Chapters 1-8

                                                         

Chapter 1

Odds

Detective Joe Zinski tapped rhythmically on the dash of his unmarked hover. There were circles on the foggy glass where he had wiped it with a sleeve. Like most of his decrepit NYPD gear, the crash seat was falling apart. His long legs cramped under the forward compartment, his back ached. Ineffective wipers swished a monotonous rhythm on the snow flecked windshield. He studied his reflection, a bored cop with brown eyes, a long face, and an arched nose that would have dominated but for his strong jaw and cleft chin.

Across the street, above the ground level graffiti and barred windows, snow collected on the neglected balconies. His partner, Sergeant Zatti, had lost the coin toss and was upstairs investigating a noise complaint. Zinski yawned absently. He removed his armored fedora, rubbing long fingers over his high forehead and through his thick brown hair. A day of uneventful stops found him drifting, reduced to watching the ancient asphalt vanish in white. The fat flakes were falling faster when the com buzzed.

“Zinsk, you better come up here. We got some Angels on their way to heaven.”

“Copy.” He cut the engine, addressed the com. “Hover 412, Zinski, Sixth and Thirteenth, request backup.” The hover rumbled as it shut down.

“412, backup confirmed,” answered the reedy cyber dispatch. Zinski shook his head in disgust. He still missed the hard-boiled human voice on the com.

Leaning to his right, he grabbed a pulse gun, checked its charge and rushed across the street. In the foyer, bamboo paper peeled from the walls, acoustic tiles dangled by a broken light. He hesitated, staring into an elevator that stank of piss and greasy food, then spat on the cracked linoleum and stepped inside.

“Sixteen more years,” he said to the mirrored wall. His tall reflection looked tired. Dark circles and a five o’clock shadow added years to the rugged face. He sighed, pressed the worn ’8′ button and the machine lurched upward.

“Angels?” he added as if the elevator was listening. Most were harmless followers of a fashion fad, but they could be dangerous if tied to a tough gang. He checked the pulse charge again as the elevator rattled to a stop.

The long hall was dark, lined with retro balloon graffiti and doors of faded brown. The air was stuffy, overheated. Halfway down, Zatti waited anxiously in a harsh light that spilled from 8J. A chilling cry rose from the flat but the sergeant only shrugged. Zinski wiped his brow and walked over.

“Sir, we got us a new drug problem here.” Zatti, was a handsome, slender man of thirty dressed like Zinski in a regulation three piece. He stepped back from the door allowing Zinski a look.

Inside, on gray linoleum, six Angels writhed in a bizarre ensemble. Strange shrieks ripped from their jerking bodies as if triggered by electro-shocks. He pointed cautiously toward the door across the room.

“I checked. It’s clean. No weapons, no money, no food, no drugs. Just this.” He looked at the twisting figures and into Zinski’s eyes. “Four males, two females dressed the same, check out the jackets.”

Zinski frowned and stepped inside. The angels all wore matching orange Zxap Jackets intricately decorated with neo-psychedelic renditions of the ODD gang logo. He recalled a Department memo about the ODDS increasing in strength, organizing all over the country. They were allegedly eliminating other gangs with sophisticated military gear. He remained skeptical but these ODDS were quite interesting, some foaming, some even drooling, staring blankly ahead like stiffs. Unfortunately, these stiffs weren’t dead and there seemed to be something strange about their eyes.

He bent down and steadied the flailing head of a slightly built teenage girl. Spittle flung from the corners of her mouth as he struggled to control her. She thrashed, whipping him across the chest with a wild arm, eyes vacant. Her grin bent briefly into a grimace, then back to a smile. Bad drugs, he thought, giving Zatti a concerned look. He slapped her stiffly across the face but she didn’t flinch.

“Check for tracks,” Zatti suggested.

Zinski undid the Velcro chin strap, slipped the hood off and the girl went limp in his arms.

“Well well,” said Zatti stepping closer for a look.

“It’s this jacket… maybe something in the hood. Give me a hand with these clowns. Pull off another one. God only knows….”

As if on cue, the five hooded figures sat up stiffly with a faint but distinct orange glow in their eyes. Zinski instinctively backed up. Zatti touched his las gun.

“Zinsk…?”

With no change of expression, the nearest ODD pulled a small handgun from his sleeve and fired two deafening rounds. Zatti stared dumbfounded with a slug through his chest and collapsed. The second shot grazed Zinski’s ear. He fired his pulse gun point blank, hitting the gunman’s shoulder. Blood and flesh sprayed the greasy wall behind, but the wounded ODD continued firing as he fell. Zinski rolled left and hit him again with a vicious pulse across the face. Impossibly, the ODD advanced, still firing, his shattered skull bleeding horribly inside the orange jacket hood.

“What..?” Stunned and afraid, Zinski rolled to fire again but came up into a blinding burst of light and pain.

Chapter 2

Secret Delivery

Rock could almost taste a steaming dog as he leaned over the edge of the roof. Shuffling his large frozen sneakers, he longed for the old days, stamping in the snow near Giant’s Stadium, scalping tickets to stupid fat sub-urbanites, making a buck or two on a nickel bag.

Beyond the ruins of the Polaski Skyway, the winter sun slipped below the horizon. In the parking area below, a sleek hover craft hesitated in the snow flakes and settled like a hen on the tarmac. Rock shaded his face from the dust but never took his eyes off it. He squinted through shadows, past rusting fire escapes and broken windows to the iridescent letters on the pavement.

WARNING DANGEROUS TOXIC AREA LAND AT YOUR OWN RISK HUDSON COUNTY NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR PERSONS OR PROPERTY TOXIC BOX AUTHORITY

“Regina,” he whispered across the debris, “Go back to the Den.” He mimed a rifle shot and pointed towards his automatic. “Remind Monk. The Dawgs wait for my signal.”

A slender woman braced against the wind in the wooden stairwell. Her dark skin and black sweats made her nearly invisible.

“Yah mahn. Don’t be no hero.” She waved and disappeared silently down sagging stairs.

He waited, counting bullet holes in the warning sign.

As the ship’s cargo bay opened, a wedge of soft red light caught the snow flakes. Rock noticed the shiny silver uniforms as crewmen shoved crates down the ramp. Everything was quiet and disciplined, corporate, not like local gang traffic. When it lifted away, surface trucks rolled in and hooded ODDS shuffled the crates to their loading lifts. From his perch they looked like toys from a Korea II set, but he knew better. ODDS were killers and they carried pulse weapons. A few split away to form a defensive perimeter, covering the walls with tight nervous move-ments of their powerful rifles. He ducked behind a chimney and searched the shadows.

“Damn,” he hissed, turning away. In complete darkness the ODDS’ eyes were glowing like pale orange coals. The ambush would have to wait, turf war or not. Slick delivery. Orange vision gear. It was too risky. He turned to signal a withdrawal when a sharp crack broke the silence from a roof nearby.

Regina had flown down the stairs as Rock commanded, but she had her own job to do. Her FBI contacts would certainly want to hear about the crates. She scampered up a rusting fire escape behind the next building and settled down by a boarded window on the third floor. It was dirty but dark and her view of the lot was excellent through the cracks. Still, the growing noises from the floors below made her nervous. There were others in this building and they were not Box Dawgs.

Then a shot.

She watched the ODDS hit the pavement spraying the roofs with las and pulse fire. In seconds, the alley exploded with lead from Rock’s boys. The exposed ODDS were chopped to pieces, firing desperately into the air as they died. Rubber squealed as the trucks tried to escape, but an ancient yellow school bus appeared in the

narrow alley. Box Dawgs piled out, rifles blasting until all movement in the trucks stopped.

Regina held her breath as the echoes faded. There was a uncertain moment of silence before they raised their rifles in victory, shouting and slapping among the corpses as they ripped open the truck doors. In the stark headlights, their shadows angled wildly across the lot.

She peered through the boards biting her lip. It was over but she still heard noises below.

The jubilant troops cracked open a plastic crate spilling a fortune in pricey orange Zxap Jackets onto the pavement. She saw Rock pause at the roof’s edge, then slip down a rickety fire escape.

“Quick. Load it,” he snapped, bending to lift a sophisticated pulse rifle from a corpse. “Get the weapons.”

A thin boy shivering in a Yankee cap and long johns motioned him over. “Check this. Some kind of stuff in the hood.” The other gang members passed the orange jacket from hand to hand, murmuring. It was light and strong, made of a bulletproof fabric that only the army was supposed to get. They admired the deep hood, the built in com, the fancy head and eye gear.

“What’s with this?” A muscular Dawg with a cue ball head had split another crate. Small plastic containers rolled around his silver sneakers. “Contact lenses. Rock. Just brown lenses.” He looked toward his leader, bewildered.

Regina knew what Rock was thinking. The armored jackets would be useful but they didn’t add fire power. The lenses made no sense at all.

“Open the other crates. Grab those jackets. Quick.” He was pacing, anxious, straining to see into the dark buildings as if something had caught his eye.

“Move, move, keep your eyes open!” He swung his rifle along the surrounding walls.

Below her, Regina heard the shuffle of feet, the clicking sounds that weapons make. She braced herself, resigned to die, ready to kick out the boards and warn Rock.

But it was too late.

The walls exploded in a searing blast. Bricks flew like projectiles as orange- jacketed ODDS emerged from the gaps in a circle around Rock and his gang. They fired mercilessly, a blur of confusing strobe motion and wild orange tracers. The screams of the Box Dawgs reached a terrible crescendo. She smelled burnt flesh and watched in horror as Rock valiantly raised his automatic, knowing his end would be soon.

But it came sooner.

As she gasped, a mangled truck driver rose off the pavement to flash orange eyes and slice Rock in half with a pulse gun.

“Blood clot, Mahn, Voodoo!” she exhaled, cowering as heavy boots climbed a stairwell behind her.

Chapter 3

The Hospital

Zinski opened blurry eyes on a gurney in the NYU Hospital ER. His bandaged head throbbed. Even his teeth hurt.

“Huh?” He tried to rise to an elbow but gentle hands guided him down. The room spun round and round and he was going to puke from the pain and the hospital smell and the spinning. He shut his eyes to lessen the pain then opened to find cops from his backup unit coming into focus.

“There were ODDS. I took one out but he …”

“Take it easy Joe. You’re gonna be OK. Just a scratch. Calm down.” The cop paused and looked at the nurse who nodded. He added in a soft voice, “Zatti’s dead.”

Zinski searched the concerned faces. “We found you on the floor in an empty pad with lots of blood and a bag of

powder. Flushed the building, sealed it, put the squeeze on a lot of scum and came up with zero.” The cop looked at the nurse again. “Pardon me, miss.”

Zinsky faced the window, took a deep breath and shut his eyes. Zatti was gone, snuffed by some worthless punk and for what? He could see Rita and the two little girls, Cloe and Darla, at the police picnic. His head pounded.

“Does Rita know?” He inhaled slowly. “The Captain’s been on the phone.”

Zinski fought tears. The cops shuffled in awkward silence. “Look, I swear… There were six whacked out ODDS squirming on the floor,

kicking like they’re buzzed on some muscle drug. Damn it. I got the Zxap hood off one and she calmed down. Then they sat up, eyes glowing…orange… should have been more careful but it was too sudden…”

“Glowing orange?” The faces floated before him.

“Yeah, the whole lot wore Zxap Jackets, heavy orange ones. Never seen ‘em before, big hoods, heaters blasting in an overheated flat.” He paused from face to face. “I tell you, it had to be the jackets.”

“Joe, we found a bag of something. The jerks probably mixed their own brand of DEATH and tried it on themselves.”

Zinsky nodded but was unconvinced. He was gaining strength and clarity, but the pain clouded his memory. With an effort he calmed his voice.

“The girl steadied when her hood came off. We didn’t find drugs. I think they’re wiring the Zxaps somehow.” He paused not sure how to put it. “Look, something was going on up there. I hit one of them with enough pulse to down a hover. He kept coming.” Zinski searched for a supportive nod but couldn’t find one. These were experienced NYPD cops. They were sympathetic but knew that Zinski had lost a partner, had taken a hit. His testimony was unreliable and uncorroborated.

Unconsciously, Zinski rubbed his head bandage.

“It sounds crazy, but I swear… Look, I want the results on the powder and blood as soon as you get them. I’m staying on this.” He tried to get up but felt a queasy and weak. Again, there was an awkward silence.

“Captain says you’re on it as soon as the doctor says so.” It was his old friend, Lieutenant Fong, who stepped forward and extended a strong hand. “Zatti was a good man. I’m sorry.” His voice was deep and reassuring. “The doc tells me you need some rest and quiet. Give yourself tomorrow and come in Friday.”

“Yeah,” he said softly, noting Fong’s sympathy but also his disbelief. With no corpse and no evidence he’d have been just as skeptical.

The doctor suggested he could leave as long as he went home and rested. Zinski’s retro Timex told him it was 3:26, Wednesday afternoon and that he had a date with Lonnie tonight. He’d only been seeing her for a few months, since before her brother died, another murdered cop. But it beat going home to his empty pad.

“Doc, you think I can handle dinner with a girl tonight?” “Just dinner?” “Yeah,” he smiled weakly, “Scout’s honor.”

There were a few nervous chuckles as the group wished him well and cleared out. Suddenly without distractions, the scene played in his head like a holo reel: Zatti falling, the girl, the horribly mangled ODD. Perhaps the lab boys would find an answer but he knew the powder wasn’t it.

Chapter 4

Clofsted’s Morning

The coffee smelled rich. It was real and so were the eggs, the bacon and the fresh orange juice. Dr. George Clofsted inhaled the aroma again and glanced at the fire dancing in the stone fireplace. Small consolations mattered after a tough childhood in the slums. He knew the old bullies in Queens were squatting in down state risers, fending off the acid rain in Zxap consumer products of his design. Their misery was a revenge of sorts, but then again, they didn’t have to deal with Maxwell Zxap.

He brushed his leather wing tips on the nylon mat and smoothed his white lab coat over his rotund frame. Outside, the snow was falling gently on the manicured quad, large wet flakes melting as they touched the glass. He lifted his morning news tray, inserted his personal chip and sent it down the aluminum rails. Service machines placed his breakfast around the com display of sci news. Headlines proclaimed new unexplained glitches in the NET, more organic nano tech advances, space robots and energy issues. The ubiquitous Zxap sales advertisements jumped annoyingly around the screen perimeter. He grunted to himself, knowing how Zxap Enterprises was intimately involved in the scientific research related to all these stories.

“Doc Tools, Zxap Rules!” It burned him every time. Who could imagine what it was like to work close to the Old Man, especially on days like today when a confron-tation was brewing. He tugged nervously at his clipped Van Dyke and walked to his seat by the picture window. Conversation drifted towards him but only a few associates nodded from a respectful distance.

“What do they know?” he thought.

He shook a small mountain of salt on his steaming eggs, eating absently through coverage of the gang wars. Politics disgusted him. He had isolated his family comfortably in Zxaptown away from such worries. As far as he was concerned, nothing changed except the deter-iorating environment and the advancements of science. The nation’s leaders were incapable of making progress in spite of heroic technological progress. Scientists made new discoveries which led to misapplications which led to problems which led to newer discoveries. Whatever ailed the world, it was as certain as his eggs were real that it wasn’t his scientists’ fault.

His own Zxap Corp nano technology was actually saving lives and helping the environment. He was proud of SISSY’s role in the micro tubule systems that collected the rain of the jacket surfaces and the billions of nanobots she designed to alter the water chemistry. It mattered little that these systems were developed for highly autonomous space bots and Mars reclamation projects. They worked magic here on earth and had generated a fortune for Zxap in the Jackets.

Outside, the gathering snow deepened, but his antique poclet watch told him it wasn’t Zxap time yet. He sipped his real orange juice smugly and spread more marmalade.

The Zxap AI brand was practically synonymous with the name Clofsted. SISSY was the envy of the entire AI world and he didn’t have to scrounge for grants and budgets from greasy politicians. The Zxap Corporation profited nicely from his work, and he enjoyed extraordinary license to explore private lines of research and pursue his ambitious dreams.

“An AI branch of life,” he whispered, generously sugaring his espresso. “Eventually, eventually…”

The hardest part was suffering Zxap and it was about to get harder. He sighed deeply to the cackling fire. “Twenty five years with the Company,” he thought as snow mounted on the window. He removed his fashionable wire frames and polished the lenses with a fine cloth.

Behind his bacon and toast, the vid screen flickered with the image of a beautiful green-eyed brunette in a Zxap diplomatic uniform. Above her left pocket was the name Rayna. Clofsted blinked, startled by the interruption. It was the General Interoffice Relations Liaison for Zxap, an AI construct known to insiders as GIRL. He scowled and pushed up his thick glasses.

“Sorry to interrupt your breakfast, Sir. Mr. Zxap wants you right away on a secure line.” The pretty face stared inertly, unaffected by Clofsted’s obvious annoyance.

“OK, GIRL. Tell him I’ll be right there.” He shoved eggs into his mouth and downed the double espresso. Zxap had stolen his morning minute. Forcing a tight smile, he faced the talking head. He had allowed SISSY to develop and program

GIRL. Secretly, he had hoped SISSY would expand GIRL in her own image and fulfill his dream of fostering a self-replicating AI. Disappointingly, GIRL remained a semi-interactive, talking switchboard with none of the volition or awareness of SISSY.

“How about if you and I escape to the South of France?” he offered masochistically, pushing GIRL beyond her abilities.

“Mr. Zxap is waiting, Doctor.”

Chapter 5

Lonnie’s Place

Zinski pulled to the curb in front of Lonnie’s building on Jane Street. It wasn’t snowing hard yet, but he sensed it would get worse and acid snow burned. He touched the bandage on the right side of his head self-consciously, straightened his fedora, and tucked his graying hair under the band. This wasn’t a first date but Lonnie was twenty-five and Zinski felt his full thirty-nine years around her.

He rang her apartment. No response. He rang again. Nothing.

He shuffled in the snow for a minute until he heard her laughing from an open window. Lonnie had already shared her strange sense of humor but he was in no mood for it. Impatient, he pushed a few buttons until someone buzzed him in.

“Can I help you?” A scared face peered through a chained door down the hall. “It’s OK, I came to see Lonnie in 3B.”

The door closed as quickly as it had opened. “Nice to meet you too. Thanks. I’ll say hello for you.”

Upstairs, he rapped briskly on Lonnie’s door. “Hey Lonnie, open up!” He adjusted his hat again, brushed some snow off his

coat. “Do you have a warrant, officer?” Lonnie did her best May West the peep hole.

She giggled like she was on Shuttle Bubble, more bad news for Joe, who detested the legal, machine dispensed tranquilizer gum.

“Come on Lonnie, open up?” He was dead serious. She laughed as she opened the door. “What happened to you? My God.” She backed up a step and looked him over.

“Are you OK or what?” Lonnie was a looker. Her slender five foot six frame was topped with a beautiful oval face and a mop of wild blond hair. She was always laughing or scheming behind shock blue eyes and tended to wear tight trendy clothes that suited her fine bust and slim hips. Other than the shock red on her pouty lips, she wore only a hint of blue eye shadow. Her capped teeth were white as snow. Joe could never get over that Lonnie had been to Radcliff. He was intimidated by her beauty and smarts, but at this moment, Lonnie didn’t look so good to him. She was slouchy and slack jawed in a blue sweater and sweat pants. He was disappointed. She had taken the Shuttle Express and forgotten their date.

“You OK, Joe. You look like shit. What happened to your head?” Joe stepped into the small living room and closed the door. She put her hand on his arm and looked at him with half closed eyes. “I guess I forgot, huh? Just look at me. Give me a minute. I’ll be right out.” Without so much as a hug or a peck on the cheek, she turned heel and disappeared into her bedroom.

He dropped his hat on her couch feeling tired and depressed, then busied himself looking around the small Village pad. He appreciated its cluttered bohemian feel. The stuffed chairs were worn and dusty. Candles were everywhere. Pine shelves were filled with both trendy holo vids and paper books. Unfortunately, cute apartment or not, her Shuttle flippancy wouldn’t be consoling.

He paged blindly through a random book selection, wondering if he should have gone to Century Sci Fi and spent a quiet night doing paper work. The smell of paperbacks in his father’s old store was quieting. The familiar space brought back comforting images of his dad and held no surprises. It was only a few blocks away.

Women, on the other hand, could be dangerous investments. Both Sandra and Kit had found it impossible to accept his manic schedule and the dedication that went with it. It was such a cliché. Sexual heat up front, neglect on his part and a quick flame out. They were the right age, had good looks and brains too. But detectives made difficult mates, and Joe knew that he was tough to live with.

He reached for a different book trying to block his train of thought but bounced to an even worse one. The Zxap Corporation had reached into his life again. His cop friends knew the old story of Scot’s drowning at Zxaptown, but none knew the depth of his grudge. No doubt, the ‘Zxaptown incident’ had inclined them to dismiss his story about the orange Zxap Jackets. And who could blame them? Lonnie also knew of the ‘incident’ and even his private investigation of Zxap. But as a Shuttle Bug and writer for the ‘Daily Dupe,’ she couldn’t be trusted with his plans for revenge.

Suddenly, Lonnie appeared in front of the book in his hands. She smelled fresh with floral perfume and wore an amazing form fitted golden body suit. It was low cut in front, tight against her breasts so that her nipples were outlined. The pants hugged her hips and reached just below her knees. She finished herself with fresh red lipstick and a wild halo with red tips on the ends of her hair. She was more alert but still ‘On Board.’

“Reading about journalism are we?” She took the book and leafed through it dramatically. Joe noticed the title for the first time, ‘The Big Story: Riches In Print’.

“That’s one of my favorites,” she said only half kidding. “Someday, I’ll be subject matter for a book like that. Today the ‘Daily Dupe’, tomorrow the Pulitzer Prize.” She stuck her chin out in comic fashion, but Joe wasn’t fooled. This actually was her dream.

He stared at her through his pain. She was stunning and they were great lovers but he found her distance disquieting. The quality and coldness in her ambition chilled him. She was talented, had the social knack and all the journalistic skills, but Joe missed the sensitivity, empathy and perceptiveness needed in a truly human writer or a lasting mate for that matter.

“Nice outfit,” he said sincerely. “Do you want to go out or are you planning to cook? I need to take it easy.” He pointed to his head bandage. “It hurts.” Keeping things light, he made sad brown eyes at her.

Lonnie put down the book and snuggled close. She lifted off his hat very gingerly and kissed his bandage.

“Lets stay home and play Doctor. I’ll whip up some-thing.” She laid her head on his chest and hugged him. “Sorry about the Shuttle. You know how it is.” She looked up theatrically for a pardon, catching his eyes.

“Zatti is dead.” he said without emotion and suddenly found himself crying. He waved her away, surprised at himself and embarrassed. “Damn…”

She led him over to the couch and took off his coat. He sat down and sobbed into his hands for a long time.

“You want to tell me what happened?” she said finally, her journalistic curiosity burning.

Chapter 6

Maxwell Zxap

Maxwell Zxap was not a young man. No amount of plastic, lotions, transplants or styling could change it. Money wasn’t the answer. Sitting behind his enormous oak desk in his leather throne, Zxap faced himself in the polished chrome wall. He wasn’t thrilled. In spite of surgery, his face sagged around a loose chin, not quite jowls, but almost. His gray eyes were fading, but blue contacts hid that well enough. His blond dyed hair stood stiffly, a mini Halo they called it, popular with the angels. He rubbed a bony hand over his stubble and spoke to the com.

“Get in here Caesar.” He flipped a switch changing the wall to a shiny silver and black Zxap logo.

“Yes, Mr. Zxap?” Caesar stood apprehensively by the door. His silver Zxap Jacket purred to compensate for nervous flush, but couldn’t hide the terrified look on his angelic face.

“I’m sick and tired of the lapses in security around here. What’s with this about terrorist groups snooping around my land?” He pushed a printed report across the desk, but Caesar didn’t budge. “Do I have to spell out everything? I get THIS stupid thing…” He pushed it off the desk. “Just go out and get ‘em, for Christ’s sake. What am I paying a zillion dollars for? Paperwork? Tell those overpaid slugs to earn their pay. If I hear about one more squirrel hunt, I’ll kill the bastard myself. Now get out of here and don’t come back without results!”

“Yes, Mr. Zxap.” Caesar fled down the hall tripping over himself.

“I still have ‘em jumping. Ha!” snapped Zxap as he steadied his old frame out of the chair. He was all angles and bones, reaching for what was actually just a folder on Zxap Jacket distribution in North America.

Outside the fifth floor windows Zxaptown spread towards the hills. It had taken thirty six years to build this empire and he loved every inch, the laboratories with their silver roof ducts shining in the sunlight, the factory buildings marching across the valley, their towering smoke stacks and loading bays active, productive. Max stared at the workers’ compound above the riverbed. Identical brick homes marched tidily down toward the banks of the Ripperton. He couldn’t actually see the river any more from his office. Not that he minded.

It was very satisfying, the busy feeling of power and success. His AIs ran half of everything in the world and no one doubted they were doing a better job than the fools handling it before. Everyone bitched about his control, but when they needed help from his AI division, they all came running. His enemies were tied right into his system. SISSY had cybernetic tentacles into everything. She was his AI window on the world and it was more of a window than anyone could guess. SISSY was the unstoppable hacker of all time. Indeed, she had invented the protection programs that most of the world relied on.

It made Zxap chuckle.

Across his office a life-like female mannequin modeled the latest premium orange Mark IV. It boasted a state of the art stereo system, heater, air conditioner, tinted eye shield, weather sensors, a vid visor, a full com link, digi-maps, floatation devises, full UV protection and best of all, an automatic electro-chemical acid modulator that neutralized the rain hitting your Zxap. Beneath it, the holo display repeated, “You’ll snap in a Zxap.” He cracked a wry smile The Mark IV model had everything anyone could ask for and quite a bit more.

He turned to the polished wall and ran a bony hand through his stiff blond halo. On his desk the coded message system was flashing. Without looking up, he spoke to the Central Information System.

“Hold my messages, SISSY. No interruptions, period. I want this room completely sealed. Excuse yourself as well.”

“Of course, Mr. Zxap.” SISSY’s calm voice emanated from a nearby source. Zxap fidgeted, looked around to make sure he was alone, then typed a

command to display the now decrypted message.

received: three crates of jackets one crate of tinted contact lenses.

competition eliminated.

It was from the ODDS as expected and to the point as usual. He read it twice and erased. Curious, he thought, contact lenses? He couldn’t recall operations involving contacts. Perhaps the box was shipped accidentally. Zxap Optics did use the same invoicing system as the Weapons and Jacket Divisions. But he was troubled. Special shipping routes had kept even his closest people in the dark. Little mix-ups led to big problems. He’d seen it happen.

If he avoided the big problems and everything worked according to plan, he’d use the very scum he most despised to clean and shape the world his way. ODD gang leaders were fools for money like everyone else. They were happy to sell out their cadres, turning them over for use in Zxap’s scheme for a chunk of the spoils. Eventually, he planned to clean them up as well. It had nice symmetry.

Zxap spoke again to his desk. “Is Dr. Clofsted back yet?” The logo vanished replaced by the white smocked scientist who stared from thick wire frame glasses. Zxap was aware of Clofsted’s importance and paid him well. In fact, he almost felt fond of his chief scientist. Still, all employees needed to be ‘motivated’ from time to time. The good doctor seemed hesitant and uncom-fortable about using ODDS in the jacket experiments. Just to be sure, Zxap kept secret the nature and extent of his growing relationship with the gang.

“Scramble,” he added.

Clofsted nodded calmly, hiding his inner turmoil. The com flickered and stabilized.

“How are you, George?” Max smiled eagerly, almost childlike toward the screen. This was pleasure, he thought, not business. It was the beginning of a new challenge.

“We are progressing with the new refits as per in-structions, and I am satisfied with our initial results, Mr. Zxap. ”

Given Zxap’s keen ability to sniff the slightest hint of trouble, this was as close to a run around as Clofsted would dare. He held his breath and waited for a rebuke. The Old Man trusted him as well as anyone, but in Zxaptown it was a thin line between job security and exile.

“And our ODD friends, George?” Zxap ignored Clofsted’s evasion, but leaned forward menacingly.

“Our initial tests have been quite encouraging, with regard to the hood wiring in the orange Mark IV model.”

“Good, good. When can I see a demonstration?” Zxap’s wolf eyes narrowed.

“If your expecting to see a full scale demonstration of all the new behavior control functions, I’m afraid it’s a ways off. SISSY still has a lot to do. You see, the processing unit is set to transmit its signals on a discreet, encoded frequen-cy …”

“Spare me! Just give me a date.” Max looked danger-ously disappointed. “Give us four or five more days to iron out the problems, then we’ll have something worth your time, Sir.” Clofsted tried to look optimistic, but knew otherwise.

“Make it one day and schedule a demonstration for 8:30 am tomorrow. And Clofsted, I hope security in your lab is up to my expectations.”

Clofsted swallowed in spite of himself but the screen had gone dark. The old dog’s bite was the same or worse. He had to consider his options. There was no way that Zxap’s crazy behavior control technology would ever work and Max did not take disappointments well. Clofsted gazed over the marvelous lab complex under his authority and felt a surprising swell of possessiveness.

“Perhaps with SISSY’s help, I can ‘arrange’ a ‘successful’ demonstration anyway,” he thought out loud.

Chapter 7

Pizza

The carpet was strange, the corduroy pillow con-fusing. When Zinski realized he was on Lonnie’s couch he sat up and straightened his head bandage. The apartment was quiet. Lonnie had left a brief note and some fresh brewed synth coffee. He was disappointed but not surprised. Lonnie was like that and with his cop’s hours he couldn’t complain. But his head throbbed and his soul ached. He wasn’t ready to face yesterday’s events and he longed for someone, somebody close. Sadly, he recalled her Shuttle drugged laughter the night before and without so much as washing his face, he downed some Nopain with a cup of her brew and headed to his hover craft.

Outside, the world was a stormy gray. He could smell snow blowing in from the west off the Hudson. Acid snow. The White Bitch. A few flakes fell gently on his windshield as he pulled the blue and white vehicle into the street.

Zinski looked at his com for a second and thought better of it. He needed time, a moment to sort through the feelings that were certain to screw up his police work if he didn’t take a breather. A short cruise around the neighbor-hood was his poor man’s therapy. The Village was nicer than most parts of the City and many years ago he had chosen it as a place to live for reasons that still held true. In spite of the new high rises, he liked its artistic people and bohemian atmosphere. The big money folks had moved to the Lower East Side and Harlem leaving the Village full of hopeful urban settlers. With its age and charm, some parts still hinted at earlier centuries. Smoothed cobblestones poked through the crumbling blacktop and the ancient brownstones were quaint. There were even a few trees that had survived the acid rain, giving the streets a nostalgic feel that was comforting to men and dogs alike.

It wasn’t as pricey as it once was, or so he’d heard. Derelict buildings trashed the atmosphere right next to the rich. But as far as he was concerned, that was New York. The neighborhood didn’t matter so much as the block or even the building. No one was sheltered from decay and violence. He recalled a case where a pan-icky driver hit a group of beggars gathered at the end of a high sec garage ramp. It was hit and run. The guy had arrived from out of town and was scared. He killed two of them but got off on a self-defense plea. It was not unreasonable. Violence between the classes accounted for most of the murders in Manhattan. A millionaire could exit a beautiful tower, pass the gardens, pass the check in, and step into ankle deep garbage where he’d be accosted by criminals or the homeless within minutes. The rich, who could afford high security, raced straight from their garage to the protected one at their destination.

Zinski watched these dramas as a professional, but that didn’t prevent him from feeling. As he turned his hover onto congested Sixth Avenue he considered the emotional impact of the coming investigation. The seat next to him was vacant and that would hurt for a long time. He was heading for a ‘what I should have done’ session when a group of beggars started pounding on the front of his vehicle.

‘Watch it man. Yo crazy? Look where you goin’!” They were grumbling, making vaguely threatening gestures.

To his chagrin, Zinski realized that he hadn’t even noticed them crossing the avenue. In fact, he hadn’t noticed much of anything and wasn’t accomplishing much with his cruise. He popped on his siren for a moment and leaned out the window. “Sorry gentlemen. Move along. No trouble. Just keep moving.”

“Pig!” They mumbled, shuffling away as snow began falling on their pathetic rags.

He activated the wipers, watching the street scenes float past his windshield: the addicts hanging in doorways by needle zones and smoke dens, uniformed kids on their way to school, clone slaves advertising their bodies outside sex warrens, the cardboard shacks of a settlement, the tidy stoops of a working class block, a gated fantasy tower of the very rich.

It perplexed him because for some reason he still liked New York. Every corner had a memory, like Lou’s Pizza which was coming up on his right. He had stopped there on his first date from Jersey. Lou’s was a typical plexjoint, high security, low profile, but Zinski recalled when this was a regular sit down pizzeria with waitresses.

He bullied his way up Sixth Avenue, felt his stomach rumble and pulled over for a slice. A group of harmless teen angels scattered as the hover slid through the snow and bumped the curb. Zinski got out and took a whiff of the best aroma in town, fresh pizza.

Two gang angels were eating pizza at Lou’s counter. Zinski kicked away the dropped napkins and cups and ordered two pepperoni slices through the window. He had been here with Lonnie and used to come here with her brother, Jack, a long time ago. They would laugh in the red plastic booths in the back under the cola holos. Jack was a great guy and a devoted dad. He introduced Zinski to Lonnie years ago at a family dinner but she was a kid. Now, he and Lonnie had something going, maybe.

But Jack got killed and Zinski hunted down his killers, wasting them outside a drug den up in the Bronx. He still dreamt of tungsten arc lamps looming over a crumbling street of ruined towers and abandoned cars. A humid night smelling of las heat, sweat, powder drugs, urine and gunpowder. He and two buddies were to make the arrest but someone uptown leaked it and they were ambushed, pinned down outside by zipping orange streaks that boiled the pavement. Zinski didn’t give a damn about anything that night except payback. He pulled an illegal gas grenade and shot it into the half fallen tenement. Ten seconds later the killers charged out gasping, firing as they came. They hit his squad car and it exploded in a cartoon blast. But cops had flanked to the right and left of the building. They opened a deadly crossfire and gunned down the whole group. Zinski was slightly wounded in the left arm. No questions were asked at the Precinct. It was war, plain and simple. Usually the cops wouldn’t shoot first, but one could never tell. If you planned to survive, you planned to shoot.

Absently, Zinski rubbed his arm where he’d been hit, then took a bite of his pizza. The two gang angels at the counter had stopped talking and were looking at his crumpled detective three piece. Zinski sometimes used this to his advantage. These lightweight thugs wouldn’t exist on this street without him, but they still had a ‘tude that he could always feel.

“Got a problem?” Zinski was in no mood. His head hurt, his stomach was talking and he was hungry to settle the score for Zatti. The angels smiled smugly and turned back to their pizza.

“I asked you a question, snow flake.” Zinski knew he’d better calm down and save it. Lots of cops lost their jobs, their freedom and their lives this way. He was worked up and knew better.

The angel in back was a tall red head with big forearms and a hoodless Zxap Jacket worn inside out, sleeves rolled up in spite of the cold. Zinski hadn’t noticed the sleeves until the punk pointed to his chest with both hands.

“Me, I ain’t got a problem at all. SIR.” Zinski noticed orange on the underside of the rolled sleeves. The guy had an ODD tattoo on his left forearm.

Without pausing to reflect, Zinski pushed the front guy aside and grabbed the other by the jacket. He flung him hard into the plastic wall then hit him in the gut with a knee. The ODD grunted, doubled over for a second and came back with a vengeance, ramming his head into Zinski’s stomach, grabbing around his back. Zinski brought his knee up again crunching the guy’s face.

“Fuck you, cop!” the punk screamed and slammed Zinski into a full pizza surrounded by three terrified junior high school boys. They yelped, squirming against their red plastic booth as Zinski came eye to eye with a cup of TRUE BLUE COKE and a sausage pizza. He grabbed the questionable liquid, flung it into the ODD’s face, yanked out his las pistol and held it with two hands aimed at the ODD’S head.

“Back against the wall, NOW! Hands and legs spread …easy does it.” Zinski sat up and looked around. The other guy was gone, the security shutters had fallen into place over the plexiglass. The pizza man stared wide eyed through the thick window. The young boys were suddenly aware that they might live after all but their pizza was ruined.

“You hit first, cop. These kids saw it, didn’t you?” He gave the kids a look calculated to induce absolute fear. They shrank into the booth, forgot about their pizza and said nothing.

“I like your jacket, son. Just wanted a closer look, that’s all.”

Zinski brought his gun under the ODD’S chin with one hand and searched the jacket with the other.

“Where’d you get this fancy Zxap? This isn’t your run of the mill angel job. Let’s see.” He lifted the front of the jacket and inspected the control panel. “It’s got everything but a portable reactor. Why don’t you be a good boy and take it off for me nice and slow.” He backed up two paces. “Now!” He gestured with the gun.

The ODD sensed that Zinski was losing it. The jacket was hip, but not worth dying for. The hood was ripped off and the sleeve ends had been messed with. Most of the electronics were shorted out. He took it off and dropped it on the ground.

“You like, you got. What’s the big fuckin’ deal over the jacket?”

“Maybe you want to tell me.” Zinski pulled out his pocket com. “Zinski here, got a suspect on Zatti homicide, Sixth and Ninth, Lou’s. Get me a black and white.” He flinched at the cyber acknowledgment and put the radio away.

“Do I know you? I’ve seen this jacket before and the guy who was wearing it killed my partner. That’s auto death penalty, quick trial.” He was smiling but only with his mouth.

“Go to hell, cop. I ain’t done shit and you know it.” Zinski could pretty well guess what he’d done. This was an ODDS enforcer if ever there was one. Gang racketeer probably collecting from this joint when he came in. Not unlikely, he’d killed or badly hurt store owners who resisted, sold drugs to kids, and basically helped promote ODD business tentacles wherever they probed. Zinski dreamed of rounding up all the major gangs and letting them kill each other on a special island somewhere.

He was contemplating killing the red haired punk when the muffled sound of the black and white broke the tension. A cop handcuffed the suspect and led him outside, reading his rights. Another looked at Zinski from a couple paces back. The jacket was still on the floor. Zinski stared like it was a dangerous animal.

“You all right, Sir?” It was Hastings, a black cop from Brooklyn, a friend. He looked at the messed up head bandage.

“Yeah, I’m fine, fine…”

Hastings looked at the older man for a beat, “I heard. I’m real sorry. Zatti was a straight dude…” He wasn’t sure what else to say so he bent down and lifted the orange Zxap jacket. “Real top of the line, huh. And someone tore it up?”

He placed the jacket on a red table, lifted the crumpled hood base from it’s retraction pouch and pointed out the com and comfort systems with a long finger. He noticed some other connections and looked to Zinski.

“Any ideas about this? They’re supposed to be working on Virtual broadcast to the brain, but I haven’t heard any-thing about it being on the streets.” Hastings followed the leads with his finger. There seemed to be three spots on the hood base designed to do something.

Zinski took a look and flung it into an evidence bag that Hastings had brought. “Hell if I know. But whatever it does it ain’t good.” He walked towards the door. “Get this to the boys in the lab. Maybe they can suss it out. And take that fine citizen with you.”

Chapter 8

Interrogation

It was a tiny concrete room with one horrible inter-rogation lamp blazing over the suspect. Zinski felt caged and sweaty, standing behind the truth chair, hating this place with its one way window and electrode feeds. But he was aware of its effectiveness.

He rubbed the bandage on his head, although it wasn’t the wound that was bothering him. Something didn’t make sense. Even though the punk was telling the truth, he hadn’t given them anything yet. Thugs always had an attitude. They were belligerent, aggressive and hostile to authority but they didn’t do things without a reason. This fool obviously wasn’t a part of the group that had killed Zatti. He was an expendable decoy. They ran truth scans on him during the interview and he was clean as far as Zatti’s murder was concerned. Interestingly, he hadn’t even heard about the killing. With the Zxap Jacket in his possession, it was hard to figure how he was a total blank about it. Snuffing a cop was big prestige for gang scum and someone was keeping it real quiet.

Zinski lifted the Orange Zxap absently. Touching its thin artificial surface quickened his pulse and made his wound throb. He could see the angels writhing on the floor, could feel his shock as Zatti went down.

“You said strangers gave you this yesterday in Washington Square as a trade for some drugs.” As Zinski came around to the front of the chair, the intravenous feed increased the drug dosage. His voice was sharp edged, dangerous. He held the jacket close to the suspect’s face.

“What could you trade these saints that they didn’t already have?”

Tired of the grilled questions and loosened by drugs, the ODD was wavering. They had been pretty rough and he hadn’t even heard about any dead cop until the asshole detective hit him with it. He was in deep shit and it wasn’t even his own. Those out of town bigs had been looking for a safe crash, they were blazed, but it seemed like a drug thing. Trashing cops was deep, too deep, way out of his league. But those bigs had royal Zxap Jackets, pulsed, fully charged. He figured they were rich and high up to have that shit. They saw him eyeing the jackets and offered one in return for help getting to an ODD safety zone. No pro-blema.

Now the pigs wanted to know where the bigs had come from but he couldn’t remember anymore what was hap-pening. They had him hyped on scopa or some truth drug and it felt pretty damn good. He knew it wasn’t legal but it always happened anyway and who cared? The drugs were free and he was feeling real comfy and happy, like every-thing would work out and maybe these cops weren’t too bad after all. He smiled stupidly and looked around like a puppy.

“Your buddies were real straight with you, huh? They didn’t even brag about killing a cop? My man over hear says that your gig is shake down money. You’re in new territory here, wouldn’t you say?” Zinski was leaning on the chair, speaking softly from behind. “If you take the rap on this I’d give you two months. Special court.” He tossed the jacket on the ODD’s lap.

“I never saw those bigs before…..”

“So?”

“I didn’t kill no cop.” He moved his heavy lids slowly around the room at the looming faces. Another detective stepped forward menacingly. Maybe these guys weren’t so nice after all.

“Detective Zinski here says he saw that jacket at the murder scene but he can’t recall the face of the ODD wearing it. Makes you the prime suspect.”

“Hey man, didn’t snuff no cop. Those bigs wanted a safe place to hang. Sent them to the T Box in Jersey, told ‘em to hang ’til they felt ready to shoot down the Pike. Heard there was some bigs in the Box, figured they could hook up. Gave me this coat and split.” Even as he said it, he knew how badly he had screwed up. These cops were definitely going to put him away for something, anything. And he was a dead man once in jail. Any bigs willing to take out a cop would have friends to do their business in jail. The price of ratting was death.

“Hey, man. Didn’t kill no cop.” He looked from face to face desperately as two cops dragged him to his feet.

“Get him out of here.” Zinski looked across the room at the com. “I want a transcript. Check his descriptions with the ODD file. Hastings, I’m getting clearance for Jersey. Pack heavy. We’re gonna visit the Toxic Box.”

Zinski hurried down the hall to Lieutenant Fong’s desk. “Sir, do we have anyone inside the Box these days?” The officer looked up from his work as if he’d been expecting Zinski. He was tempted to say ‘slow down, Zinsk,’ but that would have made the conversation testy.

“Two girls, one with the Box Dawgs.” He offered. “They’re FBI. Reliable.” Fong paused and took a long look at Zinski, sizing him up before proceeding. “I’ll contact the Feds. Use their people and procedure. Let them know what’s up. We’ll put out the word to Jersey and seal it up tight.” Fong grabbed Zinski by the arm before he could leave the room. “Joe, no heroics, no freelancing. This has to be by the books. Sync?”

“I want these ‘bigs’, Jimmy. Cash in if you have to but get them jumping for me. I’ll behave. Scout’s honor, and I owe you.” Zinski smiled as he left but Fong looked at his terminal and shook his head.

It was burning a hole in his brain, but Zinski wasn’t going to bring up the orange jackets to Fong again. Not yet. If he did, they’d never let him go. Zatti was his partner and that was a good enough reason for this mission, but deep inside he was churning. ODDS loved to brag. How come they had kept quiet about Zatti? And if ODDS were massing in Jersey, was it all connected? If he could find hard evidence in the Box to show old reliable Fong, they could move on this together.

But visits like this got violent. He worried he might not come back at all and his hunch would die with him. Cops were dying all the time and Zinski often woke up certain it was his time.

He looked over at Hastings.

Hastings was very black and very huge, a former football jock who played for the Giants one spring until an injury slammed the brakes on a potentially great career. The man was a lovable bear, a devoted family man. Zinski saw him with his kids at police picnics and family gatherings. Some cops thought that Zinski might be jinxed, having lost two partners, but Hastings was not super-stitious. He was a good friend and a smart cop.

Zinski headed down the hall and sat down at a station in the sterile Com Link Room. He coded the Zxap address from memory and the ‘receptionist’ appeared. Every time he saw her it amazed him. She had an open direct stare that was deliberately inviting, seductive and wholesome at the same time. Her sparkling green eyes were almost alive, her lips warm and soft. It was as if she had been designed with him in mind. Her beautiful red-brown hair fell in soft curves luxuriously past the shoulders of her Zxap diplomat uniform to her nametag which read, Rayna. Joe shook his head in disbelief. If only she was alive and had a mind, a personality, a heart.

Get a life, he thought, and damn these programmers.

“Welcome to Zxap Enterprises. Good afternoon Detective Zinski. How nice to see you again.” It was her frustratingly wonderful voice that killed him and probably every other man. He wondered if a male receptionist did the same for women, but he’d never encountered that construct over the years. Perhaps the Zxap Corp had a fast ID mechanism and gave each caller an appropriate recep-tionist. It would be the Zxap thing to do.

“Hello. Nice to see you too, Rayna,” he replied, not needing her name tag. “Who would you like to speak with today, Detective?” “Oh, I just called to say hi.” By the time it was out of his mouth he hated himself for it. He was hopeless. In a way it was worse than the Com Dispatch. That was only an impersonal voice to get mad at but somehow Rayna got under your skin in ways that made you feel embarrassed. He had tried before, but he still couldn’t resist trying to reach what was behind those intense looking eyes. Of course in spite of all indications to the contrary, he knew there was nothing. She was just the Zxap Corp’s GIRL, its General Interoffice Relations Liason. a sophisticated answering machine. But, like the rap some shrink laid on him at a village party, ‘the human male instinct triggered by visual attraction has not caught up with the ironies of virtual constructs.’

Right. “Thank you for calling Zxap Enterprises, Detective Zinski. Is there something Ican help you with?” Her attitude never changed. There was no humor, no recognition of sarcasm, no flirtatious turn of the head, no sexual tension at all.

What a pity. “Yeah. I need someone in manufacturing to identify a Zxap Jacket for me.” “Certainly. That would be Mr. Hernandez. Please hold and I’ll transfer you.”

The screen blinked and Joe found himself looking into the round face of a short, overweight sales rep who Zinski knew was employed by the security team.

“Good afternoon, Detective. How nice of you to call.” The annoyance was subtle but noticeable. “What can we do for you today?”

Zinski held up the orange Zxap Jacket. “This is on the record Hernandez. I’m recording. Please acknowledge.”

“Official business and recording acknowledged.” Hernandez had his company face on.

“This is a very interesting new model, Sal. This one’s a bit messed up as you can see. So tell me what it can do straight out of the box and where can they be bought?”

“Hold it up and turn it around a few times. That’s good. Let me see the sleeves. Uh huh, yes. And the hood? Where’s the hood?” Sal looked into Zinski’s eyes for a moment. He seemed quite sincere but that was his job.

“The perp that had this jacket said it was torn off when he got it. Now why would anyone want to tear the hood off a top of the line Zxap? I mean, from the sleeve controls, this model had a great audio set, a com/vid link, a hood heater/air conditioner, a UV screen.” He raised his eyebrows inquisitively.

“The jacket is a new model. The orange color Super Mark IV hit the streets about a month ago but they are exclusive to very expensive boutiques catering to the very trendy and wealthy. You know what we offer in our jackets. This has everything but at a classier level. They are quite expensive.”

Zinski nodded. “This was found on a street thug.” Hernandez shrugged.

“Perhaps the jacket was stolen and damaged in the process. Most criminals know our safety tracking device is in the hood, wired into all the goodies. If you rip out the recovery device, you ruin the goodies. As you know, it keeps theft of our coats to a minimum. But if one just liked the look one might…”

“I need some manufacturing figures, Sal. How many were made, where did they ship to and when?” Zinski had his cop face on now. No funny stuff.

“Just a moment. I’ll pull up the figures.” He typed for a moment and the screen blinked. “Here’s the distribution info from our main banks.” Figures flashed on the screen as his voice carried over. “I think you’ll find what you need. Get back to me if you need more help.”

“Right. Thanks Sal.” He’d grown to trust his instincts. No complicity here, he thought. If something is up, this guy doesn’t know about it.

“Think nothing of it, Detective.” The screen blinked to the Zxap logo and faded to black.

Zinski logged the recorded call and retrieved the information for his personal com. The figures were unsettling. Only fifty jackets were made and twenty were shipped to the west coast. Five were in Houston, five in Miami, ten in Chicago and the remaining ten were in New York. If these were all the MARK IVs, those ODDS who killed Zatti had six of them.

Perhaps there had been a local heist by the ODDS. High value, high profile. It fit. Bit Hernandez would have heard about it.

He checked the list and punched the code of the New York store that had been shipped ten of the jackets.

“Pierre Bouvois Clothiers, can I help you?” A long narrow face with stylish greased hair and thin mustache glared back as though interrupted from more important business.

“Yes, Zxap Mark IV jackets. The new orange ones. Do you carry them?” “Yes, of course,” as if to say who else would carry such an exclusive item.

“How many in stock? I’m looking to outfit an entire baseball team. I’ll need about twenty.” Zinski kept his face filling the screen, keeping his police three piece out of view.

“Well, I’m afraid that would be impossible. The MARK IV is not sports wear. We only have, let me see …ten in stock. I’m very sorry sir. Perhaps I could interest you in something else.” Zinski could tell he was already on to his next customer.

“No, but thanks.” He walked to his locker to rig for serious combat. Shedding his detective suit, he donned bullet-proof police fatigues, pulling the hooded undergarment over his head bandage. Gloves and a special helmet completed the outfit. It would take a hand grenade or a top of the line pulse gun at close range to kill him. Adding a special flack jacket he picked up an automatic pulse rifle and slung it over his shoulder. On his belt was his pulse gun. With his helmet, the entire rig was wired for communications, location and vital signs.

He looked himself over and grunted in weary recognition. Once again, it was time to go and get answers the hard way. The arithmetic didn’t add up. Someone was either lying, uninformed, or the ODDS had collected a lot of jackets and got them to New York in a hurry. Someone knew about those jackets, someone who had killed his partner and almost killed him. It gave him pause to consider his own hood, but this was not Zxap gear, this was US Marines stuff and he didn’t care who made it knowing it wasn’t Zxap. He walked into the hallway and found Hastings waiting. The man looked like a giant robot under all the gear.

“Going for a swim, Joe?” Zinski laughed and they walked together to the hover craft.

“She’s all yours, boys,” said the mechanic who had finished his once-over. “Have a nice war.” Heat poured from the undercarriage into the cold garage.

“Armed?” said Hastings.

“To the max. You better put her down easy. This girl is a floating explosion.” He smiled as they belted in and lowered the wing doors. “Bring her home in one piece and I’m buying.”

”Did I hear that, Zinsk?” Hastings laughed as they lifted out of the eighth floor bay towards the pale sunset and The Toxic Box.