Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Players 3

On the way to confront his boss, to find out just how badly the man had screwed up while he’d been away, Carl Kelley came across one of the security guards in the trophy room. The guy had no right or reason to be there. A computerized system allowed or denied residents, guests, visitors and employees access to different parts of the mansion’s towers and outbuildings according to codes in the electronic bracelets everyone had to wear. The security guards who manned the main gate and patrolled the perimeter of the estate were allowed into the gatehouse, the kitchens and the staff dining room, that was it, but here was the new guy who’d started work just last week, Frank Wilson, wandering around a room reserved only for those with the highest privilege rating.

The trophy room took up much of the ground floor of the main tower: adobe walls hung with the heads of cougars and antelope and pronghorn deer; leather armchairs, low tables and zebra-skin rugs scattered around the central open-hearth fireplace, with its platform of rough stone and its copper hood that was as big as the vent of a Moon rocket. Carl stood just beyond the open door, a wiry middle-aged man wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and black cargo pants, an athletic bag slung over one shoulder. The security guard, Wilson, was bending to look at things in low alcoves, leaning close to things on shelves, turning now as Carl walked across the room towards him

‘This is some place, huh?’ Wilson said, with a quick, false smile.

‘I hope you didn’t touch anything,’ Carl said. ‘It takes for ever to reset the system.’

Each collectable and piece of art was tagged with an RFID chip, a little printed circuit that sent out a coded signal when pulsed with a specific radio frequency. It was possible to bring up a virtual schematic of any room in the mansion and see the pieces standing in place like chess pieces on a board. If anything was moved by so much as an inch, its icon would turn red and started blinking; if it was carried off, the computer would lock down doors and trigger the alarms.

‘I was just looking, is all,’ Wilson said. He was a good six inches taller than Carl, and wore a light blue shirt with black epaulettes that matched his pants. A nightstick, a radio and a five-cell flashlight were hooked to his belt.

Carl said, giving it right back to him, ‘Did you see anything that took your fancy?’

‘I bet you’re wondering how I got in here. What happened, I was checking the lights along the driveway,’ Wilson said. He pulled a voltage tester from the back pocket of his pants and showed it to Carl. A pair of eights was tattooed on the knuckles of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand. ‘Maybe you noticed some of them haven’t been coming on when they should. Anyhow, I saw the main door was open, I thought I should check it out, and I found the door to this room open too.’

Carl said, ‘It’s a funny thing, but the main door wasn’t open just now.’

‘I guess I must have shut it when I came in,’ Wilson said.

The man was still smiling, but something had hardened in his gaze. It took Carl back to the army, and to the orphanage before that. Two guys sizing each other up, neither ready to back down.

He said, ‘That door won’t open for anyone who isn’t supposed to be here. I got to be somewhere, but first I’ll have to let you out.’

He let Frank Wilson walk ahead of him, across the trophy room and through the doorway into the double-height foyer beyond, the man looking left and right, checking out the stuff in glass-fronted steel cabinets, in niches cut into the pink adobe. Pieces of Japanese armour mixed up with scratch-built fantasy pieces. Cases of knives and knuckledusters. Human skulls modified with sagittal crests, fangs, bony spines or frills. Stairs curved to the left and right, and high above hung a kind of chandelier of welded steel and a couple of dozen TVs, old-fashioned cathode-ray tubes without casings, circuit boards and bundles of wires open to the air, the TVs facing in different directions, showing different scenes from Trans, the computer game that had paid for all this.

Wilson said, ‘He sure has a lot of stuff. Like a museum, uh?’

‘This is my favourite piece,’ Carl said, stepping over to a niche under the sweep of the left-hand staircase, where a ceremonial sword rested on two pieces of black oak, its curved blade pulled halfway out of its red lacquered scabbard, a red tassel hanging at the end of its pommel. ‘It’s Korean, three centuries old.’

‘It’s nice,’ Wilson said without any enthusiasm, clearly wanting to get out of there now.

Carl said, ‘They used it for executions. I tried it out myself once, on a dog. Sliced through the neck-bones like they were butter.’


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