Mei Foo turned the last deadbolt, locking herself securely into the Half Castle’s luxurious underground apartment. The satellite clock display in the upper left corner, well clear of her binocular vision, told her it was 11:34 p.m., MST.
Moving through the gleaming kitchen to her admittedly opulent bedroom, she didn’t bother to turn on a light. When you’ve got built-in night vision with thermal imaging capability, light bulbs are redundant. Unless you want to see things in living color, of course, but she wasn’t feeling particularly colorful at the moment. Stripping methodically, she removed her shoes, ankle length dress, and undergarments, finally standing nude in front of the gilt edged full length mirror. Why do I torture myself this way every night?
The answer was simple, like most things about her life were simple. She could not afford to think of herself as she had been. Not since the fire. Never since the fire, the lethal blaze set by Fan. Her lover’s name meant lethal, and he was all of that.
Fan had been executed, of course, taken out of the equation while she was still in the burn center, though whether that had happened while she was in the medically induced coma (Stage 1) or the waking, screaming debriding sessions (Stage 2) or the in-and-out screaming-or-unconscious Suit sessions, she never learned. Nor did she care to know. Knowing would not bring back her fierce, American educated mother, the Chinese tigress who had named her daughter Georgeous Wise Man in Ragged Clothes, Mei Foo.
That’s what I am, she thought as she stared unblinkingly at her reflection, a gorgeous wise man in ragged clothes. Ha!
After all, the machinery thickly encasing her entire body could certainly be considered ragged clothing of a sort. You had no chance to live, the doctors informed her, long after they had made her suffer through the transformation. Your skin was, essentially, gone. You have no skin, except this suit of cybernetic armor in which your skinless body is now encased. But you live. Your mind and your body, even the whites of your eyes, remain intact. You are the first of your kind, an achievement only we Chinese could have accomplished. You should be proud.
At the time, she had been certain only Chinese doctors could have spoken with such insensitive arrogance. Now, far more traveled, wiser to the ways of the world, she knew it was not that they were Chinese. It was that they were doctors. Doctors everywhere, she had learned, were assholes.
One of her first upgrades to the apartment had been the installation of this three-sided mirror that allowed her to inspect every square centimeter of her body from every angle, without help. It wasn’t enjoyable, but it was a necessity. The arrogant doctors had created what these Westerners called a Frankenstein’s monster, and the monster had escaped–but her freedom could not last forever. Something would fail in the machinery. Sometime, it would. As marvelous as the technology might be, capable of passing through airport metal detectors and radar scans without triggering a single alarm, capable of many other things, it was not capable of repairing itself.
Before the fire, she had been tall and slender, 177 centimeters and 68 kilograms. The Suit had bulked her up horribly, to a whopping 91 kilograms at 183 centimeters. You think the Suit is unattractive? One fat doctor, the asshole she thought of as Dr. Hippopotamus, had asked that question, providing his own answer. The Suit is positively beautiful compared to a human body with the skin burned off. You should be pleased.
What about my eyes? She queried, Were my eyes burned out, too? Dr. Hippo did not answer her. You should be pleased, he snapped, repeating himself, and walked away.
Gorgeous Wise Man in Ragged Clothes was neither proud nor pleased.
She was, however, thoroughly pissed. Perhaps it was her American father’s genes, corrupting her mind, or her fierce mother’s American education, but she did not accept the right of the State to do with her body as it pleased. Her former boyfriend had killed her parents, including the true wise man in ragged clothes, the poor factory worker who had married her mother despite knowing she carried an American’s child in her womb. Despite the fact that the physical pain decreased steadily as the weeks passed in her new Suit, despite the fact that her camera eyes gave her certain advantages over untouched humans, despite the fact that the full body melding of suit-over-exposed-flesh was obviously a remarkable advance in Chinese science, she had nothing to live for…except revenge.
And, as her excruciating rehab sessions continued to strengthen her slowly but surely, it began to occur to her that fleeing China would be the greatest revenge of all. Once she had realized this, her resolve strengthened far faster than her body did…but not as fast as her thoughts moved.
If I do it right, she decided, they will never know where I ended up. They will try to find me. They will spend billions, maybe even trillions to do it, because there is only me. I am the only one. Therefore, I will escape. I will leave my homeland, building my story from partly truth and partly fiction, which is the most effective kind of story to tell.
Yet now, as she finished her self-inspection and donned her pajamas, she was close to failing. Oh, she had succeeded wildly at first, especially after finding the journals the doctors had foolishly kept in the hospital computers. The government probably hadn’t even told them she was a hacker; it would be like them to leave that out of the briefing. Most likely, there hadn’t even been a briefing. The doctors had just seen a chance to experiment on a horribly burned patient and jumped at the chance. That would be like them, too.
Her original eyes had not been burned away; they had been cut out to make room for the camera implants. The doctors’ notes made it clear that her face hadn’t been burned at all. From the neck up, to make way for the suit interface with unencumbered flesh, the doctors had simply skinned her alive.
Talk about a checkup from the neck up.
I will make them pay, she swore, but the mantra had lost its power. Treemin Jackson and Jack Hill had stopped by earlier in the day, telling her that they’d decided not to bother looking for Treemin’s uncle any longer, and that since things had settled down once billionaire Theodore Kraznick had decided to withdraw his offer of a bounty on their heads, they hopefully wouldn’t be needing any new inquiries for a while…so, basically, don’t call us; we’ll call you.
“I should have told Treemin the moment I had B.J. Hennessey located,” she shouted at the walls, wishing her synthetic hair had nerve endings so she could feel the satisfying pain of tearing it out by the roots. “I should have told him!”
But she hadn’t. Her crush on the big, handsome black American millionaire cowboy was all-consuming; she had acted stupidly, thinking the man’s need to locate his missing uncle would keep him coming back to the Half Castle to see her. He was married to a white American beauty; she knew that. She had no illusions; she just couldn’t help herself.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid!” They had seen through her duplicity; she was sure of it. “Ugly cow!”
What she would do next, she did not know. If she could go back to China and kill those accursed doctors who had made the Suit hideous, she certainly would. Even if she died for it. But of course she knew better; she had to be on every watch list in the entire People’s Republic. She’d be caught, and restrained, and controlled, and Dr. Hippopotamus would give her that condescending look and tell her, You should be proud! You should be pleased!
She would have cried herself to sleep, but naturally Dr. Hippo had removed her tear ducts. Couldn’t risk having teardrops smear those camera lenses. As a substitute, she got out the bottle of Murine, lubricated lenses and eyeballs alike, and told her synthetic eyelids to close the shutters for the night. Having vented a bit, her naturally analytical mind could work away through the dark hours whether she slept or not. There had to be a way to rectify the foolish error she had made with Jackson and Hill.
There simply had to be.
Philip Phreeb looked up from his chair, grinning when he saw the bunch of us trooping through the computer center doorway into his inner sanctum. “About time, boss. I really didn’t believe it when you told me you’d wait to hear what I had to say about B.J.’s whereabouts for another day and a half.”
“Hey,” I smiled back at the only employee we had who could make me feel stupid without trying, “you did say it could wait, right? The thing was, Jack and I figured it would be better if we gave Lori Droid the brush-off before we knew what you had to tell us. Knowing might have affected the way we acted. Who knows what subtle algorithms a computer brain like that could pick up on, eh?”
“I suppose,” he said doubtfully. “Okay, here’s where your uncle went.” He reached out to select an item from one of the shelves on his wraparound work station, handing me–
“The National Enquirer!”
“Hey.” Phreeb was trying not to crack up. “Enquiring minds want to know!”
Big Jude’s photo, hardly flattering, took up the right hand portion of the front page. His hands were held waist high, palms up, the better to show the rag’s readers the artist’s rendering. The headline screamed even louder than the Enquirer’s usual headline.
MONTANA SALES EXECUTIVE
PROVES ALIENS ARE HERE!!
“Oh, no,” I groaned. “He didn’t.”
“He did, boss. He really did.”
Thankfully, the alien didn’t look much like our friend. Diamond Paws himself pointed that out as we gathered to stare at the horror before us. “Looks more like a giant octopus, except with hair,” he declared. What voice was he using this morning? Oh, yeah. Pee Wee Herman.
“Does, doesn’t it?” Jack muttered. We were all gathered around the paper now, Jack and Diamond, Wayne, Sissy, Judi, and me. “Read it aloud, Tree.”
“Sure. Why not.” I cleared my throat and began.
“The Enquirer recently interviewed Big Jude Hennessey, a highly successful sales executive for the Rodeo Iron corporation of Ovando, Montana. Mr. Hennessey told our reporter that aliens are here, and he’s seen them!
“The thing was even bigger than me, and I’m no runt! Big round head, eyes everywhere, long limbs, and it can sneak up on you just like that!” At nearly seven feet tall, Big Jude is certainly no runt. “The people who talk about those little gray guys from Area 51 don’t have a clue,” he insisted. “This monster is real!”
“It goes on like that,” I said, handing the paper to Judi. “but that’s the gist of it except for the closing line.”
Rodeo Iron owner Treemin Jackson has been unavailable for comment.
Sissy looked positively grim. “Good one, Enquirer. Nobody from the tabloid has called the office looking for you, have they?”
“No. You can bet Gertrude would have flagged me down within minutes if that had happened.”
“So they simply lied about that part. Made it sound like you’re trying to hide something.”
“Hell, honey,” I laughed aloud. “We are trying to hide something!” My laughter broke the dam for Philip; he cracked up. I couldn’t blame him; the twenty year old had been waiting to see our reactions for quite some time. When Phreeb settled down, though, I had a serious question. “Does anybody see an immediate threat in this?”
Jack rubbed his chin, thinking. “Kinda sorta, maybe yes, but not really.”
“Yeah. That’s perfectly clear.”
“That’s what I like about you, Tree. Never the least bit of sarcasm.” Hill grabbed one of the chairs, flipped it around so he had the start of a circle if you counted Philip, and started ticking off points on his fingers. “Guaranteed, the Enquirer will be looking to have somebody sneak onto the property, a stringer maybe, so they don’t have to wreck their travel budget sending a Californian all the way up here. But with the drone coverage and heavy combat consciousness we’ve all developed over the Heartbite years, it’s not likely some local yokel is going to slip through our defenses. So scratch that.
“Beyond that, B.J. may have done us a favor. He comes off as nutty as any redneck who’s had a recent rectal probe or woman who’s birthed a Bigfoot baby. The feds will log that in, but it’s not likely they’ll take him seriously. Our franchisees all know Hennessey is no longer with Rodeo Iron, and they all seem to like your Mom a lot. And Sim, too; it doesn’t hurt to have a sales team consisting of a good looking woman backed up by an old rancher who knows as much about welded fence panels as anybody on the planet. Chances are, an undercover FBI agent or two will stop by a few of our stores, see what people who knew your uncle had to say. And since most of them have already told us they’d felt he was getting a little strange toward the end, he’ll most likely go into the FBI files as one more relatively harmless fruitcake.”
“Damn big fruitcake,” Wayne Bruce muttered. He never had quite fully trusted B.J., though he hadn’t mentioned that until the man was long gone, either.
Jack winked at Wayne, the first time I’d seen him do that. “You’re just irritated that he wasn’t gay.”
Philip was clenching and unclenching his left fist again. “Something on your mind?” I asked.
“Yeah. You’re missing something, Jack. Betcha one thousand bucks to a donut hole, the Enquirer will milk this one. You know, put out a series of these interviews with B.J., not just one. And they’ll have something a bit more titillating every time, too.”
An uneasy feeling hit my gut, though it could have been that third helping of sausage I’d had with my breakfast waffles. “They do that sort of thing, all right,” I said, “but why do you think so in this particular case?”
“Because I haven’t told you the best of it yet, boss. Or the worst of it, I guess. Definitely the worst of it.”
“I told you I’d picked up B.J.’s trail, right?”
“Yes. You did. May I assume you didn’t just mean picking up the Enquirer while you were in Butte?”
“You may. I know exactly where B.J. is hanging his hat these days.”
Realization hit me. “Oh, no. He didn’t.”
“He definitely did. The man is shacked up with the reporter who wrote that Enquirer story.”
We kicked the topic around for another hour, coming up with exactly nothing in the way of workable answers. No way on God’s green Earth was I setting foot in the state of California again, nor was I sending anybody in there without me. My uncle had found himself a sanctuary; if we decided he had to die–and now I was fervently wishing I’d shot him when I had the chance–we’d have to trick him into leaving. Not that we had any idea how to do that, either, but it was horribly clear we couldn’t leave him to his own devices forever.
Sooner or later, he’d spit out some tidbit of information that would mean real trouble. Cliché as it sounded, the man really did know too much. He wasn’t a loose cannon; he was an Obama in the White House.
By this time, Philip wasn’t laughing. Brilliant as he was, he hadn’t truly thought it through. “I’m kind of sorry I laughed about that article now,” he admitted. “It’s not all that funny,”
“Master of understatement.” Judi got up from her chair, stepped over, and patted Phreeb on the shoulder.
The Cyber Chief blushed behind his beard. “That’s me. Master of understatement. Maybe not such a master of timing, but…I bet you guys could use some good news right now?” Rhetorical question, right there. “Judi, you know how it’s been considered unsafe for you to show your face in Missoula?”
My wife sat back down, frowning. “My dead ex’s clan would like nothing better than to do me harm, yes. What about it?”
“The threat is gone.”
“I’ve been keeping tabs on that family. During the past year, two of them have died–one caught the business end of a knife in a bar fight, the other straightened a curve with his truck, dead drunk and DOA. A third one just drew twenty years in Deer Lodge for raping his stepdaughter, and the rest of the bunch decided to pull up stakes. They have even more relatives in Mississippi, so they packed up and headed down south.”
“Whoa.” Judi’s eyes sparkled. “I can go shopping at Walmart!”
“There’s more. Sissy, you and Wayne did both have outstanding warrants, both of you wanted for murder as you suspected.”
Sissy cut in. “Did?”
“Yep. Past tense. I used your cases to test fire my hacking abilities on the new system. There is now no warrant out on either of you.”
Having been fugitives for nearly two decades, neither Wayne nor Sissy knew how to respond to that, except to say, almost in unison, “Uh…thanks.”
Then they got it. They really got it. In perfect unison, they shouted, “We can go shopping at Walmart with Judi!”
“You can really do that, Diamond?” I poured myself a mug of coffee from the fresh pot and another for the alien digger. The big Umthnn was developing a taste for the stuff.
“I can do it,” he assured me, using his Sam Elliott voice, “and I’m willing to do it. The question is timing.” He wrapped one huge, double-thumbed paw around the mug, making the thing practically disappear, but didn’t take a drink yet. He liked his coffee a bit closer to room temperature. “It’s fifteen hundred miles between here and B.J.’s current shack-up, plus I’ll need to use the deeper tunnels when I get into the metro area. But I can average five miles per hour, allowing a bit for sleeping and eating.”
I drummed the fingers of my left hand on the table top. “Two months, then. It would take you roughly sixty days to get into position. I see what you mean about timing. That might be crowding things…although Philip swears he can hack into the Enquirer so thoroughly that we’ll know well in advance before the next aliens-are-real interview goes to press. But you haven’t mentioned the other Umthnn; surely you’d end up having to travel through their territories.”
Diamond Paws lifted his mug, draining the contents in a single chug. “Mm, mm, good! Yes, there would be risks. Others of my kind might well pick up my scent. I do know the back ways better than most, but it’s a possibility.”
Disturbed, I got up from the table, walked over to our home’s kitchen window, and stared out into the night. Not that I could see much; even the night vision surveillance monitor showed nothing but Douglas fir trees and a handful of small night creatures going about their business. As I studied the monitor, an owl suddenly swooped down and nailed an unsuspecting mouse, just like that.
“Owl just got a mouse,” I told my basketball headed friend. “Hope that’s not an omen.”
He shrugged, an impressive gesture when an Umthnn does it with all four shoulders. “Depends on whether we’re the mouse or the owl, eh?”
“Eh.” I returned to the table and sat back down. One of Diamond’s big, soft round eyes gazed back at me, unperturbed. “This would be the first time you’ve dared Clan territory since you declared yourself outcast and came to make contact with us humans, would it not?”
“Treemin,” he said softly, “it’s time for me to make myself useful.”
What? “You’ve always been useful, big guy. Ninety percent of all the tunnels running underneath Rodeo Iron headquarters, our homes, and over to Wolf Cave…you did all that.”
“Sure thing.” Did the sharp-clawed giant sound bitter? “I can dig. But Tree, here’s the thing. My children are old enough and have enough education now. My wives know how to survive, know how to finish raising the youngsters. As long as I choose, I can continue as the patriarch of my own mini-clan…but I’m not really needed, if you see what I mean.”
“Okay,” I said, “I get it.” Although I didn’t. Not really.
“So, with your approval, I’ll grab a few hours of sleep and be on my way.”
Knowing the eight limbed digger would be patient while I considered, I took my time. Did I want him to put himself at risk? No matter what he said, there was no way that he could travel all that way alone without running into some sort of trouble. It just wasn’t in the cards. On the other hand, did I have the right to turn down his offer?
I decided I did not. “All right, my friend. Head on out for California with my blessing. I know you can’t carry an equipment belt, not and do the underground work between here and there–”
“Not true. Horace Tamblyn and I rigged a leather harness that works well, even in the tunnels–when he was still alive, he did that, of course. Not as a ghost.”
He had me curious now. “How does that work? The harness, I mean?”
“It’s a multi-pocketed work pouch with four straps that come up between my four legs and a loop at the top end of each strap. A belt runs through those loops and buckles around my torso. After a bit of experimentation, we found out that when I’m in what I call belly down mode, the leather did sometimes scrape on a tunnel floor. So Horace added a metal belly plate. Titanium, I think he called it.”
My eyes were blinking rapidly, undoubtedly due to the simple surprise of finding out the old tracker had done that for our alien ally. Couldn’t be tears or anything like that.
“Wow. How much can you carry in that pouch?”
“Not all that much. Not without it getting bulky enough to interfere with my leg movements. But a few little things. A couple of your burner cell phones, a small .22 caliber revolver in stainless steel, a couple of boxes of cartridges. Which should be all I need, really.”
“Horace taught you to shoot?!”
“Not at all. You taught me to shoot, Treemin, when you dropped my enemies, one per bullet, just like that. From that time forward, you might say I was motivated.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Let’s hope not.” The Umthnn’s facial structure didn’t lend itself well to smiling, but he was laughing at me. I’d have bet on it. “If you are, the entire Rodeo Iron clan is well and truly f–.”
“I get it.” This time, I really did.
Duyi Cheng shut down the last of his emotions, exercising the second greatest of his skills and the only absolute prerequisite to exercising the greatest skill. It took him no time at all to do this, or to be more precise, it took so little time that no mere human could have measured the interval, though a computer might have done so, had there been one present. Satisfied with the arrangement of the mop in the janitor’s supply closet, noting with quiet joy that the mop bucket and brooms and cleaning supplies were well ordered, quiet and ready for another day, he closed and locked the door.
In the office at the far end of the hospital hallway, Zhen Ding was finishing up his paperwork. Duyi had little respect for Zhen, whose medical files, typed into an array of computers but with handwritten originals retained in tall metal filing cabinets…ai yee! The middle aged Ding was so sloppy! How he had retained his critical position in Beijing’s premier burn center these past eighteen years remained a mystery.
A mystery that stank of nepotism, perhaps.
More importantly, though, the forty-eight year old Zhen Ding was going on vacation. This would be his final bit of work before locking his office door as Duyi Cheng had locked his janitorial closet door. But for the two of them, this wing of the hospital was eerily quiet at this hour, the silence broken only by the hum of the building’s heating system. Within hours, the older man would be on an airplane, the redeye flight that would take him first to Hawaii, where he would visit his cousin during the four hour layover, and then on to Los Angeles in the United States of America. His daughter and her tall, blond husband would be waiting at the airport, eager to show him their home and a few of the sights during his ten day stay.
It was Duyi’s good fortune that the file clerk considered a mere cleaning person beneath his notice. Zhen blinked in confusion when the twenty year old janitor strode through into his office. He had barely opened his mouth to speak–perhaps harshly–to the brash intruder when the younger man’s sword hand took him in the throat.
That did not knock him out, but as he struggled for air, the swiftly and fiercely executed rear naked choke hold did.
Cheng squatted next to the fallen bureaucrat’s body, studying the man carefully. He had already done so, of course, many times and in great depth, but it couldn’t hurt to take this one last mental photograph. A tiny distinction, a fleck of color in one eye that caught the light just so or an unusually short index fingernail, might have been missed.
Moments later, satisfied, he set about stripping and securing the man’s unconscious body. First, a blindfold; the odds were that he would be identified the moment a hospital staff member discovered Mr. Cheng on Monday morning, but he might get lucky. One never knew. Then, shoving the man unceremoniously under his own desk, he withdrew the cords from his various pockets and swiftly bound each wrist and ankle to a separate desk leg. A firmly secured gag, and that part was done. The file clerk would undoubtedly thump his butt on the floor in an attempt to attract attention, but the chances of anyone noticing that were minimal.
Next, he located Cheng’s passport, plane ticket, identification, and cash in the amount of three thousand American dollars.
The body under the desk was beginning to stir. Duyi Cheng stepped in front of Ding’s lone affectation, a full length mirror hung on the back of the office door, and began his transformation.
By the time an exact duplicate of Zhen Ding left the building, he was smiling. He could let at least a little of his emotion come back to life now; if any unseen witness noticed his departure from the burn center or the spring in his step, it would be attributed to the natural joy of a man going on vacation, going to see his daughter in America.
Duyi Cheng had heard there were werewolves in America. Few believed, of course, doubting the ability of any human to transform himself so completely. Duyi did not doubt. His own skill was much lesser, surface only, that of a mere chameleon, but if he could do that much, why could not another do more? If he could get to know an American werewolf, that would be awesome. In the meantime, he would work within his own limitations. For example, he was not a large man–nor was Zhen Ding, thankfully–and he could not impersonate, say, a sumo wrestler. He recalled a quote issued by one of those MMA fighters.
There ain’t no such thing as a hundred and forty pound sumo wrestler.
He enjoyed his taxicab ride to the Beijing Capitol International Airport. Having allowed only a few of his emotions out of their cages, he equally enjoyed the wait for the flight to be called, refusing to be worried about the possibility of being discovered. But most of all, he enjoyed the feeling of the great jet as it lifted off, engines thundering, to launch them all into the sky. It had taken him two years of dogged, persistent work to uncover the truth. Doctor Foo, the tall PhD who had owned his heart since he first caught sight of her as she made a presentation to his school…Mei Foo had been here. The clues were piecemeal and well hidden, but nothing hides forever from the janitor. She had been here. She had been fitted with some sort of experimental body armor designed to keep her alive after being horribly burned in the fire set by Fang.
Somehow, she had escaped. Fled China. To this day, he discovered as he formed a comprehensive mosaic out of little more than bread crumbs and whispered rumors, the authorities did not know where she had gone.
Yet Duyi knew, or at least he believed he did, though Dr. Foo had spoken of America only lightly and in passing during her talk on the subject of advances in computer science. He knew. And if he knew, the MSS, the Ministry of State Security, would pick up her trail eventually. They might not have done so yet–though he was not sure of even that much–but they would find her.
That, Duyi could not let happen. He must locate her first, convince her to trust him, to believe that he was not working for the Ministry, that he had not left his own trail they could follow to find her.
He would not take Ding’s flight all the way to Los Angeles. That would be foolish. Instead, he would deplane in Honolulu, disappear into the crowd for a while. Uncounted thousands of tourists passed through the Islands; it should be no great trick to select a new target, perhaps one of those Japanese karaoke lovers, strung all about with cameras. Not an American citizen, but someone from another nation who would need to lose time, to go to their country’s embassy to try to straighten things out.
As the American built Boeing 777 winged its way across the Pacific, silver-winged high above the clouds under the light of a half moon, the former janitor wound down and, in time, slept. He had not gotten much sleep these past several days. As he was drifting off, alone in the seats on his side of the aisle, he chuckled softly. Duyi Cheng he was, All-One Journey. Fitting, that…but the amusement was triggered by the man whose identity he had stolen. Zhen Ding. Greatly Astonished Gardener.
No one would be more greatly astonished than Zhen Ding when the authorities told him he had boarded a flight for Hawaii.