The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

In the midst of this salty South Texas brew, Cardenas chatted amiably with the operator of his hovercraft and tried to ignore the marine bedlam through which they were presently weaving. He had never been much of a swimmer. The sooner his hired vehicle touched down on West Padre #4, the better he would like it. He made an effort to hide his feelings from the boat’s pilot, lest the man become curious about a lone middle-aged traveler who, despite harboring a fear of the water, was nonetheless going to spend his vacation in a floating hotel.

Similarly, he did his best to mute his relief when the craft slid up a landing ramp and turned down a floating street. Jockeying for position with cars from the island, the driver pulled into the drive-up of his passenger’s chosen lodge. Cardenas had picked it from a box brochure for its blatantly ordinary yet comfortable amenities—and for its proximity to what Research claimed was the location of The Mock’s hub within the Strip.

His room overlooked a neat but nondescript line of codos that occupied the next strip of artificial terrain to the west. Beyond that, and separated from the tourist/residential belt by an open waterway, lay the first commercial and industrial structures. From his third-floor balcony, the Inspector could not see the building where with any luck Cleator Mockerkin presently toiled. No doubt The Mock had learned of his double-crossing wife’s assassination soon after it had been carried out. The intervening days must have seen him in a paroxysm of frustration over the lack of information as to the subsequent whereabouts of his daughter—of his “little curly-haired molly-sphere,” Cardenas corrected himself. The same smug confidence that had led The Mock to consign the history and records of every one of his illegitimate enterprises to the remarkable mind of his extraordinary daughter must now be causing him unbearable discomfort.

Good, Cardenas thought. He remembered the near-decapitated cadaver of Surtsey Mockerkin. Let the lepero suffer, until Cardenas could take him into custody on suspicion of contracting murder for hire. The Inspector was relying on his knowledge of The Mock’s type to allow him to get close enough to execute the warrant. Men and women like Mockerkin were ever on the alert for an assault by competitors, or heavily armed law enforcement agents. Mockerkin ought not to be expecting one man, and a physically unprepossessing one at that. Under normal circumstances, a reputation for ruthlessness in dealing with interlopers probably was enough to keep lone operatives at bay.

A brand-new spinner containing nearly all the information that had been stored in its predecessor rested in its service pouch, snug against Cardenas’s chest. It had taken less than five minutes to download the relevant files from NFP central storage, and half a day to customize it to its owner’s personal requirements. A matching vorec rode in his pants pocket. Strapped to his ankle, beneath the right leg of his pants, was a transparent flicker. Loaded with potent, fast-acting narcoleptic ampoules, it could bring down any individual with one shot and keep them harmlessly immobilized for up to six hours. It and its clip of four hypos were manufactured entirely of tough, neutral plastics and composites that rendered them invisible to metal detectors. The size of a pack of stimsticks, perfectly square in shape, and disguise-molded, it would also not arouse suspicions if imaged by a sonic, x-ray, or magnetic resonance scanner.

In the other inside pocket of his rippling maroon windbreaker reposed a more serious device. Made of tough nonmetallic and nonconducting ceramic, the shocker fired tiny charged pellets to a distance of twenty meters. On making contact, a pellet would instantly flood its target with the full force of its stored electric charge. This was strong enough to knock even someone as big as Hyaki flat on their back, and keep them there for up to an hour. Neither weapon was of much use at a range longer than that, but he was not going in as a snapper. He was anticipating that any unavoidable confrontations would take place indoors.

Other equipment rested in his remaining pants and windbreaker pockets. Around his waist beneath the hem of his trousers he wore a tactical medibelt that kept half a dozen tiny, cool sensors pressed against his skin. Derived from its only slightly more powerful military counterpart, the belt was his most reassuring backup: a buckled-on infirmary.

Anxious as he was to meet the man about whom he had heard and read so much during the past weeks, and to place him under arrest, Cardenas forced himself to be patient. It had been a hectic, if not particularly long, travel day. He needed food and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow he would execute the warrant cached on his spinner. Patience, he knew from long experience, had saved more cops’ lives than any amount of firepower.

High-speed delivery vehicles and mass-capacity tourist barges shot or sailed past as the pilot of the second water taxi he had employed in as many days greeted him at the cab slip behind the hotel. A quick glance showed that the one other taxi driver in attendance was paying no attention to the traveler or to his more fortunate competitor. Instead, she had her face buried in a reader. Faint strains of masalsa drifted out over the water.

Neither hydrofoil nor hovercraft, the little boat was an engaging antique, as was its operator.

“Good morning, siryore. Where can I take you?” The slim, deeply tanned pilot cast a speculative glance skyward. “Nice day for the beach. Or would you prefer See-tacea Park? I understand that there’s a migrating pod of pilot whales in attendance.”

Using the available hand rail, Cardenas stepped carefully down into the boat. “No thanks. I’m here on business.” He nodded astern. “Just around the corner, thanks.”

Muttering disappointment under his breath at the picayune fare, the driver nevertheless hopped down and took a seat behind his console. It being a fine morning, he had retracted the craft’s acrylic dome. With a soft belch of air and stir of wake, the boat backed out of the slip, paused, and then moved out into the narrow waterway.

Traffic was noticeably busier on the far side of the industrial zone, facing the intracoastal waterway and the subsidiary port of Laguna Vista some fifteen kirns across the bay, than it had been in the tourist belt. Large passenger ‘foils plying the busy Gulf coast route roared northward in the direction of Port Aransas, Corpus Christi, and Galveston, southward to La Pesca and Tampico. Huge cushionbarges filled with agricultural and chemical products plied the center of the waterway. Pleasure craft and local transport hugged the inner and outer shorelines, struggling to avoid the chop kicked up by the larger commercial craft. The waterway was not crowded, Cardenas reflected, but it was active, like an afternoon in Agua Pri, when the day staff was in the middle of their shift.

Night and fog would have formed a more atmospheric backdrop for his incursion. Instead, the South Texas day was bright and harsh, a sallow white haze smeared across the otherwise deep sapphire sky like dietetic mayonnaise on blue corn bread.

As they neared the address he had given the pilot of the little boat, Cardenas checked his gear one more time. This was not Nogales or Naco. He was here undercover. Fearful of possible leaks, neither he nor his department had even informed the Masmata’ or Port Isabel authorities of his arrival. A cry for help shouted into his vorec would not bring a chopter-borne tactical team on the run. He was on his own.

It was not the first time, and he rather liked it that way.

That did nothing to suppress the iron butterflies who were presently whacking away at his gut. Outwardly, he looked like a traveling businessman preparing to pay a visit to a fellow entrepreneur. Certainly the operator of the water taxi sensed nothing amiss. Dropping off his fare at an unprepossessing passenger landing, he ran Cardenas s card for the amount of the fare and tip, and departed grumbling, in the manner of cab drivers everywhere.

Alone on the floating landing, the Inspector turned his attention to the buildings that rose behind him. Too massive to sit on floats, they rested on hurricane pylons driven deep into the bottom of the waterway, the footings themselves cast in a complex system of interwoven reinforced concrete and nonferrous cables. Beyond emblazoned logos and physical addresses, there was little to differentiate one undistinguished commercial edifice from another.

His own objective certainly looked innocent enough: a modest jumble of interconnected prefab metal buildings that taken either individually or together were in no way remarkable. The eggshell-white dome that crowned the tallest structure was designed to protect the sensitive antennas within from the ravages of coastal weather, but by itself was hardly enough to arouse suspicion. Every other commercial development on the waterway brandished similar instrument blisters. A number flaunted several, like ivory warts on the hides of slumbering tortoises.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster