Read The Flicker Men Online

Authors: Ted Kosmatka

The Flicker Men


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For my children



It is impossible that God should ever deceive me, since in all fraud and deceit is to be found a certain imperfection.



I sat in the rain with a gun.

A wave climbed the pebbly beach, washing over my foot, filling my pants with grit and sand. All along the shore, dark slabs of rock jutted from the surf, sharp as broken teeth. I shivered as I came back to myself and for the first time realized my suit jacket was missing. Also my left shoe, brown leather, size twelve. I looked for the shoe, scanning the rocky shoreline, but saw only sand and frothy, sliding water.

I took another pull from the bottle and tried to loosen my tie. Since I had a gun in one hand and a bottle in the other—and since I was unwilling to surrender either to the waves—loosening my tie was difficult. I used the gun hand, working the knot with a finger looped through the trigger guard, cold steel brushing my throat. I felt the muzzle under my chin—fingers numb and awkward, curling past the trigger.

It would be so easy.

I wondered if people had died this way—drunk, armed, loosening their ties. I imagined it was common among certain occupations.

Then the tie opened, and I hadn't shot myself. I took a drink from the bottle as reward.

Another wave rumbled in. If I stayed here long enough, the tide would roll over me, drown me, and pull me out to sea. This place was nothing like the dunes of Indiana, where Lake Michigan caresses the shoreline. Here in Gloucester, the water hates the land.

As a child, I'd come to this beach and wondered where all the boulders came from. Huge, dark stones like pieces of shipwreck. Did the tides carry them in? Now I knew better. The boulders, of course, were here all along—buried in soft soils. They are left-behind things. They are what remains when the ocean subtracts everything else.

Thirty yards up the beach, near the road, there is a monument—a list of names. Fishermen. Gloucestermen. The ones who did not come back.

This is Gloucester, a place with a history of losing itself to the ocean.

*   *   *

The wind gusted.

I told myself I'd brought the gun for protection, but sitting here in the dark sand, I no longer believed it. I was beyond fooling myself.

It was my father's gun, a .357. It had not been fired for seventeen years, five months, four days. The math came quickly. Even drunk, the math came quickly. Always my most resilient talent.

My sister, Marie, had called it a good thing, this new place that was also an old place.

A new start
, she'd said over the phone.
Away from what happened in Indianapolis. You can do your work again. You can continue your research.

, I'd said. A lie she seemed to believe.

You're not going to call me, are you?

Of course I'll call
. A lie she didn't.

There was a pause.

I mean it, Eric, call me. If anything goes wrong.

Farther up the beach, a white-winged tern leaped into the air and hung stationary against the wind, frozen like a snapshot, before it wheeled and lifted into the sky and was gone.

I turned my face away from the ocean and took another burning swig. I drank until I couldn't remember which hand held the gun and which the bottle. I drank until they were the same.



During the second week, we unpacked the microscopes. Satvik used a crowbar while I used a claw hammer. The crates were heavy, wooden, hermetically sealed—shipped in from some now-defunct research laboratory in Pennsylvania.

The sun beat down on the lab's loading dock, and it was nearly as hot today as it was cold the week before. Perspiration dripped from my forehead.

I swung my arm, and the claw hammer bit into the pale wood. I swung again. It was satisfying work.

Satvik smiled, straight white teeth in a straight dark face. “Your head is leaking.”

“Melting,” I countered.

“In India,” he said, “this is sweater weather.”

*   *   *

Satvik slid the crowbar into the gash I made, and pressed. I'd known him for three days, and already I was his friend. Together we committed violence on the crates until they yielded.

The industry was consolidating, and the Pennsylvania lab was just the latest victim. Their equipment came cheap, bought in bulk, shipped in by the pallet load. Here at Hansen, it was like a holiday for scientists. We opened our boxes. We ogled our new toys. We wondered, vaguely, how we had come to deserve this.

For some, like Satvik, the answer was complicated and rooted in achievement. Hansen was more than just another Massachusetts think tank after all, and Satvik had beaten out a dozen other scientists to work here. He'd given presentations and written up projects that important people liked. He'd impressed someone.

For me it was simpler.

For me this was a second chance given by a friend. A last chance.

We cracked open the final wooden crate, and Satvik peered inside. He peeled out layer after layer of foam packing material, making a pile on the floor. It was a big crate, but inside we found only a small assortment of Nalgene volumetric flasks, maybe three pounds weight. It was somebody's idea of a joke—somebody at the now-defunct lab making a statement of opinion about their now-defunct job.

“The frog is in the well,” Satvik said, one of his many opaque expressions.

“It certainly is,” I said.

I had cause to come East again. I had cause not to. Both had everything, and nothing, to do with the gun.

The sign is the first thing a person sees when driving up on the property:
, in bold blue letters, tastefully offset from the road and surrounded by an array of carefully assembled shrubbery. A hundred feet beyond the sign are the gates, decorative and black, left open during business hours. From this entrance, you can't see the building at all, which in the real estate sector surrounding Boston speaks not just of money but
Everything out here is expensive, elbow room most of all.

The lab complex is tucked into a stony hillside about an hour upcoast of the city. It is a private, quiet place, shaded by trees. The main office building is beautiful—two stories of reflective aluminum spread over the approximate dimensions of a football field. What isn't aluminum is matte black steel. It looks like art, or like what art might look like if translated into an architectural structure built to house the world's best scientific minds. A small, brick-paved turnaround curves up to the main entrance, but the front parking lot is merely ornamental—a rudimentary asphalt pad for visitors and the uninitiated. The driveway continues around the building, where the real parking, the parking for the researchers, is in the back. Several smaller adjunct buildings stand at the far end of the lot. These are the out-labs, buildings north and south. The tech facilities and lab spaces. Beyond there, standing off by itself like a big gray battleship, is W building, the old warehouse unit.

That first morning, I parked my rental car in front of the main office and walked inside.

“May I help you?”

“They're expecting me,” I told the receptionist.

“Your name?”

“Eric Argus.”

The receptionist smiled. “Please take a seat.”

I sank into a leather cushion. There were exactly three chairs and a nice, complicated painting, done in reds and blues. The painting could have doubled as a technical schematic of some kind, all lines and angles, suggestive of some hidden order. The exact sort of thing an engineer might pick if charged with the task of decorating a lobby. Two minutes later, a familiar face rounded the corner, and I stood.

“Jesus,” he said. “It's been too long.” Jeremy shook my hand and pulled me into a quick back-clap. “How the hell are you?”

“I've been worse,” I said. Which was the truth.

He hadn't changed much in the intervening years. Not quite as skinny. His unruly blond hair now tamed into a business cut. But still that same easy way about him. That same easy smile.

“And you?” I asked.

“This place is keeping me busy, I'll say that. More than a hundred and fifty researchers now and growing all the time.”

He walked me back to his office. We sat. And then came the offer, like this was just business—like we were just two men in suits. But I could see it in his eyes, that sad way he looked at me, my old friend.

He slid a folded sheet of paper across the broad desk. I unfolded it. Forced myself to make sense of the numbers.

“It's too generous,” I said, sliding the paper back to him.

“We're getting you cheap at that price.”

“No,” I said. “You're not.”

“Your work at QSR more than justifies it. We can set you up with high-scale integration, parallel cores, whatever you like.” He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a gray file folder. He placed the folded sheet of paper inside. “You can pick up where you left off.”

“I think there's been a misunderstanding.”

“Just let us know what you need. Considering your patents and your past work—”

I cut him off. “I can't do that anymore.”



That stopped him. He leaned back in his leather chair. “I'd heard that rumor,” he said finally. He appraised me from across his desk. “I'd hoped it wasn't true.”

I shook my head.


“I'm just done with it.”

“Then you're right,” he said. “I don't understand.”

“If you feel I came here under false pretenses—” I began climbing to my feet.

“No, no.” He held up his hand. “The offer is still good. That's a solid offer. Sit down.”

I sank back into the chair.

“We can carry you for four months,” he said. “We hire the researcher, not the research. Probationary employees get four months to produce. That's our system here.”

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