Archive for December, 2015

Excalibur Celebrates Its Tenth Release!

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This is the ebook cover for “The Mists of Osorezan” by Zoe Drake, a supernatural thriller with elements of both J-Horror and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos!

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00028]


It begins with a series of unconnected mysteries …


AOMORI, JAPAN:
A young girl dies during the testing of a revolutionary brain-scanning technology.

VENICE, ITALY: Strange omens are seen in the skies above a haunted island in the lagoon.

LONDON, ENGLAND: A secret society of occultists gather to discuss the oncoming crisis.

Gradually the threads are drawn together …

David Keall, a young British resident of Japan, finds himself attracted to his private student, Saori Yoshida, and becomes fascinated by the mysterious death of her sister during trials of the Tsuguru University Sleep Research Project. He enrolls in the same project to help Saori uncover the truth, but his life turns into a nightmare when his darkest dreams erupt into reality around him. Two mysterious strangers with paranormal powers arrive, offering help … but can he trust them?
Can David find his way back to normality – or will he be lost forever in the mists of Osorezan?

BUY THE EBOOK HERE

PAPERBACK – COMING SOON!

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00028]

December 1940: The Elements of War

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Frankie was ten years old when his father told him about the Curse of the Pharaohs.
Francis Wilfred Cooper was born in Norwich in 1914, and his earliest childhood memory was watching the men come back from France after the War. His childhood was golden; that was the color that came to mind when he remembered his youth – the sunlight, the buttercups and the daffodils in the back garden, the fields of wheat that he used to cycle past on his way to school, the grassy banks that he used to roll down, getting his knees grazed and his short trousers muddy. Even the air itself seemed golden.
When he was ten years old his parents took him on a day trip to the British Museum in London. He stared up in awe at the colossal stone faces of Pharaohs with exotic names such as Amenhotep and Ramesses, unreadable weathered expressions in granite, limestone, and quartzite. He goggled at the bas-reliefs of unearthly gods with their heads of birds, jackals and crocodiles, and frowned at the tantalizing hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone.
“Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922,” his father had told him the day before they went to London, “and four months later, Carnavaon had died from a mysterious infection. By the end of 1924 six other members involved in the expedition had died. Some folks say …” Dad lowered his voice, rolling his eyes for effect.
Some do say it was the curse that did it, reaching out from the tombs of the dead …”
“Oh, give over,” his mother had chided. “You’ll scare the child.”
On the contrary, his father’s words, and the arcane masks of the ancient gods, sparked an obsession with Egyptian mythology that was to stay with Frankie for the rest of his life.
Not that Frankie said anything about that to the Medical Board when he applied to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.
It was December 1940. Christmas in wartime. Holly and barbed wire. Tinsel around the rim of a tin hat. Sandbags around the church walls, and papier-mâché coffins down in the crypt. Everyone used euphemisms and jokes to describe the Blitz because the reality was too horrific to contemplate. Every day, as Frankie cycled from his digs to St. Bart’s, he passed a fish and chip shop with wooden boards nailed up to replace the blown-out windows. Last week, there’d been a hand-painted sign on the planks saying –
THANKS TO HITLER, CHIPS ARE LITTLER This week the sign said –
BECAUSE OF HESS, THE FISH IS LESS
It made him Frankie chuckle, and that’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? You had to laugh. Because if you didn’t laugh, you’d sit down and cry and never stop crying.
Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, run, Don’t give the farmer his fun, fun, fun, He’ll get by
Without his rabbit pie,
So run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, run …

Frankie had a room in a Victorian brick house at one end of a terrace of six. These were the lodgings of the lab assistants, on Bury Street, near Leadenhall Market, a short bicycle ride away from the nurse’s homes and hospital wards that nestled in the city’s bosom, and a few streets away from the mighty edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral itself. Frankie’s residence was a musty narrow room with a cracked window at the top of three flights of creaking wooden stairs, and it had damp in the winter and it never got enough sunlight, but to him it was paradise. Every time he swung himself onto the bed to put his feet up and stare out at the grey rooftops before he closed the blackout curtain, or listened to Tommy Handley (It’s That Man Again!) on the crackling crystal wireless, he had the same, inescapable feeling; this was where he was supposed to be.
Before the war, when Frankie met people they often asked him why had taken up a job as a pathologist’s assistant in the coroner’s office. “How can you stand it?” they asked, furrowing their brows. “Dealing with blood and death every day? Ooh, you poor dear.” Frankie would just shrug the question off – “Well, someone’s got to do it!” – and then change the subject. Nobody wanted to hear the grisly details of what he actually did in the labs on a regular basis, and that suited Frankie fine. There was beer to be drunk and nice girls to run after.
Then after the War started, questions were superfluous. Frankie applied for the army, but he was in a reserved occupation. He was “doing his bit”, and “helping the War Effort”. Say no more.
At the end of 1939, many of St. Bart’s wards had been closed down for the Duration, and most of the nursing staff and patients had been evacuated to the Home Counties. A hundred and thirty three medical staff remained at the three main hospital buildings in Smithfield. One of them was Frankie.
Although the number of staff had been reduced, the number of hospital beds kept on climbing. At the beginning of December there were over sixteen hundred, with each ward having at least sixty beds. The main task of the wards that remained open was to receive air-raid casualties. Only the lower floors were in use, and the windows had been fortified with sandbags and sticky tape. Bomb blasts had already seriously damaged the Nurses’ Home on the east side, the student’s quarters and one of the operating theaters. The windows of the Pathology Block in Giltspur Street had been completely blown out.
The basements had been converted into extra mortuaries, where Frankie spent most of his time. It was impossible to get a hospital gurney down the stone steps, so Frankie and the others had to carry the dead down on stretchers. Not an easy job. Especially not on the evening shifts, when the blackout was on and the bombs were falling, and the orderlies had to step carefully over the big bags of coal stacked out in the yard because there was nowhere else to put them. One night Frankie was down in the dark, amongst the dead, on his own, when he heard a dry rustling and pattering, like something slithering its way down the steps towards him. Finally summoning the courage to go and look, he found a hole had been torn in one of the bags and the lumps of coal were rolling down the steps.
Frankie’s colleagues carried on their duties with a quiet, firm determination, in spite of all the blasts and blowings-up Hitler could muster. The senior doctors went on their rounds with those stiff, chill, impassive faces that the English always wore when they seethed with emotion. The orderlies cracked jokes of the darkest gallows humor; once, someone dropped his Spam sandwich on the floor of the mortuary. Everyone looked at each other in silence for a few seconds until a man next to Frankie said, “Well go on Ted, Wheeler’s always saying this floor should be clean enough to eat off.”
When there was no room left on the porcelain post-mortem tables, the rankless dead were laid out on the floor. Old, young, male, female; crushed by debris, covered in plaster dust, their guts blown out, burned, charred, some with faces literally blue from violent asphyxia, and some miraculously unblemished, lying as if simply asleep. Frankie and his mates attended to them all, tying identity tags to the bodies, and putting any belongings found with them into little bags.
After a big explosion, there would be very little of the body left. A direct hit from a five-hundred pound bomb would leave just fragments of flesh, gumboots, cloth, and mangled tin hats. Once, after a factory had been bombed, the ambulance crew came back with part of a man’s leg. That was all they could find. Frankie tagged it straight away as the night watchman because the leg still had the braid from the trousers stuck to it.
The corpses that remained intact had horrific, disfiguring injuries. Identifying the remains
seemed impossible. Sometimes, when Frankie was in the mortuary and the other assistants moved quietly back and forth between the rows of the dusty, tattered corpses, it seemed to him that every wound had become a mouth. The ripped-open faces and bodies of the men, women and children were mouths stretched open, and all the pain and grief of their prematurely shortened lives was coming out in their endless, silent screams.
“I don’t know how you cope with it, old boy,” his family and friends said to him on the occasions when he had leave and went back to Norwich. “I don’t know how you stay sane.” Frankie shrugged his shoulders and kept his own counsel. He had never, ever, told anyone the real reason of how he was able to cope.
Auntie threw her rinds away, To the lock-up she was taken. There she is and there she’ll stay, Till she learns to save her bacon …
In London, in the grim winter of 1940, there were two ways to survive. One was to do your bit as a plucky Londoner, to keep calm and carry on. The other way was to fall in love.
That was the reason why Frankie was waiting in the Lyon’s Corner House on the Strand just before twelve, on a chilly Friday afternoon. He usually got there early, to make sure he got a table for two in a nice cozy place, and also to do a bit of reading. He wore his best suit, the one with the pockets just big enough to slip a Penguin Classic into. Today he got there in time to be shown to his favorite table in the corner, sat down, and proceeded to read while waiting. He didn’t have to wait long.
He saw her enter the café and stood up to beckon her over. She picked her way through the tables, smiling all the time.
“Hello, Frank.” She never called him Frankie.
“How are you, Liz?”
He held up his copy of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
“I’ve been getting on with the book you lent me.”
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s much better than I expected, to be honest. I thought it was going to be all maudlin and depressing but it’s jolly interesting. Especially the parts written from Septimus Smith’s point of view.”
She put her handbag and gas-mask case on the chair beside her and dabbed at her brow with a lace handkerchief. Elizabeth Hague, district nurse with the Smithfield Health Office, was
really quite striking. She had an oval face with a clear complexion, eyes of an unusual amber color and rich, dark hair cut in the current bob and wave style. She looked adorable when she smiled, which was almost all the time; her wide mouth, her white, even teeth, her eyes crinkling merrily.
Liz had trained as a nurse in an infectious diseases hospital in Gateshead, Newcastle-on-Tyne. After her move down south, she had totally lost her Geordie accent, and now spoke in almost BBC English; northern accents, in those days, were too common for London society. She had applied to work as a District Nurse in London and had been stationed in Smithfield. Frank first spoke to her at a tea dance for the medical services at the Savoy Hotel because he’d seen her before, talking to some of the doctors and nurses at St. Bart’s, and riding her bicycle around Smithfield. He’d asked her for a dance, they’d struck up a conversation, he’d invited her out to lunch, and that’s how it had all started. Romance was blossoming during wartime; Londoners knew they had nothing to lose but time.
Frankie took a menu from a waiter and said, “Let’s have some wine.” Liz nodded enthusiastically. “Are you pushing the boat out?”
“Just a glass of the house white. Well, maybe two.”
He looked at the menu. “Good Lord. Beef and kidney pie.”
Her smile broadened. “I’m sure it’s still just potatoes and vegetables. Matron says that finding the kidney in a kidney pie is a bit like finding the threepenny bit in a Christmas pudding.” “That’s a good one. Yes, and you’d probably have more luck with the pudding.”
After they had ordered, Frankie said, “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about Virginia Woolf. I went to the Smithfield Public Library and looked her up.”
“I’m glad to hear the library’s still standing.”
“Yes, Jerry hasn’t got to that one yet. Anyway, I found out something rather interesting. Have you ever heard of the Dreadnought Hoax?”
She raised her eyebrows. “No, I haven’t.”
Frankie pulled the library book out of his briefcase and passed it over the table. “The Dreadnought Hoax, by Adrian Stephen,” Liz read from the cover. “That’s Virginia Woolf’s brother.”
“Yes. It turned out those Bloomsbury Set people pulled a bit of a wheeze on the Royal Navy. They disguised themselves as members of the Abyssinian royal family and persuaded the captain of the HMS Dreadnought to show them around the ship.”
“Oh, they didn’t! Whatever for?”
“Apparently, it was the idea of this … let me see. … someone called Horace de Vere Cole, who was famous for his public hoaxes. Look at the frontispiece; that’s the Bloomsbury lot,
with boot polish and turbans and false beards. That’s Virginia Woolf on the far left.”
Liz took one look at the black-faced and robed figure, white eyes wide and staring under the turban, and burst out laughing.
“The Captain took them all round the ship,” said Frank, laughing himself now, “and they spoke in a mixture of Latin and French and made-up words. And to cap it all, whenever they saw something exciting, they jumped up and down and shouted ‘Bunga Bunga! Bunga Bunga!’”
Liz was now laughing so hard Frank though she might have to make a trip to the Ladies’. “Well I never,” she said. “Trust you to find something as queer as that.”
They tried to calm down when the first course arrived, and Frank lifted up the glass of wine as a toast. “Bunga Bunga!” he said, in a voice so loud the customers nearby turned to frown at him.
“Stop it, Frank! You’ll set me off again.” Liz tried to control her laughter as she started on the potted salmon.
After spending time on their food and discussing its quality, Frankie said, “Well, anyway, how about the Christmas Party?”
Liz nodded. “Matron says that it’s all right for me to attend.” She flicked a quick glance at his smiling face. “If you dare say Bunga Bunga I shall hit you.”
“Perish the thought!”
“In fact, quite a few of the girls want to come. The Smithfield Health Authority includes St. Bart’s, so it seemed reasonable to Matron to have one big party instead of several smaller ones. Get everyone together for a jolly time.”
“Safety in numbers.”
“In a sturdy main building basement behind the sandbags, yes.”
The main courses arrived and Frankie got to work on his pie. The crust caved in under his knife and fork and beneath it lay mostly air, but there was indeed meat swimming in the gravy at the bottom, and it did look recognizably like beef.
“I’m so looking forward to Christmas Dinner,” Liz said. “Real turkey! I can’t believe the Medical Board came up with one.”
“A rich former patient who owns a farm, I suppose. There’s a big meeting this week where they’re going to tell us what the menu will be.”
Liz went on, “As long as it’s not Snoek fishcakes, I don’t care. I can’t stand that horrible fishy stuff.”
“And what about whale, eh? Mr. Farrow tried to sell me some whale meat sausages the other day. He said I was lucky because they weren’t rationed. I told him I could see why they
weren’t rationed.”
“You ought to be on the stage, Frank Cooper.”
“Well, it’s funny you should say that, because I’m thinking of doing a bit of a turn for the Christmas Party.”
“What do you mean?”
“Telling a few jokes. I’ve asked Wheeler if I can do a Max Miller act.”
“The Cheeky Chappie?” Liz looked at him slyly. “Don’t you think that’s a bit rude?”
“Well.” He shrugged. “It’s either that or Tommy Trinder.”
“Those lucky people!”
The time flew, and Frankie called the waitress over with the sweet trolley. “Fairy cake, pear tart or stewed prunes? There’s no ice cream today, and no Queen’s Pudding, I’m afraid.” “Fairy cake, please.”
They both chatted away, with Frankie wanting to forget the clock on the wall and the shifts they both had to take later this afternoon, but he couldn’t. He sat back and laid his pastry fork on the crumb-laden plate. “Would you like more wine?” he said. “Live dangerously.”
Liz breathed out as a gesture to say she was full. “I think we’re living quite dangerously enough, thank you.”
“Liz … I really do appreciate you coming to the party. I just wanted to tell you that.”
“Well, I’m really looking forward to it. Cheer up the patients. It’s the old Christmas magic, you know!”
“Have you ever thought about that?” Frankie said shyly, peering at Liz to watch her reaction. “Have you ever felt that maybe there was … magic? Not conjuring tricks, but real magic, in the world?”
“Angels dining at the Ritz, and nightingales sang in Berkely Square?”
She laughed, and he laughed with her.
“You know,” she said, “you remind me of one of my patients, old Mr. Kelly. He’s eccentric.” Frankie’s eyebrows went up. “Me? Eccentric?”
“Well, you know. He talks about his dreams and he’s mentioned magic to me a couple of times. He keeps a pack of Tarot cards on the mantelpiece and he’s got some queer paintings in his front room, that sort of thing.”
“Sounds like a nice fellow. What’s wrong with him?”
“Arthritis. He can’t walk very fast.”
“Neither can I now, after that meal.”
They said goodbye with a quick peck on the cheek. After waving Liz off on her bicycle and
turning to walk back down the Strand, Frankie felt both happy and depressed when thinking about Christmas. Eccentric, he thought. Eccentric! That wasn’t a word he wanted anyone to describe him by, but he knew Liz meant well. Oh well – he asked for that, he supposed. Never mind; he had other things to worry about.
His spare time to find a good present for Liz was running out. His main present wasn’t really a Christmas gift at all, but something special he’d planned. Then he’d saved up his chocolate rations to buy her a nice bit of nutty, but he needed something else. Something interesting. Something that would surprise her. A book, that was it. He would find a book that she’d never read before.
There was a huge crater in the middle of the Strand and the cars were driving gingerly around it. On the skyline, smoke was still rising from the direction of the South bank. Stepping over a pothole in the street, moving around the other shoppers and pedestrians walking along the Strand, feeling the heaviness of the pastry and stodgy potatoes digesting in his gut, Frankie was suddenly aware of how normal his thoughts were in this totally abnormal world. London was being torn apart on a nightly basis by a giant, faceless war machine from across the sea, and here he was daydreaming about bookshops and Christmas presents.
But then, what else could he do?
The whole of London was doing the same thing. Just as the bodies of the dead on the slabs at work had been blown into grotesque, eviscerated shapes, the lives of the living had been forced into new roles and routines. Everyone was now a ‘plucky Brit’. Everyone was now ‘helping the War Effort’. Even delivering the milk or driving a bus was a statement of personal courage. The lives of everyone in London were taking place mechanically, like the back and forth swing of a pendulum. Like a chess game in which every move had already been decided with mathematical precision.
On a whim, Frankie took a left turn, and entered the warren of little alleyways between the Strand and the river. Walking was something he loved; it helped him think and turn over things in his mind. Since he’d started going out with Liz, they’d taken long weekly walks in Hyde Park or Hampstead Heath, ending with tea and scones in one of the cafes. Before he’d met Liz, he’d regularly taken long walks around the city center to get the tantalizing feel of it, to soak in the atmosphere, the mystery. London fascinated him with its hints of staginess, of secret knowledge hidden in the architecture of the churches and the geometry of the streets. London haunted his dreams, and he haunted its avenues and alleys, drifting through them like a Dickensian spirit.
Just a few streets away from Frankie’s place of work stood Christopher Wren’s testament to the mysterious; St. Paul’s Cathedral. The massiveness of the stone interior, the Whispering
Gallery, the inscription RESURGAM – I will rise again – inscribed on the south door … they drew Frankie’s attention and resurfaced in his dreams. What did they all mean? The statues of pelicans and peacocks, the cubes, pyramids and obelisks that colluded with the more familiar crosses and angels in the churches of Smithfield and Whitechapel – what were they all for? The Blackout had made things even more primal, plunging London into darkness every night. Churchill’s boys in the press were trying to keep a lid on things, but Frankie knew there were burglaries and muggings all over the city. It was like the city had been thrown back in time several thousand years, to a barricaded cluster of huts with the tribesfolk huddling inside, guarding themselves against the darkness and hoping they would live to see the morning.
His perambulation today took him inevitably to one of his best-loved haunts, Cleopatra’s Needle, as if the obelisk were magnetized and he was a mote of iron that could not resist its pull. He sat down on a bench opposite the stone monolith, feeling a little flushed with the wine, the food, and his lady friend’s dazzling eyes, and stared at the obelisk, its stately dimension, its unreadable hieroglyphics, and the gouges and scratches deliberately left unrepaired after the Zeppelin raids of World War I. He breathed in the charred air, looked up at the sky, looked around him at the coat-and-hat wearing Londoners walking slowly along the Embankment, and let his tensed-up body relax.
Even Liz. He hadn’t even told Liz why he’d taken up the career of pathologist’s assistant. But perhaps the time had come to tell someone.

Skin Condition

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“Give me the cross.”
Howard Hopgood winced with pain as he whispered the request; one of the male nurses leaned eagerly toward him, holding out the tiny piece of silverwork. Hopgood closed his mouth around the cross as if it were a communion wafer and worked it under his tongue. He rolled his eyes and lay back on the hospital bed.
Totally typical, thought Prell, standing at the back of the private nursing room, watching the activity with growing impatience. The nurses pushed a small gurney toward Hopgood’s bed, the instruments on it gleaming in their sterile purity, intricate as the workings of a watch, as free of blemish as the cross Hopgood pressed down upon with his tongue.
Never misses a chance for mad martyrdom, Prell was thinking. I didn’t have to be here for this to see. Business had just about been drawn to a conclusion, satisfactory-ish. But oh no, the old Bible-basher wants for to show the depths of suffering, wants for me to think that he’s been given some unique curse – or a unique blessing. Boss showman. Perfect criteria for any TV evangelist, no kid; and Hopgood was the best in Europe, totally facing all the others.
The sheets were pulled back. The nurses peeled away the dressings on Hopgood’s abdomen, while the man himself made guttural noises deep in his throat. Prell mentally prepared himself for the stench; within seconds it had reached his corner of the room, even through the gauze mask he wore over his nose and mouth.
While on a promotional tour on the south of France, Hopgood had got himself badly sunburned, particularly on the stomach. He had received heavy exposure to UVB and UVC rays; his skin had blistered and then ulcers had developed. To make matters worse, he had also been diagnosed as suffering from diabetes.
The new dressings were in place, the medical staff had retired, leaving Hopgood and Jonathon Prell alone once more. The fifty-year-old man lay back on the bed, looking tired, but relaxed. He had a big, square face, with swept-back iron grey hair in long, smooth streaks. His XPT-Meditech bedclothes had a little red and yellow design on them, a marked change from the funereal black and gray Hopgood usually wore on screen.
Hopgood placed his vitamin drink on the bedside table, took the cross from his mouth and laid it in the tiny velvet-lined box. “Son, I want to thank you and all of Meditech for all the attention you’ve given me. My life is in your hands.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hopgood. Treatment on your abdomen should be straightforward. However, time will be long-ish before you can re-duty.”
Hopgood sucked in air through his teeth. “That hurts more than anything else, son. We have a mandate, from the Savior no less, to spread the word of the Gospel throughout this land, by big screen and small, local networks, cable and satellite. There’s not much I can do lying in a hospital bed, even if it is a Meditech bed.”
“Well, we counsel rest, to the all. You are the final judge on re-working, of course.”
“Correction; the Lord will be the final judge. He always is.” Hopgood’s eyes turned to the gleaming cross on its bed of velvet.
“I guess we have one more business to take care of today.” He shot an arched look at Prell. “You’ve read the file on Bradley?”
“Most assuredly.”
“And what are your opinions?”
“Well, you realize that this is, strict-wise, cosmetic surgery. Beyond that, operation simply routine. In the file you were quite specific about skin type, and areas of body under consideration. The operation itself is XPT-Meditech’s bread and butter, smooth as.”
“And locating Bradley?”
“Locating and approaching him expected to be most sensitive part, no pain. I’ll keep you personally informed of our progressing. Rely on me to the utmost.”
“I sincerely hope so. I don’t need to remind you of the strict confidentiality of my request. If anyone was to know and, shall we say, misinterpret my actions …”
“Rely on me to the utmost and max. If you relate, I’ll get working on it now-ish, and leave you to get your strength back. Once again, Mr. Hopgood, your fortitude is admired.”
“It’s nothing. I don’t dwell upon such things. The Lord has given me strength to bear them, and also the sufferings of my congregation, which – after all – are more than my own needs. My flock is what matters. So who else to give my burden to, if not Christ our Savior?”
“Most of our patients, to get them throughways, have only their own human nature,” Prell remarked dryly.
Hopgood laughed, then winced. “That’s something I wouldn’t recommend, quite frankly.”

If the meaning of the small insignia that was the logo of XPT-Meditech’s skincare department had been explained to Howard Hopgood, he would definitely not have approved. The stylized Aztec design, in raw red and gold, was a rendering of Xipe Totec, the Flayed God. In ancient times his priests had emulated their deity by wearing their dried and excised skins of their sacrificial human victims over their own faces and bodies, to symbolize the renewed greenery of spring vegetation. A gruesome concept in itself, but the sanitized pagan totem now adorned most elements of the Skincare department – the business cards, the stationery, the starched white uniforms of the surgical staff.
Prell found his eyes returning to the emblem again and again as he sat quietly within the Area Manager’s office. It stood discreetly upon his desk, adorning a pocket-size calendar. Prell waited as Emmanuel Kohain studied the dossier on Bradley.
Kohain took off his reading glasses and reclined in his steel and leather chair. “Most fascinating,” he said, giving the phrase the weight of a long-considered pronouncement.
Kohain stood and walked to the well-stocked office drinks cabinet. “Refreshment?”
“Pimms and lemonade, sir.”
Kohain poured a Macallan for himself, then mixed the Pimms and handed it to Prell. “That will be three pounds ninety-five.”
Prell handed over a five-pound note and the Area Manager, as befitting his seniority, kept the change.
Prell sipped his refreshment, relishing the coolness on his tongue. “It’s a highly warped request.”
“Warped isn’t the word.” Kohain sighed. “Hopgood’s really faced it this time. Initial reaction, Jonathan?”
“Aheadways, we go.”
Kohain smiled faintly. “Unquestionably. Hopgood’s initial donation of two million ECUs is already in our bank. I take it the surgery itself is not problemed?”
“No pain. Specified zones of the body are not exactly commonplace, but no problem is represented. All waited for is the donor.”
“Yes, the donor. I know the information in this folder is not much-ish. Bradley’s location unknown?”
“At present, sir. Information on him is prone to exaggeration, and most likely unlegit. No whereabouts at the moment, but all available are being sourced.”
“Discretely?”
“No pain.”
Prell watched Kohain carefully as he tapped the folder with his thumbs. The Area Manager had a Hopgood-touch about him himself, he thought; the graying hair, the big hands and large facial features, the suggestion that success had somehow larged this person life-wise. To increase this effect, Kohain’s speech was a plummy drawl in an impeccable Oxbridge tongue.
“Jonathan,” he declared after his moment of contemplation, “use of the Grafters on this one recommended.”
Prell tried to conceal his double take but didn’t quite manage it. “No fake? I mean, considering all implications security-wise?”
“Oh, your coming round to the idea is expected, Jonathan.” Kohain gave him a patronizing smile. “Our world is the world of corporate finance and healthcare. Their world is the world of rumors, urban myth, hoodie gangs and shanty-towns. They access places and people that we don’t.”
Prell nodded. “Appreciated, but if I’m handling the Hopgood account, danger expected if my contacting known –“
“Yes, anticipated.” Another smile, wider than before. “That’s why I’m giving the job to Karyn.”
Facing bastard, Prell thought, this time determined not to show his feelings. He’s watching to see me roll over, belly up.
“Problemed, Jonathan?”
“Because she’s a woman? Totally not. Karyn can handle herself like butter in the cake.” Kohain obviously thought that sending Prell’s friend-with-benefits out to deal with the Grafters was an amping little bonus. Keeps the staff toes-conscious, tests for weak links in the chain of command.
“No fear sending Karyn out into the field,” he lied.

After all, thought Prell as he took the elevator down to the foyer, maybe no fear meant no fake. He’d seen Karyn cut some gnarly executives down to size. She was known company-wise as the tart with a big mouth who got the job done. Perhaps not even the Grafters would face her.
Prell stopped at the plush reception desk to collect his car keys and oxy-filter. Janine, the dusky, wide-lipped receptionist, exchanged ritual flirtations with him. Janine’s deportment and appearance was a testimonial for XPT-Meditech, as much a part of their corporate image as the expensive furniture and paintings in the lobby. Only the tiny puckers of pale skin at the corners of Janine’s eyes gave away the fact that her face was no longer her own: but nobody, of course, would look that close.
Prell took the glass-sided elevator down to the underground car park. As it slid down the outside of the Globen Building, he gazed down at the plaza below, on the floor level of the Hammersmith Center. Enclosed in a huge translucent dome of lightweight glass-fiber, the air-conditioned and temperature-regulated bubble kept the effects of the smog and sunlight outside from interfering with the health-conscious executives doing business within.
Prell stared out at the glistening sludge of the Thames through the gaps in the skyscrapers as he descended. He shivered in the frigid air that compensated for the greenhouse heat outside the dome. Karyn’s probably out there now … watch yourself, Jon, he told himself. If she comes out smooth on this one, she and the old man could have you game, set and match-wise.

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