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The Janus Enigma





by





William R. Dudley







Published by William R. Dudley



Copyright 2017 William R. Dudley


The author asserts the moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.


All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a re­trieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.




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Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.




This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.













For Jacquie, with love and thanks

for all her patience and forbearance,



for Rob and Ali, for keeping me young



and



for Fred, simply because he is.




Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Epilogue

About the Author

The Janus Contract


Chapter 1





Perception can be a total bitch.



I mean, when you see the muzzle of a twelve-gauge riot gun in a display case, or in a gun shop, or in any other normal situation, it looks like what it is — a hole, roughly three-quarters of an inch in diameter at the end of a blued, metal tube.

That’s fine, but when you’re staring down the hole and into the dark depth of the metal tube as a three-hundred pound giant of a Japanese goon holds it fifteen inches from your face, it takes on a completely new dimension. It becomes the focus of your entire universe. You can’t take your eyes off it, especially when you’re immobile; standing spread-eagled and strapped to a metal frame at wrists and ankles, like some half-assed version of the Vitruvian man’s less comfortable position.

Such is the fascination exerted by the hole at the end of the blued, metal tube that you hardly register the fact that you’re stark naked and it certainly doesn’t bother you — not as much as the hole.

Nor are you overly concerned by the aches and pains from the beating you took, or the metallic taste of blood in your mouth. The hole is all. You begin to wonder what you’ll see and hear in the fraction of a second after the goon pulls the trigger — before you have nothing left to see and hear with.

How I came to be strapped to a metal frame, naked, rather the worse for wear and with a huge oriental pointing a riot gun at my face is rather complicated, but basically, it was my own fault.

I was running late and decided to take a shortcut through places where I should have known better than to show my face. I was careless, I admit. — Hey, we’re all human, for Chrissakes. And yes, I should have been more wary of the little kid with the basketball, especially when it ‘slipped’ out of his hands and rolled to my feet. Yes, I should have kicked it back to him, rather than bending down to pick it up. And yes, I did hear them coming, but before I could straighten up, they were all over me.

A few meaty punches and a couple of kicks to the head and I was out of it, until, that is, I woke up naked, spread-eagled and staring down the hole at the end of the blued, metal tube.



There were others in the room, apart from me and the giant with the shotgun. About half a dozen figures leant against the metal walls in the shadows outside the cone of bright light, which spotlighted me and the frame from directly above. They were doing their best to look cool and disinterested, as though having someone hung up on a frame, bloodied and stark naked was normal and everyday, but the way they kept glancing at me and then quickly looking away told me they were as excited as all hell at the prospect of what was to come.

A door opened behind me. The shadowy figures straightened, almost to attention. As one, they bowed low from the waist. The hole at the end of the blued, metal tube didn’t waver.

Footsteps approached from behind, the clicking of high heels. They stopped. There must have been a nod or the wave of a hand because the giant took the shotgun out of my face and moved to one side, though he was still careful to keep it pointing at my head. The clicking began again and the man who was going to kill me was wheeled into my line of sight.

Even in the wheelchair, Satoru Tetsuko was an imposing figure — or should that be intimidating? Make it both.

I knew he must be in his sixties, but his face was virtually unlined. He still had a full head of hair, silver, in a short crew cut. His dark-blue suit probably cost more than most ordinary people make in six months. The pure-white shirt and black necktie were of the finest silk. His patent shoes shone like black mirrors. It’s a measure of the man that he obviously wasn’t concerned about having to look up at me. He lifted an impeccably manicured hand and the woman who had wheeled him in clicked towards me in her stiletto heels.

Despite those five-inch spikes, the top of her head didn’t come level with my chin. She was tiny, smaller than petite. She seemed fragile, flower-like, but I knew she was as deadly as she was beautiful and she was unspeakably beautiful.

Konnichiwa, Timoko-sama,” I tried to smile, but it hurt.

She stared up at me with soft, almond eyes, which seemed too big for her heart-shaped face. Her smile made you want to get lost in it forever. “Hello, Calder.”

Her voice was surprisingly deep, dark and silky as the lustrous hair, which framed her face and cascaded to her shoulders. Her silk blouse was a shade of smoky-grey. It whispered as she reached up and so, so, gently, wiped my face with a cool, damp cloth. It felt good. I closed my eyes.

The slap she delivered to my face snapped my head to the side. The backhand return brought my focus back to front and centre. I felt fresh blood run down my right cheek, where about half a million’s worth of diamond ring had gouged into my skin on the backhand.

Another scar, but who’s counting?

Her eyes were still too large, but they’d lost all softness, had become narrowed in anger and hate. Her breath hissed from between rosebud lips.

“Good to see you, too, Timoko.”

She raised her hand to hit me again, this time, the fingers bunched into a fist. The diamond looked like a Cartier knuckleduster.

Timoko, iya desu!” Her father’s voice was barely a whisper but filled the room with his disapproval.

Timoko lowered her hand, turned and bowed deeply towards Satoru. “Sumimasen deshita, otousan. Please forgive me.”

Satoru nodded once and waved a dismissive hand. Timoko straightened from her bow and stepped aside, out of my vision. The old man eased his wheelchair a little closer.



Satoru Tetsuko wasn’t a man to be pitied or to evoke even the barest shreds of sympathy. He’d pimped, double-crossed, and murdered his way to the top of his particular criminal tree. To him, people were as much a disposable commodity as the drugs and guns and whores and influence and God knows what else he and his organisation peddled.

Greed had put him in the wheelchair. Well, actually, it was an expanding point four-five slug to his lower back. If he hadn’t been so avaricious, he would have thought twice before rushing off to a meeting with a supposedly disaffected affiliate of the Shen Collective. The affiliate was small-time. What he was offering was anything but — a cool twelve million in high-tech goods — “Just there for the taking and I have a way in. All I want for myself is a little piece and, naturally, your protection from the Shens.

As things turned out, it was Tetsuko who needed the protection, but his greed got the better of him — “We gotta move quick. The Shens are shipping the stuff out first thing in the morning.”

Of course, it was a set-up. Jesus, a blind man in a cupboard at midnight could have seen that, but Tetsuko couldn’t see beyond the twelve million.

He was lucky to get out alive. Three of his bodyguards and the crew designated to move the goods didn’t. The surviving bodyguard, who managed to get him to safety, died of his wounds the next day.

Tetsuko whispered an order from his hospital bed. Over the next few days, pieces of the Shen affiliate turned up in several locations, as did pieces of his wife and three young kids.



No, there was nothing likeable about Satoru Tetsuko, but he did command a kind of perverse respect, especially from someone standing naked, spread-eagled and shackled before him.

He spent a long time staring up at me as I hung there.

“You owe me, Calder.” It wasn’t so much a statement as a death sentence. I maintained what I hoped was a defiant and dignified silence. “You understand you have to pay for Mitsuo.”

Mitsuo Tetsuko, ‘Mitchie’, was — had been — Satoru’s third oldest son and, yes, I’d killed him. He deserved killing. In fact, I’d done humanity a favour. If ever anybody had really needed killing, it was Mitchie Tetsuko. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to kill him twice.

“I have nothing against you, personally, Calder,” Satoru sounded almost apologetic. “But I must avenge the death of my son.”

“Mitsuo was a sick, perverted, homicidal maniac,” I stressed the adjectives. “He got what he deserved.”

“True, my son had certain ... frailties, but he was still my son, still of my blood.”

“You didn’t see what he did to that girl.”



I didn’t have to close my eyes to evoke the memory of the room in Mamma Lou’s bordello. It will live with me, vivid and stark, till the day I die. The girl, or what was left of her, on the bed, body parts and internal organs spread all over — blood everywhere, the bed, the walls, the floor, even on the ceiling and standing in the centre of it all, stark naked, Mitchie Tetsuko, the blade still in his hand.

I blew the sonofabitch’s head off with one shot.

Mamma Lou didn’t want Internal Security poking around. Besides, a reputation as a place where psychopaths butcher the girls isn’t very good for business. The girl had been a runaway, with no next of kin worth mentioning. We disposed of her remains and cleaned up the room.

Mitchie’s minders, two useless hulks, who’d been drinking in the bar when it all went down, took his body back to his father. They knew what had really happened and, I guess, they explained it all to Satoru.

After he killed them, word got around that I’d be next. So, a little over a week after I’d blown Mitchie Tetsuko away, here I was.



“It is a matter of honour, Calder. I cannot let the killing of my son go unanswered, no matter what the circumstances. What he did to the girl was regrettable, but I have no choice. Not only would it be a great disrespect to the memory of Mitsuo, but also I would appear weak to my many enemies. I would lose a great deal of face.”

So, Mitchie’s late minders had told him what had happened — before he had them carved slowly into small pieces.

“Mitchie was a madman, Satoru, a monster. You lose face by even acknowledging such a man as your son.”

For a moment, I saw his anger, not at what I said, but at the truth of it. He took a deep breath. “Nevertheless, I have to do whatever is necessary to maintain the respect due to someone in my position. I must make an example. I’m sorry, Calder.”

He wasn’t, of course. He was enjoying every moment, but noblesse oblige, I suppose.

He looked to the side and nodded slowly.



Two women wheeled a large gurney into view. Several strong-looking, leather straps hung from its metal frame. The women both wore surgical scrubs, but the functional garb couldn’t hide their litheness or disguise the animal attraction generated by their every movement. They were of the same mould as Timoko, who followed, pushing a surgical trolley. The light danced and gleamed off the polished instruments on its stainless steel top.

Satoru smiled. It wasn’t pleasant.

“You seem to be already acquainted with my youngest daughter, Timoko. Allow me to introduce her sisters. This is Emiko, my eldest daughter.” One of the women, slightly taller than the other two, bowed — the almost perfunctory eshaku, the fifteen-degree bow. Still, at least she had a few manners.

“Emiko is a gifted surgeon. Her medical education has been thorough and extensive. She attended the best med-schools back on Earth and completed her studies at Sunrise General, here on Janus. And this is Reiko.” The third sister also bowed, again the almost dismissive eshaku. “Reiko is a skilled and talented chemist and pharmacist. Her knowledge of the use and effects of drugs and stimulants is second to none.”

“The beauty and talents of your daughters do you great credit, Satoru-sama, as do the gifts you have lavished upon them.”

Hell, I couldn’t think of anything else to say and they had shown a hint of politeness.



Of course I’d heard of the Tetsuko sisters. Who hadn’t?

Timoko looked after a sizeable chunk of her father’s gambling operations. Emiko was renowned as the go-to surgeon for fixing wounds, changing faces and making victims’ bodies disappear in small pieces — provided, of course, you were affiliated to the Tetsuko clan. Reiko was one of the best drug-synthesisers in the business. Her creations had fed the ever-ravenous addictions of thousands and had made her old man several fortunes.

But I hadn’t been prepared to meet them in the flesh. Each of the sisters was achingly lovely.

It crossed my mind that their mother must have been one hell of a looker. I also realised that Satoru must have had at least two ‘wives’. No way could the mother of these goddesses have also spawned his sons, the hulking, ultra-violent brutes who called him ‘Papa-sama’.



Satoru manoeuvred his chair next to the gurney.

“I believe that anticipation heightens experience, Calder, so let me explain what is going to happen over the next few hours.

“You will be secured to this gurney, face down. Emiko will then proceed to — perhaps it’s best to use the vernacular — skin you alive. She will begin with an incision down the length of your spine. She will then carefully flense the skin from your body to each side, before proceeding to do the same to your legs and arms. Once that process is complete, you will be turned face up and the procedure will continue until your entire skin is detached.

“Naturally, there will be a great loss of blood, but Emiko’s skill, together with transfusions, administered and monitored by Timoko, will ensure that the loss is not fatal. Reiko will assist her sister in the procedure and use her talent with substances to ensure you do not succumb to shock and that you remain alive and conscious for as long as possible. Unfortunately, nothing she does will diminish your agony.”

He smiled again. It was even more unpleasant than before. “Once we have your entire skin, intact and whole, you will be allowed to die. Your face will be the last part of you we take.”

My mouth had become very dry. “It all seems just a touch on the elaborate side. Why not just shoot me?”

“As I said, Calder, I must make an example. Your death must be shocking and excruciating. Word of it will spread and, of course, the entire procedure will be captured on camera. The images will be disseminated widely among my friends and enemies alike.”

For the first time, I noticed a pencil-cam floating in the air around the gurney — a metallic, wingless dragonfly, hovering silently as its wide-angle lens and built-in microphone recorded everything in high-definition.

“It will not matter to you, of course, but I intend to have your skin fixed to the door of the establishment where you killed my son. It will serve to remind everyone of the power and honour of the Tetsuko clan and warn them of what happens to those who fall into my disfavour. We shall be feared and respected more than ever.”

“I don’t suppose there’s anything I can say to change your mind?”

“Sadly, no. The time for words is passed.” He looked at his solid gold, antique Rolex. “Timoko will now administer a sedative, the better to facilitate moving you from your present position to the gurney. You’re a strong man, Calder. We mustn’t take any risks, especially now that you know what’s in store for you. It could make you desperate.” The smile came again. I was beginning to hate it. “But don’t worry. We shall ensure that you are fully conscious before Emiko gets to work.”

Timoko took a hypodermic from the top of the surgical trolley and came towards me. Even though she was going to help to kill me, she was still adorable.

“Satoru, are you sure I can do nothing to stop this?”

He just smiled again and shook his head, like an adult amused by a wayward child. Timoko seized my arm, the needle poised.

“So be it.” I filled my lungs and shouted: “Excelsior!”

From somewhere in the ceiling high above came a soft explosion, followed by a swift, rushing sound, a giant’s exhalation. In less than a second, a cloud of vapour filled the room.

Being careful to breathe only through my nose, so the micro-filters I’d implanted in my nostrils protected me from the gas, I watched as Satoru, his daughters, the shadowy figures and the huge goon with the shotgun collapsed into instant unconsciousness.



All I had to do then was wait.

Chapter 2

The effects of the gas were good for about half an hour, but I didn’t have to wait anywhere near that long. It dispersed and became harmless in a matter of minutes.



Shortly after everyone fell down, a door behind me and another to the side of the room simultaneously burst inwards with soft explosions.

Several very large figures, carrying very large guns, flowed swiftly through the smoke and into the room. They moved in a practised, professional way, quickly and surely, covering every part of the room with their weapons, the red beams of their laser-sights sweeping right and left, high and low.

Vsye cheesto!”

Given the ‘all clear,’ the very large figures busied themselves with the crumpled shapes on the floor. They quickly searched them and divested them of all weapons, before dragging them to lie in a line, side-by-side, face down, their wrists secured behind them with good, old-fashioned cable-ties — a double wrapping for the giant, who didn’t have his shotgun any more. Their ankles were fastened together in the same way.

The three sisters were gently placed onto chairs, which appeared from somewhere behind me. They’d probably been intended to make the audience for my skinning comfortable. Well, it had promised to be a long show.

They also were frisked and a surprising collection of knives, small pistols and other offensive paraphernalia was added to the pile of guns and blades the very large figures had already retrieved and placed on the gurney. The sisters’ hands were secured behind the chair backs and their ankles to the chair legs.

One of the very large figures moved towards Saturo, who sat in his wheelchair, his head bowed forward, as though he’d nodded off to sleep during a particularly boring vidcast.

“Dmitri Nikoliaevitch, just leave him, please.”

Dmitri stared at me for a moment, shrugged and stepped aside, but not before removing two handguns and a wicked-looking blade from inside Satoru’s jacket and ensuring the old man had no other means of killing hidden about his person.

While the very large figures were busy, Sunny O’Malley sauntered slowly across the room to stand in front of me. I was still naked and still strapped to the frame. She was clearly more than a little amused by my situation.

Sunny was tall, about six feet, and slim, but with curves in all the right places, curves accentuated by her skintight, black, CarboKev body armour. Her black hair was cut into a short, shingled bob. I remember Mamma Lou once showing me some ancient pictures of people who’d been called ‘movie stars’. One of the most striking was a girl called Louise Brooks. Sunny had the same haircut.

“Excelsior?”

She smiled. “It had to be a word no one in this room would ever use and, etymologically speaking, it derives from the Latin for ‘on high’.” She glanced up to where the gas-bomb had been hidden. “I thought it was rather apt.”



Christened Sun-Hi O’Malley, Sunny was the product of a tempestuous, but ardent relationship between a Korean barmaid and a hopelessly alcoholic, Irish construction worker. Her parents both died when she was in her early teens — her father first, finally succumbing to the booze, and her mother about a year later, from a massive heart attack.

She never talked about the time between her mother’s death and her seventeenth birthday, when she joined-up for a seven-year hitch with PDG External Security, but, without a doubt, things happened during that time which turned a normal, teenage girl into someone bordering on the psychopathic.

The military life had suited her. She became a specialist in weapons and electronic systems, surveillance, covert ops and killing, particularly killing.

That’s where we met. I was her platoon sergeant.

Now, let me make one thing absolutely clear — I like Sunny and she’s undoubtedly a very attractive woman, a babe even, if you like them hard and dangerous and with a penchant for violence and black leather. We’ve been through a lot together over the years, but we were never what you’d call ‘an item’.

Okay, yes. There was one night after a particularly hairy firefight somewhere near Stockholm when I got far too drunk and she almost had to carry me back to my room. Declaring my undying love for her, as only drunks can, I made a grab. A punch to my gut knocked all the wind out of me. She threw me onto the bed and I collapsed into an alcoholic stupor. Thereafter, on pain of my losing certain parts of my anatomy, to which I’m rather attached, we agreed never to mention the non-incident again.

I’ve never seen her show affection for another human being — respect, concern, comradeship, friendship, all of those things, but never affection. In fact, I’m convinced Sunny O’Malley’s idea of affection is not to kick you in the balls.

I suppose a psych would say she’s afraid of commitment, that she’s incapable of giving even a tiny part of herself to someone else, but Sunny O’Malley is totally committed — to making sure nobody, but nobody ever messes with her. If you even touch her, which I rarely do, at best, she’ll give you a serious warning, at worst she’ll break your neck. But, as for giving of herself — I’ve seen her put her own life on the line for others too many times to count.

Sunny O’Malley will do work, pro bono, for those unfortunates who need help, but can’t afford to post a bounty or put out a contract on the slime making their innocent lives a misery. I believe her when she says she’s never killed anybody who didn’t deserve it. I just wish she didn’t enjoy it quite so much.

Despite all that, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have watching my back, or at my side when the shit hits the fan. Sunny’s great to have as a friend. I don’t even want to begin contemplating what it would be like to have her as an enemy.



“You going to get me down off this thing?”

“I might.” Her smile broadened. Her green eyes twinkled. “But the sight of you hung up like that raises some interesting possibilities.”

“For Christ’s sake, Sunny, stop dicking around and get me down. I have things to do.”

Still grinning, she produced an evil-looking knife and, after worrying me a little with the wistful way she looked at the blade in her hand, cut neatly through the leather straps shackling me to the frame.

My clothes had been thrown into a corner. I retrieved them, dressed and turned to the business in hand.

The representatives of the Tetsuko clan were still unconscious and had been rendered harmless. The very large figures had relaxed, were smoking and passing around a couple of bottles. I walked over to the gurney, where their leader stood, surveying his team’s handiwork.

Thanks, Dmitri. Best get your people out of here. The Tetsukos haven’t seen you, so they’ll be none the wiser. I’ll catch up with you later.”

Dmitri Nikoliaevitch, scion of the Krasskov family, nodded. He saw the sense of it. If the Tetsukos did look for some kind of payback, they wouldn’t know who to target, except for me and Sunny, of course. It went without saying that the Krasskov people already had cast-iron alibis for the entire day, even the part of it that hadn’t happened yet.

Dmitri put two fingers into his mouth and let out a piercing whistle. I felt a sudden rush of envy. I’ve always wanted to be able to do that, but have never managed it.

Paydyom!”

The very large figures headed towards the door. Dmitri offered me the butt of his very large gun.

“No thanks. I’ll take this.” I pulled the giant’s shotgun from the pile of weapons heaped on the gurney. “Dasvidanya, ee spasseeba.”

I’ll never understand what it is about Russians and hugging. It must be a genetic thing. Dmitri enfolded me in a suffocating bear-hug before following his people out of the room.



“OK, Sunny. Let’s wake ‘em up.”

She took a small aerosol from a loop on her belt and shook it.

Starting with the men on the floor, she sprayed the contents over their heads. The three sisters were next, each receiving a blast from the spray-can full in the face. Saturo was the last to get the rise-and-shine treatment.

It took a few minutes of spluttering, groaning and coughing, with a few retches thrown in for good measure, but soon they were all wide awake. Doubtless, many of them had the mother of all headaches.

I carried a fourth chair from the audience-stack behind the frame, set it down in front of Saturo’s wheelchair and made myself comfortable, the shotgun across my knees.

Sunny stood a little to the side, her eyes continually roving over the others, silently willing one or more of them to try something stupid — and fatal.

They read the signs and stayed very still.

For a man his age, Saturo recovered from the effects of the gas remarkably quickly. He shook his head and clapped his hands in grudging applause.

“Very nice, Calder. A very nice set-up, risky, but very nice.”

“I have my moments.”

“Why am I not dead?”

“I’m in a good mood, Satoru. I don’t particularly want to kill you today. Of course, I could easily wipe out you and everybody in this room and then hunt down your sons and the rest of your family, but what would be the result? Chaos. The Shen Collective would try to move in on your operations, but the other outfits would try to stop them because, with your rackets added to their own, the Shens would become too powerful. There’d be a war. A lot of people would die.

“Now, I don’t particularly give a shit about the Shens, or any of the other lowlifes. I don’t really give a shit about you, but innocent people would be caught in the crossfire. That I do care about. So, I’m not going to kill you, not unless you leave me no choice. I just want to talk.”

“You could have called. It would have been much simpler.”

“Right — and you would have agreed to meet me, to sit down like this, face-to-face? Of course, you would and, before we could even say ‘Konnichiwa’, I’d have ended up on that frame, but on your terms.”

“So, you stage this whole thing just to talk? I’m impressed.” He met my stare. “Of course, you realise this changes nothing. You have to kill me, or I will hunt you down. There must be a reckoning for my son.”

“For Christ’s sake, spare me the devoted, vengeful father. You despised Mitchie. You knew what he was, what he took pleasure in. That’s why you never gave him an important position in your organisation. You saw him, what, once, twice a year and for less than a couple of hours at a time? You side-lined him, gave him a tiny, useless territory as far from you as possible and had him watched very carefully — unfortunately not carefully enough.”

Satoru gripped the arms of his wheelchair. “He was still of my blood.”

“This isn’t about your blood. It’s all about saving face, about appearing strong and ruthless. It’s all about you, Saturo, you and your fear of the Shens and all the others.”

“I fear no one, Calder.”

I sat back and smiled at him. “Then you’re a bigger fool than I thought. You need to be afraid, Satoru, if not of the Shen Collective and all the others, then of me and my friends. Kill me and my people will come for you — you and your entire clan, from the highest to the lowest, man, woman and child. It won’t be hard. You’re the best of them but consider for a moment how things ended up like this. It was all so simple — a staged capture, a voice-activated gas-bomb hidden in the roof and bingo! You’re mine.

“Kill me and you and your entire family will cease to exist within a week. I guarantee it, no matter what safeguards and protections you put in place. This was just a taster. You have no idea what we can do when we set our minds to it. Quite simply, Tetsuko-sama, as this little low-level demonstration shows, when it comes to me and my friends, you’re totally outmatched.”

He tried to put a brave face on it, but he was blinking a little too fast and his mouth was a little too tight. He was rattled. He inhaled deeply and looked me squarely in the face. He was a determined, old bastard and a brave one, I’ll give him that.

“Be that as it may, Calder, there still remains the matter of my son. Many people know you are the one who killed him, if not the exact circumstances. How can I let you live and save face?”

My smile broadened to a grin.

“That’s the easy part. Give Mitsuo up. Acknowledge him for what he was. I killed him for butchering a helpless, nineteen-year-old girl, but you and I know she wasn’t the only one. There were others and their killings were covered up. You can say you knew nothing about what Mitchie was doing. Like all psychopaths, he was very clever at keeping his crimes hidden, especially from a doting father, who naturally finds it difficult to believe anything bad about his own children.

“Only now, have you come to learn and understand the truth about him, and the knowledge of what he did and the dishonour his crimes have brought upon your name, remove any considerations of revenge. You get the drift. You have contacts in the media. They’ll love a story like that. I’m sure you can make it very convincing.”

“The Shens and the rest, they will never believe it.”

“What’s not to believe? An honourable man who has the courage to disown his own psychotic son, to acknowledge publicly the shame he feels for that son’s crimes. Strength isn’t just guns and goons, Saturo. This will give you the kind of strength the Shens and all the others can never have — a moral strength. Their morality is lower than gutter-level. This will raise you so high above them they’ll need a step ladder to kiss your feet and an elevator to kiss your ass.

The silence stretched out.

Saturo sat in his wheelchair, his eyes closed. I’d played all my cards. Now it was up to him. I tightened my grip on the shotgun. His eyes opened. He stared at me.

“If I agree to this arrangement, what guarantees do I have that you will not reveal it? That would put me in the worst possible position — colluding with my son’s killer to save face. I would be ridiculed, even forced to commit seppuku.”

I pointed the shotgun at his head.

“Ultimately, you’ll do it to save face, but, right now, you’ll do it to save your life and the lives of your people in this room.” I lowered the shotgun. He noticed the gesture. “Look, I have no interest in telling anybody about it. I’m doing this to stay alive and not to have to spend the rest of my probably short life looking over my shoulder. If this ever came out, all bets would be off. Setting aside your predilection for theatrics like this,” I waved the shotgun to indicate the frame and the gurney. “It would be easy for you to have someone put a bullet in my head. Believe me, Saturo; it’s in my own interests and yours to keep this a secret. I hope you can say the same about your people here. They’ve heard it all. ”

“My daughters are, naturally, beyond reproach. The loyalty of Hitoru,” he inclined his head and waved a hand towards the giant goon who’d had the shotgun. “That is also beyond question. As for the others, they are already dead men. It was their duty to prevent such things as this from happening. They failed and they will pay the price for their failure.

“Besides, I’m not a fool, Calder. To know about this place and our plans for you, to know that you would be brought here and to gain access, in advance of events, to arrange your little surprise means that you must have had information from inside my organisation. I have a traitor in my ranks.” He looked towards the men lying trussed on the floor. “It has to be one of these mimizu. We shall attempt to find out which of them it is before they all die. Emiko’s day will not have been completely wasted after all.”

As I said, there wasn’t much to like about Saturo Tetsuko.

“So, Satoru, do we have an agreement?”

For a moment, I thought he was going to tell me to stick my agreement where the sun doesn’t shine and then I’d have to kill him and all the others and risk starting a war no one would win. He didn’t. He bowed his head in assent.

“We have an agreement, Calder-san.”

I got up from the chair. “Arigatou gozaimashita, Tetsuko-sama.” I bowed as I thanked him, the thirty-degree futsurei bow of respect. He just stared down at the floor.



Sunny was already backing towards the door, covering the room with a large pistol, but I had one last piece of unfinished business.

I went over to the big goon, Hitoru, and, with some difficulty, got him to his feet and stood him with his back against the wall. I levelled the shotgun to within a foot of his face. He was either very stupid or very gutsy. He didn’t flinch, just stared, slightly cross-eyed, down that hole at the end of the blued, metal tube.

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s very rude to point guns at people’s faces?”I inched the shotgun a little nearer and had the satisfaction of seeing him lick his lower lip.

Under normal circumstances, I would have blown his head off, but his boss and I had just reached an understanding, so I contented myself with swinging the butt of the shotgun round hard and fast to smash into his face. He went down like a three hundred-pound sack of potatoes. I left him to bleed and went over to pocket the pencil-cam hovering above the gurney.

“On the subject of guarantees, Satoru, this is mine. It’s been recording everything. If anything unfortunate were to happen to me in the future, apart from the inevitable actions of my friends, you’ll see this conversation played out on every vid channel there is. If you don’t slit your own belly from the shame of that, when my people finally kill you, your precious family honour will already be dust blowing in the wind.”

He didn’t reply.

As an afterthought, I took a scalpel from the surgical trolley and cut away the bonds of the people on the floor. They didn’t even say ‘Arigatou.’ They just ran for the door. Of course, Satoru would track them down, but I was damned if I was going to make his life any easier.

I jammed the shotgun low through the spokes of both wheels of the wheelchair. It would take him some time to remove it and be able to free his daughters. Perhaps he’d have to fall out of the wheelchair and drag himself across the floor with his hands to reach them. It was a pleasing thought.

Pausing in the doorway, I turned and gave them all the full, deeply respectful saikeirei sixty-degree bow. The looks I got in return could have taught Medusa a thing or two.



As we walked down the passageway outside, Sunny was pensive.

“Are you holding out on me, Calder, or am I right in thinking I and a few dozen or so of the Krasskovs are all you have backing you, unless you include Mamma Lou’s whores, that is? No way could we take on the entire Tetsuko outfit if it came to it.”

“I know that and you know that, Sunny, but they don’t know that and it’s what you don’t know that gives you most pause. As far as they’re concerned, I have a whole horde of highly skilled warriors at my beck and call, perhaps more than a horde — however many that is. How else did we manage to pull off what just happened back there? Their pride won’t let them even consider they could have been taken by just a handful of people. They’ll convince themselves they’re up against a hidden army. Come on, let’s go get a drink.”

“You’re buying. Nice move with the shotgun, by the way, smooth.”

Praise indeed.



It would have been fitting, nice even, if, as we walked away, Sunny had taken my arm, or put hers around my shoulders, but she wasn’t that kind of girl, so I had to be content with her not kicking me in the balls.

Chapter 3





You get used to moving around Janus, especially in the Outer Levels.



Out there, the sheer size of the structure flattens out the curvature, so you don’t even notice you’re moving through a maze of hundreds of thousands of interconnecting tubes, passageways and box-like, plascarb chambers, making up a concentric series of geodesic spheres, the outer one of which measures fourteen miles in diameter.

There are no windows in the walls that separate the inside of the chambers and passages from the absolute nothing of space.

They say it’s because, apparently, windows are weak points in a structure, but I think it’s to hide the fact that you’re stuck out in all that emptiness, orbiting the Sun roughly where the Asteroid Belt used to be. They don’t want you to think about the awful void on the other side of those plascarb walls. They’re three feet thick, reflect radiation and can withstand almost anything, but what are three feet compared to millions of miles of absolute nothing?

But I actually like the place. I was born here. I grew up in the warren of the Outer Levels, that dirty, often ramshackle, always dangerous place, teeming with those who seek the better life Janus has to offer, but can never afford it. So, they settle, try to make first a living, then a life, have kids and, as the years go by, watch their dreams congeal into cold, hard reality.

There are a lot of them, well over eight and a half million and wherever you get that number of people with little money and less hope, you’ll inevitably find those who prey on their vulnerability — thieves, pimps, con-men, thugs and all the other kinds of lowlife who would rather take it from others than earn it for themselves.

You’ll find people like the Tetsukos, the Shen Collective, the Latino Braves, the Bandulu Posse and, though it pains me to say it because I count them as friends, the Krasskovs. But, at least, the Krasskovs hold to some vague notion of fairness and morality. They only kill and maim those who merit killing and maiming.

They and all the others like them are criminals, chiefly because that’s how the Ultra-conglomerates label them. In reality, they do nothing the Ultra-cons don’t. The difference is that when you’re as big and powerful as the Ultra-cons, ‘criminal’ becomes a relative term, which you apply to outsiders and use to protect yourself, your position and your profits.



During the years of political chaos, famine, pandemics and global instability following the war that reduced the Middle East to radioactive ash in 2033, with national economies on the verge of total collapse, the first of the Ultra-conglomerates emerged, buying up faltering banks and failing companies for a fraction of their true worth.

The Ultra-cons offered a ‘new way’. Your race, colour and creed didn’t matter. They promised safety, security and prosperity in return for honest, hard work and loyalty. They offered their faithful employees, those who allowed themselves and their lives to be totally subsumed into the U-con ethos, much more than a job. They offered a total package — education, health-care, housing and opportunity. They gave hope to a hopeless world. At least, that’s what they taught in my History classes at school, but by then, of course, the schools were owned and run by the Ultra-cons.



Mamma Lou’s is in the sector of the Outer Levels of Janus owned and run by the Paragon Dynamics Group.

One of the top three Ultra-cons, PDG provides power, heat, light, water and atmosphere, food, accommodation and education for the kids — all at a fee for the human flotsam who accrete to the Outer Levels like barnacles on a rock.

PDG InSec also provides policing and security, but mainly for the Inner Levels, where respectable people live and work. The Outers are largely left to their own devices, provided they keep the killing and robbing and extortion and prostitution and drug-dealing amongst themselves, and provided their nefarious activities don’t impinge too much on the more civilised Inner Levels, and provided, of course, they pay their dues on time.

A twenty-four-seven bar and licensed whorehouse, some say the best in the Outer Levels, Mamma Lou’s is where I grew up.

My mother had been one of Mamma Lou’s girls, my father — who knows or cares. My mother died when I was very young. I don’t really remember her. Mamma Lou took me in for her own. She fed and clothed me, gave me a home and paid for my education. She funded my college place back on Earth and wasn’t too put out when, unwilling to accept my inevitable future as an Ultra-con package-man, the only career path open to graduates, I dropped out and joined ExSec, PDG’s military security force.

Why didn’t I want to join the rat race? Simple — because rats live in sewers and eat shit and I refuse to do either.

When I came back to Janus, after finishing my hitch in ExSec, and walked through the door of her place, Mamma Lou gave me a hug, a drink, my old room and a job. So, I became a minder in her bar-cum-brothel. I kept over-enthusiastic customers in check and looked after the girls. There’d only ever been one time I’d been too late to stop a customer hurting a girl and I’d blown Mitchie Tetsuko away with one shot.



After our episode in the room with the frame and the gurney, Sunny and I relaxed at the bar in Mamma Lou’s.

The place was fairly quiet. I was off the clock until tomorrow. Leon was on duty at the table by the door. A giant of a man, his skin like burnished ebony, Leon’s very presence ensures the customers behave themselves. The sawn-off twelve-gauge, within easy reach on the table, adds to the calming nature of the man. I’ve seen him pick up two big guys, one in each hand, and throw them the length of the barroom — both at the same time.

He nodded his gleaming, shaved head as we came in, and then went back to his book. Leon has this thing for Romantic poetry. For Leon, there is no God but William Blake, with Keats ranking as the Messiah and Wordsworth the Holy Spirit.

Mamma Lou wasn’t in her usual place behind the bar. Apparently, she was out visiting. Rachel served us — Rachel, known as ‘the girl with the golden tongue’ and not for her conversational skills.

Sunny swirled the ice cubes in her glass of ginger ale. In all the time I’ve known her, I’ve never seen her touch alcohol, perhaps because of her father, but more likely, because booze gives you less control of yourself and Sunny refuses to relinquish even a single iota of control.

“Is it over?”

“With the Tetsukos? Yeah, I think so.” I patted the pencil-cam in my inside pocket. “I have insurance. We’ll know in a few hours, perhaps tomorrow. If we see Satoru making an announcement about Mitchie, we’re free and clear.”

“And if we don’t?”

“If we don’t, I’ll have to find some other way to stay alive.”

“You never did tell me how you knew where they’d take you. You do have someone on the inside, don’t you?”

“If I do, I’m not going to tell and if I don’t there’s nothing to tell.”

She shrugged. “Have it your way, asshole.” She changed the subject. “Doesn’t look like Dmitri’s gonna show.”

“Perhaps it’s for the best. Won’t hurt for him to steer clear of me for a couple of days. Even if Satoru does put us in the clear, he might still look for some kind of payback.”

She finished her drink and got up from the barstool. “Well, much as I enjoy your company, Calder, I have to go.”

“Business?”

“If it is I’m not going to tell and if it isn’t there’s nothing to tell.”

I grinned. “Touché”

“Thanks for the drink. Be seeing you, Calder. Watch your ass.”

As she turned from the bar, a couple of six-foot-four knuckle-draggers moved to block her path. They were obviously very drunk. I’d not seen them in the place before, which figured. Drunk, or sober, only a stranger, or a total moron, gets in Sunny’s way.

“Hey, there, Missy, what say you and me and Billy here go in back and have ourselves some fun? Treat us right and we’ll pay more than the usual rate.” He stuck out his tongue and waggled it obscenely.

I decided he must be short sighted, as well as stupid. Sunny was still wearing her body armour, not the halter-top and too-short shorts favoured by most of Mamma Lou’s girls. He also missed the fact that she still had a large gun holstered under her left arm.

Sunny stood and stared at him. He still didn’t get the message. He reached a hand towards her breasts. It never made it.

In a single, flowing movement, she seized the groping hand and twirled, forcing the moron’s arm up behind his back. I couldn’t help but wince as I heard his shoulder pop out and his tendons snap. He hadn’t even started to scream when she put her free hand to the back of his head and slammed his face down onto the bar. She did it again — Sunny’s always very thorough in such matters.

The moron collapsed to the floor. For good measure, she delivered a kick to his groin, which, in all likelihood, meant he wasn’t going to have ‘fun’ for quite some time.

It happened so fast the other guy, Billy, didn’t have time to react. He did manage to raise his fists as Sunny spun towards him, but a straight left burst through his guard and flattened his nose. As he rocked back from the punch, a knee to the groin put him down and a kick to the head put him out.

Sunny wasn’t even breathing hard as she stepped over Billy and walked to the door. She stopped by Leon’s table.

“Thanks for the help, Leon.”

“You really need my help with them two assholes?”

“No.”

“Which is why I didn’t get my ass off of this here chair. Hell, you’d a’ been positively insulted if I’d tried to butt in, but I will clean up your mess — again.”

Sunny gently patted the gleaming top of his smooth head.

“Thanks, Leon.”

As Sunny left, Leon came over to the bar. He bent to grab the backs of the collars of the two unconscious morons.

“‘Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are born.’”

“Wordsworth?”

“Blake, ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’.”

Without effort, Leon dragged the two men over to the door and outside. He’d dump them somewhere down a shadowy passage. Perhaps some Good Samaritan would call the medics. More likely, they’d wake up to find themselves butt naked and robbed of everything.

Rachel came from behind the bar with a mop, bucket and cloth. She made short work of cleaning the blood from the floor and the bar-top.

“Rache, tell Mamma Lou I stopped by, will you? And tell her everything’s all right. She’ll understand.”

“Sure.”

I finished my drink and went outside. It was getting dark.



We do have night and day on Janus, each exactly twelve hours long. At six each evening, the overhead daylight-lamps begin to dim to darkness, their illumination replaced by infrequently spaced lanterns, which cast vertical cones of dim light. Twelve hours later the process reverses and it’s daytime again. Down among the Inner Levels, where the chambers are swankier and the look of things matters a great deal more, some of them even have old-fashioned street lamps and, above, tiny, twinkling lights, set into the roof to mimic the stars.



If the Outer Levels are yin, the Inners are yang, at first glance seemingly separate, but in effect, complementary, even interdependent, bound and driven by common impulses — survival, aspiration, and, of course, greed.

When it became clear the Ultra-conglomerates and their contracted employees, their ‘package-men,’ were prospering, while everyone else was floundering and failing in so many ways, others quickly followed the pattern. Ultra-cons sprouted like mushrooms, feeding off the carcass of a rotting world. They suborned, infiltrated and when they’d grown powerful and rich enough, simply did away with elected governments and dictatorships alike. Once they had sufficient control, all forms of antitrust law disappeared. Military and police forces became the security arms of the Ultra-cons. Geographical boundaries became superfluous.

Oh, there was a lot of breast-beating and protest about the ‘Death of Democracy.’ Of course, there was. But in a world where you don’t know if you’re going to be able to feed your kids next week; where job-security and reliable public services have become a bad joke; where criminal gangs have free rein because police forces are too expensive to maintain and cops can make much more money on the wrong side of the law; in a world where prices can double in a day, where millions are still suffering and dying from the after effects of a nuclear exchange that sent the entire Middle East back to the Stone-age and made over half the world’s oil supply inaccessible; in a world where you see politicians and senior executives riding around in armour-plated limousines, while you have holes in the soles of your only pair of shoes — well, in that kind of world, democracy becomes a luxury you can’t really afford.

It took a few years for the Ultra-cons to crush the gangs and tame the mobs, which they did by simply outdoing them in savagery and ruthlessness.

At first, there were turf-wars between some of the Ultra-conglomerates — the ultimate in hostile take-overs — as the corporate jackals fought over the juiciest parts of the world’s carcass, but, eventually, the survivors, the forty-nine strongest, richest and most powerful of the Ultra-cons, came together to establish a stable, new world-order.

Out of the Rio Accord of 2054, came a world charter and an agreement to pool resources in the kind of Research & Development which ‘seeks to enhance the well-being of mankind.’ They agreed on areas of joint responsibility, where monopolies were forbidden.

Jointly, the Ultra-cons are responsible for ensuring adequate accommodation, reliable power, sufficient food and clean water — part of a package-man’s basic contract, but at a cost to everybody else. They provide health-care and education. If you’re a signed-up Ultra-con employee, you get it for free. If you aren’t and can’t afford to pay for it, you die when you get sick and your children grow up illiterate.

The heads of the big forty-nine came together as the Board of Chairman and elected one of themselves as Chairman of the Board of Chairmen. After that last election ever held, the world had its first king. Two hundred and fourteen years later, the same man, Hugo Azarillo, Chairman of PDG, was still the boss.



Apparently, in seeking to ‘enhance the well-being of mankind,’ the R&D departments’ first priority had been to develop treatments and procedures to greatly increase the lifespan of those at the very top of the Ultra-con tree.

Chapter 4





As usual, I decided to walk.



I could have used a transit-shuttle, but, as whenever I made this trip, I didn’t want anyone to know where I was going. That’s why I took a roundabout route through empty passages and dimly lit places, doubling back on myself a couple of times to throw off any tails. I avoided the inter-level elevators with their observation-cameras, moving down through the levels by means of service stairs and ladders.

It took me a little over three hours to descend twelve levels and walk the seven miles to where I was going.

I wasn’t in the PDG Sector anymore. My hike took me into the section of Janus owned and run by Hochling Inc., smaller than PDG, but still a U-con. Above me, the Outer Levels of the Hochling Sector were as dangerous and violent and without hope as those I’d left in the PDG Sector. In fact, the only difference was that an alternate grouping of mobsters, hoodlums and lowlifes preyed on the people up there.

I finally reached my destination, a large residential-chamber in the upper Inner Levels of the Hochling Sector. To each side, stacked six high, stood the single-level apartments of lower- and middle-management types, what used to be called ‘the professional class’. Light shone from some of their windows. On Janus, you can have windows in interior walls and even a view of nothing more than the façades of the units opposite is better than living with no view at all.

Every chamber on Janus has at least two entrances. Some have three, some four. It all depends on how they’re connected to their neighbouring chambers. At each end of every connecting passage is a huge door, which closes automatically and seals off the chamber in the unlikely event of a hull breach, but there hasn’t been one in living memory. Janus was built well.


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