Another car came up alongside his. The single passenger was an Orischian, and the large, ungainly ornithorpe was obviously cramped by the modest dimensions of the marcar. Its cab was not designed to accommodate the alien’s two-and-a-half-meter height, nor the enormous splayed feet with their gaudy and elaborately tied multicolored ribbons.
A charming folk, the Orischians. They were very gregarious even across racial lines and had mixed easily with mankind since the first mutual encounter several hundred years ago. The one in the cab was male, easily identified by the bright red jowls which ran down the long neck, and by the crest of pomaded feathers running from forehead down its back. Various pouches were slung across the broad back and the long, feather-rimmed fingers were running through the contents of one.
The cab pulled away, accelerated down a main street. Loo-Macklin leaned back in his seat. He found the Orischians interesting, but then his appetite for knowledge had always been nonspecific. He was interested in everything.
_Brrreeeeurrrrppp …_ the soft, insistent sound came from inside his left coverall pocket, from the device he’d been holding in the jewelry store, which the deceased owner had suspected was a weapon. He pulled it out.
The small, flat plate was about two centimeters square. Three LEDs pimpled the top: red, yellow, and purple. The purple light was blinking steadily now, in time to the beeping.
Loo-Macklin stared at it, then touched the control on its side. The beeping and flashing ceased. He thought rapidly for several minutes, then punched the STANDBY button on the marcar’s computer. It flashed READY at him and he entered a new destination.
He had to detour for one quick stop before returning home. He had an important pick-up to make. Of course, he might be overreacting, he knew. It might be nothing.
Considering the activities of the evening, however, all precautions could be very important. His brows drew together over slightly narrowed eyes. It wasn’t that he hadn’t been expecting some new threat, only that he’d hoped to hold it off for another year or two. He’d be a little better prepared to deal with it then.
Ah well, if his hand was being forced he would just have to handle it as best he could. Of course, there was always the chance it was a false alarm. If that was the case and his detour proved unnecessary, he could restore the past with little difficulty and only slight chance of being detected.
His apartment was situated on the skin of tube twelve, on the second of five residential levels. It was a cheap district, populated mostly by factory workers and minor-status service technicians. The gently curving outside wall gave him a view, however, though there was little more to see at night than during the smog-filled day.
A few stars were dimly visible through the lighter nighttime haze, surrounding one of Evenwaith’s two moons. A grove of pollutant-resistant trees, a special variety imported from Terra, grew nearby. They gave the otherwise barren landscape an illusion of vitality. At night they gleamed as they exuded water, washing the day’s accumulation of pollutants from the leaves. Close to Cluria, the only plants that could survive were those that perspired.
He turned his gaze from the window and reached for the illumination control near the door.
“Forget the lights,” said a harsh, low voice. “Come inside and put your hands on top of your head.”
Loo-Macklin did as he was told and walked into the single room that served as living quarters. Sleeping and hygienic facilities lay in a separate, smaller room off to his left.
The lights came on. Immediately to his right stood a man Loo-Macklin didn’t recognize. He was very large and not much older than Loo-Macklin himself. He appeared to be enjoying himself even though nothing had happened yet.
Seated across the carpeted floor on the single decent piece of furniture (the couch was made of real wood and animal skin and had cost Loo-Macklin a great deal) was a swarthy chap he did recognize. Gregor was pointing a very small needler at him. The taller, younger man moved away from the wall and exhibited a similar weapon.
Gregor gestured with the gun. Loo-Macklin obediently moved in the indicated direction until he was standing with his back to the wall.
“I don’t understand,” he said quietly. “Have I done something wrong?”
“Not my business to say, or to know,” replied Gregor.
“I was instructed to kill the jeweler if he refused to pay. He refused to pay.”
“Lal knows that,” Gregor said.
“Then why are you here?”
“We’ve been told to get rid of you,” said the taller man.
“Shut up, Vascolin.”
The younger man looked hurt. “I was only…”
“I said, shut up. He doesn’t need to know why.”
“I think I do anyway,” put in Loo-Macklin. He shifted his stance, careful not to move his hands from his head. “I worry Lal, don’t I?” Gregor said nothing. “I’ve always worried him, since the day he picked me out of the public ward for his apprenticeship program six years ago.”
“Like I said, I don’t know anything about it,” Gregor insisted. “I sure as hell don’t know why he’d be afraid of you.” There was disdain in his voice, the disdain of the experienced survivor for the neophyte.
“He’s afraid of me,” replied Loo-Macklin with assurance, “because he doesn’t understand me. I don’t fit his preconceived mold. He’s spent the whole six years trying to get me riled or upset because he feels he can keep control over anybody whose emotions he can juggle. But he’s never been able to do that with me.
“So he’s decided to use me once for this particular job and then get rid of me. Disposable killer, right? He’ll report it to the authorities and gain points with them, so he benefits doubly by the jeweler’s death.”
Gregor frowned. Loo-Macklin was quite a student of facial expressions. He knew immediately that Gregor, who was, after all, Lal’s number-one private assassin, knew that it was true.
But he shook his head and said again, “I told you, I don’t know. I just do m’job.”
“You’re not a bad servant of Shiva, Gregor,” Loo-Macklin told him, “but you’re a lousy liar. Tell me, do I worry you, too?”
“Nah,” said Gregor calmly, “you don’t worry me. Nobody worries me, and in a minute you’re not going to be able to worry anybody because you’re going to be dead.”
Loo-Macklin took a cautious step toward the door leading to the sleeping room and bathroom. Gregor’s needler rose and he halted.
“Can I at least go to the zeep first? I’d hate to be buried with crap in my pants.”
“Tough,” said Gregor. “D’you really think I’m going to let you get your hands on anything but dirt?” His fingers squeezed the trigger. His younger companion was a second behind.
Loo-Macklin didn’t utter a sound as he pitched forward to the floor and lay there. His hands quivered from the effects of the needler for several seconds and then he was still.
Gregor rose from the couch and walked over to examine the body.
“Well, he wasn’t much, was he?” murmured Vascolin, eyeing the corpse.
“No. I expected something more from him. However, he was only a kid. Bright, had a future with the syndicate, but if the boss says…”
Vascolin was frowning. “Ah, Gregor …?”
“What now?” The assassin was holstering his pistol inside his shirt.
“There isn’t any blood, sir.”
Gregor had just enough time to realize this was so before his head disappeared. Vascolin whirled and raised his needler, but not fast enough. The gun went off as his hands tightened convulsively on the trigger and punched a tiny, blackened hole in the far wall. Then he crumpled like a rotten tree, nearly smothering the already decapitated form of Gregor beneath him.
Loo-Macklin came quietly into the room, inspected the two bodies. The silenced projectile weapon he’d used was placed carefully on a small table until he considered how best to proceed.
First he would have to see if the simulacrum was salvageable. The duplicate Loo-Macklin had cost a great deal. The firm, which had manufactured it for him, was curious as to how he planned to use it. Most of their product was purchased by producers of entertainment shows, since the government still frowned on showing actual murder, dismemberment, and other such real violence on the channels.
“I’m going to fool my friends,” he’d told them, and they’d nodded knowingly. A simulacrum in bed, for example, was always good for a few laughs.
So he’d stood outside the apartment and manipulated the viewer and controls, seeing the action inside through crystal eyes, speaking through a remote larynx of remarkable precision.
Now there was no question as to who’d sent the assassin, and he’d always had a pretty good idea why Lal might want him killed. He sighed. He’d begun the day with nothing more serious on his history than a few broken faces. Now he’d slain not one man but three.