Viffy Sniff was in a bad mood in the morning, upset by the fact that Beria had returned home late, and making no effort to hide her displeasure. After investing more time than he could really spare in calming her down and soothing her feelings, Beria ended up arriving at work late. Inevitably, by the time he got in, all the cream donuts were gone from Room Clandestine, the very private cafeteria where you could blow the hinges off your diet without anyone ever finding out about it, and Cedric the Chef refused to let Beria have a lamington, saying that the lamingtons were reserved for the afternoon. Stingy bastard.
In a bad mood, Beria made his way to the Green Room, where he switched on his computer only to find that it had been invaded by the Head Eater virus. One of the side effects of the virus was that the computer kept sniggering at him, and Beria had to struggle to keep himself from smashing the machine dead. For some time now, he had been toying with the idea of manufacturing something the world really needed, the punchable computer, but ideation never got translated into action. Nature and nurture had combined to produce in Beria an enforcer, not an entrepreneur.
Beria phoned his tech guy, who promised to fix the virus problem, and said he could do it remotely, and Beria switched on the TV, which was tuned, as usual, to Conflux One, and sat drinking his way through a bottle of Ok Tedi Jellyfish Water, a hot new designer water containing not just dissolved gold and vitamin C but "patented health-zesting jellyfish extracts" -- a proud product of Ok Tedi Hydration Enterprises, a company headquartered on Glud Hurgus.
Watch TV and get paid for it. Nice work if you can get it, but Beria was aware of the astral conspiracy ticking away in the background. He phoned the guy who was monitoring, in real time, the bugs which had been planted in Topaz's apartment, only to be told that Topaz Atatangle had not yet returned home. Beria realized they should have had Jellyfish Boy implanted with one of those experimental microchip radio beacons, but it was too late for that now.
Shouldn't have taken the kid this long to get home from Xgadriver, should it? Phone a cab, give them an IOU -- kid was smart enough to figure out that one, surely. Or was he? Sometimes it was a mistake to underestimate the innate stupidity of human beings.
As Beria brooded, Conflux One was busy interviewing Isabella Nightingale, the woman who was the head of the Garden of Innocent Smiles, the place where Egon had done his glorst. Isabella was introduced as a scion of the cultured pearl Nightingales, yes, that's who she was, heiress to wealth, and you were all interested in hearing that, weren't you, now?
But Isabella was not on TV because she had the makings of an Omblock celebrity. No, she was there to say that her staff had three times sighted a horrible red thing, a mist of blood or some kind of red aerosol which looked like blood, an apparition which had been making incoherent chirping sounds -- "like a parrot being strangled" was how one staffer had put it.
They believed the red thing was, in all probability, Egon's glorst, and they had rung the emergency services and had reported it, but nobody had come to do anything about it, and a glorst was not the kind of thing that should be hanging around, not ever, and especially not now, while counselors were busy doing what they could to ease the trauma of staff, parents and little children.
Then Isabella started slagging off at Olive Valise, someone she admitted to hating, a "do-nothing bureaucrat who rides around in polished limos", according to Isabella, who had probably ridden around in more than her fair share of polished limos herself, spoilt whining bitch, and Isabella was just getting into the swing of her "what do we pay taxes for?" speech when she was gone, elbowed out of reality, displaced by breaking news, replaced by Esmeralda Arizona, who was broadcasting from the studio, and who was looking not quite her picture-perfect self. Who was looking a little flushed and breathless, like a woman who has just been chased naked out of the bathtub by a drunken gorilla.
"Breaking news," said Arizona. "Breaking news. An astral terrorist has killed a police officer at Tespetty. The unidentified astral has been shot dead after murdering a police officer. Police woman Erminoda Ying was attacked by the astral's paranormal powers and her head exploded. In response to this crisis the President is convening an emergency meeting at Hexagon."
Beria was sceptical of this report. To start with, if an emergency meeting had been convened then surely he would have been invited. At that point, his phone began to ring. Picking it up, he found that he was invited. But he begged off, pleading food poisoning.
"Ate at one of those grease bars," said Beria. "Cholesterol Heartbeats, that was the place. Big mistake. I've been running for the big white telephone ever since."
No way was he going to spend the rest of the day sitting in the Decision Chamber playing yet another endless game of pass the parcel. The TV was giving him more and more details of a suicide bomber attack on Tespetty itself, and plainly it was a day for action, urgent action, not a day for talk.
"Cancel everything," said Beria.
There was nobody to hear him say it since he was alone in the Green Room, but if they'd been making a movie of this -- and one day maybe they would make a movie, Beria Saves the World, that would be a good title -- then dramatic words would be called for at this point, and "Cancel everything" was the best Beria could come up with at short notice.
Bad thought: he'd have to resign before the movie got made. You couldn't be both a secret policeman and a celebrity on every magazine cover, not at one and the same time. A difficult choice, then, lay ahead. In the future.
If Beria's movie was to be limited to what was officially acknowledged about his function, then it would have to be called "Beria the Boring". He would come across as a stupendously dull person who, through years of diligent seat-warming, had been privileged to gain caviar access at mix-and-mingle parties at Hexagon. And that was not how he wanted to be remembered. He, unlike the guys at Maternity Services or Hygiene Omblock, he was doing something heroic. Fighting evil by putting it between a rock and a hard place and then tearing its legs off. And he wished he could acknowledge that openly and have the big wide world share the movie of his life, the true and real movie of Beria the World Savior. A kind of messiah, really, that's what Beria was.
"Focus on the blood pressure," said Beria to himself.
It was the hint given right at the start of the Torturer's Handbook. A reminder not to lose track of the key point.
As a first move, Beria phoned Commander Rage, the head of the Conflux Constabulary, to get the lowdown on what had happened at Tespetty. You can't trust the media reports. The media tends to mess up, get things wrong. You can't take action on the basis of a news flash you saw on TV, which might be more fiction than fact, like that famous report about how, in far off Denebian Kalis, they were going to dig the body of Dictator Ping out of his mausoleum and auction it off for charity, a news story everyone believed at the time but which turned out to be a total fabrication.
Because Beria was highly placed in the system, he was able to get the full story, rather than relying on the disastrously erroneous version broadcast by the media.
What happened was this:
Two police officers, a man by the name of Monk Tide and a woman called Erminoda Ying, were on duty at a security barricade set up to control access to the Tespetty campus. An astral came charging toward them shouting "Glorst for glory!" Valorously, Monk drew his sidearm and confronted the suicide bomber. The terrorist held out his hand and a "weird yellow light" darted out from the hand and spiked Monk in the chest, apparently inducing a massive heart attack.
Felled by the astral's paranormal power, Monk collapsed, dead or dying, his firearm spilling loose. Erminoda bravely snatched up the gun and wasted the astral, wasted him but good, pumped him full of lead then took Monk's speedloader, reloaded, and, wisely, made sure of her victim. While she was thus engaged, the astral's familiar came lunging for her in attack mode, so she shot that, too.
Erminoda was now holding out her hand for the twenty thousand dollar terrorist interception bonus which had been promised to all cops, and she was going to get it. She was also going to get a medal.
"ID," said Beria. "Who was the terrorist?"
"We zero out," said Commander Rage. "No ID, no nothing. Face is messed up, can be reconstructed but that's going to take time."
"Yeah, corpse had hands, hence fingerprints, but not in our records. We've already run them. Zero. Zilch."
"And," said Beria, "just to get this straight, whose head exploded?"
"Nobody's," said Commander Rage. "That's the media through and through, sounds like gospel but half the time it's fabricated nonsense, don't know what they're using to spike up their beer."
Telephone call done, Beria sat contemplating what had happened. The surface of his desk was feeling funny. Why? Because sweat was oozing from his fingertips. He was that stressed.
"Worst nightmare," muttered Beria. "Worst nightmare in the world."
The astral conspiracy had entered a new phase. They weren't just targeting civilians any more, no, they were going after the government. They had suicide bombers ready to die, and who was to tell how many they had? Found someone whose fingerprints weren't on file, too, must have anticipated that anyone who took on Tespetty might get shot dead before managing to glorst.
"And those idiots at Hexagon," said Beria, "they're just going to spend the rest of the day sitting around chatting about this."
How many terrorists? No way to tell. But many rather than few. Yes, the astral conspiracy was slurching up out of the swamp, and the further it slurched the more ominous it looked, with more and more players coming into view. Egon Turow, who had glorsted. The Parkes Pilkem fizz boat decoy who had pretended to be Egon. Ibrahim Chess, either the controlling mastermind or the contact between the mastermind and the suicide bombers. And now this new guy coming out of the woodwork.
Beria did not like the feeling he was having, which was that everything was sliding out of control, gathering momentum, picking up pace. He wanted his life to be founded on solid rock, not on a mudslide in the process of cascading into a quicksand bog. He would have to do something fast. Forget caution. Go for it. Now.
He had activated agent Tango Alpha, otherwise known as Jellyfish Boy, but Topaz, whose task was to mole his way into the heart of the conspiracy, could not be expected to deliver results any time soon. No. A delicate infiltration job, which might take days, weeks, was not what Beria needed now. He needed immediate results. Pressure on Ibrahim. Sit him down in a chair, Old Faithful, the wooden chair which Beria had inherited from his grandfather and had put to such good use, and say to him, hey, Mr. Chess, do you still feel so clever, sitting there with your hands nailed to the arms of the chair?
And give him a choice.
Confess, Chess, and reveal the web of the astral conspiracy, or face public trial, public disgrace, and go to jail for twenty years, thirty, maybe, branded forever as a brutal girl rapist.
For a rape charge, you'd need a girl, and for the charge to stick -- this "he said she said" business isn't going to be good enough -- you're going to need a proper medical examination with swabs of stuff that check out, DNA-wise, as being sourced from Ibrahim Chess. Well, Ibrahim had the sperm, presumably, and Beria most certainly had the girl. Oh yes, Beria knew exactly what he was going to do to Ibrahim, and Sable Tauranga was going to be his tool for doing it.
Meantime, on Conflux One, they were screening video of a reenactment. Quick work! And the reenactment got it right. Showed the astral, demented with suicide bomber rage, screaming "Glorst for glory!" as he charged the security barricade. The special effects wizards had even plugged in the bolt of deadly yellow light forking from the astral's hand as he, the murderer, the cop killer, took the life of Monk Tide, a cop for twenty years, the owner of two dogs, the father of nineteen kids, and coach of his local baseball team.
On the entire planet of Lox Oxberg, baseball was played in only one country: Oolong Morblock. Baseball, otherwise known as tripod challenge, and seen by some as being an embodiment of the hallowed Great Tripod, was one of the three sacred games which the sage Quartermain had retrieved from Metasplite, otherwise known as the Debris Zone, the mystical kingdom of living thoughts left over from the Big Bang, the event, an estimated twenty thousand years back in history, in which Singularity Nine had explosively unpacked itself, thus bringing into existence Known Reality -- stars, galaxies, planets, bugs, jellyfish, astral realms and all, everything from fern leaves to the fossil record, all created in one big explataclysm, "eggs smashed into opera and stones invoked to fire", to quote one of the poets.
Given that baseball was one of the three sacred games -- the others being boules and lacrosse -- there was an aura of saintliness to the life of the late Monk Tide. Not just a good cop but, more importantly, a good man. A man brutally murdered by an astral's paranormal powers.
"A good man," said Beria, sparing a moment to mourn the passing of Monk Tide.
Yes, a good man, he was sure of it. Someone you could have trusted to do what he was told and, obediently, to pull out all the teeth, not just half of them.
Very shortly, Beria was on the phone to Sable Tauranga.
"Sable Tauranga? Okay ... you don't know me, but I'm a friend of Gillian Chess, that's the mother of Ibrahim Chess, I believe you're acquainted with Ibrahim, and Gillian has asked me to pass on a very important message."
The attempted glorst at Tespetty had inspired Beria to action. He was going to move against Ibrahim Chess, very shortly, and Sable was going to be his instrument for doing so.