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The Rats, the Bats & the Ugly: Chapter Twenty Eight

       Last updated: Thursday, August 19, 2004 00:07 EDT



Scenes various, but mostly Shaw House


    Henri-Pierre L'escargot, the renowned Chef of the famous Chez Henri-Pierre...

    "But that's not what happened!" Chip looked at the paper in disgust. "They've got it all wrong. I never even said anything to him, never mind trying to force my way in. It's all lies. Mucking Shareholders!"

    Lynne Stark smiled. "I put that one on top for that reason. The others all have varying but greater degrees of accuracy—the ones that got feed from Interweb, got pictures, witness statements, and the facts more-or-less straight. And believe me, a picture is worth a lot of words. More than a thousand, in the case of the HAR Times," she said dryly. "They got their story from a still incandescent Henri-Pierre, and never bothered to check it. I've got some of my staff collecting statements right now."

    Stark's expression resembled that of a very well-fed and self-satisfied shark. "Heh. At the very least, they'll have to print a retraction. And HAR law states that it has to be the same print-size, column length and in the same position. Great front page they'll have! I suppose that old fart Laverty thought he was on safe ground with a bit of Vat-bashing."

    She studied the headline for a moment. "What an idiot. Even using the term 'Vat' in print was a mistake. The official term is 'cloned citizen.' Under the circumstances, 'Vat' is clear evidence of news bias."

    Now she was practically licking her chops. "Vats don't take people to court, but I do."

    "I've seen enough of courts," said Chip warily. "I don't mind if I never see another."

    "I don't think you will. He'll settle. Now, are you ready for your visit, lover boy?"

    Chip blushed. He was wearing one of her dressing gowns. But both of them knew it was merely because his uniform was in the dryer. Lynne Stark hadn't slept alone that night. But she hadn't slept with him, either.

    He knew exactly what she was referring to. "It's not like that," he said hastily.

    She raised an eyebrow at him. "Really. But yet you told Maxine, when she invited you home, that you were already spoken for, as it were. And that you didn't break your promises. You did it very nicely, I thought, with just the right amount of regret."

    "Do you always listen to other people's conversations?" asked Chip sourly.

    She nodded. "If at all possible, yes. I sell news, remember."

    Chip pointed to the newspapers. "Why don't you just make it up like most of these do?"

    "I lack the imagination for fiction," she said, without even a hint of a smile.



    General Cartup-Kreutzler took a long pull at the Bloody Mary he habitually had for breakfast. He'd better call in and see if that idiot Rastapolous had actually managed anything coherent in the way of charges against the Vat. He reached for the paper, which, naturally, was the HAR Times. The headlines delighted him.

    He reached for the telephone. They could add a few extra charges to the list.



    Having led his men in their ten-mile run, Van Klomp had showered, breakfasted and sat down at his desk for his least favorite part of the day, paperwork, when his telephone rang. "Seen the morning papers, Bobby?" asked the voice on the other end.

    The cheerful tone in the voice of Lieutenant Mike Capra on the other end did not make Van Klomp feel at ease. He knew the attorney too well. "Not yet," he said grimly. "What's up? Fitz?"

    "No," said Capra. "Just your latest protégé got himself into a fight with his ex-boss last night. The papers are carrying three different versions of the event. And before that, the boy got himself into a shooting match with some supposed 'car-thieves.' That was on the nine o'clock news."

    "I'd better get the papers, then. Or is there a decent report on Interweb?"

    "One of the best," said Capra with a laugh. "The picture of your new corporal about to shove a sticky chocolate cake into the Chef's pump-action shotgun is priceless."

    "Hell's teeth! Is he in jail again?"

    "Not yet, anyway," said Capra cheerfully. "But he's going to see Shaw this morning."

    "She should be pleased to see him. I didn't think she'd let him get away."

    "There are some odd stories coming out of that lot, Bobby. Old friends of the Shaws have been turned away from the gates when they tried to see her. And Shaw's attorney wound up dead under mysterious circumstances three days ago. This is deep water your new corporal is swimming into, with leaky water-wings."

    "Not a hell of a lot you and I can do about it, my friend. The kid is determined to go and see her. If I tried to stop him, he'd be like Fitz. Do it anyway."

    "This boy of yours may get himself chewed up in the process, though."

    "They might find that he's a tough mouthful to swallow. Chocolate cake against a shotgun, you say?" Van Klomp laughed. "I'll put my money on my new Lance-Corporal. That kid has brass balls, Mike—and don't forget he survived longer in the trenches than just about any front line soldier I can think of. And they want to get physical with him? Those drunken thugs in Special Branch? Fucking cretins."

    "I hope you're right."

    "You watch."



    Once more in his BDUs, with the new stripes on his shoulders and hat-badge on his beret, Chip walked up to the security officers at the gate with two cameras trailing him.

    The Security officers looked like they came from a rent-a-thug company, and not one in the high-end part of the business. "What do you want, soldier?" asked the one with the nose suitable for following down broken and winding trails.

    "My name is Connolly. I was one of the soldiers who rescued Ms. Shaw. She said she wanted us to visit her, when we got free." It was true enough. She had said that—to the others, along with a promise of better brandy and all the sauerkraut the bats could eat. "I called yesterday and someone said she would be informed."

    The broken-nosed guard nodded. "We've been told that she will be expecting you at ten thirty. You. Not them," he said, scowling at the news crew.

    Ten thirty. A neat two hour wait. And then he'd see her. The cameras had obviously been ready for confrontation at the gate, never mind their exclusion. You could read disappointment in their posture.




    In an apartment near the middle of the City, Tana Gainor carefully put on her makeup, and then applied her mauve lipstick. The lipstick was her one deliberate conceit. She knew she had as little need of it as for the rest of her make-up, to attract the attention of men. But it was non-military. The very fact that she could get away with such scorn for the military pleased her. It gave her a little fillip of satisfaction. For some people, going into the army had been a question of duty to their fellow humans. For others, a question of conscription. For Tana Gainor it had been an opportunity, both for profit and power.

    She had always loved both. She'd realized very quickly that the alien invaders made the army vastly important, and presented an unprecedented opportunity for acquiring her two favorite things. She continued to run her civilian empire. The trade in various recreational chemicals remained commercially successful, although she'd distanced herself from the actual selling these days. She'd never had the actual need to do so: other than for the profit, but there was the pleasure of entrapment. Knowing they'd be back. Knowing that you'd gulled yet another one. And knowing that it would bring both power and profit.

    Tana examined herself in the mirror, then applied a dab of expensive perfume behind her ears and to her wrists. She was not overly fond of the smell herself, but it did appear to appeal to men.

    Satisfied that appearance, scent and hair were all perfect, Tana left the vanity table, slipped her mobile into her purse and let herself out of the door. She left behind the snoring man sprawled on the bed, without as much as a backward glance. Lewis was wealthy and useful, as he had criminal associates in the “used car” trade, which had hitherto fallen outside of her usual net. He was both amazingly stupid and a clumsy and physically inadequate lover. Someday she would tell him so. It would be amusing.

    She'd just seated herself in her expensive car—having a vehicle that spelled money was one of the reasons she'd spent her evening in the way she had—when the mobile rang.

    It was Thom. "I've told you,” she snapped. “Don't call me on this number. Call me at work. And call on the main line, not your mobile." She hung up.

    Thom was an idiot. He was bound to be caught, sooner or later. She wanted no provable links to him. If calls were routed through the military switchboard, the best record the billing company would have of that call would be that her manufacturer had called military headquarters. A brief once-off call could be explained as a wrong number. It was a source of irritation that Talbot Cartup had provided Dr. Thom with her mobile number, but then he was almost certainly not aware of how careful Tana had been lately. For all his power Talbot Cartup remained an idiot. Another one.

    A few minutes later, seated at her desk, checking stock values in the morning paper, Dr. Thom called and told her of Chip Connolly's impending arrest.

    Tana flipped over the paper looked at the headlines. She smiled to herself, and began doing some homework on this Vat, before the telephone call she knew she'd be getting from Talbot Cartup, soon enough. She'd already mentally assigned two of her associates. Depardue and Tesco. She derived some satisfaction in making two of lovers work together. Admittedly, Tesco was more loyal to money than to her, but still.



    Two hours after being turned away, Chip walked back to the gate. He was frisked, given a metal detector search and taken to a waiting vehicle. The coffee and donut he'd had with the film crew sat uneasily in his stomach. Part of his mind said that he was being a fool. She was just behaving exactly as Shareholders did. Use and cast away. Another part of his mind said that he could live with that, but he needed to be sure she was all right. She had trusted him, and he wasn't going to let her down if something was wrong.

    They pulled up at a side door. The servants' entrance, naturally. Chip was led by two guards through a pantry section, into carpeted halls, and upwards to a small lounge-like room. "Small," at least, by the standards of this mansion.

    Virginia stood waiting. She wasn't dressed in a torn dusty skirt and a ripped blouse anymore. She looked instead as if she'd just stepped off a fashion-catwalk.

    When he'd gotten over that momentary shock, he realized that something was seriously wrong. The tension in her stance, the way her shoulders were pulled forward. Was she that scared of meeting him again?

    The escort hadn't bothered to leave. "Good morning, Mr. Connolly," she said, as if she was greeting one of her maids. She looked at the escort. "You may go. I do think we can trust this soldier with my virtue."

    Chip tried not to swallow his tongue. Like that, was it?

    "Dr. Thom said we were to stay, Miss."

    She shrugged. Chip had been very close to dying with Virginia Shaw. You got to know someone's movements and gestures very well, very quickly, under those conditions. That was Virginia nearly exploding, not being casual. "It doesn't really matter. It's not as if this soldier and I have ever wished to be private with each other. And how is that dear little bat Phylla, Connolly. Doing well? Did she recover from her injuries?"

    Chip wished that he was a better actor. Or that he had an hour to sit down somewhere and think about all this before he had to reply. Phylla was dead. She'd died rescuing Virginia and her traitorous Korozhet tutor. And she'd been definitely and incontrovertibly a rat.

    Something about all this smelt a lot worse than the bats, after they'd been eating sauerkraut. The best he could manage cold was: "Uh. Fine."

    "And that darling little rat, what was her name?"

    "You mean, um, Behan." Behan had been a bat, and was definitely in the great belfry in the sky. He'd had an argument with a mist-wall of alcohol and a lit Molotov cocktail. "She's fine too."

    "That's the one," said Virginia, altering Behan's species and sex in one fell swoop. "Anyway, Mr. Connolly. Do sit down. I must thank you again for rescuing me. I'm afraid I'm still so tired. Quite dopy, too."

    They were talking some kind of code. That much he was quite sure of now. He hadn't even begun to figure out just what it meant.

    "Dr. Thom said I must keep this brief," Virginia continued. "I'm under his orders now, you know. He's helping me such a lot, just like my dear Prof did."

    Chip needed to sit down after that. "Prof" was what she'd called the Korozhet that had kidnaped her. Things were starting to make sense to him, finally.

    So: she was a captive, and, if he understood the code right, being doped by this Dr. Thom. He'd be the medical type who had whisked her away when they returned from the front.

    "Er." He sought desperately for a topic. Seeing her again, even dressed like this and obviously in dire trouble, still made him want to fold her in his arms. That, and the circumstances, seemed to have robbed his tongue of anything to say. "How's Fluff?"

    "He's run off somewhere," said Virginia, waving her hand vaguely at the window. "I believe he's around, but I haven't seen him for ages. You know he's not very loyal to me."

    Well, that was true enough. Fluff wasn't "very loyal" to Virginia. The correct way of putting it was "fanatically loyal." And if he read the handwave correctly, the galago was probably listening at the window. They were several stories up, but that would make no difference to the small primate.

    And if that wasn't Virginia's foot touching his leg, then there was a dog under the table. He squeezed it between his own legs and was rewarded with a brief, fulminating look before she gazed off into the distance again.

    His heart was beating like a drum, pounding in his ears. He was barely was aware of the door opening behind him. "Good morning, Miss Virginia," said someone behind him.

    If Chip hadn't been looking intently at her, he might not have noticed the sudden tightening of the muscles in her neck. "Dr. Thom. What brings you here?" she asked, with a smile. "As you see, I have a visitor. The soldier who rescued me."

    Chip got to his feet, looking carefully at the two men who had come in. One—a little alarmed-looking man with a camera—he dismissed from his attention, concentrating on the doctor. He assumed he was the doctor, anyway, from the stethoscope hanging around his neck.

    Thom was one of those men whose hair looked like it ought to be on the top end of one of the sculptures in Webb Park, and not attached to a live person. It shouldn't be blond, either. His moustache was a work of art too. He was easily one and a half times Chip's size, and he walked with a curiously catlike gait. He probably thought it made him look dangerous and sexy.

    Thom went over to stand proprietarily behind Virginia. "Of course, Miss Virginia. I told you about him. But it is really time Miss Shaw was allowed to go back to rest." He made no attempt to greet Chip. "If you don't mind, Miss Virginia, Walters is here to get a few pictures for the press-release."

    The nervous little man snapped frantically. Unlike the photographs Chip had been in lately, nobody made any attempt to pose them together.

    "You have a medical problem, Ginny?" asked Chip coolly, measuring things up. "I could deal with it, if you like."

    "You and the those rats and bats could deal with anything. But not now, Mr. Connolly. You must come and see me again soon."

    Chip was pretty sure he got that piece of code, even without catching a glimpse of Fluff shaking his head at the window. "As you like, Ma'am."

    She reached into her purse. A gun? No, he was getting too paranoid. It was a large bundle of notes, neatly tied up with a piece of ribbon. "The reward I promised you," Virginia said, tossing it carelessly to him.

    For a moment, old reflexes surged to the fore. Chip felt himself nearly exploding with in fury. As if he wanted her stinking Shareholder money—!

    Then he caught the flicker of desperate appeal in her eyes, and sanity returned. Thinking quickly, Chip lowered his head to hide the snarl and turned the tense set of his shoulders into something approximating a servile bow.

    "Thank you kindly, Ma'am. So generous of you."

    "No, it is only fair," said the Doctor jovially. "The workman is worthy of his hire, eh, Miss Shaw?"

    "Quite," said Virginia. "Now. If you'll excuse me, Mr. Connolly, I must go back to rest. It is almost time for my medication. Dr. Thom, I'm sure you'll see me to my room."

    "Of course," he said, offering his arm to help her to her feet. "Stett, Purvis, see the Lance-Corporal to the gate."



    Walking down through the passages to the servants’ entrance, Chip had time to think. This was going to be as tough to crack as the scorpiary. How could he get the rats and bats together? Did he trust Van Klomp? Instinct said "no." He was an officer and a Shareholder, after all. But it would make life a lot simpler if he could.

    "So, Vat-boy," said the one guard, giving his elbow a crushing squeeze. "I'm sure you're going to make a generous split of that nice pile of loot you just got."

    That snapped Chip out of his brown study. "Do you want to lose that hand?" he asked, in an even tone which would have made more intelligent men back off.

    To be a goon, however, a man doesn't need to be very intelligent. The guard laughed. "You think that uniform makes you tough, Vat? Don't kid yourself."

    Chip had noticed the firearm in the shoulder holster. "Have you ever seen what happens to someone who isn't wearing a slowshield when they've got a limb inside someone's slowshield and it hardens?" he asked, conversationally. "Couple of stupes like you tried it on a few conscripts for fun. Cut off the one's hand and the other's face."

    Chip twisted his arm free and pulled the guard in close. "Want to try? Right now the shield will cut you in half if I move fast enough. Want to chance it, asshole?"

    Fury and frustration with Ginny's predicament made Chip irrational with anger at this shakedown. He didn't want Ginny's money, but he wasn't going to give it to her jailors either.

    "It was just a friendly joke!" squawked the guard. "Hey, Purvis, tell him to let go of me!"

    Chip shoved the man away. "Unfriendly extortion, more likely. Take my advice and find a new line of work, punk. In the trenches, you wouldn't last a day."

    They'd arrived at the door. Chip got into the waiting vehicle without looking too closely at the occupants.



    "Lance-Corporal Charles Connolly, number 21011232334000. You are under arrest," said one of the five MPs.

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