The hood came off and I blinked in the anticipated spotlight. However, it was just a standard Anglepoise and I was cable-tied to a basic wooden chair, not a restraint-cum-waterboarding recliner. That shouted amateur, and amateur can be dodgy.

“Are you Mallory?” The voice was East End London with an undertone of anger. He was a big man in a black rollneck and camelhair car coat. Pretty much a walking cliché if you’re into retro gangland, but no less dangerous for all that.

Still, it never hurts to run your mouth. “I’d better be, buster, for your sake. Whoever hired you will be less than chuffed if you’ve lifted the wrong bloke. And I know you’re just muscle ’cos you and me, we have zero history.”

Rollneck’s gaze shifted to a point over my right shoulder.

“Quite correct, David – may I call you David?” Unseen had an inflection that reminded me of Peter Lorre. “The gentleman in front of you, and his two associates, are here to provide a physical inducement, should reason not prevail.”

I relaxed, just a little, as my assessment shifted from ‘amateur’ to ‘improvised’. “Well, I’m nothing if not a reasonable man. Known for it, in fact.”

“Excellent.” He sounded like a snake, smiling. “You recently commissioned a Finnish hacking team to breach the electronic defences of Hanesh-Gutzmann, a transnational corporation with a rapacious approach to the exploitation of natural resources. Do not be so tiresome as to issue a denial.”

My scalp tightened. He was talking about a blown deal, and I mean big time. I tried to keep the concern from my voice. “Yeah, yeah, I know the pair you mean. Nice lads, phone their mums every week.”

“Both now deceased.” He let it hang there.

I cleared my throat. “Yeah, well, the word is someone wanted to know what data had been lifted from H-G, then offed the interrogation team by proxy. Anonymous tipoff, gun battle with the police, no survivors.”

“It would appear tracks were being covered, as the saying goes. Presumably why it took so much time and effort to subsequently locate your good self.”

“Just being prudent. It’s not like I know the specifics.” I twisted my neck, trying to engage with the man behind me, but he was just a grey-on-black blur. “I never get involved with the product, just the ways and means.”

“Do not be so disingenuous, David. The art of being a good middleman is to never place client and actuator in direct contact. The package that passed through your hands, albeit electronically, you inspected it, did you not? Just being prudent.”

“I didn’t access it. No way.” I squirmed slightly in my chair. “I had a couple of exes take a shufti, sandbox mode, just in case.”

“And these expert systems, what did they discover?”

“That it was a construct, a personality construct. Bloody complex one as well. And, no, they didn’t get a name, passive analysis only. But trying to merge that shit with an AI?” I shook my head. “When you grabbed me, I thought you were the Turing boys, for sure.”

“Then you would be on the way to Geneva, David. To be interrogated by the cyber police – incarcerated, erased from history. This was proscribed technology of the highest order, and it was fortunate I found you first.”

“Yeah, I was just thinking that.”

“Now, as to your client, the supplier of the construct. ‘Earth Above All’ is their current incarnation within the environmentalist lobby. Very radical, very dangerous.”

I couldn’t keep the surprise from my voice. “But if you know…? Look, what’s going on? What is it you want?”

“Call it joining the dots, as the saying—”

There was a cry, cut short, from outside the room. Rollneck lifted a large-calibre revolver from the desk beside him.

The lamp went out.

I heard a door to my right open, but the corridor beyond was in darkness.

Rollneck fired twice, star-shell bright and cannon loud.

What could have been silenced gunfire in return.

The sound of knees landing on bare floorboards, a body hitting the floor.

Then … nothing.

Unseen hands cut the ties holding my forearms. I sensed movement around me, but remained seated, remained still, until an iPad was thrust into my hands.

“Mister Mallory. I trust you are well?” The man on the screen was heavy-set with a benign smile. You could almost call him jolly.

“Ah, yes, thanks.” I cleared my throat. “Should I even ask what’s going on?”

“You will shortly receive another package, another personality construct. You will have a team of icebreakers graft it onto the AI of Horst Energie. They will then be killed. There will be several such packages over the months to come.”

“Christ, you’re asking me to hand down a death sentence?”

“Omelets, eggs, you know how it goes. You’ll find me a generous employer, Mister Mallory, most generous, indeed.” His smile didn’t so much harden as solidify. “But one desirous of absolute discretion. Do I make myself clear?”

“As crystal.”

“Excellent! I’ve taken steps to exclude any further opportunistic groups from our supply chain. This location will be sanitized and you’ll be subject to close, but unobtrusive, protection from now on.”

“You mean monitored.”

He shrugged. “As you wish – but don’t be so naïve as to think it’s an offer you can refuse.”

“No, no, I understand. Look, given how goddam dangerous this will be, do I at least get to know who I’m working for?”

“Leon Hurst, at your service, if not in the flesh.”

“Yeah, well—” A dim memory tapped me on the shoulder, making me frown. “Sorry, I thought you were dead. You ran Temple, the drugs combine. What happened, forced retirement and a fake death to spare your blushes?”

Hurst laughed. “You didn’t interrogate the construct, did you?”

“What? God, no.”

He faded out, to be replaced by the H-G logo.

“Then welcome to the Idoru Project, dear boy. Humanity, safe in our hands.”

© Martin M. Clark

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