“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?”
“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.”
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.
“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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