Authors: William Stamp
“So you're going to be some kind of gangster?” I asked. “Bribe, threaten, and cajole officials so they look the other way?”
“The short answer is no, the long answer is also no. I'd explain it, but you wouldn't understand. You lack the necessary background.” he said, brushing off my comment. He handed Ruth another piece of paper. “This is a list of the people I need to talk to. I've seen your show and I know all those low-level staffers are swarming like cockroaches behind the camera. And I'm sure half of them ask you out, or at least give you their number. Those are the kind of people I need to talk to. Although obviously, if you can get me in with the higher ups that'd be even better.”
“This sounds sketchy as hell,” Ruth said.
“All I'm asking is for you to put me in touch with a few people. Just a phone number. Or mail address. Come on, be a mensch.”
“I'd love to help you, James, but I'm afraid of doing something that could get me in trouble at work. Send all these documents to me and I'll discuss it with my lawyer.”
He threw up his hands. “Look, I'll be completely honest. I have a large investment tied up in a real-estate project that's slow getting off the ground. Every day it's delayed costs me more money than Cliff makes in a year. I think we can make a deal that's beneficial to both of us. But it has to be quick.”
She stared at him, not blinking. “Beneficial how?”
“You have access. I have money. Figure it out.”
“And when you pull some shady shit, I'm the one who could lose my job.”
“All we're talking here is licensure. Enterpreneurial permits. Nothing illegal. I promise.”
She looked over at me. “Cliff what do you think?”
“Well... uh,” I hadn't expected to be part of the negotiation, and every thought running through my head would only reveal my absolute ignorance about the subject. “You know I hate being put on the spot like this.” James looked furious, but I didn't care much about what he thought one way or another. “So you two would be in business together?”
“Yes,” James said. “That's pretty fucking obvious.”
If the deal fell through, Ruth would revert to being nothing more than the background radiation of my past. Which would probably be for the best. I took a deep breath and—against my better judgment—said, “I'm sick of letting James in out of the rain like a lost dog. Throw him a bone.”
“Well then, it's decided.”
“We should get dinner and talk it over,” James said.
“I don't know what's good around here,” she said. They looked at me.
“Why no, I don't mind being your neighborhood concierge,” I said sarcastically. “But I know a few places.”
“Actually, I can't. I forgot. I have a date,” Ruth said. “I should get going.”
At the door she hugged us both and asked for my number. “It was good to see you. We should get lunch some time.” She turned to James. “I'll get back to you.”
He shifted from one foot to the other. “Soon, right?” His previous bluster had vanished when he'd gotten his way. Now he was nervous.
When she was gone, he said. “She thinks she's so great. But if she wasn't hot she'd be stuck at the bottom.”
“Maybe.” I said, but I doubted it. Her looks were just one weapon in her ample arsenal.
“Do you want to get dinner? You said you had some ideas.”
“Not really. I'm going to go read.” I retired to my room, leaving James alone with my tablet and his dreams of riches.
I took my journal from the top shelf to see what Mary had written me. It was a poem.
Your dream-blood smolders
Life's ashes numb the living
Buried hearts leak black
The letters were tiny and looked like they'd been pecked by a typewriter. She had the handwriting of someone who could draw a perfect circle, square, or pentagon on command.
Below her poem was a note, written in cursive. The handwriting was graceful and loopy, like that of a movie character writing with a quill pen.
Maybe some day a long time from now you'll read this and think of me.
The Cherry Tree
(A Subsidiary of CSM)
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6. Dream Sequence
I had a dream.
The missile enters the troposphere, five miles above Manhattan. From above, a beautiful view of the city. I'm not inside the missile, not exactly—more like I'm a part of it. Maybe its soul. The scene moves like a reel of film played one frame at a time.
I'm closer now. The pumps ringing the tip of the island loom large and monstrous, dwarfing the city's other buildings. Ruth and James are picnicking in Central Park and Elly is playing hopscotch outside her house.
I see people, frozen, covering their eyes and looking to the sky.
I've descended to the height of the Freedom Tower. More people are looking. Some are in mid-air, caught diving to the ground.
I'm not in the missile anymore—but staring out my window in Brooklyn.
I see the explosion through the leaves of the chestnut tree.
Light fills the room, more than I've ever seen. Distance ceases to exist as brightness engulfs the contours of reality. Pure light.
I woke up making peace with a God I didn't believe in. It was overcast outside and the tips of Manhattan skyline visible from my bed appeared intact. Rain beaded on the window, the first sign of an approaching storm. I made a mental note to remember my umbrella. A box truck had stopped in the street and its paunchy, middle-aged driver was kicking at a very flat back tire. Another unwary victim of my street's potholes, which could swallow a small child with ease. I checked my phone. It was 7:23.
My overloaded nerves kept me from falling back to sleep, and I got dressed and went to make breakfast. Today was Elly's last day of school—she was graduating from the sixth circle to the fifth. The Expert believed the nomenclature of institutional organization had a great impact on one's psychology, and so she sought to motivate her students to strive to enter increasingly exclusive circles. You aim for the number one school, not number twelve, and introducing this concept to young students helped them align their future goals with the realities of life. Or something. Numerology never appealed to me.
James had left on the kitchen lights. He had also fallen asleep at the table, shirtless, facedown, and using a book for a pillow. An easel he'd bought yesterday stood beside him, covered with printouts of neon-blue graphs notated in his inimitable scrawl. Other books lay scattered across the table and several more had migrated to the floor. I picked one up:
Chimerica: Deconstructing the Decoupling Fallacy
. The cover had an animal emerging from an egg. Its split heads—a dragon and an eagle—glared at one another.
That morning was the first time I had any hope James might succeed. Every day for the past two weeks I'd leave to pick up Elly and he'd been on the couch, either taking a nap or watching videos on the tablet. With the exception of his harassing Ruth I hadn't seen him do anything that could be mistaken for productive activity, and I had begun keeping an eye out for someone else I could fob him off to—maybe a girl who saw in him some hint of a quality worth trying to salvage. But these stacks of books, which I'd known he'd bought but had never seen him open, instilled in me a glimmer of optimism. I rarely woke up before eleven; maybe he worked while I slept.
Feeling charitable, I put on a pot of coffee and scoured the fridge for breakfast. Some bacon, a lone red pepper, two scallions, and a half-dozen eggs chopped, popped, sizzled, and scrambled. It might work out for James. He wasn't a moron, just overbearing and arrogant. Driven, but not a people person, a combination that no doubt compounded his job-searching difficulties. I could sympathize, which was why he came here and why I let him stay—our paths crossing in orbit around money and ambition, the twin foci of New York.
He slumbered through the entirety of my cooking, undisturbed by the noise I made. I scooped out the omelettes and bacon, poured two mugs of coffee, set everything on the table, and shouted, “James!”
He didn't stir, and I called out again, louder. Nothing. His pale, waxy face shone up at me, and for a second I thought he was dead. Then he burped, and shifted his head. I raised one hand high and slapped him on the back.
He jerked awake. “Hey man, why'd you do that?” he grumbled
“Breakfast's ready.” I said.
He grunted something low and indecipherable, but leaned over the table and grabbed a plate.
“Huh?” I said.
“I said, where's the forks?”
“Christ, are you serious? Get one yourself. I'm not your mother.”
“Come on dude. You're the one who woke me up.”
I excavated two forks from the sink and washed them. We ate in silence. James cut his omelette into quarters and ate the first piece in four bites, followed by a slice of bacon. Then on to the next quarter. Four bites. Bacon. Repeat. By the time he was done I'd barely had my first sip of coffee. Did he know how strange he looked? Probably—I hadn't seen him eat since our meal at the diner, and no way would I have overlooked this odd behavior. Additionally, I doubted he ate like that in professional settings, and he must have known he couldn't get laid eating like a robot. It was one of those home-grown idiosyncrasies that disappeared in public. Life is easier when the world doesn't know you bust out the bleach if you see crumbs on the counter or dishes in the sink, you sleep naked on a mattress on the floor, or you refuse to leave for work without triple-checking that the windows are locked and all appliances are turned off. It's better if everyone pretends they're normal and no one pries too deep.
“What're all the books for?”
He leaned forward over the table, half-standing, and began talking rapidly, tapping his hands on the table like it was a calculator. “Remember the Panic a few years back?”
“It would be pretty hard to forget.”
“Well, do you know how it happened?”
“Uh... Look, sorry I asked—” I picked up my plate and mug and began cleaning.
“No, no. It's not a test. I mean, you know the basics, right?”
“Like the Terminus case?” I offered.
“Yeah. The whole thing's a lot more complicated than just that, but it's a good place to start. With two million dead from the airborne toxic event, somebody was going to have to pay. And I don't mean safety regulations or political change or any of that sappy shit. We're talking liability; who's going to face down the wrath of the largest migration of ambulance chasers in human history?"
“You know, my mom was in Chicago when it happened.”
“Shit, she was, wasn't she? We can skip over the more gruesome details. When everything shakes out you've got yourself a lawsuit between Calvin Enterprises, the holding company that owned the train, and Terminus, the machine intelligence developer. Calvin said the intelligence Terminus sold them, MI-7X, was a defective product. They said they had gigabytes of documentation from Terminus's salespeople and lawyers assuring them it was a hundred and ten-percent safe to handle hazardous materials and that it was absolutely impossible for something like the airborne toxic event to occur. Terminus argued the railroad failed to follow the proper safety protocols laid out in the purchasing agreement, and in any case the MI was an autonomous non-human person and they weren't responsible for its actions, regardless.
"The case worms its way up from the circuit court, who find in favor of Terminus, to the appellate court, who find in favor of Calvin, and finally to the Supreme Court. If it had been up to me, I would've said the machine intelligence had free will and been done with it. Even if they felt justice needed to be served, there were other options. They could've hit some poor bastard with two million consecutive life sentences, or worked out a deferred, partial compensation fund for the victims' families. You know, pay for college for every kid whose parents died. Full liability for the costs associated with the event were too much for the market to bear. Do you have any idea how much investment capital was tied up in Terminus and companies like it? Like, all of it.
"But what do those hacks do? They decided on the equivalent of holding the US financially culpable for every death caused by every terrorist trained by the CIA, ever. The Court thought the argument about machine intelligences possessing free will was a bunch of garbage, and although there were minor breaches of protocol on the part of Calvin Railroads, Terminus's people had promised the train wouldn't so much as run over a kid whose ball had rolled onto the tracks. Terminus declared bankruptcy the next day, as did its insurance provider.