The crowds bored him, as they always did at the end of a book tour. Michael looked at the faces and sighed and shifted his brain to autopilot. He had performed this bit of high drama often enough that he could do it by rote now.
He began by thanking the university for inviting him. They hadn’t; he had rented the room for his latest promotional tour–all that SFU had done was cash his cheque.
But for a moment, when he ordered the lights turned low and launched into his monologue, he felt an echo of that familiar high of discovery–of showing the masses what was really going on in the shadows around them. Of knowing the truth.
“I’ve devoted the past three years of my life to investigating what really happened in Nicaragua,” he told the crowd. “Their so-called civil war was a front for clandestine genetics research. That’s how these people work: they pick out a place and build a story for the press around it that discourages visitors, then they move in and set up shop.”
The auditorium was smaller than those he was used to in the States. Little more than a classroom, in fact. The chairs were metal contraptions with hard black plastic seats that were likely uncomfortable as hell; Michael was glad he was on his feet. He stood behind the slide projector, his hand wrapped loosely around the control button that trailed a long coiling black cord to the projector.
He thumbed the red button; the screen before him flickered. “What you see here are the trailers the CIA uses to ship their equipment. This is all state-of-the-art. Two of these contain computer equipment that won’t be on the market for another five years.”
Vancouver was late in Michael Wynan’s book tour. While he talked, he surveyed the crowd–the same crowd that always came to his seminars.
For a moment he thought back to the launch of his first book: UFOs and the CIA Conspiracy. All that research. He’d been terrified when he stumbled upon the truth, but he’d been brave enough to publish it. He’d expected a bullet in the back of his skull for years afterwards. It had never come.
Sometimes he hoped it would; people needed something to wake them up, to show them how serious it all was.
To this day he wished he’d managed to find photos of the experiments on those creatures who crashed near Roswell. When he’d finished his first book he’d felt like he was about to break the lid off the whole array of wheels within wheels, plots buried in plots. He knew there were things out there in the backstage of the world that he could find if he looked hard enough. And he felt back then that he was making people aware of them.
But after his sixth book he could see that he was preaching to the converted. He saw the same faces at his seminars. The same people came to his book signings, the same assortment of serious researchers and paranoid nut-bars wrote him letters.
He’d hit a ceiling, and beyond it were the great masses of humanity who didn’t give a flying bugfuck about what their governments were doing. All those kids who disappeared year after year? He’d heard whispers that they were in laboratories in Peru, off in the Andes mountains, their bodies being harvested for organ transplants to keep Richard Nixon alive–old Tricky Dicky had beat death and nobody cared. And UFOs? He had the proof: they were secret weapons developed by the Nazis-except those that really were from other planets, of course.
His latest book was called Gene Takers: the Real Story of Nicaragua. As usual he had been appalled by what he’d found. And also as usual, he had to bring the truth to the masses.
Michael checked back with his mouth and found that it was winding up his presentation. “Can I have the lights, please?” he called.
He blinked at the sudden brightness. Then he strode to the front of the room. A sip from his water bottle on the table lubricated his mouth–the air-conditioning in these places gave his throat a sandpaper lining.
He put his hands in the pockets of his professional black pants. “That’s all for this evening. Now I’ll take any questions you may have.”
A small long-haired woman in the front row stood up. “How does this connect with the secret work at abortion clinics?”
Michael smiled at her. Her name was…what? Sheila? He knew her from his previous seminars. “Fetal tissue is valuable to these scientists. You wouldn’t believe the genetics experiments they’ve performed on the unborn. Some of those experiments have been secretly implanted into women who aren’t able to have children themselves. That’s why people have to be careful with clinics that offer fertility treatment and artificial insemination. I’ve found evidence of clones being implanted in these poor women.”
Michael wasn’t entirely sure what a clone was, but he knew it was bad.
“What about all the stuff that the American government has put in orbit?” a man yelled out. “Is it true their spy satellites can read your handwriting?”
That question had nothing to do with the topic at hand, but Michael had written about it in his third (or was it his fourth?) book: How IBM Engineered the Cold War. “Yes, it’s true. I’ve got some of those pictures in my files. They’re incredible.” Well, actually, he didn’t have any photos; but he had a contact–a janitor–in a Department of Defense office in Denver who told him about them.
A mousy man whom Michael had also seen at other seminars got up. He clutched a threadbare brown trenchcoat around himself. “Michael.” His voice was high-pitched and whiny. He reminded Michael of himself in high school. “If you’ve found all this out, why doesn’t the government just get rid of you? You know, run you over with a bus, something like that.”
Michael had wondered about that himself for years; now he knew. He grinned at the crowd savagely. “They don’t dare–I’ve got them where I want them.” It sounded like a smug conceit, but Michael knew he was right. “The CIA and their lackeys want me dead, but if they lay a hand on me everybody will realize what’s happening. There are plenty of people in this room and around the globe who don’t quite believe it. If I vanish or have a so-called ‘accident’, all those people will know I’m on the right trail.”
The crowd buzzed at the revelation. Michael saw several open-mouthed fans glance at each other and nod with understanding. Sheila, the woman in front, was holding her newly autographed copy of Gene Takers against her stomach.
“Besides,” Michael said, “I’ve got my files scattered all over North America. If I vanish, in a few days all that information will be mailed to every major newspaper and magazine in the world, and sent out across the Internet.” This ploy, he thought, was brilliant. He didn’t know people scattered across the country who could do that for him, but he figured if he kept telling people he had done it he would be safe–the Agency would never track down any of his files, because they weren’t out there; and they would think he had been so clever at concealing them that even the CIA’s grunts couldn’t find them.
But there was no way he’d let his research fall into the hands of the media–CNN and the rest of them were all in the pocket of the Mafia. He was thinking of writing his next book about that.
Simon Fraser University’s campus in downtown Vancouver was in the Harbour Centre building, a monolith of concrete and glass that had what looked like a flying saucer (in reality a revolving restaurant) perched on its roof. It overlooked the water of the Burrard Inlet and afforded a view of the North Shore mountains.
Michael didn’t have time to stop and enjoy the view. His motel room awaited–he needed sleep desperately. Tomorrow morning would see the start of the long drive back to California.
The elevator took him to the underground carport; he strode to where his beat-up Dodge Charger was parked. He opened the hatchback and unloaded the box of his books that he had brought to the seminar. He hadn’t sold as many as he had expected. Maybe, he thought, people are starting to fall for the party line, to accept what’s happening around them. Fools.
The whiny voice startled him. He turned.
It was the little man he had seen in the audience. The man was darting towards him. He looked like a spy out of a movie…
Oh, hell, Michael thought. Another nutter. He slipped along the side of his car to the door.
But already the man was before him. “Michael. Great seminar.”
“Uh, thanks.” Michael pulled the door open.
“I have to talk to you.”
“I don’t have time for autographs now.”
“This is important. There are things you should know.”
“I really must go–”
“You’re right,” the man blurted. “About all of it.”
That got Michael’s attention. Intrigued, he lifted himself out of the car and looked at the man. “What do you mean?”
“I work for the Agency. And I’m telling you you’re right.”
Michael’s heart leaped. He pictured this rumpled little man drawing a pistol, its muzzle a long silver silencer. A thumping sound, and a bullet would be in his heart.
But the man was smiling. He had a slightly crazy look in his eyes, but that was probably typical of spies.
“You’re right,” the man said again. “And you’re right that we don’t dare lay a hand on you.”
Michael rested his right arm on the roof of his car. “I see. That’s all you wanted to tell me?”
“No, of course not.” The man leaned close. “I can only talk to you this once. You picked a good place for parking.” He motioned at the dirty concrete pillars and walls. “The bugs we put in your car can’t broadcast out of this dungeon.”
Bugs? In his car? Damn! “Why are you telling me this?”
The man rubbed his temples, then nervously he pushed the sleeves of his coat up his arms. “I was assigned to you a year ago. I’ve read everything you’ve published, I’ve been to your seminars, I’ve listened to you when you’re in your car, or at home–we have bugs in your house down in San Diego too.”
That revelation made Michael think of the five-minute masturbation on his living room couch the morning before he left.
“I know you better than you know yourself,” the man said. His cheeks twitched madly. “That’s the problem.” And suddenly his whole body began to tremble. “I’ve gone native. If my boss finds out I’ll be sent back to Nicaragua.”
“’Gone native’?” Michael asked.
“Field Regulation thirty-one dash B: ‘Avoid empathy with the surveillance subject’.” The man hunched his shoulders and drew a breath that whistled over his teeth. “Mike, I know everything about you. Where you grew up, who your friends were-everything.” He swallowed. “I’m not queer; that’s not what I’m getting at. But I’ve started thinking of you as a friend.”
Michael gaped at him.
“I’m serious. Sometimes when I’m on a long shift, listening in to you puttering around your house, I start talking to you. You know what I mean?”
This guy didn’t just ‘go native’, Michael thought; he went off the deep end.
Then Michael’s mind switched tracks. A friend in the Agency… That could be useful.
“Napoleon,” the man said.
“My code name. Napoleon.” He held out his hand. “Like in The Man from UNCLE.”
Napoleon had a wishy-washy handshake. Michael’s gaze found his arm, exposed when he had pushed his sleeve up. There were scars on his forearm, cut into the pale hairless strip between wrist and elbow.
Napoleon followed Michael’s look. His arm began to shake. “Nicaragua,” he said. “I was down there for a while. Looking after the cages.”
Napoleon shut his eyes tightly. “Don’t ask. You wouldn’t believe it. But you were right about it all. The monsters those bastards were making–my God.” His face contorted into a frightened, maniacal look that told Michael whatever had happened to him down there was more awful than Napoleon could say.
“You said I’m right,” Michael prompted. That was what he was most interested in hearing.
“Yes. You keep stumbling onto things we never thought anyone was smart enough to find. We’ve got records on you that fill six drawers of a filing cabinet. We have 40 agents on you all the time; hell, half your neighbours work for us.”
“I knew it!” He’d always suspected the Crandals and their kids had been planted to watch him. The kids were probably midgets–real kids didn’t make that much racket.
“You’ve got a high priority in the Agency,” Napoleon continued. “So we have to keep track of you.”
“Afraid I’ll discover the wrong thing?”
“Yes. So far we’ve managed to keep a lot of doors closed to you. But you were right back there during your seminar: we don’t dare touch you. That’s my job, actually.”
“What, not touching me?”
“You’re right that we don’t dare get rid of you, but you haven’t thought it through.” Napoleon laughed out loud, high and shrill. “What if you have a real accident? Everybody will think we did it; that will blow the lid off the Agency. The whole world will see that you’re absolutely right.”
That was the fourth time Napoleon had said he was right; Michael liked the sound of that. “Wow.”
“For a while we were thinking of replacing you–you know, with a double. But you’ve been too consistent: a new book every two years. And we don’t know who all your contacts are, and some of them will wonder if you aren’t in touch with them for a long while. And then there’s all that information you’ve hidden around the country–we haven’t found any of it yet. There’s the rub. We don’t dare make you have an accident. But more than that, we have to go out of our way to ensure your good health. I mean, what if you died of something like a bad case of flu? All that stuff you’ve hidden away will come out.
“And what if you had, say, a car accident–I mean a real accident? What if there was something that made it even slightly suspicious? The public would be on our asses like wolves on a rabbit.”
“You mean,” Michael said slowly, “you can’t even risk that I may have a genuine accident?”
“Exactly. When was the last time you had a shot?”
“Uh, I got a flu shot a few months ago.”
Napoleon snapped his fingers. “That must have been when our medical team did it.”
“I saw the records–your doctor, old man Taylor, works for us. You were coming down with bone cancer a year ago. We’ve got a cure for that–had it since the fifties. So the medical people included it in your flu shot.”
A plan began to form in the deep recesses of Michael’s mind.
Napoleon pounded his fist on the roof of Michael’s car. “This old heap? We installed remote-control gear in it years ago. We can take it over through a satellite at any time. If you’re about to run into something, we can pull you out of it. We’ve done it once or twice already. You’ve never noticed.”
Now that this man mentioned it, Michael remembered a few close calls; the more he thought about them, the more it all made sense. There was the time that old lady had cut him off with her oversize boat of a Chrysler New Yorker and he’d been sure he was going to hit her, and then he’d spun the wheel and made the corner…
No; now that he thought back, he hadn’t really spun the wheel–it had felt like the wheel had turned all by itself.
“Why are you telling me all this?” Michael demanded. “What do you get out of it?”
Napoleon’s face looked suddenly gaunt, his eyes sinking back into his sockets. “I told you why. And I just figured I wanted to meet the guy who has become the most important civilian in the world to the Agency.” He looked shyly at Michael. “You’re kind of a hero around the office. Nobody else has figured out so much from records that aren’t even classified. The brass never thought anybody could piece so much of what we’ve been doing together the way you have.”
From the time that Napoleon left him standing beside his car to when he got back to his east-end motel, Michael turned over in his mind all the man had told him. The bastards had to go out of their way to keep him alive. They even cured him of cancer. His mother had smoked her way under a granite tombstone. But for decades they could have wiped the cancer from her lungs. Damn them all.
When he reached his room, the idea that had begun to germinate in his mind blossomed. He thought about it all the while that he brushed his teeth and washed his face and peed. He crawled into the lumpy bed.
The idea was still there in the morning. And now he knew what he had to do.
Michael got into his car and set off into downtown Vancouver. He grinned to himself in the morning sun. Now he could prove that he knew the truth. They had given him the means; Napoleon had handed it to him without thinking.
They couldn’t let him be hurt. That was their mistake.
He picked his spot: the intersection of Georgia and Granville, amid towering office buildings. Crowds of witnesses moved along the sidewalks. He rolled his window down and yelled at the top of his lungs to draw attention to himself.
“Good,” he murmured. “Now watch closely, folks.”
He stepped on the gas.
Napoleon figured he’d have to see Michael Wynan three or four times in the next month. There was a lot he had to say before Wynan was ready. He spread cream cheese on his bagel, and glanced at the pub’s television. It sat on the edge of the oak bar. The local CBC channel showed a soap opera. The scars on Napoleon’s arm itched, as they always did when he was on the prowl.
The soap opera went to a commercial. A news flash followed the Tampax ad.
“…breaking news,” the boyish Asian journalist was saying when Napoleon noticed. “This comes live from downtown Vancouver. The writer Michael Wynan, in a bizarre display of reckless driving, plowed his blue Dodge Charger into a lamppost a few minutes before noon. Witnesses say it appeared deliberate…”
Napoleon froze in his chair. Oh no, he thought. Not now.
But already he could feel his facial muscles twisting, contorting out of his control. He leaped to his feet, jostling his half-full coffee cup, and stumbled to the corridor leading to the washrooms.
The well-lighted men’s room was empty. He shoved the door closed and fell against it. His mouth opened, the skin around his lips stretching painfully.
Somehow he made the scream silent. Orgasm and godhood together shot up his spine. His body shuddered. He tasted familiar welcome blood in his mouth where he had bitten his tongue. He gripped the doorknob behind him tightly, oblivious to the cold but warming metal.
The pleasure cut across his belly, knotting the muscles there until they were like a mass of snakes in a gunny sack. He slipped to the floor and curled up against the door.
Napoleon saw the past months of his life tumble across his mind’s gaze: weeks he had spent travelling the States, watching Michael Wynan, reading his books (they were crap), formulating the precise plan that could push the man across the line. He hadn’t expected Wynan to react so soon. The man must have been closer to that edge than Napoleon had expected.
He lay on the floor with the substance of his pleasure cooling and sticking to him within his trousers. He drew in an even breath and shut his eyes and listened to his heartbeat.
The final phase of the ritual remained. He rose and approached the sink. With enforced calm he drew his knife from the holster on his hip. The knife was called an Explorer. Its handle was dark maple, and looked like that of an old-style Derringer pistol. The shiny blade was shaped like a whale. He kept the edge rough and dull. Napoleon touched it to his right arm, tapped each of the seven scars there. He tracked up from the one nearest his wrist to that closest to his elbow, and then stepped the blade a quarter-inch beyond.
He forced himself to be solemn as he pressed the blade into his skin and pulled it back to part the flesh. Blood flowed.
Napoleon let precisely eight drops fall into the sink, then he tore a square of paper towel from the roll on his right. He folded the tough brown paper into a small square and pressed it over the wound. A strip of black electrical tape from the spool he carried in his pocket bound the tissue into place. He looked at the covered wound. Number eight. He laughed in silence.
As they always did at this moment, those years at the Institution came back to him. Doctor Laughlin, who wrote endless reports. Laughlin had been afraid of him. Laughlin had probably known he would become this.
The press would call him a serial killer, if anyone ever caught him. They never would. He had found the secret to satisfying his need, the means to do it without risk, the people who willingly became his prey.
Words were his weapon. They left no bullet hole or knife wound or bruises on a naked throat. Oh, most people were immune to his weapon, but there were plenty like Wynan–otherwise intelligent brains that overanalyzed their way straight into the well of fastidious gullibility. They were, when you knew the secret, the easiest of marks.
Napoleon rose unsteadily. He drew a deep sigh. He would take up the hunt again in a few months, when he found fresh meat to set his sights upon. But right now his coffee was getting cold.