Supply & Demand

Martin Clark

A Lesson in Business Ethics

If this was no country for old men then Sinclair Precinct made for an acceptable retirement home. It was considered neutral territory by the surrounding gang-bangers, a kind of turf-war Switzerland. Or, to put it another way, the 'Sin' was a place where you could get a decent cup of coffee without a side-order of gunfire.

I was a middle-aged middle-man, a street hustler with a reputation for having access to esoteric hardware. Everyone knew me; older than God but not so forgiving - and that would be Old Testament, not New. Every so often I had to chastise some young pup who tried to muscle in on my niche supply-chain, but I didn't make a big production out of it.

That morning I was sitting at a table outside Roman's Bar & Grill, on the corner of 6th and 23rd, nursing an espresso and a hangover. A young woman approached through the crowd. She looked like a typical corporate executive, but this place was so outside their comfort zone I had to do a rethink. A high-end escort, maybe, still dressed to blend in at a social function held yesterday evening.

She stopped in front of my table. "Mister Wage?"

Everyone gets it wrong the first time so I wasn't too put out. "It's 'Wages, just Wages."

"I apologise, Wages. My name is Rebecca. May I join you?"

I gestured to the chair opposite. "Be my guest. We're just two people talking." Rebecca sat down, pretty much the poster-girl for 'pert', if that's what you're into. I was wearing retro wraparound shades incorporating 4-x zoom micro-cameras and close-up her human likeness started to fade. She was a medium-grade synthetic - no skin pores - and natural sunlight wasn't doing her any favours. I sipped my espresso. "So?"

She placed an acoustic muffler on the table between us and the surrounding hustle and bustle dropped to a background murmur. "I wish to obtain a Vygotsky, and quickly."

"Well, maybe, but that's right up there with erotic asphyxiation in terms of dangerous. Does your prospective client know what they're letting themselves in for?" A 'Vygotsky' suppressed the higher brain functions, letting raw, animal passions come to the fore - basically a form of induced neural Viagra.

"He would benefit from a little lift, if that's what you mean, but is touchy about his supposed prowess."

Sure, I got the picture; she wanted him to feel like a 'real man' in the grip of unbridled lust - but without realising he'd been juiced-up. The boost to his ego would guarantee repeat business, especially if Rebecca went for the 'all you needed was the right woman' angle. My fingernails tapped out an irregular rhythm on the porcelain cup while I thought it over. "Fifteen-hundred. Half now, half in an hour when I deliver."

Rebecca arched an eyebrow. "That's almost double its retail value."

"The retail value of a regular blank-box, designed simply to suppress empathic abilities. What I'm offering goes that extra mile and is illegal pretty much everywhere. I'm not talking about some off-the-shelf piece of kit tweaked by an electronics student to make a few extra bucks. I'm talking about a real Chiba City special, with selective ego and superego manipulation. But if you don't like the price, feel free to go elsewhere."

She regarded me coolly for a moment - then nodded. "I understand you don't haggle?"

I shrugged. "Life's too short. I set a price based on availability, timescale and what I think the market will bear. Seven-fifty up front and we've got a deal. If you know I don't haggle then you'll also know I never, ever, stiff a buyer over delivery."

My new client lifted a credit chip from her purse and held it out. I touched my own against it. There was a momentary pause as our electronic agents found a form of mutually acceptable encryption and checked each other for the usual signs of bad faith. Satisfied, the sum was transferred to an account in Kurdistan - the acknowledgement projected onto the inside of my shades as a poor-man's head-up display.

I smiled and sat back in my chair. "One hour."

Rebecca inclined her head by way of acknowledgement, retrieved her muffler, and walked away. I sensed rather than saw movement in the crowd - discreet security closing in around her. I scratched my nose, bringing the old-school cufflink microphone up close. "Mike, what you got?"

The sniper in the Italianate bell tower sounded pensive. "Three-man team in the crowd, another out in the street alongside a pickup."

"A pickup doesn't sound very corporate."

"Oh, not even close. These guys are street, and not the usual suspects either. Remington Blues, and they must have cojones the size of basketballs to just waltz in here, showing their colours. Either that or they've paid our local bangers for the privilege."

I grunted. "Cold hard cash has a way of soothing injured pride, so I'd go with the pay-off angle. OK, I'll be back in forty minutes." I hesitated. "Look, Michael, if this team gets trigger-happy second time around, are you sure you can nail them? Only, a face-full of buckshot would seriously spoil my day."

He laughed. "Would you rather I got all Medieval on their ass and came down there with a sword? Yeah, I can pop all three if their fingers so much as twitch. You want I should do the girl as well?"

I finished my coffee and stood up. "No. She's just a pro, a skin-job with connections."

"You're all heart, my man, all heart."

There was an edge to this deal that I didn't like, but couldn't live without. I needed the danger more and more as the years went by, like it was some kind of drug I was becoming inured to. Certainly it stopped me succumbing to ennui, but ultimately the street was just one long game of Russian roulette and eventually Lady Luck would call time.

I went inside to make some calls.

Rebecca was sitting at my table when I returned forty-two minutes later. I wasn't altogether comfortable with that, as I'd hoped to tag their arrival via local CCTV. Still, I managed a smile as I placed a gift-wrapped box in front of her and sat down. "One customised Vygotsky mind-fuck. It's assembled from components lacking serial numbers and the casing incorporates trace-contact neutralisation, so it could be handled without gloves."

In return she placed a bulky envelope beside the box. "Fifteen-hundred in small bills. You'll find the previous transaction has been rescinded and the account I used never existed."

My smile became a little forced. "Cash? How quaint. Not many I deal with have the juice to screw with the banking system, particularly not my banking system. I'd be impressed if I wasn't just a tad pissed-off."

She stood and lifted the box. "You'll get over it. As long as I've got what I want we'll never meet again. Enjoy the rest of your day, Wages."

I watched her go and, no, I wasn't happy. The rest of my day had a sour taste to it, like a memory of past misdeeds.

Next morning I sat my usual table waiting for Greasy McCulloch to show his face. The slimy little rat-bastard had promised me a line on some endorphin analogue but failed to make good, meaning I'd had to go commercial to satisfy my client - and at the agreed price. My mood wasn't improved any by an article in the eSheet; Frank Vaughn, head of corporate security over at Anderson Industries, had been arrested on a charge of manslaughter. He'd bitten the throat out of a flesh-and-blood prostitute, only escaping a murder beef due to the presence of 'an illegal neural suppressor, recovered at the scene.' Investigations were continuing.

Someone like Vaughn didn't get to the top without knowing where the corporate bodies were buried - both metaphorically and physically. This was going to give some prominent citizens sleepless nights in case he cut a deal with the law. The whole thing smacked of the opening salvo in a move against Anderson Industries, whose share price had already dipped twenty-seven points.

I signalled for another coffee, left my reader on the table, and went inside to use the restroom. On the way I coughed twice into my hand, and then a third time - signalling Mike it was time to make tracks. I don't believe in coincidence and the hardware I'd provided could only have come from a limited number of suppliers, with my name third or fourth on the list. The cops might not put in the overtime trying to trace the Vygotsky, but corporate security would definitely want to know who was busting their balls.

Once in the restroom I removed an entire wall panel using two hooks kept on top of the door frame. Behind lay a short alcove - and a hatch giving access to the Transit Authority maintenance tunnels. The restroom was shoehorned in between two industrial freezers used by Sushi Express, which would screw with anyone using thermal imaging to track me. Madam Toba's House of Dance, directly above, completed the surveillance blackout. By the time anyone discovered my escape route I'd have jumped the Metro and be long gone.

As I reached for the 'going away bag' I kept stashed there - change of clothes, spending money, a new id - I heard a gunshot from my shades' built-in speakers. A shotgun blast, not a high-powered rifle. I froze, my hand on the carry handle. There were indistinct noises then the sound of something heavy hitting the ground.

"Está muerto." A man's voice; not one I recognised.

I could have ignored it. I could have picked up my bag and vanished into the maze of tunnels. But I'd known Michael a long, long time - almost longer than I'd known myself - and that had to count for something. At the bottom of my bag lay an antique Nagant revolver; an anachronism, but a reliable one.

I lifted the gun and left everything else behind.

Back in the main dining area several of the patrons were surreptitiously watching events out in the Precinct. When it registered that I was armed everyone found something else to occupy their attention. Even Roman, who kept a sawn-off behind the counter, looked the other way. Everyone knew I didn't carry a gun. Everyone knew I always left the violence to others.

That was my edge.

I walked out into the street, immediately spotting three members of the Remington Blues; one kneeling by Mike's body at the base of the bell tower, another half-watching the diner, a third emerging from the stairwell. All three carried pump-action shotguns.

I shot all three in as much time as it takes to tell.

The street crowd gave me room as I walked over and knelt down beside my friend. Michael lay on his back, unseeing eyes staring at Heaven. He'd been shot in the back at close range and a spreading fan of blood resembled nothing more than a pair of wings - completing the image of him as an angel, fallen to Earth.

One of the Blues lying beside me burbled. I shot him in the face, feeling the spray of blood and brain matter against my skin. A ripple of horrified fascination ran through the onlookers. "Herr Wage, so thoughtful of you not to run. A pursuit in this climate would be most tedious, no?"

I closed Mike's eyes and stood up, shoulders hunched, turning towards the voice. The Nagant slid from my fingers and clattered to the ground - it was of no further use to me. Three men in business suits stood across the street, with the crowd giving them a clear field of fire. Two were just muscle in anti-flash contact lenses and double ear pieces, carrying Steyr assault rifles that looked more like abstract works of art. The third was small, neat and precise - the same way as an ice-pick through the eye is precise.

His smile was a thin line. "You are, as they say, the proverbial loose end. Some…" he gestured towards the fallen gang-bangers, "…are interested only in pinching it off. I, however, wish to pull it and see what unravels. I trust there will be no further need for violence?"

I shook my head, more sorrowful than angry. "Violence? You people have no idea what 'violence' really means. I've spent years, decades, avoiding this moment, dreading it." I straightened up and tore off my shades. I heard a woman gasp but most of the onlookers couldn't see my eyes. "Don't you get it? Doesn't anyone understand?"

Behind me the church bell began to toll.

My wings blossomed.

Not white, like Michael's would have been, but black, tinged with crimson. The crowd shrank back, on the verge of flight, but it was way too late for that. My voice rang out around the Precinct.

"The wages of sin…"

I burst into flame.

"…is Death."

© Martin Clark 2016 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 14:16 Wed 24 Feb 2016
Copyright © Amazon Systems 2007-2018 All Rights Reserved.
Portions of this site are copyrighted to third parties