Baghdad was a scrub of a town, an electric grid in the middle of the barren desert, guarded by the burned-out husks of ancient dwellings. One could walk through the inhabited town in ten minutes and then end up in the extended graveyard that was the old city, and Alice was getting the 8-euro tour following Alonzo Sarvona around. One could also get anything one wanted in Baghdad whether legal or illegal. There were no gendarmes to be seen in Baghdad, as a matter of fact, Alice wasn't sure if there had ever been. But now that the gendarmes and the jihadists were at war, there wasn't a gendarme within five hundred miles of this place. So without bothering to look over her shoulder, Alice followed Alonzo down the broad and garbage littered street towards The Reactor, holes in the ground after exploding grenades forcing them to zig-zag ahead. The Reactor was a dump from the outside, crackling gray wall plaster, bars on the windows, and weak, jittery neon covering the upper half of the walls. The octagonal building had once been a mosque, but very little remained of its once sanctified details. The dome had caved in in places and was repaired with iron beams covered with welded composites, still keeping their default orange, although that colour was taking on a dirty look as well. The mending was making the doom looking like a large chunk had been ceremoniless cut off, and when it came to the minaret, only half of it was left, a chimney-like structure pointing sadly in the air. The usher was a woman with one leg and one eye replaced by cheap cyborg parts and her raven black hair dirty dreads hanging almost to her knees. She nodded as she recognized Alonzo, waving them him with a grunt. Alice then walked over to her, pulling a bill from the wad she carried in her bra, watching the woman greedily tucking it away before she waved Alice ahead.
She stopped in the entry hall long enough to remove her gas mask, and she felt both liberated and oddly naked when the piece came off for the first time in days and she was able to smell something else than the plastic and the filtered oxygen. And she noted that Alonzo a few steps away. As he removed his mask, of an older manufacturing, he was giving her appreciative looks. Damn, as if she was still beautiful! Harked her back to the old days and the people she hired her body off to, to acquire the things she'd need to survive. In return she eyed Alonzo over. He was an old guy, short but broad in the shoulders, with the tight look of a man who'd been lean and tough his whole life. His silvery hair was still thick though and short on his head.
Inside the Reactor, it was plush, red velvety material everywhere, brass on the bar. Although the waiters were all droids on wheels, skimming across the floor with terrible efficiency, the bartender was a Caucasian human in a black once piece, bright eyed and pasty faced, speaking Arab like he'd memorized it off cards, his hands wearing tattoos of the Aum symbol and a serpent swallowing its own head. She didn't recognize him, where was Irna? The Caucasian in turn didn't like the look of Alice but he removed his cigarette from his mouth long enough to saunter over and toss a napkin onto the bar. There was music in the air, a tinkling piano, and Alice could see Alonzo in the mirror across from her, which was good enough. She noted, that he had sat down at a table crowded by two tall, plump ladies who sweated freely in their standard-issue nylon robes, one African, the other a mongrel. Alonzo was clasping the hands of a tall, thin man with waxy skin and a snow white kandura; the owner of the joint. They were beaming at each other so forcefully as they were pumping hands, that Alice wondered whom hated the other one more. The Reactor was pretty full, lots of people out for drinks, mostly fat men in kanduras so decorative that they were almost gowns. There was a nice buzz of noise in the air.
The bartender stopped in front of Alice, his unkempt green hair hanging in his face. He picked tobacco off his lip and spat it onto the floor.
"Have euro?" he asked.
Alice smiled, tossing her credit dongle onto the bar. "Sick with it." One thing she still had was euro. Problem was, one needed a fucking wheelbarrow of it to buy anything these days. He looked down at the dongle for a second but didn't bother to pick it up and scan it. Finally he sighed, almost in disappointment.
"What you having?"
She liked his accent. It was hard to understand, but it sounded nice. He was Russian, of course. Russian of some sort, maybe he was Bulgarian or Turk, maybe he was a Cossack, it didn't matter to her. He was Russian for all practical purposes. Everyone worth something in Baghdad was a Russian these days, they owned the city, if you wanted to call it a city. And they did it mainly because no one else wanted this piece of shit out in the middle of nowhere. The Russians were keeping Baghdad going through sheer determination, though things had gotten easier recently since the gendarmes had moved into the Southwest, heading for Saudi. Alice hadn't seen one of them in months.
"Doesn't matter, I can't taste anything anymore anyway. Gin," she settled for. "Chilled."
He snorted, producing a cup and dropping it in front of her. It thudded hollowly "Gin? Vet', yes?"
She winked, pulling a ganja cigarette from her pocket. "Hell, right."
The bartender poured the drink, and Alice lit up, sending a cloud of bluish smoke into the air. Instantly, she felt her shoulders relax and the pain in her joints subside, this was good stuff, bought in Tel Aviv by a dude who knew better than to shit her. She grabbed the Styrofoam cup and swallowed the drink in one gulp, ticking her head down toward the cup before he could put the bottle away.
"You really can't taste anything, eh?" he said, squinting at her and pouring another.
"Or feel anything."
In the mirror, Alice eyed the tall, waxy man as he ambled away from Alonzo and she pulled the cigarette from her mouth. Subsequently, she pushed the red coal against the top of her right hand and held it there, watching the white smoke curling up. She counted to five while observing Alonzo in the mirror as he swept the room with his tiny, constantly squinting dark eyes. He was still looking for that girl obviously, the one who'd ran off with his euros. Shrugging it off she put the butt back in her mouth, waving her hand at the bartender to show off the blackened welt. "Not a thing!"
"That's impressive." The bartender nodded, leaving the bottle on the bar as a sign of good humor. "It really looks like your real hand, the same hue and texture as the rest of you, down to those blond strands of hair on top of it."
"Is my real hand. But not your real eyes, I take it."
"Correct." He frowned. "And you? Nerve Augment?"
She shook her head, picking up the cup and gazed down into the cloudy liquid, watching her own reflection for a while. "Something that happened to me in the service," she slowly said as one of these moments coming on her, a strange, slow feeling in the back of her brain, something which wasn't the hashish but an echo of a long-gone mind-altering experience acquired with other, more outlandish, more potent stuff than the good old ganja. Alice shook her head a little and let it slide past, it only got worse if she tried to force a memory. "I don't like to talk about it," she eventually added, toasted him and drank her shot off as he turned and ambled away. While setting her cup down, she felt the air around her getting crowded. In the mirror, Alonzo and his two sweaty women had suddenly gotten much nearer.
"Milady," Alonzo said, "I've been seeing visions of you all day." He spoke with the weird precision that foreigners brought to Arab, every word sounding like it was uttered backwards, newly minted, bitten off at the end and invented a few seconds ago. "Why is that?"
Without looking around, she shrugged. "I've been hired to kill you."
In the mirror, Alonzo shot his cuffs, and she caught a glimpse of a dark, blurry tattoo on his wrist, a cross encircled by a serpent, this one not swallowing its head though, but sticking out a split tongue at the onlookers. The Russians made most of their euro through drugs, heavy shit sold to the bottom rung of the plebs, mostly designer, unstable, and as likely to pop a vessel as get you high. The gendarmes had no patience for these kinds of narcotics, Admiral Corrolla, the Director and pretty much the king of the gendarmes, set the tone there, and they beat up on the Russians every chance they got, and in return the Russians were quick to put a bullet in the head of anyone who looked like a weak link to them. They had never made much of a dent in Riyadh, back when there had been a Riyadh. The Saudis had closed ranks against them, and these days the jihadists owned Riyadh the way the Russians owned Baghdad. There'd been a couple of attempts over the years, but it had ended in tears. But the Russians had survived. Everyone in that organization had done terrible things. Terrible Things was their initiation rite.
Alonzo cocked his head at Alice for a moment, then burst into laughter. His two women friends joined in after a second of hesitation. Their lord looked around as if he'd made a terribly funny joke, soaking up the room.
"Come have a drink with me, milady," he chuckled, turning away. "Talk to me."
The mongrel woman leaned down, but Alice forestalled that by standing up, blowing smoke around. "Touch me, Olga, and I'll break a finger."
She grunted, straightening up. "Name not Olga."
"Finger will still be broken," Alice leered, pushing through the women, nodding her head at the bartender, who was leaning against the wall, watching her pass by with slitted eyes and smoke curling up from his own cigarette. He flicked his hand from his waistband and her credit dongle leaped at her. With a used hand, she snatched it from the air. Her real hand, now these were weird things they'd done to her! She reached inside of her shirt and tucked her dongle away into her bra.
"Nice knowing you," he said to her back and she grinned wordlessly.
The place was air-conditioned aggressively, but Alice imagined that she could still sense the heat out in the desert. It had been 55 centigrades at noon, though it was expected to cool down to a manageable 40 by midnight. She hated Baghdad, it was like living in someone's armpit. She wasn't made for this town. Too hot, too empty, too old. The women escorted her the back, past packed tables, then they kept walking past all the heavy-looking red padded doors marked PRIVATE and finally took her through the swinging doors into the kitchen. The black, humming cooking unit took up an immense amount of space, swollen within the tiled room, just a cube of rough black metal with neat, tidy conveyor belts inching out of it. It was idle at the moment, as there was more activity at the bar than the menus, but she didn't like the way it hummed, an almost silent vibration that reached inside of her. She eyed Alonzo, tracing her gaze up and down his shiny outfit, deciding he wasn't carrying a barker. The Russians, the higher-ups at least, the real old-school ones, had a fetish for strangulation, a wire shining out in the darkness. Alice had heard that they regarded any murder that didn't require you to get right up close to the mark, like a knife or a piano string, as pussy work. Arab murder. Pussy or not, the two female mountains had two ordnances each, big ones, under their arms. They didn't look too fast though, and their robes were too tight for that kind of move, it would bunch up if they tried to pull both at once. And if they were going to pull them one at a time, they were idiots for carrying two anyway. Then again, these guns may just be for intimidating reasons.
Alonzo kept walking through the empty kitchen, out the back door and into a fenced-in lot that smelled like rot. The wet, heavy smell hit her in the face and settled down to soak into her clothes and skin and the acidic air stung her nose with its foul fumes. She kept smiling, though. All of them thought they knew exactly where this social call was ending, and all remaining was to see whom would get it right. The two bodyguards stopped and let Alonzo and Alice take a few steps more, so that she ended up between him and them. He stopped and turned around to smile back at her. She squinted around, the dark heat settling on her shoulders and pushing. It was bright, a big, nearly full moon shining down onto them. The fence looked high, a serious fence. Not impossible to scale, but not something she was going to leap over while people took shots at her. The sky was a dark blue canopy over them, empty and clear and just filled with evaporating heat.
"I take meetings here," Alonzo said, spreading his hands and grinning. His kandura shone expensively in the dim light leaking from the sky. "So, milady, you've been hired to kill me, right? Who hired you? And why?" He cocked his head. "I know your kind. Mecca, yes? Lots of you Mecca people out here these days. Rats fleeing the sinking ship."
"Mecca is gone," she said. "They're tearing it down and replacing it with a shopping mall."
"As if I should care."
"I don't expect you to."
"So how many have you killed, for euro?" Alonzo said it as if there were better things to kill for. Then he squinted one eye at her owlishly. "You were in Tunis recently, yes? The World Banker. I forget the name."
She shook her head. "Haven't been to Africa in years, Alonzo. You're thinking of some other desperate old bitch."
Alonzo glowered and folded his hands across his back. From below his collar a smudge of ink was visible, a star atop what she assumed was a crown, the symbol of high rank. Alice reached up and scratched her shoulder where her own military tattoo had used to burn. The army had been good for her. She didn't like to think about it too much, as it hadn't been a good time, however it had been a necessary time. It had boiled her down, and she had come out of it as a better person. And then she was not only thinking of the enhancements she'd volunteered for, the things they done to her body, using her as a guinea pig in their shiny laboratories. The things without which she'd be dead by now, several times around as a matter of fact. Alonzo saw her gaze at the tattoo and smiled. "You know what it means?" He suddenly jerked his sleeve up, revealing two and a half of the blurry skull tats on his arm. "And these?"
"Prison work," she said, keeping herself still, feeling the bodyguards' eyes upon her. "Where did you get the art?"
"You know what it means, milady?"
She simpered, figuring that would annoy him. "I know what it's supposed to mean, anyone can slap some ink on you."
"Where I come from, they kill you for false emblems like that," he complained. Maybe he wasn't so smart after all. "They buy you a drink somewhere and slit your throat, you fall back onto a plastic sheet. Five minutes later it is like you were never there."
"So? How many? Five? Ten? You think ten is a big number? If I had a skull for every person I'd killed, I'd be a fucking shadow. I'd be nothing but ink."
"Numbers do not matter. You Arabs always counting." He peered at her. "You sure you did not do the Tunis job? I heard your name, very clear."
"Then someone is shitting you," she shook her head slowly as with a disobedient child. The women behind her hadn't moved, not even to loosen up their gowns.
He nodded, crimping his lips as if to say, Yeah, okay, whatever. "You know my people?" he suddenly asked, voice soft and casual, like he was talking about the weather, which was pointless in a place where the weather never changed. "You know who I work for?"
"Sure," she nodded her head. "You're connected, Alonzo. What we call 'a high roller' where I come from. You run this pisshole of a town, for your boss. You dress in a fine kandura, live in an ancient hotel with some lush women of quite a different quality to those with you today. And you go from an air-conditioned room to an air-conditioned mini-hover, it's cute like a little toy, to an air-conditioned room every day and probably haven't sweated in ten years. And you were eying me up as we entered the bar, not because you liked my rugged beauty, I don't flatter herself with that notion anymore. But because you thought you recognized me by something more than my mere appearance."
He chuckled, nodding and stepping around her. "True," he said jovially. "True, true! And you were sent to kill me. It's pretty hilarious. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm going to have dinner. Lyssa and Fedra will finish our conversation."
Alonzo returned into the restaurant, the door shutting behind him as if on a motor of some sort. Alice looked at one of the big bitches and then at the other. The mongrel grinned. Alice though she was Lyssa but wasn't sure why. "You break my finger now?" the woman asked. Alice sighed, feeling tired.
"Sure, why not," she said. She could do the math; two of them against one of her, alone in a back lot, their friends inside and everywhere, damn it in the whole city. They hadn't frisked her or tried to take her own guns away, yet she chose not to be insulted by the notion. For a moment they all stood there, hands hanging free, each of them waiting to see whom to move first. First move was a losing move, it telegraphed your intentions and when you had more than one person to deal with, it guaranteed that at least one gun was going to find its way onto you and make some painful alterations. The air around them was completely still, like hot jelly, and Alice was reminded of the yard back in Tel Aviv, where she'd gotten a free but excellent education on how to fight when outnumbered. Rule number one was, sometimes making the first move made sense.
Alice launched herself at the one she figured was Lyssa, forcing the hard back of her left palm into the other woman's face while pulling her janbiya with her right. 'Lyssa' cursed in some language Alice didn't know, all consonants from what it sounded, waving her squared hands in front of her face as she staggered a few steps back. The moment Alice crashed into Lyssa, she brought up the curved dagger and stabbed twice into Lyssa's belly, falling down on top of her and then quickly rolling off to the side. She wasn't worried about the noise, people at the Reactor didn't care about brawls as long as it was kept outdoors. Too loud and someone might send the waiter out to tell the rascals to quiet down, but the women were far from that point yet. Alice came up into an unsteady crouch, clasping her gun and fired three times, quickly, where the other bodyguard had been a second before. She was still there, for a moment at least, and then she toppled over, hitting her knees and finally falling over face-first. Alice stayed low, listening to the sudden silence, feeling the heat on her, straining her senses. The air was getting heavy to breathe after the physical experience, and she searched her pockets for her gas mask, finding it and pulling it over her face, tugging the straps hard. Damn, but she didn't care to think about what she had just filled her lungs with those short minutes out in outdoors air. Rule number two was to never assume. It wasn't nice, but Alice turned and found Lyssa, put her gun against Lyssa's head, and made sure the woman was dead. After that she stepped over to her companion and did the same, warm blood spraying her lightly. If one was content with assuming people dead, they had a habit of coming up from behind at the worst of times. Alice had been assaulted by dead people so many times that she had not only lost count but eventually become paranoid about it.
After a final glance at the dead bodies, she turned and began heading back toward the door, describing a wide arc, approaching sideward and taking soft, easy steps, almost as if she was a ballet dancer on a stage. After five steps the door flew open and a big, thick-necked brute with a shotgun held across his body, a streak of absolute darkness against the white kandura, stepped halfway out into the yard. He peered out into the lot, muttering to himself however failing to see Alice coming at him. She just kept approaching, holding off; hesitating to shoot a dude in the back. She wasn't a big believer in justice, but everyone deserved to at least see it coming. When she was just a few feet away, he suddenly turned, hissing something she couldn't make out and swinging the shotgun around, slow and clumsy, making it obvious that he was either drugged or stoned. Alice squeezed the trigger and the big man whipped around, sending one blast from the shotgun into the night air before falling awkwardly against the door, propping it open with his bulky body. She leaped forward and stole the shotgun from his loose grip, then inspected the wet, ugly wound she'd created in his chest before looked into a pair of staring, dark eyes. With a quick glance into the bright, empty kitchen, she broke open the shotgun and let the shells drop out, then tossed it away to her right, the shadows swallowing it. After putting an insurance shell into the dude, she edged into the humming kitchen. The crank air pushed out of the vents above rushed past her as if someone had opened an air lock out in the desert. She stopped right inside, pulled the gas mask off her face and let it sit upon her head like an outlandish hat, then wasted a moment or two, cautiously listening and watching the swinging doors that led to the main dining room.
A brief moment later, the doors swung inward and admitted a pair of serving Droids, skimming along the floor bearing dirty dishes. When the swinging doors snapped closed, Alice caught a glimpse of the crowded dining room, all reds and browns, plush fabrics that looked heavy and old. She spotted Alonzo sitting back toward the front of the place, laughing and holding a drink up as if making a toast. As the doors swung shut again, gliding slowly on their tiny motors, she looked straight at him however he didn't look up at her. Then she lifted her gun and let the clip drop into the palm of her hand; it was difficult coming by hardware these days, most of it coming out of scavenge yards out east, Iran generally, where the gendarme's grip was getting a little sketchy under pressure from the local talibans. For six euro a week, kids sorted bullets into calibers and hand-filled clips, which were then sold to people like Alice for 100 euro a clip. She wasn't sure where the bullets came from though, loose and sometimes ancient as the very ground she threaded and sometimes she feared that her gun might blow up in her hand when she pulled the trigger. It kept things exciting. Exchanging the old clip for a fresh one, she snapped it into place as quietly as she could. She wasn't paid to scamper around waiting for the safe moment, she was paid for results and now, when Alonzo was aware of her, there was no better time than the present. Before he could call for his people and bring the hammer down, a wall of fat people in long robes, a team of idiots with garrotes in their pockets and her ugly mug on their little handhelds. Besides, her instructions had been pretty clear; Alonzo Sarvona had to die tonight. She had agreed to those terms, and terms had to be upheld. Inhaling deeply, she gently and with steady hands racked a shell into the chamber, deciding that the best way to do it would be to be fast, no wasted movements, no wasted time. Then she put the gun down low by her thigh, entered the dining room and quickly and steadily toward where Alonzo was sitting, her eyes on the man the whole time. Momentum was the key, no one paid her any attention as she crossed the large room.
As she was halfway to his table, Alonzo suddenly looked up and glanced at her, then looked away, his face a pleasant mask of polite enjoyment. The next moment, as his brain caught up, he snapped his gaze back to Alice, his expression tightening up and his hands jumping a bit on the table as if he'd thought about doing something and then killed the idea. It was too late by then, Alice was at his table.
"Lyssa and Fedra will have some explaining to do, right?" Alonzo said the moment she stopped.
Alice shook her head. "No. And neither will the kitchen help." She gave him another second, but he just sat there staring at her, his hands balled into fists. Macho asshole, no gun because he was tough. Macho got you killed! Alice raised the gun and there was no reaction at first. She had perhaps expected a hubbub from the crowd, some noise, chaos. But she had been away from this part of the world for so long that she might have forgotten the rules, how it worked. But she didn't care, as she raised the gun and put it a few inches from Alonzo's face, not close enough for him to grab it easily or knock it aside, but nothing happened. There were people just a few feet away, eating their dinners, but no one was even looking at them.
Alonzo stared at the barrel. "You know who I am, milady," he said slowly, licking his lips. "Maybe you wish to be rich?" His wary eyes jumped up to her face and then tightened up. "No, you obviously don't wish to be rich. Perhaps you don't wish to live, either. You are not a girl anymore. And you know who I work for. This will not be forgotten."
"I don't know what you did," Alice said, "but you pissed off the wrong people, and here I am." She squeezed the trigger, the gun made a thunderous crack and Alonzo's face imploded as he was knocked backward, spraying his surroundings with a fine mist of brains and blood.
Alice swirled around, watching how most of the patrons ducked down as she looked at them, crouching in their seats. There were some shouts and the sound of a woman sobbing, but no one was moving. She didn't bother with a second glance as she let her gun drop to her side again, then quickly headed toward the entrance. There would be no gendarmes, but you didn't kill a man with a crown on his chest in Baghdad and just walk away whistling. She crashed through the doors and into the hot, empty desert night, slipping her barker into my pocket. As she jogged down the street, she imagined Alonzo's blood baking onto her, turning into a shell. The street was nearly empty, and a chilled dessert night blew paper and old leaves across the hard top. Ahead of her, on the horizon loomed the dark, hulking shapes of ancient structures. Huge, partly depilating complexes, marking the outer edge of a rotting city slowly filling with sand and choking sunlight. A girl could get lost in the darkness there forever, if she wanted. In the heat, forever was a lot shorter than you might imagine.
Walking steadily toward the horizon, Alice wiped Alonzo's blood out of her eyes and heard him asking me how many she'd killed for money? The truth was she didn't know. She'd lost count. The only thing that mattered now was the phone she picked up, the code she typed in. Mission accomplished. Moment later she heard her dongle buzz. More euros available. And without looking she knew that it was enough euros for her to getting to Tel Aviv to get some more of those chemicals that kept her decaying body going for another year or so. Then she had to be out there for yet another contract kill, yet another sucker who thought he was protected by a tattoo on his chest. That was the price she paid for her semi-immortality, for the things the army had given her and taken from her as well. Turned her into Chemical Alice.