In a place, which is on the other side of no place, Smooth Mario waited. It was a great deal hotter than he enjoyed. Outside the window it was dark, with occasional flickering flames. He could feel the rivulets of sweat trickling downwards, staining the delicate silk of his shirt. It would be more than watermarked now. Hell, it was hot in here! Or was that just because an elegantly dressed and immaculately groomed man in the public toilets of a certain notorious railway station was bound to receive some very explicit invitations? It was not something that anyone had ever even dreamed of suggesting to the Carpaccio Corporation senior executive before.
The opening through the graffitied wall of the john into the neverness was immensely welcome, unlike the thought that he would have to go back.
The scurrying imp came to call him at last. It was red, and horned. It looked like those things with toasting forks which his mamma had said would get him if he gave his creamed spinach to the dog again. Mario shuddered. He didn't like what they were dealing with. But the money . . . like The Man said . . . you'd even call the devil "M'lord" for that kind of money. He was beginning to think that maybe they were doing just that.
Their employer still wore the same fancy pajamas. And the hooded cloak. You couldn't see his face, even here in his own place. He sat at a huge desk, virtually every inch of which was covered with great leather-bound books and ledgers. Mario stopped in front of the desk. Cleared his throat. Was ignored. Eventually, after a long five minutes, M'lord spoke. "Well. What do you have to report?"
"Good evening, M'lord. We've terminated dem all, like you said."
"It is morning here. And it is not good. You were not particularly effective, were you? I had to intervene. And at one stage I was almost embarrassed into an awkward position. Only my ability to appear dead carried me through it successfully. I am not well pleased, Squidfoot. I also see you have failed to carry out my instructions. I told you I wanted to see his remains."
Mario reached into the pocket of his stylish overcoat, first looking down to make sure that "squidfoot" was a purely historical reference. He produced an opaque plastic bag, and emptied it onto the desk. The long, pale-coffee fingers were set in rigor, still outstretched, fending something off.
The hand had been cleanly severed at the wrist. "Dat was-a all dat was left . . . M'lord." he said in his best, carefully cultivated Italian accent. He wondered, not for the first time, if silver bullets might do. Or holy water. He scowled to himself. He couldn't even go to confession with this lot, or he'd have Father Donnelly telling him, again, that drugs were an abuse of God's temple of the body.
"How did you finally kill him?" The cold voice was, if possible, colder, and yes, that was definitely a wisp of smoke coming out from the shadow of the hood. Did the devil never take that cigarette out of his mouth?
"Da casket you gave us," said Mario. "We booby-trapped it, wid' a video spy link. Triggered it when he come into dat chemical store. All hell broke loose in dere. Smashed up everyt'ing in da place, including the video-camera. D' damn t'ing didn't go back inna box after dat neither. It smashed open da door an' come down the stairs an' killed Vinnie. Ripped him inta shreds. The Man wasn't pleased. You promised da monster would only kill da first an' nearest human."
"That I have to work with you stupid mudders!" M'lord struck the desk, his voice angry, smoke wreathing upward out of the hood. "Bunglers! Fools!" He sat there, clenching and unclenching his fists, a noise like the drone of angry bees issuing along with smoke from the hood.
Finally, he sighed, and said, as if to a half-wit, "A Zabaelish is not capable of killing twice, mudder. If it killed this . . . Vinnie, then it failed to kill Harkness-Smythe."
"But . . . dere's no way out of dere. No windows. No udder doors but da steel one we locked-a behin' him. Solid stone an' lead walls a yard t'ick, or dat's what you tol' us?" Smooth Mario was sweating in earnest now. The Man didn't have too much time for an Executive that made mistakes.
"This man doesn't need doors or windows. He can always find one, and work out the time it will be open. That's why I had to stop him at Glastonbury. I knew about that one." A claw-like hand reached out and touched the razor-clean cut wrist. "You've been on the dragon hunts? You know I always insist on precise timing?"
Mario nodded. The hooded one continued, "Because if you're slow, and part of you is in limbo, and the rest not, when synchronicity breaks down, it could be severed," he pointed at the wrist, "like that." He sighed again, plainly in annoyance. "I dare not move too openly here, yet. I will recruit more agents in Sylvan. There are always darksiders willing enough for dirty work there. In the meanwhile, you tell Carpaccio to get those dragons' teeth in as fast as possible. Two weeks from now phase two of the plan goes into action, and the tailored viruses will be released. Tell your master to be on the lookout for trouble, especially with Harkness-Smythe still on the loose. Now, go."
"Please . . . M'lord. Not . . . t'rough de men's rest-room again?" Smooth Mario pleaded, sounding in fear more Irish than Italian. He could imagine the looks on people's faces when he emerged, sweaty and red faced, with his tailored suit rumpled.
"Oh . . . that route is not open right now, anyway." He rang a bell. "I'll call Rudence. He'll show you the way."
Red and horny appeared again and led him to a distant door, past an awful lot of screaming. He stepped gratefully through. At least no squid this time.
"Mista Carpaccio wirr accept the ca. You're through."
"Hello, boss. Yeah. I'm sorry I hadta call collect. But I'm in dis-a Sushi-bar and I don't have any local money. I did-a like you said. Only, he wasn't pleased." Mario was still shaking from his encounter with the live-seafood tank. It had contained . . . things . . . with tentacles.
The Man's voice came down the line. A sharp command to get into the Chicago office. Now.
"Yes, Boss I'll be dere as soon as I can. But, er . . . can you send me my passport an' a ticket back from Tokyo?" begged Smooth Mario.
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