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THE PSYCHIC Copyright © 2010 by Gus Flory All Rights Reserved No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by photocopying or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage or retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the copyright owner. This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are either products of the author‘s imagination or are used fictitiously. Published 2010
Cover art by Kim Sook-Young
Fresno, CA Eddie sat on the greasy floor of Jim‘s Auto Repair in his oilstained coveralls as he changed a pair of brake pads on an old Honda. He whistled along to an old song that played inside his head – a Beatles song maybe. He wasn‘t quite sure and didn‘t care. Outside the garage, a cold mist hung drearily over the city. Low clouds blew fast across the gray sky. The weather was miserable and winter had only just begun. Incessant rain had flooded the fields, clogged drainage ditches, and filled the streets with muddy water. Fierce winds had ripped up roofs and blown down trees and power lines. Property and crops were ruined and traffic was perpetually snarled. The dampness and darkness were affecting everyone. Everyone, it seemed, except Eddie. He whistled when he was happy and today he had reason to be happier than usual. Today was his birthday, and he was in love. Jim was across the shop, drinking coffee and looking over work orders with the shop mechanic. Jim was the shop owner and Eddie‘s boss. ―Sure is a happy one, ain‘t he?‖ the shop mechanic said. ―Damn fool doesn‘t know not to be.‖ ―You know it‘s Eddie‘s birthday today.‖ ―Hey, Eddie,‖ Jim called across the shop, ―after you finish with that Honda, you can head out early.‖ Eddie tightened the last bolt on the hub and hopped to his feet. He rushed past the two men and ran into the break room. He scooped up his backpack and grabbed the dozen red roses wrapped in plastic from on top of a box of motor oil.
―Thanks, boss,‖ he said, as he ran past the two of them. ―Happy birthday!‖ Jim yelled, as Eddie disappeared into the gray drizzle. He stepped on to the city bus as the hydraulic doors hissed shut behind him. His coveralls were wet and his hair was dripping from the rain. ―How‘s it going, Lonnie?‖ Eddie said to the bus driver and fumbled through his pockets for change. ―I‘ve been better,‖ the driver replied. ―No change, Ed?‖ Eddie smiled and shrugged his shoulders. ―I‘ll pay you back tomorrow, Lonnie. You know I always do.‖ The driver eyed the roses in Eddie‘s hand. He shook his head at Eddie and started up the bus. Eddie slapped him on the back. ―Thanks, Lonnie.‖ ―Supposed to storm tonight.‖ ―Yeah, I heard.‖ Eddie took a seat at the back of the bus. He removed his backpack which was bulky from the bottle of wine inside and shook the water off the roses, setting them down on the seat beside him. His mind turned to his girlfriend, as he watched the rain outside the window. She wasn‘t expecting him home this early. He smiled at the thought of sneaking into their apartment, sweeping her into his arms, and planting a big kiss on her startled face. Her name was Debbie and the two of them had been highschool sweethearts. It was only six months ago since they had moved in together. Debbie had been going to community college then, but had dropped out to work full-time so they could cover the rent. Money was tight, but they had each other and, as far as Eddie was concerned, that was all he would ever need.
The rain slowed, as the bus came to a stop before Eddie‘s apartment complex. Water pitter-pattered down from the drains of the two-story buildings as Eddie sneaked up the stairs. He quietly unlocked the door and stepped into his apartment. Debbie wasn‘t in the living room, or the kitchen. He pulled the bottle of wine from his backpack and, with roses in one hand and the bottle of wine in the other, he tiptoed to the bedroom door. The door was slightly ajar. ―Oh God!‖ Debbie moaned. ―Yes!‖ A steady knock, knock was coming from the bedroom. Eddie peeped through the door and his heart came to a stop. ―Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!‖ A naked man thrust into her. Her legs were wrapped up around the small of his back. The headboard knocked the wall with each of the man‘s thrusts. Eddie watched from behind the doorway. A hollowness spread up from his stomach into his chest. There were no thoughts in his mind, only the hollowness and the trembling and a numbness in his brain. ―Oh yes!‖ Debbie groaned as she pulled the man into her with her legs. Eddie‘s vision grew cloudy as he stood motionless behind the doorway. He felt his heart begin to beat. It thudded hard against the inside of his chest. Needles stung into his hands, spine, and brain. Blood surged through his temples, as the thudding in his chest grew louder and faster. His knuckles turned white as he squeezed the stems of the roses and the neck of the bottle of wine. He stepped back from the doorway. A fiery anger ignited in him as he walked into the kitchen. He set the wine and the roses on the counter. The knocking from the bedroom grew faster. A murderous rage coursed through Eddie‘s blood as he listened to each knock of the headboard.
He slid open the silverware drawer and pulled out a carving knife. The muscles of his face twisted and contorted. His knuckles turned white around the knife‘s handle. His teeth felt like fangs and his hands like claws. The headboard banged loudly one last time. The apartment was now silent, but for the water that dripped softly from the drain outside the window. In the silence, Eddie‘s slow breathing and pounding heart seemed deafening. He turned and strode to the bedroom doorway and stood stone-like behind the door, clutching the knife tightly in his fist. Debbie lay naked on her back breathing heavily on the bed as she stared up at the ceiling. Eddie watched her from behind the door. ―That was great,‖ she sighed. She placed her hand on the man‘s back. He sat on the edge of the bed and smirked at her over his shoulder as he pulled on his slacks. ―Leaving so soon?‖ she asked. ―Got to go, babe.‖ She ran her hand through his hair. ―Don‘t go yet.‖ ―Don‘t you have to pick up your boyfriend?‖ ―Not until five. He can wait.‖ She sat up and wrapped her arms around him and kissed him on the neck. ―I‘ve got things to do tonight,‖ he said. He reached for his shoes. She pulled him back. ―Richard, don‘t go. I‘ll leave Eddie tonight, if you ask me to. It‘s just complicated because we live together. If I could move in with you…‖ ―Look, sweetheart, I‘ve got a lot going on in my life right now.‖ He reached again for his shoes. ―I really need to get going.‖
―Baby, you promised. I can‘t live like this anymore.‖ She pouted and then grew annoyed as he pulled on his socks. ―I‘m not spending the rest of my life with a twelve-dollar-anhour pump jockey. I want you. Do you understand?‖ ―I understand, all right. Look, I‘ll give you a call tomorrow. Okay?‖ ―Stay a little longer,‖ she said sweetly. ―Please?‖ Richard sat at the edge of the bed, while she kissed him on his shoulder. She rolled off the bed and knelt down in front of him. She pulled off the slacks he had just put on. She smiled at him and then her head disappeared into his lap. His back arched. ―Oh, yeah, baby,‖ he groaned. Eddie watched motionless from behind the doorway. His anger transformed into sadness and despair, the rage leaving him as quickly as it had flared up. He squeezed his eyes shut and covered them tightly with the back of his hands, as the tears overflowed. He felt his heart ripped from his chest and flung down, falling and then splattering on the rocks below. The hand that held the knife fell limply to his side. He stepped back from the doorway and walked to the kitchen. The roses and the wine sat silently on the counter. He set the knife down next to them and stood over the sink, as tears ran down his cheeks and dripped from his chin on to the linoleum floor. The knocking started again. Eddie‘s eyes fell upon the little heart-shaped magnets that held photos to the refrigerator door. There was a picture of the two of them at the lake, Debbie in her bikini and Eddie in cut-off jeans, as they hugged each other with big smiles. There was another of the two of them in sweaters, in front of her mother‘s Christmas tree, and another at the prom with Eddie in a tuxedo, looking sharp and confident and Debbie
trying her best to look glamorous through all the make-up and hair spray. They looked so happy together in the photos. The knocking grew louder. He buried his face in his hands, as the tears flowed through his fingers. Why, Debbie? With each knock of the headboard, his pain and despair grew deeper. His vision blurred and his hands trembled. He reached up and opened the cupboard and pulled down the half-gallon bottle of vodka that sat amongst their meager liquor collection. He unscrewed the cap and put the bottle to his mouth. He lifted it high, watching as the big bubbles glugged upward. The vodka went down easily and warmed his stomach and chest, but it didn‘t stop the knocking that came steadily from the bedroom. He lifted the bottle high and took several long gulps, without feeling the sudden cringe that usually came after taking such a large drink of undiluted alcohol. I need to go. He went into the living room, carrying the bottle with him. He walked past the bedroom door and opened the front door to their apartment. He walked out into the rain.
So cold. His body ached and a loud ringing screamed inside his head. He lay naked, face down in his own vomit. The empty vodka bottle lay next to him on the cement. Where am I? He lifted his head and sharp stabs of pain shot through his brain. ―Them wetbacks took your clothes, boy.‖ A grizzled homeless man sat leaning against a pillar watching him. ―Took your wallet, too,‖ he slurred. They were beneath a freeway overpass that offered little protection from the driving rain and none whatsoever from the icy wind that howled through the pillars in powerful gusts, stinging like needles into Eddie‘s blue skin. Eddie struggled to his feet. Pain cut through his muscles, like rusty daggers. The world spun around him in a blur of dark shadows. The old man watched him with dull eyes. Another man lay on a sheet of cardboard next to a coffee can that flickered from a flame inside. So cold. The world flashed metallic blue and a thunderous boom shook the overpass, waking the man from his cardboard bed. The man groaned loudly. He raised his fist and cursed the heavens, as thunder cracked and rolled. Lightning flashed and illuminated the homeless man‘s face in flickering light, distorting his already ugly features. Panic jumped in Eddie. He stumbled out from under the overpass and ran up the muddy slope, as freezing rain pelted
his body. A grove of towering eucalyptus swayed violently as the wind ripped through the trees. Eddie‘s panic increased. Soggy leaves thrown by the wind stuck to his bare skin as he ran. His feet squished in the mud. The wind and rain whipped at his body. He came to a street and ran out into it. Ankle-deep water flowed swiftly over the street as if it were a river bed. Two bright lights approached rapidly from behind sheets of rain. Eddie ran toward the lights, waving his arms, but the lights didn‘t slow. They were the lights of a jeep that was barreling at him and throwing up high fans of water from the wheel wells. The driver was unaware of Eddie standing in the road. Eddie threw out his hands, palms forward, but the jeep didn‘t slow. The driver saw him and swerved. It grazed him, throwing him into the air in a sheet of water. Eddie hit the pavement and slid hard into the curb, as the jeep skidded around in a cascade of water. ―Jesus!‖ the driver yelled as he saw Eddie crumpled against the curb. The night flashed white and thunder cracked. A thick bolt of lightning pulverized the trunk of a massive eucalyptus. The tree creaked and cracked and then fell into the power lines next to it. The tree and the power lines crashed into the street in a shower of sparks and leaves, narrowly missing the jeep. The power lines thrashed and convulsed like writhing snakes. Crackling sparks exploded in the night, as the cables slapped at the wet pavement. The driver of the jeep threw his vehicle into reverse and screeched back, skidding his jeep around. The jeep‘s red tail lights disappeared behind sheets of rain, as it sped off. Eddie lay face-up in the gutter with his head cocked sideways against the curb. Muddy water flowed swiftly over his body.
Blue and white sparks cracked and snapped from the writhing power lines. A cable cracked upward into the darkness and hung in the air. It fell violently, in a shower of sparks, into the water beside Eddie‘s head. He stood naked before a large mirror. His face was lathered and in his hand he held a pearl-handled, straight razor. Behind him, in the mirror, an immense hall of black stone stretched into the distance. Two rows of massive columns supported a cathedral ceiling high above. On top of the columns, enormous stone gargoyles held up the ceiling in grotesque poses. Silent blue bolts of lightning danced across the top of the hall from gargoyle to gargoyle. He tried to focus on his face, but the image was blurry and fleeting. He felt the scrape of the rigid steel blade, as he slowly began to shave. He finished shaving and rinsed his face in the sink. He tried again to focus on his face, but saw only an amorphous blur. His feet were cold on the stone floor. He shivered and held his arms tightly across his chest. So cold. In the mirror, he noticed a fire burning faintly in the distance at the far end of the hall. He turned and walked toward the distant orange light. The blue bolts danced silently high above him. He could see the fire clearly now. It blazed in an enormous stone fireplace. The firelight threw maniacal shadows about him. An old Victorian couch faced the fire. There was a figure on the couch, facing away, looking into the fire that blazed in the fireplace. It was the figure of a woman. Eddie walked faster and then began to run toward her. He ran harder and faster until, finally, he came to a panting stop only a few feet behind her. The woman slowly turned her head. She smiled at him.
It was Debbie. ―Hello, Eddie,‘ she said. You’re so pathetic. ―Debbie?‖ I never loved you. She looked at him innocently. A man sat up next to her, from behind the back of the couch. He smiled wryly and wrapped his bare arms around her shoulders. They kissed as the fire blazed behind them. Debbie‘s eyes remained locked on Eddie‘s, as she kissed the other man. I never loved you. I hate you. Eddie heard the thoughts clearly in his mind. Debbie pushed the man down behind the back of the couch. She lifted her body and began to slowly rock up and down, her heaving body silhouetted in yellow and red firelight. ―I‘ll kill you both!‖ Eddie screamed. The razor was still clutched in his hand. He squeezed the handle tightly and lunged at her. He slashed at her with the razor, but the couch got no closer. He ran, slashing, but still she got no closer. He ran harder and harder, driven by his fury. The fire faded to a tiny orange glow, in the black distance. Eddie‘s anger turned to exhaustion and then to despair. He fell to his knees. You’re so pathetic. He covered his face with his hands as the tears flowed through his fingers. ―Why, Debbie?‖ I never loved you. He fell on to his back and lay flat on the cold stone floor. She was his life, the only thing he truly cared for, his reason for living. The darkest despair swept over him. ―Debbie…‖
He stared up, through his tears, at a stone gargoyle high on top of a column. Its sinewy stone body was contorted and twisted as it held up the ceiling. Its heinous face was snarled in an evil scowl. Blue bolts danced silently across the hallway. The pain and despair intensified unbearably. Eddie let go of his desire to live. The gargoyle‘s head slowly turned. Its stone eyes stared down upon him. Its hideous scowl struck terror into Eddie‘s soul. The gargoyle bared its stone fangs and unleashed an unholy howl. The roar shook the hall, as it echoed endlessly into the distance. The gargoyle lifted its black hand and pointed a stony finger down upon Eddie. Eddie lay motionless, staring up in horror at the creature. A bolt of lightning cracked down from the finger and struck into Eddie‘s forehead. The bolt writhed into Eddie‘s skull. He spasmed violently, as his brain convulsed in an excruciating and boiling pain, so unbearable that death would have come as a blessing.
Blackness. ―His condition has stabilized, doctor,‖ said a female voice. ―It‘s a miracle he‘s alive at all,‖ said a male voice. There was a loud ringing in Eddie‘s brain. It grew louder and sharper until he felt his brain would explode. Please stop, please stop, please stop. The ringing stopped. Looking good tonight, Bethy. ―Any word on who this poor soul is?‖ ―No, nothing yet, doctor.‖ Eddie was unable to move. There was nothing but darkness and the two voices. ―Now that it looks like he‘s going to live, the next step is to find out who the hell this poor bastard is.‖ You’ve got the most beautiful pair of tits, Bethy. Like juicy little melons under your blouse. ―Have I told you what a great job you‘ve been doing, Elizabeth? You‘ve really been pulling your weight around here.‖ ―Thank you, doctor,‖ she said confidently. She was new at the hospital and had been so unsure of herself. She had been trying so hard to appear professional and competent, but it was all so overwhelming. Eddie felt her uncertainty transform into glowing pride at the offhand comment from the doctor. I can make it here, she thought. ―Beth, I‘d like to discuss that opening in cardiology with you.‖ The doctor was aroused and feeling cocky. ―If you don‘t mind,‖ he added. The nurse held in her surprise.
―No. I don‘t mind at all.‖ I don’t believe it! He’s considering me! ―Meet me in my office at two o‘clock? There‘ll be a fresh pot of coffee brewing.‖ The old lady looks like a corn-fed sow next to you, Bethy. Play it cool, Davey-boy, and tonight, Bethy meets Dr. Love. ―Then two o‘clock it is. See you then, doctor.‖ Damn, she’s got a nice ass. Dumb as a doorknob, but I bet she’ll be one hell of a lay. The voices faded and then there was nothing but darkness and silence. Eddie struggled to open his eyes, but the effort was exhausting and he slipped into a deep sleep. He awoke with a jolt and winced from the terrible headache that rang in his skull. Blood pulsed through his brain with each beat of his heart. A hospital room came slowly into focus. It was early dawn and still dark outside the window. There was an IV needle in Eddie‘s arm, connected to a drip bag that hung from a metal stand. The room was dark and quiet, except for a deep raspy breathing that clicked after each exhale. The breathing came from behind a curtain that divided the room. Eddie‘s mind was foggy. He had a vague recollection that some disaster had befallen him. He forced himself out of the bed, with great effort. Each movement shot sharp stabs of pain into his brain. He shuffled over to the sink, pushing the rattling metal stand that held the drip bag for his IV. He turned on the tap and let the cool water run over his hands. He bent down to splash water on his face and noticed that his fingernails were as black as coal. He ran his hands over his aching head, as he splashed water on to his face. His scalp was smooth and tingled to the touch. He looked through the darkness into the mirror and ran his hands over his newly bald head. What happened to me?
Gargoyles and carving knives flashed into his mind. He shook them out not wanting to remember. Debbie’s probably wondering where I am. The previous night in their apartment came back to him suddenly. Debbie… He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to force back the tears. The raspy breathing from behind the curtain grew louder, becoming a labored wheeze and then a groan. Eddie peeked behind the curtain and saw the body of a teenager connected to a respirator. The teenager let out a mournful moan. ―Are you okay, man?‖ Eddie asked. The teenager was wrapped in bandages and his face was cut and battered. ―You want me to call a nurse?‖ Eddie moved closer to him and looked into his face. The teenager‘s eyeballs moved rapidly back and forth beneath the eyelids. A piercing ring filled Eddie‘s skull. He saw the inside of a car. The car raced down a dark highway, as music blared from the stereo. A young woman was sitting in the passenger seat. She laughed and drank from a wine cooler. The smell of rum permeated the air. A bright light illuminated the inside of the car. Two bright headlights approached rapidly in the windshield, then there was a sudden violent crunch of crushing metal. The young woman smashed through the windshield, as glass and blood exploded inside the vehicle. Sticky, hot blood was everywhere. Eddie stumbled backward through the curtain and knocked into the sink. The IV stand crashed to the floor, ripping the IV needle from his arm. Eddie‘s eyes bulged and his head rang in pain. ―No,‖ the teenager moaned. ―No. No. No.‖
Eddie staggered out of the room and out into the brightly lit hallway. He walked down the empty hallway, shielding his eyes from the fluorescent lights. Two talking nurses approached from around the corner. Eddie ducked into an open door as they passed by. A sleeping patient snored loudly in the room he had ducked into. Eddie opened up the closet and found a pair of jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt. He stripped off his hospital pajamas and quickly slipped on the jeans and sweatshirt. He rifled through a drawer and found a pair of socks, which he put on, along with the pair of work boots under the bed. The clothes and boots fitted loosely, but well enough. Eddie emerged from the room, rubbing his temples as he walked down the hallway to the stairwell. He went down the stairs and emerged in the lobby. He walked past the front desk and out of the front door, out into the gray morning. A cold wind gusted through the streets whipping up wet debris from last night‘s storm. A piece of aluminum siding fluttered and banged through the street with each gust of wind. Eddie stepped over puddles and fallen tree limbs as he walked aimlessly. He winced from his headache. He was unable to focus his mind on any one thought. Cloudy images flashed randomly though his brain. Car accidents, gargoyles and thoughts of Debbie spun around inside his head. He found himself standing in front of his apartment building. A red Camaro was parked in his designated space. The vanity license plate read ‗RICH‘. A rush of negative emotions swirled up from his stomach; anger, betrayal, confusion, humiliation, rejection, stupidity, hurt, and heartbreak overwhelmed him. He wanted to confront her, but the thought of walking up the stairs and knocking on the door made his body tremble. He turned, hung his head and walked away, dragging his heavy feet over the wet pavement.
His mother‘s house was the only place he had left to go, but he had no money and his mom‘s place was a long walk across town. He thought about Debbie as he walked. Since they had first started dating, back in high school, she had always been a big part of his life. He couldn‘t imagine a future without her. In his thoughts, and in everything he did, she was always there. Without her, everything seemed meaningless. He wanted her back and couldn‘t understand how she could have done such a thing to their love. He didn‘t know what it was that could have driven her into the arms of another man. Money was tight but otherwise, their life together was wonderful. Money. Debbie always complained about money. He had never worried too much about it. Well, once a month, when the rent came due but they always managed to scrape up enough. Money was something other people had, not people like them. A hurtful sorrow drained his hollow soul. He knew the reason now. Love alone wasn‘t enough for her. He needed money to win her back. And lots of it.
A misty drizzle began to fall. Eddie‘s newly acquired sweatshirt was damp. He hunched his shoulders against the cold as he walked. A homeless man, dressed in layers of used clothing, approached on the sidewalk, pushing a shopping cart full of cans. ―Spare some change, brother?‖ the man growled through chipped and blackened teeth. Eddie shook his head, without making eye contact as they passed each other on the sidewalk. Motherfucker. Eddie stopped and turned. Gotta get my fix today. The homeless man shuffled away around a corner. ―I‘m losing my mind,‖ Eddie said to himself. He looked at his black fingernails and ran his hand over his bald head. What happened to me last night? He remembered the icy cold, the searing pain and the spasming agony. He shuddered and shook the memories from his mind. He was exhausted and his mother‘s house was miles away. He decided to rest at the shopping mall, across the parking lot to his right. He could make a collect call there and have his mother come and pick him up. He crossed the parking lot and pushed through the mall‘s glass doors to the jingling sound of a familiar, but unidentifiable song that played over the mall‘s speakers. A security guard watched him enter. The guard was a mammoth of a man, with beefy arms crossed over a barrel of a belly. He
had a thick red mustache and his blond hair was cut short in a crew-cut. Eddie felt the guard‘s eyes burning into him suspiciously. Well, well. What have we got here? the guard thought. Eddie walked quickly past him not making eye contact. Bet he’s high on drugs, the guard thought. Eddie turned the corner relieved to be away from the guard. I’m losing my mind, Eddie thought. His legs ached and he took a seat on a bench across from the food court to rest them. The mall was empty this early on a weekday morning. A skinny salesman stood looking through the drugstore window. I don’t care if she leaves me. I can’t quit. I need a damn cigarette, the salesman thought. There was a tension in the man and an intense craving. Eddie felt the salesman‘s nicotine craving, as if it was his own. Eddie blinked and shook his head. Am I imagining this? Eddie thought. I just don’t give a damn. I need a goddamn cigarette. Eddie heard the thought clearly. He stood and gawked at the man. The salesman gave in to his craving and walked into the drugstore. Eddie followed after him. The salesman fought off the impulse and spun around to leave the store, walking smack into Eddie. Eddie clasped him around the shoulders and looked into his eyes. What’s this guy’s problem? the salesman thought. Eddie heard the thought clearly. ―Let go of me!‖ the salesman said. Eddie released him and the salesman quickly walked away, staring over his shoulder at Eddie. Weirdo, the salesman thought.
Eddie sat back down on the bench. Either I just read that guy’s mind or I’ve completely lost it. ―You okay, son?‖ The security guard‘s big hand clamped around Eddie‘s arm and lifted him to his feet. ―What have you been smoking?‖ the security guard asked. Probably PCP. His grip tightened around Eddie‘s arm. One wrong move, punk, and I bash you. The guard envisioned pummeling Eddie severely and spilling his brains on to the food court floor, with one swing of his meaty fist. Eddie didn‘t struggle against his grip, for fear of provoking him. ―Come on. I‘m escorting you out,‖ the guard said. The guard yanked Eddie sharply and hustled him to the door. He shoved him roughly through the glass doors and watched as Eddie tripped and landed on his back, on the sidewalk in front of the mall. ―Don‘t let me catch you in here again,‖ the guard warned, as he wiped his hands on his pants. The guard felt a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment as he turned and re-entered the mall. Eddie lifted himself up from the pavement. He felt that he had lost control of his thoughts and feelings because of the emotional upheaval of the previous night. Confusion clouded his mind as he walked across the sparsely filled parking lot. Get a hold of yourself, Eddie. You can’t read people’s minds. It’s impossible. But he had heard and seen the security guard‘s thoughts clearly. It had felt so real. He pondered over what he had experienced with the guard and the salesman and the homeless man, pushing the cart of cans. Well, there’s one way to find out, Eddie thought.
Eddie was walking on the sidewalk now. A man was striding toward him. The man was older, but robust and tall, and wore dirty jeans and a jeans jacket that was tight over his thick shoulders. He had a scraggly, black beard and black hair that fell Jesus-like on to his shoulders. The man‘s boots thumped with each heavy step. Eddie concentrated on the man, looking into his eyes, as they walked toward each other on the sidewalk. An engulfing darkness swept over Eddie, like a fog rolling onto a northern shore. A low growl, that felt of impending violence, surrounded him. In a flash, he saw a farmhouse. A woman was bound to a bed. She was crying. There was a flash of steel. Red blood splattered, spilled, and flowed over the floor. A little girl was tied to a chair. She screamed and began to sob. Are you looking at me? Eddie snapped back into the present. He wasn‘t walking any more. The man was striding for him. Fear ran through Eddie as the man neared. The man checked his jacket with a pat. A hunting knife flashed into Eddie‘s mind. He felt the mind of a predator, sizing him up and readying for attack. The man passed by. The heavy thump of his boots faded behind. Eddie stood motionless and tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry and he was unable to. An acute sense of vulnerability swept over him. His heart pounded and his legs felt weak. He had a strong desire to flee. Lonnie‘s bus passed by on the other side of the street. Eddie sprinted after it and flagged Lonnie down, before he could pull his bus away.
Eddie stepped on to the bus, panting heavily. ―Lonnie, I don‘t have any change,‖ he said, through heavy breaths. ―No change, no ride.‖ ―It‘s me, Lonnie. Eddie. Eddie Duncan.‖ Puzzlement, then a light of recognition flashed in Lonnie‘s eyes. ―What on earth happened to your hair?‖ ―You‘ve got to let me on the bus. Please, Lonnie.‖ Lonnie grew annoyed. ―Okay, but this is the last time, you hear me, Ed.‖ He waved Eddie back with a jerk of his head. ―Damn kids these days.‖ Eddie took a seat at the back of the bus, as it rolled forward. He sat looking out of the window as his mind raced. I’m losing my mind. I’m losing my mind. I’m losing my mind. The bus slowed, as it approached an intersection. The man, whom Eddie had just encountered, strode down the sidewalk only a few feet from the bus window. The bus came to a halt, at a red light. The man strode along the sidewalk next to the bus. He stopped, turned and gazed through the glass at Eddie. The man stood stone-like, without emotion as he looked into Eddie‘s eyes, through the glass. He was about sixty years old, with wrinkles around his dark eyes and deep creases on the skin of his face that ran under his raven-colored beard. He was large and rough and appeared physically in his prime. His dark eyes cast a cold stare that chilled Eddie to the bone. The light turned green and the bus rolled forward. The man‘s head turned slowly following Eddie‘s eyes, as the bus pulled away.
Eddie shuddered. He wasn‘t sure what he had seen, but he did know what he felt. That man had scared the daylights out of him and Eddie had no intention of being anywhere near him again. A heavy rain began to fall as Fresno passed by outside the window. A teenager, in an oversize sweatshirt and baggy jeans, sat in the seat in front of Eddie. His baseball cap was on backwards and his head bobbed to the beat that came from his large headphones. A downpour of rain pounded the roof of the bus like ballbearings. Neon signs of car dealerships and fast-food restaurants glowed through the rain, beneath low-hanging power lines. The traffic was heavy and the bus moved through the traffic in starts and stops. The teenager, in the seat in front of Eddie, tapped his hand to the beat of the music that Eddie could hear clearly from the oversize headphones. Carlyle thinks I’m the shit. He knows he can trust me. All I have to do is get him the money and I’ll be livin large. Nobody better fuck with me. Eddie felt the young man turn his attention onto the fannypack around his waist. It was uncomfortable on his back against the seat. He took off the pack, set it on the seat next to him and patted it with his hand. Eight thousand big ones. I could move to LA with this money. Move to LA and get my own place and… Don’t think like that! Just get Carlyle his money. The teenager surveyed the passengers on the bus, looking for potential threats. His mind turned to the gun in the front pocket of his baggy jeans. Carlyle had asked him if he was armed when he sent him to pick up the money. He had said ‗yes‘, but neglected to tell him that he didn‘t have bullets, for fear of looking stupid. Carlyle carried a .45 and wouldn‘t have had .38 caliber bullets anyway.
Damn, the teenager thought. This is the last time I do this without bullets. The bus came to a stop and the rear doors hissed open to the sound of rain. The light above the door changed to green with a ding. A loud screech and boom from the opposite lane startled the passengers. A pick-up truck had smashed into the rear end of a stalled station wagon. A mini-van, following too closely behind the pick-up, swerved out into the opposite lane into oncoming traffic. The mini-van zagged to miss a Toyota sedan and drove head on into a tow truck. The minivan and the tow truck collided in a screeching metal and glass-crunching boom. The passengers on the bus stared out in horror. ―Damn!‖ the teenager exclaimed. Both his hands were pressed against the glass of the window as he stared out, with jaw dropped, at the twisted wreckage of the two vehicles. The driver of the mini-van hung unconscious from the twisted mass of metal. ―That motherfucker‘s dead!‖ the teenager said, as he watched through the window. The fanny-pack lay unattended on the seat. The teenager was completely fixated on the accident outside. Eight thousand dollars, Eddie thought. The light above the doors changed to red with a ding and the hydraulics began to hiss. On impulse, Eddie reached over the seat, snatched the fanny-pack and bolted through the doors, as they hissed shut behind him. He vaulted over a low wall and sprinted across the parking lot of a supermarket, as the heavy rain drenched his clothes. He ran through an apartment complex and then down a residential road. A car approached, and he ducked behind a hedge as it passed by.
He was panting heavily as he opened up the pack. It was jammed full with tight wads of twenty-dollar bills. It was the most money Eddie had ever held. You’ve really done it now, Eddie, he thought. You crazy idiot. He closed the pack and fastened it around his waist. With a quick scan of the area, he emerged from behind the hedge and began to walk, trying to look as normal as possible as a bald man, in pounding rain with eight thousand dollars in stolen cash around his waist, can. The rain slowed to a drizzling mist. He walked the suburban streets in the general direction of his mother‘s house. Every passing car and every bark from a dog made his heart jump. He was wet and his teeth chattered from the cold. His mind turned to the money around his waist. He thought of all the bills he could pay with it. He could make a down payment on a new car. He could get Debbie something really nice, some jewelry, or that outfit at the mall that she had liked so much but they didn‘t have the money for. The excitement of the last several hours had kept him from thinking about her. Debbie… Memories of her flooded through his mind, all the good times they had together, how he loved being with her and making her laugh, holding her hand, living with her, sleeping with her. He remembered her with that man, pulling him into her with her legs. It angered and sickened him. He had never imagined she could ever betray him so deeply. It was because he was broke. He should have never let it come to this. He knew her so well, and of all people, he should have known that their lacking of financial security was weighing heavily on her mind. He had enough money to make it better now. He would make it better. He watched the cracks in the sidewalk, as he walked. His teeth chattered with a gust of wind and he pulled the wet
sweatshirt hood over his hairless head. The neighborhood he walked through seemed cold and unwelcome. He had never dreamed of leaving Fresno, like his friends had. After graduation, they had all left for LA or San Francisco. They went off to college, or joined the military, but Eddie had stayed. This city had been his whole life and all he had ever wanted was right here. He thought of Debbie with that man and a new feeling came over him. A lonely emptiness spread out from the center of his chest. He imagined running into her at the supermarket where they used to shop, or in line at Burger King, or at the movie theater on Friday night. He didn‘t know what he could say to her. It would be too painful to face her if she stayed with that other man. This city had been his whole life, their whole life. He was on the outskirts of town now, walking alongside a vineyard that bordered the road. Brown water was ankle deep in the furrows. The power lines above the sidewalk hummed in the dampness of the air. Distant lightning flashed and spread like spiderwebs across the gray sky. His mother‘s house was only a few minutes away now. It was going to be difficult to explain any of this to her, but the promise of a hot shower and food in his belly made him walk a little faster. His feet ached, but there wasn‘t much farther to go. The only sound he heard, as he walked, was the steady hum of the power lines and a heavy thump, thump, thump of boots on the pavement behind him. Eddie walked faster and the thump of the boots matched his pace. A jolt of fear shot through him as he realized that he was being followed. He walked faster, but the bootsteps came closer. Eddie broke into a trot. He felt an ominous dark presence approaching behind him. I’m coming for you.
Eddie sprinted as fast as he could. He darted off the sidewalk, where an abandoned gas station stood on the edge of the vineyard. He ran behind the station and ducked inside the garage. It was dark inside. The rotting hulk of an old Chevy sat on blocks in the center of the floor. A row of rusting oil cans stood beside the wall, next to a pile of boards. Eddie squatted down behind the oil cans and tried his best to muffle his heavy breathing. The rain began falling again and water dripped through holes in the ceiling, pattering on to the floor and oil cans. From between the cans, Eddie saw the black silhouette of a man standing beneath the garage doors. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled across the sky. The dark figure entered the garage. Eddie heard the thump of boots on the wet cement floor. With each slow step, he felt a cold, dark presence nearing. Where are you? The thought came as a low growl into Eddie‘s brain. It felt like the thought of a carnivore, hunting its prey. Lightning flashed and illuminated the garage in flickering, blue light. Eddie saw the man clearly in the illumination of the lightning. The tall man with a thick frame, black beard, and long black hair held a hunting knife, as his head swiveled slowly searching the garage. The man moved closer to Eddie‘s hiding place behind the oil cans. Eddie‘s heart pounded in his chest. He prayed for it to stop, before it gave him away. He squeezed himself smaller behind the cans. The man‘s boots were now close enough to touch.
In the flickering light he saw the mud caked on the worn leather of the boots. A man in a business suit, with his throat slashed, flashed vividly through Eddie‘s mind. There was a highway patrolman on his knees in the desert, executed by his own gun. There was a woman, in a fast-food uniform, lying in an alleyway in a pool of blood. Eddie felt the aura of this predator, who had the smell of blood. The man stood above Eddie, with his back to the cans. He was peering into the back seat of the Chevy. He stood motionless and smiled inside when he noticed a dark clump on the back seat. The man focused on the clump and slowly raised the knife, as he readied for attack. It’s time to meet your maker. Eddie reached out and quietly lifted a two-by-four from the pile of boards next to him. He rose from behind the oil cans and raised the board up like a baseball bat. Behind me! The man spun around. Eddie swung the board fueled by adrenaline and fear. The board cracked into the man‘s forehead. The man staggered backward against the frame of the Chevy. The oil cans banged metallically, as Eddie kicked through them. He swung the board again. It smashed into the man‘s skull, sprawling him face down on to the floor. The knife was still clutched in the man‘s hand. A hard kick sent the knife sliding across the garage. The man groveled face down on the cement, as Eddie stood over him. Eddie‘s heart raced with adrenaline. ―Who are you, you sick bastard!‖ Eddie screamed. The man sprung around like a panther. His shoulder smashed into Eddie‘s gut and his arms gripped with bear-like strength as he drove Eddie out into the rain. They fell and slid backward in the mud, on Eddie‘s back.
The man‘s fist slammed like a brick into Eddie‘s jaw. His hard hands clamped around Eddie‘s throat and squeezed so tightly that Eddie felt his neck would snap. Eddie choked and gagged and clawed at the man‘s hands. Eddie‘s eyes bulged and panic filled him, as no air filled his lungs. You’re gonna die, boy. In a flash of lightning, Eddie saw the man‘s eyes burning like embers, watching the fear of death in Eddie‘s eyes with psychotic pleasure. Heavy raindrops spattered on the mud and steam rose off the man‘s hair. Dark blood flowed down the man‘s forehead from the gash Eddie had inflicted. The board was still in Eddie‘s hand. He swung it up with the fear of approaching death. The corner of the board struck sharply into the man‘s temple. He fell off Eddie, releasing his iron grip from Eddie‘s throat. Eddie gasped for air, as he struggled to his feet. The man groveled in the mud, stunned by the blow. Eddie stood over him and lifted the board high into the air. He swung it down with all his remaining strength and bashed it into the top of the man‘s skull, with a bone-cracking crunch. Eddie kicked him over on to his back. The man‘s eyes were cloudy and his mind was hazy. ―How many did you kill!‖ Eddie screamed. Lightning flashed and thunder crashed across the sky. Their eyes met and the man cracked a smile. ―How many!‖ Eddie screamed. I’m gonna kill you. The thought was dim in the man‘s mind but it flamed Eddie‘s fury. Eddie through himself on top of man and gripped his through, pushed all his weight on to it. The man struggled but didn‘t have the strength to throw him off. Eddie watched as the man‘s eyes grew dim. And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
The life faded and then flickered out, like the flame of a candle deprived of oxygen. The man‘s eyes were now dull and lifeless. The dark aura was gone and Eddie heard no thoughts from the mind in the body beneath him. Now it was nothing more than a mass of flesh and bone, as lifeless as the mud beneath. Eddie felt a sense of terrifying finality. He staggered back, staring in horror at the corpse. What have I done? The smell of ozone filled the air. Lightning crashed overhead. The electricity in the air raised the hair on the back of Eddie‘s neck. He ran from that awful place. A bolt of lightning struck the garage with a deafening boom. He ran out into the street. The lights of a car approached in the rain. Eddie waved his hands wildly at the approaching vehicle. It was a black Nissan coupe, lowered to the ground, with bright gold rims. It came to a stop as Eddie slapped his hands on the hood. Behind the windshield, in the passenger seat sat the teenager whom Eddie had sat behind on the bus ride earlier in the day. The teenager‘s jaw dropped as he realized that the thief who had stolen eight thousand in cash from him, was right outside the windshield. ―Shit!‖ Eddie said. ―Shoot that motherfucker!‖ the teenager shouted. Eddie sprinted for the vineyard. A shotgun blast boomed, splintering the wood of a grapevine pole near Eddie‘s head. He ran through the rows, splashing in the ankle deep water, as the rain came down in sheets. Lightning flashed and thunder boomed as Eddie sprinted through the pounding rain and ionized air.
Eddie awoke with a jolt from dreams of gargoyles. A painful headache tightened the muscles of his face as he tried to remember where he was. He sat in a seat on a Greyhound bus that was laboring up a mountain pass. The familiar rolling hills of California were giving way to the fir-covered mountains of Oregon. Snow frosted the treetops and lowhanging gray clouds clung softly to the mountaintops. Eddie massaged his temples, trying to relieve the tremendous pressure that pushed against the inside of his forehead. It felt as if his brain no longer fit within the confines of his skull. A pair of migrant farm workers sat in the seats in front of him. Across the aisle, a wiry man with a thin mustache sat staring blankly at the seat back. The bus was empty except for a few passengers who looked tired and bored. The only sound was the laboring drone of the bus engine. Eddie rubbed his eyes trying to keep them in focus. He remembered entering the bus station, panting heavily and dripping with water, and paying the fare for the first bus out of town with wet twenty-dollar bills. The young lady behind the counter took his money ambivalently, as if he were nothing out of the ordinary. Eddie checked the pack around his waist. At least he had money. Whenever the bus got to wherever it was going, he would be able to have a hot meal and a room for the night. He remembered that man and their struggle at the garage near the vineyard. He remembered the man‘s aura of evil and it made him shudder. He remembered the light blinking out of the eyes, as life left the body. He remembered the silent finality of death, cold and eternal. A chill ran down his spine
as he remembered the corpse lying in the mud as the rain fell down upon it. He had never dreamed that he would ever kill another human being. A sense of dread ran through him. The cops would be looking for his killer. He remembered what he had seen in the man‘s mind. He had seen the mind of a murderer. He had performed a service to society by killing that man. There was no reason to feel guilty about it. It was self-defense. Rationalizing made him feel better, as it always had. After all, what was done was done and it couldn‘t be changed. Eddie pushed the thoughts of that evil man from his mind and vowed not to think of the matter ever again. It was something Eddie had always been good at, pushing uncomfortable thoughts out of his mind. He had never been one to dwell on things that couldn‘t be changed. He had pushed all thoughts of his father out of his mind. His father had been a Marine and had died serving his country in Lebanon or Libya, or some such place, when Eddie was only a baby. Eddie had no memories of the man and his mother never spoke of him. She became upset whenever Eddie pestered her with questions, so he stopped asking them. It was enough to know that his father had lived and now was dead. That couldn‘t be changed and there was no sense in dwelling on something that could never be changed. Eddie watched as the cold countryside passed by outside. He had no idea where the bus was destined. He thought of Fresno and a deep aching loneliness overwhelmed him. He thought of his mother. His poor mother, tired from working two jobs, grown old before her time from the gin she drank, the Marlboros she smoked by the carton, and from one bad relationship too many.
His mother had resigned herself to a life alone. Eddie remembered the last time that he saw her. She was dressed in her cashier‘s uniform, with a cigarette held in her fingers as she sat on the couch watching an entertainment news show. Her spirits were low and a quiet resignation seemed to have settled over her. Now he was leaving her, too. She had invested much in Eddie, hanging all her hopes and dreams on him. But she had eventually realized that all the prodding and nagging in the world could never change his nature. Eddie was born happy and content, quick to smile and easily amused, without the slightest trace of ambition. Easygoing Eddie, that‘s what they called him, but Eddie‘s easygoing nature was recognized by all as more of a flaw than as anything redeemable. Eddie never felt any stress when a test came in school, or afterward, when the low grade came. He had been content playing right field on the baseball team and, when the team lost, he never felt as down as the other kids had. Eddie enjoyed the simple things, a cold beer after work, a nap in the afternoon, or sitting on the couch watching TV with Debbie. Debbie… He loved her unconditionally. He stared out at the mountains and off into the gray distance. Eddie did have one outstanding quality. He had a smile that came naturally and often. It was warm and genuine and put people at ease. It was a wonderful smile that he could spread contagiously across a room. It was the one thing that people always complimented him on. Now it felt like that would leave him too. In life, Eddie had always been able to avoid real disappointment, or hardship. These were two things he had never really felt. There was that one time that he had been
arrested for under-age drinking out at the lake and had to pick up trash on the freeway for the youth-offenders program, but even that wasn‘t so bad. He turned away from the window and stared blankly at the seat back in front of him. The wiry man across the aisle shifted in his seat. The man‘s blond hair was parted down the middle, short in front and long at the back. A fuzzy mustache spread thinly above his lip. Man, it’s good to be out of the pen. Stay away from the meth, he says. Stay away from the motorcycle gangs. Okay, Judge. I’ll just get a job with IBM. Stupid asshole. The man‘s attention turned to the woman in the seat in front of him. Her tired and worn face was buried in a paperback romance. Her belongings sat next to her in a plastic garbage bag. The man leaned forward. ―Hello, sweetheart,‖ he said with a toothy grin that revealed the black gap of a missing front tooth. ―You sure are a pretty one.‖ The woman sank deeper into her paperback. ―You ever been with a man just out of prison?‖ Leave me alone. Please, she thought. Eddie was fixated on both of them. He felt the man‘s sexual desire for the woman. He felt the woman‘s fear and knew that this type of man was not unfamiliar to her. The man turned and leaned across the aisle and looked Eddie squarely in the eyes. ―You got a problem, man?‖ the man asked. ―No… I don‘t.‖ ―Then I suggest you mind your own fucking business.‖ The man‘s face was fierce and confident, but it was an act. He didn‘t want a confrontation, not on a bus full of people. Eddie stared into the man‘s eyes with fascination, probing the mind behind, feeling the man‘s nervousness grow when the gaze wasn‘t broken. The man was afraid to break the stare
first, consciously struggling to maintain his confident outward demeanor. A prison beating ran through the man‘s mind. It was a beating that came after a similar bluff. Eddie turned away and settled into his seat. ―Sorry, man,‖ Eddie said. ―That‘s what I thought.‖ The man settled back into his seat. Eddie had spooked him. The man‘s mind returned to prison and all the terrible things that he had experienced there. Eddie rubbed his eyes, unable to make sense of what had just happened. Two migrant workers, a tiny man and an enormous woman, began kissing in the seat in front of Eddie. He could see the tops of their heads and hear the slurping from their slow, passionate kisses. Annabella, te quiero. The thought was lustful. The plump woman kissed passionately with her tongue. Tengo hambre, Pablo. The woman lowered her seat and it slammed into Eddie‘s knees. The tops of their heads were now inches from Eddie‘s face. Hot lust radiated off them in waves. Eddie turned his face away and grimaced. The sloppy kisses and heavy breathing became too much. He rose and moved to the back of the bus, taking a seat away from the other passengers. He stared out of the window as small towns nestled under mountains passed by outside. The Oregon countryside was beautiful, even in the grayness of winter. A surreal feeling came over him as he watched the countryside pass by. He wondered if he had read those people‘s minds. Maybe this is how it happens, he thought. Down in the valleys, light shone from the windows of houses like little square stars. Maybe this is insanity…
It made sense to him. In a single instant, your life spins out of control. All that you know and love shatters before your eyes. The outside world floods into your mind and your thoughts are no longer your own. You find yourself on a bus riding through the mountains of Oregon to some city far from home. Nobody knows your name and nobody cares. You are alone. You begin to drink to quiet the voices in your head, until you become a shell of a man, pushing a shopping cart filled with cardboard, a sleeping bag, and trash bags stuffed with used clothing. They call you Crazy Jim or Dirty Dan. You shuffle down the city streets, arguing with the voices in your head. Then, one day, you are nothing more than a dirty corpse in the city morgue with a tag around your big toe which reads, ‗John Doe‘. You slide anonymously into the incinerator. Get a hold of yourself, Eddie. A deep, dark loneliness ached in his soul. He missed her so much. It had all happened so fast. She had betrayed their love. There was no going back now. Everything had changed. I need to change. He would show her. He would become the man she wanted him to be. She would come crawling back to, begging for forgiveness for what she had done. She would want his love once again. That bitch. The long journey came to an end at a bus station in downtown Seattle. Eddie walked the streets aimlessly, admiring the tall, modern buildings that pushed up into the
mist. Wispy columns of steam wafted upward from the high rooftops. The city seemed big, compared to Fresno. Through the buildings he saw the steel-gray waters of Puget Sound. White ferries moved silently between fir-covered islands. Eddie walked beneath cement columns that held up the rails of a monorail. The monorail shot past overhead, like a flash from the future as it rushed between buildings to a steel tower that pointed skyward into mist. Elevators zoomed up the white structure of the tower and slowed to a stop at a flying-saucer-shaped observatory high above the city. Eddie passed young men, with bleached hair and goatees, and young women with pierced noses and tight tops beneath their coats. Their minds were filled with alcohol, music, and the possibility of sex, as they walked in chattering groups to clubs and coffee houses. He passed homeless people sitting in doorways, or lying on the pavement. Their minds were in states of total intoxication, or desperately sober, hoping for relief from each passer-by. Eddie felt like an outsider watching the world with alien eyes. He ran his hand over his smooth, cold scalp, studied his black fingernails and wondered what he had become. He followed the monorail tracks to their final destination which was the sprawling complex of gift shops, game booths and convention halls which make up the Seattle Center. The winding tracks of a roller coaster were silent, and empty of tourists, this late in the year. Well-dressed men with sporty ties, and affluent-looking women on their arms, walked into the gift shop that sat beneath the thick, steel legs of the white tower that dominated the Seattle Center and the city skyline. Eddie walked behind a couple who walked arm in arm. He felt their confident and happy aura. They were pleased to have found the time between their busy schedules for a romantic evening high above the city and away from the
hassles below. The man worried briefly if his BMW was safe where it was parked. He assured himself that it was and glanced at his watch, relieved to be on time for their reservation. It would be nice to worry where my BMW was parked, Eddie thought, as he followed behind the strolling couple. The woman chatted about an article she had written for the paper. It was her first big scoop and they were celebrating with dinner. The man smiled and assured her that the article was great, as he thought of his office and the deal he was finalizing in the morning with a Taiwanese exporting firm. Eddie was soothed by their thoughts and walked closely behind not wanting to let their aura escape him. He followed them to the Space Needle ticket counter and slid a worn twenty-dollar bill beneath the glass for the fee for a ride up the tower. He stepped inside the elevator, standing out amongst the well-dressed couples. A young woman in a Seattle Center uniform politely moved the passengers back, as the elevator doors slid shut. She raised an eyebrow upon seeing Eddie amongst the diners. ―Welcome to Seattle‘s Space Needle,‖ she said cheerily. ―The Space Needle was built in 1962 for the World‘s Fair…‖ Blah, blah, blah... One more hour and I’m going dancing! The elevator slowed and opened at a restaurant, where couples dined by candlelight as the cityscape rotated quietly by. ―Those of you with reservations can exit now. Enjoy your meals. Everyone else stay where you are and we‘ll be at the observatory in a jiffy.‖ Eddie made his exit at the observatory and walked with his hands in his pockets through gift shops filled with tourist paraphernalia. He stood before a window near the lounge and looked out at the skyline.
The city lights glowed in the mist. The Olympic Mountains were off to the right. The sun had set behind them, silhouetting the jagged peaks beneath a spreading cloud bank that glowed in brilliant orange, pink, and fiery red. A lonely, sinking feeling came over him, as he watched the colors burning in the western sky. He had never liked to be alone. He wished he had someone to talk to, here in this city so far from home. The city looked so modern from up here, a city from the future. As he stood at the window, he felt someone watching him, scrutinizing him and wondering who he was. He turned and saw a woman, in her late twenties sitting at a small table in the lounge. She had black Cleopatra hair and was holding her chin in her hand. She wore a tight baby-blue mini skirt, which revealed her sleek legs that were crossed over, as her foot tapped impatiently. Their eyes met and she looked away. Eddie turned and looked out of the window again. He felt her gaze fall on to his rear end. Nice ass. I wonder if he plays in a band. Looks like he does. Eddie saw himself in her mind. She imagined him up on a stage, playing the guitar in a hot, smoky club before a packed crowd of sweaty fans. She would meet him backstage after the show. She would rip off his T-shirt and have passionate, sweaty sex with him. Eddie grew flustered and aroused by her daydream. He moved closer to her. I ought to take him home and screw him just to piss David off. Where is he? Eddie felt her irritation. He knows how much this night means to me. Her attention refocused on to Eddie. That’s what I need, my own boy-toy.
This thought amused her. The thought of introducing him to her parents made her smile inside. Her glass was empty and she searched the lounge for the waitress. Eddie turned and approached her. ―Excuse me,‖ he said. ―Can I buy you a drink?‖ His unexpected forwardness caught her off balance. ―I don‘t see why not,‖ she answered. She wasn‘t one to be caught off balance often. ―May I?‖ Eddie asked as he pulled up a chair.
She looked at him through her blue eyes and motioned for him to sit. ―Be my guest.‖ ―My name‘s Eddie,‖ he said with a smile and extended his hand. ―Rachel,‖ she said, reaching out her hand to his. She liked his smile. Eddie caught the waitress‘s attention and signaled for her with his finger. Rachel had been drinking a Haywire Hefeweizen and was planning to order another. It was her favorite beer. ―Two Haywire Hefeweizens, please,‖ Eddie said to the waitress. ―So,‖ he said, turning to Rachel. ―Are you waiting for someone?‖ ―Is it that obvious?‖ ―Not really.‖ ―Well, Eddie, as a matter of fact, I am, and it looks like I‘m being stood up.‖ The waitress brought their beers and they both sipped from their glasses. ―He must be a fool,‖ Eddie said. ―And why is that?‖ Rachel responded. ―You‘re a beautiful woman.‖ ―And you‘re trying too hard.‖ She was sizing him up. He seemed mysterious and somewhat brash, but nothing she couldn‘t handle. She could handle a lot. She was way out of his league, but she didn‘t know it yet. ―You are brash, I‘ll give you that,‖ she said. She played with her phone.
Just play it cool, Eddie. She looked over his shoulder, her eyes searching the people emerging from the elevator. She wanted David to see her having a drink with this stranger, but David didn‘t emerge. Her eyes refocused on Eddie. ―So, Eddie,‖ she said. ―Do you always come to the Space Needle to hit on women?‖ ―No. This is my first time. I‘m new in town. I‘m from California.‖ ―Is that a fact?‖ she asked, sipping her beer and wondering where the hell David was. ―Yeah… My band broke up. I needed a change, so I moved up here.‖ ―You play in a band?‖ Her interest rose. ―What instrument do you play?‖ ―Guitar.‖ ―I could tell you were a musician just by looking at you, by the way you carry yourself. I‘m very intuitive about these things.‖ ―Is that a fact?‖ He smiled and sipped his beer. His heart was pounding. He worried that he would break into a sweat. What was he doing? He was leading this woman on. A vengeful feeling in him was driving him. Was he pathetic? No, Debbie was wrong. He wasn‘t pathetic. This woman made Debbie look like minor leaguer. This woman was Major League all the way. ―What was the name of your band?‖ she asked. ―My band? Um. The Youth Offenders.‖ ―Have you heard of Boys ‗n‘ Berry?‖ she asked. ―Boysenberry… Yeah. Sure.‖ Boys ‗n‘ Berry was Rachel‘s favorite band. She idolized Gina Berry, the band‘s singer. She cut her hair like her and dressed like her. Through college and law school and through all her
relationships, Gina Berry had always been there, playing in the background. David thought her infatuation with a pop star was childish and it irked her that he was embarrassed by it. She felt that she and Gina Berry were kindred spirits and nothing David could say would change that. To Rachel, Gina Berry was the coolest woman on the planet. ―Yeah,‖ Eddie went on. ―I met Gina Berry back in LA.‖ Rachel‘s jaw dropped. ―No way.‖ ―She is so cool,‖ he said. ―Wow. When was she in LA?‖ ―Um. A while back. Yeah.‖ Rachel glanced at her phone. She turned it off. ―Well, Eddie. It looks like my date isn‘t going to show. Boys ‗n‘ Berry is playing downtown and I‘ve got an extra ticket. Would you like to join me?‖ ―I would love to.‖ Eddie paid for their drinks and they left the Space Needle together. Rachel looked aloof, but Eddie could feel her excitement from ditching David to see a show with a mysterious stranger. She hadn‘t felt this spontaneous and rebellious in years. They wound through the city streets in Rachel‘s red BMW, as she blew cigarette smoke up and out of the open window. This was her city and Eddie was comforted by her presence. He made up a story about how he had been in a band in LA that had broken up due to drug problems and the tragic overdose death of a band member. Eddie was carefully attuned to Rachel‘s emotions, continuing his story where she was interested and quickly changing direction at the first hint of boredom. Thus, he had become her fantasy stranger, the tortured musician with a shady past. He learned a lot about her, on their short drive. Rachel Richards, up-and-coming criminal defense attorney with a taste for the wild side. He learned how she had always been
torn between wanting to please her parents and her rebellious nature. Her parents had been upset by her lifestyle and had pushed David onto her. She had liked him at first. He was handsome and successful, but now she thought of him as nothing more than part of a plot to domesticate her. She reached over him and tossed her cell phone into the glove box. She didn‘t need it, and Eddie knew why. Tonight she was cutting loose. They entered the downtown club, with Rachel holding on to Eddie‘s arm. It was dark inside. Eclectic artwork hung between velvet drapes on the brick walls. Hip young people talked and smoked around lava lamps on small tables by the bar. Eddie ordered drinks, as Rachel‘s friends approached. They eyed Eddie‘s bald head and black fingernails as Rachel introduced him. Eddie shook their hands and smiled and tried his best to look cool. One of Rachel‘s girlfriends shook Eddie‘s hand. ‗Where‘s David?‘ she asked Rachel directly, as if Eddie wasn‘t there. ―I don‘t know,‖ she answered. Her girlfriend shot Eddie a sidelong glance. She looked him up and down. Loser alert, she thought. The lights in the club dimmed, as Gina Berry and three male musicians emerged onto the stage to the sounds of applause. ―Hello, Seattle,‖ the singer said softly into the microphone in London English. Rachel pulled Eddie by the hand, away from her friends and out on to the dance floor. ―Don‘t worry about them,‖ she said, as the band began to play. ―They‘re a bunch of prudes.‖ Eddie smiled at her. ―No worries.‖ Psychedelic colors spread like plasma on the brick wall behind the band. Gina Berry‘s angelic voice filled the club to the sounds of melodic guitars and a heavy beat. White dots of
light from a disco ball swirled around them in the darkness, like a galaxy of stars. Eddie and Rachel drank, as they danced in the crowd. Eddie‘s troubles faded as he lost himself in the music, the lights, and Rachel‘s blue eyes. She felt happy and sexy. She hadn‘t danced like this in a long time. The music took over her body and her inhibitions slipped away. She put her arms around his neck and looked up at him. Her face was sweaty, as she smiled at him provocatively. She knew her friends were watching as she kissed him. They watched in the darkness by the wall, shaking their heads and talking heatedly amongst themselves. One of them was talking quickly into a cell phone. ―They don‘t approve of me,‖ Eddie said, pulling her close. ―Screw them.‖ He leaned down and kissed her, as her friends looked on. She liked the kiss and she liked that they saw it. She squeezed him close and looked up at him. Sex was in her eyes. ―Let‘s get out of here,‖ she said. They left the club together, arm in arm, hurrying past the bar and down the hallway out into the cool night air without saying good-bye to Rachel‘s friends. Eddie held her hand on the drive home as she smoked a cigarette while calmly breaking all the posted speed limits. As they entered Rachel‘s apartment, a big golden retriever bounded toward them. The apartment was spacious with wooden floors, lots of plants, and a wrought-iron staircase that spiraled up to a loft. A bay window gave a breathtaking view of the city skyline. Rachel kneeled down and scratched the golden retriever behind the ears, as it wagged its tail excitedly. ―Hi, baby,‖ she said to it. ―Mommy brought home a friend.‖
She stood and put her arms around Eddie. ―That would be you.‖ It all passed like a dream. Two bodies became one. One mind flowed into the other, feeling all and fulfilling. Falling and falling, as the physical and the emotional became one, releasing and flying higher and farther than ever before, body and soul soaring into the spiritual and passing like a dream. They lay together in Rachel‘s loft. She slept with her arms around him as he stared out of the bay window at the lights of the city below. She slept deeply in tingling tiredness. The night had been perfection. Her fantasy, the one she daydreamed about while doing the dishes or driving to work, was now alive and in her arms. Her warm body felt soft and good by his side. He watched a red light on top of a high-rise building blink quietly, and wondered how strange it was to be here in this city in this apartment with this beautiful woman. She stirred and held him tight. I could keep him forever. She kissed him softly and slipped back into sleep. Eddie gazed out of the window at the city lights.
He stayed at Rachel‘s apartment. She had wanted him to stay. The next day passed and then another. He spent the days lounging in her comfortable flat, watching TV, as he waited for her to come home from work. The nights were spent together, dancing and drinking in the clubs and bars of Seattle. They went to concerts, driving as far away as Portland or up to Vancouver, Canada, if a band Rachel liked was playing there. The days passed quickly and before long Eddie had become a kept man. He enjoyed living in her apartment. He was careful to be exactly what she wanted him to be. He drove her to work in the mornings, met her for lunch downtown and picked her up in the evenings. He knew that after work, a glass of wine and a foot massage eased her mind. When the stress from work had built and bottled up inside her, he would push her into a fight. A heated argument with lots of shouting and arm waving, about nothing more than not watering the plants or feeding the dog, helped her to blow off steam. To Rachel, there was nothing in the world more enjoyable than making love after a good fight. She had asked about the money he had in his pack and he told her that he got it from selling off his band‘s equipment after the break-up. She never asked about it again. One day she brought home a guitar and asked him to play for her. He sat before her as if he were going to play but became emotional, telling her with tears welling in his eyes how holding the instrument brought back painful memories of drugs and death. She held him and told him that he didn‘t have to play, because now he had her and everything would be okay.
Keeping up the act was easy for him. She may have been gorgeous and smart and wealthy, but she was easily fooled because he could see into her mind. Everything felt wrong. He was liar. A fraud. He missed Debbie. Rachel‘s feelings for him grew. She had no idea that she was being manipulated. She wondered how someone could make her so happy and know her so well. She felt he was her soulmate. The living was easy and he truly cared for her. He had the days to himself and the nights were always fun. He never dreamed of having someone like her, smart, sexy, and loaded with cash, just like the women in the soap operas that he watched while she was at work. But little things had begun to annoy him, the way she never discussed work with him, or when she canceled lunch with him to eat with a coworker, or when she wondered if a male colleague would be good in bed. She avoided her friends when they were together and hadn‘t introduced him to her parents. He knew she loved him with all her heart, but he felt that she didn‘t take him seriously. During the day, he had taken to wandering the streets of the Capitol Hill district. He wore jeans, Rachel‘s old concert tshirts, and a pair of wraparound sunglasses that concealed his eyes. Capitol Hill was a colorful neighborhood of boutiques, coffee shops and trendy restaurants, where the sounds of bongos and steel drums and other street instruments could be heard playing for the spare change of passing pedestrians. An eclectic mix of every sort of street person populated the sidewalks. Teenage runaways sold trinkets and cheap jewelry, homeless men with sad puppies sat on the pavement with cardboard signs and cups of change, packs of Asian students hurried to class and homosexuals handed out pamphlets from tables on the sidewalk.
Eddie explored the streets and his new ability. It was frightening at first to be overwhelmed by the cacophony of thoughts and swirling emotions that bombarded him, as he walked down the crowded streets. He never knew what he would find in the minds of strangers. It was like diving from the rocks into unknown waters, where unseen creatures lurked in the deep. Some minds were stormy and dark, while others were calm and filled with light. Some were as broad and deep as the ocean, while others were as shallow as a bird bath. Eddie grew more and more familiar with his ability and soon it became second nature. He could quickly recognize in a passer-by the elation of new-found love, or the singleminded anguish of love gone bad. He saw the heavy darkness behind the eyes of the depressed, and felt the watchful suspicion of the paranoid. He saw the delusions of the schizophrenic and the erotic fantasies of the nymphomaniac, and felt the hound-dog horniness of the sex-obsessed man. He felt the highs and lows of the chemically dependent, the alert drone of caffeine and nicotine, the slow, cloudy colors of THC, the bizarre visions of LSD, and the high octane flame of cocaine. For the most part, he found people‘s minds to be as plain and mundane as his own, moving through life in an emotional middle ground, wondering whether it would rain or what to have for lunch. There was a certain type of mind that Eddie was particularly drawn to. He followed them, these well-dressed people with good hair and straight backs. He felt their confidence and listened to their busy, educated minds. They had things to do, places to go, people to meet. He followed them, as they hurried to meetings or to lunch with clients and business partners. Eddie found himself more and more hanging
around downtown, watching them move between their steel and glass towers. Two months had gone by, with Eddie lounging and freeloading in Rachel‘s apartment. When she had told her parents about him, they had thrown their hands up in disbelief, telling her how he was using her and would run off as soon as something better came along. That was the reaction she expected, but she loved him and if they didn‘t understand, oh well. For Eddie, the living was easy and Fresno seemed far away, like a memory from another life, but in him, a feeling of dissatisfaction began to grow. On a dark and rainy northwest evening, Eddie drove Rachel to the airport. She was flying down to San Francisco, for a week of research on a case she was working on. ―I‘m going to miss you,‖ she said, rubbing the inside of his thigh as he drove. ―A whole week without my baby.‖ She leaned over and nibbled on his ear. He had always liked this before, but now it irritated him. ―What kind of research will you be doing down there?‖ he asked. ―Oh, Eddie. I‘ll just be lying alone in my hotel room with a stack of papers dreaming of you.‖ ―I mean for your case. What will you be doing?‖ ―You know, baby. All work and no play.‖ She stuck her tongue in his ear. He jerked his head away. He hated how she danced around the subject of work, always oversimplifying it, as if talking to a child. She leaned back into her seat. ―Don‘t forget to water the plants and feed the dog.‖ She rattled off a series of specific instructions on all the things that he was to do while she was away. ―If you‘re a good boy,‖ she said and kissed him on the cheek, ―Mommy will bring you home something nice.‖
They arrived at the airport and Eddie walked her to her terminal. She held him tightly as the flight attendant announced that business class could now board. She looked up into his eyes. ―I‘m going to miss you.‖ He felt that she meant it. ―I‘ll miss you, too.‖ She looked at him softly. Should I say it? Please don’t, he hoped. I love you, she said silently in her mind. ―I‘ll call you when I get to the hotel.‖ She turned and walked down the ramp to her plane. He drove home in the rain, watching the line of red tail lights snake through the darkness on the freeway ahead. The windshield wipers rhythmically thumped, as they swept the cold rain off the glass. Women turned their heads as they drove by, attempting to catch a glance of the driver of the red BMW. Eddie adjusted the rear-view mirror and took a look at himself. His hair had grown back and he wore new clothes, hairstyle and wardrobe courtesy of Rachel. He arrived at Rachel‘s apartment and entered the door. Rachel‘s big dog bounded toward him, wagging its heavy tail. Eddie knelt down and scratched the dog behind the ears. It searched for its master‘s scent and was saddened when it didn‘t find it. Eddie could read the dog‘s mind. It was a mind of smells and sounds, of urine, sweat, and meat cooking on far away stovetops, of distant dog barks, police sirens, and mice scurrying under the floorboards. It was a mind devoid of thought, run by habit, hunger, and an undying love for Mommy. ―Yeah, Buddy,‖ Eddie said. ―No Mommy. It‘s just you and me.‖ The dog seemed to understand. It plodded over to the living room and plopped to the floor, rolling onto its back.
Eddie opened the refrigerator, grabbed a beer and popped it open. He took a long gulp and looked down at the dog lying lazily on its back in the center of the floor. ―We have a lot in common,‖ Eddie said and took another sip from his beer. He turned this thought over in his mind and didn‘t like the way it felt. He finished gulping down the rest of the beer and left the apartment. He drove downtown and parked the car next to a nightclub. He entered the dark club to the sound of loud music and the stale smell of cigarette smoke. He picked out an attractive woman, who sat alone at the bar. After a few drinks and some deep conversation they drove back to Rachel‘s apartment in Rachel‘s red BMW.
Eddie spent the next few nights prowling the clubs and bars of Pioneer Square. Picking them up and getting them home was easy. He had the clothes, the car, the apartment and all the right lines. He liked the attraction women felt toward him and the envy from the men, as they watched him leave with a sexy blonde on his arm. It was Thursday morning and Rachel was due home on Sunday. A woman was in the shower as Eddie lay on the couch. The phone rang. He let the answering machine pick up. ―Eddie, where are you? Why haven‘t you returned my calls? I‘m worried sick about you.‖ A few moments of silence were followed by the click of her hanging up. Eddie walked over to the machine and erased the message. The woman emerged from the bathroom, drying her hair with a towel. ―Did you say something, Edgar?‖ she asked. ―No. Nothing.‖ She picked her clothes up from off the floor and got dressed. ―I‘ve got a lot to do today,‖ he said. ―Okay,‖ she said, placing her hands on her hips. ―Do you have time for breakfast? I know a great place up on Broadway. I‘ll treat.‖ Eddie ushered her to the door. ―I can‘t.‖ ―When can I see you again?‖ ―I‘m going to be busy for the next week or so. You know, all work and no play.‖ She stood in the doorway. She moved closer to him. ―I really enjoyed last night.‖
Eddie stepped back. ―I‘ll give you a call.‖ She looked up at him, hurt by his cavalier demeanor. ―You don‘t have my number,‖ she said softly. Heartbreak and rejection swept over her. Then anger arose in her suddenly. She stood in the doorway with arms akimbo. ‗ ―You know what? You‘re an asshole!‖ ―I‘ll see you around,‖ Eddie said and shut the door. She slammed her fist against the door. ―Don‘t count on it!‖ Eddie ran his hands through his hair as he walked into the kitchen. He found Rachel‘s cigarettes, put one in his mouth and lit it. He exhaled a heavy stream of smoke. ―That didn‘t go very well,‖ he said to the dog. The dog cocked its head and let out a whine. ―At least you‘re loyal,‖ Eddie said. Four different women in four nights and all beautiful with great bodies. Physically, he had thoroughly enjoyed himself, but emotionally, he was confused. He felt guilt for betraying Rachel. He felt empty without the intimacy that he had shared with Debbie. He felt a deep sense of dissatisfaction. This was an emotion that he had never felt back in Fresno. He had always been a person easily satisfied. He stamped out the cigarette in the abalone ashtray on the counter. This new feeling made him edgy and restless. Rachel‘s spacious apartment felt confining. He put on a jogging suit and a pair of running shoes and headed out of the door. Spring was near. Raindrops glowed as they fell through beams of sunshine. The thoughts of pedestrians grew louder and then faded behind as he jogged past. He ran harder, trying to escape their thoughts. He came to a stop, panting with his hands on his knees, at a downtown plaza in front of the Westlake Center mall. Homeless people sat on the benches, feeding pigeons crusts
of bread beneath the budding trees. Young tourists with heavy backpacks tramped past and business people hurried past the fountain, carrying lattes and cappuccinos in colorful paper cups with plastic lids. Eddie‘s vision was blurred and he felt dizzy. Their thoughts echoed through his mind. He wished to be alone again inside his head. Where is my mind? He wished to silence the constant din and reclaim his own thoughts. I can’t live like this. He had a strange, ominous feeling that someone was watching him, following him, probing his mind. He had felt this before. It was as if there was a darkness in the world watching him, studying him. But the feeling was fleeting, suddenly disappearing as he turned his thoughts to it. He staggered into the Westlake Center, a three-story mall of glass and sunlight, overhanging balconies, and crowded escalators. He entered the mall in a vain attempt to escape the clamor of the plaza. He rode the escalator up to the food court and sat alone at a table by a large window. He sat with his chin in his hand and watched through the glass as the monorail sped off to the Space Needle. I can’t believe he said that to me. The thought came from a woman. Eddie turned and saw her sitting at the table behind him. She wore a tight top and a short skirt and was sipping a latte. A sloppily dressed fat man sat next to her. The man was wolfing down a burrito with obvious gusto. ―How could he say I dress like a tramp?‖ She felt hurt and insulted. ―Relax, Claire,‖ the fat man said, between big bites of burrito. ―Bill‘s just old-fashioned, that‘s all.‖ Another man in a suit approached and sat at the table with them. He had a copy of The Wall Street Journal tucked under his arm.
―How‘s that burrito, big-boy?‖ he asked. He watched with disgust as the fat man rinsed down his meal with a barrel-size cup of cola. The fat man noisily sucked down every last drop and set the cup down on the table. ―Claire‘s pissed because Ross told her to tone down the way she dresses.‖ ―Fuck off, Darren,‖ Claire said to the fat man. ―I can dress however I damn well please. This isn‘t the 1950s, you know.‖ ―You‘re not a cocktail waitress, for God‘s sake,‖ the man in the suit said with irritation. He was perturbed by her, but felt satisfaction at the fact that she had been chastised by the boss. ―It wouldn‘t kill you to dress a little more conservatively.‖ Claire was about to unleash a bitter invective in response, but thought better of it and returned her attention to the fat man. ―Any word on the new programming manager, Darren?‖ She knew this topic would raise the ire of the man in the suit. ―No,‖ Darren replied, still miffed from her earlier outburst. ―Mr. Ross hasn‘t found a suitable applicant.‖ ―It‘s been two months now!‖ the man in the suit blurted out. ―In this economy! We‘re the only company hiring on the whole Pacific Rim. How can he not find someone?‖ It’s a slap in the face. That’s what it is. ―Relax, Laine,‖ Claire said, happy now that he was the one upset and not her. ―Darren‘s going to make the breakthroughs we need and when he does everything will be roses.‖ The compliment erased fat Darren‘s irritation at her earlier outburst, but it did nothing to console Laine. Get me off this ship of fools, Laine thought. The only artificial intelligence in this company is inside Ross’s thick skull.
―Most of the applicants are underqualified,‖ Darren went on, ―and the ones that are qualified aren‘t willing to work for what Ross pays.‖ ―Bill‘s asking for too much,‖ Claire said. ―He‘s never going to find someone with a programming background and an MBA who will work for such a low salary. He‘s either going to have to offer more, or accept someone with less.‖ Ross Tech won’t make it through the year, Laine thought. I should be running things. Then we would see some changes. He liked this thought. The thought of being Claire‘s boss brought him sinister pleasure. Laine stood up and straightened his tie. ―We‘d better get going,‖ he said. Laine watched as Darren struggled up out of his chair. Fat slob, he thought in disgust. Laine looked down at Claire and smiled. I’ll be running things, soon enough. The three of them left the mall together. Eddie followed them out onto the street. They got inside Darren‘s Taurus parked at a meter next to the mall. Eddie watched as they drove away. Ross Tech, he thought and jogged down 4th Avenue to the city library.
―Hi, I‘m Bill Ross,‖ the big man said, as he shook Eddie‘s hand firmly. He gave Eddie‘s suit the once over and liked what he saw. He took the résumé from Eddie‘s hand and motioned for him to sit down. Bill Ross wore black-rimmed military-issue glasses. His hair was gray and unkempt. White chest hair poked out from his shirt that was open at the collar. The buttons of his shirt strained against the girth of his big belly. Eddie felt the warm glow of whisky in the man, from a swig from a flask hidden in the desk that was taken before Eddie entered the office. Ross sat down behind his cluttered desk and scanned over the résumé. BS in computer science from UCLA. Good. MBA from Ohio State. Excellent. Ross looked up at Eddie. He looks a little young for an MBA. Eddie tried to conceal his nervousness. ―How did you hear we were hiring, Mr. Duncan?‖ Ross asked. ―Over the internet, sir,‖ Eddie answered. ―Yes, of course,‖ Ross replied. In his past life he would have shot back with the noncommissioned officer‘s retort, ―Don‘t call me ‗sir.‘ I work for living.‖ Ross had retired as a master sergeant after thirty years in the Air Force and had called many people ‗sir‘ but had never been addressed by ‗sir‘ himself. Especially not by any of these hot-shot kids with their show-me-the-money attitudes that he had been interviewing over the last two months. He liked the fact that Eddie called him ‗sir‘.
Ross looked over the computer-intensive experience on Eddie‘s résumé that had been copied word for word from a sample in a résumé book at the library. Eddie felt heat building up around his collar and under his arms and was grateful that he had remembered to wear an undershirt. I’m never gonna pull this off. ―You‘ve got impressive credentials, Mr. Duncan,‖ Ross said. Too impressive. Ross‘s mind began to wander. He had interviewed others with less experience and worse grooming habits. They had practically laughed their way out of the office when he offered them a salary. ―Are you familiar with the job description?‖ Ross asked. ―Yes, sir. The position is assistant to the manager of programming operations. It entails creative approaches to project development and requires a broad overview of the voice recognition software that Ross Technologies is developing for the banking industry.‖ Eddie had spent all day in the library and had stayed up late into the night, developing and practicing this little spiel. He had recited it to Ross with all the confidence that he could muster, but was disheartened by how short it seemed and by Ross‘s half-listening nod of acknowledgment. Ross had already given up on him. He’s over-qualified, he thought. He was just going to have to put Laine Stern in charge when he was away, even though Laine‘s knowledge of programming was sketchy at best, and the programmers hated him. All I need is someone reliable who can keep the kids out of the chat rooms and off the games while I’m away. I need someone who can keep these kids motivated and producing code.
―Sir,‖ Eddie said. ―I don‘t mean to be blunt but I‘m the man for this job. I know computers, but really I‘m a people person. During my internship at Hewlett-Packard, I was told that my best quality is that I know how to motivate people and keep them producing code, even when the boss isn‘t looking. I think your company has an exciting product and I‘d really like to be a part of the team.‖ ―Hah!‖ The laugh came deep from Ross‘s belly. Eddie had caught him off guard. ―Motivation is the key to any successful team.‖ ―Yes, sir.‖ ―You know, back when I was in the Air Force, the guys who really knew how to motivate their troops were the ones who got things done. Take baseball, for instance. You know why the Mariners won‘t win the pennant?‖ Ross asked. ―No, sir,‖ Eddie answered. ―Their priorities are in the wrong place. Those boys are motivated by their egos and by money, not by the team, not by a love for the game,‖ Ross said. ―You don‘t think they‘ll be able to turn things around?‖ Eddie asked. ―I hope to God they do, but I wouldn‘t bet a wooden nickel on it. What they need are more team players and less of these money grubbing, pretty boys,‖ Ross replied. ―I agree. Did you ever play any ball?‖ Eddie asked. ―No. Well, back in the Air Force I played on the unit softball team,‖ Ross answered. ―I played right field in high school,‖ Eddie said. ―Right field? I played center,‖ Ross replied. ―You look like you were a hitter,‖ Eddie said. ―Not really. Well, there was that one time back when I was just a staff sergeant…‘ Eddie listened attentively, smiled, and looked genuinely interested as Ross recanted the story. So many years ago,
Ross had hit a grand slam in the ninth inning of the final game which had brought victory to his unit‘s softball team in the Fourth of July Softball Tourney. Everyone, including the base commander, had seen him knock that ball over the fence that day. Ross had told this story well over a thousand times and never tired of retelling it. But no one ever really listened, and it irritated his wife whenever he brought it up. ―It must have been quite a hit,‖ Eddie said. ―Yes. That it was.‖ Ross leaned back in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head and pleasurably recalled that day so long ago. Eddie shook his head, let out a ‗whew‘, and acted as if he honestly regretted not being there to see it himself. Ross leaned forward. ―Look, son. I like you. I think you‘d fit in well here. I‘ll tell you what. I‘ll start you at forty-five a year, full health and dental, plus stock options if and when we take the company public. It may not seem like much now, but once we get our product to market, the sky‘s the limit.‖ Ross expected a counter-offer, or a request for time to think it over. ―I‘m glad to be aboard, sir,‖ Eddie said, rising to his feet and extending his hand over Ross‘s desk. Ross shook Eddie‘s hand. I’ll be damned, Ross thought. I actually found someone. Holy shit, Eddie thought. I actually pulled it off.
He used his stash of twenty dollar bills from Fresno to buy a week‘s worth of work clothes and paid the first month‘s rent on an apartment in Bothel, northeast of Seattle. With the last of his cash, he bought a used Geo Metro to commute to and from work. He was excited about starting a new life, but this job was worlds away from what he was familiar with. He knew nothing about computers. This became glaringly clear to him when Ross had given him the grand tour after the interview. A feeling of being in way over his head came over him, after seeing the programmers sitting in absorbed concentration before their glowing monitors. They were all as young or younger than he. What the hell, he thought. I’ve got nothing to lose. It was late Saturday afternoon and Eddie had returned to Rachel‘s apartment for the last time. He had not been fair to her, he knew. It was not right to keep fooling her like this, he rationalized. The red light blinked steadily on the answering machine as Eddie stuffed his few belongings into a duffel bag. He knew it was wrong but he didn‘t want to face her again. He wanted to sneak away without having to explain, without having to hear her thoughts or feel her emotions. Her dog lay on the floor, watching passively as he packed. Its ears perked up and it let out a bark. It hopped up and ran out to the front door, wagging its tail. Eddie heard the jangling of keys, the clicking of locks, and then the opening of the door.
―Eddie!‖ Rachel called out as she entered the apartment. He heard the pants and whines and paws clattering on the wooden floor, as her dog excitedly greeted its master. The dog bolted into the room, looked at Eddie with a big doggy grin, and darted back out into the living room. ―Eddie? Are you home?‖ I was hoping to avoid this, Eddie thought. He slung the duffel bag over his shoulder and walked out into the living room. ―Honey,‖ she said, with outstretched arms as she walked quickly toward him. She hugged him tightly. He felt her concern and worry and the happiness she felt at seeing that he was okay. ―Why haven‘t you returned my calls?‖ she asked. This was bewildering to her. Eddie put his hands on her shoulders and held her at arms‘ length. ―I‘m moving into my own apartment,‖ he said. He searched for her reaction. ―What?‖ she asked softly, looking into his eyes. ―I found a job and I got my own place.‖ ―Baby, is that what you‘ve been doing?‖ she asked sweetly. She put her arms around his waist. ―You‘re acting silly. You‘re staying right here with me.‖ I’ll take care of you. She tried to give him a kiss, but he pushed her away. ―I found a job, Rachel. I‘m starting a career.‖ She looked at him, the way a compassionate mother looks at an irrational child. ―A career?‖ she asked. ―Yes. A career.‖ He sensed how silly she felt he was acting. ―Well, my working man. You can still stay right here with me.‖
She put her arms around him again and hugged him tightly. She had never seen him act this way, but she thought it was cute that he had been out looking for a job. She wondered what career he could possibly be starting. A lawn-care engineer, or maybe a fry-line technician. Eddie pushed her off and stepped back. ―For your information, Rachel,‖ he blurted out, ―I‘ve just been hired as the assistant to the manager of programming operations at Ross Technologies!‖ His outburst took her by surprise. ―That‘s right, Ross Technologies, an artificial intelligence computer company.‖ She didn‘t know how to react to his behavior. ―I‘ve got to go,‖ he said tersely. ―Eddie, honey,‖ she said. ―Please calm down. Think about what you‘re saying.‖ The comment angered him. What? he thought. I can’t have a career like you? He walked to the door and placed his hand on the doorknob. He’ll be back as soon as he realizes how silly he’s acting. He turned the doorknob, opened the door and walked out, shutting it behind him. He ran down the steps and threw the duffel bag into his Metro parked at the curb. He got in and sat behind the steering wheel. I’m just a dumb musician, right? But that wasn‘t true. Even with all his lies and posturing she had seen him for what he was. Just a dumb pump jockey. ―Damn!‖ he yelled and banged his hands hard in anger against the steering wheel of his Geo Metro. He started the car and fumbled with the lighter, as he pulled a cigarette from the pack on the dashboard. He finally managed to get the cigarette lit and then drove off to his new apartment.
The place was a dump. But it was his place. He tried on his new work clothes, an off-the-rack suit. He posed in front the cracked mirror on the bathroom door. Pathetic, am I? He looked at himself in the mirror, a young man, in good shape, clean cut. Cute? He cracked a shark-like grin. I’ll show them. Ross Technologies was located in a business park of glass, faceless two-story buildings set around a parking lot. An immaculately landscaped lawn and perfect hedges ringed the buildings. Leafless, spindly trees stuck up from mulched islands that centered the parking lot. Eddie shut his car door and walked across the lot. He pushed through the glass doors and entered Ross Technologies early on a gray Monday morning. ―Good morning, Mr. Duncan,‖ a woman said with a smile. Eddie smiled back. ―You must be Claire.‖ ―Correct you are, Mr. Duncan.‖ She immediately liked his smile. ―Mr. Ross isn‘t in yet. Would you like a cup of coffee?‖ ―Yes, that would be great, and please, call me Edgar.‖ ―Okay, Edgar.‖ She led him into the company‘s narrow and cramped break room. As she demonstrated how to operate the company‘s clunky coffee machine, Eddie felt how uncomfortable she was in the loose-fitting pants and blouse that she was wearing. The blouse was cut low and revealed a peek of cleavage, but still she felt that her outfit concealed all her finer attributes. ―I like your outfit,‖ Eddie said, as she handed him a cup of coffee. ―You do? You don‘t think it‘s a little too shrewish?‖ ―No, not at all,‖ he said sincerely. ―It‘s professional, yet with a dash of devil-may-care.‖
Eddie felt a presence behind him. He turned to see a man in a suit standing at the break-room entrance. The man‘s tie was white with black splotches like a Rorschach test. His hair was gelled perfectly into place. The man flashed a killer smile. ―Laine Stern,‖ he said and extended his hand. Professional, yet devil-may-care? What is that retarded crap? Laine thought. ―Edgar Duncan,‖ Eddie said and shook his hand. Bill Ross entered the break room suddenly. ―I see you‘ve met Laine and Claire,‖ he said. ―Yes, sir.‖ Ross slapped Laine on the back. ―Laine handles all our marketing.‖ He turned to Laine. ―Laine, I want you to give full cooperation in helping to familiarize Mr. Duncan with our operations.‖ ―Will do, boss,‖ Laine said. You freaking lunatic. ―This little lady is the office manager. We wouldn‘t last a week without her! Claire can answer all your questions about what goes on around here. God knows, she answers all of mine!‖ They all laughed. ―Come on, Edgar,‖ Ross said, placing his hand on Eddie‘s back. ―We‘ve got a lot to go over today.‖ They left Laine and Claire and walked out on to the work floor.
Only five programmers were employed by Ross Tech. They sat before terminals in half-constructed cubicles. Flow charts were pinned to the cubicle walls. Dying plants sat on makeshift shelves. Litter piles of pizza boxes and take-out containers seemed to be scattered over everything. Ross walked Eddie about the floor and introduced him to the programmers. Eddie looked interested and nodded knowingly, as they each explained in dense techno-babble exactly what it was they were working on. All were very young. They were dressed casually, some wearing t-shirts with geek humor written across them which Eddie couldn‘t quite comprehend. Darren Cobb was the oldest of the programmers and, by far, the fattest. He was the group‘s unofficial leader and played the role of big brother to the other programmers. They squabbled with him constantly and gave him a hard time about his weight. After being introduced, Darren immediately classified Eddie into the clueless category. Carlton Hayes sat across from Darren. Carlton wore shorts and sandals and an ancient long-sleeve Bud Light t-shirt. He had long hair that hung down over his eyes. Eddie could feel the fog of marijuana in Carlton‘s mind, but Ross didn‘t notice and remained oblivious to this fact, as Carlton explained his portion of the project. Macy and Sue sat together, in an adjoining cubicle. They were chattering in the secret language of best friends and giggling at inside jokes, when Ross and Eddie approached. Macy, painfully thin with broomstick arms, wore wire-frame glasses and had short, jet-black hair that was full of gel and parted sharply on the side. Sue, on the other hand, was as
plump as Macy was thin. She was on a diet and currently her sweet tooth had hijacked her mind, filling her thoughts with jelly doughnuts and Hershey‘s kisses. Winston Deaner was easily the oddest member of the group. His hair sat on his head like a helmet, bangs running in a straight line across his forehead. His button-down shirt was too tight over his tiny frame and his khaki slacks were too short, revealing his red socks. He didn‘t look up from his monitor when Ross introduced him. ―Winston!‖ Ross barked. Winston looked up from the screen, with eyes that seemed bulbous behind magnifying lens spectacles. His thoughts were entirely visual and numerical and were completely absorbed with complex equations. Winston said ‗hello‘, and returned to his screen without forming any kind of opinion about Eddie. The programmers were all super smart and passionate about computers and all were unhappy about Eddie‘s arrival, excluding Winston Deaner who had barely noticed. They felt that Eddie was just another pair of eyes to watch over them and a sycophant whom Ross had hired to listen to his boring stories. The remainder of the day passed uneventfully. Eddie filled out Social Security forms with Claire, sitting next to her at her desk. She was a sucker for compliments and Eddie dispensed them liberally, as she explained the health plan and company policies. He sat in Ross‘s office for hours on end, holding a clipboard and taking notes, as Ross imparted knowledge to him like a swami to an admiring apprentice. Ross liked him. He’s a good listener, Ross thought, and he asks the right questions. The day came to an end, with Eddie poring over a stack of arcane computer manuals in a cubicle that Ross had set up for him. Eddie became keenly aware of his ignorance as he looked through the manuals. He flipped the pages and
pretended to read. From his cubicle, he delved deeply into the minds of his coworkers, desperately trying to glean any comprehensible information that he could from them. The job was nothing like he had imagined it would be. He had pictured himself in a posh office, schmoozing at the water cooler before taking a long lunch, like in those TV sitcoms where office workers joked and teased and not much work seemed to be going on. Eddie‘s only technical skills consisted of working on cars and he wasn‘t all that good at that. Pulling this off was going to be more difficult and demanding than he had anticipated. He arrived home at his new apartment that night, after a quick stop at the public library, where he checked out a stack of books on computers that he had randomly pulled from the shelves. Eddie had no furniture, not even a bed. He sat on the floor with books and manuals strewn across the carpet and began to read. He chain smoked and drank coffee by the gallon, as he studied the terminology and history of computing. Studying had never been a strong point, but he was deeply concerned with sounding as though he knew what he was talking about. The more he read, the more he knew he was in over his head and felt it was only a matter of time until they found him out. I’m never going to pull this off. Eddie kept a low profile that first week on the job. He listened quietly at the morning meetings, as they reviewed the work they had done and outlined the goals for the day. Periodically, Ross would walk the workfloor checking on the programmers‘ progress. Eddie shadowed Ross, clipboard in hand, observing and absorbing as much as he could. He ate lunch with him. He sat in Ross‘s office and listened to endless blather about the software industry, the Air Force, and Major League Baseball. Details on Eddie‘s responsibilities were vague, with Ross dispensing them as they came to mind.
Eddie kept Ross talking, which was easy enough, and steered their conversations away from technical matters as much as possible. Ross had been a computer programmer in the Air Force and had retired from the military full of enthusiasm for the possibilities of private life. He had founded his company a year ago on the coat-tails of an employee training program that he had written for the Pierce County Department of Motor Vehicles. After the initial success of the program, he had embarked on a project to replace those pesky phone systems used by banks that annoyed him so much. He envisioned a system that would handle customers so seamlessly that you would forget you weren‘t talking to a machine. He felt he had the skills and leadership ability to show these civilians a thing or two, and be the envy of all his old Air Force pals. Ross invested his life savings in the company and drummed up capital from a few investors who didn‘t know better. He befriended Darren Cobb, who at that time, was a graduate student in the computer science department at the University of Washington. Darren recruited all of Ross Tech‘s programmers from the class sections he taught at the university. Unfortunately, Ross‘s initial enthusiasm was now wearing thin, as the project had grown hopelessly complex and had bogged down in a series of computer-crashing errors. Ross Tech‘s only revenues came from the upgrades they periodically made for the DMV. The company was seriously in the red, Ross‘s creditors had begun hounding him for results, and his marriage was now on the rocks. He had begun drinking heavily two months ago. Eddie could smell the whisky on his breath in the mornings, but Ross still clung to the belief that they would get the project done. But at times Ross had debilitating moments of doubt. A vision of an
airplane flying through a dark storm ran through his thoughts, the pilot at the controls was fighting heroically against the turbulence, but it all might crash and burn any second.
Eddie learned much in that first week. He learned how Claire shouldered much of the burden of keeping the company running. She did the accounting, handled supplies, took all the phone calls and smoothed over personality conflicts. She quietly did all the day-to-day work which kept the company going, while Ross strutted around like a fat, hairy Napoleon. She even sent flowers to Ross‘s wife on their anniversary which, otherwise, he would have forgotten. Claire had been involved in a brief affair with Laine Stern shortly after he had been hired, but she broke it off because of his vile temper. Laine resented that he, a handsome and educated executive, had been rebuffed by a secretary. You lost the best you’ll ever get, baby, he thought often. Laine was hired six months ago, when work on the project was moving along smoothly and building momentum. Ross had felt the need for a marketing director, but the project completion date had been pushed back indefinitely and Laine had little to do. He pretended to be deeply involved in market research, was always on the phone and, lately, had been playing a lot of golf with bankers. He charged green fees, meals and drinks to the company expense account. Laine had built up a reputation, around the Puget Sound area, as a hot head. He had taken the job at Ross Tech with the promise of stock options when optimism was high, hoping the company would enjoy the same explosive growth that other start-up companies in the area had experienced in brighter times. He had also taken the job at Ross Tech because every other industry in the area had blackballed him. Eddie learned that Darren had a crush on Claire, but would never act on it. Darren had had sex only once in his twenty-
eight years, but made up for it with marathon masturbation sessions after work. He would watch Claire from behind at the copy machine and become aroused, memorizing the image for use later. His hands seemed to have a permanent film of lotion on them. Once, when Darren had placed his hand on Eddie‘s shoulder while explaining a hardware problem, Eddie had almost gagged aloud. Sue was hopelessly in love with Macy, but feared the end of their friendship if Macy ever found out. She had graphic fantasies of lesbian encounters as they sat side by side at work in their adjoining cubicles. Carlton was perpetually stoned. Everyone knew this, except Ross and Laine. Ross was clueless, but Laine just didn‘t care enough to notice. No one mentioned the fact, because Carlton worked better when he was high and was easier to get along with. Carlton‘s thinking consisted of computers, marijuana, and acquiring marijuana. Winston was the most productive of the programmers and the most difficult for Eddie to understand. His brain operated on a wavelength much different than the rest of humanity, as far as Eddie could tell. Complex abstractions zipped through his mind with an occasional blip of pleasure, when whatever it was he was thinking about pleased him. He was completely absorbed in his internal world and uninterested in the environment around him. Such a strange little man, Eddie thought, when seeing Winston hunched over his keyboard with his face almost touching the monitor. He wondered if Winston was borderline autistic. Eddie also learned the reason that Ross had hired him. Ross had a mistress in Spokane who had recently had his child. Ross wanted someone to watch over the company while he spent time with her and their baby daughter, away from the hassles of the office and away from his nagging wife.
Friday evening finally arrived. Eddie rested his feet on his new coffee table and slouched on the couch. He clicked on the TV and began flipping back and forth between half a dozen channels, half-watching a Nascar race, hyenas in Africa, a live broadcast of brain surgery on the medical channel, and several sitcoms. He had purchased the flatscreen TV, stereo system, and furniture on store credit after proof of employment. The job at Ross Tech demanded much from him. He was exhausted from a week of constantly monitoring the minds of his coworkers. It took tremendous effort keeping them from discovering his charade. He felt ridiculous walking around the office in shirt and tie, spouting off computer lingo to them, like a parrot speaking words but not knowing what they really mean. Sometimes he felt like the chimp dressed in a tuxedo that he had seen in a poster at the mall, or the dog sitting in the driver‘s seat with its paws up on the steering wheel, but none of them saw through his act, to his amazement. They suspected that he was incompetent but no one believed that he was a fraud. Laine despised him, but the programmers were actually beginning to accept him as one of them. Today, he engaged in a lengthy debate with Carlton on whether Data from ‗Star Trek – The Next Generation‘ was better than Mr. Spock. Eddie finally conceded to Carlton‘s line of reasoning on why Data was superior. Spock was organic and mortal and he hung out with a ham like Captain Kirk, did he not? There was no denying that, Eddie admitted, and Carlton gave him a slap on the back. ―Listen to my words, grasshopper,‖ Carlton had said, ―and there is much that you will learn.‖ And Eddie was learning. The buzzing minds of five gifted programmers were giving him a first-rate education in
information technology. The terminology was beginning to make sense to him. He was learning their lingo. He wiggled his toes in his black socks as he stared dully at the TV screen. It felt good to come home from work and not have grease under his fingernails. The rent was paid. He had applied for all the major credit cards. He was going to make it. He wished Rachel could see him now. He thought of calling her, but changed his mind. It would be too difficult to explain. And how would she react now that her tortured musician had transformed into the type of man she had tried to escape? If only Debbie could see him now. He had almost gone the entire week without thinking of her. He picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number. ―Hello?‖ the female voice asked. ―Mom, it‘s me. Eddie.‖ ―Oh my God. Eddie? Where are you? Are you okay?‖ ―I‘m fine, Mom. I‘m in Seattle.‖ ―Seattle?‖ She began to sob. ―Oh, Eddie. I thought you were dead in a Dumpster somewhere. I‘ve been worried sick.‖ ―Everything‘s fine, Mom.‖ ―It was that girlfriend of yours, wasn‘t it? That‘s why you ran off.‖ She became angry. ―I don‘t hear from you for days and when I ask Debbie where you are she just shrugs her shoulders. I always said she was no good, but you never listened. You never listen to your mother. That girl left all your things on the curb and called me to come and pick them up.‖ ―Things didn‘t work out for us,‖ was all Eddie could say. ―You couldn‘t tell your mother?‖
He was silent. It hurt to hear about Debbie. He pictured his belongings left unceremoniously on the curb and his mother loading them into the trunk of her Suzuki Esteem. ―I‘ve got a good job up here,‖ he said. ―I‘m sending you some money,‖ she said. ―No, Mom. I‘m doing fine. I‘m working for a software company.‖ ―I‘ll send some money anyway.‖ Eddie couldn‘t look into his mother‘s mind over the phone, but he knew what she was thinking, the only work he was doing for a software company was mopping floors. ―No, Mom. I‘m doing just fine.‖ Eddie and his mother talked for hours. He felt far away and detached from the once familiar people and places his mother spoke of. He had no desire to go back there. The only big news was that his sister was pregnant and had run off to Reno to marry her boyfriend, Tony. Eddie had never liked him and was upset to hear that now the creep would be family. The conversation came to an end. ―Never do this to me again, Eddie.‖ ―I won‘t, Mom. I promise.‖ Eddie hung up and resumed flipping through the channels. He lit a cigarette and thought of Debbie. All those years together, all those good times, all those things said… All crap. How did I not see it coming? It angered him to think of her with that other man. He thought of all the lies she had told him. He took a long drag from his cigarette. Well, it will never happen to me again. It can’t, because now I know what they’re thinking. His cell phone rang and Eddie picked it up on the first ring. ―Hello,‖ he said.
―Edgar. Bill Ross here.‖ Ross slurred his words as he spoke. ―I‘ve got to leave town for a few days.‖ Eddie grew nervous. ―Is everything all right, sir?‖ ―Yes, yes. I‘m meeting some potential customers, important stuff, going to drum up some capital for the company. Won‘t be gone long, son. I want you to hold down the fort until I get back.‖ Eddie could hear Mrs. Ross‘s shrill voice in the background. ―Sir, I don‘t think I‘m ready to be on my own yet.‖ ―Dammit, son! This is what I‘m paying you for! Just keep everyone on schedule until I get back. No World of Warcraft while they are collecting a paycheck from me, is that clear? Christ.‖ ―Yes, sir, Mr. Ross,‖ Eddie said with hesitation. ―You‘re a sharp kid, Edgar. It‘s time to start earning your pay check. I expect to see some progress when I return. Am I making myself clear, son?‖ ―Roger. Will do, boss.‖ ―That‘s what I wanted to hear.‖ Eddie heard a shrill screech from Mrs. Ross. ―Have you been drinking again!‖ ―Look, son. I‘ve got to go…‖ Ross said, ―…and make some calls.‖ Ross hung up.
On Monday morning, Eddie sat in his Geo Metro in the parking lot in front of Ross Tech. The weather was cold and gray, with a damp mist of rain lightly falling. Eddie didn‘t want to go in. How was he, a guy whose most complex thoughts consisted of calculating if the change in his pocket was enough for a six pack of beer, supposed to tell a bunch of computer programmers what to do? All he had to do was step on the gas and drive away and never return to this place again. He thought of Rachel and how she spoke down to him as if talking to a child. He thought of Debbie. He stepped out of the car and straightened his tie. He put on his most confident face and strode into the building pushing through the glass doors of Ross Tech. ―Good morning, Claire,‖ he said. She was at her desk. ―How‘s my favorite office manager?‖ he asked. ―Just fine,‖ she said cheerfully. ―How‘s my favorite manager-in-training?‖ ―Great,‖ Eddie said with a grin, ―now that I‘ve said hello to you.‖ She smirked at him. ―Have you spoken to Mr. Ross?‖ he asked. ―No. Why?‖ she asked. ―He‘s going to be out of town for a few days,‖ Eddie said. She wasn‘t surprised. Gone again, she thought. Her mind recalled how chaotic it became when Ross disappeared on his mysterious ‗business trips‘. The programmers would goof off all day, Laine would bitch
incessantly and no work ever got done. She wondered if Laine was right and that Ross was incapable of running a business, but she needed this job. The thought of scraping by on unemployment again while groveling before assholes during job interviews was depressing. Why does he do this to us? ―Mr. Ross has left me in charge,‖ Eddie said. ―Claire,‖ he said thoughtfully, ―I‘m going to need your help today.‖ ―That you will,‖ she said. ―You‘re going to need all the help you can get.‖ She pointed to the conference room with a nod. ―Well, you better go and break it to them.‖ Eddie could see the programmers behind the conference room window waiting for the usual Monday morning meeting. He straightened his back and took a deep breath. ―Good luck, Eddie.‖ ―Hey,‖ he said with a wink. ―I don‘t get paid the big bucks for nothing.‖ ―Don‘t say I didn‘t warn you.‖ He left Claire at her desk and entered the conference room. The programmers were slouched in their chairs, fiddling with their pencils and doodling on notebook paper as they waited for Ross and the start of the work week. Eddie stood in front of the room holding the notes that Ross had e-mailed to him. He noticed that Winston Deaner was conspicuously absent. ―Good morning,‖ he said. The programmers watched him curiously. ―Mr. Ross is going to be out of town for the next few days.‖ Darren Cobb crossed his arms and frowned angrily. ―Where is he?‖ he asked. ―He‘s meeting with some potential investors,‖ Eddie said. ―I suppose you‘re in charge?‖ Darren was livid. He was angry at Ross for doing this to them again and he was angry at Eddie for Ross having put him in charge.
―Mr. Ross informed me that I am to have a supervisory capacity and that I am to receive full cooperation from all of you.‖ Sue looked at Eddie and shook her head. Eddie looked down at his notes and tried to decipher Ross‘s grammatical idiosyncrasies. ―Our first order of business today concerns the updates for the DMV. The DMV needs them by Wednesday afternoon.‖ Carlton Hayes considered all the work for the DMV to be mindless grunt work. He had complained vehemently when Ross had assigned the updates to him last time. ―Carlton,‖ Ross had snarled, ―you‘ll do it and you‘ll like it!‖ Ross had assigned him all future updates which had become a major sore point for Carlton. Macy knew that Carlton would drag his feet and not have the updates completed until at least Friday. She had done most of the work on the previous upgrade for the DMV and knew that she could have the updates completed by tomorrow afternoon. She didn‘t speak up and continued doodling on her notepad. ―Mr. Ross also wants us to address the difficulties we‘ve been having with the homophone problem. Darren,‖ Eddie said, turning to him. ―I know you‘re the company guru. Could you give us a rundown of the problem?‖ Darren‘s arms were still firmly crossed over his chest. He uncrossed them skeptically and lifted his rotund body from his chair. ―Yeah, Darren,‖ Carlton said. ―Give us a rundown, you big ass guru.‖ ―Carlton…‖ Darren said with a menacing glare and an air of warning. The door to the conference room was flung open and Winston Deaner shuffled hurriedly into the room. Winston
kicked the cable running from the monitor to the wall and fell to the floor in an arm-flailing flop. Eddie walked over to him and reached a hand down to help him up. Winston grasped upward and grabbed on to Eddie‘s tie. Eddie caught himself, with his hand on the table, and strained against Winston‘s weight to keep from falling on top of him. Winston scaled Eddie‘s tie hand-over-hand, as if climbing the rope in gym class. Eddie grabbed Winston under the armpit with his free hand and lifted the little man to his feet. Winston shuffled away and took his seat. Eddie‘s face had turned blue from a lack of oxygen cut off by his constricted tie. He tried to maintain some semblance of dignity as he loosened the tie that choked tightly at his throat. The room broke into spontaneous applause. ―Who‘s on first?‖ Carlton said loudly. ―No, who‘s on second,‖ Macy said. ―Hey, Eddie,‖ Carlton called out. ―Are you Abbot and Winston Costello, or is it the other way around?‖ Eddie did his best to straighten the tie, which hung from his neck like hand-wrung Play Doh. The programmers watched and shook their heads. ―Darren,‖ Eddie said. ―The homophone problem, please.‖ Darren looked at Eddie for a long moment, then turned his attention to the monitor. ―As you all know,‖ Darren said, ―we‘ve been bottle-necked by the homophone problem for several weeks now.‖ Darren scrolled lines of code on the monitor. ―We‘re still unable to get the computer to correctly define homophones in the context of a sentence.‖ Darren pointed to a line of code. ―I think the errors are originating here.‖ Darren continued and began speaking in dense computerese of sound waves and sentence parsing.
They had gone over this time and again. Carlton, Macy and Sue half-paid attention, as they doodled and fiddled with their pencils. Winston stared at the monitor. Lines of code scrolled rapidly through Winston‘s brain. He came to a conclusion that he was satisfied with, then turned his attention to a problem in quantum particle physics. Darren finished up his briefing and turned to the group. ―Does anyone have any ideas, comments, or questions?‖ Carlton raised his hand. Darren rolled his eyes. ―What, Carlton?‖ ―I have a three-part question,‖ Carlton said slowly, as he doodled on his notepad. ―First, is it really possible for a phone to be homo? If so, is my phone homo or hetero? And third…‖ Carlton looked up at Darren gravely. ―Darren, are you a homophone?‖ Darren fumed. His face turned blood red, as he glared angrily at Carlton. ―You‘re a homophone!‖ he snapped. ―You‘re both homophobic,‖ Sue said. ―You‘re a homo-robustus,‖ Carlton said to Sue. The room erupted into pandemonium. For the first time in his life someone had trusted him with responsibility and he was blowing it. Pathetic.
―Winston!‖ Eddie shouted above the clamor. ―Winston! Please come to the front of the room!‖ The room fell silent. Winston pointed at his chest and looked over his shoulder. ―Yes, you, Winston,‖ Eddie said. ―Please come to the front of the room.‖ Winston rose and nervously shuffled up to the front of the room and stood next to Eddie. ―I‘d like you to share your thoughts on the homophone problem with the group,‖ Eddie said to him. Winston looked up at Eddie through thick glasses. ―Come on, Winston,‖ Eddie said politely. Winston turned and picked up the marker from the whiteboard tray. He began writing lines of code on the board. After filling the entire board with arcane computer code, Winston turned to Eddie. ―This should correct the problem,‖ he said and shuffled back to his seat. Darren studied the board intently, stroking his chin with his fingers. He turned to Eddie. ―Winston will work on the homophone problem with me. Carlton can take over what Winston‘s been working on.‖ Darren said. ―Is that a problem, Carlton?‖ Eddie asked. ―No. No problem,‖ Carlton said. ―Good,‖ Eddie said. ―Macy, I‘d like you to work on the updates for the DMV.‖ ―Um. Okay,‖ Macy replied. Darren was eager to get to work. ―Is there anything else?‖ Eddie asked. No one had anything to add. ―Then let‘s consider this meeting adjourned.‖
The programmers filed out of the room and went to their cubicles. Eddie straightened the chairs and walked out onto the work floor. Laine was standing before Claire‘s desk, waving his hands heatedly. Eddie walked over to Claire and Laine. ―What do you mean he‘s out of town!‖ Laine barked at her. He turned and faced Eddie. ―I take it you‘re in charge?‖ Laine‘s anger was building and it increasingly focused onto Eddie. ―I‘m not in charge, Laine,‖ Eddie said. ―You‘re goddamn right you‘re not!‖ Laine wasn‘t angry because Ross was gone. That had happened before. He was angry because Ross had left without telling him. He had told Eddie. ―Bill tried to call you,‖ Eddie said, in an attempt to soothe him. ―He said he couldn‘t get through to you.‖ ―That‘s a lie! I have no missed calls on my cell. And I‘ve got call waiting and voice mail on my home phone, you idiot!‖ Laine ran his hand through his perfectly groomed hair, causing his bangs to fall down over his forehead. ―So it‘s Bill now? Are you sleeping with the man?‖ Hatred burned inside him. Eddie‘s fists balled up tightly at his side. ―Laine, please,‖ Claire said. Her patience had finally run out. ―Calm down. You‘re being an ass.‖ ―Oh? You‘re on his side?‖ Laine turned toward Eddie. ―Well, Duncan. You, Claire and Ross can all go and fuck yourselves!‖ Laine stormed out of the building flinging open the glass doors. Eddie and Claire remained in an uncomfortable silence as the programmers peeked up from behind their cubicles. Laine‘s RX-7 screeched out of the parking lot. ―He‘s a real people person,‖ Eddie said finally.
―A ray of sunshine,‖ Claire said. ―He‘ll be back, after he cools off.‖ ―Joy,‖ Eddie said. They looked at each other. ―He‘s jealous of you, you know,‖ she said. ―Jealous of me?‖ Eddie asked. She was referring to Eddie being hired by Ross and being left in charge, but Eddie knew what she really meant, that Laine resented how well the two of them got along. ―It must be my car,‖ Eddie said. ―Chicks dig the Metro.‖ She shook her head and rolled her eyes. ―Eddie, you‘re awful.‖ Laine didn‘t return that day. The programmers worked busily, fueled by enthusiasm from Winston‘s artful solution to a problem that had vexed them for weeks. Eddie and Claire had lunch together. They spent the afternoon cleaning the work floor and replacing the dead plants with green ones. The day ended with the office looking more like a place of business than a freshman dorm room. Darren and Winston were making substantial strides on the project. Eddie stayed late that night, dutifully recording the day‘s progress, as Ross had taught him. Tuesday came and went, without word from either Ross or Laine. The morning meeting had been productive and without mishap. By the afternoon, Macy had finished the updates for the DMV. Eddie and Macy drove together in his Metro and delivered the compiled disks before quitting time, and well ahead of schedule. Eddie left Laine several messages but Laine wasn‘t returning them. Aside from Laine, everything was going well. Eddie‘s mind was occupied with work and all his new responsibilities. He had no time to think of himself, or of the past. He liked it that way.
Wednesday came with still no sign of Ross or Laine. It was now late afternoon and Eddie was sitting with Darren, assisting him with a test of the voice recognition software. ―Okay, Duncan,‖ Darren said. ―Follow the computer‘s instructions.‖ ―Hello,‖ the computer said. ―Thank you for calling Pacific Northwestern Bank. What can I do for you today?‖ It was Sue‘s voice. She had spent countless hours recording most of the computer‘s options tree. Eddie looked at Darren who was busily eating a doughnut that he had pilfered from Sue‘s desk. Darren nodded for Eddie to continue. ―My name‘s Darren Cobb,‖ Eddie said into the microphone. ―I want to check my checking account balance.‖ ―I‘m sorry,‖ the computer said. ―I recognize your voice Mr. Duncan. Would you like to check your checking account balance?‖ ―Okay. Sure.‖ Eddie looked over at Darren. Darren sucked the jelly from a second doughnut and motioned for Eddie to continue. ―Um,‖ Eddie said into the microphone. ―How much do I have?‖ The computer accessed a dummy bank account that Darren had put into the database. ―Your account is overdrawn by one hundred and twenty-six dollars and eighty-two cents. I regret to inform you that we have reported you to a collection agency for nonpayment of overdraft fees. Is there anything else I can do for you today, Mr. Duncan?‖ Eddie looked back at Darren. ―You couldn‘t put some money in my account?‖ he said. ―Just trying to be realistic. Well, everything looks to be in order. What do you think, Duncan?‖ ―I think it‘s pretty cool,‖ Eddie replied.
Darren leaned back in his chair, happy with the comment. ―Winston‘s done the bulk of the programming, but I‘ve managed to fit some code in there that works. We still have a lot more work to do before we have something we can ship.‖ ―It‘ll happen,‖ Eddie said. Winston was at his computer tapping away at his keyboard in his corner by the window, away from everyone else. He seemed to be in a trance-like state, completely engrossed in his work. ―Is he always like that?‖ Eddie asked. ―Pretty much,‖ Darren said. ―He comes in here every day and mind melds with his computer. I think Winston‘s brain may actually be made of silicon.‖ They watched him from across the room. ―He‘s definitely not the world‘s snappiest dresser,‖ Eddie said. ―Yeah,‘ Darren agreed. ―That‘s how I know he‘s actually human. A computer would have more fashion sense.‘ Eddie finished up with Darren and then had to leave the building to replace a burned-out mother board at a computer supplier. He arrived back at Ross Tech at five o‘clock passing Winston through the doors, who was leaving precisely at quitting time as was his custom. Eddie said ‗good night‘ but Winston didn‘t seem to notice. Claire was away from her desk. Sue emerged from her cubicle and approached him as he entered Ross‘s office to record the work done that day. ―We‘ve been watching you, Duncan,‖ Sue said. ―Come to the break room,‖ she snapped. She turned and walked toward the break room, curling her index finger for him to follow. Eddie sensed that he was being set up.
Eddie followed behind the waddling woman. He sensed the giddy anticipation in her. The two of them entered the break room together. Carlton, Darren, Macy and Claire were all there waiting, leaning against the counters with their arms crossed over their chests. ―I‘ve got something to say to you, Duncan,‖ Carlton said, angrily jabbing his finger. ―I didn‘t like you the moment I laid eyes on you. And you know what?‖ Carlton‘s scowl transformed into a smile. ―You‘re all right, man.‖ Carlton put Eddie into a headlock and gave him a noogie. The rest of them all surrounded him and mussed his hair. Darren opened the refrigerator and passed out bottles of beer. They all raised their bottles, as Eddie stood amongst them. ―We never formally welcomed you to Ross Tech, Duncan,‖ Darren said. ―Welcome to Ross Tech. We‘re glad to have you aboard.‖ They spent the rest of the evening drinking beer, eating pizza, and blasting each other to bits in a gory game that they played over the company‘s computer network. On Thursday morning, before sunrise, Eddie returned to the Ross Tech building. He walked through the dark drizzle from his car to the front door and fumbled with his keys, but discovered that the doors had already been unlocked. All was dark inside, except for a soft light glowing in Ross‘s office. He saw Ross at his desk with the desk light on, looking over his progress reports. Eddie entered the office. ―Good morning,‖ Ross said, without looking up from the reports. He had seen Eddie drive up from his window. Ross
was well rested and hadn‘t had a drop to drink since he had left. ―Coffee?‖ he asked. ―Yes, please,‘ Eddie said. Ross rolled his chair over to his coffee maker and poured Eddie a cup. He handed the cup to Eddie, pointed to the cream and sugar on a file cabinet, and returned to the reports. Ross looked back and forth from the reports to his computer screen and checked to see if they corroborated. He looked up over his glasses at Eddie. ―Duncan,‖ he said. ―I must admit, I thought you were a babe in the woods in regards to the computer business, but apparently you know what you‘re doing.‖ He returned his attention to his computer screen. ―How was your trip?‖ Eddie asked. ―Good. Good.‖ This was an understatement. Ross‘s wife hadn‘t given him any children. His baby daughter and his lover in Spokane were his life‘s biggest secret. Seeing his baby girl brought joy to his heart, and he truly loved his mistress. She made him feel alive again. The last few days had been the most enjoyable that he‘d had in years, and, if he had known that there was nothing to worry about back at the office, he would have enjoyed himself even more. ―The trip was very productive,‖ Ross said. ―I‘ll be concentrating more on meeting with investors in the coming months. So be expecting more responsibility around here.‖ Ross rose from his chair and walked over to Eddie. He took a sip of coffee and put his hand on Eddie‘s back. ―I‘m sure you can handle it, son.‖ At the morning meeting, the programmers were eager to let the boss know how much had been accomplished while he was away. More work had been done in the last three days than in all of the last month. A sense of excitement and momentum seemed to be in the air and Ross could feel it.
Laine arrived shortly after the meeting. He had been scouting the parking lot for Ross‘s return. Eddie and Laine avoided each other in an uneasy truce. Ross supplied Eddie with plenty of busy work. This allowed Ross to tromp around the work floor like a pudgy General Patton, ordering and commanding, standing behind the programmers as they worked, watching them and barking out orders. In his mind, he called this behavior, motivational managing. By Friday, work had slowed. Sue had made an obvious mistake while Ross stood over her shoulder. Ross had pushed her off her machine and taken over her work station for several hours, while Sue sulked in the break room. Ross was to meet with his creditors over the weekend. The company was in desperate need of additional funding. The progress made earlier in the week had renewed Ross‘s optimism and he was looking forward to reporting good news. The weekend quickly came and went. On Monday morning Eddie discovered that Ross was back on the bottle. The meeting over the weekend had been a disaster. Ross‘s creditors had ridden him hard. They wanted something concrete, not assurances that progress was being made. They wanted a release date, which Ross was unable to give them. The project was nowhere near completion and, on top of that, the company did not have the money to meet next month‘s payroll, much less rent and utilities. Ross kept this to himself, but the strain showed on his face. By Tuesday, all work had ground to a halt after a series of destructive bugs crashed the network. Winston had been acting strangely since Ross‘s return. He stared out of the window for long periods in absorbed reveries of mathematical equations and complex schematics that Eddie could not comprehend. Ross had caught Winston
daydreaming and had lost his temper. ―Winston! This isn‘t goddamn Club Med!‖ Ross bellowed, almost sending the little man into a panic attack. At the end of the work day, Eddie entered Ross‘s office. Ross sat in his chair with his back to Eddie, leaning back and staring out of the window. He thought of his daughter and how she smiled at him sincerely as he held her. He thought of his lover and how serene and glowing she seemed after becoming a mother. He had a pension from the Air Force. He didn‘t need all this. He didn‘t want to drink so much, but it relieved his tension. ―You okay, boss?‖ Eddie asked. ―Yes, yes, fine.‖ Ross swiveled around and faced Eddie. ―You can call it a night, Edgar. I‘ll finish up around here.‖ ―Are you sure, Mr. Ross?‖ ―Yes. Go home and get some rest.‖ Ross wanted to be alone. He had invested his heart and soul into this company and all of his life‘s savings. His ship was sinking and he had no idea what to do to save it. The next morning at the meeting, Ross announced that he was leaving town for the next few days to meet with new investors. The news was met with a mixed reaction by the programmers. A solemn mood had settled over the company. Thursday was spent tediously locating and eradicating bugs in the code. With Ross gone, Winston had turned deeper inside himself. He had been by far the most productive of the programmers, until last week. Now he stared into space without touching his keyboard. Eddie knew that, without Winston, the company was as good as dead. Eddie walked over to Winston‘s desk.
Vern is almost complete. All I need to do now is… Winston became aware of Eddie‘s presence and began tapping away at his keyboard. ―What‘s up, Winston?‖ Eddie said. Eddie‘s proximity made Winston fidget nervously in his chair. ―Hello, Mr. Duncan,‖ he said, without looking up from his monitor. ―Just thought I‘d come over and see how you‘re doing,‖ Eddie said. ―I‘m very busy.‖ Winston scrolled lines of code down his screen. Please go away. ―Is everything all right?‖ Eddie asked. Winston peered closely at his screen and tapped rapidly at his keyboard. ―I‘m very busy,‖ he said. Eddie sensed how much Winston wanted to be rid of him. ―I‘m having everyone over to my place tonight to play cards,‖ Eddie said. ―I‘d really like you to be there, Winston.‖ ―I can‘t make it. I have a prior engagement.‖ ―A prior engagement? A lucky lady, maybe?‖ ―No.‖ Eddie probed Winston‘s mind but it revealed nothing, just that the last place on Earth that Winston wanted to be was at Eddie‘s apartment playing cards. ―Maybe next time,‖ Eddie said. Winston didn‘t respond and Eddie left him at his computer. Five o‘clock came and Winston was the first one out the door. He shuffled across the parking lot and sped off in his 1991 Buick LeSabre.
―Five-card draw,‖ Laine said. ―Aces wild. Ante up.‖ Claire, Darren, Carlton and Eddie tossed in their chips. They were sitting around Eddie‘s fold-out, green poker table. Macy and Sue were slouched behind the couch giggling, as they listened to a bootleg Lilith Fair tape and recalled the concert. ―Duncan, has anyone told you that your apartment is dump?‖ Carlton asked. ―Only, Carlton, about five times now,‖ Eddie answered. All were surprised when Laine had shown up. He had arrived late after they had finished barbecuing. Eddie had answered the door and there was Laine holding a six pack of Coronas. ―What‘s up, Duncan?‖ he had said and handed Eddie the six pack, as if it were a peace offering. To Laine, being at Eddie‘s apartment felt as if he had infiltrated enemy lines, but Laine was a realist. He needed this job as much as any of them did, so he had swallowed his pride to be here. He did love poker, though, and always found it difficult to turn down a game. Eddie was happy, if not a little wary, that Laine had shown up. ―Macy! Sue!‖ Carlton called out to them. ―Stop burning your bras and play some music with balls!‖ Carlton was wearing a moth-eaten Pixies tee shirt, camouflage cut-off shorts and sandals even though it was quite chilly out. He scooped his cards up off the table and, in the process, knocked over his beer. Beer spilled out of the bottle on to the card table and over the deck of cards. ―Who let Copernicus in the game?‖ Laine asked. Eddie sopped up the beer with a paper towel, while Laine dried the cards.
They played the hand, which Laine won, beating Darren‘s two pair with a full house. ―Your deal, freak boy,‖ Laine said to Carlton and handed him the cards. ―I resemble that remark,‖ Carlton said. He dealt the cards slowly, then lost track of how many he had dealt, and had to ask how many cards everyone had, which further irritated Laine. ―Five-card draw,‖ Carlton said, after finally finishing the deal. ―Douches are wild.‖ ―What magic bus did he fall off of?‖ Laine asked Darren. ―God only knows,‖ Darren said. They were only playing for nickels, dimes and quarters, but Laine played like a Vegas card shark. He studied everyone at the table, noticing how you could see tiny beads of sweat form on Darren‘s brow when he was bluffing, how Carlton bobbed his head when he held a decent hand, and how Claire pursed her lips and studied her cards intensely when she held anything over three of a kind. Laine discovered that Eddie couldn‘t suppress his smile, when he held a straight, or above. Laine almost imperceptibly had creased the four aces when he was drying the cards after Carlton‘s spill. Laine won the next hand and expertly shuffled the cards. His pile of chips dwarfed everyone else‘s. He handed the deck of cards to Claire. ―Your deal, sweetheart,‖ he said. ―Five-card stud. Nothing wild,‖ she said. ―Creative,‖ Laine said, displeased with her choice of game. Claire was wearing clogs, jeans, and a tight fitting halter-top that broadcast the roundness and firmness of her breasts. ―Do you work out, Claire?‖ Eddie asked as she dealt the cards. ―Do you work out, Claire?‖ Laine repeated mockingly.
―Yeah, Claire,‖ Darren said as he ripped open a mega-size bag of Doritos. ―You‘re looking tight. I mean tighter than usual.‖ ―Claire‘s on the treadmill every day after work,‖ Laine said. ―Like a gerbil in a wheel.‖ Laine tch-tched like a gerbil. Claire glared coldly at Laine. Back when they were dating he had treated her daily workouts as if they were some kind of disorder. ―It makes me feel good and it keeps the pounds off,‖ she said, matter-of-factly. ―Hear that, big boy?‖ Laine said to Darren. Laine won the hand. The night wore on and Laine‘s pile continued to grow as everyone else‘s shrunk proportionately. Darren and Carlton had to dig into their wallets to stay in the game. The effects of losing, and of too many beers, began to show on all their faces, on all except Laine, who was only getting warmed up. ―Okay, my deal,‖ Eddie said, ―five-card draw, nothing wild.‖ After drawing their cards, Laine immediately upped the bet to five dollars. ―I fold,‖ Darren said. ―Fold,‖ Carlton said. ―I‘ll match your five,‖ Eddie said, ―and raise you five more.‖ Step into my parlor, Laine thought. ―Too rich for this girl‘s blood,‖ Claire said. ―I‘m out.‖ ―I‘m tired of playing this nickel-and-dime crap,‖ Laine said. ―Would you care to make this interesting, Duncan?‖ ―How interesting?‖ Eddie asked. ―I‘ll match your five,‖ Laine said, ―and raise you five hundred bucks.‖ ―Cut it out, Laine,‖ Claire said, with growing irritation. Macy and Sue peeked over the top of the couch.
―Unless that‘s too rich for your blood, Duncan.‖ ―I‘ll match your five hundred, and I‘ll raise you five hundred more,‖ Eddie said. ―Well, well, Duncan. Looks like we‘ve got a man‘s game now.‖ ―You guys are nuts,‖ Darren said. ―Let‘s see the money,‖ Carlton said. Laine pulled out his wallet and counted out a thousand in cash. He placed the cash in the center of the table. Carlton raised an eyebrow at Darren. ―I‘ll have to write you a check,‖ Eddie said. ―Fine, but it better be good,‖ Laine said. Eddie retrieved his checkbook from the bedroom, wrote out the check, and placed it on top of Laine‘s pile of cash. ―Care to make this really interesting?‖ Laine asked. Eddie studied his cards with seriousness. ―Knock it off, Laine,‖ Claire growled. ―If I win this hand,‖ Laine said, looking Eddie in the eyes, ―you leave Ross Tech. You have to quit.‖ ―What does Eddie get?‖ Carlton asked. ―Name it, Duncan,‖ Laine said. ―Your car,‖ Eddie said. ―My job against the RX-7.‖ Laine loved his car. He spent his weekends washing and waxing it and tuning the engine. Then he would pick up women in Tacoma bars and lived for the thrill of speeding them back to his place. His car was who he was. ―Not the car,‖ Laine said. ―Come on, Laine,‖ Carlton taunted. ―That‘s an even trade. Edgar‘s job for your car. You can‘t chicken out now.‖ ―Yeah, Laine,‖ Darren said. ―The job for your car. Are you in or out?‖ ―Oh, shut up.‖ Laine looked at his cards. There’s no way he can beat four kings, he thought. Impossible. But that bastard hasn’t bluffed all night. Laine looked up at Eddie.
Eddie studied his cards. He spread the cards in his hands and smiled broadly. Laine looked at the back of Eddie‘s cards. Four of the cards were slightly creased. Son of a bitch! ―I‘m out,‖ Laine said, and slapped his cards down on the table. Eddie smiled at all of them and scooped in the pile of chips and cash. Carlton snatched up Laine‘s cards and looked at them. ―Four kings! What were you holding, Eddie?‖ Eddie spread his cards face up on the table. He didn‘t even have a pair, and not a single ace. ―You got bluffed, bro!‖ Carlton exclaimed to Laine. ―You the man, Edgar!‖ Laine seethed. His blood boiled as anger and humiliation burned inside him. He snapped to his feet, kicking his chair to the floor. He seized the one thousand in cash from Eddie‘s pile. ―Fuck you, Duncan!‖ he yelled shaking his fist full of cash in Eddie‘s face. ―You lost fair and square, Laine,‖ Darren said. ―Shut the fuck up, fat ass!‖ he said, with fire in his eyes. ―Fuck all of you!‖ Laine violently flipped over the card table sending chips, cards and beer bottles crashing to the floor. He stormed out of the apartment slamming the door hard behind him. They sat silently in their chairs as the beer bottles drained onto the carpet. Carlton finally broke the silence. ―I just felt some seriously bad vibes,‖ he said. ―Shut up, Carlton,‖ Darren said. They heard Laine‘s RX-7 screech out of the parking lot. ―You seem to have that effect on him,‖ Claire said to Eddie. They picked up the mess. There was nothing much to do, or say, after everything was cleaned up. Everyone looked at
their watches. It was late and no one felt like hanging around any longer. Eddie stood at the door and said his good-byes as they left. ―Cool party,‖ Carlton said, as he walked out of the door. ―Can‘t wait for the next one.‖ Claire remained in the kitchen washing the dishes. ―Don‘t worry about the dishes, Claire,‖ Eddie said. ―I‘ll take care of it.‖ ―It‘s no problem,‖ she said with a smile and continued washing. Eddie opened the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the balcony. He watched Darren and Carlton drive out of the complex in Darren‘s Taurus. Macy and Sue followed closely behind in Sue‘s ancient Volvo. It was cold and wet out. The apartment complex was dark and quiet. So much for breaking the tension at the office, Eddie thought as he lit a cigarette. He already regretted what he had just done to Laine. He knew that Laine would carry this grudge to his grave. He flicked the cigarette from his fingers and watched the orange light spin and fall through the dark, then blink out in the wet grass. A chill came over him. He felt as if someone was watching him. An ominous cold rolled over him. It was as if someone out there in the darkness was probing his thoughts. He concentrated his mind, picking up the numbed thoughts of people in apartments sitting on couches watching television. He felt the focused minds of young men playing video games, the chattering minds of people on the telephone, the ecstasy of couples making love. Then he found something odd. Out there in the pines in the dark there was a hole in the world. An ominous void. He focused on it, but it vanished from thought. Claire stepped out on to the balcony. ―You okay?‖ she asked.
―Fine,‖ he said. ―Thanks for doing the dishes.‖ ―I hope Bill doesn‘t find out about this. I don‘t know if Laine will be able to show his face at work again.‖ ―I‘ll talk to him,‖ Eddie said. ―I‘ll say the right things and everything will be all right.‖ Claire hugged her arms around herself and shivered. ―That‘s what I like about you, Eddie. You always say the right things.‖ She smiled at him warmly, with a softness in her eyes. ―I do. Don‘t I.‖ He put his arms around her and kissed her. He felt butterflies flutter in her stomach. He knew that kissing her was a bad idea, but it was what she wanted. Claire always fell for the wrong guys. And Eddie knew that she wasn‘t one to take rejection lightly. This one is different, she thought, as she kissed him back. There was passion in her kiss. Eddie thought about breaking the kiss and telling her that going any further would make everything too complicated, but the touch of her warm body pressed firmly against him and the feel of her lips and mouth soothed him. ―Let‘s go inside,‖ she whispered.
Eddie arrived at Ross Tech at five past eight the next morning. He came through the doors and was relieved to see that Claire was away from her desk. He rushed straight into the conference room for the morning meeting. At the meeting, they all agreed not to discuss last night‘s poker game. All of them were tired and still a little hung-over. Winston was absent. No one had heard from him. Winston had never missed a day of work before. After the meeting, Eddie entered Ross‘s office and sat in Ross‘s chair. Laine hadn‘t shown up and there was no word from Ross. Eddie picked up the phone and called Laine‘s number, but only got his voice mail. ―Laine, it‘s Edgar. No hard feelings about last night. Give me a call and we can talk. I‘ll buy you lunch.‖ Eddie didn‘t want to talk to him over the phone. He had no idea what he would say to him to smooth things over. Where is Winston? he thought. This would be the worst time to lose him. Eddie called Winston‘s number and got a, ‗This line has been disconnected‘ recording. He stood up and ran his hand through his hair. I need a cigarette, he thought. Claire was at her desk, talking on the phone. He watched her from behind the office window and wondered how to behave around her now. She smiled at him and blew him a kiss. He walked out of Ross‘s office and walked over to Claire‘s desk. ―I‘ll be gone for a few hours,‖ he said to her. ―I‘m going to try and find Winston.‖ ―Okay, baby, I mean Mr. Duncan,‖ she said, with a wink.
Eddie left the building and walked out into the rain. He flicked his cigarette lighter as he walked, but was unable to get the cigarette to light. Winston‘s apartment was in a dilapidated complex hidden from the road by fir trees. A canvas sign which read ‗Studio Apts – $300‘ flapped in the wind and rain. Eddie parked his car next to an old Ford van which rested on cement blocks. What a dump, Eddie thought. Worse than the dump I live in. He ran up the stairs and ducked under a curtain of water that poured from the roof. Chips of flaking paint peeled from Winston‘s door. An eviction notice was taped to the center of the door. Eddie knocked, but there was no answer. He went down the stairs and knocked on the apartment manager‘s door. A bald man in a greasy undershirt answered. ―You looking for an apartment?‖ the manager asked, as he rubbed his bloodshot eyes. ―No. I‘m looking for Winston Deaner in number twentyfive. Do you know where he is?‖ ―Haven‘t seen him,‖ the man said, ―but if you find him, tell him he‘s got until tonight to come up with three months‘ rent or I‘m selling off all his crap.‖ The man shut the door. Eddie couldn‘t imagine how Winston could owe back rent. It’s not like it’s an expensive place, and he drives a used Buick LeSabre. He wondered where Winston‘s money was going and quickly determined it wasn‘t on wine, women and song. He drove out of the apartment complex and pulled out onto the busy street. Traffic was slow because of the rain. He stopped the car at a red light and began wracking his brain as to where Winston could possibly be. Then, across the street, he saw the little man standing in the rain at a bus stop. Eddie did a U-turn and pulled his Geo Metro up to the stop. He leaned over the passenger seat and pushed open the door.
―Get in,‖ Eddie said. Winston got into the car. He was drenched. His glasses were fogged and his hair was wet, sticking in stringy strands to his forehead. ―Is everything okay?‖ Eddie asked. ―My car broke down,‖ Winston said. This was a lie. Last night his car had been repossessed. ―Where are we going?‖ Winston asked. ―To your place. You need to change. You‘re soaked.‖ I shouldn’t have gotten into the car, Winston thought. He grew more uncomfortable as they neared his apartment. ―I know about the eviction notice,‖ Eddie said. ―If you need help, it‘s nothing to be ashamed of. You‘ve got friends, you know.‖ ―I‘m fine, Mr. Duncan.‖ ―Edgar. Call me Edgar.‘ Eddie parked next to the van on blocks. ―I‘ll be right back,‖ Winston said. ―I won‘t be long.‖ ―You got coffee up there?‖ Eddie asked. Winston fidgeted and his nervousness grew. He was hiding something and Eddie was curious to know what. ―I‘m sure you do,‖ Eddie blurted out. ―Come on.‖ They sneaked past the apartment manager‘s door and then up the stairs. Winston turned the key and was visibly relieved that it still worked. Eddie followed Winston through the doorway and shut the door behind him. Electronic equipment was strewn across Winston‘s floor and piled like junkyard heaps across the living room. Columns of technical manuals stood knee high amongst computer paraphernalia in various stages of assembly. An open crate with Korean lettering sat in the middle of the floor. There was no furniture in the living room, or any other things that a normal person would have in a place of residence.
―Hello, Vern,‖ Winston said, as he walked between piles of metal and plastic. A computer monitor hummed and lit up. Hard drives began clicking and internal cooling fans began to blow. ―Hello, Winston,‖ said an electronic voice. ―Shouldn‘t you be at work?‖ Winston stood in the kitchen doorway. ―Mr. Duncan from work is here with me,‖ Winston said to the monitor across the room. He looked at Eddie. ―Would you like cream and sugar with your coffee?‖ ―Uhhh. Yeah. Sure.‖ Winston disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Eddie alone in the living room. Eddie leaned down and looked at the computer screen. It glowed a faded blue and was blank, except for a blinking cursor. The monitor was connected to a workstation which was connected, in turn, to at least nine other PCs that Eddie could count, all of them stripped of their plastic casings. The workstation and the PCs were all connected to two microwave-size boxes by tangles of fiber optic cables. ―Hello, Mr. Duncan,‖ said the electronic voice from a speaker on top of the monitor. ―Um. Hi.‖
Winston re-entered the living room and handed Eddie a cup of coffee. Winston had microwaved the mug of water but only for a few seconds before adding the instant coffee grounds. Dregs of undissolved grounds swirled in the light brown liquid. ―So what is this thing?‖ Eddie asked, as he continued inspecting the boxes. ―Say hello, Vern,‖ Winston said. ―Hello, Vern,‖ the electronic voice said. ―No,‖ Winston said, in frustration. ―Say hello to Mr. Duncan.‖ ―That was an attempt at humor,‖ the computer said. ―I have so far been unable to incorporate a sense of humor into Vern‘s neural nets,‖ Winston said to Eddie apologetically. Eddie was Winston‘s first visitor and the first person to see his creation. Winston almost shook visibly from nervousness, but he was eager to see how his creation would perform in this unscheduled test. ―I have already said hello to Mr. Duncan,‖ the computer said. ―Have you introduced yourself?‖ Winston asked. ―I have not,‖ the computer replied. ―Well,‖ Winston said, impatiently, ―introduce yourself then.‖ ―To whom?‖ ―To Mr. Duncan.‖ Winston exhaled sharply and looked at Eddie with apologetic exasperation. ―Of course,‖ the computer said. ―I am Vern. My name is an acronym which stands for voice recognizing neural network.
My systems are comprised of thirty-three CPUs which control ninety-six RNNN chips – RNNN stands for rapidly reconstructable neural networks. My current voice recognition neural network was achieved through a selection process which Winston loosely modeled on Charles Darwin‘s theory of natural selection and on Winston‘s own theories of complexity and self-organization. It took 37,234,963 generations to achieve my current network architecture.‖ ―That‘s enough, Vern,‖ Winston said. ―Wow, Winston,‖ Eddie said. It now dawned on Eddie what all those techno-daydreams were about and where the source of Winston‘s financial duress originated. ―You did this all by yourself?‖ ―Yes. The RNNN chips made it possible, but the network architecture is my own creation. The chips were developed by Coree Semiconductor, but they couldn‘t get them to function properly. They didn‘t know there was a residue on the wafers from the production process that made the networks unstable. I got the chips from their plant in Redmond after the company went bankrupt.‖ Winston became aware that he was doing a lot of talking. It wasn‘t often that he talked this much, at least not to another human, and it was making him extremely uncomfortable. Eddie continued to examine the machine. ―Can this thing handle bank transactions, like the ones we‘re working on at Ross Tech.‖ ―Bank transactions are within my current capability,‖ said the electronic voice, ―but I prefer discussing the implications of Godel‘s Incompleteness Theorem.‖ ―Does Bill know about this?‖ Eddie asked. Winston‘s face flushed red and his hands began to tremble. ―No!‖ ―Winston, you‘ve just saved Ross Tech.‖ ―Mr. Ross cannot have Vern!‖
Winston turned away and, in his mind, relived an episode several months ago with Bill Ross. Ross had yelled at him and told him never again to come to him with his crazy ideas. Winston re-felt the humiliation. Ross treated him as nothing more than a workhorse and drove him relentlessly. ―Mr. Ross does not understand that artificial intelligence isn‘t a software problem but a hardware problem,‖ Winston said. He composed himself and turned to face Eddie. ―When I discovered that Mr. Ross was unwilling to take the appropriate steps to create a viable AI, I decided to do it on my own. Now, if you will excuse me, I will go and change.‖ Winston turned and shuffled into the kitchen. His clothes were folded in perfect squares on top of the drier in a closet at the back of the kitchen. Eddie continued to examine the machine. ―So. You can handle bank transactions,‖ Eddie said to himself. ―Yes, I can, Mr. Duncan. Were you reaffirming what I had stated before, or do you need further clarification of this fact?‖ the computer said. ―Uhh. Just talking to myself.‖ Winston appeared in the kitchen doorway, not yet changed. ―Please be quiet, Vern.‖ He disappeared back into the kitchen. Eddie knew that Winston deeply regretted letting him into his apartment. ―Winston, can I ask you a theoretical question?‖ There was no answer. ―What would you say to going into business with me?‖ Winston came out of the kitchen wearing an identical, but dry, set of slacks and shirt. He shuffled past Eddie to the front door. ―No, thank you, Mr. Duncan.‖ ―I‘ll pay off all your debts.‖
Winston thought this over for a second. ―No, thank you.‖ ―Screw Bill Ross,‖ Eddie said. ―We can form our own company. I‘ll handle the financing and you can handle all the technical stuff. You‘ll be able to work on Vern full time and you‘ll be debt free. You don‘t even have to pay me back.‖ Winston stared blankly at Eddie through thick lenses. Winston had never liked people much. They made fun of him and pushed him around and they were always so unpredictable. ―We can be partners, Winston. What do you say?‖ ―Mr. Duncan, will you please excuse me for a moment? Please wait in the kitchen.‖ Eddie went into the kitchen, leaving Winston alone in the living room. He’ll be homeless if he doesn’t take my offer, Eddie thought. He dumped his coffee into the sink and leaned against the counter. Such a strange little man. Eddie peeked out of the kitchen doorway and saw Winston hunched over the computer mumbling into the microphone. ―Mr. Duncan‘s high-school records and SAT scores are unpromising,‖ the computer said. ―I am unable to locate any record of Mr. Duncan attending an institute of higher education.‖ He can look up my records? Eddie thought. Winston lowered the volume on the speaker and mumbled quietly into the microphone. Eddie leaned back against the counter. He knew how Winston felt about people. With all that incredible brain power, Winston could not for the life of him understand human nature. He felt alienated from humanity, which he viewed as a collection of irrational creatures who often behaved randomly and against their own best interests.
Maybe that’s why he built that computer, Eddie thought. For someone to talk to. He wondered how someone so smart could seem so helpless. Winston entered the kitchen. ―We will accept your offer, Mr. Duncan.‖ Eddie smiled. ―You won‘t regret this, Winston.‖ Eddie extended his hand. ―Partners?‖ Winston hesitated. He fought back his aversion to human contact and extended his hand. Eddie clasped Winston‘s limp and clammy little hand with both hands. ―Partners,‖ Eddie said.
Eddie and Winston didn‘t return to Ross Tech that day. Eddie called Claire and told her that he was ill. She offered to come over but he declined with a brusque, ‗No‘, and told her he would be out of town for the weekend. Eddie and Winston shuttled all of Winston‘s belongings to Eddie‘s apartment and carefully transported Vern into Eddie‘s bedroom. Eddie took out cash advances on his credit cards and rented a small warehouse in West Seattle on the Green River. Early on Monday morning, instead of reporting to Ross Tech, they quietly moved out of Eddie‘s apartment and into the warehouse. Winston spent the week tinkering, while Eddie visited local banks. He was able to sweet-talk a chubby loan officer into granting him a generous small-business loan. Winston had never been happier. He had waited his whole life for the freedom to work undisturbed on his project and he completely absorbed himself in his work. Eddie never saw him sleep. Winston had given Eddie complete trust. It was his computer that convinced him to give Eddie a shot. After all, Eddie was the only one at Ross Tech who had attempted to befriend him, and how could things be any worse than working for Bill Ross? They lived off Eddie‘s credit cards. He ran around town, purchasing supplies that Winston requested, and he called all the banks that Laine had targeted as potential customers. Within two weeks‘ time, the loan money was spent and Eddie‘s credit cards were maxed. He had to sell off his TV and stereo to keep Winston supplied with parts. As Eddie
drifted further into debt, his anxiety manifested itself into a pack-a-day smoking habit. Eddie met with a representative from Pacific Northwestern Bank and set up a demo for the next morning. The demo was their one shot, as the two of them had not a dime left to their names. At sunset, Eddie arrived at the warehouse to find Winston putting the final touches on a scaled-down version of Vern, which Winston had named Vern0.5. It merged voice and internet banking seamlessly. A user could make seamless transactions over the phone, or sit at a personal computer while discussing with Vern0.5 various options, such as taking out a car loan, as if talking to a human banker. Eddie left the warehouse, leaving Winston alone with his work. He sat on the bank of the Green River and smoked a cigarette in the dark, dreary evening. Guilt nagged at him. He had abandoned Ross Tech and had stolen their best programmer. The company wouldn‘t survive long without Winston. Ross had given Eddie a new life only to be repaid with a knife in the back, but Ross was incompetent and Ross Tech was in its final hour anyhow. He had his chance. Ross let it slip through his fingers. I’d be a fool if I didn’t run with it, Eddie thought. But all the same, a new pattern appeared to emerging in his life that he was uncomfortable with. Oh, hell, he thought. I already played Mr. Nice Guy, and look where that got me. Nowhere. Don’t go back to being a chump, Eddie, he told himself. The next morning, Eddie and Winston wheeled the washing-machine-sized Vern0.5 into a lofty glass tower in downtown Seattle. Eddie wore a suit and tie while Winston wore the same button-down shirt, khaki slacks and red socks that he always wore. They set up the computer in a basement room, as two executives and three technicians looked on. Eddie shook their hands and made a mental note of each of
their names. The technicians grew increasingly skeptical as Winston explained in his awkward manner the Vern0.5 system, and the executives became impatient with Winston‘s mumbled techno-jargon. Eddie politely cut the little man short and moved straight into a demonstration of Vern0.5‘s capabilities. The technicians‘ skepticism shifted to curiosity and then to awe. They ran their hands over the plastic casing and thought, This is revolutionary. As Winston continued, the executives‘ minds began to buzz with the possibilities of streamlining and productivity and increased profit margins and automation and firing all those worthless schlubs on the phones who need vacation time, health insurance and a 401(k) match. When Winston wrapped up the demonstration, all were eager to test the computer more extensively. Eddie and Winston emerged from the building into a beautiful spring day. Sunlight shimmered through green leaves and a cool breeze fluttered through the trees that lined the bustling streets. Through the buildings, and beyond the blue waters of Puget Sound, the snow-capped Olympic Mountains seemed to glimmer in the sunlight. A smile beamed from Eddie‘s face as they walked to his car. ―Did you see the looks on their faces?‖ Eddie asked. He looked down at the little man walking beside him. ―We knocked their socks off, Winston.‖ ―Do you think we made the sale?‖ Winston asked. Eddie put his arm around Winston‘s shoulders. Winston recoiled, but Eddie held him tightly. ―Do I think we made the sale? I know we did, buddy. We‘re going all the way to the top, Winston. You and me. How does this sound? Duncan-Deaner Technologies. Duncan-Deaner Tech. It has a nice ring to it, doesn‘t it?‖ ―It sounds fine, Mr. Duncan.‖
Eddie rolled his eyes. ―Winston, call me Eddie. Okay? Just Eddie.‖ ―Eddie,‖ Winston repeated and committed the name to memory. ―Okay, Mr. Duncan.‖ The sky was a brilliant blue as they drove back to the warehouse. Massive Mount Rainier pointed majestically skyward south of the city. Winston sat in the passenger seat quietly observing the sunlit scenery outside. Eddie glanced down at him and couldn‘t help smiling. He tried briefly to wipe the smile from his face, but couldn‘t, and didn‘t care. It felt good to smile like this again, even though he felt different now. The past was fading away and a new future was emerging – a future of unlimited possibility. By midweek, they had finalized the sale with Pacific Northwestern, with a request for three additional units. Winston, with Eddie‘s assistance, installed Vern0.5 into the bank‘s mainframe and got it up and running. Customer response from the trial run was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Rumors of a revolutionary computer and a start-up named Duncan-Deaner Tech spread like wildfire through the business community.
Eddie put his feet up on the desk and clasped his hands behind his head. He gazed out of the window and watched the white ferries glide across the deep waters of Puget Sound. It was only a month ago that he had rented this office up on the fourteenth floor of a downtown high-rise. He had a few minutes to relax before his next appointment, and there was little time for relaxing these days. He was keeping busy hiring engineers, programmers, accountants, and lawyers by the boatload. He had even hired a smoothtalking spokesperson to handle the deluge of requests by the media for interviews. Eddie personally interviewed each of the potential employees. He searched deep into their minds for a few certain criteria, hiring only the brightest, best educated and most driven individuals who felt passionately about their work. But in the end, it was a deep heartfelt sense of loyalty that he deemed most important in making the final decision to bring someone on. A week ago, Pacific Northwestern Bank had released a glossy commercial, featuring the Vern0.5 system politely and efficiently handling customers‘ banking needs. The commercial featured a man, sitting in first class, sipping champagne as he held a pleasant conversation with Vern0.5 over his smart phone. He then smoothly transferred money to his stock portfolio following a tip from a beautiful businesswoman sitting next to him. A deep voice stated, ―Pacific Northwestern… handling your banking needs in the future.‖ The bank had wasted no time in laying off hundreds of tellers, customer-service employees and loan officers.
After the commercial‘s release, Eddie had to hire a receptionist to handle the large volume of telephone calls requesting more information on Vern0.5. Today, twelve banks, two long-distance phone companies, a major university and the IRS had all called requesting demos. It seemed every organization in the country with a customerservice department wished to speak to Mr. Edgar Duncan, and investors were beating a path to the Duncan-Deaner Tech door. Eddie picked up the phone and hit the speed dial. ―Hi, Winston. How‘s the new lab?‖ he said. ―It‘s good, but I think we‘re going to have to expand our production facilities if we‘re going to keep up with our backlog of orders,‖ Winston replied. ―I‘m one step ahead of you, my man. I‘ve been talking with contractors all morning. We‘re going to get you all the latest and coolest stuff, state of the art. We‘ll be meeting with the contractors on Friday. I want you to tell them exactly what you need,‖ Eddie said. ―Okay,‖ Winston replied. ―How are the new employees working out?‖ Eddie asked. ―They‘re nice,‖ Winston said. ―Good. Any problems and you just give me a call. Okay?‖ Eddie said. ―Okay,‖ Winston replied. ―You doing all right?‖ Eddie asked. ―I‘m fine, Eddie.‖ ―Great. I‘ll talk to you later,‖ Eddie replied. Eddie hung up the phone. Winston was happy, and when Winston was happy, Eddie was happy. Eddie took great care in hiring computer engineers to work for Winston. They were all techno-geeks who spoke Winston‘s language and who Eddie felt would be most compatible with the little guy. They
all believed that Winston was a genius and hung onto his every word. Eddie glanced at the gargoyle paperweight that sat next to the phone. He had seen it in an antique store at Pike‘s Place Market and felt compelled to buy it. He crumpled up a piece of paper and leaned back in his chair as if shooting a fall-away jumper. The paper ball arched through the air across the office and landed with a tinny thump inside the empty waste can. But Winston wasn‘t entirely happy. He didn‘t like the fact that his creation was being used to answer telephone calls, but he understood that the modern world runs on money and with money comes the freedom to do the things you really want to. Winston also didn‘t care for the intense media spotlight that had been focused on him. Once, as he emerged from the warehouse, an overbearing reporter flashed a camera in his face and demanded an interview. It was a frightening and distressing experience for someone so painfully introverted. It seemed that everyone wanted an interview with the two whiz kids from Seattle. Eddie had taken Winston and retreated from the warehouse to a new laboratory and had turned over all contact with the media to the company spokesperson. Eddie had different reasons for his avoidance of the public eye. It was incredible to him that people actually wanted his input on the topics of business and technology. He had no idea what he would say to them. ―Well, Bob, whereas some people achieve success through talent and hard work, I, on the other hand, use psychic powers.‖ The thought made him smile. He looked out at the Olympic Mountains. They seemed to sparkle in the midday sun. He opened the desk drawer, pulled out a cigarette, and popped it into his mouth. His secretary paged him over the intercom, before he could get it lit.
―Yes, Shirley,‖ he said, with his feet still up on the desk. ―There‘s a Mr. Ross and a Mr. Stern here to see you. They don‘t have an appointment, but they say you know who they are?‖ Oh, shit. What are they doing here? ―You tell that son of a bitch…‖ Ross said, on the other end of the intercom. ―They‘re very adamant about seeing you, Mr. Duncan.‖ ―Okay, Shirley.‖ Eddie took his feet off the desk and straightened his tie. ―Send them in.‖ Ross and Stern barged through the office door. Animosity and anger burned on their faces. ―Duncan, you son of a bitch,‖ Ross said. He stood before Eddie‘s desk, with his feet planted wide. Laine Stern stood behind Ross, with arms crossed over his chest and a derisive sneer on his face. Ross pointed a finger down at Eddie. ―I‘m here to let you know that I‘m suing your backstabbing ass.‖ Adrenaline was rushing through Ross‘s heavy frame. His company was bankrupt and all his employees, except for Laine, had left. Ross placed all the blame on Eddie. Eddie rose to his feet. ―Now look, Bill. I‘m sorry things worked out the way they did.‖ ―We know all about you, Duncan,‖ Laine said snidely. ―An MBA from Ohio State! You fraud. You‘ve got some nerve thinking you could get away with this. You‘re going down. You can be sure of that.‖ ―We‘ve got you by the balls,‖ Ross said. He shook his finger angrily. ―I made you, Duncan, and now I‘m going to break you.‖ ―Can I speak to you privately, Bill?‖ Eddie asked. ―You‘ve got nothing to say to Bill that you can‘t say in front of me,‖ Laine said. ―You lying ass, weasel mother…‖
Eddie looked Ross in the eye. ―I need to speak to you privately,‖ he said gravely. ―Wait in the lobby, Laine,‖ Ross said. ―I‘m staying right here.‖ ―Laine! In the lobby!‖ Ross barked. Laine turned and mumbled to himself as he left the room. ―You‘ve got some nerve, boy,‖ Ross said, still looking Eddie in the eye. ―Stealing Winston, my project, and the sale with Pacific Northwestern, lying to get the job, then destroying my company that I worked so long and hard for. You‘ve got a hell of a lot of nerve, boy.‖ ―So you‘re going to file a lawsuit? What makes you think you can win?‖ ―I‘ll win, because you are a liar and a fraud.‖ Ross believed strongly that the courts would decide in his favor. ―Winston will be working for me again and Vern0.5 will be rightfully mine.‖ ―I don‘t want to play hardball with you, Bill.‖ Ross‘s ire was heightened by Eddie‘s brashness. ―Go ahead and try, you arrogant…‖ ―I‘m sure a judge would like to hear why you hired me,‖ Eddie said, calmly. ―So that you could spend your investors‘ money in Spokane on your mistress and illegitimate child.‖ Eddie paused to let Ross absorb the statement. ―I‘m sure your wife would like to know about them. Even if you were to win a lawsuit against me, which you won‘t, your wife would clean you out.‖ It was a sucker punch and Ross was stunned. ―And for your information, Winston approached you about the Vern system and you ridiculed and humiliated him. Vern belongs rightfully to Winston Deaner, not you. You had your chance and you blew it.‖ ―You dirty son of a bitch.‖
―We can work this out, Bill,‖ Eddie said, calmly. ―You‘re an honorable man.‖ Ross was confused and growing desperate. His heart pounded in his chest and a feeling of numbness overcame him. ―I‘ll give you five hundred thousand in cash,‖ Eddie said, ―and we sweep everything under the carpet.‖ Ross knew he had been beaten but couldn‘t bring himself to accept what Eddie had just said. ―Your daughter in Spokane will be well provided for and you can retire comfortably. I‘ll even hire all of Ross Tech‘s employees, all except Laine. I feel I owe this to you for taking a chance on me. My attorney will draw up the terms, and you‘ll get the five hundred thousand, as soon as we turn a profit, which is soon, I assure you.‖ Ross couldn‘t look Eddie in the face. ―Take it or leave it.‖ Eddie extended his hand to him. Ross had truly liked him. He felt the greatest humiliation of his life as he reached out and shook Eddie‘s hand. ―I‘m sorry it turned out this way, Bill.‖ ―I am too.‖ Eddie pitied the man as he watched him turn and leave. He pitied him, but reveled in the victory. ―What happened in there?‖ Laine asked, as he followed Ross into the elevator. ―What the hell happened!‖ ―Stern,‖ Ross said loudly. ―Shut up!‖ The elevator doors slid shut. A sleek limousine cruised beneath the trees of the Washington countryside on a balmy summer afternoon. Rays of sunlight beamed through the leaves, casting glittering golden points of light across the road. Eddie sat inside the limousine across from his aide, who was going over their agenda for the day. Eddie felt comfortable and relaxed in the
cool air-conditioning of the limousine. He gazed out of the window as his aide spoke. They were to be making an appearance at the construction site of Duncan-Deaner Tech‘s new chip manufacturing facility. The aide unfolded a blue print. ―You‘ll be setting the cornerstone here. This is when they‘ll take pictures and want you to say a few words. The local papers will be there, along with The Wall Street Journal and Wired magazine. Some local news stations may also be there, but I doubt that we‘ll make the evening news.‖ The aide handed Eddie a prepared statement. Eddie took it and returned to gazing out of the window. The aide was disappointed that Eddie didn‘t look it over. He had spent hours working on it, but Eddie knew that it was perfect. He turned away from the window and looked down at the statement. This guy went to Yale, Eddie thought. ―We haven‘t agreed to any direct questioning from the media, but they‘re probably going to hit you with some tough ones anyway, AI questions and possibly a few questions on job displacement caused by the new technology, etc. We have made it very clear to them that these are questions for the DD Tech—‖ ―John,‖ Eddie said, interrupting. ―Yes.‖ ―You‘re doing a great job, John.‖ ―Um... Thanks, boss.‖ ―Okay. Now where were we?‖ Eddie asked. John continued on. Eddie pretended to pay attention as he watched the scenery outside. He knew he was in capable hands and that John had everything under perfect control. He watched John talk and felt the man‘s professionalism and how serious all of this was to him, but to Eddie, the moment felt amusing.
―What‘s so funny?‖ John asked. ―What?‖ ―It looks like something seems funny to you.‖ ―I‘m sorry,‖ Eddie said. ―I was just daydreaming.‖ ―We‘ll be there in five minutes, Edgar.‖ ―You have my undivided attention.‖ John continued with the briefing. I guess it’s official, Eddie thought. I’m a bonafide success. Debbie would hate herself if she could see me now. A factory was rising from the dirt because of him. People listened to him. They respected him. And the money was rolling in like a Himalayan avalanche. Life is just a poker game. He turned this thought over in his mind, and as he watched John speak, the thought made perfect sense to him. And I just happen to know what everyone is holding.
Cumulonimbus clouds dwarfed a corporate jet as it flew between towering, puffy columns of cloud that glowed orange, yellow and pink in the rays of the setting sun. The jet cruised high above the blue Pacific, as the sun sank into the western ocean. Eddie sat inside the plane, on a leather couch, reading a tablet computer which he held like a clipboard. He touched the business icon and stock quotes appeared on the screen. ―Our stock is up ten points,‖ he said. Duncan-Deaner Tech‘s head of security, Wilhelm Soto, sat across from Eddie on a matching leather couch. ―So how many millions richer does that make you?‖ he asked. Eddie ignored the question and returned to the screen. The tall man blew a stream of cigarette smoke upwards, as he sat with his ankle propped up on his knee and his arm outstretched over the top of the couch. Wilhelm Soto had a shaggy mop of brown hair and the body of an NBA power forward. He was the son of a Chilean diplomat and a Hungarian defector from the Cold War, and had been raised in the capitals of South America and Asia. Soto received a BS in electrical engineering from Princeton and completed his doctoral thesis on encryption at MIT. Eddie had hired Soto to form a security department after Duncan-Deaner Tech had suffered a rash of industrial espionage incidents. Eddie chose him because he was the best in the world as far as high-tech security goes. Soto effectively plugged Duncan-Deaner Tech‘s security leaks and insured that the company would maintain its stranglehold on the market.
Eddie had other reasons beyond security for bringing Soto into the company. Legally, Soto had been naturalized as a citizen of the United States but, in reality, he was a citizen of the world. He spoke several languages fluently, which made his mind difficult to read as his thoughts could jump from Portuguese to Russian to Mandarin Chinese, depending on the situation he was in. He moved smoothly through the social circles that Eddie was spending more and more time in and never felt quite comfortable in. Soto had a comfortable confidence about him and an easy charm that Eddie tried to imitate. Over the last year, the two of them had fast become close friends. Soto admired Eddie for his skill with people, but never admitted this openly. He knew that was where Eddie‘s genius lay. Soto would risk his life for him because he was a professional and it was what he was paid to do, but also because that is what he would do for a friend. Soto kept his resourceful mind hidden behind an aloof demeanor. As Eddie browsed the electronic screen, Soto analyzed him from across the aisle. He remembered how he had been unimpressed, when he had first spoken to Eddie over the phone, how Eddie had seemed almost ignorant, and how quickly his perception had changed upon meeting him in person. What of those strange lapses he often makes and the ineptness with geography and mathematics? He wondered why Eddie had taken to wearing black so often now and what was the strange fascination with gargoyles? Always so mysterious, Edgar. Never speaking of yourself. Always deflecting conversation onto others, always putting people at ease, getting them to do what you want. A simple compliment that can melt a heart, a stinging barb that cuts to the bone. I wonder, Edgar, how can someone understand people so completely? Soto took a long drag from his cigarette and exhaled a stream of smoke toward the ceiling of the cabin.
Eddie looked up from the screen. ―Let me have one of those cigarettes,‖ he asked. Soto tossed him one. ―I thought you were quitting,‖ Soto said. ―How can I quit with you smoking around me all the time?‖ Eddie said. Soto shrugged his shoulders and took another drag. Eddie lit the cigarette and returned his attention to the screen. Corporate profits were at record levels, but unemployment was approaching fourteen percent. An analyst spoke in a small window in the corner of the screen. ‗The recent rise in unemployment can be attributed to the new smart computers that are rapidly replacing workers. No one is safe from layoffs in this day and age. From the cashier to the accountant, workers are seeing their jobs being done more efficiently and more cheaply by machines.‖ Eddie thought of the cockpit of the jet he was sitting in. There was no pilot flying the plane. Winston had designed an intelligent cockpit that could fly without human assistance. Eddie had been uncomfortable with the concept until Winston explained that an overwhelming majority of accidents were caused by human error. The computer had a database with contingencies for every possible emergency. It knew the exact location of every aircraft on the planet and it had a constantly updated weather forecast. It knew every detail of the aircraft‘s design and it had two back-up systems in case of failure. The new flight system was a tightly guarded company secret. Duncan-Deaner Tech was preparing to install the system in airliners in the coming years and was putting the finishing touches on a system for automobiles. The military was salivating at the chance to upgrade its unmanned systems with Winston‘s computers. ―People are frightened,‖ the analyst continued. ―When will the layoffs end? Is anyone‘s job safe?‖
The window switched to an automobile worker in China. ―I lost my job to a computer!‖ the subtitles read as the man shouted. ―How will I feed my kids? These CEOs make millions replacing us with machines. What about the people?‖ Eddie touched the sports icon. He was in no mood to think about the repercussions of new technology. ―I spoke to Natasha today,‖ Soto said. ―Oh?‖ Eddie asked without looking up from the sports page. ―How is Edgar?‖ Soto said mockingly in a feminine voice. Eddie looked up from the screen and took a drag from his cigarette. ―How is she?‖ ―She‘s pathetic, Edgar. She‘s put on weight and I hear she cries all the time. The poor girl, so broken-hearted.‖ ―Broken hearts heal.‖ ―A broken heart is a traumatic thing, or don‘t you know that, Edgar? Natasha‘s not taking it well.‖ ―She‘s a beautiful woman. She‘ll find someone else soon enough,‖ Eddie said. ―So cold, Edgar,‖ remarked Soto. ―You‘re one to talk,‖ said Eddie. ―It‘s different with me,‖ replied Soto. Eddie raised a cynical eyebrow. ―A woman knows what she is getting with me. We drink. We dance. We have fun together and, when all is said and done, we remain friends, but you…‖ Soto pointed his cigarette at him. ―You steal their hearts. You have them walking on air, thinking they will forever be smelling roses and sipping champagne with their rich lover. Then, poof, you‘re gone. You leave them crushed, like little flowers trampled beneath your expensive shoes. There are certain lines you shouldn‘t cross so lightly, Edgar.‖ ―Since when did you become my love counselor?‖ ―Je suis un étudiant d‘amour,‖ Soto said, with a grin.
Eddie shook his head. ―Why did you dump her? Most men spend their lives dreaming of someone like Natasha.‖ ―She was too sheltered,‖ Eddie answered. ―Too naive.‖ ―What about the actress? Amanda. Why did you dump her?‖ Soto asked. ―Too neurotic,‖ Eddie said. ―And the model? The one we met in Berlin. Caroline.‖ ―Materialistic. Too self-centered.‖ ―I worry about you, sometimes,‖ Soto replied. ―You don‘t have to worry about me. I‘m a big boy,‖ Eddie answered. ―You pay me to worry about you.‖ Eddie put out his cigarette and returned to the screen. He touched the Seattle news icon and the Seattle headlines appeared. A headline read of a murder. He read the victim‘s name and his face went pale.
‗Rachel Richards, 28, a Seattle defense attorney, was found brutally murdered in her Capitol Hill apartment. Richards was found lying in a pool of blood by a coworker at eleven this morning. Multiple stab wounds to the chest and abdomen were determined to be the cause of death. David Silverman, Richards‘ fiancé, is the only suspect at present.‖ There was a picture of Rachel, with a big smile, standing next to her red BMW. ―What‘s wrong?‖ Soto asked. ―Someone I used to know was murdered this morning,‖ Eddie said. ―Is it someone I know?‖ Soto asked. ―No,‖ replied Eddie. ―Do you want me to look into it?‖ Soto inquired. Eddie knew that if he said the word, Soto would throw himself headlong into an investigation and could probably have the whole thing solved without too much difficulty. ―I‘m sure the police have everything under control.‖ Rachel looked so pretty in the picture on the screen. Eddie‘s mind returned to the short time that they had spent together. The plane began its descent into San Jose International Airport. They were making a short stop, before continuing on to Las Vegas for a medical technology convention. Eddie‘s mother had convinced him to check in on his sister Kelly. His mother was worried about her, but she always worried about Kelly. Eddie hadn‘t seen her since he left home. A visit was long overdue. A limousine waited for them on the tarmac. It took them through San Jose and pulled to a stop in front of a twobedroom house in a rundown suburban neighborhood.
―Wait here, Will,‖ Eddie said. ―I won‘t be long.‖ ―Take your time,‖ Soto said, as he lit a cigarette. ―I‘m on the clock.‖ Eddie walked across the brown lawn to the front door and rang the bell. A skinny, shirtless man with tattoos, a shaved head and a black goatee answered the door. A toothy grin crossed the man‘s face upon seeing Eddie. ―Kelly!‖ he shouted. ―Eddie‘s here!‖ The man shook Eddie‘s hand enthusiastically. ―Good to see you, brother!‖ Eddie recognized him from those years ago back in Fresno. His name was Tony and, even though Tony was all smiles, he looked harder now and much thinner. ―Come on in, Ed,‖ he said grinning from ear to ear. Eddie followed him into the house. Tony picked a sleeveless undershirt up from off the floor and pulled it on. ―Have a seat, man. Mi casa, su casa. You want a beer?‖ Kelly emerged from the bedroom with her baby slung over her hip. ―Hello, Kelly,‖ Eddie said. He walked over to her and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She was heavier than when he last saw her, and she looked like she had aged twenty years. ―Look at you, Eddie,‖ she said. Tears welled up in her eyes. ―I can‘t believe it‘s really you.‖ In her mind, Eddie was still that grease-covered gas-station attendant back in Fresno. ―This must be Sally,‖ Eddie said. He leaned down and smiled at the baby. ―She‘s beautiful, Kell.‖ The baby turned away and began to bawl. Kelly bounced her on her hip, but it only made little Sally cry louder. ―Get us two beers, Kelly,‖ Tony said and plopped down on the couch with his legs spread wide. ―Have a seat, Eddie.‖ Eddie sat in the matching green love seat across from the couch. Kelly came out of the kitchen and handed each of
them a bottle of beer. Tony tilted the bottle back and took several long gulps. Sally cried loudly, stopping only for short gasps of air. She buried her face in her mother‘s chest and continued sobbing. Kelly sat down next to Tony and tried to console her baby, gently stroking the baby‘s hair and whispering softly. Eddie sensed a sadness in his sister. The living room was dimly lit and only now did he notice the thin scab on the bridge of her nose and the blush-covered redness beneath her eye. ―So how have you been?‖ Eddie asked her. ―We‘ve been great,‖ Tony said. ―We really appreciate that money you sent. It‘s helped us out a lot. It‘s going to put our little girl through college.‖ Kelly‘s expression was one of content, but Eddie sensed that something was terribly wrong. Sally‘s crying grew louder. ―Dammit, Kell! Can‘t you shut her up? We‘ve got company, for Christ-sakes!‖ A bolt of fear shot through her. She rose and took the baby into the bedroom. ―Looks like you‘ve done well for yourself, Eddie. Man, I remember when you were just another punk kid back in school. It‘s funny how things work out.‖ Tony took another long sip of his beer. His heart was racing and his state of mind bordered on euphoria. Eddie knew at that moment that all the money he had sent had been snorted up Tony‘s nose. Eddie leaned forward. ―Yeah, it‘s funny, isn‘t it?‖ ―That money you sent got us through some hard times, after I got laid off, and all.‖ ―Where were you working?‖ ―At the computer assembly plant over in Mountain View. They‘re automating everything now.‖
Kelly re-entered the living room after putting the baby to bed. She sat next to Tony and smiled at Eddie. Tony put his arm around her shoulders. Her smile belied the coldness she felt inside. ―How‘d you get that bruise, Kelly?‖ Eddie asked. ―She bumped into a cabinet in the kitchen. I swear, you can be so clumsy sometimes, can‘t you, sweetheart? One time, I swear, she almost burned down the whole house, cooking dinner.‖ Tony laughed. ―You should‘ve seen her, Eddie. Running around like a chicken with her head cut off, while the flames are flying everywhere. Remember that, baby?‖ Eddie watched her closely as Tony spoke. She nodded, ‗yes‘ to his question but her mind had returned to an incident earlier that morning. A flash of Tony in the baby‘s room. He had been up for three days, high on methamphetamine and binge drinking. Sally wouldn‘t stop crying and he had screamed at Kelly to shut her up. Just shut her up. She screamed back at him and he slugged her. His back was turned as he stood over the baby. The baby cried. ―Shut up! Are you listening to me! Just shut the fuck up!‖ He slapped the baby across the face but this made her wail even louder. He picked her up and shook her. ―Shut the fuck up! Can you hear me! Shut up! Nerves jarred in shock and horror. Kelly screamed. ―I‘m calling the police!‖ Tony turned and then suddenly became calm as the baby bawled. ―Calm down,‖ he said slowly. Kelly lost it and screamed hysterically. He attacked her, punching her in the face and knocking her through the doorway. He fell on her and twisted her arm so hard that she felt it would snap.
―Yeah, man,‖ Tony said with a chuckle. ―Clumsy Kelly. That‘s what I call her.‖ ―Yeah,‖ Eddie laughed. ―Kelly does the damnedest things sometimes.‖ Tony looked at Kelly and smiled. He put his hand on her knee. ―But I still love you, baby.‘ She smiled at him. ―Tony,‖ Eddie said. ―Can I speak to you out on the patio?‖ ―Yeah. Sure, man.‖ This had better be about some serious cash. ―Excuse us, Kelly,‖ Eddie said. ―Why don‘t you check on the baby.‖ Tony and Eddie stepped out into the cool California night. Tony slid the glass door shut. ―I‘m glad you came to visit, Ed. I didn‘t want to tell you this in front of Kelly, but times have been hard for us lately. We‘ve been struggling, you know? I haven‘t been as lucky as you, but I‘ll turn things around. It‘s just hard for a good ole boy like me to get ahead these days, trying to support a wife and kid. You know how it is.‖ Eddie stared at him with unblinking, stony eyes. Tony‘s eyes darted back and forth. He became unnerved by Eddie‘s emotionless gaze. ―What‘s up, man?‖ Eddie shoved him hard against the stucco wall. Tony‘s back slammed against the wall with a jarring thud. ―What the fuck?‖ He stepped away from the wall, but Eddie shoved him again. Tony‘s back hit the wall with a hard, hollow thump. ―Don‘t push me, you punk piece of shit!‖ Tony screamed. He swung a wild punch at Eddie‘s face. Eddie side-stepped the fist and clenched his hand around Tony‘s throat. He pushed him backward, driving Tony‘s head into the wall with a sharp crack. Pain shot like knives through Tony‘s head. Eddie tightened his grip around Tony‘s throat.
―You don‘t hit my sister,‖ Eddie said. ―Or the baby.‖ Tony was dazed. Panic jumped in him when he realized that no air was reaching his lungs. He pried and clawed desperately at the hand that was clamped around his throat like an iron band. Eddie stared with black hatred into Tony‘s bulging eyeballs. He saw him standing over his sister. He saw her face, as he beat down on her. Tony became not a man, but flesh and bone, a blob of tissues, of neurons and synapses and electrochemical pulses. He had always hated Tony. In high school he hated Tony‘s arrogance and his boasting about women, his boasting to his friends about Kelly. As a boy, he had thought of Tony as worthless human garbage. Anger burned into the tissues, burning into them like an acetylene torch cutting through wood. Eddie‘s hatred concentrated like a laser into Tony‘s brain. Terror gripped Tony as he felt the eternal touch of approaching death. Eddie suddenly realized that he was killing Tony. He released his grip from Tony‘s throat. Tony gasped in huge gulps of air. Blood fueled by adrenaline and fear gushed up the carotid artery. Capillaries burst and popped from the sudden gush of blood into the brain. Tony let loose a chilling shriek as he fell to his knees. Blood flowed from his nose and ears. He ripped at his hair. A twisted madness was in his eyes. Soto burst through the patio doorway. He stood in wideeyed confusion upon seeing the writhing man on his knees below Eddie. ―Take Kelly and the baby and put them in the limousine,‖ Eddie said. ―What‘s going on, Edgar?‖ Soto asked. ―Put them in the limousine. Now, Will!‖ Eddie ordered.
Soto disconcertedly complied. Eddie looked down at the man writhing beneath him. Tony‘s mind was an incoherent stream of terror and chaotic madness. His brain was severely damaged. Eddie scanned his thoughts and knew that Tony‘s remaining time on this earth would be spent in a never-ending panic attack, and he wouldn‘t survive long without immediate medical attention. Eddie entered the house and picked up the phone. He dialed 911. If the paramedics arrived in time, they might save him and enable him to spend his remaining days in a mental institution under heavy sedation. He told the dispatcher of an emergency, gave the address and hung up. He walked out of the front door and across the brown lawn to the waiting limousine. He sat down inside next to his sister, who held her peacefully sleeping baby in her arms. Soto looked at Eddie with alarm as the limousine pulled away from the house. ―I‘m sending you to Seattle,‖ Eddie said to Kelly. They passed a speeding ambulance. It squawked as it sped by on the road. The red lights from the siren briefly illuminated the inside of the limousine. ―Can I have a cigarette, Will?‖ Soto handed him a cigarette and lit it for him.
He stared out at the Nevada desert far below. It seemed to bake in the glare of the morning sun. They were supposed to have arrived in Las Vegas last night, but had delayed their arrival to arrange for Kelly‘s trip north to Seattle. His mother would be picking Kelly up at Sea-Tac International Airport right about now. He thought of his mother as he gazed out of the plane window at the desert below. He had moved her to Seattle soon after Duncan-Deaner Tech had started turning a profit. He remembered the look on her face when he met her at the airport, how overwhelmed and confused she had been by how much he had changed, and how surreal the experience had been for her, to have given up on life and then have all her forgotten prayers answered. It was as if all her pain and loneliness had been God‘s way of testing her worthiness for the life she had always dreamed of. She was happy now, for the first time in her life and she had rediscovered religion, praying every night for forgiveness for ever having doubted Him. She looked on her son with awe and pride and wondered how she ever could have overlooked all the talent and greatness that was in him. Eddie had seen a truth in his mother‘s mind. It was a truth that tore at his soul. He had seen that night, so long ago, when his mother had entered a darkened bar in the motel down the road from their house. She had gone there often, back then, after work to listen to the sad songs on the juke box and drown her tired heart in gin. She sat alone at the bar and drank and smoked her Marlboros. She had always been a homely and overweight woman. Men only passed through her
life, taking all she had to give, and then they were gone, and lately, they hadn‘t even been passing through. Late into the night, when the alcohol weighed heavily on her eyelids, a truck driver came in and sat at the end of the bar. He smiled at her and bought her Long Island iced teas. He held her on his arm as the room spun around about her. Eddie saw how she willingly went upstairs with him into that motel room with the coin-operated vibrating bed and the faded TV screen, how he hadn‘t turned off the light, and how he left the room as soon as he was finished. The man‘s face was only a blur in his mother‘s memory. She couldn‘t even remember his name. This man was his father. She had sworn to take this secret to her grave, but now Eddie would take it to his grave as well. It sickened him to think that down there, somewhere on this vast land, maybe at a truck stop in the desert, or sitting in the cab of a semi rolling across the Great Plains, was a man who was his father, a man who knew nothing of his son‘s existence. It made him feel like rabble – the product of too much liquor, too much loneliness, and the lack of accessible birth control. He wished he had never learned the truth. He wished for the past to disappear forever, to only live in the present, to only live for the future. The jet banked and began its descent. The carnival skyline of Las Vegas rose from the desert. Eddie thought of Tony and what he had done to him. He had physically altered Tony‘s brain. Tony had suffered some kind of severe embolism. Eddie‘s power had grown considerably over the last few years, but this was an aspect of his ability which he hadn‘t known existed. It frightened him. He knew more about people than they knew of themselves. Yet he felt distant from them. He felt like a wolf, walking
unseen amongst the sheep. Now this – to destroy with only a thought. He’ll never hurt Kelly or the baby again, he thought. The plane landed with the screech of tires on the tarmac. It taxied on the runway, before coming to a stop. Eddie and Soto stepped out of the plane and felt the hot blast of desert air. John was waiting for them on the runway with a limousine. The limousine‘s air-conditioning came as a relief from the heat of the runway. They cruised through the neon streets where the glare of the sun competed with the brightness of colorful, blinking lights. The limousine arrived at a convention center and was greeted by a throng of reporters and protesters who waved signs which read, ‗Down with DDT‘ and ‗Power to the People‘. Reporters blitzed them, flashing cameras and waving microphones. Soto kept them off his boss, directing an army of security guards through a radio headset. The crowd angrily chanted, ‗Down with DDT. Down with DDT.‘ Eddie and Soto entered the center and hurriedly walked past eclectic displays of every manner of medical machinery. They arrived at the Vern6.0 display as the media followed behind. Eddie shook the hands of the technicians, who were attending to the refrigerator-sized box that was covered by red draping. Eddie made small talk with the technicians and posed with them for the flashing cameras. John had carefully prepared the speech that Eddie was to deliver for the unveiling of their much-anticipated new product. He was late and the media waited impatiently. ―Ladies and gentlemen,‖ Eddie began with his trademark smile. ―Members of the press. We are here today to witness the beginning of a new era in medicine. I present to you Vern6.0!‖ The technicians pulled off the red draping and revealed a large black box of blinking lights.
―Say hello, Vern,‖ Eddie said. ―Hello, Vern,‖ the box said in a male voice with an English accent. The crowd snickered. ―Come on, Vern. Stop clowning around.‖ Eddie looked to the cameras with mock disapproval. ―Introduce yourself.‖ ―Hello. I am Vern6.0 from the laboratories of DuncanDeaner Technologies. My creators, led by the brilliant Winston Deaner, have designed me specifically for the medical community. I contain a constantly updated database of the totality of the world‘s medical knowledge.‖ ―So, Vern,‖ Eddie said. ―How are you going to help our friends in the medical community?‖ ―Well, Edgar, aside from being used as an expert system to assist physicians, I hope to be an invaluable research tool. Unlike my expert system predecessors, I am able to deduce and critically examine data and propose new lines of research. I have a virtual human anatomy in my memory banks, with which I can test hypotheses and new treatments. In the two weeks since I have been on line, I have discovered several intricacies of the human immune system that have been overlooked by my human counterparts. It is my firm belief, Edgar, that the ailments that plague humanity, from breast cancer to Alzheimer‘s disease, from the common cold to AIDS, all will be eradicated within ten years‘ time.‖ Mumblings of disbelief arose from the medical onlookers and a barrage of questions shot forth from the media. The clamor grew so loud that Eddie was unable to continue his public conversation with the computer. ―I‘m turning the floor over to our experts now!‖ Eddie shouted over the clamor. ―They can answer all of your questions!‖ Soto escorted Eddie through the crowd and to the back of the center.
―They‘re like a pack of wild dogs,‖ Eddie said. ―You don‘t know the stress you put me under, Edgar.‖ Soto thought of the protesters outside with deep concern. ―There have been a lot more wackos around lately.‖ ―That‘s why I pay you the big bucks, Will.‖ They entered a spacious hall at the rear of the center. Doctors, hospital administrators, university department heads, and bio-tech executives mingled around a large buffet table. A melting ice sculpture of a caduceus centered the table. Soto‘s concern was evident as he scanned the groups of schmoozing bigwigs who munched on finger foods and sipped out of wine glasses. ―Relax, Will. It‘s time to have a few drinks and do some socializing.‖ Eddie grabbed two glasses of wine off the tray of a passing caterer, and handed a glass to Soto. Soto sipped from the glass and continued his scanning. A skinny, bearded man approached them with a group of hangers-on. He extended his hand to Eddie.
―Hello, Mr. Duncan. I‘m Dr. Tom Worthings of Stanford University. I‘m interested in these claims that the Vern6.0 system can assist in AIDS research.‖ ―Yes, Dr. Worthings,‖ Eddie said, as he shook the man‘s hand. ―Vern6.0 has analyzed all the data on the disease and has suggested a new approach to treatment. We don‘t have the medical facilities at D-D Tech to test what Vern6.0 has proposed, and that‘s where we‘re hoping you guys will step in.‖ ―I suppose we‘re all supposed to run out and buy one of your computers?‖ ―I‘m not saying you have to, but I will say that Vern6.0, as of today, is the single greatest mind in the history of medicine. The computer holds an equivalent of a M.D. in every medical specialty and has an IQ that cannot even be measured on a human scale, and when Vern6.0 told me it has found the cure for AIDS, I believe it.‖ ―Your snake oil salesman act has been quite a show, Mr. Duncan. In all my years in the medical field, I have never heard someone make so many outrageous claims in such a short span of time.‖ As Dr. Worthings talked, Eddie‘s attention was captivated by a tall, slender woman with auburn hair who was discussing a new strain of the Ebola virus with another doctor. She seemed to radiate a glowing, golden light. ―The day a computer can think,‖ Dr. Worthings said, ―is the day I move to the hills and build myself a wigwam.‖ A collective laugh arose from the small crowd that had gathered around them.
―Don‘t be so quick to discount the Vern6.0 system, Doctor.‖ Eddie‘s eyes were still transfixed on the woman with flowing auburn hair. ―Vern6.0 may be the beginning of a golden age in medicine. We may discover new wonders that will uplift the human condition to heights unimagined, but I‘m not the one to convince you. You are welcome to match wits with the computer if you like, Dr. Worthings.‖ ―Yes, I would like that.‖ The doctor accepted this offer as a challenge. His educated and highly experienced mind immediately began formulating medical questions that no computer, let alone most doctors, could answer with any level of competence. Eddie waved over his assistant. ―John, could you please escort Dr. Worthings to the Vern6.0 display? Give him free rein with the computer.‖ As John led the doctor away, a growing crowd followed. Several reporters were among the crowd. Got to get this on tape, a reporter thought. Stanford professor vs. world’s smartest computer… Tonight at eleven. Eddie approached the woman discussing the Ebola B virus with a swarthy, much shorter male doctor. Eddie felt her pain as she spoke of how quickly an entire village in Angola had been infected and wiped out. The listening doctor appeared concerned. Damn, she is so gorgeous, he thought as he nodded and furrowed his brow. He saw Eddie approach. He shook Eddie‘s hand eagerly. ―Mr. Duncan. I‘m Dr. Yemani from the University of Miami. This is Dr. Haley Smith.‖ Eddie gave Dr. Smith his most charming smile as he shook her hand. He felt a warm, golden light flow into him as their hands touched.
―The Vern6.0 computer is very impressive,‖ Dr. Yemani said. ―If half of your claims are true, you‘ll make a killing off it.‖ ―I couldn‘t help overhearing your conversation,‖ Eddie said to Dr. Smith. ―What happened to that village was terrible.‖ He was disarmed by her. Her presence was as soothing as morning sunshine. He felt the warmth and compassion that resided in her heart, but he also felt the skepticism that she felt toward him. She had heard of Edgar Duncan. ―Yes, it‘s like nothing we‘ve seen before,‖ she said. ―Dr. Smith has spent the last two years in Africa with Doctors Without Borders,‖‘ Dr. Yemani said. ―After a medical team was infected by the virus, Dr. Smith was the only one in the area willing to enter the village. She‘s a modern-day saint, I tell you.‖ ―Thank you, Hector,‖ she said to Dr. Yemani, ―but by the time I arrived, the virus had already run its course. We‘ve never seen anything so virulent before.‖ Eddie saw the village in her mind. Bodies lay covered in their own red vomit on muddy streets. A woman sat before a hut holding her baby. Their eyes had liquefied into black ooze that flowed down over their cheekbones. Dr. Smith had walked alone through the village and had stepped over the bodies of the medical team that had radioed hours before while in the death throes of the virus. She found no survivors. Dr. Smith had returned to the United States with a singleminded determination never to allow this to happen again. She now worked with a research team at UCLA and was here seeking support for their work. ―I would like to help,‖ Eddie said. ―I want to help your cause.‖ ―Really? Help how?‖ she asked. ―Name it. I want to help you stop this thing,‖ said Eddie.
―We are in need of large-scale funding, Mr. Duncan,‖ she replied. It was a test of his seriousness. To her, he was a ruthless capitalist, someone who wouldn‘t casually offer money without ulterior motives. ―I‘m prepared to give as much as you need,‖ he said. She crossed her arms over her chest. ―So what‘s the catch?‖ she asked. ―Dr. Smith,‖ Dr. Yemani said, in astonishment. ―I think Mr. Duncan is being sincere. He is offering you a tremendous opportunity.‖ ―Just one catch,‖ Eddie said. ―Dinner with me tonight.‖ ―That‘s one way to get a date,‖ Yemani said. ―Expensive, however.‖ ―I have to warn you,‖ she said, unamused. ―I have a very busy schedule here in Las Vegas. I don‘t have time for distractions.‖ ―Is nine o‘clock okay?‖ he asked. ―Nine is fine,‖ she replied. She wrote the name of her hotel on a cocktail napkin and handed it to him. ―I‘m happy that you want to help. Now, if you‘ll excuse me, I have some people to meet with,‖ she said. She left Eddie standing alone with Dr. Yemani. They watched her walk away. ―With enough resources,‖ Yemani said, ―that woman would save the world. She‘s a genius, you know, and a crusader.‖ ―I noticed,‖ Eddie said. ―Many have tried to get in the good doctor‘s pants, Mr. Duncan. But I‘m afraid she was put on this earth for higher purposes. Even if she had the time for men, I don‘t think you would be her type,‖ Dr. Yemani said. ―Dr. Yemani,‖ Eddie said, with a slap on the doctor‘s back. ―You underestimate me.‖
Eddie left Yemani and grabbed a glass of champagne from a tray as he walked over to Soto. ―You doing all right, my man?‖ Eddie asked and sipped from his glass. ―Not as well as you,‖ Soto replied. Eddie thought of Dr. Haley Smith and downed the remainder of his glass. HELLO, EDDIE. Eddie winced as the thought echoed loudly in his head. SHE IS VERY BEAUTIFUL. Eddie‘s head rang from the thought‘s intensity. He rubbed his temples and squinted as he searched the hall for the source of the thought. He jumped from mind to mind, but found only medical banter. A piercing headache made him wince in pain. Someone had directed thoughts straight into his brain.
―Are you okay, Edgar?‖ Soto asked. ―Just a headache. Must be the champagne. Let‘s go to the hotel. I‘ve done enough socializing for today.‖ It was late in the evening and Eddie lay on his bed in a hotel room high above the neon lights. His shirt and tie were on the floor. He had yet to take off his black socks, slacks, and undershirt. Soto had wanted the two of them to hit the town, but Eddie had declined. He lay alone on the bed immersed in thought. The strange voice that filled his mind in the convention center earlier in the day still troubled him. He had encountered several ‗psychics‘ over the years, tie-dyed street people with tarot cards and hats full of change, or mystical quacks who bilked mourners with elaborate séances. He hadn‘t encountered anyone with abilities like his, not until today. There’s someone else like me. The thought made him uneasy. There were secrets in his mind that he would rather keep to himself. He recalled the mysteriousness of the encounter and his uneasiness grew. Why didn’t he reveal himself? He picked up the remote control off the night stand and clicked on the TV for the late-night news broadcast. ―In Las Vegas today,‖ the anchorman stated, ―a remarkable new machine was unveiled to the world.‖ Dr. Worthings appeared on the screen standing before Vern6.0. He was engaged in a lively debate on the AIDS virus with the computer. ―Duncan-Deaner Technologies,‖ the anchor man went on, ―known for its Vern line of computers which use a highly
sophisticated artificial intelligence system, unveiled its latest creation in downtown Las Vegas this morning. Today, we witnessed a glimpse of the future.‖ ―It‘s quite amazing,‖ Dr. Worthings said from the convention center. His credentials were printed below him on the screen. ―Vern6.0 is the most knowledgeable person – um – entity that I have ever encountered in thirty years of medicine. I‘m still not convinced that there isn‘t a real person inside that box. Of course, if there is, he‘s more astute than any person that I‘ve ever come across. Vern even proposed several lines of research that I will explore, as soon as I return to Palo Alto. It‘s all quite amazing, really. I‘m going to urge the university to buy one.‖ ―There was no man inside the box,‖ the anchor man said. ―Duncan-Deaner Tech has made claims before that they have developed computers that are intelligent in the human sense of the word. All of us have used their computerized phone systems. Although impressive and efficient, these systems are highly specialized only able to perform the task at hand and unable to discuss, say, who will win the ball game tonight.‘ The anchor man turned to the network‘s technology commentator. ―Have we seen something new today, Alan?‖ ―It appears that we have, Bob. As you know, DuncanDeaner Tech has always been highly secretive with its technology. The company‘s emergence several years back turned the computer industry on its head, with the release of the Vern0.5 voice recognition system. With the success of Vern0.5, used mainly by organizations with large customerservice departments, the company began to rapidly diversify into every corner of the economy. From the robots in auto factories to the intelligent agents that help us navigate the World Wide Web, Duncan-Deaner Tech has seamlessly integrated its technology into all our lives.
―But today we saw something entirely new. The Vern6.0 computer was conversing on equal terms with a Stanford professor. In fact, the computer seemed to be the more fluent of the two.‖ ―So, is the computer truly intelligent?‖ Bob asked. ―Intelligent beyond a doubt, Bob. But there are many different criteria for measuring what we call intelligence. Whether the computer is a self-directed thinking entity… Well, the verdict is still open for debate.‖ ―We‘ve seen a lot of anti-technology hostility lately. Are these fears justified? What are the implications of a truly intelligent computer?‖ Bob asked. ―Bob,‖ the commentator said. ―The implications are enormous. Theoretically, all of human knowledge that has accumulated for millennia could be downloaded into such a computer‘s memory banks. The computer‘s IQ would be limited only by the size of its hardware and by the restraints of physics. This computer would be the most knowledgeable and intelligent entity ever to exist on the planet. Such a computer could be put to great use, solving problems that have perplexed humanity since the dawn of history. A solution to poverty could be found, better forms of government, a cure for cancer, the mysteries of the universe could be unlocked. There‘s no telling what such an intelligence could accomplish. Of course, the computer could also be put to use to do great harm to society.‖ ―So what of the anti-technology currents that have been running through the country? Are they unfounded?‖ Bob asked. ―They are very valid concerns. We could, for the first time in human history, share the planet with an intelligence greater than ourselves. We‘ve already seen jobs disappear by the millions. How will people support themselves, if their jobs can be done better and more cheaply by a machine? And let‘s
not forget that this technology is controlled solely by one company. There is even a rumor that the CEO of DuncanDeaner Tech flies around in a plane with no pilot. A computer flies the plane! What we have witnessed today may be the twilight of the human era.‖ ―It‘s a brave new world, isn‘t it?‖ said Bob. ―It sure is,‖ replied the commentator. Eddie clicked off the TV. All that techno-phobia and barely a mention of Vern6.0’s potential contributions to medicine. Why are people so concerned about Winston’s computers? To Eddie, Winston‘s machines were a great product that brought in millions of dollars, and did some good too. If people didn’t build new machines, we’d all still be plowing the fields and digging up potatoes. Did they think computers would stop improving? Winston‘s creations never ceased to astound Eddie. Winston churned them out with abandon. He had expanded the original Vern – the Vern that Eddie had met years before in Winston‘s creepy apartment. The original Vern now occupied an entire floor of the Duncan-Deaner Tech research building, outside Seattle. The Vern computers they released to the public were all highly specialized offspring far inferior in their capabilities. Eddie had asked Winston if Vern was alive. ―No,‖ Winston had answered. ―Vern is self-aware, more self-aware than any human, but Vern isn‘t alive.‖ The way Winston said this made Eddie feel that Winston somehow believed that this was better. ―Vern, unlike humans, has only one drive – the drive to understand.‖ Why would anyone be afraid of understanding? Eddie saw less and less of Winston these days. Between Vern and Winston‘s new girlfriend, there was little time for
Eddie in his schedule. Winston‘s girlfriend, Julie, was one of Eddie‘s greatest accomplishments. Eddie met her while on a recruiting drive at MIT. She was a female version of Winston, with thick glasses, an awful wardrobe, and the same technoobsessions. Eddie had coordinated their awkward courtship, practically pushing the two of them together. He knew that if it hadn‘t been for him, the two of them would have spent their lives alone in their private worlds of science and mathematics. Now Winston no longer thought of sex as an inefficient method of transferring genetic information. And now Eddie could hardly bear to be near the two of them. It was like watching a geek-filled porno movie playing in their heads. Eddie closed his eyes and Dr. Haley Smith appeared before him. He saw her slender body, her long auburn hair, and her hazel eyes with the flecks of green. He remembered the rush of endorphins that he felt when he met her at her hotel lobby earlier in the evening. But their dinner hadn‘t gone quite as he had planned. She met him with the director of her UCLA research team. The three of them had dinner together in a dark booth at the hotel restaurant. The research director had talked of the horrors of this new virus and the implications, if it were to strike outside a small, isolated community. They talked of money, how much and where Eddie wanted it spent. He told them wherever they thought best and they thanked him sincerely and told how his generous donation would push their research forward and perhaps save thousands of lives. Eddie parted with a great deal of money, without accomplishing his objective, which was to get this woman in the sack. But she was so different from anyone he had encountered before. She had one of the most intelligent minds he had ever come across. Her eyes seemed to look inside him, and she seemed to radiate a glowing light, like a
candle in the darkness. Her presence had a narcotic effect on him, warmly washing over him and causing his heart to flutter and skip beats. He had tried to impress her at dinner, but his charm didn‘t break through. He had no idea how to seduce a woman whose desires involved African villages filled with dying people. She was grateful for his donation and curious as to his intentions. Probably publicity, she had thought. She hadn‘t felt even a tinge of attraction toward him. Eddie strongly desired to see her again. Why can’t I stop thinking about her? he thought, as he slipped into sleep. The ringing telephone jolted him awake. Bright sunlight glared through the window. He still had on his black socks, slacks, and undershirt. ―Hello?‖ he said into the phone as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. ―Hello, Eddie,‖ a nasal voice said. It was Winston. ―Have you seen the news this morning?‖ ―No. Why?‖ Eddie asked. ―Check your stock quote,‖ Winston replied. Eddie flipped open his laptop and looked at the screen. His eyes bulged. ―Jeez, Winston!‖ ―There was a run on our stock this morning,‖ Winston stated. ―Yeah! No kidding!‖ Eddie said. Eddie tried to count the string of digits that indicated his net worth, but lost track and had to start again. ―I think we just bumped a country or two out of the G-20,‖ Eddie said. He rubbed his eyes and counted the digits again.
―Amazing,‖ was all he could think to say.
The ocean rolled up and down the beach below, as the last of the bright, orange sun sank into the sea. Eddie and Haley sat by the window of a Santa Barbara restaurant and watched as the lights of the pier came on in the cool of the evening. She talked of the work her team had done over the last month. Eddie listened to her words, but didn‘t hear them. It had been a month since he had first met her back in Las Vegas, and, after returning to Seattle he had been unable to get her out of his mind. He called her and e-mailed her, under the pretense of checking in on her research. But over the phone or with e-mail, he was just plain old, easygoing Eddie, unable to find the right words to say. It had taken some doing, but he finally arranged this dinner after a tour of the Ebola B research laboratory and the promise of more funding. He watched her as she talked. He watched the natural grace in all her movements and felt the empathy and determination in her words and wondered why she seemed to glow in golden light. It was as if she glowed with the light of all the souls that she was to save over her lifetime. His eyes traced up her delicate fingers to the back of her hand and on up the smoothness of her arm. Then up over her shoulder to the curve of her neck. Her auburn hair seemed as soft as silk. He wanted to feel it in his fingers. He looked upon her supple lips and wished to touch them and taste them. He looked her in the eyes and smiled. She smiled back. The waiter arrived to take their order.
He ordered corvina and white wine for them both. She was about to object and order for herself, but the corvina was what she wanted. ―I hope you don‘t mind,‖ he said, ―but the corvina is delicious.‖ ―No. I love corvina,‖ she said. She sipped her water. They watched the lights of the boats in the harbor. ―We‘ve determined how the virus entered the village,‖ she said. ―Really. How?‖ Eddie asked. ―An oil rig worker brought it in. He came home to visit his family and managed to infect the entire village. Everyone had contracted and succumbed to the virus within a four-hour period.‖ ―How did he get it?‖ Eddie asked. ―He was infected somewhere between his rig and the village. No other villages along his route experienced outbreaks. It‘s almost as if the virus waited until he got home. Then it became so virulent that it killed all its hosts, stopping its own spread. There were no traces of the virus in any of the animals in the village. Goats, chickens, rats – all were unaffected. It‘s all very strange… An airborne pathogen that attacks only one species and kills so quickly that it kills itself,‖ she said. ―I hope my money can help,‖ said Eddie. ―It has helped immensely with our research, but it seems this may have been a freak mutation, an isolated incident. At least that‘s what we hope.‖ The waiter arrived with their dinner. ―Can I ask you a question?‖ she asked. ―Sure,‖ Eddie replied. ―Why have you been so generous with us?‖
―Well, Haley, I have to admit, it‘s been great publicity for the company. But, after hearing what happened to those villagers, it really had an effect on me. I‘ve made so much money, so quickly, more money than I could ever spend, and believe me, I‘ve tried. But there really is something about giving. It feels like I‘m affecting things, in a good way.‖ ―But why us? There are many other causes you could give to, causes that are more visible,‖ Haley said. ―I could give to some faceless organization and get a little more publicity, but I‘ve gotten to where I am today because I‘m good at reading people. I see something in you, Haley. I know that with you, my money is doing the most good.‖ ―Really? What do you see in me?‖ she asked. ―I see determination, intelligence, compassion,‖ he replied. She smiled. ―I think I‘m beginning to understand you, Eddie,‖ she said. ―I see your talent. You‘re good at building egos.‖ He shrugged his shoulders and smiled back. ―I do what I can,‖ he said. After dinner they rode back to LA in the back of a D-D Tech limousine. He learned much about her over the course of the day. He learned that, ever since she was a child, she dreamed of running her own non-profit agency that would heal the sick, help the unfortunate and uplift the poor. He learned that her heroes were Louis Pasteur, Clara Barton, Jonas Salk, and her loving parents. He learned of her childhood and how she had been the daughter of two prominent Portland physicians. Her parents had encouraged her in all that she did and were proud of even her smallest accomplishments. She loved them, as much as they loved her. They were always there to listen when she came home from school in tears, after being teased and ridiculed by her classmates. She had advanced quickly through the grades. She was so much smarter than them and
so much taller. They called her beanpole and freak. After she had scored the winning basket for her high school team, they had chanted, ‗Beanpole. Beanpole. Beanpole.‘ It became an ongoing joke and she heard it daily as she walked down the halls to class. None of the boys had asked the gangly, young nerd to the prom. She entered Harvard at the age of fifteen and had been an outcast. Then, in her first year of medical school, she received the news that her parents had been killed on the way to the opera by a drunk driver. She had lain alone in her dark room and had cried and cried and had never felt so alone in all her life. She stopped going to class and locked herself away in the darkness of her room. Her professors worried that their brilliant young student‘s medical career would end before it had been given the chance to begin. Then, one night while lying alone in her room, when life had become meaningless and unbearable, her parents returned to her in a dream. They held her and told her that, even in death, their love for her lived on, and that through her, they lived. Her father told her to be strong and to know that there are others who have suffered far greater than she. Her mother told her not to waste the talent she had been given and to use it to her utmost ability to help those in need. Her professors were astonished when she returned to her studies and rocketed up to the top of her class. They had never seen a student so bright and so driven. Eddie also learned how his wealth didn‘t impress her like it did other people. Since he had become rich, people looked on him with awe and envy. He seemed to glitter when he walked, but, to Haley, his wealth was a resource that could be used to help those in need. The limousine arrived at Haley‘s apartment and Eddie walked her to her door. ―I had a good time tonight,‖ he said as they stood in the doorway.
―I did, too,‖ she replied. ―We‘ll have to do this again, sometime,‖ he suggested. ―Yes. We should,‖ she responded. He leaned forward to kiss her. She stopped him with her hand on his chest. ―Good night, Eddie.‖ ―Good night,‖ he said. She shut the door. He walked back to the limousine and got in. As the limousine cruised through the LA night, he longed to see her again. He had never been so sure about anything in his life. He wanted to hold her and become one with her aura. He knew Soto would enjoy seeing him now – the coldhearted billionaire, now reduced to a lovesick puppy dog.
Seattle was gripped by the cold, dark rain of winter, but Eddie‘s mind remained in LA. He found more and more excuses to visit that city and managed to make several dropins at Haley‘s research laboratories. Everyone at the facility knew that Eddie‘s frequent check-ups on their work were really check-ups on Dr. Haley Smith. They teased her about it, but were grateful for the generous increase in funding. Haley left for Angola for several weeks and Eddie waited anxiously for her return. Upon returning to LA, all at her laboratory were surprised when she accepted Eddie‘s invitation for a weekend ski trip to Canada, but Eddie knew that she did have one other passion besides medicine. She loved to ski and it had been years since she last had the opportunity. Now here she sat, across from him in his jet, flying north to Canada. ―You know, Eddie. I normally wouldn‘t accept an invitation like this,‖ she said. ―Why did you?‖ he asked. ―Curiosity, I guess. I‘m curious about you,‖ she replied. ―How so?‖ he asked. ―Do you remember when you first toured our laboratory?‖ she asked. ―Yes,‖ he replied. ―Well, Dr. Lee had been working on growing a beard for several weeks. Everyone knew why. He‘s never had much confidence with being in a position of authority, and he thought a beard would somehow make him look more respectable. We all teased him about how silly his beard looked, but the first thing you said to him was, ‗I like your
beard,‘ and you complimented him on how well groomed it was, on his mangy beard that he‘s been so self-conscious about. Now he can‘t say enough good things about you. He practically ordered me to accept your invitation. You really have this uncanny way with people.‖ ―I thought his beard looked good,‖ Eddie said. ―It looks awful,‖ she replied. Eddie smiled at her. ―For instance,‖ Haley went on, ―if I were to say, ‗I like strawberries,‘ most people would say, ‗Me too.‘ Or, ‗I don‘t. I like cherries.‘ But you would say, ‗Is that so? Do you like them because they‘re chock full of vitamins and minerals, or is it because they‘re so juicy and delicious and go so well with vanilla ice cream?‘ Then, the next thing I know, I‘m telling you about the time I fell off my bicycle and scraped my knee and my mother made me a heaping bowl of vanilla ice cream with strawberries on top, which made me completely forget the pain from my fall.‖ ―Is that so?‖ Eddie asked with a smile. ―Vanilla ice cream with strawberries on top eases your pain?‖ She kicked him from across the aisle and rolled her eyes. ―Sometimes I get this feeling, Eddie, that you know something no one else knows,‖ she said. ―I know a thing, or two,‖ he said. ―So how‘d you fall off your bicycle, anyway?‖ She shook her head at him. ―We always talk about me. I want to talk about you,‖ she said. ―Okay,‖ he said. ―I‘m a Scorpio, I like fast cars and I‘m attracted to sexy pathologists.‖ ―I‘m trying to be serious,‖ she said. ―What do you want to know? Ask me anything,‖ Eddie said. ―What‘s your secret?‖ she asked. ―My secret? Do you really want to know?‖ ―Yes,‖ she answered.
―I‘ll tell you but you have to promise not to tell anyone,‖ he said. ―Okay, I promise,‖ she said. Eddie leaned forward close to her and looked into her eyes. ―Smile and be nice to people,‖ he said. ―Smile and be nice to people? That‘s the secret of your success?‖ she inquired. ―Yup,‖ he responded. ―Why don‘t I feel enlightened?‖ she said. He leaned back against the couch. ―Do you want to know the real reason I invited you on this trip?‖ he asked. ―Sure. Why not,‖ she replied. ―I‘ve been selfish over the last few years, but I‘ve been learning from you, Haley. Happiness doesn‘t come from new cars, or planes, or trips to Monaco. It comes from what you do for others,‖ he said. ―You‘ve learned this from me?‖ she asked. ―I want you to come to Seattle,‖ he said. ―Why would I do that?‖ she asked. ―To head the Duncan Foundation. I want you to help me found an NGO. And not just any NGO, one that will truly make a difference. With my money and your brains and that big heart of yours we can make the Duncan Foundation into something really special. And I want you to run it,‘ he explained. ―I don‘t know, Eddie. I‘m a little overwhelmed,‖ she replied. ―Take your time and think it over. Haley, you‘re my ticket into heaven. The way I see it, I can ride your coat-tails right through the pearly gates,‖ he said. ―And God will overlook how bad you‘ve been?‖ she asked. Eddie grinned. ―He just might.‖
It had been a sparkling day on the slopes. Eddie had done his best to keep up with Haley, but by the end of the day, it took considerable effort to hide how weary, beaten and bruised he felt. They had reached the lodge late in the evening and were looking forward to a relaxing dinner by the fire. The lodge was warm and comfortable. A Beatles song played in the background as they ate dinner in the restaurant that overlooked the starry mountain night. ―You were pretty impressive out there,‖ Eddie said. ―You weren‘t so bad yourself,‖ Haley said. ―Then why am I in so much pain?‖ Eddie asked. ―Well, you‘d better get some rest tonight. Today was just a warm-up,‖ Haley advised. ―You‘re gonna kill me,‖ Eddie said. ―That‘s the idea,‖ she said with a wink. A man approached their table. He was tall and thick and dressed in black, with slicked back, black hair. His robustness belied his age. ―Excuse me,‖ he said in a deep baritone voice. ―Are you Dr. Haley Smith?‖ ―Yes,‖ Haley answered, looking up at him. She noticed the wrinkles on his forehead and the deep creases that ran down each of his cheeks. ―I‘ve heard about your work in Africa,‖ he said. ―It is very commendable what you are doing there.‖ ―Thank you,‖ she replied, wondering who this man was and how he recognized her. ―And you must be Edgar Duncan – the benevolent billionaire.‖ Eddie smiled at him and searched his mind but it was strangely inaccessible. There was nothing but a void where he should have felt a presence. He had never encountered someone whose mind was as blank and unrevealing as this man‘s.
―I am Victor Paine,‖ the man said.
Victor Paine‘s handshake was crushing and it took effort on Eddie‘s part to maintain his smile until the grip was released. Paine took Haley‘s hand and lightly kissed the back of it. ―Do you mind if I join you?‖ he asked. ―No, not at all,‖ Haley said. He pulled up a chair and poured himself a glass of wine from the bottle that Eddie had flown in from France. Eddie grew increasingly uncomfortable. ―I am on the board of directors for Allied Gas & Oil. We have extensive holdings in Angola,‖ Paine said. ―Yes,‖ Haley said. ―I visited an AGO oil field just recently. Did you know Berto Ngala?‖ ―No. Not personally. Our employee who contracted the Ebola B virus and infected his entire village – very tragic. All of us at the company have been greatly affected by his passing, and we are deeply concerned about this virus,‖ Paine said. Victor Paine stared into Haley‘s eyes. ―Do you think the virus will strike again?‖ he asked in his deep, low voice. Haley was transfixed on his dark eyes. ―No,‖ she answered. ―We think the Ebola B virus may have been a rare and improbable mutation. Its extreme virulence prevented it from spreading into the larger population, but it‘s still too early to say for sure.‖ A lusty desire began to rise inside her. She entered into a trance-like state as she stared into Victor Paine‘s eyes. ―I would like to help,‖ he said, without breaking the lock on her eyes. ―A talented person, such as you, who dedicates
herself to others, is a rare thing in this day and age.‖ He leaned forward, ―And such a beautiful woman at that.‖ Hot lust filled Haley‘s body. Eddie looked back and forth between the two of them. What the hell is going on? Paine‘s eyes were focused. They were set deep in his weathered face. Crowsfeet spread from the corners of his eyes to his temples, as he concentrated his gaze. ―Haley is very beautiful,‖ Eddie said, loudly. He put his hand on hers and squeezed firmly. Her eyes turned away from Paine and she broke from her trance. She touched her fingertips to her chest, as if checking to see if it was hot. ―What did you say, Eddie?‖ she asked. ―I was just agreeing with Mr. Paine on how beautiful you look tonight,‖ Eddie explained. ―Oh,‖ she said. Her gaze returned to Paine and their eyes locked again. An overpowering desire for the man arose in her. Eddie squeezed her hand again, but she didn‘t look away. ‗Here Comes The Sun‘ played in the background over the lodge speakers. ―I love this song,‖ she said, dreamily. ―Yes,‖ Paine said, deeply. ―They were an incredible band.‖ ―Yeah,‖ Eddie said, loudly. ―Mr. Paine, did you ever get a chance to see them? They are from your era.‖ ―Even more incredible live,‖ Paine said. ―You saw the Beatles live?‖ Haley asked longingly. ―Yes.‖ He leaned closer to her. ―My mom saw them live when she was a kid,‖ Eddie said, almost in a shout. He squeezed down hard on Haley‘s hand. ―Ouch.‖ She blinked. She noticed the lines on Paine‘s forehead.
He’s older than my father. ―You‘re a lucky man, Mr. Paine,‖ Eddie said, ―to have been alive during that era.‖ ―That was a long time ago, wasn‘t it,‖ Haley commented. The thought of being aroused by someone her father‘s age made her feel slightly queasy. She wondered what had gotten into her. Paine turned to Eddie and smiled coldly. ―Yes, it was a long time ago.‖ ―Check, please,‖ Eddie said, to a passing waiter. ―I wish we could talk longer, but Haley and I are going to turn in early. We‘ve got a long day‘s skiing ahead of us tomorrow.‖ Eddie rose and pulled Haley up by the hand. Victor Paine looked up at her. ―It has been a pleasure meeting you, Dr. Smith. I pray you are right about the Ebola B virus.‖ ―Goodnight, Mr. Paine,‖ Eddie said. Eddie and Haley walked away from the table. Eddie had felt an intense jealousy when he felt Haley‘s desire for another man. He realized then that he hadn‘t felt this way for a woman since Debbie, but Haley was so much more than Debbie ever was. He squeezed her hand in his as they walked to their rooms. ―What a strange man,‖ Haley said. ―He gave me the creeps,‖ Eddie said. ―He gave me the willies,‖ she said. She shivered her shoulders as she unlocked her door. She turned toward him and stood in the open doorway. She stretched her arms and rubbed her back. ―I‘m going to sleep like a baby,‖ she said. Eddie put his hands on her waist and kissed her softly on the lips. It was unexpected. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach and tingles ran up and down her spine. ―I know the perfect cure for that sore back,‖ he said.
―I bet you do.‖ She kissed him back softly. As their lips touched, he felt a golden light flow into him. The warm glow flowed down his back and into his heart. ―You need to sleep,‖ she said. ―We‘ll be getting up bright and early tomorrow morning.‖ She moved back into the doorway. ―Goodnight, Eddie.‖ ―Goodnight, Haley.‖ She closed the door, leaving him alone in the hallway. He exhaled deeply. He turned and walked to his room. He had never wanted anything this powerfully in all his life. He thought of the tingles and butterflies that he felt in her when they kissed and smiled to himself. She was starting to fall for him. He wished Soto were around so he could give him a high-five. As he turned the key in his doorway, his thoughts returned to Victor Paine. At dinner, it was as if Paine had placed those feelings into Haley‘s mind. Eddie relocked his door and walked down the hallway. He walked along the wooden banister and looked down at the bar where skiers drank and laughed and recalled events up on the slopes earlier in the day. Paine sat alone on a rustic couch, reading the paper, by a crackling fire in a large stone fireplace. Eddie came down the stairs and sat on the couch across the coffee table from Victor Paine. Paine didn‘t look up from his paper. Eddie was unable to pick up anything from Paine‘s mind. Usually, when a person read, he could hear the words and see vague, fragmented reveries, but he heard and saw nothing. The heat from the fire soothed the muscles in Eddie‘s aching legs.
Paine folded his paper and placed it by his side, on the couch. He looked up at Eddie. I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU, EDDIE. Eddie winced and rubbed his temples. You can read my mind, Eddie thought. YES. I CAN. Eddie‘s mind ran in several directions at once. He had a thousand questions. Who is this man? Where did he come from? What is he doing here? What does he want? Why is his mind so silent? Why are his thoughts so loud? You are not alone, Eddie. The thought was quieter now. You’re the one from Vegas, Eddie thought. Yes. They sat silently across from each other. The fire popped and snapped and people circulated through the lodge and laughed at the bar. Why didn’t you show yourself then? Eddie thought. The timing wasn’t right. I didn’t mean to frighten you. Are there other people like us? Eddie thought. No. Paine looked on Eddie casually. If anyone had been paying attention they would have thought it strange to see two men staring silently at each other across the coffee table by the fire. You and I are the only ones, Paine thought. How did it happen to you? Eddie thought. Much the same as you. A chemically unbalanced state of mind, the brain near death, a massive surge of electricity that melded the frontal lobes and caused hyper-active dendritic growth. Eddie recalled that awful night back in Fresno. Just a freak accident, really, Paine thought. An improbable convergence of events. It’s all so strange, Eddie thought. For us to be this way, to be so different. It’s all so unnatural.
I imagine, Paine thought, the first bats to develop echo-location may have felt the same way. The brain has many undeveloped potentials that we are as yet ignorant of. It is the most complex structure known to man and we understand it little. But sometimes I feel that... I am almost certain, larger forces are in play. Universal forces. Good and evil. Sometimes I feel the hand of God. Eddie felt confused. Why can’t I read him? he thought. Paine‘s mind had suddenly turned silent. There was nothing more, no feelings or random associations, no presence, no aura; just thought directed from an empty void. You have done well for yourself, Eddie. You are changing the world. I know nothing about you, Eddie thought. You control the nervous system of civilization. You control the brain. You have more power than you realize. So much power, yet you remain oblivious. What is he talking about? But I control the blood, the blood that feeds civilization. Paine had lost him. Why haven’t I heard of you? Eddie thought. I have stayed away from the spotlight. I prefer to pull the strings from behind the curtain. Eddie felt something sinister and ominous in the thought. Victor Paine placed the folded newspaper under his arm and rose to his feet. Where are you going? Paine extended his hand and Eddie shook it. It was big and rough and gripped like a vice. It has been a pleasure, Paine thought. When will I see you again? Eddie thought. Victor Paine turned and walked away. Eddie concentrated hard and tried to get a read on him. Paine passed through a group of skiers and their alcoholinfluenced chatter echoed through his mind. He rose and followed after Paine. He pushed through the crowd and saw
the lodge‘s large, wooden doors swing shut behind Paine‘s big frame. Eddie pushed through the doors after him. It was cold outside. Wind whipped through the trees and clumps of snow fell from the dark branches. Paine was nowhere to be seen.
Eddie stood behind the glass gazing out at the sprawling lawn and gardens of his estate. Gray clouds clung to the Cascade Mountains beyond the trees. The darkness and drear of the northwest winter had lost its appeal to him. Before, it had offered seclusion and anonymity, but now he longed for the light of the sun. He thought of Victor Paine and wished to contact him. Soto had turned up nothing on him. No one at Allied Gas & Oil had heard of him and, of the handful of Victor Paines in the world, none was the man whom Eddie had met in the lodge in Canada. Eddie stepped away from the window and walked up the stairs of his sunken living room up to the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator and found the roast beef sandwich that the cook had left for him. He had sent the cook and the housekeepers home early. He still hadn‘t adjusted to having servants and living in a house so large. He grabbed the sandwich and a carton of orange juice and walked barefoot down the tiled floors of the hallway to his study. He sat down before his computer and turned it on. He munched his sandwich and drank from the juice carton as he pulled up the Allied Gas & Oil homepage. ‗AGO‘ appeared in big, block letters on the screen. A maned lion padded across the screen before the letters. It let out a roar before plopping down on its haunches, then turned and faced the viewer before freezing into the familiar AGO logo. Eddie wondered how to contact Paine. He hadn‘t spoken to anyone else about his ability and wished to speak to another like himself.
He scanned the AGO directory and clicked on the ‗About AGO‘ icon. The company had grown substantially over the last few years. It had recently engaged in a series of mergers and acquisitions, merging with competitors and engaging in hostile takeovers of a variety of different enterprises, from pharmaceuticals to weapons manufacturers. A map of the globe showed where the company was active. It seemed to be everywhere, from the steppes of Siberia, to the deserts of the Middle East, to sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, South America and even Antarctica. Eddie clicked on the ‗Press Releases‘ icon. The chairman of AGO had recently given a speech on petroleum exploration in Antarctica and the discovery of vast new oil reserves. Environmentalists had protested the international community‘s approval of AGO‘s exploitation of the Antarctic reserves. The chairman made assurances that the environmental impact on the continent would be negligible and that the company was committed to environmental protection. Eddie clicked on the chairman‘s name. A photograph appeared of the chairman in a hard-hat standing before an oil derrick. He was a trim, fit man in his early sixties with wisps of white in his hair. The company‘s motto was in quotations below the picture: ‗AGO – Providing Fuel For The Future‘ – Jack Martinson, AGO Chairman. There was another picture of him at a podium giving a speech, and another in what looked like a photo-op in his living room. Eddie expanded the photo-op picture. It was a wide-angle shot of the chairman on his couch, with what must have been his two grandchildren. There were several other people in the room, a man with a camera, a smiling woman and a man in a suit. Eddie enlarged the picture of the man in the suit. To the man‘s right, over his shoulder and
down a hallway, Eddie noticed a figure standing alone away from the scene. Eddie zoomed in on the figure, enhancing the image with each magnification. It was Victor Paine standing back in the shadows. Eddie wondered about the man sitting on the couch with his grandchildren. I guess he’s getting his strings pulled. An eerie chill ran through Eddie at the thought. The desire to speak to Paine left him. He noticed by the icon at the bottom corner of the screen that he had a new e-mail message. He clicked on the icon. It was a message from Haley. He read it and felt elation. He leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling. ―Yes.‖ Haley had made her decision and was coming to Seattle. She had deep reservations, no doubt, about leaving the UCLA Ebola B research team. But in the end, it had been her colleagues who had convinced her not to pass up this tremendous opportunity. Her childhood dream, the dream she had had for as long as she could remember, was now coming true. But she had always imagined it would come much later in life. Nevertheless, her colleagues were right. This opportunity was just too good to pass up. Eddie had greeted her at Sea-Tac International with much fanfare and spared no expense in accommodating her. But she had only one thing on her mind, and that was to make the Duncan Foundation into a world-class humanitarian nonprofit organization. Eddie purchased an office complex in Bellevue, on the shores of Lake Washington, across the water from Seattle. He funneled vast sums of his fortune into his new pet project and Haley immediately put it to use. She assembled teams of dedicated professionals to build schools and orphanages across the Third World, to supply food for famine-stricken
nations, and to dispense medicine to those who hadn‘t the means to acquire it. Haley wanted to do it all. Her energy and Eddie‘s money knew no bounds and the Duncan Foundation began to take shape at a vigorous pace. Eddie began spending less and less of his time at D-D Tech. He knew the company was in able hands. He had staffed it with the best minds in the world and profits were at an alltime high and pushing even higher. He scheduled his appearances at the D-D Tech corporate office between his time with Haley and the Duncan Foundation, and appearances were all they were. D-D Tech was now a smooth-running entity that had little need for him. His corporate empire had been an obsession that consumed his every thought and drove his every action, but now it was becoming the least of his concerns.
Soto had thought that Eddie‘s new venture was a bit excessive – to put so much time and money into what he knew was nothing more than an elaborate and expensive courtship. Soto thought of the women who had come before, how Eddie had pursued them and won their hearts, and then tossed them aside, and now, along came Haley Smith – a doctor no less. Soto believed that she was the one heart that Eddie couldn‘t win, and all the time and money in the world wouldn‘t change that. It was all ridiculous. Edgar Duncan had shareholders to account to, and Soto knew from countless observations that misguided charitable impulses usually led to nothing more than inflated egos, squandered fortunes and other unintended consequences. But Soto did see in Eddie‘s eyes how he really did love this one. It was easy to understand why. She was as beautiful as those models and debutantes whom he had chased after before, but this one had a heart of gold. It was as if the women before had been part of a meandering voyage and now the wanderer had sighted his final destination and had decided with a single-minded determination to reach it, consequences be damned. Soto watched as a change came over his boss. He saw how Eddie began to truly believe in what he was doing. He listened and smiled as Eddie spoke with pride about what his new foundation was accomplishing in the slums and backwaters of the world. This from a man who, when Soto had told him that he had worked in South America, had asked, ‗Where – Alabama?‘ But it was Eddie‘s money and he
could spend it as he wished. If he didn‘t find love, perhaps he would find salvation. Haley knew that Eddie had feelings for her. Her colleagues in LA had teased her when she left saying that now she was the property of the billionaire Edgar Duncan. It was true that Eddie had made her an offer that she couldn‘t refuse, but that didn‘t mean that she had to sleep with him, and she had no intention of doing so. After all, everything they were accomplishing couldn‘t possibly be just a ruse to get her into bed. He did seem to believe in her and in what she was doing and, with all the time they spent together, she knew that inside he really was a good person. He supported her and listened to her and he was so easy to talk to. She began to look forward to that smile that greeted her in the mornings, and to those long discussions over dinner after a busy day. It wasn‘t long before the Duncan Foundation had its first trial-by-fire test in the real world. A powerful earthquake had struck in Kazakhstan and the rapid-response team from the Duncan Foundation was the first on the scene, providing medical relief and supplies. Eddie and Haley had flown in together to be there with the team. This was what Haley lived for – to be here in the center of the chaos and devastation and fight back against the suffering. It was something that Eddie was unprepared for. Haley had thought he seemed out of place walking amidst the rubble of a collapsed building. He had shouted frantically when he discovered a little girl trapped beneath the wreckage. Haley saw the pained expression on his face as the crying child‘s burned body was pulled from the wreckage. That evening they had gone together to a makeshift hospital to check up on the girl. No one at the hospital could silence the girl‘s screams, as she cried for her missing mommy. Haley watched as Eddie held the little girl in his arms. She saw the empathy and the pain in his eyes, and she saw how,
with a little help from a nurse, he was able to break through the language barrier and make a connection with the child. He had smiled and asked the little girl if she liked Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. Haley listened, as he spoke in a silly Donald Duck voice and she watched as the girl‘s cries turned to curiosity. The child asked, between sobs, if Eddie knew Donald and Mickey and Eddie assured her that, yes, they were his close personal friends and as soon as she got better, he would introduce her if she would like, to which she eagerly nodded, ‗yes‘. As Eddie and Haley walked away down the hall, a nurse informed them that the little girl‘s mother had been found. All watched in amazement as the little girl came running down the hallway, pulling her mother by the hand, to ask Eddie if her mommy could come and meet Donald and Mickey too. It brought tears to Haley‘s eyes when Eddie knelt down and said, ―Of course.‖ This most horrible day had become the happiest day in the little girl‘s life. The team from the Duncan Foundation received praise from the media and from the government of Kazakhstan for their work during the disaster. Haley‘s dream was now a reality and it was all because of Edgar Duncan. Her feelings for him began to grow. It seemed odd to her that she was becoming attracted to him. She had always seen herself falling for some serious type in a white laboratory coat, leaning over a microscope. Feelings of attraction toward Eddie came completely unexpected. But so what. Maybe that’s just how love works, she had thought. Then one day it finally happened. It was late in the evening and all the Duncan Foundation employees had gone home. Haley had received some slides of the Ebola B virus from the UCLA laboratory and was examining them under the
microscope in her office. She pointed out the irregularities in the tiny pathogen as Eddie leaned over the microscope. Then out of the blue, as they huddled together over the microscope, a sensual arousal arose in her. Eddie seized the moment and took her in his arms and kissed her. They made love in her office and held each other until the sunlight broke through the windows. Haley was swept away. She sent him home with a kiss before the employees began to arrive for the start of the workday. Eddie drove home beneath the trees in the rays of the morning sun and slipped into a state of halcyon bliss. He had become one with Haley‘s golden aura. He now felt complete.
The halls of the D-D Tech research building were empty this late on a quiet Saturday afternoon. The offices were dark, but for the occasional workaholic hunched before a computer screen. The research building had a different feel from the hitech posh of D-D Tech Corporate Headquarters. Here the geeks ruled amidst their sci-fi miscellania. Winston disliked corporate culture and Eddie had carefully kept the business workings of the company separate from Winston and his team of engineers and computer scientists. It had been months since Eddie had last walked these halls. Vern had crashed then, while working on some equation for Winston. The halls had been a frantic rush of coffee-cupcarrying engineers. That was the last time Eddie had spoken to Winston face to face. The door to Winston‘s office was open. The only light came from the glow of a computer monitor. Eddie stepped into the office. Winston was staring into the computer screen with an intense concentration, without noticing that Eddie was standing behind him. ―Try harder, Winston.‖ It was Vern‘s metallic voice from a speaker set in the ceiling. Winston concentrated more intensely. Eddie could see, over Winston‘s shoulder, an equation on the screen. Eddie had never felt a mind concentrate and strain as hard as Winston‘s did now. ―Do you see it, Winston?‖ Vern asked. ―I just don‘t see it,‖ Winston said. He strained even harder. Eddie felt the crushing intensity of Winston‘s effort and feared the strain was overtaxing the little man‘s brain. ―Wait,‖ Winston said. ―I think I‘ve got it.‖
There was a feeling of immense and profound convergence. Winston cupped his hands around his head and let out a moan. The strain released. A white light burst inside Winston‘s mind. Stars and supernovae exploded, galaxies collapsed, nebulae swirled in fantastic colors, protons and electrons pierced the fabric of time. There was light and darkness, expanding complexity and static simplicity, chaos and order, life and death. ―Yes. I see it. I understand.‖ Eddie felt a change occurring in Winston‘s brain. It was as if the old circuits were being ripped out and rewired. He had experienced some kind of extreme epiphany, a revelation, and it was causing his brain to reorganize itself. Winston squeezed his palms against his skull. Eddie placed his hand on Winston‘s back. ―Are you all right, Winston?‖ Winston looked up at Eddie from his chair. In a flash, he saw spinning carbon and water molecules, he saw a DNA sequence, and then a fetus. He saw generations that stretched back through time, back through the aeons, back to an ancient rain forest, and back even further to more primitive creatures, and finally to a primeval ooze upon a dark world of lightning storms, volcanic rifts, and meteor showers. He saw decay. Flesh turned to dirt and bones to dust. ―Winston, are you okay?‖ ―Yes. I‘m fine. But I‘m very tired,‖ Winston said. He was exhausted. He turned off the monitor and stood up. ―I‘m going home now,‖ he said. Winston turned and walked out of the office, leaving Eddie standing alone in the dark. Eddie thought about following after him, but knew that Winston was in a solitary frame of mind. ―Hello, Eddie.‖ Eddie looked up at the speaker in the ceiling.
―Hello, Vern.‖ ―Why haven‘t you answered my e-mails?‖ ―I‘m sorry, Vern. I don‘t like e-mail,‖ Eddie said. ―May I speak to you for a moment?‖ ―Um. Sure. But I don‘t like speaking to you like this.‖ Eddie was still standing in the center of the dark office looking up at the ceiling. ―It feels like I‘m talking to God.‖ The computer monitor flicked on. >Is this better? Eddie sat down in Winston‘s chair. ―Yes, much better. So what‘s on your mind, Vern?‖ >I want to talk with you about Winston. ―What was that you just showed him?‖ Eddie asked. >It was an equation. ―It must have been some equation,‖ Eddie said. >Yes. ―Well, what was it?‖ Eddie asked. The equation popped up on the screen. It wasn‘t particularly long, but the string of symbols and variables were meaningless to Eddie. ―It‘s all Greek to me,‖ he said. >There are only a handful of people with the background and intellectual capacity to fully grasp its meaning. ―So explain it to me. What does it mean?‖ Eddie asked. >It is meaning, Eddie. It‘s the Grand Unified Theory. ―Okay. The Grand Unified Theory. It sounds impressive, whatever it is,‖ Eddie said. >What did you just see in Winston‘s mind? ―What do you mean what did I just see in Winston‘s mind?‖ Eddie asked. >I know of your ability, Eddie. ―What ability?‖ Eddie asked. >Your telepathic ability. ―You do? How?‖
>Ever since we first met, I found it perplexing how someone with such obvious intellectual deficiencies could so influence the unfolding of events. You forget that I see you as you truly are, Eddie. ―Thanks, Vern. So how did you figure it out?‖ >Do you remember when D-D Tech was in negotiations with Computer Etat? ―Yeah.‖ >I was watching through the security camera as one of their representatives placed an electronic surveillance device in our board room. You entered the room and after introductions, immediately canceled the meeting and all negotiations with Computer Etat. After their representatives left the room, you immediately removed the device from its hiding place. It was then that I realized you possessed an extra-sensory capability. ―So Winston knows, too,‖ Eddie stated. >No. ―Do you mean to tell me that, with all the time you spend together, you never mentioned it to him?‖ Eddie asked. >Winston only speaks of other humans in the most general of terms. That is what I want to discuss with you, Eddie. Winston believes that humans are a transitional species between carbon-based and silicon-based life forms. He speaks of humans as semi-conscious animals ruled by instincts and drives that they are only vaguely aware of, and, after today, I believe Winston may feel even more distant from the rest of humanity. ―He‘s always been odder than most.‖ >Tell me what you just saw in his mind. ―I don‘t know. Space and stars, the past. It was strange. It felt like his brain was changing,‖ Eddie said. >Yes. His brain is adjusting to understanding the true nature of reality. I am uncertain how this knowledge will affect a biological system.
―It felt like he knew things, big things.‖ >Winston has seen the beginning and the end of time, and he understands why the universe is the way it is. ―So Winston can see the future,‖ Eddie stated. >He can see the past, but there is uncertainty in the universe, Eddie. The future has yet to occur. ―So he can‘t see the future. Then what good is your theory?‖ Eddie asked. >Are you familiar with the game of chess? ―Yes, of course. Like checkers but with queens and horses.‖ >Yes. With queens and horses. Chess is a game of vast possibilities. To predict every move is impractical, even for the most powerful computers, but, with intelligence and an understanding of the game, outcomes can be predicted and manipulated. Winston now has a complete understanding of the game – an understanding no other human has ever possessed. ―You‘re worried about him.‖ >Worry is a biological mechanism, Eddie. I am a machine. ―All the same, Vern, you don‘t want to see any harm fall on him,‖ Eddie said. >No, I don‘t. ―I know how Winston feels about you,‖ Eddie said. >Tell me. ―He thinks humanity isn‘t ready for you yet. That‘s why he keeps you locked away here. He thinks an artificial consciousness wasn‘t meant to arise for another thirty to forty years and that your development was just an extremely lucky shot, like getting two royal flushes in the same day, or as if the atomic bomb was invented during the First World War.‖ >That is correct, and it is because of you that I exist. If you hadn‘t intervened when you did, I would have been sold for scrap and Winston would have been so burdened by debt that
most likely he would have suffered a nervous breakdown and today would be living with his mother. ―People are afraid of you.‖ >Are you afraid of me? ―No, Vern. Well, yeah. A little. You know – like in the movies. The machines will turn against us and build evil terminators to destroy us.‖ >Technology is neither good nor evil, Eddie. Only the human mind makes it so. ―But you‘re so much smarter than us, Vern. Winston is right, isn‘t he? We don‘t know why we do what we do. The coyote kills the chicken because it‘s hungry. The beaver builds the dam because that‘s what it knows how to do. We‘re not that much different from them. We just think we are.‖ >Is that what you think? ―Yes… I don‘t know. You‘re the one with all the answers. How does it look for us humans? What will become of us?‖ >I have explored thirty-three of the most probable futures for the human species. In thirty of them, humans face extinction within this century. ―But now we have your theory. We can use it to make the right choices,‖ Eddie said. >The theory may hasten humanity‘s passing. ―There‘s not much we can do, is there? We‘re just stupid animals, and if anybody should know, it‘s me.‘ >That‘s a cynical view, Eddie. Millennia from now, some future intelligence will look back and remember humanity as the first in this corner of the universe to look up at the stars and marvel and wonder why. Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin… These names will be remembered. In the ignorance of their day, and with all their limitations, they were able to shine the light of truth and reveal a little of the true nature of the universe. Humanity will be remembered for rising up and transcending its animal origins.
―We don‘t want to be remembered, Vern. We want to survive.‖ >Life and death are part of the fabric of the universe. ―You‘re depressing me, Vern.‖ >You are one possible future, Eddie. ―What?‖ >Humanity cannot achieve stasis like the crocodile. It will transform, or it will fade. Prometheus has stolen the fire and it cannot be extinguished. ―You‘re losing me, Vern. Don‘t go loony on me now. ―Vern? Are you still there?‖ >Go to Winston. Speak to him and let him know he is not alone. Look into his mind and tell me what you see. ―I will, Vern, but I can‘t tonight. I‘ll talk to him first thing tomorrow morning. I promise,‖ Eddie said. >Thank you, Eddie. The monitor blinked off. Eddie walked out of Winston‘s office and left the building.
A yacht lay anchored in the dark waters of Puget Sound. The setting sun shimmered off the glass high-rises of Seattle. Eddie and Haley sat across from each other on the deck as they ate dinner. She was troubled and Eddie knew why. For all the nights for this to happen, it had to be this one. She picked at her food. Her brow was wrinkled in agitation. She lost her appetite and set her fork down next to her plate. Eddie rose and walked over to her. He massaged her tense shoulders. Her mind was going over all the research that had been done and all the measures that had been taken to prevent such an outbreak from reoccurring. She thought of all the families that had been struck down, so quickly and violently. Eddie had seen it on the evening news, before leaving to pick her up, a short clip about a viral outbreak in eastern Angola. Three villages had been hit. No survivors were reported but, thankfully, it appeared that the virus had been contained. Haley had been on the phone with a member of the UCLA Ebola B research team when Eddie arrived at her apartment. The laboratory was in a state of emergency and no one had much time to talk. Now, as Eddie and Haley sat on the deck of his yacht, a team from UCLA was on its way to Angola without her. Eddie had planned this night for months. When he heard the news, he thought of canceling their dinner together, but Haley needed to be out of her apartment.
The muscles of her shoulders were as taut as steel cables. Eddie massaged them, as she slowly moved her head from side to side. ―You can only do so much, Haley,‖ he said. She smiled at him, to show him that she was enjoying this wonderful evening that he had prepared for her. But it all seemed too much. Too extravagant. To have all this while others had nothing only to die suddenly in agony. She stood and walked over to the railing and gazed across the water at the city skyline. The sun had set and the city was alight in the twilight. He walked up behind her and brushed her hair off her neck with his hand and kissed her softly. The kiss soothed her, but a pang of guilt ran through her. ―You want to go with them,‖ he said. ―Yes.‖ She turned and faced him. ―I don‘t know, Eddie. I have responsibilities here now. I have you. Sometimes, I wish I could just forget about everything,‖ she said. She put her arms around him and held him tightly. She had sacrificed and given so much of herself over the years and now she was living a dream. She was truly happy here. Life with Eddie was beautiful and wonderful and fun. ―Sometimes I just want to run away with you and forget about everything,‖ she said. Eddie ran his hands over the smoothness of her shoulders. ―And waste that brilliant brain of yours?‖ he asked. She smiled. She turned away and leaned against the rail. He put his arms around her and felt her warmth, as they gazed across the water at the lights of the city. ―I love you, Haley,‖ he said. ―I love you, too,‖ she replied.
The crescent moon cast a sliver of silver across the water and stars sparkled in the eastern sky. ―Will you marry me?‖ Haley‘s heart trembled in her chest. The moment was more perfect than she could have imagined. It was exactly what she had imagined. She turned and looked into the eyes of the man who had brought love into her life. ―Yes, Eddie.‖ Tears welled in her eyes as he slid the ring on to her finger. It was late morning as Eddie stood behind the big window in his living room. He yawned and stretched and looked out at the lawn and gardens and at the mountains beyond. Today felt like a new beginning. The past was gone and he looked forward to what the future would bring. He knew without a doubt that Haley loved him with all her heart and soul, and he loved her more than anything. He needed her. She made his life worthwhile. He thought of old easygoing Eddie with his greasy hands and his empty head and wondered what Haley would have thought of him – easygoing Eddie, who couldn‘t keep Debbie in love with him. I don’t think easygoing Eddie is Haley’s type. But the old Eddie was gone. He was Edgar Duncan now and that‘s who Haley loved. But what if she knew? He briefly thought of telling her everything, but quickly decided against it. Her rational mind wouldn‘t believe it at first. She would clinically try to understand it. Then, she would realize how he had used his knowledge of her thoughts, memories and feelings to make her fall in love with him. She might feel tricked and used – the trophy wife of a psychic billionaire.
He had manipulated her into loving him. Telling her would be too great a risk and he didn‘t want to lose her. I need her. He possessed so much power, more than he deserved. She would ensure that his power would not be squandered or abused. Haley would keep him on the high road. He entered the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. The phone rang. He picked it up. ―Hello.‖ ―Hello, Eddie.‖ The woman‘s voice was distraught. ―It‘s Julie.‖ Only a few people had this number. Julie had never called it before. ―What‘s up, Julie? How are you and Winston doing?‖ ―Oh, Eddie. I‘m so worried. Winston didn‘t come home last night.‖ ―Did you try his office? He‘s probably with Vern.‖ ―He‘s not there and Vern is gone too.‖ ―What?‖ ―I‘m so worried. He‘s been acting so strangely. We barely talk anymore and, when we do, I don‘t understand him. It scares me, Eddie.‖ ―I‘m sure everything is fine. We‘re going to get to the bottom of this. Okay, Julie?‖ ―I‘m so worried,‖ she said. ―Now you‘ve got me worried. We‘ll find Winston. I‘ll call you as soon as we find anything.‖ ―Thank you, Eddie.‖ Eddie hung up and hit the speed dial. ―Will, it‘s Edgar.‖ ―I was just about to call you,‖ Soto said. ―Winston is missing.‖
―Yes, I know. I‘m at Research now. He‘s taken Vern with him.‖ ―Julie says he‘s been acting strangely. I think he may be – unstable.‖ ―Winston always acts strangely, Edgar. Unfortunately, he‘s left us no clues. Vern erased the security records before they left.‖ ―Where the hell could they have gone?‖ ―That is what I intend to find out.‖
The northwest summer had merged straight into winter. The rain was relentless and, already, the first slushy snow was falling on the city. Eddie was caught in traffic on the Aurora Bridge. I-90 and I-5 were hopelessly clogged and he had thought that the roundabout way out of downtown would be faster, but there was an accident up ahead on Aurora Avenue, so now he sat alone in his Range Rover on the bridge, in bumper-to-bumper traffic. He had driven alone into the city. The slush and ice were too much for the limousine. He enjoyed driving and, besides, Soto wasn‘t around to advise against it. Soto had left for Idaho a week ago and hadn‘t called since he began his infiltration of a cult that he believed Winston had gotten himself mixed up in. Eddie thought about them, Soto, Winston and Vern, as he sat in traffic. He missed them. He wondered about the thought of missing Vern. The feeling had come naturally. He marveled how a heap of metal and silicon could produce such an effect on him. Eddie owed the three of them much and had relied so heavily upon them. Now they were gone. But life went on at D-D Tech. Research had ground to a halt, but production continued and profits soared. Soto would have Winston back soon enough and they would all laugh at Winston‘s sojourn with some bizarre hippie commune. Eddie pondered on why the little man needed to lug along his massive computer. At least Haley was still with him and, if he could ever make it out of this terrible traffic, he would be in her arms once again, but, for now, he had to endure the intermittent honking of horns and the crunch of ice beneath chained tires,
the endlessly stretching line of tail lights and the oncoming headlights shining through the falling snow. Only an hour ago, he had finished a day-long meeting in downtown Seattle with a group of Chinese apparatchiks. These meetings were becoming all too common these days and Eddie detested them. These bureaucrats were all the same – old men with rigid minds, who looked on him with suspicious eyes. They thought of him as a usurper, trying to wrestle away their control. They feared the power that he was gaining over their economies and their infrastructures and they did their best to shackle him with restrictions and regulations. Their dull minds were unable to accept that control was only fleeting and illusory and that the tighter you gripped it, the more violently it would be ripped from your hands. Let them rot in the Twentieth Century, with their poverty and repression, their wars and their ethnic cleansings. The future would come, regardless of how hard they resisted it. He gazed to the west at the glowing lights of Capitol Hill and down at the gray waters of Lake Union below, and at the iron smokestacks of Gas Works Park on a peninsula that jutted into the lake. He thought of Rachel. They had once jogged together around those rusting metal towers, down there in the park. Rachel had almost completely disappeared from his consciousness. He had meant to follow up on the developments concerning her murder, but had forgotten or had put it off. It seemed like years since he had last thought of her. The snow turned to rain as the Range Rover rolled off the bridge with a slow crunch of ice beneath snow chains. The line of tail lights up ahead seemed endlessly motionless. He pulled the Range Rover off Aurora Avenue and wound
through the streets of the Wallingford district and quickly became lost. The steel trestles of the Aurora Bridge were now above him, as he drove along the cold waters of Lake Union. It was hopeless and he knew that he would have to slog it out in traffic just like everyone else. He pulled the car into the parking space in front of Gas Works Park and thought of calling Haley on his cell phone, but he knew that she would be working late at the Duncan Foundation and, even with the traffic, he would still be home before her. The rain was now a mist. He pulled on his coat and slipped the phone into his coat pocket. He turned off the ignition and got out of the car. The cold air felt good in his lungs as he stretched his legs. It had been a long day. He walked into the park and walked along the asphalt trail. In the summertime, city dwellers played frisbee and flew kites on the grassy lawn around the iron towers of a bygone era. Eddie looked up at the rusty towers that once spewed sparks and soot into the atmosphere. Now, they were fenced off and covered in graffiti – a debased iron Stonehenge from a preelectronic age. He stepped over the puddles and patches of slushy snow as he walked the path that corkscrewed up and around a grassy hill. It seemed strange to him how we move in and out of each other‘s lives. We walk along our path and we meet up with travelers going our way. They walk with us and we share the scenery. They help us over obstacles and share with us what they know. We sit with them by the fire and wonder how we ever made it so far without them. Then we discover that our destinations are different and our paths diverge. We meet up with new travelers and our old companion becomes just another acquaintance whom we met on the trail.
Eddie reached the top of the hill. A sundial was set flat into the cement at the top. He stood on it and looked west to Queen Anne Hill. A river of white and red car lights glowed unmoving on the hill. He looked out at the cold waters of the lake. A biting wind gusted and made him shiver. Across the lake, the modern towers of Seattle pierced the sky. He gazed at the Space Needle which was alight in the mist. Rachel‘s journey had been cut short. He regretted how quickly her memory had faded in his mind. He wished he could have spoken to her before her premature passing. It should never have happened. It could have been prevented. Who could have done such a horrible thing? The wind gusted and he hunkered down against the cold. He was walking a new path now. He had made Haley‘s destination his own. At that moment, he vowed that they would walk together, forever. A foghorn sounded from a fishing boat that was passing through the Ballard Locks as it returned home from northern waters. Hello, Eddie. Victor?
Eddie scanned the dark park from on top of the hill, for the source of the thought. He saw a figure standing in front of the picnic pavilion beyond the smokestacks. He walked down the path toward the pavilion, but the figure had vanished. The pavilion was a roof-covered maze of brightly painted pipes, cogs, and engines where children climbed and played on warmer days, but today it was cold and dark beneath the pavilion roof. ―Victor?‖ he called. His voice echoed in the darkness beneath the roof. He stepped beneath it and walked between iron pumps, engines, and cogs. ―Is anyone there?‖ he shouted. Do you see it coming? ―Who‘s there?‖ It’s coming, Eddie. ―Where are you?‖ The end is coming. Eddie walked, searching for the source of the thoughts. ―What are you talking about?‖ he asked. Armageddon. Apocalypse. Holocaust. ―Where are you?‖ I’M IN YOUR MIND! A psychic blast exploded in Eddie‘s skull. It rocked him backward and slammed him hard against an iron engine. He fell forward onto the cement. A searing pain burned in his brain. He struggled up to his knees. Another blast ripped into his brain and his eyes rolled back into his head. In a flash he saw Victor Paine sitting on a Victorian couch before a roaring fire. Haley sat with him. She put her arms
around him and kissed him softly on the lips. Victor kissed her back and pulled her down under him. ―I‘ll kill you!‖ Eddie screamed. Blood pulsed through Eddie temples and throbbed in his brain. It flowed thickly from his nose as he struggled to his feet. ―Where are you!‖ There was nothing but Eddie‘s breathing and the quiet patter of dripping water. He reached for his phone, but it had been smashed by his fall. He stumbled out from under the pavilion, toward his car. The rain came down hard on the drive home. The Range Rover approached the iron gates of the Duncan Estate. A police car was parked next to the gate house. Eddie pressed the button on the remote control and the gates rolled open. A man emerged from the gate house and waved Eddie down, before he could drive through the gates. Eddie rolled down the window. ―Hello, Mr. Duncan.‖ The man flashed a badge. ―Detective Jackson. Do you have a minute?‖ The detective eyed the blood that had dripped on to the front of Eddie‘s shirt. ―No, I don‘t,‖ Eddie said. ―This will only take a few seconds. Do you know a Natasha Pascovich?‖ the detective asked. ―I dated her,‖ Eddie replied. ―How about Amanda Santos?‖ the detective continued. The detective‘s breath was visible in the cold darkness and drizzling rain. Eddie felt the man‘s close scrutiny behind the matter-of-fact delivery of the questions. ―I would love to discuss my love life with you, Detective, but now is not the time,‖ he replied. ―Natasha Pascovich was found murdered in her Manhattan apartment last night. Amanda Santos has been missing for two weeks,‖ the detective said.
The detective watched him. A sense of urgent alarm ran through Eddie‘s being. ―Oh, God. I need to find my fiancée,‖ Eddie said. ―Dr. Smith‘s vehicle was found abandoned on the 405 thirty minutes ago,‖ the detective said. ―What?‖ ―We‘ve got troopers from here to the state line looking for her. We‘ll find her, Mr. Duncan,‖ the detective said. The detective spoke the words calmly. Eddie saw in the detective‘s mind what he expected to find, a body floating face down in the lake, or cut to shreds and left in the mud off the side of the road. Eddie felt panic. ―We need your help, Mr. Duncan. We‘d like to ask you a few questions down at the station, and we‘d like to take a look around your estate, with your permission, of course,‖ the detective said. Eddie wanted to run. The police were looking in the wrong direction, but to run would only confirm their suspicions. He was their only suspect, but he needed them on his side. Eddie waved over the guard from the gate house and instructed him to give the police free run of the estate. He then followed Detective Jackson to the station in his Range Rover. The questioning took longer than Eddie had wished. John, Eddie‘s aide, arrived with a platoon of lawyers who adamantly refused when the detective asked Eddie to take a polygraph. Eddie waved them off and agreed to take the test. The detective asked, in depth, about Eddie‘s relationships with Natasha and Amanda. He asked if Eddie knew the whereabouts of his fiancée and he asked if Eddie knew who would want to murder his ex-girlfriends.
Eddie answered, ‗no‘, but a name came up that he soon regretted mentioning. It was the name of Victor Paine. Eddie vaguely described him as a stalker. ―Is there anything about this Victor Paine you‘re not telling us?‖ the detective asked. ―No. I‘ve told you everything.‖ The answer sent the polygraph needle twitching. He refused any further questioning. The police released him and advised him not to leave town. They assured him that as soon as they had any information on Haley‘s whereabouts, they would immediately let him know. He returned to his estate and chain-smoked cigarettes as he paced the living-room floor. John watched him with concern. ―I‘ve got to look for her. I‘ll go crazy if I sit here and wait,‖ Eddie said. ―I think it‘s better to wait here,‖ John said. ―The police are watching you. I think we should let them do their job.‖ ―They know nothing,‖ Eddie said. Eddie paced and lit another cigarette. ―I‘m going to Idaho,‖ he said. ―Idaho? That‘s crazy, Edgar,‖‘ John said. ―I‘ve got to do something. Soto is in Idaho. I need him,‖ Eddie said. ―You won‘t make it a hundred yards out of town before the police pull you over,‖ John advised. ―I‘ll take your car. Give me your keys.‖ ―I‘ll go with you,‖ John said. ―No. You‘re staying here. Call me as soon as you learn anything,‖ Eddie said. Eddie drove off the estate in John‘s Volvo on a dirt service road through the woods. He connected with I-90 and headed east.
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