Authors: Oisín McGann
For Mags, Jenny, Aoife, Patricia, David, Nessa, and all the fantastic book people who make Children’s Books Ireland what it is.CHAPTER 1TAKING THE CASE
NIMMO HEARD THE whistles and immediately stopped what he was doing. People on the ground floor of the tenement were warning those above. There was a Safe-Guard in the building. He looked at his watch, noting the time. Six-fifteen—three hours before sundown. He needed to be gone before seven, or he’d have to leave the job for another night. If the Safe-Guard was just here to wander around, it might take half an hour or more to reach Nimmo’s floor. If it had an assignment, it would go straight to the apartment it wanted. There was no way of telling which, without going looking for it. There was no way he was about to do that. In Nimmo’s line of work, it didn’t pay to get noticed.
He had his trainers off, and was fitting one with the kind of raised insole you used for flat feet, the type with a lump under the arch of the foot to support it. Nimmo did not have flat feet. And he only put an insole in the left trainer, leaving the other one as it was. Putting on the shoes, he walked around until he was satisfied that the arch support was having the desired effect. Taking the insole out, he stuffed both of them into the small backpack he kept near the door. Then he put his trainers back on.
Pulling on his scuffed black leather jacket and his gray woolen hat, he slung the pack onto his shoulders and headed for the door of his dingy but well-kept apartment. A kid his age should not have been living alone, but there was no need for the authorities to know. With his lean, somber face, tall wiry build and close-cut red hair, he could pass for older if he needed to. He had several identities to match. He was reaching for the latch when a knock on the door caused him to freeze. A flicker of thoughts went through his head. Had the Safe-Guard somehow been assigned to him, despite the rules? What then? Stay there and look innocent? Try and bluff his way past? Get out now, by the window?
Nimmo shook his head. If it was the Safe-Guard, it could see through the door. It could see his skeleton, hear his elevated heartbeat. If he’d had dental records, it could have identified him by his teeth. There was no point running. The knock sounded again. He opened the door.
Watson Brundle was standing out in the drab, faded yellow corridor. A few inches over six foot, Brundle was a narrow, angular man with wide cheekbones, dark eyes and a curly mop of black hair. He always had a restless manner, moving with a twitchy energy. His large hands held a small flat leather box out in front of him; it was a little over twenty centimeters square, the kind you might use to hold an expensive necklace.
“Hey, Nimmo. I need a favor.”
“I’m going out,” Nimmo replied.
“This is a pretty serious favor. I’d owe you a great big fat one.”
“Gnarly. Ask me when I come back.”
“No. I need you to hide this for me, now.” Brundle was sweating as he thrust the case towards Nimmo.
“You want me tohidesomething for you with that peeper downstairs? You think I’m a complete gombeen? No way.”
“It’s nothing illegal. Not technically,” Brundle said softly, desperately. “It’s just … questionable. Look, I got a tip-off, all right? The Safe-Guard is here for me. It’s coming to my place, not yours. Just take this thing from me and I’ll let you off a month’s rent, OK?”
Brundle owned the whole building, and rented this small apartment to Nimmo for cash, no questions asked.
“What’s in it?” Nimmo asked.
“I can’t tell you. But they’re not looking for it, and it’s not illegal. Not really. Look, come on, we haven’t much time. That peeper is probably coming up the stairs right now.”
“Six months’ rent,” Nimmo said.
“What? Are you havin’ a laugh? Listen, I need to get out of here for a while, just until it’s gone. And I can’t take this out with me. How about two months, OK?” Brundle looked down the hallway towards the door to the stairwell. The elevator hadn’t worked in over a year. The Safe-Guard would have to climb the stairs.
“How about six?”
“Don’t be a complete sod. Three months off, and you take this right now, all right?”
“I’ll take it right now,” Nimmo told him, “when you give me six months off. I don’t play the shell game with Safe-Guards, Brundle. Nobody does, if they’re smart. So you’re asking me to do something stupid when I know better. You’re up to no good and looking for company. Six months, rent-free.”
Brundle nodded frantically and pushed the box into Nimmo’s hands.
“Bloody hustler! OK. Take it!”
Nimmo took it and closed the door. He heard his landlord stride down the hallway. Brundle was probably hoping to hide in one of the other apartments next floor down and let the Safe-Guard go past, and then leg it out and down the street. That was just dumb—he’d only bring suspicion on himself. Brundle wasn’t normally dumb.
Having saved himself rent for the next six months, Nimmo could afford to give tonight’s job a miss. Dropping his pack on the floor by the door, he slipped off his jacket and hat and hung them on the hook. As he did these things, his mind was searching the apartment for somewhere to hide the box. He tried to open it, but it was locked, and the edge was sealed with some kind of plastic resin. If he forced it, Brundle would know. That wasn’t enough to stop him—he didn’t normally handle something if he didn’t know what it was—but there wasn’t time to start trying to crack it open now.
The flat was a small two-bed place, though one of the rooms was little more than a box room. There was a living room with a kitchenette at the back, one large window looking out on the enclosed courtyard six stories below that boasted a run-down playground and a basketball court. The bedrooms were both off to the right, with a large cupboard just to the left of the front door. All the walls were painted an anonymous beige. There wasn’t much in the way of decoration—a few film and band posters, some black-and-white framed photos of London landmarks, a few ornaments lying on the sideboard and the mantelpiece. Nothing that would have told you much about the owner’s personality. There was no television. The battered Weinbach piano might have come with the flat, but anyone who tried it would have found it perfectly in tune.
Nimmo looked at the box again. There are two main ways of concealing something. Either hide it where it cannot be seen, or put it somewhere it can be seen, but cannot be recognized. If you want to hide something from someone with x-ray vision, the first option is extremely difficult. He flipped the box over, looked at the underside, which was almost exactly like the top, and then turned it back. It didn’t look like anything else in his apartment.
Brundle had a number of boxes like this in his laboratory next door. They held various scientific instruments that he used. This was where he spent all his time, although his living quarters were across the corridor. Pulling on a pair of latex gloves, Nimmo wiped any trace of fingerprints off the box with a soft cloth. Then he took a pair of sunglasses from the pocket of his leather jacket, which hung on the hook by the door. Nimmo opened the front door and walked along the hallway. The scientist had knocked through the walls of three apartments on this floor to build himself a large laboratory, and had sealed off two of the doors. The third door looked normal, but Nimmo knew it had a solid steel core. The two locks were pretty standard, however, which Nimmo had always thought was a bit careless. He unhooked the legs of his sunglasses from their frame. This simple disguise was a handy way of hiding and carrying two of his lock-picks.
The two locks took him less than a minute to open, and then he was inside. He had figured out Brundle’s alarm code some time ago—the date of his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah—and tapped the six-digit number into the keypad hidden in one of the cupboards, disarming the security system.
As he passed one of Brundle’s office desks, the sound of a dog barking right next to him nearly made him jump out of his skin. He spun around to find a life-size pug dog toy sitting on the desk. It was the type that could make sounds, triggered by one of those infra-red sensors that detected people walking past. Its head was nodding idiotically.
“Little git,” Nimmo muttered, with a grim smile as his heart settled down again.
Brundle loved his gadgets, but this one was new. Nimmo quickly found some variously sized cases of scientific instruments piled on a worktable, coated in a thin layer of dust. He slipped the leather box in amongst the pile, wiped some dust off one of the windowsills and sprinkled it over the leather- covered box to hide its polished sheen. It looked completely at home.
This was the best place for Brundle’s ‘technically-not-illegal’ box. It didn’tlookas if somebody was trying to hide it, and yet the mixture of metal and plastic parts in the other boxes would help conceal its contents from a Safe-Guard’s x-ray vision, unless the thing inside was a shape the watcher was specifically looking for. And this way, Nimmo wasn’t taking the risk of hiding it in his own apartment.
This lab consisted of a long room, taking up about half of the footprint of the three original apartments. It was filled with computer equipment and workbenches; electronics tools such as soldering irons and phase testers lay among the clutter, along with circuit boards and other bits and pieces. Different types of microscopes stood along one table. Through an airlock door system was a smaller room. It was a ‘clean room,’ where Brundle did his micro- technology work. No dirt or dust could be allowed in there. You had to wear a coverall ‘bunny suit’ and a mask to keep the air clear of contaminants. There was an electron microscope in there, and a lot of other expensive gear.
A picture of Veronica, Brundle’s daughter, stood in an attractive walnut frame on the desk in the center of one wall. ‘Nica,’ she preferred to be called. She was dark-haired, dark-eyed and coffee-skinned, like her father, and pretty in an offbeat kind of way. But her looks were marred by the port-wine birthmark over her left eye and the top of her cheek. Her father was devoted to her, but separated from her mother. Nica lived with the mother.
Nimmo only knew a little bit about Brundle’s work—the scientist’s research was legitimate, carried out for some private client, or so he’d said. It had something to do with RFIDs—Radio Frequency ID tags—those multi-purpose micro-transmitters that were on everything nowadays, from clothes to cargo containers. They had replaced barcodes and added many other functions into the bargain. They were everywhere, and Brundle was working on some way of using them in skin implants or something. That was as much as Nimmo knew.
Quickly resetting the alarm, he had barely slipped back out of the lab and locked the door again, when he heard footsteps on the stairs. Seconds later, he was back inside his own apartment, with the door closed. He recognized Brundle’s tread, and someone with him who took shorter, quieter strides. It seemed the scientist had failed to evade the Safe-Guard.
Sitting down on the worn but comfortable armchair in the small living room, Nimmo closed his eyes, and listened carefully as Watson Brundle unlocked the door to the lab, and let the Safe-Guard in.
MANIKIN SAT ON a black-painted steel park bench, facing a litter bin ribbed with wood that stood on the far side of the path. Her eyes were on the book she held in her hands, but she kept her attention on the tarmac path that passed in front of her, following the perimeter of the small green area that offered shelter from the rush of the city beyond. The small park was surrounded by tall mature trees, and a dense hedge. A gate opened into the park thirty-five meters up on her left. The mark would come in that way. He would exit the park through the gate at the other end of the lane, off to her right. There was another gate behind her, just visible over her left shoulder. Outside that gate, in the shadow of a multi-story car park, her two partners waited for her signal.
The patch of green was one of the few public spaces in the city center that were almost entirely obscured from security cameras. Only one camera, on the wall of the car park behind her, watched over this space. Manikin knew that camera would not be working. Her brother would see to that.
She looked at her watch. The guy they were waiting for was late. Manikin realized that she hadn’t turned a page of her book in several minutes and did so now. It was at that moment that she saw a Safe-Guard walking down the lane on the far side of the park. Her blood ran cold—if the mark appeared now, they would have to let him pass. Just as she always did when she saw a Safe-Guard, she ran through a check of what she had on her person, in case the peeper looked over at her. Nothing too suspicious. She was wearing a strawberry-blonde wig, but the watcher wouldn’t spot that unless it was very close. The same went for the tinted contact lenses that made her eyes look blue instead of green. The pockets of her khaki-colored mac were empty—so that the coat could be cast off in a hurry if need be. Beneath the coat she wore a pair of unremarkable black jeans and a gray wool sweater. Nothing too distinctive. She carried nothing illegal—except for her fake ID, which was of an extremely high quality. She was always careful about that when she was on a job. The work was dangerous enough without doing something stupid like carrying a weapon or some stolen property.
Even so, she felt a chill as the blue-gray, cloaked figure turned the glass visor of its helmet in her direction. She hated the way they moved. They were trained to glide, walking slowly and smoothly. She never saw one looking hurried or agitated. They were taught to show as few human qualities as possible, to be walking surveillance posts and nothing more. They couldn’t even talk to you without permission from their Controllers. It didn’t look at her for very long, but she still felt that disturbing sense they always gave you—that they could see through you, see anything you were hiding. The stare that said they could tell when you were up to no good.
Then it was gone, leaving through a gate on the far side of the park. That wasn’t gone enough for her liking, but at that moment a boy her age appeared through the gate on her left, swerving onto the lane on a skateboard. His lank brown hair hung over a spotty, petulant face, much as his baggy jeans hung off his backside. His tense expression and watchful eyes gave him away. This guy was on duty. He was carrying a cuddly toy under his left arm, a rather hungry-looking caterpillar with a meter-long skinny green body, a large red head and multi-colored legs. It was time to go to work.
Manikin tapped the top of the bench with her right hand. As the skateboarder sped towards her, two people on roller-blades swept out from the gate behind her, coming up on her left. They were going too fast to stop. The skateboarder twisted to avoid them, but the guy with the bleached-blond hair and the ox-blood leather jacket hit the skater hard enough to knock him off the path. The spotty kid might have stayed on his feet if the red-headed girl hadn’t fallen over her boyfriend’s sprawling legs and slammed right into the unfortunate skateboarder. He collided with the litter bin, dropped his cuddly caterpillar and tumbled onto the grass. The redhead staggered up into a standing position, wobbled on her roller- blades, and stood on the side of the skater’s knee. He let out a yell. She fell over onto him again, her elbow hitting him in the face.
“What are you doin’?” he protested. “You muggin’ me or do you, like,normallyskate like a drunk baby? Get off me!”
Manikin was already on her feet, as the guy in the leather jacket stood up on his roller-blades, his face contorted into a snarl. His name was Punkin, and he was a short fifteen-year-old, with a pale, pinched face, premature bags under his eyes and cropped, bleached-blond hair. He stood over the spotty kid, his right hand clenched into a fist.
“Watch where you’re goin’, you little scrote!” he barked. “You skatin’ with your eyes open, or are you, like…usin’ the Force? Hey, I’m talkin’ to you, arse-face!”
The skater was distracted for a moment by Punkin as Manikin picked up the caterpillar. She reached for the litter bin as she walked behind Punkin, who stood between the bin and the skater. The spotty kid stretched to the side, looking past Punkin and focusing his entire attention on the cuddly toy in Manikin’s hands.
“Hey, that’s mine! Let go of that! Let it go!” he cried, his voice a little too shrill.
“Sure, sure,” she said, handing it over as he stood up. “I saw what happened. You OK? It was all their fault, they ran right into you. I’ll testify to that if you need to make a claim. Are you hurt? Is the caterpillar OK?”
“Yes! No! Just…just leave me alone,” the skater said, obviously shaken, and holding onto the cuddly toy like a toddler meeting strange relatives. “I just need to go.”
“Hey, this isn’t over!” the bleached-blond guy snapped. “You run into me, you’re gonna apologize! You and your caterpillar both!”
“Apologize for what? You got a whole park to roll through and you hit the only other person in it? I gotta apologize ’cos you can’t steer straight? That what you’re tellin’ me?”
“Yeah, let’s ’ave it!” his girlfriend backed her man up. “You an’ that bug gonna show us some respec’.”
The girl, whose name was Bunny, was a manic-faced strip of a thing, with a wild mop of ginger hair and near-permanent look of frustration. The same age as her boyfriend, she was slightly more stupid, and just a little bit more of a psycho. She always spoke as if her knickers were painfully tight. Manikin would not have been working with either of them if she hadn’t been desperate. Bunny moved forward as if to push the guy, and Manikin stepped into the way. Manikin felt a hard shape under the girl’s jacket and frowned. Looking down, she saw the butt of a black plastic handle sticking out of Bunny’s waistband. Manikin hid her shock well. Turning back to look at Punkin, she noted the way he held his right hand down near his waist. He was carrying as well, the idiot.
“Leave him alone!” Manikin told them. “I saw the whole thing—you weren’t watching where you were going, either of you. You ran him right off the path! I should call the bloody police, although they’ve probably seen everything already.” She pointed at the camera up on the wall of the multi-story car park. “Go on, get the hell out o’ here.”
But it was the skater who moved first. With one glance up at the security camera, he kicked his skateboard back onto its wheels, jumped on and rode away down the path.
Manikin spun around, hissing quietly through her teeth: “You could have blown everything, you stupid bloody fools! Guns? You bringgunsto aswitch?Are you out of your tiny little minds? Get lost, and meet me back at the van. And try not to get arrested on the way.”
“Mind your tone,” Punkin grunted, showing her the handle of the automatic he had in his waistband. “I know how to use this.”
“Really? ’Cos the only thing that’s good for is putting us all inprison,” Manikin growled. “FX and me brought you in on this ’cos we thought you had savvy. Now, if it’s not too much trouble, try and get back to the van without bringing every bloody copper in the city down on top of us. I’ll see you there.”
“Did you get it?” Bunny asked, ignoring Manikin’s expression of disgust.
Manikin reached into the litter bin, pulling out the black plastic bag that sat within it. This was not a garbage bag—she had placed it in there herself. Inside the bag was the skater’s green caterpillar. The one he was hurrying away with was a dummy, which she had switched for the real one as she passed behind Punkin’s back. She nodded, showing them the toy before closing up the bag and tucking it under her arm.
“That camera’s about to come back online.” She tilted her head towards the wall of the car park. “Let’s move.”
As Punkin and Bunny went one way, and she went the other, Manikin was already working over the angles. Her ‘partners’ had not needed the guns for the job. Manikin and her brother had planned it that way. In a city filled with x-ray cameras and the super-senses of the Safe-Guards, even a complete moron would avoid carrying a gun unless they had a really,reallygood reason. And there was only one reason Manikin could think of.
She and her brother were about to be reesed.CHAPTER 3GETTING REESED
FX FOLDED HIS console as he saw his older sister approaching the minivan. The server controlling the cameras in the underground level of the car park would stay offline for another ten minutes—plenty of time to get out of there. There was a scattering of other cars parked on this level, but it was late in the evening, and very few people were working in the office block attached to the car park. FX had hacked into, and crashed, the surveillance server seven other times in the last two days, to make sure the security guards who monitored the car park were thoroughly sick of the malfunctioning system before the day of the job. Another crash would be unlikely to cause much alarm. He had also knocked out a single camera, on a separate system. It overlooked the park behind the building—and the lane that ran along one side of that park, where his sister had just finished their latest job.
Now that he could see Manikin coming towards him through the shadowy car park with a black bag slung over her shoulder, he knew it was time to go.
FX was short for his age—as his sister was always keen to point out—and his round face and the spray of freckles on his brown cheeks did little to relieve his youthful appearance. His curly black hair was gelled into a carefully sculpted mess atop his head and his teeth were a little crooked at the front. And he was becoming doubtful that his wiry build would ever be particularly muscular. But then, FX was never going to be the muscle on any job. He was too useful in other ways.
Manikin slid open the side door of the metallic-mustard minivan, dumped the large black plastic bag on the seat and whipped off the wig of strawberry-blonde curls. She pulled the pins out of her own straight black hair, letting it fall over the collar of her khaki mac.
“Gimme the dye pack,” she muttered, as two figures hurried up behind her.
“Did you get the thing?” he asked.
“Did you hear me?” she asked back.
“What happened?” he tried again.
“Give. Me. The. Bloody. Dye. Pack. You. Wazzock,” she said slowly and softly, in a voice she only used when they were really in trouble.
He drew a wad of twenty-pound notes from his bag and handed it to her. Inside the hollowed-out wad was a type of anti-theft device used by banks. If Manikin had decided to use it, the job had gone badly wrong. She slipped her hand into the top of the plastic bag and placed the bound lump of notes somewhere inside. FX opened his mouth to ask her what had happened, but she cut him off:
“The switch went fine. Punkin and Bunny knocked the mark off his feet, just like they were supposed to. Born to fall over, those two were.” She shook her head, color rising under the tanned skin of her face. “While they were all untangling themselves, I switched his caterpillar for the dummy in the litter bin. The courier didn’t cop it, I’m sure of that. He whined a bit, and took off holding onto the dummy like his life depended on it.”
“So?” FX pressed her. “What’s the problem?”
Punkin and Bunny rolled up behind her on their roller-blades, and Manikin looked sourly at them.
“These monkeys brought guns.”
FX’s jaw sagged open, and he stared at their new partners in disbelief. The arrogant smirk hiding just below the surface of Punkin’s face told FX why Manikin had wanted the dye pack. They were about to be reesed.
“That’s right,” Punkin said, drawing a nine-millimeter automatic from his ox-blood-colored, Italian leather jacket. The guy figured himself for a Mafia-style gangster. “We’re done bein’ rat-runners. It takes a proper villain to pull off a job like this.”
He wasn’t pointing the gun at them, but he wasn’t pointing it away from them either.
“The wheels rather spoil the image,” Manikin said, looking down at his feet. “I imagine they’d spoil youraimtoo, if you had any to begin with. I can’t believe you’d be so stupid. Evenyou.Any scan-cam we passed driving in here could have detected those things. And we still have to drive back out. What if we pass a bloody Safe-Guard? They can see right through the van, you tick. If they spot those pieces, we’re all going down.”
Her face was flushed, but her green eyes were cold. FX could see she was in a spitting rage. He was silently hoping her temper wasn’t about to get them killed.
“You don’t got no problem then, do yaw?” Bunny said, pulling a snub-nosed six-shot revolver from the waistband around the back of her jeans. She aimed it straight at Manikin’s chest. “’Cos you ain’t goin’ out wivus. Right, Punkin?”
“You got that right, Bunny,” Punkin said with a smile. He crossed his arms, laying his pistol across his left bicep. “You two are stayin’ right ’ere. Out of the van, FX. Dolly, hand over the caterpillar.”
“Don’t call me Dolly!” Manikin snapped at him, as her brother climbed out behind her.
“What are you shouting at him for?” FX said, thumping her shoulder. “You want to get us shot?”
“Shut your face! You should be taking my side,” she retorted, pushing him against the door of the van.
“I’m on whatever side doesn’t getshot!”FX shoved her back, nearly knocking her into Punkin. “You shutyourstupid face, yeh windbag!”
“Both of you, shut up!” Bunny barked, switching her aim from brother to sister and back again. “Somebody’ll hear!”
“Oh, wellshootus then,” Manikin sneered at her. “That’ll cut right down the noise, won’t it, you wazzock? I can’t believe we got these clowns involved. I mean, how could working with such a pair of pissin’ lobotomy cases be anything other than a complete cock-up?”
“Will you please stop dissing the morons holding the guns?” FX cried.
“Who you calling morons?” Punkin snarled. “Knock it off and give us the soddin’ caterpillar!”
“When are you going to grow a pair of balls, ya weedy short-arse?” Manikin exclaimed, pushing her brother against the van again.
“When you gonna develop higher brain functions?” he roared back at her, shoving her back hard.
She stumbled, nearly losing her balance, and collided with Punkin. She would have fallen if she hadn’t caught hold of his waist. He twisted and knocked her away. Bunny pointed her gun in the air and let out an incoherent shriek. Then she fired her gun three times into the concrete ceiling, and she was almost knocked off her roller-blades by the weapon’s recoil. The gunshots were deafening in that hard, echoey space, and dust drifted down from the holes in the ceiling. Everyone stood frozen. Bunny was breathing hard, terrified and ecstatic over what she’d done.
Somewhere nearby, some microphone out on a street would be transmitting that sound to WatchWorld Control. It would be isolated, filtered and analyzed. They would be able to identify the caliber, perhaps even the model of the weapon. And if more than one mike had picked up the sound, they would be able to quickly triangulate, and nail down the location. Seconds from now, a police jump squad would be skidding out into the streets, headed this way.
“Bunny … honey … pet,” Punkin said softly, reaching out to her. “You’d … you’d best give me the gun.”
She looked at him in hurt surprise and shook her head. He nodded, raised his eyebrows and stretched out his hand. After a moment’s hesitation, she reluctantly handed over the gun.
“The bloody caterpillar, now!” he said through gritted teeth, as he pocketed her gun and aimed his own weapon at Manikin’s head.
She didn’t react immediately, taking the blonde wig from the seat first, and stuffing it into the pocket of her mac. She wrenched the belt tighter around her waist, and reached into the black plastic bag that also lay on the seat. Then she handed over the large cuddly toy. The stuffed, multi-legged creature was over a meter long, and was heavier than it looked. That was because of the wide rubber tube shoved down its body, filled with hundreds of notes in high denominations. Punkin grabbed the toy, gave a grimacing smile, and waved Bunny into the van. FX snatched his console out of the back just before Bunny slammed the sliding door shut. Punkin rolled around the front of the van and got in behind the wheel. He started the engine, over-revved it, spun the boxy vehicle around and headed for the ramp. FX was impressed. It seemed Punkin was well able to drive while wearing roller-blades. Not bad for a guy who was still just a kid. He probably did a lot of joy-riding.
Manikin was already striding towards the stairwell that led up into the office building beside the car park. Going out the front, onto the street, would be a really dumb move about now. They’d have to find another way out. The police would be here in minutes—she could hear the sirens in the distance, getting steadily closer.
“Back to square one,” FX said as he caught up with her. “Should have known they were going to reese us. Bloody trolls.”
“We had to take the chance,” she replied. “We’ve only got a few days before Move-Easy comes looking for us to make our next payment. I just never thought those clatterheads would be thick enough to bring guns. They probably won’t get a hundred meters down the street.”
Her phone beeped and she took it out of her pocket, looking at the screen.
“I dunno,” FX grunted. “They’ve managed to stay free so far. Must be blessed with some of that supernatural good luck reserved for fearless idiots.”
“Yeah, well,we’renot, obviously,” Manikin said as she pushed open the door to the stairwell. She held up her phone so that he could see the screen. It was a spam email, offering excellent deals on a new drug that treated fungal infections. The email would have been received by hundreds of thousands of people, but only those who worked for the gangster known as Move-Easy would recognize the summons for what it was. She gave her brother a bitter grin.
“Looks like he’s calling us in.”
“Jeez, we’re just not getting any breaks, are we?”
“Well, I did manage to pinch Punkin’s wallet when I bumped into him,” Manikin replied, smiling as she held up a fold of leather.
“Not bad.” FX smirked. “But wait’ll you see what I’m going to do to his MyFace page. You’d be amazed what you can do with imaging software and a few pictures of farm animals …”CHAPTER 4THE PEEPER
NIMMO HAD NEVER been tracked by a Safe-Guard—he was too young to be listed on the citizens’ register—but he had heard from enough people who had to know what it was like. Right now, right next door, Brundle was expected to go about whatever he had been doing as if the Safe-Guard wasn’t there. Every action he took, every little movement or decision he made would be recorded by the stranger in his home. Any radio station he listened to, any television program he watched, anything he ate or drank or smoked, any product he used, anyone he spoke to on the phone or contacted online, any website he visited, anything he said out loud or wrote down would be studied by the Safe-Guard and its supervisors in Control. And it would all be analyzed in great detail by the massive surveillance system that was WatchWorld.
If Brundle wanted to go to the toilet, the peeper had the authority to stand there and watch him doing his business. Once a Safe-Guard was assigned to you, they could observe you until your time was up and then they moved on.
If you refused to let them into your home, you could face a ‘Life Audit.’ And nobody wanted that. Nimmo listened to Brundle moving about in the lab. It must have grated at the scientist’s nerves to be followed around like that—he was reluctant to talk about his work, and only put up with Nimmo being in the lab from time to time because Nimmo was even more secretive than he was.
Having a Safe-Guard next door had put Nimmo on edge, and he couldn’t stay still for long. Feeling an urge to get some fresh air, he stood up and opened his front door, stepping out into the hallway and closing it behind him. His apartment was at the end of the corridor, near the door that opened onto the stairs leading to the roof. Opening this door, he started up the steps and then slowed and stopped. His head was just level with the top of the stairs, and he could see the thin line of daylight under the door leading out onto the roof. A shadow passed across the sliver of light. Someone was on the roof.
There was a way on and off the roof without coming through the building. Nimmo had made sure of this before moving into the apartment. You risked being spotted from the street, but whoever was up there now had not come past his door—he was sure of that. So it had to be someone who was trying to get in without being seen. The door at the top of the steps was solid, but would be no obstacle to anyone who was good with locks…or a team of coppers equipped with a battering ram. Nimmo made his way slowly down the steps and back to his apartment. He’d moved to this building to avoid being noticed. Now, all of a sudden, everyone was taking an interest in the place.
Closing the door of his apartment, he wondered about the intruder on the roof. Nimmo had enemies, but he was pretty sure none of them knew where he lived. He was very careful about that. Did the intruder know there was a peeper here? Probably. Were they interested in Brundle too? Nimmo would prefer it if they were. It could just be some burglar trying his luck. But if itwasNimmo they were coming for, he could make for the front door, go out one of the two windows in the apartment, or fight it out here if he had to. But he hated fighting if he didn’t need to. He should leave now, while the Safe-Guard was here, before the intruder came down.
The decision was barely made when he heard Brundle’s lab door open. Nobody spoke, but Nimmo could make out the Safe-Guard’s footsteps heading down the hall. Brundle had got off lightly—the peeper had stayed less than an hour. The lab door closed and locked. Less than a minute later, Nimmo detected the slightest sound of feet in the hallway. He was impressed. He had not heard the intruder come down the squeaky stairs from the roof. There was a knock on Brundle’s door. Nimmo walked across to the adjoining wall in the apartment. His blue eyes were expressionless as he held his head close to the beige emulsion surface.
Both voices were muffled by the wall, but Nimmo could detect the emotions. The visitor was quiet and calm, Brundle louder and distressed. Nimmo heard a question being asked, and Brundle replied aggressively. There was the scrape of a hard object being slid along a table top and Brundle let out a grunt of effort, as if he was swinging something at his visitor. There were only two sounds immediately after that: a short gasp of pain from Brundle, and the unmistakable, dull thud of a body hitting the floor. Then there was silence. Nimmo leaned harder against the wall, his lips pressed together in a thin line. Don’t get involved, he told himself. This is none of your business. Don’t draw attention to yourself.
His conviction held for about another minute. But then he was swinging open his front door. The door to the lab was standing open. Watson Brundle was lying on his front on the floor just inside. He was deathly still, his head turned to the side; his eyes were half open and vacant, unblinking. Nimmo checked the man’s neck for a pulse and then swore under his breath, gritting his teeth and looking up and down the corridor. Darting towards the stairs leading to the roof, he bounded up them, pushed open the door and jumped out. There was no one out there. Either the murderer was blindingly fast, or they had gone out another way. Nimmo trotted around the parapet encircling the roof, looking down in every direction, trying to spot Brundle’s attacker, but saw no sign of them.
Perhaps the murderer was playing it cool, taking their time leaving the building. Nimmo raced back down the steps and along the corridor to the main stairwell. He didn’t know what the attacker looked like, but if he found them, he’d seesomethingabout them that would give them away, he was sure of it. Descending the steps three at a time, he looked along the fifth-floor corridor and then continued on down. There was no one in any of the hallways, and he didn’t come across a single soul on the stairs. This wasn’t surprising, seeing as a Safe-Guard had passed through only a little while ago. People would be staying out of the way.
“Jesus, who is this guy?” Nimmo muttered to himself as he hurried down the last flight of stairs. “The pissin’ roadrunner?”
He wasn’t used to being outrun so easily. How could this scrote have disappeared so quickly? Nimmo was steaming over this as he ran through the lobby to the front door, throwing it open to find himself staring straight into the tinted visor that covered the face of the Safe-Guard.
The figure in front of Nimmo was only a little taller than him, but seemed much bigger. Its head was covered by a graphite-colored helmet with a long smoked-glass visor, behind which Nimmo could just make out a mask of lenses and sensors. The helmet was mounted on a sturdy shoulder harness, able to swivel right and left, to save the guard’s neck from carrying the weight of all the apparatus. The only marking on the helmet was the WatchWorld logo on the front, and the square white digits of the Safe-Guard’s identification number—L489I—on the sides. The logo was made up of two silver, stylized hands on a black background, encircling a red sphere, forming the image of an eye. There were vents in the sides, allowing the figure to hear, but also to detect sounds and signals inaudible to the human ear.
Its height was exaggerated by the length of the visor, and by the long blue-gray cloak, the seams marked in lighter gray in vertical lines. The cloak hid the Safe-Guard’s arms and covered its legs down as far as its ankles. There were epaulettes on the shoulders of the harness, also bearing its ID in steel numbers, and a WatchWorld badge on the left breast. But otherwise the cloak had little in the way of features. The Safe-Guards were not meant to be eye- catching. It was their job to see others.
Nimmo had seconds to think. Bursting through a door, breathing fast and looking like you’re going somewhere in a rush was the kind of thing that got noticed. Doing it not long after a death on the top floor of the building—a death that would be discovered before long, even if he didn’t report it—would set alarm bells ringing in WatchWorld Control. Best to get it all out in the open. Or a version of it, anyway.
“Muh boss is dead!” Nimmo panted, letting his face go slack and his eyes go dull. He let his lip hang as he spoke, giving himself a strong North London accent and slurring his words slightly. “I fink someone’s muuurdered ’im. You got ’o get help!”
The Safe-Guard regarded him for a moment, and Nimmo had to remind himself that there was a human under all that get-up. The peepers were designed to be anonymous, asexual, impersonal. The less human they looked, the more people could think of them as a walking camera, rather than a nosy public official. There was a pause as the figure stood still and Nimmo knew it was waiting for instructions. Safe-Guards could not communicate with the public without permission from their supervisors. “What is your name?” it asked at last. The voice was electronically modulated. All Safe-Guards had similar voices, to remove their individuality.
“Charles U. Farley,” Nimmo replied without hesitation. He had been trained to beat the Safe-Guard’s rudimentary lie detectors.
“Who is dead, Charles, and where did the incident take place?” the Safe-Guard inquired.
“My boss, Watson Brundle. I live next door to his place, righ’—you were just there, but I wusn’t in the lab. Look, aren’t you gonna to go up there? Ah’m telling yaw, he’sdead.It’s only just ’appened. The one who did it must still be nearby!”
“What age are you, Charles?”
“I’m fifteen. Look—”
“You say you live with Watson Brundle? You are not listed as a dependent.”
Nimmo sighed and shook his head.
“I … I was on the street—homeless, awright?” This was a story Nimmo and Brundle had agreed on. Nimmo paid his landlord for the cover, and did the odd errand for the scientist. Given Nimmo’s line of work, Brundle had discovered he could be all kinds of useful. “’E give me a break, took me in. He don’t like goin’ aht-side much, so he let me work as an assistant in his lab. I got him stuff that he needed from the shops an’ that. You’re going up there, right? That scrote’s gettin’ away!”
The Safe-Guard paused for another few seconds, listening to its handlers.
“I have another assignment,” it said, and Nimmo could have sworn he heard a reluctance in the impersonal voice. “A police unit will be sent to investigate. You may go back inside, but do not go to the sixth floor or interfere with the crime scene in any way, or allow anyone else to do so.”
“How long will they take to get ’ere, the police?” Nimmo demanded.
“They will be here as soon as possible. Thank you for your cooperation, Mister Farley.”
That appeared to be the end of the discussion. The Safe-Guard turned around and walked away. Nimmo stared after it, trying to hide the bitterness he felt. He had taken a huge risk, standing in front of this thing, allowing himself to be recorded in order to report this murder, and the bloody drone wasn’t even going to bother heading up to have a look at what had happened.
He strode back inside and ran up the stairs. They were sending someone to investigate. Nimmo knew what that meant. Ever since the WatchWorld system had been brought in nearly ten years ago, the number of police on the street had been steadily cut until it was fraction of what it had been. Nowadays, the government relied on surveillance to deal with crime. There were thousands of Safe-Guards on the streets now, but hardly any police officers, hardly any detectives to investigate serious crimes. That unit could take hours to get here, and even then, the investigation might never get off the ground.
Nimmo had chosen to live in this part of town for a reason. It was poor and run-down, with fewer cameras and surveillance towers than the more affluent areas. It was the type of area where there was so much trouble the police didn’t bother with the minor stuff. As long as the crime stayed in this area, they paid it little attention. And if something big happened, they came in hard, with Serious Crime Squad officers, riot police, or the heavily armed jump squads. It was the kind of place where you could keep a low profile, if you were careful to stay out of trouble.
A single murder in a dodgy tenement wouldn’t score very high on their priorities. Brundle’s case might get some attention because he owned the building and had that weird lab of his, but there were too few detectives, and too many other, more important cases.
Charles U. Farley was one of Nimmo’s identities, one he might now have to dump after the police interview. The character was designed to explain his nomadic life, while remaining enough of a nonentity to avoid the interest of the police, or anyone else for that matter. He was particularly careful when entering or leaving his home, regularly changing his appearance and using hats, sunglasses or scarves to casually conceal his face. Apart from Brundle, hardly anyone who knew Nimmo knew where he lived.
Farley was just one more uneducated, unmotivated and unremarkable drop-out who’d get put on the register as soon as he turned sixteen. Nimmo had clothes, possessions and ID to go with the identity, just as he had for his others. Each identity took a lot of time to prepare and establish, and he hated having to give one up. But that was what they were for.
Nimmo stood in the door of Brundle’s laboratory, gazingdown at the dead scientist. He had two options. As the last person, except for the Safe-Guard, to see Brundle alive, he’d be the focus of the police investigation. He should get out now, and never come back. But if he ran, it would make him look guilty. They had recorded his face and his voice. That was more than enough information to track him down, unless he left the country completely—assuming he could. No, he’d have to stay here and ride this out.
And if hewasthe chief suspect, the sooner they had another suspect, the better. Nimmo wasn’t the type to sit around waiting for others to decide his future. He moved into the lab, pulling on a pair of latex gloves and taking a few sealable plastic bags from a drawer. As he walked past one of the desks, the stupid pug dog toy started barking again. Nimmo swore at it, but left it on—the less he interfered with things the better. Taking a look around the room, he took a deep breath and went back to the body.
He took photos with the camera on his phone—from as many different angles as he could. He could find no sign of a wound, or blood, or even a recent bruise. He didn’t want to move the body too much, but there was no obvious sign of the cause of death. He checked Brundle’s eyes and the inside of his mouth. He wiped down the blade of a letter-opener and used it to clean under the corpse’s fingernails, putting his findings into a plastic bag. He checked the color of the skin under the fingernails, and photographed the tips of the index finger and thumb of each hand with his phone, to record the fingerprints.
Looking at his watch, he tried to guess how long he might have before the police got here, but there was no telling. He plucked a few hairs from Brundle’s scalp and put those in a bag. He carried on moving around the body, gathering as much information as he could for another five minutes and then he decided he’d pushed his luck far enough.
He was turning to leave when he spotted the box that Brundle had asked him to hide. It lay undisturbed, just where he had left it. Nimmo felt a pang of guilt, disappointed that, in his last contact with this man, he had played such a selfish trick.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly.
Careful not to leave a trace of his action, he slid the leather case out and took it with him. Brundle had wanted it kept safe, and he’d been scared the peeper would find it. Was it the reason he’d been killed?
Wrapping the case and the evidence in two plastic bags, Nimmo checked the time again and went up to the roof. A hacker mate of his provided him with updates of the movements of surveillance satellites—he always preferred to move around in the blind spots. The sky was a clear blue; there was no sign of surveillance aircraft, or drones either. He taped the packages into the top of a ventilation duct that jutted up at one corner of the roof.
He came back down into the corridor, went into his flat and looked quickly around to make sure there was nothing in sight that would draw attention to his real life. But he was always careful about this, and it all seemed fine.
Then he descended to the fifth floor, where he sat on the stairs and waited for the police. As he waited, he checked his emails on his phone. He had one email address that rarely received anything but spam. He opened them all, and came upon one that was advertising excellent deals on a new drug that treated fungal infections. It seemed Move-Easy had a job for him.CHAPTER 5A TOUCHY SUBJECT
LIKE MANY IN the criminal world, Scope worked from late in the day until late in the morning. This was not because she was a career criminal herself. She might have been resigned to taking part in the business side of crime, but at least she didn’t commit any crimesagainst people—or against civvies, normal people, anyway. For her, it was an important distinction. She did work criminal hours, however, because everyone she worked with did too.
It was nine o’clock in the evening, and she was just beginning work. She was sitting at her desk in a small underground lab, with a magnifying glass hooked over the left lens of her glasses. Scope did not need to close her right eye to see clearly through the magnifying glass, because she was blind in her right eye. There was a little light over the lens of the glass, and she was using it to stare at the rounded end of the piece of gelatin in her hand. It was roughly the size of her thumb, and it had a fingerprint molded into the end of it.
The fingerprint was a man’s—some hit man who had tried to shoot her boss. Her boss was an extremely powerful gangster known as Move-Easy. She had taken the fingerprint off a glass that the hit man had touched. What that man would never know was that this glass had been stolen and delivered here to her lab. And then Scope had used a process involving superglue, a digital camera, some photo- editing software, a transparency sheet and a cheap photosensitive printed circuit board to mold his fingerprint onto this piece of gelatin. Now she would give the lump of gel to her boss, and his men would use it to leave the hit man’s fingerprints at a crime scene. This and a few other bits of manufactured evidence would be enough to send him to prison for twenty or thirty years. It was not work that Scope liked doing, but she was good at it, and as long as she did it, her family stayed safe.
“What you do is weird,” a voice commented from behind her.
“Are you wearing overalls?” she asked, without looking up.
She knew he wasn’t, because she hadn’t heard him come in. Scope insisted that everybody entering her lab wear white disposable overalls, and they rustled when you walked.
She sighed, switched off the little light, and lifted the magnifying glass off her spectacles. She took the glasses off, rubbed the bridge of her nose, and then looked at the teenage boy who was addressing her. He had parted the clear plastic curtains that blocked the space between her workspace and the door to the corridor, and was leaning into her pristine workspace. This breach of her rules annoyed her, but he knew that and was doing it anyway.
Tanker was older than her, but they were actually very alike in looks—people commented on it all the time. He was only slightly taller than her; they both had their hair in shoulder-length cornrows; there were the same well-defined cheekbones, triangular faces, sticky-out ears and lean frames. But while Tanker was proper black, Scope was albino black—paler in every way. Tanker often joked that they were a positive and negative of the same picture, yin and yang. Her skin was a creamy white, her hair was blonde, and her eyes were hazel. Many of the people who lived in the Void and didn’t go out a lot were paler than they were supposed to be, but Scope was the only one who looked like she was born to a life underground. It was as if someone had taken an African baby and raised her in a cave.
She only felt that way sometimes, but they were tough times. As a self-confessed nerd, she was a social outcast in the world of crime. As an albino, her appearance cemented her inability to fit in. Her finger pointed at him like a weapon.
“I just wanted to tell you that—” he began.
She cocked her thumb like the hammer on a gun and pointed again. He sighed and pulled his head back behind the curtains.
“All I ask is that you don’t contaminate my space,” she called over to him. “And you, my friend, are crawling with contaminants. Why do you always have to push it?”
“Because I like winding you up,” Tanker said from behind the curtain. “And when my own business isslow, I like pokin’ me nose into other people’s. Boss has got all paranoid again, and shut down my web connection. He wants you, by the way. That’s what I came to tell you. He’s askin’ for his ‘Little Brain.’”
Scope sighed again, placed the piece of gelatin carefully in a sealed container, and pulled off her latex gloves as she walked through the curtains. She got out of her own overalls, picked up her toolbox and followed Tanker out of the lab. He was Move-Easy’s best hacker, but when it came to chemistry, biology—or anything to do with forensics—Scope was called in. Before joining Move-Easy’s ‘staff,’ she would never have guessed how much chemistry and biology were involved in running a criminal empire. The applications for forensics were a little more obvious.
She spent most of her time here, in Move-Easy’s Void. A Void was a speakeasy, any place hidden away from the prying eyes of London’s WatchWorld system. It was a place free of surveillance—or at least, surveillance by the Safe-Guards and the police. This one was the largest in London, situated beneath Ratched Hospital, right in the city center. Voids were typically run by criminal organizations, though there were a few hippy communes and artists’ refuges around too, like the one where Scope had grown up. None of them were as secure as this one. But then, they didn’t run major counterfeit operations either. The rooms she walked past contained people working on producing fake IDs, or hacking firewalls, or running identity theft scams, or online gambling or black market operations. One room was being used to plan a bank robbery. In another part of the complex, men and women with intense eyes gambled their money away in an illegal casino.
As Scope and Tanker walked down the concrete-walled hallway, the boy handed her a ‘backscatter’ x-ray image printed on an A4 sheet of paper.
“He wants to know what that is,” Tanker said, pointing at part of the image.
Scope frowned, puzzled by what she was seeing but not in the least bit surprised. She’d seen all sorts of bizarre things since she’d started working here. The main object was caterpillar-shaped, filled with rectangular shapes. There was a harder, clearer box visible near the mouth end. This was what Tanker was pointing at. The image was still holding her attention as she followed Tanker through a doorway.
“Ah, there’s my Little Brain!” an East End accent bellowed. “Come ’ere, my pet, and grace us wivyor luminescence!”
Move-Easy was orange. If you valued your life, you didn’t mention it in his presence. It was a result of spending time on a sun-bed nearly every day. Since establishing himself as one of the most powerful gangsters in London, he had become increasingly paranoid about surveillance, and had sought permanent refuge underground. He had been living underground, without emerging into daylight, for seven years. After the first year, he became concerned about how this lack of sunlight might affect his health, and his looks, so he’d had a sun-bed installed in his quarters. Hence the orange skin. It was a touchy subject with him. The last guy to crack an Oompa-Loompa joke in Move-Easy’s presence was now sleeping with the fishes.
The audience chamber, as Move-Easy called it, was a room about twelve meters square. It looked like an interior decorator’s dream from the nineteen-seventies: all maroon, white, orange and brown, with geometric-patterned wallpaper, ornate gold lamps and paintings that would once have been considered avant-garde, but now looked hopelessly out-dated. A cinema screen was built into one wall, with a state-of-the-art sound system, and there was a bar in one corner. A snooker table was visible through one doorway, a second door was closed, and the third door admitted staff and guests. Scope came through this door to find that Move-Easy had visitors. There was a circular sunken area in the floor, its circumference made up of couches. A young man and woman sat on one couch with their backs to Scope. When they turned to look up at her, she recognized Punkin and Bunny. She’d seen them enough times before to wonder why two small-time chancers were being given an audience with the boss. They weren’t members of his organization, and rarely had anything of real worth to sell. They were looking pretty pleased with themselves now.
There was a round, smoked-glass table in the middle of the circle. On the table sat a cuddly caterpillar with a green body, a large red head and multi-colored legs. That was new.
“Got yor tools?” Move-Easy asked, gesturing her towards him.
Scope nodded. She descended the three steps to the sunken floor and sat down beside her boss, opening the toolbox on the floor. Move-Easy was sitting on the couch opposite Punkin and Bunny. He had a bulbous, brutish face, a smutty grin and chilly blue eyes. His thinning, dyed black hair was slicked back in a widow’s peak from his orange brow. He was wearing an expensive white shirt and navy suit trousers, his wrists and fingers adorned with heavy gold bracelets and rings. A gold chain hung down over the shirt, the gray hairs of his orange chest sticking in a tuft over the open collar at the front. He made her skin crawl, and there were times that he terrified her, but she knew he liked her. As he often said, she was worth her weight in diamonds.
“These two ’ave brought us a present, ’aven’t you, guys?” he said, not expecting an answer to his question. “Robbed a cash courier, comin’ from another Void. Some poor soul’s lost his profits for the week. Still, their loss is our gain, eh? Have to say, I’m impressed, Punkin. Didn’t think you had the brains to pull off a job like that, out among all the eyeballs, and get away with it. But my boys tell me you wasn’t followed or nuffink. So…had some ’elp, didya?”
“It was all us, Mister Easy,” Punkin replied casually, throwing a smug smile at Bunny. “What can we say? We got the moves, y’know?” “You got the moves, eh?” the boss said thoughtfully, working his jaw. “Thing is, my lovelies, you was scanned when you came down, and we found a piece of electronics on you that you didn’t declare. Only reason you’re sittin’ here now is that it’snot transmittin’ any signals.”
Punkin and Bunny looked nervously at each other. Everyone knew you got scanned when you came into Move-Easy’s place. It was a standard precaution in any Void, but he ran his place like airport customs. You had a better chance of getting on a plane with a machine-gun than you had of slipping an electronic device into his Void without him knowing. And the penalties for trying could be ugly and painful. Scope could tell from their expressions that they didn’t know what he was talking about.
“I’m tellin’ you, Mister Easy, we don’t know nothin’ about—”
“Obviously,” the gangster growled, cutting him off. “You ’aven’t the balls. But neither of you has more brains than a bird, so I’m assumin’ you didn’t check to see if the cash had been rigged before bringin’ it here. Or did you just notwantto check, in case you blew it? Was you just tryin’ your luck instead?”
They exchanged glances again.
“Was that wrong?” Bunny asked innocently.
“Christ, but you’re a proper pair o’ wazzocks.” Move-Easy sighed. “Scope ’ere is goin’ to ’ave a look wiv her sneaky eye, and tell us what you’ve brought into my ’ome.”
Scope was no longer paying any attention to the people in the room. She had work to do, and went at it with her usual fixed intensity. She had taken her inspection camera from her toolbox. This was a keyhole camera on a long flexible tube. She could manipulate the direction of the tube with her index finger, using the joystick positioned like a trigger on the handle. The front of the tube had a tiny camera, connected to a small screen at the on top of the handle. Laying the x-ray printout down in front of her, she switched the inspection camera on, took the lens end of the tube and inserted it into the mouth of the cuddly caterpillar. Then, keeping her eye on the screen, she slid the lens end further in.
The image on the screen showed her what was inside the soft toy. She knew there was a tube filled with money, but that wasn’t what she was interested in. The camera was equipped with an ultrasound scanner. She switched it on and the screen filled with blue-white see-through forms against a dark background. Her attention was on the hard-edged shape near the mouth that stood out clearer than anything else on the image.
“It’s a dye pack, sitting at the top of the money tube,” she said to Move-Easy. “Doesn’t look like there’s a transmitter, but I’d have to take it out to be sure. I’d say the trigger is a light sensor. If you’d tried to take it out of the toy, the lights in here would have set it off. But I can deactivate the mechanism with a magnet.”
Taking a small magnet from her toolbox, she slid her hand into the caterpillar’s mouth and pressed it against the wad of money she could see on her screen. Then she pulled out the bound bundle of notes and held it up in front of Punkin and Bunny:
“You brought a dye pack in here. Banks use them to foil armed robberies. If you’d tried to take out the money, the first wad of cash you’d pull out would be this one. It’s hollowed out. Inside, there’s a device that, when exposed to the light, would spray a bright pink aerosol dye all over you, while burning at two hundred degrees Celsius.”
She taped the magnet to the wad of money and tossed it into her toolbox.
“An’ if I got painted, or if I even had to repaint this place ’cos of you monkeys …” Move-Easy sniffed as he pulled the meter-long rubber tube of cash out of the caterpillar’s mouth, “you’dbe the ones swallowingthis.”
The two small-time crooks went pale, but Move-Easy had already thrown the tube to Tanker, who took it from the room. The cash would be checked, sorted, counted and absorbed into the business. There had to be thousands of pounds there, but the gangster had hardly given it a second glance.
“Now,” the orange-skinned boss said, lounging back on the couch, as Scope packed up her toolbox and stood up, “you’ve bought yourselves a few minutes of my time. What exactly is you two looking for, in return for this charmin’ act of goodwill?”
“We’d like to join your organization, Mister Easy,” Punkin said, leaning forward. “We wanna move up; we’re done just bein’ rat-runners. I know we’d have to prove ourselves, but we’ve got a line on a big score. I got myself an implant the other day, at a clinic in Soho. It’s an underground operation—the surgeons there only deal in cash …”
He paused, and glanced up at Scope. Move-Easy looked up at her and tilted his head towards the door. She took the hint and headed out of the room. As she was leaving, she heard her boss say:
“And you want to knock it over, right?”
“The money’s there for the stealin’, Mister Easy. All we need is…”
Scope couldn’t hear any more without pausing beyond the door, and she had learned long ago not to be curious about these things. Move-Easy was as paranoid about his own people as he was about the police. As he said himself, “You can never trust criminals.”CHAPTER 6THE CREW
ONE OF THE keys to Move-Easy’s success, reflecting the length of time his Void had survived undiscovered, was the confounding means of getting inside. Unless you were part of his inner circle, you didn’t get in without being invited. Most of the day-to-day business was done by his people on the outside, whom the boss monitored closely. If you did get invited in—and it was unwise to refuse such an invitation—you entered the maintenance tunnels beneath the massive hospital by a door chosen randomly on the day. You were given blacked-out contact lenses that effectively acted as a blindfold. An actual blindfold would have looked suspicious if you ran into any hospital staff or other civvies who might happen to be in the tunnels at the time.
You were then led by a member of the gang to one of the steel- and lead-lined doors that opened into the nest of old wartime bomb-shelter corridors that formed the core of his Void. Each time you visited, you were taken in through a different door. Each of these doors was disguised in a different way, and their use was also dictated at random. Even the boss’s own people had to change their routes constantly. The WatchWorld computers loved patterns. The hospital complex was monitored twenty-four hours a day, and every member of the hospital staff and every frequent visitor was on file. Anyone else seen going in or out of the hospital on a regular basis would eventually attract suspicion. Move-Easy had built a career on avoiding suspicion.
Manikin was still wearing her mac over black jeans, but had changed to a bobbed red wig. FX was in his usual combats, hoodie and trainers. Blinking over the contact lenses that blinded him, he felt someone take his console bag from him at the security checkpoint, but didn’t protest. It would be held until he was leaving. He suspected they’d try and have a look through the console, but was quite certain even Tanker would not be able to break the encryption that protected its contents. There were hackers in Britain who were better than FX, but he knew most of their names, and none of them worked for Move-Easy. It was more his physical safety that concerned him. These gangsters scared him, and whenever he and Manikin came here, he let her do the talking, because he had a habit of mouthing off when he was nervous. Around someone like Move-Easy, that could be a dangerous habit.
When they got the nudge, Manikin and FX plucked out their blacked-out contacts and handed them to the man who had guided them in. They found themselves standing in the gangster’s audience chamber. He was sitting in the circle of couches, beaming up at them. There was another kid there, about Manikin’s age, with a slightly blank bony face, but intelligent eyes, and a gray woolen hat, which covered hair that was cut close to his scalp. Dressed in trainers, jeans, T-shirt and a weathered black leather jacket, he was tall and looked impressively fit. He did not seem at all nervous in Move-Easy’s presence—unusual for someone his age.
“Manikin, FX, meet Nimmo,” Move-Easy said, waving them over. “I’m puttin’ a crew togevver for a new job, and you’re it.”
The three nodded to each other, but said nothing. FX and Manikin sat down on the couch next to Nimmo and waited. There was one other man in the room, standing by the bar, making himself a Martini. He was an Oriental guy with an expensive hairstyle, a sharp light-gray suit with a cravat instead of a tie, and a set of wireless earphones in his ears. The dapper man had the dead black eyes of a shark. This man’s name was Coda, and he was the most dangerous of Move-Easy’s enforcers. And he was the only one who didn’t wear a piercing in his eyebrow—the means by which the boss monitored his people. Nor did he ever carry anything that could be recognized as a weapon. Rumor had it that Coda only ever killed with his bare hands, or with whatever happened to be lying around. FX eyed the man anxiously. He had heard that Coda had once tortured and killed someone using only a pair of spectacles. FX could only guess how.
Move-Easy stared at the three kids for a minute, with a fatherly smile that didn’t reach his eyes. He had been one of the first gangsters to start using specially trained teenagers for some of his dirty work, and had several on his payroll. The three in front of him were freelancers, but that didn’t make much difference. If you lived in London and Move-Easy wanted you to take on a job, you took it. As you were underage, it was easier for you to operate within the WatchWorld system. The system could watch you, but it was forbidden to assign a Safe-Guard to follow you until you were sixteen, and even then there were limits to what they could watch until you were eighteen.
That was why Move-Easy used kids on a lot of his jobs.
“You owe me money,” he said to Manikin and FX. “This job will wipe the debt clean. That’ll be your payment. Nimmo, you’ll be paid on your usual terms. You’re all good little players, and as of now, you’ve got one very simple task. I want you to find this box.”
He lifted a remote, pressed the touch-screen surface, and an image appeared on the cinema screen. Manikin, who was discreetly watching Nimmo, trying to measure him up, noticed the slightest change of expression in his eyes as he saw the picture. He was hiding something. The image was of a tall, long-limbed man with a mess of black hair and protruding features. The photo had been taken at night at the back of a tall building, with wheelie bins in the background. It was monotone, slightly blurred and a bit grainy, probably taken with a night-vision camera. But they could make out a slim black box in the man’s left hand. It was roughly the size of the kind of presentation box used to hold a necklace.
“So what’s in it?” Manikin asked.
“Ten credit cards,” Move-Easy replied. “Blue and gold in color—you don’t need any more details. Either they’ll be in the box or not. The geezer in the picture is the previous owner. Name’s Watson Brundle, an’ he’s dead. He was a civvie.A scientist, engineer or summink—had some private project going, workin’ on RFIDs and the like.”
“How’d he die?” Nimmo asked.
“You don’t care,” Move-Easy assured him. “What you care about is that box. We know it was in his lab yesterday, because we saw ’im go in with it, and ’e didn’t come out again before ’e died, which was early this evenin’. Bit of a hermit, he was. The old bill went in about an hour after ’e died, and after they were gone, I sent a couple of boys in to fetch it. It wasn’t there. If the cops’ve got it, I’ll find out through my people. But I don’t think they have. There was some kid who lived up on the same floor as Brundle, ’parently did some work for ’im. We’ve not had a good look at ’is face yet, but he’s the law-abidin’ type. Went runnin’ right up to a peeper when the murder ’appened. ’E was questioned by the bill today, but we can’t find ’im now. We will. That’s not your job either.”
He touched his remote again, and a new picture appeared on the screen. This one showed a teenage girl, possibly about fifteen or sixteen. She was wearing a blue, gray and white school uniform. The picture looked as if it was a still from a surveillance camera in a school corridor. Tanker had probably hacked in and lifted it from the school’s files. The girl’s left hand was running through her dark hair, revealing that her sallow-skinned face was tainted by a port-wine birthmark that went from above her left eye, across her cheek, almost to her ear. Manikin was sure that the girl normally covered as much of that mark as possible with her hair. It spoiled what was otherwise quite a pretty face. With hips like that, she wasn’t exactly model material, but there was something very attractive about her. She had a spirited expression, and the posture of her small figure suggested a confident personality.
“Veronica Brundle, the boffin’s daughter,” Move-Easy announced. “The person he trusted most in the world. He was mad about ’er, but separated from the mother. The girl lives with the mother. She visited ’er dad last night. The handbag she had with ’er could have held the case, but we didn’t ’ave anyone on the buildin’ when she left—there was a Safe-Guard on the street by then—so she could have walked off with the box in her bag without us knowin’.
“Now, her dad told her about us, so if she’d any sense, she’d have brought us that box by now. But she ’asn’t. I want you to suss ’er out, check ’er ’ouse and the school. Is she connected? Is she protected? Does she ’ave the contacts to sell the cards? If she’s gonna try an’ run, I want to know before she does. There’s no guarantee she’s got ’em, but I think she’s our best bet. Tricky bit is, she lives in a two-floor apartment in the Barbican and goes to a private school.”
Manikin rolled her eyes towards the ceiling and FX groaned. The Barbican Estate was a mass of concrete structures containing over two thousand flats, some as part of three massive residential towers. It was a maze, and it was riddled with security cameras. And even though primary and secondary schools could not be observed by the WatchWorld system, they all had their own security measures. Private schools were usually the most paranoid and had higher quality systems.
“I presume these cards are worth a lot of money to someone who can use them,” Manikin spoke up. “Would she leave something like that in school?”
“Might, if she didn’t want her mum findin’ it,” Move-Easy told her. “Leave no stone unturned, that’s what I say. Tanker will give you all the details we ’ave on the girl. You’ve got three days to find out for sure whether she ’as it or not.”
He glanced up at the well-dressed man standing at the bar, who was leaning there with his eyes closed. With those earphones in his ears, it was impossible to tell if Coda was listening to them or not.
“I don’t want to ’ave to send in Coda here, or set any of the boys on ’er and the mother unless there’s no other way,” Move-Easy said. “Let’s keep this quiet and hands-off for now.”
“If it’s OK with you, I’d like to bring Scope in on this as well,” Nimmo said.
Manikin glanced at FX, who shrugged. They both knew Scope and trusted her. She wouldn’t get in the way, but they couldn’t see what they needed her for out on the street.
“What d’you want her for?” Move-Easy asked, frowning. “You’ve got all the skills you need right here.”
“I don’t want to go to all the hassle of doing the job, gettin’ my hands on those cards,” Nimmo told him, “and then find out they’re fakes. That’s one of the jobs she does for you, isn’t it? She spots counterfeit merchandise. Better she do it on the spot than have us bringin’ fake gear back here.”
“Awright, she can go with you. But look after ’er, Nimmo. If summink ’appens to my Little Brain, I’d be most put out. Worth her weight in diamonds, that girl is. She’s like a friend’s daughter to me. Not a hair on ’er ’ead, boy, y’hear me? Not a hair on ’er ’ead.”
“I hear you,” Nimmo said. “It’ll be the safest hair in London.”
The three teenagers were getting to their feet when Move-Easy added to FX and Manikin:
“Oh, last thing. Just so the both of you know, Nimmo’s in charge. What ’e says goes.”
“What?” Manikin looked at Nimmo and then at the gangster. She was pushing her luck and she knew it. But in their business, you couldn’t let yourself be walked all over. “That’s not how we work, Mister Easy. We’re freelance. Nobody’s in charge of us.”
“I’m sorry, darlin’.” The orange-skinned mob boss leveled his cold blue eyes at her and leaned forward. “My ears are a bit funny these days. Gettin’ old, I suppose. Did you say summink?”
Manikin met his gaze for a brief moment, before her nerve failed her. “No. No, sir.”
“Didn’t think so. Go see Tanker. You’ve got three days to dig up everything there is to know about this girl and find that box. If she passes it on or sells it before we can get ’old of it, or if I ’ave to send in the boys to deal with it, so things get loud and messy, I’m not gonna be a happy camper. And we don’t want me losin’ the rag, now do we?”
Nimmo, Manikin and FX all agreed, they didn’t want him losing the rag.CHAPTER 7DEATH BY MISADVENTURE
FOUR TEENAGERS WANDERING around in the early hours of the morning could attract the wrong kind of attention, so once they’d checked in with Tanker to be briefed, Nimmo, Scope, Manikin and FX decided to stay in the Void for a few hours and grab some shut-eye until sunrise. After a quick look through the information on Veronica Brundle, they stretched out on some cots and slept until after sunrise. Then it was time to go to work.
Nimmo stayed awake, his mind racing as he struggled to think through all the angles. He’d been hired to search for something he already had in his possession. This was Move-Easy he was dealing with. He should hand the bloody box over as soon as he could lay his hands on it. But he was damned if he would. At least, not until he’d figured out what was going on.
The decision gave him some peace and his mind stopped whirling, allowing his thoughts to find some order. He grew drowsy, eager now for sleep. His mind drifted back to his interview with the police officer, back in his small flat next to Brundle’s lab.
The man, Dibble, was a detective constable, but he fumbled through the questions like someone who hadn’t been in the job very long. As Nimmo had suspected, the police weren’t giving a high priority to Brundle’s murder.
“So, Charles, you were next door when you heard the noise of a falling body,” Dibble muttered.
“Call me Chuck,” Nimmo said in an overly nervous voice. “Everyone calls me Chuck.”
“OK, Chuck. You say you heard a fight. Scraping, thumping, that kind of thing?”
Nimmo nodded. This was the third time they’d been over this, but Nimmo knew that was standard procedure. Ask things a different way each time, see if the story changes. Dibble’s short-fingered hand made notes with a stylus on his web-pad. A pudgy young man, his cheeks were already sinking into jowls, and there were wrinkles around the small black eyes that perched close to each other over a sharp, pointed nose. He used the stylus to scratch an itch under his black hair and looked up at Nimmo again.
“Yeah, and then I went out to check on ’im—Doctor Brundle, I mean,” Nimmo said. “And ’e was dead. Or at least, I thought ’e was dead. He was really still. And ’is eyes were open. And ’e never leaves ’is door open.”
As Nimmo kept up the dull-eyed character of Chuck U. Farley, his mind went around the room, ensuring that nothing Dibble could see would make him curious enough to poke about. He had given the place the once-over before the police arrived, but you could never be too careful.
“Right.” Dibble made another note. His tone remained uninterested. “At any point, did he cry out? Cry for help? Did he say anybody’s name?”
“Nothin’ I could hear,” Nimmo said. “I ’eard him let out, like, y’know, a grunt. Like he was in pain? But it was all really quick.”
“Right,” said Dibble, scratching his scalp again.
Nimmo was beginning to wonder how much longer this would take when the detective’s phone rang. Dibble answered it and listened for a minute.
“Yeah?” He sniffed, his eyes darting over to Nimmo. “No. Sure, I’m talking to him now. Charles U. Farley—‘Chuck,’ he says. No, it’s fine. OK. Yeah, I’ll see. OK, cheers.” He ended the call and slipped his phone into his pocket. Doing the same with his web-pad, he stood up.
“Thanks for your assistance, Chuck. Looks like we’ve got things all wrapped up on this one.”
“So, is that it?” Nimmo asked. He didn’t like the detective’s tone. “D’you know who did it?”
“It seems Doctor Brundle didn’t have quite as dramatic an end as you thought, Chuck,” Dibble told him. “The coroner’s made an examination of the body, and believes your friend’s death was accidental—‘misadventure,’ they call it. You probably heard him stagger and fall, and mistook it for a fight. It’d explain why you didn’t see anyone when you came out. I don’t have any more details at the moment, but we’re no longer treating this death as suspicious.”
The body had been taken away not long after the police arrived, less than an hour ago. There was no way they could have done an autopsy yet. How could they have decided this so quickly? Nimmo couldn’t hide his frustration.
“But Iheardanother guy here! There was a fight! Someone was here!”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not uncommon for witnesses to make mistakes, or to misinterpret what they hear and see,” Dibble assured him. “You get hyped up or upset, and your brain starts twisting the facts to suit what you think has happened. Basic psychology, Chuck. That’s why we’ve got the Safe- Guards now. No more doubts about how things happened.”
“Except ’e died after the Safe-Guard left,” Nimmo snapped. “Where was it when ’e needed it? It was in there with ’im for ages, and when I went after it and told it the man it had just left wasdead,it didnothin’.”
“Just bad luck, lad. What can I say?” Dibble shrugged. “Listen, we don’t know what’s happening with this building now that Doctor Brundle’s dead, but I doubt you’ll be able to stay here. Have you got somewhere else to go? You were on the street before he put you up, weren’t you? Got any family? We’ll need to find you somewhere to live, get you back into school. You’re too young for us to leave you on your own like this. I have to go, but someone from social services is on their way over. They’ll sort you out, OK?”
“Yeah,” Nimmo murmured. “Yeah, sure.”
With that, Dibble left. Less than half an hour later, the social worker arrived to find the flat empty. Chuck U. Farley was gone, having cleared out his cupboards and drawers, no doubt taking to the streets again. The social worker shook her head, lamenting another young man dropping out of society.
Still bitter about the complacency of the police, Nimmo was back in Move-Easy’s Void again, tired but uncomfortable on the narrow, well-used cot in the small underground room. The others were sound asleep around him. Brundle’s building had not been Nimmo’s only safe-house, but it suited him and his identity as Farley. Living alone as a fourteen-year-old in a cityriddled with surveillance was difficult. Brundle had taken him in, trusted him. As Nimmo lay there, he swore to himself that he’d find out the truth about Watson Brundle’s death.CHAPTER 8THE RAT RUNS
IT WAS TIME to go to work. Scope was allowed to come and go from the Void as she pleased, but the others had to wear the blacked-out contact lenses again on their way out, and had to be accompanied by one of Move-Easy’s apes. Blinded as he was, Nimmo used his other senses. As he always did, he counted his steps as the troll led the four of them out through the hospital maintenance tunnels. He memorized each turn, and took note of the noises and smells around him, the sounds of each door and the types of floor that passed under his feet.
It was an almost unconscious process, and as they came out into a corridor whose sounds he recognized—the boilers for the hospital’s heating system were off this corridor—he thought about the bizarre situation he’d found himself in. It was the worst possible time to be teamed up with strangers, people he couldn’t trust. And there were few enough that he had ever trusted. He had to get clear of them as soon as he could.
Once out of the tunnels, he and the others removed their blacked-out contact lenses, chewing them up and swallowing them. Manikin headed decisively for an exit that would bring them out into one of the alleys at the back of the hospital complex. Nimmo watched her, wondering if she was going to be a problem. He knew her by reputation—they’d even worked on the same job at one point—though he’d never actually met her.
She was supposed to be smart, quick and able to change her appearance and character with the ease of a seasoned actor. But she was also known for being a hot-head. Nimmo didn’t like working with people who were liable to get emotional. She was good-looking, but not beautiful, with an expressive oval face and wide, open features. Her athletic frame moved like a dancer’s, but there was a nervous energy about her too.
Nimmo had also heard a lot about FX. At twelve years old, the younger lad was already an adept hacker—his imagination, inventiveness and sheer technical brilliance making up for his lack of experience. FX was less comfortable in the villain’s world than his older sister, but he had nerve and a level head, and that was enough to be getting on with.
They were all following Manikin towards the exit. FX was trailing behind, checking his console to see if anybody had been interfering with it. Scope was walking alongside Nimmo. Like the two boys, she carried a small pack on her back, and all four put on shades as soon as they went outside. A baseball cap also covered much of Scope’s distinctive blonde cornrows. She was happy to be getting out for a bit, even if she was taking the risk of some peeper or copper asking why she wasn’t in school. Her parents hated the education system, the way the government ran things. They’d schooled her at home before she began work for Move-Easy, but it still felt strange being out in the city on a school day. Her job rarely took her outside, she spent little time at home any more, and didn’t have many friends, so she often got too wrapped up in her work.
Nimmo was relieved to see Scope wasn’t wearing a piercing in her eyebrow.
“You bugged?” he asked her quietly.
“No.” She shook her head. “Move-Easy doesn’t normally bug any of the kids who work for him. He insists they stay free of illegal electronics—the less the Safe-Guards can find on them, the less reason they have to get in the kids’ way. He relies on sheer bloody terror to make sure they do what they’re told.”
He had known Scope for a couple of years—as long as he’d been working for Move-Easy. She didn’t spend much time on the street, but then that wasn’t why Nimmo had asked for her. He needed her analytical brain—that incisive eye she brought to all her work. Despite her tender age, she had been outsmarting forgers, con men and the police’s forensic scientists for nearly three years, and making it look easy. Nimmo was hoping she could help dig him out of the hole he was in.
“So what’s your line?” FX asked, as if he had been reading the older boy’s thoughts.
“What do you mean?” Nimmo countered, though he understood well enough.
“Mani does deception, I do tech,” FX said. “Scope does analysis. What’s your specialty?”
“Avoiding responsibility,” Nimmo replied.
Out in the alleyway, Manikin was waiting for the rest of them. It was eight o’clock in the morning. Around them, they could hear the sounds of rush hour. The streets would be filled with people on their way to work. She turned to Scope.
“Is he cool?” she demanded, tilting her head towards Nimmo.
“I trust him,” Scope responded. “And he can certainly keep his mouth shut. Nobody knows anything about the cagey sod.” She thumped his shoulder. “He’s got me out of trouble a couple of times. He was the one who helped us out with that thing that time—you know, with the accountant. Yeah, he’s cool.”
“Okay … we’re going back to our place,” Manikin said to Nimmo. “Move-Easy doesn’t know where it is, none of the seniors do, and we want to keep it that way.”
‘Seniors’ was the term for anyone over sixteen. Anyone who could be followed by a Safe-Guard.
“OK,” Nimmo said, pushing the pair of sunglasses up onto the bridge of his nose. “But right now, we’re standing around in a bunch in this alley. That’s looking for all the wrong kind of attention. We gonna move or what?”
“Yeah,” FX grunted, as he pulled up his hood. “Try and keep up.”
Manikin took off at a run, her mac streaming out behind her. FX and Scope were on her heels in seconds, following her as she turned a corner and bounded up over a parked van. The alarm went off, but like most alarms, it was ignored. Running along the roof, they jumped over a wall, landing on the top of an oil tank and sliding down its curving side into a small courtyard. Nimmo was close behind them as they crossed the square space, leaping to cling onto a chain-link fence and flipping themselves over it.
This was another reason criminals were turning to kids for some of their work. Not everyone could use the ‘rat-runs.’ These were the routes through the city that were not covered by normal surveillance. It took speed, agility and nerve to make your way along these routes, to stay clear of all the eyes and ears that kept watch in the city. The rat-runs were ruled by the young, often known by their bosses—and the public at large—as ‘rat-runners,’ or simply just ‘vermin.’
Most of the main streets in London were covered by scan-cams, or ‘eyeballs’—cameras that could record normal visuals, or film in infra-red, or backscatter x-ray. These images were analyzed using software that could recognize your face, even the way you walked. Directional microphones could record conversations hundreds of meters away, and put names to voices using speaker identification software. RFID scanners could read the radio frequency ID tags on clothes, in phones, cars and many other things that people used every day.
And then there were the Safe-Guards. They could wander at will, enter people’s businesses and homes without permission, and they were equipped with rigs that included miniature versions of the technology that could be found on the watch-towers or camera installations. There was no telling when you might cross the path of a peeper while traveling along the rat-runs, but kids benefited from one of the few limits to WatchWorld’s surveillance. Unless a minor was engaged in a crime, they could not be stopped or followed by a Safe-Guard. When WatchWorld was introduced into London, even a population petrified by terrorism and crime could not tolerate the idea of their children being followed around by the faceless figures.
So while normal people—the civvies—buckled down, struggling to accept the new limits forced on their lives by this all-pervasive regime, professional criminals set about finding ways to beat the system. The WatchWorld slogan was: “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear.” The problem was, most people had things they wanted to keep quiet about. And any unusual behavior, any attempt to keep your business private, would bring a Safe-Guard to your door.
Those with something serious to hide were more likely to have the skills to keep it hidden.
WatchWorld had a consumer-friendly face too. The city was littered with large screens, one on the corner of nearly every major street junction, with selected, edited feed from the system’s cameras. They were interspersed with ads that used myriad ways to catch the eyes of passers-by. The same feed could be found online, and on several television channels. Scenes that were considered newsworthy, interesting, or just entertaining were broadcast to the world.
Manikin set a relentless pace, but they had to stop a couple of times to wait for Scope, who had trouble keeping up. Nimmo stayed with her; she was strong and agile enough, but lacked the stamina of the others, the result of too much time spent indoors. Together, the four ran through alleyways, apartment blocks, climbed walls, cut under railway bridges and through derelict buildings, jumping over or ducking under obstacles, and timing their runs past the sweeping cameras that watched nearly every street in London.
When they finally reached an abandoned warehouse on Brill Alley, near Canary Wharf, Manikin and FX were tired and out of breath. Scope needed to sit down and rest her shaking legs. She took a surreptitious blast of her inhaler, always self-conscious of the weakness that was her asthma. Nimmo was already breathing normally, taking their surroundings in with interest.
“Shouldn’t rush so much,” he said as he looked around. “The Safe-Guards can get curious if they see someone breathing too hard. The mikes in the streets are tuned to pick it up too.”
“Yeah…yeah,” Scope panted. “We should… should definitely slow…slow it down a bit next time.”
“Or just breathe quieter,” Manikin retorted, pulling out a loose brick beside a very solid-looking steel door to reveal a hidden keypad. “This is us.”CHAPTER 9LIFE IN THE MOVIES
WIDE ARCHED WINDOWS, secured with sturdy steel bars, were spaced sparsely along the three-story-high, brown-brick walls of the warehouse. It was situated in an industrial district that had been on the up just before the Noughties Recession hit, crime skyrocketed, and one business after another in the area began to collapse. Now Brill Alley was surrounded by empty buildings, beyond which modern apartment blocks jutted into the sky. Those apartments, bought in better times, now looked out on an ugly, neglected, industrial landscape. This was the place Manikin and FX called home.
FX used his phone to send an encrypted message disarming the security system, before Manikin keyed in a code that unlocked the steel door. Nimmo looked on in approval. Two separate systems. And phoning the signal in meant neither Nimmo nor Scope could guess where the security console was when they went inside. Manikin and her brother took their privacy seriously.
“There’s no bugs inside,” FX told them. “At least, there’s none here any time we leave. You never know when a peeper’s gonna walk in, or when WatchWorld might send in one of those rats with a pinhole camera on its back. We sweep the inner rooms for signals every time we get home. I’m serious about the rats, by the way. If you see any of our cats, don’t bloody feed them anything. Lazy buggers are supposed to be earning their keep.”
All four entered, and Manikin locked the door behind them. They all took off their shades and Nimmo followed the others into a large open space that stretched all the way up to the roof. There were old stage-lights on frames mounted below the ceiling. Looking around, Nimmo saw the remains of sound stages: film sets for a medieval castle, a city street, a submarine’s interior, a space station. A camera crane stood in one corner, and one entire end of the room was taken up with lighting stands, tripods and sound booms.
“This was a film studio?” he asked.
“What gave it away?” Manikin snorted, as she carried on across the room to another steel door.
“Their parents tried to restore the place and make it work, back when everything was moving towards using CGI in live-action films,” Scope explained to him in a low voice, gesturing for him to follow Manikin. “You know, using computer graphics to do all the sets and stuff? They wanted to use old-fashioned sets and staging. It didn’t work out, especially after WatchWorld came online. Their folks died a few years ago. Not sure what happened. FX was barely eight years old, Manikin was ten. They were left the building and some money in the parents’ will, and placed in the custody of a guardian. Turned out the guardian was a treacherous, two-faced witch. She took the money and did a runner. They’ve been living here on their own, avoiding the peepers, ever since.”
“Hiding from the cameras in a film studio,” Nimmo said, smiling slightly.
“They were bein’ raised for a life in the movies,” Scope commented. “Turns out everyone else ended up on-screen too, so they stepped out of the light. They dropped out of school … right off the grid. FX sorted it so that nobody in the system knows there are two kids living alone in a warehouse. Officially, they don’t exist.”
Walking through the second door, Nimmo and Scope found themselves in a much smaller room, but still large by the standards of a normal house. This was a workshop, filled with benches, angle-poise lamps, computers and other electronic equipment. Everything from robotic arms to children’s gadgets lay in various states of dissection around the room. “This is my space,” FX said, picking up a radio signal scanner and switching it on. “Manikin’s is over there. You don’t go in hers if you don’t want your eyes scratched out.”
One screen showed the view over the door they had just come in. Nimmo glanced quickly at the image. FX might like avoiding WatchWorld, but he clearly had no problems doing a spot of peeping with his own cameras. The younger boy pointed at the door his sister was disappearing through. The door slammed shut behind her.
“Sorry, she’s not mad about anybody telling her what to do,” he said sheepishly, casting his eyes towards Nimmo. “Especially someone she doesn’t know.”
“I can understand that.” Nimmo sniffed. “I don’t want to be anyone’s boss. But we’ve a job to do, and I want to get it done without any pissing contests. So let’s hopesheunderstands that everything I do while I’m with you is about the job.”
“She’ll be fine,” FX assured him, as he began to walk around the room with the scanner. “Probably already working up a play to get us close to the mark. Don’t be fooled by the moods. Girl’s harder to read than a stone playin’ poker.” He turned away and muttered under his breath, “Besides, in a pissing contest? She’d win.”
“All right, let’s get started then,” Nimmo declared. “FX, see what you can find out about Veronica online. Scope, is there anything else you know about these credit cards we’re supposed to find?”
“No,” Scope said. “I don’t know any more than you.”
“OK, then I want you to find out more about what Brundle was working on. See if he’s ever published any of his research. Dig up whatever you can.”
“How’s that going to help us find the case?”
“It’s not—not directly, anyway. I’m thinking self-preservation,” Nimmo told her. “This guy, Brundle, got his hands on something Move-Easy seems to think is worth a packet. Brundle’s a researcher, right? That’s not normally a money-spinner, unless you’re with some big firm. So where’d he get these cards? Was he given them? Did he steal them? Did hemakethem? My guess is they’re payment for something. If they are, I’m betting it’s something that wasn’t legal—only reason he’d be paid that way. Probably meant to be anonymous—untraceable. Move-Easy seems pretty sure he was a civvie, so what did he do for this payment? Who did he do it for? That kind of info won’t be online, but if we knew what he worked on, it might get us looking in the right direction.”
“You think he was mixed up in somethin’ naughty?” FX asked.
“A case filled with some weird credit cards? Sound like a normal way of paying someone? And who is it likes to keep big payments a secret?”
“The mob,” FX muttered, as Scope nodded. “Damn. D’you think we could be messing with one of Easy’s rivals?”
“If we are, wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Bloody right. Last thing we need is to run into some psycho hit man looking for the same thing. What are you going to be doing while we’re doing that?”
Nimmo looked at his watch. Tanker had given them an encrypted data key with Veronica Brundle’s details on it. Nimmo switched on the key’s wireless signal and connected to it from a computer sitting on one of the desks. He checked the girl’s address, then handed the key to FX.
“The mother works during the day and the girl will be at school. I’m going to break into their flat and look for that box.”
“Right. Well…good luck with that. Maybe you can wrap this up for us before we even get started. My kind of job. And if her computer’s not switched on, crank it up for a few minutes, so I can have a look-see. Want me to knock out the security cameras for you?”
“No, thanks. I should be able to get past them. I need the rest of you to stay here for now—let me scout things out in the real world first, while you do the same online. Get a trace on Veronica’s phone—and her mother’s—as soon as you can. If they’re coming home early, I want to know. Don’t want to find out Little Miss Brundle’s pulled a sickie by having her open the door while I’m looking under her mattress.”
“Do people actually hide stuff under their mattress?” Scope inquired.
“No—at least, nothing I’ve ever wanted to find.”
He told FX his mobile number. FX didn’t bother writing it down, confident that it was already logged into his mental filing system.
“You can let yourself out the door,” he said to Nimmo. “Don’t get spotted goin’ out, yeah?”
“I’ll try ever so hard,” Nimmo replied.
Rubbing his hands, FX waved at Scope to follow him out into a corridor.
“OK, come on. The computers in the workshop aren’t linked to the web. That’s a can of worms I only open when I’m in the Hide.”
“The Hide?” Scope frowned, starting after him. “You haven’t mentioned that to me before.”
“You never needed to use the web here before. We don’t have our own connection, I prefer to hitch-hike on other people’s wireless signals. Come on.”
He went out into the hallway, and Scope was walking after him when Nimmo stopped her.
“I need a favor,” he whispered. “It’s a bit dodgy, but it’s something I think you’d be into.”
“Yeah?” She raised her eyebrows. “What is it?”
“I need your help with a murder.”
“Jesus, Nimmo!” she exclaimed in disgust. “You know I don’t—”
“No, no! I mean, I’m trying tosolvea murder. I need you to look over some forensic evidence I took from the scene.”
“Oh.” Her face brightened. “OK, sure, cool.”
“Thanks. I’ll get the stuff while I’m out. I’ll be back this afternoon.”
She waved to him and strode off after FX. Nimmo watched her go, then turned to leave. He liked Scope, and trusted her. But he was reluctant to involve her more than he needed to. He’d have to explain to her how he was mixed up in Brundle’s death, but he couldn’t tell her that he had the case they had been instructed to find. And he was sure it was the same case. A case that now rightfully belonged to Brundle’s daughter, but was being sought by the most dangerous gangster in London. And the longer Nimmo kept hold of it without telling Move-Easy, the more likely the orange-skinned mob boss was to send some seriously violent people out to look for it. Once that happened, Veronica and her mother could easily end up in one of Move-Easy’s ‘guest rooms.’ Bare concrete rooms with steel rings in the walls, tiled floors and excellent sound-proofing. Nimmo’s thoughts turned to his parting image of the scientist—a cooling corpse, lying just inside the doorway of his lab.
“This is what I get for doing favors for the neighbors,” Nimmo murmured, as he opened the outer door. “What the hell were you up to, Brundle?”CHAPTER 10BREAKING AND ENTERING
NIMMO NEEDED TO get to the Barbican as fast as he could. Rather than walk and run all the way from the Docklands, he found a quiet spot and sat down to take off his left trainer. The sunglasses and hat would make his face harder to identify, without making him look overly suspicious, but the scan-cams had other ways of picking you out of a crowd. Gait-recognition software could literally analyze the way you walked, and compare it with people it had on file. Nimmo made a point of not getting recorded by the eyeballs too often, but sometimes there was no avoiding it. So it paid to vary your appearance, or even the way you walked, so that the system couldn’t easily track your movements. Sometimes it was better to be anonymous and out in the open than hiding in the shadows.
He found the pair of insoles he’d put in his bag the day before—the ones with the arch supports for flat feet—and put the left one into his left trainer. Putting the other one back in his bag, he pulled his trainer on again and stood up, taking a few steps. The arch support under his left foot caused him to limp slightly. It was better than trying to fake a limp, and hopefully was enough to disguise the way he walked.
Canary Wharf tube station was a short walk away. He paid for a ticket with cash and took the Docklands Light Rail train to Bank. While he was on the train, he went online on his phone and looked up the layout of the Barbican Estate. A text from FX confirmed to him that Veronica was in school and her mother was at work. Nimmo turned off his phone and took out the battery. Mobile phones were a pathetically easy way of tracking a person’s movements.
Switching to the Northern Line at Bank, he got off at Moorgate. From there, he walked to the Barbican, stopping to take the insole out of his shoe along the way. Flexing his left foot to ease the cramp caused by the arch support, he put his trainer back on and set off again. He was more careful of the eyeballs now, and passed two Safe-Guards along the way, making himself inconspicuous as their surveillance rigs took in everything around them.
As he came into view of the concrete towers that dominated the estate, he walked briskly, looking as if he had somewhere to be and he was late. Standing staring at a building, or even walking around slowly looked more suspicious. As he walked, he casually noted the positions of the cameras. He had been here a couple of times before and it looked like there hadn’t been any changes.
He had, of course, considered not breaking into the girl’s home at all. He knew exactly where the missing case was—tucked into the vent on the roof of Watson Brundle’s building, right where Nimmo had left it. Nobody was getting that damned box until he discovered who had killed Brundle and why. But he knew Move-Easy would be checking on him, perhaps even having him followed—though Nimmo doubted any of the villain’s people could do it without him spotting them. Nimmo had been taught that the best way to lie was to tell as much of the truth as possible, and leave out the bits you didn’t want to tell.
If Nimmo didn’t search Veronica’s home, and Move-Easy’s heavies went in later and turned the place over, he could be caught in a lie if he was questioned about the place. To keep the truth about the case hidden, he had to pretend he was looking everywhere for it.
The building he was studying had blind spots. In the block where the two-floor apartments were situated, there were several windows high up on an outer wall that weren’t covered by any of the cameras. One of the windows was open. It wasn’t Veronica’s flat, but it was close enough. The window was four meters above the ground, and the wall was smooth. The security firm probably thought that made it safe enough. Nimmo pulled on a thin pair of skin-color latex gloves.
There was a small van parked against the curb of the narrow path, a few meters away from the window. It was old, with a sticker for a fake security system on the window. No alarm, but the ignition system on these vans was hard to crack. That was OK, he didn’t need to start the engine. Checking that he was still out of sight of the cameras, Nimmo took a long piece of wire and a steel ruler from his bag. The pack was full of odds and ends, but he kept nothing in it that could get him arrested. He had the driver’s door open in a matter of seconds.
After another discreet look around, he took the van out of gear, released the handbrake and pushed it forward until it was under the window. Then he put it back in gear and pulled up the brake handle.
There was a young couple coming up the path towards him. He took out his phone—still disconnected from its battery—and leaned back against the side of the van, pretending to text someone until they had passed. After they rounded the corner, he hopped onto the bonnet, then onto the van’s roof, and jumped from there up to the window, grabbing hold of the sill. After a peek inside to make sure there was no one in the room, he climbed in, dropping to the floor and listening carefully. He was in a bedroom, standing by a double bed covered in a flowery bedspread and scattered with old-fashioned embroidered cushions. There was someone upstairs in the living room—two people, having a lively argument, by the sound of it. He winced, and dropped quietly to the floor. There were times when you just had to go for it.
He walked across the small, pine-paneled bedroom, down the hall past the bathroom door, and silently let himself out the front door. He put it on the latch, so it wouldn’t click when he closed it. They could wonder about that all they liked.
Casually coming out of the front door of a flat made him look like a resident. He was on camera out here, but he doubted anyone paid much attention to this part of the building. Coming in the normal way, you had to walk past a bunch of other cameras to get here. He was now on the corridor leading to the Brundles’ apartment. The camera was at the end of the hallway, behind him. Hobbling as if on an old man’s stiff legs, he hunched his shoulders, tilted his head down and made his way slowly to Veronica’s front door, which opened onto the other end of the corridor.
As he walked along with the camera on his back, his thoughts turned, as they so often did when he was on a job, to his mother and father. He could imagine what they would have said if they saw him now. “You’re taking too many chances, not checking it out enough. Not thinking it through,” his father would say.
“Acting like a bloody amateur,” his mother would say. “Did we teach you nothin’?”
They’d made a lot of sacrifices to keep him safe—to hide his existence from their enemies, but they’d still left him alone, hadn’t they? And now Brundle’s death had rattled him more than he wanted to admit, and he was being forced to work with a new crew, just when he needed time on his own to work the angles. He was rushing into this. He’d been in too much of a hurry to get away from the others and do something,anything, to lay out a proper plan. But he was stuck into it now, and had to follow it through.
People living in apartment blocks such as these tended to mind their own business, but there was no one in the corridor anyway. Peering through the glass in the door, he looked for any sign of a passive volumetric sensor in the hallway—the tell-tale box with a little red light. But he saw nothing. He took the arms off his sunglasses and used the lock-picks to open Veronica’s front door.
Slipping inside, he heard the faint squeak of a floorboard under his foot. He waited a few seconds with the door open, while listening for any other sound, his eyes searching the doorframe for any sensors. Nothing. A quick look into the first couple of rooms confirmed what he’d suspected. No burglar alarm. The WatchWorld system had reduced casual burglaries, particularly in places like this. That meant fewer people spending money on expensive security systems. There was a silver lining to every cloud. He closed the door.
This was an apartment laid out over two levels, stretching from the front of the building to the back. Nimmo tucked his sunglasses away and had a quick look around the place before he did any digging. At the entrance level was a hall, with the main bedroom to the right. To the left, past the bathroom, was a second bedroom that looked out the front of the building. The stairs went up from just inside the door. The upper floor had a living room at the front, a kitchen in the middle, and a dining room at the back. After checking these, he came back downstairs. Veronica’s room was the obvious place to search first. This was the smaller of the two rooms, down the hall past the bathroom.
Most of the apartment was laid with semi-solid beech-wood flooring, with the walls finished in white or pastel colors, but Veronica was clearly at that stage in her life where everything was about making a statement. Two of the walls were bright green, the other two were purple. It wasn’t a big room. Nimmo wondered how she spent much time in here without getting a headache. There were a few posters on the walls—the usual bands and film stars a girl his age would be into. There was a computer on a small desk facing the door, and a dressing table beside it, under the window. A single bed with a deep orange-patterned duvet stood against the wall to the right. A sound dock sat on a sideboard in front of him, beside a small television. Nimmo picked his way across a floor littered with clothes, shoes and books. He made a mental picture of the room. When he left, he wanted to be sure there would be no sign that he’d been there. The computer was switched off. He switched it on, and continued his search while it warmed up.
Even though he couldn’t find what he was here to search for, his thief’s instincts took over, and he began assessing the value of the things around him. On a whim, he had a look under the mattress first, and to his amusement found a diary there, covered in girlie stickers. He left it there for the moment. He could go back to it later. There were plenty of guys who would have had a good laugh to themselves poking around a girl’s bedroom, but Nimmo was working. A quick search through the wardrobe beside the door turned up nothing of interest. There were no hidden spaces that he could find. Her jewelry was mostly of the cheap student variety, with a few more valuable pieces that were probably presents. They lay in and scattered around two open jewelry boxes on the small dressing table. After checking under the bed, he looked through the various drawers, bags and boxes tucked out of the way around the edges of the room.
He poked about, looking for hidden panels in the walls, floor, ceiling and in the furniture. Nothing. If she had a place for hiding her secret things, it wasn’t here. Nimmo had to be thorough—the story he told Move-Easy might depend on it.
The computer was now up and online. FX would probably be rooting around in it right now, but Nimmo took a data key from his pocket anyway, connected by wireless signal to the computer, and set the PC to copying all of its more recent documents, photos and other files onto the key. That would take a while. He’d come back to it.
He was flicking a last look across the bookshelves over the computer desk, when his eyes caught on the title of one of the books.Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. He tilted his head, gazingat the spine. It was a dangerous book. He was surprised her mother let her keep it. Veronica shouldn’t leave it sitting out where someone might see it.
Leaving her bedroom, he tackled the rest of their home. It wasn’t even eleven o’clock, but the longer he was here, the more chance there was of somebody walking in on him. Just because the two who lived here were accounted for, he couldn’t be sure they didn’t have a cleaner, or a friend or neighbor who had the run of the house. Nimmo normally didn’t do break-ins without studying the target for at least a few days, but he was on the clock now. Again, he could imagine his parents’ dismay if they knew how sloppy he was being. His mother, in particular, would be muttering curses under her breath. The risk of being caught always gave Nimmo a buzz, but it knuckled the pit of his stomach too, and he was getting it worse than normal.
He searched Veronica’s mother’s bedroom next; a more mature, yummy-mummy style with lots of cushions on the bed, interesting fabrics, driftwood ornaments and abstract artwork in box frames. There were lots of ethnic-craft boxes from Eastern and African cultures for her bohemian jewelry. There was every chance the ex-Mrs. Brundle would have known about the case, and could have hidden it herself, so he looked here too. No joy, of course. The living room and dining room were decorated to the mother’s tastes, but offered little in the way of hiding places. There was no attic or basement.
The small cupboards in the bathroom held only the mass of toiletry and cosmetic bottles, facial packs, make-up pads and other bits and pieces you’d expect with a teenage girl and her mother competing for space in the apartment. There was a slight give in the teak bath panel when he pushed against it, and he noticed there were faint scrapes on the tiles near the base of the panel, and those at right angles to it.
He pulled at the bottom and the panel came off. It seemed Veronica, and possibly her mother, had their own little Void going on. In the space under the bath, wrapped in plastic bundles, were more dangerous books. Nimmo noted some of the titles:Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Catch 22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. All books that the publishers had voluntarily pulled off the market because of the risk they posed to society. He sat back on his hunkers, regarding this stash with thoughtful eyes. It was a clumsy hiding place, but if Veronica or her mother were going to hide the case anywhere in the house—if they’d had the case—Nimmo would have bet that it would be hidden here.
He took a couple of pictures with a small camera he kept in his pack, and put the panel back in place, careful to make sure it was just as he’d found it.
Trotting quietly down the stairs, he checked his watch and turned to go back into Veronica’s room, to have a look at her diary. He was stepping over the mess on the floor towards her bed when he heard a key turn in the lock of the front door.CHAPTER 11THE OTHER THIEF
HE COULD TELL by the sound of the tread on the hall floor that it wasn’t the girl or her mother. The steps were careful, but the semi-solid wood floor creaked, as if under a heavy weight. The door was opened and closed quietly. It was the sound of an intruder, and Nimmo had to assume they were here for the same thing he was. They would search the place … and find him.
The computer was still copying the files onto his data key. He pulled the power cord out of the back of it and the screen went dark. There was a cushioned stool under the dressing table. He pulled it out into the middle of the floor. Grabbing an aerosol deodorant from the table, he moved quickly across to the wardrobe and silently opened the door. It didn’t squeak. Careful not to rattle the hangers on their rail, he slipped in, crouching among the hanging clothes. Closing the door after him, he pulled the clothes together in front of him. He wasn’t kidding himself that he’d be hidden if the wardrobe door opened. But that wasn’t what he was about.
The guy did a quick recce of the flat first, just as Nimmo had, before beginning his search. When Nimmo heard him go upstairs, he considered making for the front door, but he couldn’t be sure of making it, and besides, this way he’d get more answers.
Like Nimmo, the intruder began his search in earnest in Veronica’s room. Through the white slatted doors of the wardrobe, Nimmo watched him try and switch on the computer. The guy checked the plug, reconnected the power cable, switched it on, and placed a data key down beside Nimmo’s, linking it to the PC. Then he came over to the wardrobe.
As he opened the doors, Nimmo was holding the aerosol ready. He sprayed it into the guy’s eyes and lunged forward. The man staggered back with hardly a sound, one hand at his burning eyes, the other raised in defense. Nimmo kicked him hard in the stomach. The man fell backwards, toppled over the stool in the middle of the floor, and cracked the back of his head on the dressing table. It wasn’t enough to knock him out, but he was stunned, flailing around, trying to fend off an attack he couldn’t see coming. He was up on one knee when Nimmo moved in behind him, got a head lock on in one smooth motion, and squeezed, cutting off the blood to the man’s brain. There was a thin line between rendering someone unconscious and killing them with this technique, but Nimmo’s father had taught him well.
The guy’s body slumped, and Nimmo checked he was unconscious by listening to his breathing. The man had a face like a Mexican gunfighter, complete with horseshoe mustache. He was dressed in the uniform of a security guard—the company that guarded the estate. Nimmo looked for identifying marks on his face, neck or arms and found a tattoo of a cat on the inside of his right forearm. A symbol used in prison by professional thieves. He took a photo of the stranger’s face and his tattoo, then tied the man’s wrists and ankles with two pairs of Veronica’s tights and covered his eyes and mouth with black electrical tape from his own backpack. Then he dragged him out into the hallway. Searching the man’s pockets, he found a single key, one hundred and thirty pounds in notes and change, a multi-tool and a phone.
Nimmo also found a WatchWorld ID card. But WatchWorld did not employ ex-convicts. The name on the card was Frank Krieger. He put all of the items into his own pockets.
A small pouch strapped to the man’s belly under his shirt held several tiny bugs in plastic cases; microphones and cameras with miniature transmitters. They were still switched off. No doubt they were to be planted around the apartment. The pouch went into his backpack. Then he went back into the bedroom, clicked out of the crash alert that was displayed in the middle of the computer screen, switched it off properly, and put both data keys in his pocket.
The man was regaining consciousness, letting out a soft groan, then looking around in alarm as he discovered he was bound, gagged and blindfolded. He struggled until Nimmo started speaking in a near-whisper.
“You shouldn’t be here, but then, neither should I. I’m gonna leave. I presume you won’t give me answers unless I ask hard, but I don’t have time. I suggest you leave too. You’re in the hall near the door. Your penknife will be on the stairs, on the fifth step. Use it to cut yourself loose, and then get out of here. If you’re smart, you’ll clean up any sign that either of us was here. I’ll give you five minutes before I make a call to security, and send them down here. Don’t bother tryin’ to come after me. By the time you free yourself, I’ll be long gone.”
He was.CHAPTER 12NO ONE
FX HAD A quizzical look on his face as he stared at the central screen on his computer desk. It wasn’t often that he went online and ended up with more questions than answers. He had been working for more than three hours, fueled by mug after mug of milky coffee. There were coffee rings on his desk beside his keyboard, and Scope, who was sitting at a much smaller, less sophisticated PC on the other side of the room, was itching to tell him to wipe them up. Or just clean them herself. To her eyes, his workspace was disgusting.
There were faint traces of spills and stains everywhere. FX was obviously careful to prevent dust getting into his machines, but she wondered when he had last swept or vacuumed the floor. The room—his ‘Hide’—was equipped with enough servers and screens to run the traffic control for a small airport and, situated in the very center of their film studio home, it had no windows and only one door. Some of the technology was there for online access, but most of it seemed devoted to protecting FX from the perils of the web in general and WatchWorld in particular. Scope was no chimp when it came to computers, but even she could only wonder what half this stuff did.
FX was the fidgety type. Much like a pigeon whose feet could not walk without making its head bob, he clearly could not use his brain without moving some other part of his body at the same time. Scope was not normally prone to wild displays of emotion, but the constant tapping of FX’s pen on the edge of his desk—possibly due to agitation or caffeine, or both—was threatening to drive her to violence.
Her own investigation into Brundle’s work wasn’t providing many answers, and she watched FX’s growing state of bewilderment for a while before her curiosity got the better of her. She stood up and came across to him, placing her hand on his improvised drumstick.
“OK, what?” she asked.
“I’ve been checking out this guy, Nimmo,” he said. “I just wanted to know who we’re working with, yeah?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be digging up stuff on Veronica Brundle?”
“Yeah, I’ll tell you about that in a minute,” he said, waving towards another file he had open on-screen. “That’s a whole other kind o’ strange. But this guy … I mean, the more I look, the more confusing it gets.”
“This is not the job, FX. We’re not supposed to be digging up dirt on each other.”
“Yeah, yeah. But me an’ Mani don’t like workin’ with people we don’t know. So I’ve been checkin’ him out. There are loads of hits for ‘Nimmo’ on the web, but nothing to do with him that I could see. I had to get hold of something I could use to check his ID. Like his iris scan.”
“And how exactly did you scan his eyes?” Scope demanded.
“Remember in the workshop, I had that laptop? It showed the view from the camera in the alley, over our front door?” FX replied, gesturing towards the laptop that now sat to one side of his desk.
“I spotted that camera over the door,” Scope said. “You couldn’t have got a scan off that. Nimmo was wearing shades. Besides, he didn’t look straight into it—neither did I. Just reflex.”
“No, but he did look at thescreen of the laptopwhen he came in. Everybody does, to check out the angle of the camera—at least, if they’re a player. That’s a reflex too. I’ve a camera—an iris scanner—set into the top of that screen.”
“You mean you have my iris too?” Scope was scowling at him now.
“It takes the picture automatically, but it’s not like, y’know … we use it for anything.” He shrugged. “We’re just bein’ careful, y’know? Gettin’ reesed is an occupational hazard, Scope. We just like to know who everyone is.”
Scope felt uneasy about this. They lived in a suspicious world, and even if she didn’t know much about Nimmo, she felt she knew his character. Nimmo was sound. The iris of a person’s eye was unique, like a fingerprint. These were used increasingly for the purposes of identification. Scanning Nimmo’s eye without him knowing was an invasion of his privacy, even if the WatchWorld cameras did it as a matter of routine as you walked along the street. The four members of this team were supposed to be working together.
“Maybe you should let this go,” she said to FX.
“No, listen to this,” he said, holding up his hand. “Just listen. I got into the national insurance system and compared his iris scan with the files. Nimmo’s scan came up with an English guy named Charles Ulrich Farley. The photo matches—he’s the right age, right size, right description. I’ve checked Farley’s school records, his membership of sports clubs, his national insurance number and all that, right? Every detail is there, it looks like this is our guy. Except on file, he’s a real underachiever—low IQ, poor academic record, nearly illiterate, no registered address. His parents are dead. I did a pretty thorough search here.”
“OK, fine. He’s not book-smart, but maybe he’s a natural-born thief. So what?”
“So most people would stop looking right there,” FX told her. “But I used an analysis of his photo to do a search on databases in other countries …”
“No, listen! I found two more identities that came up a match, both of whomalsolook like our guy. One Irish and one American. The Irish one lists his age as nineteen, which I’m bettin’ is fake. The weird thing is, hisbiometricfiles are different. The fingerprints and iris scans don’t match on the different IDs. He’s got no criminal record, he’s not listed on the WatchWorld database, but he’s got a PPS number from Ireland and a social security number from the States. And he’s got registered addresses and schools for both of the foreign IDs. And I’d bet my back teeth he hasn’t been to school in years.”
“So, he’s thorough,” Scope said. “That’s good, isn’t it?”
“You don’t get it,” FX said. “These are just the ones I’ve found in thelast hour. If I didn’t know he was connected, I’d have stopped looking when I found the English one. And the deeper I look into each identity, the more I find—school records, summer jobs, social networking sites. These aren’t just false IDs, these are properlegends.”
“What do you mean? What’s a legend?”
“A complete false life, covering every recorded detail right back to the birth certificate,” Manikin said from behind them. “It’s how the intelligence services set up the agents they put into deepest undercover. The cops use them too, when they’re infiltrating the mob. Just creatingoneis hard. You hardly ever hear of someone who can switch between different ones. That’s serious tradecraft. I mean MI6,secret agentlevel of serious. He can’t have done it on his own.” “Yeah, like … who is this guy?” FX exclaimed. “I mean, he’s our age, isn’t he? He’s too young to have a mysterious past.”
“I don’t know,” Scope muttered. “That’s the problem with having access to so much information sometimes—if you look hard enough, you can find anything. You’re not focusing properly here. You’re not finding what we’re supposed to be looking for. I think we should—”
“All I know is, FX has checked this guy out,” Manikin said, “and we still don’t know who we’re working with. And now, because you gave him the thumbs-up, we’ve let him into our home. That makes me nervous. The Irish or American thing would fit with that accent of his—it’s subtle, but the way he rounds his ‘Rs’ is a giveaway. Nimmo … that’s a handle that could suggest lots of things. Could be from ‘pseudonym’—you know, like the false name a writer uses? Or from ‘nemo,’ which means ‘no one’ …”
“Or it could just behis name,” Scope said firmly. “D’you know what makesmenervous? A psychopath Oompa-Loompa with a bunker full of guys who think with their fists. We’ve got a job to do, and we’re on a deadline. How about we stop pokin’ around Nimmo’s underwear drawer and get back to work?”
The brother and sister regarded each other for a moment and nodded.
“You want what I’ve got so far on the girl?” FX asked.
“Save it until our lord and master returns,” Manikin replied. Her black hair was scraped back over her head and pulled into a tight ponytail. She pulled on a navy suit jacket over a white shirt and a gray skirt that stopped beneath the knees, and put on a small, stylish pair of rectangular spectacles. She had used make-up on her hands and face to give her skin a paler color, and even some freckles on her cheeks. Scope noticed her eyes were now blue. Tinted contact lenses.
“I’m going out,” she said.
“Nimmo said to stay here till he got back,” Scope reminded her.
“It can be our little secret,” Manikin told her. “Or you can tell him, if you like. Whatever. Move-Easy said they’d checked Brundle’s apartment, but I want to talk to his neighbors, see what I can find out.”
“OK, cool. I’ll go with you,” Scope said. “I’m not getting much here. I need to have a look at his lab.”
“No offense, Scope, but I want to keep this low key,” Manikin said. “You kind of stand out, y’know? Got a pretty distinctive look goin’ on there.”
“You might want to hold off on that anyway, sis,” FX said to her. “We’re not the only ones with eyes on Brundle’s daughter.”
“No? Who’s cuttin’ in on our dance, then?”
“Still trying to find out. But it could be official.” He opened a minimized window and pointed to a page of code. Scope only understood some of it, and Manikin even less. He ran his finger under some of the lines. “Her computer and MyFace page are loaded with spyware. Nimmo switched on her PC while he was in the flat, started downloading the contents of her hard drive. Naturally I did too. He got cut off before he could finish, but I was faster. The drive was riddled with worms. I had to be really careful to hide the fact that we’d both accessed it. And see this? That’s part of a Trojan horse—”
“You going to be getting to the point anytime today?” Manikin asked.
“What, you want the dummy’s guide, like usual?”
“Yeah, ’cos I don’t have time for a conversation withbloody Wikipedia. What’s the bottom line, short-arse?”
“Someone’s running an operation on her, and they’re professionals,” he said sourly. His sister rarely showed any appreciation for his skills. “Everything’s been hacked. Her computer, her phone, her mother’s phone, her MyFace page, her school’s server, her mother’s work computer. This is more than just dataveillance. I’d be surprised if there weren’t mikes and cameras in the flat too. This is no kludge—it’s high end. Some of this is definitely WatchWorld code—I mean, hackers rip that stuff off all the time, but it could be a covert unit.”
“OK, so the police could be eyeballing her too,” Scope muttered. “We need to get this finished before it starts getting too crowded.”
“Then the sooner I do my rounds the better,” Manikin added. “Scope, give me what you’ve got on Brundle’s work. Let’s see why his daughter’s suddenly so popular.”CHAPTER 13THE ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH OFFICER
MANIKIN WALKED WITH her back ramrod straight, her low heels clicking on the concrete of the path, a slim-line console tucked under her left arm. A large handbag swung from her right shoulder. When adopting a disguise she preferred to rely more on her ability to assume different character traits rather than make-up, wigs or prosthetics. When you were being surveilled by the WatchWorld cameras, the less that was fake about you, the better. Her posture and movement made her look several years older, as did her business-like style of dress. Right now, she looked every bit the regulation-quoting bureaucrat. Her obvious youth just made her appear more fearsome—a young fanatical believer in the system. One look at her would have convinced almost anyone that time spent in this young woman’s company would involve filling out forms.
She approached the building where Brundle had his laboratory, set on a grimy trench of a street lined with buildings whose windows were laid out in regular, Georgian, waffle-shaped fronts. She was surprised to see Punkin standing at a bus stop about fifty meters down the street. Manikin wondered how long it had taken for him to realize she’d stolen his wallet. Bunny was leaning against a litter bin a few meters away, staring at her phone and trying too hard to look casual.
Both Punkin and Bunny were wearing new piercings in their eyebrows. Manikin suspected the ball on each of those rings had a tiny video camera inside. It was Move-Easy’s favorite way of keeping tabs on his own people, though he didn’t normally bug his rat-runners. It looked like Punkin and Bunny were working for Easy now, but he was keeping them on a short leash.
There were also two men within sight that Manikin identified as being too attentively inattentive to what was going on around them, and both had face piercings. Move-Easy was clearly keeping a close eye on the lab.
Manikin walked past all of them without any sign that she had noticed them, and walked up to the front door of the tall, yellow-brick building. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted another figure—quite different from the others. It was dressed in a long gray coat, and was wearing a helmet she knew was equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance technology. The upright, dehumanized shape of the Safe-Guard stood on the corner of the street, taking it all in. Manikin felt small cool beads of sweat at her hairline, felt her pulse quicken slightly. Her disguise was geared to play on human nature, not to beat the technological tests of WatchWorld. If the asexual figure decided to stop her and question her, it wouldn’t need to check her identity card, which was a high-quality fake.
The Safe-Guard would be able to examine the contents of her pockets, see the fillings in her teeth and discover that her glasses did not have prescription lenses. Even with her colored contacts in, it might still be able to scan her irises; it could record and analyze her voice and look for identifiable signs of old injuries in her skeleton. And all simply by standing in front of her. She turned her attention back to the door of the building, checked the screen of her console, and pressed the second button in a column of buttons, buzzing the apartment directly below Brundle’s lab. A tetchy woman’s voice answered, and Manikin went to work:
“Is that Mrs. Caper? Mrs. Caper, I’m sorry to bother you. My name is Matty Bennell. I’m an Environmental Health Officer. I’m speaking to all of the residents in your building in connection with the death of Doctor Watson Brundle. I wonder if I might have a word? It’s very important and I’ll only take a few minutes of your time.”
Three minutes later, she was being ushered into an apartment on the fifth floor. Mrs. Caper was a weaselly woman with black eyes that suggested she knew she was a bit dim, that it was a source of constant frustration to her, but that she didn’t know what to do about it. Her hands were held poised perpetually in front her, as if she were drying her red nail varnish, or about to dip her hands in a sink. Looking at those inquisitive eyes, Manikin knew Mrs. Caper would use every minute of their time together to try and bleed her visitor of gossip on Brundle’s death. That was fine—gossips were a rich source of local information.
“I knew something waren’t right up there,” Mrs. Caper said, almost before Manikin was in the door. “I mind me own business, but that Brundle character was an odd sort.”
“Is that right?” Manikin raised her eyebrows. “How so?”
She was ushered into a living room that looked to have been furnished entirely from a budget flat-pack catalog. She sat down on a stained fabric-covered sofa, facing her host, who perched on the edge of a recliner.
“Comin’ an’ goin’ at all hours, he was,” Mrs. Caper said. “Only there was less of that over the last few months, since that kid moved in. The lad did some of his running around for him, so Brundle went out less. Here, what’s a health officer doin’ investigatin’ a death, then?”
“It’s a regulatory requirement, because of the circumstances of the death,” Manikin replied. “I’m not really at liberty to give out any details. I do need to know who was in contact with Doctor Brundle. Who was this boy? A friend of Brundle’s? A relative? Why was he living alone? Why wasn’t he in school?”
“Think he was a charity case,” Mrs. Caper said helpfully. “Just some kid. Think he was homeless before Brundle took him in. So, was our friendly neighborhood scientist doin’ some dodgy experiments then, eh? That why you’re here?” The woman gave Manikin an exaggerated conspiratorial look. “I can keep a secret. Was it summink dangerous? I saw in his door a couple of times, when I went up to tell ’im stuff—he had all sorts of stuff in there. Gadgets … tools …chemicals. I mind me own business, but he was up to some strangeness, I’ll be bound.”
“I’m not at liberty to say,” Manikin said again. “Tell me more about this young man. Did he have a name? Can you describe him to me?”
“Didn’t get his name. He didn’t talk much. He was about thirteen, fourteen, fifteen or sixteen or so, maybe a bit older. Normally wore a hat, but his hair was cut short. Not sure of the color. Average-looking. Not too tall, but not short either. He a suspect, is he? The police haven’t been around here yet, askin’ any questions. Brundle get his ticket punched, did he? Someone do him in?”
“It’s under investigation.” Manikin pretended to enter the anonymous kid’s details on her console, as if they might be helpful. “Was he pale or dark?”
“Pale. But not really white.”
“No, don’t know. Why’s this important?” Mrs. Caper was looking increasingly frustrated with her visitor’s refusal to share any scandal, twisting her mousy brown hair and narrowing her eyes. Manikin needed to ensure her cooperation.
“It’s very important that I learn who was in contact with Doctor Brundle in the days before he died. It’s the only way we can hope to trace the source of the contamin—” Manikin pulled herself up short and her expression turned to one of embarrassment.
“The source?” Mrs. Caper said. “The source of what?”
Manikin’s apparent embarrassment quickly worked itself into a state of distress. “I … I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. Nobody’s supposed to know.” She leaned forward, speaking in a lower, more urgent voice, vulnerability showing in her eyes. “If I tell you, do you promise to keep this to yourself? I’m … I’m still new in this job. I could get in terrible trouble.”
“It’ll be safe with me, love.”
Manikin shifted uncomfortably on the sofa, pausing for effect and to play on her host’s burning curiosity. She was very good at lying, but you had to choose the right time for it. Lies had a tendency to get out of control if not used with care.
“Doctor Brundle contracted an infection, and we believe it was this that killed him. We don’t know where he picked it up, but we don’t believe there is any immediate risk to the other residents in the building, as it can only be passed by direct contact—person to person.”
“What was it?” Mrs. Caper asked in a tone of morbid fascination. “That killed him, I mean. What was the infection?”
“FX syndrome,” Manikin whispered. “It gets up your nose and causes a rot in your brain. It’s commonly associated with people who work with keyboards and pick their noses. If you don’t catch it early, the damage is irreversible.”
“That sounds horrible.”
“It is,” Manikin assured her. “So you can see, we need to track down everyone Doctor Brundle has had contact with in the last few days. It’s the only way we can trace the source of the contamination, and find anybody else who might have it, before they can pass it on. I’d be particularly interested in finding this young man you mentioned. Is there anything else you can tell me about him?”
“No, not really. And the only other person I’ve seen up there is Brundle’s daughter. The one with the mark on her face. She’s in every few days. They get on well … I mean, theydidget on well, I suppose. She’ll be very upset at her dad’s death, God love ’er.”
“Yes, we have her details,” Manikin said. “There’s nobody else you can think of? It’s absolutely vital we speak to anyone who had recent contact with Doctor Brundle.”
“No, that’s the only ones I know about …” Mrs. Caper said, the disappointment obvious in her voice. She knew she was coming to the end of her usefulness, and therefore the end of the conversation. Her face brightened slightly. “Unless you count the muggers.”
“Well, Brundle was mugged a couple o’ weeks ago. I think that kid upstairs scared them off, but Brundle got a bit beat up—had his bag nicked. Shook ’im up, I reckon. He didn’t look verysickafter it, I ’ave to say. Moreangry. Heard him kickin’ stuff around his place a few times after that. He was a devil for gettin’ hisself worked up at the best of times—I mind me own business, but you know what these intense fellas are like. Anyway, this was worse. I reckon he could’ve done with a bit of counselin’.”
“I see.” Manikin pretended again to add these details to her console. “And do you know if he reported this incident to the police?”
“Nah, I doubt it. He weren’t a great fan of the police. In fact, I ’eard him rantin’ out in the hallway: ‘All these bloody cameras and we’re no bloody safer! Useless, intrusive shower of spying wazzocks are never around when you need them!’ Or summink like that. Anyway, I’m pretty sure the police never showed up here, although there was that peep— … that Safe-Guard what came ’ere. I can hear anyone who goes up the stairs here, and the elevator doesn’t work.”
“Well, that’s all very useful, Mrs. Caper,” Manikin said, getting to her feet. “Thank you very much for your assistance, and … and I’d really appreciate it if you could keep my little indiscretion to yourself.”
“It’s as safe as the bank,” Mrs. Caper assured her.
“I’m very grateful. Oh, would you happen to know when Doctor Brundle’s daughter was last here? We just want to confirm her movements.”
“That’d be last Friday night,” Mrs. Caper said. “She stayed over. Usually does when she’s been out on the town. I mind me own business, but there’s her, not even sixteen and she’s drinkin’ already. Daddy must be …must have been… a softer touch than her mum. She always stayed out late when she slept over here on a weekend. God love ’er, there’ll be no partyin’ for her for a while.”
After winding up her interview with Mrs. Caper, Manikin went on to talk to as many of Brundle’s other neighbors in the building as she could, but they had little to add to her picture of the scientist’s last days. When she emerged from the building, Move-Easy’s two apes were still visible—as were Punkin and Bunny, still in their same positions, still failing to look convincingly casual. She saw the Safe-Guard was also still on the street, standing in the same place. Manikin resisted the urge to look skywards, wondering what other surveillance had been placed on the area. There was no way of telling if the Safe-Guard was here to watch the building, or just on a random posting. Remembering what FX had said about Veronica Brundle being the subject of some kind of WatchWorld-style investigation, Manikin felt a quiver of nervousness. She and her brother had never dealt with that level of heat before.
She strode right past Punkin, confident that he wouldn’t recognize her and keen to test the effectiveness of her disguise. Turning the corner, she carried on down the street towards the nearest tube station. There was a WatchWorld display screen on the path, showing a group of teenagers having a melodramatic shouting match outside a chipper. It wasn’t the kind of thing that would normally have made the screens, but three of the girls obviously had implants. Their hair glowed in shimmering primary colors that changed every time they tossed their head. There was a lot of head-tossing going on. A figure stepped out from behind the screen, and Manikin’s heart missed a beat as a hand caught her arm and a voice asked:
“What are you doing here?”CHAPTER 14MUGGED
IT WAS NIMMO. Leading her to the doorway of a derelict shop, he didn’t look happy. But with a face like his, it was hard to tell. For all Manikin knew, that could have been his party face.
“I’m sorry, who are you?” she asked.
“Spare me the act,” he said. “It took me a minute to figure out who you were, but I did, so somebody else could too. I’ll ask you again: what are you doing here?”
She cast her eyes around, deciding this was a safe enough place to talk.
“I was talking to Brundle’s neighbors, digging up some information. You have a problem with that?”
“Move-Easy put me in charge. I don’t like it any more than you do—I prefer to work on my own—but that’s the way it is. I told you all to stay put.” He waved at her changed appearance, at the street around them. “This isn’t staying put.”
“Wow. Do you get paid extra for stating the obvious? No, I didn’t stay put. I’m getting on with the job. If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to get it done before my bloody hair turns gray. Move-Easy didn’t hire us to wait around.”
Nimmo stared hard at her. He dug his hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out a gray plastic disc smaller than a penny.
“Know what this is?”
She looked at it.
“It’s a bug. A microphone and transmitter. Short range, I’d say,” she replied.
“It’s aWatchWorldbug,” Nimmo muttered sternly. “I ran into a guy in Veronica’s apartment. I surprised him before he could get started, wrapped him up, but he was loaded with kit like this. Probably meant to put them in her clothes, shoes, her phone, everything. This is heavy-duty stuff—you can’t get this kind of kit in the underground, not that I’ve ever seen. I got a phone off him too, but it’s locked, so it’s not giving me anything. If the bill are monitoring Veronica, and they have a Safe-Guard hovering outside Brundle’s building, d’you think they might have eyeballs or ears on his neighbors?”
Manikin felt a tightness in her chest. What if they did? She’d walked right in there. Having got through several years of dodging the police, she might have planted herself right in their sights. They could have her face, her voice. She had been careful not to leave her fingerprints in the place, but it was very hard not to leave DNA without covering yourself from head to toe …
“I … I was just trying to—” she began.
“I know what you were trying to do,” he cut her off. “The same thing I was. And to be honest, I got lucky. I got in before they did. But the less we’re poking around without knowing the score, the better. And I don’t think I left any traces. What about you?”
“No—at least, I don’t think so,” she sighed. “But it’s a bloody murder case. If they’re looking hard enough …”
“It’s not a murder case,” Nimmo said, shaking his head. “They reckon Brundle’s death was accidental. Or they’re not treating it as suspicious, at least.”
Manikin felt a lift of relief. No crime meant it was less likely that there were cops hanging around. She hoped.
“How do you know that?”
“Friends in low places. Come on, let’s get back to your place—figure out what to do next.”
Manikin was about to nod in agreement when she frowned. “Hang on. What areyoudoing here?”
“Trying to get a view of our competition. Didn’t see anybody I’d connect with the guy I met in Veronica’s place, but I made two of Move-Easy’s drones and two I’ve seen before but don’t know: a guy with a bottle-bleach-job in a leather jacket at the bus stop and a redhead with a face like someone suckin’ a lemon.”
“Punkin and Bunny, yeah.” Manikin sniffed. “I don’t know what they’re doing here, but they’re not serious players.”
“Too small-time for the competition?”
“Time doesn’t get much smaller. But I’d steer clear of them. They’re just big enough to trip up everyone around them. See anything that might actually beuseful?”
“I saw you. I stopped lookin’ around then.”
“What, did I distract you?” she asked with the hint of a smile.
“I just thought you looked familiar, and I don’t know any Environmental Health Officers. So … what is ‘FX syndrome’ anyway?”
Manikin turned to stare at him, a look of thinly disguised fascination on her face.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I was just thinkin’ the same thing,” Punkin asked from behind them. They turned to find him standing at the corner, his face raised slightly, his eyes holding them with a suspicious gaze. Bunny was behind and to one side of him, resting her chin on his shoulder.
“You,” he said, nodding towards Manikin, “you, I know from somewhere, I just can’t place your face. And you”—he looked at Nimmo—“I don’t know who you are, but I’ve seen you in one of the Voids. Tubby Reach’s, maybe? You’re a player. And here you are, hanging around the edges of a big game. And this trollop was right in there, pokin’ her nose around, if I’m any judge. What you doing here?”
“Minding our own business,” Nimmo retorted. “You should try it.”
“Look at ’em, Punkin,” Bunny said in a whisper that everyone could hear. “They’re up to summink, I can feel it. Theyknowsummink. Nobody else has seen ’em yet. They’reours.This is good.”
Punkin nodded. He pointed towards a narrow alleyway that led off the side street they were standing in.
“OK, you two. Step into my office—we got some questions for you. Answer up quick and it’ll be easier all around.”
“Who are you?” Manikin asked, putting on an anxious expression, and gripping her console tightly to her. “Why would we walk into some alleyway just ’cos you say so? What’s going on here?”
Punkin sighed and held up his right hand. He twisted the silver ring on his thumb and from the back of his hand an eighteen-centimeter blade slid out of a sheath implanted beneath the skin of his forearm.
“Like Wolverine’s,” he said with a twisted grin. “Like it?”
“Wolverine hasthreeblades,” Nimmo pointed out. “On each hand.”
“I could only afford the one,” Punkin snapped, looking somewhat hurt and defensive. “I’m savin’ up for the rest. Now that I’m workin’ for Mister Easy, I’ll have ’em in no time. This is high-end kit—slides right in along the bone so it’s hard to see on x-ray. It’s sharp enough to shave with.”
“That’ll be well handy … once you’re old enough to shave,” Manikin observed. Then, determined to stay in character, she added: “Who’s Mister Easy?”
“Into the alley,” Punkin growled. “We can be polite, or we can get nasty. It’s up to you.”
Bunny’s hair was pinned up in a loose bun, and she reached up to draw the two pins out and shake her hair loose. Each steel pin was nearly sixteen centimeters long. The way she held them made it clear she knew how to use them as weapons.
“What did you think of Chelsea on Saturday?” Manikin asked quickly.
“What?” Punkin scowled.
Manikin looked pointedly past him, towards the main road at the end of the street. He glanced back and saw the Safe-Guard walking slowly past on the far side of the main road. Bunny gave a soft gasp.
“Don’t fancy their chances in the semi-final, with their form,” Nimmo commented.
With its highly sensitive mikes, the Safe-Guard could hear what they were saying, but it wasn’t looking their way … yet.
“You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” Punkin said, hurriedly holding his knife down against his leg. “Chelsea are going all the way. They’ll take the Champions League this year.”
“In your dreams!” Manikin scoffed. “That bunch of hairdressers haven’t got a straight foot between them. They were lucky against Spurs—they’d have been trounced by a full-strength side.”
“You a Spurs fan?”
“Arsenal, till the day I die.”
“Poor choice of words,” Punkin sneered, casting his eyes back to check that the peeper had carried on down the street. He raised his knife again. “All right. Down the alley, and let’s have a chat. I want to know what you’re doin’ here. And if we’re not happy with the answers, Bunny here’s gonna start givin’ you the needle, you get me?”
Bunny brandished her stiletto-like pins with a disturbingly eager expression. Nimmo’s eyes met Manikin’s, and a silent signal of agreement passed between them.
“I’m done waitin’,” Punkin said through gritted teeth.
Nimmo shook his head and turned into the alley. Manikin followed. Punkin and Bunny followed them. They followed too closely.
Nimmo stopped abruptly. Punkin put his left hand on Nimmo’s shoulder and brandished the knife, to remind him of the threat. Nimmo scraped his foot down Punkin’s left shin, slamming it down onto the top of the Punkin’s foot. He deflected the knife strike he knew was coming, caught the hand and bent the wrist in hard against the forearm, forcing a cry of pain out of Punkin. Then he drove Punkin’s blade into the wooden door beside him. Punkin tried to pull it free, but it was stuck. With the heel of his right hand, Nimmo struck Punkin on the elbow to jam the blade in a bit more, then a couple of times in the ribs, knocking the wind out of him.
Bunny let out a squeal of outrage, turning on Nimmo with the steel spikes. Manikin pulled a plastic and steel rod from the edge of her console and jammed the tip of it into Bunny’s side. There was a crackle, Bunny’s body went rigid, and then she collapsed back against the wall, dropping the pins.
“What was that?” Nimmo asked, as he pushed Punkin back into the same wall.
“One of my brother’s little numbers,” Manikin said, holding it up. “A shock-stick—gives you an electric jolt. You only get a few shots, but it’s not bad for what it is.” She looked down at Bunny. “Handy for prodding cattle too.”
He was about to respond when she put a finger to her lips, slipped the rod back into place in her console, and sat down beside Bunny. She straightened Bunny’s head up, and held up her console as if to show the stunned girl something on the screen. Nimmo glanced towards the main road and saw the Safe-Guard was walking past on the far side of the street. It was looking straight ahead, but if it turned, it could see right down into the alley. Punkin still had his blade jammed in the door, and Nimmo leaned back against the wall beside him to make it less obvious, blocking Punkin’s contorted face from view. Putting Punkin’s other wrist in a painful arm lock, he aimed his own gaze at Manikin’s console, pretending to show Punkin what was on the screen—just four friends discussing a picture or a piece of video. As the peeper passed by, it looked briefly in their direction, but then carried on down the road.
“Time to go,” Nimmo said softly.
“Bloody right,” Manikin murmured.
Standing up, she faced Punkin, who was still struggling to get his breath back.
“These two reesed us the other day. It was his left foot you stood on, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Nimmo said, as he released the wristlock that held Punkin in place.
Punkin squealed in pain as Manikin stamped on his right foot with her low, but sharp, heel.
“That’s for packing guns on a job, you monkey,” she snapped, knowing Easy was watching through the camera hidden in Punkin’s eyebrow piercing. “And for the caterpillar. You reesed the wrong chickens, wide-boy. This is the second time you’ve crossed me. Try it a third time and I’ll feed you youreyeballs,you got me, you wazzock?”
Turning to Nimmo, she straightened her jacket and patted her hair down.
“Now,” she said. “Shall we?”CHAPTER 15HAZARDOUS MATERIALS
WHEN MANIKIN AND Nimmo got back to the warehouse on Brill Alley, they found Scope vacuuming the floor under the desks of the Hide, and FX making cries of protest.
“Stop!” he shouted over the noise of the vacuum cleaner. “There could be important stuff down there!”
“Then why would it belying around on thefloor?” Scope sniped back, as she pushed the head of the nozzle in among the mass of wires and plug sockets.
“That’s just where stuff falls sometimes. Normally there’s no rush picking it up—it’s not going anywhere!”
“This place is a like a cattle shed! How can you live like this?”
“You’re talking about my home!”
“I’m talking about a bloody health hazard!”
“Will you pleasestop cleaning up!”
Manikin walked into the room, took one look around, and walked back out again. Nimmo hovered for a little longer, waiting to catch Scope’s eye. But she was too engrossed in her domestic mission. He blew his cheeks out and pulled his bag from his back. Looking at one of the printers, he saw that FX had printed out Move-Easy’s files on Veronica. Picking them up, he turned his back on the drama and followed Manikin towards the kitchen. She already had the kettle on. He dropped his bag beside the door, where he could keep his eyes on it.
“FX’ll need coffee after that trauma,” she quipped. “But then, he always needs coffee.”
“He seems a bit put out all right,” Nimmo commented, studying the files. “Scope’s a little OC—but it kind of comes with her job. Nothing here about what Brundle was working on. I didn’t find anything in the apartment either. If Veronica was involved in any way, I didn’t find any sign of it.”
“And I presume you didn’t find the case?”
“Hmm?” Nimmo looked up at her.
“The case? The box we’re supposed to be looking for?” Manikin pressed him, as she spooned coffee into two mugs, then remembered her visitors, and added another two mugs. “You didn’t find the case, I take it? You seem to be really interested in Brundle and his work and what happened to him. But it’s a pretty simple job we’ve got here—find the case, and get paid. We don’t need to know what Brundle worked on, or who killed him. We just have to find that box. You want coffee?”
“No, thanks. Just a glass of water. I like looking at the bigger picture. We’re messing in something that’s more than just Move-Easy. Whoever these other guys are, they’re serious. And whether they’re players or coppers, we could get out of our depth before we know it, just by looking for a box that somebody else wants.”
He was reading a page of Veronica’s medical records. She’d had laser surgery to treat the port-wine birthmark that covered part of her face. Nimmo’s eyes opened a fraction wider as he studied the before and after photos. The birthmark she had now was still disfiguring, but the surgery had reduced the original mark by nearly half. The file said the doctors had serious doubts of Veronica’s birthmark ever being completely removed without the risk of serious scarring. And the mark would most likely get worse from here on in, thickening, darkening and possibly developing lumps as she aged. Nimmo could only imagine what kind of effect it must be having on her.
Now that he thought about it, he remembered Brundle mentioning something about research he’d once done on repairing scar tissue. Something to do with connecting nerve endings—or disconnecting them. Nimmo wished now that he’d paid more attention.
“One of the neighbors mentioned the guy who lived on the same floor as Brundle,” Manikin told him. “They confirmed what Easy told us: that he was the one who discovered the body. I didn’t get a name, but the neighbors think he was dodgy. They reckon he did some work for Brundle, but nobody knew much about him. He hasn’t been seen since Brundle died. That’s pretty interesting.”
Nimmo said nothing for a moment. If they found out Chuck U. Farley’s name, they’d find a picture, and then he’d have to start answering some awkward questions. But there was nothing he could do about that now.
“We can check him out, but the daughter’s still our best bet,” he muttered. “We need to get into her life—see what she knows.”
“She goes clubbing on a Friday night,” Manikin said. “Or at least she did, when she could crash at her dad’s. I could get in with her that way. And she’s underage, which means she uses a fake ID. Makes her vulnerable. We can use that. Now we just have to find out where she likes to hit the tiles.”
“Club Vega,” FX spoke up from behind them. They looked around to see him standing in the door, a bundle of discs, paper manuals and electrical bits and pieces cradled protectively in his arms. “Didn’t even have to hack it. It’s up on her MyFace page. She thinks that only her friends can see it, but, like most people, she’s got her privacy settings cocked up. It’s up there for anyone to see. Even got pictures from her nights out. If her mother ever saw them, she’d be grounded, like, for ever. She’d be grounded into the afterlife. Girl’s a messy drunk. Vega is her favorite hang-out. No surprise, really—the typical bouncer there wouldn’t know a fake ID if someone drew it on his face with a crayon. She’s going there tomorrow night.”
“That’s our way in,” Manikin said, cupping her hands around the hot mug of coffee. “Veronica’s about to make a new friend.”
“I’m delighted for her,” Scope said, appearing behind FX with a dustpan and brush in her hand. “Nimmo, can you get me into Brundle’s lab? I need to see his work first-hand—I’m getting nowhere here. And I need to get out of this slob’s space before I catch foot-and-mouth disease or something. I found a bloody laundry basket in behind an old set of speakers. The stuff hadmoldon it. I need to see Brundle’s lab, Nimmo. It’s either that or I set fire to this place to prevent an epidemic like the world has never seen.”
“I’ve told you about the goddamned laundry,” Manikin gasped as she handed her brother a mug of coffee and walked out of the door. “She’s right, you’re a pissin’ slob. Come on and show me these pics of the girl—let’s see what she’s into.”
“There is one thing I found in the apartment,” Nimmo said abruptly. “She’s into books. Dodgy ones. There’s a stash of pirate editions of recalled books:AClockwork Orange,Catch 22,One Flew Over theCuckoo’s Nest.She even hasFahrenheit 451sitting out on a shelf in her room. I don’t know if the mother’s involved, and the books could be for personal use, or the pair of them could be dealing.”
He didn’t say anything more. As the WatchWorld motto went: “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear”—but everyone had something to hide. The possession of these kinds of pirate books wasn’t a criminal offense, but it was the kind of behavior that could attract a Life Audit—the kind of investigation and surveillance of every aspect of your life that everyone dreaded. And nobody wanted all their secrets dug up; nobody lived a perfect life.
The other three were looking at each other. Nimmo saw a wariness on their faces. The expression a person wore when they had discovered dirt on someone, and were weighing up whether to use it or not.
“If that’s as serious as she’s got, she’s just dabbling in the game,” FX said, flicking his eyes towards his sister. “But if Move-Easy finds out, that’s a bad habit he could blackmail her with. That’s how he gets a hold on people.”
“And once he’s got his claws in her, he’d drag her into his world,” Manikin sniffed. “That’s how he got us. We thought he was doing us a favor, when we needed help. We did a job for him, and then he had us. He pulls you in, and twists it so that you’re always in debt to him, you’re always working it off. Let him get a piece of you, and you’re a criminal for life.”
Scope nodded, her eyes trained on the floor.
“My family lives in a Void,” she said in a subdued voice. “But they’re not hardcore criminals—they just want to stay out of the way of WatchWorld. They’re pretty organized, but just a bunch of new-age hippies, really, who make their living from selling art. I was home-schooled by my parents and my gran, before she died. Science was more my thing, and Gran used to work in forensics, so she taught me a lot about that side of it.
“What we never knew was that my gran also worked forMove-Easy. He could’ve taken over our Void, but he left us alone because she helped his men fool the police forensics teams. Gran also used to fake evidence to put his rivals in prison, or collected real evidence against anybody he wanted to control. Move-Easy has dirt on coppers, judges, WatchWorld officials, but especially other criminals. He’s a master blackmailer—that’s how he’s stayed out of prison so long.
“A few years ago, my gran died. A couple of days after her funeral, some of Move-Easy’s apes showed up. Without Gran working for them, we were going to have to pay protection money. If we didn’t pay, they’d burn the place down. We weren’t criminals—we were terrified of these guys. They knew we wouldn’t go to the police. Right then, my folks knew Easy was going to bleed them dry of all the money they had. I was too big for my boots. I wanted to help.
“I spotted that two of the trolls had contact lenses with fake irises covering their eyes, and like the good girl I was, I explained the flaws in the lenses. Not ones my gran would’ve made. I told them how to make the irises look more real. Shouldn’t have opened my mouth. They checked up on me. Found out some of the stuff I’d done. They picked me up one night, and got me to examine some counterfeit money they’d printed. I found the flaws in that too—I mean, the foil wasn’t even woven through the paper properly. After that, Move-Easy decided I was going to be working for him. As long as I do, he leaves my family alone. When Dad tried to argue, they broke his arm.
“I’m so far in now, I can’t see a way out. I don’t want this to happen to anybody else.” She gazed at Manikin. “You’re right. Give that scumbag any kind of hold on you, and he’ll have you for life.”
“So we’re all agreed?” FX asked, looking pointedly at Nimmo. “We don’t tell Easy about the book thing?”
Nimmo nodded, glad of their decision. And as he did, he wondered if he should just tell Manikin and FX about his connection to Brundle, that he had the case, and that the scientist’s death had most certainly not been accidental. As it was, he was going to have to let Scope in on it. But in his short life, Nimmo had trusted very few people, and half of those were dead or in prison. He had stayed alive and free by keeping his secrets, so he stayed silent now.
“Good,” Manikin said. “Come on, bro’, show me what you’ve got on Veronica. Time to get into character. By tomorrow night, I want to be the best friend she’s never met.”
“What about getting into Brundle’s lab?” Scope asked.
“Let’s see how we do at the club. There’s a lot of eyes on the lab,” Nimmo said. He took the phone and bugs from his bag, the ones he’d taken from the other intruder in Veronica’s flat. Handing them to FX, he said: “I picked these up from one of our competitors. See what you can find out, will you?”
“How the hell did you get these?” FX said, staring at the objects he took from Nimmo.
“I hid in a wardrobe with a can of deodorant,” Nimmo replied. “Get what you can out of them, soon as you can, yeah?”
FX glanced at his sister, who was pretending not to be intrigued. She peered discreetly over her brother’s shoulder, following him as he hurried out of the room towards his workshop.
Nimmo checked to make sure the pair were walking away down the corridor, then he reached down for his backpack, opened the top, and handed Scope a plastic bag containing a bundle of other plastic bags.
“Here’s that stuff from that thing I was telling you about. I’ll talk you through them,” he said. He chewed his lip and cast another look at the kitchen door. “Look … I need to be straight with you here, Scope. This murder I’m looking into? It’s Brundle’s. I knew him. I was the guy who lived on his floor. Apart from his killer, I was the last person to see him alive. I found the body. I reported the death to the police. I’d be the main suspect in their investigation, only they’ve decided that his death was accidental. Which it wasn’t—I heard him die.”
“Holy sh—” Scope began to say.
“I really need younotto tell all this to the others—at least until I get to know them better,” Nimmo pleaded. “I’m up to my teeth in this mess, Scope, but I can’t let the coppers brush this death under the carpet. Something’s badly wrong with all this. I need your help.”
“Bloody hell, Nimmo,” she said in a hushed tone, looking down at the package in her hand. “I mean …bloody hell.”
“How about it?” he urged her for an answer. “I know I’m asking a lot, but …”
He shrugged, unable to give her a good enough reason to help him. She met his eyes and smiled faintly. There were times when Scope struck Nimmo as being too innocent for this game—but then, when she gave him a look like she did now, he saw the piercing intelligence that gave her that curiosity, and that ability to interpret the smallest details so as to make sense of the world around her.
“You’ve got the case, haven’t you?” she said.
“Yeah,” he replied.CHAPTER 16THE KING OF THE GETTERS
MOVE-EASY’S WAS only one of many Voids in London. And while he ran the most powerful organization, it was Tubby Reach you went to if you needed what couldn’t be got. Reach was the biggest and best getter in London. But like Move-Easy, he was very particular about security. Nimmo was one of very few people outside Reach’s inner circle who could enter the Void without an escort, as the King of the Getters had known him since he was a baby.
One of the entrances into Reach’s Void was through a door marked ‘Staff Only’ in a pedestrian tunnel in Victoria Station. This door was not watched by a camera, but you had to be careful to only use this door when the tunnel was crowded with commuters making their way from the Underground to the main line station.
Mingling with the normal morning crowds on their normal way to their normal jobs, Nimmo opened the door and slipped through as the press of bodies hurried past him. He walked down a steel staircase into a narrow utility tunnel, to another door, flanked by a bank of metal compartments housing electrical breaker switches. Instead of going through this door, Nimmo stopped in front of it and whistled the first few bars of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.”
The bank of aluminum lockers slid aside to reveal a hidden doorway, and a very large Asian man with careful eyes ushered the boy inside. Nimmo made his way along the bare concrete corridor, past several different, discreetly situated scanning devices.
Two more locked doors were opened to him, and he found himself in an ante-chamber that resembled the waiting room of a wealthy doctor, complete with nondescript classical music, modern art prints on the wallpapered walls, and an inoffensive range of reading material on the large coffee table that sat between the two rows of antique cushioned chairs. A closed pair of elevator doors was set into the wall to his right. Half a dozen people of widely varying appearance sat waiting for an audience with Tubby Reach.
There was another door on the far side, this one a teak paneled affair, rather than a heavy-duty steel slab. Entrance through this door was controlled by a lean black guy in a plum-colored designer suit. He sported an impressive Afro and a pair of sunglasses, which looked somewhat incongruous, given that he was several stories underground. A tall, sporty- looking girl was talking at him. She had an Irish accent and hair the color of a stop sign. She was trying to talk her way past the doorman, but wasn’t having much success.
“But I have an appointment!” she pressed him. “My name’s on the list: Caragh Boland. Check the list!”
“He’ll see you in good time, Ms. Boland,” the doorman replied in a tone that was polite but firm. “In good time. But you’ve got to wait your turn. Everyone here needs to see Mister Reach, but he’s a busy man.” “But I’ve got those books he wants! He’s still in the market, isn’t he?” “He is—and he’ll get to you eventually. But for now, you need to sit down and wait your turn like everybody else.”
Nimmo walked up to them, nodding to the doorman, who nodded back and opened the door for him.
“What? Who the hell was that?” the girl protested, as Nimmo stepped through. “How come he gets in so easy?”
“That’s nobody you need to worry about,” the doorman assured her as he closed the door again. “Nobody at all.”
Nimmo found himself in a hallway that led to a room which could have been the members’ area in a high-class nightclub. It was broken into different levels, linked by wide steel and glass staircases, with low, multi-colored lighting around the edges of the space, the odd area picked out by spots. There were comfortable leather seating areas, an array of screens, and a well-stocked bar. The only things that jarred with this club image were the state-of-the-art computer gear occupying one corner of the room, and the enormous, semi-circular office desk that dominated one of the highest platforms. The desk curved around the tremendous girth of the man with the slick businessman’s haircut and carefully manicured nails, who owned the Void. Tubby Reach roared a greeting and waved Nimmo up.
“Nimmo, my boy,” the massively obese Asian man wheezed in the accent of an Indian who has learned his English from the Cockneys. Slow of speech, but quick of mind, and wise to the ways of London, Reach kept himself surrounded by family, and believed in good hospitality. “You’re just in time for some of Mum’s nahiri. Be ready any minute. She does the beef so tender, it’ll crumble in your mouth.”
“Thanks, Tub,” Nimmo replied. “But it’s seven o’clock in the morning. Bit early for dinner.”
Tubby Reach raised his eyebrows in surprise, rotating his bulbous head towards one of his brothers, who stood to one side. The man—almost as large, but built of muscle instead of fat—nodded to confirm the early hour. Like Move-Easy, Reach was wary of going above ground, although he did venture out on special occasions. Much of his legwork was done by his brothers.
The youngest, and by far the most dangerous, of those brothers stood to one side of his desk, shoulders, chest and arms bulging inside a black rugby shirt. His eyes were hidden by a pair of sunglasses, his close-cut hair and goatee framed a bulldog face. His name was Gort, and he handled much of Reach’s security, and did a lot of the debt collecting. The rings on his fingers were not just for decoration; they were the controls for the implants that were set beneath Gort’s skin, all over his body. These implants provided him with a range of abilities, from making subtle changes to his skin color to being able to extend needles from his fingertips.
They were extremely useful, but Nimmo knew they were also a liability. Illegal implants were one of the biggest parts of Reach’s business, and even though Gort’s would be the most advanced on the market, they could still be detected by Safe-Guards. So they could attract an awful lot of unwanted attention. The circuitry in those rings was like flying a flag. Nimmo also knew that Reach and Gort had on-going arguments about the risk of that kind of attention. Deep down, Gort wanted to be famous—a celebrity gangster. Reach wanted nothing of the kind.
“Sorry, boy,” Reach said to Nimmo, shrugging his wide, sloping shoulders. “We been pullin’ an all- nighter. Lost track o’ time. One of our implant clinics was knocked over last night, and we’re tryin’ to track down who did it. Got a lot of peepers on our turf too, pokin’ around. Havin’ to step lively.”
Nimmo came up the steps, taking an envelope from his jacket pocket. He handed it to Reach, who nodded his acknowledgement, and then dropped it into a drawer of his desk without giving it a second look.
“How they doing?” Nimmo asked.
“About the same.” Reach made a so-so face. “Your money helps, of course, but your mum’s finding it tough. Handling it like a veteran con though—you’d never guess this was the first time she’s been locked up. The worst thing for your dad is that he’s always worrying someone’ll find out his missus was once a copper. Now that he’s settled in a while, he’s got a couple of rackets going, as you’d expect, but he’s missin’ her like crazy.”
“Shouldn’t have got caught then, should he?” Nimmo sniffed.
“Look, Nimmo, given your …background, a bit of cynicism is understandable,” Reach cautioned him. “But you should show more respect. They did what they did to keep you safe. Don’t forget that.”
As if I could, Nimmo thought sourly, thinking of the money he had just handed over. Money that went towards keeping his parents alive and unhurt.
Eighteen years before, his father had pulled off one of the most famous heists in history. He’d been a target for half the world’s police forces ever since, including that of his native France. Quite a few of the world’s mobsters wanted a piece of him too. An undercover operation run by the Gardaí in Ireland had finally tracked him down—but the woman who’d led it ended up falling in love with him, and helping him escape.
Twelve years later, they’d been living under new identities in Britain, with their young son. Then they were caught on another job, betrayed by those they were working with. Their true identities were still unknown, but the prisons that held them were no less secure despite this. They’d managed to keep Nimmo’s existence a secret, but that meant they could never have direct contact with him. He’d been on his own in the world ever since.
“So how you been?” Reach asked in a softer voice.
“Things’ve been getting a bit complicated lately,” Nimmo told him.
“Never a good thing, in your line,” Reach grunted. “Somethin’ I can do?”
“Know this guy?” Nimmo said, taking out his camera and showing Reach the photos of the intruder from Veronica’s apartment—the man’s face and his tattoo.
“Name’s Krieger—Frank Krieger,” Reach rumbled. “A thief, mainly, and a hustler—a bloody good one. Does a bit of violence too. A real hard case. Steer clear of that one, Nimmo. You take this while he was asleep or something?”
“Something like that,” Nimmo told him. “He’s done time, right? That’s a prison tattoo. Any way he could work for WatchWorld?”
Reach raised his eyebrows slowly and then lowered them in a frown.
“Nah, no way. They wouldn’t touch him. They don’t hire ex-cons. Why do you ask?”
“I was wondering how he could have got this then,” Nimmo said, handing over the WatchWorld identity card he’d found on Krieger. “I think it could be real.”
On the surface, the card was a simple design: Krieger’s photo and real name were on it, along with a serial number and the WatchWorld logo—the hands encircling the eye. But the real ID information lay within the slim piece of plastic. A radio frequency ID chip would carry every relevant fact about Krieger’s life, along with an encrypted identification signal that would give him access to WatchWorld facilities. Tubby Reach looked at it in bemusement, and then began rooting around in another drawer. He took out several chocolate bars, some bags of tortilla chips, an antique revolver and a hairbrush.
When he failed to find what he was looking for, Gort leaned over and pointed at another drawer. Reach waved him away with a snort of annoyance, but then opened the drawer and found a handheld RFID scanner. He held the card up to it and peered at the screen. Then he gave a low whistle, handing the card to his brother for him to see. Gort eyed it through his sunglasses, one of his implants providing him with a heads-up display of the card’s contents on the lenses.
“A Level Three clearance,” Reach said with an impressed wheeze. “I ain’t seen one o’ those in a while. It’s real, all right. Or as good as real. Don’t know nobody who’s managed to forge one of those, but there’s not a snowflake’s chance in hell the law’d give one to Krieger.”
“What can it be used for?” Nimmo asked.
“Get you into any public buildings, police stations, most of the WatchWorld facilities. You could get access to any of their surveillance installations. You could tap into the WatchWorld feed anywhere in the country.”
Nimmo considered this for a moment. A professional criminal with the resources of WatchWorld at his fingertips.
“Krieger couldn’t have set this up on his own.” Reach interrupted the boy’s thoughts as if he’d read them, taking the card back from his brother and passing it to Nimmo. “He’s just a tool for a job on this level. This is way out of his league. Man, even I couldn’t get you one of these passes—at least, not one that’s made for you. A stolen one? No problem. A high-grade copy? Yeah, sure. I could even get you a blank one. But a personalized card with all the right ID stuff on it? No, man.”
He gazed at the card in Nimmo’s hand, and shook his head.
“I don’t know what you’re into, Nimmo. But you’re up against someone with power—and if they’re usin’ the likes of Krieger, they’re not playin’ by any rules. You won’t do no prison time for messin’ with these—they’ll just rub you out if you get in their way. You wanna get back beneath the radar. Low profile, my boy. Your mum and dad taught you how to work in this world—they’d tell you to read the writin’ on the wall on this one, Nimmo. Walk away. I don’t want to see you come to no violent end.”
Nimmo didn’t say anything at first. He was staring at the card in his right hand. He thought about the surveillance that would be closing around Veronica Brundle’s life, about the ten blank credit cards that were supposed to be in her father’s box, and Nimmo remembered her father’s body, lying dead on the floor of his lab.
“Thanks for the concern, Tub,” he said. “But I’m in this one till I’m done.”
“Yeah, you had that look in your eye,” Reach sighed, then his voice took on a harder edge. “I know better than to try and change your mind. Chip off the old blocks, intcha? Well, I’m here if you want help … to a point. Don’t go makin’ any more enemies than you can handle. And you know, you start mixin’ it at this level, boy, you can’t trustno one.”
A hint of bitterness crossed Nimmo’s face, but then it was gone.
“I never have,” he murmured.CHAPTER 17CAUGHT ON VIDEO
FX SAT IN the Hide that Friday morning, watching a video on one of his screens. A window on the screen beside it was scrolling down through hundreds of lines of code. It represented a program of his, looking for weaknesses in a firewall protecting a distant hard drive he wanted access to. On the desk to one side of him sat the phone that Nimmo had given him. The phone that the other boy had somehow taken from one of their ‘competitors.’ FX was not worried that the phone could be traced to this location, as could be done with any mobile phone nowadays. Nimmo had removed the battery when he took it, and once the door of the Hide was closed, no signals could get in or out unless FX wanted them to.
The owner of the phone had used the PIN number to lock it. It was a simple but very effective means of stopping anybody else from using it, or examining the content of the phone. Five wrong tries at inputting the number—there were ten thousand possible options—and the security settings would erase the content of the phone, making it useless to FX. There were ways around most security systems, but this one would either be really tricky, or really time-consuming.
According to Manikin, Nimmo had taken the phone from a man in Veronica’s apartment. FX had decided to use that information. Most of the millions of surveillance cameras in London did not actually belong to WatchWorld—they were just privately owned eyeballs that fed into the wider network. So their security wasn’t always the best. FX had cracked the Barbican’s surveillance system a couple of weeks before, blinding the cameras so Move-Easy’s men could do some job in there. He wondered now if it had had something to do with Veronica Brundle. But it meant that getting back in again didn’t take long.
Once he had access to the camera feed, he was able to find the video file that showed Nimmo entering the flat, carefully hiding his face and disguising the way he walked. Minutes later, a man appeared in the corridor, wearing a security guard’s uniform. He too opened the door and went inside. A few minutes after that, Nimmo came out again, still keeping his face turned away from the camera, and walking off.
FX made a copy of these video segments for himself, then corrupted the files on the Barbican’s system. He found the cameras that had picked out the fake security guard and tracked the man backwards, to where he had first entered the complex of buildings. The man did not use his phone while he was in the Barbican.
A quick hack into the network of a small department store across the road, and the camera over their front door showed the man getting out of the passenger seat of a white Ford Transit van which had just pulled up to the curb. FX saved a picture of the van. From this angle, he could just make out the driver, and he froze the video and saved a blown-up copy of the pic to record the man’s face. He would run both men’s faces through his face recognition software and check them off against every database he could find to try and identify them.
The van drove off, and the fake security guard took out his phone, tapped the PIN number into its keypad, and made a phone call. FX couldn’t make out the number from this viewpoint, but he saw there was a business supplies shop on the far side of the street with a camera that had a view over the man’s shoulder. FX took note of the time of day on the video file. It took a few minutes for him to find that shop’s network, not much longer to crack it, then another minute or two to find the video file from their front door camera for the same time of day. Having found it, he watched the fake security guard tap the numbers “1972” into his phone.
“And that’s a wrap, people!” FX said with a smile. He kissed the screen, and then picked up the stolen phone and tapped in the number to unlock it. “I love it when a plan comes together. Now let’s see where that van came from …”
Scope had set up a makeshift lab in a disused room in the old warehouse. Lamenting the poor working conditions, she cleaned it out as well as she could given the time constraints. Making sure that FX was fully engrossed in his digital world, she sat down at a scrubbed steel table to examine the contents of the plastic bags Nimmo had given her.
This was how she preferred it. Scope did like people—she found them fascinating. But they were also frustratingly irrational, emotional and prone to acting on impulse, rather than thinking things through. Especially in social situations. For Scope, it was a constant source of exasperation: what was the point in having higher brain functions if you continued to allow yourself to be governed by animal urges?
It was one of the reasons she liked Nimmo. If he was driven by animal instincts, it was difficult to tell, as he let so little of himself show. He seemed calm and deliberate in everything he did. He had thoughtfully labeled each of the small zip-lock bags of evidence: “Clothes Fibers,” “Hair,” “Under Fingernails,” etc. At first glance, it didn’t look like there was much to go on, though one of the bags of scrapings from Brundle’s fingernails contained what looked like a tiny black seed. If he had snagged that off his attacker’s clothing, it might provide some clue to their identity. There were some other hairs and particles that she thought could provide some useful information too. There was a faint smile on her face as she studied the tiny pieces of evidence.
Scope couldn’t deny the pleasure she felt to be finally living up to her gran’s hopes, analyzing the forensic traces of a crime, rather than faking them, as she did so often for Move-Easy.
There was also a data key with photographs on it. She had her console with her, and she linked the key in and looked through the photos. Scope clucked her tongue in disappointment at the poor resolution and lighting, but then resigned herself to making the best of what she had. It was a disturbing experience, seeing the body of a dead man—one whose life they were so busy sifting through in such fine detail.
Watson Brundle had died with his eyes half open. There was an expression of surrender on his face as he lay on his front, his head turned to one side. His left hand was under his neck, almost as if he had been lying his head on it; his right was stretched out towards the door. The only tell-tale sign that might hint at a cause of death was a slight bluish tint around the skin of his lips. There didn’t appear to be any defensive wounds on the hands, no bruises or signs that Brundle had been in a fight with anybody. From what Nimmo had told her, Brundle hadn’t been surprised by his attacker, but if it had been a professional assassin, they could easily have struck him down before he had time to react.
As well as the pictures of the body, Nimmo had also taken rather rushed photos of the lab, particularly the area around the corpse. They weren’t enough to see anything in detail, but at least they gave her an idea of how the scene had looked. Something on the worktable next to Brundle’s body caught her eye, and she put on her glasses and held the picture up to her one good eye. Lying on the table top, between a small toolbox and a large hard-backed notebook, was a packet of hazelnuts.
“Hm,” she said quietly.
The way his hand was at his throat like that—could Brundle have just choked to death? Or maybe he’d had an allergic reaction to the nuts? Could he have been allergic to nuts without knowing it? Unlikely, but maybe Nimmo was wrong. Had he imagined a dramatic fight where there had been none? If Brundle had suffered a severe allergic reaction, he might have thrashed around as his windpipe closed up, effectively cutting off his oxygen. It would explain the blue-tinted skin around his mouth.
Scope shook her head. Nimmo must have seen the nuts, and would have commented on them if
Brundle had a known allergy. That got her thinking about Brundle’s work again. There had been so little for her to go on. The man had published no articles in the past couple of years, and next to nothing had been written about him by other people. But from what she’d read, he had been obsessed with various procedures that repaired scar tissue.
According to Nimmo, Brundle was using some kind of micro-technology in his work, possibly RFIDs—radio frequency ID tags; the tiny transmitter chips that had replaced barcodes. But what was he using them for? Even the photos of his lab didn’t offer any answers. Scope had no doubt that part of his motive was to help rid his daughter of that disfiguring birthmark.
She picked up the folder of documents that she and FX had compiled on Brundle. One of the sheets listed his employment history. His last proper job had been with Axis Health Solutions. Pharmaceutical companies were notoriously secretive, and Axis was no exception; their research files were stored on a very secure database. Keeping valuable new research out of the hands of corporate spies was a serious problem in the drugs business. FX hadn’t managed to dig Brundle’s file out yet—or he hadn’t bothered.
Scope gazed down at the page, pinching her lip between finger and thumb. Axis was one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of bio-tech implants—devices that could be installed into a human body. Devices that could be designed to perform any one of a huge range of functions. On impulse, she got up and went and found FX. He was still in the Hide, transfixed by his screens. It took a few moments for him to notice her, even after she opened the door.
“Hi … yeah?” He blinked, as if rousing himself from sleep. “What’s up?”
There was a wet ring from his coffee mug on the desk beside him, and he surreptitiously wiped it away with his sleeve. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
“Axis Health Solutions,” she said to him. “I think we need to know what Brundle was doing there. Not just his job, I mean, but what he was specifically working on. It might give us an idea of what he’s been up to since then.”
“That was, like,yearsago,” FX said to her. “How’s it going to help us find the box? Look, I’m snowed under here. I’ll get to it later, OK?”
Scope felt herself tense up with impatience, frustrated by his response. She had to remind herself that, unlike her, he was just trying to find the case, not solve Brundle’s murder. Even so, it irritated her that FX wouldn’t take her suggestion seriously. It went against her nature to ignore an avenue of investigation when it presented itself. She had thought that, like her, FX was afflicted by an obsessive curiosity.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” he declared, reaching behind him for a few sheets of paper lying in the tray of a printer. “I pulled down the coroner’s report on Brundle. Nothing mysterious after all. Cause of death was asphyxiation. Daft sod choked to death on a hazelnut.”
“I thought it was really tricky to hack the WatchWorld system?” Scope asked, feeling slightly dismayed that her work had been done for her.
“Yeah, but the health service’s database is like a bloody bus station. I got it off there.”
Scope was positively disappointed—she had been looking forward to figuring this out herself. Taking the pages from him, she read through the description of the autopsy quickly, a frown materializing on her face.
“Not exactly what you’d call thorough,” she murmured. “From the looks of this, he swallowed a whole hazelnut in one go. Who does that? I mean, they didn’t even check his teeth to see if he’d tried to chew it. I don’t think they even looked for another possible cause of death.”
“Maybe they reckoned thenut stuck down his throatwas a pretty solid bet,” FX retorted.
“I’ve seen Nimmo knock someone out once, without leaving a mark,” Scope persisted. “It’s the kind of thing Coda could do too—anybody well trained in martial arts. Then it’d just be a matter of shoving a hazelnut down their throat and leaving them to choke on it. That’d be just the kind of thing Coda would do.”
“Except Move-Easy obviously wanted something from Brundle and he still doesn’t have it. It’d make no sense for Coda to kill him … though I suppose someone could have … Anyway, none of this is helping us. Time to move on to more box-shaped matters, I say.”
Scope wasn’t quite ready to agree with him. As far as she was concerned, the autopsy report had prompted more questions than answers. She was reading over it again as she headed back out of the door. Brundle’s medical history was there too. Frowning, she checked the autopsy photos, then looked again at the medical file. There was something here that was strange—something you wouldn’t notice unless you compared the two files. Stopping as she stepped out of the room, she swiveled back to look at FX, who had returned his attention to the screens in front of him.
“Brundle had an appendectomy when he was twenty-four.”
“Yeah?” FX murmured.
“The operation left scars.”
“Yeah, well it would, wouldn’t it?”
“So look at these photos. There were no scars on the torso.”
FX glanced over, shrugged, then turned back to his screen.
“Maybe they’re poor quality photos. Keyhole surgery’s really good now—they can do it with really small cuts. So what?”
“No, the photos are fine,” Scope said, looking more carefully. “And according to the file, the appendectomy was botched—they had to go in twice. He ended up with four different scars. The coroner’s description of the corpse doesn’t mention the marks either. And he goes to the bother of mentioning vaccination scars…this is odd.”
FX was sitting up straighter now. He tilted his head to look at the photos that Scope was holding up to him.
“Let’s say Brundle was looking for a way to remove scar tissue,” she went on, “without surgery. Nimmo reckons he was experimenting with implants. Somehow, he figures out how to regrow skin using some kind of micro-technology. Say that’s what all the fuss was about. What if he decided to test it on himself, and managed to completely remove his appendectomy scars? Somehow he figured out how toprogramthe growth of new skin without leaving a blemish. What do you think the pharmaceutical companies would do to get hold of something like that? I mean, that’d have to be worth millions, right?”
FX had a slightly winded expression on his face.
“Billions,” he said softly. “Worldwide? Billions of pounds…or euros, or dollars, or whatever. That kind of thing would be like the Holy Grail for the medical industry. It’d be worth a bloody fortune.” That was when the two rat-runners realized just how much trouble they could be in. They knew too many people who would kill for that kind of money—kill without a second thought. And there had to be any number of powerful organizations who’d do the same to get their hands on such a piece of technology. Even Move-Easy could be out of his depth.
“No wonder Brundle was scared,” Scope sniffed.
“Ah, balls,” FX sighed. “OK, I’m just trying to track down this guy, Frank Krieger, that Nimmo ran into. I’ll check out Axis after that, all right? What are you up to?”
“Going back through Brundle’s file, seeing if there’s anything we missed,” she lied. “I could really do with checking out his lab. Anyway, I’m going to get back to it.”
“Awrighty,” FX chirped, turning back to his screens again. “I’ll be right here.” He thought about the kind of money that could be at stake, and the kinds of people they could be up against. He stood up, hitching up his loose-waisted combats. “Actually, I have to go to the toilet. But I’ll be back here eventually.”
Scope left him to his business and headed back to her makeshift lab. Picking up the little bags of evidence, she began looking at them one by one. She desperately wanted to be back in her own lab, with all her equipment. This was a puzzle she’d have fun solving. She cast a self-conscious glance down at the photos of the dead man on her screen. Perhaps ‘fun’ might be the wrong word.CHAPTER 18VAPOR
FX STOOD ON the seventh-floor balcony of a derelict apartment building, looking down at the alleyway below, where the white van was turning a corner and disappearing from sight. Scope stood to his right, leaning her arms on the railing. It was nearly noon and the sun made hard sharp shapes of the shadows between the buildings. Across from the two rat-runners, on the other side of the alley, was a newly refurbished five-story office block whose near side was still encased in scaffolding. The scaffolding was wrapped in plastic, as it was being used by a sandblasting team who were cleaning the outside of the building.
“That’s gotta be it,” Scope said.
“What’s the stuff called again?” FX asked.
“Garnet,” she replied. “It’s often used to replace silica sand in sandblasting operations. Fewer health risks for the guys using it. But it still makes a mess. Even with the plastic sheeting, bits of it are going to get everywhere. This has got to be the place.”
FX nodded. He was still disappointed that he hadn’t solved this himself, but there was no denying that she’d cracked it when he couldn’t.
The phone Nimmo had taken from Frank Krieger had divulged only three phone numbers. There were no names listed. FX had found the service providers for all three numbers, and pulled the records. The positions of the phones had only been recorded intermittently across London—obviously these guys were careful, and pulled the batteries when they didn’t want to make calls. But all three phones had been used in this part of the city a number of times, on the Greenwich docks, not far from the Blackwall Tunnel. That was as close as he could get to finding a specific location. When he had hacked into the city’s camera network—the privately owned ones, not the WatchWorld installations—he had been able to follow the van carrying Krieger and his partner back to this area, but then they had disappeared. That had beendamnedodd, until FX discovered that camera feeds had been interfered with. There was a hacker working ahead of him, covering the tracks of the van. Any footage showing the van once it entered Greenwich had been edited out. FX found that a little bit scary. Impressive, but scary. These guys werereallygood.
Scope had found him sitting at his desk, staring at the phone. He had entertained such high hopes that it would provide answers. Instead, all he had were more questions. It was Scope who had thought to examine the phone itself. She had discovered a distinctive kind of dust in the grooves and buttons. Just looking at the phone, the stuff had been barely detectable to the human eye, but once wiped off and enlarged under the microscope, she had been able to identify it.
“Garnet,” FX said softly.
Alluvial garnet grains were used for sandblasting the exteriors of buildings, removing the stains left by pollution. FX had checked the street cameras. There was only one building in that area undergoing sandblasting. As luck would have it, they had arrived just in time to see Krieger and his partner driving away down the alley in their van.
“So what now?” Scope asked.
“We take a closer look,” FX responded.
“Carefully. Really, really carefully.”
“What about Nimmo and Manikin? This is more their bag, don’t you think? Want to call them in?”
Scope shook her head. She was tired of being stuck inside all the time.
“Right,” FX said tightly. “Then let’s go.”
Manikin and Nimmo had both been out when Scope had made her discovery, so she and FX had taken this bit of reconnaissance upon themselves. Following the rat-runs through the city, they had found their way here to this condemned apartment block overlooking their target. From the sides of the building that had no scaffolding, they could see that the windows of the first three floors were barred, but the floors above were less secure. FX was confident he could get in on the fourth floor. A two-and-a-half-meter-high hoarding surrounded the base of the scaffold, the top half of the boards coated with greasy red anti-climb paint. He and Scope would have to get over those boards to reach the scaffold. There was no easy way of grabbing hold of the scaffolding bars, since they were covered by the taut plastic sheeting. The plastic was filthy, nearly impossible to see through, but there was a rip in the sheeting at the level of the second floor, above the hoarding. It was small, but big enough for an agile twelve- or thirteen-year-old to push through.
The alley was about seven or eight meters wide, lined with the rear entrances of a row of cafés and other small businesses. Outside those doors were wheelie bins, and it was bin day. FX had checked.
“Here it comes,” Scope muttered.
A garbage truck was slowly making its way down the alley, the bin men pulling two wheelie bins out at a time, hooking them onto the arms on the back of the truck. From there, they were lifted up and their contents emptied into the clanking vehicle. The two rat-runners turned and bounded through the broken window behind them into a kitchen that had long ago been gutted of its cupboards and appliances, then into the corridor beyond and down ten flights of stairs. They had found the room that suited their needs earlier. It didn’t have a balcony, but one of the large windows was unlocked and could be opened right out. The garbage truck was almost beneath them as they reached it.
“Ladies first,” Scope exclaimed, hopping onto the windowsill.
She poked her head out, gauged the distance, judging it to be about two meters. Checking to see that neither of the bin men were looking up, she leaped out onto the roof of the passing truck. The sound of her feet hitting the steel roof was drowned out by the noise of the hydraulic arms dumping two more bins into the truck’s innards. FX followed a moment later. The next jump would be harder. The torn hole in the plastic sheeting was just out of reach, so they’d have to jump up as well as out.
“My turn,” FX told her.
The truck set off just as he stood up to make his move. It was a bigger leap—nearly two and a half meters—and he was jerked sideways as he jumped. He thrust his hands through the hole, dropping them to catch the ledger—the horizontal bar running behind the sheeting. In one motion, he lunged up and through the gap, his body and small backpack just fitting without getting caught in the dust-covered plastic. He tucked into a roll, expecting to land on the boards that should have formed a floor beyond the ledger…but found himself falling into thin air instead. It was only his grip on the bar with his right hand that kept him from hitting the ground seven meters below. With a gasp, he got his other hand up to the bar, his feet dangling until he could brace them against the vertical bars known as standards.
Scope had been even more rushed in her jump, and there was shouting as she was spotted by the bin men. Like FX, she came headfirst through the rip in the plastic, but unlike him, she let go of the ledger before she realized there was no floor. She let out a panicked cry, her hands flailing, and FX just managed to catch her wrist as she fell past him. Her hand closed around his wrist in reflex, and his arm was nearly wrenched from its socket as he stopped her fall. She swung over onto the ledger below him, letting go of his hand, and hung there, breathing hard.
“Thanks,” she panted.
“Don’t mention it.”
There were boards further along at FX’s level, and Scope climbed up to join him as he scrambled over to them.
“Bloody vermin!” one of the bin men called from below. “You’ll get yourselves killed, you fools! Why aren’t you in school?”
But the garbage collectors left it at that. They saw plenty of rat-runners on their rounds, and knew they were the kind of trouble that was best ignored.
There was dust everywhere inside the scaffolding frame, the boards and plastic covered in it, spoiling the look of the freshly scoured walls. FX rubbed his hands; the palms were grazed from the rough, dried splashes of cement that coated the steel bars. There were ladders up through the scaffolding to the fourth floor, where the windows weren’t barred. He and Scope scaled the ladders in no time, and on the fourth-floor boards, FX found a window he knew he could open.
Double-glazing was extremely difficult to break; it was easier to lever out the frame. Neither FX nor Scope carried a crowbar, however; a good way of inviting the attention of the police was to have a Safe-Guard spot one in your bag—it was hard to hide a steel bar from someone with x-ray vision. Using a crowbar also took a lot of strength, more than most teenage kids could normally bring to bear, and it could be noisy too. But FX had another way.
Fire services used a piece of hydraulic equipment called a ‘spreader,’ for prizing the pieces of a crashed car apart to get people out. The pincers could crush or spread metal with huge force. FX had made a much smaller, simpler version using a woodwork clamp. He kept it broken down to its component parts, so that it would be less obvious what it was. Some of those parts could also be used for other things.
Scope watched with interest as he quickly put it together and jammed the flat ends of the pincers in under the window frame. In his bag, he had a builder’s sensor for finding electrical wires in walls. Looking through the glass into the space inside, he examined the frame with his eyes and then with the sensor for any sign of wiring for a burglar alarm, but didn’t see anything. Then he slid a long screwdriver through the hole at the top of the screw to act as a lever.
“Couldn’t you just use a glass cutter to make a hole in the window pane?” she asked.
“You mean with a suction cup, like in the films?” he snorted. “Try it. You can make a nice neat circle OK, but you can’t pull the bleedin’ thing out.”
Gripping the screwdriver at either end with both hands, he twisted the clamp’s screw and the frame was forced open a few millimeters at a time. After several turns, they heard a crack. Together, they got their fingers in under the frame and pulled hard. The latch finally broke completely and the window swung open.
They climbed inside and found themselves in what would probably end up as some kind of storeroom. There was no door in the doorway, so they moved on out into an office space, and beyond that to a corridor. It seemed that none of the rooms had been fitted with doors yet.
“That should make looking around a bit easier,” Scope whispered.
FX nodded, and they set off down the corridor, peering into each room in turn. They weren’t certain what they looking for, but were sure they’d know it if they found it.
“This could take ages,” Scope said, after they’d checked out a number of rooms. “Let’s think this through. If you were going to get up to something dodgy in an empty building, where would you do it?”
“Depends what I was doing,” FX replied. “But probably where I’m least likely to be seen or heard—some room with no windows, or with the windows covered, either on the top floor or the basement. And if I’m using computer gear, I’d want to be as far from the sandblasters as possible. Probably the basement, but let’s say we start at the top and work down?”
She agreed. The elevators were working, but using them would be stupid, so they crept up the stairwell that joined the floors at one end of the building. There were doors sectioning off the stairwell from the corridor on each floor. At the fifth floor, Scope was about to push through the door into the corridor when FX stopped her. He peered through the small square of glass in the door, then ducked his head back.
“PIR sensor,” he muttered. “And it’s working. They’re not very good at seeing through glass, so I don’t think I triggered it, but there’s no getting in that way. Not without a bit more preparation.”
“There weren’t any on the floor we came in on,” Scope pointed out. “So what makes this floor so important?”
“Looking at the layout of this place, I’d say most of the rooms have windows,” FX suggested. “Maybe these guys have been sloppy, and left some uncovered. Why don’t we go up to the roof and find out?”
The only building directly overlooking the office block was the derelict building they had just come from, and all the other buildings nearby were lower, so the chances of being spotted were slim. FX assured Scope that there were no satellites overhead at that time of day—he had a piece of software that tracked their movements and sent updates to his phone—though he couldn’t be sure about spotter planes or drones. They’d have to take the chance. A door in the corridor led to another that opened onto a flight of stairs that took them up to the flat, painted concrete rooftop. Around them, metal boxes for vents and air-conditioning units formed aluminum islands in the cream-colored concrete.
“How are we going to look in the windows?” Scope asked, wishing she’d brought her keyhole camera.
But FX had the next best thing. Taking a roll of stiff cable from his bag, he unwound it and attached one end to a small digital camera using a clamp he had designed himself. As with his improvised spreader, the pieces looked innocent enough, but it was how he put them together that made their use suspicious.
“Let’s start with the side opposite the scaffolding,” he said. “See what we can see.”
“Right. Don’t be too obvious, OK?”
He switched the camera to video, then plugged the other end into a small tablet. Nothing came up on the screen. He checked the camera was on, then tapped the screen of the tablet. Scope watched him tap it again. She sighed, putting a hand to her face.
“Bugger,” he said. “Tablet’s on. We should have the view from the camera. There must be a short in the cable. And the wireless doesn’t work on this camera.”
“We’re supposed to be professionals here!” Scope said sharply. “Don’t youtestyour gear before you use it on a job? I thought you were meant to be some hotshot brainiac?”
“The cable worked fine last time I used it!” FX protested. “There must be a kink in it … a broken connection somewhere.”
“What—in the wire, or in yourbrain?”
“If we didn’t have to keep our phones off here, we could—”
“Yeah, but we do, don’t we?” Scope cut him off. “Come on, let’s go downstairs and see if we can—”
FX held up his hand.
“Look, wait…I can just set it to record, lower it down, then pull it up every few meters and check out what it’s picked up.”
“We’re not filminghamsters in their burrowhere, FX. Given the psycho hit men we could be dealing with, I’d feel better if we weren’t using kit that looks like it was made onBlue Peter!”
But when it came down to it, Scope didn’t have any better ideas, so she gave up and waved him on. He lowered the camera over the side of the building, until it was hanging just below the top of the fifth-floor window, where it could film what was inside. The cable was rigid enough for him to be able to keep the camera pointed in the right direction, though the breeze caused it to sway from side to side slightly.
There was nothing for Scope to do for the next few minutes. She walked to another corner of the building and looked down. With a grunt of interest, she went back over to FX and tapped his arm.
“There’s a window open around this side.”
FX wound his cable back up and looked at what he had recorded as they crossed the roof to the other end. The rooms he had filmed were empty. Reaching the parapet, he slowly and carefully lowered the phone again, paying out the cable until the camera was just below the top of the open window.
“Give it a minute or two,” Scope said to him. “No more. We’re pushing our luck as it is.”
FX nodded and looked at his watch. After a minute and a half had passed, he raised the camera up and stopped it recording, switching it to play. They both gazed at the screen.
The room that came shakily into view was unlike any of the others they had seen. The camera had been hanging out in the daylight, looking into a darker room, so the light in the picture wasn’t great. They could see tables set around the walls of the room, laid out with portable computer gear. Scope and FX both let out low whistles as they took in the laptops, servers and other pieces of hardware, impressed with what looked like top-end gear. A foldable satellite dish lay on one table, beside a bank of monitors, a selection of cameras and a bunch of other pieces of equipment they couldn’t identify.
“See that?” FX murmured, pointing at a gun-shaped object with a dish at the end of the short barrel. “Think that’s a long-range parabolic mike.”
Scope nodded—she’d recognized it. It was a microphone that could pick up sounds from hundreds of meters away. There were wardrobe-sized metal cabinets in the room too. One stood open to show an array of assorted objects mounted on racks, ranging from an umbrella to a pair of boots, a rolled-up newspaper to a briefcase.
“Not sure what to make of those,” FX grunted.
But in her time in Move-Easy’s Void, Scope had seen most of these objects used in another context. Seeing them all together like this suggested only one thing to her.
“Weapons,” she said. “I think they’re all fitted with concealed weapons.”
Then the camera’s speaker, which up to now had just emitted the papery roar of wind across its mike, gave the hint of another sound. A voice. A man came into view, walking in through a doorway, speaking on a phone. He was a muscular, stocky man with long blond hair tied back in ponytail. He wore jeans and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the old death metal band, Absent Conscience, on it. His face was still in shadow, but he had rectangular, black plastic-framed glasses, and the stylized horror tattoos on his arms confirmed his death metal obsession. FX and Scope huddled around the camera’s tiny speaker to try and hear what he was saying.
“… that’s not whut he sayd,” Death Metal’s voice could just be heard saying over the sound of the wind. His accent was either Scottish or Northern Irish, it was hard to tell. The sound was being broken up by the interference on the mike: “He never sayd shedidn’t have it. He just … wuzn’tin hor apartment.Whut? I don’t know … ask him, why don’t yeh? Huh? … moan all yeh like. Vapor paid this numpty, and he wants … give a damn about the cards. We do this … whut I mean? Performance-related bonus an’ all tha t… got tae be worth a hundred gra— … Brundle didn’t come cheap … wants his stuff, and he duzn’t—”
At that point, the man’s face turned towards the camera. There was still a shadow over his face, but they could feel his eyes staring straight out of the screen, seeming to fix FX and Scope in his gaze. He had spotted the camera. He froze and stopped speaking. Then he spun around and ran for the door.
“Jesus,” FX swore, looking up.
They were watching a recording. Death Metal had run from the room nearly a minute before. Which was how he managed to beright there now, just three meters away from them on the roof…with a bloody great hunting knife in his hand.
Scope dived and rolled, coming to her feet behind him as he lunged forward. The knife came at FX, but he stepped to the side and whipped the cable at the man’s face. It only distracted the man for an instant, but it was enough time for FX to duck under his swinging arm and start running along by the parapet. Scope was just ahead of him, looking back just once to make sure he was with her. FX detached the little camera from the cable and slipped it into his jacket pocket. He heard heavy feet accelerating along the roof behind him.
Scope reached the side of the building covered in scaffolding—the scaffolding that was entirely encased in tough plastic sheeting. There was no easy way in. She turned and jumped onto the parapet, running full tilt along it, pulling her small multi-tool from her pocket and unfolding the blade. Aiming for one of the open spaces of plastic, free of steel bars, she leaped forward onto it, skidding along it on her backside. She dug the blade in as she slid, cutting a long gash through it behind her. FX was right on her heels, and with one bound, jumped over the parapet and punched feet-first straight down through the hole, tearing it wide open. Scope was now sitting with her feet over the side of the slippery sheeting, and rolled backwards before she could lose her tenuous grip.
Death Metal had switched his sights from FX to her, and now he was up on the parapet above her as she came up against it. He made to grab her, and she dragged the nails of her left hand down his arm, drawing blood. He snarled, but it hardly slowed him down at all. She scrambled back out onto the plastic, and turned to look at him. Death Metal was glaring down at her, his eyes warily judging the strength of the sheeting, unwilling to put his greater weight on it. It probably wouldn’t even holdherfor long if she wasn’t spreading her weight by staying on her hands and knees.
“Don’t be stupid,” he said in a reasonable voice, motioning her towards him with his empty hand. “You could fall, kill yorself. I’m not going tae hort yeh—I just want tae ask yeh a few questions.”
“The feeling’s mutual,” she replied in a shaky voice, holding up the fingers she’d used to scratch him. “But you’ve got a much bigger knife. And I’ve got everything I need right here.”
Then she plunged headfirst down through the rent in the plastic. She had a grip on a transom—one of the cross-bars across the top—as she tumbled through, and controlled her fall to touch down neatly on the boards below. As her eyes found FX, she jumped towards him, seeing what he was about to do. Death Metal and his huge knife came crashing down through the plastic, landing heavily on the boards where she had been standing a moment earlier. Then FX yanked one of the boards from the other end, dislodging it. The cement-covered plank fell from under the guy, who lost his footing and let out a shout as he fell, one leg dangling down through the gap.
Scope and FX slid down the ladder to the next level, but then had to dive aside as a grunt of effort and a rain of dust from above made them look up. FX gasped as dust got in his eyes, but he was already out of the way of a second heavy board as it clattered down. Scope had to throw herself forward and, rolling over, she looked up again to see their pursuer drop straight down through the wider gap in the floor above. Death Metal let out a snort of satisfaction as he landed beside FX, stamping on the boy’s left calf hard enough to make him cry out. Probably just a dead leg—but FX wouldn’t be running anywhere for the next few minutes. Scope was standing under another gap in the boards above her, and she jumped, just as the hunting knife slammed into the boards where her foot had been a moment before. Like a monkey, she scampered up one of the poles hugging the wall of the building, ending up back on the level above, where they’d started.
“Come on dine, sweetheart,” Death Metal called. “I don’t hurt kids as a rule, but it’ll go bad for your friend if you don’t get yer arse dine here right nye.”
Scope closed her eyes for a couple of seconds, trying to get control over her breathing. Damn this bloody dust—she was covered in it, and it was causing havoc with her lungs. But she couldn’t slow down now. She crouched down, unzipping the pockets on either side of her jacket. There was an inhaler in each pocket—a blue one in the right, and a brown one in the left. Looking down through the cracks between the stout bare planks, she could see him watching her. She would only be a dark shape against the light, but it was enough for him to follow her.
“Come on nye,” he said in a softer, more confident voice. “Yer breathin’ don’t sound too good, love. Asthmatic, are we? You need to get out of here, before it gets any worse.”
Scope coughed, and exaggerated the sound of her wheezing as she shook both inhalers. Taking a blast of the blue one, she held her breath, slipping that one back into her pocket.
“All right,” she said, coughing again. “Don’t hurt him. I’m coming down, OK? I’m coming down.”
Checking his position through the cracks between the planks, she jammed her right foot between a board and the ledger. Then she swung the top half of her body down through the gap and sprayed Death Metal in the face with her brown inhaler. This one was highly pressurized—it wasn’t designed to ease one’s breathing.
Death Metal staggered back from the blast of the aerosol, rubbing his eyes and gagging. He drew in a huge breath and let out an almighty sneeze, and then another. The force of the sneezes caused him to bend forward. Scope pulled herself up, released her foot, grabbed hold of the transom and swung like a gymnast, bringing her whole body feet-first down and under the bar, and slamming the soles of her trainers into the top of Death Metal’s head. He cried out and tumbled backwards.
FX was already on his feet, rubbing his eyes, but he could only limp towards the ladder that led down to the next floor. Scope let him go ahead of her, then slid down the ladder after him. Above them, they could hear Death Metal sneezing helplessly, cursing and groaning as he struggled to breathe, or even open his eyes. FX let out a grunt as he jumped off the ladder, taking some weight on his bruised leg.
“What the hell was in that thing you hit him with?” he asked.
“Pepper, some Indian Unani powder, a little ammonia and a few other things,” she replied. “A little potion I mixed up for this kind of thing. Keeps the lads at bay back in Move-Easy’s.”
They descended another ladder and strode along the boards to the hole in the plastic where they’d first come in, on the second floor. This was the section of scaffold without any boards; there should have been a ladder here, but it was missing. They dangled off the transom and were about to drop down to the first floor, when they heard a clatter from above. A sneeze turned into a high-pitched shriek, and they both let out yelps as Death Metal fell past them, hitting the ground below.
“Gaaaaaargh! Jesus Christ, me leg! Aaaargh! Jesus, I’ve broken me leg! Jesus!” he bellowed, and then started sneezing again, letting out roars of pain whenever he could draw breath, each violent blast of breath causing a spasm of agony in his broken leg, which caused more cries, and more sneezing.
The door in the tall wooden hoarding was locked, and they didn’t want to climb down past Death Metal anyway. As Scope cut a hole in the wall of plastic sheeting at their level, FX found a length of rope, tied one end to a standard and tossed the other end out of the hole.
“Ladies first,” he said.
Scope lowered herself out and abseiled carefully down past the greasy anti-climb paint on the hoarding. FX followed her down. His leg was loosening up, but he was still limping a little as they set off down the alley at a fast walk. They were breathing hard, shivering with a mixture of relief and adrenaline.
“So you hit him with sneezing powder?” FX asked, feeling restless, needing to talk.
“Yeah, but a pretty high-powered dose of it.” She smirked, cocking her head as she listened to Death Metal letting rip, swearing and screaming behind them. “He’ll calm down a bit in a few minutes, but he’ll be sneezing for days.”
“Cool!” FX laughed. “I’d have used tear gas myself. Or turned the bloody thing into a flame-thrower.”
“The guys who were bullying me in Easy’s?” Scope said, as she took a little zip-lock plastic bag from her pocket. “Most of ’em were too thick to be afraid of being hurt. I had to come up with a way of humiliating them—making the others laugh.”
FX watched as she tore a toothpick out of a packet and used it to clean the blood from under the nails of her left hand—the blood and skin she’d scraped from Death Metal’s arm.
“Move-Easy keeps files on every criminal his people ever come across,” she explained to him. “He’s got his own automated system for analyzing DNA, and a huge DNA database. For him, it’s all ammunition he can use against them. I can even get Tanker to pipe me into the police database if I need to. This guy’s DNA has to be on record somewhere. Give me a day or two, and I’ll find out who he is.”
“I’ll race you,” FX challenged her. “We’ve already got his voice recorded. Even that should be enough.”
“Right,” she said. “But what we really need now is hisemployer. Who isVapor?”
After walking a few blocks, they both put their batteries back in their phones and turned them on. Scope’s beeped immediately with a message. It was from Tanker. It wasn’t good news.CHAPTER 19FOLLOWING