Dai’s Curry Palace.
Ubik wasn’t worried. Not yet.
He was in a tight situation, but there was still room for manoeuvre. There was a door and no windows. The door was behind him and the only other person in the room was in front of him.
No need to panic. Not yet.
He could get to the door without a problem. The door was locked, though, which was a problem. One with an obvious solution — you don’t go for the door, you go for the person with the key. What would it be? Retina scan? Fingerprint? Those were easy enough to get hold of. Voice recognition? That would be a bit harder if the owner of the voiced didn’t want to cooperate, or if they weren’t able to.
These thoughts shot through Ubik’s mind at lightning speed. No need to make a decision now. Things were still very salvageable. Fixing broken things was Ubik’s speciality.
“You think you can help me?” asked Dai, doubt uppermost in his tone.
He wasn’t a big man, middle-aged, his hair had been fixed. Not cheaply, but not by the most expensive methods, either — his kids would face the same problems, which they wouldn’t if he could afford cosmetic surgery on the genetic level.
Dai smiled, a little patronising, a little amused. It was a well-worked routine, how he kept his staff in place when he wanted them to know he was in control. He probably thought Ubik was fronting, sweating it but keeping his game face on. It was true, Ubik was feeling the heat, but only because he was wearing the FVG greys underneath his clothes.
“Sure,” said Ubik. “If we can come to an arrangement where we’re both happy with.”
“Oh, you think the pay’s going to be the sticking point, not the actual job?”
“I don’t know what the job is,” said Ubik, “but it’s something you want. Only fair I also get something I want.”
“And what do you want, Mr Ubik?” He was mocking him, but that was okay. It meant he was trying to cling onto his advantage. You didn’t have to cling to something you felt was comfortably in your possession.
“Money,” said Ubik. “On the books, legal and traceable.”
Dai leaned back in his chair, recoiling slightly from Ubik’s request, eyes flashing to a larger size for an instant like a refined lady hearing vulgar words.
“That’s no good to me. That’s the last thing I need, a trail leading back to my doorstep. What I could do is arrange for you to have whatever you hope to buy with the money. That would be by far the smarter way to do it. You get what you want, like you said. No need to bother with the exchange of standard.”
“No, I need to have a trail so I don’t stand out,” said Ubik, “and so I don’t have to bootleg my way off this rock.”
“You want a ticket out of here,” said Dai, his eyes lighting up with a proper understanding of the situation now. “I can sort that for you. I know reliable people. I can get you on a ship going in any direction you want.”
Ubik had no doubt Dai knew the kind of people who would sell you a spot in their cargo hold, no questions asked. But reliable? You did not want to rely on anyone who could save a lot of time and trouble by simply jettisoning you into space at the first opportunity.
“No, thanks,” said Ubik. “Like I said, I need it to be legit, paid for with standard currency. That’s why I asked for a job in your kitchen.”
“You don’t need much money, then?” Dai was confused by the direction Ubik was taking. If you were familiar with shady practices, you took advantage of them. Since when did someone willing to go beyond the law insist on staying within it?
“That’s not what I mean. I get a job in your kitchen, you pay me for that job, it builds up. When we hit the right amount, I give you what you paid for.”
“Won’t that take a long time?” Dai seemed no less confused.
“I’m a hard worker,” said Ubik. “Work a lot of hours, take all the overtime I can get, never make a fuss. You’d hardly know I was here.”
“Hmm,” said Dai, starting to get it.
A constant trickle of funds for a labourer working a lot of extra-shifts. It would look clean, but it wouldn’t be a huge amount, not enough for anyone to take notice. It was the sort of low-level scheme a man like Dai would feel he could work to his advantage; which was why Ubik had suggested it.
“But how do I know you’re going to be able to come through on your end?” said Dai. “I’d need some kind of demonstration you’re up to the job.”
“Okay,” said Ubik. “Tell me what your beef with Gerry is. I’m sure I can come up with something that’ll work.”
Dai went quiet for a moment, thinking it over. Ubik didn’t say anything, letting him have his moment of contemplation. In a deal like this, it was important to let the other person come to a decision they felt they had made on their own.
The truth was the decision had already been made, by Ubik. When he had picked this place, it was no coincidence that he had made his approach through an easily detectable ruse. It wasn’t due to poor judgement.
Ubik needed information from a reliable source. Not an honest one, he needed it from someone who knew the skinny on how things really worked, someone used to working within narrow profit margins. Big crooks made big scores. Smart crooks eked out an extra percentage point or two they could claim was a typo.
A modest restaurant doing well in the middle of all these bigger, flashier outfits suggested two things. A man who understood his business, and a man who regularly broke the law, but only in the most mundane ways possible.
You couldn’t compete face to face with the well-established big boys if you played by the rules. At least, it wasn’t very likely. If that had been the case, if Dai had been a genius restaurateur using know-how to keep up with the wealthier competition, then Ubik really would have tried to get that job in the kitchen — not least of all to see how Dai had done it — and picked up information as well as he could. It would have been slow, but it would give him an idea of where to go next.
But he had chosen well. This was a guy who played the angles. Ubik had known a lot of people like him growing up. Shrewd and aggressive, willing to ignore the regulations put in place to safeguard the public. There was nothing wrong with how he ran his business; actually, it was the best way.
The competition didn’t play fair, you could count on that. Once you made enough money, you could make your own rules and pay off anyone whose job it was to keep you in check.
That was just how it was in the commercial sector. And if you didn’t have the capital to invest in an official or two, then you had to be inventive. You had to stretch the capital you did have to start saving up for the big payoffs you’d need to make.
Everyone cut corners on the way up. Paid off the books, used unlicensed tech support, cheated on their taxes. So what if maybe some of his meat came from unapproved sources? As long as it tasted good, hot and spicy, an occasional dose of something unpleasant was just a booster shot to the immune system. It did people a favour to expose their sterile lives to a foreign element, raised their resistance; something most people had lost a long time ago.
“I like you,” said Dai. “You’ve got something about you. Probably not a good idea to keep you around for too long — probably end up robbing me blind — but since you plan to up and leave anyway, why not make use of your skills? You’re a bit of a tronics wizard, right?”
“Something like that,” said Ubik, enjoying the to and fro. It was fun.
“Before we talk about Gerry, how about you help me out with JonJo’s Surf ‘n’ Turf.”
The name sounded familiar. “The place across the street?” said Ubik.
“Right,” said Dai. “JonJo is my brother-in-law, as it happens. Lovely guy, if you like backstabbing pieces of shit doused in cheap cologne. Opened up opposite me and stole all my customers using quality and value as his weapons. Scumbag. I don’t hold it against him, though. It’s my sister who put him up to it. Terrible, terrible woman. She was just as bad as a child. Never let me play with any of her toys.”
As he spoke, Dai’s face took on the appearance of a man who had been much wronged — by his sister when they were children. He clearly knew how to hang onto a grudge.
“I wouldn’t want you to do anything drastic to their business — if they went broke, it’s me they’d come to — but with your talents, perhaps you could make them close early. Since you’ve already done it to me, I wouldn’t look suspect. Just a glitch going around.”
It didn’t seem like a bad idea. Easy enough to repeat what he had done here. But why? Dai already knew Ubik could do it.
“Okay,” said Ubik. “And then you’ll put me on the books and treat me like one of your employees?”
“If you do this, and get away with it, I’ll treat you like family,” said Dai.
“Like your sister and her husband?”
“Ah, you see, I knew I liked you for a reason. As it happens, I’ve always treated them well. That was the problem, spoilt them, I did. This would just be a correction.”
“I’ll need to go over there and check the place out,” said Ubik. “Maybe have a meal.”
“Good idea,” said Dai. “Best to know the layout. It’s a bit bigger than this place, probably be harder to move around without being spotted.”
“Won’t be a problem,” said Ubik. “But I’ll need some money to pay for the food.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s fair. They do a very affordable taster menu, for those not used to eating exotic. Stole the idea from me. I think I’d be willing to make a modest investment in a promising boy like you, Ubik.”
“Because you like me.”
“Exactly. Here, let me give you a small advance on your pay.” He picked up a scanner from his desk.
Ubik offered his arm.
“Nice, very nice. I can hardly tell it’s a fake.”
Ubik was a little taken aback Dai had spotted it so quickly. He hadn’t even turned over his arm.
“You can tell?”
“Of course, wouldn’t be much of businessman, otherwise.” He gave Ubik his first paycheck. Enough for exactly one small set meal.
This was very definitely the right pick. Dai would know exactly what Ubik needed to know. All he had to do was go across the street and shut down Dai’s sister’s livelihood, at least for the night.
Not that Ubik believed for a moment that what Dai had said was true. Too easy. Too innocent. Dai would have destroyed the competition himself if he felt the need, sister or not. There was something more to it, but that was okay. No need to pry, he would find out soon enough.
Ubik crossed the street, feeling Dai watching him from behind a window. JonJo’s was packed, with a long line outside. Ubik went up to the man on the door. A big man, packing a sidearm under his jacket. What kind of restaurant had an armed doorman? Were people really that desperate for a table?
“Hey, I need to speak to someone in charge,” said Ubik.
Grumbling sounds came from the line Ubik had just cut to the front of.
The giant looked down at Ubik. “I’m in charge.”
Ubik was looking around and past the mountain as best he could. Cameras, men at the windows, a lockbox next to the door about the right size for holding arms you couldn’t fit under a jacket. Rifles, perhaps; about six would be Ubik’s guess.
Dai hadn’t sent him here to fail, he’d sent him here to die. Nice move.
The man-mountain glared down at him, unconcerned. He didn’t see Ubik as a threat. Not yet.