"First, they remove the brain."
I wasn't really listening to Nad. I never listened to Nad, actually. We were standing in a shadowy doorway on Bleecker - just a doorway, a rectangle of ancient brick melting away to dusty rubble on either side - watching the gray faces flow by, waiting for one in particular so we could kill him. Well, so I could kill him. Nad wasn't a Gunner. He wasn't even much of a criminal; he was possibly the worst pickpocket that had ever lived, and over the years had been pinched by the Pigs so often, with the mandatory accompanying beatings, that he'd started to go a little crazy in his middle age. He was all about conspiracy theories, always telling anyone who'd listen about the sinister forces that ruled the world. For me, it was a lot simpler: Hostile assholes with badges ruled the world, case closed.
Nad was pretty much useless, but I felt sorry for him. I paid him a pittance to work lookout for me on these shithole jobs I picked up, murdering small-fry criminals who'd overstepped their bounds or owed too much yen for too long. Of course, he was pretty useless as a lookout, too.
"You can't digitize the brain," he continued after a lazy pause, "I mean, you can, but it doesn't work. What you get on the other end is bullshit. It sounds okay at first, but when you get into it, the thought process is fried."
"Uh-huh." I'd spotted a cigarette butt on the street a few feet away, only half-smoked. I wondered what the odds were that in the five seconds it would take to claim it, my job would walk by and I'd spend the next five hours listening to Nad while tonight's dinner drifted away. I licked my lips and scanned the crowd.
"So the Monks, they remove the brain. They slice open your head like a fucking can, remove the brain, and put it in one of the Monk bodies. They hook it up, thousands of threads, so thin you can't see 'em. Some of 'em are data transfer lines, some of 'em are electrical, to stimulate the organ. Then they fill the head up with a nutrient solution, to preserve it.
"Fucking bam! You've got a Monk."
I sighed. "Nad, everyone knows this. It's on the fucking Vids." There were more and more "Special Reports" on the Electric Church showing up on the huge fifty-foot public video screens every day, reporters with perfect skin cheerfully telling us that the fucking Monks were everywhere, in case we hadn't noticed.
"Yeah, but Ave, think about it: Who's volunteering for this shit? Who's walking up to one of the Tin Men and saying, hell yeah, cut my head off and vacuum out my brains! Fuck that. The Monks are hunting people. I know a guy -"
I winced. Every bullshit story on the street started with I know a guy. It was the international code for bullshit.
"- Kitlar Muan - you know him, shylock outta the Bronx. Or knew him. He was telling me a few weeks ago how one of these Monks was like following him. Always around, always holding up walls or some shit wherever Kit went. Then, one day, Kit's gone, out of touch, and the next day, he's a fucking Monk. You know how the Monks go around and say hello to all their old friends, tell them how they converted? So there I was, and here comes this Tin Man, all vinyl smiles and brandnew black robes, and it walks right up to me and sez, ?Good morning, Nad, you used to know me as Kit Muan, now I'm Brother Muan of the Delta -"
I let Nad's chatter wash over me, bored. If Nad thought the Monks were shooting people in the back and cutting off their heads, it was a good reason to believe otherwise. I kept my eyes roaming over the good citizens of what was left of downtown Manhattan, angry, yellow faces, but I didn't see my mark. I stamped my feet in frustration, cold and tired. It was a low moment. Things had gone downhill at a furious pace since my near-death experience on the East Side; the Pigs were still circulating my description and going hammer and tongs at trying to track down who had murdered Colonel Janet Hense, and I'd exhausted my credit spreading the fog thick to keep my name out of it. Not only was I broke as a result, but being so blatantly connected with an ongoing cop-killing investigation made me a hot property, and business was not good. So Avery Cates the Gweat and Tewwible was reduced to pulling street work for low-rent dipshits. A man needed to pay his bills. If you didn't pay your bills, people like me stood in shadows waiting for you and slit your throat, and I had a lot of bills coming due. Street Work paid shit, but it paid.
There were, in fact, a trio of Monks across the street from us, and I wasted a moment staring at them. It was a typical scene for them: two standing on either side of a third who stood on a box, preaching. And preaching. And preaching. Walk by in the morning, and this freaky thing with corpse-white skin, dressed all in black and wearing mirrored sunglasses, would be making a speech about salvation. Come back at lunch, the same freak was making the same speech. At night, it was still there. At first we all thought they were fucking Droids. It was a joke: The same Droid that took your job last year was now putting God out of business.
As I stared, one of them turned its pasty white head and looked back at me. I fought the immediate urge to look away, get interested in the near distance suddenly. I just kept staring - you had to keep the act up. I was Avery Cates, toughest bastard in the System, and I would stare at creepy Monks if I wanted.
The Monks all looked alike. Their plastic faces were capable of expression, in weird, programmed contortions that never looked natural, but their faces were identical. At first you saw them here and there, heard rumor of them. Now they're everywhere. You see Monks in the street, on the trains. The Electric Church was a registered religion. It was all very legal - they claimed to have paperwork on every member, showing voluntary submission to the conversion into a Monk. So far the System Pigs bought it, and left them alone.
After a moment, with extreme casualness, I looked back for the cigarette butt and licked my lips. It was almost half a cigarette, and looked to be of good vintage: Pre-Unification. Stale as hell, but still better than the shit you got these days, even if you could afford them. Which I manifestly could not. I stared transfixed at it, and wondered if anyone I knew would see me kneel to get it. You had to keep up the rep all the time.
Nad nudged me gently with one elbow. "That's our man." I looked up, fl ushing, angry at myself. Staring at a fucking cigarette butt while tonight's meal ticket strolled by, my ass saved by a dried-up burnout like Nad Fucking Muller. I made fists with both hands and resisted the sudden urge to punch Nad in the face.
I recognized my mark from the grainy files I'd seen: a short, heavyset guy in an ancient leather overcoat about a foot too long for him, worn like a half-rate royal robe, dragging along the street. He was flanked by two huge men who couldn't bend their arms, muscles on muscles twitching. I kept my eyes on the mark, who bustled, walking fast. The Little Prince. His name was Rudjer something; it didn't matter. He was low on the food chain and was trying to rise from the depths, and he was about to explode.
I studied the trio. Their eyes were straight ahead, faces set in the usual hardassed grimace - we all had it engraved on our faces - acting like the rest of the poor fucks on the street would just naturally get out of the way. Which they did, because even though the Little Prince was a nobody who didn't realize his button had been pushed, he still had more juice than most of the people around him. He had some yen, some muscle, and that snazzy overcoat.
He glided past me, one of the monsters on his payroll lifting a skinny kid off the ground and tossing him aside to clear a path. I didn't move. Nad started to twitch next to me, impatient, but I held up one hand without looking at him and he shut up. I'd quieted Nad down the hard way often enough; he was well-trained by now.
When they were past, I stepped out into the flow of bodies and matched their pace, keeping my hands in my pockets. My own coat wasn't as regal as the Little Prince's, but it was functional, and contained a number of useful items. It also had holes cut into the pockets so you could arrange your hands without being seen. Keeping my eyes on the three amigos, I felt around for the blade I'd secreted in an inner pocket and took it firmly in one hand. The Little Prince was small fry and barely paid enough to be worth it - a bad man, certainly, no better than me, but not exactly someone who'd enhance my reputation. Bullets were too expensive for shit like him.
I followed in their wake for a while, watching. I knew Nad had slipped into my gravity without having to look; Nad and I went back a long way, and he'd never liked being alone. It didn't take long to establish that the Little Prince's security wasn't worth whatever he was paying them: Like a lot of amateurs, they were one-dimensional, and thought all their troubles would be coming at them from the front, with plenty of warning and a lot of fanfare. Not once did they look back.
Turning my head a little to get an idea of the environmental factors, I almost missed a step, because three Monks were keeping pace with me. I couldn't be sure - the Tin Men all looked alike - but my immediate thought was that these were the same three who'd been preaching across the street from us. One was looking right at me, marching through the crowd like it didn't need eyes. I stared back at it in surprise for a few steps, then tore my eyes away, checking my meal ticket. They were still pushing through the crowd like they owned the streets. From the show they were putting on - all grim determination and regal pomp - the Little Prince was probably out on his collections, squeezing water from stones and performing other miracles on a par with getting money out of my fellow citizens. This all worked to my advantage, because tough guys didn't look over their shoulders to see who might be creeping up behind them, and tough guys didn't need to take basic precautions. More shitheads died being tough every day, when a little good old-fashioned paranoia and cowardice went a long way. It wasn't even cowardice. It was an aversion to death.
The Monks were still keeping pace, but were no longer looking at me. They just floated through the crowd. They were harmless, in my experience, but they creeped you out. Even people who made their living killing and maiming their fellow human beings shied away from those perfect rubber faces, that serene certainty. I didn't doubt the Monks could defend themselves, but every Monk I'd ever run across had been unfailingly polite and nonconfrontational. They still made my skin crawl, and having three of them following me like fucking albatrosses made me nervous.
The crowd thinned a little as we moved north, makeshift stalls sprouting up on the sidewalks, in the streets, little shacks built from scrap wood offering whatever people could scrounge to sell, generally stuff no one thought was worth stealing in the first place. The goods got better as you moved uptown, until you finally reached a point where the Crushers started eyeing you distrustfully and the stores had decent security in place, mainly to keep people like me out. I tensed up a little, resolved to ignore the Monks. If the Little Prince was going to put the squeeze on someone that owed him yen, it was going to be here. Much further uptown and the Little Prince would be outclassed.
Sure enough, he stopped in front of a flimsy stall that was staffed by a man about my age and two young kids with the hollow look of poverty. The place was selling meat pies, the meat not much of a mystery considering the pile of dead rats the boys were engaged in skinning right there in the street. Business was slow, because rats were everywhere, and if I wanted one, I could catch five without working up a sweat.
The proprietor stepped forward, wringing his hands. I didn't listen to what was said, I just watched: The Little Prince stuck out his chest and crossed his arms, listening to whatever plea the old man was shelling out with his chin thrust out, nodding importantly. The two goons just menaced the whole operation, making the boys flinch and knocking shit off the counter, being tough.
I moved fast. There was no talking. No speeches. I wasn't here to make an impression. I scanned the street quickly for Crushers or - worse - System Pigs, and saw nothing, not even the three Monks. Then I stepped up behind the Little Prince, and before anyone could react I just pulled my blade from my pocket, grabbed him around the shoulders, and dragged the knife across his neck, the blade sinking in deep. Then I dropped the knife, stepped back, and drew my automatic. I didn't point it at anyone in particular; that often got misinterpreted, and just encouraged gunplay. I was just discouraging intervention while I waited for the Little Prince to actually die. No one paid for grievous injury, after all. The two goons paused and stared, first down at the Little Prince where he lay gurgling, then at me, and finally at each other.
One muttered something under his breath and turned to the other, gesticulating forcefully and hissing something foreign - half the hired muscle in the damn city spoke gibberish.
The other swore - you didn't need to speak the language to recognize swearing - gesturing at the Little Prince, then threw up his hands and glared at me. "Non mon problème, okay?"
They knew the score: With the Little Prince dead, no one was going to pay them, so there was no longer a job to do, and they certainly didn't want to end up dead, too. Non mon fucking problème indeed. These were the bottom-of-the-barrel assholes; you couldn't trust them - they had no goddamn pride, no ethics. To illustrate the point, his fellow made a show of wiping his hands, and the two of them lumbered off, arguing loudly. I looked at their former employer, and he stared up at me with wide, dead eyes. The family was already back at work, furiously making rat pies for the hungry people of New York City. You could count on the good people of New York to never remember a face.
The crowd swirled around me as I reholstered my gun, and then Nad was at my shoulder. "Good work," he said.
It didn't feel good. "Hell," I said. "I need a drink."
Excerpted from The Electric Church by Jeff Somers Copyright © 2007 by Jeff Somers. Excerpted by permission.
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