by Paul J. McAuley


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ISBN-13: 9780575081109
Publisher: Gardners Books
Publication date: 08/02/2007
Edition description: New

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Chapter One

King's Cross

The room is full of ghosts.

Transparent as jellyfish, dressed in full Edwardian rig, they drift singly or in pairs around and around the newly restored Ladies' Smoking Room of the Grand Midland Hotel at St. Pancras, adroitly avoiding passengers waiting to board the 1600 hours Trans-Europe Express. Alex Sharkey is the only person in the room who pays the ghosts any attention; to pass the time, he has been trying to derive the algorithm which controls their seemingly random promenade. He arrived twenty minutes early, and now, according to the watch he bought on his way here, it is twelve minutes past three, and his client is late.

Alex is edgy and uncomfortable, sweating into his brandnew drawstring shirt of unbleached Afghan cotton. The raw cotton is flecked with nubbles of chaff dud scratch his skin. The jacket of his suit is tight across his shoulders; although the salesman assured him that its green tweed check complemented his red hair, Alex thinks it makes him look, a little like Oscar Wilde. Who wouldn't be out of place in the lovingly restored heritage decor of the Ladies' Smoking Room, with its salmon pink and cream walls, marble pillars and plush red upholstered easy chairs, its potted palms and, flitting population of Edwardian ghosts,

Alex is wedged into a low, overstuffed armchair, chainsmoking and feeling the buzz from his second cup of espresso. One thing he's learned today is they make wonderful espresso here, oily and bitter and served scalding hot in decently thick thimble-sized cups, with a twist of lemon in the bowl of the dainty silver spoon, and a bitter mint chocolate and a glass offlash-filtered water served on the side.

Caffeine is such a simple, elegant, necessary drug-Alex remembers one of Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons, goofy lions sprawled around a tree and off in the distance a rhino pouring a cup of coffee for its mate, who's saying, "Whoa, that's plenty." The title was African Dawn, and Alex smiles now, remembering the way he laughed out loud the first time he saw it. Which was when? One Christmas back before the end of the twentieth century, he must have been five or six. It would have been in the damp, ant-infested, twelfth floor council flat on the Isle of Dogs, looking out over the Thames. Lexis always -got him a book for Christmas, somehow or other. To improve him.

And now here he is, surrounded by hologram ghosts and waiting for his man, trying to blend in with the suits and the rich tourists waiting for the express train out of this shitty country. Most of them are chattering in French, the lingua franca of the elite of the increasingly isolationist European Union. The women are defiantly tanned, in flimsy blouses and very short shorts, or miniskirts with artfully tattered hems. A few, this is the very latest in BodiCon fashion, are enveloped in chadors made of layers of translucent chiffon woven with graphic film that flashes odd images and shifting patterns, revealing and concealing breasts, the curve of a hip, smooth tanned skin hollowed over a collar bone. The men wear chunky suits in earth colors, a lot of gold on their wrists, and discreet makeup. Earrings flash when they speak or glance at themselves in-the tall gilt mirrors behind the bar. Unnervingly, the mirrors do not reflect the ghosts. At the bar's mahogany counter, half a dozen Ukrainians in shiny black suits make a lot of noise, toasting each other with rounds of malt whisky.

One woman has a pet doll. It sits quietly beside-its mistress, dressed in a pink and purple uniform edged with gold braid. A chain leash is clipped to the studded dog collar around its neck. Its prognathous blue-skinned face is impassive. Only its eyes move. Dark, liquid, sad-looking eyes, as if it knows that something's wrong deep down in every cell

Of its body, knows the burden of sin that's been laid on it.

Alex feels sorry for it — it's displaced from Nature, dazed by the violence done to its genome. It's a crusty creature, he drinks, the epitome of his belief that there's no point gengineering anything more advanced than yeast, because the more complex the organism, the more unpredictable the side effects.

Alex lights another cigarette and checks the time again. He has an edgy sliding feeling that things have gone wrong. He has always hated waiting around, having to be on time. For this one occasion, when he had to be punctual, he bought a watch, and all it does is make him more nervous. It is a piece of recyclable Polish street slut that cost less than a single espresso, graphic film on a hexagon of varnished fiberboard, a bright orange cloth strap. It runs on the faint myoelectric field generated by Alex's wrist muscles — it's a time-binding parasite. There's a black eagle impressed on the watch face, and the eagle raises its wings and breathes fire when Alex tilts his wrist to look at it. The hands are black slivers generated by the same chip that runs the eagle. The graphic film is already wrinkling: the eagle 'has a broken wing; the hour hand is kinked. It it eighteen minutes past three.

Alex once had a genuine antique stainless steel oyster Rolex" lit came with a certificate proving it was manufactured in Switzerland, in 1967. It was given to him by the Wizardthe Wizard was always giving him stuff like that, in the days when Alex was the -brightest and best of the Wizard's ap prentices. But Alex lost the Rolex when he was banged up with the Wizard and the rest of his crew. Either the cops or one of Lexis's asshole toyboys swiped it. Alex lost a lot, then, which is one reason why be's in a hole with Billy Rock, and making risky, desperate deals with junior grade Indoriesian diplomats.

I Twenty-eight minutes post. Shit. Alex signals to the waiter and orders another espresso, speaking slowly and carefully :because the tall , silver-haired man is an Albanian refugee who has only a glancing relationship with the English language...

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