an extract from the novel
by Simon Ings
This is the first chapter of Simon Ings's third novel, Hotwire, which was first published in 1995. Ings's new novel, Headlong - a crime thriller set in London in the near future - will be published in the UK by HarperCollins in February 1999.
Shama wandered off in search of shells. The old man and his grandson tucked the blanket round their shoulders, watching her. The deep blue of her dress matched the colour of the sky. She edged forward after a retreating wave and plucked up a white lozenge, larger than her hand. The old man examined it. He said, "It's a cuttlefish shell." She went off again and found three more.
The boy, her brother, said: "Last week we found the skeleton of a duck, in the field behind our house. There were feathers all over the place, but the skeleton was picked clean."
The old man said nothing.
"Look at the moon!" The boy pointed at the water.
The sea was still as a swimming pool, deep as the sky above them. It was so calm, the reflection so clear, you could see the moon's face.
"Is there a man in the moon?" said the boy.
"Not any more," the old man smiled. "Your grandma and I stuck a knife in its guts, years ago."
(Later, back home, at bed-time, the old man will come into the boy's room and say goodnight. He will sit on the boy's bed and bend his head and let the boy worm his fingers through his thinning hair till he finds the neat, triangular scar.
And the old man will say: "Cobwebs and treasure, half-eaten digestives and dust.")
Shama returned with her pockets full of shells.
The old man led his grandchildren to the car. They drove back through the foothills of the Central Range. As they climbed, the boy looked out the rear window. The rice fields and the swamps of Caroni glittered in the moonlight.
He looked up.
The moon was less bright now, blurred by faint cloud. The haze was a halo: the white of an eye. The moon was its glistening pupil.
Six years passed. The morning boat from Cuba slid up the beach at Port of Spain, heat eddies spilling out its fans like glassy storm-tossed hair. Two men in zoot suits disembarked. Strange gangland retro from Havana: matt black wrapshades, spats, the works. By night they strutted provocatively among the negroes of Cordoba. By day they haunted the pink and white houses of San Fernando, standing at street corners, scanning veterans with a home-made spectrometer hidden in a briefcase.
They got mugged in broad daylight.
Wising up at last, they went south, where the vultures lumber from one apocalyptic concrete shell to the next -- homes for the poor with communal sanitation! -- and dusty, wrinkled children sit, one to each patch of shade, whittling toy guns out of old planks, silent, unsmiling and patient as old men.
They paid the local whores for likely contacts. One time the girl even chauffeured them to the door. She was owed money: turning up with a pair of overdressed Cubans, she thought, would give her an edge.
But she was too easily freaked. "You won't need them," she said, seeing their guns. "You won't. Christ." She got out the car.
A shaky plank spanned the gutter. She led them along an unlit dirt path to the door. Through the window, they saw six young blacks lounging about on cushions, broken sofas, the floor. They were wearing jumpers of some indeterminate, bleached-out colour, and jeans torn across the thigh.
The door was open. The girl walked straight in. The men within heard her, glanced out the window, then turned back in on themselves, unworried, relaxed: open house.
The room was lit by two naked bulbs. Instead of shades, they had tacked cloths up on the ceiling, and light spilled from folds in the cloth in unexpected ways. The cloth was thick and cream-coloured, like artist's canvas. They had painted it with whatever came to hand. Turmeric paste. Beetroot. Sump oil. Here and there they'd cut designs into the fabric. Flowers, grotesque faces and guitars were full of out-rushing light.
On the opposite wall hung a strip torn from a hoarding -- part of a make-up advertisement. The model's eyes stared through the newcomers as they entered: huge, mascara'd, indifferent eyes.
There was no matting. The furniture -- a mattress, a table, a few battered wooden chairs and a sofa with a rent cover -- had been scavenged from skips. There was a cast iron stove, its top thick with ash and spent matches, connected to the chimney breast by a foil hose. The men were gathered in a circle round the stove, chaining cigarettes. They did not look up.
The Cubans contemplated their hosts nervously. They felt conspicuous and foolish. Their sharp clothes looked like uniforms, and their shoes were too new.
The taller man cleared his throat. "Any all you been to war?"
The young men shook their heads and smiled. No eye-contact. A bad sign.
"Eyes, prosthetics, anything." The shorter added, helpfully, "Top dollar paid. Excision in the comfort of your own home. MacLloyd's insurance."
Someone hawked spit onto the stove-top. It sizzled. The young men smiled secretly at one another.
The taller Cuban muttered something fowl in a foreign language. He took a phial from his pocket. "Or we've zee-bee fifteen. A quarter ounce, lab grade, for information leading to."
The young men's smiles dropped. They looked at their guests. "We know a man," the nearest said. He turned to the youngest of their group. "But I don't know we want to tell."
"No way," the boy said, staring at them all like they'd already betrayed him. "He's -- Christ, what are you thinking of? He ain't for sale."
"A relative?" the tall Cuban enquired. "Let me assure--"
"He just ain't suitable is all."
"That we can decide, if you'll excuse. Our diagnostics are the best--"
"We have all current permits, papers--"
"A portable autoclave-"
An uncomfortable silence descended.
The taller man rummaged in his pocket. "I can see you boys know what I'm offering. Here, that's half an ounce ZB15 to introduce--"
"He can't," the boy said, "he's too old!"
"How old?" the shorter man demanded. "Chilean campaign?"
"Hell no," said the whore, at the open door. She had returned bearing bottled beers on a tray. "Moonwolf."
The buyers turned and stared at her, the boy, each other.
"You stupid, big-mouthed bitch," the boy murmured, reddening.
"Hi, Ajay." She rubbed her fingers and thumb together: where's-the-money?
Ajay looked at his feet. He shook his head.
His friends stirred uneasily.
The whore's smile was cruel. "The old fart flattened railguns in Tranquility, you buy his grandson's tales."
The old man lived in an elaborate, tumble-down two storey wooden house, all fretwork and jalousies.
The house had been built for an estate overseer. Back then, you could stand on your verandah under a canvas awning and look down to where the year's cocoa crop reflected the light in waves. Now only the occasional immortelle tree, with bird-shaped scarlet and orange flowers, marked the old plantation tracks, and the sugar cane fields had long since been over-run by the oil refineries of Pointe-à-Pierre.
They waited for nightfall -- tall Cuban, short Cuban -- in an old army surplus bush hide, side by side, hardly moving an inch. They whispered together, disconsolate, fretful. Around ten the house lights went off one by one.
They slipped on night glasses and used the boy's keycard to get them inside.
Chinese hangings decorated the walls. There was a tiger skin by the fire. In the centre of the room stood a mahogany dining table big enough to seat twenty. Sideboards and antimacassars lined the walls. The effect was odd and disappointing: the room did not seem lived in at all, but more like a storeroom.
They crept upstairs. They found the old man in bed. They hypoed him while he slept and shaved off his hair with a battery clipper. They found the scar.
"Oh Jesus, man."
"Man, I read about these!"
"Yeah?" The taller Cuban -- who was also the older of the two -- took a step back. "Y'know, I once heard they're boobied."
"Oh bullshit, Gabby," the short one complained. "You know shit about techniq." He traced the scar with his fingers, gingerly. His hand was shaking.
Gabriel chuckled. Bullshitting the young was so easy.
"Unlock the coolbox," the younger man muttered. From inside his jacket he drew out a wood chisel. It was still in its blister pack. He'd lifted it from a hardware store only that morning. He felt along the scar, like he knew what he was doing, then pressed the business end of the chisel against the old man's skull. "Find me a book or something. Heavy, not too hard."
Gabriel bent down, picked up a walking boot. "This do, Raul?"
Raul rapped the chisel with the boot heel. The old man's scalp tore. Blood ran into the pillow.
"No, something heavier. A mallet sort of thing."
Gabriel found a wooden box on the window ledge. "Look," he said, delighted. "You turn the pegs, it changes the date in these little windows."
Raul weighed it in his hand. He struck. A vein burst. Dark liquor dribbled over the blade, through the old man's hair and soaked the sheets beneath.
"You want I go look downstairs?"
"Yeah. No. Hang on." Raul wobbled the chisel about in the wound. "There's a catch around here." He prised at the opening. Something snapped. A flake of bone erupted through the skin above the entry wound. Raul took hold of it and pulled it out, tearing another vessel. Brighter blood this time. He let go the chisel and wiped his hands on the man's pyjamas. Blood ran down the shaft of the chisel, wetting the handle. He plucked the chisel up, cursing, and wiped it off as best he could. He pressed the blade into the wound again and slightly to the left. It grated round the hole, jumped out and scored a ragged wound across the crown. "This is no good," Raul muttered. He crawled up onto the bed and braced himself, knees wide apart, above the old man's head. "Now. Hold him still."
Gabriel pushed the sleeves of his jacket up round his elbows and leaned across the bed. He pulled the pillows out the way and braced the old man's head against the mattress.
Raul dug in with the chisel. His hands kept slipping on the shaft.
"You sure you got the right place?"
As if in reply the chisel slipped inch-deep through the old man's skull. Raul let go, surprised.
"You silly sod."
"Shut up, Gabby," Raul breathed, "just shut up. Keep hold of his head." He wrenched the chisel down. Gabriel lost his grip, his fingers slipping on the bloody skin. "Hold him still, I said."
"You'll wreck him."
"Get away, then. Let me do it." Raul shook the blade about.
"Leave off!" the older man protested. "You'll jelly it all. I'll hold him, you lever. Steady now." He reached inside the old man's mouth, and hooked his finger's round his palate. "Okay. Gentle to start."
Raul pulled. Nothing gave.
"Hold on." Gabriel put his other hand inside the man's mouth, stretching his cheeks so hard the lip-corners tore and blood ran into his ears. Now Gabriel had hold of his lower jaw too, and he was using it like a lever. "Go on."
They heaved in opposite directions. Cartilage crackled and tore. The jaw began to pull free.
Gabriel took his hands away.
"We've got it." Raul levered the chisel. A triangular segment of skull sprang up. The skin over it stretched like sheet elastic. Raul let the chisel go. The skin sprang back into shape, snapping the lid shut.
"Cut the skin."
Raul carved up the old man's scalp and tried again. The hatch came free. Raul put his fingers inside and prised it up from the inside. It was badly buckled. Raul forced it. A hinge snapped. Pink juice spattered his face. He wrenched the lid off, tossed it onto the bed. Gabriel picked it up and examined it. On its inside surface, slimed over with a greenish jelly, a decal glimmered, chrome and gold:
Gabriel pocketed the find, then crawled up onto the bed. He watched attentively as Raul dug greedily away at the jelly.
The cavity was disappointingly small.
It was empty.
Gabriel and Raul stared into the hole.
Raul spat. "Son of a bitch is stripped already!"
Gabriel cleared his throat. "Raul," he began, carefully, "That jelly. It was just packing, wasn't it? It wasn't--"
Raul shook his head bad-temperedly. "Datafat is creamy white. All knobbly, like a clam's insides. And hot: a fast metabolism. It's not lime fucking jello." He ran his finger over the back of the cavity. The old man's legs spasmed. "Hey, look here." The back wall was textured. It looked for all the world like bubble wrap. Raul whistled, reverently. "Get the coolbox up here."
"The interface is still intact."
"It looks like bubble-wrap to me." Still, he fetched the box.
"Placental data bus," Raul intoned. "It's this webs datafat to human CNS. Delicate as hell. You got a pen knife?"
Gabriel picked out the sharpest blade on his Swiss Army combo.
"Cheers. Sit on him."
"Just sit on him."
Gabriel mounted the man's quivering hips, sat down on him.
"Okay." Raul began to cut.
The old man let out a dreadful sound, as loud and crude as a horse's neigh, nothing human about it at all.
Raul went on cutting.
The old man started to shake all over. He snorted and gurgled: a horrible sound, like paper being shredded in a faulty waste disposal.
Gabriel felt hot wet seep up his groin. "Oh fuck." He lept off the bed, tugging at his pants.
The old man pissed himself copiously. A musky sweetness filled the room. He arched his back like it would break, kicked and flailed and bounced over the bed, sending bloody spray over the headboard, the wall, Raul's face--
"For fuck's sake keep him still!" Raul yelled.
The old man's arm shot out, knocking the coolbox off the bed. Gabriel dived for it, missed. It fell to the tiled floor. Glass shattered.
Gabriel got up off the floor and looked.
Raul was standing on the other side of the bed, grinning, holding aloft a bloody rag.
The body meantime spasmed, shook -- lay still.
Gabriel retrieved the coolbox and examined its insides. "It's just the shelving snapped," he said. He shook the glass out and pointed to the panel set into the lid. "Look, all the little lights are green."
"Put this away." Raul handed him the sticky scrap, and slumped to the floor, his back against the bed. "Boy, am I tired."
Gabriel stowed the scrap away in special patent packaging.
Headlights swirled across the ceiling, blinding them. They cursed, tore off their night goggles, scrambled to the window.
"It's that little sod."
"No," said Gabriel. "He ain't got no car."
A white Fiat pulled up outside the house.
"It's not -- there, satisfied?"
A girl got out. Long lacquered hair. Long neck. Long legs. Her skin was black as night. She approached the house and disappeared under the verandah canopy. Below, they heard the front door open.
"What do we do?"
"Go say hello."
"You crazy, Gab?"
Raul had never seen Gabriel grin before. It was not pleasant. "Leave it, Gab," he said, "I'm tired. I just want out of here."
"Give me the chisel."
"Oh for God's sake-"
"It's on the bed."
"I won't be long," Gabriel promised, standing at the open door.
Raul sighed: they'd been here before.
He looked round for something to stuff in his ears.
Ajay moved to Cordoba to be near his sister. He worked a night shift, slept from eight till one, and spent his afternoons in an ancient and defeated corner house near the hospital.
'Chumi's Eats' had been built years ago, in the days of British occupancy. Back then it had impersonated a Lyons' tea-room. Now it lay becalmed, peeling quietly in the heat, cut adrift from the road behind a row of glass recycling drums. A sign by the door, meticulously lettered in red permanent marker, said: 'Try our meals and you will know', but its bleach-yellow melamine tables, its floor with half the tiles missing, the others curled treacherously to catch the foot, and the grease stains on the walls offered a diner only the most tawdry revelations.
The proprietress was a fat woman who had something wrong with her eyes. They looked as if they had never gelled properly. She worked from seven to seven, silent, companionless, sliding about the floor on her ketchup-flecked mules, dishing out indifferently fried food without comment or smile.
He ate nothing there, but drank endless cups of Indian-style tea. Cardamom, clove, lots of sugar.
The doctors were locals. They had learned their bedside manner off the evening soaps. They said 'she is lucky to be alive' and 'there's a slim chance she'll make it'. But Shama had never been that close to death, nor was she lucky to be living. Death -- as his work often reminded him -- can sometimes be a kindness.
Shama neither accused him nor forgave him. Silence was her weapon: the only one she had. Her natural weapons were all irreparably damaged: her hands, her tongue, even her sex.
He worked from four till twelve: a night policeman, patrolling the industrial estates of Pointe-à-Pierre. It was not a long shift, but it was all the station chief would allow him until he'd worked out the six months' probation. He did not like the job, but it paid well, and he needed the money for his sister. Fingers cost five thousand dollars a-piece for the techniq alone. Thumbs were double. She needed much else and the whole enterprise was unimaginably costly.
He had it all worked out. He sent away for prospectuses from Europe's leading clinics, recording techniques and prices in a thin blue hard-back notebook he kept under his bed. In his current job, provided he did well, passed all his exams first time and had no major illnesses or career setbacks, paying for his sister's recuperation would take him most of his working life.
He was not well liked. There was a depth to him that made his workmates uneasy. Someone that wounded, you didn't know what it did to them inside. He lacked the brashness of his fellows. When he buttoned the handgun into his holster, you knew it was because he needed it. He lacked self-confidence and was prone to silly rages.
He had one friend: Kayam, an old beat policeman, demoted from sergeant for drunkenness years ago, and still employed only because the station chief remembered him from the old days. Kayam worked mornings. They met for breakfast. Their conversation was desultory at best. In fact they never really talked to each other, but rather recited whatever it was came into their heads.
Ajay would say: "I saw a tramp, and he was eating pickled onions. He poured the vinegar through his fingers and it ran all down his trousers -- just to get at the onions at the bottom of the jar." And Kayam would reply with: "Yesterday there was a pile of fresh turds on top of the shrine at the corner of Binglai and Circuit, behind the charcuterie." Or maybe, "The fruit in the vending machine outside my office is stale. Already I can smell it from my desk."
The city's police headquarters occupied an anonymous white stone building, its function identifiable only by two armoured vehicles parked by the wide arched entrance. They were camouflaged in the old McKnight Kauffer designs of the British army. The designs were recent; they had been copied out of books.
It seemed to Ajay that nothing in Trinidad came from Trinidad any more, but rather sprang fully formed from someplace else. Most often, from tv. The office for instance: once a typing pool in the days of colonial government, it was nothing more than an archetype or parody of the sets used by American police procedurals. There really were wise-cracking prostitutes trading insults and little packets of ZB15 with bored, chain-smoking plain-clothes men, and there was always at least one frightened little snitch sitting cross-legged on a pew in the corner. Occasionally there was even a detective with three days' stubble, asleep at his desk, his head cushioned on piles of beige folders, spilled ashtrays and empty styrofoam coffee cups. He was called Cuffy and earned fifteen thousand dollars a year. Ajay had never seen him awake. There was a water dispenser with disposable paper cones stacked next to it, and even a glass walled office in which the station chief sat contemplating his next move in some complex case or other. Behind his desk was a wall-map of the islands.
One morning he called Ajay into his office.
"Officer Seebaran, sit down." He didn't like Ajay either. It galled him that Ajay was the brightest of the new intake. But that, in its way, was its own resolution. It meant Ajay could be got rid of.
"I'm sending you on a course," he said. "In Cuba."
Ajay had to pay his own fare. The plane was expensive, so he took the boat. He sat on the deck, watching his homeland recede in the dusk. As he was leaving, he was surprised to find himself looking at things clearly again, the way he'd looked at them when he was a child.
There was a strange tenseness to everything. The quality of the evening light made the land seem overshadowed, as though something stirring and dramatic were about to happen. Then there was the heat, the preternatural clarity of the air, the way the eye adjusted to the scale of the hills, only to glimpse the further hills beyond, and over all the rising of the moon. . .
As the island disappeared, he felt the mood leaving him. He did not want it to go, so he made his usual mistake: a small china pipe of ZB15.
He never smoked enough to lose control of his hallucinations, the way most people did.
Unlike most people, he had something worth hallucinating about.
He looked up at the moon and fantasized about his grandfather's war.
VR, P-casting and the rest had all come to Trinidad at last but he had never bothered with them, they were too expensive, and so all his images were drawn from tv. Antique, low bandwidth telemetry. The cries and oaths of long-dead spacemen. The rest came from his grandfather. It was he who had described how his ship's scanners had picked out Moonwolf's bones, running beneath the shallow crust of the mare imbrium. Battle-time neared. Cross-hairs nested his vision. Moonwolf's underground fistulae and ganglia glowed in many colours behind his eyes. The image of the moon swelled as he plummeted towards it; then disappeared. Wire-diagrams filled his field of view, pulsing, and--
He watched in horror as the lunar flesh ripped asunder, revealing weapons both new and terrible...
In Cuba, he learned all about VR, P-casting and the rest. They taught him the basics about datafat, prosthetics, organ-legging, wetware piracy. At the end of a year they dropped him undercover into the streets of the capital.
Since its tawdry heyday, history had homogenized Havana. Not much more now than an affect negative sprawl of light industry and tract housing, it was the sort of place that when a plastic bag blows across the street you stare after it hungrily, trying to fix its colour in your mind. Strung above the main streets were flags of countries half of which no longer existed. Between the flags hung textured plastic shapes painted with fluorescent paint, meant to resemble glimpses through the glades of long-dead jungles. They were promises: ill-conceived, inadequate promises of some better land, buried behind the mundane streets.
Havana was a city that kicked against its own incapacity, the way an Alzheimer's patient might kick furiously at a door he has forgotten how to open. It was desperate to find some place better than itself. Or, failing that, at least forget what it had become. There were the usual forms of escape: seeing-eye dolls, hypertext cassettes, pornographic games and toys, showrooms full of second-hand REALize gear. For the poor, there were tv repair shops. There were so many, Ajay wondered what sort of damage tvs suffered here. He imagined the children of Havana, desperate for release, taking turns to hammer at the flickering screen with an unthawed tv dinner, in the hope of climbing through.
The more unusual escape routes were Ajay's concern. For him this involved wandering into REALize parlours and watching as nurses in insufficient uniforms and too much make-up strapped their jaded clients into customized REALize booths: all safeties off. What he saw was so strange, so methodical, so deliberate, the horror of it never quite registered. What he remembered most was the noise. Obscene screeching: monkeys on cybernetic racks.
His investigations led him to the richer quarters of the city, where appetites, obsessions and dreams become profitably entangled. Here no-one moved an inch without they were fingering their walkman, talkman, thinkman. They were men and women for whom the internal landscape of their dreams over-rode all concern for the world without, which was strange because, in this narrow grid of streets, Havana had at least a superficial beauty, its facades lit by cobalt blue neon and blood-rose red, and its windows full of whores, some human, most just mannekins, painted to look like they came from another planet entirely, their machinery exposed under scanty lace and black strapping; a gloss upon a gloss upon a gloss.
There was nothing candid about this place. Nothing warm. Nothing that was not glossed or ironised. If you were raped here, the passers-by would gather round to judge the performance.
Whenever his investigations yielded fruit, Ajay brought his informants back to headquarters: a disused hospital on the edge of town. It satisfied him to bring them there. He enjoyed their dismay. There was nothing in these corridors, their walls recently daubed with cheap paint that still smelled, their red tiled floors smeared with the wheel marks of trolleys and wheelchairs, to inspire hope.
Then there was the waiting room. It had been a chapel: there was a faint outline on the wall where a crucifix had hung. Beneath it sat a Rathbone dental unit, piled high with empty boxes for Carmel sweet potatoes.
After an hour or so he led his suspects down stairs littered with dead pigeons to the basement. The cells there had thick walls; their cavities filled with foam offcuts and strips of old carpet. There were plug points set high in their walls, and too many switches. The water spigots and iron fitments had been removed, and the walls themselves had been whitewashed; but the floors sloped perceptibly toward small open drains at the back of each cell. Anyone who knew any history could guess what these rooms had been built for.
But they had taught Kayam more effective interrogation methods, and he applied them well, getting better results than any amount of high voltage could have elicited. The information he received led him to a house on Chilik Street.
Now he risked everything. His name, his career, his wages.
It was a calculated risk. He had been allowing for it for some time now; ever since he knew he was coming to Havana.
He rang in sick, buckled on his service revolver and went alone to Chilik Street.
The house was deserted. The window frames had been crudely painted in red and white. Dribbles of paint lined the glass like bars. The view inside was obscured by swirls of green paint applied with a rag like whitewash. The sills were rotten, the garden bare but for a few weeds, the path littered with discarded sweet wrappers.
The door opened easily enough. The rooms were empty, choked with dust. Ajay peered into the bath room.
They had been lying there too long, and looked nothing like themselves. Had he not seen them in the flesh, years before -- were their faces not burned into his memory -- he could not have identified them. They were naked and so rotten, the slats and webbing of their home-made REALize machine had buried itself in their flesh. The machine had bent them into impossible positions. The jacks to their genitals and their helmets were still in place. Only forensics could tell whether a mechanical or software failure was responsible for their deaths.
He was strangely and deeply disappointed by what he saw. He had always imagined them devilish, full of blind, inhuman passion. But he saw now that their bloody industry had been all in-turned. They'd bust open his grandad's head -- and the heads of who knew how many others -- only so they might afford inferior VR themselves!
REALize! The sort of cheap escape any mildly repressed clerk might use to play out the petty sicknesses inside him.
No devil-wrack had swept his sister into endless nightmare, but the paltry compulsions of escapists, torn apart at last by faulty pornware!
He mutilated them anyway, because it was what he had promised himself, but he left off after a minute or two. The smell was too bad. Anyway, some higher agency had already arranged their appropriate destruction, and it seemed a pity to disturb it.
For that reason also, he never reported his discovery of wanted felons Raul Sabuco and Gabriel Ulloa. A neighbour's complaint about the smell brought them to light.
Ajay got his promotion anyway. He was seconded to the Agency and applied for military training in Rangoon. His flight was paid for. His bonuses came through.
He bought his sister a new tongue.
© Simon Ings 1995, 1998
Hotwire is published in the UK by HarperCollins.
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