(Note: This is a story written under the Machine of Death premise – a collection of stories written by several authors that somehow involve the existence of a machine that predicts how (but not necessarily when) its user will die. This story, STOCK MARKET, was submitted for the second Machine of Death volume, but didn’t make it into the final cut, so I’m making it available to the public here. If you’re interested in this story or its premise, please visit the Machine of Death website for more information and FREE access to the first collection of short stories, an audiobook podcast, and other cool related resources.)

STOCK MARKET

by Fernando H. F. Sacchetto – July 1st, 2011

 

“Chambers and Compton, come in here for a moment.”

It was always a bad sign when Foster called us into his office like that. He was a rather to-the-point kind of guy, who usually preferred to walk up to your desk and lay it on you right away. When the talk was inside his office, either he was going to chew you out, or the case was particularly sensitive – which I always figured was the worse of the two. This time, it was the latter.

“What did we do this time?” Compton asked, only half joking.

“It’s not what you did, it’s what you’re gonna do, which is make pretty damn sure you know where you’re stepping with this one.” There was a fat case folder on his desk, which he turned our way. “Just in from the Department of the Treasury. The name’s W&M, for Worthington & Masters. Business consulting, financial market analysis, insurance, I don’t know what the hell else. Business never really been my thing. Problem is, they and their clients have been doing some really dodgy trading on the stock market, mostly by knowing stuff before anyone else had a right to. You know, buying just before the big merger that drives the stocks up, selling when the bad news hasn’t gotten out to the public yet, and so on. They’re calling it insider trading, of course. Have a look for yourselves.”

 

“That’s all very interesting and all, really,” I said, as I thumbed the folder full of figures and company names, “but pray tell, where the hell do we fit in here? Where’s the, I don’t know, dope, guns, Mafia ties? This is still Organized Crime, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I hear you.” The boss didn’t look like he enjoyed it any more than we did. “That’s what I said too, but you know how it is. The official line is that some transactions in there sound like they’re buying off people in key positions… see, right here? This guy’s in the FDA. This one right over here is DMV. The list goes on. Anyway, they claim this sounds like corruption, and some other parts sound like money laundering, and those are an organized crime thing. The way I figure it, they realized they’re dealing with some really well-connected folks, who can really screw them up if they want to, and decided the good ol’ FBI could handle any bullshit that came out of it. So, my friends, that’s where you come in, and that’s why I’m telling you to be careful with this one. It’s the kind of case that can make your career… or end your life.”

“Not mine,” my partner said. “Unless one of these guys has an ‘irate spouse’ that won’t like us taking away her husband’s off-the-books income, and if we’re getting this obscure, I might as well not get out of my house. Chambers here is dying of health problems, so he’s good too.”

“It’s ‘health’, not ‘health problems’, so I could just die healthy. And it’s also beside the point – you know how these things go. I don’t know why do we even bother with these predictions, in the end they could mean anything. Foster’s says ‘RSS’, what the hell does that even mean?”

“It means ‘Really Shut-up S-right-now’. We make ’em here for security reasons, not gossip. But yeah, Chambers, you’ve got a point, and that’s precisely why you can’t let your guard down. I mean it, you two. Just because these folks aren’t pointing guns at your faces doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous.”

“Sure, Mom, got it,” I said. “We’ll behave. I will anyway, and I’ll deck Compton in the face if he acts up. C’mon, you’ve known us for what, ten years?”

“I trust you, really, believe me. That’s why I wouldn’t like you falling prey to this kind of people. But that’s enough touchy-feely crap, get the hell out of here and get crackin’!”

Compton took the folder from my hands and opened it at random as we walked out. “So… are we really gonna sit and read all this crap?”

“Like hell,” I said. “Get some new meat to do it. Willis is a pretty stand-up girl, I think she’s up to it. Meanwhile… you’ve got some sort of pet at the DMV, right?”

“Jeffrey. Been there working a few cases, and he’s the one I talk to. You think we can start there?”

“Sure. Let’s get the name of the guy Foster mentioned back there and drop this baby on Willis’s desk.”

* * *

“Tell me again, how much did he get?”

Jeffrey from the DMV was helpful enough from the get-go; it seemed his familiarity with Compton worked wonders in that regard. Getting him to snitch on a colleague wouldn’t be that easy, though, so we decided to build the case up for him before we popped the question, and making him envy the extra cash the perp got on the side was a powerful motivator.

“150 grand,” I said. “That’s over the course of the last eleven months, of course, not all at once. They seem to send the money about twice a month.”

“Son of a bitch! I knew it! That bastard Donovan, always rubbing it on our faces, Lexus this, trip to Europe that… ‘fiscal responsibility’ my ass, I knew he was getting something on the side!”

“That’s how they always fall,” Compton quipped, “they think no-one’s gonna notice the extra income. Good call, Jeff, though you could have dropped me a line before.”

I made a conscious effort to avoid rolling my eyes. “Well, one thing’s for sure, they’re not paying him for his gorgeous blue eyes. He’s gotta be selling something, and something that’s probably illegal.”

Jeffrey was fuming, right where we wanted him. “Damn right he is! Don’t worry, guys, you’ve got my full cooperation in this case. Let’s get to the bottom of this right now.”

“What kind of information can you get us?” Compton asked. “Strictly off the books, of course. This case is highly sensitive, we don’t know who else might be involved.”

“Ooh, I see. Don’t worry, I’ve got your back. But you’re in luck, my friend – lots of people here are old-fashioned, you see, and they see computers as little more than fancy typewriters. Donovan’s one of them, the idiot. Don’t know how the hell they make a moron like that a supervisor… anyway, people like him have a really cavalier attitude toward securing their data. See, here, let’s check his folder on our networked server… his password’s “October”, can you believe it? Dumbass gave it to me over the phone, to get some files we needed when he was on vacation a few years back. Still hasn’t changed it, it seems. Anyway… oh, here you go. Any of this look familiar?”

I checked the files on the screen. “What about this folder? ‘WM-Report’ sounds like what we’re looking for.”

It was full of spreadsheets with dates for names. When Jeff opened them, his jaw dropped – they were driver’s license records, with all sorts of information like names, professions and addresses, of thousands of people per spreadsheet… and there were dozens of those.

“The freaking bastard! This is unbelievable! It’s criminal! Tell me he’s going down, you guys!”

“Oh, you betcha!” My partner offered a broad grin. “We’ll need copies, by the way. You never know, he might wise up and delete this stuff. Better check his e-mail as well, see who he sent ’em to.”

“Say…” I pointed at the last column on the right. “What are these data here? They look like…”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Jeffrey said. “Death predictions. Lots of people have them on file – you know, helps them out a bit with insurance, depending on what it reads, of course, and it’s also good for identification in really bad accidents.”

“But every last entry on this list seems to have ’em… do we all have it on file? Because I sure as hell don’t remember giving mine to the DMV.”

“No, only some people inform them… I’d guess, between a third and a half. Come to think of it, it is kinda strange how they all have it.” He scrolled down the spreadsheet, then opened a few more and scanned them as well. They all had death predictions in every line.

“How come all of them have that info?” Compton wondered. “Did he fill in the blanks somehow?”

“Nah,” Jeff said, “I can tell you, it’s nowhere in our files. He couldn’t have gotten that information here. Seems he just filtered the list to include only people with predictions.”

“Come on,” I said, as we got the thumb drive with the copied files. “I’ve got a hunch about our next stop.”

Compton thanked Jeffrey for his help as he wrote down Donovan’s e-mail addresses, and assured him of his inevitable downfall. “Do tell me,” he asked, “what did you see in those lists?”

“I’ll bet you a sixpack that the main course in there, the part they’re paying him 150 grand for, is that last column. And, therefore, that they’ll also be elbow-deep into whoever’s the biggest supplier of death machines in the area. Deal?”

“Only if it’s store-brand, ’cause I think you’re right.”

* * *

A quick call to the office revealed that the place we were looking for was a company out in the suburbs called Syntronics. A highly solicitous employee quickly appeared to escort us as we walked in the front door and flashed our badges. “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he said. “I’m Thompson, operations manager for the plant. May I help you?”

“I’m Special Agent Chambers, and this is Special Agent Compton. We’re here to chat, and maybe have a no-strings-attached look around the place.”

“Certainly, sirs! Let’s walk around the facilities, shall we? You’ll get to see the process of manufacturing our many models of expiration forecasting devices, or EFDs as we call them. It’s a surprisingly simple production chain, for such a fantastic piece of equipment. Is there anything specific you are interested in knowing?” He forced a broad smile, as if trying to distract us from whatever unpleasant business brought us there.

Compton took up the conversation. “As a matter of fact, there is. You do a lot of business with big companies?”

“Well, most of our customers are corporate… mostly in the health sector, such as hospitals and drugstore chains, but also convenience stores, schools, government agencies…”

“Financial consulting?”, I asked.

“Financial consulting?”, he repeated, blinking fiercely. “No, I don’t believe that accounts for much of our sales…”

“What about Worthington & Masters?” Compton leaned a bit closer to the officer. “I hear they’re a big partner of yours. Sure seemed that way from our visit there.”

“W-Worthington & Masters, you said?” Thompson looked around, and some suit close to us was pretending not to react to the name. “Hmm… Ah, I remember. Yes, we did sell them a few EFDs, I think.”

A buzz started spreading through the assembly line around us; I surveyed it as we talked. “Just that? Because we were under the impression that your collaboration went much deeper than that.”

“See, we have lots of business partners, it’s hard to know exactly what you’re talking about without looking up our files…”

I nudged my partner, who took the cue and said, “So maybe it’s time we had a look at them. Y’know, just to take that weight off our minds. Because when…”

His voice drifted off as I moved toward a worker that was trying his best to look like he wasn’t interested in us, and failing miserably at that. He was soldering electronic components into circuit boards, and started working so hard as I walked up to him that one of the parts he was handling flew off into a nearby belt.

I leaned over and pretended to watch his work, in order to get a good look at his name tag. “Wow, working real quick there. You seem to really know your way around this stuff.”

“Just doing my work the way I can,” he said, with an uneasy laugh.

“Yeah… that’s what I heard. So, you’re Krasitzky, right?”

“Uh… yeah? That’s my name, why do you ask?”

I nodded gravely. “You know why. W&M. Ring any bells?”

“I, uh, don’t know what you’re talking-”

“Cut the bullshit, Krasitzky. We’re not goofing around here. It’s a big operation, and we’re in it real deep. It’s only a matter of time by now.”

He was sweating heavily. “I swear, I wouldn’t know anything about that stuff! I just work here!”

“Yeah, here, and for W&M too, right? You wouldn’t believe how much material we’ve piled up about ’em by now. It’s all there. I’m telling you, they’re coming down, and hard. Now tell me… are you coming down with them, or are you gonna work with us?”

“Whaddya mean, work with you?” He looked positively desperate by this point. “Please, I’ve got kids, I…”

“Maybe you’d better start thinking about them real good, then.” I briefly looked around for suits, and realized I was almost whispering. “You don’t want ’em to grow up without their dad around, do you? Help us out, and we’ll see what we can do to help you out.”

“Please,” he was almost in tears, “please, don’t get me into jail! This job is all I’ve got, I’m gonna lose it! Please, I’ll do anything!”

“I’m just asking for the truth. Don’t worry, your name isn’t getting anywhere. We’ve got ways to make sure they never track it back to you, trust us on that. But we gotta hear it from you.”

He called for a break, and led me to the break-room. “Alright,” he started, “as long as you can guarantee this isn’t flying back into my face. I gotta family to look for.” After I nodded warmly, he continued. “I don’t know a lot about what’s going on, really… I just do what I’m told. And that’s putting a tiny extra component into those boards.” He pulled a little circuit board, just under an inch across, with a few short wires jutting out of it. “They never told me anything about it, except where to connect it… but I’ve installed hundreds and hundreds of ’em, probably over a thousand, and got to have a really good look at it. I know a thing or two about electronics, see. Looks to me like it logs the machine’s results and then sends ’em by RF when prompted.”

“A bug!” I turned the device over in my hands. “So that’s what it’s all about, huh? Which machines do you put ’em on?”

“Any ones I can. I just gotta jot down the serial numbers and leave ’em with my contact. He’s the one who pays me, of course.”

“And can you tell me–” I was suddenly interrupted by the break-room door flying open.

“What is the meaning of this?” A portly suited man barged in imperiously. “You!” He pointed at Krasitzky. “What have you told him? He doesn’t have a warrant, you don’t have to tell him a single word!”

“And you would be…?” I scanned the small throng coming in the door for Compton. When I found him, he just shrugged.

“William S. Lionels, attorney-at-law, defending my clients from grievous malicious prosecution!”

“Whoah, hey, calm down there, we’re not charging anyone with–”

“Damn right you’re not, but we’re slamming you with a whole armload of police misconduct charges unless you either produce a warrant or stop harassing this company right now!”

Thompson stood firmly by the lawyer’s side, and Krasitzky and a bunch of other employees started rallying behind him. This was clearly going nowhere. “C’mon, Compton,” I said on my way out. “That’s as far as we’ll get here.”

“This isn’t the last you’ve heard from us!” Lionels yelled as we left.

Compton turned his head back toward him. “Neither you from us! We’ll be paying your company a visit too!”

“What did you mean back there?” I asked, as we got in the car.

“He’s not from Syntronics,” he replied. “He was talking like he was, but he’s W&M, I’m sure of it. Turned up real quick too.”

“Yeah… I bet they’ve got these guys on stand-by. God, I hate white-collar. Let’s turn in, it’s getting late and I’ve had my fill of this crap.”

* * *

After he thoroughly chewed us out for our antics at the death-machine factory, Foster had us make sure we had warrants coming out the wazoo before we went anywhere significant, so I decided to spend the next morning chatting up an old friend from my university days as I waited for them to come down the pipeline. The thing was, Willis had combed the W&M folder for connections, and it seemed they’d been hiring Columbia alumni by the busload; since Michael was working at Columbia’s financial division, I arranged a meeting with him.

I gave him a quick summary on the phone before we left, and that paid off, because by the time I got there, he’d made a nice little dossier of his own – mostly comprised of a kindly little lady, who was waiting for us in his office.

“This is Mrs. Hodgson,” he explained, “from Alumni Resources. I took the liberty of asking her about it, given the subject matter, of course, and turns out she’s up to her ears in this W&M.” He turned to her. “Why don’t you take it from here? Don’t worry, I’ve known Joe for dog’s years, he’s about as honest as it gets.”

“Thanks, Mike,” I said. “Now… Mrs. Hodgson, is it? What is it about these guys? I wouldn’t think getting alums hired by a big company would be all that bad.”

She seemed a bit hesitant. “Not at all, sir, of course… if that’s all it was. But it’s dodgy, this company, not the place a Columbia alumnus deserves. They prowl university events looking for senior undergraduates, Master’s and PhD candidates, anyone they can snatch in a couple months’ time. The problem is, they’re usually young people full of academic promise who all but vanish from the face of the Earth, as if they were headed to some top-secret project… only one not done on the side of the law, I’ll tell you that.”

“Why’s that?”

“I’ve heard awful things about them… how they’re bribing top officers in the health sector to overlook their ghastly practices and give them license to operate laboratories that flaunt all sorts of ethical principles.”

“Wait, labs?” I leaned forward, suddenly interested. “Aren’t they a business consulting company? What the hell are they doing messing around with that?”

“I don’t know,” she continued, “but it can’t be good, if they’ve got to buy off people in the FDA to do it. They’re hiring an awful lot of lab personnel, that much I know. Technicians, veterinarians, a couple chemists, even a physicist – Dr. Rebroff, God bless his soul. His work on quantum relativity was going to be huge, or so the physics people say… and then they sweep him away like that, to be some sort of pet of theirs.”

“So, they’re not really working in consulting, is that what you’re saying?”

“Oh, they are, of course. They’ve been paying huge sums to get economists in their payroll – and political scientists as well, and military strategy experts, international relations people, statisticians, the works. They hire quite enough people in these areas to make anyone sure they’re into consulting… not just business, but everything on Earth, it would seem. It’s just the health research that’s odd… and quite shady, I’d say.”

“You can say that again,” I groaned. “Research labs, death machines, stolen death predictions, and actual consulting to boot… Wonder what the hell these guys are playing at.”

“Stolen death predictions?” She had apparently not heard that part before.

I got up. “Yeah. Looks like there’s not a single creepy activity they’d pass up. Anyway, I think I know where to look next. Thank you very much, Mrs. Hodgson… and Michael. If there’s anything else, you’ve got my phone.”

* * *

“You won’t believe the stuff these guys are into,” Compton greeted me with, as I got back to the office.

“What, biology research labs?” I offered with a grin.

The look on his face was better than I’d hoped for. “How the hell do you know?”

“What, you think I was just sipping milkshakes with my buddy all morning? I’ve been working, too. Got some pretty juicy catches of my own.”

“Damn, you bastard, way to spoil the surprise. Ah, what the hell, I’ll go first. While you were away, I paid a visit to one of the companies in Willis’s list… some Smithson, works with lab supplies.”

I mocked an exaggerated look of surprise “Wow, really? Who’da thunk, a financial firm with a lab?”

“Go to hell. Anyway, they were very forthcoming, probably because their relationship with our target looked completely legit. Other than, y’know, the fact that the lab even exists in the first place.”

“Okay, so what did our boys buy there?”

“Aside from the usual, like measuring equipment, cages, animal food, all that stuff… they were buying an awful lot of animals. Mostly rats, with a few rabbits, dogs and such. Small mammals.”

“Hmm, that’s why they were after vets,” I pondered. “Any word on what did they do to the critters?”

“Not really… from the sound of it, most clients don’t tell a company like that what they’re about. Protecting their research and all. But there’s more.” He leaned forward. “The Smithson folks also brought up how they bought lots of electrical prods, rat poison, vacuum chambers, and I don’t know what else… tools for killing animals. Enough to draw their attention, anyway.”

I flinched. “And they were okay with that?”

“Sure. That’s nothing really out of the ordinary, depending on the research you’re doing, or so they told me.”

“And I thought I hated white collar.” I followed up with a brief recap of what Mrs. Hodgson told me.

“What do you think this all means?” Compton was puzzled.

“I’m not sure, but I’ve got an inkling… at least about why they got the death machines. As for why they’re doing that, or how it fits with their consulting, beats the hell outta me.”

“Okay, so now what? Are we raiding the motherfuckers already? I’ve had enough of this bullshit.”

“Not yet, unless you want Foster’s ‘RSS’ to somehow mean ‘coronary he got due to Compton’s pig-headadness’. We still gotta beef up our case a bit.” I scanned the relations map Willis had been drawing for a while, and pointed at one of the entries. “Hey, this one looks promising. Do we have a warrant?”

“Is the Pope Catholic?” He was already up and walking toward the door.

I snatched the right warrant from the pile. “These days, who is anymore?”

* * *

The place was a medical laboratory called Vitae Labs. Unsurprisingly, they clammed up at the mention of W&M; even the warrant didn’t seem to sway them much.

“You have to understand, gentlemen,” their director was saying, “we operate under strict confidentiality.”

Patient confidentiality,” I said, “and it’s got nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but nice try.”

“Now, Mrs. Billings,” my partner added, “are you going to open up with us regarding your relationship with W&M, or do we have to go through your records?”

Billings, the director, sighed. “So much for freedom of enterprise. Very well, I’ll tell you, not that there’s much to it anyway.” She sat down. “They’ve been doing some medical research, and we’re providing them with training and equipment. We’ve got invoices to prove it. Jim, please find them for me.”

“Medical research.” I started to circle her. “Equipment and training. For a consulting firm. Tell me, how exactly do they use that in market analysis?”

She just smiled. “At the risk of sounding petulant, that’s their business, not ours. We just provide what we’re hired to.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” Compton chimed in, “only I have a hard time believing that’s all they’re after here.”

“Me too,” I agreed. “They’ve been paying you an awful lot for something completely outside the scope of their business.”

“Look, that’s all there is, alright?” She picked up the invoices her employee Jim brought back. “It’s all in here. If you don’t believe it, that’s your problem, not mine.”

Compton started toward the room Jim had come from. “No, I think it’s your problem, and a big one. Hey Chambers, how about we have a look for ourselves?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” I followed him with a grin.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Billings was furious. “This is a medical institution! You so much as look at our files and I’ll sue you into next century!”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say.” I started going over their physical files while my partner worked the computers. “But this warrant we have right here says search and seizure, and we can’t well seize without looking first, right?”

“How about this?” Compton pointed at the screen. The format was different, and so were most of its fields, but what we were looking at was very familiar: a spreadsheet with a host of personal information about several people… including death predictions.

Hey!” The director tried to tackle the computer. “Shut that down! It’s constitutionally protected information!”

“All the more reason for you to explain it, lady,” he said smugly. “Because I found it as an e-mail attachment.”

“Ooooh, nasty,” I said. “Congrats, Compton! How did you come across that?”

“Easy. I searched the files for ‘exploded’. That’s the sort of thing that shows up in death cards, but not medical records.”

“Say, Mrs. Billings,” I asked, “did all of these patients here consent to getting predictions?”

“Of couse they did, what kind of a question is–”

“Because I believe the technical term is Expiration Forecasting, or EF, and only a few of ’em show that in the ‘requested tests’ field. Hey, look at this one – says ‘no EF’ in its notes! How ’bout that, huh?”

“Are you two going to charge us with something or just sit there and bust our balls?” She was starting to tremble. “Because I believe we have rights, we have protections–”

“Which you just threw out the window!” Compton jumped from his chair. “You understand me? You just tossed all that protection in the garbage the minute you broke patient confidentiality! What the hell is wrong with you people?”

The director was on the verge of tears. “We didn’t hurt anyone… they never knew! They don’t wanna know how they die, fine, they don’t know it!”

I turned away from her. “You people are disgusting. And you were lecturing me about confidentiality, like you gave a rat’s ass.”

“You don’t understand! These people, they, you don’t know what they’re like… you can’t just walk away from something like that!”

“You can always walk away.” I started doing just that. “Let’s go. And you,” I pointed at Mrs. Billings, “don’t think this is over. Far from it.”

* * *

The raid was on the delivery address for all the technical equipment – the infamous W&M secret lab. We brought a half-dozen grunts with us, just in case. When we got to the facility, a small warehouse in a dilapidated block, we had a welcoming committee waiting for us outside the door – in this case, almost a dozen suits, with as many security thugs around them.

“Would you look at that,” I said, “those boys sure know how to make a guy feel special. Do we even deserve all the attention?”

That lawyer, Lionels, was among them. “It’s not too late to turn back, if you know what’s good for you.”

Compton smiled. “Intimidation, already? Man, this is starting to get really exciting. Can we walk in now?”

Lionels jumped in front of us. “Not if you value your–”

“Yadda yadda.” I waved the warrant in his general direction while our agents pressed on the crowd to let us through. “C’mon, Billy, show us where the fun is.”

I motioned for the agents to wrangle the suits while my partner and I walked deeper into the warehouse. Lionels and another officer followed us in. “We are fully licensed to operate,” the suit said, “we pay all of our taxes, there’s not a single thing we’re doing that’s not inside the law!”

“We’ll sue you down to your underwear!” Lionels added.

“There’s nothing I’d love more,” Compton said. “Then maybe you’ll get to explain the corruption, abuse of classified information, all that jazz to the judge.”

The lab itself looked rather ordinary: piles and piles of cages with rats and other furry animals, several computers, a few experimentation tables, and a number of people in white lab coats buzzing around. One of them stormed angrily in our direction when we walked in. “What the hell do you think you’re doing in here? There’s a lot of sensitive research going on and you’re ruining it!”

“Nice to meet you too,” I said. “I’m Chambers, and this is Compton. Who would you be?”

“Gilpin. You have no idea how much money you’re risking by walking into the lab like that!” I realized he was talking to the suit behind me.

The man just looked annoyed. “What, they’re talking about shutting us down, and you’re worried about some stupid protocol?”

Most of the cages had little slips of paper attached to them; Compton was looking at one of them. “Hey, check this out: ‘Helmbrecht LLC. Sep. 8th. Sell, poison gas; keep, heart attack; buy, decapitation.’ Care to explain this one?”

The W&M officer looked flushed. “There’s nothing to explain. That’s just a stock we decided to buy, entirely within our prerogatives as a–”

Damn you!” Gilpin shrieked.

“Hang on,” I said, “September 8th, that’s next Thursday, right?”

Yes! That’s what I meant!” The scientist was out of his mind. “Johnston, you idiot, you just lost us over twenty million dollars!” He was getting the poor rat out of its cage.

“What did I do?” Johnston was almost as bewildered as us. “I didn’t do anything, I… I didn’t expose you to the result!”

“Of course you did! I wasn’t supposed to know whether to buy or sell that goddamn thing until Thursday!”

“Okay,” I piped in, “anyone care to break it down for us here?”

Gilpin ignored us. “The specimen’s been contaminated. The whole process has been shot to hell. We gotta incinerate him.”

“That’s not possible,” Johnston said, puzzled. “That’s not what it reads.”

“And what does it read, huh?”

“Uh… ‘Accident’. We just figured that was close enough to ‘decapitation’ to buy.”

Gilpin lunged toward the suit. “Your accident, you numbskull! The accident was you blurting out the result! Don’t you see?”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Compton brusquely interrupted them. “Shut the hell up, everyone! Now, what the fuck is going on here?”

Gilpin drew a deep breath. “Okay. In the beginning, we’d just select the deaths based on the outcomes, do the tests, and hope for the best. Just a single team to handle it all, that was our big mistake. The results were all silly things like ‘experimentation’, ‘financial analysis’, even ‘stock market’. Then we got some physics whiz who was doing some work on the machines to look at it, and he had the idea.”

“Wait, machines?” I interrupted him. “Is this all about death machines? Where are they?”

“Yes, it’s all about them,” he continued, “and they’re miles away from here, all because of his insight. See, it’s a little thing called self-consistency. Some Russian came up with it in the eighties. That’s why we implemented the compartmentalizing protocols… which our friend Johnston here just did the huge favor of taking a huge dump on.” He shot his colleague a glare.

“Okay, you know what, I don’t care.” Compton was bagging a few items for evidence. “This is all way too technical for me. What matters is, you fuckers are going down.”

Johnston let out an uneasy laugh. “I wouldn’t bet on that, hotshot. You’ve got no idea who you’re dealing with. We’ve got people working right now on putting an end to this… charade.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said while helping my partner, “you’ll have plenty of time to brag about your connections in court. I know a couple judges who’ll be dying to hear all about it.”

My phone started ringing, and a broad smile spread itself across Lionels’s face. “What’s that, agent? News from home? I’d take that call if I were you.”

I checked out the caller; it was Foster. I shot Lionels a dirty look while answering it. “Chambers,” the boss said on the other side, “call it off. RTB.”

What?!” I was incredulous. “Are you serious? We’ve hit the jackpot here, we’re on the verge of–”

“Yeah, I know, but I’ve got no choice. Just call it off and return to base. Right freaking now. I’m serious. We’ll talk over here.” His voice was sullen.

“But you don’t understand, it’s–”

“No, listen, you don’t understand. These guys, they’re into the health industry, aren’t they? Does that ring any bells? Health? Please come back.” He hung up.

The look on Lionels’s face made me suddenly want to punch it into a pulp. “I’m telling you, boy,” he said. “This is much bigger than you two, much bigger than even the FBI. You’ve got no idea just what the stakes are in our game.”

Compton looked at me, stunned. “What was that? Please don’t tell me…”

“Call the boys. Let’s go home.” I turned toward the two smug bastards grinning at me. “Don’t think this is over. No way in hell.”

“Oh, no, not at all,” Johnston said, relieved. “Not for us, anyway. But for you…”

Motherfuckers!” My partner would’ve jumped at them if I didn’t hold him. “You’re not getting away with it! Someday, someday you’ll get what you deserve!”

“Yeah, a freakin’ Nobel,” Gilpin joined in. “That’s just typical of you goons, shutting out progress. Don’t you see? Our job is to master the future. If people pay big bucks for that, so be it. Mankind can’t afford to be a hostage to unpredictability. Not anymore… not now that we can finally beat it.”

Compton looked shocked. “But… at what cost?”

“Does it matter?” I said, as we walked out. “Knowledge is power, and when the power’s this big… has it ever mattered?”


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