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Authors: William Gibson

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BOOK: Count Zero
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“Remember what I told you,” Lucas said, his eyes narrowed against the grit. “The man is far more than he seems. Even if he were nothing more than what he seems, you would owe him a degree of respect. If you want to be a cowboy, you’re about to meet a landmark in the trade.”

“Yeah, right.” He skipped to avoid a graying length of printout that tried to wrap itself around his ankle. “So he’s the one you an’ Beauvoir bought the—”

“Ha! No! Remember what I told you. You speak in the open street, you may as well put your words up on a bulletin-board . . .”

Bobby grimaced, then nodded. Shit. He kept blowing it. Here he was with a major operator, up to his neck in some amazing kind of biz, and he kept acting like a wilson. Operator. That was the word for Lucas, and for Beauvoir, too, and that voodoo talk was just some game they ran on people, he’d decided. In the Rolls, Lucas had launched into some strange extended number about Legba, who he said was the loa of communication, “the master of roads and pathways,” all about how the man he was taking Bobby to meet was a favorite of Legba’s. When Bobby asked if the man was another oungan, Lucas said no; he said the man had walked with Legba all his life, so close that he’d never known the loa was there at all, like it was just a part of him, his shadow. And this was the man, Lucas had said, who’d sold them the software that Two-a-Day had rented to Bobby. . . .

Lucas rounded a corner and stopped, Bobby close behind. They stood in front of a blackened brownstone whose windows had been sealed decades before with sheets of corrugated steel. Part of the ground floor had once been a shop of some kind, its cracked display windows opaque with grime. The door, between the blind windows, had been reinforced with the same steel that sealed the windows of the upper floors, and Bobby thought he could make out some sort of sign behind the window to his left, discarded neon script tilted diagonally in the gloom. Lucas just stood there, facing the doorway, his face expressionless, the tip of his cane planted neatly on the sidewalk and his large hands one atop the other on the brass knob. “First thing that you learn,” he said, with the tone of a man reciting a proverb, “is that you always gotta wait . . .”

Bobby thought he heard something scrape, behind the door, and then there was a rattle like chains. “Amazing,” Lucas said, “almost as though we were expected.”

The door swung ten centimeters on well-oiled hinges and seemed to catch on something. An eye regarded them, unblinking, suspended there in that crack of dust and dark, and at first it seemed to Bobby that it must be the eye of some large animal, the iris a strange shade of brownish yellow, and the whites, mottled and shot through with red, the lower lid gaping redder still below. “Hoodoo man,” said the invisible face the eye belonged to, then, “hoodoo man and some little lump of shit. Jesus . . .” There was an awful, gurgling sound, as of antique phlegm being drawn up from hidden recesses, and then the man spat. “Well, move it, Lucas.” There was another grating sound and the door swung inward on the dark. “I’m a busy man. . . .” This last from a meter away, receding, as though the eye’s owner were scurrying from the light admitted by the open door.

Lucas stepped through, Bobby on his heels, Bobby feeling the door swing smoothly shut behind him. The sudden darkness brought the hairs on his forearms up. It felt alive, that dark, cluttered and dense and somehow sentient.

Then a match flared and some sort of pressure lamp hissed and spat as the gas in its mantle ignited. Bobby could only gape at the face beyond the lantern, where the bloodshot yellow eye waited with its mate in what Bobby would very much have liked to believe was a mask of some kind.

“I don’t suppose you were expecting us, were you, Finn?” Lucas asked.

“You wanna know,” the face said, revealing large flat yellow teeth, “I was on my way out to find something to eat.” He looked to Bobby as though he could survive on a diet of moldering carpet, or burrow patiently through the brown wood pulp of the damp-swollen books stacked shoulder-high on either side of the tunnel where they stood. “Who’s the little shit, Lucas?”

“You know, Finn, Beauvoir and I are experiencing difficulties with something we acquired from you in good faith.” Lucas extended his cane and prodded delicately at a dangerous-looking overhang of crumbling paperbacks.

“Are you, now?” The Finn pursed his gray lips in mock concern. “Don’t fuck with those first editions, Lucas. You bring ’em down, you pay for ’em.”

Lucas withdrew the cane. Its polished ferrule flashed in the lantern glare.

“So,” the Finn said. “You got problems. Funny thing, Lucas, funny fucking thing.” His cheeks were grayish, seamed with deep diagonal creases. “I got some problems, too, three of ’em. I didn’t have ’em, this morning. I guess that’s just the way life is, sometimes.” He put the hissing lantern down on a gutted steel filing cabinet and fished a bent, unfiltered cigarette from a side pocket of something that might once have been a tweed jacket. “My three problems, they’re upstairs. Maybe you wanna have a look at them . . .” He struck a wooden match on the base of the lantern and lit his cigarette. The pungent reek of black Cuban tobacco gathered in the air between them.

 

“You know,” the Finn said, stepping over the first of the bodies, “I been at this location a long time. Everybody knows me. They know I’m here. You buy from the Finn, you know who you’re buying from. And I stand behind my product, every time . . .”

Bobby was staring down at the upturned face of the dead man, at the eyes gone dull. There was something wrong with the shape of the torso, wrong with the way it lay there in the black clothes. Japanese face, no expression, dead eyes . . .

“And all that time,” the Finn continued, “you know how many people ever dumb enough to try to get in here to take me off? None! Not one, not till this morning, and I get fucking
three
already. Well,” he shot Bobby a hostile glance, “that’s not counting the odd little lump of shit, I guess, but . . .” He shrugged.

“He looks kind of lopsided,” Bobby said still staring at the first corpse.

“That’s ‘cause he’s dog food, inside.” The Finn leered. “All mashed up.”

“The Finn collects exotic weapons,” Lucas said, nudging the wrist of a second body with the tip of his cane. “Have you scanned them for implants, Finn?”

“Yeah. Pain in the butt. Hadda carry ’em downstairs to the back room. Nothing, other than what you’d expect. They’re just a hit team.” He sucked his teeth noisily. “Why’s anybody wanna hit
me?

“Maybe you sold them a very expensive product that wouldn’t do its job,” Lucas volunteered.

“I hope you aren’t sayin’
you
sent ’em, Lucas,” the Finn said levelly, “unless you wanna see me do the dog-food trick.”

“Did I say you’d sold us something that doesn’t work?”

“ ‘Experiencing difficulties,’ you said. And what else have you guys bought from me recently?”

“Sorry, Finn, but they’re not ours. You know it, too.”

“Yeah, I guess I do. So what the fuck’s got you down here, Lucas? You know that stuff you bought wasn’t covered by the usual guarantees . . .”

 

“You know,” said the Finn, after listening to the story of Bobby’s abortive cyberspace run, “that’s some weird shit out there.” He slowly shook his narrow, strangely elongated head. “Didn’t used to be this way.” He looked at Lucas. “You people know, don’t you?”

They were seated around a square white table in a white room on the ground floor, behind the junk-clogged storefront. The floor was scuffed hospital tile, molded in a nonslip pattern, and the walls broad slabs of dingy white plastic concealing dense layers of antibugging circuitry. Compared to the storefront, the white room seemed surgically clean. Several alloy tripods bristling with sensors and scanning gear stood around the table like abstract sculpture.

“Know what?” Bobby asked. With each retelling of his story, he felt less like a wilson. Important. It made him feel important.

“Not you, pisshead,” the Finn said wearily. “Him. Big hoodoo man. He knows. Knows it’s not the same. . . . Hasn’t been, not for a long time. I been in the trade forever. Way back. Before the war, before there was any matrix, or anyway before people
knew
there was one.” He was looking at Bobby now. “I got a pair of shoes older than you are, so what the fuck should I expect you to know? There were cowboys ever since there were computers. They built the first computers to crack German ice, right? Codebreakers. So there was ice before computers, you wanna look at it that way.” He lit his fifteenth cigarette of the evening, and smoke began to fill the white room.

“Lucas knows, yeah. The last seven, eight years, there’s been funny stuff out there, out on the console cowboy circuit. The new jockeys,
they make deals with things,
don’t they, Lucas? Yeah, you bet I know; they still need the hard and the
soft, and they still gotta be faster than snakes on ice, but all of ’em, all the ones who really know how to cut it, they got
allies,
don’t they, Lucas?”

Lucas took his gold toothpick out of his pocket and began to work on a rear molar, his face dark and serious.

“Thrones and dominions,” the Finn said obscurely. “Yeah, there’s things out there. Ghosts, voices. Why not? Oceans had mermaids, all that shit, and we had a sea of silicon, see? Sure, it’s just a tailored hallucination we all agreed to have, cyberspace, but anybody who jacks in knows, fucking
knows
it’s a whole universe. And every year it gets a little more crowded, sounds like . . .”

“For us,” Lucas said, “the
world
has always worked that way.”

“Yeah,” the Finn said, “so you guys could slot right into it, tell people the things you were cutting deals with were your same old bush gods . . .”

“Divine Horsemen . . .”

“Sure. Maybe you believe it. But I’m old enough to remember when it wasn’t like that. Ten years ago, you went in the Gentleman Loser and tried telling any of the top jocks you talked with ghosts in the matrix, they’d have figured you were crazy.”

“A wilson,” Bobby put in, feeling left out and no longer as important.

The Finn looked at him, blankly. “A what?”

“A wilson. A fuck-up. It’s hotdogger talk, I guess . . .” Did it again. Shit.

The Finn gave him a very strange look. “Jesus. That’s your word for it, huh? Christ. I
know
the guy . . .”

“Who?”

“Bodine Wilson,” he said. “First guy I ever knew wound up as a figure of speech.”

“Was he stupid?” Bobby asked, immediately regretting it.

“Stupid? Shit, no, he was smart as hell.” The Finn stubbed his cigarette out in a cracked ceramic Campari ashtray. “Just a total fuck-up, was all. He worked with the Dixie Flatline once. . . .” The bloodshot yellow eyes grew distant.

“Finn,” Lucas said, “where did you get that icebreaker you sold us?”

The Finn regarded him bleakly. “Forty years in the business, Lucas. You know how many times I’ve been asked that
question? You know how many times I’d be dead if I’d answered it?”

Lucas nodded. “I take your point. But at the same time, I put one to you.” He held the toothpick out toward the Finn like a toy dagger. “The real reason you’re willing to sit here and bullshit is that you think those three stiffs upstairs have something to do with the icebreaker you sold us. And you sat up and took special notice when Bobby told you about his mother’s condo getting wiped, didn’t you?”

The Finn showed teeth. “Maybe.”

“Somebody’s got you on their list, Finn. Those three dead ninjas upstairs cost somebody a lot of money. When they don’t come back, somebody’ll be even more determined, Finn.”

The red-rimmed yellow eyes blinked. “They were all tooled up,” he said, “ready for a hit, but one of ’em had some other things. Things for asking questions.” His nicotine-stained fingers, almost the color of cockroach wings, came up to slowly massage his short upper lip. “I got it off Wigan Ludgate,” he said, “the Wig.”

“Never heard of him,” Lucas said.

“Crazy little motherfucker,” the Finn said, “used to be a cowboy.”

 

How it was,
the Finn began, and to Bobby it was all infinitely absorbing, even better than listening to Beauvoir and Lucas,
Wigan Ludgate had had five years as a top jock, which is a decent run for a cyberspace cowboy. Five years tends to find a cowboy either rich or brain-dead, or else financing a stable of younger cracksmen and strictly into the managerial side. The Wig, in his first heat of youth and glory, had stormed off on an extended pass through the rather sparsely occupied sectors of the matrix representing those geographical areas which had once been known as the Third World.

Silicon doesn’t wear out; microchips were effectively immortal. The Wig took notice of the fact. Like every other child of his age, however, he knew that silicon
became obsolete,
which was worse than wearing out; this fact was a grim and accepted constant for the Wig, like death or taxes, and in fact he was usually more worried about his gear falling behind the state of the art than he was about death (he was twenty-two) or taxes (he didn’t file, although he paid a
Singapore money laundry a yearly percentage that was roughly equivalent to the income tax he would have been required to pay if he’d declared his gross). The Wig reasoned that all that obsolete silicon had to be going somewhere. Where it was going, he learned, was into any number of very poor places struggling along with nascent industrial bases. Nations so benighted that the concept of nation was still taken seriously. The Wig punched himself through a couple of African backwaters and felt like a shark cruising a swimming pool thick with caviar. Not that any one of those tasty tiny eggs amounted to much, but you could just open wide and
scoop,
and it was easy and filling and it added up. The Wig worked the Africans for a week, incidentally bringing about the collapse of at least three governments and causing untold human suffering. At the end of his week, fat with the cream of several million laughably tiny bank accounts, he retired. As he was going out, the locusts were coming in; other people had gotten the African idea.

BOOK: Count Zero
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