blonde hair as she readied herself for the fall. She was a strong, fit woman in her late twenties and she was listed in the United Nation’s criminal rankings as the world’s most wanted poacher. With the top ranking came a one million New Dollar bounty on her head, pooled by twelve different countries, including her native South Africa. But she was not frightened by it. She had been raised in the vast Congolese Forests, and had been raised by them. Discomfort and danger had always been with her and she viewed them like family. She looked at the flashing red warning light and was strangely soothed by its gentle rhythm. Cracks were opening up in the control console around it. Without weldings or premium glues, the craft was surrendering its joints to the hostile winds whipping in over the jungle.

  Mas took a red backpack from under her seat and put it on. She devoted valuable time to ensuring it was fastened tight, for it was the only thing from the aircraft that she did not consider disposable. She readied a hand at the emergency eject handle and with her other hand pulled down her tech goggles over her eyes. Data glowed on the lenses in bold green. The main number that caught her attention was the eight miles until her destination - eight miles of treacherous jungle. Mas pulled the handle and was shot out into the buffeting winds of the storm. She fell blind through the tumultuous darkness, but after the confines of the aircraft she found terminal velocity liberating. And she could be comforted by the knowledge there was nothing base-model about the descent vest she was wearing over her black bodysuit: small pockets of super-treated helium would activate at five hundred feet and she would touch ground as though being lowered by a gentle hand. That was unless lightning turned her into cinders first. And there was certainly enough of it about, the sky literally humming with electricity.

  Mas, however, fell calmly. Even while still at terminal velocity, she was absorbed by the alerts on screen, informing her of what lay between her position and the target coordinates. Most importantly, there was a group of people - 6 males and 2 females - located very close to the final destination. Mas suspected she would meet them soon enough. Scattered about the jungle before them, as an added consideration, were 188 snakes, 341 scorpions, 2596 rats and 54 giant spiders. But the species Mas’s attention settled on with a frown were the clumps of Killer Belizean Fireflies. The display screen simply listed them as swarming, which meant that even with this level of sensory technology, there were simply too many to count. Mas fell into memories of her past encounters with the fireflies’ work: animals as large as fully grown elephants with their internal organs completely holed out. And people too. Faces frozen in eternal agony and bewilderment, their bodies grotesquely hollowed out. It had only ever been like that, indirect contact, which went some way to explaining why Mas had survived them. Concocted in a military laboratory, the Belizean fireflies somehow escaped - or so the story went - and soon became prevalent over large swathes of South America. The rumour went that the fireflies had been developed to keep human activity out of forested regions. If so, the success was undeniable: it was no coincidence there were so few people being detected in the jungle below, for the killer fireflies were indiscriminate in which creatures they attacked, and a swarm of them gouging a hole through someone’s body was a death worth avoiding.

  Mas dropped down through the jungle canopy to its muddy floor where her feet touched ground with an easy step. She immediately removed her backpack and zipped it open; a large brown and white Wedge Tailed eagle jumped up from it onto Mas’s arm and unfurled its broad, elegant wings. ‘Sorry about the bumpy ride, Zelda,’ Mas murmured. ‘There was too much lightning for you to do it by yourself.’ She attached to one of its talons a small black metallic capsule that was shaped like a hand grenade. Once the capsule was secure, Mas launched the eagle into the air. She paused a moment to be sure it had taken to flight before breaking into a hard run, following the 3D direction arrows on her goggles’ navigation display. She was a natural runner and even in the midst of dense jungle struck a bounding rhythm that she could hold for mile after mile. Her bodysuit was coming into its own then. The soft, ultra-light material was a hundred times stronger than skin and would protect her from the worst of what the jungle had to offer – that was apart from bullets or Belizean fireflies.

  The pounding rain was intensifying still. It was a good night to remain in shelter and most the jungle’s creatures seemed to be doing just that, the usual howls, cries and rhythms all but absent. There did, however, emerge a sound other than that generated by the storm: a low-pitched humming noise, just barely detectable at first but quickly growing louder, approaching from the south. There was something ominously familiar about it, perhaps not the sound, but the feeling of danger that accompanied it. Mas flung herself to the ground and froze. A swarm of Killer Belizean Fireflies streaked by overhead, an organism of a thousand tiny lights, effortlessly weaving in and out of the vegetation. It was a chillingly beautiful sight that could have easily been Mas’s last. The rain and her bodysuit must have conspired to conceal her scent; there was no other explanation a swarm would come so close without striking. Mas was enthralled, stealing a glance at what had been the death-view for so many countless thousands. And it was likely to become millions if the swarms ever migrated out of the jungles. The eerie lights of this particular swarm tailed away inland on its relentless quest, a tentacle with a thousand spears.

  Mas held her position a moment longer before picking herself up and recommencing her pursuit of pointing arrows through the jungle. It wasn’t lost on her that the fireflies had her running towards a destination of extreme danger as though it were some kind of sanctuary. The first scent of the sea was quickly overpowered by a noxious, sickly sweet chemical odour that resembled a cheap, stale perfume applied to an armpit. It marked her arrival at her coordinates. Mas’s weapon of choice was a laser-acid gun nestled in a holster against the small of her back and it slipped neatly to hand as she moved forward into a clearing. Visibility was poor, her goggles struggling to focus on anything. But then they locked onto the shapes of people: all eight that had been detected in free fall were there, sitting around a campfire under a fluttering canopy. Also under the canopy were racks laden with fishing rods, tackle and nets and some of the fruits of their labour were being grilled. The smells were mouthwatering, strong enough even to break through the chemical stench being emitted from the canisters on all four corners of the camp.

  ‘Do you take reservations?’ Mas said, removing her goggles and stepping in under the canopy.

  All heads turned. Icy cold expressions.

  Mas held her gun up threateningly. ‘Be careful,’ she warned. ‘It’s rude to point at strangers. Especially when it’s a gun.’

  There was a gruff chuckle from the man sitting on the log closest to the fire. He had piercing black eyes and a long brown beard
that completely hid his mouth even when he was laughing. ‘And yet you are content to point a gun at us,’ he said.

  ‘True, but only because you are not strangers to me’

  ‘Is that so?’

  ‘You go by the name of Dragon Tay, the captain of this sorry looking pirate crew.’

  The eyes narrowed murderously. ‘Am I?’

  ‘Maybe she’s come to arrest us for our dinner,’ said one of the crew flippantly, leaning forward on his log. ‘It’s a twenty year sentence these days for catching and consuming tuna.’

  ‘That would be a difficult arrest,’ said Tay menacingly. ‘The nearest prison is a long way from here.’

  ‘I didn’t say anything about being a cop,’ muttered Mas. ‘In fact, I’m not dissimilar to you.’

  ‘How?’

  I’m a poacher.’

  Tay was not cheered by the revelation. At least police had some concept of rules and protocols. There was nothing wilder than a poacher. Living long stretches in wilderness, they were usually just as wild as the animals they hunted. Nothing better than undomesticated gangsters. Capable of anything. ‘What’s your specialty?’ he queried.

  ‘Elephants a lucrative market this year. I had a wedding in Delhi that took twenty of them. That job alone paid fifty thousand New Dollars. Finding twenty elephants these days though isn’t easy. We had to break into zoos to fulfil the order. A bloody business but profitable enough.’

  ‘I am just a humble smuggler,’ said Jay, ‘but I have worked with my share of poachers – when cages have needed filling. I do not believe I have worked with you but I may have heard of you. Tell me who you are.’

  ‘I grew up in places as remote as this and my name is not on the System. And that’s the way it’s going to stay. So we’re not going to get too chatty.’

  ‘I know who she is,’ said one of the two women in the group. ‘Her name is Mas. She is dangerous. She’ll kill us all without a second thought.’

  If Tay was concerned, he didn’t show it. He leaned over the fire to tend to the tuna with a sharp metal prod. He gave Mas a half-glance and murmured, ‘I wonder what animals could bring you to these parts. There is nothing but those damned fireflies. Or are you hiding like us? If it is that then you are welcome to sit by our fire. You’ll find that the CO10 gas keeps the fireflies at bay alright.’

  Mas screwed up her face. ‘It also brings on hallucinations and rather unpleasant seizures. Unpleasant in the sense that bones have been known to break. Ribs, I am led to believe, can make quite a crack.’

  Tay frowned. ‘Rum seems to keep people nice and steady and we’ve got plenty of that. Sure it’s not a likely way to live forever, but there isn’t anyone here who has been making plans for that. And I dare say you are not too. Running through firefly infested jungles in weather like this is not the mindset of a long, healthy career.’

  ‘Well, I’m not here to sit by your fire and it’s not one of the creatures in this forest lame after.’

  ‘Then what?’

  Mas eyed him coldly. ‘Your boat.’

  ‘The Zopez?’

  ‘Two years ago you traded for it with Indian gold on the black market in Tangiers.’

  Tay spat with anger. ‘What’s it to you?’

  ‘You are a living, breathing example of the dangers of doing business on the black market. You see, before the vessel was rebranded the Zopez, it had another name: the Kudos.’

  ‘So?’

  ‘It was a smuggling vessel back then as well. Mostly around the Mediterranean. It was carrying weapons and diamonds bound for Russia when it was attacked by pirates. It disappeared without a trace. That was fifty years ago. Did your purchase come with the skeletons thrown in? The crew was never found.’

  Tay’s voice darkened. ‘How do you know such things?’

  ‘Because your boat is just what I’m looking for. I want to hire it along with your crew.’

  ‘That’s why you came all this way? And on a night like this?’

  ‘You’ll be paid well. A million New Dollars for the crew. And a million for the Kudos.’

  ‘It’s the Zopez. And we would never take on a job that pays that well.’

  ‘Wouldn’t we?’ said one of the crew.

  ‘No, we wouldn’t, because when it comes to pay up, eight bullets may seem too good a value to pass up. Anyway, we have orders to fill. Tigers for a school in Dubai. Horses for a carnival in Palermo.’

  ‘And more nights with toxic gas while unfriendly fireflies circle?’ queried Mas.

  ‘We have other hiding places.’

  ‘Your life will be the death of you, I guarantee it - unless you break away, make a fresh start. My job doesn’t involve tigers or horses. Nothing better than a colony of a few thousand giant rats. But the money is real, enough to retire on.’

  ‘Did you say a colony of rats?’ Tay chuckled disparagingly. ‘Well, you’ve come to the right place, at least. I saw giant rat ran under that log just a moment ago.’ As he distracted Mas with a pointing finger, he pulled a gun from his boot. The movement was fast and masked within the flickering shadows of the campfire. Mas was only just sensing the assault with the gun already pointing at her. A gunshot rang out from the fringe of the camp, sounding little different from the numerous claps of thunder - the thud at the end of it, however, was grotesquely unique, the sound of a human head exploding. The gun fell out of Tay’s hand and what was left of his body crumpled down off the log. The crew around him sprung to their feet in horror.

  ‘I warned him not to point anything at me,’ said Mas. ‘Now he knows why.’

  ‘We get the message,’ said one of the crew members. ‘And we would love to be your crew.’

  ‘But why do you need us?’ bravely called out another. ‘You obviously aren’t alone.’

  ‘A poacher is always alone,’ replied Mas. She held out her arm and Zelda swooped down from the tree branch it had been perched on.

  All eyes moved from the Wedge Tail eagle to the deadly smoking capsule bound to its talon. Mas fed the eagle some seed from a pocket. ‘I do have a pet though.’

  The woman who had recognised Mas stepped boldly forward. ‘There is no longer the slightest doubt you are who I said. I am Titov, the First Mate.’ She bowed formally. ‘I am sorry Captain Tay got himself killed. But I always feared he would one day get us killed as well. As you came to see, there was recklessness in his actions.’

  ‘Yes, Captain Titov, there was.’

  Titov smirked, liking the sound of her new title. ‘I dare say it is better for you he is dead. He was a proud man and unlikely to take orders. A blade at your throat while you slept would have been a distinct possibility.’

  ‘I am a light sleeper.’

  ‘I do not doubt it. If any of the rumours I have heard about you are true, you will be a leader worth following. I assume you are still interested in hiring a crew.’

  ‘That’s right’ Mas looked amongst the crew for any signs of dissent. ‘Is the boat fueled and ready for departure?’

  ‘Yes,’ replied Titov. ‘We always have the Zopez ready for a quick departure.’

  ‘Good because that is exactly what I want.’

  One of the crew knelt urgently by the fire, poking the tuna with his prongs. ‘But dinner is almost ready.’

  The eyes of the crew were imploring. Mas wondered how long since they had last eaten. ‘Very well,’ she said. ‘If you think you will be able to hold it down in rough seas.’ She shook Zelda back into flight and it returned to watch over her from its perch within the trees. Mas looked around for a place to sit; the only free log was the one Tay had been pointing at. Mas stepped that way but hesitated. ‘Is there really a rat under there?’

 

  3 Cold comfort in the sauna

  Haddad Caixa caught up with the Minister for Risk and Acquisition in the executive sauna. For a moment, he was not quite sure it was her, for she was looking much younger with her makeup off and her h
air down, and what skin was visible beyond the white wraparound towel was far more supple and alluring than her stiff, sharply tailored suits gave her credit for. Indeed, for just one moment, standing in the doorway of the sauna, Caixa pondered what it would have been like to have an affair with her, but he quickly banished the thought from mind: an affair with the Minister for Risk and Acquisition would simply be too ridiculous to ever live down.

  ‘Jalanti, may I join you?’ he asked, breaking protocol by using her first name.

  The Minister for Risk and Acquisition was momentarily caught off guard, having been lost in a daydream. She sat up on her bench and tested that the towel around her body was secure. ‘You may,’ she said.

  Caixa was wearing only a towel as well, but to Jalanti’s unease he was not quite so vigilant with its knots. She looked away awkwardly as he took position on a white marble block close to her. Caixa inhaled a deep lungful of the warm steamy air and nodded his head approvingly. ‘There is a lemon infusion, is there not?

  ‘Yes,’ Jalanti said, ‘And I added lavender as well.’

  ‘I would recommend a dash of Chemical 5. It is not necessarily legal but wonderfully refreshing.’

  ‘You are a connoisseur of the senses,’ Jalanti murmured, overcoming her reluctance and locking eyes onto him.

  ‘Yes, I suppose I am. In this business, it is certainly an asset. So, tell me how you think your briefing to the board was received.’

  Jalanti pondered this question a moment. ‘I sensed enthusiasm. I could see in their eyes that they wanted to know more.’

  ‘And they will ask you for more; they will make it sound vital that you tell them more. You must resist them no matter what.’

  ‘Because you think we will fail?’

  ‘This is not the first time there has been a move inside Savage Alliance for the Big 10 Index. And as you are aware we haven’t made it yet.’

  ‘What brought failure to the plans in the past?’

  Caixa shrugged. ‘There were complications.’

  ‘My plan is not complicated. It is simple and clean and there is nothing I can see that will interfere with it.’

  ‘Fair enough. Nevertheless, it is the unforeseen that must give us pause.’

  ‘The President is scared?’

  Caixa wiped the perspiration of his forehead with the back of his hand. ‘The unforeseen is a tiger stalking in tall grass. No matter whether or not you fear it, the tiger is stalking.’

  Jalanti was not about to get into a poetry recital session with a Harvard graduate. ´I would be interested to know where the President sees the possibility of trouble. Perhaps, there are extra measures I can take.’

  ‘You mean, where do I suspect the grass is longest?’

  Jalanti nodded.

  Caixa answered quickly, not needing to think. ‘This poacher Mas is quite a curiosity. Do you really think she has what it takes to complete the mission?’

  ‘She saved the last wild snow monkey in China. A businessman had put a bounty on its head. A very large one. He was convinced that being the last, its brains would contain mystical properties. Mas tracked it down to a monastery in remote mountain range and smuggled it to the Las Angeles High Security Zoo. With the obscene amounts of money involved, it was little wonder the body count was so high.’

  Caixa frowned. ‘To think someone would want to eat the last living specimen of a species.’

  ‘Unfortunately, his appetite lived to see another meal, but a lot of people working for him were not so lucky. There was a trail of blood and wreckage from China all the way to the zoo.’

  ‘That is not the kind of publicity Savage Alliance is looking for.’

  ‘She has never been recorded on the System. Not a shred of DNA or even a picture. She lives in the same jungles she hunts her prey. She is truly wild.’

  ‘Then are you sure you have employed the real Mas? If the System can’t identity her, what chance do you have?’

  Jalanti considered this question carefully. ‘She’ll need to be her. Operation Advance has started in earnest and she is in it up to her neck. Me too, I suppose.’

  ‘The difference is you’re the Minister for Risk and Acquisition. Your job is to take risks and make acquisitions. And for that you are well rewarded.’

  Jalanti nodded. ‘Although I am taking risks, I want to assure you that Savage Alliance is not. I have only met Mas once and she is under the impression I am the front for a consortium of bankers. The cover will stand up to a rudimentary check, which I suspect is all that a poacher is capable of.’

  ‘Be careful not to underestimate this woman,’ said Caixa. ‘If you think you have lured her with the thickness of your money roll, just remember she had the opportunity to cash in handsomely on the snow monkey bounty and yet she chose a trip to the zoo.’ He shook his head. ‘So, do not get too close to her. More importantly, do not let her get too close to Savage Alliance. Try to pat a wild creature like that, you’re going to lose a hand.’ He inexplicably broke into a broad grin. ‘Having said that, she sounds perfect for the job.’

  4 The Stamford Transaction Facilitators

  The man didn’t care if the police stopped him, for he had a gold badge to flash them: Harry Murtle of the CIA. If that didn’t work, he also carried gold coins with which to bribe them. He had his hands in his pockets, surreptitiously holding onto both. He was plump and anemic looking. He walked with a slight limp which he tried to make a swagger. He had well-groomed black hair streaked with grey and he wore a stylish dark blue suit. He certainly liked to think he stood out in this grim Guatemalan coastal village, where illegal fishing crews and smugglers predominated. The town’s name was San Paul. The few people out and about on its unswept streets were keeping their distance from him and their eyes to themselves, apparently assuming he was either a police officer dressing up or a gangster dressing down. The building the man was heading to was constructed of thick grey concrete and all its windows were barred. Ostensibly it was to keep out the tropical storms but in a town like this customers were attracted for other reasons by the impenetrability of its windows and walls. The man stopped at its entrance and scanned over the list of proprietors trading from its ten floors. His eyes stopped on the Desear on the ninth floor. The inscription underneath read Tapas and Spanish wine. The man withdrew slowly across the street to a corner opposite doused in later afternoon shadow, and there he stood and watched and waited.

 
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