My plan was to take our hero, Jake Moonrath, as far as the Central Authority Buildings in Harlem, New York City, and to introduce the remaining “Informal” agent who will accompany and protect Jake on the next stage of his journey. That agent will surprise you.
So, read on. In episode 38, Jake arrives for the first time in his life in New York City and makes his way to the Central Authority Buildings in Harlem – where mass production of Biotime was introduced in the US – close to Marcus Garvey Park. He at once observes that Harlem is fabulously opulent – far more so than Santa Monica – and that people behave very differently.
This is Harlem. But not as we know it.
‘If you think shit happens, park here’
Security notice, Central Authority Buildings, Harlem
Jake took a horse-drawn cab for the last part of the journey. It was his first visit to New York; he’d never seen a horse before; and he didn’t need ID to climb aboard.
He scanned the street for any threat. Where once he might have admired the luxury goods stores jostling for space between up-market bars and pool halls, now he saw only faces turned towards him. Were they watching?
He clutched his bracelet, where the pulse tracker glowed red. No-one had tried to contact him in his guise as venture capitalist Dr Andrew Brown. How could they, when no-one knew he existed? But then how could they have identified the ten Informals who had died at the instant the Hughes Procreation Center was destroyed? He sat back in the cracked leather seat and tried to make himself inconspicuous.
He’d never seen anything like Harlem. The city fabric seemed fabulously opulent. The sidewalks were filled with groups of smartly dressed men, many of them standing right next to each other, drinking or even smoking. Their behaviour defied all logic. He watched a young man stagger, then fall against his neighbour outside a showroom packed with gleaming Chinese-built limousines. The second man took a step back and began to yell.
‘You could have injured me, man! I’m gonna sue your ass.’
The first man was having difficulty remaining upright, but he managed to shout something back. Jake heard the words “negligence”, “litigation” and “motherfucker”. A crowd began to form.
Jake’s bracelet signalled an incoming call.
He stared at his wrist. Had they found him? Caller identity showed a blank. Was someone closing in? Keep calm, Devonte Ray had said. Settle down. Get a grip. Keep a cool head. Don’t panic. Sure. Suddenly Dev’s idea of a partner seemed attractive. But when would he arrive?
‘You wanna mute that, honey?’ The postilion was a wizened woman in a black waistcoat. She was sitting on the roof of the cab smoking something as the horse, evidently under some form of remote control, plodded along the street. ‘Or answer it. Or something.’
‘Sure.’ Jake killed the ring-tone and covered the red light on his bracelet with his hand, as if that might somehow hide him.
On the sidewalk, the argument had escalated. One of the young men was repeatedly pushing the other with the flat of his hand. Jake watched as the taller of the two tripped and nearly fell. Even a minor concussion could affect life expectancy, reducing the value of the man’s ‘Time by millions of dollars.
‘What’s wrong with them?’ Jake asked.
‘Don’t you have alcohol in California?’ The driver’s smile displayed strong white teeth. Behind the adversaries, two police officers had appeared with fat rolls of adhesive-backed foam. They began winding it around both men, restraining them to prevent accidental injury.
‘Don’t they care about damaging each other?’
The driver took a drag on her roll-up. ‘The fighting ain’t real, honey. Those kids ain’t got a lot of time left to hang loose. So they pretend to fight, to show it’s still their own life they’re playing with, tho’ of course it ain’t, seeing as how they’re all on contracts. Any serious damage, claims’ll be filed. Lotta money stashed away in some of those kids, high value merchandise, yes man, heading for broke at the CAB. So most guys fighting, they fight damn careful.’
‘But what if someone was injured? Or killed?’
‘Killed? Sure. We did have a killing here in Harlem a few years back, it was in the Chronicle. Young kid did it. What you never read about, but everyone here in Harlem knows, is that the Central Authority sent some real dark-suited men into town that same day, and they took that boy away. Disappeared, man. His mom went to see the cops, but they said it was more than their lives were worth to get involved. Literally. Just 18, the boy was. Lost and gone away. Ain’t no-one killing in Harlem no more, sir.’ The woman lapsed into silence, becoming animated only to raise a hand from time to time as other cabs trundled by.
Legends about the omnipotence of the Central Authority had been common in the early days of the agency. But it was true that the legalisation of Biotime had led to a massive fall in violent crime. Jake peered around. Right now, the idea of black-suited snatch-squads operating out of the CAB seemed almost welcome. Perhaps they might deter whoever was chasing him. Was that woman in the halter neck and camouflage pants keeping pace with the cab? She had beautiful bare brown shoulders. Or how about the guy with the dark glasses? Surely no-one could have tracked him down so quickly. In any case, he couldn’t ditch Dr Andrew Brown yet: he needed the thrusting young entrepreneur to access the CAB.
‘Can you go any faster?’ he asked the driver.
‘No need, my friend. We’re already there.’
Jake looked around. Trees, lawns, the usual slew of ancient New York buildings. A street sign said they were in Marcus Garvey Park.
‘Is this it?’
‘This is it.’
‘How much do I owe you?’
‘Nothing. Transport to the Central Authority Buildings is always free of charge.’
‘So where’s the CAB?’
‘Right in front of you, honey.’
Jake looked again. Then he saw it. One of the most famous structures in the United States, and one of the most self-effacing.
The Central Authority Buildings were a monument to the care with which the CA had set out to capture the hearts, minds and, ultimately, lives of the people of Harlem. The CAB also bore witness to the attention lavished on public relations in the Central Authority Constitution. The master-stroke which led the architects to sink the forty contribution rooms into a shaft, burying them outside the consciousness of would-be donors, was dictated by the constitutional requirement that contribution centers should not have a character likely to dominate local communities.
No wonder, Jake thought, he hadn’t spotted the CAB at first. The five above-ground floors, crowned by a slender office tower modelled on the Flatiron Building, gave no hint of the scale of the operation within. Rather, a variety of vernacular styles gave the impression of a period terrace, preserved from a long-forgotten era of architectural decency and truthfulness. The hidden entrances to the contribution rooms, screened by beds of trees and scrubs, were designed to reduce the likelihood of potential donors being deterred by any sensation of “crossing the threshold”. They also ensured that those who did not wish to publicise the start of their contribution could gain admittance discreetly.
Jake headed for the entrance to the office complex. The three-storey portico was crowned by the Central Authority coat of arms, picked out in red neon. Beneath it was the month’s corporate slogan: “CA: Trust US with Your Lives!” Above, the walls bristled with surveillance cams.
He watched the cab meander off towards Central Park. Then he turned towards the building. Could anyone be waiting for him? The crowds around the entrance looked no more threatening than any other random group of New Yorkers. His fingers ached for his Big Fright, left at the hotel in anticipation of the rigorous security at the CAB. Surely no-one would attack him in such a public place? He shook his head. It was impossible to second-guess an enemy capable of annihilating ten thousand lives. He ignored the vibration of his bracelet, announcing another call, and stepped inside the Central Authority Buildings. It was time to take the fight to that enemy.
[Excerpt ends][Next excerpt]
I hope you’ve enjoyed this excerpt from my novel “Biotime”. If you’re interested in hearing about further episodes, follow this blog by e-mail (top right, “click here”); or follow me on Twitter @RobertPimm (left hand side). I can promise you a fun ride.
If you’d like to read some complete fiction by me, see what you think of my “wonderful, feminist and dark” Hotel Stories.