SCOPO-DERM, that’s what the sign said, and when he scanned the peeling lettering that hung in heat-wrinkled exhaustion from the clinic’s grimy windows, he found a few words of English scattered amongst the Spanish – eczema, wart removal, and acne.
Levo placed a coded dongle against the receiver on the doorframe and the lock opened with a magnetic clunk. He moved through an empty reception, turned, and pushed through the door on his right.
Fiorion smiled broadly when he saw Levo, and came across the brightly lit room to meet him, ‘Mr Duboisine, it is good to see you.’
‘Who’ve I got tonight?’ Levo asked, dropping himself into the infuser chair.
‘Does it matter?’ Fiorion said, busying himself with the chair’s inputs, ‘you always win.’
‘And why did we have to come to SA again, it’s such a shithole,’ he looked around the filthy, dilapidated surgery.
‘We come to the source; you know it’s been hard to get hold of good burundanga in the co-prosperity zone.’ Levo stopped complaining as the chair’s tiny needles punctured the skin of his back, releasing their potent payload. The last thing he heard was the door opening, and the chatter of indistinct voices.
He woke in an unfamiliar hotel room, he didn’t think it was the one he’d stayed in the night before, but with the drug’s amnesiac hangover he couldn’t be sure. Standing up, Levo walked to the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror. Dark welts covered his body, and his face was a swollen ruin.
‘Hello, handsome,’ he chuckled, then took a shower and got dressed. As soon as he was clean he made his way down to the street, where garish signs glowed in the twilight, proffering any number of quasi-legal enticements.
He walked aimlessly for a while until he came across a British-themed pub called The Unrepentant Poacher, and he ducked inside. The expected scents immediately assailed him, spilt intoxicants, and the funk of sweating hominids.
The bartender turned at the tap on his shoulder, and winced when he saw Levo’s battered face, ‘Damn, man, what happened to you?’ he asked in heavily accented English.
‘Never you mind,’ Levo tapped the side of his crooked nose, ‘I’ll have a beer, whatever you’ve got.’
There was the usual mix of tourists, dealers and lowlifes, and one beautiful, sultry Latina sat at a table on the edge of the dance floor. Squaring his shoulders, Levo walked over and stood a few metres away from her, not too close, but in a position where he could be seen. She continued to sip at her drink as she chatted with a friend, her eyes roving idly over the crowd. Her gaze fell on Levo, and the next word stopped half-formed on her lips.
He looked back at her for a moment, and then approached the table, ‘You seem lost for words, my dear, has something upset you?’
‘Sorry,’ she dropped her eyes, then looked up at him again, ‘what happened to you?’
‘I’m a fighter,’ Levo said, taking the empty seat.
‘That’s kind of vague, what sort of fighter?’ She stared at his face in morbid fascination.
‘Well, I used to do MMA.’
‘Used to?’ The woman squinted with suspicion, ‘So what do you do now?’
Levo leant forward conspiratorially, ‘I’m in the puppet leagues.’
‘I’ve heard of that, isn’t it terribly dangerous, and illegal?’
‘Yes,’ Levo nodded, ‘but it pays well. Sorry,’ he shook his head, ‘I’m Levo Duboisine, nice to meet you both.’
‘Tola, Tola Nagere,’ she offered him her hand and he shook it briefly, ‘and this is Laina,’ she indicated her friend, who rolled her eyes and remained silent.
‘A pleasure to meet you both.’
‘Why continue when you look like that after the fights?’ Tola asked.
‘Why do you think?’ Levo raised his left arm and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together.
Tola wrinkled her nose, ‘They’d have to pay me a hell of a lot to put up with a face like that, you must be in agony.’
‘No,’ Levo smiled and a drop of blood oozed from a crack in his lower lip, ‘I’ve got this condition, see, I don’t feel pain,’ he winked his less swollen eye at her.
‘What’s it called?’
‘It’s so rare it doesn’t even have a name, they just call it WKVS12-5.’
‘So who were you fighting last night? Who was controlling you?’ She asked.
‘I don’t know, I never do, the drug they use to put me under blanks my memory, it’s probably for the best, there’s a lot of heavy hitters involved so it’s safer for me if I can’t identify anyone.’
‘Doesn’t it scare you, putting yourself in someone else’s hands like that?’
‘No way, I can’t get hurt, and I haven’t lost a fight since I started.’
‘How do you know you haven’t lost a fight if you can’t remember them?’
‘Simple,’ Levo shrugged his powerful shoulders, ‘you only get paid if you win, and I always get paid.’
Tola’s face was bunched in thought, ‘They must record the fights, have you ever seen the videos?’
‘Are you not curious?’ she asked, astonished.
‘Of course I am, I’ve searched the web, can’t find anything, but then, I’m not too techy, I just fight, and spend my winnings, someone else deals with the digital stuff.’
‘So how come you’ve never asked for copies of your fights?’
‘I have, they get encrypted as they’re recorded, and only high rollers can afford the unscramble codes, even the management hasn’t seen them, I’m super-exclusive,’ he wiggled his eyebrows as best he could.
‘I know a really good IT guy,’ Tola offered, ‘if you can give me your information, and the dates of your fights, maybe I could get him to track down the vids for you.’
Levo grinned hideously, ‘So…that means we’d have to meet up again, right?’
Tola smiled, ‘Yes, it seems so.’
He accessed her field and sent his details to her, ‘Give me a buzz if you find the footage, heck, give me a buzz even if you don’t find the footage.’
She nodded, a sly smirk on her lips, ‘I might just do that.’
Levo glanced at Tola’s bored friend and decided not to outstay his welcome, ‘It’s been lovely talking to you, ladies, but I have to dash, I may not feel pain, but I do feel tired, goodnight.’
Three weeks passed and Levo heard nothing from her, but he was a couple of days away from a fight, and thoughts of Tola came less frequently as he focused on his training. He was admiring his bare torso in the mirror when his communicator warbled with an incoming call, ‘Hello?’
‘Levo, it’s Tola, I need to see you again, can you meet me in The Unrepentant Poacher at seven?’
‘Yes, of course, I have to admit, I didn’t think you were going to call, I…’ the line went dead.
Levo stood with his mouth open for a moment, but soon became distracted by his own reflection, ‘Even with a busted face,’ he said to himself with a wink ‘you’re still knocking ‘em dead.’ He left the gym and headed back to his room, his next fight was against another local guy, so Fiorion had extended his booking at the hotel.
As he dressed, he fingered the fading purple welts on his ribs and shoulders, wondering what kind of blow had caused the marks. Kicks maybe, he thought, holding one of the welts stretched taut across the wall of his abdomen, then the image of Tola’s curvy body entered his head and he forgot all about the welts. Slipping a short sleeve shirt onto his back he buttoned it as he stepped out into the hallway.
Even though Levo arrived a fashionable twenty minutes late, Tola was nowhere to be seen. He got himself a beer and sat at a table to wait. He was halfway though his second drink, and growing angrier by the moment, when Tola slipped into the seat opposite him and looked nervously over both shoulders. Levo smiled at her, ‘I’d just about given up on you, where have you…’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she whispered harshly, ‘we don’t have much time, either of us.’
He frowned in puzzlement at her skittish behaviour, ‘Did you manage to find any videos of me online?’ She nodded, not meeting his eyes as she slid a data chit across the table. ‘Great,’ he snatched it up and twiddled it between his fingers, ‘can’t wait to see me.’
‘Listen,’ Tola half shouted at him, ‘when my friend was poking around for them,’ she pointed at the chit, ‘he must have got made, a few minutes after he arrived a bunch of agency types came roaring into my street. I managed to slip out the back but I’m not sure what happened to my buddy,’ she was panting as she finished her explanation.
‘So, what was I…’
‘You have to go, now!’ she cut him off, ‘They’re probably on their way here as we speak,’ she stood and bustled round to his side of the table.
‘Who is?’ Levo demanded irritably as she tried to drag him to his feet.
‘I don’t know, but my guess is they’re from the puppet leagues, don’t go back to your hotel room, just get as far way from here as you can.’
‘But…’ Levo’s eyes were wide with confusion.
‘I’m sorry,’ Tola was walking backwards away from him, ‘I’m sorry,’ she said again, tears welling in her eyes as she turned on her heel and ran for the door.
For a good twenty seconds Levo stood blinking convulsively, thoughts racing through his mind, then he came back to himself and bolted for the door.
He zigzagged through the humid city streets, doubling back on himself, randomly changing directions and switching between trams, buses and subway trains as he fled from an enemy he’d yet to see.
Once he deemed that he was far enough away, and had lost any tails, Levo began to take stock of his surroundings. This part of the city looked virtually identical to where he’d just left, and he panicked for a second, thinking he was walking in circles, but he checked a map and was reassured to see that he was, more or less, headed south.
Levo jogged up the stone steps of the first hotel he came across, paid in cash, and took the elevator to the third floor. He found his room, barged inside and locked the door behind him. Pulling the data chit from his pocket, he inserted it into the viewer and sat on the end of the bed.
There were a number of files listed and he chose the one with the date of his last fight. The words BrassSlags.com scrolled across the screen, and then a form began to take shape out of the gloom; it looked like a person on all-fours.
As the image gradually brightened and focused, he realised that he was the figure on his knees. Leaning closer, Levo could see his wrists and ankles were bound in plastic cuffs that poked through a layer of rubberised matting. He tore his eyes from the screen and looked to his left wrist, studying the faint outline of bruising still visible there.
When he looked back, the camera had tracked from the profile of his restrained body to a close up on his face. There was a thin circlet of electrodes seated on his scalp like a crown, beneath which his mouth was slack, his eyes glazed and unfocused. Levo flinched as a hand came from out of shot to slap his cheek; this was followed by a round of laughter from the shadows beyond.
Switching angles to record the owners of the voices, the camera pulled back to a wider shot. They were six in total, all men, and all naked. Each had something grasped in one or both hands, and as they came closer, Levo realised that they held a combination of blunt instruments and sex aids.
He watched in astonishment as the closest man raised his arm and brought a short cosh down on the side of his neck. His body collapsed, the cuffs holding his wrists at a tortured angle as he sagged forward.
‘Straighten him up, Fiorion,’ a harsh, guttural voice commanded, and Levo’s slumped body pushed itself jerkily erect, like a camel getting halfway to its feet.
‘Good,’ an aging man with silvery hair said as he came to stand directly in front of Levo, another circled to Levo’s rear.
‘Hold him up this time,’ the man at the front shouted over his shoulder, ‘I don’t want him flopping around.’
The full realisation of what he was seeing dawned on Levo, but he couldn’t turn away as the men began to use him, their clubs and whips raining down as they shoved and grunted their pleasure.
He’d seen enough, and was about to turn off the viewer when a loud hammering came at his hotel door. Levo froze, his mind blank with fear. A short hush followed, and then the high-pitched whine of a drill ignited, rupturing the silence. He jumped as the drill-bit touched the lock, and the whine scaled into a metallic scream.