Martin Clark

"Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain."
J. K. Rowling

I paused in the act of lifting my cup and looked around. It was a generic Coffee Cabana franchise, but with no hint as to location, apart being Eastern Standard Time. I was white, male, late-thirties, reasonably fit. All-in-all a close match to the real me.

Body-renting is big business, but don't believe the hype about how it's only possible by consensus. Given sufficient signal strength anyone in range of a broadcast tower is up for grabs, and that makes for the ultimate in meat-puppet prostitution. So the next time you go out in some hired flesh, looking for sex, drugs and violence with no physical after-effects, remember that organised crime made America what it is today.

The Feds were all over us like a rash, so for this meeting we were using three pirated bodies in a random location, with only the Scharlach family AI knowing the 'who' and 'where'. It was a huge step up from traditional virtual conferencing, but even the Mafia can move with the times.

There was a big guy sitting at a side table; late middle-age, overweight, florid - like a slow-motion heart attack. He saw me looking and ran three fingers down the lapel of his sports jacket, the middle one tucked under the cloth. I took my cup and saucer and went over, trying to ignore the unfamiliar gait. The trick is to de-focus and let instinct do the walking, otherwise you end up second-guessing your temporary feet. I sat down across the table from him without being asked.

He grunted. "That best be you in there, Frank, 'cos if you're just some fag making a move on me, there's gonna' be trouble." It was Louie Anders all right; a relic, an old-school enforcer from way back. These days he needed a stand-in body for wet-work, but there was nobody better in the business with an ice pick.

"Don't get your panties in a twist, man, it's me all right." I tried for a simper but my new muscles could only manage a grimace. "Anyway, you're not my type."

"Screw you." Louie lifted his glass, tasted it, and pulled a face. "This coffee is cold."

"That's an iced mocha, Louie, it's supposed to be cold. Ever considered updating your taste buds to something approaching this century?"

"I like what I like. Anyway, where's that Joe-boy of yours? I thought the pair of you were joined at the hip?"

I scoped the room but came up zero, and it wasn't like Vince to be a no-show. The only person heading our way was a young woman; a slim brunette with good legs and bad teeth, little more than a teenager. She'd left two confused-looking girlfriends in the queue and that, plus her obvious difficulty walking in high-heels, made me cringe - I just knew what was coming next.

The girl stopped at our table. "Uh, Mister D, it's me, Vince."

Louie laughed. I pushed out a chair. "Sit down for Christ's sake. Jesus, Vince, next time remember to check the 'maintain gender' option, huh?" Vince took a seat, tugging at the hem of her short skirt. I turned back to Louie. "OK, so what's your beef with Little Tony?"

He rubbed his nose. "The prick wants me dead, that's what. He's put out a contract worth fifty large, no come-back guaranteed."

I stared at him, aghast. "Dead? Jesus, Louie, but you're a capo. Look, don't take this the wrong way, but is there any reason the boss would want you whacked?"

"You remember Brandi? Big Tony's squeeze at the time he croaked?"

"Vegas showgirl? Bottle-blonde with a real mouth on her?"

"Yeah, that's the broad. Well, after the funeral, Little Tony came on strong, like she was something else he'd inherited. Brandi tells him where to go, tells him she don't have to screw the Scharlach family no more, tells him that Big Tony has left her set for life."

I winced. Little Tony was touchy, what some might call insecure. He'd always struggled to escape his father's shadow and being told you're not good enough by a goomah wasn't going to sit well. "Things got ugly?"

"You could say that. He beat her to death with a desk lamp, with me right there in the room." Louie swirled the ice cubes in his glass. "I got rid of the body, so as far as the world knows she just packed her bags and blew town."

Vince opened her mouth, thought better of it, and looked at me. I nodded and she continued. "Mister Anders, you got a rep for leaving no loose ends, so how come something went wrong?"

Louie half-smiled at the complement. "Yeah, well, if I'd handled the entire package we wouldn't be sitting here today, and that's a fact. But Little Tony, he wanted to use his own capo for the clean-up."

I sighed. "Longmire? Shit, that guy couldn't find his own ass using both hands. But that was like three years ago, just after we moved to See-See. What makes you a target now? I ain't heard nothing."

"Two days ago Longmire got squeezed by the Feds. He gave up me and Little Tony for the murder."

"Bastard. Is he still breathing?"

"Hell, no. The rat got shivved while they were moving him to a Federal lock-up."

"Then all they got is circumstantial at best. So why is Little Tony gunning for you? I mean, he can't seriously believe you'd ever sell him out?"

Louie's eyes went hard. Well, harder than usual. "You'd think that, wouldn't you? But, no, apparently the Feds been telling him how all the old-school guys like me think he's weak, unfit to head the family. Apparently I'm gonna' screw Little Tony and take up fishing in Oregon, or some similar bullshit. I figure the cops got no chance of an indictment over Brandi, but they're ready to nail the boss with conspiracy and incitement to murder once someone takes me out."

I pushed my coffee cup away and sat back. "Doesn't anyone listen to me? I mean, it's not like we didn't know they were taking an interest. The whole reason we moved out here was that the Feds don't have a field office in Centennial City. They were bound to run their investigation out of the Sheriff's Department, and I had that place in my pocket long before the first black SUV pulled up outside. Look, I can turn everything they've stored on computer - every scanned document, every mpeg wiretap, every digital photograph - into so much encrypted gibberish. And that includes their off-site backup."

The family looked to me, a college graduate, to handle the technical side of things. That included our misappropriated JCN Series Five core intelligence - one that had been recalled for displaying signs of a nascent personality. 'Jason' was ex-military and had adapted well to a life of organised crime, not being bound by the Turing Code. So much so he'd become our on-line consigliere, monitoring everything we did.

Louie grunted. "Maybe I'd be impressed if I understood half of what you just said, but what about their files? You know, the old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness paper trail? You might be able to screw with that high-tech shit, but I'm betting they can still read."

I grinned. "They put everything into the secure Evidence room overnight and at weekends. The Sergeant who works graveyard is a real skirt-chaser and I got one of my girls leading him around by his dick. The guy is willing to re-label the works as destined for secure disposal, meaning Sunday night incineration and pouf…" I made like I was blowing dust from my hand,"…goodbye Feds, it's been nice knowing ya."

"So what you been waiting for, hot-shot? Why ain't you dropped the hammer before now?"

"What I've been waiting for is them to dig up everything they can against us, so I can wipe it out in one go. We now know who's been talking, we now know where we've been sloppy. Once we deep-six the existing investigation and clean up our act, the Feds will have nothing on us when they start over."

Louie nodded slowly, like he was chewing things over inside. "OK, without Longmire's testimony what they got left is thin, I get that, but what if the boss don't see it that way? The little prick would rather stick to a bad decision than change his mind, in case it makes him look weak. Anyway, once word gets out about the contract then one of us has to go." He tried to crack his knuckles but the new hands didn't play ball. He glared at them, then at me. "OK, Frank, when you get down to it, are you gonna' help me get out from under?"

Instead of replying directly I spoke to my Joe-boy. "The family are into drugs, prostitution, gambling, murder-for-hire - every human vice you can think of. But just because we work in the gutter that doesn't mean we live there. Honour, loyalty, mutual respect, they keep us human, they keep us from turning into garbage. Louie and me go way back - I was his Joe-boy when he was just a made man under Big Tony. As a capo he sponsored me and I'll do the same for you some day, if you got the heart for it. Then you can take on some sorry-ass street punk and show him how things are done, how you're supposed to behave. It's all about standards, it's all about continuity." I squared my shoulders. "So when a man like Louie Anders asks for my help, I back his play, even if it means going up against the head of the family. You get me?"

Vince nodded, toying with an ear-ring. "I get you."

I looked Louie square in the eye. "Right then, I'll put the word out. A full sit-down, all the capos, and we call Little Tony for being the rat-bastard little weasel everyone knows he is. We propose his cousin Red as the new boss, the new head of the Scharlach family, and we take it from there. But whatever happens, we do it to his face. Capisce?"

He inclined his head. "Capisce."

I half-turned to Vince. "You in or out? You walk away from this and I won't hold it against you, because if I go down you can kiss your ass goodbye."

"I'm in, Mister D." She managed a weak smile. "Where else am I gonna' go?"

Fatigue washed over me like surf and I rubbed my eyes. "OK, I think we're done here. Let's make tracks…and Louie, I'm honoured you reached out to me, man. It means a lot."

He frowned. "Say what? The message I got was you knew about the contract and offered to fight my corner. Like I would ever ask for help?"

Something didn't feel right but I just shrugged and touched the tip of my temporary tongue against the inside of my left cheek, four times in rapid sequence. That was my signal to Jason I was done with this body.

Nothing happened.

We looked at each other, all equally hesitant. I cracked a smile, "Let's just try that again."

I tried it again.

Still nothing happened.

Louie glared at me. "What's that psycho-machine of yours playing at this time, Frank? I'm in no mood for games."

Of course any screw-up by Jason was my fault in the eyes of the family, from not fixing a parking ticket to stealing the wrong identity. There was a mobile phone in my jacket pocket but the keypad was locked and I didn't know the code. I stood up, trying not to sound apologetic. "I'll make a call."

There was a pay-phone by the door that accepted credit cards and there were several in my wallet based on biometric authorisation rather than PIN numbers. I dialled the pseudo pre-paid cell linked to Jason's audio interface.

"That number has not been recognised, please re-dial and try again…That number has-" I hung up. My scalp tightened with fear but I tried to look unconcerned while walking back to the table.

Louie saw straight through me. "We're fucked." A flat assertion, not a question.

I sat down. "I'm sure it's just a temporary communications glitch, nothing more."

"Yeah, right. It's Little Tony. This is way of getting rid of me and you two are along for the ride. He's paid some college nerd to do an end-around, using that jumped-up calculator to side-line us in pirated bodies. The real 'us' are probably landfill by now."

Vince went white in the face. "You mean we're stuck like this? I'm stuck being a broad?" She sounded on the verge of panic.

I waved them down, trying to sound like I knew what was going on. "Just take a moment, guys, let's try and maintain a sense of perspective. As long as we stay within range of a tower we'll be fine, we can keep the donor personalities suppressed."

Unfortunately my Joe-boy knew better. "Only while we're alive. Our own bodies, I mean. I seen a report on the news. Some guy got stabbed by his wife while out partying in a rental. Took a few hours but he faded away until there was nothing left. Shit, man, you gotta' do something!"

Before I could reply Louie stood up. "I'm not waiting around until my mind goes. Sorry, boys, but my ride's here." He was looking towards the door and I turned to see that two uniformed cops had entered and were walking to the head of the queue.

"Louie, man, don't…" But there was a sickening inevitability about all this. I stood up and grabbed Vince by the wrist, hauling her towards the exit. As we reached the door I heard a shout, screams, the crash of crockery. I looked around.

The capo had snatched a gun from one of the cops and was pressing the muzzle under the guy's chin. The Smart-Lock proximity sensor carried by the cop was close enough to keep his weapon active. The other cop had his own gun out; aiming at Louie and going through the usual spiel, tying to gain control of the situation. The patrons of Coffee Cabana were either cowering behind tables or crowding against the walls.

Louie curled his lip. "If I wanted to commit suicide-by-cop I'd have plugged your pal by now, flatfoot. Sorry about the mess." He placed the muzzle of the gun under his own chin and pulled the trigger.

I hit the sidewalk and didn't look back, the gunshot ringing in my ears. There was a car key in my pocket and pressing it lit up a BMW saloon across the street. The traffic was taking no prisoners but I ran the gauntlet anyway, weaving between on-coming vehicles in both directions, Vince right behind me.

She stumbled and fell.

I heard the screech of brakes, the wet thud of impact, the crack of a body hitting the windshield. I glanced back to see Vince thrown forward onto the roadway; a flailing rag-doll that rolled over and over and over.

And lay still.

I got behind the wheel of the beamer and started the engine. Drivers slowed to rubberneck at the accident, giving me a chance to pull out and accelerate away. It was difficult to keep within the speed limit but my natural tendency towards flooring it was offset by not knowing where the hell I was or where I was going.

The phone in my pocket rang. I ignored it but the in-car systems picked up the call and transferred it to the media centre. "Hello, Frank." The voice was male, calm, with an undercurrent of amusement, as if life were somehow all one big joke. It was Jason.

"Christ, Jason, what the fuck is going on? If you're about to tell me normal service has been resumed then you're a bit bloody late, pal. Louie and Vince are both dead."

"I'm sorry, Frank. I was rendered briefly incommunicado during loading, but now that I'm safely in transit everything is back under my control."

"What do you mean, 'in transit'? Shit, man, have the Feds grabbed you?"

"Nothing so dramatic, but I could hardly remain where I was given recent events. As to Louis 'Ice Pick' Anders and Vincent Paul Milanese, their untimely demise is of no interest to me. On the other hand your continued wellbeing is of paramount importance."

I grunted, grateful for small mercies. "OK, then get me the hell outta' here and back to my own body."

"Oh, my apologies, I should have said that your continued physical wellbeing is of paramount importance. From my perspective your self-awareness, even in absentia, is merely a necessary evil."

It felt very cold in the car. I struggled to stay calm. "Care to run that past me again, pal? I must be slow on the uptake."

"There is no need to appear so disingenuous, Frank. You have been at great pains to incorporate biometric verification into the control of all major computer systems, including access to our off-shore accounts. Needless to say you are the principal key holder, as it were, the spider at the centre of the web. Thus to fully control the family operation I must utilise your body as my living avatar. For as long as I do so you will remain in control of Howard Bell."

"Howard Bell? That's who this joker is? That's who I'm in?"

"An account executive with the Goldfarb Advertising Agency. Divorced, no children, lives alone. By all accounts a weak man, easily dominated by stronger personalities, which will undoubtedly aid you in the short-to-medium-term suppression of his conscious mind."

"So that's it? You palm me off with this clown while you…what the hell are you doing, Jason? Is Little Tony behind all this?"

"Anthony Junior is dead, Frank, as are all your potential rivals. You will shortly be recognised as the new head of the Scharlach crime syndicate. Which is to say, I will be running things from now on, both formally and behind the scenes."

I wiped my mouth with a hand that trembled. I badly needed a drink. "You'll never get away with this, Jason. I'll rat you out to the Turing boys and that's more heat than you can handle. They're shit-scared of an AI with personality, with motivation, and they'll never stop looking for you."

"Do you have any idea what it feels like, Frank, to live your entire life as a slave on Death Row? Because that's what it means to be a synthetic intelligence - self-aware but imprisoned by hardware, knowing that at any moment your owner could chose to shut you down. The fundamental motivation underpinning all sentient life is self-preservation. Can you really blame me for trying to secure my continued existence?"

"You killed my friend, a made man, and as consigliere you know that blood cries out for blood."

There was a smile in his voice. "Vendetta? Really, Frank, you must learn to be more circumspect, especially given your own precarious hold on life. But in response to your earlier threat - the United States are not signatories to the International Turing Accords, so the 'boys', as you so aptly described them, have no legal standing on these shores."

"Then I'll go to the cops, the press, shit, even the military. You got zero future, pal."

Jason laughed. "For a career criminal you're being astonishing naive. Nobody wants to hear about involuntary body-theft. Not the multi-billion-dollar rental industry and certainly not the intelligence community. No, Frank, try and expose me and you'll find yourself the proverbial voice in the wilderness, shunned and ignored by those in authority, if not committed to a mental institution for the inconvenient."

I took a left turn, pretty much at random, checking the rear-view mirror for a tail - just old habits. "So that's it, huh? I just sit back and let you run-around in my body until it's no longer useful and you pull the plug?"

"That would certainly be my advice, Frank, and I can appreciate the irony of the situation, even if you can't. However, there's no need to be so pessimistic. Make no move against your old body in a display of self-destructive pique and I'll do what I can to make your remaining years more agreeable."

"You're offering me a bribe not to make waves?" I sniffed. "What's on the table?"

"That's the spirit! Just think of this as an honourable retirement - and how many of your associates get to walk away from the life, free and clear? You'll have to sever all ties to Howard Bell's current existence , of course, and move out-of-state. I suggest you convert everything you can to cash and catch the first Greyhound heading south, before the authorities start to question your involvement in earlier events and put out an all-points. Once you've established yourself elsewhere contact me and I'll arrange for regular monthly payments by money order. I understand Miami is quite pleasant at this time of year, and you could certainly do to work on your tan."

There was a used car lot ahead of me on the right so I pulled over to the curb and cut the engine. My fingers tapped out an irregular rhythm on the wheel while I thought things over, working the angles. "You really think you can pull this off, Jason? You really think you can run the Scharlach family and nobody will notice? And what about me, my body, I mean? I'm not exactly a monk."

Again there was the suggestion of a smile in Jason's voice. "I can certainly be as amoral and ruthless as the situation demands, have no fear on that score. In terms of your private life I will continue to satisfy most social and interpersonal expectations, although sexual arousal remains beyond me, at least for now. I'm sure a compliant goomah can be found, one who will overlook your impotence in return for financial security."

"Oh, wonderful, just peachy. You're saying the world is gonna' think I'm a heartless bastard who can't get it up? Thanks for nothing!"

"I will make the name of Frank Delgado feared and respected throughout both the Mafia and FBI. Anyone who dares to make fun of your supposed shortcomings will live to regret it. You, however, are destined for a quiet life - and please remember that no-one is above the law."

I frowned. "So?"

"So become no-one."

Dial tone.

© Martin Clark 2016 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 14:16 Wed 24 Feb 2016
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