Zero Hour: Eight – Spasmolytic

Troubleshooter
Zero Hour
by Andrea Speed

Eight – Spasmolytic

Was there anything more fun than spending an evening in a Tim Horton’s with a slightly stoned stripper? If there was, she didn’t want to know about it.

Seriously, she didn’t.

6.jpgCoffee just made a drunk person more alert, contrary to mythology – it didn’t sober them up. So she didn’t expect good things from combining a moccahino with whatever pills Jody/Kristal was currently on. She sat across the small plastic table from her, so Shan was closest, although out of the direct line of fire in case she projectile vomited.

Jody was loopy and just barely conscious half the time, but this made her far more malleable. She easily agreed to what they wanted her to do, even though they had to tell her several times. It was easy enough – she would show Romano she was interested in a “date” outside work, but she had to clear it with her “manager” first. She’d arrange for Romano to meet with her and her “manager”, which Romano would stupidly agree to because he wanted to fuck Jody so bad. Of course, Jody didn’t have a “manager”, not like that at any rate, but that was where their scheme came in. All Jody had to do was pretend she knew him.

They got Jody a cab to take her home, because she was a fucking mess. (There was no projectile vomiting, but the coffee sure didn’t make her more alert either.) As soon as that was done, they started back towards the hotel, but took a detour into a grocery store, as she needed to pick up some Excedrin – this whole thing had given her a headache – and Shan wanted a Red Bull.

“So who’s the manager?” Shan wondered, perusing the cold case of “energy drinks”. There were more than seemed necessary or sane, in brightly colored, oversized cans that could have been gas canisters with a sense of style. “Is it me?”

“No.” She picked up one can decorated in black, red, silver, and orange, and read the ingredients list, which was surprisingly large. She expected to see cocaine on the list, somewhere between the corn syrup and the caffeine.

That seemed to flummox him. “You?”

“No. Someone on Interpol’s most wanted list. And the FBI’s and the SSIMI’s.” It seemed to be a strange place to be having this conversation, in a florescently lit, spotlessly clean grocery store, where workers in dark red aprons prowled the aisle, and soft music played overhead. For some reason, right now it was the “Chariots of Fire” theme. Did they really think that would sell food, or keep people in the store longer? Hell no. What they needed to do was play something funky, something happy and bouncy that would encourage people to buy overpriced bagels and other useless crap that they didn’t need. If they played George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, she wouldn’t want to run out of the store screaming. Or, what about a stab at local bands to personalize things? This was Canada, so why not play Skinny Puppy?

Shan stopped his energy drunk perusal to give her a startled rabbit glare. ”So we’re working with criminals now?”

She wanted to point out he already was working with a criminal, but didn’t. “No, just people who look like ‘em.”

He continued to stare at her, aghast and confused and perhaps slightly horrified, when she saw it happen. It was all in the pupil. At first, all she knew was there was something strange in his eyes, and it took her a second to realize it was the sudden dilation of his pupils, black spots suddenly swelling to the size of olives, swallowing the thin fringe of irises.

The can he was holding slipped out of his hand and bounced on the floor before rolling away, but she ignored it as Shan suddenly toppled backwards, and she had to catch him before he hit the ground. He was heavy, dead weight, and had momentum and surprise on his side, so the best she could do was slow his fall, crouching down as she continued to hold his shoulders up, and kept his head from hitting the floor. “You pick your times,” she told him, as his wide eyes stared blindly up at the ceiling.

They were alone in the aisle, so she was sure they were okay, except now around the corner came a young guy, stocky and swarthy, with short, bristly black hair and a wispy thin moustache that could have been pubic hair. He wore a red apron, and she guessed he was a stock boy. “What – is he okay?” he asked, looking like he was afraid to approach in case it was contagious. His fear made her briefly sad she didn’t pocket some red food coloring, so she could squirt it in her eyes and mouth and go screaming after him like she was in 28 Days Later. Did he think he had fucking ebola or something?

“Yeah, he’ll be okay in a minute. He just had a seizure.”

The boy – who, according to his plastic nametag was named “Omar” – mimicked Shan’s confused, befuddled look. “Uh … umm … a seizure? I thought they … umm … were different.”

“You mean flailing and writhing and swallowing their tongue? That’s a different kind of seizure. He basically just freezes for a few seconds.”

“Oh.” That one syllable seemed to convey how much he thought she was full of bullshit. Now she really did want to chase him through the aisles, damn the lack of food coloring. She bet she could knock him out with a well thrown can of Rock Star. She used to have a great proficiency with throwing knives; not that they actually bothered to teach her that, that was just a hobby. She once worked with a guy named Spencer who liked to bet her she couldn’t hit certain things with standard pub darts. She must have made at least fifty quid off him. She wondered if she still had the knack. “Should I … uh … call an ambulance?”

“No, he’ll come out of it in a second.”

Omar continued to give her a dubious look, and glanced over his shoulder, as if appealing to the display stand of Frito-Lay products for help. He may have been looking for a camera – they did these prank shows all over the fucking place now, didn’t they?

The worst part was she rather wished it had been a joke. He was getting worse. He used to freeze, but still keep standing. Now he was losing his balance, and starting to be “gone” for longer and longer periods. Maybe alcohol wasn’t responsible for his fit of narcolepsy; maybe it really was just him.

Finally, Omar said, with great hesitancy,” Umm … uh … you can’t loiter in the aisle. Store policy.”

She gave him a look that suggested a truly nasty epithet involving his mother and a horny elephant, and hoped he got it. Mainly he just looked frightened, like he thought she was a maniac, or terrified he just might get sued. Either was probably a fate worse than death for him. “I … uh …”

“What am I doing on the floor?” Shan asked, sitting up and looking around.

Omar actually jumped, brown eyes wide and hands fluttering, as if he’d just seen a corpse come back to life. What part of “seizure” did he not understand?

Shan glanced back at her, and just looked beaten, a broken man. “Not here.” It was a groan, a lament, almost a plea.

All she could do was shrug. “Sorry mate. It’s been a long night. Let’s just get you back to the hotel, yeah?”

He transitioned to his knees before trying to stand, using the lip of the open cooler to pull himself back to his feet. “Yeah,” he grumbled, his embarrassment transmuting into anger. That was typical too, and she couldn’t say she blamed him.

Omar just stared at them like they were a horrible car wreck, and while she was tempted to see if her throwing arm was still that good, she didn’t bother. Better just to get out of here and let Shan sulk in peace.

****

And sulk he did.

He went to his room and she didn’t see him or hear from him for the rest of the night, which was fine with her. As it was, she had to set up the meet with the man Stone would be sending around. They arranged a meet for tomorrow at the hotel, although she made sure he understood he had to arrive incognito. Sunglasses, hat, whole deal – he couldn’t look like himself. That was no problem.

She ordered something criminally overpriced from room service (no matter what they called it, it was still spaghetti, and it was too damn much), and watched some mostly bad television while eating, then glanced in on Romano for a while. He wasn’t back from his night on the town yet, his suite was still dark, and she noticed a man with coffee colored skin looking out the window of his room below, looking down at the streets as if searching for meaning, rubbing the back of his neck. She had decided that he was the Canadian intelligence tail on Romano, that they were probably listening into his suite via bugs, perhaps passive ones using the phone lines in the wall or a directional dish mike. Technically it wouldn’t be admissible in courts, but none of this was going into court. He couldn’t see into her room, but she imagined he knew she was there.

Romano and his bodyguards came back shortly before two in the morning, but she didn’t even seen Romano before Mongo drew the heavy curtains completely shut, blocking out her view. She could have gone to night vision, but she didn’t care that much. He didn’t go anywhere without his bodyguards – he was there.

She slept a bit uneasily, but the hotel bed was actually quite nice. Only the expensive hotels had the really nice beds. The cheap shit ones went with mattresses that made futons seem comfortable by comparison.

The morning was overcast and slightly gloomy, yet still warm, an odd mix for Toronto. Once she was up and in her anonymous clothes – complete with her damn blue sunglasses – she went down to Shan’s room and knocked on his door. She thought he might not be up yet, but he was, and once she told him what was going to be happening today, they went downstairs to have breakfast in the hotel café, which seemed like a normal thing to do. They seemed to have a tacit agreement: he didn’t ask probing questions about what the hell they were doing, and she didn’t mention his little incident at the store. Mainly they shared the newspaper as they ate.

Their appointment showed up seven minutes late. They were both in her room, waiting for him, and Shan was sitting on her bed, partially watching an old Simpsons episode. But he’d been strangely quiet and distant all day, and she knew he was depressed and glum over what happened last night. She had no means to comfort him, so she didn’t. The knock on the door was jarring in the frozen gloom of the room.

She glanced through the “spy hole” before unlocking the door and letting him in. He was wearing a Blue Jay’s baseball cap and cheap, dark sunglasses he probably bought at the same drugstore chain. He wore crisp black pants, extremely worn Addidas tennis shoes that were probably once white, and a slightly rumpled blue button down shirt beneath a brown canvas jacket. “Sorry I’m late,” he said as she shut the door. “I forgot how bad traffic could be. “

“It’s okay, but don’t let it happen again.” She threw the locks, just to stall anyone who wanted to shoot their way inside.

Shan introduced himself using his fake name, and the man, taking off his sunglasses and hat, said, “Pleased to meet you. I’m Anton Blunt. Mr. Frost did give you my credits, yes?”

Shan looked at her curiously, and mouthed “Mr. Frost?” as Anton looked around the room. “I’m not sure my agent added the fact that I played Othello at the Toronto Shakespeare festival last month …”

“We really don’t need your c.v., Mr. Blunt,” she told him, sure that couldn’t possibly be his actual name. She sat down in the room’s armchair, while Anton remained standing, nervous but trying not to show it. He was a reasonably tall man at six foot two, on the thin side, with skin the color of caramels and curly black hair he kept shorn close to his scalp. He was also reasonably attractive, with a round face that didn’t look soft, and intense black eyes that smoldered like embers. In spite of his name, he was clearly of Semitic heritage; he was probably pulled aside for “special searches” at every airport he’d ever ventured into. “What did Mr. Frost tell you about our production?”

“Well, that I’d be playing a manager for a stripper, arranging a date between her and some high powered businessman.” He wringed his hands together nervously. He had nice hands, long and slender, and she noted a wedding ring. He’d have to lose that for the “scene”. “I’ve never heard of HBO doing a reality series … well, beyond those “Real Sex” and “Taxicab Confessions” ones. This isn’t like that, is it? I mean, I’m not a snob, I’m not, but … you know. I don’t feel too good playing a prank on a complete stranger.”

“You won’t be the one playing the actual prank, if it makes you feel any better. Jody – known to us as Kristal – will actually be doing it.”

He nodded, his lingering anxiety showing in his body, in the slump of his shoulders and the twisting of his hands. “Uh, okay. It’s not … it’s not too humiliating, is it?”

“No, not at all. Actually, we got the blessing of his wife to do it.”

He nodded again, clearly trying to convince himself he should do this “role”, the smooth pimp, and play to hidden cameras, and a victim who didn’t know he was being set up for a joke on cable television. He was probably a decent actor, but he needed the money – what actor didn’t need the money? And Frost was probably dangling a goodly sum in front of him.

What this poor man didn’t know was the joke was actually on him. It actually surprised her that Frost didn’t have to leave Toronto to find a dead ringer – if you added a close cropped beard – for Ahmed Talil Al-Warabi, wanted by the Italians for an abortive airport bombing in 2001; wanted by the Americans for his connection to an embassy bombing in Africa; wanted by the British for immigration violations and as a suspect in a murder; wanted by the French for his connection to an opium smuggling ring; and even wanted by the Yemenis for the same opium problem. Al-Warabi was just a big taboo, a political hot potato that would burn anyone who touched him, and Romano was going to have a friendly chat with a man who looked just like him, even though he didn’t know it.

In a way, she almost felt sorry for Romano. He’d probably never know exactly what got him killed.

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