by John Grant
Thursday Night and Friday Morning:
Shuffling on Wall Street It always amused Buster Maltravis that he could walk from one end of Wall Street to the other and back again and no one ever paid him any notice. Not the other suits - the young ones scurrying with cellphones clamped like disfiguring growths to their ears, the old ones moving more sedately, their eyes far-fixed as if upon a sunlit land only they could see. Not the messengers, puffed up with sleek importance or dripping with designer-stained casuals. Not the secretaries wondering if they'd got time for lunch. Not the cyclists looking for a red light to run. Not the occasional well bred callgirl, glancing at her watch on her way to a one-on-one conference. Not the shoeshine guy on Broadway. Not the tourists, gaping around in grim determination to find something to look at in the world's second most famous canyon.
Most certainly not the tourists.
There were disadvantages, Buster Maltravis recognized, to living in Manhattan - not the least of them being the matter of virgins - but these were far outweighed by the advantages. There were very good and very simple reasons, in short, for basing his operations here.
And there was a very good and a very simple reason why it always amused Buster Maltravis that no one seemed to notice him.
He had more power over the future of human civilization than all the leaders of the free world rolled into one.
And just about nobody knew it.
That was why.
The New ME
Thursday I was out of a job again, which was nothing special and I'd probably hardly have noticed it if Diane hadn't decided to dump me in favour of an accountant.
"He's an accountant with flair," she said to me, noticing the way my right eyebrow had gone up to indicate that I'd have thought she'd have better taste. "He's got a bit of get up and go. Pizzazz. Spunk. He's making something out of his life, and you aren't, Norris. You're just a shithead knows how to spell. You don't even have a fucking job, asshole." Same sentiments but different words as when a caveman had come home and told his mate he couldn't find any mammoth anywhere. Or when Adam told Eve the grocery store was all out of apples.
"What the hell do you mean saying I can spell?" I said, but she was too busy packing her Crystals of Power to hear me.
She tried to slam the door as she went, but the hinges were loose and so all she did was get her foot caught in it.
"And," I yelled after her, hanging over the banister, "I hope you run into Monty Bean and he bums a buck off of you!"
There could be few more effective curses than that. Monty Bean was the crÍme de la crÍme of the local panhandlers - the panhandler's panhandler. It had long been a source of bitterness between us that Diane was not immune to his cajolings whereas I, by dint of evasion tactics learned during an earlier career as a shoplifter, was.
I didn't really mind Diane leaving - although there were a couple of her CDs it was going to be hard to replace - because at least since Tuesday I'd had my eyes if nothing else on the new departmental secretary I'd discovered waiting for me on that day when Golgotha Publishing had decided my editorial talents were better suited to cookery books than to the thrillers I'd been handling all the way since the previous Friday - this was, you understand, before Golgotha Publishing had decided today that, on second thoughts, my editorial talents were actually better suited to checking the job ads in Publishers' Weekly for typographical errors.
In fact, it had been a kind of confusing two weeks for my editorial talents, because I'd started out editing the Moonshadow science fiction list for Leonora Press, a mid-sized publisher with a treasured family tradition that lasted exactly until BRG Communications, a Dutch company that had flooded the market with crockery which sang the greatest hits of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra in the language of your choice, had placed a fat offer on old Mr Leonora's desk. BRG recognized that my talents lay in the field of self-improvement books, and I began to learn fast How To Create a New YOU in Only Seven Days. By three days later, when I was still less than half-New, the bottom dropped out of the singing-crockery market and BRG decided to divest itself of its overseas interests, overseas for the Dutch being home to me.
Luckily Amalgamated Regional Newspapers was looking around for a new company to invest in now that it had rid itself of its haberdashery chain, so it took over the publishing arm of BRG Communications. ARN decided my editorial talents were being wasted on self-improvement books - "Norris, self-improvement's dead" - and started me in on the development of the new pornographic line of the singing crockery they'd been forced to buy, along with the book publishing, from BRG. This was to be advertised as "Hot Stuff to Eat Your Hot Stuff Off Of" - I was rather proud of that line - and sounded just like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra until you listened to the lyrics and realized they were freely adapted from the Kama Sutra. Gave a whole new meaning to "My Way", sort of thing.
I was getting quite excited by late morning of my first day in the new medium but lunchtime brought the exciting, invigorating news that Amalgamated Regional Newspapers had done a deal with Golgotha Publishing which was going to be good news for everyone except the unfortunate eighty per cent who were being downsized. Yet again my editorial talents were to be directed towards a bright new vocation - "You're the third person today who's made the joke about the pornographic-singing-crockery market getting shafted, Norris, so can it" - which was, obviously for a man of my experience, thrillers.
At least this brought me some job stability, because for a full three days I was able to cool my crockery-inflamed brain by reading about serial killers who wrote messages out of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Hebrew in blood on the walls, serial killers who in their main life were the kindest Santa Claus the kids had ever come across, serial killers who thrust numismatically fascinating banknotes into various of their victims' orifices, serial killers who were driven into murderous fury every time they heard someone playing Stockhausen on the accordion, serial killers who dressed up as albino gorillas . . .
Apparently, or so all these authors maintained, all serial killers really in their heart of hearts want to be caught - which must be quite an easy objective to achieve, come to think of it, if you're wandering around dressed up as an albino gorilla.
From there it was an obvious step, according to the Golgotha corporate mind, to cookery books. It was a step I took with a certain vivacity after first catching sight of the love of my life, the cookery department's secretary, whose name I now unfortunately forget. On one occasion she let me fetch a cup of water for her from the cooler, so I knew she was equally interested in me; and I'd become sure things would progress deliciously further between us. Now we both had been simultaneously downsized and Diane was conveniently departing with my wittily sardonic "Well, all I can say is he must be really hot between the balance sheets" still ringing in her ears and a bruise spreading across her palm from where I'd hit it with my face. Romance was in the air. As soon as I'd checked that the heartless, selfish bitch really had taken all her CDs, including the copy of Janis Ian's Breaking Silence that I'd stuffed down the back of the couch to forestall such an action in the event of her hurried departure, I got on the phone and said, "Gladys" - Gladys wasn't actually the departmental secretary's name, but I'm extrapolating - "Gladys, I've an extremely interesting case of personal angst here and I'd like to discuss it with you in a secluded little Javanese restaurant I know in the Village and can afford", but Gladys slammed the phone down as soon as she recognized my voice, which I took to be a discouraging sign.
So I decided there was nothing for it but to start looking for another job.
Some rapid work with the keyboard and then the bubblejet started heaving out my résumé.
My résumé, I had to admit as I read it, was not my strongest selling point. The three days working on self-improvement books would stand me in good stead, of course, and I'd been a thriller editor even longer than that if you counted the weekend, but really all I could rely on was the astonishing four months I'd run the Moonshadow list, which was regarded internationally as what would have been one of science fiction's most prestigious imprints had not Old Man Leonora been incapable of sending out an honest royalty statement, which meant I'd been stuck with pulp reprints and stuff the other houses wouldn't touch even though it was written by insightful, forward-looking intellectual prodigies with acne problems. Before Leonora and Moonshadow there had been no publishing experience to speak of; I'd only come into the offices to fix the telephones when Old Man Leonora, deaf even then, had hired me on the spot.
One of the self-improvement titles I'd started editing came to my rescue. "It is a universal truth," Melanie Steinwitz III had written in How YOU Can Be a Plutocrat in Three Easy Stages - of which Stage One, in my instance, was looking up "plutocrat" in the dictionary - "that, so long as you maintain a strict adherence to FACTS, your résumé can look
if you just put the right slant on it." Putting the right slant on mine did not take very long - Random House has had so many chief executives in its time that no one can remember who the fuck they all were - and that meant I had the rest of the evening free to go out and play.
With the whole of Manhattan as my playground.
A Sudden Focus on Bifurcation
"OK," said the woman with the legs, "how about we forget about you buying me a drink and just go straight back to my place?"
Sounded good to me.
"Don't misunderstand me," she added.
Odd. There hadn't seemed a lot to misunderstand. The converse of what I'd had to drink.
"You're not normally this kind of a girl?" I hazarded.
She looked at me vaguely. Her eyes had that slightly misted look of someone who normally wears glasses.
"You did ask if you could buy me a drink and if I'd give you a job?" she said hesitantly.
Maybe my approach had lacked subtlety. Blame the last seventeen Harvey Wallbangers.
"Er," I said, "sort of. I can't precisely remember now for certain."
"Well, I have a job to offer," she said. "To the right candidate. Has there been some mistake?"
Don't get me wrong, but Ye Toplesse Hustler Inne on 43rd and Eighth isn't the normal place to encounter prospective employers. Prospective employees, yes, but only if it's a temporary personal therapist you're after.
Now it was my turn to look as if I needed glasses.
"No, no mistake," I said. "I even had a copy of my rÈsumÈ with me somewhere earlier but I seem to have lost it."
I patted my pockets to show how honest and employable I was.
Diane never had worked out why there was always less money in her purse than she'd thought there'd been - so flighty and irresponsible of her not to have checked the envelope scotchtaped to the back of the bookcase - and thus ready cash was no problem. Cash in the slightly longer term didn't look too bad either, thanks to my plethora of downsizings and redeployments over the past two weeks, each one accompanied by a severance cheque - I wouldn't have dumped Diane if I'd not ascertained my financial security first. I could afford to gamble on the blonde being a timewaster or a nutcase. I could afford to gamble on her having a job for me, OK, but one that paid peanuts. Actually, right now I could afford to gamble on quite a lot on the offchance I might discover if her legs continued on up under the hem of her short black dress or just stopped there.
"Strange coincidence," she was musing. "I was sitting here wondering how I could find the right person for the job - Village Voice? New York Press? New York Times? - and up you come. D'you think there's anything in telepathy?"
No. If she'd been able to read my mind she'd have hit me.
"Yes," I said.
"You're in good company," she said, picking up her purse and stuffing her lipstick and some small change into it. "Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich . . ."
"Wasn't Reich the orgone-box guy?" Thank you, Dilys Greeley, author of 37 Alternative Ways to Enhance YOUR Libido, a book that had done surprisingly badly for Leonora Press three months back despite the wholehearted support of Barnes & Noble. I'd blamed the cover design, the art director had blamed the salesforce and everyone else had blamed me, leaving me no option but to come back for a second round and blame the author.
"The very same," she said, sliding off her stool and taking my arm. "We'll catch a taxi."
"Everyone said he stayed Jung at heart," I said.
"Nothing like a good sense of humour," she said coldly.
We didn't talk much as the cab jolted us up Eighth for what seemed a very long time, me looking out my window and she looking out hers. The driver spent half his time with his head out his window swearing at the top of his voice in either Swedish or Bengali. Manhattan was looking at its finest and the air was just pleasantly warm. It was a nice night for swearing.
We came to a stop somewhere on Central Park West, a few blocks downtown from the Natural History Museum. Before I could find my wallet, the blonde was pushing a twenty through the hatch at the driver and asking very prettily for a receipt. I climbed out onto the sidewalk and breathed in the romantic mixture of traffic fumes and greenery you get around there. Nobody asked me for a cigarette - it was that kind of quality area. The building whose door we'd stopped at looked like a penitentiary stripped of its luxuries, which must mean you had to be rich to live here. Aside from myself, the only drunks I could see looked respectable. Me, I was wondering if I'd remembered to put on clean underpants before coming out to play, which I guess showed the difference between me and them.
The legs were standing beside me. I looked up, and so was their owner.
"OK?" she said, nodding towards the lighted doorway. There was a guy standing just inside it wearing a black uniform, a lot of gold braid and a bad case of strabismus.
"Lead on," I said.
"Nice night, Ms Frimhalt," said the guy in the uniform to one or other of us as he held the door open.
"Thanks, Marco," she said, smiling absentmindedly.
The elevator was small enough that I could tell she wasn't wearing perfume. There was the smell of recently showered flesh.
"Frimhalt?" I said.
"Yes. My father liked tea so it was either that or Earl Grey."
I looked at her sideways. She was grinning.
"Nothing like a good sense of humour," I said.
"Norris," I said.
"Mr Norris or . . .?"
"You're not Irish?" she said.
"No. And you?"
"No. Not with a name like Frimhalt."
I was beginning to wonder if I'd walked into a play by Harold Pinter. Then I realized she was still grinning. She had the kind of flawless, just-a-drop-of-creamer-in-your-coffee, seemingly unpored skin that looked as if it might go ping if you flicked it with a fingernail. Back in Ye Toplesse Hustler Inne it'd been too dark to tell the colour of her eyes, but now I saw they were the bright blue small kids paint the sky; the dissonance between their colour and the colour of the rest of her, not to mention the trace of epicanthic fold beside them, was, paradoxically, like a chord that should clash but proves when heard to be completely harmonious. Her face was maybe a little thin for John William Waterhouse to have wanted to paint her, but the cheekbones might have swayed him. Her hair was long and golden and very slightly wavy; its ends, at her shoulderblades, curled upwards to form a little runnel I yearned to pull my fingers along. Like her eyes, it seemed incongruous with the darkness of her face, but it was just right on her. She looked quite exceptionally pretty when she was grinning like this - in fact, she looked quite exceptionally pretty even when she wasn't.
Apartment 14 was smaller than a football field, but only just. There were Japanese prints on the walls and thin scatter-rugs on the polished tan-coloured parquet flooring. The furniture was in the lean, pared-back Scandinavian style, all varnished wood and grey glass and tightly stretched leather and matte stainless steel. The air was the colour of air-conditioning. On one of the grey glass tables there was a grey glass ashtray with a mound of grey ash and a couple of butts in it, which, while out of keeping with the rest of the decor, was good news. The bad news was that the place was as tidy as a picture in a catalogue. I hadn't seen anything so sterile since the photo-shoot for Revolutionize YOUR Sex Life with Feng Shui.
"A drink?" she said, leaving me standing by the door as she walked across to the other side of the room, pulling off the silk scarf she'd been wearing and tossing it over the back of a chair, where it settled in perfectly balanced folds to fit in with the rest of the decor.
"I've already had quite a . . ." I began.
"No shit, Sherlock," she said, without turning back to look at me. "Will another make a big difference or none at all?"
"I want to be at my best for this . . . uh . . . interview."
This time she did turn around.
"I meant what I said about having a job to offer."
"I . . ."
"Good. I'm glad that's understood" - waving me at an article of furniture that was almost certainly a sofa. "Scotch?"
"That'd . . . that'd be fine."
"Whatever you're having." I sat down.
"I'm having Isle of Jura."
"Whatever you're having," I repeated. She was obviously a connoisseur. All I knew about Scotch was what I'd read in The High-Alcohol Weightloss Plan. The salesforce had been instructed to tell the Barnes & Noble buyers the reason the pix were blurred was for aesthetic effect. That had been Old Man Leonora's explanation, but when the book flopped he'd said it was mine. I'd said it was the author's, and so the accusatory merrygoround had kept going around as usual, tra-la.
She put a half-full tumbler down in front of me on the grey glass table beside the grey glass ashtray with the mound of grey ash and the couple of butts in it. I looked at her own tumbler. It was full to the brim. She saw me looking at it and grinned again.
"People say I got my looks from my mother and my capacity for alcohol from my father," she explained.
"Does it help you lose weight?"
She looked puzzled for a moment, then gave a little shrug, dismissing the question.
"He can drink all night and be as sober as when he started. Never had a hangover in his life. Mind you, his life will probably be shorter than it could have been, but he's a happy man."
It seemed kind of pointless to me, drinking if you stayed sober, but I didn't say so.
"I'm the same," she said. "Cheers."
I took a gulp of the Isle of Jura. It was pretty good, even though it wasn't a Harvey Wallbanger.
"About this job," I said, reckoning we'd better get to the point while I was still able to reckon we'd better get to the point.
"Yes, about this job." She stared off into the middle distance, letting the words hang. She was rubbing the fingers and thumb of one hand together as if feeling the texture of a piece of cloth. The other hand was holding her drink, which was half gone. "I'm not sure where to begin."
I was surprised. Ever since I'd met her she'd been making quick decisions, seeming to know exactly what she was doing every step of the way. I'd just been following instructions like a well trained sheepdog, initially for reasons that would perhaps need explaining to the Pope but surely no one else and now because . . . well, now I wasn't sure exactly why, but it had something to do with her decisiveness. Her hesitancy was as out of place as the ashtray.
"It just all seems so clichéd," she said.
"The good thing about clichÈs is that they're tried and true."
She acknowledged this with a formal twitch at one side of her mouth.
"If it weren't for my legs I wouldn't feel like such an idiot looking for a gumshoe," she said. "But the legs make it hackneyed. Have you ever noticed how, in just about every hard-boiled private-eye novel where the gumshoe's client is a young female, the first thing you hear about is her legs?"
"The hair's a good move, too," I said.
There was a somewhat meaningful silence between us.
"Jasmine's a nice name," I said.
Back to Pinter.
"Did you get your blue eyes from your mother as well?"
I thought about finishing my drink in a single glug and making for the door but decided not to.
"Gumshoe," I said.
"Yes. As in Sam Spade. Philip Marlowe. Spenser - with an `s', like the poet. Marlowe, Spenser; guess Robert B. Parker didn't think he could get away with calling his hero Shakespeare."
"Or Ireland," I said. "That'd have been a giveaway."
She peered at me through those hazy blue eyes. "You're not as stupid as you look."
That grin. Already I was in danger of becoming addicted to it. Gladys, assuming that had been her name, was forgotten - a nice girl, and obviously passionately keen to become a part of my life. Sad, really, but there you are. And what a relief I'd had the good sense to ditch Diane!
"Nothing like a good sense of humour," she said.
"You said that already."
"This time I meant it."
"About this gumshoe business . . ."
"Yes." Her glass was empty so she got up and went to the stripped-pine bar on the other side of the room and came back with the bottle. I put my hand over the top of my glass, then took it away again. What the hell.
"People like Marlowe and Spade and all," I said, "they get into dangerous situations and get slapped around a lot. I'm not like that. I'm more like a sort of Hercule Poirot without the brains."
"Or the social graces."
"Them too. And the accong."
I sipped my whisky nervously. I had the feeling the interview had already gotten started and that I wasn't doing too well.
"This shouldn't be dangerous," she said. "Maybe a bit boring at times, but not dangerous."
"No going down those mean streets?"
"Wall Street. Pine Street. Liberty Street. The World Financial Center."
"The World Financial Center's not a street."
She flicked her hand. "Same difference."
"This is something to do with high finance?" I hazarded.
"It has everything to do with high finance," she said. "Have you ever heard of a guy called Buster Maltravis?"
"That's as good a place as any to start," she said.
Two's a Cloud The last elevator ride up to the observation decks of the Empire State Building is at 11.30 at night, and the sightseers are thrown out . . . um, no, the sightseers are ushered out at midnight. There are two observation platforms, one at the 86th floor and the other at the 102nd. From either, during the day, you have the uncanny sensation as you stand looking out across Manhattan that you're flying over the city on the approach to JFK or LaGuardia, and that you should have buckled your seat belt by now.
At nighttime it's different.
What the sunlight shows you by day is a city: the coloured rectangles are certainly vehicles, with drivers, and the smaller moving splodges - smaller than ant-size - are easily enough recognizable as human beings. In one sense you're a somewhat dizzyingly long way from that city, but at the same time you have the feeling you're in almost intimate contact with it: you could, after all, get there very quickly indeed.
By night, though, the panorama is somehow divorced from humanity, or even from life. Well, organic life, anyway. At night you realize some crazy creator god has scattered gleaming jewels across a rumpled velvet tablecloth and then, not satisfied with the arrangement he's made, has started shifting them around. There's a definite sense of plan, of sentient purpose behind all those different movements the lights perform; they're largely restricted to well defined channels, for one thing. But it's not their plan: it's been imposed from the outside by an intelligence that's invisible, imponderable and generally incomprehensible.
One day the creator god will give up on his incessant tinkering with the pattern of the jewels, and on that day the seas shall rise up, the skies shall be filled with blood, the hyena shall give suck to the axolotl, a whole passel of Biblical fundamentalists shall chortle, rub their hands together and tell each other, "See? I told you the earth was flat," and in general we shall all know we're not so much in the End Times but well on through them.
It would be nice to say such fancies were flitting through the mind of Buster Maltravis as he clung to the Empire State Building's spire looking out over the bejewelled nighttime tapestry of Manhattan - nice, but misleading. Buster Maltravis was not one given to fancy - he'd tried it once and hadn't liked it. Instead he was making a statistical calculation, plus or minus ten per cent or so, as to how long it would be before the drought-afflicted, starving, almost entirely bankrupt Third World country to which he'd just authorized a shipment of enriched plutonium would be nudged by the purchase from "almost entirely" to "entirely" and thus be driven to using the plutonium, in tandem with some technology that even now was being leaked with his permission from Azerbaijan, to nuke the shit out of its neighbour state. At that point international peacekeeping forces would necessarily intervene, with as their spearpoint the US military. Some Polaroid photographs that would be taken tonight of the US Vice President engaged in unorthodox activities with various borrowed exhibits from the Bronx Zoo would ensure the US military bought its munitions from a certain Texas-based conglomerate, its software from a couple of Silicon Valley start-ups currently teetering on the verge of insolvency, its uniforms from several garment factories in Minneapolis, its media coverage from Fox News and its R&R from the GoodBliss chain of bordellos - "Fast Service is Our Watchword!"
All of which pillars of Free Enterprise were, of course, owned by Buster Maltravis through a network of shadow companies, toadies and pseudonyms. There were numerous reasons why he preserved his anonymity in all this, but not the least of them was that it simply made good commercial sense. He did, after all, want to make sure the customer had a choice.
Tonight, Thursday - Friday, in fact, because he'd had to wait until the cleaners had finished clearing up after the exodus of the day's human gapers - he'd come up to this eyrie atop the Empire State Building on whim. Whim, like fancy, wasn't something that came easily to him, but he'd been practising it over the last century and a half and had now achieved a fair approximation to spontaneity in its use. He'd made a memo to himself about this particular whim as recently as Tuesday afternoon.
There was a fluttering of leathery wings in the air nearby, momentarily drowning out even the far-below yells and honking of car horns as someone jaywalked, and he knew that the other copy of his memo had reached its intended destination.
"Pollyanna," he breathed, with difficulty choking back the fire that so readily came to his lips whenever he spoke her name.
In response there was a hastily quenched flicker of red flame against the orange gloom of the night sky. Claws rattled on the roof beneath his perch.
Her voice was as coy as any peacock's.
She shuffled up closer to him, her great faceted eyes gazing at him through the semi-darkness. The moon started to come out from behind a cloud but, seeing the choking soup of carbon monoxide and other, more exotic chemicals that squatted like toxic candyfloss above the city, hastily retreated.
Craning his neck downwards, Buster Maltravis regarded Pollyanna in return. They had been conducting such occasional assignations furtively over the past few decades, and it was far too soon for him to be becoming bored of her, yet bored of her he incipiently was. Still, now was not the time to go ripping her into her constituent bones and musculature; were her remains to tumble to the streets below, the humans might very well start asking uncomfortable questions - although, this being New York, they very well might not. In a few years, though . . . sometime when they were out on the Grand Hunt at Bella Vista, where there were no prying human eyes to see . . .
"Pollyanna . . ." he said again.
"Buster," she replied.
"Look," he said with a heavy sigh, "I didn't just invite you here to talk, you know."
Relinquishing all his aspirations to the turgid, syrup-thick skies above, he dropped on her, snarling and snorting his passion.
The Unexpected Consequences of Van Halen
"Before we continue this conversation," said Jasmine, leaping to her feet again, "there are a few things I must do."
"Before we continue this conversation," I said, "there are a few things we ought to estab . . . estab . . . sort out." I put my empty tumbler down beside the ashtray.
"Have I got the job?"
I cleared my throat in momentary embarrassment. "I suppose it would be a bit, well, forward of to mention the matter of recomp . . . reco . . . pay?"
"Name your salary." She was looking at me in an exasperated way. "I pay by the month. In advance. Plus expenses."
A very, very, very unreconstructed thought lumbered through my mind as to what I might ask for as part of my recompense. Before I could interpret it, it was obliterated by the near-blinding blaze of another thought, which for an instant seemed yet more profound: There! I can think the word "recompense". Why the hell can't I say it? This latter reflection seemed to be telling me a great deal about the human condition.
But I shoved it impatiently aside and got back to the former thought - or, rather, the relishable morsel of explicit contemplation.
No. No, I couldn't ask her for that. Although I'd known her for only a short time, I respected her far too much - her wit, her vivacity, her intellect, her charm, her goodness, her legs. Besides, if I suggested it I probably wouldn't get the job.
I named the largest sum I could think of, which right then was the advance Dimity Hardcastle's agent had screwed out of Golgotha for her latest Dave Knuckle hard-boiled mystery yarn, Smack My Butt, Babe.
Jasmine's eyes never wavered.
"Done," she said.
"Per week?" I persisted, trying clumsily to cash in on the advantage I thought I had.
"Don't push your luck, buster. It's per month, like I said. I'll go to my bank in the morning and get you your first month's wages. I'd give you a cheque tonight, but it'd be best if this didn't go through your bank account."
"Ah," I said wisely. Then: "Why not?"
"Because the transaction would leave a record on somebody's computer somewhere." She still held her eyes steady but I had the subliminal impression she was rolling them.
"Quite right," I said. "I was just trying to find out if you were sufficiently, you know, security-conscious."
"Yeah, right. Now, if you'll excuse me . . .?"
She walked over to a part of the wall I'd not noticed before and touched a button beneath what was either a magnificent piece of postmodernist art or the place the electrician had got to in the rewiring when it'd been time for him to knock off for the night. There was a sound so soft it might have been the swish of blood through my own veins, and a panel slid back to reveal, looking rather like the control room of a nuclear submarine, a state-of-the-art Bose stereo system.
Barely glancing at it, she jabbed a finger, and some ninety megawatts of Van Halen filled the apartment.
And I do mean filled it. Despite the fact the room was large enough that probably the only reason someone hadn't tried fitting the New York Public Library inside it was that the building's other tenants might have complained about the two stone lions in the corridor, there was plenty of Van Halen to go around.
Seemingly oblivious to the blare, Jasmine turned on her heel and marched across the room to a door tastefully done in distressed steel grey and watered-down peach. She threw the door open and, beyond, I saw a bathroom designed by Salvador Dali and furnished in what looked, from where I sat on the sofa, like black patent leather.
She beckoned me to join her in there, and I did, casting my gaze around the room in case there were any lurking whips and handcuffs. I'll say one thing for Van Halen: the sheer physical impact of their music had rendered me abruptly stone-cold sober.
"Let us take a shower together!" Jasmine bellowed above the sound of a passing bass riff.
I moved impetuously forward, but she planted a splayed hand firmly in my chest to stop me. Next she put a finger of the other to her lips, then reached past the shower curtain to turn the water on full. Finally she signalled to me that I should flush the toilet.
"This place may be bugged," she yelled at me, "but it should be safe for us to talk now!"
"Not if we have to shout at the top of our voices if we're going to be able to hear each other."
Jasmine looked unsettlingly nonplussed. Without a further word she turned the shower off and then ambled abjectly back across the room to strangle Van Halen.
The ensuing silence throbbed like a powerful engine.
"We could go somewhere else," I whispered experimentally into it.
She winced as if I'd howled at her. "Not so loud, please, Norris."
"And it might be a good idea if you refrained from using my name," I added.
She looked at me earnestly and gave the smallest nod of her head.
Of course, I didn't - then - believe for one moment that the apartment could be under electronic surveillance: that sort of thing happened only in spy movies. But I had two reasons to play along with her paranoid fantasies. First of all, she was now my employer and, as Leonard B. Michelson Jr had observed rhapsodically in his eloquent How to Make Opportunity Knock for YOU:
Don't smartass the boss
Or your job you'll toss.
I've always felt that book had to be remaindered so rapidly less because of its lyricism, more because of the photo of the author on the back flap; of course, the consensus of the publishing industry was that the disappointing sales were all my fault. My second reason for indulging Jasmine's apprehensions was . . .
"Stop looking at me like that!" she hissed.
"Sorry," I mumbled. The air in the room seemed a little less timid, as if slowly convincing itself that Van Halen had actually gone. "It's not my real name, anyway. Norris Gonfalcon. I made that up when Old Man Leonora - the publisher who gave me my first job - said he wanted me to be an editor. I thought 'Norris Gonfalcon' was kind of suitable as a book editor's name, like you'd never have gone to see a John Wayne movie if he'd been calling himself Marion Morrison. No one would have taken me seriously if they'd known my real name was . . . whatever my real name actually is."
Like the air in the room, Jasmine was slowly relaxing. A moment before she'd been so stiff with tension I'd felt I could have leaned her at an angle against the wall. Now her pose was loosening.
"That's all right," she murmured. "I'm not really called Jasmine Frimhalt, either. That's just what . . ."
"We should get out of here," I interrupted.
She gave me a watery smile. "If you're going to be a proper gumshoe, you ought to say 'And fast' at the end of that."
"And fast," I agreed.
"OK, but where?"
"My place?" I hazarded.
"Sounds good to me," she said. "Let's get moving."
Matching actions to words, she swiftly crossed the room, picked up the scarf she'd dropped on the chair-back and, wrapping it around her neck, went into the bathroom. I could hear the sounds of her throwing things into a washbag. I wasn't sufficiently captivated by the moment that I didn't instinctively regard this as a good sign: Oh, boy, she's bringing her toothbrush! That means she's planning to . . .
I gave myself a mental slap.
I gave myself a second mental slap when I remembered the state I'd left my own apartment in. How could I have been so stupid as to invite Jasmine - pseudo-Jasmine - to them? An even more disconcerting thought barged into my mind. What if Diane had decided to come back and collect anything she'd left behind? I could hardly breezily pass her off as the cleaning lady at three o'clock in the morning: "Miss Reeves is just putting in a bit of overtime." Jasmine would scarcely be impressed, and Diane herself would . . . Well, I'd be surprised if there were time for more than about a page and a half of my life history to flash before my eyes. Worse still: what if Diane come back to attempt a reconciliation? No ex-girlfriend of mine had ever seemed remotely interested in a reconciliation in the past, but there's always a first time for everything.
When Jasmine emerged from the bathroom, sequin-studded washbag in hand, heading for what I assumed was the closet where her coats hung, I tried to suggest some alternatives.
She dismissed them immediately. "I've heard about those hotels," she said, pursing her lips, pausing with a sky-blue coat half off the hangar. "They rock from side to side at nights, don't they? I'll take my chances with your lovenest, thank you very much."
Again that grin. Her confidence was fully returned, filling not just her lips and her eyes but every movement she made.
I wouldn't have thought it was possible, but she managed to fit the bulging washbag into her small, black, shiny purse without the remotest clumsiness. "We'll take a cab," she said.
What I Could Do For YOU #1
Sir Andrew Aguecheek
Before we left her apartment, there was one urgent question I wanted to ask Jasmine.
"No," she said.
Al Fresco Interlude
Outside on the sidewalk it was evident that things hadn't taken advantage of our absence to change at all. The park was a dark brooding mass, seemingly alive but temporarily comatose, on the other side of the street; a few blocks downtown the blackness was frosted by the lights of the Tavern on the Green. I glanced at the buildings on the far side of the park and speculated spuriously about whether any of those big-city spies you've read about was right now watching Jasmine and myself through binoculars or a telescope and wondering who we were: an established couple, newly met lovers, two people who'd merely come down in the same elevator together and so were leaving the building at the same time. It struck me that I very much wanted Jasmine and myself to be newly discovered lovers, and not just because of her legs. As if sending a signal to that distant hypothetical watcher, I took her hand in mine. For a split second I thought she was going to pull it away, but then her fingers squeezed back.
I gave her a small conspiratorial smile, and we started the serious business of trying to make a taxi stop for us.
"So your father wasn't really a tea freak after all?" I said offhandedly.
Vox Pop #1
The Illuminated Dartboard
Ant Glimmering sadly shut the door of the Buford Tavern and slid the bolts home. Identifying all the keys on the bunch he lugged from his pocket and using them to lock the door's dozen or so locks took him several minutes, but the task was eventually achieved.
He celebrated his success with a belch. It had been waiting all evening, building up inexorably, so the eruption was heartfelt. His mom, an expert in the bar trade - having owned and run a popular establishment in downtown Chicago for the decades since Dad had picked an argument with a Teamster - had been very firm on this matter: Never belch while the joint's open, Anthony, she'd instructed, marking each word by a smite on his forehead with her wooden spoon, 'case a customer hears you and don't like it. Save your gas up 'til they's all gone.
He winced and reflexively rubbed his jaw as he remembered the subsequent briefing she'd given him on the perils of public farting.
Not that there'd been any customers tonight anyway. Beer sales had been brisk, as they usually were, but Ant had had the place to himself, also as usual. The juxtaposition of the two circumstances was responsible for the profundity of the belch.
He lurched back to his stool by the bar and fell onto it.
Buford, New Jersey, had seemed the ideal place to buy a bar, and certainly the price had seemed attractive. So had the description offered by the realty website Ant had discovered on the net. "With Buford's censused population of only five," the anonymous poster had gushed, "you can be assured that no rival establishment will be opened up in this busy little township." It had gone on to paint a dazzling word-portrait of a thriving establishment that drew regulars and the passing trade with equal facility - which was, Ant had to admit, perfectly true. Encouraged by Mom, whose only sign of doubt had been a muttered, half-heard comment to the effect that maybe the remote northerly extremities of Jersey weren't far enough, Ant had snapped up this golden opportunity to make something of himself. The papers had been processed with astonishing speed, and within the week he'd arrived in Buford ("This quaint friendly hamlet with five hundred years of tradition breathing from its very stones!") to discover it was eight miles down a snake-infested dirt track from the nearest paved highway and that two of the people referred to in the POP. 5 sign were recently deceased - "recent" being 1953 - two more were under age, and the fifth was Muslim.
He sighed and mosquitoes rained from the air. If only he could permit himself to allow under-age drinkers, things might be a bit different, but that was another of the many points Mom had been strict on. So most nights it was just him and the television.
The television was blaring above the bar now as he reached across and pulled himself another beer. You can allow yourself one in an evening, Mom had said, and if you knows to take care o what you say an do, mebbe two. But - take that! - three's dangerous, kiddo. In accordance with her wisdom, each night he nervously drank the third in a single gulp so as to reach the tranquil safety of the fourth as swiftly as possible.
Thank the Good Lord for the television, his boon companion in his solitude. And thank the Good Lord for the Reverend Rick Hamfist, whose nightly three-hour programme of independent political debate, Window on the Evils of the World, coming up next, was Ant's, well, window on the evils of the world, none of which had been, to his knowledge, intrepid enough to venture so far as Buford's little blaze of obscurity ("A guaranteed tourist trap, summer or winter!").
On the television, the commercial break drew to its close. The face of a newscaster filled the screen. "And that's all we have time for tonight," said the newscaster. "Jenny Bringle will be here at six with the early-morning news. Until then, it's goodbye from us."
The next commercial break started.
It was a trailer for tomorrow night's reality-tv bonanza, So You Want to Be a Millionaire Hooker?, in which bevies of attractive young women intimately and imaginatively attended to happy successions of paunchy middle-aged television execs and the winner got a small fraction of one per cent of the money the sponsors had put up.
What should be do with the next ten minutes? ruminated Ant morosely. At one end of the bar - the wall, floor and ceiling around it pocked like a sponge - was a dartboard. Nobody but Ant ever played, but it was an essential part of Buford's social fabric nevertheless, he felt. He'd have a game with himself right now to pass the time except he couldn't remember where he'd put the darts. Besides, he was overdue to put up a new picture of Hillary Clinton; the old one was hanging in tatters from the cork.
There must be something else I could do.
He glanced at his dilapidated copy of the Bible, sitting in a puddle of beer next to the dust-covered till. The Reverend Rick had recommended it a few months ago, and so Ant had driven into Stillwater specially to pick one up. On getting home he'd discovered that the thin oilskin pages were excellent for making spliffs. So far he'd gotten halfway through Leviticus, and felt each time he lit up that he was breathing the very word of the Lord into himself.
Unfortunately, he was clean out of dope, so the Bible wasn't an option for tonight. Probably a good thing. Last time he'd tried to roll a joint while this smashed on beer he'd repeatedly put his thumb through Exodus xxiii.
He could microwave himself a ready meal, he guessed, but he'd already had three of these to alleviate the tedium of the evening and soak up the Bud. The last of the three, corned beef hash with home fries, had spoken to him.
At first Ant hadn't believed it was happening - just assumed it was the beer talking. The patty of hash, swimming in its pool of red food-colouring juice, had formed itself into rubbery lips, enunciating its words with care. Two of the home fries, jostling, had done an excellent impersonation of bushy eyebrows, dancing in perfect synchrony with the lips. Ant had, as he'd watched, aghast, been irresistibly reminded of the face of the Reverend Rick Hamfist. The voice had been the Reverend Rick's as well.
There could be no other conclusion but that God had chosen to communicate with him direct.
Sitting here now. Ant couldn't remember exactly what it was that God had said, although bushels and voting Republican had played a large part in it. Oh, yes, and apparently he'd been given a divinely ordained obligation to fulfil, too. What was it now?
He shifted his heavy belly restlessly above his straining pants waist. It was slightly alarming to think that the Voice of God was right now floating around in there alongside eleven pints of Bud and at least a dozen microwaved mini-franks in cheese-type sauce, but only slightly. Or maybe the Voice of God wasn't in there any more, but had escaped to go and possess someone else's corned beef hash when Ant had let rip with that mighty belch a couple minutes ago?
Get your mind back on the subject, kiddo! he could imagine Mom saying, and gave a wary Pavlovian flinch. What was the command God gave you?
It hadn't been one of the ten customary ones - that much Ant knew. He'd memorized all of those during childhood, under Mom's idiosyncratic tutelage regime, along with all their various codicils and qualifications which told how it was perfectly OK to kill, commit adultery and loathe one's neighbour.
His mind continued to fumble with the conundrum, but had made very little progress by the time the last of the used-car ads was over and Window on the Evils of the World was ready to roll. Putting the mystery to one side for the moment, Ant devoted his full attention to the screen.
For fully five minutes after welcoming his viewers the Reverend Rick Hamfist pointedly explained why the passage in Matthew vi that read
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men; but thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly
was actually a dreadful mistranslation from the original Hebrew. That there'd been a lot of mistranslation going on about then was pretty clear from the mention of "synagogues", after all. Matthew must have said "churches", because Jesus and the twelve honchos wouldn't have gone and worshipped in synagogues like Jews did, would they?
As must surely be obvious to all, the sweet Christ hadn't been recommending that you went and did your praying in the closet among the mothballs and all those sweaters various elderly relatives had given you over the years and the jeans you couldn't shoehorn yourself into any longer and the piece of female underwear you'd once found in a train and kept to show the guys even though to this day you couldn't work out what it was actually for. No, with one of those astonishing pieces of prescience which proved that every word of the Bible had been inspired by the Lord, Jesus had been referring to the television set. Because TV hadn't been invented by the time King James was translating the Bible, the merry monarch had stuck in the nearest word he could think of, which was "closet".
So the burden of the passage was actually that you weren't supposed to do your praying in church and particularly not on the streets, where it might get you locked up for vagrancy, but on television. If you got it right, well, as the Good Book said, the Father would "reward thee openly", which could only mean that God wanted you to call the following number with your credit card to hand because, if you didn't, then, however much unction the Reverend Rick Hamfist personally devoted to trying to persuade the Good Lord otherwise, you were going to spend eternity becoming finger-lickin' good.
Ant gulped. Just his typical bad luck those bastards at Bell Atlantic had cut off his phone.
The phone number that he couldn't call hung on the screen for several minutes, grinding his moral inadequacy into him, before it was mercifully replaced by the first in the next cycle of advertisements, this time for SlimWipes, a product which Ant disdained.
His mind staggered back to the problem he'd been trying to solve before the Reverend Rick's latest outgushing of the Truth had divinely interrupted it.
Ant wished he hadn't been so hungry at the time. For some reason, it was the third TV dinner of the evening that he was always the most ravenous for. He might, had he thought about it, have asked the corned beef hash to repeat its instructions so they'd be more firmly fixed in his memory. As it was, the last part of the Voice of God's concluding prayer had been choked off by the sturdy muscles of Ant's own gullet.
There had been something about guns. To be expected: guns were a pretty hot topic with the Lord, especially as exposited by the Reverend Rick. Wait a moment - almost had it there! That was it: he, Ant Glimmering, was to gather up his entire collection of semi-automatic assault rifles, or at least as many of them as he could fit into the trunk of his trusty Chevy, and drive with them into Manhattan, where he was to . . .
And that was the tricky bit.
Where he was to what?
Ant let out another belch in the hope that it'd contain just enough residue of the Voice to give him a clue, but no such luck.
Oh, well, maybe tomorrow afternoon, once he'd had a good night's sleep . . .
The Reverend Rick was back on the screen, announcing that he was taking calls should any of the faithful have questions of theology they wished to ask him. Tonight's subject was the wisdom of "the sponsors of this show", Aunt Ethel's Home Baked Microwavable Hearty Eating All Natural Quick Dinners.
Ant stared balefully once more at the dead phone.
Invasion of Personal Space
"No, he wasn't," she said as she clambered into a yellow cab, with me attentively following. "But he was extremely dogmatic about the soda he drank," she continued as I settled into the back seat beside her. "Which was why he named me Pepsi."
I rolled the name around on my tongue.
"OK," I said.
"You two young things finished yore canoodling back there?" said the genial cab driver, a paternal gleam of bonhomie in his eye as he glanced at us in his mirror, a smile crinkling the many laughter lines around his mouth.
This was New York.
It can't have been like that.
In response to his torrent of incomprehensible abuse I stammered out my address. He spat viciously on, fortunately, his own side of the bullet-proof partition and with a scream of agonized machinery we punched our way into the traffic flow.
"Is it safe to talk here, do you think?" I said to Pepsi, who was quite delightfully cramped against me.
She nodded urgently towards various bubblegum-encrusted grilles situated around the rear half of the taxi. I was fairly certain they were standard equipment for certain models of yellow cab, but only fairly, so I took her point. They could as easily conceal microphones as loudspeakers.
Our driver had a way of cutting through traffic holdups that made me extremely keen not to look out the window too often, and so it was only a matter of moments before we found ourselves outside my building in what I called the Village but everyone else described as Alphabet City. Perhaps they were right. There certainly seemed to be a shortage of those cozy little neighbourhood bistros where you couldn't hear yourself think for the fashionably shrill laughter of the people at the next table and came out still hungry.
Pepsi fumbled in her purse, produced another of those twenties, and stuffed it through the hatch at the driver.
We made it to the entrance without mishap.
"Why're you doing that?" inquired Pepsi as I pressed the bell for Mr Smithee on the top floor.
"I lost my front-door key a few weeks back," I explained, "and this seems simpler than getting another one out of the super."
The lock buzzed crossly. Mr Smithee, whoever the hell he was, seemed particularly vexed tonight. Served him right for playing his Britney Spears CDs at all hours.
"Very smooth," she conceded.
I ushered her up the stairs and into my apartment ahead of me, but I needn't have bothered: Diane hadn't come back.
"Welcome to my . . ." I began, feeling for the light switch. It didn't seem to be where I'd left it.
"Good evening," rumbled a voice from the darkness within.
Tox Top #1
Knotty Affairs of State
It was late, late, late in the Oval Office, but still Alfie Sedoma - his brows furrowed, his eyes near crossed in concentration, his lips moving, one foot up on the great carved ivory desk his political allies had donated to the White House after he'd jailed the ringleaders of Greenpeace - wrestled on with affairs of State. He'd known even before he'd accepted the Party's nomination that there would be nights of hard toil like this one. It was as Harry Truman had immortally said: "The buck stops here." Throughout the successful election campaign Alfie had been fond of quoting Truman's words, although, on taking office, he'd been disturbed to discover quite how many of the bucks seemed to stop at his Vice-President.
The lights were low in the room except at his desk, so that he seemed to be encased in a glowing shell.
But then suddenly the tranquility was shattered by the phone ringing.
Putting his task to one side with a shrug, he picked up the receiver.
"This is your President on Mickey," he said formally.
He listened as the voice of an aide cooed soothingly into his ear.
"All right," he said after she'd finished. "Put Vice-President Knuckle on the line."
There was a sputtering as the connection was made.
The Vice-President began to speak, but the President spoke over him.
"Look, dammit, Dave, what in hell were you doing in the Bronx Zoo in the middle of the night? Again?"
Fizz, pop, squawk went the voice on the line, with the President interposing an occasional piquant gloss.
Fizz, pop, squawk.
Fizz, pop, squawk.
"Of course the mainstream media won't publish the photographs, but what if they get into the hands of Alternet or someone like that?"
Fizz, pop, squawk.
"You're right, those scum at Alternet probably are all Greenpeace members. We can screw 'em for that."
Fizz, pop, squawk.
"Yeah, you're right. That wouldn't be final enough. Look, Dave, I'm gettin' an idea here . . ."
Fizz, pop, squawk.
"Well, give the cops a grand like everyone else. You can afford it, can't you, Davey-boy? Now, lemme think . . ."
Fizz, pop, squawk.
"That was 'xactly what I was gonna say! We want this story quashed entirely. So we've gotta use the method of last resort."
Fizz, pop, squawk.
"No, 'course I'm not frightened even to say his name!"
Fizz, pop, squawk.
"All right, then, I will. It's 'Buster Malt . . .' You know something, Davey-boy? This is real silly. You know his second name as well as I do."
Fizz, pop, squawk.
"Sticks and stones may break my . . ."
Fizz, pop, squawk.
"OK, you gotta go. And in future, Dave . . .?"
Fizz, pop, squawk.
"Yeah, stay out of temptation's way. Leave the Bronx Zoo to the tourists, OK?"
Fizz, pop, squawk.
"And may the blessings of the Good Lord guide you, too, and his wisdom be with you. 'Bye."
Replacing Mickey on his cradle, the President breathed a long sigh and gazed at the window. In times past, he might have seen the grand cityscape of Washington DC, but the bulletproofing of the glass had been enhanced to such an extent that it was now almost completely opaque. The upside of this was that he could see his own reflection. He mugged a photogenic grin at himself, then returned to the task at hand.
Try again - yet again.
If he put the left end of the lace just so, and then . . .
The End of Chapter 1