he i.d. card was the size of a gift tag in the bouncer's enormous black hand. The man's eyes, like jade pinpricks, examined it from over a meaty cushion of bulldog jowls, beneath a forehead that was a tribute to the Liverpool kiss, and scalp as smooth and black as the ebony keys of a piano.
"We're being observed."
Rain didn't bother to turn his head. The Professor would be in his usual pose, hands clasped behind stooped back, spectacles sitting low on his thin nose, forehead furrowed with thought. "What's that, Professor?"
"Through the doorman's eyes. Notice the remnants of bruising at the periphery, difficult to notice against the hue of his skin, a mild purpling, most certainly the work of a local surgical amateur. Nakamora Series 3 if I'm not mistaken, judging by the markings on the iris. Capable of smart targeting, optical enhancement, and remote surveillance within a perimeter of three kilometers. They are usually ordered directly from the distributor in Osaka although I have no doubt that these will be second hand. Spitafield market perhaps."
"Wearin' a dead man's eyes. Should reclaim them in the name of decency - give them a proper burial." This voice was smooth and young with the singing lilt of the Irish.
Rain turned and fixed the young neo-punk with a steady look. Cold technology glared back, one eye like an icicle against skin as white as a snow bank. The other, blue fire in shadow. The neo-punk's slim form relaxed against the alley wall, his lines armoured in reinforced black and tattered red tartan.
The Professor piped in before Rain could speak. "That would be an inopportune action at this stage in our negotiations, Mr. Edge."
"Fook-off egghead." A full lip curled in contempt. The mouth made ready to continue.
"The Professor's right, Edge. Not now, not this one. We've got a fatter mouse to trap." Rain kept his tone neutral and controlled. Edge could be violently unpredictable when the mood took him, but this time sense had more weight on its side of the scale. The neo-punk shrugged and went back to admiring his fingernails, each a titanium blue, retractable, mono-molecular edged blade - a gift from the company. Rain returned his attention to Mohammed's mountain.
"Seems all right," rumbled the mountain with a mouth like a red, wet cave. "Don't remember seein' you before is all."
"I'm new. Came across from Bristol on Tuesday. Tallow organised the membership for me."
Tallow: a pimp, net-porn racketeer, and kiddy rapist. Street grease now, courtesy of Edge, his membership card given a digital makeover by the good Professor. London would not weep for Tallow.
The mountain nodded ponderously. "All right, mate. Busy tonight, innit. Morrison's in."
"I know." Rain brushed past the bouncer, descended the narrow staircase and plunged into the River Styx. With Edge and the Professor in tow, he wove through the rapids, around gangsters and pornography princes perched on stools and couches like gulls on the rocks. Around the circling eddies of flesh-fairies, their sparse costumes adorning designer bodies. Beyond the deadly whirlpools of the solos, the cyber-killers whose blank eyes watched with hunger.
The atmosphere grew thicker as Rain approached the spiral staircase that curled up to Morrison's office: cigarette smoke, Maxy-Jaz, and the subtle taint of the euphoric he put into the air-conditioning to keep the customers smiling. As Rain mounted the spiral, heat and tension squeezed sweat from his pores, dampening the sleeves of his jacket. The kevlar lining slapped softly against the handle of the pulse-pistol that nestled against his ribs.
A familiar face met him at the top. Rain's gaze tried to avoid the ripe pimple in the cleft of the man's upper lip, just below his greasy beak of a nose.
"You're wastin' your time, Rain. He's not going to tell you nothin'! The voice grated like worn brake pads.
Rain sighed. "Wondered when you would turn up, Rat. You never miss an opportunity."
"Fook-off, Rat!" Edge took a menacing step forwards. The Professor looked on with faint disgust.
Rain raised his hand, palm facing out. "Save it, Edge. We don't have the time."
Rat sent a weasel-mean glare Edge's way. "You got all the time in the world." He turned his beady gels back to Rain. "Coz you'll never find him. And even if you do, he won't be able to help you. Just like the others. Face it!"
"You fookin' little piece of cockroach shite!" Edge took another step forward, hand raised like a claw, razor-nails glinting in the club's lights.
"Chill, Edge!" A fight between these two could take all night. Rat was as slippery as mercury. "Let's move." Rain shoved past Rat and stalked towards the steel door at the catwalk's end.
"You're a flatline, Rain!"
Rain kept walking.
"You're flatlined roach meat," muttered Rat as he faded into the shadows, his retreat tracked by Edge's icy glare.
"I know, Rat," murmured Rain under his breath.
He stopped at the door, his reflection a spill of milk and ash on the burnished metal. The maglock winked at him with a bright red 'active' light.
"A model B14/B Euroguard, I believe. Key-card entry and fingerprint verification." The professor nudged his spectacles further down his nose and produced a thin smile. "Might I suggest the six iron, Mr. Rain?"
Rain nodded and removed a wafer of gold circuitry and blue silicon from a jacket pocket. With his index finger he dialed it to 'Type 6' intrusion and dropped the device into the maglock's card slot.
Red blink...green blink...clunk.
"Me first, Rain." Edge flashed by and was through door, nails brandished before Rain could blink.
The office was dark and the shadows vomited violence.
A stun baton fell from broken fingers. Blood splattered the carpet, followed shortly by a crashing thug as Edge disabled his opponent's legs with surgically precise slices. The second thug wheezed like a punctured balloon as Edge's fist found his jugular. A round-house kick delivered him to the floor.
"Thanks, Edge. Don't kill them." Rain stepped into the office and waited a few moments for the first broken thug to scream himself into unconsciousness. "Evening, Morrison." He locked pale brown eyes with Morrison's frightened blues. Beads of sweat slithered like slugs on the gangster's prominent forehead. A pale hand quivered on the desk's polished surface, inches from a matte-black 9mm, pinioned by Edge's right hand.
"Who the fuck are you?"
"Rain. Now where's Thompson?"
The blue eyes blinked, thrice, and skin that was pale from a lifetime of shadow grew a little paler.
"Never heard of him."
Rain sighed, an exhalation of pure regret. A vicious grin swept across Edge's face as he scored three strings of bloody pearls across Morrison's neck with his nails.
"Aaaaah, f-!" Words fled under the sudden choking pressure of Edge's left hand. The gangster's eyes bulged and his Adam's apple worked up and down like an express elevator.
"Then you need a reminder, Morrison." Rain pointed at the gangster's bleeding neck. "Those scratches now contain a tailor-made neuro-toxin. It will kill you in twelve hours on the dot. I have the only antidote." Rain's eyes, not hard and fierce like Edge's, not cold and calculating like the Professor's, were brown ponds of sorrow. They spoke no threat, only truth. "I'll start counting from two, the current hour. When you decide to tell me where Thompson is, that will be the hour in which I'll have the antidote delivered to you. Twelve hours, Morrison. Two..."
Bulging, blood-shot golf balls flicked left and right in the gangster's head.
"...three, four, five, six..."
Morrison struggled flabbily. Edge clamped down on the man's pinioned arm, hard enough to fracture. Rain waited for a moment for the muffled scream to pass.
"...seven, eight, nine...it's so difficult to get things delivered on time in East London. You're cutting it fine here...ten...eleven..."
Morrison's blanched lips quivered and his throat croaked. "Pudding Lane!" he gasped, the words squeezed out from between Edge's thumb and forefinger. "Safehouse...flat 16...A."
Rain nodded, his thin face solemn, his red lips pursed. "If you're lying to me there'll be no delivery. If anyone gets in my way there'll be no delivery. If you say anything to anyone about this there'll be no delivery. You understand, Morrison?"
"Good. Smart choice." Rain glanced at Edge. The neo-punk's face was an animal mask, flushed with the heat of aggression. A wolf child. He shuddered. "And sorry about the arm."
Reluctantly, Edge released his prey to gasp and sob on the desktop. The Professor spoke as he looked on with clinical fascination. "It is unreasonable to suppose that anything can perish from without through affectation of external evil which could not be destroyed from within by corruption of its own. Plato, The Republic."
Rain said nothing and walked, from the shadow to the storm of pulsing light and bass thunder, from storm to softly humming night. Then he drove, through the quiet damp streets of East London, towards the source of the great fire of London - Pudding Lane.
* * *
Rat was waiting for them outside the flat, leaning against the carcass of an old Bentley. The stub of his cigarette clung like a glowworm to the corner of his mouth. His dark hair stuck out at irregular angles like a hedge trimmed by a drunk. The pimple was gone, squeezed to bursting, now a weeping crater in a landscape of red, bruised skin. Sweat, smoke, alcohol and the parmesan reek of vomit wafted from his greasy jeans and stained shirt. He grinned as the three appeared from the shadows.
Rain rolled his eyes. "Rat, what are you doing here? I thought you made your point clear at the club."
Rat sneered and flicked his cigarette into the gutter, the glowworm at last sucked of life. "You're not so sure as you seem, Rain. So, thought I'd come see the finale. Won't end happy. You know it. We all know it." He made a sweeping gesture with his arm, encompassing Edge and the Professor in his little drama. Edge scowled. The Professor remained impassive as a fish.
"Say what you want, Rat. I'm doing it anyway." Rain skirted the Bentley, pushed open a screeching garden gate, and made his way into the dark maw of the house's open doorway. The others fell in behind.
The bottom floor was deserted but for empty beer cans and discarded kebab boxes. Two gangsters waited on the second level, guarding a flaking white door.
"You Rain?" asked the tall one, a dark pocked-skinned Asian with scarlet Mohawk and blood red cyber-eyes.
"Yes. Morrison watching through those?" Rain pointed at the Asian's optics.
The other gangster nodded, a bull-necked Anglo with hard blue Essex eyes - real ones. "You're playin' a dangerous game here, mate! Morrison don't forget nothing. He'll have your testicles on a plate before the months out!"
Rain smiled sadly, almost kindly. "I'll keep that in mind. Now, if you're not gone by the time I'm finished in there, I'll have Morrison's antidote delivered to the Thames."
The gangsters muttered a few choice phrases and retreated. Rain waited half a minute and then turned to Edge who glanced down the stairs and tilted his head, scanning the air like a hound on the hunt.
"All clear. They're on the other side of the street, headin' North."
Rain nodded, turned to the door, clasped the handle with a steady hand and pushed it open.
Thompson sat at a table in the centre of the room, a steaming cup of tea raised halfway to his lips. The dim light of the room's single bulb bounced off his bald, age-speckled head. With his emaciated frame, hooked nose and wrinkled skin, he had the look of a starving vulture, too old now to fend for himself in the wilderness.
"Evening, Thompson." Rain's tone remained calm while his blood surged.
The old man smiled, brittle as burnt toast. "Good evening, Eric." He put the tea down and indicated the chair opposite. "Do take a seat."
"Thanks." Rain settled into the proffered chair and placed his hands on the table with exaggerated care. The name 'Eric' echoed through his head. "I think you know why I'm here?"
"Yes. And I can only assume that you have somehow persuaded my new patron to relinquish his protection. Is that so, Eric? Or have you strayed even further from the path?"
"Yes, and no." At Rain's periphery Edge and the Professor took up their customary positions. Rat leaned against the door frame, a fresh cigarette in his mouth. "I'm surprised to see you out from under the company's wing. Dumped like the others?"
"Yes. Doctor Magawi turned out to be quite the corporate politician. He supervises the bio-tech division now, whilst I am reduced to performing cyber-butchery on gangsters. Ironic, don't you think, Eric?"
"Call me Rain. No-one calls me Eric anymore."
"Of course not." The old man folded his hands in his lap and regarded Rain with rheumy eyes. Though the room was cold, a bead of sweat slid down his temple, betraying his forced composure. "But I am afraid, Rain, that I have little assistance to offer you. Much like the others, I imagine."
Rain shook his head slowly, lips pursed. "That's not what I want to hear, Thompson. You made me this way. You can unmake me."
Thompson gave a slight shiver. Sweat oozed between the creases of his skin. "No, Rain, I cannot. The process is irreversible."
Rain shook his head again, more quickly. Edge hissed sharply like an aroused cobra. "Tell me why."
"It is difficult to explain."
"Try me." Their eyes locked for a moment. Thompson's gaze fled to the tabletop.
"The...the nanobots are too numerous, too widely connected to your neural pathways. They are an integral part of your brain now. Removal would cause extensive brain damage, probably even kill you."
Rain's hands twitched. In the corner of the room Edge cracked his knuckles one by one. "I've never had much of a choice, have I Thompson. I was bought by the company, from a mental hospital in Sussex. Like a vegetable from the supermarket. And now you're telling me there's no way back."
Thompson nodded and smiled weakly. "But why would you want to go back? You suffered from a severe multiple personality disorder. You were barely able to function. As Eric, you would have been dead by your own hand months ago. Now you are capable...extremely capable. Your divergent personalities provide you with a level of multiple specialisation simply not possible for a fully integrated individual. For you the parts are so much greater than the whole. You are gifted!" The scientist's gaze flicked around the room. "Are they here right now?"
"Good, good. I established you as the dominant personality. You are the vessel that contains the others within its borders. Your animal instincts, your intellect, your self doubt, all are balanced by your sense of humanity and empathy...your compassion." Thompson's eyes found Rain's again. They pleaded.
Rain sighed. "Perfectly balanced people don't talk to themselves, Thompson."
"Of course they do, Rain. The human mind is a constant debate, a lifelong argument between its constituent parts. You have a supreme advantage. You are a team!"
For a while Rain said nothing. The others shifted restlessly. Thompson's face glistened damply, his eyes rabbit-wide.
At last he spoke. "I'll ask you one more time, Thompson. Can you reverse what you have done?"
Thompson shook his head. "No, Rain. I cannot. But I still do not understand why you would wish such a thing!"
Rain stood. Thompson flinched. His chair scraped loudly against the bare floorboards. Rain laughed.
"Relax, Thompson. I'm not going to kill you." He turned to the Professor. "Is the part about the nanobots true?"
The Professor nodded sagely. "Yes it is. To my knowledge, at the current level of available neuro-manipulative technology, neural damage would be inevitable. If he cannot offer you a solution then there is not one to be had."
"Is he lying?"
"His vocal timbre and body language suggest not. He displays symptoms of extreme anxiety, but as far as I can ascertain, he is telling the truth."
Rain rubbed a hand across eyes grown weary. Despair had begun to leak his strength.
"That's it then." He turned back to the sweating scientist. "Goodbye, Thompson. You can make your peace in hell."
Thompson staggered to his feet. "You said you weren't going to kill me, Rain!"
Rain smiled, bleak as a January morning. "Rain isn't going to. I'm a team, remember. One acts, the others witness. It's so much easier to cope with murder when it's not me doing it...just like watching a net-flick. That's your gift to me, Thompson."
Rain turned away as Edge drew the pulse-pistol from his holster and enticed it to speak. He flinched at the sound of the shot, shuddered at the sound of blood, brain and bone splattering across the floorboards.
Rat fell in beside Rain as he walked from the room and descended the stairs.
"I told you so."
"Yes you did, Rat." He rubbed his fingers across his eyes. This time they came away wet.
"Are you crying, Rain?" Rat sounded almost pleased.
"Yes Rat, I am."
He walked out into an East London drizzle that mixed its pollutants on his face. To his left a cool brain walked with him - to his right, a hot gut and clenched fists. At his back trailed a liver, yellow and sniveling. And in his chest beat a heart, warm and heavy. He walked into the night for a long time and wherever he went the rain seemed to follow.
© 2003, Edwin McRae