By Gary Phillips
Warfield and Goodacre frowned at each other and got the receptionist off the floor. Later, he paced about in the warehouse-sized headquarters called the Hidden Fortress, the name derived from the Kurosawa samurai film. This secret base of operations of his, situated below his mansion atop a Malibu bluff, contained various one-of-a-kind items including a replica of a mutated dinosaur, a diamond-encrusted Jack-in-the-box the once emitted a poison gas form its mouth, and Asimov. Named for the late, fabled scientist and visionary science fiction writer, Asimov was a wall-sized, electronic-voiced analytical computer. The machine hummed and several small rectangular lights on its surface blinked in phases.
A metal door inset in a part of the Fortress that was a natural rock face slid open on silent rollers and in stepped Bailey “Critch” Duling, a wiry built individual of medium height with sandy-brown hair. He wore a dark gray Burberry suit, no tie. If you first met him and didn’t know of his association with Warfield, or his past as a master safe cracker, you might assume that he was a manager of a branch bank in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley, in a strip mall. Middle class and of middle-American stock.
He said, “The doc’s preliminary examination of Vanessa revealed no subcutaneous implant. I’ve retraced her past two weeks and nothing sticks out, though she was hit on by two men at the Renoir Club last Friday.”
“Only two?” Warfield commented straight-faced.
“Heh. She didn’t go home with either gentleman and there seems to have been no further contact between her or the two of them. But I’m still checking.”
“Thanks, Critch. But it comes back to the phone call and this dude calling himself the death Bringer. The business in the restaurant and now this.”
“Test runs you figure? Perfecting his murder by remote control,” Duling offered
“That’s my thinking.”
A flat screen monitor near them on a wall powered up and was filled with the image of Clara Goodacre’s face and shoulders. Each of Warfield’s loose-knit crew had a disguised two-way video watch for communication. “Hey, you two, heard from a friend of a friend that at least three well-heeled types have received blackmail demands from this Death Bringer. Either pay ten million via an encrypted account or get a call that would either make one of their associates kill them or they themselves would be compelled to reveal all their shameful and illegal secrets.” She almost smiled at that last part.
“Figured that was coming,” Warfield said.
Duling said, “Any connection between these three and Vanessa and the other woman?”
She shrugged. “You know that these sort of folk tend to hang out at the same watering holes or go to this or that opening. Two of them sit on a couple of the same boards but it’s all very surface.”
“Great, Clara. You get on to Chicago and we’ll keep digging on our end.”
“Will do.” The screen went black again.
“Duling started to talk but Asimov spoke. His voice was not hollow and eerily flat nor disembodied. Rather he had been conceived to sound warm and reassuring, like a baritone-voiced pitchman selling you the latest in detergent with miracle micro-scrubbers. The talking AI wonder gave Duling the willies. How long before it tried to take over?
““I’ve been hunting down the call that came into Vanessa’s phone,” Asimov said. “The origin has been carefully hidden via various bounces including pinging off two low Earth orbiting satellites.”
“I see,” Warfield said, sounding disappointed.
“While I haven’t specifically pin-pointed its location, I was simultaneously running scans on the return signal from the satellites.”
“Where the signal goes through a ground station, a gateway,” Warfield added.
“Exactly,” an enthusiastic Asimov said. “Even though this brigand piggybacked on registered signals, I was able or isolate his signal. “
The machine paused, a showman letting the suspense build Duling noted.
“I can say this, I am eighty per…no, eighty-six percent certain the point of origin is within a twenty mile radius of this area I’ve proscribed.” The monitor came back on and Warfield and Duling viewed a map in the Palmdale, located in the northern end of the county in the Antelope Valley. There were a lot of homes and businesses in the circle Asimov had drawn..
“How do we narrow down the search?” Duling wondered aloud. “And he could have been calling from a van rigged with the equipment. He might be anywhere.”
“It’s my opinion this would have to be a stationary location” Asimov said.
“You say that why, Asimov?” Warfield asked.
“A device that beams its command, if you will, via non-hardwired means would have to be a powerful signal, accounting for a certain amount of loss in transmission. Particularly as he’s not going the direct route so as to hide his identity.”
“Okay, we still need to find him.” Duling was peeved to be counter posed by the computer and wanted to put him on the defensive.
“Even as we speak, I’m searching through tax records and deeds in an effort to find a key name or names that mean something to you, Luke.”
Great, Duling lamented, the goddamn overmind sucks up to the boss. “But our guy could be using one or more false front to obscure his trail,” Duling observed.
“That is so, Critch,” Asimov conceded.
Warfield asked the computer, “Give me a list of properties that are not currently occupied, keeping in mind your point about the stationary nature of the machinery at play and the square footage it might need.”
“Very good, Luke.”
“Also,” Warfield said, “Look for Buddhist and/or Hindu names or associations with such of existing businesses and even ones that have gone out of business, back say three years ago.”
Duling glanced questioningly at Warfield.
“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” the adventurer-billionaire said, a faraway stare on his face.
Raised deep amid the cracked concrete and weathered palms of South Central L.A., weaned on the images of Kirby and Steranko in comic books, and Hammett and Himes in prose, Gary Phillips also draws on his experiences – ranging from being a community organizer, teaching incarcerated youth, to delivering dog cages – in writing his tales of chicanery and malfeasance. His latest work includes the graphic novel Big Water, co-editor of Black Pulp, and the novella, The Essex Man: 10 seconds to Death.