The white van drew up just before Sable got to the taxi rank, and someone leapt out, asking, miss, miss, can you help? Ever the intrepid girl reporter, Sable clicked into journalism mode instantly. A story! Something to salvage from an otherwise wasted day. Emergency childbirth, perhaps.
"What is it?" said Sable.
The response was a blow to the stomach which doubled her up, and moments later the van was on its way with Sable in the back, handcuffed already. Not gagged, but still breathless from the blow, and in no state to cry out.
At first she thought it was one of these youth gang girlnappings that you read about, six guys in the back of a van with no way for outsiders to look in, the stereo cranked up louder than the screams, the pliers and wire cutters coming in to play when more innocent forms of amusement were done with.
Then a middle-aged man in a dark suit lent over her, hunched awkwardly because there was no room to stand up properly, and asked her a question which helped put her in the picture.
"So," said the man, the Abductor in Chief, "did Gillian confess to Ibrahim's corpse habits?"
That was when Sable realized she had been suckered, well and truly. She was a Conflux girl, born and bred, and your Conflux girl, well, she's not hard, that's the image, but the image exaggerates. Not hard, no. But street smart. She is street smart.
Sable wasn't the kind of idiot who would toddle off to a strange address on the basis of a murky phone call from a guy she didn't know. Not at all. Rather, before getting on the ferry to Zisperhaven, Sable had checked out this Gillian Chess but good, even making a call to a cop she knew who was able to do checks on the police computer system that intrepid girl reporters were not supposed to have access to.
Gillian Chess had checked out clean, a harmless old relict running a small business on Zisperhaven, basically renting out furniture, that wasn't the sort of thing that made you think red light girl capture, abduction rape, slave traders shipping innocent girls off to foreign shores, or any of that other stuff from the censored domain.
But Gillian had just been bait.
Sable had been suckered, big time. If she vanished, and anyone asked her useless boss where she had got to, then Watford Lammerton would place her at Gillian's house, and the trail would end there. If the police entered Sable's apartment, looking for clues, they would find a fine-detail map with Gillian's house circled by a yellow highlighter, a map Sable had forgotten to bring with her. If they checked her cellphone records, they would find that her last call was to Gillian's phone number, Sable's cautious "Let's make sure of this" phone call.
Nothing to say "I'm going to do something stupid and get myself kidnapped into a big white van by total strangers."
Plainly, she had been set up, snatched for her blonde good looks, and now what was going to happen to her? Was she going to end up as a girl pet kept in a cage in one of those Jumbletown penthouses that girls were said to enter in handcuffs and leave in multiple garbage bags? Or was it even worse than that? Was she going to be sold off for involuntary organ donations? Or shipped off to Imperial Yam where they were running out of virgins to sacrifice on those stone pyramids of theirs, mainly because they were trying to up the number of human sacrifices to cater to the growing tourist trade.
"I'm not a virgin," said Sable.
"That's okay," said the Abductor in Chief. "I'm not fussy."
Then he laughed. It was a joke, apparently. Discovering that someone has a sense of humor is supposed to be a good thing, but in this case Sable didn't think it was.
"Are you going to rape me?" she said.
Not a question she wanted to ask, but not knowing was even worse than being told, yes, right now, and three times before I'm finished, oh, and, by the way, have you ever had anyone show you the dental floss trick?
Sable had never been raped, unless you counted that business with her father, and that was ambiguous, and, anyway, he had been drunk at the time, and it had only been three times, so could you really hold him responsible, could you really call it rape?
"I'm not going to rape you," said the Abductor in Chief. "Ibrahim is going to rape you."
"Ibrahim?" said Sable.
"Ibrahim Chess," said the Abductor in Chief. "The mastermind who's in charge of this terrorist organization you're part of."
"You're not going to try to deny it, are you?"
"Oh, no," said Sable, hastily, thinking that if she tried to deny anything he might go to work on her with a screwdriver. "I admit everything. I'm a terrorist, yes, uh ... Egon, I guess ... you saw it on the news, right? Glorsting. The Tespetty attack, too. I gave the Tespetty guy his goodbye kiss before we sent him on his way."
"Did you have sex with him, too?"
"Yes," said Sable. "Repeatedly, over a period of two weeks. He was going to die, you see. But I don't know where, it was at an undisclosed location, they blindfolded me. I'm just the blonde, you see. They're guys, you know, they like my boobies, but I'm not entitled to have a mind. It's a sexist setup, the masterminds are always men."
"And Ibrahim is the mastermind?"
"You're asking the wrong person," said Sable. "I'm a blonde. Maybe you should try to catch yourself a brunette. Ask her."
"Don't try to play the dumb blonde with me," said the Abductor in Chief. "I've seen your IQ scores."
That might be true. But Sable knew, nevertheless, that she had succeeded in selling him on the dumb blonde idea. Watford Lammerton had also seen her IQ scores, and made no secret of the fact that he thought she was the dumbest blonde that ever managed to crawl out of bed and make it as far as the cornflakes waiting on the breakfast table.
Sable knew how it was with men. That book that Monica had lent her, More Stupid Than You Thought, had been a real eye opener, and she had read that when she was sixteen. It had taught her what to expect. Since then, she had learnt from experience, lots of it. Yeah, she had men nailed down.
Men, they saw that she was blonde, and they noticed, right off, that she had big boobies. That fact was unmistakable because they usually kept looking in the same direction again and again, as if they needed to check. Then animal imagination took over to the point where the guy's mind was dominated by conjectural images of her balabalooza, and, after that, the guy's mental function more or less collapsed. Which was pretty pathetic, when you thought about it, but, hey, we're talking about seriously primitive creatures here, creatures which are designed to live in caves and go out on occasion to hit something over the head with a stone club.
Disabled by her blondness, all the average man could see of her was that blondness, and the vapid stupidity, the unmatchable blonde dumbness, which was presumed to be its inevitable collateral.
"Dumbness be my friend," thought Sable to herself.
This abductor guy, she would confess to whatever he wanted her to confess to, terror, glorsting conspiracies, astral anarchy, sex, torture, tax evasion, lewd videos, drugs, bank robbery, you name it, but she'd demonstrate that she was too washed-out stupid to provide details, brain dead from too much alcohol, too many drugs, too many bionic penetrations. She would make them realize that, shoveling the soil onto the coffin of her cognitive aspirations, there was always that ineffable blondness, the blondness which dominated her life, which defined her as the cuddly blow-up doll, the mannequin with real sweat pores.
She would confess everything but, at the same time, she would know nothing. And, because she was a blonde, they would not really expect her to.
"Your mission," said the Abductor in Chief, "is to go to Ibrahim Chess and get him to rape you. No condom, we need to have this case ready for court, if it gets that far."
The mention of "court" was, in context, so anomalous that journalistic instincts kicked in, and Sable could not help but ask a question.
"Court?" said Sable. "What are you talking about? You can't kidnap a girl off the streets then, you know, have her do the witness thing in court."
"You know who I am," said the Abductor in Chief. "And you know what I can do."
"Excuse me," said Sable, "but I don't think I know you at all."
"You do," said the Abductor in Chief. "You've seen me in your own newspaper, the one you siubscribe to, Conflux Tempo. You've seen me in the Sunday comic strips. Oh, and on that cable TV movie you were watching last night, Dolls With Missing Limbs. I am Lord Scream Box."
Lord Scream Box. An imaginary person who worked in a place which did not exist, Scream Box, the skyscraper of lisping shadows, the Tower of Clotting Blood. Lord Scream Box was coercion personified, the sanction of force which underwrites political debate, the man who knows what really happens in those cases where criminal defendants mysteriously die in custody or simply vanish.
And he was the creature of the state, therefore, in the face of his threat, there was no place to which you could appeal. You could denounce him and accuse him, okay, that was possible -- but what was the point of denouncing and accusing someone who was known to be a cartoon character?
"Who do you work for?" said Sable. "Really?"
"I," said the Abductor in Chief, "work for Ideation Control."
"Ah," said Sable.
Ideation Control, the outfit which, officially, took care of censoring high school history books and monitoring pornography imports at the airport. Other functions were alleged, but nothing was ever officially conceded, and it was a subject which, you knew automatically, it would have been unpatriotic to enquire into too closely.
Sable had once visited Ideation Control's official premises, which were part of the Tespetty complex, and remembered a stunningly boring place where you could get free government pamphlets on how to self-censor your mind and how to wash your stinky body without overly depleting the city's precious water supply. No sign of Scream Box there. But it did exist, somewhere in Omblock, she was sure.
"Are you Beria Dag?" said Sable.
It was a stab in the dark, but this guy was wearing really expensive cuff links, so it was not unreasonable to guess that perhaps he might be a big boss type. As for the name, that had turned up in an article entitled Overpaid and Underworked, all about high-level bureaucrats whose duties did not seem to justify the top-drawer salaries they were paid.
"I am," said Beria.
Who, Sable guessed, was not underworked at all. He was maligned.
Beria Dag, chief of Ideation Control. Time to give credence to the extravagances of rumor, Sable, girl. Yes, Ideation Control was what it was conjectured to be. The secret police. The Thought Police. The secret dominators who worked down in the substratum which underpinned the acknowledged structure of political reality.
"I am Ideation Control," said Beria. "And you are my instrument to destroy Ibrahim Chess. The evil Ibrahim Chess. Who will rape you."
"Uh ... Ibrahim's a good guy," said Sable.
Not that she wanted to get into an argument, not with this guy Beria, whose idea of a rhetorical flourish was probably to reach for a flamethrower, but he was asking her to nail the evil Ibrahim, and, as far as she could see, that was impossible. The evil Ibrahim didn't exist. There was only Ibrahim the Boring, the infinitely tedious small businessman with his utterly boring boats.
"Let me show you something," said Beria.
The van bumped round a sharp corner and Beria almost lost his balance. Recovering himself, he lowered his body until his forehead was pressed tightly against Sable's. Sweaty, he was sweaty, dark suit must be too hot for him, this was a stinking hot day for a suit, and the sweat greasing against her skin was repulsive, and what kind of sex kink was this?
In answer, a succession of images lunged into her consciousness, teaching her, instructing her, forcing knowledge upon her. Education had never seemed so violent to her, not since she had finally escaped alive from five years of math class at the hands of Morkin Sped, with only one broken rib to show for it.
Now she knew. Now she understood. Ibrahim's mother had been lying, covering up for him. Ibrahim Chess was indeed the evil Ibrahim, guilty of disgusting crimes against the dead, defiled by blasphemous wickedness, polluted by the demented excesses which his self-serving greed had driven him to. A target fit and proper for destruction.
"Now you know," said Beria. "You have your mission. Now you understand. Now let me show you what will happen if you fail."
And, again, he inflicted visions upon her. He inflicted upon her full knowledge of just one of the secret rooms in Scream Box, Room Deep Serpent, the inspiration for which had come from out of history, from a time when the pleasure houses of Lubricados, the entertainment complex which had once stood where Big Fun stood today, had been places of imprisonment for pleasure slaves who had no option but to submit to the training which prepared them for their role. They had to submit not just to the whips and the brands but to the snakes which tutored them internally.
As Beria forced experience upon her, Sable saw the training in progress, all those hundreds of years ago, the black candles melting slowly, the Administrator of Strictures chanting in the background, and the snake, swollen, huge, distended beyond belief, disappearing slowly, slowly, the woman's face grotesque with sweat, saliva drooling past her gag, her body convulsed by an inner sensation which was closer to agony than to ecstasy.
Sable and Beria, their foreheads separated.
Beria knelt beside Sable, careless of the fact that he must be ruining the creases in his trousers. What would his wife say? Or maybe he didn't have a wife.
"In Room Deep Serpent," said Beria, caressing Sable's chin with his hand, knowing what he had inflicted upon her, knowing what she had been forced to learn, knowing what he had compelled her to endure, "the penetration knows no limits."
After that, for a while, Beria said nothing more. The van drove on, the driver occasionally leaning on the horn, something the average denizen of Zisperhaven would never have imagined doing. Then Beria began to recap Sable's mission, as if she hadn't heard it the first time, as if she were brain damaged. Maybe, by the time Beria had finished with them, people often were brain damaged.
"I think you understand," said Beria. "You will get this Ibrahim Chess to rape you. Or, failing that, get him to seduce you. Either way, it will come out as rape in court, if we need to go as far as court. It must be real. The DNA evidence must be there when the police gynecologist examines you."
She must report the rape at Hemlock Twelve, a police station at Ming Taxis. She must be sure to report it to Sergeant Waikato. Nobody else would do. Waikato, presumably, was a member of the Baton Force who had been suborned by Beria.
Three times, that's how often Beria got Sable to repeat the details of her mission. The timing? Tonight. The astrals were rising, and Beria needed to smash the conspiracy, and for this he needed the compliance of Ibrahim Chess, not a know-nothing blonde like Sable Tauranga.
When Beria was sure that Sable had all the details down pat, he pulled out a handgun, something weird about that gun but Beria moved too fast for Sable to focus on the details. Jabbed the gun hard up against her head then zapped her, her world flooding first with heat and then with blackness.