Wednesday, April 11, 2012

MEMORIA. A Corporation of Lies (Chater 3)

Chapter Three

Later, Frank didn't remember how he made it to the parking lot. He went down a dimly lit hallway, pushed a door and ducked in, falling out onto a street lined with police vehicles. He stole past them to a mesh fence. Behind his back, machine gun bursts still rattled, answered by lone loud claps of the besieged cops' service guns.
Frank reached the fence and ducked in, thinking what to do next. The station door opened, disgorging two masked people in black carrying machine guns. They didn't seem to be in a hurry to chase him. Frank peered out and ducked back in again, pressing his shoulder into a bumper. Only two of them, but there could be more in the building. It looked like a well-planned attack by trained professionals.
Frank held his breath, listening. Then he lay on his stomach and looked between the cars' wheels. Two pairs of combat boots walked back to the door and disappeared behind it.
Frank exhaled, rose, jumped the fence and ran down the street.
He couldn't remember how long he'd run until he came to an intersection. He glanced down at his torn coat and his wrists, wrapped in coat fabric. He must have done it to hide the cuffs, but he didn't remember doing it.
He looked around and started along the street, as naturally as he could, trying to figure out exactly where he was. The street was seething with passersby breathing down his neck: up and down subway stairs, in and out of cars and buses, thousands of people on their way home or to the bar as night descended on New York City. They hurried to get in from the cold drizzle. The dirty blackened sky flashed lightning and rattled with thunder, threatening a good downpour.
Frank raised his collar, craned his neck forward and stepped up in order not to lag behind in the crowd. The coming rain would make people take cover in shops' doorways and subway tunnels, making it hard for him to hide. It wasn't easy for a camera to detect him in the crowd, especially because they couldn't trace his movements without his electronic bracelet.
He walked past an electronic supplies store with rows of TV screens in its window. All were tuned to the same channel, and on all of them, the red Breaking News sign flashed in the lower part of the screen. Above it, he saw Kathleen's face. Frank lunged at the shop window and pressed his face against the glass. The news ticker read, Baker's daughter found dead in West End. A strong middle-aged face of a man replaced Kathleen's on the screen. He had the same eyes and the same shape lips.
How stupid could he be! Frank shut his eyes and wanted to cover his face but remembered that his hands were handcuffed and wrapped in fabric.
He should have known!
Frank opened his eyes. John Baker, Memoria's late founder, stared back at him from the screen. The great scientist and one of the most influential people in the world.
But of course. That's where Kathleen had acquired her expensive tastes, her manners, her human skills. Not quite clear what she had done with herself all those years, though. The murder could have something to do with her job. Just before the explosion, Baggins had indeed said she'd been working but he hadn't told Frank where or for whom.
His own picture came up on the screen. Frank startled. The picture wasn't good quality: it looked like a CCTV screenshot taken somewhere in his neighborhood. Why would the cops use that?
Frank turned away from the window and hurried on, trying not to run as he negotiated the crowd. He felt as if every passerby recognized him from the photo. It took him a good ten minutes to settle his nerves: the people in the street hurried along each their own way and didn't seem to notice him hurrying his own way, too.
He slowed down. He had to think what to do next. He had no money. He had to get rid of the handcuffs and lie low somewhere for a while. He needed to have a good think. Who, and why, attacked the station? Was it him they were after?
Frank stopped and felt the inside pocket containing Baggins's paperwork. He had to collect this parcel from Kathleen's at the post office. It could be the key piece of murder evidence that could exonerate him and expose the criminals.
Now how would he do it? They could easily recognize him at the counter. A face isn't something easy to conceal, and even if it were, a postal worker or someone would surely spot the handcuffs and call the cops. There had to be a way around it. 
A soft and soothing voice overhead helped him loosen up. It came from the speakers mounted on the wall. "…happiness and prosperity. They are Memoria's gift to you. Plus one free yearly session, yours to take out at any time, in one of our branches all over the world. Memoria's caring staff will be pleased to-"
The rest of the pitch was drowned out by the honking of traffic. A bright orange flower blossomed on a large publicity screen mounted on the building's corner. Frank felt the urge to indeed walk into one of their branches and use the promotion offer he'd just heard about. But to do that, he had to fill out a special form giving his name and allowing their computer to identify him as a suspect on the run. He could barely resist the desire to erase Kathleen's death from his memory, but that wouldn't drop the charges against him. And you couldn't change your identity as fast and as easy as your memories. He could give them a false name pretending to be a migrant wishing to go legal, but this wouldn't work, either, because he didn't have an electronic bracelet. No, Memoria was of no help to him. He had to sort this mess out himself.
He saw a plaque with the name of the street. It took him a moment to find his bearings. This was Brooklyn. Why had the cops taken him so far from his home? Logically, they had to have brought him to his local station, right? Had they anticipated the assault? Or could they have known about Kathleen all along and just played with him to make sure he'd been involved?
He walked faster. Mike's bar had to be about a block away. Mike owed him two hundred bucks since their student days when he'd put it in his head that he didn't want to be a lawyer any more. Frank had lent it to him to help get Mike's little business going.
Mike had been a better student, with the potential of landing the assistant city attorney's job, but he'd chosen an entirely different walk of life. Apparently, there'd been an incident of some kind which had made the then-trainee Mike change his mind.
Frank turned round the corner, walked to the next intersection and turned again into a street parallel to the one with the Memoria promotion screen. A bolt of lightning flashed, drowning the buildings in white dazzle. A clap of thunder followed. Large raindrops hit the sidewalk and rattled on windowsills and concrete overhangs, covering window panes with thick sidelong rivulets of watery bubbles.
Frank ran the length of the last three buildings hoping Mark would be in. His friend had even promised Frank the bar's discount card once but had never kept his promise.
He crossed yet another street and wiped the water from his face, cursing himself for his simple-mindedness. What was the point in trying to second-guess his friend's motives? It was one thing calling on an old friend to see if he could pay back an old debt; and quite another when half the city knew Frank had offed the heiress to one of America's richest men. Knowing it, Mark could do all sorts of funny little things. Frank had to be on his guard and hope that the former acting assistant city attorney hadn't forgotten Mark's defending him from a bunch of hoods who tried to put the screws on him.
The attack had been behind Mark's decision to quit law. But then it had also secured their friendship. They used to get together in Mark's bar to have a chat about their studies over a glass of Bourbon.
Frank thought better than to use the front entrance. He traced the building, entered an inner court, had a quick look around and opened the back door.
Mike employed a couple of very decent cooks and several waiters - all migrants, nine in total. But now his kitchen stood empty. Frank pushed the serving door and opened it a crack.
Mike sat straddling a bar stool by the door watching the TV news. The only three patrons sat at the far table over their beers and pistachio nuts. Here, too, the waiters were nowhere to be seen.
How weird. Frank crouched and sneaked behind the bar, lowering his body onto the floor.
Mike sensed and turned around. His eyes rounded. He stared at his friend, unable to speak. Frank whispered that he hadn't killed Kathleen Baker and used his teeth to pull off the scrap of fabric from his cuffed hands.
"I'm up to my ears in shit because of this relationship. All I need are some dry clothes," he added in a low voice. "Some sort of hat would be good, and a few bucks, too. Then I'll be on my way."
Mike pursed his lips. His eyes scanned the bar. He reached for a bottle of Bourbon, picked a tumbler off the rack, then reconsidered and put it all back.
"Follow me," he nodded.
The other end of the bar joined a slightly protruding wall that partially concealed the barman from customers' prying eyes. In the wall was a door to a small utility room. Mike waited as Frank crawled into the room on all fours, hiding from the customers. The room was lined with shelf units. Mike followed him in, bolting the door behind himself. He took his own gray fleece jacket and hat off the coat rack.
"Put these on," he placed the clothes on a shelf, reached for his wallet and thumbed out two hundred dollars.
"Thanks," Frank took the money and once again showed him his cuffed hands. "First off, we've got to remove these."
Mike didn't think long. He reached up to the shelves and pulled out a couple of cardboard boxes. Having rummaged through them, he produced a large bunch of keys and dangled them in front of Frank. He could see that not all of them were keys: some looked like hooks strongly reminiscent of a set of picks.
"What's that?" Frank asked.
"Ask no questions, hear no lies," a faint smile crossed Mike's face. "Show me your hands."
In less than a minute, the cuffs were off.
"Where did you get them from?" asked Frank, rubbing his wrists.
"A cop friend couldn't foot his bill once. So he left these as security." Mike flicked the keys in his hand.
"He didn't happen to've left anything else, did he?"
A cop leaving Mike a set of picks as a deposit was hard enough to believe, but hoping for him to have also left a gun was too much to wish for.
Once again Mike rummaged through the already shelved box and produced a shiny detective badge. Frank took the piece of metal, weighing it in his hand.
"A fake, I presume?"
His friend nodded and added,
"A good one. You think you can tell the difference?"
Frank twiddled the badge in his hands, shrugged and put it in his pocket. Not as good as a gun, but it will have to do.
"Where are you to now?" Mike avoided meeting his eyes. His friend looked frightened: he'd parted with the money too easily, helped him remove the handcuffs, even given him the badge.
"Post office," Frank turned to the door.
"What for?" he heard behind his back.
"Got some mail to collect. I think they want me dead. I need to find out why," he unbolted the door.
"They said on television the whole thing was migrants' doing," Mike hurried to add. "They said you'd worked for them. Said you'd planned to plant a bomb at Memoria HQ but failed."
Frank looked back at him. Mike gulped and went on,
"They said you'd killed Kathleen Baker to avenge your father who had fought Hopper in Bellville's army. Now they've closed the migrant camps, and all the migrants working in town got to report to Bronx before midnight." Desperation and fear in his eyes, he kept talking. "The Mayor is about to declare code orange and introduce a curfew. They're talking about starting a reserve call-up."
"Including the veterans?"
"But I - I didn't kill Kathleen! I wasn't going to plant any bombs, either!"
Mike raised his hands. "Mike, please. Keep your voice down."
Frank couldn't believe his ears. Somebody was busy setting him up, cleverly planting false evidence.
"I didn't kill her," he repeated in whisper.
"I do believe you." Mike nodded. "I'm sorry if it had to come to this…"
Frank pushed the door, strode past the bar and left the building through the back door.
Mike paused staring at the shelves. Then he pushed the boxes back, reached for the door handle, stepped into the doorway and stopped. What he hadn't told Frank was that there now was a price on his head. Twenty thousand dollars for the information on his whereabouts and another hundred thousand for assisting in his arrest.
A moment later, Mike was reaching for the ancient wall phone next to the utility room door. He was dialing the police assistance line.

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