Chapter 1: Claude Kills Someone
I was still thinking of how glad I was that I was one of the strong, worthy to spend my life in the towers over the city, one of the few who didn't have to crawl the streets below like a rat, when an empty wheel chair rolled up to me.
"Would you like a ride, mister?" it said.
I felt a vague sense of humiliation as I sat down, but I wasn't sure why.
My family had all ready arrived; I had been tied up taking care of business, fighting off those who were trying to get a piece of my estate.
The other party goers all had their backs to me. About forty of them were clustered around the stage, bathed in a pallid green light, bare except for an overturned stool.
I pressed the wheel chair's joystick to propel myself forward toward the crowd. As I got closer, I was able to make out the face of my wife; I recognized her shoulder length blond hair, the shape of her head and neck.
When she turned her head, I recoiled. For an instant, her face resembled a grub. The crease between her cheek and eye, and between her mouth and cheek divided her face into three segments.
It's the light, I thought.
Getting close to my wife took effort. When I got next to her, her face was transforming from a white worm back to normal. I twitched when she made to kiss me, but I met her lips with mine. Her lips were as soft as always.
Soft like a worm, I thought.
"What's wrong, honey?" she asked.
I grunted a reply, wondering the same thing myself.
My son sat on the other side of my wife.
I had always liked my son's golden brown skin, its natural, deep, tan; but in the green light, he looked washed out, sickly.
My wife said something to me. I didn't hear. My face tightened.
"I think I have a headache, honey," I said. Maybe she would leave me alone, not cling to me. I needed to be left alone, but I didn't want to hurt my wife.
"Let's see if I have some tincture."
"Eh, Claudy," said my friend, Buddy from behind me. Buddy gripped me with a meaty hand, all fleshy and soft, no force to it. Buddy's eyebrows hung over his eyes like an extra pair of droopy eyelids. I could see the seam between his toupe and the remains of his real hair.
"I've been thinking," I said to Buddy, "about the differences between the lower classes and ourselves."
Buddy chuckled. "Oh, them. I love thinking about them, about how much better off we are than they are. Of course, we earned it. We deserve it; at least that's how nature dictates."
I hadn't meant to enter into such a discussion, but what he's said struck to the heart of the matter that had been bugging me ever since I had nearly crashed my copter. "Why do you think we deserve it? We're not more fit. We've been coddled; the people on the streets are fit; they've been tested. Most of us wouldn't make it if we were thrown out there."
Buddy smiled patronizingly. "But we were on the streets. We rose up from all that. We're up here because of our success."
I got angry. "What success. When did you succeed? You're living off your parent's money-" But then I stopped. It was useless to argue with him. Talking was part of the problem. I'd had it with talk. It was time for action. I leaned my head on my wife's arm and listened to the scattered conversations that went on around me.
Someone said, "Value is out. For good. With the new space colonies, growth is outpacing inflation. We're in a new economy now."
"They've been saying that for a hundred years-Gail, are you sweating?"
"Yea, can you believe it? Our AC went out."
This, I thought, is the best that we can do? These are the elite? They deserve to be here?
I paused for a moment, trying to avoid the real question: Do I deserve to be here? Have I gotten here because I'm the most fit, or was it an accident of nature or (worse), am I rich only because of my parents?
There was a pounding on the microphone and I heard a faggy voice announce the next act. It was Mort.
Mort was everything he was designed to be. I felt that I could read his genome just by looking at him. He was six and a half feet tall-thanks to the height gene. He had a full head of red hair, thanks to the red hair gene. His skin looked a bit pallid in the light, and when he steeped up to the microphone, his hand shook. He adjusted his tie and cleared his throat.
The poet wasn't dressed as a woman, he wore a shimmereen suit, but there was something so effeminate about him that he looked like a woman trying to imitate a man. And doing poorly. His face was ghastly white. He held the podium with bone thin fingers, leaning against it for support.
He opened his mouse mouth and spoke:
I jumped out of his chair. I was angry, but I didn't know why. I pushed my way toward the stage, squeezing in between the wheelchairs. I waited for security to close in, for people's hands to grab me.
No one did.
I climbed onto the stage, looked out over the crowd. Nobody said a word. On-stage, I could feel the hot lights beaming down on me. A cloud of specks migrated through the beams. The poet's mouth was agape, hair askew. I saw the poet's stubble sticking through his pancake make-up.
I reached out and touched the poet's face, crumbling make-up with my thumb and forefinger.
The audience was silent.
I reached out and grabbed the poet's throat, slowly like one grabs captures a dangerous animal. The poet finally started to back away.
Too late. My hand was all ready closing over the poet's throat. He could felt his Adams apple beneath my palm.
"Help," screamed the poet.
The there was a gangling sound. I could feel the poet's throat muscles relaxing in my grip. The poet clawed at my hands, reached for my face. With his free hand, I batted them away. The poet's body shook and twitched. Soon he was limp and falling so fast he nearly pulled me down with him. I disentangled myself.
The applause was thunderous. A standing ovation. Even before the applause was over, I moved to escape.
I decided to not chance it by wading through the crowd. I headed back to the curtain. Behind the curtain, I smelled candle wax.
But my head buzzed, and I felt a superhuman strength and an urgency like I had never felt before.
Behind the curtain there was a row of mirrors surrounded by lights, a table covered with scattered make-up, and a staircase leading down.
I bumped my head on the ceiling as I descended the stairs; a few steps down, I almost tripped on something (beads?)
At first, I was sure that the end of the stairs ended with a cul-de-sac. I was confronted with a pure plastic wall-grooved like wood. Then I saw a knob.
I paused in front of the door. If I turned back I would have to face everyone, and I'd probably be readjusted. It wouldn't be so bad, but it would be humiliating. There was a slight chance that the poet's relatives would have reacted fast enough and sent body guards to kill me. Nobody in the building would stop them, object, and they probably wouldn't stick around to see what happened. My death would be understandable, written off as an accident in trying to capture me. At any rate, either I would be readjusted or killed, either way would be in a manner that was understandable, and humane.
Outside, on the streets, I heard that people acted like animals. Were they cannibals as well? Would they tear me apart limb from limb? Or would I survive, would I get stronger.
I liked this line of thinking as it played into my earlier thoughts, my earlier fantasies about survival of the fittest. If I turned back to face my 'friends' I'd be no better than them. I'd deserve death having all ready proven myself unfit to survive in this universe. I pressed on.
The first thing that I noticed when I pushed out the door into the alley-almost falling through the door, so great was my excitement-was a wretched smell. Not just garbage scent that one gets a whiff of when one tosses their refuse into the disposal, but rather the smell of trash that has been baked in the hot sun, simmering, dripping garbage juice running in the streets.
It was into this muck that I stepped, once outside. Yellowish lights reflected off the muck rolling down the street. I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in a pool of water which swirled with a greyish film on top. My hair was askew, my face was sweaty, my suit wrinkled and torn. Reflexively, I went to adjust my appearance, but then I realized that this would probably be counterproductive, it might even be safer to leave myself in the mess I was in. Protective camouflage.
I tried to keep my wits about me, tried to pay attention to every side at once. It was impossible. Every time I looked over my shoulder, I felt like something was going to come up in front of me.
So this is what it's like to be in a jungle, I thought. This is what's it's like to struggle. I didn't like it one bit.
There seemed to be a million crevices, corners behind which a killer could lurk. I couldn't see behind all of them. What if I could? Would seeing them come really help me?
I turned a corner. I almost ran into a little man. He dodged out of my way and quickly walked away.
I laughed to myself. So this is the jungle. Big deal. I wasn't finding this to be so tough.
There was a sense of desolation, not unlike a desert, in spite of the fact that I was in the heart of one of the country's largest cities. Between the buildings, there was nothing. It was completely sterile. Most of the buildings didn't even have front doors anymore, the only access was through heli-ports on the rooves. The buildings were sealed like castles, modern fortresses, the windows only slits. Slits to shoot arrows out of.
The streets were quiet and empty. The only sound that I heard was the occasional rumbling of a helicopter. This reminded me that they were after me. I had to find a place to hide. The thought filled me with despair. I had utterly cut myself off from my old life. I didn't have any choice. I was as good as dead.
No, I told myself, you're not dead. You can survive. Just think of things one step at a time. Need to find a place to sleep.
I had walked for six blocks. I was surprised to find low level rowhouses so close to downtown. One moment it was skyscrapers, now in their shadow, stood little houses, hundreds of them, pushed together on each block.
This was here the whole time, I thought, and I never knew. I never thought about what was in-between the offices that I frequented and my home, hundreds of miles away.
The houses looked like they had survived a war. Barely. Many were burned out, literally. Some were boarded up. Underneath all the grime, I saw that they had once been beautiful. Remnants of the original color remained, hard to see by the dim street light yet still visible. Light blues and reds. The buildings were adorned with designs, the wooden structures were carved into swirling shapes, and each unit was painted in a different color pattern. Even though houses shared the same triangular pediment, one side was green, another red. I wondered why the owners didn't pitch in and buy one uniform color.
But there probably aren't any owners now, I thought.
I was really tired. Where would I sleep? I kept walking.
What I'd really like, I thought, is a cigarette. I imagined tasting the sweet paper in my mouth, touching the bitter tobacco with my tongue. I only smoked filterless cigarettes, rolled by Jeeves.
After a while, couldn't move on anymore. I didn't even have that much fear. If someone kills me now, I thought, I wouldn't even fight back. My eyes were closing on their own. It was all ready dark. My skin felt numb as if someone kicked me, stabbed me, I wouldn't even feel it. I felt immortal and ready to die.
I'll go into the next house I pass, I told myself. I passed it. The next one. I passed it.
I stopped and thought. What house should I go into? Should I pick one which looks nice? No, it probably is occupied. How about one that looks like complete trash? Who would live there? Rats. It would have to be infested. Besides the scum of the earth might be holed up in there, otherwise, why would it look so bad?
I was so tired, I did intend to enter the next one. But in the back of my mind, the minor, tiny survival instinct lived. It lurked until I decided to do something really stupid. Then it jumped up and pounce.
"What do you think you are doing?" it asked. "I know you really don't want to die, but you are tired. Why don't you just announce yourself before you go crashing into someone's (potential) home?"
The idea seemed sound to me.
"Here I am," I said, rattling the doorknob.
I felt fatigue washing over me like waves. Have to get to sleep. I rattled the doorknob more, tried to open the door. It was locked.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" I heard a voice yell.
I jumped. I hadn't heard a human voice since I killed a man, and I wasn't ready for it. For a moment, I thought it was my imagination. The shotgun that I suddenly faced convinced me that I wasn't.
The man had apparently flung the door open. He was the darkest person that I ever saw, as dark as coffee beans. At first, I wasn't sure if he was even human. But I saw his face tremble a little. Unfortunately, his hands were rock steady holding the gun.
"Look, whitey, I don't know who you are or where you're from, but I suggest that you just turn around and go back to wherever you're from. You don't belong here. Don't you think you did enough damage to us? Came here to do more? Or do you just want to get hurt?"
I put my hands up, walked backwards down the off the porch and down the steps. On the last step, I realized that he wasn't going to shoot. He had waited too long. All I had to do was keep walking, and I'd live.
The next house I tried to sleep in was much more run down. Again, I announced myself.
Nothing. I could hear a pin drop on the streets of one of the largest cities in America. So much for the myth of the noisiness of big cities; insects made more noise at night back at my home. My old home, I corrected myself. Now I had no home.
I went in expecting to be jumped at any moment, shaking when I pushed the door open, almost getting a splinter on the door; it looked as if a monster had bitten a huge hole in it.
Nobody accosted me as I crept into the decaying wreck, smelling urine, mold, and something unfamiliar. I almost tripped over garbage in the hall. Inside it was bigger than I had thought. I couldn't see very well, a bit of street light flowed in through the open door, but I could feel the large open space. After kicking some trash away, I lay down on the hard floor on my back. With my hands behind my head, I stared at the ceiling. I told myself that I was camping out in the country, staring at the stars. Fatigue overwhelmed me.
I lay there for a long time, unable to sleep.
Chapter 2: Sam gets a call
I was sitting in Frank's when I got the call. Some people call it Dirty Frank's, but like the other locals, I just call it Frank's. We all know how dirty it is, no need to comment on that.
I was looking at a phony Calder mobile, the one with someone glued barbie tits to, when my phone rang so hard, it almost fell off the bar.
"I'm impressed," said one of the goth kids as she turned back to her group of chattering chickens.
"Yea," I said, rubbing my temples.
A scratchy voice on the line said, "We need you to do a job. Can we meet somewhere?" It sounded like someone was typing stuff into a computer and having the synthesizer speak it.
"Why don't you come here?"
"Where are you?"
"You called me."
"I thought this was a cell phone."
"It is. I'm just yanking your chain. Look do you know where Frank's is?"
Definitely not a local. I wasn't sure if I was up to dealing with another tourist. The last tourist I dealt with was this rich suburban kid from the mainline. She wanted me to stalk her boyfriend. I'm definitely not into kiddie games. I was guessing that this was going to turn out the same way. I was about to hang up when I thought, what do I have to lose? It wasn't like any of the goth chicks was going to lay me this time of night, and there wasn't much else to do.
"I'm at a bar on Pine and Thirteenth street."
"Is that in the city?"
I was losing my patience fast. Still, I didn't have anything better to do except peel the vinyl cover off the bar and drink Yueling until I was stupid.
"Okay, I'll meet you. Where are you?"
"There's this Country Buffet off Schuylkill."
"Yea, I know where that is. I'll be over in twenty minutes."
I stepped out the open door. The open door of Dirty Franks is the only indication that it's a bar. The only sign was a neon beer ad beneath a piece of glass that's so dirty that it looked like a hundred people had spit on it.
I stood on the corner and waited. The traffic flowing down Pine street was heavy in the summer nights. Traffic's usually light in center city after seven PM, but it seems thicker than it really is because the streets are so narrow. There were a couple possible destinations for all of the traffic. Old City for the yuppies in the SUV's so they can drink wine and look at art. South Street and Delaware Avenue for the younger kids driving mommie's car. Taxis were headed toward Society Hill to shuttle the elderly that lived in the high rises by the river. I was looking for a taxi too. A couple went by me, some probably because they had fares. Others might have passed me because they thought I was black. I look black, to some, but I'm really Indian. My goatee, spiky hair, jeans and t-shirt dress didn't make things any easier for me.
The hot air was stagnant. The exhaust from the Middle Eastern restaurant hung in the air, a mix of the scents of metal and nuts.
Finally a cab pulled up. I got in and told him my destination through an open plexiglas partition.
The driver wore a navy golf cap and a dress shirt with the top three buttons open. Curly grey hairs clung to the back of his dark neck. His grey eyes glanced back at me for a moment, then he put on the radio on. Blues.
Even before I got my door closed, the driver started pulling away, cutting in front of a stream of cars. Horns blared, including the one in the car I was in.
We zoomed through a few lights. I almost said something when the driver almost hit an old lady with a walker as he made a left at a red light. (She was crossing with the light!) But I kept my mouth shut. I had to get to the restaurant, and I didn't have any time for trouble. My funds were getting a little low; I couldn't hide from my landlord forever.
I felt my heart sink as we left the city. The highway at night with it's billions of lights has always been depressing for me. There were so many people and we were just on the highway so that we could go fast, but we couldn't because there were so many other people who wanted the same. If we were all together on a train we could meet one another and talk. Instead, it was war.
Everything's a fight, I thought, everything has to be made into a war. Sitting back in the cab, jerked about by the lousy driving, I felt the beers go to my head. I felt a little too tired, too sick to fight.
I'll just see what this client wants. No funny stuff, I'm not that deperate for money. Yet.
We pulled into the parking lot. I paid the driver and entered the restaurant.
When I walked in, everyone turned around me and gave me a quick once over as if I weren't who they expected. The atmosphere of the restaurant was different than what I'd expected. Walking in, I felt a little silly. I mean how was I going to find the person? They didn't tell me what they looked like. I hadn't thought of that before.
Then I noticed a woman sitting in one of the molded plastic booths waving to me.
I walked over and slid into the booth. The first thing I noticed about the lady was the size of her chin. She had a triple chin, all hanging fat, covered with lobular moles, and her neck was thicker than a linebacker's. She wore a pink sweat shirt with the faded word 'Florida'.
Her raspy voice sounded like it was coming out of a machine, "Glad to finally meet you Sam Acorn. I've been looking forward to this moment ever since your name showed up in our files. It sounds made up, like the character in a book. I always thought someone with such a name would look a little more chipper, though. Acorns are such small things and yet they give birth to the mighty oak."
"That's one way of looking at it. Try to see it my way. When you bite into an acorn they're mighty bitter inside."
She nodded. She didn't nod her head like a normal person, but rather the whole stump she used for a head bobbed up and down about a quarter inch. "I like you already, and we just met. I bet you're dying to get started."
"I need to lay down the ground rules first. I don't do anyone's dirty work. No blackmail. No illegal stuff. And nothing that can lead to dealing with dead bodies. I've had enough of them. Now that I've excluded everything that you could possibly want, can I go?"
"You've got a funny way to run your business. Can't say I understand it. I definitely don't care for it. Why did you drive all the way out here to tell me something you could've told me on the phone?"
"I'll do the job, if it's a clean one. I just run that line by people to scare away the ones that think I'm going to clean up after their mess, when that means they killed someone and they want it covered up or they think I'm going to steal something for them. I haven't had any clean offers for a while so I figured that chances were, yours would be dirty too."
"Cute. Look, son, I don't have time for bullshit. We talked about your little name and I went along with your game. We're running a specialized type of operation here and you happened to fit the profile so I'll run the job by you and you'll either take it or you won't. No more chit chat.
"We need a PI who has a formal background in science, enough so he can get a lab job."
"Pipetting, killing mice, mixing chemicals. Whatever people do in a lab anymore."
"I just have to get a job in any lab?"
"No, you'll be given the information on exactly which lab you are to get a job in. You're to tell no one why you are working in the lab."
"Why am I working in the lab?"
"Because we're going to pay you to do so. We'll pay you in addition to what they'll pay you for the job. What do you usually make?"
"A seven hundred dollar retainer, nonrefundable. One hundred a day plus expenses."
I lied about the nonrefundable part, but I figured I'd go for it. For a moment, I thought that she'd call me on it because she said they had the goods on me. She stared at me with her emerald eyes and I stared right back.
She slid an envelop across the table. "I think you'll find what's in there to be sufficient."
She slid out of her booth, dropping a twenty on the table like a tree shedding a leaf.
"Wait," I said to her back.
She kept walking.
I got up and ran after her. I tapped her on the shoulder, but she kept on walking.
I took a hold of her sleeve. She whirled around, looking at me in the face as if she hadn't ever seen me.
"Who am I working for?" I asked again.
"We'll find you," she said. "Look for the triangle." A drop of spittle clung to her bottom lip. She thumbed a spot on her neck where three faint black lines joined three moles on her neck into a triangle.
I tried to hand the envelop back to her. "I can't let you go until we've worked out the details."
She opened the door and stepped out. "I'm going to call the cops," she said as she made her way to her car.
A couple shuffling past us, give me nervous looks. When I looked at them, they walked even faster toward the door of the the Country Buffet.
I opened the envelope. There were ten one-hundred dollar bills inside as well as a slip of paper. It tried to read it as I watched the woman leave. I watched her bobbing ass cheeks slide into the car then I looked at the paper. It was a photocopy of a newspaper ad it read:
"Wanted: A Research Technition II for The Department of Theoretical Biological Physics. Must have be self-motivated and have all the applicable skills including pipetting and washing glassware. High Performance Liquid Chromatography skills and electrophoresis preferred. If interested, call (215) 654-9834 and ask for Dr. Iota."
Chapter 3: Bob Talks With Dr. Eye
Bob sat in the break room talking to Dr. Eye.
"But you can do anything you want," he said.
"No I don't think that I can." Bob said. "I think that everyone's trapped by their own circumstances. Back when they had religions, people couldn't see beyond their religious world-view. The modern condition exchanged that limited view with yet another one, that of science. Now we're stuck in the post-modern condition. People can't see beyond it. Everything's been done; we can only comment on it."
Chapter 4: Dr. Eye Synthesizes Etchmiadzin
"So you guys want to get together huh, aguppie?" Dr. Eye, asked his reagents, which he had lined up in front of him on his bench, like a boy lines up his army men, in formation, ready for the attack. Dr. Eye closed his eyes and watched the molecules spin in front of him. When he looked at them from far away, they were just line drawings, sticks holding balls together with the ring form predominating, six-membered rings reaching out to one another with the only the power that comes from aromaticity, the whirling extra electron, a refuge from the double bond.
Dr. Eye saw the compound that he was supposed to make, and he saw the starting materials marching in front of him, past the target compound. Ever now and then a compound would fall out of formation and link up with one of its brothers. Slowly, the starting materials assembled themselves into replicas of the target compound. Dr. Eye, inspected the final product to ensure that it was the correct compound and not some an enantiomer a chemical might have jumped out of the looking glass. The starting materials spurned one another, jumped apart, and lined up in front of him. One by one, they called out their names in the order that they were required to create the target compound.
When he opened his eyes, his chemical friends were waiting there for him. He looked at the note that Dr. Iota had scrawled on the back of a napkin, his version of the synthesis. Dr. Eye started by following the directions that the boss had given him.
When Dr. Eye opened bottles the lab began to smell like licorice, mothballs, and gasoline. He dissolved powders into solutions, and filtered his Master Mixture, destined to become the drug, Etchmiadzin.