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Authors: William Gibson

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BOOK: Count Zero
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He smiled. “You think we haven’t tracked them, each one? We have. They were”—here he frowned, exaggerating the effort of memory—“ ‘a number of rather unremarkable examples of contemporary folk art’ . . .”

“Was Roberts known to be interested in that sort of thing?”

“No,” he said, “but approximately a year before his death, we know that he made application for membership in the Institut de l’Art Brut, here in Paris, and arranged to become a patron of the Aeschmann Collection in Hamburg.”

Marly nodded. The Aeschmann Collection was restricted to the works of psychotics.

“We are reasonably certain,” Paco continued, taking her elbow and guiding her around a corner, into a side street, “that he made no attempt to use the resources of either, unless he employed an intermediary, and we regard that as unlikely. Señor, of course, has employed several dozen scholars to sweep the records of both institutions. To no avail . . .”

“Tell me,” she said, “why Picard assumed that he had recently seen Herr Virek. How is that possible?”

“Señor is wealthy. Señor enjoys any number of means of manifestation.”

Now he led her into a chrome-trimmed barn of a place, glittering with mirrors, bottles, and arcade games. The mirrors lied about the depth of the room; at its rear, she could see the reflected pavement, the legs of pedestrians, the flash of sunlight on a hubcap. Paco nodded to a lethargic-looking man behind the bar and took her hand, leading her through the tightly packed shoal of round plastic tables.

“You can take your call from Alain here,” he said. “We have arranged to reroute it from your friend’s apartment.” He drew a chair out for her, an automatic bit of professional courtesy that made her wonder if he might actually once have been a waiter, and placed his bag on the tabletop.

“But he’ll see that I’m not there,” she said. “If I blank the video, he’ll become suspicious.”

“But he won’t see that. We’ve generated a digital image of your face and the required background. We’ll key that to the image on this phone.” He took an elegant modular unit from the bag and placed it in front of her. A paper thin polycarbon screen unfurled silently from the top of the unit and immediately grew rigid. She had once watched a butterfly emerge into the world, and seen the transformation of its drying wings. “How is that done?” she asked, tentatively touching the screen. It was like thin steel.

“One of the new polycarbon variants,” he said, “one of the Maas products . . .”

The phone purred discreetly. He positioned it more carefully in front of her, stepped to the far side of the table, and said, “Your call. Remember, you are at home!” He reached forward and brushed a titanium-coated stud.

Alain’s face and shoulders filled the little screen. The image had the smudged, badly lit look of a public booth. “Good afternoon, my dear,” he said.

“Hello, Alain.”

“How are you, Marly? I trust you’ve gotten the money we discussed?” She could see that he was wearing a jacket of some kind, dark, but she could make out no details. “Your roommate could do with a lesson in housecleaning,” he said, and seemed to be peering back over her shoulder.

“You’ve never cleaned a room in your life,” she said.

He shrugged, smiling. “We each have our talents,” he said. “Do you have my money, Marly?”

She glanced up at Paco, who nodded. “Yes,” she said, “of course.”

“That’s wonderful, Marly. Marvelous. We have only one small difficulty.” He was still smiling.

“And what is that?”

“My informants have doubled their price. Consequently, I must now double mine.”

Paco nodded. He was smiling, too.

“Very well. I will have to ask, of course . . .” He sickened her now. She wanted to be off the phone.

“And they, of course, will agree.”

“Where shall we meet, then?”

“I will phone again, at five,” he said. His image shrank to a single blip of blue-green, and then that was gone as well.

“You look tired,” Paco said as he collapsed the screen and replaced the phone in his bag. “You look older when you’ve talked with him.”

“Do I?” For some reason, now, she saw the panel in the Roberts, all those faces.
Read Us the Book of the Names of the Dead.
All the Marlys, she thought all the girls she’d been through the long season of youth.

16
LEGBA

“H
EY, SHITHEAD
.” R
HEA
poked him none too lightly in the ribs. “Get your ass up.”

He came up fighting with the crocheted comforter, with the half-formed shapes of unknown enemies. With his mother’s murderers. He was in a room he didn’t know, a room that might have been anywhere. Gold plastic gilt frames on a lot of mirrors. Fuzzy scarlet wallpaper. He’d seen Gothicks decorate rooms that way, when they could afford it, but he’d also seen their parents do whole condos in the same style. Rhea flung a bundle of clothes down on the temperfoam and shoved her hands in the pockets of a black leather jacket.

The pink and black squares of the comforter were bunched around his waist. He looked down and saw the segmented length of the centipede submerged in a finger-wide track of fresh pink scar tissue. Beauvoir had said that the thing accelerated healing. He touched the bright new tissue with a hesitant fingertip, found it tender but bearable. He looked up at Rhea. “Get your ass up on
this,
” he said, giving her the finger.

They glared at each other, for a few seconds, over Bobby’s upraised middle finger. Then she laughed. “Okay,” she said, “you got a point. I’ll get off your case. But pick those clothes up and get ’em on. Should be something there that fits. Lucas is due by here soon to pick you up, and Lucas doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

“Yeah? Well, he seems like a pretty relaxed guy to me.” He began to sort through the heap of clothing, discarding a black shirt with a paisley pattern printed on it in
laundered-out gold, a red satin number with a fringe of white imitation leather down the sleeves, a black sort of leotard thing with panels of some translucent material . . . “Hey,” he said, “where did you get this stuff? I can’t wear shit like this . . .”

“It’s my little brother’s,” Rhea said. “From last season, and you better get your white ass dressed before Lucas gets down here. Hey,” she said, “that’s mine,” snatching up the leotard as though he might be about to steal it.

He pulled the black and gold shirt on and fumbled with domed snaps made of black imitation pearl. He found a pair of black jeans, but they proved to be baggy and elaborately pleated, and didn’t seem to have any pockets. “This all the pants you got?”

“Jesus,” she said. “I saw the clothes Pye cut off you, man. You aren’t anybody’s idea of a fashion plate. Just get dressed, okay? I don’t want any trouble with Lucas. He may come on all mellow with you, but that just means you got something he wants bad enough to take the trouble. Me, I sure don’t, so Lucas got no compunctions, as far as I’m concerned.”

He stood up unsteadily beside the bedslab and tried to zip up the black jeans. “No zip,” he said, looking at her.

“Buttons. In there somewhere. It’s part of the
style
you know?”

Bobby found the buttons. It was an elaborate arrangement and he wondered what would happen if he had to piss in a hurry. He saw the black nylon thongs beside the slab and shoved his feet into them. “What about Jackie?” he asked, padding to where he could see himself in the gold-framed mirrors. “Lucas got any compunctions about her?” He watched her in the mirror, saw something cross her face.

“What’s that mean?”

“Beauvoir, he told me she was a horse—”

“You hush,” she said, her voice gone low and urgent. “Beauvoir mention anything like that to you, that’s his business. Otherwise, it’s nothing you talk about, understand? There’s things bad enough, you’d wish you were back out there getting your butt carved up.”

He watched her eyes, reflected in the mirror, dark eyes shadowed by the deep brim of the soft felt hat. Now they seemed to show a little more white than they had before.

“Okay,” he said, after a pause, and then added, “Thanks.”
He fiddled with the collar of the shirt, turning it up in the back, down again, trying it different ways.

“You know,” Rhea said, tilting her head to one side, “you get a few clothes on you, you don’t look too bad. ’Cept you got eyes like two pissholes in a snowbank . . .”

 

“Lucas,” Bobby said, when they were in the elevator, “do you know who it was offed my old lady?” It wasn’t a question he’d planned on asking, but somehow it had come rushing up like a bubble of swamp gas.

Lucas regarded him benignly, his long face smooth and black. His black suit, beautifully cut, looked as though it had been freshly pressed. He carried a stout stick of oiled and polished wood, the grain all swirly black and red, topped with a large knob of polished brass. Finger-long splines of brass ran down from the knob, inlaid smoothly in the cane’s shaft. “No, we do not.” His wide lips formed a straight and very serious line. “That’s something we’d very much like to know . . .”

Bobby shifted uncomfortably. The elevator made him self-conscious. It was the size of a small bus, and although it wasn’t crowded, he was the only white. Black people, he noted, as his eyes shifted restlessly down the thing’s length, didn’t look half dead under fluorescent light, the way white people did.

Three times, in their descent, the elevator came to a halt at some floor and remained there, once for nearly fifteen minutes. The first time this happened, Bobby had looked questioningly at Lucas. “Something in the shaft,” Lucas had said. “What?” “Another elevator.” The elevators were located at the core of the arcology, their shafts bundled together with water mains, sewage lines, huge power cables, and insulated pipes that Bobby assumed were part of the geothermal system that Beauvoir had described. You could see it all whenever the doors opened; everything was exposed, raw, as though the people who built the place had wanted to be able to see exactly how everything worked and what was going where. And everything, every visible surface, was covered with an interlocking net of graffiti, so dense and heavily overlaid that it was almost impossible to pick out any kind of message or symbol.

“You never were up here before, were you, Bobby?” Lucas asked as the doors jolted shut once again and they were
on their way down. Bobby shook his head. “That’s too bad,” Lucas said. “Understandable, certainly, but kind of a shame. Two-a-Day tells me you haven’t been too keen on sitting around Barrytown. That true?”

“Sure is,” Bobby agreed.

“I guess that’s understandable, too. You seem to me to be a young man of some imagination and initiative. Would you agree?” Lucas spun the cane’s bright brass head against his pink palm and looked at Bobby steadily.

“I guess so. I can’t stand the place. Lately I’ve kind of been noticing how, well, nothing ever
happens,
you know? I mean, things happen, but it’s always the same stuff, over and fucking over, like it’s all a rerun, every summer like the last one. . . .” His voice trailed off, uncertain what Lucas would think of him.

“Yes,” Lucas said, “I know that feeling. It may be a little more true of Barrytown than of some other places, but you can feel the same thing as easily in New York or Tokyo.”

Can’t be true, Bobby thought, but nodded anyway, Rhea’s warning in the back of his head. Lucas was no more threatening than Beauvoir, but his bulk alone was a caution. And Bobby was working on a new theory of personal deportment; he didn’t quite have the whole thing yet, but part of it involved the idea that people who were genuinely dangerous might not need to exhibit the fact at all, and that the ability to conceal a threat made them even more dangerous. This ran directly opposite to the rule around Big Playground, where kids who had no real clout whatever went to great pains to advertise their chrome-studded rabidity. Which probably did them some good, at least in terms of the local action. But Lucas was very clearly nothing to do with local action.

“I see you doubt it,” Lucas said. “Well, you’ll probably find out soon enough, but not for a while. The way your life’s going now, things should remain new and exciting for quite a while.”

The elevator door shuddered open, and Lucas was moving, shooing Bobby in front of him like a child. They stepped out into a tiled foyer that seemed to stretch forever, past kiosks and cloth-draped stalls and people squatting beside blankets with things spread out on them. “But not to linger,” Lucas said, giving Bobby a very gentle shove with one large hand when Bobby paused in front of stacks of jumbled software.
“You are on your way to the Sprawl, my man, and you are going in a manner that befits a count.”

“How’s that?”

“In a limo.”

 

Lucas’s car was an amazing stretch of gold-flecked black bodywork and mirror-finished brass, studded with a collection of baroque gadgets whose purpose Bobby only had time to guess at. One of the things was a dish antenna, he decided, but it looked more like one of those Aztec calendar wheels, and then he was inside, Lucas letting the wide door clunk gently shut behind them. The windows were tinted so dark, it looked like nighttime outside, a bustling nighttime where the Projects’ crowds went about their noonday business. The interior of the vehicle was a single large compartment padded with bright rugs and pale leather cushions, although there seemed to be no particular place to sit. No steering wheel either; the dash was a padded expanse of leather unbroken by controls of any kind. He looked at Lucas, who was loosening his black tie. “How do you drive it?”

“Sit down somewhere. You drive it like this: Ahmed, get our asses to New York, lower east.”

The car slid smoothly away from the curb as Bobby dropped to his knees on a soft pile of rugs.

“Lunch will be served in thirty minutes, sir, unless you’d care for something sooner,” a voice said. It was soft, melodious, and seemed to come from nowhere in particular.

Lucas laughed. “They really knew how to build ’em in Damascus,” he said.

“Where?”

“Damascus,” Lucas said as he unbuttoned his suit coat and settled back into a wedge of pale cushions. “This is a Rolls. Old one. Those Arabs built a good car, while they had the money.”

 

“Lucas,” Bobby said, his mouth half full of cold fried chicken, “how come it’s taking us an hour and a half to get to New York? We aren’t exactly crawling . . .”

“Because,” Lucas said, pausing for another sip of cold white wine, “that’s how long it’s taking us. Ahmed has all the factory options, including a first-rate countersurveillance system. On the road, rolling, Ahmed provides a remarkable degree of privacy, more than I’m ordinarily willing to pay for
in New York. Ahmed, you get the feeling anybody’s trying to get to us, listen in or anything?”

“No, sir,” the voice said. “Eight minutes ago our identification panel was infra-scanned by a Tactical helicopter. The helicopter’s number was MH-dash-3-dash-848, piloted by Corporal Roberto—”

“Okay, okay,” Lucas said. “Fine. Never mind. You see? Ahmed got more on those Tacs than they got on us.” He wiped his hands on a thick white linen napkin and took a gold toothpick from his jacket pocket.

“Lucas,” Bobby said, while Lucas probed delicately at the gaps between his big square teeth, “what would happen if, say, I asked you to take me to Times Square and let me out?”

“Ah,” Lucas said, lowering the toothpick, “the city’s most resonant acre. What’s the matter, Bobby, a drug problem?”

“Well, no, but I was wondering.”

“Wondering what? You want to go to Times Square?”

“No, that was just the first place I thought of. What I mean is, I guess, would you let me go?”

“No,” Lucas said, “not to put too fine a point on it. But you don’t have to think of yourself as a prisoner. More like a guest. A
valued
guest.”

Bobby smiled wanly. “Oh. Okay. Like what they call protective custody, I guess.”

“Right,” Lucas said, bringing the gold toothpick into play again. “And while we are here, securely screened by the good Ahmed, it’s time we have a talk. Brother Beauvoir has already told you a little about us, I think. What do
you
think, Bobby, about what he’s told you?”

“Well,” Bobby said, “it’s real interesting, but I’m not sure I understand it.”

“What don’t you understand?”

“Well, I don’t know about this voodoo stuff . . .”

Lucas raised his eyebrows.

“I mean, it’s your business, what you wanna buy, I mean,
believe,
right? But one minute Beauvoir’s talking biz, street tech, like I never heard before, and the next he’s talking mambos and ghosts and snakes and, and . . .”

“And what?”

“Horses,” Bobby said, his throat tight.

“Bobby, do you know what a metaphor is?”

“A component? Like a capacitor?”

“No. Never mind metaphor, then. When Beauvoir or I talk to you about the loa and their horses, as we call those few the loa choose to ride, you should pretend that we are talking two languages at once. One of them, you already understand. That’s the language of street tech, as you call it. We may be using different words, but we’re talking tech. Maybe we call something Ougou Feray that you might call an icebreaker, you understand? But at the same time, with the same words, we are talking about other things, and
that
you don’t understand. You don’t need to.” He put his toothpick away.

Bobby took a deep breath. “Beauvoir said that Jackie’s a horse for a snake, a snake called Danbala. You run that by me in street tech?”

“Certainly. Think of Jackie as a deck, Bobby, a cyberspace deck, a very pretty one with nice ankles.” Lucas grinned and Bobby blushed. “Think of Danbala, who some people call the snake, as a program. Say as an icebreaker. Danbala slots into the Jackie deck, Jackie cuts ice. That’s all.”

“Okay,” Bobby said, getting the hang of it, “then what’s the matrix? If she’s a deck, and Danbala’s a program, what’s cyberspace?”

“The world,” Lucas said.

 

“Best if we walk from here,” Lucas said.

The Rolls came to a silent, silken halt and Lucas stood, buttoning his suit coat. “Ahmed attracts too much attention.” He picked up his cane, and the door made a soft chunking sound as it unlocked itself.

Bobby climbed down behind him, into the unmistakable signature smell of the Sprawl, a rich amalgam of stale subway exhalations, ancient soot, and the carcinogenic tang of fresh plastics, all of it shot through with the carbon edge of illicit fossil fuels. High overhead, in the reflected glare of arc lamps, one of the unfinished Fuller domes shut out two thirds of the salmon-pink evening sky, its ragged edge like broken gray honeycomb. The Sprawl’s patchwork of domes tended to generate inadvertent microclimates; there were areas of a few city blocks where a fine drizzle of condensation fell continually from the soot-stained geodesics, and sections of high dome famous for displays of static-discharge, a peculiarly urban variety of lightning. There was a stiff wind blowing, as Bobby followed Lucas down the street, a warm, gritty breeze
that probably had something to do with pressure shifts in the Sprawl-long subway system.

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