Garrett waited. He didn’t like going first in discussions like this because, quite frankly, he had an ability to tick people off without knowing it until too late. A quiet public persona had not been easy to cultivate, but it had paid off in the end. There were plenty of old enemies still out there, but newer versions were thankfully few and far between.
Be nice to keep it that way.
Fortunately, quick-tongued Won Ton had no such compunctions. “Haaarl, my man, if I ever had any doubts about J.B.’s death, it was mainly that I figured one of our own offed the obnoxious bugger. In fact, I would have volunteered to do the job myself. That dude always did have a big mouth, and he was as full of feces as the proverbial Chris’mas goose. I mean, he’d been Repping for nigh on thirty years and his health wasn’t any worse’n mine except for those two cancers they lasered out of ‘im. I think if he’s still alive, we oughta go make sure he honors his death notices in the media, know what I mean?
“And I’ll be first to volunteer for the squad that does it.”
There were nods around the table. Anyone who attacked the Guild that fed them deserved to die and doubtless would. Still, hearing it verbalized made Di Marco uneasy. They were dedicated to healing humanity, were they not? How could the ravings of a misguided former Seeder, even if he did still live, affect the stability of an established power like the Guild?
Oh. Profit. He’d forgotten about that. If enough people decided A.S.P. propaganda had any basis in reality, Contract numbers might go down…or would they? Something stirred in the back of his mind. What was it? Oh, yes. Any publicity is good publicity. True? Not true? The Guild worked quietly for the most part, but articles attributed to the formerly mythical A.S.P. had raised public awareness if not actual outcry. Now that it appeared to be real, could it make a difference? He’d have to think about that. Later. Alone. He could think on his feet with the best of them, but the quality of thinking definitely improved during quiet times. When he could get them.
Uh-oh. He’d lost focus a moment there; what had he missed?
“Or by noon at latest,” Harlan was saying, “we should have a further update. For now, Mr. Sampson, your enthusiasm is laudable but no hit order has gone out. We have Security people for that.”
“Right, old man. And how good is Security at finding people, eh? J.B. apparently went black what, five years ago? For five years he’s been spreading this libel on us, and we just now figured out he’s alive? Gimme a break.”
“Enough, Won. Enough. I know it’s a shock to the system. None of us want to believe A.S.P. even exists, let alone that it could be staffed by ex-Guild personnel. It was a lot easier when we figured the Leave It Nature’s Trouble people had simply added us to their list of anti-God meddlers.”
“L.I.N.T.?” Won Ton snorted. “Those dustballs couldn’t pick their own faulty logic out of their own belly buttons. They rant on about everything from abortion to zygote implants without being able to so much as spell oxymoron!”
The usually silent Ahot Akji interjected a question. “You mentioned two items on the agenda, Administrator?”
“Correct. The other is an extremely lucrative Contract. Like all of those, you know that means it’s potentially extremely dangerous both to the Rep and to the client. In this case we have a respected chiropractor up in the Deeper New York area who is also a psychic. She has a friend and chiropractic customer of long standing who has called her with a summary of a nasty dream.”
He consulted a holo sheet before continuing.
“In the dream, this fellow saw a mama spider with the face of his wife on it. He’s a student of the spiritual arts himself, and he calls this thing a Power Bug. It was situated at his left ear, that is the left ear of one of his inner bodies, he’s not sure which though he thinks the Mental. He killed the spider by squashing it. When he did that, it screamed with his wife’s voice. He believes this was a Bug In His Ear that she’d been using to control him since at least the time of Atlantis. So far so good, but there was also a sac of spider eggs inside that ear. When he killed the mother, the baby spiders inside began growing with extreme speed.”
“When he woke in the physical and thought it over, he felt certain of several things. One, although he’s performed what can only be described as de-Seeding operations on his own inner bodies several times in the past–and without any Box to help him at that–he’s also certain he’s incapable of killing all the baby spiders before they hatch. Two, if any of those young spiders get away, get loose in his system, he’s facing certain death, and not just of one body. Most likely of the Mental and all bodies below that plane. Three, it’s quite possible there is a similar sac of eggs in the other ear. He told our contact his wife is the sort who would tend to be thorough about such things.”
Sour laughter rippled around the table. We all knew about difficult relationships.
“Four, he suspects quite strongly that his window is numbered in days, no more than a week or two at most. So the appointment for this operation is set for the tenth, one week from today.”
“What about the fee?” This from Jenny, who liked to brag that being one quarter Jew was enough. She always cut to the bottom line. Whether the sterotype had any real basis in fact or not, Garrett had no idea. Jenny was the only Jew, or part Jew, he knew at all well.
“The fee is to be fifty thousand credits.”
This time it was a chorus of appreciative whistles that filled the room.
“And no, this man isn’t really all that rich. But the practitioner is doing well. She says she’ll front the fee, so the Guild is covered, and collect from her man on payments. Sampson, you’re next up for one of the good ones, besides which this man happens to be black. It’s yours if you want it.”
“No way. I don’t care what color the guy is, I don’t care if he lives or dies, I just ain’t dealing with no spiders when we know up front that’s the main thing.”
Harlan nodded his understanding. Most Reps had one or more phobias and would avoid specific cases with no blame or dishonor. He’d forgotten about Won ton and spiders. “Jenny? You’re up after Sampson.”
“I don’t think so, boss. This guy says his wife is the Power Bug villain, but I don’t much like the idea of running around inside the personal universe of a man who can squash his wife’s face like that even if she does sprout eight legs.”
“Your option. You know all Guild assignments are voluntary.”
“Yeah, right.” On paper, yes. In practice, no…not if the list ran out without a volunteer accepting the task. In that case, short straw got the job, phobia or no phobia.
“Okay. Ahot? He’s black, but I don’t have anything to indicate he’s prejudiced.”
“I’d like to.” The tall, thin man looked thoughtful. “It’s an interesting case. Not like plucking seeds or worms and such. I wonder if it really does trace back–but Mr. Administrator, I don’t think I can manage this one. I’ve got two firm schedulings on the ninth. The second of the two looks like it could run long. Between that and trying to get a few hours sleep, there’s no guarantee I could get there sharp enough to be safe inside.”
That, thought Garrett, was by far the best excuse yet.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I know.”
“You want to throw it to the straws?”
“Nah. I’m going to take it.”
Harlan Johnson looked relieved but also a little surprised. “No phobias? No prejudice against wife beaters? No scheduling conflicts? No–”
“Yes to all of them. I hate spiders. My father just about died from a black widow bite before I was even born. Likewise, the old man taught me not to hit women, though I admit to learning some of them do need a macking now and then, surprise surprise. And I do have a sizeable Contract on the ninth. But not two like Ahot. I can handle it. Besides,” he added with the casual grin that often fooled both opponents and friends, “There’s a Chinese restaurant in Deeper New York I’ve been itching to try.”
The other active Seeders gave nothing away, but they weren’t taking any chances on Garrett changing his mind, either. They excused themselves and scooted out the door the instant Johnson declared the meeting adjourned. Di Marco lingered behind.
“Harlan, a word?”
“Shoot, cowboy. You got me off the hook. I thought it was Guild lottery for sure, and nobody likes those.”
“Yeah. Well, hey, here’s what I want to know. How many of your clients, career total, had Seeds relating to asthma or C.O.P.D. or Jovian mold syndrome, stuff like that?”
The Administrator’s good humor vanished on the spot. “You’re thinking I’ve taken on some of my old clients’ karma? That A.S.P. is right?”
“No,” Garrett lied, seeing he’d pushed the man too far. “Those diseases are so common, anyone could have them. What is possible, though, is that certain talented Reps are able to sense the future–to read their own Akashic records, maybe, or even the Eck-Vidya. What I’m asking is, do you think it’s possible you knew that someday you were going to have breathing problems, so you deliberately picked a lot of clients in that category? You know, either because of a subconscious obsession or to pay off some kind of karmic debt, maybe even just to learn enough about the symptoms to be better able to handle them when they did come along, or–”
“Oh.” Mollified, the older man considered. “That’s a wild theory and probably not on target at all.”
“I’ve been told that applies to most of my theories.”
“Can the sarcasm, Di Marco.”
“Hey, I thought it was dry wit.”
Johnson looked like he was about to cough, then apparently thought better of it. “Hunh. To answer you honestly, I never thought of it your way. Maybe you could write that up as a proposal for the GRD. Might even get an attaboy for it.”
“Sure. Why not.”
Of course he never would. Johnson seemed to have bought his explanation for the moment, but one never knew. The old curmudgeon could be cagey. Beyond that, it was rock certain Guild Research Department personnel would blow holes in the concept at first glance and most likely slam him into the suspect pool on general principles. Fooey on that. He had three years left until his planned retirement as one of the greatest Seeders of all time. With the finish line in sight, he wasn’t about to blow it.
Not, at least, if he could just learn to keep his big mouth shut.