Ace of Hearts. A good card for someone, judging by the twitch Zal felt, rather than saw, to his right. He ignored the cards and scanned the room, marble pillars to the tromp l’oeil ceiling, something tacky with nymphs would probably be Mitsukoshi’s judgment, the man had been educated in Switzerland after all. Tacky, with nymphs, he re-impressed and took in the walls, creamy paneling, gilt edges, and slid his gaze back to the croupier, her breasts filling out the starched white shirt and black vest nicely, nymph, less tacky. He smiled at her, so that she’d smile back and he could impress that, too. Detail-oriented, that made the difference, that made repeat customers, even more than scratching the no-refunds policy the other Jackers all used, his failures few enough to shoulder part of the risk and treble the price.
“Mitsukoshi-san?” the croupier asked, she was of course part of the smoothness of the run, the entire casino staff treating him as if he was the department store tycoon whose memory this would be tomorrow. Even the valets had bowed the respectful Japanese bow instead of nodding to another random white guy cruising above his station in Monte Carlo. He realized the croupier was still waiting for his response, and smiled as if he’d been appreciating her body, fill that in later, tapped the table twice for another card.
Which was where it all went wrong.
Ten of Spades. Bust.
And when the pit boss materialized, a smiling shark over the croupier’s left shoulder even as she slipped away so fast he didn’t get her ass, he stayed calm. Sometimes clients got greedy, sometimes they wanted more for their memory, more danger, more excitement, more to tell the kids or the congregation. They waited at home, or hid out if they needed the memory to be current and believable to the people around them, they got bored and grandiose. Zal still had a missionary-sized hole somewhere in his brain, a televangelist who’d holed up in his mistress’s townhouse for six months but remembered passing out mosquito nets and Bibles in Cameroon, not quite a big enough deal and so the jackass had added revolutionaries, financing a fucking coup d’etat for a bigger story, a better memory, Testify, Brother!
His fellow Jackers still ragged him about that one. He didn’t tell them he’d also fucked every tribesman who would have him, it was a ritual homosexuality culture inside those tin shacks, remember that for the rest of your life, preacher. Guess you’re a catcher, after all. He'd taken notes on that one, all right. Never knew when you'd need those files full of blackmail, or protection, as Zal preferred to think of it.
Since then word had traveled. You want a good Memory Catcher, get Zal Innes. You want rich detail, high-level experiences, great stories for the grandkids or the private club while your insurance nods approvingly, Zal’s your man. You want to call all the shots yourself, surprise your Jacker, up the ante and pay the bill later, hire someone else.
Evidently, Mitsukoshi hadn’t heard.
Zal slowed his breathing, stayed aloof and slightly offended as the pit boss shut down the table and two visible escorts appeared. No doubt there were more, no doubt the eyes in the sky were pointed this way. Reacting as the client was the key—sometimes you could salvage rough edges, impress a new memory, blonde instead of brunette, shave off ten pounds, get it up for another round, but it still had to be rooted in truth, and the more adrenalin, the more vivid a situation became, the harder it was to paper over.
He allowed himself a moment of disbelief—he’d edit it out later—that with all the things one could hire a Jacker to create a memory of, all the adventures a rich man could afford to sit at home and still have in vivid, I-was-there detail, Mitsukoshi would pick high-stakes cards.
Zal couldn’t remember much himself, once a memory was jacked out, it was wiped, the techs had some explanation for why it could only exist in one brain at a time, but his notes said he'd bungee-jumped, sky-dived, swum in shark cages, surfed the Barrier Reef. He’d written his own private travel guides to red light districts in every Third World fiefdom big enough to have one, reminding himself to take due precautions (erased from the memory when jacked out, no-one wanted those details) to avoid returning with dysentery or the clap or all the horrible little diseases no-one had bothered to cure after hitting the big ones. He’d flown F50’s (tricky to do it the first time every time, but his hands remembered what his head didn’t, and he'd bought a military-grade simulator to brush up) and even killed a couple people who deserved it, his pro bono work for people who deserved revenge and couldn’t afford it. But cards? In the clean, well-lit splendor of Monte Carlo, black ties and long gowns, a principality so safe, the saying went, you could win a million Euros and walk back to your hotel with it?
It couldn’t be Mitsukoshi’s insurance company. The Big Six had all enforced the same rules—we made you healthy, stay that way. No dodgy travel. No high-risk activities. The richer you are, the tighter your prison, no-one wanted to pay out on a dead billionaire. At least it gave Zal and a handful of top Memory Catchers a job, whether they could remember it or not. Maybe Mitsukoshi’s wife wouldn’t let him gamble. Rumor had it most of the swag was hers, he’d taken her name, after all. Somewhere in Zal's head, the residue of a memory stirred, but he didn't chase it, this wasn't the time.
In the casino bank, the pit boss showed him to a plush-carpeted room without the pretense of a chair. The extraction bed looked like any other, a medical massage table out of place among the gilt.
Zal allowed his concern to rise a bit. “Shall we settle my account? A telephone, please?”
“I’m afraid you have mistaken—”
“Mr. Innes.” Which was when Zal realized that the pit boss sure as hell wasn’t a pit boss, and something here was a set-up and perhaps he should have scrapped the memory and run like hell and made it up on another job, let this one kick around in all that extra storage space with a couple of other failures that were at least a little bit of fun to remember.
The not-a-pit-boss studied him. “You’ve irritated some very powerful people, Mr. Innes.”
“Yeah, well, maybe those fuckers should keep their word. I keep mine.”
And then someone behind him jabbed him in the neck, and just before the room faded out he felt a cable behind his right ear, plugging into his jack.
There was sand in his underwear when he woke up. His suit was missing. He realized he hadn’t seen the sunrise in Monaco before, definitely not from this small beach, it had always been something happening below the horizon as he staggered back towards the marina. Most of his personal time here was spent staggering, or in circumstances calculated to induce staggering fairly soon, or sometimes, recovering from staggering in order to put another job together. It was better than not having a reason to not remember much of anything.
Something nudged his mind. Something important—something he was supposed to do. He closed his eyes, and it was the end of a memory—it started from darkness, abruptly, someone had jacked it. She was there, lying beneath him—he could guess what had happened, but no, she had her clothes on. He felt gently backwards in time, into blackness. Scrubbed. He felt forward. She looked up at him and locked her arms around his neck, pulling his face to hers. He breathed in clean shampoo and a perfume that would never again remind him of—what?
She whispered in his ear, fiercely, “Never sell this.”
He opened his eyes. The sun was fully up, doing nothing for the darkness in his head. Someone had set him up—who? What was in his head that someone else had wanted? Someone good enough to get it, but not good enough to get it all, not smart enough to play past the important bit and wipe it completely? Someone good enough to get you, smartass, he thought, and spat into the sand.
“OK, Zal, buddy, let’s make a plan.” Sometimes saying it out loud helped, his body remembered that.
“First step, clothes. Second step, breakfast. Third step, fuck some shit up.”