Look at this guy. Sitting as far back in the booth as possible. Glancing round nervously. So guilty-looking. Why in the world would he choose to meet here, where he stands out like a croc among cats? I stroll over and slide into the booth. He jumps. Amateur.
“Uh, I’m…I’ve a friend coming-” he begins.
For just a moment I consider feigning ignorance, messing with him. Good thing I’m a professional.
“First of all, Cavendish, I’m your associate, not your friend,” I tell him, smiling, looking casually around the club. “Secondly, your tail isn’t here so relax.”
He jumps in his seat again. This is going to test my patience.
“How-I mean…I don’t…” He doesn’t want to admit who he is, the trouble he’s in. Understandable. I motion for a waiter, order a glass of bourbon. I’m not going to drink it, but I have a part to play.
“My name is Arnie West, Mr Cavendish. I reached out to you about a particular topic, and you suggested we meet in person to discuss it. I made arrangements for your shadow to get distracted so nobody would know you’re here, talking to me,” I lean back, smiling, hoping he starts to relax a little.
“Ah. I suppose you’d know. How to do that. I’m sorry, this is all…I’m not accustomed to this,” he replied, calming a little.
Up on stage, the dancers were taking position. The lights were turned down, the band began to play, and catkin couples began to waltz, every step, every motion perfectly poised and inhumanly graceful. Every pair of eyes in the room was transfixed, including Cavendish. He watched, rapt, seemed to grow melancholy. I reached out a hand to tap his arm and he recoiled like he’d been burned. Now wasn’t that interesting.
“Not a fan of zookin?” I asked.
It wasn’t exactly uncommon among older generations, but I could hardly help how I’d been born, ya know? I wasn’t human, but human and zookin emotions are damn near analogous and revulsion at my touch stung my feelings.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered, “I…you startled me. I didn’t know, on the phone…” he trailed off, clearly unsure of how to proceed without making himself appear more prejudiced.
“Listen Cavendish, I’m pigkin. Get over it. It doesn’t get in the way of me being a damn good journo.”
Not strictly true. My bylines rarely include a picture. Even so.
He was growing more agitated. I didn’t want him to leave. His employers, a big pharma company called New Dawn, had something to do with a spate of ‘vanished’ zookin. I was sure of it. They also had suspected financial ties to a right wing group called Humanity Now, whose main concern was ensuring zookin weren’t recognized as fully sentient.
Nobody was talking, but I was certain. I’ve got a snout for sniffing out scandal, and a vested interest in anything related to zookin. Cavendish had responded to my request to do a ‘scientific profile’. Then cancelled. I’d assumed it was just another door being slammed shut, until I got a call from what had turned out to be an unregistered phone, probably a cheap burner. He wanted to speak to me in private, an issue of great delicacy and importance.
“I apologize. Yes, I assumed you were human. But I really don’t think you can help me so maybe I should just leave.” He was rising from the booth, froze in place, halfway to his feet.
“You said,” he whined, “you told me we were safe.”
My head whipped round to follow his gaze. And so I wasn’t blinded by blood and brain when his head popped. I was frozen in shock for the briefest instant, up and moving before the shocked yells and panicked screams of the other patrons began. I ran my hands down Cavendish’s body, snageed wallet, keys, phone. And a tiny memory stick.
Then I was running, away from the scowling gents headed towards me. I bounded up onto the stage, ignoring the outraged hissing of the catkin dancers, outrage that turned to fear when my blood-drenched arm registered. I headed backstage, dodged stagehands and various other grips and technicians. Out to the back alley. Hauled my blazer and shirt off, stuck them deep into a trash can. I dove into a dumpster, wriggled deep beneath the trash. Tried to ignore the way it made my mouth water. I could hear the goons stomping back and forth, tipping over trash cans and slamming dumpster lids. I squirmed deeper, held my breath. I swear, they stared into my dumpster for what felt like hours before letting the lid drop. No way was I chump enough to climb straight back out. I curled up, waited for my nerves to fade and sleep to claim me.
Next morning when I awoke, I don’t mind admitting I ate my fill of that trash; hey, everybody eats garbage for comfort. Pigkin and goatkin just take that more literally. I was filthy, which fortunately fit most people’s assumptions about pigkin. Barely anybody looked twice, and a lot of people made an effort to avert their gaze.
I got back to my apartment. Unsurprisingly, my roommate was sat hunched over some kind of joypad, playing some kind of game, likely had been all night.
“Ger, do me a favour and put some coffee on,” I said, not stopping for small talk, desperate for a shower.
When I came back out in my robe I would swear he hadn’t moved except there on the counter was a fresh pot of coffee. I poured, savouring the smell. Important matters to attend to but damn did I need this.
“Arn, you aren’t reverting are ya? You smelled like you slept in a dumpster.”
Ger sounded jovial, but years of friendship allowed me to interpret his genuine concern.
“As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what I did,” I told him, “hiding from a couple of you damn, dirty apes.”
Ger was a solid guy. Not bad as humans go. But he was part of a welcoming minority. Fortunately for us zookin the majority were accepting, not hostile. Hostile. I’ll admit, I hadn’t been prepared for the open hostility that soaked my sleeve in Cavendish last night. I couldn’t put off the business at hand any longer. I fired up my laptop and stuck the drive in the side. While I was waiting I idly flicked through the phone. No real leads there, just a generic cheap burner. The files on the drive were password protected. Fortunately for me, I had journalistic resources.
“Gerry! Get up, get over here, do your,” I waved thick fingers in a vaguely hocus pocus mime, “your thing.”
Heaving a long-suffering sigh, the ingrate, he bounced to his feet, wandered over and clicked on one of a dozen icons on the desktop. Windows opened and progress bars ticked by. “I told you, pork chop,” he said as he returned to his gaming, “I set up a bunch of automated stuff for you. Point and click.”
“Oh. Thanks.” I sipped coffee and flicked through newsfeeds while the laptop did whatever the hell it was doing to the file. I found a single article about an unspecified disturbance in an as-yet unnamed bar the previous night. Hell. Murder, open and public and bloody, should not be so easily suppressed. Fortunately I was a masochist, else I might’ve been nervous.
A status window finally popped up with an unlocked list of files with generic labels, just initials and dates. I opened one at random. Looked like it might have been account transfers, but I wasn’t an expert. I knew a guy at the Post who could help me decipher that. Move on…lab reports. Autopsies. Humans…some kind of viral infection. And at the bottom of the report, reference to another file. Which led me to wonder exactly what I was stumbling into.
I was getting nervous. This didn’t seem connected to zookin so far. What had Cavendish dumped in my lap? The new file. I started reading. Went stone cold. Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad about Cavendish biting it. The bastard had been part of a team working on a virus that affected zookin. A lethal virus. He’d been brought in to help figure out how to get it to cross from one species to another, catkin to pigkin to ratkin to sheepkin and on and on through the whole damn zoo.
Humanity First’s work, undoubtedly.
Further reading of memos and copied e-mails proved it. They were funding research into exterminating zookin. New Dawn had been collecting ‘volunteers’ from amongst the most disenfranchised zookin; maybe society accepted us by and large but they didn’t rush to help us flourish.
And then it all went horribly wrong. Those human autopsy reports. Technicians from New Dawn’s labs. They’d done sterling work in breaking the cross-species barrier and it had jumped to humans too…and that should have been an end to it.
But apparently Humanity First wanted what they’d paid for. Seemed like they wanted to go ahead and start infecting zookin anyway. Figures. As soon as a few filthy apes dropped dead, they could push their agenda against the zookin. Round us up, and wait for us to die.
Ah but Cavendish wasn’t down with that. A bigot? Sure. But dead zookin and dead humans were two very different things to him. The way I figured it, the guilt of all that human blood on his hands had led him to this. He planned to expose them. That’s why he reached out to me; I’m a successful, anonymous investigative journalist. Of course, he’d assumed successful meant human, because bigot. I wouldn’t be losing any sleep over dear, departed Cavendish.
My only real problem now was staying alive long enough to break the story. I had a feeling my anonymity would not last much longer. More importantly, my life might not last much longer. I needed the account stuff broken down, needed back ups, precautionary measures, the works. Mostly I needed time, although who knows how much of that was up for grabs.
“Gerry. Clear your calendar and pack a bag,” I said, “we’re vacationing as of right damn now.”