Note: If you are reading on your phone, try turning it sideways.
“LOL,” Bill shouts to Megan, who’s upstairs changing Mo. Because LOL means Lots of Love (popular usage, only a few English-major Madame or Mister Librarian Detroit Free Press Sunday crossword types insisting that the antique Laugh Out Loud be honored in the breach). Hops Roy Rogers-onto-Trigger fashion onto his bike (gyro’d, so no matter how sloppy his landing, the Raleigh hybrid sways upright).
Heads for the freeway using the pedals for exercise. Gets only three blocks from his house before slowing to first behind a be-sandaled walker-rights protester, the woman strolling down the middle of the street in a Don’t Tread On Me t-shirt long enough to serve as a short dress. Bikers improvise an atonal symphony of honk tones--snippets of electronica, animal sounds, a throaty bayooooga. Walkmuters shout from the admittedly narrow, poorly placed and marked pedestrian strip, telling the woman, who is carrying something basically two-dimensional and not small, wrapped in an old sheet, that she’s right to be angry about the lesser status pedestrians have been delegated by a bike-happy country, but that it’s not going to help to antagonize traffic.
“Wanna lift?” Bill asks her, spinning beside her. He tells himself the sudden impulse to ease congestion and soothe the world in general has little to do with the fact that the protester is such a cutie.
“Would that look like capitulation?” the woman asks, flipping her rainbow-dyed hair out of violet-shadowed blue eyes. Megan hasn’t worn makeup in the six months since Mo was born. He loves his wife’s Gaelic-Marathi looks and engineer’s low maintenance style, but misses seeing her non-exhausted and dolled up, in her own understated way, for a night out.
“Yes,” Bill says.
“Fuck it. I made my point.”
She climbs onto the banana seat and wraps one arm around Bill, using the other to hold the nine-by-six-foot (new foot) object.
A word here on measurement. Last non-virtual war was waged not over whether or not to join the World Economic Union, nor over water, which in the wake of unlimited clean power turned out not to be so scarce after all, but over mandated metric conversion. The Treaty of Versailles, Ohio established The Measures Measures--use of the yard and foot instead of meter and decimeter, but actual measurements metric lengths. Also, the Measures allowed only ten, not twelve toes not inches, to the new foot, which was of course the rechristened decimeter, hence more a baby than an adult foot. In this way the English system saved face, while the intelligent system prevailed.
“A painting,” the woman says. “Camille مالك.”
“Bill Baker. You mean--”
“Canvas. Brushes pigments perspective. The whole nine meters.”
“Downtown?” Bill says.
“That’ll be fine.”
Megan plays the Hammond with its variable-speed Leslies, rebuilt by Bill in the basement. The sound fills the living room. Mo naps upstairs. Megan musically rocks him to sleep. Captain Kirk signals with a lift of his black-lipped snout that Mo is out--dog ears hearing baby breaths. Megan flips on the noise canceling in the speakers high in the four corners of the room. Now she plays for herself and sort-of for Kirk.
The sound-cancel tech has always weirded Captain out. He stays dutifully at the sound boundary on the landing where he can monitor both Megan playing downstairs and the baby sleeping , with the occasional shnuff, above, only the odd twitch signaling his annoyance. Floppy velvet ears on crossed paws. Compact body so completely enervated as to suggest the recent departure of life. Kirk is part cocker spaniel, part everydog. Megan knows that if Mo wakes, Captain Kirk will give her a snout up.
Rocking out helps Megan with the postpartum blues. Yet she remains as moody as a beaver in a thunderstorm. She also needs a shower. She is that curious blend of emotionally and intellectually challenged and satisfied, exhausted and sleep-deprived, profoundly loved, lonely and bored, that is the first year of motherhood.
A working materials engineer plucked from rapid ascension in the workplace by her own philosophy of maternity, Megan has spent five months two weeks and three days learning a lot about herself and her son, about human existence--also reconstructing her own infancy through the lens of mom. Despite all that work she feels her brain and work skills atrophy. Sometimes all this engagement and growth, coupled with all this regression, makes her a little nauseated, other times giddy. She feels like a stoned teenager in a zero gravity room--pudgy, sexy, powerful, useless.
She hates for instance when Bill, her boyfriend since second grade and for some time semi-secretly her husband, is home. She also hates it when he leaves, even directly after being told by her to leave. Postpartum depression she read about and prepared for, inasmuch as a person can prepare for not being able to do reality. But postpartum elephant goes on a rampage, leaves the circus, breaks into the peanut butter factory, hugs the shift manager with her trunk, eats a jar of peanut butter, and laughs giant trumpeting elephant laughs while big elephant tears tumble down her leathery elephant cheeks--Megan never came across this in the maternity literature, and she is not prepared for such. Yet it happens on the daily.
She finishes her take on Booker T and MGs. She goes to the den to watch the old holo, Days of Our Lives.
“This is what I’ve always wondered,” Bill tells Camille. “You paint a…”
“You think it’s the best painting you’ve ever painted.” Bill wonders why he is speaking like an eight-year-old. He and Camille are at a 包子 place on Chechawkose Avenue. “You sell it to someone.”
“It goes into a house or an office,” Bill says. “Maybe in another country.”
“I never see it again.”
“That’s what I’m asking.”
“Okay,” Camille says, taking a monster bite of her bean paste bun and chasing it with an entire little cup of 화개. Bill is taken with this eating and drinking woman. “It’s weird,” Camille continues, nodding. “Not like selling-your-kidney-and-then-growing-a-new-one weird. It’s--” she polishes the bun and downs another cup--“more seeing-your-childhood-home-replaced-by-a-tent weird.”
Tents increasingly popular--far less expensive than rigids; ease of construction and redesign a plus; solar fabrics supplying power and heat; multistory internal structures and sound-and-light sequestering technologies creating privacy; on-off one-way fabrics for windows, together with deluminators for night or privacy on demand. Bill knows quite a bit about tents cause Megan was just getting into interior structure tweaks of wet spaces--bathrooms, kitchens (reservoirs of water at ground level, one outside in warm climates; smart ホース pulling the water up to where needed using synthetic peristalsis, opaque volume-triggered flex hoses like boa constrictors squeezing waste along and out) when she became pregnant. Or rather when she achieved the predictable result of bedding Bill purposefully and with calendar awareness. Not that he objected or wasn’t ready. He just wasn’t the one to say, “Let’s do this!” and “Arriba!” That would have been Megan, sounding like a combo personal trainer large-cat wrangler. He thinks about telling Camille some of what he knows about tents, and that would mean telling her about Megan. Instead he doesn’t.
“Does the buyer call you?” Bill asks.
“Trude Roebuck saw a copy of this guy--” Camille pats her sheet-wrapped square. “She just had to have him. Trude will keep me in beans and rice for the foreseeable.”
“What’s it a picture of?” Bill asks. There he goes again.
“Take a look.” Camille unwraps the painting and sets it on a chair.
“Huh,” Bill says. Young woman, seated, dark ringlets tumbling, circling. Nipples, girl waist. Opulent certainties of character power and beauty.
Paintings are now copied perfectly. The original is only identifiable by genetic signature--a wet kiss, a drop of blood. Owners purchase the right to the original and a specified number of duplicates. Some artists, especially early in their careers, figure the more the merrier and sell their paintings and sculptures with full copyrights. This can work--more product, more exposure. But unlimited is generally a mistake. The more prominent the artist, the fewer copies shehe sells, and the cachet of possessing the original is enhanced.
“Who is she?” Bill asks.
“My girlfriend Flavia. She’s a twelve, right?”
Tearing away of calendar sheets, Tuesday, August 15; Wednesday, August 16; Thursday, August 17… Faster. Monday, September 25. Stop.
“Up or down?” Bill asks Stew.
“Down,” Stew says, acknowledging that it’s unlikely to affect his chances of catching fish to be downstream. Truth be told, stream position is unlikely to affect anyone’s chances, unless the person upstream beats rocks with a rusty section of old muffler, uses it to dig up the streambed, then shampoos and rinses with Dr. Bonner’s eucalyptus while singing, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Still, the convention is that the stronger fisherman goes upstream, the bumbler downstream. Bill accepts the assessment and disappears into the underbrush.
Megan insisted Bill take the traditional last week of the season to fish with Stew, up on the Arkansas in that part of the Uto-Aztecan FKA Colorado on a part of the Arkansas WTH upstream from the former state of Arkansas which, appropriately enough, means People Who Live Downstream in Ugakhpah. Megan says it’s important for both spouses to maintain independence. She plans to take a trip in the winter, even though this will involve a fair amount of milk pumping and dispatching by drone. Megan hasn’t decided where she’s going yet, or with whom, but she knows she will, so Bill must fish. Bill has always found it wise to let Megan tell him what he really wants to do. She may not always be right, but she’s not wrong. Megan’s grad school beau Rousseau is staying in Detroit, helping Megan out, while Bill is away. No, Megan and Rousseau aren’t going to make love even though it’s certainly within their amorogamous rights to do so. Why not? Because neither of them think Bill can handle it. So true.
What about Megan’s sexual freedom and desires? Bill rarely actually never asks Megan about this but nonetheless she often talks about it. Seems Megan will stick with only Bill for the time being, for one thing because she feels super-fertile and has always been a spaz with birth control and she wants both her children to be hers and Bill’s for a plentitude of reasons, starting with Bill’s devilish good looks (she may have been flattering slash reassuring a bit here) and including the simplicity of only having one breedlove (she has several friends and a sister who claim to love polybreedery, but who don’t make it look nearly as easy or hilarious as they claim). So no, Megan’s not getting down with Rousseau, unless they have both suddenly turned on a dime, and Rousseau’s been dependable, valuing his connection to Bill as much as to Megan, in his quiet way. Plus Rousseau is a couples’ therapist, when he isn’t other kinds of therapist, so messing with Bill and Megan’s dyad would be bullshit.
Bill reaches his usual starting spot and considers just how slippery the rocks in this river are--like greased watermelons buried waist-deep in marbles--and how swift the flow is. The rains each afternoon and last night have pushed the water levels not anywhere near spring heights but still to where it’s no cakewalk to get backcasting distance from the north-east bank. But get there Bill does with only one heart-thumping downstream slide and pivot.
The breeze comes into play, switching up on him like nobody’s business so that his usual system of accommodation--casting always where the breeze directs--is hard to execute. Trying to figure this air is like trying to collaborate with a fascist regime--a bad idea to begin with, then it doesn’t work. So there are numerous vaudevillian sequences in which fly line lariats Bill’s neck and shoulders, tangles of tippet encircle his ankles like falling underpants, and barbless hooks narrowly miss his earlobes going out and his nares streaking back. He misses Mo and Megan and wonders why he is fishing. When one asks oneself why one is fishing, one has ventured onto slippery rocks indeed.
Bill and Stew count on each other. They met through their wives, each of them being one of the only married men either of them knows. The couples were joined in a secret double ceremony conducted by Stew’s sister Pam, a humanist imam. In the years since, they have become tight, silently and sometimes even with words communicating their joys, frustrations. They talk by thone and sitting beside each other next to Stew’s river.
Time to get utilitarian. Bill ties on a green bugger and a red-striped ant. This he lays on the water and allows to be pulled downstream while liberating yards of line at a go with a vigorous double pulling motion--line one way, rod the other--as if broadcasting rye into a newly plowed field. When his whole fly line is downstream, Bill pulls out another fifteen yards of backing, then begins the skill-less retrieve, trolling the flies jerkily in like spinners behind a powered canoe. He employs his patented cha-cha rhythm, which by rights should be called a cha-cha-cha rhythm since it is one, two, cha-cha-cha--and bam! First fish. Not of the trip but of the day.
He plays the trout minimally. Yet the universe shifts. Sunlight flashes on water. Breeze cools one’s brow. Susura of Arkansas over its boulders, saying Fishing! For sure!
The brown zigs and zags but this is obviously a sympathy fight. Fish know when Bill is having one of those days and throw him a freebie, even when he’s using the deplorable trolling technique. Thanks, Bill tells the guy when he’s netted, a respectable middle-aged brown who took the ant carefully, just for poor Bill’s sake, wearing the glossy fly like a piercing high on the left side of his jaw. (Why don’t human teens and twenteens pierce with flies? Bill wonders. What could be gnarlier than a Copper John on the side of your nose? For real toughies, a glow bug through your tongue tip?) Mr. Brown stands still while Bill frees him, then swims calmly off. I hope this cheered you up, Bill, he says. BTW I’d refresh that sunblock. Salmonids help Bill out. In turn, Bill never bangs one on the head or tosses one onto ice.
Bill heads to the bank and downstream to see what Stew is up to.
Laughter. A woman, not Megan, holding Mo. Megan coming into the room and taking the baby from her arms. Camille.
“I know Bill,” Camille says. “He gave me a ride on his chopper and fed me buns.”
The women go on laughing and chatting while Bill stows his rolling baggage, directing the little herd’s progress--suitcase, fishing bag, carry-on, into the corner, using his thone as a wand--and tries to lose the blush that came over him when he recognized Camille. Camille comes up, winks at him, hands him Mo. Bill gives Mo’s head a sniff--baby shampoo, baby. Mo smiles at him--a sophisticated cock-eyed smile. How strange, Mo communicates, to come home and find the woman one didn’t mention hanging with one’s wife in one’s living room. Kid’s right, Bill acknowledges. Busted, Captain Kirk open-mouths from his daybed. Dog’s right, Bill acknowledges.
“We met Camille at the yellow playground,” Megan is saying, kissing him, then kissing him some more. “With her grandson Jake.”
“Took off this morning. Said to tell you he had something to tell you.”
“Wouldn’t tell me.”
“Course not.” She kisses him again, giving it some time. Showing off for Camille? Reassuring him? Whatever, he thinks, shifting Mo onto his hip and continuing.
“Well look at you two,” Camille says.
“Eight days,” Megan says, giggling. “Feels like a month. It’s been like that ever since Mo--”
“Uh huh,” Camille says. She picks up Mo and carries him right out of the house. Kirk follows. “Back in two hours.”
“I may have told a man to kill my son,” Philip informs Bill.
They are at the top of the Roebuck Tower in an executive throne room. Roebuck, the brainchild of Lucinda Roebuck, descended from Alvah Roebuck of Sears, Roebuck & Co., took advantage of Amazon’s obsession with their media division. Why does motion picture production lust overtake retail tycoons? Is it because these 大企业家 are prematurely weaned off the arts as children, by money slash power-minded parents?
Roebuck took over Amazon’s store and its drone delivery of everything. Amazon retreated into its media division, making tiny amounts of money but some pretty good holos. Sears Roebuck grew with the railroad. Roebuck engineered its comeback via the droneway. Philip is Lucinda’s son.
“But your son is fine,” Bill says.
“Fine so far.” Philip wants Bill to play twenty questions but Bill’s chair is way too comfortable. His coffee is excellent. The little pain-au-chocolats and fresh strawberries don’t suck either. He waits. Philip clears his throat. Bill eats a strawberry.
“This was at Delmonico’s. Last winter. Had too much to drink. Was mouthing off. About Jack.”
Philip speaks executive fragments. Omits subject, corporate royal we implied. Verb. Modifying clause. Modifier of modifier. Each chunk gets the same emphasis. Implication being that everything we say is very important. Bill tries not to listen. He knows that he will understand better if he just lets the phrases drop emphatically onto the table, then arranges them himself.
“How Jack doesn’t pull his weight. Doesn’t try. Not an artist. Not really a collector. Jack travels, cooks. Buys art, has parties. Fishes.”
Bill alerts to the last word as if it were a pale mustard hackle wagging in deep current and he a five-pound salmon in warming water.
Then a red-tailed hawk comes screaming toward the back of the CEO’s head at a forty-five degree angle. This, Bill thinks, might be the last thing a woods squirrel sees--no wonder they’re always twitching and alerting with that unpleasant throat-clearing sound. The bird rips a insulated to-go bag, possible KFC, out from under a livery drone--a tricky move what with the propellers above and behind. Sends the drone into a crazy looping fall that it almost corrects before slamming into the window not ten feet behind Philip’s head. The man doesn’t even blink at the loud thwack. Must happen all the time.
“Came and sat at my table. Don’t remember it well. Liz, my assistant, told me. Fellow just listened and nodded. Looked sympathetic. Was there five minutes. I’ll take care of it, he said. Got up and left.”
“What did he look like?”
There have been murders every decade or so, always in different parts of the world, not much in common except for fidelity to the murders in the work of James M. Cain. So much time elapses between them, Bureau thinks each killing is the last murder, for sure. There’s always a soul like this one--disgruntled employee, abandoned lover, underpaid artist--never a disappointed parent, until now. There’s always a brief one-sided conversation in which complainer enlists sympathetic listener. Afterwards, the employee, mate, artist, remembers nothing about the man they unburdened themselves to, so caught up were they in their own ক্রোধ. The object of their dissatisfaction--the love of their lives, their closest collaborator--is murdered by the man to whom they’ve unburdened themselves. Bureau code name, Good Listener or just Listener.
“He looked like you,” Philip says. “Me. Anyone.” He puts his head in his hands. A minute passes. “Mr. Baker,” he says, looking up at Bill with tears in his eyes. “Stop him.”
Megan, pushing back from the kitchen table, takes Mo under the arms and stands him up. Mo’s got his game face on and braces his legs on his mother’s thighs, as on the deck of a catamaran. Megan feels the muscles of Mo’s thighs and feet, but also of his back beneath her palms, working. Damn, she thinks. Can just Roll Over, can’t Crawl, but has boldly enrolled in Standing Up.
“Go, Mo,” she says.
“Tampoo,” he says. He says tampoo a lot. It’s his first signifier. Mo supports most of his weight, his muscles trembling, his face fierce with concentration.
Suddenly he finds balance. His eyes widen. Did he know what he was trying for? Megan wonders. Mo looks at her as if to ask what is this thing, this establishment of self in one place using his own legs as two-thirds of a tripod, his mother the third? Megan eases him backwards until he is held between the trembling parity of two legs. He looks panicked. Not possible, his eyes say and also his voice, two quick tampoos spoken with conviction.
“It works,” Megan tells him. “Trust me.”
Mo struggles, his muscles solving one equation after another. Then for a second he has it, balance on two feet. He laughs.
Collapses into her love.
Bill is suspended in a falling-forward position at his station, his legs and arms working gently against the tugs of the ChAir. In front of him are texts and images, both 2 and 3D, and the keyorb like a medicine ball held in a very stubborn gravitational place, covered with the letters formerly of the keyboard.
Ergonomics evolved with lifespans. What worked for forty years doesn’t work for a hundred-and-forty. Sitting, understood to be a bad idea for more than an hour, gave way to the forward fall into the ChAir--like a lawn chair stripped of half its webbing, turned on its end, and leaned toward the tasks in front of it, which are angled up from below so there’s no head-lifting back-arching. Work clothes adhere to key points and straps which exercise muscle groups and stretch but don’t overstretch ligaments, extend joints, the resistance and pullings continuously learning from and monitoring the body, moving from one strength-and-range goal to the next. Many insist they must work several hours a day to retain physical and emotional well-being.
Two main tasks, and a few distractions, occupy Bill’s array. Multitasking is inefficient. One only does one thing at a time. But so what? Humans like multitasking.
Task one is virtual sleuthing. Colleagues in Maziwa, Nchi are consulting with Bill about a murder. Skeleton crews of detectives throughout the world pair. Nchi is especially short-staffed since murders have now become all but unheard of in the vast lands FKA Central Africa. Lieutenant عائشة has sent Bill a file to review--images, interviews both recorded and transcribed, forensics, and a theory. She awaits his go-ahead to make an arrest.
Task two is closer to home. Bureau detectives are on part-time jury duty throughout their tenure. They are judges in criminal cases. The judicial constellation consists of many judges and not so many lawyers. Juries of peers, unfamiliar with law and not necessarily competent to think, were phased out as a romantic notion that fully demonstrated its limitations, then lasted a long time anyway. Equally outdated is the fiction that a few highly qualified individuals of unusual integrity and selflessness (old-style judges), operating in near isolation, will balance the scale of justice better than a large jury of judges--the new system. This problem became acute in the United States of America in the early twenty-first century when the ornamentally titled Supreme Court began undermining the principles it was intended to uphold. So yeah Bill is on another jury--the standard hundred-twenty person panel, another base twelve holdover, why not a hundred?--and, far from being discouraged from outside-the-courtroom investigation and discussion of the trial he is working on, Bill and the other juror judges are expected to look wherever and speak with whomever they can for insights and perspectives, then bring these illuminations back to the group. The cult of the unanimous decision, whether by twelve good men or a hundred-and-twenty smart, carefully vetted women and men, is no more. The case will be decided by majority. The jury can also pronounce itself confused, official term, meaning they really don’t know. Then they go on working. Still confused, meaning still confused after two years, is rare.
Case concerns a Parisian soul who stole a pension fund, a whopper that supported twenty-two million sometimes retired workers in perpetuity. The thief then proceeded to lose the vast wealth he swiped in somewhat untraceable ways, so the just-give-it-back, it-was-stolen laws are only partially repairing the damage done. The question of how much power to give back to the guy, who is truly repentant, and of whether or not to let him accept a position in the security sector of his or another bank (who more qualified?) are on the list of things Bill and his fellow jurors puzzle over. But the first concern of the court is how to refill the coffers of the AMZDPTOEU (Amalgamated Mongolian-Zhou-Dravidian Physical Therapy and Orthopedic Engineers Union) pension fund--those hardworking, hard-playing perpetually healthy sometimes retirees spread over several land masses. Usually, monies seized from overreaching insurance companies and bootleg luxury goods manufacturers fill such inconvenient gaps, but this time it simply isn’t enough. A novel structure of credits issued against future counterfeit shoe seizures has been proposed. Bill knows in his gut that this will incentivize law and customs enforcement in ways that will result in EMUCTU (Even More Unintended Consequences Than Usual). He has been interviewing economists, customs officials, counterfeit purse and thone makers, and soothsayers (turns out there are a score of reliable, identified soothsayers tucked away around the globe in places as diverse as futures trading firms, hair and nail shops, and primary school classrooms). He wants to say: (1) the debt issue is a bad idea; and (2) the cash should instead be taken from country clubs and communities of worship, which have arbitrary status-based fee structures and loads of cash. It’s going to be a hard sell to the jury, which is centrist. But not impossible. Bill just needs to get his ducks in a row. His argument will be that the union members all give to their places of worship and country clubs, in measurable amounts (he’s working up the numbers now). So a modest surtax to these places of learning and play is really just a way of letting the retirees cover their own misfortune.
When suddenly he is looking at Camille’s friend Flavia or rather Camille’s portrait of her. Translated into pixels, the painting is heated up rather than cooled down. Flavia looks contented, and she has beautiful shoulders and other places, narrow and shadowed, or plentifully rounded. And the personality that beams forth is hers no doubt but also Camille’s, a kind of precision of perception, at once teasing and testing. Bill’s heart moves up a gear as he prepares to be made love to, made more intelligent, morally confused. None of this happens--it’s only a picture of a picture--but try telling Bill’s endocrine system that.
Camille has been around the house and Bill and Megan have been to Camille’s house in all permutations, Mo the accessory one of them is always wearing and the motivator for the visits--either airing him, picking him up, or dropping him off, sometimes to play with Camille’s grandchildren and grandniecenephews. Even when Mo isn’t there, Mo is the engine--it’s Megan’s chance to be away from Mo and hang with her new friend, Camille. Bill too is allowed even encouraged to spend time with Camille. His attraction to Camille, which Bill doesn’t talk about even to, especially to, himself, has been more than adequately looked into by Megan and Camille. There have been discussions both in and out of Bill’s presence but always without his input about whether Camille is Bill’s type (yes), whether he even has a type (yes), whether perhaps Bill is now ready to experiment with loving a woman besides Megan (no), whether Camille could see herself in bed with him (yes) or Megan (maybe) or him and Megan (hmm). Amorogamy is plain vanilla--old beaus and belles are allowed. But new lovers? This remains a point of interest and tension in public and private life. Megan is open to it. Bill is reluctantly willing to contemplate it for Megan but for himself can’t go there. Camille doesn’t give it much thought. She was happy with her breedlove Alain way back when. When their agreement expired, they decided not to cohabit for a while and, what with one thing and another, have never lived together since for more than a few months at a time. Alain is still her closest soul and of course they have all that history. He lives in Detroit and she goes on overnight dates and weekends with him when both of them don’t have steadies and aren’t working too hard--he’s a fine carpenter, in both senses. So sure, Camille might dally with Bill, though in her experience monogamous men attempting to be free are among the most physically and emotionally inhibited creatures on the planet. As she said to Megan, it’s like asking a sled dog to catch a frisbee. Megan, who has never been monogamous in her heart but has been fairly so in her habits except during graduate school or in her case schools, might be more fun, but who knows? And friendship with Megan is definitely a hoot so why sex it up? Could take it to the next level or could turn it either jealous moody or syrupy. And Bill wouldn’t like it. Besides, Camille likes to make art. She likes her space.
This is the sort of information that Bill has been privy to while saying nothing himself except with his eyebrows, which are said to be highly expressive and on many occasions are translated quite accurately by Megan. He has no compunction about looking at the nude bust-length portrait at work because anything with the name Roebuck on it, in this case in the accompanying article about Gertrude Roebuck’s recent acquisitions, can not only be considered background to the murder-prevention case Bill is percolating, but actually is.
Good Listener (his name is Peter Harkness but when he’s working he goes by Si) watches Jack Roebuck walking his cat. Well, not walk. More like follow and wait for. The cat is on a halter leash, as if shehe (shehe’s a she, but Pete doesn’t know this) were a Chihuahua. But shehe’s a cat named Diana Louisa Encantada Roebuck formally, but soon called Pam by everyone but Jack, who calls her Putteeplease. As in, Here Putteeplease! which literally never ceases to amuse Jack though everyone else is only intermittently amused. But Pete doesn’t know the cat’s names, even after he hears Jack call to her. He just thinks Jack is calling herhim to come to him pretty please. And no one knows Pete’s own name is Pete Harkness because he always introduces himself by the name Si, short for Simon. He assumes people know and some do that Simon the apostle became Peter. Which would come out if he was ever caught and his long succession of murders solved, and something written about his life and psychology. Would his substitution of Simon for Peter seem clever? Pete likes stories in which sophisticated criminals have playful minds and aliases. He imagines he will be caught someday, maybe by Bill Baker himself, and that Bill will understand the nature of his alias (he pictures Bill puzzling out the answer in an interview room, the two of them across a table from each other, and Bill nodding grudging respect for the switch.) But Pete never gets caught, and the news people call him the Cain murderer, which isn’t bad, with its double association, James Cain, Cain and Abel.
Jack’s mansion is about twenty miles outside the city. Putteeplease explores a corner of the landscaped gardens, always open to the public, and rolls in some dust. Beyond is the wilderness area, miles of it--lakes, streams, open to the public during daylight. Why does a cat roll in dirt? Aren’t they supposed to be meticulously clean? Perhaps the soil masks their own odors. Pete rolls in the soil of the ordinary, always dressed like anybody, with his pleasant, neutral expression, never too quiet or too talkative.
Why kill Jack? Not a bad guy. Shares what he has. His sister’s art collection, housed here, is already a museum. Waiting until after one dies to share one’s collections, one’s palatial home and gardens, is not as common as it used to be, for the obvious reason. Jack’s mansion is open to the public during daylight, except for his living wing. He keeps a hawk's eye on the forest land and pours a fortune into stocking and preserving the fish and game. This goes beyond the SLAP laws (Sumptuary Laws of Access to the Public). Yeah, Jack’s officially a good guy, if a bit eccentric. Cat walking?
Fact is, though, Pete assured Jack’s father he would kill the boy. Basically because Jack refuses to grow up. His father said Jack works hard, in his way. He has friends, interests, causes. But Jack remains stubbornly a child, in touch with his desires, on his own clock. So he must die. That was the essence of the anger that Jack’s dad Phil felt toward his son, and that Pete found himself warming to.
Pete watching Jack walk his cat doesn’t ask himself why he is going to kill Jack soon. He only confirms his feeling that this is appropriate, in keeping with the boy’s father’s wishes. Pete’s clarity--about what is right--never steers him wrong.
Camille dances like a teenager. The rockabilly is cranked up to the speaker’s official limit--Weights and Measures doesn’t let people blow their stereocilia out no more. That kind of “freedom” went the way of gun ownership, flying under the influence (engines don’t function for drivers who are intoxicated, instead go into full auto and take them home, however much they curse or rattle the controls), hatred or violence in public speech. The courts are full of challenges to these rules and the pendulum will swing again in favor of freedom of speech slash consensual self-destruction, but for the moment it’s considered pretty much a non-starter, except in North Korea, where the late blooming of individualism and right-to-choose keeps the 완전한 자유 Party unshakeably in control.
Camille stops, stands panting in front of her easel. Resumes painting Sean Shaving. What is it about the patina of time that makes the men of her early days, their young bodies and easy smiles, rich? It was just a Sunday morning once, balanced between hunger, crankiness and lust. Now it’s the amber and peach curves of his chest, the asymmetry of smile, those amused eyes. Mixed with the music and today’s sunlight. Nostalgia, anticipation (she will see him again next week).
Sean was her lover then and the first teacher she allowed to see her work and guide it. Her older man (how significant fifty-seven years seemed then), her conquest and proof of worth. Now, healthy physically, he is losing it artistically. He has been revising his paintings--she knows because they are changing. She has three around the house, each with nanopigment, the only way Sean releases them, even to friends. Sean is a purist of reproductive rights--will not sell any control, either of copy number or version stop. All his paintings and copies are wired and botted so that if he wakes up one morning and makes changes, these occur not only on his original but on all extant copies--as if his paintings were documents, and he had the original, the rest of the world read-only. This rules out sales to collectors. More problematic, he like all artists has lapses of judgement and mars that which was not broken. More often as his mind ages and he grows overburdened with memories, ideas, techniques.
When she sees him, Camille will tell him, as only she can, that his work of sixty or so years ago is fine. Let it be, like the song says.
She doesn’t have this problem, content to let the paint dry once and for all. Sure, she sees things she would now do differently, but that’s the way the paint tube bounces. You want a new painting, paint one.
The song ends. She works on the space above him, sunshine diamonding off the top right corner of the bathroom mirror of his flat in London, razor poised in front of him, all those light years ago.
“Dad told me you’d be by,” Jack says. He’s making a salad in his restaurant-sized kitchen. “He says he asked that crazy Cain killer to off me. Maybe.”
“I didn’t believe him. Dad is very imaginative. I believe he met someone and complained about me. That’s not a stretch. Now if he told you he had met someone and not complained about me.”
The son’s knife skills are good. He’s doing that onion trick, scoring it two ways before the definitive chopping. He fills the bottom of two wooden bowls and starts his dressing in a cup.
“But Liz says it’s plausible. She heard the man as much as promise to get rid of me. She sat down with the two of them within a minute of when he started talking to Dad. That’s her job. Actually, Dad buttonholed the killer and asked him to sit down. Dad can’t be alone. You probably know that. He needs listeners.” Jack tears lettuces collected from his or someone’s nonponic garden--dirt on the leaves. He tosses these in the dry cleaner where the lettuce dances in cold air, the dirt turning to dust and quivering off. He reaches in, takes a few leaves, tears them, drops them in the bowl. Reaches for more.
“Liz caught the last half of Dad’s complainologue and the man’s responses. She would have said something but it was all so understated and she hadn’t actually heard of the Cain killer. She thought he was just another fellow wanting something from Dad, pretending to agree with everything Dad says. In this case, my son is a dilettante, when will he get serious about ruling the world or at least having another family--I was married and have two grown kids. Dad likes to work me over when he drinks. I think he’s proud of me in his way. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just doing what he wishes he had done.”
Jack cuts bread that he baked that morning--thick crust, burnt in spots, flour white in patches, tumbling off in puffs as the knife crunches through.
“Dad didn’t want to scare me but he had this idea that if I knew the bogeyman was coming to get me, I could prepare myself. Sleep with one eye open. Carry weapons, buff up my fighting, leave the light on in the closet at night. Hire Bruce Lee. Honestly, I’m more worried about Dad. He’s a mess. All I have to do is…”
He places the thick slices on a flat section of the massive stove and touches a button. The slices toast and he taps another button. Adds toasted garlic to the bowls, waggles a white anchovy in front of Bill’s face until Bill nods, then chops it and adds it, another for his own. Tears the toast and adds it, along with olives, tomatoes, fresh what Bill’s mom called Herbs, and dressing. Squeezes lemon juice through a cloth on top, tosses, hands the bowls to Bill and goes for wine glasses.
“All I have to do,” Jack says, “is live. That’s all I’ve ever had to do. It was tricky with no role models. Just tell me to fuck myself if you don’t want to hear the Poor Little Rich Boy Lament.”
They sit. Bill says nothing. It took him many years to learn this flavor of silence. Not not judging--bullshit, obviously. More like interested in a baseball game, slow interested.
“Work, yes. Pose, sure. Actually live--that I had to teach myself. Well, Trude and me. But she was older and she was a girl. I suppose she taught me how to live like a girl. Which is fine, as far as it goes.”
They sit in high curved wooden chairs, surprisingly well contoured for long-legged men. They look out at a rose garden, oppressive--like a quick review of capitalism. The windows are open and insects veer away from the sonic barrier at the last second, only the autumn breeze entering. Sun on cut grass turning, edged with singed roses.
“Bonu aptitu,” Jack raising his glass. They eat. “I wasn’t depressed as a kid. But I was a little bit not there. Then I learned stuff from Decklebottom, our danny. He knew I didn’t really know what I was doing. That the point of getting up and being alive was--.”
“Tarantula Decklebottom?” Bill says, his first words since telling Jack his name. The tarantula is an odd duck in the fly family. Hopper, stonefly, spruce moth, lumbering October caddis? Big trout don’t care--they smack it.
“You know John?”
“His tarantula,” Bill says.
“John’s a sage. We’ll all go out, if you like.” He points past the formal gardens, west and north into the conservation land.
“I just have to live,” Jack repeats quietly to himself. “Nothing new.”
Mo speaks in tongues. He holds his fingers in L above where he lies on his back on the kitchen floor. The word tampoo comes with utilitarian frequency, the star noun. Kirk separates Mo from the doorway into the den, dogsbody laid crosswise like a furry moat.
Megan lies next to Mo. She has just fallen into a deep sleep. In her dream she is a girl in Gramma Saanvi’s house. They’re playing Rummy, Megan’s cards arranged into two runs of three and two of a kind and a couple of duds, the corners of the cards tightly fanned and held with both of her own hands, her fingers maybe eight years old.
Mo refracts afternoon sunlight through his fingers, and says things to that light. Light answers him. He answers the answers.
Tearing away of calendar sheets. Thursday, October 18th; Friday, October 19th... Sunday, January 20th, Monday, January 21st. Stop.
Mary Jane resort, Colorado. Cobalt sky. Powder just this side of cold-sticky under Megan’s skis at -34 degrees Celsinheit.
A note on units. The Compromise was almost derailed in the eleventh hour (more on the Ten-Hour Day Dispute later) by the Austro-Hungarian delegates, who staged a walkout over zero freezing point. Water becomes clear and hard at zero, not 32, was the gist of it. What could be clearer? The counter-argument was equally adamant--how can anyone feel hot at 35? The Fahrenheit delegates blew their tops. When they simmered down, the Compromise crystallized--the freezing point would be zero, but the unit of a degree up or down would be the Fahrenheit degree, small enough that a hot summer day would be a respectable, indeed an impressive, 122 degrees Celsinheit where once it had been 90, while frostbite had to be reckoned with at an equally impressive -40 Celsinheit.
Megan and her brother पराग are tearing up Derailer, or rather पराग is tearing it up, bouncing from mogul to mogul in his joint-assist jumpsuit. Megan is snaking between bumps a couple yards east of him. They have raced side by side since childhood, Megan refusing to be slower than पराग even though he has a three-year-two-month head start. The fall line pulls Megan left while the mogul line requires she terrace the hill, leaning right. The ventilation suit wafts perspiration from her while the temperature from toe to neck stays pleasant. Only her face registers the day, streams of ambient air trickling in against the outflow. When they are skiing back uphill side by side, Megan says, “You were right.”
“Knee-high alien came to earth and used telepathy to subjugate you?”
Their sit slash lean back into their suits’ rigid uphill mode. The suits are linked to the boots which distribute the lean-back into the skis.
“Your intellectual pursuits are limited to mirroring facial expression,” पराग says, “when your duties as parasitic host providing sustenance through your breasts are completed.”
“And my duties as defecation remover and anointer of cream,” Megan adds. Oxygen enriched air, with a scent like fresh laundry, wafts from tubes into their noses and mouths. “But I love it.”
“You think you love it. Your understanding has been usurped.”
“More like uslurped. Mo is getting bigger. I’m getting raisined.”
“You smile and doze as the life force ebbs out of you.”
“I sing songs.”
“You read him the same book over and over.”
“Is Your Mama a Llama. I’m the one who can’t get enough of it.”
“You believe it is literature.”
“I used to read Kafka and Shakespeare,” Megan says.
“No you didn’t.”
“I read Wolfson and देशपांडे.” Middlebrow writers of her youth, entertaining, informative, requiring concentration.
“You used to write articles about upstairs tent toilets.” They come off over a rise and accelerate until slow bouncing uphill, their skis tips searching for but not always finding smooth paths upward.
“That’s crazy. You can’t put a toilet in a tent. And tents don’t have upstairs.”
“I rest my case,” पराग says. “Brain gone. Body uslurped.”
They glide along a ridge line and slowly up a steep.
“He looks like Dad,” Megan says.
“He looks like a dwarf druid. You think he looks like whoever he wants you to think he looks like.”
“I want another one.”
“You think you do. He wants a sibling slave.”
Their skis slow and their suits lift them to vertical and soften. Megan and पराग flex and plan, looking down into Vasquez. Megan leads off, goggles adjusting outflow, sunglasses lightening as she enters mountain shadow. She gets a little rhythm going, doing the twist in the spacious arrangement of forty-toe diameter spruce trunks. She sees पराग to her left and he’s a little ahead so she narrows and quickens her weave. She skis in a soft burrowing style, like a sand snake. Her brother is a bouncer. She’s got him. He stops in some underbrush and she’s thinking what to shout that isn’t too immature a way of crowing. She’s thinking nah-nah-nannah-nah might just do it when she smacks into a tree doing maybe thirty kiloyards per hour.
“I won,” she croaks. पराग is standing between her and the sun. Her lungs won’t fill yet. She’s working for small inhalations. Slowly, the helmet and airbag deflates, like a dunce cap drooping over an ear. पराग asks her if she is okay. When he’s sure she’s not hurt, he chuckles. Her chest airbag flops but not, surprisingly, her idea of herself. She’s surrounded by twigs and bark. “I won,” she croaks again.
“For sure,” he says. He gently pulls her up. The way he always does.
“We’ll do a show at Jack’s,” Trude says. “Nothing elaborate. Dinner, of course. Music. Dancing in the ballroom. Trio in the atrium. Sleeping auction.”
So this is success, Camille thinks. You’re hustling down a sidewalk beside a new friend--and Trude is that, as well as patroness--and the path is revealed. She allows herself to realize what Trude is offering--that Camille’s work be assembled from collections around the world, that the collectors and dealers are invited to come and consider, that their wealth and existing collections are analyzed along with their expressed interest in the paintings they stand in front of, and the works which are for sale change owners during the night. That she, Camille, become wealthy, and her work recognized on the scale of the higher arts--not the ubiquitous fame of holo or pop music figure, but on the scale of poet, performance artist, new music figure--name recognition and perhaps ability to recognize an image of one of her paintings by .076 of the adult population, give or take.
“Okay,” Camille says.
“On your birthday.” Because of course Trude knows not only the date but that it falls on a Saturday. “The gardens should be greening up.”
True, Camille thinks, hustling along. How can Trude, who stands a mere seven foot five inches in her heels, move so fast? In the PSAE (post-sulphate-aerosolization-era, the dawn of artificial global cooling) June 6th is the start of the short bloom.
“Are there any collections we should tell Rita about?” Trude asks. She means collections unknown to the art world.
“Cavanaugh,” Camille manages. She’s not panting but she’s breathing hard. Trude laughs. Why isn’t Trude short of breath?
“We know all about Sean,” Trude says, and throws an arm around Camille as if to keep her on pace. “I have right of first refusal on anything he sells.”
Camille stumbles along. Detroit’s downtown has a taste of grit, despite the renaissances. It’s still the city of magnates and laborers and Camille is content that she will always be on the brick-wielding side of the barricades. Still nice of Trude to throw her a party--which will make both her and Camille serious manna. For Camille this means freedom from budgeting which she hates to do. Spending carefully is second nature to her, and it has been generations since artists or anyone else starved from non-psychological causes. But having to choose which areas to spend carefully in, and in what order, annoys Camille. After the show she will be able to carefully spend casually. What Trude will do with another quarter million new dinars, Camille has no idea. Rich people money is insufficient. Wealth is anxiety. Then there’s the weird effect that the amount of money Camille has to spend is inversely proportional to the wealth of her companion, dinner date, whatever. Today, for instance, the heiress had no chipring, no creditglasses--no forms of payment about her short person. So when the bill popped up next to the salt and pepper shakers after lunch, it was of course Camille who paid with her earstudchip, resentfully leaning into the pyramid of light as if listening to the sound of her money flowing. At least Trude had the tip in cash--the dinars encryptions morphing slowly on the crystal substrate in the dim light of the fancy chow house.
“Are you ready for this?” Trude asks. They enter the shoe store where Trude greets the salesgirls--who could be any age at a glance--like friends. That charade over, she points to what she wants to try on, and both girls rush off to do her bidding.
“I am,” Camille tells her. This is her third retrospective. In the old days, artists had one retrospective when they reached the end of their productive arc, and the value of their work was at that complementary monetary apex. Retrospectives were retirement parties, chances for critics to sharpen their tongues and pencils, and for owners to grasp. Now these retrospectives are phase markers and come when an artist’s opus reaches critical ripeness and mass, or the artist is ready to take a break of some number of decades.
“I listen, I answer,” Camille says. Who comes? Painters, friends and competitors, some of whom love other art and artists, others of whom wish they were the only painter or artist currently or ever creating anything. Know-it-alls--owners or critics--ask pointed questions. What were you thinking about when you painted such-and-such? What does this or that element mean (they think they already know)? That is your best work since blah. If you just changed di, this would blah. “I never know what I’m going to say.”
“I’ve heard,” Trude says. She’s trying on shoe, pairs take too long. She just tries on one and the alpha salesgirl who, upon closer inspection, must be Camille’s age, sets a pair aside. “Your first retro--Lima?”
Camille had behaved all through the opening, the next day of mingling. It wasn’t until the second night that she had spoken up in one quiet side conversation. You can’t see, she had matter-of-factly informed Traiboune, one of the most grasping collectors based in Eurasia. How did Trude hear about it? Not from Claibourne.
“It’s part of why they come,” Trude tells her. “The tamed, or-is-she, lionness.” Trude walks out of the store, not saying deliver to my house, not saying bill me. “Talk away.”
Camille runs after her.
Bill and Megan cuddle. When Mo was born, the sun ceased ruling time. Instead, Mo rose and set--he hungered, he produced operas of distress, joy. It is now late night or painfully early morning, and Mo has dropped into milk-drunk sleep. Megan is back in bed, which Bill has thoughtfully kept warm for her, while she and Kirk tended to the feeding. Bill is tireless in his work of keeping the bed warm in the night, resisting all but the most importunate commands to attend to other work, such as the giving of bottle, the changing of diaper. Megan curls back against him, gathering his hands to her neck like a bouquet. His breath in her hair. His belly on her back. He is her EZBoy.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” she asks him.
“Yup.” Megan is up on the Roebuck case. Listener likes to kill on special occasions--once, a business partner’s launch day for a new venture, once a best friend’s birthday, twice a couple’s anniversary. Megan and Bill think he’ll come after Jack at the celebration of Camille’s work. He will evade ordinary security, so the question is how and where will he attack. Tomorrow Bill plans to wander the estate, putting himself in the Listener’s shoes. See what occurs to him. “You?”
“Never too young to start on the butterfly.”
“We just hold them and walk around, complaining. We all have the same complaints but we trade them anyway.”
“When we have The Sequel, I’m going to stay home for some years.”
“Yes,” Megan says. “And I’m going to work a little bit. Mainly at the times when you need rest.”
“I’ll be present and resilient.”
“You’ll be invaluable and taken for granted.”
Bill is amazed but not surprised when Megan finds sleep in a matter of seconds. Maybe ten breaths pass before she draws air with that sleeping depth, tremble and regularity. He keeps his arm under her ribs as numbness spreads and turns to pain, then waits a bit more. So when he pulls his arm out, she doesn’t wake. What is romantic poetry? Lyrics about lovers sleeping in each other’s arms all night long.
The Listener will pass as a caterer? A guest? He will attend the party, look at the artwork, eat a good meal. Find an attractive, but not too attractive woman, man or wam (person of no or dual gender) to dance with. How will the murder occur? If he goes Cain, he could bash in Jack’s skull with bearings in a canvas sack, get Jack in a car, smash his head in with a wrench and roll him down a cliff, break his neck over the back of a chair using a crutch, or get Jack onto a couch and run him (and the couch) through with a bullfighter’s sword.
Jack and Philip steam, Jack stretched naked on the upper bench on a steam-soaked towel. Philip sits upright on the lower tile bench, his posture attentive, as if spectating at the squash courts upstairs. Philip wears a bathing suit that looks like a pair of navy blue Bermuda shorts, creases and all.
“It’s understood,” Philip tells his son. “Women and men.”
“We’re alone, Dad.”
“What’s more appropriate?”
“Not everyone is comfortable with nudity.”
This time Jack doesn’t respond. His father needs to say the last bit on any subject. The steam is just right--thick enough to be misty and hot, but not so thick as to burn the skin of the bended knee or the inner nostril. Jack breathes slow deep breaths that expand his lungs a notch past full. He waits, knowing he will have to be the one to speak about it. Still, it’s good to give the old man a chance. Hope springs eternal.
“Baker says you’ve spent time together,” Philip begins. Not a deep statement, Jack thinks, but an acknowledgement.
“Blah blah blah. Blah blah. Blad di blah blah. Blah.
Philips speaks about Bill being the best, most highly recommended--this is how his father tells Jack how much he loves him, by explaining that he has done due diligence, left no stone unturned, found the best man. A bit of the effect is lost, given the context, but Jack wouldn’t know it from Philip's delivery.
“I’m fine, Dad. I know you didn’t mean to put a hit on me. You just complained to the wrong psychopath. Could have happened to anybody. We all talk shit about our nearest and dearest. Strangers seem to understand. 關公, if I had a dinar for every time I’ve bitched to one woman about another one. She doesn’t love me enough. She doesn’t understand me. She doesn’t love me in exactly the right way.” He chuckles. “Thank Abonsam none of those sympathetic gals were killers.”
He waits again.
“Bippity bippity. Ba ba ba tabala. Tabala bippity...”
This time it’s about how Bill is going to protect Jack, that he has every resource Philip can offer. Why not just say I gave him a shirtload of money to use and another shirtload for his fee? Resources? Discretion? Autonomy? Bippity bippity.
“Thanks, Dad. Bill is the best and I’m being careful.” He means all of what he says. If he dies, he will have lived. He is well within himself and in the world. He knows the exact moment he reached this position. It was the day his own son was born. When his son and daughter grew up and left home, he was still fine. When his wife grew up and left home, he was less than whole on every level except the deepest one.
He is being careful--careful to see, to feel, to connect with those he loves. To breathe. It will kill his father if this Si guy takes Jack out. Not literally kill Phil but make his long, long life a misery. Jack figures he won’t have a chance to defend himself. He’s read about the other sixteen documented Cain murders. Si bludgeons, stabs, pushes off ledges--no fair fights. No fights at all. The man murders as if weeding, according to his notion of who belongs, who are invasives. So either Bill will save Jack, which everyone, especially Philip, knows is unlikely, or he won’t.
Jack waits again. The silence has a pleading quality. This--any conversation--could be his and his father’s last.
“We’ve had our differences,” Phil says. “I haven’t always been as clear as I might have been about how much I value you.”
Oh shit, Jack thinks. Phil is giving the valued employee speech when he wanted to give the loving father speech. How to redirect him?
“But I think you’ve always known how much I care about you. Your mother and I looked at you the day you were born and said, Look at those eyes.”
He tells Jack the story again, how he and Mom marvelled at Jack’s piercing blue eyes and knew he was going to be a મેઘાવી and a delight. Such a long way around.
“I love you, Dad.”
This time the silence, the steam, weeps.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” Phil says. The door closes with a sucking sound, like a moan. Jack knows it isn’t the heat his father needs a break from. No mystery, really. Compared to Phil’s own father, Phil is a marvel of openness and compassion. Then there’s Phil’s mother, Oma Lucinda. Whew. Jack has long understood that his parents have parents, and do the best they can.
That morning, after Jack worked in the greenhouse until a respectable hour to call daylight people, he thoned his father and invited himself to the club for a steam, and lunch.
If he dies tomorrow with an icepick or some other Cain tool in his back, Jack will not die angry. He had a dream a couple three nights back in which he caught a beautiful rainbow in a high mountain stream. He was casting up between two boulders, and the fish took the tiny gnat and fought its way down beneath one of the great glacial stones. In the dream, Jack had tried all fishing tricks to raise the rainbow. Then, magically and without discarding his pole or vest, he leapt upward over the stream ledge and down into the icy water. He whipped his tail, which he had, and came face-to-face with the rainbow, who spit out the gnat and whispered, Gotcha. He and the fish glided to the surface, he holding its quivering icy length against his chest like his son, baby Tom, fresh from bath time. The fish sighed--he had fought too long and Jack couldn’t revive him. He breathed out a baby breath into Jack’s hands and swam up into the air. Then Jack was the fish, and he looked down from the sky into the deep pool, the cold artery of snow melt, below. Saw the man standing beside the pool gazing upward, tears shining on his face. The man was Philip.
Bill lies between two women, Megan, Camille. He came home from the Mansion and there they were--lightly dressed, lightly spooning in bed. Mo, across the hall, door closed, in his crib, napping like the napping champ he is, Captain Kirk on sentry duty. Now Mo and Bill are semi-awake--Bill listens to Mo tampooing his mobiles about this and that. Sunlight diagonals through the break in the curtains. Megan stirs, takes Bill’s hand and puts it between her knees, drools on his arm.
Lovemaking in the afternoon was athletic, prime time, the biorhythms unclouded by Sandman or alcohol. With Megan and Camille, Bill did all that he could and more. It was lively mixed Canadian doubles. He found himself back on the playground where he and Megan were first a public item. Second grade. This afternoon, as then, he tried his damnedest to be one of the girls. But the rules, the rhymes, were one step beyond his ken. He was other, but handy. At times he was perfect, had the toy they really wanted to play with and was willing to share. Played well with others and so forth. Megan had to keep telling him it was okay--in second grade, taking him by the hand and pulling him into the hopskotch, the jump rope. This afternoon, grabbing onto him and putting him into the tableau vivant, the soft heat.
Abundance. Smoothitude. Stereoness.
Encouragement. Confusion. Shame.
Whoa-baby yeah-ness. Tinyness.
Getting back into it. Laughter.
That was basically the story.
Artificial democracy, known simply as democracy, works like this. Everyone gets a vote who wants one, even children who pass a citizenship test and adults who don’t. But not everyone’s vote counts the same. How much one’s vote counts depends on what one or who one votes for, and one’s past record of voting wisely (wisdom quantified as predictive of public good; public good defined as leading to happiness and prosperity for the greatest number; happiness taken to be self-identified feelings of well-being and safety; prosperity recognized as the feeling that one has enough; enough being the amount of wealth and goods commensurate with freedom and satisfaction; freedom parsed in the usual way as exercise of will within constraints of safety and consideration; and satisfaction being that which one can’t get no but which if you try you find you get what you need). Sometimes one’s entire slate in a given nowlection makes sense, then there’s one vote which indicates a possible bold new outlook, and this vote--perhaps for a new engineering initiative or a new way of allocating resources among citizens, is given a giant boost. On the other hand, one whose voting history and whole slate indicates vindictiveness toward the public good or simply a lack of understanding, may have their vote lightened until it is essentially null and void. This one woman Madge, who may or may not be real or may be a superintelligence composed of committee-moderated metadata tributaries, has been in charge of the whole thing throughout Bill and Megan’s entire voting life. Of course you never know how much your votes count. They might count a lot, or one of them might on a given election day. You can kind of feel it in your innards when you vote powerfully. In Madge we trust. (Some attribute the name to the Old Persian مگس, others to the woman who seemed to really know what was what as she pushed other women’s hands into dish washing liquid in tv advertisements in the mid-military-industrial period.)
Occasionally candidates are elected who don’t know how to do what they signed up for. They go about their business anyway, their activities and words widely reported, but Madge makes sure their powers are proportional to their knowledge and regard for public benefit. If they start demagoguing, their volume is turned down. Their speeches are still out there, but become very quiet. Their supporters are seen pressing their eyes and ears to monitors and tapping volume controls. These leaders’ images become fainter and smaller. Transcripts of their words are in very small fonts.
Peter Harkness mixes with the small throng in the anteroom. “Si,” he says.
“No, Simon Davidoff.”
“Phil Roebuck.” Of course Phil doesn’t recognize him. No one ever does. Yet Peter’s face is as distinctive as everyone’s, or slightly more so. He has the little scar in his left eyebrow from when his brother threw a ping pong paddle at him. He has the asymmetrical smile which starts and basically stays on the left. And he has the lean into the right hip when he stands, and the crossing of his arms. None of it striking but not anonymous either. No, his unrememberability is an affect thing. He is just warm enough to be confided in, but unreactive enough to allow his interlocutor to expound, without coming up against the resistance of a differing point of view. So of course Phil tells him all over again about his son--how the house and grounds have been in the family for four generations, how no one but Jack wants to live in it, how not having a place in the corporation despite numerous opportunities, Jack has appointed himself caretaker of the estate and adjacent lands and is in effect something between a museum manager, a farmer, and a park ranger. Is Phil proud of his diversely skilled, philanthropic son? No, Phil again asserts his superiority to his son and asks Pete--as if they’ve never met before--for something to be done. Pete is not at all surprised by this. He is never wrong in what he hears the first time. He listens accurately. Pete, as Si, strolls off with a telling nod to Phil--I’m on it. Phil has a deju-vu shiver, which only a good swallow of scotch warms out of him.
Megan has Mo in the autostroller. So Mo follows her around the party, makes his own introductions to the ladies and men who come up to him. Tampoo, he says, politely meeting each pair of eyes with his own baby blues, smiling, offering hands and knees (but not cheeks, thank you) for squeezes. He’s wearing the hell out of his formal onesie, with it’s turtle-pattern cumberbund and his matching turtle-pattern bowtie. The toes of his Oxfords gleam.
Bill, occupying the high vantage point of the third turn in the banister, like the dick in a film noir, feels both stupid and conspicuous. But what else is he supposed to do? He’s got people screening all comers against the guestlist. He’s got weapon-sniffing butterfliers listening for agitation tones, sniffing for aggression levels of cortisol and estradiol, scanning for muscle tone. When the killer makes his move, he will be stopped.
Bullshit. The Listener has killed four times in similarly monitored situations. He doesn’t use weapons. Worse, he doesn’t metabolically arouse to kill affect. He just kills.
He’s here. How does Bill know? The fabled “I just feel it in my gut” of detective fiction? Not at all. Bill knows The Listener is here despite having no feeling in his gut except hunger. He’s been too preoccupied to eat, very unusual, though he does intend to sit with Megan and Camille at the head table (Camille insisted) and he has studied the menu. Bill knows the killer is coming because the man sent Bill an email--not a thext, not a voice--an antique.
I’m going to kill Jack tonight.
Bill almost--well, you can’t fall out of ChAir--but he went rigid and cold, like a nineteen-hour-old corpse, before he hit reply and wrote.
Fuck you, creep. I’m going to lock your sad ass up.
And fired it off. A more professional response would have been to alert the subuesas first. When he did alert the tracers, they raced both virtually and really to the room whence said email originated, only to find nothing except some male mostly European dandruff.
Bill had alerted Jack, after seriously considering not alerting Jack. Jack had been tying a fugly crawdad at the tying table in his gear room--using bits of other flies to make a thing that looked a bit like Jeff Goldblum when he got his human and fly parts scrambled in the old two-dimensionsional Fly.
“No shit?” Jack said. “Tonight?” He chuckled and kept tying. His fly rods were arrayed on the walls. No holotrophies. A couple 2Ds of Decklebottom and a man Bill didn’t recognize, on rivers in the midwest, southwest, Mongolia.
Bruce Lee (real name) trails Jack now, not doing the you’re-going-to-have-to-get-through-me sunglasses and earpiece secret service thing, but not doing the off-in-the-corner, you-can’t-even-see-me thing either. He moved in and out of Jack’s orbit, as if he and Jack were friends, which they are.
Then Bill sees the Listener, walking toward Jack on a long diagonal from the catering table in the corner. He’s medium height, moving not fast not slow, chatting, pivoting. How does Bill know him? The pepper mill. Steel, maybe a new 1.5 feet long. The man offers fresh pepper to guests who carry small plates of canapes, tiny useless non-absorbent napkins, and drinks. Who can resist fresh pepper? One in three nod and the man pauses, lifts the mill, and gives it a twist.
Bill does the math. Forty stairs, then the time to make his way across the crowded floor to reach Jack before Cain is raised in the form of steel, and brought down hard. Bill hoists himself onto the balustrade. Looks down let’s say forty-five new feet to the parquet. He drops, artificial knees slightly flexed, arms out, as if to slow his fall.
Megan is on her way to the powder room, actually labeled powder room, when she sees the stranger. The sound, which preceded his passage down the hallway, could be interpreted as celebratory--a collective gasp back in the ballroom, as if a new arrival had made her entrance in a gown so breathtaking it, well, took everyone’s breath away. But there had been a thump that preceded the gasp, a sound that didn’t go with crowd excitement, was more like something from Megan’s tent-design fieldwork, a hundred new pound (a word about weight measures is in order here: predictably, the decimal system of weights was adopted simultaneously with lengths, the new pound actually half a kilogram) exterior fabric bundle, say, hitting dry earth from a first-floor scaffold.
The stranger walks quickly down the hallway, smiles at her, takes hold of the handles of Mo’s stroller. He backs toward the wall and pulls the stroller toward himself, as if helpfully rolling it to the side, out of the way.
Out of the way of what? Megan wonders. Then sees Bruce Lee hit the wall of the end of the corridor with both feet in a high-speed turning maneuver, part original Bruce Lee, part Fred Astaire Royal Wedding. The smiling stranger with the scar in his eyebrow turns his shoulder to Megan, adjusts the stroller in front of himself, and slightly squares off in the direction of Bruce, lifting a pepper or sea salt mill into batter-ready position. Tampoo, Mo says, looking up at the gleaming steel.
Megan sees her fingers grasp the end of the mill. But how? She was standing too far away. Then she realizes she too, like Bruce a moment ago, is in midair, maybe eight new feet off the ground, entirely horizontal, as if the floor below her and the ceiling above are walls, and the wall across from where the man, stroller, Mo, and grinder are, is the floor she just leapt from. She feels the man’s left fist crack her face just above the left jawline, a punch so powerful it registers as an explosion--the sort of thing she might use to activate an upward water flow in a four-story tent, perhaps with a solar-capitator pressure egg, a tech she was involved with during her first trimester. The punch fractures bone but strangely causes neither pain nor unconsciousness, instead creating in Megan a kind of acceleration of purpose. This, she sees or thinks--a perception that is neither and both--results in her twisting the grinder from the man’s grip. She spins it and whips it into the man’s windpipe. She travels, still entirely horizontal, over the stroller, Mo smiling as she passes like a mom cloud, in slow-mo over Mo. She tucks and rolls to standing, her nose actually pressed against the wall once she rises to her feet.
Bruce reaches her, unpeels her hand from the grinder, then leads her, now holding her hand, back to the ballroom. She and Bruce push the stroller in front of them. The man on the floor makes a strange sound--something like a wet whistle, if a whistler could whistle water.
Damn, she thinks, I didn’t get to pee.
The fire in the fireplace sighs cracks and makes a little ptoi! sound as moisture finds its way from the hardwood. Jack and Phil sit in the cavernous leather rich man chairs with, let no cliche go unturned, brandy snifters in their hands, filled with cognac so expensive it actually smells like injustice.
“You sure it was him, Dad?”
“You sure you complained about me again?”
“I talked about you.”
“You must have said some nice things.”
“What are you upset about then?”
“That I didn’t recognize him. That I didn’t kill him.”
“Nobody did. Everybody took fresh pepper from him.”
“They hadn’t seen him before. They didn’t know a killer was coming.”
Jack nods, watches the flame traverse the middle log in long licks, dropping back to the far left, like a tentative idea. He would like to grant his father absolution again. He’s sure his father didn’t tell Si to kill him twice, maybe not even once. At worst Phil probably said that Jack is lazy--true enough in the sense that he has very little energy for tasks he isn’t convinced of the necessity of--and that Jack is a disappointment. Again, true, in that Phil is disappointed, though Jack has seen a slow evolution in his father away from the desire to see Jack become a chip off the old block, taking on the duties and features of the sire, toward an appreciation, however uncertain and qualified, for Jack’s own way in the world and Jack’s own non-industrialist though solidly patrician accomplishments.
“Well, it all came out fine,” Jack says. “Thanks to you hiring Bill.”
“In a way. Bill jumped and that warned Mr. Lee.”
“Say it, Dad.”
“Bruce Lee. But it wasn’t Bruce who took Si out.” He tilts his snifter and sips. It’s an awkward glass, given one has a nose. “It was Bill’s wife, Megan. I didn’t even know she was part of his team.”
Jack opens his mouth to correct his father, but then the fire pops and tosses a single ember up over the screen. Jack rises, sets his glass on the table between his chair and his father’s, fetches the wire broom from the tool rack, moves the screen to one side, sweeps the still glowing ember back into the coals. By which time he realizes that his father’s comfort in thwarting the murder will be halved if he learns that Megan was not part of Bill’s or anyone’s security team, unless you count Mo’s.
“You were there for me, Dad,” Jack says. He lifts his own glass to his father in a manly salute. It’s good to love the old man, Jack thinks, and help him out.
“Aren’t you just supposed to lift heavy objects?” Camille asks.
“That’s traditional,” Megan says. “But it’s really whatever you have to do.”
“The most I ever did was tell teachers and administrators to do their jobs, instead of asking my boys not to be boys.”
“Well, that’s heavy lifting,” Megan says. They are at Camille’s, eating sloppy joe, Megan with the right side of her mouth. The left is still healing. Captain Kirk has some leftover chicken.
“You’ve got that right. You’ll see.”
Mo is with Bill at home, and Jill, the nanny, who Megan hired when she got home from getting her face fixed at the hospital and realized it was time to go back to work part-time. Bill has a couple bones healing and a pair of new hips. It will be weeks before he can stand and work on strength and proprioception. In the meantime, it’s the airfoil recovery bed, gently tasking him waking and sleeping, and projecting movement response simulations on the ceiling to keep his brain patterning up. Bill's knees were fine, not so much his ankles and hips. This is the problem with periodic joint replacement throughout the very long life. Sure, you can do the knees in modumetals so light and strong they could be used for rocket components, but what about the flesh and blood on either side? When Bill spotted Pete aka Si moving toward Jack and launched himself from the second landing, he wasn’t really thinking through his own landing. Bill hit the floor running, but only for a couple steps before he crumpled in agony. After Megan dealt with Pete in the hall, both Pete and Bill had to be sedated and stabilized before they could be transported to Beaumont-Royal-Oak Hospital.
Pete is now in the rehabilitation system, getting used to his new trachea, his range of movement limited to a room for an indefinite period, eventually to a whole dwelling, then possibly a street, a town, a whole country--probably Sweden. For some reason, many killers--the handful each decade--get refurbished in Sweden. Some come out counselors for violent-impulse youth, retaining throughout their lives the slight Swedish accent and a love of thin pancakes.
“I didn’t know you knew martial arts. Bruce Lee said you combined Shaolin stick fighting and wuxia-style rollouts, whatever the hell that means.”
“The Rublees,” Megan says.
“Huh? You’ve got a little…”
“The Rublees,” Megan repeats, after wiping sloppy joe off. “Had the best football yard. Connected to the Shamlians with no fence in between. Must’ve been fifty yards.”
“What does that--”
“I did a lot of diving over the boys. पराग would run tackle ahead of me and when he took down a defender, I dove for the first down.”
“I see,” Camille says. “But what about taking the pepper mill to the creep’s windpipe.”
“No, I never did that. But then no Rublees or Shamlians broke my cheekbone or--” she pauses and takes a deliberate breath--"had my baby.” Then she’s weeping, for the first time a week after the fact, and Camille rushes around the little table to hold her as the sobs come, one more powerful than the next. Kirk rises and frantically searches the room, as if to corner the cause of Megan’s misery.
“Over, sweetheart,” Camille tells her, kissing away her tears. “It’s over. You stopped him.”
Tearing away of calendar sheets, Saturday, July 7th; Sunday, July 8th. Slowing at Tuesday, July 10th, Wednesday, July 11th. Stop.
Bill and Stew next to the Rio Grande. The red stone gives way to red mud and in between is the terraced sward of grama grass sprouting clammyweed and catclaw at bar stool height. They’re eating chicken salad sandwiches.
“So you stopped him,” Phil says.
“I broke both hips and screamed like a baby. Which caused him to turn and leave the ballroom.”
“The bodyguard spotted him.”
“Lee was on him.”
“But Megan killed him?”
“All but. Another five minutes and the meds would’ve had no brain to save.”
It’s cold spring fishing in the middle of July. Sure, you can fish. The fish are taking it very easy. At the speeds their metabolisms are working, they eat the equivalent of a half a pb&j a day. Chance of your size-16 egg patterns trailing an even smaller midge being mistaken for a bite of one of these pb&j sandwich halves? About a size 18.
“I didn’t know Megan knew--”
“She doesn’t. She made it up.”
“Lee says he’s never seen anything like it. A non-fighter go to full attack on the fly--literally.”
“Cause she was in the air.”
“Right,” Bill says. “Took a punch, appropriated the peppermill. Took the killer out, dove to standing.”
“Just like that.”
“Yessir,” Bill says. “Do we have any more chips?”
“I love you.”
“I love you morely.”
They are awake. Mo is not.
“I didn’t tell you when I met Camille,” Bill said. “I should have.”
“You don’t have to tell me. But you can tell me. If you meet one you like. You married me. You didn’t take vows of not liking other girls.”
“It makes me feel funny when I…”
“Are into them?”
“As if I’m betraying you.”
“Lusting in your heart?”
“Something like that.” Bill had been raised Presbyterian. One understood that god was a construct of the brain--science had established which part of the brain, which neural events were associated with feelings of faith. Which genetic and social factors contributed to the religious impulse. The non-uniqueness of earth, our solar system, had Keplered cosmology to the point that god was accepted as a necessary counterpoint to feeling ant- or even prokaryote-like. Bill accepted Christ as his savior in his boyhood, then didn’t worry about it for a very long time. Until he had been shot, died according to certain definitions for a minute, and had his vision, his little chat, with the Almighty. Megan knows all about it. How Bill is theologically back to square one, first day in Sunday school--bored, awed, open--the same boy she had claimed.
“Look at how it came out,” Megan says. “It’s okay.”
“Camille is nice.” Even the subject of Camille reduces Bill’s vocabulary dramatically. The three of them are together sometimes. He feels he is evolving and being reconstituted. He is not who he was. Lovemaking is not what he thought it was.
“She’s fine. She won’t break us. We’re ok.”
Bill nods into his wife’s shoulder. Her scent--the resonance of her voice--his life. His river.