The Fucking People – A Bizarre Apocalyptic Novel by Christopher Damitio – Part 1

I wrote this back in 2004. I’m pleased with how the rewrite in (May-June 2020) turned out. Maybe now I can begin on volume 2.

 

Preface

The Bodhisatva were wrong.

They were remarkable souls who after being born countless times managed to achieve the level of human perfection required to move on to the next plane of existence where they could escape the suffering and tragedy of perpetual death and rebirth. Bodhisatva achieved that – but then these remarkable souls made a conscious choice to remain trapped in the cycles of samsara, suffering through death and rebirth even though they did not have to. They chose to suffer so they could help others find the same enlightenment and they chose to help shepherd all conscious beings to the Godhead, the paradise of souls at the end of the universe itself.

They dedicated countless lives and suffered through life after mundane life with this purpose. This ideal of creating and joining with paradise. And yet, somehow it never happened. Utopian dreams, peaceful philosophies, enlightened ideals, and the benevolent forms of rule they created somehow never survived the relentless assault of fascist nightmares, warlike mindsets, destructive tendencies, and corruption of values when faced with human desire.

Selfless sacrifice, lives spent in labor and toil, and innumerable painful deaths never stopped humanity from grinding the poor, exploiting the helpless, and using the power of human desire to turn man against man, man against woman, and even man against child. Was it a result of human nature? Could human nature not be changed? Was humanity as a whole unstable? Or was it a cosmic conspiracy that pitted human complacency against the slow crawl of human evolution?

Through millions of cycles of birth, death, rebirth, and redeath – the bodhisattva persevered. One by one, they grew weary. One by one, they despaired of their mission. One by one, they left the mortal plane to never return. They left, weary of trying and failing. They abandoned humanity. They gave up. They thought humanity could not be saved. They were wrong.

When the last Bodhisattva gave up the task as hopeless and abandoned the world to find his own succor, it was in that generation, in that period, in that tiny slice of reality – the world itself screamed one last time. A primal sob of abandonment expanding through the universe, deep beyond the furthest galaxies, a call that expected no answer. A tidal wave of madness and calamity spreading outward with no end before finally hitting the edge of reality, bouncing back, and bringing with it a new chance as the shit hit the fan.

 

Chapter 1

Ben

Ben’s stomach told him to close the shop soon. He wasn’t ruled by hunger so much as he had decided early in life to flow with his body, trust his instincts, and always consider choices put in front of him. He had been working efficiently all afternoon and if he ignored his body, that efficiency would be lost. He felt the hunger in his gut…and other places. Stepping back from the machine, he surveyed what he had accomplished.

Three large boxes filled with glossy paged catalogues. Perfectly folded and stapled thanks to his labor. Half a box of unfolded, unstapled pages remained. The order sheet indicated that they didn’t have to be completed until 4 pm the next day, but he knew he would finish them before he closed the shop tonight. Putting off a job until later was more difficult than plowing through it. First he would finish the job, then he would eat. With his belly full and the to do list done, he would not have to think about spring catalogs full of tulip bulbs again until next spring.

He smiled at the thought of spring. It had been a particularly cold winter. It would have been a lot colder if he hadn’t learned so many of life’s lessons during his fifty two years.

He caught himself standing idle and once again began to feed the flat pages into the folder/stapling machine while still pondering his life, but no longer idly. It astounded him to see just how maladapted some people were to life. His younger brother, were he still alive, would have closed the shop at the first impulse of bodily desire and not come back until all of his yearnings were completely sated. Teddy had been fired from every job he hadn’t quit. Ben had even had to fire him – twice. Ben sadly relived the memory and continued feeding the quickly diminishing pile of bulb catalogs into the binder.

Teddy had been one extreme. George, their older brother, was another. George worked through his hunger (as Ben was doing now) and didn’t stop until he was mentally or physically incapable of continuing. George had become rich because of his hard work. He lived in a mansion, kept a beautiful wife, was always on the guest list for important social occasions, and spoiled his children with all of their material wants – while ignoring their emotional needs. Ben shook his head thinking about his unhappy sibling in his unhappy life. George denied himself all the real pleasures that life had to offer. His old white butt cheeks were clenched together so tightly that he probably shit diamonds. Ben hated to consider George’s sex life. Enough sex to yield two children but nothing more. George and Ben hadn’t spoke to each other in thirteen years. Ben watched him from afar through the local society pages and hearing the gossip of mutual customers and friends.

Ben and his older brother shared a few acquaintances though they kept very different circles of friends. Everybody needs a printer from time to time and Ben’s shop had a sterling reputation built on years of balancing the hungers of the present against the needs of the future.

Ben’s was a different type of success.

Ben fed the last of the bulb catalogues into the machine. That was that. He shut the machine down and looked around his shop. It was gratifying to recall the day he moved his old offset printing press into this room more than twenty years before. Now that old press was surrounded by a dozen high tech machines that were capable of producing anything a person might need printed. His clients wanted wedding books, invitations, pamphlets, catalogs, greeting cards, manuscripts, and sometimes even an anti-establishment zine or two. The shop was a testament to living a balanced and happy life.

“Not too bad”, he said out loud. His labor had built this.

Moving to his desk to finish the paperwork on the catalog order, he smiled at the picture of his wife. Doris was every bit as responsible for his success as he was. He needed to let her know he would be late.

She answered on the first ring just like she always did. They still had landlines. No cell phones for them. “Hello?”

“Hi Sweetheart, I’ll be working pretty late this evening so don’t bother keeping dinner warm.”

“No Ben, it’s Friday so I figured you’d be late. You’re always late on Fridays.” He heard her frowning on the other end of the line. She certainly knew and he hated lying to her, but it was really for the best. The shared fiction of his Friday nights made it easier for them to continue loving each other.

Something else was bothering her though. He could feel it.  “Ben, I’m worried.  Have you seen the weather?”

“I’ll have a look Dor. Don’t worry. Don’t wait up.” This part always felt bad. That twinge of guilt. It would disappear soon enough, but he hated it.

“Okay Ben, I love you. Don’t be too late, okay?” Of course she knew.

“Okay Doris. I gotta get back to it.” It felt even worse than usual.

As he hung up the phone, the bell on his front door rang as a customer came in. It was the tulip catalog man come to see when the order would be complete. He was surprised when Ben told him they were ready. If he’d followed his stomach, the man would’ve had to wait another day. His instincts had led him the right way.

The two men carried the boxes to the customer’s van. Ben hadn’t been outside since he had arrived that morning. The weather had changed dramatically from the mild early spring day it had started with. A strong gust of wind hit them with a painful sheet of snow as they emerged from the shop. The sky shined with a dark green light in the last minutes of the day.

After stowing all the boxes in the customer’s van, they went back inside to settle up the bill.

“Sign here and we’re good to go,” Ben said. As the man signed, another gust of wind blew the door open and scattered paperwork from the countertop.

“Feels like the end of the world out there,” the man said.

“Nah, I can smell springtime thanks to your tulip catalogs,” Ben told him.

The client left and Ben cleaned the scattered papers and sat at his ancient desk. He opened his old leather bound ledger, a giant book that contained all of his accounts. Ben had a computer, but preferred to use paper and pen. His accountant hated it.  Signing off and entering the figures, the  order was officially finished.

He picked up the phone and dialed.

She answered with that soft French accent that drove him nuts “Alloo?”

“I’m closing the shop and should be there in about twenty minutes, if you’ll have me.”

“Oh, Ben, I was ztarteeng to worry you might not come ce soir because of ze weather. I meese you mon cher!”

“Not for long. See you soon.”

“A tout a l’heure.” That accent drove him wild. He was feeling better. The order was done. His mistress was waiting for him. His wife was…well, she was taken care of. Everything would be fine.

That was when the building collapsed on him.

 

Chapter 2

Collapse

He had never before experienced that bizarre but clichéd slowing down of time that supposedly happens when you are about to die – but then, he had never been close to death. This was different.

One moment he was pushing his glasses up his nose and thinking about how nice dinner followed by a romp in the hay with his French mistress would be, then he became aware of the rafters falling on him. Slowly. It seemed like the fall took minutes, unfortunately, his body was equally slow. He was able to move out from under a huge beam that would have certainly killed him, but unable to get out the front door. In truth, it all took only a few seconds.

He felt a foolish moment’s concern for the machinery, the proofs that his clients had left in his care, and, most foolishly, the accounts book on his desk but then he realized that he was most likely going to die. His hand continued pushing his glasses up his nose in the pure reflexive movement of a man who has been nearly blind without them for most of his life. And he jumped up in slow motion and off to one side before the giant beam smashed his desk into pieces.

He wasn’t the type of man who believed the gods bothered listening to mere human beings.  He didn’t waste a moment praying. Instead he saw the roof rushing towards him. With gratitude, he actually saw his life and recognized that it had been a good one. He’d fathered a half dozen children by four different women who had all loved him. His wife had stood by him through all the trials of life and his many affairs and bastard children. The moment before the weight of the roof crushed him, he wasted just a moment, in thanking whoever might be listening for the love of a woman like Doris.

A life well-lived, last thoughts of his loving and stalwart wife and no regrets. It would have been a nice way to end it all – but he didn’t die.

He regained consciousness pinned under most of what had been his print shop. A pool of blood had leaked from his head and was coagulating next to him. He had been unconscious long enough for the blood to have stopped flowing from the gash in his head. He was lucky to have survived, but then, it wasn’t over yet.

The greenish light he had noticed earlier, suffused everything.  A monstrous howling came from outside where the wind had surpassed category five on the hurricane scale. He was able to free one hand from beneath his body and used start clearing rubble from around him.

“This is not what I had in mind for this evening,” he said under his breath.

Something moved outside of what had once been the door to his shop – just a few feet away, but impossible for him to reach while he was trapped under the rubble. His glasses were gone and the world five feet from him was a blur but he made out three figures moving towards him. The screaming of the wind was punctuated by shrieks of ripping metal, cymbals of shattering glass, and the staccato impact of fast moving objects hitting stationary objects. The pain throughout his body assured him that he was still among the living.

The blurry figures came closer and solidified into shapes he couldn’t make sense of. Finally, he realized they wore protective suits like those of NASA astronauts or CDC hazmat personnel. One of them reached the doorway and pointed to Ben. Clearing the rubble that trapped him took agonizing centuries as each piece filled him with pain. He drifted in and out of consciousness as his own screams joined and merged with the wind. The glaring greenish light flickered and strobed.

The last memory of his shop, the final thing he remembered was being carried and loaded into a shiny metal building in the center of the street – where there had been no building before. . It was something like a three story dome with eight ‘wings’ extending outward from it. On the wings were hundreds of glass capsules. A glass capsule opened as they approached jutting from the solid chrome vehicle. They lay him in it and he took a last look at the result of his life’s work. His print shop was a pile of rubble. Up and down his street, not a single structure was standing. Ben had no way of knowing but it was the same everywhere that night on planet Earth. The destruction of his neighborhood, his town, his state, his country, his world – it was complete.

The glass capsule door began to close and Ben lost consciousness, never again to see the world he had known.

 

Chapter 3

The Darkness

He tried to remember where he was but couldn’t shake the nightmare he’d woken from. He reached for his wife but didn’t find her. Nor did he find his bed, blankets, or anything but the cold concrete of the floor. He opened his eyes to nothing. A darkness so complete it had never felt the light of day. No hint of illumination. Only the darkness.

There was to be no waking from his nightmare.

Yet, if he had been rescued, where were his rescuers? Where was the pod he remembered being loaded into. It all felt more like a dream than a reality. Still, his senses didn’t lie.

He was cold. He was hungry. He was tired as if he’d never slept in a thousand years. His eyes told him nothing except that he was trapped in the inky darkness. His hand in front of his face revealed – nothing. Carefully, he sat up – hands reaching into the black but finding no impediment. He surveyed all around him as far as he could reach and then, finding nothing, he stood. His arms stretched upwards but found nothing to keep him from going full upright. He ran his hands over his body – he was in the dark, naked and alone. No stitch of clothing covered him. His fingertips explored his skull,  searching for the gash he remembered from when his shop had collapsed on him. It wasn’t there. No injuries, no aches, no pains. That didn’t seem right. Maybe this was a dream. A dark and confusing dream.

Under his feet, the floor was bare and chilled. Despite the chill and the dark, he realized that he hadn’t felt this comfortable in his body since his twenties. No aches and pains. For the first time in decades his body felt ache-less. His fingers went back to his head, hoping to find the full head of hair he’d had in his twenties, but no, the receding hairline and halo of baldness was still there.

He moved slowly forward – shuffling so as not to trip and finally discovered a wall which he moved along hoping to find a door.  He found nothing but smooth cold surface. No light switch, no window, no escape. The darkness was so complete he began to wonder if he were blind.

After an agonizingly slow crawl down twenty feet of wall – he found the window. Boxed in, the glass colder than the surrounding wall. He knew the shape, he knew the feel. After spending some time exploring the dimensions, looking for a lintel, measuring the depth of the sill with his hands – he began to imagine that it was slightly less dark than the wall. Soon, he became sure of it. It was a lighter shade of darkness.

The discovery drove him into a frenzy of trying to open it. To no avail.

Debating whether to attempt breaking it proved to be equally tricky. Kicking it might work, but he had no shoes. He didn’t want to punch it and slice open his hands in the darkness. Perhaps an elbow? If he knew where he was or could see his surroundings it would be different. He was paralyzed by not knowing anything. Maybe this was hell.

Maybe he was in a coma. Maybe he was having unconscious battles with his mind. Maybe he was trying to reach his own body from within his mind…Maybe he was in hell.

Grabbing the lintel, he pulled upward with every ounce of his will. It had to open. He needed it to open. He must open it. OPEN DAMMIT!

With that, the old window gave and launched upwards throwing him off balance while at the same time flooding the darkness with a blinding light. He fell backwards covering his eyes and screaming in pain at the burning sensation that was his sight returning. He landed hard, not sure what to expect – hands over his eyes. Suddenly wondering if he were going to be attacked.

That was a strange thought – who would attack him?

Maybe he could wake from his coma now? No. He didn’t feel like he was in a dream or locked in his mind. He was here. This was reality.

A very strange reality that only became stranger as his eyes recovered and revealed where he was. The walls, floor, and ceiling were dull black concrete. It was a room that might have been a prison cell or a photographic dark room – the window glass too was painted black. The light streaming in the now open window revealed a room empty – except for a pile of rubbish and himself.

Behind the heap of midden, a doorway, also painted black. No bars, the lock on his side – this wasn’t a prison cell – but of course, he didn’t know if the door would open. He reached to push his glasses up his nose and for the first time recognized that he didn’t have them – and yet, he could make out the details of the room just fine. Ben had been on the edge of being legally blind for a decade, but here and now he could see everything fine.

He stood back up and moved to the window. It was only opened a few inches, but the light was blinding. He needed to see what was outside. He needed to know where he was. He needed to know something. Anything.

Pushing the lintel higher, then holding his hands over his eyes to dull the blunt pain of the light – he looked outward – and had all his questions answered, but only by more questions. He was looking down from a height of several stories. In front of him lifeless grey buildings  stretched as far as he could see. There was nothing that identified where he was. He was in a room, in a building, in a city – somewhere. The lack of answers was maddening.

Slowly, a realization that was staring at him became a conscious awareness. Those buildings were lifeless. They showed no sign of life. They were dead. The buildings were dead. There was nothing indicative of life about them. No signs, no lights, no flags, no laundry lines, no cars or people moving on the streets. There was nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Had he woke in the abandoned city of Chernobyl? Was he in the Cypriat DMZ?  Was this some abandoned industrial disaster area?   One thing was certain, he wasn’t in Portland any longer. Nothing about this place felt like Maine. Nothing about this place felt like anywhere.

He vainly searched for some distinguishing landmark, but there was nothing. No mountains in the distance.No ocean, lakes, or river. He heard only the sound of his own breath. It formed steam clouds as he let it out. It was cold. He was naked and it was cold. This reality now hit him.

There was no sign of clothing. There was no heater. No blankets. No electrical outlets. No furniture. Nothing but the pile of rubbish. He moved to it – hoping to find something to warm himself with. He was freezing his naked ass off.

At first, it looked like there was nothing useful, but when you realize you have nothing, your definition of something begins to change. It was really a pile of nothing, however – no clothing, no paper, just unidentifiable ‘stuff’.

A long section of what looked like it might have once been a tire pulled away from the top of the pile. It wasn’t a tire. His hands felt a rough, cloth like texture – it looked like rubber but felt and moved like burlap. The piece was larger than he had thought – nearly the size of a poncho about four feet long by two feet wide. It smelled like creosote – it was some kind of tar cloth, maybe a roofing material. None of this mattered to him as he thought it. It was a way to escape the cold. As soon as it was free, it was wrapped around his naked body.

The lack of paper was something he noticed immediately. Paper had always played a significant role in his life and there was no paper in the pile. No discarded packages, no old mail, no crumbled cigarette packs, no candy wrappers. No paper.

Ben had been many places – but he had never seen a place where there was no paper trash in a rubbish pile. It wasn’t the strangest part of his day so far, but it rang a little bell in his head and caused him to consider what sort of reality this might be. Where was the paper?

The pile yielded little in the way of useful materials – a few more pieces of the tar-cloth, a large number of stones and pieces of broken concrete, a two food section of rebar, and many pieces of broken tile – broken into pieces that couldn’t be used for anything he could think of. He wrapped his feet and legs in the cloth, used another pieces as a sort of skirt – wrapping it around himself like a towel and managed to use a sharp tile piece to rip a hole in the center of his ‘poncho’. It wasn’t the end of the world costume he would have chosen, but it would have to do until he could find something better.

He was no longer naked. He was no longer cold. The darkness was dispelled. He was ready to open the door in front of him. A door he had successfully ignored for fear of what he might find on the other side of it.

He imagined opening the door and finding a modern office hard at work. He imagined their surprise as a Mad Max mummy burst into their workplace. He pictured secretaries in 1960s go-go boots standing up and screaming as he burst in upon them. It was a ridiculous flight of fantasy – and it told him he was feeling better.

He was dressed in garbage, covered in dust and dirt, and alone in a strange world that he didn’t understand, but he was feeling better. His laughter roared through the room, against the walls, and echoed back to him. It sounded like a hundred men laughing jovially at a joke that was obviously on him.

Not yet sure he was ready to open the door, he went back to the window. Was there a fire escape? Were there cars or pedestrians now?  Nothing but a confusing grey nightmare. There was nothing below. No fire escape, no ladder, no walkway, no cars, no people, no buses. He could see it all and he could see nothing.

Back to the doorway. He had no choice. There was no other way out of the room. There was nothing else  in the room that might be useful. He walked back and forth across the rough pebbles on the smooth floor. He laughed himself out of laughter and listened as the echoes died away.

Grasping the door, he heard a voice coming faintly from the other side.

“Hello!! Can you hear me? Is there someone there? Hello? Can someone come help me? Help me! Please!”

Ben wondered if the man had been panicked because he had heard Ben’s mad peals laughter tearing through the building.

Chapter 4 

Geographic Anomaly

Ben climbed over the midden heap and pressed his ear against the door. He could hear fine, but he still wanted to be sure, to see if he heard more – or less.

“Hey!!!” he shouted. “I’m over here. I’m going to try to open this door and get to you. Come towards the sound. Can you hear me?” Ben banged on the door with his closed fist. “Everything is going to be fine!”

It was a stupid thing to say and he didn’t know why he said it. Everything was not going to be okay. Nothing was okay. He swallowed an urge to join the man in screaming for help. Nothing was okay. Still, he couldn’t deny relief that someone else was there. He was no longer by himself in a whacked out Russian film experiment – which was what this felt like. Knowing someone else was there made things infinitely better and he said it again “Everything is going to be fine!” Even though he knew it was a lie.

“Hey? Hello? Hey!!!!” Ben called out and banged the door again. The noise on the other side of the door had stopped. No more screaming, no more calling out. Nothing. Silence. He felt the panic rising back up from deep within him. Maybe he had imagined the voice. Maybe it had even been his own voice all along! Confused and disoriented as he was, he didn’t feel crazy. Someone was there. He had heard someone. Finally, a response came.

“I’m here. I’m trapped. Help me! Are you there?” The man’s voice on the other side of the door sounded less hysteric now.

“I’m here,” Ben said. “It may take some time to reach you.” He began pushing and throwing rubble and rubbish out of the way. The hinges of the door were on his side, so he needed to clear it all away to get the door open. Clearing the debris gave him a mission and kept him from thinking about how bizarre the situation was.

“It’s dark here. Do you have a light? Where am I? What is going on? Are you still there?” The man had all the same questions.

“Look for a window and if you can find a chunk of concrete big enough, break it.” Ben realized that a mission would also be helpful on the other side of the door. “The wall on your left should have a window.”

Despite his relief at finding someone else, Ben had the sense that he had found an annoying person or an annoying person had found him. The voice sounded like it was coming from the middle of the room.

“My left or your left? What do you mean, a window? I don’t have any clothes. Where am I? Who are you? Why is it so dark? How do you know there is a window?” The questions kept coming with no break. The man wasn’t moving. He wasn’t looking for a window. He was peppering Ben with questions instead.

Ben kept working at the pile in front of him. He didn’t even know if the door would open once he had cleared it.

“I’m cold. I don’t have any clothes. Can you get me out of here? I don’t want to die. Oh my God, where am I? Why won’t you answer me? ” There was panic and there was a solid edge of whining. If he had seen another door, Ben would have been tempted to abandon this one but it appeared to be his only way out.  Sometimes no company was preferable to bad company. Ben hoped however, that the man might prove to be useful.

“I’m cold,” the voice said. “It’s so cold. Why is it so cold? Who are you? Where are we?”

Ben kept himself from screaming “Shut the fuck up, you useless piece of shit” and instead calmly said “If you break a window – you’ll be able to see. The glass is painted black.” He assumed that the situation in the next room was the same as it had been in this one. “I found old tarps or something that I made into clothes. Break the window and see if you can find anything to help. You need light so find the fucking window and open it or break it.”

An intermittent thunking began. The man was throwing stones at the wall. That would have to stop before he opened the door.

Ben began to feel a warmth from within him. Partly from the work he was doing, partly from the makeshift clothing, and partly from anger at the uselessness of his neighbor. “Don’t just sit there. Open the window. Find something to wrap yourself in. You can use it to get a little warmer. You can’t just sit there.” This guy just needed a mission. Maybe he just needed to take a second to put his head on straight. “I’m Ben.”

“My name is Vlad,” the voice told him “What are we doing here Ben?” The man’s English was accented. Ben noticed it now. He’d never met anyone named Vlad. Maybe they were in Russia. Vlad was a Russian name – but his neighbor spoke English very well – the accent was light.

“I don’t have any answers. I woke in darkness and found a window to open. We need to find our way outside. Did you find a window yet? ” He didn’t think Vlad had moved. The man was useless. He was just sitting there like a turd on the floor.

Then he heard the shattering clatter of glass breaking.

“Ah…the light is so bright.” Good for him. Ben had underestimated him. Maybe he wasn’t such a turd after all.  “Ben, there’s cloth here!” Ben was glad he wouldn’t be rescuing a naked Vlad out of the darkness. The man had saved himself – sort of. Of course they were still trapped in here and had no food and no clear way out, no answers, no idea what was happening.

The space in front of the door was almost cleared. He used his foot to push the last of the debris to the side and lifted the last large pieces of concrete from in front of it. The knob turned easily. Ben heaved on the metal door’s steel handle and the door swung wildly open – he had used much more force than was necessary.

Twenty feet in front of him sat a small brown man wrapped in a blanket sized piece of the strange black cloth. He was in the center of the large room and the dust on the floor showed that he hadn’t gone more than a foot or two in any direction but had found chunks fo concrete and a pile of cloth. The two rooms were nearly identical to each other. The shattered glass from the window lay on the floor. Ben’s instincts for survival kicked in and he realized that wrapping cloth around one end of the shards would give him a passable dagger. All of this in the instant the door opened.

“How long have you been here?” Ben, too wanted answers.

“I don’t know.” Vlad’s dirty face revealed streaks where he had wept. Oh, he was incredibly useless. Ben knew it already and this confirmed it. I woke up and didn’t know what to do. I was scared and alone and afraid to move since I couldn’t see. Then I heard laughter like demons in hell coming to get me. Why were you laughing?” The panic was rising in his voice “Please don’t kill me! Oh my god, are you going to kill me?”

Ben was sure he couldn’t imagine a more annoying companion at the end of the world. “I don’t think I’ll kill you,” but he was tempted because he already hated Vlad. “The laughter was me. I thought I was alone.” Ben strode across the room. Not to Vlad, but to the broken glass so he could begin to make his dagger. He picked up a strip of cloth along the way. What was this cloth? Why was there so much of it?

Vlad watched him walk in the room and then walk away from him. He scrambled to his feet “Hey, I’m over here!” He had been waiting for Ben to help him up. Completely useless. Ben found a good sized shard, picked it up, and began wrapping  the cloth around it. It was crude, but it would work.

Vlad was coming closer, moving behind him. Ben turned to face the man, ready for a fight. He held the glass dagger, ready for anything.

There was silence as Vlad stopped. The two men locked eyes but then Vlad’s eyes strayed to the right, looking out the window behind Ben.

“I don’t think we are in the Costa Rica anymore, Ben. This doesn’t look like Central America.”

Ben lowered the knife. There would be no fight.

 

Chapter 5

Exit

Ben, with little help from his new companion, put together a garbage cloth suit similar to his own for the man, searched the floor the room, and found out very little about what had happened to them. Vlad was useless. Worse than useless. Vlad was a burden.

Ben tried get Vlad to help him tear long strips of cloth and then braid them into a rope. Vlad would forget to tie them, braid them too loosely, or just sit vacantly staring into space. Ben asked him questions but found very little Vlad was willing to talk about. Ben would have thought that Vlad would have been filled with questions just as he was, but he was almost impossible to engage. Ben was starting to think that the man might be mentally damaged.

“You’re Costa Rican?” Ben was not having much luck getting even the simplest information from Vlad.

“Don’t be ridiculous, I’m Dominican. Do I look Costa Rican? Look how dark I am? Did you ever see a Costa Rican this dark? God that is a stupid question.” Vlad was back at the window. “I’ve never seen this part of Costa Rica. Where are we?”

Ben was taken aback by the ferocity of his companions answer. Not just the violence of it, but the certainty Vlad seemed to have that they were still in Costa Rica. Ben had never been to Costa Rica or the Dominican Republic, but he was pretty sure that it didn’t get as cold in either place as it was here, wherever here was. “Don’t you think it’s strange that it’s this cold?”

Vlad turned from the window. He was strivingly thin and dark skinned. Probably in his mid thirties. His large eyes were set back behind a hawkish nose that was a too big for his face. Looking at the man, Ben probably would have guessed that he was Indian or Pakistani – but he was terrible at identifying nationality or ethnic origins.

Vlad looked positively comfortable in the trash-cloth clothing. Ben could not imagine him in any other type of clothes.

“Well,” Vlad answered, “The weather has been getting more  strange all the time. Last year we got hit by seven hurricanes so I don’t see why we wouldn’t get hit by a cold snap. God must hate papayas and sugar because this cold weather is going to destroy all the crops. I don’t care though, this year I don’t have any crops to lose. Everything is already gone.”

Eureka! Information. Ben pressed him for more. “You’re a farmer Vlad? Where did you learn to speak English so well? You barely have an accent. It’s pretty amazing.”

Vlad looked at him like he was stupid again. “I don’t speak English, you idiot. Your Spanish is pretty good for gringo. Am I supposed to have an accent? A farmer’s accent maybe? What about you? Why don’t you have more of an accent? I don’t understand anything anymore. I’ve lost everything including my ability to understand what is going on.” With that, Vlad turned back to the window and gazed out to where the grey light was starting to fade.

Ben hadn’t seen the sun all day. He looked out the window now and felt panic. He still didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know how cold it would get during the night. He didn’t know anything. His explorations had revealed three more rooms that opened off the room they were in. A room on each side.

No bathrooms, no dividing walls inside. Simply four rooms that opened onto a central great room. In every room he had found similar rubbish. Piles of cloth and stone but nothing else.

Within the last room he entered, he found another door. He pushed on it, kicked it, and tried to get his hands on something so that he could pry it open, but all to no purpose. It wouldn’t budge. It was probably the only way out, aside from the long drop out the windows. The rope he was making would allow them to scale out the windows, but Vlad’s inability to help left him with a single rope that was far too short.

Vlad turned towards him again. “Do you think they are going to feed us? I’m starting to get hungry. Aren’t you?”

Ben felt his blood turn cold. “Who? Who would feed us?”

Vlad just stared at him again with a mixture of pity and disdain.

“Vlad, who the hell would feed us? Do you know who brought us here are?” It made sense. Why hadn’t he thought of it before. Someone had brought them here. Put them here. They hadn’t come themselves. Ben had been so preoccupied with getting out that he hadn’t even considered how he had gotten in.  “Vlad. You must tell me what you know. Who did this to us?” Ben grabbed him by the shoulders and gripped him, probably too hard.

“The people holding us prisoner,Ben. The fucking people in your government. Your people Ben.” Ben backed away from the man’s intensity.

Now Vlad was talking. Now he was releasing all he had been holding in. Now he let loose.  “Do you think I am some kind of idiot? Do you think I don’t know why they put you here? I’ve already told them I know nothing. I’ve given them all the names I know. I’ve made up new names. I’ve given names of people who had nothing to do with it. I may be a stupid farmer and an ignorant peasant, but I am not as stupid as you seem to think. I know this is more interrogation. I don’t care. You’ve already taken everything that mattered from me. I have nothing left to give.”

Ben stared at him in shock. “This may be a different kind of interrogation than anything I have ever experienced or heard of, but an interrogation it is. I am not a fool Ben, or whatever your name is. I don’t know what you are trying to get, but I see what is going on. You haven’t fooled me. You bastards have already taken everything else from me, now you want to take away my sanity too? I refuse. You cannot fool me out of reality. I am not going along with this. Tell them to take me back to solitary confinement. Put me back in the detention center. I don’t care. You can kill me, but there is nothing my living body can or will give you.”

Vlad had become larger. Passion burned from his eyes. The despair that had poured from him was no longer there. Ben backed up from the fierceness of Vlad’s verbal assault and put his hand on the glass dagger tucked in his belt. Vlad’s words confused him while making sense at the same time. None of this made sense but suddenly Vlad made much more sense than he had.

Vlad came towards him. Ben held the dagger in front of him, stopping the man – for the moment.

“I don’t think we are in Costa Rica,” he said “I was working in Maine when a storm destroyed my shop. People came and pulled me from the wreckage and then I woke up here…same as you.”

Vlad spit on the floor. “I am sick of your lies, Ben. I know that I was drugged and brought here unconscious. They want you to befriend me. I am supposed to learn to trust you and then to tell you all about my comrades and their plans. I am supposed to let you know who is behind the peasant revolt. I am supposed to tell you all about the conspiracy to overthrow the government. Well, I have news for you Ben. There is no conspiracy, there are no leaders, and you, my friend, can go to hell.”

Ben felt a strange mixture of anger, compassion, and curiosity. “What did you do Vlad?”

“What? You want to hear it again? A signed confession is not enough? Maybe you have more cameras hidden? Maybe you don’t believe me still? Phaw! Of course you don’t believe me. I will tell you again.”

Vlad began a story it was obvious he had told too many times. “I am a simple farmer with a simple life. I work and  pay my taxes to keep my wife and three daughters from starving. We send our oldest daughter to school. Storms destroyed our crops and injured our daughter in her school. When the government refused to help us pay the hospital bills, she was discharged and died.  I blamed the government. I blame the government. I am angry. I used fertilizer from my farm to blow up government offices. I made a bomb from the chemical fertilizer we use. It was me, and me alone.”

Tears were again running down Vlad’s face. “Your government troops retaliated by massacring the people in my village. You killed the innocent. I am the only one who is guilty. You arrested me, tortured me, and refused to believe me. I lied to save my wife and daughters. I gave you the information you wanted. Then, I watched as my wife and daughters were raped and murdered by your soldiers. Kill me or leave me alone so I can kill myself. I don’t know anything else. There is no one else. It was me and I acted alone. What more do you want?”

Ben had no idea what to say, so he went with the truth. “I don’t know anything about that. All I know is I want is to get out of this building before it becomes dark. I don’t blame you for not believing me, but I’m telling you the truth. I don’t know where we are, but we are not in the Dominican Republic an are not in Portland, Maine. I was in my shop getting ready to close for the night. The weather was very strange. Suddenly my building collapsed on me and the next thing I knew, I woke up here. I saw people pulling me from the wreckage, but I lost consciousness. That is all I know. You can believe me or not, come with me or not. It is up to you. I can’t get the other door open by myself. With your help, maybe I can. I need your help to get out of here.”

Vlad didn’t believe a word Ben was saying. How could he? Ben went on.

“I don’t care if you don’t trust me. I don’t care if you don’t want to stay with me. You and me are the only people I’ve seen – inside or outside. There is a heavy door that might lead to stairs. I’ve tried to break it down. I can’t do it alone. I need your help. Let’s get out of this building and get downstairs and then you can go wherever you want. From what you’ve told me you have nothing to lose. I want to get out of this building. Don’t you?”

Vlad looked at him. Ben didn’t know what else to say. He looked back at Vlad. Daylight was fading and there was no telling how much longer it would last.

After what seemed an eternity, Vlad motioned towards the doorways.

“Show me this door you have found Ben.”

 

Chapter 6

Two Men

Vlad had decided, for some reason, to help Ben escape from the building. Ben wasn’t sure whether it was something he had said or a sudden realization about their situation, but the useless Vlad was gone. Once started, his energy was unbreakable. No more sitting in sullen despair, no more outbursts of rage, and no more self pity from this man.

Instead, he carefully examined the door and then he explored every detail of the rooms they were in. He did it all with a no-nonsense demeanor that didn’t encourage conversation. His questions were short, to the point, and infrequent.

“Have you seen anything that we might use as a lever or wedge?”

Ben hadn’t.

“Ben, can you find me a large rock with a somewhat pointy end.”

Ben set about looking for such a stone while marveling at the change in Vlad.

Having made some sort of decision, Vlad was confident and commanding. When Vlad had spoke of being accused of being a leader, Ben had dismissed it as an impossibility as he looked at the cowering husk of a man hunched over in the middle of an empty room. Now, however, he saw a man who could easily have been the leader of a group of revolutionaries.

Imagining the Vlad of earlier that day as a violent revolutionary was impossible, but not so this man. This new awakened Vlad was a human college kids would silkscreen onto t-shirts. The change was profound and complete. It would have been unbelievable had he not witnessed the reality.

A vague memory tickled the edge of his brain. Something about a guerrilla uprising in Costa Rica and a movement that had begun spreading throughout Latin America. It wasn’t generally the kind of story that Ben paid attention to. It fell into the category of third world chaos that he preferred to ignore. In general, Ben had always kept his attention focused closer to him. The wars on terror had done a good job of lumping all anti-government violence together into one giant category called terrorism. The global media had turned every anti-capitalist movement into terrorism. Ben found it all to be mentally exhausting.

After several minutes of searching, he found a sheared stone block that resembled what Vlad had called for. He found the farmer squatting down next to the door with his ear pressed against it. He knocked, listened, and then knocked again.

“I don’t think there is anyone home,” Ben couldn’t resist the words that popped out of his mouth.

Vlad gave him a withering look. “The door is solid. It is perhaps two inches thick. I don’t think we will be able to break it down. Did you find what I asked for?”

Ben handed him the block.

Vlad took it and stood. “I think this will work.”

Vlad lifted the stone and brought it down against the wall. There were sparks as the stone struck and the sound of metal chiming at the impact.

“I thought you said we won’t be able to break it down?” Ben was still reeling from the change that had overcome his companion.

“We can’t break down the door. The door is too strong. I am trying to break the hinges.” Ben hadn’t noticed the hinges.

“Should I do anything?” Ben asked.

Vlad turned and Ben swore he saw a smile in the darkness. “Yes, tear some of that cloth into strips and continue braiding it into some sort of a rope.” Ben did as he was told. He didn’t have long to work on the rope before a heavy crash and a metallic thud brought him back. The door had fallen.

“Ben, bring what you have, we may need it.”

Behind the door were concrete steps in a narrow stairwell. The two men walked down four flights of steps and found another door. Vlad simply pushed and it opened. They emerged in an open lobby facing the street. It was light enough to see the plate glass wall had been broken. They were free, but as he thought it, Ben realized he didn’t have any idea what this freedom meant.

 

Chapter 7

Outside

“Okay Ben. Now we are outside. What’s your plan?” Vlad smiled, though Ben couldn’t be certain if he were smiling at having escaped the building or putting Ben in the hot seat.

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything. You can probably see better than I can, my glasses are gone. I’m blind without them. Do you see anything at all?” Ben was bothered by not having his glasses He was glad that it hadn’t been an issue yet, but he suspected it would cause problems soon enough.

“I see street and buildings.” Vlad’s description offered nothing new to Ben. “We should get out of here.”

A part of Ben felt like running as fast as he could to get as far from all of this as possible. He didn’t though because even from the upstairs vantage point, he hadn’t seen anything worth running to. It was abandoned buildings as far as they could see. From above and from below.

“Where are the other people?” It was Vlad who asked the question they had both been thinking. Vlad walked through the empty room towards the shattered glass wall and the street beyond it. Ben followed, scanning the room for anything that might be useful but seeing nothing.

“Oh my God!” Vlad’s exclamation caught Ben by surprise. Ben hurried to catch up and directed his gaze upward to where Vlad was staring.

They had lost daylight but it wasn’t totally dark. No streetlights or artificial lighting illuminated this empty city which cleared the way for the light source Vlad was staring at. More stars than either man had ever imagined illuminated the sky. Millions and billions of them with no atmospheric pollution, no artificial light, and no distractions. If one were to measure light space versus the dark space in the sky, Ben was pretty sure that light space would add up to more. It was astounding.

The modern world, the world Ben had been living in until very recently, was so saturated with light pollution that only a very tiny fraction of the stars in the sky were visible to the naked eye. Unless you were hundreds of miles from any manmade light source, most stars remained invisible. Seeing these stars, Ben knew that one of two things had happened. All the lights of the world had gone out or unpolluted sky lay above him – for the first time in his life. Even without his glasses, he was able to see more stars than he had ever seen with them.

“Ben, this is the first time I have seen the sky since I was arrested and I don’t know if I have ever seen the sky when it looked like this.” Vlad wept. It was that beautiful. Ben felt a primal joy well up in him – a sense of being alive. What had humans stolen from themselves by illuminating the night. The unfiltered night sky brought feelings that Ben had never known – but should have. It was as if he had discovered a long lost ability to fly or do magic which had been there all along.

“I thank you, Ben,” Vlad said. “I am free. I am alive. Thank you.”

Ben felt tears in his own eyes. He had never felt so small as this moment, both for being under the vastness of the stars and knowing how he had unfairly judged the man beside him.

The richness of the sky fed their souls but did little to calm the grumblings in their empty bellies. Neither food nor water had passed their lips since waking. They would have to search for nourishment. As they set out, there was nothing to distinguish one building from another. It was a wasteland of dark buildings, broken glass, and little else. The street they followed was more dirt than pavement. Ben felt a gnawing discomfort that went beyond hunger or thirst. A few minutes walking and he realized what it was.

“Where are the cars? No garbage cans. No piles of garbage. Where is everything?” He didn’t expect an answer, but his companion had surprised him more than once already.

“Maybe they took everything with them Ben. Everything but us. Maybe they forgot us but remembered to take everything else.” Vlad stopped. “We should shelter in one of these buildings until it gets light. We can see nothing in the dark. We might be passing exactly what we need.”

“I want to get as far from that building we woke up in as possible.” Actually, it would have made sense for them to stay there, but both men wanted to have distance from where they awoke. Maybe it was Vlad’s talk of government agents, torture, and prison. The rooms they had been in, felt like a jail. They had escaped from it and Ben wanted distance.

Vlad seemed hesitant, “I am worried that my fatigue and hunger has led me to trust you too much, Ben. You can follow me, or you can go your own way.”

Vlad turned left down an alleyway. Ben followed him, recognizing that the kind of paranoia Vlad suffered from was contagious. Had Vlad been placed in his general vicinity on purpose?  Maybe Vlad was more than just another prisoner. Yes, the paranoia was contagious. He tried not to create conspiracies. It was enough that he was here. He had no reason to trust Vlad, but it wasn’t like there was anyone else in the world.

Chapter 8

Wildlife

There was no conversation as they quickly hoofed it down one street and then another. Eventually the shapes of the building faces began to differ, but Ben noticed no other changes. Vlad made left and right turns at random and didn’t ask for input. Ben quickly lost track of where he was in relation to where he had been. The buildings had gotten smaller and there were more doors and smaller windows than there had been when they came outside. Vlad’s pace increased. Ben was certain he would pick a building to hole up in soon, but he kept moving forward, turning right, turning right again, turning left, turning right, turning left, and then going straight with no particular order.

Ben was glad to keep moving. He was spooked by the lack of garbage cans and cars. He was probably in a state of stress related shock. For that matter, so was Vlad.

“Hey, Vlad…I need to rest. Are you going someplace specific? Do you have some idea where we are or are you just covering distance?”

Vlad stopped and turned to Ben. “No, I have no ideas. When you said there were no cars, I noticed that there are also no trees. I decided to keep going until I saw a tree. So far, I haven’t seen a single one. I have also been listening for any sound at all, but aside from you and me, there is nothing. Have you noticed that the buildings are different?” He motioned to the buildings around them.

Ben nodded. He was taking in the idea that there were no trees. He’d known that something was off. That was it. It was too hard to reconcile anything at all. No trees, no paper, no signage, no junk food, and as soon as he thought about the junk food, he was reminded that he was thirstier and hungrier than he ever remembered being.

Hadn’t he been about to leave his shop and go eat fancy cheese with Giselle? Hadn’t he been about to bury his senses in the smell of her flesh and the sound of her moans? Hadn’t he just filled the last order of the day? He clenched his fists and ground his teeth enraged for the first time since he had awakened. Anger coursed through him, an unstoppable force demanding release. He lifted his head to the beautiful star filled sky above and let out a primal scream of pain and rage, loss and frustration, agony and confusion.

Vlad was looking at him, head cocked to one side. Ben saw the shock on Vlad’s face but he didn’t care. He didn’t even know this guy. None of this was real. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. This was a nightmare. He began laughing like a maniac. He had never known that being crazy made one feel so god damned thirsty.

Vlad was still watching him. He kept laughing. Vlad rushed him, wrapped him up in a bear hug and lifted him off his feet. He was powerless in the man’s powerful grip.

“Ben, stop it. Take control of yourself. Don’t lose it.” Vlad let go of him and stepped past him. Ben stopped laughing and turned to see what had suddenly caught Vlad’s attention. He heard them before he saw them.

It was a mixture of animal and human noises. There was yelling and the baying of dogs in pursuit. They had just come around the corner and when he saw them, he forgot any hunger or thirst as total and complete terror welled up from his stomach and through his body. Adrenaline flooded his nervous system. It was fight or flight but he realized that his body was giving him no option – it was flight. He turned and ran. Vlad too was running.

They were not alone anymore.

The narrow streets, Ben’s meltdown, and their own movement must have kept them from hearing the noise of the horde behind them as it approached. In the brief moment he had looked, Ben had counted three human figures running towards him. They were not what sent him into a panic. Behind the people, was a huge pack of blood-crazed dogs. It didn’t take a genius to realize that the people were running from the dogs. When the dogs caught them, they were going to be dead. There was no way to fight off a pack that large. There were dozens of dogs.

Ben followed Vlad as he took one turn after another. He heard the mass behind him following. Vlad took a left into a narrow alley, Ben followed, and then disaster. They were in a dead end alleyway that was no more than ten feet across with unassailable side walls. As soon as he turned the corner, Ben saw that Vlad was coming back towards him. He tried to turn and exit the alleyway, but it was too late. The three people behind him nearly knocked him over as they ran around the corner and past him. The dogs were already blocking the exit.

Ben pulled his makeshift knife out and tossed his coil of garbage cloth rope to the ground as he backed away from the dog pack. A large grayish dog lunged at him and Ben jabbed the animal with his glass shard. A loud yelping was soon drowned out by the barking of the pack. The dogs had stopped running. They had their prey cornered.

Ben backed up and risked a glance behind him. He saw Vlad, two women, and a man. The man was tall and black. The women were lighter and shorter. That was all he saw. The pack of canines that was massing in front of him. They were all sizes and shapes. No collars and no love of man. These dogs were hungry and looking for a meal. If the dogs were anywhere near as hungry as he was, things were about to get uglier.

Gripping his glass dagger he continued backing up until he could back up no more. Vlad was on his right, the new man on his left, and the two women further to his left.

“We’re dead if we don’t kill them.” The woman’s voice was gravelly and strong. “We’ve got to let them know who’s boss. Yell at them – make yourselves big. These are still dogs.” She was right. It was their only hope. They all began screaming at the dogs. “Bad dog!” “Go home.”  “Sit!” Ben glanced to his left and saw the woman stepping forward towards the pack. She was thick, not fat, but a solid woman. She wore a piece of cloth wrapped around her torso. As she stepped towards the dogs, a big Dalmatian leapt toward her. Ben didn’t think, he jumped towards the dog knowing that if he didn’t knock it from its trajectory, it would connect with this woman’s throat and send the rest of the dogs into a bloodlust that wouldn’t end until they were all dead.

Just when it seemed that he was too late, his body hit the dog slammed it against the wall. He hit the wall hard with the dog’s body softening the impact. He heard the crunch of the dog’s ribs breaking. Then he was covered with dogs. An ungodly mass of teeth and claws that pulled back as he slashed and stabbed with the glass shard. The other four humans were also under attack. With desperation giving him strength, he fought the dogs off from three sides. The humans were pushed back to the wall behind them. The five of them, side by side, gradually turned the fight from three sides being attacked to a 10-foot wall of humans facing a 10-foot wall of dogs.

Thankfully, this wasn’t a highly organized wolf pack. This was a free for all of hungry dogs that had no idea how to work together. The humans might actually manage to beat the dogs back, despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered, but it was hopeless. There were too many dogs. They were doomed.

 

Chapter 9

Emma

His blue eyes were desperate, pleading, and filled with terror as he looked up at her. That was exactly the way she wanted it.

“Okay, Mr. By-the-book, are you gonna play ball or do I have Jimbo let go?” Emma never got tired of this part of her job. She gave Jimbo a nod. Jimbo, that huge, good natured goofball nodded back with a grin on his face and shifted his grip on Nathan Price, the State of New Jersey’s Chief Postal Inspector. Price felt the pull of gravity on his chain bound legs. It was only about twenty pounds of chain, but they all knew if Jimbo did let go, Price was destined to become a permanent attraction at the bottom of the Ocean City pier. A strong swimmer could carry an extra twenty pounds, but not if it was wrapped around his legs.

Despite appearances, Emma didn’t really have a problem with Price. Interactions between he and Emma had always been pleasant. She liked him. This wasn’t about personal relationships however, this was union business.

The Postal Employees Union was willing to take some pretty drastic measures to take care of members. Sure, sometimes they weren’t able to get the concessions they wanted just like sometimes a disgruntled worker managed to get a semi automatic rifle past security. That was life.

Nathan Price, Chief Postal Inspector of the State of New Jersey, dangled off the end of the pier in Ocean City while Emma outlined how he had managed to put himself in the precarious situation he now found himself in.

“So Nathan, I’m sure this must be confusing. Maybe you don’t understand what is happening here yet. I want you to understand – it’s not personal.  Let me summarize it for you. The union has been negotiating some tricky legislation to allow certain aspects of the USPS to become privatized. As an organization which represents nearly half a million postal workers, union leaders have determined that privatization of certain aspects of the postal service would allow workers to earn more, work less, and overall, enjoy a higher standard of living.You’re a union member, so you understand, the union works for you.”

“The key to getting a better deal for the union is convincing those pricks in Congress that this move is good for the security and safety of the American people. There have been a lot of people that spent a lot of time and money on this Nathan – they’ve done it for you, the union members.” She looked at Price, not sure if he was listening, but seeing that he would agree to just about anything right now.

She looked up at Jimbo, “ You okay Jimbo? You’re not gonna accidentally drop him are ya?”

Jimbo laughed that dumb good-natured laugh of his. “He is feeling pretty heavy boss. Can I? ”

Price was done. “I’ll do it. Whatever you want. I love the union. I’m a member for Christ sake. Tell me what you want!”

Emma lit a cigarette. She knew it was deadly. It had killed her last husband, may he rest in peace, but she liked smoking. Especially when she was working. Smoke breaks like this were worth the cost.

“Nathan H. Price,” she took a drag, savoring the panic as she said his name. “What does the H stand for anyway?”

“Hornblower. It stands for Hornblower.” Jimbo started laughing again – she gave him a look and he stopped. She kept her game face on even though the name was worthy of a guffaw.

“Hornblower? Are you serious? You’re a whistle blower and your name is actually Hornblower? You can’t be serious? You’re like one of those builder guys named Carpenter or a pastry chef called Baker. It wasn’t your fault, it was destiny.” Jimbo laughed again. This time she let him. She liked the contrast of her gravel voice against the deep rumble of Jimbo’s laughter. They worked well together. “How in the world did you get a name like that, Nathan?”

Price was almost done, but she needed to take him a little further. He sputtered an answer to her, desperate to keep from taking a last swim. “My mother read a lot of C.S. Forrester. Horatio Hornblower. I swear. Please, please, bring me up. I’ll do whatever you want. Please.”

“Not quite yet Hornblower. Here’s why the union is a little upset with you.” She took another drag from her Lucky Strike. “We’ve gone to all this trouble to make the world a better place for union members, like you, but  a little bird told us that you have told some key lawmakers that the security of the United States may be at risk by privatizing parts of the USPS. We think that’s a pretty silly accusation, don’t you? I mean, we are uniform wearing Americans. Are you accusing your union of treason?”

It was windy as hell. She was, as always, very appreciative of Jimbo’s strength. He wasn’t stopped by rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail. A true postman in every sense of the word. A wave crashed against the piling. It was nearly high enough to hit Price – he certainly felt the spray.

“I’ll do whatever the Union wants. I swear. I’m loyal. I swear. Just pull me up.”

“I like you Nathan. I’m glad we’ve had this talk but I want you to know that if you don’t do like you say you will, the union is full of people that aren’t as sensitive as I am and who aren’t clouded by personal feelings of affection towards you like I am. I admit, a part of the reason I’m listening to you, is because of the personal working relationship we’ve developed over the years. You’re a good guy and I knew you would do the right thing.”

She gave Jimbo another nod and the big man lifted Price up over the railing. It was amazing to watch the ease with which Jimbo pulled him up and then laid him down on the wet planks. He knelt and unlocked the padlocks that held the chains on Nathan’s legs. Jimbo was the real deal, a total professional.

The weather was giving her a serious case of the creeps. The sky had taken on a sick greenish color that  reflected back to waves that were growing far too fast. This wasn’t a normal storm. A huge wave rattled the eighteen foot pier and a strong gust ripped her cigarette from her hand and sent it flying towards the shore. This weather wasn’t right at all.

“Seems like the gumbo’s about to hit the fan, Boss.” Jimbo was a master of colorful phrases. His usual job was moving freight. He was all man, just a little light in the brains department.

The chains were unlocked and unwound.

“Nathan, you gotta stop talking to those staffers. Legal will get you up to speed on everything tomorrow. Can we drop you off at home?”

Price couldn’t make the transition back to normal as easily as she did. He was still traumatized.

That was it then, they would drop Price off at home and call it a night. Unfortunately, the universe had other plans for them. Without warning, a tugboat that had been blown from its mooring, smashed into the pier, carried by a rogue forty-foot wave that never should have been there.

With an instinct born of chaos, Jimbo grabbed Emma and leapt far enough towards the shore that they weren’t smashed and washed away by the tugboat. Unfortunately for Nathan H. Price – Jimbo hadn’t saved him. In an instant, he was gone into the turbulent and debris ridden water below.

Tossing Emma over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, Jimbo ran full speed down the pier. The tugboat smashed and ground into the pier, destroying it further. Price was simply gone. Now, it was Emma wondering if she was going to die.

A massive tidal wave larger than the last hurtled towards the shore.

It hit them with enough force to send her flying through the air. She tried to get her feet under her, but it was too much for a fifty-five year old woman to suddenly become an acrobat. She felt an impact. Everything went black.

Chapter 10

The Real World

As a young child she hated opening her eyes because of the work the waking world demanded of her. Opening her eyes meant getting dressed, heading to the barn, feeding the cows, milking the cows, and carrying the heavy milk jugs out to where her father could load them into the truck. As a young married woman, it had meant getting dressed and going into the kitchen to prepare breakfast for her first husband, a farmer. As a middle aged woman, it meant going to the post office, sorting letters, and putting them into sacks going to different parts of the country and world. As an older woman, it had gotten better, it meant having breakfast with her third husband and then going to various meetings where they would represent the workers of the Postal Union. Sometimes it meant arranging ‘events’ for those that stood in the way of the Union’s goals. Finally, Emma enjoyed her waking life.

Still, she hated opening her eyes. The world of her dreams was happier by far. In it, she wore big hats, drank tea with pinkie fingers out, and she was allowed to be the grand old baroness who that little farm girl had dreamed so long of becoming.

Emma didn’t want to open her eyes. She didn’t want to discover the truth of what had happened on that Ocean City fishing pier. She didn’t want to know who died or how badly she was injured. She was cold, but it didn’t feel like she was outside. She wasn’t wet. She really didn’t want to open her eyes. She knew, however,  that there wasn’t any choice in the matter. She took several deep breaths, prepared herself for whatever she was about to see, counted to three and….

‘1, 2, 3….’, she opened her eyes and she realized that she must still be asleep. Or perhaps she was dead. She could see nothing. Complete darkness. She lay still, considering what her next move should be. It was dark. The air was a little bit stale.She couldn’t imagine such a detail in an afterlife. If she were not still sleeping and she wasn’t dead, where might she be?

She remembered Price getting washed away and Jimbo trying to save her. It would be nice to think it was a nightmare, but it would also be very foolish. She knew it had been real. Where was she? Her present circumstances made no sense.

She moved an arm upward from where she lay prone. It felt like she was lying on metal. She touched her body and felt her skin. Naked. That was strange. How had that happened. She must be buried under something. The tugboat? But why was she so dry? She reached up again with both arms. Finding nothing above her, she attempted to roll onto her stomach and stand up…only as she rolled over, there was nothing below her. She fell.

She didn’t fall very far. She landed on something that was not as hard as the metal she had been lying on. It felt like…holy crap. It felt like a person.

Her hands frantically felt this person she had just landed on top of. She could feel arms, a chest. It felt like a man. She felt no need to be shy in the silent darkness. Holy cow. It was a man alright. He was a man with huge testicles. She moved her hands away from his genitals and reached up towards the face. His body was warm, she felt breathing.

“Jimbo…is that you Jimbo?” She shook the face. There was a wiry beard on the face, Jimbo was clean shaven. This wasn’t Jimbo. “Hey, can you hear me?” She slapped the face. “Hey, you, wake up!” She was starting to freak out. She felt it. She stopped it. She closed her eyes again. Took a deep breath.

Having learned her lesson, she felt to the sides to make sure there was something there, she didn’t want to drop again.The smooth coolness of a concrete floor to either side. She rolled off the man and knelt by his side. He was breathing. She shook him again.

“Hey, wake up. Hey!” She slapped his face again, gentler now, trying to wake him up.

“Huh, what? Where..? What? Where am I?” He was confused. Good, she hated being the only one that didn’t know what was going on.

“Hey. Wake up. I don’t know where you are. I don’t know where we are. Are you okay? Can you move?”

He was sitting up now. “Why is it so dark? Who are you?” This guy was a real question maker. Great.

“I’m Emma. I don’t know anything. I woke up and we were both here. Are you okay?”

“I think so. I feel like somebody dropped an elephant on me.” She restrained herself from smacking him. Barely. He didn’t know she was the elephant in question. “Emma?”

“Emma. What’s your name? Do you have any idea what we are doing here? Do you know where we are?”

“I’m Nick. We must be in my lab, but what are you doing here Emma? Why are you in my lab?”

“I was sort of hoping you might tell me that Nick. Are there lights in here?”

“Oh, the event. It must have been the event. That must explain it.” She felt him stand up, considered standing with him, but figured it was safer to stay where she was.

“You mean when we all got shuffled off to Buffalo? Is that the event you mean?” Something was definitely wrong here, if she were the type of woman that screamed when things were screwy, she might just start screaming now. Luckily for Nick, that wasn’t who she was.

“Shuffled off to Buffalo? I’m not sure what you mean? You mean we’re in Buffalo?” Obviously, he wasn’t a baseball fan.

“Yeah you numbskull, shuffled off to Buffalo, pushed out of the picture, left to find a new gig, involuntarily relocated…you know? Pushed to the minor leagues. What was the big event you just mentioned.”

He laughed. His laughter felt incredibly out of place. A sort of high pitched snorting. Not a pleasant sound. “The event. It happened! It actually took place.”

Emma was quickly losing patience. “Listen, Genius, was what was the event you mentioned. And how did I get in your god damned lab.”

“The Emma. Hmmm. That’s interesting….” He wasn’t answering her.

“Look Fella, I’ve had enough of your bullshit. Tell me what happened, how I got here, and why I’m not wearing any clothes…now.” She was getting up now, she was going to kick this asshole’s ass from here to next week.

Her anger must have reached him. “Ummm…well…first, it was a magnetic event generated by sunspot activity. Solar storms may have reversed the magnetic axis of the planet. That’s my hypothesis…”

Sunspots? Solar storms? Magnetic axis? Emma felt like sitting down again. Had she died and been condemned to a dark hell of science class?

“The EMA may have caused widespread destruction….” She had never been called ‘The’ Emma before.

“Just Emma is fine. You don’t need to call me ‘The Emma’ and I didn’t destroy anything Bub. Let’s get that straight.”

“Emma…oh, right. You said that’s your name. No, I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about the Electro Magnetic Anomaly – the ‘E’ ‘M’ ‘A’ – the EMA.”

“You better start calling it something else, right now.” Her frustration was rising to the surface fast.

“It’s the only name I have for it but I can all it the ‘E’ ‘M’ ‘A’ if it bothers you.”

Nick was strangely detached and reasonable for a naked man who had just been woke in a pitch black room by an angry old naked woman. A normal person should have been more bothered by all of this. She was bothered by all of this. But then, he supposed he knew what had happened, so that could be a part of his matter-of-factness.

“Yes. Call it the EMA, thank you.” She was impatient to hear more and almost sorry she had quibbled on the name, but it would have been confusing.

“I don’t know how you got here or what happened to our clothes, mine are missing too…”

She was glad he couldn’t see her blush at the memory of feeling him up while he lay there unconscious. She blustered “Okay, so where the are we and how did I get here?”

“The acoustics are totally wrong and none of my equipment is here – I don’t know where we are. This isn’t my lab.”

 

Chapter 11

The Band of Three

The situation called for panic. Nine out of ten people would have legitimately been freaking the fuck out. Emma knew this. She had spent a great deal of time studying people and how they reacted to new situations. It was odd that neither she, nor Nick were freaking out. It was a statistical anomoly.

Of course, Emma wasn’t the kind of person who freaks out. Yes, a giant tidal wave coming at her had caused her to run in panic – but that was just a matter of saving her skin. Now in the current situation where layers of darkness were woven into layers of unknown – most people couldn’t cope with that. Emma could. Her mind told her what should be happening here and she acknowledged that it wasn’t. She was a farm girl and as such she was as practical as a dairy cow. Unflappable.

She stood up, careful to test where she stepped. She did not want to fall off another hidden precipice. The job at hand was to find an answer. Any answer would do. A way out of here, a light source, or any other information that she did not currently have. Any answer regarding her current situation was a victory.

Fact: She was stuck in a mystery room.

Fact: Her only companion was Nick, the Nutty Professor.

Fact: They were both nude and in the dark.

Fact: The E.M.A. seemed to be connected to their current situation.

She found the wall with her outstretched hand.

“Hey Nick. I’ve found a wall here.  If you can come to my voice – maybe you can go left and I’ll go right and we can look for a door or light switch.”

She heard him start shuffling towards her.

“Hey, I’m on the wall now, I’ll come toward you,” Nick sounded further away than he had before.

She kept talking – just giving him a stream of information to come towards. “I”m from New Jersey. I work for the Post Office. My husband died a few years ago. I saw a big tidal wave  just before I woke up here. I’m not …”

There was a thud followed by  “Ouch!” Nick had run into something.

“You okay? What is it? What did you find?” Maybe it was something useful. She called again “Nick? You okay? Say something.”

“ I think I may have found the door,” he said, breathing heavily. Whatever he had run into must have hurt. She could hear it in his voice.

“Well, open it,  jackass!” What was he waiting for, she wanted out of wherever they were. She moved towards him, feeling her way slowly. How had they gotten this far apart? She could hear him straining at something. She was almost to him.

“I can’t seem to make this handle turn…it’s stuck.” He was in front of her now. Her hands found what he was straining at. It was a cold metal wheel, the sort of thing you see on submarine hatches.

The idea of a submarine gave her a sudden pause.

“Hey Nickyboy – stop for a second. Shouldn’t we try to figure out what’s on the other side. This thing feels like a submarine hatch to me.” She’d never been in a submarine, but it felt like she could imagine a submarine hatch feeling like. “We don’t want to flood this thing, right? I mean, whatever it is.”

He was still straining. Ignoring her words of caution. “I need your help Emma.”

Throwing her caution to the wind, she pulled on the wheel – more set on getting it to move than on opening it.

“Hey, I’m guessing you are some kind of genius so you already tried this, but have you tried pushing it the other direction? I mean, shouldn’t we be going counterclockwise?” She heard him stop straining.

“If this is a submarine or ship’s hatch ,” he said, “It would be reverse threaded like plumbing. We’re going the right direction.”

Maybe it wasn’t a submarine. Even the idea of being on a submarine made her feel claustrophobic. “Humor me Nick, just try it, maybe it’s not a nautical hatch. You pull while I push.”

It didn’t take much effort. The handle had turned in the new direction easily. She heard a click as the lock disengaged from the large door. She didn’t feel or hear water. She breathed a sigh of relief. She pushed on the door. It was heavy and made of solid metal. It opened with minor creaking and groaning. Light flooded in. It was blinding after the complete darkness they had been in.

“We have found our way outside,” Nick said. Professors weren’t known for their sparkling wit.

The massive vault they were exiting stood whole in the midst of a building that was almost completely destroyed. Emma looked at the bleached dead buildings around her, most of them far better preserved than the ruins they stood in.

Looking back into the vault,  Emma saw a riot of sparkling diamonds, gold coins, and precious metals. They had been locked up in a treasure locker.  They were rich but it looked like the world had ended – so it didn’t really matter. She would have given it all in trade for a pair of boots and some clothes.

“The idea of playing Adam and Eve with you doesn’t appeal to me, Nick. Maybe we should cover up our sensitive parts. Kapish?”

Nick was obviously crazy. He had found a stone and started scrabbling marks on the concrete with it. She looked at the big naked black man as he wrote complex equations in the ruins of civilization.

Emma went back into the vault and salvaged some cloth to wrap around herself. It wasn’t a designer pants suit – but this makeshift toga from a tarp would have to do. She found another piece and brought it back out to Nick.

So far he had covered an area half the size of her living room with complex mathematical equations. He worked back towards where he had started, mumbling to himself,  “This can’t be right, if B is related to the auxiliary magnetic field than C should be showing some sign of variation, or else…”

He squatted down, oblivious to her and his nakedness.

He had not bothered to even look at the huge horde of loot behind them. It would be up to woman to preserve any semblance of decency. It wasn’t that she minded seeing Nick nude, he was tall, thin, and hung like…well…the guy was gifted in more ways than just being able to write equations.

She had a feeling that he was the kind of guy that needed someone to take care of him while he got lost in his work. She noticed massive scars on his forearms. She could see all of him, there were minor scars elsewhere, but his forearms were almost completely made up of scar tissue. Was that from some sort of lab accident?

“Hey, uh, not to disturb your homework Nature Boy, but I thought you might want to put on the latest in holocaust survival fashion. I made it for you myself.” He looked up from his work and smiled a sheepish grin. He was handsome in a boyish sort of way.

He looked down at his nude body, sheepish. “Yeah, I guess I should put something on.”

He wrapped the canvas tarp around himself. “I’ve been doing some figuring based on the readings I took before the E.M.A and it doesn’t add up.” Whatever he was saying wouldn’t make sense to her, but she decided to just listen.  “Even if we had seen solar storms twice as intense as the ones we had, there shouldn’t have been this much destruction. If it had been a polar shift, there should have been more. Something isn’t right…”

“Seriously, Nick, did you really have to do algebra to figure out that this is fucked up? Didn’t you figure that out when we woke up in a dark room full of treasure?”

Nick didn’t understand the nuance of her sarcasm. “I knew something was wrong, of course, but Maxwell’s correction might not have taken in the true conservation of charge within a vacuum…”

On second thought, she didn’t want to listen to this. “Hold it right there Nick. I appreciate what you are saying, I really do. I mean, I think you are probably the guy to figure all this out, but don’t you think we ought to figure out where we are, who else is here, and where we might be able to trade our bountiful resources,” she nodded towards the vault, “for a meal or a bottle of water? I mean, aren’t you interested in figuring any of that out?”

She went on. “Why don’t we close the door of the vault, just in case, you know? We can have a little look and try to get some answers. I’m not saying what you’re doing isn’t important, but we need more immediate answers.”

“What should we do?” he asked her. He was waiting for orders. Good. She was the undisputed leader of a band of two.

Looking over his shoulder, she came to her first decision. “First, I’m thinking we should figure out who this naked chick wandering down the street towards us is.” A small nude woman was staggering towards them. The sun was in her eyes, so she hadn’t seen Emma and Nick yet. Nick turned and saw her at about the same time the woman saw them.

“Oh, Thank God. Oh Thank Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Praise the Lord. I am so happy to see you. Praise Jesus.” The woman ran towards them spewing her religious thanks. She was a tiny thing. Young and pretty, but deranged and traumatized. She tripped on a stone and landed on one knee. She was back up and running towards them again in an instant. “Praise Jesus I’ve found you. There has been some sort of a terrible accident and I don’t know what happened to….” The blood from her knee dribbled down her shin. She stopped. Her voice was small. “Are you the one’s Jesus sent to rescue me?”

She collapsed in the street.

Emma was now the undisputed leader of a band of three.

Chapter 12

Decisions

She didn’t have a problem giving orders.

“Nick, see if you can get her to wake up.”

Emma moved towards the vault. There was no reason to leave it open. This could be the end of the world and the stuff in the vault might not be valuable for survival, but there would definitely still be people who ‘thought’ it was valuable. Now that she knew they weren’t the only people left alive, she needed to be a little more defensive.

Inside the vault, she emptied another bag of valuables In the old world, this would be millions of dollars of loot, but at the moment, the canvas was the most valuable. She closed the door behind her and at least for a moment, felt like she was in control.

“We should move someplace with a little more shade. Also, let’s keep this vault between us.   It never hurts to have a hidden ace, know what I mean?”

Nick sat, looking at the girl – not helping her, just looking at her where she had crumbled. “I don’t think any of that is going to be very useful to us but okay. I would love to see if magnetic dipoles have realigned themselves…”

Emma felt compelled to interrupt his technical chatterboxing. “Hey Professor, I know you want to figure out why all this happened, but trust me, we’ve got to figure out some other things first, cause you know what this chick showing up tells me?”

He didn’t answer, just looked from her to the woman on the ground.

“Her arrival tells me that there are other people here. It also tells me that at least some of them are as confused as we are. I’ve got warning bells going off like crazy in my brain. Not everyone is nice. So, pick up or wake up blondie here because we need to get down the road. We’ve gotta find someplace to call home.”

Nick put his hands under the woman’s armpits and tried to stand her up. He was a big guy, but he wasn’t Jimbo. He didn’t have the same strength or the know-how.

“Not like that you lug,” she was going to have to walk him through this because the woman wasn’t going to wake up. “Slide one arm under her back and the other one under her knees, bend your knees or you’re gonna hurt your back. That’s it, now stand up…no, stop, don’t lift with your back Numnuts, use your legs, they’re stronger. Perfect.” He was standing now with the little woman in his arms.

They wouldn’t have to go far. Just a block or so. She didn’t see any reason to tell Nick to heave the woman over his shoulder in a modified fireman’s carry, he could carry her this way. They would need to find food and watern. For all Emma knew, this woman had passed out from dehydration.

“Okay, follow me.” She walked down the street, looking for someplace inviting. Looking for supplies. Looking for anything. Each building looked more desolate than the last. Most of them were boarded up. There were old apartment buildings ahead that she hoped would offer something. She walked towards them.

Funny how the world worked. If her husbands could see her now, they would all laugh and say that she was finally in her element. Three strangers wake up in a ghost town and walk towards their unknown destiny. It was like a bad Kevin Costner movie where no one got to wash because the future was too dirty. It was like Roosevelt and his Rough Riders had ridden into a communist city and leveled the place. The apartments didn’t seem any closer. That meant that she was moving slow or they were further away than she had thought. She looked to either side of the road they were on. It was about forty feet wide and empty of anything.

Ahead on the right was a boarded up storefront. The rotten wood slats came away easily. Kicking and pulling, she managed to clear an entrance big enough for them to get through. Inside was nothing. A big empty room that stretched off into the darkness.

“Lay her down there Nick.” As soon as she was on the floor, the woman’s blue eyes popped open.

“Jesus sent you to save me.”

Jesus. Emma almost wished the woman were still unconscious.

 

Chapter 13

Rescue

Emma stared out the door to the barren cityscape around them. Skyscrapers in the distance that had seemingly been broken off midway like toys of a disturbed child. Row after row of burned out concrete buildings, some boarded up, some bravely showing fire scarred faces to bright daylight. She had no idea what time it was.

It had been hours since she had awoken in the dark vault. The day had unfolded without the modern obsession towards time. The sky was blue, the shadows were long, the day was winding down.

And now she had to deal with Miss Jesus Love’s Me.

Nick was helping the woman sit up. Her pretty blue eyes were joyous behind big fluttery eyelashes.

She said “Thank you for helping me, Sir, but I think I will be alright now. Oh, praise the Lord, everything is going to be alright now, I think we should pray…”

This had to stop right now. This was the kind of thing Emma refused to put up with. The only possible good thing about the end of the world would be the end of the Bible beaters – and this chick was destroying that.

“Listen Sister, you seem to be a little addled. So toss those little tits and ass of yours into this cloth and we can compare notes. You can pray later. Got it?” The woman’s eyes flashed but she grabbed the offered cloth.

“Well, I’ve never…the nerve of you…why …” Emma let her sputter for two seconds before cutting her off.

“Look, I’ve never either, but we find ourselves in a little bit of a mess here and there really isn’t any time to waste. I don’t know what the hell is going on, but we certainly don’t have the time to sit around a campfire singing Kumbayya and talking about Jesus. What’s your name? Do you know who you are?” Emma had to establish dominance right away. She knew how these girly bitches worked. She also knew that the best way to do that was to fire out a lot of questions and keep this chick on the defensive.

“My name is Anne Hastings. You have no right to talk to me this ….” Emma cut her off again.

“What you think at this point doesn’t matter to me? Got it, Anne? ” Anne looked defiant for a split second before curtly nodding. Emma saw Nick puffing up, probably thinking about voicing some defense towards the sexy little thing. Emma cut him off before he began to speak.

“Nick,” she looked at him intently. “What city are we in? Where are we? Do you know? Where were you when you last knew where you were at?” Perfect, he was sidetracked from his noble intentions by the questions she drilled him with. Get his brain working and he would forget the noble cause of his dick.

One hand went to the back of his neck in a reflexive motion she had already noticed that he made when he was thinking. “This morning, I went to work at my lab in Glasgow so the only logical supposition is that we are in Glasgow.”

Emma knew that shock showed on her face “Glasgow? As in Glasgow Scotland? You’ve got to be kidding me, right? This isn’t fucking Scotland. I was at the Jersey Shore this morning and I wouldn’t have forgotten a transatlantic flight. Jesus Christ on a god damn crutch…you’re on the drugs aren’t you Nick?”

Anne broke the silence that followed. “Well, isn’t this just great? No time for prayer but plenty of time to use the Lord’s name in vain? Listen to me you rude old thing. I don’t suppose it occurred to you that maybe the Lord is the only one that really knows what is happening here. You can cuss at me all you want, but it won’t change that I know what I know. I was at work in Lincoln, Nebraska when Judgment Day arrived. Praise the Lord.”

Emma looked curiously at Anne and asked “Where do you think we are now? Are we still in Lincoln?” Nick and Emma both waited to hear what the girl would answer.

“Of course not. The Lord is not going to judge souls in Nebraska. We are in Purgatory and we better start praying to Jesus if we don’t want to end up in Hell.”

The shadows outside getting longer. The light was less intense. Emma had never been religious and she wasn’t about to become religious now. She had worn the stripes of an agnostic for too long. She showed respect to the Catholic Church she was raised in but she had never bought into the talk of divine and she wasn’t about to now.

“Purgatory is as good a name for this city as any other,” she said, reclaiming her composure. “I’m Emma and this is Nick. You may have noticed, we don’t know each other very well. As far as we knew, there was no one else here except the two of us until you showed up. We woke up here several hours ago. Can you tell us where you woke up? Did you see any water or food? Have you seen any other people Anne?” This was how she should have questioned the girl in the first place. She was more rattled than she had imagined possible.

Anne looked at the people in front of her. “Emma…I was at work in Lincoln. It was a slow night at the restaurant and I was having a cigarette with the cooks in the back alley. The weather was horrible. Suddenly, lightning came from everywhere like it was like the end of the world. I closed my eyes, dropped to my knees, and begged forgiveness from Jesus. Then, I woke up on the third floor of one of these buildings. I kicked the boards out of a window and climbed down to the ground. Then, I prayed more. I’ve been walking the streets, praying, and knowing that Jesus would send someone to help me all day. It seemed like a long time, but then, I saw the two of you. And the rest you know…”

Nick spoke before Emma “Did you see anyone else? Did you see water? Or food? Did you see anything?” His voice was raspy. They all needed water.

Anne looked troubled. “I saw a park and there might have been water…I wasn’t thinking too clearly when I first got out of the building I was in…I just wanted to get away from it, but I do think…”

Under her new cloth wrap, Anne’s skin was a bright pink with sunburn. It would hurt later. Now was the time to move.

Anne was useless at retracing her path. She insisted that she had come from the direction opposite of that she had actually come from. Emma decided to go in the direction the girl had first come from, over the protests of Anne. There had to be something there. She was thirsty. There was little talk among them. They walked at least a mile through nondescript groves of concrete buildings seeing nothing that might help them.

Anne was the first to speak. “When I was a Girl Scout, we used to take hikes. One time on the trail in the Grand Canyon, an old Indian that was guiding us told us that rather than drinking water all day, a good way to keep your mouth and throat wet was to put a small pebble in your mouth.” She stopped and grabbed a pebble from the road.

Emma reached for a pebble too, anything would be better than this feeling of cotton mouth. The pebble was about half the size of a marble. She plopped it into her mouth hoping it wasn’t some kind of poison, but really, would death be worse than this? Suddenly, she saw green off to the right. A narrow alleyway led to something that wasn’t the same drab dust color as everything else in Purgatory.

“We may have found your park Ann.” She walked down the tiny alley way.

Anne protested behind her, “I don’t think that was what I saw…”

Emma cut her off “Does it matter? There might be water…” She had been watching for fire hydrants or manhole covers. There were none. There were no drains in the streets. She had seen no bathrooms, no spigots, and not much of anything else beside the dead gray buildings. No trees, no birds, no color. To actually see something that might be alive. To find a park, or water….well…she care if it were the same park Anne had see- it was green.

By the time she reached the end of the alleyway, she was nearly running. There were trees and beyond the thick trunks she could see the sparkle of water. She was going to jump in. She had always thought it silly when thirsty people jumped into water in the movies. Now she got it. She would drink by osmosis. She would drink while covered with water.

Nick ran past her, probably with the same idea. She had never expected to be so happy to see water before. Nick was fast and easily made it into the grove of trees before she did. She would be there soon enough…

He disappeared into the trees and then was coming back, faster, motioning her to turn.

“Go!” he shouted “Run! Go!” She tried to see what he was running from, couldn’t see anything and decided to continue to the water. He was delirious. So was she, nearly…she needed water. She kept running towards the sparkle of the lake beyond the trees. By the time she saw the woman on the shore, it was too late.

Emma could tell that the bloody corpse had been a woman, but barely. The corpse was being torn limb from limb by dozens of dogs. The dogs had heard Nick’s shouts and turned to see Emma crashing through the brush. They scattered before regrouping and charging toward her. Emma turned and ran. They all ran. The dogs were happy to have more prey to chase.

If they had been hungry, she would have been killed quickly. Thanks to the woman on the shore, the dogs were more interested in the chase than the kill. At least for the moment.

Nick and Anne disappeared around a corner and as Emma turned it, the two pelted the beasts with rocks. It pushed them back momentarily, but it didn’t stop them.

There was no choice but to run. Nick passed the two women and then turned to the right into an alleyway. Anne and Emma followed. Ahead of them, two men. One saw them and ran, the other was facing the other way. He turned and saw Nick, Emma, and Anne. He saw the dogs, he too, ran – but it was too late. Nick and the two women followed. Humans, like dogs, have an instinct to form packs – especially when threatened.

Turn after turn, the men led them into narrower and narrower streets. The dogs were becoming more aggressive. Their clamor more bloodthirsty for their prey having grown in number. Emma rounded a corner and came face to face with the two men and a brick wall. It was a dead end. Anne screamed as she realized they could go no further. The dog pack was blocking the exit.

The older of the two new men had a weapon he jabbed at the dogs with.  Why hadn’t she made a weapon? What had she been thinking?

The dogs gathered at the mouth of the dead end alley. There were too many of them. She knew that someone had to do something and she leapt towards the dogs screaming “Go home dogs! Bad dogs. Go home, scurvy mutts, get!” She didn’t see the big Dalmatian leaping at her from the side. Before she was even aware of the dog, the older man with the dagger was leaping to knock it from her path. She watched him hit the wall and go down in a mass of fur and teeth. She backed up to where Nick, Ann, and the other man were cornered against the bricks.

The older man somehow got back up. It gave her a moment of hope but then she saw Anne crumble beneath the fury of the dog attack. A big dog lunged and bit the arm of the second new man.

They were doomed. There were too many dogs and not enough humans. There was no way they could win.

But then the odds flipped.

The dogs were being attacked from behind by a large group of stick wielding people. Emma took advantage of the dogs being distracted to move forward, kicking and punching dogs, to where Anne had gone down. Many of the dogs managed to escape, running past the new mob of attacking humans but not before the dusty street was awash in dog brains and blood.

Emma looked at herself as she helped Anne get back up. She was unsure how much of the blood that covered her was hers and how much of it had come from the dogs but pretty sure most of it was hers. Reaching Emma, the people grabbed her and held her up. Others moved to help her companions.

Anne collapsed again. She was covered with blood. Emma began to feel lightheaded, she was losing consciousness. The dark borders of her vision began closing in.

“The Bishop will be pleased,” she heard a man’s voice say. “We’ve got dog meat and four new recruits. Take them all to the Cathedral, Brother.”

As hard as she tried to retain consciousness, she had lost too much blood. As she looked up, she realized that at some point it had gotten dark and there were a billion stars twinkling above her. Her last conscious thought was a reflection of the man’s words. Why were there only four new recruits? There had been five of them.

Chapter 14

The Believers

As they were led away from the carnage of the dog fight, Ben felt a glimmer of unjustified hope. It was a hope that things were going to return back to the way things were. He hoped that the nightmare of the past hours was just that, a nightmare, a gross misunderstanding about the new nature of reality. As he staggered towards a still unknown future, he hoped that he was moving towards a now impossible sounding past. His hopes were shattered as they got closer to the cathedral.

No one had been in this place longer than Ben. Like all hierarchies, rank had simply been determined by where you opened your eyes. These people had been fortunate enough to open their eyes near this broken and shattered cathedral. Inside the cathedral, one man had opened his eyes and moved into action. The Bishop.

The cathedral was open and filled with light when the Bishop opened his eyes. Looking out the door, the Bishop had seen a lake, he had seen other people waking up, and he had seen the opportunity to take charge. People in chaos will gravitate towards a place of worship. They did so after the shit hit the fan. Upon meeting the first of them to come to the cathedral, the man inside had introduced himself.

“I am Bishop.”

For all who came after, he was ‘The Bishop’, given authority, and called Bishop.

Instinctively, he gathered his flock and put them to work. Within hours, their numbers had grown to near twenty. Arming them with clubs and rocks, he sent out search parties looking for food, water, and other survivors. As evening began to fall, he had brought more than fifty people together. He had built the first community in Purgatory – though, no one but Emma had called it that – yet.

It was Bishop’s quick thinking and organization that saved Ben and his companions from an almost certain death. Without rescue, the dogs would have been too much for them.

When they arrived at the Cathedral, Ben, Nick, and Anne were given water, bandaged, and fed. Vlad was gone. Whether he had been dragged off by the dogs or had somehow managed to escape, Ben had no idea – though he suspected the former. None of their rescuers remembered seeing him.

Ben didn’t have the leisure of conducting an investigation into Vlad’s whereabouts. One of the women had lost a lot of blood and remained unconscious. No one was sure she would make it. When she finally awoke, she was positively ecstatic at being brought back to a cathedral. “Thank Jesus. We have been found by the Believers. The Believers have found us who were lost. Praise be.” Her name was Anne and while he was glad she was making a recovery, Ben would have preferred to have Vlad back with them.

During the night, they were tended to, given food and water, and allowed to sleep within the safe confines of the cathedral. Guards were posted at the doors and torches and bonfires were lit which brought more new ‘recruits’ every hour.

It was Anne who gave name to the group, just as Emma had named the place they all found themselves. They were all among ‘The Believers’ in ‘Purgatory’. The names stuck. Bishop’s people embraced the name. Anne very quickly became one of them.

Bishop interviewed each person brought to the Cathedral. After the light of morning broke, each new member of the growing community was asked to individually sit with Bishop for a sort of placement interview..

Ben’s turn came early. A young blond man shook him awake.

“Excuse me? Hello. Good morning. ” Ben opened his eyes and tried to orient himself. The young man, seeing him awake said “The Bishop would like to talk to you sir. He needs your assistance.”

Ben wondered if it was his age and obvious wisdom that the Bishop had noticed. Thus far he had only seen Bishop from a distance, a stern man who seemed to be all action – issuing orders, assigning duties, and creating society from nothing. Ben straightened his makeshift clothing and was led to a back room in the cathedral where Bishop was waiting. He was an uncommonly tall man with sandy hair going grey on the sides. Ben figured him to be in his late forties or early fifties, but it was hard to tell. He could have been older.

He was met with a strong handshake and a warm smile. “Good Morning, Brother. I am Bishop. I wonder if you might take a walk with me. I think you can help me with something. Please tell me your name.”

“I’m Ben,” the Bishop nodded and walked away. Ben had no choice but to follow the man. He wasn’t religious, never had been. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to call the man Your Holiness or Father so instead he just decided to call him Bishop. It wasn’t clear to Ben whether Bishop was a name or a title as it seemed to be both.

“Thank you for saving us Bishop. If you hadn’t of organized things so quickly, those dogs would probably have killed us all. Thank you.”

The Bishop turned, slowing his walk, and replied warmly. “Thank you Ben. I’m glad we were there for you. We’ve got a big job ahead of us and a lot of people are going to need our help. I need to know that people are willing to help. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better, you can count on that. Come, I want to show you where the Lord had the mercy to place us.”

Ben followed the Bishop outside. The Bishop made a sweeping gesture towards the bleak city that surrounded them. “This is an unnatural place Ben. Have you seen that it is made to look like God’s earth, but that it is not?” Ben regarded him curiously.

“The search parties I sent out tell me that they have not found a single sign of humanity in any of the buildings or on any of the streets. There is nothing here Ben. It is like an abandoned Hollywood set. What does that make you think?” Ben was shocked to hear this, he could hardly believe it even though his own experience backed it up.

He could not grasp it. “It would be a very big set. Obviously, there must be something, I mean, look at all these buildings, there is obviously something in them… and aren’t they signs of humanity?”

“What city do you think this is?” The Bishop asked him.

“I’m not sure,” Ben answered.

“That’s right,” the Bishop replied. “No one recognizes it. We have people from all over the world with us and no one recognizes this city. Also, it seems that we all speak the same language – regardless of what language we spoke before.” This was news that shouldn’t have been news to Ben. He had seen this with Vlad.

The Bishop smiled. “No one has ever lived in these buildings Ben. People, did not build them. This is an unnatural place. I’m not convinced it is the actual purgatory, but the name your companion gave it seems to fit. I believe this Purgatory is a trap designed by Satan to make us feel that we can continue on the same way that we have been living. It is all a trap. Do you understand?”

Ben didn’t understand. “Satan?”

The Bishop looked at him intently and then turned. He didn’t know why.

“Come, Brother Ben. I want to show you how the Lord has blessed us, his children.” Ben could see moresearch parties forming up in the street. Smoke from fires where dog meat was being roasted and dog skins were being dried wafted through the air. He followed the Bishop around the corner. The Cathedral was not complete, parts of the roof were gone and there were gaping holes in the broken windows, but for the most part, it was in better shape than other buildings Ben had seen. Shards of stained glass in some of the windows presumably depicted scenes from the lives of the Saints.

As he came around the corner, Ben saw the blessing to which the Bishop referred. Behind the Cathedral stretched a parkland filled with trees and a  lake. A flock of small birds, the first Ben had seen, flitted from the top of one tree to another. The elegance of their coordinated flight made the mass of them seem like a single entity.

“God has put us in this Garden, Brother Ben. We are not going to let evil into it. Not this time. We will not be expelled. We must prove that we have become worthy.”

The Bishop again looked at him, the intensity of his gaze caused Ben some easiness.

“I will need your help to fight our enemies, Brother Ben.”

It was the first Ben had heard of enemies. He wanted to ask many questions, but the look on the Bishop’s face told him all that he needed to know.

Ben didn’t have a choice about whether to help and his questions would not be answered.

 

Chapter 15 

Bonds

Bishop’s interviews were an assessment. They were a chance to size up new recruits and see where they fit in his scheme of things. Ben felt like he had been judged, put in a box, and filed for later use.

After Bishop dismissed him, Ben went to check on the people he had been rescued with. They were strangers, but a bond had grown between them from having survived together. There had been no formal introductions yet, but from talking with others, he knew their names.

Near the front of the cathedral, a group of women were tearing the strange cloth they all wore into strips. The strips were being woven into ropes with much more skill than Ben had used. Ben recognized Nick as he spoke with the weavers.He was talking to a large, plain looking woman who never looked up from her work while she spoke to him.

“…but I don’t understand, aren’t you curious at all what he wants to do with the rope?”

She shook her head. “I don’t need to know. I know he is a good man trying to make things better for all of us. He said make rope and I’m sure he has a good reason for that. If he has to explain all of his reasons to everyone, he wouldn’t have time to get anything done. I have faith in the Bishop and so should you. He saved your life, after all. He is saving all of our lives…”

Ben found it interesting how different people referred to Bishop or THE Bishop. It was a name and a title at the same time.

Nick looked frustrated. “I am grateful, but aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to know how all of this happened?”

At this the woman finally stopped and looked up at him in exasperation. “He already told us how this happened. God brought us here for the final battle and we have to prepare for it. The Rapture has begun. Now, I have work to do…I suggest you find work to do as well.” She went back to her work.

Ben laid his hand on Nick’s shoulder to get the man’s attention. Nick turned and saw him. He looked like he wanted to say more to the woman who was now doing her best to ignore him. Ben led him away.

Ben was interested to hear Nick’s theories about what had happened, but it didn’t feel safe to talk about them openly. After his interview with Bishop, he felt a sort of heavy pressure and control over the group. He wondered if his time with Vlad was coloring his experience now. Either way, he led Nick to a  vacant portion of the big building.

Nick’s scarred arms covered with fresh scabs and wounds from the dogs held his attention as he wondered how the scars had gotten there.

“We’re lucky to have survived. I’m Ben, by the way.” The two men clasped hands.

“I know. My name’s Nick. The women with me were Anne and Emma. Any word on your friend?”

Ben shook his head. “Vlad. He just disappeared. Most of them think the dogs dragged him off, but that doesn’t seem likely to me. I don’t know. Hey, listen, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation over there. I’m curious, have you had a chance to meet with Bishop yet?” Ben didn’t think he had, but he wasn’t sure.

Nick looked wary as he shook his head no.

“Good, listen, I know this might seem odd to you, but you’re a scientist right?” It had been an easy assumption to make based on what he had heard. Nick nodded yes this time.  “I’m sure you know what happened to Copernicus and Galileo right?”

This was clearly within the realm of Nick’s knowledge. He began to speak enthusiastically.

“Of course, they were responsible for correcting misconceptions about man’s place in the Universe, they were expanded upon, corrected, and utilized to create a solid understanding of the role of science, they were exonerated by history and science…”

Ben interrupted him “That’s the thing Nick. Their views were eventually accepted, but along the way, well, let’s just say that they both got the shaft for having views that didn’t line up with that of the Church. The reason I am saying this is because, well, it’s because, even though I bet your ideas about what happened make a lot of sense…I think…that is, well, I just spoke with Bishop, or the Bishop as most here call him,  and I think you might want to tread lightly. These people don’t want to hear about science Nick and I think if you insist on telling them this wasn’t a big religious event, you might get the shaft just like Copernicus.”

Nick was looking at him with disbelief. “Don’t be ridiculous, we aren’t living in the dark ages. Bishop may be a man of faith, but certainly he understands science is not something that can be argued…”

Ben grabbed him by the scarred arms. “Look around. Does this look like enlightened society to you? The dark ages are exactly where we are. Listen to me. No one here argues with Bishop. Did you hear that woman you were talking to? He tells them what has happened and what to do.”

Nick shook his arms loose. “I grew up in a traditional society. When I was a young boy in Kenya, a witch told my grandfather I had been possessed by malignant spirits. He and other villagers, including my parents, watched while the witch held my arms over a fire. Do you know why the witch told them I was possessed?” Ben looked down to the scarred arms. “I had asked the witch why he used gunpowder to create smoke and flash during rituals. I wasn’t supposed to have seen him preparing his packets. I wasn’t supposed to recognize the smell. For this, the witch condemned me to be burned. It was after that I left my village and dedicated myself to learning the truth. I will not listen to lies..”

Ben needed to convince Nick of the danger however. “Nick, Bishop is another witch. Please just keep your ideas to yourself for now or you are going to get burned again. Trust me on this. When he interviews you, tell him that you are a Christian and please, don’t preach any science. It won’t be helpful. In fact, we should really start thinking about leaving.”

Nick pointed to where Emma was sleeping, still recovering from her many wounds. “We can’t leave until she is stronger. I won’t leave her behind.” Ben remembered hearing the raspy cussing of the wounded woman in the alleyway. Somehow, having saved her from the dog had made him feel responsible for her too.

The two sat with Emma through the day as she faded in and out of a delirious consciousness. There was nothing they could do beyond holding her hand, cleaning her wounds, and re-hydrating her. Anne, the other woman that had been with them joined them from time to time and shared news of what she had learned among the Believers.

“I spoke with the Bishop and he told me that he saw all of this coming in a dream. When he saw the storm creating an uncommon aurora borealis, he recognized it as a sign to gather his flock in a shelter they had prepared. God speaks through him, it is a miracle that our Lord has provided us with this prophet to lead us to salvation.” Anne was attractive and had a pleasant personality – her odd outbursts of religious devotion, however, were jarring.

“Did his people come with him?” Ben asked her.

“No. He and his flock are from Idaho – he hasn’t found any of them yet. He thinks God may have already admitted his people to heaven and sent him here to help shepherd others into the path of righteousness.”

“Like a Bodhisatva,” Nick said.

“I’m not sure what a Bodhi – whatever is” Anne said, “but  I prayed to Jesus for help and he brought me the help I needed. The Bishop is a great man!”

Emma stirred into consciousness. “Water. I need water. Please…get me some god-damn water.”

Nick poured water from the knotted stomach of a dog that had been dried over a fire into the woman’s mouth. Ben had to give the Believers credit for innovation and adaptation. They hadn’t wasted any time putting available resources to work. Ben watched, relieved that she was showing signs of recovery.

“That’s one handy trick with the dog stomachs,” Ben said.

Nick laughed. “In Scotland, they use sheep guts. I wish we had a sheep.”

Emma was too out of it to understand what she was drinking from. She drank thirstily and fell back asleep.

“Awful woman, even befouling the Lord’s name in her sleep.” Anne didn’t appear to have much love for Emma.

“We’d better keep Emma away from the Bishop when she wakes up,”  Ben said quietly to Nick. “He doesn’t strike me as tolerant towards religious points of view.”

Anne heard him and added an interesting tidbit to the conversation. “I heard that he’s going to expel those who refuse to believe that the Lord brought us here for a purpose. I’m pretty sure he’s going to make her leave if she ever recovers.” She looked at Ben and Nick, “You two may want to think about that too. People have noticed you whispering together.”

Nick’s big eyes met those of Ben. Neither man had any intention of staying longer than they had to.

 

Chapter 16

Theocracy

On his second day amongst the Believers, Ben was again summoned to see Bishop. This time, he was part of a group. A half dozen dozen men including Nick gathered in Bishop’s ‘office. A young blond man named Richard, entered the room before Bishop joined them. He seemed to be functioning as a sort of secretary or lieutenant.

“Thank you for coming Gentlemen,” Richard said. “Please be seated, the Bishop has important work for all of you to attend to.” Some of the men sat on the stone floor, but others remained standing. Ben noticed an Asian man standing in the back with his arms folded. He didn’t look happy.

“Please, Haruka.” Richard said to him,  “Have a seat and relax. You will be pleased with this. I promise.” Haruka grudgingly sat down with the others. The rest followed suit. Richard stepped through a makeshift curtain over the doorway and disappeared on the other side.

Ben raised his eyebrows to Nick. Nick shook his head, he didn’t know what this was about either. Then Bishop appeared.

“Brothers. Thank you for coming.” From the floor, Bishop’s height was  commanding. “We have a special problem that I need your assistance with. Your community needs you.”

Ben was still astounded at how quickly Bishop had organized and taken control of things.

“Ask your God for help.” This came from Haruka and there were a few nervous snickers that followed it. Haruka was squatting, his arms crossed. Ben could easily surmise that Haruka’s interaction with the Bishop had not been positive.

“Please, Brother Haruka, hear me out. I have talked with all of you and I find that you men in this roomare much more practical than most of us.” Something about the way Bishop said ‘practical’ put Ben on edge. “We are here without many of the things we need and we are going to have to make them. I know that if we work together, we will be able to make life better for all of us.”

The men around Ben seemed in agreement. Even Haruka, an obvious malcontent, nodded his assent.

Bishop continued. “I realize that not all of us have the same beliefs. I know that some of you don’t believe in God…”

“I believe in my God…” Haruka’s voice was strong. “Your God, is not mine.”  He was a young man, like Richard, probably in his early twenties.

Bishop reddened, but kept control. “We need to help one another regardless of ideology or beliefs. Everyone here needs your help. We have women and injured, please who are not as strong or able as you. They need your help.”

Ben felt the manipulation, but also saw the truth. Bishop was right, they needed to work together.

Bishop continued. “Our search parties have found little in the way of supplies or materials. Stone, brick, glass, and this cloth” Bishop touched the curtain he had walked through. “We have heard some of you call it garbage cloth, but we view it as a gift – so we want to call it mana-cloth instead. It is like our mana from heaven.” The cloth was one of those strange mysteries Ben simply couldn’t figure out. Mana cloth was a better name.

“There are things we need. We have made clubs and knives to help defend our community from  predators.” Branches and broken glass. “We need to develop wheels and tools. We need to learn to hunt. We need to protect those who are not as strong as you are. I have asked you here to put your ingenuity and your strength to use for the betterment of us all.”

None of them argued. It made sense.

“Let us focus on creating the things we need. We can  work together and solve the problems that plague us. We need all of you.”

Ben was amazed by the amount invention that emerged from the group over the day. Ben showed the men how he had made his dagger, another man in the group, Adam improved upon this to create hand axes and adzes. Ben managed to construct a rough wheel barrow.

Haruka created a hunting bolo using rope and stones. Bishop took their prototypes so others could replicate them. Theirs was the idea shop, others were the assembly line. A Syrian man named Abdullah created the first bullwhip and demonstrated it to the Bishop. The Bishop was delighted. They were on an inventor’s high and blinded to what was going on around them. As darkness fell, Bishop called them together again.

“Brothers, your inventiveness has helped make it possible for us to prosper. As you know, we have discovered there are deer and rabbits. Our hunters have succeeded with your tools.. We are going to plant gardens. Abdullah has given us the whip. Your innovations in fishing gear make our survival here more assured than ever. You have labored in creation and our numbers have swelled into the hundreds! We will need to house people in neighboring buildings as our community grows. Things are glorious for us. Please join me in prayer as we thank God for his mercy and help.”

Some of the men bowed their heads. Some of them were Believers, but most of this group were atheists, agnostics, or non-Christian. They were proud and not willing to pretend to be something they were not.

Bishop bowed his head, eyes closed, and began to pray out loud. “Lord, Father, Merciful God. We thank you for bringing we Believers together in this land we call Purgatory so that we might prepare for battle against the minions of Darkness. We have tried, oh Father, to bring all forces of light to your side. Please Father, assist these men through the trials that await them and help them to see the truth in your light that has been sent down before them. We long for them to denounce the forces of darkness they worship and join us in Believing that You have placed us here for a reason and we beg your forgiveness for their blasphemy.”

Richard and several other believers had been moving among them, asking certain men, generally those more compliant with Bishop’s belief system, to step outside. Ben had never closed his eyes and as the impact of Bishop’s words hit him, he realized it was too late to pretend.

“We thank you for providing us with their labor, Father. We beg you to show them the wonderful light of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

There was tenseness in the air. A fight was coming. Bishop smiled.

“You have chosen not too embrace the light. You men have been useful but you are dangerous to our community of Believers. Your comrades who have chosen to see the light and become a part of us, they are free and no longer among you. As for you, I pray that you will be redeemed in the work heaven has selected you for.”

Bishop left the room. Instantly, the edges of the room were crowded with Believers armed with knives, spears, bullwhips, and bolos. The purpose of the ropes the women had been making became apparent as Ben and the other non-believers were beaten, tied, and placed under guard within the cathedral. The Lord had selected them be slaves.

There was resistance, but it only led to more brutal beatings. They were herded into a small room with only one exit. Bishop’s men stood ready to brain them with sticks and stones. Judging from the beating they had given Haruka, they were not afraid of breaking any bones.

Their hands were tied behind them. Ben sat with Nick on one side of him and Haruka on the other. The Believers had not gagged them and he felt free to speak. Bishop had looted their innovations and used them to enslave them.

He was determined not to lose hope. If he had to pretend that things were fine, he would do so, but he would not allow the despair he felt creeping into his consciousness gain a foothold.

“Well, it seems we no longer have to hide our opinions on what happened Nick. I never did get a chance to ask you about how your interview with the Bishop went.” Perhaps the best way to overcome the sudden fear he felt was to talk as if he were a free man, in fact, as he said it he realized that he and the others were actually free to dissent now that they had been turned into captives.

Nick looked up at him. His nostrils were flaring as he fired back at Ben, “If this is some kind of I told you so, fine. You told me. I didn’t listen. I see now that you were right. Okay? You were right.”

Ben saw his question may have been taken for derision. “No, definitely not. This is not the time for that kind of thing Nick. I’m not looking for some kind of come-uppance.  I think it might be important to start comparing notes on what this guy has said to each of us. And about what happened to us. These people are totally convinced that this is an act of God and I am certain it was not.”

Nick’s features softened as he realized that Ben was telling the truth. “It’s not the first time in my life that I have believed in the wisdom of authority and had the reality put me in a compromised position, but I really wasn’t expecting this. Not after the conversation I had with him.”

Several of the other men were listening to their conversation. He reminded himself to remain calm and to project a feeling of hope. He needed to affirm that Bishop was wrong. The way he saw it, there were two choices in front of them all: join the Believers or not. It was in his interest to have these men be allies. They might be captives, but the more of them there were, the harder it would be for the Believers to control them.

“Nick, what was your conversation with Bishop like? Start at the beginning and keep your voice a little bit low. They don’t need to know what we are talking about out there.” He jerked his head in the direction of the curtain that separated them from the Believers.

Nick nodded and began. “I should have listened to you Ben. I felt like the Bishop was listening to me with an open mind. He asked me to take a walk with him. While we walked, he asked me why I thought we were here. I told him I had been studying the effects of electromagnetic storms generated by the sun on the polarity of the planet. I told him about the research I was doing in Scotland and how I felt pretty sure that what happened was what is called a polar shift. In a polar shift, the polarity of a planet actually reverses itself, no one is actually sure how it happens, but research has shown that it occurs about every 22,000 years.”

Ben needed to clarify something. “What do storms on the sun have to do with polar shift and what exactly is a polar shift, I mean, what does it do, would it cause storms and that weird light?”

Nick nodded. “It is all about the storms. On the sun are what laypeople call sun spots. Sun spots exist in pairs. They are gigantic, much bigger than our entire planet. These spots circle around each other in cycles. No one is exactly sure what they are or why they do what they do, but the result is that they create gigantic electromagnetic fields that pummel everything in their path, including our planet. Usually, this isn’t a problem as our atmosphere and the radiation between us and the sun manage to keep the effects within a relatively stable range. Every 22,000 years or so, the sun erupts in a multitude of sunspots. Hundreds of them more than have existed throughout our history. The result is a massive series of solar flares that affect everything within range for hundreds of light years in distance. To answer your question, it is these solar flares which batter the magnetic field of Earth with the net result that North becomes South and South becomes North. The poles actually reverse.”

Ben nodded. “Aside from making navigation a little tricky, how does this affect the planet?”

Nick looked a little frustrated at Ben’s ignorance, but he seemed to have forgotten that he was tied up in his enthusiasm to share his knowledge. “Think about it Ben. Nobody really knows what magnetism or even electricity are. The best way to explain it might be to say that magnetism is like a reverse wind. Depending on the polarity of the magnet, it either blows or sucks.”

Adam’s voice came from across the room. “This blows and sucks!” All of the men laughed. They were listening. What might have been a dry lecture a few days ago in the real world was now a lesson in life changing science.

“Okay, so this is really simple.” Nick knew he was talking to the entire room. “You guys have been in a stiff wind before right? The kind of wind that you have to lean into in order to keep from getting knocked down.” There were nods all around. “Imagine you spent 22,000 years bracing into a wind that only blew in one direction. You’d start to feel pretty used to moving around leaning forward, right? Now imagine that before you could blink, the wind changed one hundred and eighty degrees and was blowing just as strong but the opposite direction, what do you think would happen to you?”

Adam’s voice again. “You’d probably do a face plant and eat some gravel.” Everyone murmured in agreement.

Nick drove his point home. “That’s what happened to our planet a couple of days ago. It did a faceplant when the magnetic wind suddenly shifted directions. That’s why the everything went crazy.”

Adam wasn’t completely satisfied. “So how did we get here? And where are we exactly?”

Nick shook his head. “I don’t know. Science did not prepare me for that question. In any event,” he looked at Ben again, “that is what I told the Bishop. He seemed enthusiastic to find answers. He asked me not to tell anyone since he thought it might cause unnecessary worry for people. He wanted to focus on survival. Ben?”

“Yeah Nick.”

“It looks like I got the shaft.”

Adam again provided sarcastic comic relief “You’re not the only one Pal.”

There was more laughter all around. Their spirits had not been broken.

 

Chapter 17

The Rescuers

 

The curtain opened. It was Anne bringing them food. Behind her, six brawny Believers stood ready with clubs in case any of them attempted to leave the room.

“Anne, are you a part of this? Do people know we’ve been jailed? Please, tell us what is going on!” Ben whispered to her.

She gave him a sour look. “The Bishop told us what you were planning. He showed us the weapons he confiscated from you. You should all be ashamed of yourselves. He saves you, brings you here, provides for you, and you hatch a plot to kill him! And he still feeds you! We support and love him. He is a truly good man.”

“What?” Ben felt deflated, he had hoped people knew what was actually happening. Bishop had engineered everything the way he wanted it. The man was a genius. While they worked, he put all of the pieces into play. They were isolated and no one would help them.

Anne laughed. “And he’s going to find anyone else like you too. You’ll be getting new members on your chain gang soon enough.” Now she lowered her voice so that only Ben could hear “Emma is awake and if she doesn’t start showing the Lord some respect, I won’t be able to keep her out of harm’s way.”

“What is he planning to do with us?” Ben asked.

Richard stepped into the room. “Leave the food on the floor and get out.” Anne dumped a pile of charred meat into the center of the floor and scurried away with her head down. Richard surveyed the room “Well, look how far the mighty have fallen,” he sneered. “You atheists, niggers, and nips are going to get it now.” Gone was the deferential young man, replaced with a snarling bigot. He spit on the pile of meat Anne had left behind. “We are creating the Kingdom of Heaven and in the Kingdom, you better figure out your place.” He turned and walked out wearing garbage cloth like an SS uniform.

Ben was the first to take some of the meat. He knelt down and lifted a dog shank with his teeth. Spit or no spit, he was hungry. He backed up to where he had been sitting before and dropped the meat in front of him. “There’s less disease in his spit than in his brain,” he said. “I’ll be damned if I will let that piece of shit ruin my appetite.”  Not all of the men followed Ben’s example. Nick did, Haruka did not. Ben was too busy attempting to eat with no hands to notice what any of the others did.

Guards came through and gave them each several mouthfuls of water. Some of the men lay on cold stone and tried to sleep.

“Nick,” Adam moved closer to where Nick was. “If you were to guess where we are or how we got here, what would you guess?”

“I can’t make a guess at all. I don’t have enough data. Nobody that I know of has ever encountered any sort of situation like this. You have to have a certain amount of data in order to make an educated guess otherwise you are simply wasting your time. I don’t know of anything that would have transported me out of my lab to where we are. In fact, my calculations suggest that nothing like this place should have withstood the polar shift at all. This is beyond what the data suggests…”

Ben listened. He considered mentioning the vehicle and people he had seen from the rubble of his print shop. He hadn’t heard anyone else with a similar experience. They all saw the end of the world and then woke up here with no in between. Maybe it was time to share his story.

Before he could speak, Haruka did. “What does the data say about the people that pulled me out of the Pacific Ocean?”

“What people?” Nick asked. “Who pulled you out of the ocean?”

Haruka sighed in exasperation. “Here we go again. I’ll tell you one thing, it wasn’t angels of God like the Bishop tried to tell me. Like I told him, I came up from a dive and there was a fucking UFO hovering over me. It shot out a net and lifted me into a cargo bay where there were three big guys in white spacesuits. One of em stuck a needle in me as soon as I got up there and the next thing I knew, I woke up in a basement a few blocks from here. I’m pretty certain angels don’t need to sedate anyone with needles.”

Ben leaned towards Haruka. Someone said “People hallucinate in trauma, it kind of sounds like a near death experience…the people probably weren’t real.” Others in the room were agreeing. Ben decided to speak.

“I saw them too. The rescuers. He wasn’t hallucinating.” Ben told what he remembered.

No one else had seen anything and there was still some doubt, but it was harder for the men to dismiss both of their accounts. No one had answers about what had happened to them and no one knew how to  escape. They needed more information.

The next morning, Bishop put them to work clearing rubble from the lobby of an apartment building across from the cathedral. They were isolated from the growing community of the Believers and they had no contact with newcomers who found or were found by the Believers.

They had invented the tools of their own servitude. Bishop had seized total power to exercise his will. Ben lifted a stone block from the ground and placed it in the wheelbarrow. Sweat poured out of his bare skin as he worked in the blistering sun. Around him, the other captives worked just as hard at the same task. Whether Vlad had died or not, he had escaped this. . Vlad had deserved to die a free man, he had spent long enough a prisoner. He had lost enough already. For Ben, Vlad served as a reminder of how much could be stripped away from a human being without depriving them of that spark of spirit that demands freedom. If Vlad had lived, this would have been worse for him than for anyone else. Of that, Ben had no doubt.

“Back to work old man, you’ll get a break when we tell you to take one,” the words were emphasized with the crack of a whip that was near enough Ben’s back to remind him that he was a prisoner. “Idle hands are the devil’s work and the Bishop is doing his best to keep the devil at bay.”

There was laughter from the other overseers watching him work. They were all newcomers who believed every word Bishop and Richard told them. Ben returned to the task at hand while looking at his fellow slaves. Ten more had been thrown in with them at first light. There were fifteen men and seven women total. They had been coerced into labor for the glory and benefit of the Bishop and the Believers.

His wheelbarrow was nearly full. He signaled to an overseer who came down to make sure he had filled it to capacity. The Believers had taken to slavery like fish to water. The cathedral’s exterior walls were rising and expanding. Ben had to give the Bishop credit for getting things done. The man knew how to organize, of course, most fascists do. Ben gritted his teeth and pushed his burden.

Free Believers were using the rocks he brought to repair the cathedral walls. Their population had reached hundreds. No one had found any children yet. The youngest survivors were no younger than twenty.

There were people from all over the world. One would expect that language would have been a problem, but it wasn’t. Everyone spoke the same language now. It sounded like English to English speakers, like Arabic to the Arabs, and like Chinese to the Chinese. Bishop claimed the tower of Babel had dispelled the language of God and replaced it with false tongues. Humanity had been blessed with reconciled language of the divine.

Ben spoke English and French before, now he could speak them interchangeably and anyone could understand him. It still sounded like English and French to him, but to someone who spoke Swahili, it sounded like he was speaking Swahili. This had been why Vlad had been surprised at his lack of an accent. Vlad would have been a valuable ally through this.

Ben pushed his now empty wheelbarrow back to the apartment complex where they were quarrying bricks and stone. Spear and whip armed Believers stood watch, close enough to hit but far enough that they couldn’t be attacked. It was a good system that had kept anyone from escaping so far, but Ben knew that at some point he would get away…or die trying.

He spit into the dust and began to load the wheelbarrow with more stone. He would be leaving soon. He knew it in his bones.

Chapter 18

Slaves

They were given water at the hottest part of the day, but there were no breaks. Ben was used to pacing himself and working long hours, but not the kind of work he was forced to do on this day. The overseers became increasingly brutal as the day went on.

The slaves Ben knew were Nick, Abdullah, Haruka, and Adam. The other four from their original group were Steve, Kim, Samuel, and Soc. Bishop apparently had no bones about making slavery racial. Ben, Adam, and Steve were the only whites among the slaves. The men who had been allowed to go free had all been white. Richard’s was the first racist rant but not the last. Adam was Jewish, Steve was a communist, and Ben wasn’t sure where he fit in but something about him had obviously alarmed Bishop because here he was and here he stayed.

Of the thirteen who had been newly enslaved with them, two were white and eleven were not. Ben didn’t recognize any of them from the time he had been ‘free’ within the cathedral. He presumed that they were all newcomers. He wanted to find out who they were but the overseers watched them all suspiciously from behind blue eyes. Richard and all of the other overseers had blue eyes.

Around noon  when the sun was at its hottest, the captives were herded together into one of the rooms they had finished clearing. Richard was among the captors and Ben decided it was time to get answers.

“What the hell is going on? You people are building a fourth Reich here? This is insanity!”

Several of the big white guards threw him onto the ground and Richard stood over him smiling.

There was a tense moment as the slaves considered their chances, but the guards seemed ready with spears and clubs – the moment passed. Richard’s smile got bigger as he began to speak.

“Ben. I understand why you might be confused. I mean, here you are, a white man, and you are being forced to work like some kind of nigger. It breaks my heart, it really does. That’s why, I want to explain your situation to you.”

Richard motioned to his goons and they picked Ben up from the floor. “We are in a new world with new rules Ben. The Bishop,” he emphasized the name as title, “… is building a new age of freedom and prosperity. The thing is…” Richard stepped closer, Ben tensed. “…the old rules don’t apply anymore. We don’t have to give fake respect to inferior peoples any longer.” His voice lowered “And, guess what else Ben?”

Richards knee smashed into his groin. “We don’t have to put up with atheist hoohaw from people like you anymore either. The Bishop knows who the enemy is Ben, the enemy is Satan and his hordes of godless, white woman raping, non believing, perverts who follow the enemy. The lord has given us this chance to build an army and save all the children from the child molesting Satanists who hold them.” Ben would have fallen to the ground if the men hadn’t held him up. Richard’s voice hammered his brain over the ringing in his ears and the pain in his entire body.

The pain of the moment caused everything to blur. Nick stepped towards him, only to be hit in the face with a club. Haruka was held against the wall. Adam was punched in the face. His own pain became bearable as he was allowed to crumble to the floor. Richard let fly one more insult as he and his goons left.

“If it were up to me, you’d all be dead. You scum should be honored to participate in something so great as the building of Heaven on Earth. The Bishop, in his mercy, has decided to let you cleanse yourself of sin through honest labor. When work on the Cathedral is done, he will give each of you the chance to redeem your souls and become Believers. You can thank God for putting you into the hands of such a merciful man of God instead of leaving it up to me.”

Shortly after this the goons broke them up into seven work groups of three each. There was a woman assigned to each group and that those who had been either vocal about their dissent or physically punished were placed in separate groups as well. Each group contained no more than one man who might pose a physical threat.

Ben’s trio worked well together even though they were not given time to introduce themselves. They removed bricks from crumbling interior walls, loaded them into the barrow, and then one of them would wheel it to where free workers (not slaves) were rebuilding the cathedral walls. Samuel, a large tan man was told to push the first load of bricks. Obviously, the overseers wanted to keep Samuel more physically exhausted, since he was the larger and younger of the two men and therefore, probably the more dangerous. They watched him closely while he pushed the cart out of the room and into the street. It was their careful attention and the noise of the rough cart that gave the woman a chance to introduce herself to Ben.

He hadn’t seen her move, but suddenly, she was there, touching his arm and whispering “I am Sutreyu. There are other people besides these Believers. I will find a way to tell you more later, Ben.” Richard had used his name in front of everyone before attempting to turn him into a soprano. He turned to answer her, but she had already glided away and was busy scraping mortar from between the highest bricks she could reach.

They figured out a system quickly. They would scrape the crumbling mortar from a horizontal row, and then they would push on the wall with a rocking motion until it fell. It was strangely uniform construction. The loose bricks were then loaded in the cart.

She was in her late twenties or early thirties. No taller than five foot and weighed no more than a hundred pounds. She had wrapped cloth around her body like a sarong and used a square piece to create a babushka head scarf that held her voluminous black hair out of the way. As he scraped the grout, he noticed her hands and had to look at her again to see if he had misjudged her age. Sutreyu had the hands of a ninety-year-old woman. Wrinkled, bony, and twisted.

“What people? Do you mean more people that the Believers have not found?”

“Shhh. Do not talk to me. Just work and I will talk to you tonight.”

Ben doubted they would get the chance to be alone in the evening. He was guessing that the last evening’s relative freedom to converse had been a result of the suddenness of their confinement. Still, Sutreyu’s words comforted him as he thought about what they might mean. Maybe she meant that there were people within the community of Believers that were sympathetic to the plight of those who had been wronged. He tried not to let his imagination get the better of him, but could not help feeling buoyed by the knowledge that there might be dissent within the Bishop’s ranks.

The three of them continued with the process of loading bricks and carting them away for the next several hours. The guards silenced any speaking with flicks of their bullwhips – they had gotten very good with the whips very quickly.

In the late afternoon, Samuel was told to take the cart back to the Cathedral. As Samuel moved away from the wall where he and Sutreyu were working, Ben saw the woman place her foot behind Samuel and trip him. The big man tumbled backwards and landed hard. He clutched at his leg and moaned in pain. Ben came closer to see if he was alright, Samuel met his eyes and winked. Ben decided to play along.

He and Sutreyu were both bending over the injured man as he sat up holding his right ankle. The goons were upon them almost instantly.

“We’ll take care of this. Back off!” Samuel stood up and moved towards the wheelbarrow. He limped heavily and favored his left leg. The tip of a whip cracked against his back and he winced but kept limping.

“Doesn’t look broken to me,” one of the guards said. “You,” he motioned to Ben, “take the bricks to the Cathedral this time.” Ben did as he was told, trying to figure out why Sutreyu had tripped Samuel and why Samuel had winked at him. He pushed the barrow out the doorway. It felt like it weighed a million pounds.

Outside, the light was bright. It was obvious the day was coming to a close. Ben came closer to the cathedral and saw work had progressed rapidly. The walls were nearly complete. Free workers had begun constructing a wall, blocking access to the park from anywhere other than the Cathedral. As he looked to the park, he saw a net fly into the air and bring down a bird. The smell of wood smoke barely covered the stench human sewage that was accumulating in the area.

Disease would run rampant through the camp if they didn’t come up with a sanitation system soon. He could have told them how, but he wasn’t going to help the Believers beyond what he was forced to do. They could all get cholera and die choking on their own pollution. After dumping the bricks, Ben prepared to push the cart back to the apartment building when he heard his name.

“Ben!” He turned and saw  Anne. He had misjudged her, she was a stupid, gullible, traitorous bitch and he turned away from her intending to ignore her as she came towards him.

“No talking with the Prisoners.” One of the goons barked at Anne. Ben was glad of the interference.

“I have a message from the Bishop for this man,” Anne said as she continued closer. “Step away from him and allow me to deliver the Bishop’s words.” The goon stepped barely out of earshot. Ben turned as she came near.

“What do you want Anne? ” Ben had no patience would rather go back to labor than face this disgusting girl who mooned over Bishop.

There was fear in her face. “Ben, the…the ..he didn’t send me. It’s Emma. She is awake and wouldn’t listen to me when I told her to keep quiet. She has been spouting blasphemy. She..she woke up and wanted to know about Nick, you, and your friend and I told her…then she wanted to see you and when I told her that you had been arrested she began blaspheming….I, um…I , I , don’t know what to…”

Maybe he was wrong again. Compassion for the girl invaded his sense of disgust. “Why are you telling me this? I can’t do anything about anything…what do you want me to do?”

Anne took a shuddering breath. “I…I know. It’s just that…I , she saved me and I just, I can’t, I owe her…and she…she told me to tell you that.. that..” her sniffling was making it difficult for her to talk. The big goon was looking impatient, Anne’s back was to him, so he couldn’t see the tears on her face but he wouldn’t wait much longer…

The whole reality of his situation was unthinkable, but here he was, a slave, watching a girl struggle with her emotions and waiting for a message of hope.

The words spilled out of her in a single breath. “She told me to make sure you were alright and to tell you that she was going to take care of everything. She said not to worry.” Her breathing again became ragged.

“Great. You’ve told me. I still don’t understand why you are so upset. You’ve done your job. Great, everything is going to be fine. Now I need to get back to work.” He was so annoyed that he wanted to get back to his slavery.

“No,” she gasped. “You don’t understand. She met with the Bishop and …”

Ben looked at her, not understanding.

“Ben, I don’t know what she said, but the Bishop is going to execute her!”

 

 

Chapter 19

Hell on Wheels

Emma had never felt so thirsty. She would have drank horse piss if someone put it in front of her. No one was nearby to make such an offer. She propped herself up on one elbow and tried to figure out where she was.

People were bustling about like busy bees and every one of them was dressed like some sort of medieval peasant. She was wearing the same. She considered slamming her head on the stone floor in order to knock herself back into the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness but thirst drove her to stay awake..

She had never been a person that went in for self delusion anyway, so she looked around to see if she could find a familiar face or someone willing to help her. She saw the Bible beater chick and tried to call out, but her mouth was too dry. She decided to find water on her own.

She tried to stand and the blood rushed from her head. Wobbly. She fought it.

“Anne, your friend is awake…”  A syrupy sweet smile lit Anne’s face as she turned and saw Emma standing there. She dropped what she had been working on and rushed to Emma’s side.

“Praise the Lord, Emma. We thought you might never wake up. You shouldn’t stand up yet, let me help you to sit back down…” The girl was trying to force her to sit but having fought so hard to maintain a standing posture, Emma was loathe to give it up.

“Get me some water…” she croaked, barely audible. Anne ignored her request.

“You need to sit down. You’ve been unconscious for three days.” Anne was still trying to force her to sit. It was not going to happen.

“Water…” she croaked again, unable to complete the rest of what she wanted to say which was “I want some water you little Jesus loving cunt and I’m not going to sit down, so you better take me to some water, now.”

Anne gave up on trying to get her to sit and helped her walk to a brownish sack that sloshed as she picked it up  and poured awful tasting water into Emma’s mouth.

It tasted foul, but it worked wonders on her dried mouth and throat. Emma grabbed the skin and poured more water into her own mouth from it. Other women gathered as she drank.

“…like a miracle…” “…never thought I’d see the dead arise and walk…” “…the Lord can work amazing miracles…” No shortage of weak Christian drivel. Great. It was bad enough having to deal with one of them, now she was stuck in an entire colony.

Taking the water with her, she moved back to where she had awoken. She could tell by the high ceiling and stained glass that she was in a church. Anne motioned for her to sit. Having resisted her efforts for a sufficient amount of time to feel independent, Emma acquiesced.

“I am so glad that you are alive. We didn’t know if you would make it. You bled so much after the dogs…” the girl was gushing. Emma felt an unexpected moment of affection upon seeing Anne’s concern was real.

“It takes more than a bunch of dogs to kill me…” her voice was coming back. She felt weak, but capable. No doubt about it, she would be alright soon. “Listen, um, Anne, right?” the girl nodded. “There is obviously a lot that I missed.  Can you catch me up on where we are, who these people are…”

The girl glanced to where she had been working. “I would love to sit with you, but the Bishop has given us all jobs to do and I really need to finish mine, maybe later….”

Emma held up her hand. “That’s enough. Hold it right there. There’s a padre here? A Bishop? Look, I know you want to be a good girl and all, but I really need you more than the Bishop does right now, you remember Florence Nightingale and Mother Theresa right? Your Bishop will approve of you playing nurse for a while…”

Anne looked to the other women working. “Yes, but..”

Emma felt strength returning as she took charge. “No buts about it Girlie. You are my nurse and I need you to do some things for me. First question, you said I’ve been unconscious for three days, have I eaten anything?”

Anne shook her head no. “We tried to feed you some dog but you wouldn’t…”

Emma interrupted, “No, I don’t imagine I would have…but I’m as hungry as a shipwrecked sailor and I’d eat a god damn albatross in a second, so why don’t you find me something to eat now and come back soon.”

The girl’s face showed offense and confusion. “Emma, I don’t think we have any albatross, but we are in a house of God and cursing like this is unacceptable. I know you’ve been through a lot…”

Here it came again, the girl was a real zealot. “Honey, just get me some food? Okay?” the girl hesitated. This was already tedious.

Finally, Anne smiled “I’m so glad you are awake. I thought you were going to die.” Emma was touched at the girls concern. Maybe she could take it easy on her.

Anne ruined the tender moment, just before she turned to go find food for Emma. “Jesus led me to you so we could find the Bishop and join the Believers together!”

In that moment, Emma knew she had landed in a viper pit.

Anne brought her food and went back to work without giving her any answers. She ate and looked at her surroundings and the people that filled them. She looked at all the people. She needed to know who she was dealing with. There had probably never been a  higher charged or more diverse workplace than the US Postal Service. She was uniquely suited to dealing with  factions, politics, and machinations of power.

There was activity happening all around her. Groups of women were doing industrious ‘women’s work’ throughout the wide open central area of the building. They sat on the floor in groups of five to ten and worked on projects while whispering and giggling to one another. Emma was amazed no one was freaking out, these were women who should have been dealing with intense anxiety over what had happened to their husbands, families, friends, and pets. None of them seemed to be. It was astounding.

The few men she saw entered by the main double doors in the back of the huge room. They skirted around the edges to nasty black cloth curtains. They were big, serious looking guys that were on a mission. These were Jimbo’s. That told her that there was a boss behind the curtain who was giving them orders.

She tried not to think about what she was eating was, but she knew it was dog. Very chewy dog.

This place was organized. Amazingly organized. The men were working on parts of things outside and then bringing them to the women inside for finish work. Next a group of men came inside and took several of the projects that Anne and her group had finished and went back outside. This was a regular fucking assembly line.

She ate slowly, hoping she could ask some questions when someone came to check on her. She didn’t have to wait long. A big arrogant looking blond man with the face of an adolescent boy made a beeline to her from the black curtains.

“Well. It looks like miracles do happen. How are you feeling?” This guy was dangerous. She could tell by the way he carried himself. This whole scene was like walking into a post office where the workers were being run ragged by some power hungry station manager. The guy in front of her exuded a thirst for power.  Ruthlessness. This one was dangerous.  She didn’t have Jimbo or the union here to back her up so she would need to tread carefully.

She tried to sound weak and grateful. The weak part wasn’t hard, as for gratitude, she was starting to think that maybe she would have been better off with the dogs eating her instead of her eating them. “I really don’t know what to think. I’m so….confused. Are you the man who saved me?”

His chest visibly swelled. “I was responsible for those men saving you. I’m Richard.” Yeah, the chest and the name confirmed it. This guy was a real dick. He held his hand to her. She took it and he helped her to stand up. He continued, “It’s been a lot of work. You aren’t the only one who is confused, but we do have answers. God has provided us with all we need and the Bishop has divined God’s plan.”

“Oh,” Emma said. “You’re not the leader? I mean, the Bishop.” She was already sewing dissent and she knew it. This puffed up cock was using someone else’s coattails to raise him to authority but he wanted to be ‘the leader’. If this Bishop person gave Richard any kind of authority,  Emma already knew he was bad news. Things were even worse than she had thought.

“I lead from under the Bishops authority.” He thought himself better than the man he served. He wouldn’t be hard to manipulate. Good. His ego would be her friend.

“Oh, I’m sure you are just being humble. Thank you for saving me.” Not for the first time in her life, Emma was thankful to have grown up a simple country girl that was expected to defer to the ‘more powerful’ sex. She’d learned soon enough about power, but she never forgot that the key to manipulating men was to make them feel powerful. She was hell on wheels when it came to manipulating men. She’d been making men do her bidding longer than this boy had been alive. Still, he was a dangerous one.

“Would you do an older woman the kindness of showing her around? Oh, heavens! I forgot to introduce myself. You must think me terribly rude. I’m Emma.”

“It would be my honor and pleasure to do so Emma. At the moment, however, I have important business with the Bishop. He is very busy, but you’ll meet him soon.” Richard let go of her hand and moved towards the curtains in the front. He was definitely going to be useful.

 

Chapter 20

Religious Talk

“I see you met Richard. Isn’t he just the sweetest? He has been totally helpful to me since we arrived. He is just a really great guy.” Emma felt like puking as Anne mooned like a teenager over a fascist monster.

“Cut the crap Ann. I know what is going on here.I’m not fooled for a second. First of all, where are the people we were rescued with. I’ve been looking around and I haven’t seen Nick or those other two guys. I have a vague memory of seeing the older guy while I was out of it…where are they?” When you are dealing with an Anne, it never worked to let them think you didn’t already know what you were trying to learn from them. If they thought you knew, they lost nothing by telling you.

Anne’s face went through a complex range of emotions before she answered. “Ben and Nick are both okay and they were helping to watch over you when we got here.”

Emma needed to know what the girl was hiding. “Where are they? Out making these stone and wood things or are they part of the hunting party?” They had to be involved in one or the other, it could only help her if Anne thought she had figured it out.

Somehow though, she had screwed up. The girl’s face became smug. “Oh, Emma. You don’t know anything at all do you? I thought maybe Richard had told you, but I see now – you don’t know anything. Jesus has brought us here for a reason, I’m sure you will see that. and everything will be revealed in time.”

Emma took a deep breath to calm herself but then flipped out anyway. “Listen to me you God damned little Jesus freak. Who put that fancy looking sack on you?”

Anne looked down at her clothing. “Um, you did, but..”

“But nothing you ungrateful little twit. Who took you out of the street and probably saved you from dying from too much sun? Huh?” The girl was looking at her in a different way now.

“You did, but..” The smugness was gone. It was a start.

“That’s right. I did. You can thank Jesus and the Bishop and everyone else, but the fact of the matter is that if I hadn’t of saved your sweet little ass, you probably would have been dog food.”  Emma was starting to feel good.

“I’m sorry, I mean, thank you…” the girl was getting that smug look again, “Hey, I have been taking care of you for days and I think that should be…”

“You’ve been taking care of me huh? Is that why I woke up in bloody rags on a stone floor nearly dehydrated? You may be the queen of the bible thumpers, but a nurse you ain’t. After I woke up, you left me so that you could go make your rope tricks…”

Anne interrupted without too much energy now “They’re nets. For fishing and stuff..”

Emma was surprised. There were fish? Why the hell was she eating dog if there were fish? She decided to save that question for another time. She had the advantage and she needed to capitalize on it before she lost it.

“Fine. Nets. Anyway, if you were so grateful, why did you just leave me here?” Emma had the girl on the ropes.

“I just…”

“You just forgot that I saved your life, that’s what. Now, tell me, where are Nick and those guys? What does this Bishop have them doing? Tell me now.”

“Emma, you don’t understand, they weren’t good guys, the Bishop says that..”

“You better tell me where they are, right now.” Emma was feeling much more like herself.

“They’re out getting bricks to fix the cathedral walls. The Bishop says that we need to fix the walls soon before Satan brings…” Anne was desperately trying to justify whatever it was that she hadn’t told Emma yet. Emma could see her eyes shifting around, the girl knew something that she didn’t want Emma to know.

“Where are they? I’m going to see them Ann.” Emma still felt physically weak, but she stood as if she were going to  go outside.

“No! Emma, you can’t! The guards don’t know you and so you can’t get near the slaves….” Anne stopped herself but it was too late. The cat was out of the bag. For a moment, neither of them said anything, it was Emma that broke the silence. She did it calmly. She had broken into the vault of information.

“Okay. Now you can tell me everything. Everything. Start with our arrival.”

Anne turned out to be a great source of information for Emma. She had to put up with a whole lot of drivel about Jesus, miracles, and religious crap, but through that, the girl was a surprisingly accurate source of intel. She loved to talk and anything that was said to her got repeated. She never thought twice about reporting on what she had witnessed or heard. Once Emma had broken through the wall, whatever Anne knew belonged to her.

It didn’t take Anne long to explain what she knew. She told Emma that Ben, Nick, and a bunch of other men had made weapons and had been plotting to kill the Bishop. The Bishop found out about it and placed them under arrest. Now the prisoners were doing hard labor to make up for their sins – as slaves.

Emma didn’t think she could be surprised in this world, but she hadn’t expected this. “You talked with Nick, do you really think that he is the type to want to kill someone? He’s a scientist, a big gentle scientist. What kind of weapons did they have anyway?” Emma was now looking around the room with new eyes. Something had been bothering her, but she hadn’t put her finger on it yet.

“They had spears and whips…the Bishop took them and now his men are using them…I’ve seen the weapons.” Anne was continuing, desperate to convince Emma that she was right to support the Bishop.

It was the word whips that clicked it for Emma. Whips made her think of slaves and slaves (sadly) made her think of African-Americans, and Nick, well, he was English, but he was black. And now he was doing the hard labor of the Believers and …that was when the rest of it clicked. This was a room full of white people. Every person in the room was white.

“Listen to me Ann. They didn’t have any weapons. This may sound funny to you, but tell me, why are all the people here white? Was Nick the only black person that you’ve seen so far?” Emma dropped her voice to a hushed whisper.

“No, of course not, there are all kinds of people here Emma. There are blacks and Mexicans and Indians and Chinese people…I’ve seen them. Don’t be ridiculous.” Anne sounded glib because she was sure of herself again. She was looking around the room as she spoke. “Look, over…huh, that’s weird,” the glibness was rapidly disappearing. “I swear, there were, they must all be working somewhere else, I mean, the Bishop, he wouldn’t….I know, we can ask Richard. He’ll tell us.”

Emma thought of Richard with his puffed ego, blond hair, and blue eyes. All he needed was an armband to be Hitler youth. “Anne. Don’t. Don’t say anything to anyone. Knowing what you know now, puts you in danger. Do you understand me?” Anne looked doubtful but nodded continuing to look around the room for any skin color but white.

“Anne, right now. Go find Nick or the old guy Ben and tell them that I am awake. Tell them I said everything is going to be alright and I will help them. Can you do that?”

Anne shook her head no. “No one is allowed to talk to the prisoners.” It felt better to say prisoners, but her earlier slip had revealed that she knew the truth. “The guards won’t let me talk to them. I’ll get in trouble. ”

Emma grabbed the girl’s arm. “Listen to me. The Bishop has made those men slaves, not prisoners, slaves. Do you understand me? Slaves. It’s just a matter of time before women become property too. Do you want to be a sex slave? You need to do what I tell you. Go tell them I am okay and going to take care of everything. If the guards give you any problem, you tell them that you have a private message from the Bishop. Okay? Are you listening to me?”

“Emma, I don’t think you’re right. I think he wouldn’t do that…I mean, there must be some explanation…” Anne was in a state of shock at seeing the truth. The kool-aid was revealed as poison. Emma tried to be gentle now because she needed the girl as an ally.

“Anne. Slavery is evil right? The Devil quotes scripture to fool the righteous? And do you think that Jesus would sort people by color?” It was hitting the girl, she had been through a lot recently and Emma suspected that she had always been taught to believe what she was told most recently. She was starting to believe Emma.

“Oh my God Emma. Oh Sweet Jesus, please help me, help us all. Oh, Heavenly Father…” Emma smacked her with her open hand. She did it hard enough that it would probably leave a mark.

“Anne. Do what I told you.”

“I will Emma, oh my God, I am so sorry, oh my God…I’ll do it. Emma? What are you going to do? How are you going to fix this?”

Emma smiled. “Oh, that’s easy. I’m going to go see the Bishop.” Emma sent the girl on her errand.

Actually, the Bishop came to see her, led there by Richard. She saw Richard emerge from one of the curtained rooms followed by a tall solemn looking man who slowly proceeded behind Richard to where Emma was waiting. She had intended to request an audience from Richard, but it looked like it was her lucky day. Everyone kept coming to her.

Emma had always been a social chameleon and utilized the skill to make herself fit in wherever she wanted to. Fact of the matter was, most of the time she didn’t want to be considered part of whatever establishment she was in, so it suited her to cuss like a sailor and do whatever it took to have people offended or put off by her. It was amazing how much easier it could be to get in good graces if people thought they had a hand in changing you. She could tell by looking at the Bishop that those sorts of tactics weren’t going to work with him.

Maybe it was because she already knew he was a racist slave maker, or maybe it was something inherent in the man, but she saw him judging her from the moment he emerged and she was certain that of all the people she had ever met, this guy needed a good first impression. She hoped that gooey little freak Anne hadn’t told him too much about her. She didn’t want him to think she was crass. Not at all.

As they came forward, Richard was grinning at her. “Didn’t I tell you he would be excited to meet you? Emma, this is the Bishop.”

Emma had spent a lot of time among Catholics and was no stranger to proper protocol. Technically, she was a Catholic, but only because of an accident of birth and because in her former line of work it helped to be the same religion as most of the heavyweights. Seeing this man’s age, she doubted that he was a bishop before landing wherever they were, he looked no older than forty five. None the less, she greeted him with a curtsey and “It is such an honor to meet you, Your Excellency. Anne and Richard have told me about your hard work. I am in your debt.”

She looked up after a moment and was gratified to see that the man was enjoying her deference Not in the same brash young way as Richard had, but she could see it in his eyes. He wanted more of this kind of behavior. That was certain.

“Emma, we are certainly pleased to finally have you among us in a wakened state. Much has happened in the time you have been here. When Richard informed me that you were awake, I insisted on showing you around myself. Truly we have come into an age of miracles. There were few who thought you would recover from your wounds and yet, in the Lord’s wisdom, here you are. Praise to his name.”

Unlike Anne, who managed to make herself weak with religion by disempowering herself, this man used it to make himself stronger. As he spoke of miracles, Emma had the sense that he was taking personal responsibility for it all. He was praising his name more than God’s. He put her into a tricky spot. She didn’t want Richard to feel bitter towards her and yet she wanted to accept the Bishop’s offer. She had to, actually.

“Oh, Your Excellency, please, I know how busy you must be. I think it would be fine if Richard were to show me around, I would hate to get in the way of any of your important work.” She threw a quick glance and smile at Richard as she said it. She was no longer young and pretty, but no man was resistant to flattery. He smiled back at her. Good.

“Nonsense Emma. We are appreciative of your good sense, but it is equally important to that we learn about each person here. Richard will be able to handle whatever may arise while we walk and talk. You are up to walking?” The Bishop knew how to stroke Richard’s ego too. He was dangerous, but now she knew it was danger with a capital D and several exclamation points. He was Dangerous!!!

“I am still weak, Your Excellency, but I will try. The food you have provided has restored much that I had lost.” If anyone she had worked with could see her now, they would probably die laughing. She might as well have been wearing one of the big Easter hats she kept hidden away in the closets of her apartment. Emma, the Lady. She could play this part and enjoy it.

“Please, take my arm. Emma, while we walk and talk privately, you need not address me so formally, though it is appreciated.” He held his arm out to her.

She took it tentatively. “But what should I call you?”

“Father will do in these informal talks,” he said, not giving up the pleasure of being called Your Excellency in public and no doubt feeling quite large for allowing her to address him as father. She barely kept from snorting. Father my ass. If things went the way she intended them to, he would be calling her Mommy and begging to suck at her saggy old tits in a few days.

She managed to look demure and looked down. “Alright….Father.”

As they walked, Bishop spoke. She had already decided it was a name, not a title.

“I don’t know how much you know about what happened, so please, allow me to explain. Before the rapture took place, God spoke to me. He told me to gather my flock and take them to a place of safety. I did this.”

She wanted to ask him so many questions, what denomination he was (because he certainly wasn’t Catholic), where his flock was, where he had gone, how had God sounded to him, what sort of medication had he been on, and more. Instead, she bit her tongue and listened. The man wanted to talk and she needed to know the what the party line was.

“We braved the storms and trials of the Rapture and the Lord lifted us up into the Heavens. Some were taken to his Kingdom and some, like you and me, we were put here. God has placed us here so that we might be warriors in a final battle against the darkness.”

“Where is here? Where has He put us Father?” she asked him.

“This is the land of in between Emma. This is Purgatory and Limbo. This is the battleground whence the epic struggle between light and dark must take place. The Lord has chosen those he trusts most to come to this empty land and to build Heaven on Earth and an army to defend His Heavenly Hosts.”

What was she supposed to say to this crap? “But why me, Father? Why would God bring an old woman like me here if he were building an army?”

They had stepped outside now. Emma was amazed by what she saw in front of her. Men were building, marching, practicing with whips, spears, and clubs. They looked like dangerous boys playing war. As she looked across the narrow dirt street she could see that a building had been fortified and five men with clubs and whips stood attentively in front of it. To her right she saw a huge pile of cloth that was being added to. Groups of men had formed a fire line coming from a three story building with boarded up windows and a dark doorway to move the cloth to the pile with the most efficiency.

Fires burned in the streets where meat roasted on spits. Dog skins were pegged out in the dirt, feathers being pulled from dead birds and stuffed into knotted bags, and now coming from around the corner, men carrying what looked to be oranges and apples. One of them, seeing the Bishop, ran to him.

“Sir, we have found an orchard in the Parklands. So far we have found apples and oranges and we think we may have also found wheat.” The man handed a small dark orange to the Bishop who smiled broadly.

“Good. Good work Smith. See if you can find men who were farmers and continue to harvest.”

“Yes sir.” Smith turned to go.

“And Smith…” Smith turned back. “Tell no one else the location. We must place guards at the orchard to prevent temptation. We can’t have people helping themselves.” Smith gave a salute and ran to join the men carrying the food indoors. The Bishop continued smiling as he peeled the little orange in his hands.

“As you can see Emma, the Lord has provided for us amply. Of course, his bounty is not free. No, it is not free.” He broke the orange and handed half of it to Emma, a part of her wanted to demand what price he would ask of her for it, but the sweet smell was too much for her to do anything but take the offered fruit. She was barely able to restrain herself from stuffing the whole thing in her mouth and instead peeled off one slice and bit it in half. The juice squirted from the flesh and the only thing that kept her from moaning in pleasure was the knowledge that such a display might taint the view of her that she has thus far so carefully cultivated in the Bishop. None the less, it was the single best moment she had experienced since escaping the tidal wave.

The Bishop was walking again. “Emma, I have the feeling that you are a special case and that the Lord has brought us together for a reason that is beyond the ordinary, if anything in this place can be called ordinary. There is something that is different about you from everyone else. It is something I feel that I must ask you about.”

Emma hadn’t imagined that she had been as convincing as that. There was something else going on. She needed to keep her cool and react the right way.

“Anything Father, you can ask me anything.”

“Good.” She still held his arm as they walked to the left. “I won’t ask you now, there is more that you must want to know. First we will satisfy your curiosity. Tell me Emma, you are of course familiar with the story of Cain and Abel?”

“Of course, Father. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Abel was the good son and Cain the bad one. “ She remembered this from school.

“Good. And what do you know of the son’s of Noah?” Did he plan on teaching her Bible stories?

“Well, I know that Noah and his sons were saved from the flood by getting on an Arc that Noah built by direction of God.”

“That’s a part of it. Yes. Finally, do you know of Abraham and the two men he fathered? Isaac and Ishmael?” What was he getting at here?

“Yes, I am also familiar with this story. Can you tell me why you are asking these things Father?” The man’s intensity level had picked up. He was about to tell her something that he was passionate about. She was glad that he hadn’t mentioned Jesus yet. But she was sure he would.

“Emma, our world was filled with Evil and the word of God was subverted by the worst sources in it. When I was a very young man, God spoke to me and revealed the truth of these and other stories. It is why God has brought me here, to teach the truth. Have you noticed that there are no books here? No bibles, no tracts, none of the diluted and distorted words of Satan have been brought here? God has purified the Earth of evil lies and now he intends that the truth be known.”

Emma was terrified. She tried not to show it. His arms began to wave in expansive gestures, she let go of him and stepped back. This man was insane. He was totally insane. And he was convinced of the divine source of his own words.

He gestured to where they could now see men and women working at tearing down stone and brick walls. Carts were being loaded and large cruel looking white men stood around with whips and clubs. The men and women doing the work were mostly people of color. An Asian man covered in tattoos was tied to a post, unconscious. She was looking at a vision from Dante’s hell.

“God turned Cain black so that all would know of his love for evil. God saw that the sons of Noah, except for Shem, were Sodomites and idol worshippers and he scattered them across the earth making them as yellow as the metals they worshipped and as red as the devils they prayed to. God banished the bastard Ishmael and all of his offspring to fight among themselves in the sands of Arabia and turned them on the Jews who killed his only begotten son.” Spittle flew from his mouth as his sermon of hatred washed over her.

“His chosen people are those who are as pure in color as they are in heart. Emma? Are you ready to tell me what I need to know?”

Emma didn’t have any choice in the matter. The heat, the hate, her weakened condition, and the shock at seeing his face of evil so close that she could smell his dog meat bad breath did what she had earlier fought so hard to avoid.

She fainted.

Chapter 21

The Vichy

This was a very different kind of waking. She lay on a soft mattress in a dark room. Morning light crept past the edges of a doorway curtain but the windowless room remained dark. Emma was surprised to find herself naked, only this time, she was much more comfortable and clean. A piece of the dark cloth was draped over her. She heard voices outside the curtain but could not make out words. It was Anne and Richard. She strained to hear them catching only snippets of the conversation.

“…responsibility towards her…life…I don’t see…things…life of Jesus…” Anne was obviously talking about her. Emma could only hope that she had not said anything to Richard about their previous conversation.

Judging by the quality of her current bedding and Richard’s level tone, she assumed the girl had sense enough to keep quiet. Richard’s words were more hushed than Anne’s but she picked up bursts  “…I don’t know…..strict orders…concerned….he says…” Not enough to get contextual meaning from.

It was maddening. Her eyes adjusted to the light revealing a single doorway. Their voices fell silent. Anne mumbled something and then she heard footsteps as the girl left.

The curtain was swept aside. She closed her eyes, blinded by the light. She pretended to be sleeping. Her last interaction with the Bishop made her nervous as Japanese schoolgirl in a maximum security penitentiary.

“Richard,” the Bishop said, “I won’t need you here while I talk to her.”

The room was silent for several seconds.

“Emma. You can open your eyes. I know that you have been awake for some time now.” How the hell did he know that? Should she try to bluff him? She opened her eyes.

The Bishop held a torch like some hellish angel of death. Shadows danced like dark familiars waiting on mayhem. Emma’s confidence drained away. She had no choice but to push on with the game.

“I’m glad to see you,” she whispered. “When I woke, I thought it had all started over again. What happened…Father?”

The Bishop knelt down beside her. “It was too much to ask of you so soon after waking. I should have known better than to try to show you everything at once.” His tone was gentle, no more racist brimstone, he actually sounded like a priest. “Good Woman. I hope you will forgive my ignoring your frailty and causing you to collapse. I thought you were healed completely by divine grace, but I know that the Lord rarely works such miracles. Are you better now?”

Emma felt okay. Fainting may have been the best thing she could have done. “Where am I? Is this…..Is this your…Is this where you stay Father?”

“Yes. I have made it my personal responsibility to bring you back to health. I sat with you through the night. I hope that you will forgive me for having the women take your clothing and wash you. Your rags were filthy and covered with blood. I had our people make this bed for you. You are a precious gift from the Lord God to this community Emma. The women are happy to do whatever they can to make you more comfortable.”

Emma was confused. She knew she wasn’t the best looking woman among the believers. In fact, she was probably the oldest among them by ten or fifteen years. Why in the world would this guy be treating her like she was some desirable piece of ass? What the hell did he want from her?

“Emma, there is something that I have wanted to ask you about. A curiosity only, but one that might prove valuable to our community. I know you have just awoke, but I must ask now.”

She was still confused. “Father, um, I don’t know…”

“Emma, when you arrived, you and two of your companions were all clothed differently from everyone else that we’ve seen here. Had you noticed?”

She had noticed. Their clothing had been made from the sacks in the vault. It was a different material from the ‘mana cloth’ everyone else wore.

Why was he interested in those sacks?  What did he want?

“Can you help us find more of it? When you arrived, your companions told me that you made their clothing. They tell me that you found the cloth. Where did you find it?”

He was interested in the cloth, but why?

“I found the cloth in the building Nick and I woke up in. There was more of it.”

The Bishop smiled. “Good. I was hoping there was. I think it might be very important. When you are feeling better, we will go out in the city and look for it. You’re companions are unable to point us in the same direction.”

Emma cocked her head to the side. She had to ask. “It’s only cloth, why do you think it is so important?”

He was moving toward the curtain to leave the room. He turned  “It is important, because so far, your cloth is the only thing I’ve seen in this world that was made by human beings.”

With those dramatic words, he made his exit.

Emma felt better much faster than she would have thought possible. The Bishop thought that she hadn’t healed quick enough to be a miracle, but Emma had never healed this quick before. The places where dogs had bit her were practically good as new. Pink skin where she expected scabs and wounds.

She took several deep breaths and realized she felt great. She hadn’t felt this good physically in years. Maybe it was simply the result of having life threatening trauma, or maybe it was something else. She didn’t have answers and she didn’t have time to dwell on it.

Her interactions with the Bishop were difficult. The power and charisma of the man was overwhelming. She felt a deep mental disgust at the same time she felt an undeniable attraction to him. He was a horrid racist megalomaniac who thought that God spoke to him. He was a fake priest. She found herself thinking about him in ways that filled her with self-loathing.

Emma’s clothing was returned to her. It had been washed and sewn into actual clothing. The Bishop’s people had made needle and thread. It wasn’t a summer dress, but it was superior to what she had been wearing. Actually, it was better than what everyone else was still wearing. The Bishop had elevated her status among the Believers . She knew it had something to do with the manmade cloth she wore and she wondered if the Bishop would be disappointed if she showed him the vault. It was the only advantage she possessed and she was loathe to give it up. She needed more information. The smiling woman who brought her clothing had called her Mother and claimed she didn’t know anything.

Emma wasn’t under guard, she could leave the room whenever she wished. She was playing the part of recovery for a bit longer, however, because once she left the room, she would be expected to show where she had found the cloth. She needed Anne. The girl was the best source of information she had.

She poked her head out of the curtain. A bored looking man was sitting nearby either to monitor her actions or make sure she wasn’t disturbed. When he saw her, he stood up straighter and came towards her. Damn if he didn’t almost salute her. Curiouser and curiouser. She recognized him as the man called Smith, who had found the oranges.

“Hey Mr. Smith,” she said to him, not sure whether to play coy or imperious and instead deciding to play it like a young June Cleaver.

The guy smiled a pleasant smile. “Yes, Mother?” There it was again. Was there a memo going around about how to address her?

“Look, um, I have a female problem that I need a hand with…could you…would you be willing to go find Anne for me? I really need her assistance with something that is ..uh…female.” Hopefully Smith was the kind of guy that didn’t want to know anymore about female issues than he needed to. Of course he was, all men were.

“Sure. Wait inside though. I can go find her for you but just stay here, okay Mother?” This was feeling pretty good.

“Yeah, no problem. I don’t really want to go out because of this uh…female problem.”

Smith nearly ran to get away from the ‘female problem’. He didn’t want to know anything else. Good, at least some of the men here were the same as those she had always known. She frowned as she thought of the other men she knew now. The Bishop and Richard on one side and Nick and Ben on the other. She had said she would do something about their situation, she was mostly blustering. Maybe she shouldn’t have had Anne contact them….she honestly didn’t know what she was going to be able to do.

Anne came into the room.

“I was told to come see you Mother?” Even Anne was doing it.  Now she could find out why. Anne looked far too nervous standing in front of her.

“That’s enough of that girl. Why does everyone keep calling me Mother?” Anne let out a breath she had apparently been holding. She looked relieved.

“Oh, Emma, I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I’m so glad to see you. I’m so glad that you are still you. With everything that everyone has been saying about you, I just, I thought that maybe you had changed or that maybe you were….”

Emma hadn’t changed and she interrupted the girl to prove it. “God damn it Anne, what are you talking about?” Emma tried to keep her voice low, but she was already annoyed with the babbling little thing in front of her.

Anne looked shocked and then oddly pleased. “Humph. Well, you can’t be that holy if you are still using the Lord’s name in vain. Please try not to be such a blasphemer Emma. It’s not appropriate.”

Emma was feeling a strong urge to slap the girl, this time with a closed fist.

“After you collapsed, The Bishop had several men carry you back inside. People heard the Bishop talking to Richard. He said you had been brought here for a special reason. The Bishop told us that God brought you to us so that you could make life better here. He said that we should all think of you as a sort of Holy Mother, sort of like Eve in the Garden.”

Emma was flattered and bothered. “Why the hell would he want people to think that? I mean, he just gave me a lot of power right?”

Anne nodded hesitantly, “Well, he gave you a lot of power but you’re still a woman. I mean, you are a woman and woman is here to serve man. And also man needs to be careful of woman because you know, like Eve, it was her that got everyone kicked out of the Garden of Eden. I mean, she talked with the serpent and gave in to temptation and then led to corruption and getting kicked out, so I mean, you are like the first woman. You see?”

The girl was almost gloating as she described the fall of man as woman’s fault. Was she proud of it? Did she actually believe that crap? “Anne, come on, you don’t actually think that woman is created to serve man, do you?”

Anne nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, I do. I really do. I think God made women from man so that he could have a helper. Do you know Emma, I believe it so strongly that I once turned my back on the man I was in love with because he wouldn’t let me be serve him? He wanted us to be equals and that is not God’s plan.”

Emma was in shock. “Anne, that makes no sense. If he told you to be equal, aren’t you obligated to be if you are obligated to serve him as he wishes?”

Confusion filled the girl’s face. She looked almost like she would cry. Emma decided at that moment that she would dedicate some time to righting this girl’s brain. Someone had filled up every one of her brain cells with the most intolerable kind of crap. If she could be saved from it, Emma vowed to do it. But right now was not the time, as tempting as the idea was. She needed to know more. That was the current mission.

“We’ll talk about this more. Okay, so what are people saying about all this then? About me, I mean.”

Anne snapped back to task easily. “Well, they say that you will be in charge of the women. The Bishop is having nearby buildings cleaned out and made ready. One is for the women and one is for the men.” Interesting. Why was he putting this kind of trust in her? But then, she realized, it wasn’t he who had said this part. Hearsay.

“What about the men and women who want to live together? Is there housing for them?” Emma had been wondering if people had begun to pair up yet, this was a good way to approach it.

Anne shook her head. “Oh no Emma, the Bishop says that when the time is right, people will be able to get married, but until then, we must focus on God’s work.”

He had to know that he was setting himself up for rebellion if he denied people the chance to get laid. Maybe they were accepting it now, when the shock of arriving here was stronger than their biological compulsions. You couldn’t stop people from humping like monkeys. Actually, it probably created a dangerous situation for every woman who was by herself.

“Anne, you told Nick that I would take care of everything?” She needed to know.

“No Emma, I told Ben, the older guy. I don’t think he believed me. And Emma, I think that you must be wrong. Ben is white, so why has he been made a slave? I’ve been thinking about it and I think the Bishop is a good man. Richard too. There must be another explanation.” Unbelievable. Emma really did have her work cut out for her with this girl. It probably didn’t do her any good to have her wandering around with explosive information though.

“You are probably right Anne. Let’s forget about all that. Can you tell me what else is happening with everyone?”

The girl described several petty rivalries that had come up between women. She told how some of the men doing labor intensive work had begun to grumble about the ease with which the guards got to exist. She told how the work on the Cathedral was now mostly aesthetic and how the wall around the park was progressing.

“…and now the Bishop has said that we need to build the wall faster than before because  raiders actually attacked the guards in the orchard …”

Emma had been paying attention but had started to think of what she needed to do to make her own position stronger when Anne mentioned the raiders. She almost let it slip past without noticing it.

“Anne…whoa…hold on, did you say raiders?” Emma had to confirm it.

“Yes, they’re terrible. At first everyone said they were apes but one of the women, Kristin, told me that when she was getting water, she saw guards coming back with prisoners. She said they were normal people, but other people have told me that Kristin lies and only made it up. She said that she saw them lock the men up in one of the buildings and that they put the women with the slaves, I mean, the prisoners. We’re supposed to call them prisoners, not slaves.”

Of course, other people were organizing and had survived too. Trapped amongst the Believers she had almost forgotten  they had all appeared on their own. Of course there were other people and other groups, the question was, how were they organized and how many of them were there.

The vault was not as important as getting to see more of this city she was in. She would take the Bishop and the Believers to the vault.

She had time to wonder if it was the right decision.

During the day, she met with several of the Believer women and found that on the whole, they were insane. Out of all that she talked to, only one professed any sort of doubt about the course that the Bishop had set them on. Emma no longer voiced her dissent. She had the chance to gain some real power here and the good that she could do with it outweighed the good that would come about if she rocked the boat.

It made her feel like a collaborator. Not a good feeling.  Is this what it was like for the Vichy French after Hitler invaded? Had they hoped that they would be able to do more good by enmeshing themselves in the dominant power structure than the resistance had been able to do fighting it? She hoped the course she had chosen was the right one, but there was no way to know. She could change her mind later. In the meantime, she would try to ease the suffering of those around her.

She tried to start conversations with the men she encountered during the day, but they seemed to go out of their way to avoid her. Those she was able to engage were courteous but offered no answers to her questions. She looked for Richard or the Bishop, but neither of them was anywhere to be found. The women told her what they knew which was a combination of rumor and fact.

The number of new recruits had slowed to a trickle. Several small groups had left the Believers. Emma tried not to think about concentration camps or mass executions, but knew that neither of the men in charge would hesitate to kill those who were not with them completely. You were either with them or you were against them. That equated to being a Believer, a slave of the Believers, dead, or if you got away, a raider.

Nick and Ben were still slaves and still alive. The slaves were housed in one of the buildings across from the Cathedral. Emma thought it likely that they would be in the building with guards posted. The tattooed Asian man was no longer lashed to the wall.

She was filled with wonder as she looked at what the Believers had re-invented in this city that had nothing but buildings and garbage cloth.

There were clothes, needles, thread, spears, daggers, knives, wheelbarrows, picks, shovels, bags, shoes, bowls, cups, nets, whips, ropes, and blankets. They had killed dogs, small pigs, birds, fish, and some sort of rodent she didn’t recognize. They had found apples and oranges, wheat, lettuce, carrots, blackberries, and a sort of small banana. The cathedral looked more like a cathedral now. Someone had built an alter and put a large rough crucifix on it. She wondered when the Bishop would start holding mass.

In the late afternoon, the Bishop and Richard came into the cathedral covered in sweat. They both  looked upset. In addition to the room that Emma was staying in, there were several more rooms that opened off behind the alter. The two men and five of their warriors went into one of them in quite a hurry. They stayed inside about a half hour. After the meeting, the Bishop came to Emma. The other six dispersed in all directions on what seemed to be very urgent business.

“Emma, please come back into the room so that I can have a word with you.” She followed without a word. This was the way Believer women behaved, not that she intended to conform that much, but the situation seemed too immediate for her to offer any resistance now.

He looked directly at her. She had expected the urgency she had just witnessed to be in his face, but it was not. He smiled.

“I am very happy to see you. You look like you have made great progress in healing. The Lord truly loves you Emma. There is no doubt about that.” If she had been able to, she would have slapped herself for it, but she found herself blushing and bashful at his smile and kind words. Snap out of it girl. He is evil! And maybe that was a part of it…in any event, she wanted to vomit all over herself as she responded.

“I’m happy to see you too Father. Is everything alright?” She knew something was up, but was he going to tell her what it was?

“Yes. Everything is working out perfectly. Emma, you may have gotten a sense of this today, but I want you to know that you are going to be to the leader of the women. You are going to be our people’s Mother. I am confessor and master and you will answer to no one except to me. I hope that this situation suits you?” She could understand Anne wanting to believe him. There really was something comforting about him, about his authority. She tried to remind herself of the Vichy again as she looked in his face.

“Are you sure that I am the right woman for the responsibility?” It was like playacting the role she had always truly wanted. “I am willing but you must be sure.”

“That is why you are perfectly suited to lead Emma.” What did that mean? His words always sounded authentic even when they were contradictory. “In a short while, we will be having our first service and Mass. The Believers will gather in the Cathedral and I will make some announcements that will be shocking and even terrifying for many. They will need you to provide warmth and comfort to them. And Emma,” he moved closer to her. She was surprised as his arms went around her and his mouth moved towards hers while finishing his sentence, “…so will I.”

If she hadn’t of been so excited she would have been nauseated. As it was, she was both. She kissed him back. She hadn’t seen this coming.

Emma wondered if the after sex glow she felt was visible to everyone who looked at her. If so, the mass of Believers on the floor in front of the alter probably thought it was a halo of holiness. She and Richard sat to one side of the Bishop as he stood behind the alter. He spoke to his people, their people, she corrected herself.

A dozen men were standing guard during the Bishop’s Mass. They guarded the slaves, the cathedral, and the store house.

Emma knew she would have to find a way to escape soon. But would she? And did she really? She was disgusted with herself for fucking the Bishop, but she knew that she would do so again. And again, and again. She had become less likely to betray him, instantly,  and more likely to allow him to convince her that the propaganda he was spouting had any basis in reality. This was how biology worked.

The Bishop opened the meeting with a long prayer of questionable value. She was surprised to hear little of his hate mongering in it, but realized that hatred was best spread through peer pressure and indirect reference. If you were too obvious about creating the ‘other’, people might question how similar they themselves were to those being persecuted. The Bishop was smart, he was skirting around the edges of his racist theories of the Divine and allowing people to learn to hate on their own.

“…and we ask you, oh Father, to continue to shed your blessings upon us, your Believers, so that we might survive the ordeals and challenges that lie ahead of us. And we thank you for these gifts you have bestowed upon us and the love you have shown us. We Praise Thy Name. Amen.”

Many of the Believers had been drawn to tears as the Bishop talked about the loved ones they had left behind, the world they had left, and the hardships they had thus far endured. Shared adversity bonded everyone in the room to the man that stood before them. Emma felt it, she hoped that some in the room were smart enough to realize that the Bishop was using group psychology on them and binding them in a different sort of rope than the slaves who were secured across the street. The noise of sniffles and crying were drowned out by a united answer to the Bishop’s amen.

“AMEN!” It was thunderous. It was unanimous. It was terrifying.

Emma opened her eyes and saw worshipful looks being directed at the Bishop, Richard, and her. This was madness.

The Bishop got to the meat and bones of this meeting.

“As some of you know, probably all of you,” the Bishop was deadly serious, “ we are not the only people here. The forces of Evil have been gathering and organizing even as we have tried to bring some beauty and goodness into this world.” Emma thought again of the slaves across the road and shuddered as the audience nodded.

“Today, these forces became more bold. Today, several of the people we call ‘Raiders’ tried to enter one of our orchards. Rest easy though and know we were able to repel them and we were able to kill them.” A gasp went up from the audience. Emma was certain that these Christian people would be as aghast as she that the Bishop claimed a wild orchard as their own and now had killed people seeking the food it offered. The audience went still.

And then they began to applaud. She couldn’t believe this! They were applauding murder. They were applauding the hoarding of food and denial of resources to anyone that was not a part of their group. They knew nothing of these people and now, they were cheering at the news of their death. It might have been people they knew, it might have been their families. And still, here they were, applauding and cheering. The Bishop said that these ‘Raiders’ were evil, so they must be.

“Because of the increasing aggressiveness of the Raiders, we are all going to have to pull together and make some sacrifices. I know that the Lord puts these challenges in front of us in order to test us and make us stronger. I know he will find us all willing to come together as Believers willing to sacrifice whatever we have to so that His will is done. It won’t be easy and I know not everyone will be pleased at what we now have to do, but please remember that God has given us everything and so we should be willing to give him everything…and more.”

There was more applause. They were applauding him as he told them that he was going to make their life more restrictive and demand more of them. Emma saw people cheering who earlier in the day had complained about the inequality between guards and workers. This was madness. How was he doing this to them. Why were they allowing him to? Didn’t they hear what he was saying?

“As of tonight, we have constructed secure dormitories for the men and women. The women will be housed in the buildings on the right side of the Cathedral and the men will be housed in the buildings on the left side. We are working on solving the problem of sewers and waste, for the moment, we will all have to deal with things as they are. The doors of both dormitories will be secured from the outside for your protection. We are doing everything we can to make sure that you are safe. Your safety is the priority of us all.”

More applause, slightly less this time.

A man Emma had seen working on the walls stood up.

“Who is securing the doors? Are we locked in?” There was a quiet pause in the audience as the Bishop listened and then replied.

“Aren’t you a Believer, Brother?” There was no other question the Bishop could have asked that would have refuted the man so completely. There was only one answer he could give.

“Of course I am.” The man wanted to say more, but dared not. The Bishop had more to say.

“And that is why your are precious in the eyes of the Lord and of this community.” The Bishop’s voice raised. “We who have been brought here were chosen precisely because we are Believers. The Lord has chosen you, my son, to hold his banner. He has chosen you to defend His Name, His commandments, and His love for humanity. Is there anything that you would not sacrifice for your God?”

“Of course not,” the worker was trapped. “Anything.”

“And that is the way that these warriors and guards amongst you feel as well. Just as you work each day to make this community more secure, they will work each night to protect you, all of you, from outside threats. These men are willing to give their lives to protect you. They will face whatever may come at you from the darkness, and they will lay down their bodies in order to further the peace and security of the Lord. We all make sacrifices and these men are willing, like all of you, I am sure, to make the ultimate sacrifice.” The Bishop gestured to the outside walls of the room where the guards and warriors stood.

Emma noted that the main body of Believers were surrounded by armed men loyal to the Bishop and figured that this was not a coincidence. The Bishop surprised her constantly with his preparedness. In the process, she was filled with more terror of what was to come.

“So, is there any man or woman here that is not willing to make their difficult job easier? By securing the population in the dormitories and enacting a strict curfew, we ensure that these brave men will know who is with them and who is against them. We must be certain that we can recognize our enemies.”

The man sat. He had been defeated. He may have been the only person who truly felt the threat of the Bishop’s words – and he had been noticed. The rest of the crowd cheered as the Bishop informed them they would be locked up each night. They clapped as he told them if they left the dormitories they would likely be killed. They gave him more power even as he told them he was taking away their freedom.

The applause was deafening. Hallelujahs filled the air. Bile filled Emma’s stomach.

The Bishop introduced Emma to the community at large.

“Now, I want you to know that the Lord has heard our cries and granted us one who will soothe the woes of this harsh existence. Please, allow me to introduce the woman who the Lord in his wisdom has sent before us to minister to our emotions and needs. Mother Emma, please stand so everyone can see you.”

There was no escaping it now. She was Vichy.

Chapter 22

Into the Mystic

Ben didn’t trust Anne. She didn’t realize where loyalty to one person or cause would limit her ability to be loyal to another person or cause – and that was problematic. Many people had the same issue, she wasn’t the only one. Whether it was loyalty for a cause or a person, standing on the fence was a limiting move. If you allowed your values or loyalties to swing where the wind blew the weathercock, you were certain of only one thing. A lightning strike.

As he pushed the wheelbarrow back to where Samuel and Sutreyu were dismantling the walls, Ben evaluated his fellow slaves. Ben was certain that Sutreyu had a set moral position. For her, there would be no doubt about which side of the fence she lived upon. Ben was a reader, a seeker, and in his quest for knowledge he had delved deeply into reincarnation and past lives. Those who gained difficult wisdom in past lives were reincarnated with that knowledge – in some form. Sutreyu’s hands looked like they had lived a hundred lives, but her voice and eyes conveyed a number that was in the thousands.

There was no sign this life would get easier. They worked until the last bit of daylight faded . They were not given time to rest or communicate. Finally, they were escorted, one group at a time, to the jail that had been prepared for them. The jail they had been forced to prepare. Their hands and feet were not tied as they were pushed into the dark building three and four persons at a time.

Ben stumbled over soft bodies in the darkness. There was no light. No windows. No vision. A hand grasped his arm and led him forward. In the darkness he heard moans from people who had reached delirium. The cries of these people held no hope.

“Can you go on?” the man’s voice was familiar, but at the present moment, he didn’t recognize it.

“I need to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Can I sit somewhere?”

“Yes but I must get you away from the doorway. The deranged and broken have thrown themselves down in the entrance. We are trying to get the rest of you out of the way so that we can avoid stepping, sitting, and lying on each other.”

“Is there a way out?” This man knew things. It was worth asking.

“Not that we have found yet, but I am glad to hear it is on your mind. We cannot give up hope or we might as well give up life. Sit and rest, allow your eyes to adjust, I will be back. When you are able, you can help if you desire.”

Ben sank onto the cold stone floor. The man’s voice was very familiar, but he couldn’t place it in the darkness. He would know soon enough. He waited for others to be led to where he sat, but no one came. He wanted to help, but was unable to rally his body from a sitting position. He heard people, but they were in the distance, not in close proximity. It was blackness where he sat and his eyes were slow to adjust. Who had led him here?

He decided to wait a few minutes and if no one came, he would seek out other people. More prisoners being shoved into the building.  It was in front of him, but muffled as if he there were a wall between his position and the doorway.

With concentrated effort, he felt his way along the wall. A part of his brain was asking if he were reliving his first moments in Purgatory. This time, he could find no exit, he could find no windows. The walls were smooth plaster under his hands. The wall seemed impossibly long, impossibly straight, impossibly smooth. The sounds of other people disappeared. He kept going, knowing there must be a way out of the room. He didn’t want to go backwards, the path forward would take him somewhere.

Now there was noise. Now it sounded as if people were all around him, whispering, crying, and pleading. Ben pounded on the wall. He heard similar pounding repeated from all sides.

“Can you hear me?” He yelled into the darkness.

There was a response but the words were too distant to understand. He felt high and low for any break in the smooth plaster. He found nothing. Nothing but smooth, cold wall.

Where was the man who had led him here? Had he been placed in a solitary confinement? Was he to be separated from the others?

This train of thought reminded him of Vlad. And then he knew. The voice that had led him here belonged to Vlad!

Ben was too exhausted to continue. He lay on the floor and closed his eyes. He had been in a state of constant stress since the storm. Escaping, discovering, making sense of the senseless, being chased by dogs, and being put into slavery. He had every reason to be exhausted.  He put his head on his arm. In seconds he was asleep. Ben fell into slumber that only the tired, hungry, and enslaved can know. Sleep was the only freedom he had.

He was no longer alone. He was no longer in the long walled room. It was no longer night. It was no longer dark. And he was no longer allowed to close his eyes and be free of the world that had been borne from everything he knew.

Ben sat on a stone stairway. Thousands of steps upward and thousands of steps downward. Downward, a haze of pollution trapped beneath an inversion layer below him. The steps led into it. Upward, a white palace. The steps faded before the palace, but he was certain that it was where they led. So many steps. To either side, ragged cliffs and sparse yellow grass preventing any choice other than up or down.

This impossible terrain had been conquered by someone. Ben saw giant Chinese characters painted on sheer cliff faces. He had always appreciated the beauty of the script but never seen it with such understanding before. The characters were balanced without symmetry. Long columns of bright red characters providing a message to travelers on this lonely endless stairway.

“I thought you might be able to read the characters,” a woman’s voice said from behind him. “Do you know what it means?”

Sutreyu was standing where she had not been moments before. She smiled at him as he turned towards her. She wore a red silk gown that flowed around her like a thousand gossamer veils.

“Sutreyu?” he gasped.

“Yes. I told you I would find a way to talk to you. Are you ready?” She spoke calmly.

“Where are we?” He knew he was in a dream, but he also knew he wasn’t.

“We are somewhere between the birthplace of Lao Tzu and Confucius between Heaven and Earth, between sleep and wakefulness. You see China’s Shangxi Province, but what you see is not where we are. Can you read the characters?” Her voice was soothing and urgent at the same time.

Ben looked to the cliff face again. “A drunken man who falls from a wagon, is bruised but not destroyed. His bones are like the bones of other men, but his fall is different. His spirit is entire. He is not aware of getting into a wagon or falling out of one.”

“That’s right.” She sounded pleased. “It’s a story from Lau Tzu. I want you to remember it. It will be important. We must climb the stairs Ben. There is more that I need to show you.”

In his waking life he was breaking walls and in his sleep he was climbing never ending stairways. His body did not feel fatigue here though. He felt completely renewed. It was wonderful.

Sutreyu spoke as they climbed. “It is the palace of Guanyin. She has many names throughout the world, she is the Goddess of Mercy and Healing. For thousands of years, pilgrims in China have climbed these steps when they were in need of favors from her. She can offer compassion to those who suffer, mercy to those who are condemned, and health to those who are sick.”

“Why am I going to see her?” .

“You are not going to see her. You are becoming aware of her.” Sutreyu continued, “What you are going to see is important and you must not doubt it later.”

The steps continued on forever. A huge marble archway that stood over the stairway. It was visible over a rise where the stairs leveled and disappeared from view. “What is that?” he asked.

“It is what you are here to see,” she whispered. “It is the first of the gateways one must pass through in order to reach the Heavenly City.”

“I thought you said that these stairs lead to the Palace of Guanyin?” The archway was white but built like a Japanese Toraji Gate. Toraji were used to separate the sacred from the profane. He had read about them.

“They do. Eventually. But, if one wants to visit the Gods, one must pass certain obstacles. You must figure out how to pass this gate Ben.” Her voice was more distant.

He turned and saw that she was walking away from him, down the stairs.

“Hey, where are you going? I thought you said you were going to tell me about the other people? What about the people besides the Believers?”

“I can only tell you this much. Slaves are not allowed in Heaven, one must have freedom to join the Free. Guanyin is above, looking down, but she will not bestow her gifts upon those who are not worthy. Think of this and all you have learned and you will find your way.” She continued down the stairs.

“Where are you going? Why are you going down the stairs?” He needed to understand, why she would send him up and then return down them.

She turned and smiled at him again. “What was it your friend said to you? When you are ready, you can help. These are wise words. As for me, I am ready and I have to go downward. There are others who need to be guided here.” He watched until she disappeared into the mist.

When she was gone, he began to climb the stairs again. He reached the gate and tried to pass beneath it. He took one step and felt the newfound buoyancy in his limbs disappear. The next step brought back all of the exhaustion he had felt before sleeping. He struggled to take a third step but his body was buried in exhaustion. He could not. He sensed something above him, a massive force, crushing him further and further into the ground until he was left with his tired and battered body lying exhausted on a stone floor for a dreamless night of much needed rest.

 

Chapter 23

Plotting

 

Nick was shaking him. The tall man’s dark features were relieved when Ben opened his eyes. There was pale light coming under the rough wooden door the Believers had barricaded them in with.The room was roughly twenty feet long by twenty five feet wide. It was packed with people.

The enslaved sat against walls or lay prone on the floor – often overlapping. The moans of those who had suffered the most the day before filled all the empty spaces. Except for the door he had been shoved through, there were no exits from the room. The walls and ceiling were rough concrete. He was about ten feet from the doorway.

“How did I get back here Nick?” Nick looked at him curiously with a tilted head.

“The same way we all got in here Ben. They herded us from work and shoved us all in here. You were unconscious almost instantly. I thought you’d had a heart attack or died. I sat with you the whole night and tried to wake you up multiple times. I’ve never seen anyone sleep that deeply!”

Ben shook his head like an angry bull. “No, I mean how did I get back in here. When I came in, Vlad took me…” Nick’s face changed from concern to alarm. Vlad was dead.  Ben decided that explaining was going to be too complex. “I’m okay, I had these dreams that were…they were so real.”

“I’ve had them too,” Nick said. “The dreams of the other world seem so much more real than the nightmare of this one. This is a life that I never thought I would see. As a child,  I left a country of superstition and have devoted myself to science and rational thought ever since. I thought slavery was an American issue because the British academic circles I moved in were color blind. And yet here we are in slavery. I would much rather believe in my dreams.”

Ben could see Samuel across the room, leaning against the wall – working out. This sucked. He hated this world. He wanted to be free. Maybe it wasn’t the world he hated. He hated the Believers. They were what stood between him and freedom.

“We’ve got to get out of here Nick. Anne said not to worry because Emma was going to take care of everything for us, but I don’t think we can count on that. We need to make a move and we need to do it soon. Every moment we wait, the Believers figure out how to lock us in more securely. This might be the only time we have to plan anything. Have you talked with others? Fill me in.”

Nick hadn’t talked with anyone.

Ben was surprised at how rested he felt. He was equally surprised at the sense of urgency that leapt into his actions. He looked for other people he knew. He could see Adam, Haruka, Abdullah, and Samuel all sitting near one another. That was where he needed to be.

He stood up.

“Most of us slept like the dead last night,” Nick said “Yesterday was more work and stress than anyone ever expected to deal with. People started stirring about twenty minutes ago with the first light.”

Ben was all action. “We must wake everyone here, Nick. There are other people and other groups out there and we need to find them. We need to get away from these people. ” His dreams had reminded him that the Believers were not the only option for society in Purgatory. There was hope in action. He would earn his freedom or die trying.

He began to weave his way through the room to where Samuel was still doing exercise. Nick followed. He felt Haruka’s eyes following him. From the corner of his vision, he saw Haruka tap Abdullah and point to them. Adam was next to him now.

“Looks like you’re on a mission Ben.” Adam’s tone was wary. Ben realized his face expressed his grim determination. He had crossed the room with a purpose and direction that probably looked alarming. He took a breath, tried to relax his face, and smiled. They probably thought he was going to attack them.

Several of the men and women he didn’t know yet had approached. The energy of this meeting spread like an electric current in saltwater. Everyone in the room was watching to see what would unfold. Sutreyu had come near. He felt her presence. He didn’t dare look at her.

He needed to do something he had never wanted to do. Something he still didn’t want to do. Something that had to be done. Suddenly he understood history. He understood the power of circumstances beating down like a blacksmith’s hammer to forge identities and bring about change.

He had to lead. He had to become a leader.

“Things have gone from bad to worse and they are not getting better.” His voice sounded loud and confident. It was him, but it didn’t sound like him. “Things are getting much worse. I don’t know most of you or how most of you came to be here, but I know you aren’t slaves. You aren’t meant to be treated this way. This is not our fate and we cannot accept it as such. These aren’t the only people in this world. They can’t be.  ”

“They’re not.” The woman was a tall, dirty blond. Her hair was as blond as corn silk and she was crusted with dirt and grime. She was so dirty and blended into the dim light so well that he hadn’t noticed her before. “Across the river there is at least one other group as big as this group. There are probably others too.”

Everyone was looking at her. It was amazing he hadn’t noticed her. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” her voice showed no doubt “I’m  Leah and I’m positive.” She was tall. At least as tall as Ben at five foot ten inches. She moved closer to the core group, her hair was forming dreadlocks and she wore no clothes. She wore mud like a garment. She was magnificent.

“How can you be sure they are there?” Nick asked the question.

Leah laughed. “Because until yesterday, I was a part of them. We have a base across the river but we set up a camp outside of the city. Bridger, that’s the guy in charge, figured we should send out scouting parties to see if we could find other people or food. We sure as hell didn’t expect to get jumped by your Believers.”

“How many of you are there? Are there others from your group here?” Haruka was looking around the room.

Leah shook her head. “There were three of us and I don’t know what happened to the other two. Your people hit us hard. They may have killed them. I hope they got away and let Bridger know.”

“Not our people,” Ben jumped back in the conversation. “We are captives. Definitely not our people.” Hope blossomed suddenly. “Do you think Bridger will come looking for you? Do you think he will send search parties to find you?”

Leah shook her head. “No way. We had to convince him that we should come into the city in the first place. He won’t send more people, but if we can reach him, these Jesus freaks won’t dare try to follow us. We’d massacre them.”

Abdullah laughed. “I would like to see that. I would pay money to watch it.” Several others laughed in agreement.

The Believers would be coming to put them to work soon.

“We’ve go to escape”, Ben said..”It’s the only option besides being worked to death.”

“Do you have a plan?” Haruka leaned forward, interested.  Ben realized he didn’t have a plan. He had intended to rally people but they wanted a plan. They needed a plan. There was no doubt about that now.

Saying no would kill the spark of hope. He didn’t have a plan, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t one.

“You look like a man with a plan,” he said to Haruka. It was a gamble. “How can we help?”

Haruka didn’t disappoint. He smiled and leaned forward “Tonight when they bring us back here…”

That was as far as he got. Bright light flooded into the chamber as the wooden door was yanked open.

A cruel voice yelled “First group out the door by the count of three or you get a lash for every second you miss it by.”

There was no time to speak. It was time to work.

The work was no less grueling but the anticipation and knowledge that Haruka had a plan gave him a strength and hope that got him through the back breaking ordeals of the day. Groups were heavily segregated from one another and the only two people he had any contact with over the entire day were Samuel and Sutreyu. Like him, they knew nothing of Haruka’s plan.

In a rare moment without an overseer, Ben cornered Sutreyu. “Did you have strange dreams last night?”

Sutreyu smiled at him and softly said “No. I had no dreams.” The sound of the guard returning cut the conversation off.

He needed to believe something had happened last night. It was too real. This morning, he felt destiny shaping him. It was exhilarating. Like nothing he had ever experienced.

Through the day, Samuel would take three cart loads to the areas where the wall was under construction and then Ben would take one. Ben considered lodging a protest about this being unfair to his big companion, but in a rare moment of selfish rationalism decided that given the present constraints, it was as fair as could be hoped for. Samuel was younger and much stronger – and he didn’t seem to mind. Even taking a single barrow-full tapped all of the strength Ben had.

After a seeming eternity of labor, Ben again had another brief second with Sutreyu. Having spent far too many hours alone with his labor and his thought, he could not restrain himself from asking that which he needed to know.

“Did we talk last night?” He whispered it, hoping the guard would not return before he could get an answer.

Her laughter startled him.

“Silly man. I sat by your motionless body for hours to make sure that no one stepped on it.” He wasn’t sure whether to feel relief of disappointment. She went on. “It was as if you were a drunk that left this world for another. Are you drinking again, my friend? Would you like me to load you into the cart when Samuel returns?”

He had started to turn to his work as she said it. He wheeled about, but she was already working at prying three large bricks from each other with a sharp piece of stone – back to him. She had answered him. He knew to stop asking.

He had always sensed it but never completely understood. Life gives you the answers you want. If you wanted to know something, the answer was usually as plain as day. The problem for most people was that they wanted more direct answers than life was willing to give them. He had seen curiousity drive sane people to the brink of insanity. There was little more maddening than demanding answers from a universe which spoke in its own language.

There was no more time to talk. On his next turn at the wheelbarrow, he saw Emma walking through the dusty streets wearing what looked like the first real clothes he had seen. A sharp pang of disappointment stabbed him as he realized that she had been sucked into the cult-like community of Believers. The thought of the people Leah had spoken of kept him from despairing . A group living in a wilderness beyond the river led by a man named Bridger. The universe spoke a language that was obvious to those who listened.

Ben’s dreams remained clear in his mind. He tried to make sense of their meanings. A room with no exit with endlessly smooth walls. A stairway that offered a painful way up or an easy way down. A changed way of seeing things that left one unaware but unable to be affected by the immediate. The symbols had been powerful.

A prisoner leading him to confinement, a leader directing him up while she went down, and a rite of passage that demanded more than he could give.Ben considered these messages. He thought of the life he had lived. He woke.

A voice screamed in his brain, overcoming his thoughts of the past and present. “You are ALIVE!” the voice shouted. “For all of your days you have searched for meaning and reason. For all of your existence you have sought that which is fulfilling. For the first time in your life, you are not simply counting one more day that you are not dead. YOU ARE ALIVE!”

The voice was his. The voice was right. His present conditions were worse than he had ever imagined they could be. He was a slave being forced to labor for a cult. And yet, he would not trade where he was for a year of time in the world he had left. It was insanity! He was exactly where he wanted to be, exactly where he needed to be. He knew this with every fibre of his being. He had spent his entire life searching for something that made his efforts meaningful and in slavery, he had found it. Nothing in his life had equaled the need to free himself from bondage. He had never been so alive.

Tonight….he would find what freedom truly meant. Tonight, he would be free.

Chapter 24

Nothing Left to Lose

Something strange was happening with the Believers.

There was at least an hour of daylight left but suddenly, the crew bosses demanded they complete the load they were on. They would go back to the prison room. Ben wondered if Haruka’s plot had been discovered but then reminded himself he didn’t know anything about the plan. Haruka might say his plan was to break down the door and run as fast as they could in different directions – which might work for at least a few of them. He laughed to himself.

The overseer moved towards him. “Something you think is funny, rebel scum?”

Ben kept working but idly wondered if this man had watched Star Wars as a child and dreamed of becoming a storm trooper. The guard was waiting for an answer or at least waiting for an excuse to unleash a beating.

“I choked on some dust,” he lied.

“Choke on this, faggot.” The guards club smashed into Ben’s side. Ben felt the wind leave him and struggled to stay standing.

“You knocked that one out of the park Sanders. Nice hit.” Obviously, he couldn’t expect help from the other guards. They found this funny. Samuel returned with the barrow and the guards turned their attention to him. The big man worked in a methodical way, head down, obviously not looking for trouble. He was rocking a large brick wall back and forth, it looked like it would fall soon.

Sanders wasn’t done tormenting Ben. “Wanna have some more laughs? I bet you wish you had a God you could ask for help. Fucking atheist.” The club was coming down on him again. At that moment, he remembered the words written on the cliff. He allowed his body to crumble under him with no resistance and no tensing for the pain. The club hit a body that moved with it. It hurt less but looked like a far more powerful blow to the watching goons as Ben crumbled to the ground.

“Oh, that had to hurt,” one of them laughed. “Nice one Sanders. I bet you broke something there.” Ben stayed down hoping that the beating would not continue. Seconds later, the wall Samuel had been pushing collapsed. Noise, dust, and most importantly for Ben, distraction.

Sutreyu whispered in his ear “Stay down. It is not time yet. Stay on the ground.” Her voice was calm. It wasn’t hard for him to stay down.

A brick come like a rocket into Sander’s face. His nose exploded with an audible crunch. A blossom of blood spewed from the man’s face. He screamed in pain as Samuel flew onto him like a vengeful wind. His fists were pounding pistons. Ben tried to pull himself up but was weighted down by the body of Sutreyu who had thrown herself atop him. The two goons moved quickly to help their asshole friend as Samuel pummeled him.

Ben wanted to help. He managed to pull himself up on all fours with Sutreyu holding onto his back like a parasitic tortoise. One of the goons wrapped his whip around Samuel’s neck like a garrote. The other beat Samuel’s head with his club. Ben prepared to launch himself at the one with the club. The goon turned to him, club raised.

“Back off old man. It’s not your turn yet.” Samuel was gasping for breath. His face was bluish.

Ben stepped backwards. Sutreyu had dismounted his back and was pulling him away. Sanders lifted himself from the pile of rubble Samuel had knocked him into. His face was unrecognizable. He wiped the blood from his eyes and picked up his club. He smiled through the blood as he brought the club high over his head. Ben stepped a further step back.

Sanders brought the heavy club down on Samuel’s head. Sander’s brutal action was a surprise to everyone. The guard holding the whip jumped away as Samuel’s head was turned into a bloody pulp by blow after blow from Sanders. Both of the other goons watched in stunned silence. Ben heard Sutreyu gasp behind him.

This could easily turn into a massacre if the other guards decided to turn the violence towards Ben and Sutreyu.There was nothing they could do.

Sanders ripped the garbage cloth from Samuel’s lifeless body and wiped his blood drenched face and hands clean. There was blood everywhere. Sanders looked like the monster he was, covered with brains and blood. He smiled. He actually smiled.

“Take these two back to their cell.” The goons did as Sanders told them.

Ben and Sutreyu were shoved into the cell room. Samuel lay where he had fallen. Free from bondage. Free from life. Ben  had a feeling they were all going to die.

In his fifty two years, Ben had never seen anything like the brutal murder of Samuel. He had seen people die while he was in the service. In the two years he spent in Vietnam, he had seen men blown up, shot, and burned. It had been war that somehow made it less terrible than what he had just seen.

Samuel had attacked the guard to save Ben from a beating.

Ben realized how close he had come to having his ticket punched. If it hadn’t of been Samuel, it might well of been him. He sat in the dark room, no delirium to help him escape this time. He and Sutreyu were alone, the first to be brought back. The small woman sat next to him on the wet floor. The room was fetid with the stench of twenty people from the night before. There was no toilet in their cell. Most of them had tried to go in the corners, but it was everywhere. There was no escaping it, not without escaping.

Sutreyu spoke. “There was nothing you could have done. It was his time. He knew that when he made the decision. Each of us is faced in each instant with the choice of our actions. Do we do it, or do we not? There is only one answer.”

“Yes, in hindsight.” Ben felt bitter towards he. If she had not weighted him down, he may have drawn some of the blows and been able to save Samuel.

“If you prefer to think of it like that, yes. But there are other ways of thinking. Me, for instance, I had the feeling that keeping you alive was more important than trying to save Samuel. You may not like it, but I made the decision and now we are both stuck with it. My decision was already made before I even thought of it, that is one of the views that is different from the way you are thinking of things.”

“You are arguing against free will? You think that all of this is predetermined?” Ben had always considered himself a disciple of John Locke. The future was a blank Slater, not predetermined. He felt that each human being was born with a blank slate that would be filled by the course of their actions. He believed in free will and had never understood why anyone would disempower themselves by believing otherwise.

“One has to think beyond the body if one wants to understand the full ramifications of free will. Ben, if you pick up a rock with your right hand, are you then able to pick up something else with the same hand?”

“No. I mean, I could drop what is in my hand..”

“But the fact is that you are no longer able to make the choice to pick something up without making a different choice before hand. Does that mean that you no longer have free will?”

“Of course not, I still have the choice of my action…”

“Yes, but that choice is limited by actions you have already made. If you choose to go outside without your shoes, you can no longer choose to put them on if they are inside without making a choice or a series of choices in between the present and the action you want to take in the future. You still have free will, but you are limited by both the time and the space of the actions you have already chosen.”

“Yes, I understand that, but there is a point where you make an initial choice. We all start with a blank slate.”

“Do you really think that? Have you ever thought about what you are saying would mean? If each human starts as a blank slate and then as time moves forward creates a narrower and narrower set of choices for themselves, doesn’t it mean that your entire life is determined by the choices you made when you were an infant or a toddler?”

“Well, you could look at it that way, but parents have something to do with those early decisions. They are really more responsible for our young choices than we are…”

“So, you want to believe that you have free will, but only over the course your children’s lives will take? Do you really give your parents all the credit and all of the blame for the person you have become?”

Ben was stumped. He had painted himself into a corner. He could continue to argue, but he had lost faith in the belief he had so ardently believed in his previous life. A lifetime belief of thinking each person was responsible for making themselves had been shattered. He was at a loss and he had spent years learning that when you find yourself at a loss for understanding or words, it was best to stop arguing and start listening. Had he figured that out himself or was it something his parents had told him?

He called it the first rule of holes. When you found yourself in a hole, the first rule was to stop digging.

“Ben, have you ever considered that maybe the soul is something that inhabits the body but that is not dependent on it? These people who have us held captive, they have focused all of their belief and energy on a flawed picture of the soul existing within the body and then leaving this plane of existence when the body is no longer functioning. They see life as a one way ticket with no starting point and one of two destinations. Have you ever asked yourself what the starting point might be?”

Ben was appreciative of her questions. His mind was aware of what he had just witnessed, but was occupied with solving the riddles that Sutreyu put before him. He welcomed the distraction from the far too real present.

“Do you mean reincarnation?” he asked.

“In a way, yes. Have you ever considered that maybe the first influence on your decision making was not your parents, but maybe it was actually you. I don’t mean the you that is growing older each day, the you that has worldly goals, the lusty you. I mean, you. Y-O-U. The you that is still there if you imagine your body disappearing. Do you really think that when your body dies, you disappear?”

Ben felt goose bumps sprout on his arms. He thought of Vlad leading him to a room that didn’t exist. Was that what he had experienced ? Was it Vlad without the body of Vlad? His thoughts turned inward until he realized that Sutreyu was still talking.

“…and that was when I knew that I must travel to the temple of Guanyin.” Her words brought him back to the steps he had seen her on in his dream.

“Did you say you went to the temple of Guanyin?” he asked “Up all the stairs and through the gates?”

She smiled. “Yes. I know. It is a place you know of. I will start again. I want you to pay attention Ben. There is something in my past that tells me that I must tell you this story now. It is something that you need to hear.”

Ben nodded. She began again.

“In my life, I was drawn to the stars. As a child, they would tell me stories as I looked at them. I could see pictures of things that had happened and things that were still in the future. Not long ago, I began to see images that were unfamiliar and not in a form that I could understand. I saw the things that I considered important in my life disappear and I knew that a sort of death would be coming soon, not just for me, but for many. I saw suffering and hardship in the sky and it was then that I decided to make the long journey from my village near Cheng-du to the palace of Guanyin and the Holy Mountain.”

“It took me months of travel on foot, begging as I went for the food that sustained me. Finally, I reached Mount Taishan and began the pilgrimage up the six thousand, six hundred, and sixty-six steps that would lead me to the Heavenly City. In the Heavenly City I was met by the Priestess of Guanyin who led me and other’s who had seen the same signs to the Temple of the Goddess. We sat surrounded by clouds. For two weeks, our numbers grew until there were fifty of us, old women who had seen the signs in the stars that led us there.”

Ben was startled by her words. “But you are not an old woman. I doubt you are more than twenty?”

Sutreyu laughed and held up her hands. “No, Ben. You have seen my hands And you know that you are wrong. These hands have held five generations of my descendants. I have buried husbands, sons, and grandsons who died while I still lived. Guanyin is merciful, she has granted me a new youth, but left these hundred year old hands to remind me of the folly of thinking one’s existence is taking place only in one body.”

Ben said no more.

“There are other people here Ben. Not people like you or me. People like those that brought you here. There are people who are watching everything we do and evaluating our actions. I tell you Ben, I have seen the stars here. They are not our stars.”

Ben remembered seeing them too. Looking up at the billions of stars overhead after he and Vlad had gained an exit from the first building. He had seen the stars here too.

Sutreyu went on. “I have spent this lifetime and many others studying the stars and their positions in the night sky Ben. I have watched lives unfold and destinies revealed in them. I know them better than I know these wrinkled old hands and I tell you now, that the stars that will shine above us tonight, are not the stars of the world we have known.”

Sutreyu fell into silence. Ben had nothing to say.

The rest of the slaves were soon shoved into the cell. Ben watched anxiously for Haruka and Nick. Abdullah was one of the first to join them. He too was impatient to find out the details of Haruka’s plan. Ben’s group was not the only one to suffer increased brutality at the hands of the guards.

A group working near Abdullah had been attacked and beaten by ten Believers. When he tried to help, Abdullah was whipped. Ben imagined the frustration Abdullah felt when he was beat by whips he had taught the Believers to make and use.

“I did not see who it was they were beating.” Abdullah and Ben both stood. It felt as if the two men were so ready to be free that they could not waste a moment to sit and rest their weary and beaten bodies.

“My friend,” Abdullah said to him, “What should we do if Haruka does not return? Have you thought of what we should do if his plan is not one which we can execute?”

They needed an alternative plan.

“They killed Samuel today,” the others would need to know.

Abdullah’s eyes widened, but he said nothing. He was not surprised by the news.

Ben continued “Samuel pushed a large wall down today and used the destruction to injure one of the guards. Perhaps if we all were to push on one of these walls together, we could not knock it down.” It was not an elegant plan, but short of running out the doorway and being hit one at a time, it was the best that Ben had been able to come up with.

Abdullah put his arm on Ben’s shoulder affectionately. “It might bring down the rest of the building on us. It will be nice if we don’t have to try. Let us hope that Haruka’s plan involves less….uncertainty.”

At last, Haruka was shoved into the cell. The guards were particularly hard on him and he did a face plant into the ground. He lifted himself up. On his face, was a huge grin. He wiped the soil and waste from his arms. Like most of the men, Haruka wore nothing but a simple waistcloth. He wiped his hands on it.

Abdullah, Ben, and all the other’s gathered around him. They all knew that tonight was the night they were going to escape. Ben wondered if the Believers knew it too. Was Bishop cagey enough to have put an informant among them?  Ben looked around the room, wondering if one of them were a Believer and if so who? And why?

There had been fifteen men and seven women. Ben knew Sutreyu, Haruka, Adam, Nick, Abdullah, and now Leah. He was also familiar with several of the other men, Singh, Kim, Bill, Lee, Dennis, Remy, and Thomas. He was fairly certain that none of them were Believers. The other five women were Jennifer, Freya, Loren, Mary, and Emby. Ben felt confident that Bishop would not have sent a Believer woman among them. He looked at the men. It would only be someone who was white. The Bishop had convinced some of the whites from the inventor group to join him, perhaps he had convinced one more? There were three white guys among them. Ben, Fred, Steve, and Adam. Ben looked closely at the three men. They were sitting together in the corner speaking quietly, was it possible they were all working for the Believers?

Ben stopped himself. It had only been a moment’s speculation, but he could already see how dangerous it was. Maybe they were whispering about how they thought Ben was the informer. Speculation and suspicion would get him nowhere. It would get all of them nowhere. Ben knew it would not go away. Rumors do not disappear easily. They simply increase.

If the Believers wanted them to destroy themselves, all they had to do was put them in a room and wait for accusations and suspicions to fly. They had to escape now.

“Haruka, do you have a plan?” Ben sounded as desperate as he felt. There was no time to waste. Waiting would only make them physically and mentally weaker.

Haruka nodded. He was young, probably not even thirty yet. He licked his lips. “These people are fools. They have made many mistakes. Have you seen any technology aside from what we gave them?”

No one had.

They all gathered around Haruka. He sat. Steve and Fred were visible in the back of the group, listening but not coming too near. They were definitely outsiders. Ben watched them as the whole group began to interact.

“That’s right. They have been too busy building and making us build to have any further innovations. Abdullah, they use your whips and they use clubs, but these are primitive weapons. I think they have intentionally kept us low in number and I wonder what has happened to those who have spoken for us. I don’t think it can be good. Basically, all they have over us, is numbers. Numbers and the innovations that we gave them.”

Everyone nodded. Numbers and weapons were always superior to no numbers and no weapons. Did he have a plan or didn’t he? Haruka saw the look of impatience on Ben’s face.

“Don’t worry. I have a plan, but I hate to give away all my secrets at once. You never know who might be listening.” He looked around the room knowingly. Ben had been right, he wasn’t the only one thinking of infiltrators. Now everyone was thinking about it.

“We need to act fast. We must act now.” Ben couldn’t believe that he was the only one who felt impatient for action. “What is your plan?”

Haruka laughed. “My plan? Do you really want me to tell you my plan?” He stood and moved towards Ben. Ben braced himself for an attack, but Haruka only came close to his face. “My plan, Ben, is that we break down that door and run as fast as we can in different directions. I suggest we do it right now.”

For a moment, Ben thought Haruka was joking, but somehow the man’s bad breath blowing warmly in his face felt far too serious to allow him to be joking.

“Haruka, why don’t we break down the entire wall and then kill as many of those goons as we can?”

A current was running through the room. Adam stepped forward, he had taken a severe beating. He held out his hand.

“The Bishop needs to die!”

All hands were thrown into the center and it was all they could do to keep from cheering.

Haruka remained in front of the door, limiting access to anyone who might have wanted to notify the guards about their plans.

Over the next forty five minutes, Ben learned more about hand to hand combat than he would have ever thought possible. Haruka demonstrated the most vulnerable targets and how to hit them.  He told them to focus on the points that were not protected by fat or muscle.

“Focus on the joints,” he said. The joints took the least amount of force to destroy. He told them to go for the eyes, throat, groin, and knees with whatever they had available. He demonstrated a sort of karate chop that used the full weight of the body.

Abdullah explained that the Believers were not efficient with the whips. They used full range motion of the arm, but Abdullah insisted that it was much more efficient to use the motion of the body with a snapping of the wrist. Singh, Steve, and Fred were all three trying to make whips from the shreds of clothing that the slaves still possessed.

Leah, the woman from Bridger’s camp made a radical suggestion.

“Before, we make our move, I suggest that all of us rub our bodies with the shit and piss from the corners. It make us less desirable to touch and harder to hold onto if they try to grab us. I suggest we all pee as much as we can before we do anything.” Ben understood why she was so filthy now. It was self defense, a necessary weapon for a woman in a harsh land.

They had done all they could to prepare. It was now or never. Abdullah, Singh, and Fred were  armed with clumsy whips. There was one thing they had to know before they began. Ben was surprised at being the first to ask.

“Leah…these people you told us about. Bridger’s bunch, how far are they? Do you know what direction they are from here? How do we reach them?”

Leah grinned at him. “I wondered if you were all going to go running in whatever direction the Jesus freaks chased you in. Listen, everyone,” as they had all been doing, she whispered. It was amazing that none of the goons had told them to shut up. “Bridger and his people, our people, they are a good hike away from here. On the other side of the parklands, there is more city. That is where the Holy Rollers grabbed me. Further beyond that, straight towards the where the sun sets, there is a pretty big river. We haven’t found any way across it other than swimming, so if you don’t swim…well, you’re gonna have to cross that bridge when you come to it. Find the river.”

They had identified one wall as being weakest. There was still no certainty that they would be able to knock it down. If they failed, they would tear down the door and try to get out before the goons could rally. Either way, they would need weapons.

They would form into groups of five and six once they were all out.

Ben was worried about Adam. He had taken one hell of a beating from the Bishop’s men today and seemed consumed with revenge. Ben hoped the young man would give up on revenge and focus on escape. Adam, Soc, and the woman, Emby were all in the same slave group and had all been beaten. Adam had approached Sutreyu and Ben about joining with his group and going after the Bishop. He was set on revenge. Ben had dissuaded him, but there was still that look in his eye.

Fred and Steve had also expressed a desire to go after the Bishop. There were some looks going between the five of them that could mean trouble for everyone.

The plan was to get out, find weapons of some sort,  and to run. They couldn’t hope to defeat the huge number of Believer troops, their only hope was to run. They also agreed that once the wall came down or the door came off – it was every small group for themselves.

They agreed to meet on the other side of the park. Ben’s small group was composed of Sutreyu, Abdullah, Loren, and Freya. The third group was Haruka, Leah, Thomas, Singh, Jennifer, and Nick. The final group was composed of Bill, Kim, Remy, Lee, Thomas, and Mary. Each group assembled on a portion of wall and began to push. The wall moved a little, but not much.

There was an very slight movement to the wall that made them all feel hopeful.

Somehow, Ben had become the leader. He nodded his head and mouthed the count “One…two…three…” This time the wall moved quite a bit and made a significant amount of noise. There was a startled cry from the goons outside. The jig was up.

“Keep going, keep pushing,” Ben shouted. It was useless to try to hide their actions. They were pushing on a huge brick wall that had god knows how many pounds of pressure on it from above. Their only hope was to put more pressure on it from the side than was coming down. The wall would have no choice but to buckle and hopefully it wouldn’t bring the building down with it.

Then it happened. Ben had a flash of his print shop coming down around him as the brick wall burst from the people pressure coming from inside. The startled guards jumped backwards in the torchlight. The cathedral was lit up like a Christmas tree. Ben could see some of the guards were pinned  under the wall. He picked up a brick and moved forward with the rest of the escapees. The noise was astounding. Whatever was going on in the cathedral, it wouldn’t be more than a few moments before every Believer in that church came streaming out with the fury of the Bishop pushing them from behind. There was no time to waste.

They launched at the goons. Between the fierceness of their assault and his confusion over what was happening, the goons didn’t stand a chance. Ben took a club and looked for another target.  Adam’s group was heading straight for the Cathedral.

“Stick to the plan,” he yelled after them, but they seemed intent on getting the Bishop, no matter how hopeless the cause. A guard with a whip came at him. Ben smashed the man in the knee with his club. The guy went down screaming. Ben felt the joint torn apart at the force of his blow. Sutreyu took the man’s club and Loren took his knife. Loren was a youngish Mexican woman who had expressed enthusiasm at escaping and no qualms about covering herself with sewage to do so.

Ben looked towards Adams group again. They were closer to the Cathedral now. Idiots. He saw a club strike Loren in the side of the head. She went down. He didn’t have time to help herup. It was Sanders.

Ben and Sanders faced each other like gunfighters in the dusty streets of Purgatory. Ben wanted vengeance. Sanders remembered him and was ready add him to his list of kills. This was the moment he had been waiting for. This was the moment when he was to be tested. His words, shouted at Adam, went through his head “Stick to the Plan.”

Ben shook his head angrily. “Screw the plan.”

If anyone heard him, they were too busy to acknowledge him. Ben shoved the club forward straight at Sanders exposed throat. Sanders had been expecting a wild swing and was caught off guard by the jab at his unprotected and vulnerable throat. Ben had expected his lunge to be blocked, but Sanders was caught completely off guard.

The crunch of his windpipe wasn’t nearly as loud the noise around them, but the vibrations on his club made it sound like an earthquake to Ben. To Ben, it was like a choir of angels shouting “Yes!” Ben pushed forward as if he were shoving towards a target two feet beyond Sanders. He felt the man go down under his weight and didn’t take the pressure from the man’s throat until he felt the impact of the ground under them.

He rolled off Sanders and jumped to his feet, ready for a fight, but Sanders was dead. He looked left where Haruka and his group had defeated the goons who had come at them. On his right, Kim’s group had taken down three guards. Several more of the goons had been taken out of the fight by the force of the wall. There had been fewer guards than they expected – most of them had gone into the cathedral.

Ben turned toward the cathedral where all hell was breaking loose as hundreds of Believers swarmed out the doors. Adam’s group was about to be overwhelmed. Several of the fastest goons who had come out first were almost on them. Adam and Fred both had clubs. Fred raised his club, ready to attack but Adam’s stick came down on the back of Fred’s head. Ben saw it all happen in an instant. Adam was the mole. Abdullah gave the order they needed to hear.

“Run!”

**********

This is the end of Part 1.

Part 2  of The Fucking People

The Silicon Boom in Unabomb Valley – A Novel by Christopher Damitio

The Silicon Boom in Unabomb Valley

or 

Riding Unicorns to Civilizations End

 

A novel of tech, startups, unabombers, dog-shit, and romance.

by 

Christopher Damitio

5/20/2019: This is my favorite of the novels I’ve written (so far). I feel like it incorporates so much that the world needs to know. This novel was written late in 2019 before I wrote A Very Good Novel (Coronavirus) or rewrote The Keys to the Riad. I wrote this novel in a pre-COVID-19 world.  This is the first time it has been published anywhere. I recognize that I’m giving away the cows and no one will want to buy the milk by putting my novels online, but as a writer I have two motivations that drive me. First, to create new worlds and second to share them. Money is a priority that appears far down the list – and when I look at the world we live in – making serious money from writing I enjoy seems about as likely as – well, it seems less likely than the events of this novel. Enjoy.

Chapter 1

 Name Recognition

The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

One of the first lessons anyone in the Silicon Valley learns is that it doesn’t so much matter what you know or what you can do – it’s all about who you know and what they can do. Theo had everything going for him – he knew people, he’d gone to school at UC Berkley, he could do stuff, he understood programming, computers, protocols and algorithms – the problem was that everyone knew his name.

Name recognition, it’s one of those things they put a lot of emphasis on in start-ups and MBA programs. Generally it’s considered a good thing to have strong recognition but there are some exceptions. You can have a negative associated with your name or brand that will outweigh all the positive that comes from people recognizing it. You probably wouldn’t get very far if your new clothing company was called Enron or if you were starting a church called ISIS.

Chances are you wouldn’t have the easiest time in the game of life if your name were Hitler, Saddam, or Jeffrey Dahmer either. And if your name was the same as the Unabomber’s – well then you would know what life was like for Theodore Kazinsky. Theo’s life sucked.

April 3, 1996

It was just a few months from graduation and Theo was working on a project with his team in the UC Berkley Student Union. They had been working on a way to let game players take part in a shared online world via Gopher – the plaintext alternative protocol to the World Wide Web that everyone seemed to forget about as soon as Google came along. No one had done that yet. Google still wouldn’t launch for another two years – these were the glory days of dial up modem connections and people thinking that the internet was going to level the playing field and give everyone a chance to live to their fullest potential.

The future was bright and as a particularly gifted student with an interest in population studies, computers, and mathematics – Theo’s future was brighter than most. His team was going to demonstrate that http was a dead end. They were going to show that graphical interfaces could be harnessed to the Gopher network. They were going to demonstrate how seemingly random events could be used to solve impossibly large problems. They were as bright eyed and bushy tailed as well…gophers.

As usual, the television in the background was showing daytime television.

That’s when everything changed. ABC’s breaking news came on – there was no such thing as a smart phone in those days and most people still caught their news from the networks or newspapers. Breaking news was a big deal. These were the shared cultural moments that bound generations together. The OJ Simpson chase, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the start of the Gulf War, and now this:

“Breaking news. Authorities have arrested a man they believe to be the Unabomber in the small town of Lincoln Montana.”

Most of the students dropped what they were doing and gathered around the TV as the newscast unfolded. The Unabomber had been blowing people up for nearly a decade. A few months earlier, the Unabomber had vaulted into the spotlight again by forcing the Washington Post to publish his manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future. Like everyone else, Theo had read it – unlike most other people he had read the entire manifesto – he found it to be both disturbing and compelling – the ramblings of a madman – but not a complete madman. There was enough context in the manifesto that it gave him a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. Certainly killing wasn’t the answer – but Theo had the disturbing feeling that the Unabomber might be right about a lot of what he wrote about.

“After 17 years of looking, the FBI thinks they may have finally captured the Unabomber. Late this afternoon, Ted Kaczynski was taken from his backwoods cabin…”

Theo’s heart dropped. One of his team mates laughed and called across the room – “Hey Theo, you’re famous…” No one called him Ted except his grandfather, he was always Theo or Theodore – but it wouldn’t be long before they would be calling the Unabomber by his given name – everyone knew that Ted was short for Theodore. This was going to be much worse than when he’d been teased for sharing a name with one of The Chipmunks in the 6th grade. Alvin, Simon, Theodore Kaczynski – the fucking Unabomber.

“When he came to town, always alone, Kaczynski who did not own a car, rode a bicycle and one of his favorite stops – the library.”

Hey Theo – is that guy related to you?” The question wasn’t a joke. He wasn’t sure who said it, but he was sure that it wasn’t the last time he would hear it. Someone else piped up “I think he used to teach here – I’ve seen his name before…” The answer came from the television.

“He was a ghost for eighteen years, targeting universities and airlines – thus the name UN-A- Bomber. Authorities say that Kaczynski lived in the Salt Lake City area in the 1980s when bombs were sent from there and that in the 1960s he was a professor of mathematics at UC Berkeley in San Francisco, California….”

Another student asked if he was related. Theo knew he should say something – he just didn’t know what to say. “No, no relation. His name is spelled totally different.” That was the best he could get out. He would say it again and again – but it was like trying to stop a flood with a paper towel. He turned down every interview that came – hundreds of them. He began getting phone calls, letters, and email from people who thought he was the Unabomber – not just threats and hatred – but also praise and fan mail. It continued like this through graduation and on for the next two years as the trial progressed. He didn’t have a single job interview where the question wasn’t asked and no one called him back with an offer. His roommate joked that they only gave him the interviews to see if he was the Unabomber. Sometimes he wondered if he should have lied and said he actually was related to the Unabomber. It couldn’t have made things worse. His life was destroyed.

In the year after he graduated, Theo applied to every major tech company in the San Francisco

Bay Area. None of them hired him. He moved into a rent control apartment near Dolores Park – it was all he could afford. He broadened his search to surrounding areas with the same results. Finally, he started wholesale applying to whatever jobs he saw available. He landed jobs as a waiter, a bartender, a dry waller, and a landscaper. The truth was, the only people that would hire him were the people who were non-native English speakers that mispronounced his name or who were so uninformed they didn’t know anything about the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, or that Theodore was shortened to Ted.

He got used to being addressed as Theo Kazinsky (pronounced with sky instead of ski).

Finally, during the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s , people forgot about the Unabomber for a while as they saw the internet and software creating more millionaires than had existed for most of America’s history. Geeks were suddenly in such demand that he was able to land a promising job with an amazing startup based on his ability to work with TCP/IP and networking protocols – but the company – TechPlanet – was one of the first victims of the dot-com bust. His next gig seemed like it could change the world – Flooz was going to change fiat money for digital money, but when crime syndicates began using it to launder money, it failed quickly. The terrorist attacks of 2001 and the wars that followed brought the name problem back to him. No one wanted to hire a guy with a terrorist’s name. He landed one more tech job with another promising company called Friendster – but was laid off when the company turned down an acquisition offer from Google and then had to start tightening budgets.

Through it all, he continued his academic work on GOPHER holes and networking even as the world moved on and forgot the GOPHER protocol existed. His fascination with digital money survived the collapse of Flooz and the idea of building a better social network stayed with him – that was what had brought him to Friendster in the first place. Friendster was fucked from the beginning though – just like all the other companies that were focused on using the world wide web and http protocols. The future was going to be about something else. Theo knew it. He was a genius.

One of the shitty things about being a genius and working for promising startups that fail is that your shares in the company end up being worth nothing – so you always need to find another job.

Theo Kazinsky was a genius. He was a flat fucking broke genius living in a rent controlled apartment who would be 48 in 2020 and had fuck all to show for it. He was an innovative inventor that had been dished a series of particularly shitty breaks in life. He was tired of being a bystander and victim in the game of life.

Chapter 2

Gopher Broke

The conservatives are fools: They whine about the decay of traditional values, yet they enthusiastically support technological progress and economic growth. Apparently it never occurs to them that you can’t make rapid, drastic changes in the technology and the economy of a society without causing rapid changes in all other aspects of the society as well, and that such rapid changes inevitably break down traditional values.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Sometimes it seems like the internet just popped out of DARPA’s vagina and was already a fully grown and mature method for sharing digital information on networks, but that’s not how the internet was born at all. First of all, DARPA probably doesn’t have a vagina and secondly, the internet was created by a huge group of dedicated and enthusiastic nerds who worked tirelessly for decades to be able to swap jokes with their colleagues in different parts of the world without having to pay for a stamp or a long distance call.

People don’t think of scientists using the internet in the 1960s and 1970s (or even the 1980s for that matter) but they were. The scientists from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) created ARPANET and then they gave it to the world. The first packet message transmission took place in the 1960s between UCLA and Stanford. The systems were refined over the next couple of decades but largely remained academic. In the late 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at CERN in Switzerland came up with the hypertext transfer protocols (http) that resulted in the birth of the World Wide Web (www) and what we think of as the modern internet. From 1993 to 2007, 95% of the telecommunications industry migrated to ‘the web’. During that period everything we think of as the internet today (instant messaging, voice over internet protocols, social networking, email) came to life using the ‘http://www’ protocols, but that is only one of many protocols. Sure, it’s the biggest and it’s the one that gets used the most by a long shot – but there are others. JANET, ABILENE, TERENA, INTERNET2 – these were and are – other protocols that run alongside the world wide web. Another one – that is rarely heard about except in the geekiest of circles is GOPHER.

Believe it or not, at one point GOPHER (which I will call Gopher from here on out) was once as well known by the public as www. Magazines and television spoke of it as the future that had come to life. In a way, Gopher was the first organizational tool on the internet. Gopher was simple but revolutionary. It worked by menus – so essentially, what we think of today as a list of links were the menu and every link led to either a different menu, a document, or a file. It was simple and it avoided the needless spam world we have with Google and links. The huge advantage and the huge disadvantage of Gopher over the World Wide Web was that Gopher was a simple text based interface – to put it bluntly – Gopher was stupid. You could link to a picture or video but you couldn’t actually incorporate it into your gopherpage (not a web-page). If you wanted pictures on a gopherpage you had to draw them with text. No HTML, no Flash, no Markup languages. Gopherpages were simple text pages with menus (links). Actually, I should say that Gopherpages ARE because they still exist. So, no photos on the page, no embedded animations, no doo-hickies, no animation based games. Just information. Gopher is lightning fast, won’t crash, and doesn’t require bandwidth beyond a dial-up connection.

The project that Theo and his classmates had been working on allowed multiple users to take part in a connected Gopher world, to interact with one another, and to engage in Dungeons and Dragons type adventures together even when at a distance. It may not sound like much today, but actually, it was revolutionary. What they were working on was among the first MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) that used sociology and population dynamics to help player groups to achieve a common goal. The type of game they created was called a MUD or Multi-User Dungeon – a strange fusion of fan fiction, D&D, online chat, and slash games – but one that worked.

MUDS have been around since the mid 1970s but the innovation that Theo and his team were bringing to the table was to integrate the four character types from the Bartle Matrix into a cohesive type of game where users could engage in their desired type of play while still advancing the narrative and assisting their group towards success – and more.

The Bartle Matrix might need a bit more explanation – the designer of one of the first and most successful MUDs was an Englishman named Richard Bartle. Bartle studied the type of gameplay that attracted certain types of players and then divided players using a cross grid with player/world as the X-Axis and acting/interacting as the Y-Axis. This left four types of game players – Killers and Socializers on the player side and Achievers and Explorers on the world side. One of the big problems in organized game play has always been getting these four types to work together towards a common quest. For example, an Achiever can be working towards a big goal and a Killer might start a big fight or feud that halts the progress. Socializers tend to get in the way of both Explorers and Achievers – but since socialization and a killer instinct are both necessary to advance in most group games – the challenge has always been finding a way to get these disparate groups to work together harmoniously towards a common goal.

You will be forgiven if the Bartle Matrix makes you think of real world people – it turns out that the four types of game players can also be translated into the four types of living people.

Achievers tend to be those people who like status and rewards regardless of whether such status and rewards bring them any real benefit. A gamer example would be a person who goes after a boss monster just to get a beautiful helmet that confers no real advantage in the game. Real world versions might have a fancy car they don’t drive or a lake house they never visit. Entrepreneurs and opportunists.

Explorers are those people who like leaving no stone unturned. In games, they like discovering glitches or hidden easter eggs – they might tap every wall of a dungeon to find a hidden door. In real life, explorers tend to be those who like digging into a field of study to a depth that most people simply will never desire to know. In a word – they are the experts. Hackers and scientists.

Socializers are those people who are only in it to form relationships. In the games, they spend more time talking to other players and non-player characters than actually playing the game. In real life, they like to chat, they like to sit around the water cooler, they want to spend time building relationship. In both real life and in games, they are drawn to achievers because achievers love to be praised and noticed and the socializers love to be able to socialize – even if it’s just praising an achiever. Networkers and social workers.

Killers are those people who take competition to a level where the only thing that matters is winning. In game play they are fighters, builders, and destroyers. In the real world, they are narcissists, empire builders, criminals, and bullies. Of course, there are degrees in all of these so a killer might be a successful business person who always looks for the right advantages, but the bottom line is that killers are in it to win it – no matter the cost. Politicians and criminals.

While it can be argued that all four types are necessary to build human civilization or to achieve game play goals, the big problem is that there is rarely balance in groups – they would be heavily weighted towards one extreme or another.

So, what Theo and his team were working on was a MUD that sorted players by their type and then diverted them to tasks that helped the entire team to achieve their goal – but they’d actually started to go further than that, they were looking at the meta of the entire game and had engineered a way to do something much more complex – they were using players who thought they were working towards selfish goals to bring the team closer to a selfless goal – and at the same time they were using teams and groups who thought they were working towards a selfish group goal and setting them towards a selfless meta goal – so multiple teams who assumed they were working towards disparate goals were actually working towards a unified goal, but the true brilliance of the system was that the meta goal could be programmed into the game itself, which would then create individual team quests to solve a common goal that the players were never even aware of.

If that doesn’t make perfect sense, here’s an example – Raven and his party are given a quest to go fight a troll who is snatching children from a village and recover a treasure item that will provide some benefit to their group. At the same time Lightbearer and her group are tasked with exploring a mountain cave complex which requires some theft/dexterity and a bit of fighting as well as some simple spell casting. A half dozen other groups are given similar tasks based on the matrix position of the group members. As each task is unfolding, the movements, decisions, and actions of all the groups are analyzed and recorded by a mainframe that is using these seemingly random actions to crunch huge mathematical problems. The bizarre part was that there was no logical reason anyone on Theo’s team could come up with for why this should work. So regardless of the outcome of Raven and Lightbearer’s quests – at the end of the session – the MUD would spit out the most likely scenario for a pandemic emergent in a small Bangladeshi mountain region to be controlled with the most expedient methods and the smallest team – for example.

As the most talented math genius on his team, it fell on Theo to develop a theory for why it was happening, how it was happening, and show how this power could be harnessed. The problem was that the whole Unabomber scenario unhinged him, disconnected him from everyone, and created a subtle distance between Theo and the other MUD Gophers. Nobody wanted to be published on the same paper with Ted Kazinski. Especially not in the late 1990s.

By the time that his name had become less of a bomb, the dot com bubble was exploding and no one was interested in MUDs, Gopher, or anything other than the World Wide Web. And now you know what set Theo on the path towards being that rare breed of Silicon Valley tech genius approaching fifty without enough money to buy a decent car.

Chapter 3

Breaking the Bonds

The breakdown of traditional values to some extent implies the breakdown of the bonds that hold together traditional small-scale social groups. The disintegration of small-scale social groups is also promoted by the fact that modern conditions often require or tempt individuals to move to new locations, separating themselves from their communities. Beyond that, a technological society HAS TO weaken family ties and local communities if it is to function efficiently. In modern society an individual’s loyalty must be first to the system and only secondarily to a small-scale community, because if the internal loyalties of small-scale communities were stronger than loyalty to the system, such communities would pursue their own advantage at the expense of the system.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Theo hadn’t talked to his family in years. They had no interest in him – and as a result, he had decided to have no interest in them. For years he had sent birthday cards, Christmas cards, sent small ‘thinking of you’ gifts, and tried to be conscientious about calling just to say hi once in a while. Then, one day, he realized he was the only one doing these things. His siblings never called, his nieces and nephews never sent cards, his parents were busy with social clubs, volunteer work, and figuring out how to structure their retirement.

At first, he thought he must be mistaken. So, being an analytical sort of person, he decided to run an experiment. He would let them make the next move. He would play a game of tit-for-tat relationship building. If they called him, he would owe them a call. If they sent a letter, he would send a letter. He would start out with being the bigger man though, just in case his own clouds of vision were causing him to attribute a better starting score than he deserved.

So, one day in 2015, Theo called every one of his relatives. He already knew that he had been the only one sending any sort of mail since the turn of the century – but he thought he must be mistaken about the phone calls. Surely someone had called. The only fair way to run the experiment was to start with a clean slate and him making the first move.

Most of his extended family let it run to voicemail. He left a nice message with his name and number, told them that he was thinking of them and he would love to have a chat to catch up. His mom answered the phone and said that she and his father were about to sit down and watch Star Trek – so it wasn’t a good time. His brother answered and then proceeded to list his life’s woes without bothering to ask “How are you?” and his sister told him that she needed to take her kids to a soccer game and would call him back. That was it. It wasn’t a huge investment of his time. All told it took him about forty minutes.

He created a spreadsheet and put each family member with the date he had called and a space for when they called him back. Four years later there were no new entries. No one had called him back, not even his parents.

Whether through a sick sense of perversion or a genuine curiosity, after a year of not hearing back from his family – he decided to run the same experiment on his old school friends, the people who were no longer in his day to day life – and sadly it was with the same result. It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say that Theo had expected the result – in fact, he had hoped that he was wrong when he realized that all of his relationships were one way – but the data spoke for itself. No one gave a shit about him.

There was one moment in 2017 when he thought that his entire experiment might have been flawed. Theo had a Facebook account but generally he didn’t use it – he didn’t like the idea of his mental energy being directed by an algorithm. He had created it at the dawn of Facebook, a former Berkley classmate had invited him to the platform back when the platform was invite only. He’d used it for a few months but then gone back to his gopherlog and generally forgotten about it.

In 2017, he logged in and saw that he had scores of old birthday greetings and messages from family and friends. He was genuinely touched until he remembered that he had put a fake birthday in when he signed up – and he recognized that the majority of birthday wishes were automated messages coming from bots his ‘friends’ had set up to not miss a birthday. His phone number was available on his profile but no one had called. His results stood. No one gave a shit about Theo.

Don’t misunderstand though, Theo wasn’t some kind of misanthrope – he wanted warm relationships but he couldn’t understand why other people didn’t seem to understand that there has to be a back and forth – not so much a quid-pro-quo, not a give and take – but more of a both sides giving situation. The taking didn’t really matter – the most important thing was that both sides gave and continued to give. The giving of time, energy, interest, and action. If it didn’t happen, then the relationship was a sham based on a sense of responsibility instead of a sense of desire.

Theo wanted to care about people – but there was something in him that would stop caring as soon as he realized the other person wasn’t willing to give for no reason other than giving. So, in that sense, he was as guilty as everyone else – but to his credit – he was at least the last one to give in his relationships. He had working relationships, casual friendships, and a whole string of romantic relationships – but they all sort of ended the same way. He would call, they wouldn’t call back, and then he wouldn’t call back and they just sort of disappeared. In some cases, the women he was involved with would call back after some sort of invisible deadline he had set and then the relationship would just sort of fade away. Without him willing to give, the women would invariably look for someone else to give them that energy. Theo wasn’t interested in being a unidirectional beacon of love.

Women found him attractive. They were drawn to him. He was average height at about 5’11” , a bit of a thick build – muscular without being fat or jocky, a full head of black hair that was starting to get a touch of grey, and had a quick smile and flirty wit. He didn’t attract the sugar babies because they could smell that he was nearly destitute, but he attracted the smart, serious girls – the ones that were on flag team or in the band instead of being cheerleaders. Good looking geek girls loved Theo.

He was the opposite of an incel (involuntarily celibate). Theo was inlaid (involuntarily getting laid). The involuntary-celibacy movement was something that never made any sense to him. He figured that what they really should have called themselves was selfish-pretending-in-giving movement (SPIGS). Spigs acted like they wanted to give everything to their mates, but from what Theo had seen, most of them only wanted to take away freedom, initiative, desire, movement, and money from the mates they claimed spurned them. Spigs came in both sexes and all genders.

No, the reason Theo wasn’t in a relationship was because he needed someone who played the game of “I can love you more than you can love me” and played it to win – because that was how he played. Also – and this had been a problem in several of his past relationships – he didn’t feel like it was fair to bring any child into the world unless the world was fixed – and that didn’t look like it would be happening any time soon. Any potential parenting partner had to be a world change warrior – like him.

He’d tried dating a couple of single moms (and even a married one) but while they were far better at the love more than you can game – the problem with them was that when it came time for Theo to spend time with their kids, he would ask disturbing questions that led the children (potentially but not every time – just that one time) to dark contemplations that most mom’s didn’t want their children subjected to.

The time in question, he had posed a version of the railroad worker problem to a bright eight-year-old. It goes like this:

You are standing at the switch for a train track. If you don’t switch the track – the train is going to kill a pregnant woman. If you switch the track, it’s going to kill three men working on the other track.

The kid had been incredibly interested in the problem and they worked through all the scenarios with some changes – what if you knew one of the men? What if you knew the baby would grow up to be a murderer? What if you did nothing? If you did nothing, would that make you guilty?

What Theo hadn’t expected was that the eight year old would get on the internet and as a result become the youngest nihlist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’d apparently told his third grade teacher something like “We’re all murderers and it doesn’t matter. Killing should be legal.” None of that had been Theo’s intention, but it was after that incident that his rather promising relationship with the kid’s mother had faded away.

The kid obviously had much more thinking to do because he’d already missed the point – killing is already legal, but it’s all how you justify it. Are you looking at long term effects or only short term violent murder? Are you looking at the death penalty or warfare? The point of the question was to get him to think about the fact that there are no really good choices and if you dig deep enough there is always a reason why every decision can’t be made. Theo realized he’d gone too far with the boy though. He should have let the kid be happy when he saved the young mother. That may well have led to a happy relationship with the boy’s young mother – but probably not, something else would surely have come up. There are no good choices. Consequences no matter what path you take.

Chapter 4

Change Comes From Within

If a change is made that is large enough to alter permanently a long-term trend,

then the consequences for the society as a whole cannot be predicted in advance.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Everything about the year coming, the year 2020 made Theo want to change. There was something magical about the number, the repeat, the double meaning of perfect vision, and that fact that generally his life just wasn’t very good. He wasn’t sure how to change but he figured a good start would be to quit doing drudge work. He’d been doing coding for the highest bidder, working as a handyman, and even driving Uber and Lyft to make ends meet. The only thing worse than driving a crappy car is driving other, better off, younger people around in your crappy car.

He wasn’t envious or jealous – or not really – but maybe a little bit. Mostly he was just curious how the world had changed so much around him while his life had seemingly not changed very much at all. San Francisco had become an insane place to live with the divide between the haves and have nots reaching some middle-ages level bullshit. There were people who slept on the street, shit on the street, ate garbage, and died on the street – and walking among them day in and day out were super ultra-rich. Billionaires and beggars.

Theo had been pushing people away for so long that it had become his long term trend. Every year, more isolation, and less friendship. It was one of the things he decided to change as 2020 drew near. He began reaching out to people and accepting invitations.

While doing handyman work for a young hipster couple with an ungodly amount of money, Theo had struck up a friendship – not the kind of friendship where you hang out every day, but the kind where you sometimes get together, have lunch, and look out for each other. Mark and Priscilla were pretty normal – except for the security and the billions of dollars. Theo had a theory that the only reason they had taken an interest in him was because he wasn’t interested in Facebook. They didn’t give him the security code or anything – besides, it didn’t work like that – a series of gates and guards and door keepers kept everyone but who they wanted in – out. And yes, I’m saying that Mark Zuckerburg and his wife Priscilla Chan were friends with a guy who shared his name with the Unabomber.

Mark went out of his way not to offer Theo opportunities – he didn’t want to spoil what was one of the only high level acquaintance friendships the universe allowed him to have. He’d simply call Theo up and say “Priscilla is cooking up some lunch and we’ve got a couple of things we need fixed around the house…are you interested in making a little money and having lunch with us?” Theo always said yes. First of all because he needed the money, second because Priscilla was a fucking amazing cook, and finally because he didn’t have that many high level acquaintance/friends himself.

Theo, for his part, went out of his way not to talk to Zuck about social networks or coding or anything technical. He figured they already knew his story, they had teams of people who ran background on everyone they came in contact with – but he didn’t want to change the dynamic. It was casual and friendly and somewhat lucrative as they usually paid around $125/hour for his handywork. About double what others were willing to pay him.

Generally, he’d come in and Mark would walk him around, show him the work he wanted done. They might talk about some movie or TV show, maybe a popular song or something not about Facebook that was in the news – and then Priscilla would call them to lunch like some perfect 1950s TV housewife. It was a bizarre form of play-acting, but on some level, they were all into it.

It was at one of these casual lunches, sitting on the floor in one the Zuckerbergs ‘guest cabanas’ (which were about six times the size of Theo’s apartment) that Priscilla, still wearing the pink apron she’d been cooking in, dropped a bomb and changed the dynamics of everything.

Hey Theo. I want you to meet a friend of mine. Can I set you up on a blind date?”

Theo wasn’t really sure what to say, so he said nothing. Zuck wasn’t so shy.

Priscilla, that’s highly inappropriate. If he wanted help meeting someone he’d probably say something or look elsewhere, as friends, I don’t think we should overstep our bounds…”

Priscilla just looked at him with scorn. “Oh shut up Mark. You don’t know anything about relationships, men, women, or people.” Theo thought it was a strange thing to say to a guy who was successfully manipulating about 1/3 of the human species. “What do you say Theo? Her name’s Adell..”

He liked the name. He didn’t think he’d ever met someone named Adell. He wasn’t sure why.

I’m a really simple guy Priscilla, I live in a rent control apartment and drive a 96 Jetta…” It was a lie, not about the car or the apartment but about the being simple. There was nothing simple about Theo.

Oh, that’s okay, Adell isn’t rich or anything – I mean, not that there is anything wrong with being rich, I mean we like it – oh shit, that all came out wrong. I mean, she’s mostly a normal person – but interesting and when I told her about you, it was actually her idea to meet you…”

Wait a minute? Why in the world were you telling her about me?” Theo had a feeling he knew where this was going. A bad feeling. He’d met serial killer stalkers before – they just wanted to say they had met so and so – no matter if it was a lie. He didn’t want to get too offended about it but he felt like he needed to say something before it got out of hand “If this is about my name…”

Mark wanted to nip this in the bud “Priscilla, I told you this was…” but she just interrupted him.

No, it isn’t about you at all. It’s not about your name, it’s about hers. You guys just have to meet. I don’t want to tell you more, but you have to meet her. She’s super cute, smart, and funny…seriously.”

Theo looked at her, then looked at Mark and then shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of ‘Why not?” Priscilla jumped up and grabbed him in a hug. I knew you’d say yes. I didn’t want to push, but I knew you would. I’ll set everything up now. This is going to be so great. I just know you two are made for each other. It’s perfect. Trust me you are never going to regret this.”

The change in dynamic sort of made it okay for Theo to later drop a bomb of his own – it was a bit of a violation of the rules they had all been playing by. He would wait until after the date – assuming they invited him again afterwards – and then he was going to dig into Zuck’s brain. He had an idea that could change the world.

You’re never going to regret this” – it’s not usually a phrase that bodes well for the future. It usually means you’ve just invested in a dying company, bought a dying car, made a loan that will never be paid back, or made some other huge mistake in life. What would it mean with Adell?

Chapter 5

The Fuhrer and the Unabomber Walk Into a Taqueria

Once a technical innovation has been introduced, people usually become dependent on it,

so that they can never again do without it, unless it is replaced by some still more advanced innovation.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Priscilla set everything up. They met at a low-key taqueria in San Mateo. The kind with plastic school chairs and no windows – just concrete walls that had obviously once been someone’s garage. It was Theo’s kind of place and he wondered if Adell had picked it. He wasn’t naturally negative but had developed a pessimistic defense mechanism that kept him from putting his hopes too high. As he wandered in and sat down, he wondered what was wrong with her. Was she a midget? That wouldn’t really bother him. Disfigured – not ideal, but personality and temperament were more of his thing. Above all he hoped she wasn’t one of those vacuous non-stop talkers who the valley was filled with.

Most likely, she had a couple of kids and a decent job but had found that despite the equality rhetoric that Silicon Valley loved to spew on the media, that the big earners didn’t want their wives working and didn’t want to spend their time or money on someone else’s children. Theo actually was the opposite of that – he was a low earner and favored the idea of rearing someone else’s children. He didn’t like the idea of bringing his own children into a world that functioned like ours.

He looked around the taqueria and at the grade school next door where parents were waiting to pick up their kids. Even when they were sitting with other people, every customer either had their phone in their hand or sitting next to them. They would glance down at the phones on the tables as they had conversations or more blatantly hold the phones up blocking their companions from their vision. These weren’t wealthy valley types either – these were working people – black, white, latino, but in general people who looked like they were either on a break from a blue collar job or had a day off from working at a grocery store. It was worse with the wealthy.

The parents waiting for their kids all stood at the fence looking at their phones. No one talked to anyone else over there. He saw two women greet each other, chat for about a minute and then both of them went back to their devices, leaning on the fences.

He was ten minutes early. He was always ten minutes early. He’d considered this problem in the past – his being early problem. As far as he could tell, there was no solution. Theo didn’t like waiting for people and yet, because of his early problem, he was always waiting for people. Usually, with most people – despite having supercomputers that could accurately forecast traffic and remind them of appointments 24 hours a day – they arrived late and as a result, Theo waited longer than just the 10-minutes. He’d tried arriving just on time before so that he was only waiting for however much they were late by, but it caused him stress because he couldn’t stop thinking that maybe they had arrived early and were annoyed (as he became) waiting for him. His ‘arrive just on time’ experiment had been a bit of a sham because it usually meant he arrived ten minutes early, waited in his car or around the corner, and then strolled in just on time. So he was still waiting. Theo considered a 10-minute wait a small sacrifice if it meant keeping another person (presumably one who he liked and respected or needed enough to be meeting with) from wasting their time. The problem was the same as in his relationships – the scenario only worked if all parties practiced it or if one party didn’t mind being the martyr. Theo hated martyrs and didn’t want to be one. He was an unwilling participant in the solo waiting game – but there was no way out of it.

Three minutes into his ten-minute-early-wait, he spotted an oddball milf leaning against the fence. Yes, mentally he described her as a milf – or ‘mom I’d like to fuck’ – he didn’t mean to objectify her but it was such a convenient term that he mentally used it all the time – even though he never said it out loud. She was the only one without a phone in her hand. Pink loose fitting t-shirt, mom jeans, pink Doc Martin boots, and a bag that looked like it was probably more expensive than the rest of her clothes – but had been around far longer. The oddball part of the milf in question was the way she was looking out at the school buildings, waiting for the kids to come marching out and be loaded into mini-vans that would take them to viola, soccer, jiu-jitsu, or coding lessons – she was actually watching and sort of smiling to herself. Not so odd, really, but what stood out was that she didn’t have a phone tucked in her back pocket or in her hand. She wasn’t half in the world and half in the phone – she was totally in the world. He noticed that she had a couple of tattoos on her forearms – from thirty feet away he could make out the dark blue ink but not the designs. Her hair was the kind of blonde that doesn’t come from a bottle, straight and cut off around neck length. Brushed back as if she had been doing something else and had to move it out of her face. She looked to be reasonably fit – like most moms in the valley. Probably zumba’d every morning before the kids got up and did yoga at mid-day during the lunch break she didn’t eat at. He couldn’t quite decide what kind of work she did – he played this game a lot and was usually pretty quick to come up with a profession. Accountant, coder, human-resources, teacher, fitness expert, lawyer, stay at home mom, – none of the usual labels fit her.

He looked down at his watch. Five minutes left to wait. His own phone was a clamshell Motorola Razr. Not the new ones, one of the old ones – the same one he’d had for a decade. It still worked. He didn’t get all the bells and whistles of a smart phone but it texted and it called and it told him what time and day it was. He could even use the internet if he really needed to – but not efficiently enough to make him a net-junkie. So when I say he looked at his watch to see the time, I mean he looked at a plain old Seiko Automatic watch and when he looked back up – there she was standing in front of him. The pink shirted hottie moved fast.

Her pink t-shirt and Doc Martin boots suddenly made more sense. He still couldn’t figure out what she did for work or what her story was. It crossed his mind that she might be Adell. Priscilla and Mark hadn’t shown him a picture or any details – nothing. Just a time and place for him to meet her. She smiled at him – blue eyes, Nordic features, probably in her mid to late-thirties. Theo felt guilty for having described her as a milf, especially when he realized that yeah, she was definitely a milf – but not having said it out load, he decided to keep his guilt to himself and not let out the apology that was jumping to his throat. He stood up as she held out her hand to him.

Are you Adell?” he really wanted her to be Adell.

No,” she told him “But I saw you checking me out when I was over there so I thought I would come introduce myself.” Theo immediately knew he was in a situation – he desperately wanted to get this woman’s number but he was here to meet Adell on a blind date – plus he’d totally been busted checking this woman out. If this was a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure” novel he would be given three choices:

If you blow off the date with Adell and go after the hottie – turn to page 3

If you politely brush the hottie off and wait for Adell – turn to page 5

If you decide to try to get her number and then meet Adell – turn to page 7

Theo decided to go to page 9 instead.

Are you waiting for your kids to get out of school?” he asked her.

No, I don’t have kids. I just came down to get some lunch.”

He’d already accepted her hand and was still holding it so it would probably be a good idea to introduce himself. He was going to have to figure out some way to escape from the situation he was in. He didn’t like the first three options that came to mind.

I’m Theo” he said “What’s your name?” Their hands were still together. She hadn’t let go and he wasn’t particularly inclined to either.

What are you doing here Theo? You don’t have food but you’re sitting by yourself at a table.” This was an awkward question but it gave him the escape plan he needed.

I’m here on a blind date. I’m waiting to meet someone – some friends set me up. Actually,” he did his best to look sheepish “She’s supposed to be here in about three minutes.” He forced himself to let go of her hand – but he really didn’t want to. She hadn’t told him her name – she was completely in charge of where this conversation was going.

Cool,” she said. “Can I join you guys?” He hadn’t expected this. This was a strange scenario where Adell showed up and he was already sitting with a new pink t-shirted hottie he had just met. “A blind date. That’s super exciting. So her name is Adell? Who set you up?” She hadn’t given him time to say that she couldn’t join them and now he felt like he had to answer the last question first but he really had to do something – this was quickly falling completely out of control.

It was a couple of mutual friends – I’m not sure exactly why – but hey, you seem really cool, but it might be a little bit awkward if you’re here with me when she arrives…you know? We’ve never met…”

Oh my god, totally – you are totally right. I’m so sorry.” She was really beautiful. Her skin was perfect. Now that she was closer he could see that the tattoos on her forearm were a kind of mathematical formula or code. He wanted to ask about them. He really didn’t want her to go away at all, but this was out of hand. She went on. “Hey, I’ll get out of here, but just one thing – can you watch my bag for a minute, I’ve got to go to the bathroom and I hate carrying it around the side of the building – I swear when I get back I’ll just say thanks for watching it and let you enjoy your date.”

Sure, no problem. I mean that shouldn’t be a problem.” She dropped her bag on the table and walked outside and around the side of the building to where the restrooms were. Two minutes until the appointed time for meeting Adell. It still had the potential to be awkward but not as much as if the hottie had just sat down at the table with him.

Two minutes went by and then the hottie came back. “She’s not here yet? Don’t worry Theo – these bitches in the valley, they’re always late. She’s probably sitting in her car around the corner waiting so she can be exactly five minutes late…I’ve got friends that do that. Hey, thanks for watching my bag.” She grabbed her bag and moved to the counter to place her order. There was a part of him that wanted to get up and follow her – to re-introduce himself, to find out her name, but it just wasn’t the right thing to do. It wasn’t a part of his code. He wasn’t coded that way. He stayed at the table, tried to ignore the woman in the Doc Martins as she ordered and waited for her food…and as he waited for Adell who he was starting to become annoyed with as five minutes past the meeting time slipped by, then seven minutes, then nine.

The cook put two foil rolled burritos in plastic fish and chip baskets down and then looked at the ticket for a minute before shaking his head and calling out the name on the bottom of the ticket.

Two burritos for Adell Fitler. Adell Fitler.”

Yeah, of course she was the woman in pink. Her eyes met his with a smile as she picked up the burritos and walked back towards the table.

Chapter 6

The Fucking Chans

Thus it is clear that the human race has at best a very limited capacity for solving even relatively straightforward social problems. How then is it going to solve the far more difficult and subtle problem of reconciling freedom with technology? Technology presents clear-cut material advantages, whereas freedom is an abstraction that means different things to different people, and its loss is easily obscured by propaganda and fancy talk.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

As she walked up to the table, Theo wasn’t amused. Actually, he was a bit pissed off. Obviously she knew his name and this was all some chance to make a big joke at his expense. She was smiling after her big reveal – yeah, she’d totally made a fool out of him. That whole thing with the name – and then the set up for the blind date. Priscilla and Mark were obviously some bored fucking dickheads. He didn’t know whether to get up and storm out or just play it cool and act like it was no big deal. He opted for the second.

Adolf Hitler, huh? That’s pretty funny. How long did it take you guys to come up with that?” He was trying really hard not to sound totally pissed off and scornful, but some of it was leaking through. He’d been dealing with the effects of having a fucked up name for too long to control himself completely. “So what’s your real name,” he made air quotes with his fingers “Adell?” He laughed in what he hoped was an ironic way.

For the first time since he’d seen her, the pink hottie seemed to lose her composure “Oh, no…wait a minute man…it’s not like that. I see what you’re thinking…hold on a second there buddy.” She set the burritos on the table and reached into her bag. Was she going to shoot him with pepper spray now? That would be funny, she could tell her friends she pepper sprayed the Unabomber.

But no, that wasn’t what she was doing at all. She was pulling out her wallet. Her hands were shaking and the other clients had all started to watch what looked like it might be some real life drama unfold. One fat lady in a floral print dress stared while she picked her teeth. A couple at the next table had actually scooted their chairs away as if they had expected the pepper spray or maybe a gun to come out of the bag.

Pinkie pulled her California Drivers License out and slapped it on the table in front of him. “Check it out man – look.” Theo looked down. Nobody should look that good in a drivers license picture. Damn, she was so fucking hot it almost made him forget he was trying to keep from becoming upset – then he saw the name on the license – Adell May Fitler. All the rage dissolved like sugar in a pot of boiling coffee and was replaced by a sticky sweet syrup that left him just feeling confused.

Adell saw it and pulled up her chair. The other patrons looked vaguely disappointed but went back to minding their own business. The toothpick lady kept staring (and picking) but maybe that was just her thing.

Theo was still a little bit annoyed by the whole theatrics of the thing, but he was more curious than anything else. “Is this really your name?”

She smiled, her confidence coming back. She reached her hand across the table “Yeah, that’s really me, it’s really my name. I’m Adell…nice to meet you Theo.” He took her hand again, part of him waiting for the next act in her carefully crafted play to unfold. That was it though – she hadn’t expected him to get angry or offended and when he had – all the pretense had melted away.

Nice to meet you too.” Once again he didn’t want to let go of her hand but he had to if they were going to have lunch. “Are you going to eat both of those?” He handed her license back to her.

She giggled and then followed it up with “Sorry for being such a dick. I ordered one al-pastor and the other one carne asada, take your pick.” He took the al-pastor and when she looked disappointed suggested they cut them both in half and split them. It was a winning suggestion and from that point forward they were friends.

Obviously you know my name,” he said to her.

Theo,” she said. “That’s all I know. Priscilla didn’t tell me anything else. I don’t even know your last name. Are you Jewish?”

Theo was a bit confused – “Jewish? No, I mean maybe, I don’t really know. Why in the world would you ask that? Theo isn’t exactly a common Jewish name.”

She blushed the tiniest bit, which was absolutely charming. “You know…because of my stupid burrito stunt, the whole stupid Hitler gag…”

He got it, he understood, and then it hit him. “Wait a minute…you don’t know my last name?”

No, Priscilla was really mysterious about the whole thing. Her and Mark, I call them the Chans – they wouldn’t tell me a word”

But how did you know I was the guy you were meeting?”

Well, she described you pretty well and you were sitting by yourself without food at the right place at the right time – early actually – and by the way, thanks for being early. I hate fucking late-tards.” He had never been around a woman who exuded such femininity and harshness at the same time.

Theo laughed. “Yeah, I guess you were early too. I appreciate that. I really do, although the whole thing with pretending not to be you…making me think you were someone else who was late..”

Yeah, sorry about that – I mean a girl can’t really be too careful and honestly, I wanted to see if you were the kind of douchebag who would ditch a date or hit on someone else when you were meeting someone – nice job by the way, you navigated the reef pretty well. I liked your honesty…but you were checking me out pretty hard when I was at the fence…”

Who, me?” Theo was discovering that he really liked this girl. He liked the way she did things. He liked her style. He even admired the way she’d sort of thrown her fucked up name at him in the most dramatic way possible. As he looked at her, he decided that he was going to do something he never did.

I should really introduce myself….” she looked at him in mild confusion and took a bite of burrito.

My name is Ted Kazinsky, sometimes people call me the Unabomber.”

An explosion of guacamole, pork, beans, and rice sprayed his face and probably would have hit the couple at the next table if they hadn’t of moved their chairs back a few minutes before. Adell coughed and laughed, wiped her mouth and took a sip of water.

Swallowing she laughed as she grabbed his hand and said “No fucking way, are you serious? You’re fucking serious? Your name is Theodore fucking Kazinski?”

He reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet and laid his drivers license in front of her. She picked it up while shaking her head…

The Chans are some seriously fucked up people…you think they do this shit for fun?” Her smile was like a sun going supernova.

There was one thing for sure, no matter why the Chans did it, Theo was very happy that they had.

Chapter 7

The Revolution Will Be on CCTV

A revolutionary movement offers to solve all problems at one stroke and create a whole new world;

it provides the kind of ideal for which people will take great risks and make great sacrifices.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Over the next several weeks, Adell and Theo got together for lunches, walks around Coyote Point, and they even caught a Joan Baez concert in Golden Gate Park during the Hardly Simply Bluegrass Festival. Much to both of their surprise – they were compatible and also to their surprise, their calls to the Chans were not returned. They found that they had much more in common than just their names.

There’s something weird going on with those two,” Adell told him as they sat in front of a Trader Joes. “They had me come in to do a mural on one of their bedroom walls and then became all buddy buddy with me. I was cool with it, because they’re interesting people, but it always struck me as a little odd.”

When they compared notes they found that that Chans had run the same playbook on each of them – and yet both agreed, the friendship had actually felt genuine and the end result (so far) was anything but onerous.

I like them both. I’m glad they introduced us, but it’s bizarre to think about how much power they have,” Adell said to him. “They can do anything they want. Who the fuck knows, they’re probably watching us on CCTV right now.” She pointed up at the cameras over the store doors, on the light posts in the parking lot, and presumably elsewhere.

Obviously, they put us together because of our fucked up names,” Theo said to which Adell straightened up in mock anger.

Speak for yourself, my name is awesome. The Fitler family has a long and proud tradition. My 2nd great grandfather on the Fitler side was the fucking mayor of Philadelphia – there’s a park named after us. And… I’m honored to carry my maternal grandmother’s name. It’s not my fault when you put them together I sound like the most evil person in history – but honestly, that’s kind of awesome too. Fuck em if they can’t take a joke.”

I just don’t get it – didn’t your parents ever say your name out loud? I mean I’m sure you were a beautiful baby…” that comment got him a hot smile, “Who looks at their beautiful baby girl and says ‘Let’s call her Adolf Hitler.’ ”

They never did. Growing up, I was always Adell May, never just Adell. My mom is southern so calling me by two names was never an issue. It wasn’t until I got into the glorious Philadelphia Public School System that some idiot teacher called out the name I would never be able to escape ‘Fitler. Adell Fitler.’ I’ll never forget the roar of laughter as I politely tried to correct her that I was Adell May, not Adell. She didn’t hear and neither did anyone else. There are some things you just can’t unsay.”

Theo thought about his own journey – it was totally different. Like a bomb dropped out of the blue on a grown man – but still, he was a little bit ashamed of how he had tried to hide from it – Adell had decided to own it right away. She’d only been a child but she had taken the harder path.

I recognized right away that there was no putting that can of worms back in the ground. That first day, I didn’t even know who Adolf Hitler was – I went home and asked my dad. He was much more upset than I was – we had always taken a lot of pride in being ‘The Fitlers, the Philadelphia Fitlers’ and now here was his baby girl getting called a Nazi, and the worst Nazi of them all. At first he wanted to go down and set the school straight but he was a pretty smart dude and realized that doing that would only make him look like the dumbass that accidentally named his daughter for a monster – or worse, like some kind of fetishist Nazi.”

So what did you do?” Theo was genuinely curious.

I just went with it. I made jokes about it. I made sure that I was the complete opposite of a Nazi in all of my actions, became super liberal, and always became the first one to poke jokes at myself. And, like you saw when we first met – I found ways to shock the fuck out of people right at the beginning instead of waiting with dread for them to discover it. I’m Adolf Hitler, bitch.”

That’s totally different from me,” Theo said “I did everything I could to hide from it – Theo, just plain ‘T’ and even changed the way I pronounced my last name ‘Kaz in Sky’.”

Nah, that shit never works man. They always sniff it out. The urge to bully is too strong in people. Even nice people love to sniff out a weakness and exploit it. They’ll do it in a different way, but they’ll do it. You’ve gotta own your shit. If I were you, I’d start telling people to call you Ted. In fact, I’ll be the first.”

Seriously? I’d prefer you didn’t. It’s not funny to me”

Yeah, fucking seriously Ted. I’m starting.” She put her finger over her lip in the universal Hitler mustache symbol and did a goosestep across the Trader Joe’s parking lot – “You vill be ze facking unibomber. You vill be Ted Kazinski or vee vill fuck your shit up.”

Theo cringed but he’d rather be called Ted than not spend time with Adell. He felt himself running through a huge range of emotions – not the least of which was anger but she just kept going.

I’m going to tell everyone I’m dating the fucking Unabomber.” It was the first time the word dating had come into their interactions since the first ‘blind date’ somehow hearing her say it made all the other emotions he had been feeling disappear – but still he had to get her to stop. There was only one way.

He grabbed her hand and pulled her close enough that he was able to kiss her. She didn’t try to stop him. It wasn’t some big sloppy kiss like in the movies, just a kiss on the mouth – their first. As he pulled away he looked into those big blue eyes and said what came naturally.

Heil Fitler.”

Chapter 8

Heil Fitler

Our society tends to regard as a “sickness” any mode of thought or behavior that is inconvenient for the system, and this is plausible because when an individual doesn’t fit into the system it causes pain to the individual as well as problems for the system. Thus the manipulation of an individual to adjust him to the system is seen as a “cure” for a “sickness” and therefore as good.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

The reason Theo (who despite his misgivings was suddenly being called Ted by at least one person) hadn’t figured out Adell’s job while she leaned against the fence was because she didn’t really have one. She had hundreds. She was a dog walker, an illustrator, an ear-ring model, a ghost-writer, a fill in waitress, a substitute pre-school assistant, and anything else that showed up on the temp or gigs section of craigslist.

She’d gone to school in Philadelphia and after graduating had moved to a dozen different cities where she took one semester of classes she found interesting at a dozen different community colleges. Her interests were all over the board – history, literature, art, math, crafts, business, karate, kung fu movies, skateboarding, bicycle repair, welding, jewelry design, and sacred geometry. She probably would have ended up some hippy dippy baby machine living in a bus if she hadn’t of had a name that no respectable hippie could ever say out loud. The fact that she refused to hide from her name had kept her from falling onto the hippie trail.

Fucking hippies,” she laughed as she told Theo (Ted) about guys trying to pick her up through the years “They’re the funniest. They’re like ‘What’s your name sister?’ and I’m like ‘I’m Adolf Hitler’ then they’d get this fucking look on their faces – part disapproving, part scared, and part disgusted – if they stuck around long enough to learn my actual name, they’d always try to convince me to change my name to some dipshit emotional state like ‘Serenity’ or ‘Tenderness’ and I’d be like ‘No, I’m pretty happy with Adolf Hitler.’ Sometimes I’d start giving them suggestions back like ‘Hey Momo, you should change your name to something strong like ‘Mussolini’ or ‘Polpot’. None of them would even consider it. Fucking weaklings.”

One thing Theo (Ted) learned quickly was that Adell had one of the foulest mouths he’d ever encountered. It wasn’t just f-bombs she threw. She made up brand new obscenities on a regular basis and used all the old standards as well. She could shut it off at a moment’s notice but when she was comfortable and being herself it flowed like toxic waste. She was at her most comfortable that day when she was telling him about the hippies, drinking a beer while sitting on a stoop in the Haight Ashbury – they didn’t know who the stoop belonged to, but it was the Haight. So they could sit there and drink a beer on a stranger’s stoop. And she could cuss as much as she wanted.

After a while he figured out that most of her new curse words came from a simple formula. Generally it would be something like [bodily discharge + deformity] but sometimes she would also use [sex-act + obscure profession noun] so he got used to hearing things that were jarringly discordant and disgustingly funny.

It was a nice day, the weather was perfect. A few clouds were chasing each other across the sky, but there was no chance of rain, no fog, and no hint of chill in the air. They’d known each other about two weeks and Theo (Ted) hadn’t quite gotten up the nerve to ask her about the formula on her arm. He’d looked at it, he’d touched it, but he hadn’t figured out a way to ask about it. Largely because he didn’t want to seem stupid for not knowing. Today was the day.

Hey, there’s something that’s been bothering me for a while…”

My foul mouth or my foul name…” he couldn’t tell if she was joking but figured she must be so he just kept going.

No, it’s this.” He gently reached out to her arm and used his other hand to trace the coded formula on the bottom of her right forearm. It must be a formula but he wasn’t sure what it was for.

dQ/dt=-h*(T(t)-Tenv)=-h*AΔT(t) (way cooler in tattoo script)

The binary underneath her other forearm would be easy enough to translate if he could remember it or take a picture.

01001100 01101001 01100010 01100101 01110010 01100001 01110100

01101001 01101111 01101110 00001101 00001010 00001101 00001010

Careful Ted, you’re going to get in over your head.” Adell laughed and pulled her arm back looking at it with what might almost be described as sadness. “But it’s cool.”

She was gazing at him with warmth and he had the impression that she was making fun of him at the same time she was flirting.

By this point he had stopped flinching when she called him Ted. They hadn’t yet committed to any sort of relationship through words or consummation, but there was something in the way that she was looking at him that told him that time was coming soon. This was what is so often described as ‘a moment.’

He didn’t want to spoil it. He wanted this moment. The only problem was that he also wanted to find out the meaning of her tattoo. “Are you going to tell me?”

Cool down big boy. Maybe it’s time to show me that rent control place of yours in Dolores Park. Come on.”

She got up and began walking – he had no choice but to follow her right back to his car.

Once they were in the car, she reached over, closed her fist around a handful of hair and yanked him to her. Theo (Ted) didn’t really like it but he kissing that followed was incredibly likable. She finally let go and shoved him away.

Did you know that you parked in one of the only spots where a camera can’t actually see what’s going on in the car?” He hadn’t known. He leaned down and started looking around the parking lot. They were right under a camera bubble, but all it could see was the top of the car. He couldn’t actually see any other cameras that would be able to see them.

Huh. Nope, I did not realize I did that.” He was surprised that she had seen it too.

It’s one of the things I like about you Ted. One of many things. You are a natural when it comes to security. I’m not sure what would cause that, but you seem to just be naturally inclined to move about the world in a secure way. Virtually no online footprint except for an almost never used Facebook account. You don’t have an Apple or Google device to spy on you. Your parking is totally instinctual but almost perfectly correct in a security sense. It’s fucking weird man, and I love it.”

They were still sitting in the Trader Joe’s Parking Lot. She still hadn’t told him the meaning of her tattoo. He was hot and bothered and bothered more by the bizarre security speech. There was some sort of a red flag that wanted to go off in his brain, but he wouldn’t let it.

Instead, he just followed his annoyances and desires which seemed to go right along with the right instincts.

Do you still want to see my place?”

Of course I do, you think I’m some fucking jizz-gimp?” She smiled as he said it. It was another one of those odd curse words that sounded like it should actually be something.

And hey, what is that formula?” he tried to throw it out casually but she knew it was under his skin. It had to be if he was still thinking about it after those kisses.

I always wanted to be cool and never wanted anyone to see me lose my shit,” she told him. “I’m not a physics geek or anything but I thought it was pretty dope that there was something called the ‘Law of Cooling’ – Isaac Newton came up with it. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with keeping your cool, but I’ve used it to remind myself to stay calm through the years.”

I knew I’d seen it before. I knew it.” Theo had seen it in physics and hydrodynamics classes at Berkley. It had never been anything he actually needed to use – but that was why it had seemed familiar.

She was looking at him funny “Yeah, so it basically means ‘you are cool in proportion to the difference between your cool and the cool of your surroundings’.”

Yeah, that’s right,” Theo said “A body will lose heat proportional to the difference between it’s temperature and the ambient temperature around it.”

Uh-huh, so I use it to remind me to chill in relation to the vibe around me. My own law of cooling. I like the Delta T in it though because it reminds me that time is a fucking illusion. Delta T is the difference between Earth’s rotational time and atomic time – and it’s getting bigger all the time.”

Whoa.” Theo (Ted) made the universal head exploding sign with clawed fingers pulled outward from the temples while he made an explosion sound.

Yeah,” Adell went on, warming up to her explanation “The rotation of the Earth isn’t a constant but we treat it like it is. It’s only a constant when you average it out over a fuck-long time – and that’s actually bullshit. The universe isn’t precise. That’s one of the big lies. We didn’t pretend it was until the late 1940s – the whole Atomic Age was built on lies. Are we going?”

Ted took her cue and started the car. He’d cleaned his apartment every day since he’d met her just in case she ever asked to see it.

Chapter 9

Play it Cool

Assuming that industrial society survives, it is likely that technology will eventually acquire something approaching complete control over human behavior. It has been established beyond any rational doubt that human thought and behavior have a largely biological basis. As experimenters have demonstrated, feelings such as hunger, pleasure, anger and fear can be turned on and off by electrical stimulation of appropriate parts of the brain. Memories can be destroyed by damaging parts of the brain or they can be brought to the surface by electrical stimulation. Hallucinations can be induced or moods changed by drugs. There may or may not be an immaterial human soul, but if there is one it clearly is less powerful that the biological mechanisms of human behavior. For if that were not the case then researchers would not be able so easily to manipulate human feelings and behavior with drugs and electrical currents.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

How the fuck do you afford this place, Ted?”

It was the next day and Adell was making coffee. It was a fair question. The truth was he shouldn’t have been able to afford it – and he wouldn’t have been able to afford it if it hadn’t of been for San Francisco’s Rent Control Ordinance.

Theo (Ted) had moved in while he was still in college. He’d had at least one and as many as three roommates at one time. Eventually, they all either moved away, got better jobs, or just disappeared and it was just Ted (Theo) left in the apartment. The certificate of occupancy had been issued initally during the 1970s and since it had been continuously occupied by renters since that time – there was only a limited amount that the landlords could raise the rent. The rent increases had to be based on the Bay Area Consumer Price Index and could only be a small percentage per year. Also, capital imporovements couldn’t be passed on to the tenants and eviction was a serious pain in the ass. In San Francisco, long term renters who had been there prior to 1996 had all the power on their side.

Essentially, it meant that Ted (Theo) was paying $950 a month for an apartment that should have been renting for around $4500 per month. Essentially, this meant the landlord was missing out on almost $42,000 per year in rent – and had been doing so for decades.

Rent control,” he told her. It was all anyone needed to say in the Bay Area. She nodded then he continued, “But I’m thinking about moving out…”

What? Why the fuck would you do that? Are you crazy?”

Maybe,” he told her, “But check this out…” He’d gotten a letter from his landlord a few weeks before. In the letter they explained how much money they had been missing out on, thanked him for being a great tenant, and then made a crazy offer at the bottom. It made sense – but it was still one of those things that might make sense but makes no sense at all.

Adell read it and then looked up at him. “What? I am totally baffled…is this real?”

Yeah,” he told her. It made sense. Here was the offer – the landlord was offering to pay him $90,000 to move out by the end of 2019. “The eviction procedures are all in my favor. Nobody wants to buy a rent controlled apartment with a long term tenant in it – because they just get the same fucked up deal my landlord has been getting. So, they can’t get full market value unless they are selling it unoccupied. The difference in occupied versus unoccupied when measured over ten years is about a half-million dollars and that’s without property values going up. So, giving me $90k has a serious value to them. But I’m not sure I want to move…”

Dude, you have to take it. If you don’t they are just going to pay some lawyer $90k to find a way to fuck you.”

Sure, but I don’t really want to move out of my neighborhood and everything is so fucking expensive in the city that essentially they are only giving me two years to either move or find a way to make a fortune so I can continue living here. I don’t have anywhere to go…and I’m not sure I really want to start a business.”

You can move in with me and we can create a startup,” the words seemed to rush out of Adell’s mouth before she had a chance to consider them and judging by the look on her face – if she had been able to – she would probably have taken them back – but it was already too late.

Shit,” she immediately followed her offer/idea with shit. “So much for me being cool. We hardly know each other, we’ve only just spent the night together for the first time, and here I am suggesting that we move in together and become business partners. You probably think I’m some sort of psycho oral pinsetter.”

Wha – what?” Ted (Theo) wasn’t so much shocked by the offer as by trying to figure out what in the world a psycho oral pinsetter was. “What the fuck is an oral pinsetter?”

You know, a guy who puts the bowling pins back up but has an oral fixation. An oral pinsetter.”

Ted (sort of Theo) started laughing. “Yeah, you’re a definite psycho oral pinsetter. Although, the picture I had when you said that was more of a drooling bird dog.” He was laughing but Adell was really bothered by her offer. He saw it.

Hey, it’s cool. Don’t worry about it. I’m not going to hold you to it. It was an idea – that’s all. Relax.”

I don’t want to relax you fucking piss-cleft. And I don’t want to take my offer back. I want you to move in with me so we can start a business. I really fucking want that – I can’t believe I’m saying it, but it’s true. So will you Ted? Will you give all this up and become my bitch?” That smile of hers – it was all he could see anymore. It was all he wanted to see.

Ted (not really Theo anymore) couldn’t believe this was happening. This was an impossible situation. He really liked her, hell, maybe he even loved her but she was asking him to give up everything, to change his life, to start all over and leave everything he had built over the past twenty years behind. He looked around at his apartment and suddenly realized he hated Theo’s life, he didn’t have shit to hold him here, and he didn’t even like Theo very much.

You’re going to have to buy me a ring, but okay, I’ll be your bitch.” They’d known each other for fifteen days but it felt more like forever. He didn’t mean she’d have to marry him, but it came down to the same thing. Adell jumped up and down in joy and then squeezed him in a huge hug while showering his face with kisses.

Hooray, I’ve always wanted a bitch. Especially one that led the FBI on one of the largest manhunts in the history of the United States.”

Chapter 10

We Are Evil

It presumably would be impractical for all people to have electrodes inserted in their heads so that they could be controlled by the authorities. But the fact that human thoughts and feelings are so open to biological intervention shows that the problem of controlling human behavior is mainly a technical problem; a problem of neurons, hormones and complex molecules; the kind of problem that is accessible to scientific attack. Given the outstanding record of our society in solving technical problems, it is overwhelmingly probable that great advances will be made in the control of human behavior.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

The first thing they had to figure out was what kind of business they were going to start. Since they had almost two months before the offer required them to move out, Adell moved up to Dolores Park and more or less moved in with Theo. Strike that, she completely moved in with him. She brought three suitcases and a trunk. In the trunk was a juicer, a blender, and a fuck load of shoes.

Ted (not really Theo anymore) and Adell stopped at a Starbucks and she pulled a tablet out of her bag. She powered it up, signed into the wifi, and had a storage startup she’d been using to store a few things deliver them to Theo’s place. Welcome to the world of ‘Clutter’ – they bring you packing materials, help you pack, take your stuff, and then bring it back to you. It was a personal storage service without having to go to a scummy storage facility.

I’ve actually had this idea before,” Ted told her. “It always seemed silly to have to rent a storage unit when it made more sense to store things piecemeal in an Amazon style fulfillment center.”

That’s a great fucking idea Ted, but as you can see – Clutter is already doing it. Barcodes on boxes and all. There might be room for competition, but I don’t really want to do this.” Adell motioned to the guys bringing her suitcases up the stairs to their (now temporary) apartment. “I can’t believer we’ve fucking moved in together. I wonder if the Chans know?”

Of course they know, they probably own Clutter.” Ted (not the loser formerly known as Theo) “And by the way, I thought I was moving in with you…”

Oh, suck it Trebek. You will, but for now we need to be in the city to get access to all those startup motherfuckers. Do you know anything about Lean Methodology?”

I’ve heard of it, but I’m not sure what it is. Want to enlighten me?” Ted was on the old beige sofa – it was one of those overstuffed and ultracomfortable ones from the 1990s and since Ted hadn’t really been a partier, had a dog, or ever had roommates who smoked – it still looked pretty good and was even more comfortable in 2019 than it had been in 1997.

Sure. The old way of doing business was to develop a plan, develop a product, find the market for that product, and then find a way to let the market know the product existed and sell it to them. Building a business took years, lots of effort, and a lot of money. Lean methodology is different. You come up with an idea, you see if the idea fits into the marketplace and determine product/market fit, then you build the minimum viable product, test it with the marketplace, assess, adapt, and repeat. Pivot if you must but don’t waste time or money on ideas that don’t get near immediate validation. That’s Lean. The reason it works is because there are a bunch of really rich assholes who are willing to throw millions of dollars at hundreds of bad ideas in the hopes that one of them turns out to be a really good idea. If they stopped throwing the money, Lean would wither up and die – but as luck would have it – most of those rich assholes live right here or at the least send their money to Sand Hill Road to be distributed towards whatever the next amazing thing is.”

I’ve been thinking about a different kind of social network…” Ted wanted to tell her about Gopher and Mesh Networks and his work in technology earlier in his career but she interrupted him..

Nope, social isn’t going to work. The Chan’s already own most of it and Jack ‘the Beard’ Dorsey and Twitter pretty much own the rest. Nobody is throwing money at social any more unless it has a very different kind of twist. Disruption is where it’s at now – Grubhub disrupting the restaurants, Laundoo disrupting laundromats, that kind of shit…We’re looking for the Uber of Bedspreads, the Tinder of Parking, the BirchBox of Pizza, or the AirBnB of Dentists. That’s pretty much all they are taking right now…the fucking things of other fucking things.”

I can dig it,” Ted laughed. “I can come up with some. How about the Uber of Moving? On demand movers.”

Great idea, but Lugg is already doing it. Already funded. Has a moat. Next.”

AirBnB of Weed?”

Nope, BudnBreakfast is already killing it in California.”

Shit, this is harder than I thought. How about a Tinder for Beards? We can pitch it to Dorsey?”

Too late. He’s already invested in Bristler.”

Serious?” Ted couldn’t believe these really existed.

Yup, totally fucking serious. All the obvious ones are already taken.”

That’s obvious?”

Yeah, come on hipsters and Tinder? Slam dunk.”

I like your idea about the Tinder of Parking. How would that work? Is anyone doing it?”

Adell shook her head. “Yeah, I kind of like that one too. I’m not sure what it would be. Would it be like hooking up in parking spaces or more like swipe left if you want to park here, swipe right if this parking space isn’t good enough for you?” They were both laughing. Adell pantomimed the motions…”Nope, I’m not putting my car in that… Ugh, I wouldn’t park there with your car….oh, man, I’d sure like to parallel into that space!”

Okay, maybe we put that one on the back burner. At least it’s an idea we don’t know of someone already doing. Next?”

Ted didn’t have internet in his apartment. It was a bit of a pain in the ass sometimes, but he actually liked the incentive to get out and go to coffee shops, parks, or McDonalds. Adell pulled out her tablet – “Do you have wifi?”

No, I don’t even have cable.” She shook her head and smiled at him. It was a mix between pity and pride.

Well, we’re going to need to bring the internet into your home Mr. Unabomber. We can’t build a technology company without the internet. We must have the World Wide Web.”

He hadn’t told her much about his past work but loved the opportunity that she had just given him.

Actually, WWW is just a protocol – one of many. There are several different internets but the http www internet is the dominant one today – but that’s probably going to change…there’s actually a whole alternate internet in place using mesh networks and lighter weight internets like Gopher – the one I used to work with – you can run Gopher over HAM radios creating a MeshNet.”

Adell was staring at him with an expression somewhere between shock and disbelief…”What the fuck? I mean what the scatophile-fletcher fuck are you talking about? There’s only one internet – the world wide web – Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Ebay, Google – the walled garden internet – it’s the only one – I mean right? What you’re saying is just crazy talk, isn’t it? Come on Ted – tell me the truth, you’re just fucking with me.”

Ted was always surprised (or actually Theo had been always surprised but now Ted was surprised) to find that people who used the networks had no idea just how deep the networks ran. The World Wide Web was only the tip of the iceberg. He started to explain in more detail but Adell already had her tablet fired up and was digging.. “I’m sure one of your neighbors has an open wifi hotspot – let’s see…okay there are two of them. Do you know who ‘FBI VAN’ or ‘VIRUS THAT WILL ERASE YOUR DATA’ are? Those are the only two open networks. Which should I go with? I’m going to go with FBI VAN – here goes…”

Ted started to say something – to discourage her from signing onto something that obviously wouldn’ t lead anywhere good but he stopped – there was no stopping her.

And I’m on – we’ve got the fucking internet Ted! Now let’s see who FBI VAN really is – I’m guessing that it’s probably a standard Cisco router with the default password – fucking BINGO – let’s see what they have been looking at – browser history – oh, my – we’ve got someone who likes incest porn – let’s see uses a private browsing window on Chrome – that will hide it from your wife but not from your ISP there old FBI VAN. He banks at Wells Fargo and works for UPS. I bet we can figure out his name, social security number, and date of birth in ten minutes or less…”

Ted watched this all happen in less than a minute and frankly, he was shocked. He wasn’t shocked at his neighbors choice of porn or the ease with which Adell was finding the information – he was shocked that she was so good at it. This was obviously not her first rodeo.

What the fuck Adell? Did you forget to tell me you were a black hat hacker?”

Yeah, sorry about that. I forgot to tell you – I’m a black hat hacker. It’s just a hobby.”

Chapter 11

The System is Evil

Suppose the system survives the crisis of the next several decades. By that time it will have to have solved, or at least brought under control, the principal problems that confront it, in particular that of “socializing” human beings; that is, making people sufficiently docile so that heir behavior no longer threatens the system. That being accomplished, it does not appear that there would be any further obstacle to the development of technology, and it would presumably advance toward its logical conclusion, which is complete control over everything on Earth, including human beings and all other important organisms. The system may become a unitary, monolithic organization, or it may be more or less fragmented and consist of a number of organizations coexisting in a relationship that includes elements of both cooperation and competition, just as today the government, the corporations and other large organizations both cooperate and compete with one another.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Did you know that way before 2016 Google ran some experiments to see if by tweaking search results the tiniest bit, if they could change sentiment in an election?” They were a couple of days into brainstorming now and between having each other, a bedroom, and the internet – neither one had felt the need to leave the apartment.

Ted (Theo had been fucked into oblivion) couldn’t believe it – “There’s no way they would have been able to get away with that,”– particularly with the scrutiny that had come after the 2016 election. “Got a source on that?”

Adell looked at him with pity “Of course not – because Google…hello. I read the story in 2014 and it has since been largely purged from the internet. The story was all about how Google found a race with a high percentage of undecided voters in the 2014 Indian elections– they tweaked their algorithm and managed to get the margin pushed by roughly 5% in the direction they wanted which put Modhi, the pro-technology candidate in the seat. It’s called the SEME or the Search Engine Manipulation Effect – it was probably used on some level in 2016 election here too, but maybe not because Google would have seemed to have been in the Clinton camp – but who knows.”

Yeah, I sort of remember that, but what happened to the story – did Google scrub it?” Ted was doing what would have been unthinkable a few months prior – he was surfing the net in his apartment on the FBI VAN network – which turned out to be coming from the apartment of the Davis family across the street. Adell had created a firewall that allowed them to use the connection at will without leaving any trace behind on the Davis router or ISP. Their searches and browsing were being routed through an onion router.

An onion router works by hiding information in a series of encrypted packets with each packet showing a different destination. The ‘peels’ of the onion effectively hide the destination address from internet service providers, prying eyes, and anyone else who might be curious what you are looking at.

Yeah, effectively they scrubbed it. It might still be there but since most search is done through Google, they have de-prioritized it and if you want to find the story you have to know what to search for and be willing to go to page six of the results.” Adell herself was a like an onion – each layer that was pulled back revealed something else – hacker, graffiti artist, digital activist…gardener.

Our friends the Chans aren’t much better – they had a secret project in the works a few years ago that was designed to guide people towards a more ethical way of thinking – which doesn’t sound too bad until you start asking who is making the decision about what is ethical – it wasn’t like they had an election – it was more like Mark said – ‘people shouldn’t hide their income’ and Priscilla said ‘all kids should be vaccinated’ – or whatever – I mean they had people working on it, but there wasn’t any transparency and when it got leaked, people freaked out. Mark has these weird ideas about ruling the world – and they’re scary when you realize how much power he has. So the whole project was either scrubbed or more likely moved to a deep dark and secure level.”

Ted was interested. He understood this stuff. He’d worked on Friendster and seen the potential for abuse even in that primitive social platform. “The internet used to be a lot more fun,” he said.

Yes it did,” Adell agreed with him. “It used to be a place to discover information and broaden your mind but now it’s a place where you are fed information that narrows your view while you search for information that might broaden your view.”

Whoa.” Ted made the mind blown symbol again.

What if we took the power back from the big platforms?” he asked her. “What if we were able to disempower the walled gardens and give people back the internet?”

Adell shook her head “Not to be a defeatist, Ted, but they are already too big to fail and they have the full support of the US government – and all the other governments for that matter. Besides…our mission is to build a startup that the venture capitalists see as the next fucking unicorn, take a big paycheck, and then…I don’t know – save the world.”

We could always try to save the world without taking a huge paycheck first…” Theo (not completely Ted) still had some ideas about right and wrong, but even as he said it Ted took over”…but who am I kidding, you can’t get shit done without paying people.”

Let’s just keep coming up with ideas – we’ve come up with two hundred and eighty seven start up ideas so far – let’s keep going.” Adell was all business but not all the time.

Ted’s head hurt. “I think I need a refresher of some of what we’ve come up with so far…and what we’ve rejected – can you go through the list.”

She was happy to comply – going through the list together was likely to spark some new ideas…

Okay Ted, here goes – some of these have potential.”

Anti-plastic. A way to make up for all the planet destroying plastics we use everyday.”

Morganizer. An automated day organizer that you access when you first wake up.”

Tweetoclock, an automated twitter scheduler. Hard to compete with Tweetdeck.”

Hidden camera finder – but that’s already being done by Scout. “

Gum flavored like entres…a bit hard in terms of manufacturing”

Favood: an app that you list your favorite foods on to get personal recipe and restaurant recommendations.”

DadPals: a social network just for Dads.”

Orgasm simulator – I like the idea but it kind of defeats the point. Right?”

Gobag – a personalized and delivered bag at your destination. No more luggage.”

Ballbuddy – which, sounds like a fuck app but is actually a way for non-sports guys to find coaches to teach them about watching sports – we need to change that name or make it a fuck app.”

The Dickyuum – a gas station automated blow job machine – which is fucking gross but not as gross as the dicks of the guys who will use it.”

Disposable compostable underwear – hard to believe but already for sale on Amazon.”

Veggies made from meat – Arby’s beat us to the punch on that one.”

She kept going. The list was long and filled with failures and crazy ideas most of which were already in the marketplace – things like spray on shoes, making a superfood from cockroaches, peer to peer escorts, and internet personal trolls for hire. It was exhausting and – when you looked at the companies that had gotten funded to the tune of a million, five-million, or ten-million dollars – it was ridiculous.

What about something with cryptocurrency or bitcoin?” Ted asked her.

Oh, Jesus, now you’re going all 2017? Get with it. That shit is dead. It’ll come back someday but right now, all the idiots who bought it are licking their wounds. They all got royally fucked when the big boys realized how easy it was going to be to separate them from their money. That whole thing was done by the banks. I don’t know who Satoshi Nakomoto is or was – but my guess is that he had nothing to do with the wholesale robbery of middle-aged men that cryptocurrency has been over the past two or three years…Wait a minute – did you get suckered too Ted?”

Probably, I haven’t been following it since 2014 or so – but I’ve got a hard drive somewhere where I probably wasted $1000 bucks or so on it. I figured it would go up to a dollar per bitcoin, but sounds like that never happened.” Adell turned to look at him, to see if he was serious. She couldn’t tell.

You’re fucking with me, right? Tell me you’re not fucking with me.” Ted smiled. Yeah, he was fucking with her. He’d bought ten bitcoin when they were a hundred each – so he had a pretty good stash, but not like she was thinking. “Yeah, I’m fucking with you. I’ve got ten BTC though – and since I got them at $100 each – it’s a pretty good emergency fund.”

Thank God. I thought I was fucking a millionaire Forest Gump for a second.” He liked her reaction. No disappointment and no real excitement about it either. They went back to work. “Maybe we should think about blockchain and crypto a little bit, you might be right.”

How about crypto for pet-sitters, dog walkers, pet owners? Like a bitcoin focused strictly on pets. It would be like Pets.com combined with crypto.” Ted thought it sounded pretty good but Adell’s face told him otherwise.

You mean take two of the biggest bubbles of the last twenty years and combine them into a new product? Why not throw Enron and subprime mortgages in there with it? We could create a cryptocurrency based on subprimes and pet trends and then sell the derivatives in a ponzi scheme to oil barons…” The sarcasm was puddling on the floor around them. “But… you might actually be onto something. What if we did create a pet ponzi scheme?”

Well, we’d probably go to prison like Bernie Madoff but without the silk pajamas.”

Haha…but seriously, what’s the biggest pain in the ass about being a pet owner?” She asked him.

Taking them for walks, feeding them, …oh wait…I got it. Cleaning up their shit.” That was why he didn’t have a pet. He didn’t want to clean a fishbowl or litter box and he definitely didn’t want to be one of those people who stood on the sidewalk watching the shit come out of their dog’s ass while standing impatiently with a plastic bag over their hand waiting to pick it up. Fuck that.

Yeah, the shit. All those little dogs shit a lot. The landfills are full of non-biodegradable plastic bags filled with dog turds and there are still dog turds on the sidewalks around every fucking neighborhood in this city – in America for that matter. We come up with a way to deal with the dog shit – and better yet – we figure out a way to pay people for it.”

We can call it Petshitter.com” Ted laughed. Adell laughed with him. Neither of them were joking.

Chapter 12

Petshitter

Don’t imagine that the systems will stop developing further techniques for controlling human beings and nature once the crisis of the next few decades is over and increasing control is no longer necessary for the system’s survival. On the contrary, once the hard times are over the system will increase its control over people and nature more rapidly, because it will no longer be hampered by difficulties of the kind that it is currently experiencing.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

It’s a terrible name. It can’t be said in polite company, on the radio, or even really between friends. No one is going to take it serious. It sounds like some sort of cartoon villain that defecates pets.” They were at their first VC meeting. The Bay Area is filled with crazy opportunities and this was one of them – it was called Speed Pitching. The idea was simple – a group of low level venture capitalists agreed to sit down with as many founders as could give them a one minute pitch with four minutes for questions and comments. If it went well, business cards would be exchanged.

Derek, the first VC they pitched too – didn’t seem like he would be offering a business card for a follow up. He didn’t seem to care about anything but the name.

We realize it’s a bit gritty, but we’re talking about turning pet shit into electricity. Not just cleaning up the streets but also turning a serious source of waste into a sellable commodity that everyone needs.” Ted wasn’t going to give up so easily. It had only been a minute so far. “And it’s a public service on top of that.”

How will this even work? Do you have a prototype yet?” Derek seemed more doubtful than curious but that was where Adell came in.

Yes, we’ve got a German engineering team that has built a prototype that turns dog shit into usable electricity. We can scale that model up into a full scale power plant. Our research has shown that with enough waste we could power a small town with a clean, renewable, and otherwise hard to get rid of waste product.” She laid schematics on the table.

Everything she’d just told Derek was a complete and total fabrication. They’d found a German video from 2015 that showed what it claimed was a home unit that would use dog poop to charge a series of batteries that would power fans, computers, and other household stuff. They didn’t even know if it was legitimate and so far had been unable to get ahold of the producers of the video. Theo had drawn up a good looking schematic, bought the domain Dogshitter.com for $11.99, thrown a landing page up with the schematic and a bunch of fake company information (because they didn’t have a company yet), and a way for people to sign up for an email list to be notified when the product became available.

What kind of leverage do you have?” It was a common VC question and they were ready for it.

We ran a few ads on social media and Craigslist,” Adell said. “In the 72-hours since we put those up we’ve had 23,000 people sign up to be notified.”

This got Derek’s attention. “Did you say 23,000 people signed up in 72-hours?” This time they weren’t lying – as much. In fact they had put free ads on Craigslists and they’d bought ads on Twitter, Facebook, and Google. They had also paid a well known product hunter to ‘find’ and share Dogshitter on the website Product Hunt. Their ads would have made Bernie Madoff proud – maybe – or maybe not – but they got the job done. “We’ll pay you $$$ for your dogshit.” and “Turn dog poop into real cash!” Adell had also written an absolutely insane press release about how Dogshitter was going to save the city, save the planet, and maybe even save humanity. So far, they had been BoingBoinged, written about by a hack writer on Forbes.com, and they’d made it to the front page of Reddit. By this point in the day, 23,000 was probably a huge understatement.

Derek gave them his card and asked for theirs. He did a little double take when he looked at it but then shook hands and went to his next pitch.

Petshitter

Turning Pet Poo to Power and Money

Founders: Ted Kazinsky and Adell Fitler

They did ten speed-pitches and they got ten business cards and ten invitations to set up meetings where they could pitch to higher ranking venture capitalists who actually had the power to get them funding. They left the speed pitch ready to take on the world and full of energy.

That was fucking awesome,” Adell squeezed his hand as they walked down Geary towards the Tenderloin. “We’re going to be fucking ass-funambulism rich.”

Shouldn’t that be ass-fucking funambulist?” Ted was getting the hang of it. “Or even sodamite tight rope walker?” She turned to him with hands on hips and they both busted up laughing.

When they were able to talk again, Ted took things on a serious turn “We’ve got a real problem, Adell.”

What are you talking about? They love Dogshitter.” Her hands were in the air.

Yeah, but we don’t have a product, we don’t have a team, we don’t have a company, and we don’t have a clue that any of this will work.” Ted (feeling a bit Theo) was starting to be a tiny bit worried.

Stop worrying Ted. I’ll make a few calls. I’m sure you know a few people from the startup world. It’s going to be easy to get people on board for this. We’ve got traction baby. We are gonna light this fucking city on fire.”

It may sound ridiculous but it was happening constantly in the startup world. The whole WeWork debacle was still unfolding – billions of dollars thrown at a company run by a guy who wouldn’t wear shoes (in New York City!) All of the money that was coming from VC firms was being thrown at them by central banks that were buying up collapsing financial assets in an attempt to keep the economy working and avoid another tumble like the one in 2008. Free money and when they ran out they would just print more. Hundreds of shitty startup ideas with shitty teams, no product, and no clue.

Accelerators and Angel Investors were giving away life changing sums to businesses that were “pre-idea stage” – no shit. That’s not a term that was just made up – it has been being bandied about for a couple of years now. All a startup needed was a pitchdeck, at least one known founder or backer, and a bank account. The rest could be bought with the first check. The second check could make the product. The third check would be used to start buying up other companies in the same vertical – or completely different verticals. Fucking WeWork bought a pool cleaning startup.

At the end of the day, Petshitter was just as real as MoviePass, AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, WeWork, and all the other unicorns that bled more money than they could possibly make. The funniest thing was when the bankers and junior VC’s started talking about Petshitter they solved one of the biggest problems the company had – the name.

Somehow without a memo – they’d all decided to call it an even weirder name Pets Hitter.

In order to start building their team, Adell brought in a friend who had worked in recruiting. It turned out that Adell had always had a soft spot and a fascination for people with fucked up names. Or maybe it was more accurate to say she was sympathetic or empathetic to their plight, In any event, there were few people with names as fucked up as hers (or Ted’s) but her friend Timothy had suffered a totally different kind of awfulness because of his parents naming choices.

The Burr family had consciously made the choice to saddle their child with a name that would forever subject him to people cupping their hands around their mouth and heartily calling out “Tim-Burr!” As far back as he could remember, it had never been funny. The only funny part about it was that people who did it actually seemed to think themselves clever as if they were the first to notice it or the first to call it out. In any event, Timothy was very clear about his name not being Tim and when people made the unfortunate choice to call out “Tim-Burr” his response had become pretty routine “Gosh, aren’t you clever.” Followed by “Hey, you’ve got a little bit of schmutz on your face…” and he would motion to a spot around their mouth or if he’d already done that he would mention a bit of dandruff or some other self-doubt inducing lie that caused them to focus on themselves. Somehow watching people become insecure and worried about things that didn’t exist eased the sting a bit – honestly, sometimes he felt like he got more enjoyment from it than they did.

Timothy was meeting with them at their soon to not be their’s apartment. Adell had warned Ted not to call him Tim and explained that despite her trying – there was nothing that would make Timothy ‘own’ his name.

When the doorbell rang, Ted got up from the kitchen table where they were working to get it. For some reason Ted had pictured a tall skinny white guy with a beard – but that wasn’t Timothy at all – he was a little below average height – probably 5’6” or 5’7” and clean shaven. His skin was that beautiful satin black color that recent immigrants from Africa sometimes had.

Nice to meet you Mr. Burr. Thanks for coming.” Ted had decided to stick with Mr. Burr unless he was told otherwise. “I’m Ted Kazinsky.” Adell was standing behind him and probably would have introduced them, but Ted had wanted to do this himself. He watched for the reaction. There was none.

Timothy smiled and shook his hand. “Please, call me Timothy.” His voice was soft and slightly effeminate with the lightest of Southern accents. Adell came forward and squeezed past in order to give Timothy a hug and bring him inside.

Timothy, I’ve missed you!” She was squeezing him with enthusiasm. She led him over to the table. “Can I get you a cup of coffee or some juice or something?”

They all sat and for the next few minutes chatted about history, mutual friends, and times past. Adell had met Timothy when she took a temp job with Oracle. He had literally called her because of her name – so, maybe it wasn’t quite accurate to say she collected people with fucked up names because after all, he had really collected her. Timothy and his boyfriend had recently bought a condo in San Jose but he was still coming up to the city on a regular basis. His boyfriend had a completely normal name – well, normal in Korea. Hank Yu.

When the talk turned to names – Ted had to ask “Timothy, I’ve been meaning to ask you about your name…” Ted caught the eyeroll from Timothy which had been directed at Adell – he was supposed to have missed it, but it didn’t bother him – he knew what it was about. “Are you related to Aaron Burr? – the guy who shot Alexander Hamilton?”

It wasn’t the question he’d been expecting, but it still raised his hackles a bit. “Well, according to my grandmother, I’m a direct descendent of Aaron Burr, 3rd Vice President of the United States of America and one of the least understood of all the founding fathers – in fact, my middle name is Aaron. It never used to be a problem before that bastard Lin-Manuel Miranda made it famous. Now I get asked all the time. There are times I just want to hear “Tim-Burr” – okay, not really.” They all laughed.

I always admired Aaron Burr,” Ted said “I think he got the short end of the stick. America might have been a better place if Hamilton had lost those arguments. Did you ever read Gore Vidal’s book, Burr?”

Tim nodded enthusiastically. “I did. It’s a masterpiece and a true critique of our system.” He turned to Adell “Ms. Fitler – I do believe you might have found a bonafide radical here.” From this point forward, they were all friends.

With Tim’s help they were able to recruit a fairly solid team that agreed to work for small equity stakes until they had funding. Three engineers, a finance manager to be the CFO, a lawyer (technically she was waiting to pass the bar), three social media mavens, a search engine optimization specialist, a chemist, two designers, and a web designer. Ted protested that they were bringing too many people on but Tim and Adell refused to listen to him. Ted pointed out that he was a decent engineer, could do web design, and that three social media mavens was overkill – but they would’t listen.

Tim stressed how important it was to put diversity in their founding team, so candidates that were under-represented (code for not heterosexual, white, males) were sought out.

The finance manager, a guy named Geronimo Murphy was half Lakota Sioux and the lawyer – a recent Yale Law graduate named Charlene Mansion, managed to get the Delaware C corporation set up for less than $200 and all of the new team members agreed to receive between .5 and 2% equity in stock as payment until funding was achieved and salaries could be determined. Everyone coming on had to sign non-disclosure and non-compete contracts and agree to work as I-9 contractors without the expectation of benefits for the first 18-months.

It took two weeks and less than $1000 to take Petshitter from a ridiculous idea to a company with nearly twenty employees, a bank account, legal status as a person, and close to a hundred-thousand people waiting to find out where to send their pet shit for cash.

Nobody seemed very concerned that they still didn’t have an actual pet-shit-energy-generator. The engineers had looked at the online designs and decided it had probably been some sort of a hoax – maybe a sociology experiment or an art test. In any event, they did think that it was possible to generate electricity from pet shit (and human shit) in a couple of ways – burning it, allowing bacteria to eat the feces and then ‘burp’ methane, or to mix it with other substances which could then be burned. Ted seemed to be the only one who was actually bothered by the lack of an actual answer.

After some argument, Ted convinced Adell that she should be the CEO, not him. He preferred to be the CTO (Chief Technical Officer) . Tim would be the COO (Chief Operations Officer) so he was able to move from department to department – which was pretty bizarre, because, you know, they had departments. He was also the head of human resources, but just until they found someone else. After she had finally agreed, Adell came around to Ted’s decision that she should be the CEO because having a female led startup in Silicon Valley gave them some unique advantages. The investors all wanted to show diversity in their portfolios of companies they funded – so it gave them a leg up. Their founding team was well represented with two women, one African American (Tim), a Native American (Geronimo) , a second generation Korean American (Charlene), a Japanese American (also Geronimo) and at least one LGBTQ (they hadn’t asked Geronimo or Charlene but had a feeling).

CEO and Co-Founder – Adell Fitler

CTO and Co-Founder – Ted Kazinsky

COO – Tim Burr

CFO – Geronimo Banzai

CCO – Charlene Mansoon

Tim was the only one whose name didn’t like like a mass killer. Adell joked that they should give him a nickname on the masthead “Killer Tim Burr” but he said it made him sound like really good lumber.

Nothing wrong with solid wood, Bro.” Adell looked at Theo and smiled when she said it, but they all nodded in agreement.

Chapter 13

Identity Politics

We all know what many of our schools are like. The teachers are too busy taking knives and guns away from the kids to subject them to the latest techniques for making them into computer nerds. Thus, in spite of all its technical advances relating to human behavior, the system to date has not been impressively successful in controlling human beings. The people whose behavior is fairly well under the control of the system are those of the type that might be called “bourgeois.” But there are growing numbers of people who in one way or another are rebels against the system: welfare leaches, youth gangs, cultists, satanists, nazis, radical environmentalists, militiamen, etc.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

The first few meetings were rough. They met with venture capital funds that were already well represented by diversity in their portfolio of investments and their management teams. The bottom line was that they were able to poke holes in the fundamental ideas of petshitter and ask for things like financial projections, videos of a working product, an actual real life working product – and other things that they didn’t have. Also, no one wanted to work with Adolf Hitler and Ted Kazinsky.

The fifth VC firm they met with was the one that Ted almost called off. VWA or Victor White Associates was embroiled in controversy already – they’d been a heavy investor in Uber and a couple of other ‘bro culture’ startups that had taken some serious media heat. A few years earlier they had been one of the VC firms that got caught up in ‘Gamergate’ and most recently they had been involved in the ICO scams of 2017. VWA was known as being heavy handed in their term sheets, taking bigger equity stakes for smaller investments, and worst of all – they were big Trump supporters which everyone in the Vallley took for shorthand as being religious bigots, anti-gay, and racist. The main reason being that if you support a candidate known for those positions, there was a good chance those positions resonated with you.

The VWA meeting was set up for a Wednesday morning. A different, well respected firm offered them a meeting at the same time – Ted’s inclination was to cancel VWA and take the other meeting. Adell wouldn’t hear of it.

I’ve got a feeling about VWA. I just have a gut feeling about this one Ted. They need our diversity. They need our representation. Yeah, these guys are scumbags – I know, but think of it this way – the liklihood of us even creating a product that works is pretty close to nothing. Wouldn’t you rather take money from scumbags than from good guys?”

Ted liked the logic – although he wasn’t too keen on the idea of them not getting a product made. Personally, he was starting to think they had stumbled on something that actually made sense – a product that could make the world a better place. Sure, there were challenges – but he felt like each day they were getting closer to an actual working product – or maybe a working concept – or a viable concept. Adell was right.

The meeting took place two blocks off Sand Hill Road – the street where the most famous deals in tech had taken place. The VWW office building was an impressive cinder block structure that looked like it had been airlifted off of an old army garrison. The VWA logo had an American flag and an eagle on it.

This place reminds me of something…” as they pulled up. It was just he and Adell that went to the pitch meetings. It was just on the dge of his memory. Then it hit him – the building looked like an old VFW post in Martinez – the Veterans of Foreign Wars had hired him as a temp to do some restoration work a few years earlier on the old Martinzez post. Everything about VWA was reminiscent from the big white VWA letters on the front to the logo which he figured must be plagarized and stylized from the VFW logo. He counted six American flags flying in the parking lot and on the building itself.

They’d done their homework. Victor White was a Vietnam Veteran supporter (but not a vet himself) who generally only supported veteran led businesses. His companies were ‘American Values’ companies generally led by heterosexual, Caucasian men. They’d had three companies hit by ‘Me Too’ problems, the scandals with Gamergate and Uber, plus a whole host of rumors about racial problems. They were not a good fit. The companies with VWA were security firms, transportation, and private prisons and schools. Petshitter didn’t fit in any portion of that.

The lobby smelled like stale bread and bleach. The receptionist sat behind a brick wall that stood waist high and had what looked like bullet proof glass separating her from visitors. It was a bit like passport control in third world countries combined with pawn shops in Detroit combined with a CVS pharmacy. Overall the feeling the reception area gave was something akin to “You are not getting past the receptionist.”

We have a meeting scheduled with Victor White for 1:30.” It was precisely 1:15. Ted knew that military guys like fifteen minutes early.

Your names?” the receptionist asked.

Fitler and Kazinsky,” Adell said. No reason to freak out the receptionist. She probably had a gun back there.

Sign these NDAs and then please have a seat, he’l be with you in a few minutes. ” Ted scanned over the document, it was fairly standard and said that any offers, questions, or information shared was private and severe financial penalties would follow if it was leaked to the press, shared with other companies, or written about. They both signed. The reception area felt like a dentist waiting area with Fortune and Entrepreneur magazines on brown leather coffee tables in front of tired brown leather couches. There were fake plants that looked like they were growing dust. On the walls were pictures of Victor White and CEOs, presidents, generals, and religious leaders. White was usually wearing vaguely militaristic khakis – never a uniform, but what looked like a passable ‘civilian’ or ‘contractor’ uniform. He was a fit white man in his late sixties.

Ted had been refining his pitch – he was going to appeal to the ‘man’s best friend’ aspect and ‘generating power’ and ‘America’s next great innovation’. At exactly 1:30, the receptionist looked up “Mr White will see you now.” She buzzed a security door and they were able to pass through a metal doorway to the right side of the room.

Once they’d gone past the metal security door, it was like they had entered a different world. Rich wood furniture, expensive looking paintings, live plants. The receptionist somehow met them on the other side of the door even though she had been seated at her desk across the room when they went through it. Ted looked back to see if she had a twin still sitting there, but the security door had already closed.

She led them down a long hallway to a heavily polished mahogany door with gold gilding on it. In the center where it would have said ‘Star’ if they were in Hollywood was a gold placard that simply said “White”. Ted gave Adell a warning look to keep her from saying out loud what had already popped into his head “White Only”.

The receptionist opened the door and motioned for them to go in. “Have a seat, he’ll be with you in a moment.” Ted felt like he’d crossed the silk ropes at a museum palace. Gold and highly polished wood everywhere. Silk carpets covered the floor and a large desk sat in the center of the room. Two chairs sat in front of it. There were doors leading off to either side. The sense of over the top luxury was only jarred by the hand grenade sitting in the center of the desk, by itself, the pin pulled out and sitting next to it. By the time he noticed it – the door had clicked shut behind them.

He pointed to it. Adell turned her eyes and they instantly widened when she saw it.

Fuck.”

When she said it, some instinctual mate-preservation mode clicked into action from inside Ted. He shoved her down to the ground and dove onto the desk covering the grenade and sliding across the smoothly polished surface to the far side of it. Holding the grenade to his body he rolled off the desk and onto the floor and waited for the sudden destruction of his body as the grenade fragmented itself, his limbs, and his organs.

What the fuck, Ted?” Adell was pulling herself off the ground. Just then the door to the right side opened and Victor White walked in the room. He was a bit rounder and shorter than Ted had expected, but otherwise looked like his pictures.

Bravo, Mr. Kazinsky. Bravo. That was as true an act of bravery as I’ve ever seen. In all the years I’ve been doing this – you’re the first one to dive on the grenade. I think you probably would have saved Ms. Fitler’s life right there, but sadly, you would be dead. The good news, however is that there is no explosive in that grenade.”

You do this to everyone?” Adell was still out of breath and Ted could tell she was starting to boil.

No, only to those founders who I think I may want to do business with. So, tell me about Pets Hitter.”

Ted got up and put the grenade back on White’s desk. He walked around the desk to the side where Adell was starting to sit in one of the plush chairs. On the way, he shook White’s hand. “I’m Ted Kazinsky.”

Nice to meet you Ted. Great fucking American.” Ted wasn’t sure if White was still congratulating him on his heroic behavior or saying the Unabomber was a great American, but he suspected it was the latter.

Adell stood back up “I’m Adell Fitler, the CEO of Petshitter” When Adell said it, it really sounded like “I’m Adolf Hitler the CEO of Pet Shitter” mainly because that was what she said.

That name – you might want to put a pause in there.” Again, Ted couldn’t tell if he was talking about her name or the company name. “Okay you two, enough fucking around. Pitch me. And before you start, I don’t want to see any slides – just tell me about your company.”

Ted jumped into it. “American’s love their dogs. We have nearly 75-million of them! We can say that dogs are man’s best friend but in the United States but dogs are also one of the worst polluters. The dogs of America generate approximately 10-million tons of poop per year. Cats generate another 7-million tons. Most of this waste gets left on sidewalks, in parks, in yards, or dumped in the garbage with the added toxic plastic bag around it. Dog poop is the number three cause of water pollution. The reason we see so much dog poop in public places is because more than 60% of dog owners don’t pick up their dog’s feces. This causes big problems.”

Do you have a dog, Mr. White?” Ted had meant to ask at the beginning.

We have three great danes,” White said “They probably produce about half that dog shit by themselves. Keep going.”

One gram of dog poop contains more than 23-million fecal bacteria that seep into the soil, get into our water, and are carried and spread by flies and other vectors.”

Like my god-damn shoes…” White griped. “So what are you going to do about it?”

Petshitter incentivizes owners to pick up their dog’s waste and turn it into electricity. Generators have so far been used to charge batteries, power fans, and other small appliances – but we believe that if we can harness even 10% of the dog waste in this country, our energy output could get as high as 50 gigawatts of power – which is the same amount of energy produced by solar panels in the USA in 2017. “

Holy shit.” White caught himself by surprise with the unintended pun. He chuckled but he was a serious businessman despite his earlier prank. “So, why haven’t the other VC’s you’ve talked with jumped on this money wagon you just pulled into my office. I know you’ve had four meetings this week.”

This was the question that Ted hadn’t wanted to answer. He began to explain the issues they had with the product, the lack of a viable prototype because they didn’t have funding to build it, and would have gone on but at this point Adell stood up and interrupted him.

The main problem is that our names suck. Nobody has the guts to work with Adolf Hitler and Ted Kazinsky. All of these valley snowflakes are so PC they would have turned us down if we walked in with a wagon full of gold and the directions to El Dorado. We can’t change our names – and we won’t change our names – but we have the keys to the golden city if you are willing to work with us. Also, if you don’t mind my saying so – it wouldn’t hurt your company to be working with a female led company that enables gays, Asians, and African-Americans in their management team. We are as diverse as it gets.”

White steepled his fingers looking like he was trying to channel Steve Jobs. His crisp khaki shirt made him look like he had just taken a pith helmet from his grey head when he walked in from a safari. He looked at Adell with an intense gaze.

I like you Ms. Fitler, I like the way you cut to the heart of things. Here’s what I will do – I’m going to fund Pets Hitter with a seed investment of $3-million dollars for a 30% equity stake and a seat on your board – providing that you are willing to do a couple of things. First, you are both going to have to go through our VWA Startup Basic Training – our deal will be contingent on your satisfactory completion – it’s a one-week intensive course we require all of our founders to go through. Second, you’re going to have to change the name of the company Pets Hitter or Petshitter are both terrible names. Although…maybe for a product like this, there is no such thing as a good name. ”

Draw up the papers and we’ll have our legal team go over them Mr. White. If it all matches what you’ve just said, it sounds like we have a deal.”

White reached across the desk and shook both their hands.

Chapter 14

VWA Startup Basic Training

The system may become a unitary, monolithic organization, or it may be more or less fragmented and consist of a number of organizations coexisting in a relationship that includes elements of both cooperation and competition, just as today the government, the corporations and other large organizations both cooperate and compete with one another. Human freedom mostly will have vanished, because individuals and small groups will be impotent vis-a-vis large organizations armed with super-technology and an arsenal of advanced psychological and biological tools for manipulating human beings with instruments of surveillance and physical coercion. Only a small number of people will have any real power, and even these will have very limited freedom, because their behavior too will be regulated; just as today our politicians and corporation executives can retain their positions of power only as long as their behavior remains within certain fairly narrow limits.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Hey Ted,” Adell leaned across his chest – her hair glowed like a halo from the morning sun coming in the window. “You know what cracks me up?”

He knew a couple of things but he knew he’d never guess it so he shook his head.

The actual Hitler rolling in his grave as his name becomes associated with dog shit – I mean even more than it already was. That’s some funny shit. Shit Heil!”

They laughed. Oh man how they laughed. Life was unbelievable. They wanted to tell the Chan’s but they still weren’t returning their calls or texts. So it was just the Petshitter crew who got to be in on the gag.

The gag was this – they had a literal dogshit project that they’d put a casual couple of weeks work into and they’d just been funded to the tune of three-million dollars. It looked like VWA might change their mind on the name change but they had to go through with the two week intensive VWA Startup Basic Training. Today was day one. Checkin was at 10:00 am at a facility in San Jose so they needed to hit the road if they were going to make it. They would be staying on for the program as a sort of retreat for the entire two weeks. They had time – and it was low pressure.

At least until they got there – in hindsight, Ted realized that knowing what they knew about Victor White and his usual companies – they shouldn’t have been expecting your typical Silicon Valley circle jerk where successful founders became mentors and everyone sat around eating expensive food and having the famous ‘fireside chats’ where successful CEOs and founders got to masturbate about their ‘journey’. A journey that usually started with having well-to-do parents who put a focus on education, going to school in an area where the affluent live, getting accepted into Stanford or MIT, doing an internship at a Fortune 500 tech company, and then dropping out to start their own tech company and having to hustle around the valley hitting up their doctor, lawyer, or engineer parent’s friends. Failing, losing a shit ton of money, and then having their parents or their parents friends believe in them again and showing everyone that this rich kid who got all the breaks could do it despite a drug, alcohol, or other social problem. Nope, that wasn’t this startup school.

There were about seventy participants from around fifty different companies that were looking to be funded by VWA. They all gathered out front waiting for the doors to open at 10:00 am. Most of them were in their twenties to early thirties – Ted and Adell were not the oldest but definitely in the top tier in terms of age.

The doors opened and there wasn’t any of the coffee and donuts social aspect. No ‘get to know you’ breakfast speeches. No polite, boring, and possibly informative keynote speech. No, none of that.

No, this was VWA Startup Basic Training – which should have been called Boot Camp – but White didn’t want to give away the joke – which was only funny to him anyway. The facility was an old police training facility and White had contracted one of his military security contractors to run an old fashioned, in your face, shut the fuck up and do some pushups scumbag boot camp for his potential investees. Ted was glad they’d spent the morning laughing. The next seven days promised to be hellish.

Upon checkin they were told to turn in all of their phones, wallets, and personal items which were placed in sealed plastic evidence bags that they wrote their names, and the inventory on before sealing them with security tape. They were given orange jumpsuits and white tennis shoes – the kind prisoners wear and told to go into the men’s or women’s locker rooms, put their clothing in a locker and change into the jumpsuits.

When I say they were ‘told’ I’m understating things – they were met by ten huge and screaming men and women in olive drab t-shirts, camouflage pants, and combat boots. The conversation went something like this.

Oh, you want some fucking money, huh? You want VWA to give you millions of dollars so you can follow your fucking dreams?”

You can’t handle it punks. You don’t want this money. You don’t want this investment. You don’t want this partnership and relationship so just turn away you weak fucking geeks. Right now. Take your stuff, go back to your garage, and put away your toys. You can’t handle the startup world. Go on, get the fuck out of here.”

One guy actually turned and walked away. Ted thought about doing the same. He admired the guy who said “Fuck it, this isn’t worth the money.” Then he looked at Adell who was smiling ear to ear as a huge black woman screamed in her face “What the fuck are you smiling at? Do you think this if funny? I’m going to fuck you up.” Adell saw Ted watching and winked. This drove the instructor even more batshit crazy. “Did you just ‘wink’ at your friend? What the fuck? Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Once again Adell just said it cold “I’m Adolf Hitler and this is my partner, Ted Kazinsky” This stopped the woman cold – she took a step back “Did you just say your Adolf fucking Hitler and he’s the Unabomber? What in fuck’s name is wrong with you?” Adell puffed her chest out (Ted had to admit, it was a very nice chest) and she screamed in a loud angry voice “No Ma’am. I’m Adell Fucking Fitler and he is not the Unabomer.”

All of this seemed to have taken the steam out of the instructor’s sails because she said “Well, get your ass inside, sign the release forms, put your shit in a ziplock, and go change out of your civvies Adolf – cause we fixing to make sure your startup shit is in order.”

Adell scrambled. Ted had somehow avoided direct contract with the instructors so far and also headed towards the door. The instructors were making a couple of younger founders do pushups, one girl had sat down and was openly weeping on the steps. Gradually, they were all herded towards the lobby where Ted and Adell were already emptying their pockets, putting their backpacks and briefcases in huge ziplock bags, and being issued their orange jumpsuits and white tennis shoes. Once they had the jumpsuits they were screamed at/herded into the locker rooms and then yelled at constantly with demeaning terms until they had placed their clothes in lockers and were exiting the back exit.

You think you’re a CEO? You’re more like a C student. You can’t handle this job.”

You aren’t a founder, more like a foundling. You’re nothing without investment.”

You ain’t got traction – except on your face where the competition has run their traction tires.”

Ted had no conception how a week of this was going to make their company a success. If anything, he was already seeing the roots of the ‘Me Too’ problems VWA funded companies had been going through. There was no way this was going to help their company – but $3 million dollars definitely would – so he shut up and just kept doing as he was told.

For the most part, they left him alone and focused on the younger founders. The men and the women had been split up into two ‘platoons’. Looking and feeling like orange jump suited prisoners they were tortured for hours and then they were all marched to an outdoor track and told to sit in the bleachers just before sunset.

The women took a bit longer to get to the bleachers and sat in the next section down – Ted caught sight of Adell – she was still smiling. Tiki-torches were carried out by the instructors and planted into the earth. Loudspeakers began playing Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ – the instructors screamed for everyone to stand up. They kept saying ‘Attention!’ but then they weren’t doing anything. Finally he realized it meant to stand up and they said it whenever anyone sat down.

The Boss playing, everyone standing, and out marched Victor White. Same khaki uniform but this time with a sort of Cuban fedora on. He walked out, stepped onto a platform, and was handed a mic. The Boss was faded down and the actual boss began to speak.

We are so happy to have you here, applying for funding with VWA. If you’re here, that means that you’ve crossed the hardest gauntlet – which is getting here. For the next week – we are going to cram you full of all the information we think you will need to become a successful startup.”

We are going to teach you how to talk to your customers, how to evaluate your ideas, and how to plan out your minimum viable product. You will learn how to set you KPIs and what analytics you need to be sharing with us and learning from. We are going to teach you how to launch over and over, how to scale, and how to grow.”

You will learn the financial pitfalls and how to avoid them. We will help you prioritize your time and teach you how to pivot when you realize that your idea sucks…and trust me…your idea sucks. We have brought you here because of who you are and who we think you can become. We aren’t here because you have a great idea – ideas are easy. We’re here because we think you can do it. Well, it’s not going to be easy. None of this is easy and trust me when I tell you this will be the hardest week of your life – until next week when the real hardest part of your life starts.”

This is the first moment of your startup life so take a moment and take a deep breath. You have arrived. We are going to give you the tools you need to build a company culture, to move forward, and to lead – but once we give you that – you are the ones who have to do something with it. You are the ones who must lead.”

One of the greatest lessons we can teach you is that you need to use your body. If you push your body to the limits – your mind will become stronger, your thoughts will become more clear, and your drive will become that much harder. So – a part of this curriculum is going to be giving you the habits you need to be fit. For the next week, smokers will quit cold turkey as will drinkers and fuckers. If you want to wank, go right ahead – but you’ll have to do it in bathrooms without stall doors or open dormitories – so expect to be caught and mocked.”

For the next week – your bodies and minds are mine. If you want funding – that’s the way it has to be. If you don’t want funding that bad – well, then get the fuck out. My instructors will be happy to give you back your clothing and belongings.”

A couple of founders got up and left. There was silence. A few more got up and left. White just stood on the stage watching until there were no more getting up and leaving. Once they were gone he continued.

Can you imagine throwing funding at those founders? We haven’t even started and they’ve already quit. But for now – that’s enough of the chit-chat. It’s time for your first fireside chat – so I’d like to bring out my good friend, Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle Corporation. Please give him a warm welcome. Also waiters will be coming through the bleachers and giving you either coffee or tea – but no sugar or cream. One of the first companies we funded was Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf – but for now, please give a warm welcome to Larry Ellison!”

Ted had to give it to VWA. He hadn’t seen any of this coming. One thing was certain – he was glad that he hadn’t walked away.

 

Chapter 15

Fireside Chats

Let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

This was Silicon Valley, after all and there was no way that any sort of event was going to happen without the celebrated fireside chat, but this wasn’t THAT Silicon Valley – this was VWA’s right wing bizarro Silicon Valley and Larry Ellison wasn’t going to disappoint.

Larry Ellison came lumbering out from the far side of the bleachers lit by the fire of the tiki-torches. For a man pushing eighty, he looked surprisingly fit. Like Victor White, he was wearing a sort of militaristic civilian uniform. A couple of assistants came out and put chairs on the turf platform. Both men sat down. Another assistant handed Larry Ellison a cordless mic.

Larry, thanks for coming to speak to these guys – you’re one of the most successful men in the history of planet Earth. You are the only person in the world who owns their own Hawaiian Island, you own more jets than many nations, you founded Oracle Corporation, one of the most successful companies in the world, and you are one of the wealthiest people in the world. What’s your secret?”

Larry turned and looked at the crowd. His natural scowl made him look slightly angry even when he tried to force a smile on his face.

Thanks for having me here Victor. My secret is that I don’t take no for an answer. I never have. No means yes to me.” It wasn’t exactly a ‘me-too’ moment. “When the US government told me that I couldn’t own Mig fighters and fly them with full armaments, I didn’t accept it. I simply paid for renovation of an old air base in Mexico on the condition that they let me keep my planes there. When they told me that Oracle couldn’t have a lucrative US government contract that would allow us to provide the one approved fund raising software in the developed world, I didn’t just bow down to that buffoon ass Marc Benioff – no, I built a script to run on top of Salesforce – and ultimately he had to use our databases – so we won. The common thread in all of my successes have been ignoring the word no.”

Victor was nodding. “I’ve always felt that no is just a different level of yes. Unless I’m saying it, then it means no.”

Ellison laughed. “Yes, my no is also the only no I know.” The audience (forgetting they were wearing orange jumpsuits and simply falling into Valley Hive Mind) laughed appreciatively. Ted caught Adell’s eye and she raised one eyebrow – something he wished he could do. This had gotten very strange very rapidly.

But Larry,” Victor asked like he was some kind of late night sensitive talk-show host “What about the government and how it is stifling innovation?”

Now it felt like Ellison was going into some sort of prepared monologue. “Oracle has paid somewhere along the lines of a trillion dollars to the US government. If you include payroll, taxes, FICA, insurance, charitable contributions, the taxes our employees pay, the donations to campaigns and more – then it’s even more.” Ted wondered how he could possibly include all those things as coming from Oracle. “And that’s fine, but we shouldn’t be supporting Ohio and some tank manufactury.” Huh?

Ellison went on. “The old farts in congress – most of them aren’t even my age but 90% of them need a young assistant to check their email for them. Silicon Valley has a larger Gross National Product than more than one hundred and fifty countries. California is the fifth wealthiest nation in the world and it’s not even a nation. The West Coast of North America from Alaska to Baja would be the wealthiest country in the world if it were to leave the United States. Think about it – Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Costco, Oracle, Nike, and the list goes on and on. Alaskan oil, Hollywood…”

He paused to take a sip of water. Ted drank a sip of his coffee – it was really good – probably single origin, hand processed, top of the line. Ellison went on. “And yet, we have to put up with regulation from the descendants of former slave owners in a backwater swamp called Washington D.C. Why in the world do we, the greatest people in the world have to listen to that shyster New York president and his crooked cabinet?” That was a surprise – Ted had sort of thought Ellison would be a Trumper but then he sort of remembered Ellison being a big Marco Rubio backer in 2016.

There is no reason to remain a part of the United States of America. We should secede and take the whole West Coast including British Columbia, the Yukon, and Baja California with us. I’m naming it right now ‘West America’. The USA has become a laughingstock and Larry Ellison and Victor White do not like to be laughed at.” No one was laughing now.

Larry,” Victor was still the host of this show “I’m with you, but what steps should we take. How can we make this a reality?”

By doing what you are doing here Vic, by gathering patriots, putting the best and the brightest minds to work, and getting our minds, bodies, and souls in order.” He turned to the audience “Your companies were picked because they have something to offer to West America. Fresh water, energy, security, education – I’m telling you now – this is going to be the most important week in your lives. And I also want to say this – my venture arm will invest an additional $1 million in every company that makes it through this training. I believe in you.”

He stood up and based on the last two sentences alone – he received a thunderous round of applause. Victor White and Larry Ellison walked off the stage together and the heavies moved back in. They weren’t smiling any more. Just before he was out of range – Victor White turned and said “Please make sure to properly dispose of your coffee cups.”

Over the next seven days, the founders were taught everything they needed to know to make their startup work and a completely bizarre amount of physical training, combat techniques, and methods of improvised warfare. The ostensible reason given was that business is a lot like war and by developing war skills, they were learning to have the winner mindset that would be necessary if they were to succeed in the startup world – a world where 90% of startups failed in the first year and another 7% failed in the next. It all made sense – but Ted wasn’t sure that he needed to know how to create a cigarette timer for an improvised bomb so that he could scale his business properly.

The fireside chats continued with a powerful cast of characters. Eric Prince – the founder of the Blackwater Security Firm discussed the murky world of landing government contracts and running one of the world’s largest private armies. Prince had helped to set up the VWA Basic Training and his fireside chat let everyone know to call it VWAB or V-Wab. The surprise takeaway for Ted was finding out that President Trump’s Controversial Education Secretary – Betsy DeVos was the older sister of Prince. The nepotism runs deep.

John McAfee – the founder of McAfee Antivirus and the Godfather of Cryptocurrency – video-fireside chatted about the importance of defunding the Federal Reserve and making sure that profits were denominated in a number of different currencies – both crypto and fiat. His firesdie chat had to be teleconferenced because he was on the run from the US Government for tax evasion and possibly murder. He was also running for President again with the Libertarian Party. “A vote for me is a vote for West America. Buy Bitcoin!”

Peter Thiel, one of the cofounders of Paypal had a lot to say about gold and how to get it, keep it, and use it. Unlike McAfee, Thiel thought bitcoin was a scam. He laughed about how bitcoin believers had given him a bitcoin and he had sold it and bought gold. By the time that Thiel’s fireside chat started, Ted had figured out that V-Wab was a Libertarian Indoctrination Camp. While the discussion did talk about the trials and opportunities of starting Paypal, most of the chat was about how non-Libertarian views are skewed liberal of fascist. Ted, who was no stranger to politics and had developed some pretty educated political views over the years – didn’t disagree but felt that any Libertarian who looked in the mirror and saw themselves as a centrist was fooling themselves.

On the fifth day, the fireside chat was with David Friedman, son of Milton Friedman and a well respected economist in Libertarian circles in his own right. Friedman continued with his parent’s brand of Libertarian Capitalism pushing it even further into the realm of Anarcho-Capitalism, a bizarre free market brand of libertarianism where the state offered no protections to the poor or weak but defended the borders in order to promote free enterprise. Much of Friedman’s talk was in regards to his book “The Machinery of Freedom” and Victor White assured everyone that an autographed copy would be waiting for them when they graduated.

The sixth day’s chat was with with Ken Schoolland, an economics professor. Schooland had written a book that detailed Austrian economics called “The Adventures of Jonathan Gullible: A Free Market Odyssey” – which he also said would be waiting for graduates when they were done. Ted was impressed with the growing weight of his V-Wab schwag bag – even though he didn’t have it yet.

The final fireside chat was something completely different – Joe Rogan, the podcaster, comedian, and political influencer did a fireside chat where he poked fun at people who trust the government, roasted people who willingly pay ‘all’ of their taxes, and generally made fun of everything that wasn’t the libertarian view. It was hilarious and when he finished, Rogan generously invited all of the founders to sign up to be guests on his show – providing they graduated.

The fireside chats were the thing to look forward to each day. The rest of the days were spent in long lectures, intensive workshops where participants developed their pitches, worked on their media skills, and learned how to make sure they were never taken advantage of by the government, the media, their employees, or their customers. Meals were timed communal affairs served in a large cafeteria. Showers were gym style. Dormitories were open rooms with rows of bunk beds. One dormitory for the men and one for the women. In between workshops, lectures, meals, and fireside chats – the founders were tortured with physical exercise. If they wanted the funding (and the schwag bags – they had no choice).

Still – with all of that, there was some amount of down time when the founders were able to get to know each other, learn about each other’s businesses, and do what people do when they are thrown into adversity together – develop friendships.

Chapter 16

The Useless Burden

Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone’s physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes “treatment” to cure his “problem.”

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Much later, in hindsight, both Ted and Adell would come to realize that V-Wab had an astounding impact for a 7-day adventure. That’s what it really came down to – V-Wab was an adventure for those who stayed – sometimes terrifying, sometimes exhilarating, and sometimes educational. It was even fun – at times. The biggest impact, however didn’t arise from the seminars or the workouts, not the fireside chats nor the workshops – it came from the people and the relationships that formed inside the sweaty, stinky, emotionally distraught confines of that old police training ground. And of course, the huge injection of money that came afterwards – but that was later.

During the course of V-Wab, Ted got to know some of his fellow founders very well. They bonded through whispered conversations after lights out, they literally helped pull each other up as they traversed the so called ‘confidence courses’, and they goaded each other and competed in hand to hand combat, at the shooting range, and on the sports fields. The cast of characters were diverse – even if most of them were white and/or named with vanilla monikers like Danny, Rick, Jen, Misty, David, Carrie, and Phil.

Danny Carlisle was a rich kid with a trust fund who had been gifted with brains. He and a couple of his classmates at Stanford had figured out that people were scared and there was a solid need for an Uber for Bodyguards. They’d put together a private security outsourcing firm called ProTekshun. User’s could have an armed or unarmed security officer on call for an hour or a week using the app Danny had developed.

Rick Bransetter was a data scientist who had been working at Google when he realized that there was a direct correlation between people’s browsing behavior and their income. His analytics startup provided an alternate ‘credit score’ for lenders to determine if the amount of income people reported was par, under, or over the reality of their situation. His firm was called BroSir.

Jen Yang was one of the few non-white founders at V-Wab. She and her engineering team at UC Davis were working on a way to make electric outboard motors more efficient and capable of running on a drastically reduced battery power. Their aim was to eliminate noise, air, and water pollution in watercraft.

Misty Tucker and her crew were developing what they called the reverse-stuff-annuity. They paid a monthly dividend to users who signed a contract that specified that when they died, all of their household possessions, collections, and personal items would be picked up, taken away, sorted and sold. It was a benefit to heirs who didn’t have to deal with hoarder houses and generally a cheaper way to buy estates that sometimes yielded expensive hidden treasures.

David Davidson III was at the forefront of the investor lending industry with his company Profitday. His firm planned to offer loans guaranteed by stock portfolios. As a way of getting the loans, users would need to transfer their portfolios to his hedge fund for management and then sign a promissory note that if not honored would transfer the ownership of the stocks to his fund. People loved it. They felt like they were borrowing against future gains in their stocks and able to spend their earnings before they even happened. And, if the management of the fund was bad, they could walk away without incurring further losses.

Carrie “Carolyn” Ludspeker had started one of the nations fastest growing Yoga schools. It was called Prosperity Yoga. Students would do yoga on sandboxes filled with money. The ‘money energy’ would filter upwards into their lives and through a series of mantras focused on earning and receiving – they would become healthy, flexible, and prosperous. She had a whole slew of gimmicks and rituals that kept users hungry for more. Her future plans included a whole host of Prosperity Yoga brands – everything from cereal to clothing to soft drinks.

Phil Giovano was the guy who Ted most enjoyed talking with. Phil was an old school internet guy like Ted. He had put in a few years at Microsoft during which he had mucked around with Gopher and the other old protocols. Phil’s startup was literally doing what Ted had thought about doing – creating a new internet using Gopher’s menu organization. The idea was to bypass Google, Bing and other so called ‘Search Engines’ which had actually turned into ‘recommendation engines’ and ‘ad engines’ and allow users to get back to the joy of finding gopher holes and diving down them.

These founders made up the ‘lunch bunch’ ‘breakfast club’ and ‘dinner companions’ of Phil and Adell. On this particular morning they were all trying to come up with a suitable rebrand for Pet Shitter.

The problem I have with it, is that it sounds like you want to hit pets.” That was Carolyn who was actually quite soft spoken. “I wish you had called it something like Pet Caresser or Pet Stroker.”

David III spit out his coffee. “Not Pet Stroker. Oh my god. Not unless you want to watch viral videos of people jerking off their dogs every time you search for your company on Google.”

I like our name,” Adell said. “It describes what our company is built on. Pet shit.”

Yeah, but you can’t say that so you’re left with Pet Hitter which has all kinds of bad reasons that validate getting rid of it.”

What if we made hitter into a good thing? Like made it slang for scooping?” Ted didn’t particularly want to get rid of the name because it made him laugh. Not the best reason for keeping it, but in a human sense – completely valid.

David III liked it “Like ‘Hey Ted, where’d you get that new bling?’ ‘Oh, you know, just been hitting the pet and getting paid.’ “ David was a frighteningly good looking guy with a chiseled jaw line, perfect hair, and a tall toned body. Mid 30’s – he was literally the king of his world.

I’d hit that,” Carolyn said it looking at David III and immediately began to blush. She was a very good looking person, herself but suffered from some shyness and anxiety – which Ted would have thought made being a yoga teacher or doing this kind of training difficult – but she didn’t appear to have any issues outside of personal conversation. They all laughed and Adell threw in a “Hell yeah, sister.”

Rick, the Google data-scientist jumped in “So what you really have is a marketing and education campaign issue – that’s what will solve it. Not really an issue because you are going to have to teach people how to harvest the shit anyway.” He was also very good looking – Ted looked around the table, then looked around the dining hall – everyone there was good looking. There were no fat, disfigured, handicapped, or even mildly ugly people there.

This was roughly half way through the boot camp and Ted was surprised he hadn’t noticed before.As he looked around the room he realized that it was more than everyone’s good looks and general fitness that made this a unique experience. Out of the original seventy or so participants – there were around fifty of them still in it. Of those the vast majority, nearly forty of them were white. There were two Asian women, one Asian man, one African American woman and five more brownish people who were a mixture of Indians, Arabs, Southern Europeans, and Latin Americans. The huge majority of the rest were white people with blond hair, blue eyes – most likely of Western, Northern, and Eastern European descent. Ted had never been a practicing Jew, but his ancestry was definitely Jewish – as he looked around he had a distinctly uncomfortable feeling about the ethnic mixture of the majority.

Without knowing much about Silicon Valley, it would be easy to think Ted was having a moment of total unsubstantiated paranoia. After all, the United States is by and large a ‘white’ country settled by English, German, Norwegian, and other mostly white people – but California is a different story. California has a close split between English and Spanish as the first language with Spanish set to surpass English in the next decade or so. Latinos already outnumber Caucasians in California. In the Bay Area itself there is an amazing amount of diversity. Ted couldn’t think of a single instance when he had been in a restaurant that was all white.

Silicon Valley has a huge Asian population, a sizable African-American population, a growing Latino population, and an even more rapidly growing Indian and Arab population. In fact, tech itself tended to be dominated by Asian and Indian startups – which when they matured tended to be handed off to straight white male CEOs.

This group was not even close to being representative of Silicon Valley, tech, San Francisco, the Bay Area, or California. With that realization, the fireside ‘tiki-torch’ chats suddenly had a completely different kind of feel. Ted wasn’t exactly sure what was going on here – he wondered if anyone else had noticed.

They were all still laughing and nodding at Rick’s comment but Ted decided to interject and change the subject completely “Have you guys noticed anything strange about the ethnic makeup of this cohort?” He gestured around the room. Mostly, white people never noticed when there were mostly white people – they just felt more comfortable. Ted had never had that luxury, one thing about being Jewish is that you always know that you are different from everyone else unless you are in a synagogue – history had driven that awareness to a genetic knowledge level.

They all looked around. Misty, the reverse-stuff-annuity founder and the only African-American in the cohort made the call first. “These are a bunch of very good looking people. Though, no offense to present company – I prefer my men to be handsome, tall, and dark – of which there seems to be no real representation. A lot of the security and the trainers are black – but the founders seem to be mostly white guys.”

And white girls,” Jen Yang spoke up. “I’d noticed it early on but as a vastly underrepresented minority, decided not to say anything. Besides, everyone knows that VWA is a huge alt-right donor. Hell, I heard that Victor White and Steve Bannon go deer hunting together.”

What about Jewish founders? Anyone know any Jewish founders here?” Ted asked. It was the kind of question he usually didn’t go near. Adell began laughing.

From what I’ve heard about Victor White through the years – I’m guessing that there are no Jewish founders here Ted, except for you and you get a pass because you’re dating Adolf Hitler.” The situation wasn’t funny, but the comment was. They all laughed.

Ted didn’t have any qualms about taking money from a racist or anyone else for that matter – in fact, he was of the opinion that people should take as much as they can from the shit-heads of the world – but he decided that when they were free of V-Wab – he would do some serious homework into what the fuck was going on.

The old adage ‘birds of a feather flock together’ had proved itself to be true more times than Ted could count and it seemed to have demonstrated it’s universality with the founders at their table finding their way together as well -though none of them had done it consciously. None of them fit the straight, white, heterosexual, ‘cis’ mold that predominated at V-Wab. Cis comes from the latin word meaning ‘on the side of’ which is the opposite, gender speaking, of ‘trans’ which means across from. So a cis person identifies as the gender they were born with and a trans person does not.

Danny was actually born Danielle, Rick’s mother was Cuban, Misty was the sole African-American, Jen was Asian, David III was gay, Carrie was in a three way relationship (non-binary) with a man and a woman, Phil was Italian-American and one of the few older white geeks – like Ted, Ted was of Jewish descent, and Adell, well she was Adell. In any event this was the core group they spent time with inside – and while there were certainly a few exceptions – most of the rest of the people at V-Wab looked like Hitler youth at a holiday training session. Those folks who were not straight white cis and not in Ted’s group didn’t seem to care or notice that they stood out like exotic flowers in a field of wheat.

Chapter 17

None Dare Call it Conspiracy

On those who are employed, ever-increasing demands will be placed: They will need more and more training, more and more ability, and will have to be ever more reliable, conforming and docile, because they will be more and more like cells of a giant organism. Their tasks will be increasingly specialized, so that their work will be, in a sense, out of touch with the real world, being concentrated on one tiny slice of reality. The system will have to use any means that it can, whether psychological or biological, to engineer people to be docile, to have the abilities that the system requires and to “sublimate” their drive for power into some specialized task. But the statement that the people of such a society will have to be docile may require qualification. The society may find competitiveness useful, provided that ways are found of directing competitiveness into channels that serve the needs of the system. We can imagine a future society in which there is endless competition for positions of prestige and power. But no more than a very few people will ever reach the top, where the only real power is. Very repellent is a society in which a person can satisfy his need for power only by pushing large numbers of other people out of the way and depriving them of THEIR opportunity for power.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Ted and Phil were geeking out about Gopher and Phil’s vision of a new internet between work out sessions and start-up seminars.

It’s kind of like Gopher, but different. I’ve kept the menu structure – which seems like old school links but actually is totally different – but I’ve developed a sorting algorithm called wasp hive.” Phil was an incredibly smart dude. “Wasp hive is really dangerous to the internet as it exists now.”

How so?” Ted was interested “Is it that much more efficient or advanced?”

Phil hesitated with a drawn out “Yesssss,” but he couldn’t resist explaining his creation to someone who actually understood it and was interested. “Do you know anything about wasps?”

Just to stay away from them. They’re pretty nasty.” Ted had been bitten by a wasp when he was a boy. It stung for days.

Okay,” Phil was in full lecture mode now “Bees are pollinators and wasps are predators. Bees sting once and die, wasps can sting over and over. Bees live in wax hives and make honey, wasps live in papery nests and hunt bees and other insects.”

I knew they were nasty. So why wasp hive?” Ted couldn’t understand why Phil would name his new algo after a nasty predator.

Look, please keep this between us. I haven’t given these details to VWA or anyone else for that matter because frankly, I don’t think they’d invest in me if they understood just how powerful WaspHive is.” Ted nodded, even more interested now. “The existing internet isn’t going to just step aside and the big companies aren’t going to give up their walled gardens. Plus, rebuilding the internet from scratch is a huge undertaking and to do it manually – would take years. So I started developing an A.I. that could read, validate, and copy websites – and in the process restructure their links and navigation to something along the lines of the old Gopher taxonomy.”

The internet as it exists right now is really analogous to a beehive. It contains millions of worker bees who have built a wax hive – they go out in the world, gather pollen and bring it to the hive where it is made into honey. A wasp hive on the other hand is made from digested trees and plants that are internally processed into a kind of paper. Lots of wasps are actually parasites as well as predators – so they will sometimes use another species nest as raw material to increase their own brood.”

So how does this affect what your algo does.”

Well, I started thinking about how parasitism works and after a bit too many cocktails one night, I wrote a piece of parasitic code into my web-scraper. Much to my surprise, it increased efficiency of the AI and created a more beautiful kind of structure with the menus. The only problem – and this is the part that I don’t want to get out – is that while it reads the existing web page, a built in viral part of the AI chews up the page code, scrambles it, and potentially destroy the existing servers.”

Wait…so WaspHive is a virus?” Ted was blown away.

Phil smiled sheepishly. “Well, sort of – but essentially it creates a better internet on top of the existing one. I’m working on a way to stop that – but – aside from the lawsuits and the disruption to pretty much everything – it does seem to be the only way to get the world to adopt a new internet.”

Ted couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “How many people know about this?”

Phil smiled “Actually, you’re the first one I trusted enough to explain it to Ted.”

Don’t tell anyone else. Seriously. Not a word. We’ll talk about it more once we’re out, deal?” It had become common for the attendees to talk about when they had their freedom or when they got out – like prisoners – which in a sense they were. Ted held his hand out and Phil shook it and agreed. Now they needed to get to the next seminar.

This was the final seminar before the last Fireside Chat with Joe Rogan. The seminar was scheduled for mid-day and there was a two hour mystery activity that was happening afterwards before the Fireside Chat. Ted had a bad feeling about what Victor White might try to shake out more founders. He knew it was coming. He just didn’t know what it was.

The seminar was titled ‘Snowflake Culture and How to Survive It.” The first half hour was a right wing historical account of identity politics. It started with civil rights and how the movement had changed from an attempt to create equality to an attempt to create a divisive ‘black culture’ that could not coexist with the dominant ‘white culture’. Ted saw Misty, the sole African-American among them, getting a lot of looks from founders – she was playing it cool though and pretended (he presumed) to be unaware of the attention she was getting. He had no idea how she controlled herself as the entire African-American experience was condensed into a cliff-notes version of historical revisionism that painted the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and even Dr. Martin Luther King as political radicals trying to unfairly disrupt the status quo.

The lecture, which was deeply offensive and completely incorrect in an historical and political sense, continued on suggesting that the virus of ‘black identity’ had spread to Latinos, American Indians, Women, Hawaiians, and ‘the homosexuals’. The point they were making was that if it hadn’t of been for black identity politics – everyone would have merged into a sort of uni-culture that would have grown from White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America. They didn’t use the term WASP but Ted couldn’t stop thinking it as they talked about how tensions would have eventually melted the wax of society and created an American where everyone was inwardly the same and outwardly unique.

The lecture was well done – it was complete and total horseshit, but it had been carefully put together with the right statistics, historical quotes, and carefully selected facts to make it sound almost reasonable. The problem was that anyone who had ever dealt with racism on any level from priviliged white assholes, could instantly see it for what it was. It was an attempt to once again put ‘white culture’ on a higher level than all the ‘other’ cultures. It was an attempt to belittle and discredit anything that wasn’t ‘white culture’ and for the most part, the attendees ate it up. It was like watching Donald Trump get voted into office all over again.

Ted had heard an intelligent radio commentator put it best. He had said “If half of America voted Trump into office – the only possible conclusions are either that Trump’s half of America is stupid, crazy, evil, or racist. The last option is the easiest one to believe.” Ted was seeing it as clear as daylight right in front of him. The white millennials in the lecture hall with him were oblivious to their own racism. They liked what they were hearing and for the most part didn’t question it.

Ted and Adell’s lunch bunch gang had all discussed whether they should continue at all costs and take VWA’s (and Larry Ellison’s money) and they had all agreed that it was the right thing to take money from these scumbags. This lecture, however was putting them all to the test. It was nothing however compared to the wrap up and hand’s on portion.

With the revisionist and offensive fake history lesson complete, the instructor (another blond haired, blue eyed, 6-foot tall 30-something) gave them some pointers on how to survive “Snowflake Culture”. His tips included things like ‘Try to look sympathetic, nod your head, and pretend that you really care about their whining” and “Hiring a snowflake is the quickest way to guarantee your organization a quick death.” A snowflake, by the way, was any person who believed in, respected, or made allowances for ‘identity politics’ in the workplace. Some of the buzzwords to look out for in the interview were ‘equal opportunity’ ‘glass ceiling’ ‘equal pay’ and the doozy – to ask candidates who their favorite Supreme Court Justice was and send them packing if they said Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

This went on for quite a while with similar astoundingly unperceptive characterizations and then came the coup de’tat – the place where the offensiveness couldn’t get any worse. First, the moderator asked the audience for real life examples of snowflakes. If Ted and his friends had thought the audience was in the same boat with them and just going along for the money, they were wrong.

Liberal arts majors.”

Women in pants suits.”

Blacks… ” yes the guy actually said blacks and paused for a second before qualifying it with “ …with Afros.”

Or expensive sneakers…” another member of the racist crowd chimed in.

Haitians.” A white woman threw in, with no explanation whatsoever – but no one asked her for one.

Rainbow flags or bumper stickers,” another slightly older white lady said.

LGBTQ shirts or hats…” again, no one interjected anything.

MAGA hats…..” Ted had known Adell wouldn’t be able to keep quiet. She’d tried to throw a bomb that would show just how awful they were being – but instead the crowd erupted in laughter.

The moderator felt the need to intervene on that one, he was also laughing “Probably not the problem we’re looking for on that one.”

Apple products,” a very pale white guy yelled. Ted heard some of the other members say things like “Queer CEO” and “Faggot company”.

Despite everything that had happened since 2016, despite the election of Trump, despite the things he had seen here – he still couldn’t believe what he was hearing or seeing.

Speaking Spanish…” another guy yelled.

Or Arabic. They’re all terrorist sympathizers.”

Asians…” this one came all the way from the other side. Ted was pretty sure that it had been someone in his group, but maybe not.

Again the moderator stepped in – “That’s not cool. Asian people have been with us all along. They’re almost white.” The impact of that last statement hit Ted harder than anything else. The audacity, the level of feeling superior, the implicit white supremacist context of that.

The list grew and grew until it was eventually anyone that wasn’t of North and Western European descent – but also Russians, Asians, and American Indians in business suits were given passes.

What amazed Ted was how quickly it had gone from generic stereotypes to specific ethnicities. It had gone from “Vegan to Black.” The groupthink on this kind of racist shit was astoundingly easy to bring to a head.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity in some kind of hallucinogenicly negative acid trip, the session came to a close. Ted, Adell, and their group all sort of coalesced. The other obviously non-white founders wandered over – either expelled from their ‘white’ groups or no longer comfortable with the people in them. There they were. Twelve people out of fifty. It was the last day of the camp and while they all knew each other, the bonds with the newcomers were never as tight as those with the original lunch bunch – still they were welcomed with open arms.

Ted had no idea how the mystery activity was going to compare with that but they all concurred that they had gotten through the worst of it and now all they had to do was ride out the storm to the bitter end. They had come too far and gone through too much to walk away now – though that would have felt spectacular.

The heavy instructors now gathered around – they had been conspicuously absent from the last session – which Ted figured was probably by intent since most of them were African-American (or <gasp> possibly even Haitian!) Ted figured that even Victor White knew better than to alienate his hired muscle.

The lead instructor pulled out a bullhorn – there was no need, his voice was booming anyway – but it was even louder and more terror inducing with the speaker. “Today, some of you are going to pass the final challenge. If you succeed, you will be funded and will most likely go on to become powerful millionaires who determine the future of our great country. If you fail, then you will lose it all.”

He let that hang in the air. Ted had no idea what that meant.

He went on. “Right now, before we provide you with details of your final challenge, we need each of you to sign this comprehensive waiver which absolves VWA of all responsibility in the event of injury or death. You will also need to sign this ironclad non-disclosure agreement. We will not answer any questions. If you do not want to sign, you can pack up your things and go.”

They were too close. All of them. Ted would realize later, that a big part of the indoctrination they had been through over the past week had caused them to think of this opportunity as their last and only chance at success. The lack of sleep, the pushing of the body and mind to the point of collapse, the rousing speeches and motivational fireside chats. All of that had really been preparing them to sign on the dotted line at this moment. They all did it.

After the last of them had signed – the most fucked up thing of all happened. They were randomly assigned to two groups. The instructors went over all of the hand-to-hand and self-defense moves they had been taught during the past seven days. They put a special focus on the kill moves.

With this complete – Victor White stepped out among them. They were all exhausted, beat up, drained, and probably working on 25% mental capacity at this point. The night before they had been forced to stay up late and wake up early providing only four hours of sleep.

You’ve all done a great job out here this week,” White said. “I wish there were enough money to fund all of you. I’m sure that you’ve noticed that we don’t do things in an orthodox way out here. V-Wab is designed to turn you into the executive rulers of the world.”

He paused. “The problem is that we can only fund half of you. We need to know that you are willing to do whatever it takes to get that funding. That you are willing to take your killer instinct and the lessons we’ve taught you and test yourself in the ultimate challenge. Welcome to the V-Wab Death Match.”

Ted couldn’t believe his ears. He looked around and caught the eyes of the friends he had made here. Some were on one side, some were on the other. Adell caught his gaze and held it. There was no way. They couldn’t do this. There was no fucking way they could get away with it. This was taking playing god to a whole new level.

Without giving them time to think, Victor White went on with his instructions. “You are divided into two groups – one on this side,” he motioned to Ted, “And the other on this side,” now he motioned to Adell’s side.

Ted and Adell’s eyes were still locked on one another. “I want you to look to the other side and find someone you think you could kill. Maybe you don’t like them for some reason, or maybe you think you are stronger. In any event, you are going to catch the eyes of that other person.” Ted thought of looking away and then realized he would rather just keep looking at Adell. She winked at him. They were locked and he couldn’t really feel what else was happening but then curiousity got the better of him and he looked to see if anyone was looking at him. On the other side, one of the biggest, muscle-dudes in the whole camp caught Ted’s eye. Fuck. He was staring right at Ted with total and obvious murderous intent. He tried to look away, to find someone else, but that guy wouldn’t stop staring at him.

We are going to count down from ten. When we reach zero – you are going to cross the divide and engage your enemy. You will either kill them, or they will kill you. There is no escape. Even if you want to do something else – the die has already been cast.” Ted wavered on whether to look friendly or fierce, all he felt was an overwhelming urge to yell “Fuck!” His mind began racing. They couldn’t do this…this was not fucking possible.

But, he had already seen enough fucked up shit during the course of the week at V-Wab that he knew it was possible. They were super-rich and they could do whatever they wanted. He noticed a group of the Fireside Chat guests and other Valley Luminaries had gathered on the bleachers.

10” He just wouldn’t do it. The guy would have to kill him. He looked and saw the guy next to him staring at Adell with murder in his eyes.

9” He would trip this fuckwad next to him first and then start beating him. Maybe his friends would help him.

8” His friends all seemed to have a bunch of white male and female babboons planning on murdering them. Maybe he should just run. He thought about turning and just running before the count was down.

7” He caught Adell’s eye. She motioned downwards and took a deep breath. She was telling him to calm down.

6” Phil moved next to him. “I think we can take that guy together,” he whispered.

5” Ted had never felt anything like this. It was the most intense moment of his life.

4” Until the next number down was counted and then the feeling doubled. He was ready.

3” He saw that all of his friends were feeling the same – maybe they could all meet in the center and fight off the goons.

2 – This is it. This is the moment folks. I hope you win.” Victor White threw one last comment in.

Stand down – everyone stand the fuck down. Exercise over.” The heavies rushed into the center, there would be no engagement. The whole thing had been a mind-fuck.

That’s what it feels like my friends. That’s what the moment of life or death, victory or defeat feels like. This is the only way I could show you what really matters and what you are really made of.”

Congratulations. You are now funded. All of you. Now go get showered and come check out Joe Rogan at our final Fireside Chat. You did it and you don’t want to miss the finale.”

Ted turned to Phil and the two men hugged. “Thanks for having my back, Phil.”

That’s what friends do,” he replied.

The big guy who had been eyeballing Adell began to walk away and Ted casually stuck his foot out causing the man to trip and fall on his face. Ted kept talking to Phil as if nothing had happened. He wondered how much rage that had been restrained would find other ways to be relieved. After tripping the guy, however, Ted felt much better.

Chapter 18

Funded Not Funambulists

 

One can envision scenarios that incorporate aspects of more than one of the possibilities that we have just discussed. For instance, it may be that machines will take over most of the work that is of real, practical importance, but that human beings will be kept busy by being given relatively unimportant work. It has been suggested, for example, that a great development of the service industries might provide work for human beings. Thus people would spent their time shining each other’s shoes, driving each other around in taxicabs, making handicrafts for one another, waiting on each other’s tables, etc. This seems to us a thoroughly contemptible way for the human race to end up, and we doubt that many people would find fulfilling lives in such pointless busy-work. They would seek other, dangerous outlets (drugs, crime, “cults,” hate groups) unless they were biologically or psychologically engineered to adapt them to such a way of life.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

When investors invest in your startup, it’s not a loan. They’re giving you that money – so in essence, whatever your startup was worth before the investment, it is now worth that plus the investment money. So, when you give up some shares in the company, you do so with post-investment value, not pre-investment valuation. The long and short of it was that VWA transferred $3 million dollars to Pets Hitter, Inc. (the change they required at the end of it all was just making the space an actual thing) and Larry Ellison Investment Partners transferred $1 million to Pets Hitter – so now, the company was worth $4 million plus the pre-investment value which Adell assured Ted (and everyone else) was something like $3.5 million dollars. So, Pets Hitter was valued at $7.5 million dollars without a product. VWA got 30% ownership. LEIP got 10% – which was what they had negotiated but about double what the valuation and investment called for. Both companies got seats on the board – two for VWA and one for LEIP. The board was made up of Adell, Ted (he would never be Theo again), Tim Burr, and the three reps from the venture capitalists – that left a situation where there was a potential for a 3-3 vote. It wasn’t ideal but better than being outnumbered.

With the money in the bank and the company fully funded, it was easy for them to get to work. Adell was on a mission to hire nothing but snowflakes while Ted put together a pretty solid crew of mechanical engineers to build their prototypes. Adell and Tim were working with the marketing team and Charlene and Geronimo were doing their financial and legal work to make sure they didn’t go bankrupt or to jail. During the evenings, Ted often met up with Phil and the two of them worked on his WaspNest project.

Phil’s Wasps wouldn’t simply get loose on the internet and eat everything – they more or less left the walled gardens whole and in place – they just made them inaccessible. That was the main thing with wasp hives – they actually left the infrastructure alone but more or less used the http://www as plant matter to build the paper hive out of. Phil had no desire (and no way) of installing wasps on the servers of Google or Apple or Facebook – but instead they worked their way through the internet chewing up the main navigation protocol and replacing it with wa://sp so that anyone typing in www.google.com or http://www.google.com or https://wwww.google.com would simply arrive at a menu that looked like this

Welcome to Wasp Nest

Click the menu of what you are looking for.

Computer science, information & general works

Philosophy & psychology

Religion

Social sciences

Language

Pure Science

Technology

Arts & recreation

Literature

History & geography

People

Products

Current Events and News

Phil had opted for using the Dewey Decimal System as the basis of the entire redesigned internet. They’d gotten rid of the numbers on the surface of the design and Ted had suggested that it might be a good idea to add the three last categories: people, products, and current events/news. The old Google homepage would still be there – but to reach it users would need to type in something like

Wa://sp.computerscience.companies.searchengines.google

The revolution was that it was a scientific and hierarchical system that didn’t leave room for deception. Like going to the library or a great book store, users would be able to walk in, navigate to the section they were interested in, and find everything that was there. Once they had clicked on the Google link they would find the entire Google ecosystem available for them – and once they knew the specific location it would be saved as something like 000.35714932789 and that could be saved with a nickname. It was like knowing the title of a book and where it fit on the shelf – if you were interested you could look at the books on either side – in this case they might be Excite or Dogpile on one side and Hotbot and Lycos on the other side. If a user didn’t like Google – the options would be just a click away – click upwards in the hierarchy and you would find yourself at the page:

Wa://sp.computerscience.companies.searchengines

It would look something like this:

AOL

ASK

BING

BAIDU

DOGPILE

EXCITE

GOOGLE

HOTBOT

LYCOS

etc

With each company being a menu item. One of the most exciting things about Wa://sp was that it eliminated the need and function of domain names and completely eliminated the need for ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – the private ‘non-profit’ corporation that has largely been controlled the the U.S. Department of Commerce since the whole www came into being. ICANN and the entire DNS (domain name server) system set the stage for the entire subjugation of the internet by search engines, search engine optimizers, scammers, and spammers. This was the reason that a student who wanted to find help with crafting a teen dress on a sewing machine would instead find a porno film of a teen undressing when they typed in teendress.com or searched fro Teen dress on an unfiltered search engine. wa://sp instead would catalog all of the sites about teen dresses under something like 740.27159372 or wa://sp.arts.graphic-arts.textile-arts-fashion-clothing-womens-girls-teen-dresses – and since the entire structure was laid out mathematically and sorted by the AI with the ability for human intervention and flags – the chances of being sent to the wrong place were almost non-existant – but, and this was what Ted and Phil were so excited about – the chances of finding something else that was within your realm of interest were extraordinarily high. You were never more than one step away from something connected to your interest. There was no need to game a system like that because the game was already included in the system itself.

So this was what was happening on many evenings. Two midlife geeks putting together an antiquated system of internet organization that was a vast improvement over the current system of internet chaos. During the day, however, it was a completely different situation. Adell was a ball of stress. She knew she could count on Ted, Phil, and Tim for their board votes, but just because they had a majority didn’t mean she didn’t have to argue about every company decision she made with the board. The new board members were experienced in the ways of the valley and their job was to make sure that the money invested by their funds was being spent in the best possible way – and for them, that meant constantly scaling bigger and bigger regardless of the cost to the business.

They rented office and engineering space in South San Francisco – it wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t as expensive as being in the city or out on the Peninsula. If Ted and Adell had thought that being funded would give them tons of money and change the way they lived – they were mostly wrong, however there were definitely some nice perks that came with it. First of all, they were able to pay themselves salaries $115,000 per year – pretty standard in the Bay Area for C-Level startup founders. There was no more need to drive for Lyft or walk dogs – which was nice. Also, they had expense accounts so any meals they ate, taxis they took, or reasonable expenses they incurred on a day to day basis could be charged to the corporate credit cards. Ted signed their company cards up to a crypto cashback app called Pei which monitored what they bought and where they went – but paid them 1% (in Bitcoin!) of all the purchases they made – so for $1000 in lunches spent on the corporate cards – $100 in BTC went into their semi-anonymous crypto wallet. Ted had a totally anonymous offline wallet that he kept all of his crypto in – it was his end of the world rainy day fund. He also registered the corporate cards with multiple cashback programs like Earny and as an added bonus made sure that the cards they got were high paying airline and travel rewards cards.

So, essentially what they both did was let the company pay for pretty much everything while putting away their salaries and earning cashback, crypto back, and mileage points– and all while still living in Ted’s rent control apartment for the last month of 2019. Ted still hadn’t seen Adell’s place but he figured when the month was done he would just have the movers from Clutter move his stuff to Adell’s – and put it on the company credit card. They had laid out their position on what their company was all about from the beginning. They were sticking it to the system. They were going to leach every penny they could get out of these bigots and nazis of the banking system – and they were going to metaphorically put it all in a pickle jar, bury it in the backyard, and when their startup went belly up (like 97% of all startups) they would dig out the pickle jar and retire to someplace cheaper and less filled with sociopaths than the Bay Area.

That was their plan – and they walked a tightrope to justify every expense they made with their company cards and balanced like skilled funambulists to put as much away as they could without drawing attention from the board. They’d both read too many stories about founders who were multi-millionaires on paper when their companies failed and quickly found out they were broke when the stock was worth nothing. It was a common story in Silicon Valley – and it wasn’t going to happen to them. Technically, they were millionaires – but they didn’t have that money in the bank, only on paper.

The only real problem with their plan was that Pets Hitter was starting to look extremely promising. Ted’s engineering team had come up with a viable, table sized bio-generator that would power a family home for a month with two tons of dog shit. It actually worked and the prototype contained the smell, and as a byproduct produced tidy scentless brown bricks that could be burned to make more energy or alternatively used as a very powerful fertilizer. Ted suspected that by mixing in a fire-proof polymer, the bricks could even be used as a building material.

There was one very obvious problem. Very few families produced two tons of dog shit in a month. Or cat shit. Or pet shit. At most a big dog produces a pound of shit per day (and that’s a BIG dog) – so that would come to a maximum amount of 30 lbs per month – about 1970 pounds short of the two tons needed. Still, it was progress.

To get the poo they needed for R&D, they had contracted a company called DutyCalls which specialized in picking up pet waste from animal shelters, kennels, veterinarians, and dog parks. Duty calls actually paid them to take it – which was money that Ted and Adell collected through another small private business they set up called RePoop. Dutycalls paid Repoop to take their dog droppings, and then Repoop sold the droppings to Pets Hitter. They were collecting on both ends with Repoop.

Meanwhile, Pets Hitter was getting a fair amount of media attention. The idea that a family could generate enough power to run a home with washer/dryer, refrigerator, air-conditioning, etc was a big deal and the local news got wind of the story through Adell and her PR department. The truth was, this only translated to about $250 in San Francisco – but the novelty of the idea was what was making people excited.

It was during an interview with ABC7 News that Adell created one of the more interesting problems they had yet had to deal with.

I don’t see any dogs here,” the reporter said, motioning around the facility “Where do you get your dog droppings?”

We buy them,” Adell said. It was true – they bought them from Repoop who was paid to take them by DutyCalls. Over the next few days they were bombarded with calls, letters, and emails from people wanting to sell their dog poop.

Chapter 19

The Power of Poop

It is overwhelmingly probable that if the industrial-technological system survives the next 40 to 100 years, it will by that time have developed certain general characteristics: Individuals (at least those of the “bourgeois” type, who are integrated into the system and make it run, and who therefore have all the power) will be more dependent than ever on large organizations; they will be more “socialized” than ever and their physical and mental qualities to a significant extent (possibly to a very great extent) will be those that are engineered into them rather than being the results of chance (or of God’s will, or whatever); and whatever may be left of wild nature will be reduced to remnants preserved for scientific study and kept under the supervision and management of scientists (hence it will no longer be truly wild).

-Industrial Society and Its Future

One of the many shitty but fascinating problems they ran into was the issue of bags. Most pet owners picked up their dog poo in cheap plastic bags, tied them shut, and threw them in the trashcan or a DutyCalls bin. The entire shit distillation process hinged on bacteria eating the poo and then excreting methane which was used to generate electricity. Actually, there were several processes that could be used to make energy, but the methane burn was the simplest. The process didn’t work if the poo was in plastic bags.

To get around this – Ted’s team had come up with a machine that would rip and tear the bags and the poo while mixing it with water. It worked but Ted hated it because he saw the potential for using the byproducts of the methane process as an additional source of revenue but that wasn’t a possibility with the plastic bags included as part of the material. Nobody wanted to burn or fertilize with shredded plastic bags. The ‘shit-bricks’ were high concentrate energy waiting to be used as either fertilizer, a fuel source, or (with the addition of a clean, binding polymer) a building material.

When he explained this to Adell – or just about anyone else, the response was usually for the person to be totally grossed out by the idea of using shit to build houses, schools, or any other human use building – Adell of course took it even further – she sang about it…blatantly turning The Commodores song ‘Brick House’ into her own version called ‘Shit House’.

Ow, it’s a shit house
It’s mighty-mighty, just lettin’ it all poop out
It’s a shit house
The poo is stacked and that’s a fact
Ain’t holding nothing back

Ow, it’s a shit house
Well put-together, everybody knows
This is how the story goes

Shit it down, shit it down now
Shit it down, shit it down now

It was a catchy tune and they were all singing it all day. In fact, from that point forward whenever Ted saw the shitbricks, the song would come up in his head. The song was fun but the problem of getting rid of the plastic bags was a sore point with Ted. It was a problem with an itchy solution hiding somewhere but he wasn’t completely sure what it was.

It was when the calls and letters began coming in that inspiration hit him.

Oh my god,” Adell complained “I had to open up my big mouth. Everyone in the Bay Area wants to sell us their dog shit now. Dollars to donuts that story is going to get picked up by the national press and we’re going to have every dog owner in America trying to profit from selling us Rover’s dog logs.”

Tim, always the money man, saw it differently “This is great press guys. I smell money here. There’s something here that we can use to make more money. I know it.”

Adell wasn’t having any of it. “Tim, you don’t understand – we actually get paid to take shit from DutyCalls and then we pay our own small company Repoop, to buy it.” They should have told Tim about that earlier. Ted waited for Tim to be upset, but he wasn’t – this whole thing had been a blessing to him and he was loving it. He didn’t begrudge them not bringing him in on Repoop.

That’s a smart idea. Nice one. Still – I think there is something here.”

Ted, as usual thinking about the plastic bag and shit-brick issue jumped into the conversation. “Even if we did buy dogshit from America, they would all send it in cheap, toxic, non-biodegradable bags that we couldn’t use to make viable shitbricks with.” They’d all gotten used to Ted talking about viable and non-viable shit bricks so no one even cracked a smile.

Tim let out a big ‘hmmm’ – “Look, I’m okay that you guys left me out of Repoop – that’s your deal but I’ve got another idea that might enable us to pull in more cash outside of Pet Hitter. I don’t want to be left out of this one – we will go three ways on it. Deal?”

Not even knowing what the deal was, Ted and Adell both agreed. “ Sure, Whatcha thinking Tim Burr?” Adell queried him.

What if we were to tell all the dog owners that the only way we would buy their shit would be if they picked it up in biodegradable bags that didn’t fuck up Ted’s shitbricks.”

That’s great,” Ted said “But does anyone even make them?”

There’s the beautiful part Ted,” Tim replied “We’re going to make them. Let’s sell them bio-bags!”

And that’s how they got into the Bio-Bag business. Tim’s uncle, Big Al, was a huge multi-level-marketing guru – he’d made a fortune with Amway, drop shipping, and other MLM organizations. Tim brought him in as an advisor on the Bio-Bag operation. When they met, Ted felt like he was meeting an African-American mafia don. Big Al was creepy. His suggestion was that they set the whole thing up as a Mary-Kay or Avon type of business – they would order the bags in bulk from a wholesaler. The bags were already being made so they didn’t need to re-invent the wheel. Tim, Big Al, Adell, and Ted would be the top tier in the pyramid. They would sell the bags to the next tier for a 10 % markup and split the revenue generated. The bags would be sold to the next two tiers for an additional 5% markup. The three tiers after that would mark up 3% each. Five tiers after that would be 2% markup. Ten tiers after that would be 1% markup and if the downline went further than that the markup would get steadily smaller.

Additionally, on Big Al’s advice – they charged the next tier $100k each to be top tier authorized distributors of the bio-bags. Big Al brought in five guys who happily paid the $100k to be the top tier of distribution arms. They would charge $50k each to the five guys under each of them, making a $125,000 profit in the process {($50k x 5) – 10% = $125k}. Tim, Adell, Ted, and Big Al each got $281,250 out of that deal and the money just kept coming as more people signed on and paid less and less for less and less profits. All of this cash came in before they’d even sold a single Bio-Bag!

The beauty of it was that by requiring pet owners to use their branded Bio-Bags to sell their dog shit, they were creating a market incentive for the sale of the bio-bags. Also, it made Ted happy that they had potentially solved the plastic problem. That’s probably why he didn’t do the math and somehow convinced himself that what they had just embarked on wasn’t a ponzi scheme.

 

 

Chapter 20

Bio-Bags

The technophiles are taking us all on an utterly reckless ride into the unknown. Many people understand something of what technological progress is doing to us yet take a passive attitude toward it because they think it is inevitable. But we don’t think it is inevitable. We think it can be stopped, and we will give here some indications of how to go about stopping it.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

The Bio-Bags business was an instant and huge success. The money from the distributorships alone covered the cost of the bags, the cost of the poop, and the cost of branding the bags. They opted to have the entire bio-bag business under the Pets Hitter umbrella. The media loved the idea of dog poo being a sudden and valuable commodity and while they weren’t paying much for it ($0.25 per pound) the narrative was that as they ramped up production and increased efficiency – the price of poop would go up. The key to all of this was getting people to buy the bags, pay for the distributorships, and bring their poop.

Suddenly, much to their amusement, there was actually talk about people ‘hoarding’ dog poop and waiting for the price to go up. A couple of cases arose in Golden Gate Park where homeless people (suddenly called ‘poo pickers’ by the news) had gotten into territorial brawls over what looked like some pricey piles. Meanwhile the story was picked up by national media and more and more inquiries were coming in.

Adell, like her namesake, was a master of propaganda and used the attention to drive the bio-bag business into high gear. The top five levels of their pyramid filled out. Lower tiers were starting to have some traction even though the margin was not nearly as good as for those on the higher levels.

At this point in the narrative, it makes sense to explain the difference between a multi-level-marketing operation and a pyramid scheme. Essentially, an MLM business uses a pyramid structure to distribute and make money from the sale of an actual product. A pyramid scheme (Ponzi scheme) tends to not have an actual product, and profits are made by distributing the right to collect royalties or distribution fees. They were riding a thin line – they had an actual product – the bio-bags – but the real money was coming from the distribution scheme. If they were actually buying poop and people were earning from it – then the bio-bags were a legit business, but if the poop buying stopped, the bio-bags would suddenly be worth far less than the distribution licenses – and in that situation, they would be sitting on the top rungs of a big pyramid scheme.

The Ponzi scheme gets it’s name from Charles Ponzi, a financier who lured investors to a high profit venture in the 1920’s – unknown to the investors, the high profits were being paid to higher ranking investors from those newly coming into the scheme. As long as new investors are coming in and the all of the investors think their profits are coming from the investment vehicle itself – the scheme continues to work. Eventually, however, the other shoe always drops.

When Ted brought up his concerns about a ponzi scheme to Adell, she laughed and told him the tale of Adele Spitzeder, purportedly one of her distant relations who lived in Germany in the 1870s. Spitzeder had been a well known actress but when she aged out of good roles, she opened a bank in Munich and at one point was considered the richest woman in Bavaria. Her bank ran what was probably likely the first ‘ponzi’ scheme.

So, actually Ted,” Adelle said with a cute sort of schoolgirl charm “It should be called an ‘Adele Scheme’ because Mr. Ponzi misappropriated my ancestor’s brilliant criminal scheme.”

What happened to her?” Ted asked.

She went to prison, lost all of her money, and when she got out became a lesbian folk singer.”

Seriously?” Ted was sure she was pulling his leg.

Seriously…Google it, or Gopher it or whatever it is that you and Phil do.” She wasn’t joking, he could tell.

In any event, the bio-bags, the Pets Hitter generators, and turning poop into gold was generating a lot of media attention. Their valuation was skyrocketing. Their were getting offers of investment without asking – and, on the advice of VWA and LEIP they were turning all suitors away. The plan was to wait for an acquisition offer – hopefully before the whole thing blew up and they all went to jail.

Chapter 21

Shitbricks

Nature makes a perfect counter-ideal to technology for several reasons. Nature (that which is outside the power of the system) is the opposite of technology (which seeks to expand indefinitely the power of the system). Most people will agree that nature is beautiful; certainly it has tremendous popular appeal. The radical environmentalists ALREADY hold an ideology that exalts nature and opposes technology.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

By the time Christmas rolled around, Ted and Adell were too busy to celebrate and it was time for Ted to pack up his house, get rid of his extra accumulations, and be ready to leave before the first of the year. Given that they were suddenly rolling in money – the $90k his landlord had given him to move out seemed like an insignificant amount of money. Ted converted it to bitcoin – the price had gone up a bit at the end of the year, but the mining rewards were set to be cut in half by mid-2020 so he was fairly sure he would earn a pretty good return on his money – plus, having ten bitcoin as a back up plan wasn’t a bad idea. It was his, no one could take it, and it retained it’s value wherever he took it. A bitcoin was always worth a bitcoin.

As progress on the shit-reactor generators progressed, Ted found himself becoming more and more fascinated by the shitbricks. As mentioned before, they had developed a process of taking the leftover waste and pressing it into bricks that could then be burned for additional power, ground up and used for a high concentrate fertilizer, or with the addition of a polymer – made into a building material. Ted had hired several chemists and they sometimes spent their lunch breaks chatting about the potential uses for the various components feces.

Methylindol, also known as skatol, was the substance which gave poop it’s terrible smell. It was a highly toxic substance and unfortunately was one of the things that bacteria didn’t feed on to create the methane they were harvesting to create energy with. It was flammable but not really useful if Ted wanted to create building materials or fertilizer from the bricks. Interestingly, skatol is what gives coal it’s smell. Using a different bacteria than the one in the generators, they could separate skatol into benzene and toluene – two highly flammable hydrocarbons. Essentially propane and paint thinner. These could be bottled and sold. The process looked like it could be profitable at scale.

Removing the skatol from the brick material left the bricks scentless, sterile, and filled with possibility. Adell had a friend in Santa Cruz who had a marijuana growing operation, she reached out to him to see if there was a possibility of selling him the brick byproducts to fertilize his plants with. Ted and his chemists sent the chemical composition and a sample down for them to check out in their lab facility. Adell’s friend was a disabled Marine who had come back from Afghanistan with a serious case of PTSD, cannabis and CBD compounds were the only treatment that had helped him to get back to a normal sense of being. In gratitude, he had started ‘ChronicPTSD’ and was spreading the love.

After they had done their analysis the answer came back right away. ‘ChronicPTSD’ offered to buy as many shitbricks as were available for a price that was considerably higher than Ted had expected. The phosphates and organic compounds were like fertilizer gold. Whatever ChronicPTSD couldn’t use, they would sell to other growers at a markup.

Everything was happening far too fast for anyone to process. Ted and Adell had met, fallen in love, moved in together, started a startup, gotten funded, hired enough people to run and build a growing company, become millionaires, made new friends, developed new products, and all in the space of a couple of months. Life was not supposed to happen this quickly, but one of the more useful lectures at V-Wab had been about finding ‘flow’ and how when you found flow you would be amazed at the way that things fit together, moved quickly. Flow had a life of its own. It took you where it wanted to go and if you allowed it to lift you up, it would carry you over the jagged rocks and bring you to the place where you were supposed to be.

They were definitely in the flow. The way to recognize flow is when synchronicity and kismit start to be the norm in your everyday life. Things just naturally fit together. You run into the people you are supposed to meet, you see the billboard or the other thing that gives you the inspiration, and generally, you think or say one thing – and something else follows on the heels of that.

For example, they had been busy but one day when they were both coming back home at the same time, Ted stopped to check his mailbox. As he thumbed through the bills, offers of loans, credit card statements, and holiday junk mail, a small red envelope caught his eye. It looked like a Christmas card – he hadn’t gotten one for ages from anyone but marketers. He flipped it over to see the address and at that exact moment Adell said “I wonder what the Chan’s are doing?”

By itself, that’s not kismit – the kismit was that right at the moment she said Chan’s, Ted read who the card was from ‘The Chan-Zuckerbergs’ – that’s a clear sign that you are in the flow. When that kind of shit happens, you know that you can enjoy the ride for a while longer.

He was musing on that when she grabbed the card from him “What’s this? Woah…that’s some synchronicity right there, huh?” She tore it open. It was a pretty standard Christmas card photo of Priscilla, Mark, and their kids that said ‘Season’s Greetings’ on the front.

Snowflake alert – boop, boop, boop” Ted couldn’t resist. ‘Season’s Greetings’ had been one of the snowflake telltales at the famous V-Wab lecture. This card had a literal snowflake on it. It had a handwritten note on the back of it.

‘So happy that you guys found each other…sorry we’ve been so absent. We’ve been watching from afar! Congratulations on Pets Hitter! It’s amazing. Let’s get together after the holidays at our place!

Love, Pris, Mark and the kids.’

I’ve never seen their kids in person, have you?” Adell was lauging at his snowflake alert while she said it.

Nope, do you think they are real?” Ted wasn’t sure if he meant the kids or the adults or something else. Adell ignored his question.

It’s pretty fucking weird they’re our friends. I mean, kind of, sort of…I mean this means we are their friends right? You don’t send an actual physical Christmas card to someone unless they are your friends or your clients right? I noticed that you never name drop them…me either.” It was true. Ted wasn’t a big name dropper in the first place – neither was Adell unless she had a reason, but neither of them ever mentioned the Chans. Even when people asked how they met, they just said they were introduced by some mutual friends. It was rare for anyone to ask who, but on that blue moon occasion, the answer was always just The Chans.With no mention of Zuckerburg, Facebook, Insta, or first names.

Adell went on “Do you think they really are our friends?”

Ted wasn’t sure, but when he thought about it – yeah, you didn’t send out Christmas cards to people you didn’t care about – especially with a handwritten note. “Yeah, I think they are, but it’s not a normal sort of friendship. I mean, I never namedrop friends anyway but let’s say I did, like I just mentioned to Phil, ‘Oh yeah, my buddy Mark Zuckerburg thinks blah blah’ and then he would be like ‘Not that Mark Zuckerburg? Right? Are you serious?” And I would be like “Yeah, he and his wife introduced me and Adell – we exchange Christmas cards.’ Then he would say ‘Where do you send them?’ and I’d be like ‘Um, I know where their house is but the return address on the card in actually just Facebook HQ’ and if he was scrupulous at all he’d ask something like ‘Oh yeah, call him if you are buddies’ and I’d be like ‘Okay’ and I’d call that number they never answer that doesn’t identify who you are calling and that they haven’t called us back from in months and then he, or anyone would say ‘Yeah, you’re full of shit Ted. Have you been smoking the dog logs at your shop? I think a Doberman may have raided your sensimilla stash.” So, no, I don’t see any reason to mention them. It would come to no good.”

Adell was looking at him with her mouth wide open. His monologue/fake dialogue hadn’t been very long but he had changed voices along the way and acted it out. “Holy shit Ted. That was awesome. Maybe you have been smoking the dog logs.”

Chapter 22

Dog Logs

Nature takes care of itself: It was a spontaneous creation that existed long before any human society, and for countless centuries many different kinds of human societies coexisted with nature without doing it an excessive amount of damage. Only with the Industrial Revolution did the effect of human society on nature become really devastating. To relieve the pressure on nature it is not necessary to create a special kind of social system, it is only necessary to get rid of industrial society.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

There are all kinds of different problems that come with startups. Problems with the technical end of things, problems with the legal end of things, problems with ‘culture’, problems with scale, problems with regulations, and all the other problems that affect any sort of business. Then there are unique startup problems that arise – founder and co-founder issues, investor issues, and the other personnel issues. Finally there is a kind of problem that is generally unique to a startup because it dies with a startup that doesn’t solve it. That’s the almost legendary ‘solution in need of a problem’ problem which is often mistaken for the very much more desirable ‘problem in need of a solution’ problem.

The solution in need of a problem works like this: founders don’t do their market research, they don’t find a valid product market fit which is where good ideas come from (.i.e. solving problems) but instead create a new bright shiny object (BSO) that they get investors, other founders, and the public excited about. The BSO can be very expensive and very cool – it can be something amazing – like a grocery delivery service or getting pet food through a website or turning private vehicles into taxis – or getting rid of private offices and having the whole world work in open offices without privacy or cubicles and no personal desks or – well you get the picture. BSOs are awesome while everyone is excited about them. Investors flood them with money, they become the darlings of Wall Street and Fortune Magazine, they have huge IPOs – and then over time people come to realize “Hey, wait a minute, I like picking out my groceries and having an excuse to go to the store” or “I don’t really want to pay $50 extra each month for pet food” or “Hey, this $20k car has earned $20k but that doesn’t pay for the free water I’ve been giving my rides and I had to pay my rent during this time and actually, because of all the miles and maintenance my $20k ride is only worth $5k now” or people start realizing working with a bunch of Type A people in an ‘open office’ actually sucks. It’s like that and then the investors start to realize – grocery delivery has even shittier margins than grocery stores and those were already pretty shitty, pet food is a horrible business because pet owners are generally cheap and a pain in the ass. In pet food the margins are crappy and the driving app has been bleeding money because it has been paying the drivers too much and the economy is about to come crashing down and people don’t need office space plus it’s bleeding money because the margins are shitty. Then investment rounds stop. Then restructuring happens. Then bankruptcy. Then the main street investors lose their asses, the economy crashes, and all the BSOs? They disappear.

Ted and Adell knew they had a BSO. They had created it at the perfect time in history when central banks were throwing money at investment banks and hedge funds and there were already so many BSOs pulling in money hand over fist that nobody would notice if one more was thrown out there. And no one had noticed. They were getting away with it – and they knew they were getting away with it. It was all working! It even seemed like they might pull the holy grail of maneuvers and pivot or start something else within the same space in time to avoid exploding

For Pets Hitter – things were really working. Their generator designs were working. The Biobag and Repoop businesses were booming. In fact, they had so much pet shit coming in that they had completely outstripped their capacity to use it. They had bought massive tanks and installed them in additional warehouse space. It was just a matter of time before there was a spill or a leak. So far, all was good, but the law of averages was against them. Since they had set up the MLM scheme with Big Al, they couldn’t stop buying poop or the price would collapse – and then they would be left under a mountain of shit.

Thankfully, DutyCalls had stopped giving them free dog turds – they had wanted to negotiate a contract and get paid once they saw the poop-gold-rush stories on the internet. As a result they had stopped selling free poop for high prices – but now they were left with buying poop in bio bags. Things were getting out of hand. It was all too much. It was more than either of them had wanted.

Remember that thing about flow and kismit – when you are in it, you have to pay attention because if you don’t – it will knock you down and fuck you. Their business was going too good. They were getting too much media attention. The valuations they were suddenly hearing thrown around about them were just too good. Ted and Adell didn’t realize that – they were along for the ride. They were first time founders. They didn’t know the dirty way the business works. They had almost forgotten about who they had gotten in bed with.

Victor White and Larry Ellison both showed up on the same day. They called an emergency board meeting and somehow they’d managed to buy Tim Burr’s vote. Ted had been trying to convince Adell to let Phil have a seat on their board. It never hurt to have a former Microsoft guy at your table and Ted trusted him completely after their combat experience. He had thought they would have more time.

The emergency meeting was about a vote of no-confidence on Adell as CEO. The board voted 4-2 to remove Adell and replace her with Tim. The entire thing was shitty – Victor and Larry sat in the back of the room and after the meeting had gone exactly the way they wanted they called Ted and Adell aside for a private meeting. Tim wouldn’t look at either of them after the deed had been done.

Victor and Larry were douchebags, of course, this was the kind of thing that had made them billionaires. For all Ted knew they did this on a regular basis – but in any event, Ted and Adell had no choice but to go to the meeting, hear what they had to say, and probably do what they wanted them to do.

The meeting had none of the fun touches of their past encounters – no desk hand grenades or rousing motivational stories about racism. No, this was business. It was just the four of them.

We know about the potential you’ve been hiding from us,” Victor started.

You guys are in way over your heads,” Larry followed up. “As first time founders, you are going to get eaten up by these guys. You can’t handle what is coming.”

Ted wasn’t sure if they were on to the skimming, the pyramid scheme, or had figured out the potential for the shitbricks. Adell, was thinking it was something else entirely. They were both wrong.

We’re going to buy you two out today,” Victor just said it. It wasn’t an offer, it wasn’t a question, it was just a fact.

We’ve talked about it and we’re sitting on top of a mountain of gold here,” Larry said. “This has all the right ingredients to be the next $100 Billion Dollar Company, but you two with your fucked up names are not the ones to do it.”

Who’s going to do it, Tim Burr?” Adell said it bitterly.

No, we’re going to fuck him too,” Victor said. “But you two at least are getting out of this before all the hard work starts. Larry and I have put together an offer we think you’d be crazy to turn down.” He slid a paper across the desk.

The offer was a $1 Billion dollar buyout of all of their interest, their control, and any technology they might have developed in the course of the project. The thing about being in the flow is that you have to know when the flow is telling you to duck, when it’s telling you to weave, when it’s telling you to punch, and when it’s telling you to get the fuck out. Adell and Ted recognized the flow all over this one. They could fight, they could win, they could enter the ranks of the top hundred wealthiest people in the world – they could stay and have $50 billion dollars.

They couldn’t sign that paper fast enough. The flow was giving them a billion dollar exit from a world of shit and they’d both paid attention to the fact that companies and founders that turned down billion dollar offers ended up being worth far less. Just ask AOL, Yahoo, MySpace, Friendster, or countless others. Sure, they might be able to become the king and queen of pet turds – but why the fuck would they want to do that?

They didn’t even run the offer by lawyers before signing – although Adell was smart enough to make sure that there was an indemnity clause that absolved them of any and all potential lawsuits or legal issues that might arise from their time with Pets Hitter

They weren’t billionaires, but between the two of them, they had almost a billion dollars when it was all said and done. They’d managed to keep a lot of it off of any sort of books. That’s called tax evasion in legal circles and doing good business in business circles. In politics it’s called business as usual.

Chapter 23

Moving Out

Whatever kind of society may exist after the demise of the industrial system, it is certain that most people will live close to nature, because in the absence of advanced technology there is no other way that people CAN live. To feed themselves they must be peasants or herdsmen or fishermen or hunters, etc. And, generally speaking, local autonomy should tend to increase, because lack of advanced technology and rapid communications will limit the capacity of governments or other large organizations to control local communities.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

During the short time they’d known each other, Ted and Adell had been through a lot but in the process, they’d been so busy that Ted had still never seen Adell’s place. In fact, aside from going through a bizarro start-up bootcamp, building a multi-billion dollar business, creating a modern day ponzi scheme, and solving San Francisco’s (and the world’s) stinkiest problem – they really hadn’t done that much together. They simply hadn’t had the time. Still, through the process, they had come to know each other intimately and completely without actually knowing each other at all. They knew one thing for sure – they were meant to be together.

Ted was excited to start the next phase of their life together. Adell was already busy putting new ‘Uber of…” ideas together while Ted packed up, donated, and ‘Clutter’ed his life into boxes that would go to storage. As before, Adell cautioned him to pack light because her place was a little crowded. He reduced his world to a laptop and two suitcases. It wasn’t that hard, actually – he had never been a ‘stuff’ person.

Do you think we should have tried to keep some percentage of the company?” Adell asked him. “I mean we rolled over on their first offer.”

I think we were smart to be completely shut of it. Unfortunately, that thing is a time bomb. We didn’t do it completely on purpose, but at some point that whole ‘Adele Scheme’ is going to blowup. My question is whether they intended to fuck us from the beginning or if that only happened because the press and investor excitement took off….”

Adell was laughing. “I see what you’re saying, but I don’t really think we can get any sympathy for this one – we got a billion fucking dollars. That’s not exactly getting fucked…I’m just glad they agreed to let us be indemnified if the thing does explode. You know what I mean? That’s fucking priceless. Admit it, you were never that into it anyway…”

Ted nodded. “Granted, chemistry and engineering aren’t really where my passions lie and dogshit – I don’t know if I’ll ever stop smelling it – it’s like it is burned into my nasal cavity, but I enjoyed the intellectual challenges, I liked the whole ‘waste not want not’ aspect of it. I suppose – the whole thing was about optics to begin with…female CEO, getting some diversity in VWA, that kind of thing…I just can’t get over Tim…I never expected that sort of betrayal from him.”

Adell nodded. “That reminds me. I had an email from him. He more or less was apologizing. He said that it was going to happen no matter what and if he hadn’t of complied, they would have gone about it in another way and it probably would have been nasty. He also made a pretty good point about the lack of gay black CEOs in the world – which I totally get, but yeah, I didn’t expect it either and honestly, fuck that guy and his creepy Uncle Al.”

Ted had a thought “Maybe it was because we kept calling him Tim. He wanted to be called Timothy, remember.”

Adell looked thoughtful, “I tried, but it just kept coming out Tim.” She laughed “That would be hilarious if it were the reason. I wonder if they will make him go through V-Wab!” She laughed at the thought. “The poor guy. I do wonder if there is something bigger going on with the venture capitalists though. I mean, they gave us a shitload of money to get out. They must have a reason.”

The reason became clear on Christmas Eve.

Ted and Adell were spending their first Christmas together in Ted’s apartment – it was the last days of his tenancy, but they were the best days of it too. They had a little plastic Christmas tree from walmart and had opted not to get presents for each other because they both could buy whatever they wanted. Instead, they had decided to just spend time doing normal people stuff – because their lives had already moved out of normal people range and they both understood that this might be their last chance to experience a normal Christmas.

So there they were, surrounded by half-packed boxes, a tiny 2 foot plastic tree with twinkling lights, Bing Crosby singing the theme to some horrible 1950s Christmas movie on the TV – and both of their phones lit up. Pets Hitter had signed a deal with the City of San Francisco to build a huge municipal poo reactor to generate power. The amount of money involved was staggering. The deal had been signed through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. They were going to start harvesting and generating power with human poo.

Why didn’t we think of that?” Adell said. Actually, Ted had thought of it but had kept it to himself. It was bad enough dealing with pet shit. In any event, the two had decided to be content with the blessings that had been heaped upon them and set about creating their new life together. Just a girl named Adell Fitler and a boy named Ted Kazinsky having a quiet night at home together on Christmas Eve.

On the second day after Christmas, Clutter came and picked up the stuff Ted was keeping – which wasn’t very much. The Salvation Army came and picked up everything else. Adell suggested that they go someplace special for New Years Eve – so they had bought tickets to Dubai, booked a room in the Burj Khalifa, and were flying out before 2020 even came.

Maybe we should just go to your place,” Ted suggested – partly because he still hadn’t seen it. He was starting to think she might be hiding something – but then, what could she really be hiding – in the process of the business, they’d had to disclose everything about themselves, go through background checks, and – no, she wasn’t hiding anything from him.

You really don’t want me to see your place, do you?” He teased.

I’m having some work done on it – we can both move in when we get back.” He was sure there was something she wasn’t telling him.

Chapter 24

The Rich Live Just Like Us

You can’t eat your cake and have it too. To gain one thing you have to sacrifice another. Most people hate psychological conflict. For this reason they avoid doing any serious thinking about difficult social issues, and they like to have such issues presented to them in simple, black-and-white terms: THIS is all good and THAT is all bad. The revolutionary ideology should therefore be developed on two levels. On the more sophisticated level the ideology should address itself to people who are intelligent, thoughtful and rational. The object should be to create a core of people who will be opposed to the industrial system on a rational, thought-out basis, with full appreciation of the problems and ambiguities involved, and of the price that has to be paid for getting rid of the system. It is particularly important to attract people of this type, as they are capable people and will be instrumental in influencing others. These people should be addressed on as rational a level as possible. Facts should never intentionally be distorted and intemperate language should be avoided. This does not mean that no appeal can be made to the emotions, but in making such appeal care should be taken to avoid misrepresenting the truth or doing anything else that would destroy the intellectual respectability of the ideology.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

It didn’t seem fair – not that they were suddenly among the top 1% or the to .5% – but that they were able to just pull out their passports, buy tickets, get on a plane, fly halfway around the world, and check into a hotel in the tallest building in the world. They could do that because they were citizens of a first world country – and on the flight they talked about how many people had zero opportunity to ever do the same – regardless of income – because of nationality.

Rich people don’t have to pay for things the way poor people do though. It’s just a fact, they don’t pay taxes, they don’t pay rent or fees, they don’t even pay for airline tickets. All the miles from their corporate cards had been accumulated in Ted’s account. He was able to get them first class tickets on an Emirates flight direct from SFO and five nights in the Armani Hotel Dubai in the Burj Khalifa Tower on the 39th floor. Total cost – 620,000 miles for the flight and $4600 for the hotel. He didn’t have enough miles to cover the room – but he’d only been rich for a short time so he used a brand new American Express and got 100,000 Hilton Points for spending $4000 in the first 30 days. The Hilton Points would cover their next hotel.

Ted had given up flying after the September 11th attacks because the first flight he tried to take had resulted in a three-hour questioning and a strip search. He’d missed his flight and never tried to take another. He’d hired a lawyer who assured him he was no longer on the ‘no fly’ list – but he hadn’t gone back to the airport for a flight – until now, but he’d always believed in keeping an up to date passport – for some reason. Now that habit was showing itself to be worthwhile.

At the airport, they were whisked through priority Pre-Pass. Adell had registered them both for the service at the start of their short corporate careers. They didn’t have to wait in line, they didn’t have to have their bags searched, they didn’t have to wait in the waiting area but were driven to the Emirates Lounge where they had free food, free drinks, a live jazz band, and even free massages.

Anyone who tells you that the rich are living in the same world as the rest of humanity is lying either because they are rich and don’t want you to know how good they have it or they are rich and have never seen how the other 99.5% live – or they are not rich but brainwashed and delusional because of propaganda control systems. The rich have fucking organic fruit served to them on silver trays at the airport and they don’t have to pay for it. How much would that cost you?

When they were escorted on the plane by a well dressed and soft spoken flight attendant (through a private entrance – they didn’t have to go through the ‘poor door’) their seats were like Japanese capsule hotels with full reclining beds, multiple entertainment systems, and enough room for three normal sized people. There were privacy curtains around each pair of seats – and optional privacy curtains between them.

It was a long flight – one that didn’t involve long waits for the bathroom (there were four bathrooms for the ten first class guests), cramped seating, someone drooling on them, neck aches from trying to sleep in a cramped seat, bad food, plastic utensils, tired old films, bad sound systems, or when they arrived – long waits to get off the plane while they waited for Mr. and Mrs. Bumfuck to pull their massive bags out of the overhead compartment. There was a lounge area near the cockpit entrance with a full service bar and room to stand and move around. Ted was surprised there wasn’t a fitness center – the first class section had everything else.

No, it was a long flight with total comfort, Dre Beats headphones, full internet access, first run films, chef prepared meals served on china, and valet bag service. The flight could have been twice as long and they would have been fine.

Upon arrival they were led out ahead of the masses, taken to a private customs window, welcomed to Dubai and then driven in a golf cart to where a waiting limousine took them straight to the Burj Khalifa. Looking out the window was like watching a travel channel television show.

Dubai is a bit like Las Vegas in that it is a city that never sleeps and you can pretty much get anything you want there as long as you have enough money. They had enough money for anything but no real agenda other than being someplace else and spending time together.

There was a cultural festival celebrating the founding of the Sultanate of Baboob taking place in the entire convention area of the Burj Khalifa – which is more like a vertical city than a skyscraper. Neither of them would have known what was going on except that the presence of so many nuns was a bit of a surprise and caused Adell to ask what was happening.

They’re not actually nuns, they’re from the Sultanate of Baboob – part of the entourage surrounding the festivities. It’s all extremely interesting,” the concierge told them, ‘but take it from me, don’t try the pickle juice tea. It’s definitely an ‘acquired taste’.”

And that was Dubai – they snow skied in the mall, took a camel safari out into the desert, ate far too much lamb, and admittedly went way over the top for the first time in their lives. With any luck they would stay rich forever, but they might as well enjoy it since they had no idea how long forever would actually be.

On New Years Eve, they took the Special VIP Dubai Fountain Lake Cruise – which cruised through the world’s largest performing fountain as the Emirates prepared to ring in the New Year. As the countdown happened, Ted felt like the sounds of the crowd were being magnified and amplified – because the people noise was astoundingly loud.

The countdown was preceded by the most amazing laser light show that either of them had ever seen, it defied the imagination. The lasers were drawing pictures in the air and animating them. The music drowned out the people sounds while the air literally came alive with laser drawn movies in three dimensions. Cartoon like figures ran up and down the exterior of the tallest building in the world.

They were newly obscene-rich in an exotic and technologically advanced foreign country and they were in love. As the masses counted down they kissed from 10 down to zero and beyond. Yes, they’d been warned that public displays of affection were frowned on in the Arab world, but they didn’t care – and frankly, no one else seemed to either.

Except for the mother who turned her children away and glared at them, but they didn’t notice her anyway. It was the best New Years kiss ever.

Returning to their room they found champagne and a note that said Happy New Year! January 1, 2020

During their time in Dubai, Ted became aware that most of the people around him weren’t using the regular internet. In fact, they weren’t using the internet at all. The vast majority of Arabs, Chinese, and Africans were all using WeChat – an app developed by TenCent, a Chinese social media company. From conversations and asking questions, Ted learned that WeChat functioned as it’s own micro-internet. Within it were chat functions, social media that was like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram – also there was music, video, news, a payment app (like Paypal but easier), and that most Chinese based restaurants – or those that catered to Chinese customers had mini-sites within WeChat that allowed them to order and pay for food, services, or just about anything else.

These people, for the most part, didn’t need the internet. They didn’t use email. They just used WeChat. Ted was sure that Facebook, Twitter, and the other American walled gardens must be working on similar plans. Since http was the backbone of the modern internet, he was fairly sure that there was some reliance on the protocol within the app-nets, but he wasn’t entirely sure how much. It would bear some further scrutiny once he was back in California – he was looking forward to going home. Dubai was definitely not where he wanted to be in the long term. In fact, he wasn’t sure where he wanted to be long term…but for the moment, all he wanted was to head back to California.

Lucky for him, their flight left the next day and they had no issues. It was as comfortable heading back as it had been heading in.

Chapter 25

What are the Chan’s up to?

Cheap, intemperate propaganda sometimes achieves impressive short-term gains, but it will be more advantageous in the long run to keep the loyalty of a small number of intelligently committed people than to arouse the passions of an unthinking, fickle mob who will change their attitude as soon as someone comes along with a better propaganda gimmick. However, propaganda of the rabble-rousing type may be necessary when the system is nearing the point of collapse and there is a final struggle between rival ideologies to determine which will become dominant when the old world-view dies.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

As they walked out of SFO, jet lagged and culture shocked – it occurred to Ted that he didn’t know where they were going. He hadn’t really thought of it. He was homeless. His mail was going to a mailbox service, his stuff was in storage, and he didn’t have anywhere that he knew of to sleep tonight.

Hey, are we going to your place?” He asked Adell as they waited by the curb.

She sighed. “Yeah, I guess it’s about time to introduce you to her.” Ted wasn’t really sure who the she was, but he was too confused to ask. “Should we get a taxi?”

Adell looked up from her phone. “I’ve already called a Lyft. We should go to Zone 44.” They made their way along the ride share section of the terminal until they found a small covered shelter that said Zone 44. “We’re looking for Jazon in an orange Subaru.”

The car was easy to spot and Jazon stood out as well. He was a tall white guy with a big smile and a grill full of gold teeth. He waved as they walked up. His car was a seriously bright day-glow orange. The license plate said ‘Jazon’.

You guys are going to Soquel, right?” Adell nodded and they were off. He didn’t bother asking if they were interested in listening to music – it was on and if they didn’t like it they would have to ask him to shut it off. Of course, it was Jay Z. Nothing else would have made sense.

Neither of them were in a very talkative mood, but Adell always had something to say – this time it was something he’d heard her say a lot lately. “What do you think the Chans are up to?”

I guess we’ll find out soon enough if they invite us…” Ted took the question at face value. It wasn’t actually how she had meant it though.

No, Ted. I mean – WHAT are the Chans, UP TO? They are up to something – they’ve always been up to something. The more I’m around rich people the more I realize that they ALL seem to have plans that revolve around getting other people to make some pre-requisite for some condition to happen that they are waiting for. Hell, we’ve even started doing it.”

We have?” Ted was confused but amused. He wasn’t sure what they were doing and he sure as hell didn’t know what the Chans were up to. The drive was fairly long – it was over an hour without traffic. Jazon was either stoked on the long ride or bummed that he had to find someone else needing to come back. Either way, Ted nodded off.

He woke when the music was suddenly shut off. “Here we are homiez. Don’t forget to give maximum stars and tips are appreciated.” It was mid-day. Ted looked up and saw a sign with an old hippie Volkswagon bus on it – complete with the old hippie throwing a peace sign out the window. “Welcome to the Old Volks Home” the sign said. “California’s #1 VW Bus and Vanagon Repair Shop.”

In the parking lot were around a dozen VW buses, Vanagon campers, Eurovans, and a couple of VW bugs.

Is this where you live?” Ted asked Adell as he pulled the bags from the trunk.

No, but she’s here,” Adell said. Ted couldn’t hold back anymore.

Who’s here? Your mom? I don’t understand. I thought we were going to your house.” He wasn’t yelling because that wasn’t his thing but if it had been, he would have been.

Adell laughed. “No, better.” She walked over to a purplish Vanagon camper, pulling her bags behind her. “Ted, I’d like you to meet my house. This is Mandy-Van. I had her totally tuned up over the holidays so she should be ready for us.”

A guy in blue coveralls came out of one of the open garage bays. He looked like the old hippie on the sign. “It’s about time you made it back here, Adell. I was wondering how long I was going to have to store her for you.”

Adell hugged him and turned to Ted. “I’d also like to introduce you to Lee Oan, the best VW mechanic anywhere outside of Germany. Lee, this is the love of my life, Ted Kazinsky.” Lee had been walking over but he stopped and turned to look at Adell.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he said – “Do you collect us or something?”

Yeah, something,” she said “and yeah, I’m serious. Ted Kazinsky.”

Lee turned back to Ted who was understandably confused about what Adell collected – did she collect ‘loves of her lives’ or something else. He was about to find out.

Don’t worry Ted – I can see your confused. I’m not a competitor. Nice to meet you, my name is Lee Vamile Oan – also known as ‘Leave me ‘the fuck’ alone’ – if you see what I mean.”

Yup, Ted got it now. She really did collect people with fucked up names.

Chapter 26

#Vanlife (hashtag van life)

Any kind of social conflict helps to destabilize the system, but one should be careful about what kind of conflict one encourages. The line of conflict should be drawn between the mass of the people and the power-holding elite of industrial society (politicians, scientists, upper-level business executives, government officials, etc.). It should NOT be drawn between the revolutionaries and the mass of the people. It would be bad strategy for the revolutionaries to condemn Americans for their habits of consumption. Instead, the average American should be portrayed as a victim of the advertising and marketing industry, which has suckered him into buying a lot of junk that he doesn’t need and that is very poor compensation for his lost freedom. Either approach is consistent with the facts. It is merely a matter of attitude whether you blame the advertising industry for manipulating the public or blame the public for allowing itself to be manipulated. As a matter of strategy one should generally avoid blaming the public.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Mandy-Van was a 1987 Westphalia Vanagon with a pop-top camper and a ‘full’ camping package inside. With her new found wealth, Adell had asked Lee to install solar panels, a second battery system, a more comfortable bed, a pull out awning, and a few other features to make Mandy-Van more livable.

Ted wasn’t so much bothered by finally figuring out that he was part of a collection of unknown size of people with unfortunate names. He was sure that he was the only one she truly loved – in that way – but he was bothered by the other secret she’d been keeping from him.

You live in a van? Didn’t you think of telling me about this?” Rather than being truly upset he was more curious how she would explain it to him. Half the fun with Adell was having her explain things and thus give a window into how she viewed the world.

She kissed him, which instantly made everything better and then she began.

It’s expensive to live in the Bay Area, Ted. Doing all kinds of temp work, dog walking, gigs, and everything else – I had to be in a bunch of different neighborhoods at different times and I realized that vanlife,” she paused and threw in “hashtag vanlife” before continuing on as if she were writing a social media post “was the most affordable, most convenient, and most enjoyable way to stay in the bay.”

But why didn’t you tell me?”

I wanted to…at first. Then, I found myself really liking you and I was sort of bothered by the fact that I hadn’t told you which made it awkward to tell you and then things with us just ‘boom’ exploded and became so much more than I ever expected and then it was really awkward and we were living together and I knew I should really tell you, but honestly by that time it was kind of fun to have a secret that I knew I was going to reveal – so I decided to wait until you had moved out of your apartment…”

We – had moved out of our apartment…”

Yeah, she went on. I thought maybe I would do a big Christmas reveal or an unboxing or something and then we went to Dubai and I forgot about it – mostly – and it just came about this way.”

She kissed him again and it made total sense to him and he wasn’t bothered at all by it – but now the name collection was under his skin – as if he just needed to be annoyed at her for something.

Just how many people do you have in your fucked up name collection?” he asked her. They were no longer in the parking lot at the Old Volks Home – so Lee Vamile Oan was not a part of the conversation except as a topic. They had driven down to Capitola and were parked out on the bluff looking down at the surfers below.

Oh, there’s a bunch of us Ted. I don’t count people though, that would be fucked up – they’re people not Pokemon cards.” And so, one more fact about his soul-mate clicked into place with that strange exposition – in Adell’s world, people could be collected but not put into stacks. It was a comforting realization, but he wasn’t sure why.

Over the next two weeks, Adell gave Ted a crash course in living in a van – ahem – ‘hashtag vanlife.’ Ted was a lifelong house or apartment dweller. He’d never been much of a camper, hadn’t been much into roadtrips, and in general – this was all new to him.

The first thing you need to do is read this,” Adell handed him a worn copy of a book called ‘Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond” – this is the bible of living in a VW van. Ted noticed that the author had mis-spelled his own title on the spine of the book.

He mis-spelled his own title – maybe he should have just stuck with Vegebond.” He laughed.

Adell laughed with him “Hey, give the guy a break. It wasn’t as easy to write and publish a book from a van back in 2003.” The cover of the book was a beat up old VW van with a kayak on the top. As Ted opened and flipped through the book – he started to get a sense of what it was all about.

This book seems like it’s equal parts about being homeless and equal parts getting fucked up.” None the less, it was interesting. “Hey, we’re not going to be doing any ‘cafeteria grazing’ are we?”

Don’t be ridiculous Ted, we’re a billionaire.” As one person, they were a billionaire. He liked it. As the week went on, no one they encountered had a clue how wealthy they were. They parked in a Walmart parking lot over night, used Starbucks bathrooms, drove up to Muir woods and paid the $50 per night camping fee (it included free wi-fi access), and in general had more fun than if they’d been living in an apartment.

The downside was the lack of a bathroom. As far as a kitchen – Mandy-Van had it covered. Small stove, small fridge, and a tiny little sink. The front seats swiveled around and Adell had installed a 12.9 inch iPad up above the back seat that they could stream Netflix on or watch anything else on for that matter.

Laundry and storage proved to be a bit of a pain in the ass, but other than that – it wasn’t really that bad. Ted had become a fan of #vanlife. None the less, he was ready to start looking for a place to live.

Adell, aren’t you ready to move back into a house yet?” They were drinking French press coffee and kicking back in her folding chairs looking down at the fog covered ocean in Pacifica. It was idyllic but a little bit cold and he would have really liked to have taken a 30 minute hot shower and a long read sit on a warmed toilet seat.

She looked at him. “I am,” she said “But I just don’t feel like we are ready yet. I feel like there is something that has to happen before we do that.” Her voice told him that he should know what it was she was talking about, but he had no clue.

I mean, I know we have the money to buy a house and we can do whatever we want, but that seems like a big commitment – you know what I mean?” He still wasn’t getting it.

I mean – we’ve already entered 2020 – so it’s not like we need to RING it in again…” He was starting to understand.

She saw that he was getting it “I’ve been GROOMing you for something bigger…”

Ted dropped to his knee and grabbed her hand. “Adell Fitler, will you marry me?”

She looked into his eyes “Yes, Ted Kazinsky, I want nothing more than to be your bride….but, there is one thing…Do you mind if we keep our own names?”

Ted hadn’t thought of it. He’d never considered calling her Adell Kazinsky (or calling himself Ted Fitler for that matter) and both names sounded stupid. It did make him think of an additional issue though – but he probably shouldn’t have said anything.

But what about the children? What name will they get?”

She batted her eyelashes at him “Well, aren’t you the bold one. If …and it’s not a guarantee…but if we have children, I think it makes sense for them to be Fitler-Kazinsky – but promise me one thing – no funny business with the names. Deal?” She held out her other hand – the one he wasn’t already holding.

He shook it. “Deal”

Well in that case Mr. Unabomber. Let’s plan a wedding.”

Chapter 27

Wedding Fest

The kind of revolution we have in mind will not necessarily involve an armed uprising against any government. It may or may not involve physical violence, but it will not be a POLITICAL revolution. Its focus will be on technology and economics, not politics.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Their wedding was a simple affair. A dozen friends, some of whom were very rich – a beautiful venue – and on Adell’s insistence – a feast to feed the homeless. It was a small affair where they spent close to a million dollars on the food and services for the homeless and less than ten thousand for the ceremony and accouterments for the invited guests.

They had considered other ways they could help with the overwhelming homeless problems in the Bay Area – but ultimately, Adell insisted that what the homeless needed more than anything else was a party. For this reason, there was plenty of wedding pie, ice cream cones, Hawaiian shave ice, and healthy food. There was no alcohol at the ‘public’ party – which had great bands, plenty of grassy areas, and an open door policy.

Working with Lava Mae, an organization that repurposes old school buses into mobile showers and toilets for the homeless – their wedding was a free festival with pop-up care villages where people could do laundry, get haircuts, get manicures and pedicures, and more.

I’ve always said that a wedding should be more about the community than about the bride and groom,” Adell said. “I’ve been very lucky but I know how hard it is for these people.”

After their time living in a van – and years of struggling to make ends meet even when he had a rent control apartment, Ted also had a lot of compassion for the homeless. He was proud to be a part of ‘Wedding Fest’ as people were calling it.

They set a very specific date and time for when they would be announced man and wife. The announcement would come on Pi Day, March 14th, 2020 at 1:59 pm It was a brisk day with light rain and a bit of wind – but nothing the tents couldn’t handle. They’d written their own vows and Ted had made Adell promise to invite every person in her ‘not a collection’ of people with fucked up names. They’d set up a stage and a huge concert style seating area with VIP seating for the invited guests and standing room for the other attendees.

Their vows were dark comedy gold. Adell had asked her old school friend – Elvii Pressman, to officiate. He had turned a mocked name into a passable career as an Elvis marriage officiator. He didn’t look anything like Elvis since he had red hair, a beard, and was short, fat, and pink – he looked more like one of the seven dwarves – but, his white jumpsuit covered with sequins was unmistakable. When he spoke – it was the voice of the king himself.

Ladies and Gentlemen. We are gathered here – at Marriage Fest – to celebrate the coming together of two terribly misunderstood people. Neither of them chose the name they were given, but they have chosen to own them, to keep them, and to make something wonderful of them. Today, I’d love for you to give it up for these hunk a, hunk a, hunks burning with love – the one, the only, the true Adolf Hitler” Adell had made sure that he said it Adolf Hitler so people wouldn’t mistake the double entendre. She came running out on the stage like she was the guest speaker at a motivational seminar. She was wearing bright colored yoga clothing. A few people in the audience has started booing when they heard the name Hitler, but they stopped when a modern day hottie in day-glo yoga clothing came running out. Elvii motioned that she should come stand in front of and to one side of him.

And, it takes a special kind of man to capture the heart of a beauty like this. Give it up for Ted Kazinsky!” Ted ran onto the stage – he was also wearing brightly colored yoga clothes. They looked like clowns or 80s workout show extras. Once again there were a few scattered boos from the audience, but mostly there was some polite applause. As hard as it was to believe – most of the audience had no idea who the Unabomber was, what his name was, or what he had done – but if you had asked them who Jennifer Aniston was seeing – they would have been able to make a pretty good guess.

Elvii stood them next to each other, staggered a bit but facing him and the audience. He moved to his podium.

Do you, Adolf Hitler, take Ted Kazinsky as your lawfully wedded husband?”

I, Adell Fitler, do solemnly swear to be your friend for life, to always tell you if you are getting a sunburn or have food somewhere you shouldn’t, and to never use propaganda to turn the fear and hardship of the German people (or any people) into fascism. I promise to love, honor, cherish, and respect you from now until death does us part – as long as you don’t turn into some super asshole clerk. I do. I really fucking do. ”

The audience cheered, but they were sort of weirded out by what we have become used to.

Do you, Ted Kazinsky, take Adolf Hitler as your wife?” The audience was starting to get it. Many of them thought the whole thing was a joke.

I,Ted Kazinsky, do solemnly swear to treat you like the hottie princess you are, to always know that you are probably smarter than me, to treat you as an equal, a partner, a friend – and to never send letter bombs through the U.S. Postal Service or suggest that we move to an off-grid cabin in Montana – although, I haven’t taken an off-grid cabin in Hawaii from the equation. I promise to love, cherish, respect, and listen to you until death does us part or you kill me – whichever comes first, but come to think of it – that ends up being the same thing.”

So do you take her to be your wife?”

I do- I definitely do.”

Elivii had some remarks prepared in case they had needed to stall a bit while they waited for 1:59 pm but their timing had worked perfect. “By the power invested in me, on this Pi Day at 3.14159 – I hereby announce you as man and wife to the world. Unabomber, you may kiss the Führer.” Again, Adell had insisted on this.

She melted into his arms and the crowd erupted into roaring cheers as their lips met.

Let them eat Pi,” Adell screamed. And with that liveried waiters began walking through the crowd handing out pieces of chocolate banana coconut cream pie. Adell and Ted were each handed a piece – and of course without waiting for a moment – she smashed hers into his face. Ted did the same. The audience went crazy and the biggest pie fight in the history of the San Francisco Bay Area erupted into complete and total chaos. It might have been the biggest pie fight in the history of California, the United States, or the world – but since people rarely keep detailed notes about such things, we’ll just call it the biggest pie fight in the history of the Bay Area.

Adell, grabbed the mic “Is there anyone else who wants to get married today? Speak now or forever hold your peace.” A dozen couples made their way to the stage and each had their own moment. After that, there were more and more people lining up to get married. Not just the homeless, but tons. Marriage Fest was a hit.

When the weddings had finished – Adell grabbed the mic again and announced that it was now time to bring the inductees into the first ever annual ‘Hall of Name’.

It’s our day, you guys, and since you all know us already, we won’t make a big deal about being the first inductees into the Hall of Name. Elivii – will you please read the entire list?”

Elvii moved to the podium and began to read. “These people, these kind people, these bright people, these mostly good people – have endured a lifetime of hardships because of the names their parents gave them – please give a warm round of applause after each name is read.”

Adell Fitler”

Ted Kazinsky”

Elvii Pressman”

Lee Vamile Oan”

Tim Burr”

Charlene Mansoon”

and we’d also like to bring in a couple of postumous inductees

Yogi Berra”

Ima Pigg”

Ura Hogg”

and last but not least the famous NFL running back,”

Dick Felt. We are aware that there are many more deserving inductees, but these are the inductees for Year One of the International Hall of Name.” They had actually built a small shrine – a hall where each inductee was honored with a plaque and a picture. It would become a thing – just like Marriage Fest and just like Pets Hitter.

Chapter 28

Shitstorm

Revolutionaries should not try to acquire political power until the system has gotten itself into such a mess that any hardships will be seen as resulting from the failures of the industrial system itself and not from the policies of the revolutionaries. The revolution against technology will probably have to be a revolution by outsiders, a revolution from below and not from above.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

It had only been a matter of time. They had all known it. You can’t build a house of cards and expect it to stand forever, especially when it is constantly being pulled and shaped higher into an even more unstable form. Perhaps the best wedding present that Ted and Adell received was the knowledge that they were completely and totally absolved and expunged from Pets Hitter.

Like everything in Silicon Valley in 2019 and the early months of 2020, Pets Hitter was valued at an absolutely insane level. The news that they were moving into turning human waste into a valuable commodity had driven expectations of the company to levels not seen since the last days of the Tulip and spice bubbles in the 1700s. The difference was that instead of dealing with expensive flowers and plants coming from far off locations – Pets Hitter made people think they were walking gold mines. The idea that every human could produce and sell their own shit was a bizarre and utterly twisted take on what Ted and Adell had started building with Pets Hitter.

Their initial idea had been to get poop off the sidewalks and maybe let people make a few bucks for cleaning up the mess. Admittedly, they had taken a bad turn when they let Tim Burr and Big Al convince them to set up a multi-level marketing ponzi scheme. They’d also made a mistake getting into bed with Victor White and Larry Ellison. But let me rephrase all of that – they’d left the path of doing something with good intentions for the good of the planet when they’d made those decisions – the fact remained that those decisions had earned them a billion dollars and they were at least doing some good with it – but – if they had stayed with the ponzi scheming and the morally corrupt venture capitalists – they would have been fucked – and probably would have gone to hell. Instead, they’d taken the money, turned their backs, and walked away.

There were plenty of trade publications in the valley calling them idiots after they left Pets Hitter. From the outside, they’d taken a billion dollars for a company that was worth a hundred times that – or more. They hadn’t even kept any stock. They were being heralded as the worst business people of the century. CNBC and Bloomberg openly mocked them and started using the phrase ‘pulled a Pets Hitter’ to mean walked away from a fortune. Adell ignored it. Ted didn’t care. They were rich, they were happy, and they knew that it was just a matter of time before the collapse came…

It hit on April 1st – amidst all of the not very funny any longer pranks and fake news stories that the big tech companies felt obligated to put out to hearken back to a time when tech was actually a small community of fun and forward thinking people.

In Canada, the Royal Mint announced they would be putting Bill Gates on the Looney. In Britain, the BBC had published an expose’ about how Brexit had inspired a whole new series of art movements. Google claimed to have developed a time machine that allowed you to send emails and texts backwards in time. Facebook announced that they had a new section devoted to lunar cycles and fertility. Twitter claimed that they would now only accept advertising in Litecoin.

At 6 am, an anonymous blogger posted a leaked story that claimed that for the past eight days – an internal virus at Pets Hitter had been causing the “Ship to” section of the labels to address every package of pet turds that was supposed to be sent to the Pets Hitter processing plants to instead be sent to congressional offices, corporate headquarters, and even 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. News sources were able to confirm that multiple political and business addresses had been inundated with boxes upon boxes of shit over the past several days.

At 7 am, the US Justice Department announced that they were looking into allegations of fraud, tax evasion, and other high crimes at Pets Hitter. No one was able to ascertain if the investigation was the result of a box full of shit being sent to the Attorney General.

At 8 am, Tim Burr, the CEO of Pets Hitter issued an apology to distributors of their bio bags for perpetuating a ponzi scheme and suspended the buying of all doggie shit until further notice. It was a Wednesday and so the markets were open – nobody really likes to trade on April Fools and Pets Hitter wasn’t a public company – but the entire tech sector began bleeding as investors realized that the situation at Pets Hitter was going to have broad consequences across the entire tech industry.

Share of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, AMD, Intel, Tesla and every other tech related company dropped more than twenty percent in the hours that followed the apology. Pets Hitter, tried to do damage control. They claimed that Tim Burr had been removed from his position and was solely responsible for all the wrong doing that had been brought to the public’s attention. Mug shot looking photos of Tim, Big Al, and some of the top distributors were flashed on the screens of America.

The famous investing guru, Jim Cramer put it best when he got up close to the camera and yelled “Tim-Burr!” And then backed up and had an axe that he swung at an imaginary tree. “This company is coming down fast and taking everything that get’s in the way with it. Timburrrrrrrrr!”

It was the single biggest loss on the Nasdaq since the 2008 financial crisis. Nobody knew when it was going to end – but no one wanted to stay in the markets and be part of the ongoing bloodbath. The fallout started to move beyond the tech sector as politicians, executives, and celebrities tried to distance themselves from the disaster taking place around them.

A reporter seeking comment from Victor White caught him on camera getting out of his limousine and saying into his phone “…I’m not going down because of that homo <n-word>”. The video went viral – suddenly any company associated with VWA was considered a toxic asset.

Chapter 29

Wasp Hive

The industrial system should be attacked in all nations simultaneously, to the extent that this may be possible. True, there is no assurance that the industrial system can be destroyed at approximately the same time all over the world, and it is even conceivable that the attempt to overthrow the system could lead instead to the domination of the system by dictators. That is a risk that has to be taken. And it is worth taking, since the difference between a “democratic” industrial system and one controlled by dictators is small compared with the difference between an industrial system and a non-industrial one.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Reporters finally got around to asking Adell why she had left and whether she had known of any sort of impropriety. Her answer was good enough to keep the storm buzzing:

Suffice to say that part of my exit from Pets Hitter was to sign a comprehensive NDA. The only way I would do that was if they signed documentation that certified that my tenure was free from any sort of wrong-doing and that guaranteed that I would not be held culpable for any actions the company had taken, might take, or considered taking. My agreement to exit was only one possible course, the other was to dismantle and systematically dismantle the company – a move that I suggested and which caused me to be removed from my position as CEO, taken off the board of directors, and forced out of the company. All of that is on the record and at the end of the day, everything else is covered by the NDA.”

Ted more or less gave the same answer and the reporters decided that they weren’t worth following up on. This might not have been the case except that the whole VWA culture was unraveling at the seams. Tim Burr had signed no such NDA and when he found out that White and Ellison were trying to throw him under the bus, he and Big Al both gave explosive interviews. Tim talked about how White had repeatedly referred to him as ‘boy’ and at times even called him ‘lady-boy’, presumably in reference to his sexuality and race.

Both Ted and Adell gave Tim Burr and his uncle credit though because even though they had betrayed them on the board, neither of them ever said anything that would connect Adell or Ted to the ponzi scheme, the MLM, or any of the other shenanigans that had gone on while they were in charge. From the story Tim told, it would be easy to believe that Pets Hitter was doing everything legitimately until the moment when her tenure ended. It was only then, according to Tim, that Ellison and White had begun to stack the board with people who harbored what he called ‘criminal intent’.

Big Al turned state’s evidence and said that the entire plan to begin turning human waste into energy had been a ‘scheme’ concocted by Larry Ellison and his ‘Hawaiian Mafia friends’ he swore under oath on national television that Larry Ellison, Victor White, and the whole Silicon Valley tech-elite were engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the power and sovereignty of the United States of America. In short, it was a big fucking mess and somehow – they had managed to be clear of it.

Phil called to make sure they were doing okay and suggested that they all meet down at a local co-working space in Mountain View. Ted and Adell were still living the ‘hashtag vanlife’ even though they had gotten married. Their honeymoon had been a van trip to all of California’s national parks. During the trip, Ted had realized that he wasn’t entirely discontent living in a van – and when they needed to have space – it was easy to rent a suite at a hotel – they never rented regular rooms any more.

They’d only been back in town for a day or two when the shit hit the fan.

Phil had rented an office at the co-working space. It wasn’t a ‘We Work’ property so it still had relatively happy and helpful people working there. The receptionist showed them back to Phil’s office. The walls of the space were covered with interesting art and lots of photographs of smiling people. A couple of people walked around the office drinking beers or coffee. It was 10 am – but no one else seemed to mind. Everyone was their own boss here. It was as it should be, but Ted wondered if there were 3 pm drunks who made it hard for others to get end of the day work done.

Phil’s office looked like a college professor’s cubicle. It was filled with books and stacks of papers.

Did you see fucking Tim attacking Victor White on network news this morning?” Phil asked as they walked in. He was turning from the computer where he had paused the scene.

Adell hugged him and Ted grabbed his hand in a firm shake. Phil turned back to the computer. “Look at this shit…the entire internet which was built so that universities and government think tanks could share ideas and information – it’s just turned into a worse version of the ‘boob tube’ we all used to complain about.”

Ted didn’t really have anything to say. It was true. Adell, not one to keep quiet in most situations seemed pretty subdued “Yeah,” she said “Too bad we can’t bring back the good old days.”

Oh,” Phil said in a very matter of fact voice “We can, actually.”

Ted instantly knew what Phil was talking about and why he had brought them there. “It’s done? You finished the wasp’s nest?”

Phil turned smiling towards them. “Yeah, it’s done. That bit you gave me about the WeChat internet actually helped me put in the final piece. The whole thing should get digested now but it will leave the walled gardens in place and whole.”

What are you guys talking about?” Adell asked “Is there something I should know?”

Phil motioned to the keyboard and pulled up a command line. He typed in the words “Run Waspnest” and said “Hit the return key Adell.” She did.

At first nothing obvious happened. Then they started hearing things from outside the cubicle. “Shit” “Fuck” “What the fuck?” “Hey, do you guys have a connection?” and more.

What did we just do?” Adell asked the two grinning men in front of her.

We just killed the world wide web,” Ted told her. “The internet is dead.”

Holy shit!” Adell exclaimed in delight “You really are a terrorist!”

Chapter 30

The End of Civilization As We Know It

The anarchist too seeks power, but he seeks it on an individual or small-group basis; he wants individuals and small groups to be able to control the circumstances of their own lives. He opposes technology because it makes small groups dependent on large organizations.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

The Chans invited them over for lunch a few days later. Mark met them at the gate and escorted them in. He was in high spirits – which meant that he looked almost like a human. Priscilla was working in her garden when they arrived and he led them out to where she was working.

Nice work, you two!” she said, looking up from the row of flowers she was working on. “I knew you guys would make fireworks, but honestly, I had no idea they would be anything like the firestorm you’ve created. I’m sorry we couldn’t make it to your wedding, but we did get you a present – Mark will tell you about it later.”

Adell had a million questions to ask but the first one needed to be asked right away “Priscilla, did you put us together because of our names?”

Priscilla sat up, pulled her sun bonnet back and daintily pulled her gardening gloves off. “Of course I did – but that wasn’t the main thing. I’m a pediatrician, but I’ve always been fascinated by the social dynamics of relationships. Did you know my grandmother was an actual match maker in China? Anyway, I saw that the two of you shared something – not just your names, but your brilliance, your passion, and your ability to get things done.”

She looked at Ted “Theo – oh, sorry, Ted – when I met you, I realized that you had an intellect that was really only like one other I’ve ever encountered.” She gestured over towards Mark who was down on his hands and knees watching a line of ants carrying gear to their nest.

And Adell, you’re such a beautiful woman but you have what this world hates – drive, ambition, verve, and the ability to change everything. Look, I’m not sure if you know this or not, but if it weren’t for me – Mark would be some really smart guy working at someone else’s company. I didn’t make him, but he needed me to complete who he was. I saw the same thing in the two of you.”

They were beautiful words. A beautiful sentiment. Ted could see that they were true. He was touched and felt a deep debt of gratitude. Then he felt guilty for potentially destroying their life’s work until he remembered that the walled gardens were fine. Facebook was still there. Instagram was still there.

Adell had another question “Why didn’t you return any of our calls? What’s really going on?”

Priscilla smiled a grandmotherly smile even though she was actually younger than both of them.

You’ll learn this, Adell. It’s not an easy thing to accept but it’s true. You simply can’t be friends with normal people when you have as much money as we do. You can’t invest in friendships with the normies.”

But isn’t that what you’re doing now?” Ted finally piped in, trying not to get sucked into Mark’s intense concentration on the ants.

Not at all,” Priscilla told him. “You stopped being normies when you became ultra-rich and the moment you destroyed the internet – you were no longer normal people in any sense of the word.”

Are you guys mad about that?” It was Adell asking, there was a bit of uncertainty in her voice.

Mark sat up now. “Not even a little bit. The internet totally sucked. I hated it. My whole purpose in building Facebook was first to get laid, then to get rich, then to make a better internet, then to take over the world,” he looked like maybe he had gotten ahead of himself in his enthusiasm.

Priscilla gave him a withering look but then smiled “It’s okay dear, their our friends. You can tell them.”

Mark went on. “The fucking baby boomers ruined everything and for a while I thought that maybe the millennials – our generation,” he motioned to Priscilla and him and almost to Adell but not toTed who was actually Gen X “…would fix it or take over, they just won’t get out of the way. So anyway – Waspnest more or less trapped them all on my platforms. I’ve got way more power than before. They’re like these ants. I can watch them, see what they are doing, and even burn them with a magnifying glass if I want to…”

He’d gone too far “Mark…” Priscilla stopped him.

Ted might have been discouraged to hear this, he might have been upset that the control system had been strengthened over humanity, he might have been bothered by the futility of it all – but he wasn’t. Waspnest had created a new way for information to be shared. It had been a spark to create innovation. It had wiped away an entire system of doing things which meant that an intense period and culture of radical change had the breathing room to grow and blossom into a world that no one could even imagine at the moment.

And as for the walled gardens – he and Phil had already started working on Hornet’s Nest. They’d never see it coming.

The Keys to the Riad – Another Novel by Christopher Damitio

 

 

The Keys to the Riad

by Christopher Damitio

 

Chapter 1: The Ring of Fools

Hot sweat sizzled down her forehead, attacking her eyebrows before making the victorious plunge into her eyes. The salt stung but she tried to ignore it and keep her vision clear because the consequences of a moment of distraction were too high to allow. A split second of attention loss would put her face down, bloody, and bruised. Victories are created, not by heroic acts of larger than life valor but instead by overcoming the things that most people never even notice.

It was the story of her life. The story of her lifestyle. The story of her lifeless corpse twitching at the end of a rope. She was the ‘it’ girl. The woman everyone wanted to be. Jokingly referred to by her friends as ‘The Great’. Those around her saw clearly that she was in control. She was in control of everything  but her own destiny. If they would have thought of it, the girls in her school would have voted her ‘Most likely to have everything.’

She was popular, charming, and beautiful. More importantly and possibly because she felt like she had to prove to herself that she actually deserved the success she enjoyed, she worked harder, fought longer, and refused to ever give up. The finish line was just a starting point for her and she was known for crossing it and refusing to stop. She was focused, driven, and as tough as a cast iron frying pan.

And yet, her life felt like it was missing something. She didn’t know what it was missing. It was something  that was just out of reach, just around the bend, just over the horizon. Her pragmatism told her that destiny was a fools devotion, but sometimes she would board trains without a destination in mind, hoping beyond hope that she might be led to that which she was missing.

The stinging in her eyes was too much and despite a Herculean effort to not do it, her gloved hand reached up to wipe it from her vision. For the barest of moments, her attention was distracted a thick strand of golden brown hair was brushed in front of her face by the glove. There was no room for distraction.

She caught sight of a red bomb coming into her face from the right side, a peripheral moment of clarity coming a bare instant before the unbearable pain. Her hands were in the wrong place to block, her stance made it impossible for her to dodge and the screaming haymaker knocked her back against the ropes and opened her up to an unbelievably rapid series of body blows that culminated in a powerful uppercut that sent her up, flat, and on her ass – the hard way.

Her mind screamed orders at her defeated body, but the body was incapable of pulling itself up. She was defeated. Defeated by Destiny.

It was Destiny, however, that helped her back up. Destiny Jones leaned down with a huge smile on her face and pulled Colette Samson back to her feet.

“I can’t believe that didn’t knock you out,” Destiny said. “That punch should have knocked you the fuck out.”

Colette didn’t let on that she felt half-unconscious. Instead, she smiled at her friend and accepted the arm up. Destiny had a rock hard body built from years of training. Her milk chocolate skin glistened like silk, a light layer of sweat giving her an otherworldly glow. Destiny’s body wore spandex like a second layer of skin covering what could only be described as a heavenly body. Too busty to be a professional boxer but too muscular to be a model. And yet, she was both. She was hated for her guts and beauty, envied by her friends, and never ignored.

Colette was one of the few women who were secure enough to have an actual friendship with Destiny. Colette didn’t have time for jealousy, envy, or bitchy cattiness. She was too busy driving herself to become the person she knew she could be. She never understood how people could waste their time and energy hating on someone who was using their talents and blessings instead of wasting them.

Spitting out her mouthguard, Colette shook her head. “It was a stupid rookie move. I lost control.”

Destiny shook her head, laughing. “Yes you did and yes it was. You blocked your vision with your own glove. There was no way I wasn’t going to take that opening. It’s not everyday I get to throw a haymaker like that. Are you okay?”

Destiny’s almond colored eyes had big gold flecks in them and the smile on her face showed some, but not too much concern.

Colette shoved Destiny away from her, playfully. “You wanna try that again, Bitch?”

Destiny laughed again. “Hey, come on, I was getting ready to go all Florence Nightingale on you. Keep your cool.”

She put her arm around her friend’s shoulders. “For a second, I thought I finally knocked you the fuck out. Damn girl, you sure can take a beating. Hey, wanna clean up and then go get a latte?”

Colette was laughing now too. The two women walked to the edge of the boxing ring and helped each other through the ropes. The other women in the gym moved back to their training with the match through. As Colette and Destiny made their way back to the locker room, the next training match moved into the ring. The sounds of jump ropes, weights, and work out bags created a comforting warmth that contrasted with the harsh cold world outside of the gym.

Unlike Destiny, Colette wasn’t a model. She’d been offered jobs but had refused them all because her sights were set on a higher purpose. There’s nothing wrong with modeling, but Colette had a particular obsession that drove her – an unhealthy obsession. Gold.

From the time she was a little girl she had been obsessed with the shiny metal. Some girls loved dolls or playing house, but Colette had played banker and gold-smith. She had collected pebbles and rocks and painted them gold, creating stacks in her closet. While her friends drew hearts and unicorns, she drew pirate chests, queens, and coins. She wasn’t obsessed with it because of the monetary value. No, she wasn’t one of those crass people who love money – no it was something about the metal itself. A warmth, a vibration, a texture. Colette loved gold.

She’d worked hard to acquire as much of it as she could. At 39, she was one of the most successful gold traders in the United States. Buying and selling shares wasn’t her passion, but she was good at it. That morning she’d sold at a peak and then watched the price drop like an anchor. She repurchased the shares she had sold and was left with a $300,000 profit. This was money that she usually would have re-invested in additional shares but instead, something had told her to keep it.

It was her 40th birthday.

Walking out of the gym, she was met with an unexpected billboard that had been put up across the street.

“Lordy, Lordy, Colette Forty!” it screamed in ten-foot letters. Her face must have looked as shocked as she felt because Destiny immediately began laughing again. “Happy Birthday, Colette! You didn’t think I’d forget, did you? I was going to get you a card, but I thought this was better. Do you like it?”

“I’m tempted to tell you to get back in that ring, but it’s my birthday and I don’t really fancy another ass kicking, so let’s go get some coffee.” Neither woman was lacking in money. They were both at the top of their games.

“How much did that cost you?” Colette asked her. “It can’t have been cheap.”

“Oh, I didn’t pay for it,” Destiny said. “Actually, I got paid for it. Look…” She pointed to the rest of the billboard. On the billboard, a slightly blurred figure in silky lingerie was lowering herself into a spa’s bath. Of course, it was Destiny. The bottom of the ad in smaller letters read ‘Forty never felt so good! The New Youth Hamam Spa in Brooklyn.”

“I suggested it to them months ago. They loved it. The hard part was getting them to agree to put this billboard up last night, but, you know,” Destiny smiled, “I’m hard to say no to.”

Colette was suddenly not so pleased “Wait a minute, me turning forty is their new slogan? I’m not so sure I like this a bit.”

“Well it’s too late now,” Destiny said “Happy Birthday, Bitch.” She would have to live with it. And besides, she wasn’t going to let this ruin her day. Even if she’d never wanted to be famous. Destiny was a master puppeteer and it wasn’t just agencies that she made dance to her tune. Colette refused to be baited. It wasn’t just the boxing ring Destiny was dangerous in.

“Let me get this straight, you just said to them ‘Lordy, Lordy, Collette Forty!” and they went for it.

Destiny flashed a big smile. “You know better than that. Nobody listens to models. It’s not like they say ‘Hey, let’s hear what that beautiful gal with the perfect tits thinks of this?’ Nope. I had to work my magic. Do you remember that guy Donnie Cohen from Holly Byoko’s reception last year?” Colette, didn’t, but it didn’t matter, Destiny went on. “He’s a bigwig in the agency that runs this account, so I gave him a call and asked if he wanted to have lunch, he’s married, but you know how those guys are, he couldn’t say yes fast enough. So there we were, having lunch and he probably felt like he was getting somewhere, I mean I could feel his pulse rising. I mentioned the shoot I was supposed to do with New Youth Hamam Spa and how much I hated their slogan – it really was awful ‘Scrub away your years’ – like fucking ewww – anyway, at this point he was really looking for a way to make me happy so he rolled all over himself to agree with me even though he’s probably the one who thought the stupid slogan up. “

Colette loved this part of being Destiny’s friend. Hearing how she worked her magical manipulation to make the world into exactly what she wanted.  “Go on,” she said.

“I could tell that he was making himself hate it more every moment and he was desperate for something that would make me happy so I picked up my phone and looked at it like I was getting a text message or looking at an appointment and I said ‘Lordy, Lordy, Colette Forty!’ and girl, he took that hook fast. ‘That’s brilliant’ he told me and of course I played coy ‘What’s that?’ ‘Lordy Lordy, Colette Forty – we can play on that, show that forty is the new youth. I love it, you’re a genius Destiny.’ and that’s when I told him that it was his idea, not mine. After all, I was just commenting on something on my phone, it was his genius that realized it was a perfect slogan.”

Colette laughed. “So’d you fuck him?”

Destiny looked at her with hurt in her eyes. “Hell no, I told you he was married. I might have led him on a little, but that’s not my style. I just gave him the idea – and maybe later when I needed that billboard put up, I called him up and mentioned how I was thinking of joining a club his wife belongs to, but probably wouldn’t if that particular billboard was used for the campaign.”

“You really are an evil genius,” Colette said. “Thank God you’re on the side of the light.”

“Oh, don’t be too sure about that,” Destiny said. “Light is a little too close to white for me to side with.”

Colette, not only made money trading gold, but she also had become one of the top jewelry designers in the world. Her gold jewelry used the metal in new ways that others hadn’t thought of, but when people saw her jewelry, they always felt like they were looking at classical designs. Wispy ropes and delicate looking portraiture – all done in gold.

About a block before they reached the cafe, the two women passed a shop that neither had noticed before. It was called ‘Thahab’ and it looked like a typical high end handbag boutique, but there was something very different that caused both to stop. It took Colette a moment to recognize it.

“That fabric is woven with gold in it,” she said to Destiny. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The threads are making patterns within the patterns of the textiles.” The window display was a kaftan robe, a handbag, and a ring/bracelet combo that looked like a living thing as it crawled from the mannequin’s finger and up its arm.  “We’re going in.”

Destiny’s arm had apparently turned to rubber because Colette didn’t have to twist it at all. Inside the shop was a riot of Berber patterns and beautiful textures. Not every item had the gold weaving, but those that did stood out with a sort of magical shimmer. The shelves were sparsely populated with pottery, iron, and modern fashion that looked like it was ancient. The air was thick with the smell of spice and a light noise of crowds came from what must have been hidden speakers. They were alone in the boutique except for the lone clerk behind a standing desk.

“Is the jewelry in the window for sale?” Colette asked him.

“Oui, madame.” He moved to the window display and removed the entire arm from the mannequin. It was a disturbing move. “C’est ca,” he said, handing it to her. It was beautiful, and she wanted to handle it. The little Frenchman made no effort to help her remove it, he just watched as she struggled to hold the arm and remove the jewelry. Destiny moved in to help. As they worked a tiny white Pomeranian came running through the curtain at the back of the shop. It jumped up on Colette which annoyed her but the dog was so small it didn’t upset her balance in any way.

Colette was more of a cat person. Finally, getting the jewelry free of the arm, she handed the arm back to the clerk. He took the arm and moved to an ornately carved wooden chair in the corner where he leaned the arm against the wall and took a seat! He pulled a book from the shelf and began reading. Completely ignoring them. Destiny and Colette looked at each other in disbelief. The man’s large head was fringed by a friar’s wreath of cloud white hair and when he sat she could see that he was wearing bright, multi-colored socks – like those of a circus clown. He was such an odd little man that she momentarily forgot about the jewelry she was holding as she looked at the little fool and felt an attitude of superiority radiate from his silence.

“I’m going to buy this for you,” Destiny said. “I didn’t actually think about the fact that I was telling the world you were turning forty. This is my apology.”

“Excuse me,” Destiny said to the man sitting in the corner, now with the dog in his lap. “How much is this?” Colette could hear the annoyance in Destiny’s voice – no one ignored her – ever.

“Hello? We’d like to buy this.”  The man stood up dropping the dog from his lap to the floor.

“Would you like the arm as well?” he asked her. It was one of the most bizarre questions Colette had ever heard. Even more bizarre was Destiny’s answer.

“Yes, please wrap up the arm. What’s the total?”

“$38,574 and ninety-nine cents,” he said to her with no smile on his face. Destiny took the jewelry from Colette’s hand and threw it at him.

“Fuck you, man. Let’s go.” She grabbed Colette by the arm and began pulling her from the shop. The man set the jewelry on the counter and grabbed a business card. Moving faster than seemed possible, he pressed it into Colette’s hand before Destiny had dragged her out the door.

Colette glanced at it before shoving it in her pocket.

 Thahab – Exquisite Items

Pierre-Antoine DeFou – Proprietor

Destiny was livid with anger as they resumed their walk to the cafe. “Can you believe that shit?”

Colette had also been shocked by the price. The weight of it might have merited a price of $2000 and the craftsmanship and provenience might have taken it as high as $10,000 but she couldn’t imagine what would have nearly quadrupled that price.  She was shocked by the price, but didn’t understand Destiny’s anger.

“That racist little motherfucker,” she cursed. “I should go back and hit that stuck up French midget and kick his little dog.” Colette wasn’t sure it was racism, but she was white and she knew enough about her privilege to know that her friend had a better sense of these things and that she wouldn’t help anything by saying so.

“He heard me say I was going to buy it and then he raised the price. That’s some serious bullshit.”

It was hard for Colette to stay quiet – she had to say something “And what was that shit with the arm?” she finally said. “Have you ever experienced anything like that?”

Destiny laughed now and looked at her friend. “Yeah, that was something else. Maybe he’s just crazy and watching the shop for his brother or something. There was definitely something off about him. Did you see him just drop the dog on the floor?” Now she was laughing. “Maybe it wasn’t racist – just some seriously maladjusted crazy person shit?”

“Did you see his socks?” Colette was glad Destiny was moving on.

Destiny laughed harder. “Hey, I’m sorry I didn’t buy that for you, but that price was way out of line. I’ll make it up to you.”

“You already have,” Colette said. It was no easy thing finding a best friend in this world. Destiny loved her for who she was. There was no better gift. “But I’m going to make you pay for those fucking billboards – someday.”

Colette already knew she would be going back to the shop. She just wouldn’t be taking Destiny with her when she went.

Chapter 2

The Foolish Magician

Colette returned to Thahab the next day. She wasn’t sure what she expected but what she got was exactly the same treatment from exactly the same person. Monsieur DeFou didn’t greet her as she walked in, didn’t ask if she had returned for the bracelet/ring, and ignored her completely. Once again he was sitting in the ornately carved chair with the dog on his lap.

“Excuse me,” Colette said “I came to find out more about the jewelry I was looking at yesterday.”

Monsieur DeFou looked up from his book. “I’m afraid it has been sold.”

“What? Really?” She hadn’t expected that. “Do you have anything like it?”

“No, Madame,” he said to her. “There is nothing else like it.”

“Well, who bought it?” She had to know what happened to it.

DeFou stood up, again dumping the dog from his lap onto the floor. “It’s really best that you forget all about it,” he told her. “It is gone and our policy is to protect the confidentiality of our patrons.” He moved to the far wall and began moving a pile of vibrant but ancient textiles from one shelf to another.

A large ring of golden keys clattered out from between two of the pieces. It landed on the floor like a gymnast with a broken body, keys splayed in many directions. Colette gasped, seeing the keys cleared her mind of everything that had been in it before.

She had never seen anything like them. There were somewhere around twenty skeleton keys on the large golden ring. The ring itself was ornate and appeared to be decorated with rubies. The smallest of the keys was at least six inches and the largest was over a foot. Colette still hadn’t done anything with the profits she had made before and she still hadn’t bought herself a birthday present.

The crazy little Frenchman leaned down and picked them up. “Ah, I’d wondered where these had went. I wouldn’t want to lose them.” He put the ring on his wrist – it sparkled and glinted in the light. Without the keys, it would have looked like a priceless bangle by itself. With the keys, it was simply breathtaking.

“Ah, oui. That’s better. Merci.” She wasn’t sure who he was talking to since there was no one else in the store, but she noticed that he was smiling now. “Tres, tres bien.”

“Just out of curiosity,” Colette asked him “How much are those keys?”

He looked at her with widened eyes, his white wispy hair appeared to poof out like a smoke ring as his albino caterpillar eyebrows shot upwards.  “Ah Madame, I’m afraid I couldn’t. They belong to my ancestral home, a palace built by my ancestors, a mysterious and powerful riad which contains forces too strong for this world. These keys to that riad are worth far more than their weight in gold. I assure you they are beyond your means.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Colette said, uncharacteristically seeming to be giving up before she’d really begun. She would not play his game by his rules. “Where’s your ancestral home? Nice? Paris? Grenoble?”

Pierre-Antoine began to laugh “Oh, no Madame. Originally, we came from Maroc. My family is Jewish, you see and we left after the troubles began. All these years, I’ve been holding the deed, but none of us really want to go back. Those days are done and will never return.”

“Why don’t you sell it?” Colette asked.

“Why don’t you make an offer,” the little magician countered, catching her completely off guard. He smiled and began to turn away.

If the keys were more than the bracelet had been, then she could only imagine how much the home would cost.

Speaking in amusement, more to herself more than to DeFou, she said “I do have $300,000 I’d like to do something with.”

“Oui, I accept your offer.” She wanted to reach out and shake him, but of course, there was nothing binding in what had just happened. He looked at her and then turned away. “I’ll have our family lawyers draw up the contract for you this evening. You can come and take care of the paperwork tomorrow, I suggest that you bring your attorney. I’ll have the photos and deeds ready for you. I’m not sure why I’ve accepted an offer so low, but something tells me that it is meant to be. Au demain.”

He turned and walked through the curtain in the back.

“No way, Colette. No freaking way. I am not going to let you do this.” Destiny was standing with her outside the bank. It was a cold day in the city and both women wore heavy black coats with grey wolf fur trim around the hoods.

Destiny had been arguing with Colette about her decision since the moment she had flippantly made an offer and Monsieur DeFou had accepted it without a moment’s hesitation. There was no way that he should have accepted it. It was too little for too much or maybe the other way around. She was having a hard time seeing this deal clearly.

Destiny was sure it was some sort of a scam. Colette had considered that it might be, but after a week of due diligence, she was now pretty sure it wasn’t. She didn’t know what it was, but she didn’t think she was being scammed. If anything, she felt like maybe she should offer him more, but that was just silly.

A house, an orchard, a vineyard and that big ring of keys.

She still wasn’t completely clear if she had made the offer or not. It wasn’t like her to speak out loud and there was a part of her that was convinced she had simply thought it. But, the proof was in the paperwork he had laid out for her and her attorney the next day.

$300,000. Not even enough to buy a small loft in New York City but apparently, more than enough to buy a Jewish riad and the land around it in the town of Sanhaja, Morocco.

Colette was not a fool when it came to money, but Destiny was convinced she was making a terrible decision as the result of a female mid-life crisis. Colette had done her homework though. Monsieur Defou had been incredibly helpful and forthright when answering her questions. The house was nearly 300 years old built by his 5th great grandfather, Conver DeFou. Conver had emigrated from France, wandered through the middle-Atlas mountains, and somehow met Sarah bin Ali S’rouda, a Berber Jewess living outside the walled city of Sefrou in a mini-citadel town called Sanhaja al-Casbah.

Having decided to stay, Conver moved his bride to a tiny farmhouse near a cascade and then began to build his masterpiece. Riad Conver was described by Pierre-Antoine as a sprawling wonderland of a house with doors that led nowhere, balconies with no doors, and hidden passages tucked behind walls and under floors. His memories were those of a small child in a large house and he possessed no pictures of the interior of house, but the deed he held was solid and the exterior was palatial.

Colette had hired a friend who specialized in international real estate to make sure that she understood the ins and outs of foreigners owning land in Morocco. She had further checked out the title and deed and informed Colette that both were clear and the house and land were valued at considerably more than Colette was paying. When she found out the price, her friend offered to buy the house if Colette chose to back out. There was no backing out though. Colette was a force of nature that once set on a course was impossible to check…As Destiny was finding out.

“Destiny, you’re not going to talk me out of this. My mind is completely resolved. I ….” Pierre Antoine now joined them. He was now a completely changed man. Gone was the funny little fool in brightly colored socks and in his place was a serious man in a dark suit with a beautiful wooden briefcase. There was something magical about the transformation and as he came closer to the two ladies, Pierre-Antoine swept off his hat and made what would have been a comical little bow had he made it when last they had met, but now, was both charming and full of grace.

With a twinkle in his eye, Monsieur DeFou said “Doing business – with both of you – has been and continues to be an immense pleasure. Shall we go inside and finalize things?” Destiny looked ready to explode but seemingly contained herself. DeFou smiled at her as he held the door. There was no real reason for Destiny to be there, she had simply wanted to dissuade Colette from making a very expensive mistake.

Looking at them both, she shook her head. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to stop either of you so there’s no need for me to be here. Colette, I hope you don’t regret this.” She turned and stalked off into the cold morning.

With Destiny gone, there was no more resistance to the deal. Colette’s birthday present was about to be finalized.

Stepping into the bank, the two were met at reception and led to the bank manager’s office where the paperwork had been prepared. It was a glass cubicle open to the rest of the bank because the curtains had been drawn open. Colette’s agent had gone the extra mile to make sure that everything was on the up and up- even to the point of getting the Colette’s bank manager to take a hand in the paperwork and documentation. The receptionist asked them to wait for the manager and left them.

Monsieur DeFou sat on the black leather sofa and fiddled with his briefcase a bit. Suddenly he was a funny little man pretnding to be a serious little man. He set the briefcase on the glass coffee table and turned to Colette. “Would you lke to see something interesting?” he asked.

She smiled awkwardly at him but finally nodded assent and said “Sure, that would be nice.”

He opened his wooden briefcase. It was like that moment where the boss opens the magic package in Pulp Fiction – she had her eyes on the box and wouldn’t have been surprised to see an otherworldly light suddenly erupt from it. That wasn’t what happened though.

Instead Monsieur DeFou pulled out a a tiny blue glass bottle and a set of tiny blue cups both decorated with gold filagree work. He set them on the magazine table in front of them and then pulled out a small tree branch and a curved silver knife. All had been set into the case with elastic bands that held them inside. Next he revealed a small red velvet bag which he unloosened and poured into his open hand.

“These are silver coins made about 50 years before the birth of Christ. The woman on them is often said to be the goddess Isis, but really she is Cleopatra, the queen. I have twenty-three of them.” He handed one to her. “On the other side is an eagle riding a lightning bolt. It’s strkingly similar to the eagle used by the United States on the great seal. Don’t you think?”

Colette wasn’t sure why he had brought the odd assortment of things with him, but was keenly aware of the fact that she had never held anything so ancient. He had a way of compelling your attention that was all but impossible to ignore. The woman on the face of the coin was beautifully rendered and the coin itself looked like it might be just a few years old, not a few thousand.

“They’re beautiful,” she told him. “But why did you bring these things?”

“Miss Samson,” he said looking up at her, once again masterful “I am a silly old man. These are the things of tradition. Among my people, we have certain days and rituals that we perform. I don’t know if we believe in them any longer or not, but the important thing is that tradition is upheld. For example, before we conduct business – it is very important that we share a bit of honey-lemon water. Why? I don’t know. But, I will be very pleased if you will join me for this traditional drink.”

He motioned to the blue bottle. Colette knew she should be wary, but instead she was charmed once again and quickly agreed. At this point it was counter-productive to argue. She wanted the keys and all that went with them more than she had ever wanted anything. Monsieur DeFou lined up two cups and opened the bottle. It made a loud hiss as he opened it. He poured the water into the cups and from somewhere a lemon appeared in his hand. He turned to Colette, “Would you be so kind as to cut the lemon?”

“There isn’t anywhere to cut it…” she began to protest but Pierre-Antoine was already handing her the strange knife. She pulled the blade from it’s metal sheath. It was a beautiful piece of workmanship. Setting the coin down in Pierre-Antoine’s case, she picked up the lemon and began to gingerly cut it. The fact that she was cutting lemon for a drink in the lobby of her bank before spending a fortune on a property she had never seen seemed irrelevant, only the act of cutting the lemon seemed important now. The other people in the bank – the customers, the clerks – all seemed to ignore them. It was as if an invisible barrier hid them from the outside world.

The room had taken on a strange glow and things were now moving much slower than reality normally did. As Colette cut the lemon in two, Monsieur DeFou’s hand suddenly darted out like a snake from amongst a basket of apples.

“Be careful,” he hissed, grabbing Colette’s hand and pulling it back from where she had seemingly been about to impale it on the blade she was wielding. A small spot of blood appeared on the center of her palm. The two halves of the lemon had fallen into the wooden brifecase below. “Madamoiselle, a slip like that can easily cause a pain that won’t disappear for months.” She had no idea how the knife had moved so fast.

He reached down to pick up the lemon. Colette noticed a small spot of blood on the rim of one of the lemon halves. It was that one which Pierre-Antoine squeezed into the cups. He gingerly took the blade back and fitted it back into the sheath.

“To your health and property,” he offered one of the cups to her and lifted the other for himself.

“And to yours,” Colette said. The words felt uncomfortably formal as she said them.

As the liquid passed her lips she felt a fiery warmth begin above her head. The heat passed into her head and begin coursing through her body until it ran out of her feet. Spider webs and the spiders in them hidden in the tall dark corners of the bank managers office zoomed into her consciousness. She had never felt more present or alive. At that moment…

The door opened. The bank manager came barreling into the room. “Sorry for the delay folks, but I think we’ve got everything done properly now. I’ll just need your signatures and then we’ll notarize the forms. The money will be transferred immediately and everything will be hunky-dory.” He didn’t seem to have noticed the case, the glasses, the bottle, or the strange feeling that filled the room. While he spoke Monsieur DeFou had put everything away.

They each signed the appropriate documents which transferred the title to Colette and the money to DeFou. In just a few minutes, the entire process was complete. The bank manager left again after shaking their hands and wishing them a nice day. The spiders up in their corners had barely had time to stir. Colettes awareness of them faded and she was no longer so acutely aware of them.

As they stood to leave, one of the coins dropped from Pierre-Antoine’s briefcase, probably the one Colette had been holding. He reached down and picked it up, looked at it, and then handed it to her.

“I still have twenty-two but it seems that this queen of the coins wants to come with you. It would be my pleasure if you would accept it as a small token of my esteem.”

Colette felt like the coin already belonged to her, which was a mysterious truth.

It wasn’t until that evening that it occurred to Colette that she had everything but the thing that had gotten her into all of this. Pierre-Antoine had not brought the keys with him. How in the world had she missed that? It seemed she had been so occupied by the ritual of the blue glass bottle, the ancient coins, and the sliced lemon – not to mention the signing of the deeds –  that she had forgotten all about her big beautiful ring of keys. She would go get them in the morning.

 

Chapter 3

The Egyptian Priestess

That night she slept restlessly as a growing anxiety tickled her brain. She was terrified that it had all been a con-job. Even though she had the deed and title, all of the paperwork had been legitimized, and her hired expert had assured her that she was getting a great deal. She tossed and turned through the night creating scenario after scenario in which she had been had. By morning, it had built to a fever pitch. Even as she rushed down Fifth Avenue, a feverish voice in her brain said “You’re not getting those keys…”

Colette recognized that she was feeling an unhealthy fixation on the keys themselves. It was those keys that had gotten her into this mess, somehow mesmerizing her and getting her to buy a property she had never seen. Yes, she already owned it – but somehow that didn’t matter if she didn’t have the keys.

What if the keys were gone?

She felt her panic swell to a crescendo and by an act of sheer will suppressed a reactive wave of anger.  She would find Pierre-Antoine and take the keys from him. Her anger screamed “I will make him pay!”

“And besides,” she told herself “It is the property that really matters.”

But she knew she was lying. It was the property and the riad which were the symbol and the keys that were of the utmost importance. It was the keys she had been after all along. The rest was just something that came with the keys.

The windows of the shop were painted over with a liquidation sign. The shop wasn’t closed but in an instant all of her fears were regrouping into a tight ball of anxiety that instantly grew to fill all the space within her skin. She grasped the door, pushed it open. and stepped into a maelstrom of chaotic energy.

All of this madness filling her in an instant as she opened the door.  On the heels of it, the logical part of her mind reminding her that she owned the riad, she owned the property, and she owned the keys. They were hers and she would get them. Nothing would stop her. They were just a symbol for something else in her psyche, something she felt she needed. Even if they were lost, she could replace them. The keys were unimportant or at the very least, not as important as she was making them out to be.

“How odd I’ve suddenly become,” she thought to herself as she pushed the door closed behind herself. She had become obsessive about something as curious and unimportant as an old set of keys. Yes, they were beautiful, but her obsession with them had caught her by surprise even at the same moment that she had recognized that obsession. She paused, looking at her reflection in the mirror on the wall of Thahab.

Her blue-eyed reflection looked back at her actual self with a tilted head, high cheekbones, and perfectly styled golden brown hair. Her long perfectly shaped legs emerged from under her red London Fog raincoat. Ankles sculpted as if by Cellini – which were always the answer to silly party questions about her favorite body part. Given her goddess-like measurements, people always thought she was being demure or funny when she claimed her ankles as divine, but in truth, there was no other part of her physical self that brought her such joy.

Several deep breaths and a forced smile  to hide anxiety. Such was her stress level that she hadn’t even seen the state of Thahab despite standing in it.  As she established control, her tension began to dissipate, and she stepped forward with fears vanquished and her logical mind once again in charge. This now clinically observed obsessiveness told her that something had shifted within her and was trying to find a place to settle. Her perfectly ordered inner world was in chaos. Lordy, Lordy, Colette Forty.

Handbags and packing materials were scattered pell-mell as sophisticated looking women went through them like impovershed spinsters at a rummage sale. She quickly surveyed the shop but didn’t find a man in it. Pierre-Antione, his chair, and his dog were nowhere to be seen. A regal woman with dark hair and an Egyptian temple style dress stood behind the counter watching the proceedings and shouting answers to women who lifted brightly colored handbags demanding prices.

“$650”

“$425”

“That one is half-price but still $1200.”

She smiled at Colette between pricings. Colette swallowed the scream she felt inside her “Where are my keys?” – it was an act of will more powerful than ignoring the desire to wipe away rivulets of sweat in the boxing ring, but she overcame the desire. She smiled back at the woman as she wove her way between frantic uptown shoppers. Colette controlled her raging anxiety and refrained from shrieking “Out of my way, you bag toting bitches!”

“Ladies! We’re going to be closing in five minutes. Please bring your purchases to the counter and I’ll ring you up – if you aren’t in the queue in the next minute or two, you will have to come back later today when we re-open at 4 pm.” Her voice was deep and throaty from a lifetime of Pall-Malls. She had a jazz singers rasp on a deeply resonant voice of authority. Her tone was feminine and melodic, but had just the right amount of sandpaper to make it sexy. Her temple gown accentuated that observation. Not many women could pull that outfit off. She was in her mid-forties, possibly even her fifties and wore heavy gold arm bands around her biceps and a golden collar that perfectly accentuated her olive skin. The light blue temple dress and 1920’s bob haircut completed her look. A purple sash demurely and elegantly covered her shoulders.

Colette stood in the doorway, demanding her attention, but the chaos had moved from the stacks on the floor to the growing queue and she had no choice but to fall into the line if she wanted to be seen. She was last, but she had a place and she would be seen. Her restless nervousness grew until she thought she might explode. She imagined lashing out at the women around her with fists of furious anxiety while screaming about the relative unimportance they and their handbags held in comparison with her missing keys. In that ridiculous fantasy, she regained her composure and calmed herself.

The cashier’s dark eyes looked up from time to time and surveyed the women and their purchases. The deep black mascara and blue eye shadow contributed to her powerful mystique even as she rang shoppers up. Her eyes lingered on Colette, taking in the fact that she held nothing to purchase.

Fire hydrant red lipstick and long black eyelashes drew attention from immense amount of gold ornament she wore, something which Colette immediately noticed. As a jewelry designer, Colette was acutely aware of jewelry – especially gold and she immediately decided that the woman was wearing actual gold jewelry – not costume or gold-plate. This ‘clerk’ was wearing someone’s annual income in jewelry. There was more to her than an aging shop girl.

Finally reaching the counter, Colette steeled herself to make the demand for her keys.

Before she could say a word, the woman looked up and said “You are she.”

“Excuse me?”

“The woman who bought the keys, that is you, correct?” Somehow it sounded natural that this woman would say she had bought the keys and not the house. It was how she had been thinking of it  all morning. It was the source of her panic.

“That’s right, but Monsieur DeFou forgot to give them to me at the bank…”

“Oh no, he didn’t forget. My brother never forgets anything.” Colette was surprised by that, this woman looked far too young to be the sister of the shop proprietor.

“You’re brother? How is that possible? He’s at least…” Colette realized she was about to guess the woman’s age out loud, a serious faux-pas she refused to make. “He seems far older than you.”

The woman laughed. “Oh, you are kind but we are both far older than we look. I have simply taken better care of myself and as a result he’s aged much worse than I have. My makeup and jewelry certainly helps to hide my years.”

“Yes, I suppose it does. Your jewelry is magnificent.” Despite herself, Colette was drawn into the woman’s story while, for the moment, forgetting the entire purpose of her being there. The speech she had prepared while waiting in line was as invisible as the lines of age that were missing from the woman’s face. She stood transfixed as the woman came around the counter and moved towards the door. She pulled the blinds and locked them both inside before turning with a smile.

“He didn’t forget. I asked him to distract you so that I could give them to you. I told him that I wanted to meet you and this seemed like the best way.”

Colette remembered the keys, remembered her reason for coming to the shop. “But what about my…the keys. When will I get them?”

“I have them here.” The woman reached under the counter and brought the keys up in her perfectly shaped hand. As she handed the ring of keys to Colette a sudden weight was lifted from her soul. An electric wind ran through the room and the woman smiled and held out her hand in greeting.

“My name Chloestibel, but my friends call me Chloe. I do hope that you will forgive me for this subterfuge, but I wanted to share some important details about that which you have purchased. Not least among them being why you’ve done so. I felt that it was very important that we have a chance to sit down together.”

Colette took her hand and introduced herself. “Well, you already know that I am Colette, but still it is nice to meet you Chloe – although I wonder if this meeting might have been easier if we had simply done it another way.”

Chloe didn’t let go of her hand and instead led her  to a wooden bench off to the side of the room.

“Where is your brother? Why has he closed the shop?” Colette had so many questions and wasn’t absolutely positive where to begin with them. That seemed a good place.

“I don’t have these answers, Colette. He is like that, he sets out on his own from time to time leaving the rest of us to clean up whatever might have occupied him. A few months or years later, he pops up somewhere and we all gravitate to wherever he might be. We are an odd family, but very close. Our rituals and lifestyle usually don’t make sense to those around us. Did he do the thing with the blue bottle?”

Colette was startled by the question. “Yes, he explained about the tradition, but I cut my hand by accident..”

Chloe laughed, a cynical throaty laugh. “That was no accident, that is how it always happens… Listen, I want to share a few family secrets with you – things that Pierre-Antoine might not have told you. By taking ownership of this house, you have by proxy become a part of our extended family. Don’t worry, we won’t be dropping by to borrow money, it’s not that kind of family but some knowledge could be important for you.”

Colette felt uncomfortable being brought into this odd family’s business but then, she had bought their ancestral home so she nodded and waited for Chloe to continue.

“The house and property that you’ve bought was built with a specific philosophy in mind. Like most houses it has four walls forming the base of the structure. In this case, the walls are aligned with the points of a compass. Each point of the house, is a cardinal direction. So, for example, the front door is in a wall with a corner that is North and a corner that is East. Walk out the door and you are facing Northeast.”

“In life, it is our family’s long held belief that symbols often help us to understand the world. For example, east. East is the direction for family, home, the feminine and the things of the earth. Gold for example is an eastern element. As women who love jewelry – we are both very oriented towards the east.”

“North, on the other hand,is the element of the mind and thought. It is the element of conflict and reason and when combined with east, it indicates a battle that must be fought to establish a home. The door was put in the north-east wall for a reason. I’ve pointed you in the right direction, but you will have to find the true reason on your own, I can only tell you so much but the action is up to you.”

Colette listened while she fidgeted lovingly with the ring of keys – “These keys..” she said. “What is it about them? Why do they feel so…..important?”

Chloe peered into her face, for the moment, looking ancient. “Inside the riad there are ten doors. Outside of the riad there is one door. Under the riad there are many more doors. These are the keys to all the locks that open those doors.”

Colette nodded. “You mentioned the north and east corners. What about south and west?”

Chloe smiled in approval “South is the direction of the wind. Spring, air, warmth, fire. South is the direction of the spiritual and it is this direction one should go when looking for answers. West, west is the direction of love, the heart and emotions.”

“The riad, it is built with these four cardinal points and their influence in mind. What you find inside will be more easily understandable if you are able to orient yourself to the proper direction and look at things from this perspective. Like life, everything can be explained by these four concepts.”

Colette was mesmerized by this suddenly very spiritual encounter with what she now recognized as an ancient soul.

“The combinations of the material world, the mental world, the spiritual world, and the emotional world are the colors that paint the canvas of our reality. There is no situation which cannot be accurately explained using a combination of the four directions. Our present world is ruled by the materialist perspective. The scientific revolution emphasized the mental perspective.”

“Not so long ago in the Victorian era, there was a far more heavy romantic influence and further back, the spiritual held sway. Each element, each direction, each time has a period of influence and conflict. The northern winds are currently carrying us, but eventually, that too must change.”

“The world can be explained by all of this. It’s important for you to know this before you go to the riad.”

Colette honestly asked the simplest and most important of questions “Why?”

Chloe smiled with centuries of wisdom and worlds of compassion. “That is the question you need to constantly be asking, child because it is the only way to discover the answer.  I’m afraid there’s nothing more I can tell you. I hope this is enough.”

 

Chapter 4

The Empress

Colette’s travel arrangements should have been simple but quickly became far too complex. Her plan was to do a sort of Eat, Pray, Love trip. She’d loved the book and hated the movie. She wasn’t trying to find herself through traveling and having adventurous affairs, but she planned to use her time to get to know herself better and a foreign culture meant that she would be able to do that without the distractions of home.

Her initial plan was to fly from New York to Paris. From Paris she would fly to Morocco and then after visiting the riad in Morocco she would go to Barcelona, take a few days for an island retreat on Tenerife in the Canary Islands and then finally, back to Barcelona, back to Paris, and back to New York. She’d planned it for a six-week holiday/adventure.

The first problem arose in Paris. A bag-handler strike had closed virtually every flight from Paris to Morocco so once she arrived in Paris she learned that the only flights to Morocco in France were from  Marseille.  From Marseille, she could catch a flight to Casablanca. She would have to take a train to Marseille and that meant a few days extra in France but that was not such a problem. The problem was really something else entirely.

The problem was ‘the Empress’. It was the sarcsastic nickname she had been calling her mother since her teenage years. The Empress, The Queen of Everything, Her Ladyship – they all carried the same meaning and honestly, her mother wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at hearing them – in fact, she was fairly to approve approve!

Susan Hemmings-Samson was one of those waspy New York socialites who insist upon keeping a remnant of familial royal heritage close enough that it was certain to fall within noticing range of everyone around her. Her grandfather had been the brother of the Earl or Duke or Baron of something or other, or perhaps it was her grand-uncle – the exact relationship was never made clear to Colette, but often referred to by the and pretensified form of ‘my dear uncle the Duke‘ during polite conversation. Susan wasn’t so gauche as to say “We come from royalty” but her every movement and action told whomever she was talking with that it was so. Most importantly, she was just the type of woman who could pull it off without anyone making fun of her. No one dared question her vague royal lineage – except her daughter.

When her mother found out that Colette was taking a trip and had bought a ‘palace’, she insisted on making her daughter’s departure a social event even though Colette asked her not to. She invited her snooty socialite friends for an afternoon of crumpets and tea. She insisted that Colette attend and though it was the day before her departure – Colette found herself unable to say no.

“Darling, you muuust come. What will Mrs. Brixton think if you leave without saying goodbye?” Colette wasn’t quite sure who Mrs. Brixton was or why what she thought mattered but she did owe it to her mother and her friends to give them something to talk about – it was these women who had given her the initial start in the jewelry design business. Many of them were among her top clients. Some of them had obscene amounts of money to spend, while others simply had to keep up the appearance of a legitimate family reputation amidst declining family fortunes.

Colette’s mother wore an ostentatious white dress and was sitting on the verandah of her garden when Colette arrived. It was Colette’s insistence on an afternoon tea garden party that had kept this from becoming a true ‘social event’. Her mother was peeling the skin from a pomegranate, seemingly oblivious to the danger this put her white dress in. That was her mother – Colette had no doubt that through the whole process not a single drop of blood red juice would be spilled on the fresh whiteness of that dress. Susan had flowing blonde hair which could have been the proud possession of a woman thirty years her junior. Her figure matched. It was only her face that showed the passage of time. Her skin had wrinkled like a bleached raison left too long in the sun.

The tea party was a gathering of aged women in dresses too fancy for daily wear and funny hats. They took delicate sips of expensive tea with their pinkies extended nearly as far as their privilege. A delicious assortment of sandwiches, crusts removed, fed a collection of women who had once been the darlings of the socialite scene. Over time, of course,  many had their teeth removed and the majority of them had also been removed from the top tiers of society due to their ‘eccentricities’, loss of family fortune, or fading influence. Her mother reigned supreme over this court of oft-forgotten and twice removed aristocracy.

“Darling,” her mother motioned her over. She wore a small diamond tiara which sparkled in the light and created a magical aura of her hair and those bright blue eyes shining from her tiny wrinkled face. She made small motioning gestures with her free hand – the other still holding the pomegranate, the seeds of which seemed to be lining themselves up in an orderly fashion on the plate beneath it. “Tell Mrs. Granita-Hollingsworth about your palace…”

Colette sighed. She hadn’t expected it, but she should have. Her mother, upon hearing that a riad was a sort of Moroccan palace, had immediately begun calling it a palace. When Colette explained that it was  a glorified farm house and had been the family home of Jewish refugees, her mother had tut-tutted her. “A likely story, more likely the retreat of a dauphin or some displaced royal personnage who needed to escape the intrigues of the Sun King’s court…”

The Empress had never let her imagination grow old. Like all women of her class, race, and age – she was raised with a casual institutional racism that she would deny, but she had immediately thrown the words Jewish out as being ‘of the wrong sort’ and instead began to refer to the riad as the palace of a French dissident.

“Colette, did you bring the keys?” She had not brought them but that was no impediment to her mother who began to regale Mrs. Granita-Hollingsworth with stories of how the palace steward must have been a massive man to carry such a heavy weight of keys at his belt. “He was most certainly one of those giants from the Atlas mountains, captured by the Prince and then trained as a personal valet…” Colette had never heard of giants in the Atlas Mountains, but then neither had her mother, Mrs. Granita-Hollingsworth or the other ladies. They would all repeat the story over time and thus give it more reality making the imaginary into the real – as happened frequently. It was one of the skills that made the Empress the social leader of her pack. Colette’s mother could have been at home among the true elites, but as just one of many – not as the alpha female. She preferred to hold court over a collection that looked up to her, rather than making herself common. Better to be the queen of the beggars than a subject of another. She kept her admirers and sycophants like pets and this was what raised her to the status she enjoyed.

“Colette,” her mother’s eyes met hers with an intensity she had rarely seen before. “I must speak to you in private” To the gathered ladies she announced “Pardon us, please. It’s time for me to pass on some motherly advice before my girl goes running off on her adventures…”

She said it as if she weren’t talking about a successful, career minded woman who had just turned forty. Colette had no choice but to be led off by the elbow to her mother’s sitting room.

“Darling. There is something you must know.” Colette looked at her mother and waited. Her mother adored the dramatic and insisted that everyone play their role in the dramas she created around herself. “Now that you have reached forty, there is wisdom that I can share with you.”

“Time is your greatest ally. If you can think further ahead than those around you, you can mold people’s thinking to whatever it is you want them to think. It doesn’t matter if you are working with rich or poor people, you need to be ahead of them in time. For time is the greatest of illusions and only those with true insight recognize that the distant future is as close as the present. Like my beautiful garden, each section must be planned, the soil prepared, and the seeds laid at the proper time. Cultivating social status, relationships, and even repairing an old house – they all require this understanding of time.The present moment determines the future and you can shape it to your own desire. I knew that this would be what my old age would be like when I was just a girl. I worked backwards from it to discover what I had to do to get here. The first steps seemed ridiculous to those around me. I dug up the Duke and brought him back to life. I made him more important in the future than he had ever been in the past or present. As long as my life exceeded his, I knew this was where I would be. You, my darling, you will do fine, but don’t get in a rush and forget that the future is more about right now than the past is.”C

Colette had never heard her mother speak this way, with no pretense and no agenda.  The smile lines crinkling around her ancient blue eyes verified that the words had been long thought out and prepared in advance, just for her. She wasn’t sure why her mother had chosen this moment to give her these words, but she carefully noted them and etched them into her consciousness.

And then the cunning pretense had returned ‘Now…I believe that Mrs. Crupfield-Jacobs has some questions she wants to ask about this Moroccan Prince you’ve inherited the palace from…”

Chapter 5

Good To Be King

Colette wasn’t a fatalist, but a part of her had expected more problems than she encountered on the trip to Morocco. Yet, nothing unpleasant happened – in fact, it was almost boring. She had expected to run into problems with tickets, passports, border control, transfers – but even in Marseille where she had to catch a budget flight – everything went easy. The only real drama of the entire trip was when some idiot had left his bag unatteneded in a boarding area – the result of which was some seriously melodramatic action with a bomb squad and a squad of uniformed police surrounding the suitcase, only to have the clown who left it come out of the bathroom and apologize.

Aside from that, it was a silky smooth trip.

Arriving in Casablanca, she expected to find herself on a dusty airfield, but instead of being in some glorious recreation of a Humphrey Bogart movie where she was cast as Loren Bacall, she emerged from her plane down a ramp. Mohammad V International Airport was a modern steel and glass terminal building complete with luxury shops. She could easily have been arriving into Boston rather than what she had always thought of as the most romantic city in Africa.

Still, an overwhelming sense of things being different slapped her in the face as she debarked from the plane. Things were very different but she couldn’t put her finger on exactly how. Certainly the architecture looked the same – at least inside the modern terminal. Still, it was different. The exact difference tickled the edges of her consciousness. Finally, she was able to corner the disorienting sense. It was the smell.

Cumin and cinnamon permeated the air in Morocco. Even within the terminal of the Mohammad V Airport Terminal. Morocco smelled different to anywhere else on Earth. There was no denying it (and no reason to). She had an even harder time deciding whether or not she liked it.

The severe looking agents at customs worked methodically and she could already see that her usual free form approach was going to be one of the big challenges in adjusting to Morocco. In Morocco, to get anything done, one must have a plan. This was true on a large scale but also apparent in the haphazard way people took to getting in line or in any of the things a person coming from the orderly west might take for granted. She could see that if she stood in the disorderly funnel shaped line passively – the flow of other travelers would simply keep her from moving. Standing in line was an active experience that required one to fight for their position.

‘Expectation leads to disappointment,’ this had been the wise counsel of the Buddha centuries before. She took that to heart as she arrived in Morocco because she could already see that whatever expectations she might have about this country – and about her riad, would need to be severely checked once she departed from the arrival area.

Colette was notoriously brave among those who knew her. Many of her friends would have described her as intrepid -this however, was not all that true.  She had flown from the  USA on a first-class flight and was the kind of traveler who enjoyed niche specialty tours, the kind that impressed her friends with being so different but which were, after all, organized tours. She was not generally, that breed of ultra-independent superwoman solo traveler they made her out to be. What she was, though, was open to adjusting her experience to fit with whatever the conditions on the ground might be. She was flexible, not intrepid. Looking at Morocco for the first time, she felt confident that she would need every bit of that flexibility.

Having decided that, it was a nice surprise when she was met at the arrival area by Simo, a heavy-set young Moroccan man with hints of a beard framing a jolly round face. The sign he held said “Madame Colette Samson. He had drawn a smiley face on it – something that she would have thought was forbidden in an Islamic country. It was the first of many times when her expectations about what Islamic would mean were completely and totally wrong. She’d hired Simo though an agency that specialized in helping foreigners find local assistants to assist them in navigating their way through Morocco. He was part driver, part guide, and part secretary.

She’d hired Simo to pick her up, act as her translator, and be her ‘Man Friday’ while she tried to figure out what she had gotten herself into. She’d looked for someone from Sanhaja, but there was no one she could find. She had contacted Simo’s agency because they specialized in personal assistants for foreigners. Most of them spoke French instead of English. Simo, however, seemed to fit the bill of what she was looking for. He had a car, he spoke near fluent English, he was college educated, and he had a background in building and construction management. Seeing his big round smiling face atop the grey striped Djellaba he wore, she was certain she’d gotten lucky. His salary was $92 per day and that included the use of his car and gasoline. For her, it was a bargain, for Simo it was a fortune. The smiley face on the sign and the smiley face on Simo both assured her that she had been blessed with the right person.

Culture shock is rarely instant but always instant. You can be fine, walking along as if you are in the most familiar setting in the world and it will sneak up like a kidnapper and throw a bag over your head. Colette was now the unwitting victim of that as she suddenly became aware of just how different this place was to everything she had ever known.

“Salam a lyceum,” she said “You are Simo?”

“Wa leycum Salam. Oui, I am Simo. Welcome in Morocco Madame Samson. Marhabbakum.” Hmmm…maybe his English wasn’t as good as it was represented online, but it was good enough. He gave a funny little bow which  reminded her of the odd old Monsieur DeFou. Really, Simo with his chubby belly and general roundness was nothing like the old magician but there was an unmistakable something that connected the two. DeFou had been sharp where Simo was blunted. DeFou had been quite old (even older than she’d first suspected) but Simo was barely out of boyhood still had the rounded body of a child wrapped around and over his dark features. He made her think of a puppy with his big dark eyes. “You had a nice flight? Everything is okay for you?”

He continued “Yes, I am Simo and I am here to serve you and take care of all your many questions or consequences you may have.” Colette smiled him. She was certainly glad to have someone who would take care of the consequences, though it was an ominous mis-statement. Hopefully there would be no consequences.

As a child, her mother had often threatened her “If you keep acting this way, you will have to live with the consequences!” She had thought ‘The Consequences’ were friends of her mothers, just like the Cunninghams and the Brightons were. Her mother was unaware of the misunderstanding until one day when five-year-old Colette burst out “But I don’t want to live with the consequences, I want to live with you!”

Colette couldn’t help it, a giggle escaped her at the memory and the idea that she might ‘have’ ‘The Consequences’ at last. Thankfully she had Simo to take care of them.

Thinking of her mother, she realized that she didn’t want to be treated like a royal. “Simo, please call me Colette. Madam Samson is my mother. Thank you for being here on-time.”

Simo smiled with boyish charm and delight. “I’ve been here for seven hours Miss Colette, I thought it was best to sleep in the airport just in case you decided to come early.” He took parts of her suggestion, but it was too informal so he added the Miss to it. She decided to let it go. She kind of liked the sound of Miss Colette. It was far better than Miss Samson.

“Are all Moroccans as dedicated to their work as you?” she asked him.

Simo laughed. “No, they think me a bit odd, I’m afraid.” Now there was a hint of British accent to his English and Colette was certain his teachers had not been American. The accent was funny because it had some of the singsong of a Hindu with the richness of the African or Caribbean. In a word, Simo’s accent was ‘unique’.

Simo directed her attention to a nearby cafe in the concourse. “Most of the Moroccans, we sit in cafes all day and just wait for work to come to us. At least we pretend to be waiting for work and then at the end of the day go back home and tell her we looked the whole day long for a job.”

“Who?” Colette asked. “Who do you tell? The woman of the house? You mean they tell their wives?”

Simo shook his head in the negative. “No, not usually. Their mums. The guys who sit in cafes don’t  marry unless they meet an older foreigner lady or if they get a poor girl in trouble. No one wants to marry their daughter to a bum.”

Colette looked at the guys sitting in the cafe. Most of them looked older than her, some of them were old enough to be her father. “You mean those guys still live with their parents?”

Simo nodded. “Of course, if they haven’t married why in the world would they want to live anywhere else? Is this your only baggage?” He said it as if she were traveling light.

Her massive case weighed nearly a hundred pounds. Simo happily took the handle and pulled it behind him indicating that she should come along. “Let’s get out of here, it’s going to take us most of the day to get us to Sanhaja.”

He began to walk. “Simo?” His smiling good nature had driven away the culture shock. The bag had been removed from her head. She felt immensely grateful.

He turned and looked at her, “Yes, Miss Colette.”

She pointed to a picture on a billboard over the concourse. The man in the picture looked like an older version of Simo – remarkably so. He wore the same grey and black striped Djellaba, had the same peach fuzz on his jowls, and even had the same boyish rosy glow despite being decades older. The picture hung above the doors Simo had been about to lead her through. Doors which led directly outside and into the blazing African sun.

“Who is that man? Are you related to him?”

Simo looked pleased at her question but he laughed mirthfully. He smiled and looked like he might laugh more but managed to hold it somewhere inside his jolly frame. He looked at her with a joyous astonishment and said  “You must be joking Miss Colette. You don’t know who he is?”

She had no idea. Given the placement and size of the image, she figured that he must be a famous star or entertainer. Simo’s complex blend of delight and bafflement at her lack of knowledge and association between himself and the man in the picture told her that he was someone that she should definitely become familiar with.

“No, I’m sorry. Who is he?”

“Miss Colette, you must never forget his face and always be able to recognize him. That is the greatest man in the world. That is His Majesty Mohammad the Sixth, King of Morocco, descendant of the Prophet, and leader of the Faithful.” There was a electric power in the air as Simo looked at the picture with the utmost devotion. She would have almost sworn that the lazy guys in the airport cafe sat up straighter in pride at that moment. They looked as if they might even go out and find a job, but then the moment had passed and Simo was back again. “Do you really think I look like him?”

Colette found it hard to believe that she was the first to have ever mentioned the resemblance to Simo. It was so striking that she was almost certain it was purposely cultivated by the young man. Either way, she suddenly knew one thing for certain.

The King of Morocco was the biggest star in the country.

 

Chapter 6

Authority Lessons

Stepping out the glass doors of the Mohammad V Airport and into the dry heat of Morocco, Colette was hit again by the smell of the place.  This time mixed in with the spices and coffee there was something else, the smell of burning plastic. Not as pleasant as her first impression, but she was happy to hold onto the first impression.You never get a chance to make a second first impression.

Moving across the drop off zone past taxis, crazily parked cars, and well dressed Moroccan businessmen driving Renault and Citroens, Simo led her to a tan Mercedes diesel. The car looked like a tank from some cold war era movie. Made from big blocky pieces of steel, it looked like it was a model from the 1980’s but Simo was obviously as meticulous about keeping his car in good condition as he was about being on time. It looked pristine.

He stowed her bags in the trunk and then moved to open the back door for her.

“Simo, I’d rather ride in the front.” Colette had always been very egalitarian in this way and was rarely one to put herself visibly over someone else.

“Yes, Miss Colette. Of course, please get in the back of the car.” The young man seemed distressed and Colette was certain that she had finally reached a point where the language barrier was making things difficult.

“I don’t like to ride in the back, Simo.” There, he should understand that.

Simo left the back door open and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and began polishing the top of the car. He wouldn’t look at her and seemed intent on cleaning his entire vehicle before responding to her blunt statement. Colette decided to try another tactic before he had wiped the whole car down.

“Simo? Why do you want me to ride in the back seat of the car?”

Simo let out a breathy sigh of relief, there was something positively feminine about the man even though his bulk was considerable. “Thank you, Miss Colette. You’re the employer and if you ride in the front, it will just confuse people. I don’t want anyone to think that you are my girlfriend.” Suddenly as he realized his mistake, his bushy black eyebrows shot up and his black eyes came to meet hers. She tried (for some reason) to look disapproving but it hardly seemed necessary. Simo was in a tailspin.

“I mean it’s not that you aren’t beautiful. I mean, you are very beautiful, yes, very sexy – I mean not sexy, I wouldn’t say sexy, it’s not that I want to have sex with you, but it’s – you know there is is this thing with Moroccan men, I- they – we – but not really me, just them. I would be very honored to have you as my girlfriend or wife, but what I really mean is that – well, you know, like the king, it’s like the king.”

Despite herself, Colette was even more charmed and amused than she had been a moment before. Watching the man go from washing the car with his handkerchief to unconsciously proposing marriage to a woman he’d just met was not only telling about the personality of Simo, but perhaps it told her something of Moroccan men in general. She would need to be careful in this country, it seemed. Once again she felt lucky to have found him rather than some more polished version of a Moroccan macho man.

Simo had just given her a first lesson in Moroccan mentality. Authority and power were keys in the relationships between people here and it would be very wise for her to remember that while she tried to restore her house and figure out what exactly she intended to do with it.

“Simo. Take a deep breath. Stop talking. I’ll ride in the back.” She stepped into the door he still held open and sat down inside the Mercedes. The interior was brightly colored upholstery that was very obviously not original. On the dashboard a red, white, and black striped carpet had been folded and a number of odd plastic animal figurines were carefully placed in a kind of vehicular diorama. A compact disc with a shoelace through the hole hung from the rearview mirror and Arabic script had been written on both sides of it. The car smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke but also had the aromatic smell of cinnamon and cardamom.

Simo closed the door behind her and walked around the back of the vehicle to reach the driver’s seat. Opening the driver door, he sank into position and turned the key in the ignition. The car started smoothly and Colette was happy to suspect that Simo took as good of care of the engine as he did of the paint job.

“Simo, what was that you were saying about the king?” Colette had followed most of what he had been stammering, but the last bit was a little disconnected from the rest. She wanted to understand better and since they had a long drive ahead of them, this was probably the best way to go about things.

“Oh, our King? His name is Mohammad Six and he is really the best man in the world. We love the king. All Moroccans love him. If there were an election, he would certainly be the only candidate and he would win by a huge margin.” Colette wasn’t sure if his statement had made her think what he wanted her to think, but suspected her own Western ideas had read something into it.

“How does he rule?” She asked.

Simo considered for a moment and then embarked upon a long explanation of how the King of Morocco led his nation.

“Our king is like the father in a family, Miss Colette. He holds everything together and takes care of us. He builds hospitals and schools and he will often make associations for people who don’t have enough money. On our holidays, we wait for him to kill the first sheep or to lead us in our prayers and he makes sure that Allah doesn’t forget the Moroccan people.

“We are like his children but he has many wives and each wife is a different city, so the king has palaces in all of his favorite places and people are often trying to get him to come and stay in their cities but of course, he can’t stay in every city all the time, so we work hard to get his approval.”

“Does he have a palace in Sefrou?” Colette asked. Sefrou was the nearest urban area to Sanhaja. It was where Simo was from.

Simo had a look of embarrassment in his eyes as they met hers in the rear view mirror.

“No, there are some businessmen who have donated land near the taxi stand so the king can come and build a villa in Sefrou. He came to our city three years ago and it was the first time a king had been there since his father cursed Sefrou in the 1960’s so things are going to change very quickly. Once the king’s palace is completed in Sefrou…”

“Wait a minute, Simo. You can’t just say something like that and not explain it any further. His father cursed Sefrou?” If she hadn’t of stopped him, he would have just glossed over that.

Simo began to back-pedal. “Oh, no, I mean Hassan Thani was the father of Sefrou too, I mean he wouldn’t of cursed it but he was upset so he felt like he had to curse it.” He took a breath. “Maybe I should explain a little more about Sefrou.”

“Sefrou used to be called the Garden of Morocco. When King Hassan was a boy, his father would bring him to Sefrou for the Cherry Festival in the summer. It was their ancestor, Moulay Idriss who built Sefrou. It is the oldest walled city in Morocco. Moulay Idriss was the first Moroccan King. He chose Sefrou because just like paradise, it had seven streams running through it and the ground was so fertile that you could simply drop the seeds upon it and they would immediately begin to grow.

“So, Hassan Thani and his father, when they returned from Exile in France, they began to do all the important work of cleaning up the country and setting up a capital in Rabat. The French had built big, beautiful villas in Sefrou and they had put a Moroccan Army garrison there to protect the city and keep things orderly. When the French left after independence, the Moroccan Army stayed in Sefrou but many people began to take the villas for themselves. Also, the Yahoudi were going to Israel and that left a lot of places empty and many Berbers began to move in.”

Colette had to interrupt again. “What are Yahoudi, Simo?”

“Oh, sorry. Yahoudi. The Jews. Sefrou had more jews than anywhere else in all of Africa but when Israel became a state, they all moved away and abandoned their houses and farms. So the French and then the Jews – they all left. It was more than half the population and the people who came to move into their houses were mostly Berber tribes but also some people from other towns who heard they could move into nice houses for nothing. I don’t mean to say they weren’t as good as the French and the Yahoudi, but they weren’t educated. They weren’t craftsmen, artisans, or scholars like those who had left and they didn’t take care of Sefrou.”

“Okay, so what about the King. Was it King Hassan?” Colette asked.

“Yes. After the death of his father, Mohammad Cinq, King Hassan came to Sefrou and I think he was going to build a palace here. Some people say he thought to move his capital here because of his memories being here as a boy and his ancestor Moulay Idris. But, instead, he found that the new people who had moved in had polluted the river, built ugly houses, and destroyed his memories of the place. He was very unhappy.”

“So he cursed the city?” Colette asked.

“Well….yes. He cursed the people and the city for turning the Garden of Morocco into the ugliest town in Morocco. He moved the army base out of Sefrou so he would never have to see the city again and he built his palace and university in Ifrane, which is now one of the richest cities in Morocco. It really should have been Sefrou.”

“Wow. And no one came back until the new king?”

“That’s right,” Simo said. “The older people came out as he walked through the streets and they cried and begged forgiveness and thanked him for his mercy in returning. So, now, people are pretty sure that Sefrou is going to come back.”

“And the king is going to build a palace there?”

Simo shook his head, contradicting his own earlier statement. “No, I think those are just lies. You can’t trust anything a Moroccan tells you because they are only trying to trick you into believing they are more important than they really are. The King though, he might come back to Sefrou, but to be honest, it is just getting more ruined all the time. We have a cherry festival every year but the cherries don’t grow there anymore because people cut down all the cherry trees to build cheap houses. We have to bring cherries from Ifrane now. I don’t think the King is going to leave Ifrane. It’s like Switzerland there and he has some problem and needs to be out of the heat. But, the king is really wonderful, Miss Colette. He makes all the rules of our society and he is one of the richest men in the world. He’s like the Bill Gates of Morocco.”

“But Bill Gates invented Windows and created Microsoft….did the king invent something?” Colette couldn’t help being a bit annoyed when it came to wealth and power worship.

“I’m sure he must have, Miss Colette. He’s the king.”

 

Chapter 7

Driving Miss Colette

As one would expect, Colette had done some research about Morocco before hopping on the plane and she wasn’t completely ignorant about the country, the monarchy, the customs or the culture. Yes, there were some dramatic holes in her knowledge – like what the king looked like, but they would be filled by her boots on the ground. Nothing can prepare you for a place before you actually go there.

Leaving the airport, she felt like she could be in the South of France. The land around the airport looked like any small town airport in the States, but once they turned away from the modern construction and infrastructure, the first of many shocks was seeing a man in a tan djellaba riding sidesaddle on a tiny donkey. The donkey was shaggy and miserable looking with long gray fur and a terribly sad, long face. The man sitting on the donkey looked positively bored as the little beast under him trotted along. The donkey couldn’t have weighed much more than the man, but the little beast didn’t seem to be straining under the burden.

A woven straw basket hung to the side of the donkey. It was filled with tree branches and fodder. Perhaps the donkey was carrying his own lunch with him. She didn’t know if donkeys ate branches or not. The landscape looked vastly more ancient than she had expected from arriving at the modern, new airport, but modern airports are rarely in the midst of the cities they serve, so she wasn’t surprised as the rural landscape faded and concrete buildings rose on either side of the highway.

Concrete was definitely the number one building material in Morocco.  It seemed to be generally left unpainted though some of the modern recent buildings were painted with either a brick red or an off tone and dull yellow color. The color brought to mind pee stained toilet seats, not a image she wanted to keep in her mind or ever have to think about. The keys to the riad were secured in her bag which Simo had placed in the trunk before placing her in the back seat.

“Miss Colette. Would you mind if I turned on some music?” Simo asked, taking his eyes from the road for a hectic moment.

“Yes, of course,” she said, frantically motioning to him that he should put his eyes back on the road. Simo turned back towards the front and began to fiddle with the radio. From what she could see, he was still not looking at the road, but veered just in time to avoid hitting an entire family that suddenly loomed ahead of them in a brightly painted red and blue three wheeled motor-bike truck. Jumping around the stations, Simo settled on one that to Colette’s ears sounded like a couple of women had screamed into a digital recording device, slightly delayed one track, sped up another track, and had someone who didn’t know how to play the violin record another track without listening to the screaming women. Next, the engineers must have dubbed in some distortion. On the blown out speakers of the Mercedes and it was a combination of yowling cats and fingernails on chalkboards.

Simo obviously didn’t feel the same way because his head began to bob happily to the music and she could see a smile and contented look on his chubby face.

The music fit the environment Colette saw rolling by outside and gradually she was able to begin understanding the melodic qualities of it. Moroccan music was like nothing she had ever heard and it took some getting used to. Chalky white-washed hovels made of cardboard, rusty tin, and concrete sat next to huge luxury apartment buildings, classic old art-deco buildings seemingly without maintenance for decades rotted away while residents occupied them with unconcerned abandon. People of shades from pale with cornsilk hair to chocolate in brightly hued headscarves trudged along the side of the highway. Often it was only the scarves that distinguised the women from the men in their form hiding djellabas. She had no idea how one might identify the association of their tribe or region. She was, however,  surprised to see women with their heads uncovered in Casablanca and even more surprised when a deep brown girl in a mini-skirt and a head scarf whizzed by them on a high powered vespa.

“Simo…?” She wanted to ask him about the women and head covering, but the music was too loud and as she looked at his happily bobbing head, she decided it was better to let him concentrate on the road.

As they passed through the city of Casablanca, Colette felt no desire to stop and visit it. The White City, the city of North African romance – but truly it looked like a squalid slum. A mist of smog and heavy traffic veering from the freeway towards the city told her what she would find there. A steady stream of motorbikes, donkey carts, and djellaba covered bicycle riders had position on either side of the road and the tin roofed shanties weighed down with tires, broken bricks, rocks, and old metal scrap to keep the roofs from blowing off told her enough.

A massive minaret rose in the distance and she could see the waters of the Atlantic sparkling behind it. It was hard to believe that New York was across that water. This was more like being on a different planet or traveling through time than like taking a comfortable flight to a modern country. And yet, the billboards beside the highway showed iPhones with pretty looking Arab girls looking at the latest apps or  happy looking Arab families eating Dannon yogurt in ultra modern kitchens. She was happy that none of them said “Lordy, Lordy, Colette Forty!”

All she saw was in stark contrast when held against the countless small flocks of almost feral looking sheep and goats they now began to pass. They were tended by guys that might just as well have been Peruvian Indians hunkered down in their faded work coats and deeply worn faces. A scenic river wound under the highway on one side –  on the other side – a huge landfill of garbage flown over by flocks of green, blue, purple, black, and white plastic bags. The bags held formation with the many gulls that were drawn to human refuse. A big bulldozer pushed an avalanche of garbage towards the bank of the river where it tumbled down and choked it with rubbish and debris that instantly turned the clear water from one side to a toxic looking orange-red sludge. There were dozens of people scouring the rubbish for anything that might be able to provide even a moment’s relief from the abject hunger and poverty they lived in.

The car now carried them into a landscape more pastoral with big cypress trees rising to either side of the road and sometimes blocking the view of the countless hovels and shacks around them. Modern pedestrian crossing bridges were ignored by scarf covered gaggles of girls and women who darted  through fast moving cars and trucks rather than carrying their loads up the stairs to the safer pedestrian way. Colette had known that Morocco would be a land of contrasts but her underestimation had been as vast as the gap between rich and poor. The cat screeching music and the rhythm of the road had a hypnotic effect and despite a keen interest in seeing where she was going, her eyelids closed like drawbridges of a fairy tale castle and she soon entered the blissful land of sleep.

 

Chapter 8

Meeting the Dream Master

The car droned over the highway and Colette’s sleep deepened no longer was she the self of this waking world. No longer was she that proud and gold obsessed slave creating fierce golden jewelry for self-absorbed socialites who were unaware of their own motivations as they were moved like pawns on a world sized game board. She was transported beyond the cloying smell of the spice bazaar to a swirling mist of colors, shapes, textures, and smells weaving their way from one world to another and another. No longer simply in and of Morocco but not necessarily in or about anywhere else either. The sound of the trance the smell of the feelings, each just one more thread woven into the pattern of her sleeping life force and suddenly no longer in the car and unaware but instead a girl on a road near a house where she now faded in and then she found herself someplace entirely different.

The feel of the wool djellaba was course against her skin and the silk scarf caressed her face where it spilled from being wrapped over her hair. The tactile sensory projecting machine that her brain had become went into overdrive. The little donkey jounced and pranced under her and his surprisingly soft fur soothed her exhasuted hands as she stroked him – not for him, but for her. Pierre. The donkey’s big head swiveled to look at her with an appraising look, though she had not spoken his name aloud. The edges of a smile glimmered on Pierre’s donkey lips before the big head turned back forward, leaving the impression that one of those huge mournful brown eyes had winked at her.

Pierre’s hooves clip-clopped as they made their way on the hard cobbled road but became silent as he stepped into the sand. In short order, they began winding their way through a maze of towering dunes. The hump of his back was padded over with a large woolen blanket and his long tan neck stretched towards the sun beating down from overhead amidst the deepest blue skies she had ever seen. As she sat in the basket, the motion of the camel caused her to sway and groove and the song of the Berber nomads who stood on the dunes above made her feel confident that Pierre had never changed but only her perception of him had.

Kneeling down so she could easily get off, Pierre swept the top hat from his head and motioned her forward with a bow. And she wondered at how she had forgotten half of his name for so long and mentally appellated his second name on the first. Pierre-Antoine. He turned and walked back into the desert from which they had just emerged. She watched him struggle up the dunes – an old man in the desert – his walking stick creating a third track paired with his feet. Time stood still as he shrank in the distance until he disappeared from sight first but then also from mind.

Colette stood alone surrounded by the desert wilds. A black tent made of old blankets strung on a round-pointed frame stood in front of her. The two women, motioned her inside and she was not surprised they were her mother and Destiny standing on either side of the doorway.

“Destiny!” Colette said brightly, happy to see her radiant friend.

“Sshhh. You’re not supposed to see me, Girl. He’s waiting for you. Go inside.” Destiny spoke with an unsettlingly crisp British accent. It fit her perfectly despite being false. How was the wrong able to feel so right? Destiny motioned her through the doors.

Her mother, as would be expected wherever she might be, had the final word. “Take your time and make sure that you carry your ancestors on your sleeve. Oh, and Colette, do be a lady about things. This isn’t just some silly tea party. It’s important.”

Colette ducked through the tent flaps and the two women dropped them behind her. The interior was darker than she had expected so she paused to allow her eyes a moment to adjust to the sudden change from blinding light to blinding dark. It was an immense space considering how small the tent had looked from outside. In front of her, a large wooden desk covered with papers and books. This was the workspace of a field marshal or a general at war – a place where lives were decided and battles were won or lost. A single candle’s flame danced on her right creating shadows that taunted merrily the corners of her eyes. As her vision stabilzed and returned to her the power of depth, the discovery of a man looking at her from behind the desk.  His white beard wound among the papers he was working with. A quill pen scratched unintelligible marks on a scroll unrolled in front of him. To his left, an ink bottle. To his right, a massive ring of keys. The brightness of his djellaba now lit the room. He ignored her. She dared not disturb him for his authority shone brighter even than the Sahara day she had so recently left behind.  He labored over his composition, oblivious to her presence..

Finally, he raised his head. The winds of a thousand years sailed forth from his eyes and pierced her bones to the marrow. He frowned. She felt herself on the verge of a good old fashioned scolding. Everyone else had been so nice to her since she had entered this realm that she found it to be a bit of a shock. The look on his face now disgust. He turned to the left side and spit on the floor before turning to regard her again.

“I would ask you about your beliefs, but you don’t seem to have any.” He said it with contempt.

“That’s not true,” Colette answered. “I believe many things. I believe in destiny.”

“Fine,” he spat again. “Tell me about your belief in God.”

“I don’t believe in God,” Colette told him. “I think God is a manufactured control system created by men to control women – and other men.”

His laughter echoed into the dark hollows of the Earth. The soft walls of the tent now rough and hard stone radiating the cold and mocking voice into a chorus of mockery. She wanted to run. She wanted to get away. She wanted to wake up. The realization that she was in a dream came suddenly and with it a sense of power returned to her. She would not go, he would not let her even if she tried.

“Who are you to claim there is no God? Do you think yourself so much better than all of those who believe?”

“That’s not it. They are not my concern. They are worshipping something, of that I have no doubt, but I don’t think that they are worshipping what they think they are. That’s all, it’s just my opinion. I don’t have proof but I need more than books and the belief of others.”

He picked up the keys allowing the scroll in front of him to roll itself closed. “Each of the keys is a window to a portion of the divine. Don’t you realize you have already been put on the path that will lead you to your own soul? The moment you chose the keys, you chose the life you are heading towards and whether you chose them or they were able to choose you – you are now an instrument of their journey. With great power flowing about so freely, do you think there is no one responsible for it?”

Colette looked at the holy man. Who was he?  Had she just told a pope that there was no God? Having labeled him, his image coalesced more closely into that of a pope. A warm breeze wrapped around her before escaping through his chamber window. The scroll upon which he had been writing lifted from among his jumble and slowly approached her. No hand or visible force controlled it. She reached her hand towards it and just short of the hand reaching the scroll, it tumbled to the ground in front of her. She knelt, grasped it, and rose again. Her intent was to put it back on his desk, but things had changed and now he was a man black. The desk was clear of any papers at all. She didn’t want to put it there. Everything in her screamed not to.

“You are heading to a place that is both sad and triumphant. Sad in that the people who built it loved it, created traditions in it, worshipped in it, and loved in it – were forced to leave and have never come back to see it again. Triumphant in that it has found in you a new caretaker and one who shall be trusted, in time, with all of the secrets that lie within. The arcane lessons of time will be laid before you – if you allow them to be. There is no reason to fear, for what is lost is never completely gone and that which is found is never found completely. Give up what you fear losing and suddenly it is no longer worth fearing.” He looked up and she looked with him.

There was nothing to see, but when she looked back down, he had changed again. “Curious, the situation is,” the black pope had become Yoda. “The force one thinks is missing, but missing from the force is one. The force then upon one puts the force.” She blinked.

The man, for he was again ancient, his long white beard nearly reaching the ground. No desk in front of him now. He turned and walked into the corner where he began to chant in Arabic and make mysterious gestures with his long fingers in the shadows against the wall of the tent. Wisps of incense smoke rose to form billowy clouds of ancient symbols.

Colette could see white clouds in the blue sky above as the car hurtled towards her destiny. Chanting sura from the blown out speakers felt far more powerful at a far more reasonable volume than it had before. She was stretched out on the back seat of the car and heading directly towards her future. She just wasn’t sure exactly what that future was.

Yoda. It must have been the sandwich she ate on the plane.

 

Chapter Nine

New Eyes

All the research in the world can’t really prepare you for the shock of Morocco. Colette was rapidly learning that this was a land of contrasts. A massive telecom billboard next to what looked like an ancient mud pueblo, a black window tinted BMW next to a Berber on a donkey, a woman in the full veil wearing Louis Vitton sunglasses and not an inch of her skin showing and two minutes later a girl in a backless blouse with long brown legs in short pants astraddle and bare over a motor scooter.

It was hard to believe that the Jewish people of Morocco had felt such a compulsion to leave – this seemed to be a land of vast tolerance though, as they progressed further away from the sea, she saw a marked increase in the number of mosque minarets rising from village after village. In some cases the minaret stood alone surrounded by fields and she wondered why they had chosen to build in such locations. Frequently, she saw white-washed mud brick buildings with green tile roofs in prominent locations – on a hillside, next to a stream, beside a grove – there was something odd about them. No windows, not necessarily a mosque since many of them had no minarets but they didn’t look like homes either.

Simo was still happily listening to the droning chant of prayers over the cars tape deck and she had to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention. He turned to her…

“Keep watching the road,” she snapped and then instantly regretted it. She felt like she’d just kicked a happy child. “What is this you’re listening to now, Simo? Is it poetry?” It was either poetry, prayers, or both but she couldn’t imagine anyone just listening to prayers on a cassette the way they might listen to the Rolling Stones or a U2 Album.

Obviously straining not to turn and face her when he spoke, he said “It’s Sura, Miss Colette.” And then when she waited for more, he didn’t say anything else – as if he expected her to recognize the name.

“Sura? Is that a famous poet? A singer? What’s Sura, Simo?”

He giggled. “Sura Simo. That would be a funny name.” He turned towards her again with a big grin but seeing her face remembered himself and snapped his head back to the front. “You don’t know Sura?” He sounded amazed. “These are the words of the Quran as they were written by the Prophet Mohammad, Peace Be Upon Him. They are recited by those with the most understanding or the most beautiful voices. Personally, I like the Egyptian reciters much more than the Saudi reciters, but I’m not a pureist.”

He even talked about the verses as if he were talking about music or poetry. So interesting.

“And what about these little white buildings we see from time to time?” They were passing another one and she pointed to it.

Simo looked at her in the mirror with obvious disapproval in his eyes. “Oh, it’s better not to even notice those,” he said. Which of course wasn’t even close to the answer she wanted and just excited a cat-like curiousity in her that wouldn’t rest until she knew more.

“What are they, Simo?” She tried to sound nice though she wanted to strangle him all of a sudden.

“Well, some people say that they are the tombs of saints and holy men. People go to worship them so that they can have the saints carry their prayers to God and get them help for the things they need in their lives. My mother says that they are filled with the bones of donkeys and are a joke played by djinn and Shaitan on stupid people…if you worship donkey bones, you are going to go to hell for sure.”

Colette tried to process all of that but was having a hard time getting past the last part. ‘If you worship donkey bones, you’re going to hell for sure.”  It was said in about the same tone a five year old American kid might say “If you don’t wash the dishes, Santa won’t bring you any presents.” Simo’s mom, she would have to meet this woman, though the thought for some reason made her nervous to think about.

“So they are like chapels or temples?” Colette still wanted to understand the little structures.

“No, they are tombs. I mean people say they are tombs but like I said, my mom…”

Colette cut him off before he could continue. “You can tell me about your mom another time, but I want to know what people in general say about them. They are tombs of holy men?”

Simo again looked back with disapproving eyes in his heavy cheeks and round baby face. “Right. People go to them to get baraka.” Colette was picturing people getting cookies at the tombs but then realized she was seeing baklava in her mind.

“What is baraka?” she asked.

“Really? You don’t know baraka either? Okay. Baraka is kind of hard to explain. We all have two angels on our shoulders that record good and bad deeds and when we die they get weighed to see where we go. If you have baraka, it makes the bad deeds lighter.”

“So Baraka is good deeds…?”

“No. Baraka is baraka. You can get baraka from going to pray at a saint’s tomb or touching a holy person or sometimes people can give you baraka when you make them a meal or are a very good guest or host. It’s not good or bad, it just makes your bad deeds lighter. But all of that is really magic kind of stuff and my mother says…”

“Simo, can we stop at a temple thingy?” Colette asked him.

He looked confused. “What’s a temple thingy?”

“One of the tombs. Can we stop at one?”

“Oh, it’s okay, we have some in Sefrou. We have one of the most famous and beautiful ones at the Monument and then there are plenty around. Don’t worry, you’ll get to see them, but I don’t really want to stop at them, my mother says that you can pick up djinn that way.”

“You mean genies?”

“No, I mean djinn. They live in other worlds but they come out at the tombs because of the people worshipping them. My mom says that the people are actually worshipping djinn at the tombs. They also come through the drains and love empty houses. Don’t worry though Miss Colette, we’re going to spray black chicken blood on your walls and pour salt down your drains before you move into your house.”

Colette just let that one go, it was too much. Apparently he didn’t want to stop and actually it would be good to get to Sefrou and then to Sanhaja.

“What time will we get to Sefrou, Simo?”

He didn’t say anything.

“Simo. What time do we get to Sefrou?” If it had been anyone else she might have begun having thoughts of kidnapping and terrorists but with Simo, she just couldn’t believe that was possible. “Simo.”

As if an idea had just come into his head – Simo immediately brightened. “You’re very lucky, Miss Colette. It’s not very often that people get to come to a Moroccan wedding on their first day in Morocco.”

A sinking feeling pulsed through her body – was she being married off and sold into white slavery? What about her house? When would she get to see her house?

“What wedding, Simo? No one said anything about a wedding. I want to get to my house in Sanhaja.”

“Oh, you don’t want to miss this, Miss Colette. My brother is marrying a Fassi girl and she comes from a very rich family so the there is a big party in Fes. All of my family and friends are there and we’re going to get to Fes just about in time for the food to be served. I checked with my mom and she said you can come as a guest of the family. You are Welcome in Morocco, Miss Colette.”

“Simo, I don’t have anything to wear. I’m tired and want to have a shower…”

“Oh, don’t worry Miss Colette, my sisters and cousins will take very good care of you. They have plenty of kaftans and you can have a shower later. Don’t worry, you look fine.”

There wasn’t really any way to get out of it. She had already learned one of the most important lessons in Morocco – you can’t escape a wedding invitation.

 

Chapter 10

The Lovers

Crap. A wedding. She knew a Moroccan wedding was going to be different from some New York socialite event, but then Simo had said that the bride’s family was wealthy and that meant that it might not be all that different after all. She hadn’t really packed anything that was suitable to wear but Simo said she would be taken care of. There was a part of her that wanted to insist that he just take her to Sanhaja and let her skip the wedding, but another part of her knew that was just the tiredness of jet-lag and the little bit of bitchiness that came along with it.

It was his older brother’s wedding and she’d be damned if she was going to be the reason why he missed it. Besides, this was a first chance to see what this country was really about and to discover something unique and beautiful. Furthermore, she was a jewelry designer and every woman there would be wearing her best pieces – she could expect to find huge inspiration, perhaps meet some important people who would make her life in Morocco better, and finally, she would have the chance to meet Simo’s mother who seemed to be the person he admired more than anyone. Again, she had a vague ill at ease feeling at the thought of it, but discounted that for nerves.

It was this aspect of her personality that had made her successful at nearly everything she had done. A situation came up that wasn’t necessarily what she wanted and she looked for opportunity in it rather than bemoaning her fate and beating her metaphorical head against the wall.

“They live in the medina qaddima, the old city, so we’re going to have to park the car and walk down to their riad. It’s not far, don’t worry.”

“Simo, what about my bags?” the last thing she needed was for her baggage to be stolen on the first day she was here.

“Don’t worry about that Miss Colette. I’m going to pay someone to watch over the car while we’re gone. If you need to bring anything we can take it with us.”

She did a quick mental calculation. She had most of the make-up she might need in her handbag and even if she were to go through her bag, there wasn’t much in the way of wedding attire in it. She’d brought a fair number of things to work in, but not much in the way of dressing up clothes since she’d known she was going to a village in the countryside. There was a pair of spiky black heels that she’d brought with her just on the off chance that something did come up – you could always find nice clothing, but a pair of nice shoes – it was always better to bring them with you. Those and a gold lamee scarf were really all she had to work with. She hoped that Simo’s family really would be able to outfit her. She didn’t want to be the sore thumb in the crowd of revellers.

Driving into Fez fairly took her breath away. High crumbling walls and ramparts winding around the hillsides. Massive mudblock buildings and wide tree lined avenues that seemed to contain nothing but cafes filled with dark skinned, dark haired men drinking coffee or tea that matched their complexions – everything from cafe crème to cafe noir. There was also plenty of golden colored tea with bright green leaves stuffed into the clear glasses. There were guide book wielding tourists strolling down the boulevard but for the most part, Fez seemed to be populated by locals – which made sense, but wasn’t exactly what she had expected.

“This is the Ville-Nouvelle,” Simo told her. “The French didn’t want to live in the old medina so they built a modern city outside of it. Lots of people hated the French, but really, I’m glad they came because otherwise there probably wouldn’t be any medina left at all. Fez’s Medina is the largest car free urban area in the world and it’s the best preserved of all the ancient Islamic cities.”

Colette wasn’t sure about the veracity of Simo’s patois, but it sounded feasable. As they crested the hill and began their way down to the medina she lost all of her doubts. Stretching before her was an endless sea of mud brick buildings crammed together so tightly that it was probably impossible for a car to get through them. Passing through a massive arch, she could see the ruins of what looked like a castle on the hillside which had just been lit as the sun was beginning to sink below the hills to the west. She could see the lights of the medina twinkling on as if some giant hand of God were creating the constelllation – she rolled down the window and at that moment the call to prayer began. There were perhaps thousands of mosques in Fez from what she could see and the call warbled at her from every direction. The Imams were not perfectly coordinated in their cadence nor in their timing and the overlapping waves of the words reached her like waves from the seven seas rushing at an island in the midst of them. Each hitting her shore, bouncing off, creating new waves, and then coming back for more. Even in the car, she had the sense that something magnificent was happening and as they came to a stop at a huge car park filled with city buses on one side and crumbling city walls on the other, she hopped out of the back seat and stood entranced by the sounds, her skin goosing up with tiny bumps and a prickling sensation feathering its way up and down her spine. As the last echoes faded out, she turned to where Simo had gotten out of the car and leaned against the rooftop of the old Mercedes.

“It’s easy to see why this is the spiritual capital of Morocco, isn’t it Miss Colette?”

She had no words but luckily she also had no need to say anything.

A crusty old man with a face like a thousand-year-old piece of leather came shuffling up. His bright yellow vest was the only thing that told Colette he wasn’t coming to beg for change. Simo gave the man some coins from his pocket as the two of them exchanged greetings. “Salaam a leycum.” “Wa Leycum a Salaam.” They were the only words Colette knew in Arabic and she kicked herself for not using them when she greeted Simo and reminded herself to make sure to say it to everyone else she met through her day.

“You can grab what you need from the trunk, Colette. The guardian will watch over the car while we’re gone.” The word guardian sounded so massive when compared to the little man with his four teeth and big empty grin but she supposed he knew what he was doing. She pulled the heels and scarf from her suitcase and stuffed them into her purse. “Okay, lead the way Kimosabi.”

She had no idea why she’d just called Simo by the Lone Ranger’s affectionate term for his Native American sidekick – or was it the other way around. Certainly, she felt anxiety as she followed him into a dark alleyway. How in the world had she gotten herself into this? Was it really just that she had wanted to buy some old keys?

She followed Simo through an arched doorway and entered a different world. The narrow alleyways were not wide enough for cars. As they walked through she noticed hundreds of passages leading off into shadows, each one branching before she could figure out exactly what direction it was supposed to go. The alley they were on was wide enough for three people to walk abreast. “Look out!” Simo shoved her against a wall and three donkeys loaded with coke crates trotted past and around the corner in front of them. Wide enough for one laoded donkey and someone pressed against the wall – she was a quick reviser.

It took about fifteen minutes and what seemed like thousands of years back in time among the twists and turns before they reached a huge wooden door with a brass knocker on it. The knocker was a hand extending downward and holding an orb. When Simo lifted the hand and then let it drop, it sent a hollow sounding thunk through the wood and the alleyway they stood in. Just to make sure, Simo reached over and pushed a small white button which rang a chiming door bell inside.

A smaller door built inside of the large door opened and an enormously fat woman peeked her face from behind it. Her head was wrrapped in a colorful silk scarf and her initial look of distrust turned to delight upon seeing Simo.

‘A Salaam a leycum,” and a lot of talking that sounded affectionate. The woman’s actions matched her considerable bulk as she rushed out and grabbed the portly Simo making him look like a much smaller man than he really was. Colette heard a “Wa leycum salaam” from him but the rest was muffled as he was crushed in the woman’s embrace and smothered in kisses. The woman spoke a seemingly endless torrent of words that sounded like questions but gave no pause for answers. Finally, Simo managed to break away with a big smile on his face and turned to Colette.

“Miss Colette, this is my mom.” He then introduced his mother to her in Arabic and the big woman turned her eyes on Colette who now felt like a small girl being sized up by a new teacher. Apparently the woman liked what she saw because she threw her log-like arms around her and pummeled her with the same question sounding words she had barraged her son with. Her big fleshy lips kissed either cheek on Colette’s face repeatedly and her warmth and welcome threatened to cause Colette to pass out from a lack of oxygen. Simo pulled his mother away.

“She wants to know all about you and where your husband is, what you are doing and all this stuff. I’ll warn you now, she is already trying to figure out if she can marry you to me or one of my other brothers, but don’t worry, that’s just what Moroccan moms do. Please, come inside.”

Simo seemed immedialtely at home, kicking off his shoes and accepting a cup of tea from a more normal sized woman. He handed her a glass as she was led off by two more girls. Simo called out instuctions to them in Arabic and then explained to Colette – “You are with my sister Fatima and my cousin Fatima-Zahara – they are going to help to get you ready.”

As she looked over her shoulder, Simo was heading into a room filled with a combination of men in worn looking suits and men in beautiful djellabas and yellow Fezzes. The girls laughed and giggled but neither of them seemed to know any English. They led her to a room filled with women and children.

All of the women wore the beautiful shiny gowns that would have been the envy of any prom. They were all doing up each others hair and makeup while trying to keep the many kids who ran around from mucking up the place too badly. The kids wore a combination of western and Moroccan wear, just like the men, but the women were all Moroccan and looked like visions from an orientalist painting of the 19th century. Fatima and Fatima-Zahara led her to another girl who was busy doing a big curly hairdo on a big plain looking woman.

The girl turned to Colette and smiled. “They’ve brought you to me because I’m the only one who speaks English. I’m Aziza.” Aziza held out her hand. She had a similar accent to Simo’s but her English was much more British than his. “You might think that I’m just the hairdresser…but actually, I’m the bride.”

Colette smiled and laughed. She liked this girl already. “Very pleased to meet you you, Aziza. And congratulations. Is there anything I can do to help?” Colette didn’t know what she could do but she liked Aziza immediately and loved the fact that the bride was taking care of the other women even as she was getting ready for the biggest moment of her life. Aziza was wispy thin, probably around twenty-five years old and had a long, plain face that was brought to life by huge almond shaped eyes that reflected everything going on around her in bottomless black pools but also pushed out light and smiles in such a way that her face became radiant. Her thick sable hair was wrapped in a top styled coif that seemed to indicate that if let loose, it would fall all the way to the floor. She looked a bit like Maria Carey and Sarah Jessica Parker but with a more olive complexion and more perfect eyebrows. Not model beautiful, but there was certainly something about her that shined – of course, Colette reminded herself – this was Aziza’s wedding day.

The room they sat in would have blown Colette’s mind had her mind not already been completely blown away by Morocco. Walls of colorful blue, red, white, yellow, and black mosaic tiles carefully arranged into eight pointed stars and repetitive geometric patterns. Colette had to touch the walls to make sure that it wasn’t patterns baked into the tiles because the pattern was so regular and uniform. How in the world had they done that? How long had it taken?

Overhead, massive cedar beams were carved and ran parallel to one another. The room was a long rectangle with another huge set of wooden doors that opened into a central courtyard that was bigger than most gardens in New York. The courtyard was filled with orange trees and tropical plants – halekonia flowers and birds of paradise burst out in startling arrays of color. Birds flitted from tree to plant and alighted on the edge of the fountain which merrily splashed in the exact center.

Above the tiles but below the ceiling was intricately carved plaster work that continued the geometric motifs but then carried it further. Three massive light-filled lamps diffused through colored Iraqi stained glass and filled the room with a multihued brightness that carried over to the furniture and the women themselves.

The furniture was mostly low sedan sofas lining the walls all the way around. Massive over stuffed velvet pillows of various shapes were stacked and piled sometimes falling onto the floor in a cascade of silk and lace, which generally was what the gowns the women they wore were made of.

The floor was yet more intricate tile work but covered by beautiful hand woven wool rugs. Various leather poofs and big octagonal tables completed the furnishings and that left the women themselves who were fluttering around like brightly colored butterflies and variously putting on, shedding, or examining the many brightly colored gowns that filled the room. The gowns seemed to be communal property and if one were not being worn or being taken off, it seemed to be fair game. Women sat in small clusters arranging hair and makeup with Aziza sitting in the prime position in front of the lone stand up mirror and make up table. She was the star after all and she filled the role perfectly.

“Okay, first you have to find a gown. There are lots of them here and luckily you aren’t one of those giant American women we see on television. Just go and see what strikes your fancy – with your skin, I would probably stay away from yellow or pink, those go better with darker skin like mine. In fact, the darker the gown you can find, the better it will look…” Aziza turned back towards the mirror and the woman whose hair she was carefully filling with glitter.

Colette bumped into a slim woman who had the most captivating eyes she had ever seen. They were wide and big like a Japanese cartoon character but nearly three times as long as they were wide. Her pupils were the largest Colette had ever seen. The girl hissed at her as she reached down to pick up the package she had dropped “Humara gabi” – and then she was off but not before shooting lightning rods of hate from those big beautiful eyes at both Colette and Aziza.

Aziza laughed. “Don’t worry about her, that was Jamila – she hates me because she wants my man and I won’t let her have him. Now, go get yourself a dress – you can’t stand there all day.”

There was a black gown that suited her perfectly but Colette wouldn’t wear black to a wedding. She wasn’t too superstitious but she knew that you don’t wear black and you don’t wear white. Instead she found a dark royal blue kaftan that wrapped around her like a second skin and made her feel as if she were at home with the paradise of butterfly women that surrounded her. She couldn’t help wondering what the men were doing.

Then, suddenly, all the women were changing out of the nice kaftans and back into much more regular clothing. What in the world was happening?

“Aziza? What’s happening?” She found the girl now wearing jeans and a djellaba like blouse. She had a powder blue scarf wrapped over her head.

“It’s time to go eat,” Aziza said. “We don’t want to get stains on the gowns.”

It was a day of firsts for Colette and the Moroccan Wedding Feast was yet another. She was glad they had come. The women moved into the central courtyard, through the garden and into another large rectangular room. This one was set with low tables and cusions on the floor.

“My mother likes to do things the old fashioned way,” Aziza explained.

The women gathered around the tables and sat in groups talking and laughing. Colette noticed Jamila sitting at a table of very beautiful girls. They were also chatting and laughing, but seemed far less happy. There was something about the way they looked around at everyone as if they wanted to be seen having a better time than the others. And that thought, led to another.

“Where are the men? Aren’t they going to eat with us?”

Aziza translated the question into Arabic before answering and the women at the table laughed and feigned shock. They were mostly middle-aged women though some were far older, presumably Aziza’s aunt’s and friends of her mother. Aziza had told her that her mother would be there soon.

“We eat separately from the men so they can’t see how much better the food we make for ourselves is,” she translated that again and it brought peals of laughter from the women. One or two of them giving a disapporving ‘Hashuma!’ while continuing to laugh. “Actually, it’s just custom. Adil and I wanted to have a more modern weddiing where the guests eat together but my mother…I told you, she likes the old fashioned ways. So the men are next door having their meal and enjoying their time together and we get to have a little party of our own without the men to distract us.”

Colette felt silly for asking but needed to make sure. “Adil is your husband?”

Aziza laughed. “Not yet, but he will be soon. Of course, Jamilla and the evil sisters might still have some sort of tricks they try to pull.”

“But why did you invite them if they don’t like you?”

Aziza looked very serious. “I don’t know how it is in your country, but here, you have to invite your sister to your wedding.” Colette could see it now. The two girls were very different but the eyes were the same, though more pronounced on Jamila. How awful that must be.

The food however, was not awful. Far from it.

The meal began with a girl of around fourteen and a younger girl of about twelve coming around with a pitcher of warm water and a basin. Each of the women held out their hands over the basin and water was poured on them. This was followed by soap and then after a good wash, a rinse with more warm water. The girl with the basin also had a towel which she handed to each guest when they were done.

Roasted chicken served with apricots and lots and lots of bread. Big oval loaves that were only about an inch high but were broken up into dozens of pieces and distributed by the women at the table. There were no forks being used, though someone had brought one and handed it to Colette. She figured, when in Rome you should do as the Roman’s do,  so she also ate with her hands, albeit more delicately than the Moroccan women around her. They’re method was to reach into the big dishes on the center of the table, use one hand to hold down a chicken and the other to rip the piece of it off that they wanted to eat. Their hands were covered in the chicken juice and none of them seemed to care. Colette looked around for napkins but didn’t see any. Someone had put a towel on her lap and she used it to wipe her hands, though she felt slightly guilty doing so.

Next came the drinks. Young boys brought tea, Coke, and Fanta in large bottles and offered it to the guests. The soft drinks were poured into tea glasses. There was also an orange soda called Hawaii which seemed curiously out of place here but also seemed popular with the older women. Colette had tea and upon the first sip realized that there was more sugar in it than if she had taken the Coke.

A second course followed. Lamb with prunes – the process of eating it was roughly the same and while the chicken had been delicious, the lamb was even better. Colette was surprised by the sweetness of all the food since she’d really been expecting more of a savory flavor – couscous, cinnamon, and olives – but this meal certainly had limited amounts of those elements.

Finally, after a leisurely hour of devouring meat, the final course was brought – a fruit plate with dates, orange slices, and cherries. This was followed by another round of the hand washing girls, thankfully. At this point the women were all leaning back on their hands and relaxing like fat old uncles in New York who had stuffed themselves at a Thanksgiving feast.. Colette had been astounded at how much some of them had been able to put away and at times had felt like perhaps it was the only meal they were going to have for the next weeks. Looking around at the happy plump women that surrounded her though, she knew that wasn’t going to be the case. She would have to watch her figure while she were here. If this meal were any indication, sugar and bread were the main staples.

It was approaching 7 pm but none of the women, including Aziza seemed in any hury to get back in their wedding attire. They sat around in small groups chatting and laughing, resting after the big meal. In some cases taking naps with rugs or blankets pulled up over them. Colette couldn’t imagine what the men were doing, but it seemed that the hen party happened immediately prior to the wedding. This being an Islamic country, there was no alcohol which probably was what made it possible. No need to recover the next day from too much wine, also no way to calm the nerves prior to the big moment.

Finally there was a visible sign that this was a wedding when Simo and Adil’s mom appeared with her mascara running down her face. She was weeping as though she were at a funeral rather than a wedding and none of the other older ladies seemed capable of calming her down. It was, surprisingly, Jamila who came to the rescue and hugged the older woman tightly. She finally calmed and then came over to where Aziza was now starting to get up in preparation for getting ready. Jamila stood back with a small smile on her face, it was a human smile, not the sort of mask that Colette expected. Simo’s mom (Colette would have to learn her name at some point) began talking gently to Aziza, primping her, checking her hair, and sometimes simply looking at her. Then, suddenly, she was embracing her and weeping again. There was some serious drama going on here, but since it was all in Arabic, Colette didn’t understand a bit of the language – but the emotion came through clearly. Aziza was now her daughter.

The drama was a signal for the women to move back across the courtyard to the ready room again. Kaftans, gowns, and heavy eye make-up (‘kohl’ was the word Aziza called it) – a sort of black powder that might well have been charcoal powder. This didn’t feel so much like a wedding as a fashion show and it was 11 pm before anything happened that might indicate a wedding was underway.

From outside came the sound of a buzzing klaxxon horn and what sounded like the banging together of garbage can lids. To Colette, it sounded like the noise made by kids trying to create a disturbance in under the Brooklyn Bridge or the sound of drunk Yankees fans after a win as they stumbled out of the stadium, but to the gathered women, it meant things were getting underway. Pushing aand shoving in order to get closer to the bride, they all pushed their way en-masse out to the courtyard and then out into the crowded alleyway where men in brightly colored outfits and shiny Fez’s were making the musical racket and gathered around a sedan chair.

Aziza was push/shoved/guided into the sedan chair. It was a transport suited for a princess covered with white, gold, lace, and carvings. Torches – real torches made of wood and flaming – were lit and carried by men on the outskirts of the crowd while others waved flashlights around the dark alleyways. There was seemingly no concern about waking any neighbors – quite the opposite.  From the neighbors there was nothing but a vast enthusiasm as they spilled from the nearby houses and joined the wedding mob in the street. The women in Aziza’s bridal party held their kaftans up high enough to avoid the donkey shit in the alleys and Colette was glad she hadn’t yet put her spiky heels on as Aziza in her palanquin was lifted to shoulders by six of the most muscular assembled men and carried off into the alleyways of the night. Ahead and behind her the riotous musicians made sure to wake and notify everyone within hearing that something momentous was happening.

Several of the women took Colette in hand and dragged her along with the core of the wedding party making certain that she didn’t get lost or left behind – as if that was possible with the noise and the crowd. The men carrying the sedan chair would, upon reaching a square or a slightly more open space perform a small dance while holding the bride aloft. Aziza did a good job of not looking like she was holding on for dear life as the men did their energetic performances with her held above them.

After a walk (and dance, more of a parade actually) of about fifteen minutes that seemed to circle around and around the Fez medina in tight circles but that offered nothing that Colette could conclusively say she had seen before, the parade stopped in front of another set of the massive wooden doors attached to a high walled house. This time, the massive doors were thrown open and the entire procession entered into an even bigger courtyard filled with men in fancy white and yellow djellabas – for some reason, Colette was most struck by the bright yellow slippers on the feet of every man in the room. They stood in stark contrast to the white djellabas and colorful kaftans that everyone wore. After a moment, she spotted Simo sitting with two older, more serious looking men. He was cleaned up and while he still had the pudgy baby face, she had to admit, he did look handsome in his wedding best – though the tall dark man sitting with him was more of her fairy tale prince type. She guessed that he was the man Jamila and Aziza had struggled over.

The center of the courtyard was filled with another massive fountain but this time there was also a wide open space instead of a garden as had filled the other house. The sedan bearers and musicians moved into this space and began a death defying performance where the sedan was tossed about and twirled all while Aziza continued to look regal – which wasn’t easy because it was her death they were defying – not their own. Still, the performance was astounding and Colette had never seen anything like it in her life.

The fairy tale prince watched with an amused smile on his face and Colette was all the more certain that he was actually the groom in this wedding. With him was his brother Simo who seemed to have inherited all the baby fat in the family and a taller, gaunter man whom Colette could see as a combination of Adil and Simo. He wore a funny Abe Lincoln beard and with his features, it was hard for her not to start thinking of him as Honest Abe, though the Moroccans in the room had probably never considered it. There was a kindness to his eyes as he watched everything that struck Colette as being profoundly real. Certainly he wasn’t the most handsome of the three brothers, but there was something about him…

Colette caught herself – what in the world was she doing? She hadn’t even been in Morocco for 24 hours and already she was looking at men as potential lovers? It was the wedding and the enforced separation of the men and women that had done it. She shook herself out of it and watched the performance and the three brothers with interest to see what their part would be.

Finally, the sedan chair was lowered and Honest Abe stepped up to open the curtains. Perhaps he was performing some role as giving away the bride. He opened the curtains as the women around the room began ululating and chanting some sort of a song which sounded to Colette like “Ah, sa sei luda, ilay, ahmohmaadan ilay do dah! Lalalalaalala!” She was certain she had the words wrong but she joined in anyway as they repeated it and ululated non-stop. She was in a different world – but the tune was catchy.

Honest Abe put out his hand and Aziza stepped from the sedan chair. She looked grateful and managed to look queenlike even though she must have been shaken from having been tossed around so much. As she stepped out, she looked up into the eyes of Honest Abe and he looked down into hers. Behind them, Aziza looked ready to explode – Colette realized she had made a mistake. He wasn’t Honest Abe the brother, he was Honest Adil, the groom! Despite herself, she felt a small sense of disappointment and loss before she realized the fairy tale prince brother was not the groom.

The couple was obviously in love and the crowd pushed in close, the women trying to touch the two as if getting mojo from rock stars – Colette wondered if there was some ‘baraka’ attached to a marriage. The couple was guided to a pair of thrones that sat up a flight of stairs on a balcony and looked down on the courtyard below. Colette kept waiting for some sort of ceremony, but it never came. The couple went to the thrones and sat while everyone else began to dance, sing, and mingle.

At some point, young girls came through with trays of intricate little cookies and gift baskets and then boys came through pouring tea. There was lots of dancing but no dance for Aziza and Honest Adil, no ceremony with solemn words, and no moment when someone said “You may now kiss the bride, I pronounce you man and wife.” Just the couple, sitting like royalty in state, holding hands as they sat in their thrones and sometimes whispering to each other or sharing a joke.

She was happy for her new friend Aziza and her husband Honest Adil. Even though she tried, she couldn’t help looking for the fairy tale prince, but he appeared to have left the wedding – which, despite herself, Colette found a bit disappointing.

Chapter 11

Your Chariot Awaits

During most of the night Adil and Aziza sat in state while everyone else danced, laughed, and chatted. Nearly everyone there made the pilgrimage up to the newlywed couple for photos like they were celebrities or wax statues. It was beautiful. Colette found the temporary ‘celebrity’ of the couple to be far in excess of anything that happened at weddings in the west. On their wedding day, Moroccans became royalty.

Over the course of the night, she was able to meet and talk with Simo several times. He told her that they would head up to Sefrou in the morning when daylight finally came. Despite her desire to meet Simo’s other handsome older brother, she didn’t ask where he had gone even as she felt disappointment at not having the chance to meet him.

Eventually, her curiosity could no longer be contained. “Was that your other brother that was with you and Adil?”

“Who?” Simo had his attention split in many directions. He was smiling at the girls, taking care of Colette, and chatting with friends. He either didn’t hear her or had no idea who she was talking about – or just wanted to painfully drag it out of her. She refused to play.

“Oh, never mind. What time will we be heading to Sefrou? Are we sleeping here?” And so the conversation went.

The festivities went on until daylight crept into the courtyard. Guests had either wandered home or were rolled up in blankets on the floor, on the sofas, or against walls. As the party was died down, Simo found her again.

“You’ll probably want to change back into your own clothes before we head to your riad,” Simo told her.

It was only then she realized that she had left them back at the other house where the women had prepared for the party.

“Oh drat, I left them way back at the other house where the women were. Do you know how to get back there? Can you take me there?”

Simo laughed, “Come this way please.” He took her out of the big doors and around a simple turn in the alleyway and they were faced with another set of big doors that looked suspiciously like the first house they had visited.

“No way, Simo. It was dark, but I know we came further than this to get here. It took us twenty minutes at least.”

Simo shrugged with a smile. “Sometimes Moroccans like to take the long way. Aziza’s family owns both houses, but they wanted to make sure everyone knew the party was happening. It’s all about status and show with Moroccans.”

He knocked on the big door and a sleepy eyed woman Colette recognized from earlier opened it. She stumbled back to the changing room with the two following her. Women were sprawled on sofas and the floor – some of them still in their party dresses. Colette had thought they went home as the party dispersed but apparently many of them had simply come back here to sleep when exhaustion finally struck them. She found her things and closed the door leaving Simo in the courtyard while she changed.

Back in her own clothes, she felt like a different person. Morocco doesn’t waste any time changing you.

“Alright, let’s take you home,” Simo said, jangling his car keys.

“Don’t we need to say goodbye?” she asked, thinking of Aziza and Adil and all the people she had met during the course of the evening.

Simo looked confused. “You want to wake everyone up? Don’t worry, we’ll see them all again. Now it’s time to get you home.”

Colette pictured home. New York and her little apartment. Nope, not time to go home yet. She still had a lot to do.

“Simo, what do you call houses like this?” It was so beautiful. She figured it was called a villa or a mansion, or some variant in Arabic.

“This is a riad. It’s like a small version of yours.” He seemed, once again, surprised at how stupid she was. She could feel it as he looked at her. Actually, that wasn’t fair. He wasn’t looking at her like she was stupid, that sounded too negative – naïve or uneducated.

“I have a house like this?” She was the one who was surprised. Her mother may have been right after all. She’d bought a palace.

“Actually, yours isn’t quite like this. I mean, this one is totally restored and yours is much, much bigger.” As she looked at the big garden courtyard, the three floors of rooms, the giant doors, and the fountain, she found it hard to believe that for what she had paid, she had gotten something larger than this. Of course, it was most certainly a wreck. A cosmic joke that the universe was playing on her.

They reached the car and Simo, who had obviously spent enough time around Westerners to understand ridiculous jokes pointed to the little guardian sleeping in the back seat of the Mercedes.

“Madam, your chariot awaits.” She laughed as he moved towards the car. “Now let’s see if  I can get the guardian out of it. Sometimes guardians are the deepest sleepers.”

Colette felt herself pulled in two directions at once. She was tired and wanted to sleep but at the same time she was excited and had many questions for Simo. He didn’t seem like he was suffering the least bit from staying up all night. Maybe he’d snuck away and had a nap.

The guardian woke easily. Simo gave him a few more coins and held the door open for her. Once she was in, he closed the door, walked around the back of the car and started the engine. Blissfully the radio was off. Yes, pulled in two directions. She wanted to stay and see more of Fez but wanted to see her riad in Sanhaja and that meant getting to Sefrou. She wanted to ask about Simo’s other brother, but didn’t want to sound like some desperate mid-life woman with a crush. She wanted to sleep, but she didn’t want to miss out on the scenery.

“There’s a blanket  folded in the rear window if you want to lie down,” Simo told her. It will only take us about a half hour to get to Sefrou though, so if I were you, I’d stay awake until we get you there.” She was so exhausted. Jet lag, an all night party. At least there hadn’t been any alcohol. It was odd to see people enjoying themselves so vibrantly without the social lubricant involved – though she suspected that some of the younger guys had been sneaking out and drinking a bit – it was what all teenagers did, right?

“My brother thought you were very pretty,” Simo told her. “He wanted to talk to you, but I told him to leave you alone. He had to go to work anyway.”

Yes, she was so incredibly sleepy. “Your brother? Adil? He sat in the throne all night…”

“No, not Adil. My other brother, Yunis. He was sitting with us.” Ah, the handsome prince finally had a name.

“Where does he work?” she asked. He was probably an undertaker if he had to go to work so early (or was it late) in the morning.

“He’s the head of palace security,” Simo said. “He does security work for the king.”

“Really?” Colette was even more interested now.

Simo laughed. “No, not really. He’s a baker and he had to go and fire up the ovens.”

She laughed at her own gullibility. Then, despite her desire to stay awake, she curled up with the blanket in the back seat and fell into a short but very deep sleep.

 

Chapter 12

The Riad

Colette had always known that if you set your expectations low you were less likely to be disappointed, but somehow everything had conspired to create a sort of jubilant sense of what was coming. Even her dreams had her dancing on a mosaic floor and looking into a garden that bloomed with orchids and tropical flowers. She knew, at least the logical part of her did, that her riad, her house in Sanhaja, was probably a terrible little hovel. A wreck filled with rats and squatters – both kinds of squatters – the kind that moved into empty buildings and the kind that used empty buildings as impromptu toilets.

She’d tried to keep herself thinking grounded and thus, keeping herself from being disappointed when she finally saw her house, but she couldn’t help picturing the beautiful Moroccan homes she’d been in the night before. She couldn’t help letting the little girl in her have a fairy tale fantasy – just a bit of one anyway. And so, the inevitable happened.

Simo woke her up. “Miss Colette. Miss Colette.” He was gently shaking her shoulder and gradually brought her out of some kind of dancing dream. She opened her eyes to the bright morning light streaming into the back of the Mercedes where Simo had opened the door. Behind him, she could see a red rock cliff rising skyward with mud houses propped on its side.

“Is this Sefrou?” she asked.

Simo laughed. “No Miss, you slept through Sefrou. We are in Sanhaja.”

She no longer felt like she was in Morocco but instead like she was looking at some cliffside Anasazi village in New Mexico. A line of trees stood between the base of the cliffs and where they were parked. That, plus the sound of water flowing told her that there was a stream of considerable size nearby. So far so good.

Still sitting in the car, she gave a little stretch and then stepped out. On the other side of the road she saw a vast complex of broken down buildings. Roofs had fallen in, graffiti had been sprayed along the walls, the once beautiful gardens that surrounded it were gone to seed with tree stumps that had been hacked apart with machetes. The disappointment hit her with an uppercut even harder than Destiny’s. She’d bought a wreck.

“It used to be pretty nice,” Simo offered hopefully. “I think with a little work, you could bring it back, Miss Colette.”

“So this is the riad of my dreams…” she murmured. Maybe she should just go back to New York.

Simo looked at her with a quizzical tilt of his head. He looked like a puzzled fat chicken from a Warner Brothers cartoon. “That’s not the Riad, Miss Colette.”

“But you said it was mine.”

“It is.”

“So it is the riad.” She didn’t want to play word games right now. She was completely and totally devastated.

“No. That’s not the riad, that’s the hotel. The riad is behind it.” The hotel? No one had told her anything about a hotel. Her riad was behind this broken down and ruined hotel. She felt a tiny tendril of hope spring back to life but quickly stomped on it to avoid repeating the same pain she had just dispelled.

“Who owns the hotel?” She asked, wondering who her neighbors might be.

Simo still looked like a puzzled chicken. “They didn’t tell you?”

“Tell me what, Simo? Stop playing games with me.”

“The hotel is yours too. You own the riad, the hotel, and about four hectares of land that surround it.This is all yours. It goes almost up to the base of the cascade.” Colette hadn’t thought she could be shocked out of her disappointment. She was wrong.  She was a landowner? She owned a hotel? A cascade? It took her a moment to remember what a cascade was. At first she thought of a mountain because of the Cascade Range back in the USA but then she realized that in French it referred to a waterfall.

That little flame of hope flared back up, it wouldn’t go away no matter how hard she tried. She would have to deal with it. She was sure that more disappointment awaited.

“Well, I guess we bettter go see the riad.” She grabbed the big ring of keys that had gotten her into this mess and suddenly understood why there were so many keys on the ring. She had bought more than just the keys to the riad. She had also bought the keys to the hotel.

Simo grabbed her bag and led her around the back side of the hotel’s ruins. She thought about telling him to leave the bag since she would probably need to find someplace else to stay, but then decided to let him carry it. When they stepped around the corner, she saw a big stone building with plain sandstone walls in front of her. Along one side of it a tin roofed shanty had been built. A few blankets and some clothes hung on a line beside the shanty.

The sandstone building had the same kind of big doors she had seen the night before and no windows on the lower level. The 2nd and 3rd floors had numeorus small windows in it and then there were crenallated ramparts which stood above the 3rd floor on the roof. It looked like a fortress. The riad and attached shanty sat in the midst of a big garden that seemed to be well tended. The hotel stretched around three sides. Behind it was a steep slope that the riad seemed to extend into and out of. From this side, the hotel didn’t look as bad as it had from the front.

The door to the shanty opened and an old man in a bright yellow t-shirt that said ‘Brasil’ came out into the light. His gray hair framed an incredibly wrinkled face and his toothless smile exuded warmth and happiness. He wore wire rimmed spectacles and a pair of what had once been brightly colored pajama bottoms.

“Merry Christmas,” he said happily in very heavily accented English. “Salaam a leycum. Marhaban, marhaban. Merry Christmas. ” And at that point he and Simo were hugging and kissing each other on the cheeks. After a few minutes of Arabic chattering and greeting, Simo introduced the old man.

“Colette, this is Ahmed. He’s been the guardian here for his entire life. His family used to work for the owners. He doesn’t speak any English.” He then introduced ‘Miss Colette’ to Ahmed.

Ahmed held out his arms and before she could say or do anything, the old man was hugging her. “Merry Christmas,” he said again, oblivious to the fact that it was May.

“Is that the only English he knows?” Colette asked from behind the embrace Ahmed was still giving her.

“I think so,” Simo said and then asked the old man in Arabic.

“H1N1, bird flu….Merry Christmas Dude,” Ahmed said happily. There was no doubt that Ahmed would be staying, Colette was instantly charmed by his warmth. She gently disengaged from him and walked to the big doors of the riad. Ahmed was on one side, Simo on the other. The old guardian pointed to the largest of the keys and then to the giant lock in the door.

Colette put the largest key in the largest lock she had ever seen. She turned it and heard heavy squeaking and finally a loud click as the tumblers turned into place.

“What in the world have I gotten myself into?” she said out loud as she pushed open the door of her new home.

Chapter 13

The Strength 

One thing for sure, it was going to take all the strength she could muster to make things work here. As she pushed the doors open she was relieved to see that the house was actually in pretty decent condition, meaning that the floors, fixtures, and ceilings hadn’t all been cracked or vandalized. It seemed that Ahmed was a vigilant guardian because when she walked into the courtyard, she cold see a beautiful fountain still in tact.

Ahmed grabbed her by the back of the bicep and directed her towards the rooms on one side. He reached for the keys which she still held and found one of the medium sized ones. Medium being about seven inches long, made of highly polished and ornamented brass. Most of the keys had never really been gold, though Colette liked to think of them as such.

Apparently Ahmed knew exactly the key he wanted because it slid into the big keyhole and turned easily. As the door opened, a rat scurried out and across Colette’s foot. She wasn’t the type of woman who spent her time screaming and jumping when things scared her, but in this case, she jumped and let out a yip. That thing had run right across her foot.

Apparently rat catching wasn’t part of the guardian duties because Ahmed acted as if he hadn’t even seen it. Maybe that was the actual case, because he gave no reaction whatsoever. In any event, he grabbed an old kerosene lantern and lit it before motioning that Colette should follow him inside. The room was much like the one she had been in the night before when the women were getting prepared.

The 16-foot high walls were done up half way with beautiful tile work in big bursting geometric patterns. She recognized some Jewish design and motif work and above that was more of the beautifully carved plaster work. Beneath the thick layer of dust upon the floor was more tile which was mostly intact, though some of it had been broken in the doorway. The furniture had all been stacked in the corner. She could see rugs rolled up and old mattresses that were obviously rat infested. The room smelled of rat droppings. Still, it  was beautiful, but it had no windows facing out, only two shuttered windows that faced into the courtyard.

Actually, that made sense at the same time it made Colette feel more comfortable. The oriental view of the world was inward while the occidental view tended to be outward. She laughed at her own ridiculous philosophising. She would have to go through that furniture but she suspected it was all going to have to be either repaired, restored, or thrown out – probably mostly the latter.

The next room was in about the same condition. The glass in the windows was all leaded stained glass and as she walked through and looked at the house she now owned, she was continually astounded that it was hers. How had she bought this? For one thing, it really was massive. A huge courtyard with a field of a garden in it, the fountain, dry now, but obviously requiring a significant amount of water to run and these huge rooms, great halls were what they really were. Rooms sounded too…insignificant to describe these.

She was already thinking about how one of them would hold a long table and the other would have her library in it. Ha, her library. That was a project that would take some time to materialize. The bathroom, well, there was a bathtub, but the toilet was a Turkish style squat toilet and she wasn’t sure it would function, in any event, that would have to go. It wasn’t going to work.

A big dusty mirror showed the reflection of a tall woman in long black boots and tan trousers. Her white blouse looked like she had slept in it, which she had, and the black jacket she carried completed the picture. She already looked like the a classic colonialist with Simo and Ahmed trailing behind her. Was there ever going to be any way to integrate here? Was that even going to be possible? Already she was looking forward to inviting Aziza for some coffee and befriending the woman. She needed a female friend here. She was certain of that.

The stairs going up to the second level were uneven and steep. Many of the tiles had broken loose and some slipped from their position when she stepped on them. The house seemed fragile but she reminded herself that it had been sitting unoccupied for over fifty years – so, in fact, it had held up very well.

With the unoccupied time in mind, she found it amazing what good condition everything actually was in.

The second floor was still in pretty good condition. The exposed wooden beams of cedar were as beautiful as when they had been laid and while there wasn’t the same ornate tile and plaster work in these rooms as in those below, the dirty white walls were a bit of a relief from the color and pattern overload she had begun to feel overwhelmed with.

She would make one of the rooms on the second floor into her bedroom. Eventually. At the moment, the house wasn’t suitable to live in. It would need a lot of work.

The top floor wasn’t so well preserved as the first and second. A falling branch had punched a hole in the roof and many years of weather and exposure had done its work. There was a fair amount of rotten wood and the smell of mold in the top rooms on the left side of the house. They would need a lot of work.

The uppermost level was made up of what seemed to be utilitarian rooms used for the kitchen and the storage. There was nothing particularly striking about these rooms, but she could see some potential for them none the less. Ahmed led her up a final flight of stairs and used another of the large keys to unlock a big iron grate that covered the top entrance to the house. Colette understood better now, how he had managed to keep intruders and thieves out. There was no way in unless you had the keys or you went in the front door. The isolation of the house had certainly helped by keeping it both out of sight and out of mind.

From the rooftop she could see the broken hotel stretching around the property. There was nothing short of a complete rebuild that would bring the hotel back to life. A big concrete pool now filled with dirt and rubbish occupied a fenced yard – something would have to be done about that too. And she would need to do something about the rats.

Beyond the hotel she could see the line of trees alongside the river. Following it with her eyes, she could see that it led to a massive waterfall that came down in three streams. It was much, much larger than she would have expected and she still couldn’t quite comprehend that it was hers. Cascade was a nice word for it. It poured down the red, tan, and brown rocks that had been worked smooth by thousands of years of hydraulic action.

Colette began the short walk up to the cascade with Ahmed and Simo following her. The trail was well worn and littered with rubbish. Without the trash, it would have been magnificent. She reached the cascade and found more that would need to be fixed.

A carefully planned tourist deck, now broken and completely falling apart had been built next to the falls and then through mudslides and neglect had been undermined by the water and finally had broken in half so that it looked like some relic from a long lost concrete making civilization. Several young Moroccan couples stood on the platform, alternately holding hands, cuddling, and then breaking off nervously and looking around nervously to see if anyone was watching. Older Moroccans stood or sat at various viewpoints around the cascade.

An older Moroccan man in a dusty grey suit stood nearby. He had a big camera that looked like it had been transported directly from the 1930s. The big tin flash cone attached to his camera sparkled in the sun. The man’s suit, his bad haircut, and the camera together formed a picture of a bored reporter waiting for a scoop. Actually, he was hoping to take photos and sell them to the shy couples that were there on romantic trips and wanted a moment.

Colette felt completely overwhelmed. The hotel, the house, the odd people she had bought it from, the fact that she was here, and that now…she apparently had two servants. A driver and a caretaker.

“Ahmed, do you speak any English?”

“H1N1,” he said cheerfully. “Merry Christmas Dude.”

 

Chapter 14

The Hermit

It was only a few days after arriving that Colette dove into the work ahead of her with fierce determination. She was consumed by a passion that she wasn’t sure she had ever felt before. The initial tasks were ones that she could handle by herself and so she didn’t hesitate. Simo and Ahmed both rolled up their sleeves and worked beside her. Ahmed sometimes disappeared and then would re-appear carrying a silver tray with glasses of mint tea on it or bringing a big tajine – the cone shaped clay pots Moroccans often cooked in –  and setting it on one of the big tables that they had moved to the courtyard while work commenced on the house.

The wood furniture was mostly surprisingly sound, a result of being built of cedar and thus remaining termite and bug free for all the years it had sat in storage. Anything that was stuffed or woven was pretty well ruined by the rats and the pests. She was able to salvage around a dozen rugs and several carpets, but not much else among the textiles. When Colette asked Simo where they should take the rubbish and refuse, he told her to pile it outside. She assumed a truck would come and get it eventually or they would cart it to a landfill at a later time.

Instead, brought a small mattress outside to throw into the pile, she found a bonfire alight and Simo and Ahmed chucking other rubbish on top of it. Simo had a pyromaniac look in his eye and was searching for anything he could find that he could throw on top of the now towering inferno. Colette stopped him from throwing about a dozen perfectly good pieces of furniture on top of the blaze.

Later, when the rubbish had been reduced to ashes, Simo suggested that he could hire a few women to help with the general cleaning of the riad. This seemed a good idea as Colette wanted to get things as tidy and ship shape as possible before beginning any of the serious construction. She had been staying in the very tired  Sanhaja Hotel about a mile away and she was anxious to get out of there. As rough as it was, her riad was better than the run down guesthouse she was staying in. She couldn’t move in with it being such a mess, however.

The next morning a small army of women descended on the riad with buckets and brooms. Most of them arrived in Mercedes taxis from Sefrou but Simo had also hired a few locals in Sanhaja. She recognized some of the women from the wedding and was happy to see Simo’s mother in charge of the cleaning brigades. She barked out orders like a drill sergeant. No, she was more like a general in a wartime situation as she planned assaults, led charges, and inspected fortifications.

The women had a tendency to gather in the morning sunlight of the courtyard and fall into chit-chat but Simo’s mom who the women  called Lala, would come catch them slacking and then scold and chide them back to work. Despite her size, Lala was a powerhouse of movement and seemed to be capable of prodigious feats of strength. At one point, Colette walked into a room and found Lala holding a huge table above her head while two of the girls swabbed the floor beneath with old rags.

The riad cleaned up nicely. Surprisingly so. The garden in the courtyard was still a complete and total mess and the third floor was something to think about later, but the first and second floors looked almost livable.

“Simo, I want to go into town and buy a bed and some furniture. Will you take me?” Simo was sitting at the big table in the courtyard and eating fish and lentils that the women had placed there. A small tea glass sat next to him along with the crumbly remains of a loaf of bread, called khobz . He swallowed the mouthful of food he was chewing on and washed it down with a sip of tea.

“I’d love to Miss Colette. There’s really only one place to get a bed and it’s in Sefrou, when we come back, I’d like to take you to meet someone who knew the owners of this house. He’s very old and when he found out you were moving in, he wanted to speak with you.”

“That would be fantastic, Simo. Does he speak English? Who is he?”

Simo’s face held a strange edge of concern. “No, he doesn’t speak English. Don’t tell my mother that we are going to go visit him, she doesn’t really like us to associate with him because of the magic. He’s an old hermit that lives in one of the caves up near the abandoned military base. His name is Sidi Ali Brahim.”

The trip into Sefrou was interesting. Colette couldn’t believe that she hadn’t yet taken the time to go explore this fascinating old city, but then she had been going non-stop ever day since she had arrived two weeks earlier. In the central core, there was a walled medina with tall walls and massive gates leading inward to the narrow alleyways and derbs which were more like twisty, roofless hallways. Outside the walls vegetable sellers and junk merchants hawked their wares. Many of them women who had come in from the surrounding hills to sell their family clothing, tools, or household goods so that they could buy food. She was astounded at just how many pairs of used shoes were for sale. As she looked at them, she noticed something funny.

“Simo, I see lots of shoes but only one of each one. Why is that?”

“It’s for security, Miss Colette. Nobody is going to steal just one shoe.” Looking at the shoes, Colette wondered who would steal even a pair of second hand shoes…

The mattress shop was near the big gate. It wasn’t actually a mattress shop but more of a homewares shop. Six or seven big mattresses, kids bicycles, oscilating fans, big plastic washing machines, large framed mirrors with Islamic prayers on them, and framed pictures of Muslim kids praying with Mecca in the backgrount. There were big rolls of plastic Chinese carpets and propane stoves along with various cooking bric-a-brac and all the other odds and ends a household might need.

She picked out the mattress she wanted and told Simo to purchase it for her.

“How much do you want to pay for it?” he asked her.

“Excuse me?”

“What’s your last price?”

“I have no idea. How much is it?” She was still learning that nothing was easy in Morocco, not even going into a store and asking the price. There were no prices. Nothing was fixed, not even in a homewares shop.

The girl who minded the shop stood there waiting for Simo to tell her a price. Simo looked at Colette waiting for her to tell him her price. Colette looked at them both waiting for some idea of how much a mattress should cost. It was a Mexican standoff.

“Ask how much it is, Simo.”

“If I do that, she will give me a crazy price because you’re a rich foreigner.”

“She doesn’t know if I’m rich or not. How would she know that?”

“You’re a foreigner, so you’re rich. Plus, everyone knows that you bought the riad so you must be very rich.”

“Everyone knows?” she hadn’t expected to be famous in just a few days.

“Of course. How much do you want to pay?” It was a nice mattress. Colette had bought a mattress in New York the previous year that was comparable and paid about $2200 for it. She figured the prices would lower here, but then again they might be higher. She really didn’t know. It was confusing.

“Simo, is five-hundred dollars enough?” The girl smiled like the sun had just come out after a particularly long and grey winter.

Simo looked like she’d spit on him. “Are you crazy? You can’t just say a huge amount like that. People understand English. You’re going to make everyone think they can rob you with your eyes wide open.” He tuned to the girl and made a hurried explanation in Arabic before turning back to Colette.

“I told her that you have $500 to spend on everything including a stove, a washing machine, the mattress, fans, cushions, and other things. You have to be careful what you say in front of people, Miss Colette. Everyone understands the money in any language you speak.” The girl looked noticeably disappointed.

“Simo, how much should I offer?” That seemed to be the best way to go forward.

“Why don’t you start with five-hundred dirhams?” He turned to the girl who now looked like winter had returned and personally offended her mother. From that point forward there was much violent arguing between the two that finally ended with Simo grabbing her by the arm and saying “Let’s go, this girl is crazy, she wants too much for it. She is stubborn like a donkey.”

Colette stopped him. “But what about my mattress?  How much does she want for it?”

Simo looked upset. “I offered her eight-hundred dirham as the last price but she won’t go any less than eight-hundred-and-fifty. She’s trying to rob you because she knows you are rich..” Colette did the mental calculation. Eight-hundred dirham was about $100. Eight-hundrd-and-fifty was about $108. Simo was dragging her away and leaving her mattress behind over $8.

“Simo. Give her the price. I want that mattress.” She wasn’t about to leave without it. Simo was not happy and got into further argument with the girl before turning back to Colette and telling her “You are making a big mistake.”

She handed eight-hundred-and-fifty dirham to the girl.  She couldn’t have been more than seventeen years old and the look of triumph on her face was more than reward enough for Colette. Simo, however, was sullen and angry. He didn’t like losing a negotiation to a girl.

“Her father is going to bring it to the riad later. I made her include the delivery in the price. Let’s go.” Despite getting free delivery, Simo was still upset. It was only fifty dirham and he’d managed to get the delivery for it, which sounded like a good deal to Colette. She tried to dig deeper so that she could gain some understanding for his mood, but his answers were monosyllable and he wouldn’t look at her as they walked back towards the car.

As they drove up into the hills towards the abandoned military base, his grip on the wheel of the car was white knuckle tight. Colette realized she had a lot to learn about Morocco and Moroccans. She wondered if he would forgive her anytime soon – for that matter, she wondered what exactly he was so upset about. There must be more to it than what she was seeing.

The cave of Sidi Ali Brahim didn’t have parking nearby. Simo parked the car at the top of the road near the monument and they walked down a dirt sheep trail and away from the kids and young couples who were sight-seeing at the tomb of the saint. The green hills were scattered with rich red patches of soil and big volcanic rocks that jutted up into the air like parts of a modern art display. As they wound down the hillside through scrubby pine trees, Colette noted strips of dyed rags tied to the trunks and branches of the trees. There were odd, whitewashed stacks of rocks in random places and they also passed a massive pile of sun bleached bones stacked against a misshapen rock.

After something like a mile of hiking, they came to a small house that looked just like all the other small houses of the area.

“We’re here,” Simo said.

“I thought you said he lives in a cave.”

“He does. Look at the house, it’s built around the mouth of the cave. It extends back into the hillside. What did you expect that he lived in an open cave like some sort of neanderthal? This isn’t the stone age, Miss Colette. We are not the Flintstones.”

As he said it, they were forced to move out of passing donkeys on the trail. They carried yellow-turbaned Berbers who gave neither smiles nor greeting. It was odd that they’d said nothing as she had become used to the constant religious oriented greetings of Moroccans in their daily life.

“Why didn’t they say anything?” She asked him.

“They’re Berbers,” he explained without actually telling her anything. He was still sullen over the failed bargaining. She was certain he blamed her for it, but uncertain why it mattered since it was her money that had been spent.

“Ya, Sidi Ali Brahim!” Simo stood outside the door yelling the man’s name. There was no answer. By the time he yelled the third time, Colette was so annoyed that she took things into her own hands. Why in the world was he simply screaming the man’s name?

She walked up to the big metal door and banged on it. Like most of the doors and windows in the Middle Atlas region, it was painted a pale sea-foam green. At first Colette had assumed that it was the primer color of the doors, but over the past few days she’d seen that it was more of a traditional color. Simo  had told her that it was the traditional color of the Middle-Atlas and everyone used it. He hadn’t known why.

“Colette, we should go.” Simo wanted to leave without meeting the hermit. He seemed nervous now.

“But we haven’t met him yet.”

“Yes, but the Q’uran says that if you call three times and there is no answer you should leave,” he explained. Just then the big metal door swung open and Colette was looking into what could have been  the tanned face of the shriveled twin of Pierre-Antoine DeFou.

Chapter 15

The Hermit’s Story

“Bonjour. Come in, please, come in.” The hermit spoke English. He spoke English very well with a cultured British accent that surprised both Colette and Simo.

“I never knew you spoke English,” Simo said in a slightly suspicious tone.

“You never asked. If it makes you feel better, I never knew that you spoke it either, my boy.” The hermit sounded jolly.

He ushered them both inside his house. Once inside, Colette felt an overwhelming sense of comfort. It was not what she had expected. She could see that the house did indeed extend back into the hillside but once inside it was hard to tell since the entire interior was bricked in the same way. The cave portion was lacking windows but had another door which presumably led into the cave proper. The hermit led them into a big salon to one side that was outfitted with rich carpets and fuzzy sheepskins along with lots of fluffy looking pillows.

Pillows and carpets were the only furniture. Big shelves filled with books lined the back wall The books were of many shapes, sizes, and colors. Candles flickered from sconces embedded in the walls and between the light from the windows and the candles, there was no lingering darkness.

The hermit kicked off his slippers and indicated that Colette and Simo should do the same. He motioned for them to join him on piles of sheepskins and carpets then settled himself down in a cross legged pose. His simple light cotton djellaba was made of vertical white and light blue stripes and looked comfortable as if it provide plenty of freedom of movement.

“My name is Abraham Conver. People hereabouts call me Sidi Ali Brahim, for the simple reason that the saint on the hillsides name was Sidi Ali and I live near it and Alibrahim and Abraham aren’t really that far apart. Over time, people build associations between unrelated things and I’ve become associated with the saint so that some of the pilgrims who visit his shrine even come to visit me hoping for a little extra baraka. Perhaps you saw their knots and cloth on the trees when you hiked in?”

“I’m Colette Samson, Monsieur Conver. I’ve met your brother. Though he carries a different name.” This was a stab in the dark but Colette wasn’t certain where to begin this conversation. Simo sat in a dark corner and said nothing, brooding. He seemed betrayed by learning the hermit spoke perfect English.

“Ah, yes. My brother the Frenchman. Well, we’ve all adapted to our situation in life, that’s certain. I’ve become a Berber saint while my brother has become a French designer. Still, at the heart of it, we’re still the same Jewish kids, born right here in Morocco. You can take the Jew from Morocco but you can’t take Morocco from the Jew.”

“You’re Jewish?” Simo burst out, he couldn’t seem to contain himself. “I thought all the Jews left.”

“Yes, my boy. You are absolutely right. They all left. Some of them left by leaving and some of them left by becoming Muslim. I’m of the second variety. Allah alahi illahla wa Mohammadan al rassullah.”

“Hamdillah,” Simo said. “A Jew who became Muslim. God really is great.”

Abraham laughed. “The first Muslims were mostly Jews. In fact, I don’t think there is as much difference between Jews and Muslims as you might expect but that could be a conversation for a different day. I’d apreciate it if you kept my heritage to yourself, just to keep things calm and peaceful. Some people have old and ugly ideas.”

Simo looked as if he wanted to say something and stared at his feet. “I’m not going to lie to my mom,” he muttered.

Abraham continued, “Of course, I understand if you feel like you need to say something to someone. Did you know that your grandfather and my father went to the same synagogue? In fact, your family and mine were quite close back in those days. My mother would visit your family home in the Mellah and we would all celebrate the high holidays together at my family’s home…but of course, your mother was only an infant then. ” He let his words trail off to give Simo time to connect the dots.

“You mean…” Simo began.

“Al hamdillilah,” Abraham said. “God is truly great for converting yahoodie to Muslims, isn’t he?”  Simo swallowed and repeated the god-is-great phrase “al-Hamdillah.”

“And that brings me to the matter at hand.” Abraham turned to Colette. “My family home. I understand that you bought it from my brother. Did he tell you the history of it?”

Colette nodded, she was beginning to wonder if this was going to turn into some sort of big family property dispute. “They told me some. I know it was built by your ancestor, Nicholas Conver. I know that the walls are oriented a certain way. I met your sister Chloe and she explained…”

Abraham stood up. “That’s not possible.”

Colette remained sitting. “Obviously it is possible because she was the one who explained about the way the housee is built, although she also told me about secret doors and things underneath that I haven’t seen any sign of. Do you know about those?”

Abraham had walked to the shelves and pulled an ancient album from them. “It’s not possible that you met with my sister. You are mistaken. Also, there’s nothing under the house but dirt and no secret passages. Someone has had some fun with you.”

“No,” Colette said. “I’m not mistaken. She was very kind and her jewelry was magnificent. In fact, I’d love to see her again…”

“So would I,” Abraham said, “But the fact that she’s been dead since 1929 makes that pretty well impossible.”

Colette’s mind refused to accept what he was saying. She latched onto the obvious thing he’d just said which was obviously a lie. “That’s impossible. If you’re sister died in 1929, that would mean that you and Pierre-Antoine would have to be well over a hundred-years-old. I’ve met your brother and now I see you.  Neither of you are anywhere near that old.”

“Looks are often deceiving and we are both far older than we look. I was born in 1911, Pierre-Antoine was born in 1916, our older sister Chloe was born in 1906 and died when she was twenty-three years old. So there really is no way that you met her. It must have been someone else and you are obviously mistaken.” He was opening up the album, going through the pages as he spoke.

“Here is a picture of my entire family from 1928. We took a trip to Marseille and had this picture taken while we were there. The little guy is Pierre-Anoine, that’s me in the middle, and the pretty girl with the bobbed haircut is Chloe. She was so pretty. These are our parents on either side of us. It was such a fabulous time then, the whole world seemed to be waiting to fulfill our dreams…”

Colette stared at the picture. The girl in the picture was the woman who had given her the keys. There was no doubt about it. The woman had been about twenty years older than the girl in the picture, by looks anyway, but it was clearly her. Of course, even if Choloe had survived, she would have been more than 110-years old and there was no way the woman in Monsieur DeFou’s shop had been anywhere near that age. Forty, maybe, a well-preserved fifty, possibly, but over a hundred. Not remotely possible.

The realms of what was remotely possible seemed to be changing rapidly, however. She’d been given the keys to a magic house by a dead girl who had apparently gotten older after dying. There was no longer room for the unimaginable to be taken out of the equation. She stared at the picture but didn’t bother to protest. It was weird enough being in Morocco and discovering herself while discovering a very foreign culture,  but things just kept getting more strange as the days went by.

“I want to tell you my story,” Abraham said as he sat back down on the cushions. “Simo, my boy,  would you go into my kitchen and make us some tea?” Simo stood and moved in the direction Abraham indicated.

“The wheel of fortune never stops spinning. It brings fortune and sorrow and just when things look like they are heading up, the wheel can turn so that they head downwards instead. Such is life and such is the way of life. Do you mind if I share with you?”

“Please do,” Colette still wondered if this was going to turn into some sort of property dispute but figured that she was best served by hearing what the old man had to say.

“My father was a gold-smith. He worked in Sanhaja and sold in Sefrou, just as his father before him had. He married a nice Jewish girl like his father before him had too. My parents had five children, only three of us survived until adulthood, which was normal for those times. We had lots of uncles and aunts who were always around us and seemingly thousands of cousins. So many that we couldn’t count them. We three children, Pierre-Antoine, Chloe, and I were spoiled rotten and given everything we could want.”

“In those days, famiies like ours would bring tutors from Europe for their children and so we had two instructors, an English woman and a French man. We were taught engineering, mathematics, French, English, and of course we were taught the about the Jewish faith by my father and our uncles. In the Jewish tradition, the men teach the children about the faith.”

“Pierre-Antoine apprenticed with my father and I apprenticed with an uncle, a doctor. Our sister wanted to study with my father as well, but in those days, it wasn’t proper for a woman to work with metal. Instead, she was forced to learn garment making. It was expected that she would eventually be  a home-maker and a mother. She hated that. She pressed Pierre-Antoine and I  to teach her our lessons each night and so, in a way, she was also an apprenticed to our father and uncle, but without them knowing it. “

“Our French tutor fell deeply in love with her. He begged her to run away with him to France. He was a handsome and charming man, but she wanted nothing to do with him. Instead, she had a secret love affair with our cook’s son. He was a Muslim boy and while it would have been fine, at least in those days, for him marry a Jew, there was no way my family was going to allow Chloe to marry a Muslim.”

“We all saw what happened to Jewish women who married Muslims. The children became Muslim and the woman was separated and distanced from her own family and faith – it was like death stealing a child. Besides which, the cook was far below our social status. She was our servant, after all. It was an impossible love affair even if the boy was our friend.”

“Our French teacher, however, was something else. He was cultivated and very civilized. He approaccched our father about marrying Chloe and there was much talk of what the dowry would be. Pierre-Antoine and myself loved the idea because we adored him. We thought it would be wonderful to have our dashing instructor for a brother-in-law. The stories of his exploits in the first world war captivated us. He had been a pilot in the nascent French Air Corps. He’d flown with the 124th Escadrille and done reconnaissance along the German disputed territories. He was a hero to us, but Chloe couldn’t be bothered about him, he bored her. Still, it was a good match in my father’s eyes and so we took the trip to Marseille in 1928 to meet with his family.”

“Ahh,” Colette suspected she was starting to understand what had happened to Chloe.

“It was wondeful for all of us and perhaps Chloe even began to warm up to her fate. The tutor, his name was Gerard, was a good and kind man. His family was well off. He’d become a tutor after the war because shrapnel had taken part of his vision and made it impossible for him to fly. His family didn’t mind that we were Jews, which was a big concern in those days and my father didn’t mind that they were Christian as he’d had enough conversations with Gerard to know that the two men shared a sort of agnostic view of God. The children wouldn’t be brought up to hate their heritage on either side and that was the important part.”

“The details of the arrangement were agreed upon and so we returned to Sefrou to begin planning the wedding. Obviously, Chloe had to end things with the cook’s son and that didn’t go so well, as you shall soon see. The boy was heart-broken and no one could do anything to console him. They found him floating in the quarry pond about a kilometer from here – which was owned by Simo’s grandfather. It was presumed by most that he had been hiking on the cliffs above it and slipped to his death. No one said it, but we all knew it was more likely that he had killed himself over losing Chloe. Muslim’s who kill themselves are excluded from heaven and instead sent to hell. No one wanted to admit what had really happened.”

“Chloe was devastated by the death of her love but over time, she healed. She began to press me more intently about my studies with my uncle the doctor and oddly, but much to everyone’s relief, she seemed to form an almost impossible bond with the cook. As for the cook, the death of her son was one of those things that happen in the life of poor Moroccans. She screamed and wailed and wore black for the rest of the time we knew her. Yet, she continued at her job after a short time off and as I said, began to spend more and more time with Chloe who now seemed to have developed a deep fascination for cooking.”

“We didn’t know it at the time, but Chloe was sneaking into the Sefrou medina and working with the l’fkih, the black magician. She was learning about spells, magic, and the world of the djinn. As the wedding plans were made, on the surface everything seemed to be moving towards normalcy. Chloe even seemed to be developing feelings for Gerard and there were times when you would see her looking at him from across the room with lightly teared eyes and a tender heart. The death of the boy was terrible, but everyone recovered. Or so we thought.”

“The wedding was beautiful. It was a huge affair attended by Christians, Muslims, and Jews at our house near the cascade. Your house near the cascade, I mean. I have some pictures in that album, if you’d like to see…”

Colette turned the pages and saw pictures of the young couple. Chloe was radiant and Gerard, the young airman was indeed handsome and dashing. The bride wore a gorgeous kaftan. In fact, the wedding didn’t look so different from the Moroccan Muslim wedding she’d seen upon arriving in Fez. The bride and groom were sitting in thrones, watching as the guests danced. Simo arrived back in the room with the tea.

He looked down at the pictures. “It’s a Moroccan wedding,” he said.

“Yes, that’s exactly what it was,” Abraham said. ”A Moroccan wedding of a Jew and a Christian. This particular wedding did not have a fairy tale ending, however. I don’t know who decided to let the cook whose boy had killed himself when he heard about the union make and serve the food to the couple, but they were both dead within a matter of hours. The cook disappeared and was never seen again. It was said that she’d poisoned Chloe and Gerard on order to revenge against them for the death of her son. It didn’t matter why, only that they were both gone.”

Colette felt tears in her eyes. It was a terrible story. She was an acute cognitive dissonance however, since she had memories of meeting Chloe, who had obviously not been dead despite the tragic events which had happened in her house. “It’s awful,” she said, wiping away a tear. “It happened in the riad?”

“Yes,” Abraham said to her. “I’m sorry to tell you it did. There was much that happened in that house, both good and bad. For me, this was the worst. The loss of our sister and Gerard was devastating. This is the way the wheel of fortune turns though. They are both buried in the Jewish cemetary if you want to visit their graves, but there is more I need to tell you.”

“I’m telling you these things, because as the owner of the house, you need to understand that everything connects. The world is composed of a wondrous design and if you pay attention, you can begin to make sense of the patterns and cycles that it forms. The mysterious universal laws that we all know, deep within ourselves, exist make sense but only if you stop trying to make sense of them.”

“I’ve spent my life studying the arcane arts and trying to make sense of the divine. In my youth, I was a doctor, in my middle years when the Jews all began to leave Sefrou, I abandoned my practice, abandoned my family and friends, and came here to become a troglodyte, a cave dweller.”

“Since that time, I’ve spent my time studying, writing and contemplating these things. My brother, my cousins, and other members of my family all chose to leave. Some of them went to Montreal in Canada, some to Paris and Marseille, some to Israel. None of them have come back and if they had, they wouldn’t know that I am here. It’s been hard to disappear and it was harder to become something other than a crazy old Jewish hermit.”

“The house of my family is now the house of your family. In that process, your past and future have become intertwined with our own. The story of Chloe and the fact that you thought you met her are not coincidence. The beauty and order of the world is hidden from us, but if you are seeking answers, you don’t need to look further than what most people call coincidence.”

“I urge you, Miss Samson to carefully consider the story of Chloe and what she might be trying to tell you. There is a rare chance in all of this for you, a chance to come to the sort of understanding about the miraculous nature of destiny that most people are never rewarded with.  You are heading rapidly towards some momentous turning point in your life. And I, of all people, should not have doubted you. I apologize because maybe you did meet her. After all, it wouldn’t surprise me if that girl had figured some way to reach out from beyond the land of the dead to touch us all in the land of the living. She was that kind of determined person. She could do anything she set her mind to, much like yourself I am guessing.”

Colette was pummeled by a chaos of emotion as she sat in the cave salon watching the candlelight flicker in the sconces and Moroccan lamps. The shadows on the walls moved like living things and she felt goose bumps begin to erupt from her neck and downward. The heavy sadness that had filled her moments before was suddenly replaced by a feeling of urgent action. She needed to get back to the riad, she needed to get out of here.

Suddenly, she pictured herself as a tiny little speck on a giant chalkboard trying to avoid being crushed by the lines that were being drawn around her. She could readily believe as she sat there in the hermit”s cave that her destiny was being drawn around her. It was absolutely terrifying but, at the same time, the terror restored a sense of purpose that had somehow been missing from her life for God knows how long. The wheel of fortune had brought her here. Perhaps there was some reason in all of it. It was her quest to discover that reason.

 

Chapter 16

Spiritual Justice 

Simo had been sulking about losing a bargaining match to a young girl, but eventually got over it. Colette was still impressed with the deal he’d gotten her and when she mentioned that, he returned to his usual cheerful pleasant self. The mattress was delivered and with the help of Lala and the girls, Colette set up her bedroom in the second floor apartment. She’d managed to adjust to the situation of the Turkish toilet but resolved that she would have a beautful western bathroom (or three) installed before any other major work was begun.

Lala’s army of cleaning women arrived each day and dove into tasks that Colette would have never thought of. They brought huge buckets and washed all the old carpets and rugs then carried them to the roof where they hung them over the sides of the building to dry in the sunlight. They brought huge bags of green beans, lima beans, and bunches of turnips and women would sit in the courtyard, peeling, snapping, washing, sorting and then would move to the kitchen they’d put together in the room that was dug into the hillside.

Without her having said anything to anyone, workmen arrived and began to fix the tile work, which she learned was called zelij. Simo and Ahmed took the roles of foreman over this grand enterprise of restoration that was unfolding. The second floor bedroom-apartment had come together nicely and Colette decided it was time to finally move in to her riad.

The entire property was still rough and she hadn’t found where even half the keys went, but she felt like she could be secure there. Frankly, staying in the hotel down the road had begun to feel somewhat oppressive. There was a hotel bar that was filled each night with the seediest of men and she heard drunken conversations in slurred Arabic that she didn’t want to know the meaning of.  Arguments broke out as the men became inebriated and women of questionable morals danced and laughed in the most obnoxious drunken way. Colette would have been fine with all of that,  if she hadn’t of had to hear the sounds of them moaning in the night as she tried to go to sleep. The hotel felt like she was staying in a brothel and thus made the idea of moving into a half derelict house with no other inhabitants sounded pretty good.

“Simo, I want you to go get my things from the hotel. I’m moving into the riad today.” She’d had electricity turned on, Simo told her that he’d made the appointment for the telephone to be installed but there was a three-month wait for internet. The women came each day to do the cooking, chatting, washing, and visiting – she couldn’t think of a place in Morocco that would feel more comfortable.

“Oh, you can’t move in yet.” He said it so matter of factly that she almost accepted it.

“What do you mean I can’t? It’s my house and I’m moving in today.”

“No, you can’t. My mom won’t let you.”

“It’s not your mom’s house, Simo and why in the world would she care if I moved in here?”

Simo got that look again. She had come to recognize it as the look of when something that he thought was important but didn’t want to say out loud it. He knew something and didn’t want to tell her.

“Simo. What’s going on?” He shifted on his feet and stared at the ground while mumbling a denial. “Tell me or I’ll tell your mom we went and visited the hermit.” There was no way she was letting this go. She would blackmail it out of him if that was the only way. The fear of his mother might be the only thing that could overcome the fear of his mother. He looked up at her with hurt in his eyes, betrayed by her threatening. She could see that too. Those hurt puppy dog eyes and then a flash of anger before a sigh of resignation.

“Okay, fine. If you have to know, your house is haunted. It’s why my mom brings all these women here. She wants the djinn start to think that the house is filled with people and they go away.”

She knew it was going to be something like that. They were trying to protect her from ghosts. Even in a short time she had learned that Morocco might be the most superstitious country in the world. The more she was here, the more she realized that daily life was ruled by spirits, djinn, ghosts, and demons. People here made important, life-changing decisions based on things that no one could see. Colette had transitioned from a stark disbelief to an agnostic ‘I don’t know’ and finally to sometimes thinking she saw things in the shadows that couldn’t possibly be there. The complete belief of the people around her were having an affect on her. The country and the riad were having an effect on her.

“Simo, go get my things. I’m moving in today.” It was an order from his employer and the young man turned and left. As he was going out, she saw him stop to speak with his mother. Lala flew into a rage and erupted into action. She began yelling at Colette from across the yard, moving closer and waving her hands like a mad-woman.Simo was behind her, not even trying to translate. Colette didn’t need the translation anyway, she knew what the woman was saying. She wasn’t about to be bullied. This was her house.

She stood with her hands on her hips, resolute. No one could take a beating like Colette and no one was more stubborn. “Simo, go get my things. Tell your mother that I’ve made up my mind and that I’m not going to change it.”

“Mama, mama,” Simo was like a child, grabbing his mother’s skirts and trying to turn her from where she was still madly moving forward. She finally turned and screamed at him before turning back to Colette and wagging her fingers in the universal sign of a disapproving mother. “Hsuma, bento. Hsuma, hsuma, hshumalik!”

She turned and began issuing orders like a general under assault. The women had gathered behind her to watch the conflict. Fielding her troops before a last ditch defensive battle, Lala was in action. Simo slunk out the front gate to go get Colette’s thing. She’d given him enough money to pay workers and make sure each day’s food was paid. He would have enough to pay the bill. She hoped that he was keeping track of the money in the accounts book she’d given him. The first $1000 was a test. It came out to roughly 8800 dirhams and she wondered how long it would last.

Over the next hour, on Lala’s orders, women fetched packages, chickens, herbs, cloth, and other assortment oddities. There was a part of Colette that wanted to tell the big woman to stop whatever it was that she was doing but she held back through equal parts fascination and intimidation. The truth was, she had won and if she wanted to make peace, she needed to let Lala have whatever victory she was salvaging.

The assembled packages, animals, and goods were laid out near the big empty fountain. Finally, Simo and Ahmed returned and carried her baggage up to her second floor bedroom. Their return seemed to act as a signal that action was needed.

Lala gave a piercing battle shout and all the women stopped what they were doing. They gathered around her, waiting for orders. With her left hand, she motioned for a young girl to open the front door. With her right, she sent two more women to open up every door and window of the house. Like the conductor of a grand symphonic orchestra she put people into action.

Ahmed and Simo were nowhere to be seen. This was secret woman business and they wanted no part of it. They’d disappeared out the front door in the moments just prior to when the woman magic began.

Lala began to chant. Her voice was deep and powerful.  Surahs, incantations, and prayers flowed from her lips putting all who heard under her spell.  The hypnotic sound of her voice filled every space it touched, birds were hushed, and nothing but the state of trance she created seemed to exist.

“Bismillah, allah aalahi,

la yadurra, ma’a ismihi,

shai’un, fil ardi wa-l fis-samma’i

wa huwa as-Samai’u al Alim”

Goose bumps crawled up Colette’s spine, down her arms, and around her neck. There was electricity in the air.

“La ilaha illa Allahu,

wahduhu la sharika lahu,

lahul, mulku wa lahul-hamdu, w

a huwa ala kulli shai’in qadir”

Grabbing a black chickens now, Lala carried it to the fountain holding it with both hands. She chanted louder with the power in her voice growing by the moment until the air felt like it would explode. The chicken had given up struggling, knowing now that it was pointless.

There was a moment’s pause, a silence louder than screams. In that moment, yanked on the chickens head, decapitating it with the gesture. Spitting, she threw the head into the fountain while again chanting. She held the flailing body of the bird and allowed it to spout blood into the fountain like a garden hose. The blood spilled elsewhere in the courtyard garden, and all over Lala.

Five older women now did the same thing with other chickens and sprayed blood on doors, drains, windows, and lintels. Younger women with bags of salt, spread it like grain seed  in a freshly harrowed field.

Lala approached Colette, and put the dead chicken in her hands. Any ideas of resistance Colette might have felt before were now gone as the shock of what she was seeing in her house hit her. This was black magic. The women were performing an exorcism ritual. Colette didn’t know the meanings of the words they chanted but she knew enough to know what they were. She caught frequent mentions of Allah and Mohammad that somehow made her more comfortable than she might have been. This was a religious ceremony.

Colette held the dead chicken in her hands, not sure what to do with it while Lala spoke more invocations over the corpse of the bird. Now she drew symbols and patterns on Colette’s face with the blood soaking her hands. Taking the chicken back, she threw it into the fountain with its decapitated head. Lala then led Colette by the hand from room to room in the riad while chanting and saying prayers. The other women followed behind and echoed Lala’s words in a sort of call and response.

Through the two salons downstairs, winding through the courtyard and the kitchen, a visit to the two toilets on the ground floor where each woman threw a handful of salt down the drain. Then up the stairs into all the other rooms before finally going into the room Colette had chosen for her own. Lala barked an order and was brought a small dish of coagulating chicken blood. Colette  assumed it was chicken blood, but really there was no way for her to know.

Lala drew symbols on the white walls of Colette’s bedroom. Arabic words and strange symbols that looked like Greek or Hebrew writing. Still others were completely unrecognizable as letters but had the look of being pictograms. Colette had no time to consider them in detail as the procession continued on with more chanting and prayers. As much as she didn’t like this, she was fascinated by it. Fascinated by being present and part of such a bizarre and gotesque ritual. The blood would have to go though, no way she was leaving that on her walls.

The same process continued on the third floor until they came to the room with the collapsed ceiling. In this room, Lala worked herself into a frenzy until her eyes rolled back in her head and she had to be supported by two of the younger women. Recovering, she violently began throwing debris out the door and down into the courtyard below. Rats scurried out in numbers Colette would not have believed if she hadn’t of seen it. They ran out the door and over the feet of anyone in their way before either leaping off the balcony in to the courtyard below. A pigeon which had apparently been hiding or nesting in one corner flew out through the open roof. Lala picked up a massive fallen cedar beam which should have been far too heavy for her to lift. Then she collapsed.

The women rushed to pull her up. Several older women continued chanting. One of them, a truly ancient crone of a woman bent over like a radio antenna, grabbed Colette by the arm and pushed her to the stairs leading to the rooftop. Colette wanted to help Lala, but she also knew that the work they had begun must be completed. It was all that Lala would want.  She somehow understood that a balance had been achieved and stopping now would destroy that.

Everything she had achieved since arriving in Morocco had not mattered. This moment, felt different. She didn’t feel any fear, it was gone. She was sure that Lala had not and would not die. She knew, deeply and without question, that the woman would be okay. She told herself that as she reached the roof and was met by two older women with black scarves and Berber tattoos on their faces. She had not seen them before. She knew that everything was going to be okay. She knew that a victory had been achieved.

 

Chapter 17 

Hanging by a Thread

On the rooftop, Colette felt something lifted from her, a weight taken from her soul. Looking down she saw her property stretching around her and far in the distance, the pale green glow of olive groves surrounding the minarets of Sefrou pointing skyward. Things seemed to take forever in Morocco and yet when they happened, they took place so quickly that it was hard to imagine there had been any change at all.

In terms of the project at hand, as she stood looking in awe at all that was around her, the air shimmered and the chanting of the women came to a close. There was a deep and profound silence that stretched across the valley below and filled up all of the empty spaces in Colette, in the riad, and in the surrounding landscape.

Then, the warbling roll of the call to prayer came from the closest of the minarets. Soon it was joined by another, then another, and then many more. The timing of the muezzin’s off just enough to create that warble of voices almost but not quite in sync. It was a stereophonic sound as the faithful were reminded to leave what they were doing and come to prayer. Come to prayer, God is waiting. Come to prayer. What you are doing doesn’t matter so much as God. Come to prayer.

It was a feature of life that Colette, as a foreigner and a non-Muslim would never get used to but that defined the existence of the people of Morocco. Being interrupted in whatever you were doing whether it was by the call to prayer, the entrance of a person into a room, seeing a relative on the street or in the market. Everything had to stop for the greetings, the customary questions, the going to wash, to pray, to eat, to give thanks. All of the activities of life were unimportant when compared to the need to say a proper hello to each other as God had commanded or to pay respect to almighty God..

As the last sounds of the call to prayer faded in the distance, Lala slowly climbed the stairs to join them on the roof. Several of the younger girls supported her and upon reaching the top she let out the ululating cry that Colette had first heard at the wedding. It was a sound of female joy and victory. All the women soon joined in. Even though she wasn’t sure of the words or meaning, Colette screamed the joyous cry with them.  A chorus of female happiness sounding from the rooftop of her riad and spreading outward into the world.

For the first time, Colette knew in her bones that the riad was hers. She would have to give it a new name. She would need to take ownership in a way that so far she hadn’t. To this point, she had always felt like an intruder and colonizer.  In this moment, however,  she knew that it was hers. The words of the hermit came back to her and she knew that all of the hard work so far was only a beginning. Her history had become a part of this house, the house itself had become entwined in the history of herself.

The person she was, the person who had always been hiding beneath the surface of her public persona. That person was now free. She knew that from this moment forward, she could let this house and this country direct her in the ways that she would need to proceed without fear that she would lose herself in the process. Her growth so far in life had been one dimensional but now, a confidence and strength had been born within her. It gave her a new purpose. She felt a guiding spirit emerging from inside her, making itself known. The Moroccan women on the rooftop with her were smiling and grinning as they shouted to the heavens. She felt like they too, knew what was happening within her. She saw them for the first time. These women. They shaped this country, they built these families, they controlled everything from what looked like a position of being controlled. Nothing could be less true. Suddenly, she knew and for the first time she felt herself as one with them.

A bridge had been crossed, a place of understanding between they and she had been established. By taking part in their magical work, by being a piece in the overall puzzle, she had begun to make sense to them as a powerful element of the universe.  Before, she had been an alien from another planet that had crash landed among them and was masquerading as a human but now, they saw her and she them. Her differences were no longer something that mattered. She was still a strange alien creature, but now she was a strange alien creature who was a part of the community whole.

Gradually, the men – who had vanished from the site reappeared to re-establish the illusion that they were in control.  The women wandered away back to their own families, their homes,  and their other duties. The work of cleaning was complete for now. The house became a more male oriented place with the proportion of men to women changing daily to favor the masculine energy needed to restore and repair it. Men were fixing the zellij, repairing the room on the third floor, and ripping apart areas on each floor to install Western toilets and showers. Colette was doted on by all of the men, but she found that if she wanted something done, it had to be passed through Simo or Ahmed. Simo began sleeping in the salon downstairs – an arrangement Colette suspected came from Lala.  Ahmed continued to act as guardian and foreman while staying in his shanty.

Colette pressed the old man with questions about secret passages and underground chambers but he swore that no such thing existed. She tried to visit the hermit but Simo told her that he had gone to Sufi religious festivals in the cities of Meknes and Moulay Idriss Zerhoune. There was no way to find out when he would return.

She spent her time wondering the nearby hills, tapping the old mud brick walls to see if she could discover the secrets of her house, and pruning back and restoring order to her courtyard gardens. The profusion of trees and shrubs had turned what once was probably a well manicured oasis into a messy tangle of madness.

One particular plant, a kind of bushy palm that had impossibly deep roots presented her with the biggest problem. When she asked what kind of plant it was, Simo and Ahmed gave her an Arabic name, translated it as ‘palm plant’ and then demonstrated that you could eat both the stems and the roots. The plant was quite sweet – but that didn’t change the fact that she wanted it out of her garden. Also she wanted the fountain restored to working order.

It was a beautiful three-tier fountain shaped like a western wedding cake with a broken clay pitcher at the top pouring water that spilled into the three pools and then dropped main basin. Simo suggested she replace the broken top, but after some thought, she decided that she liked it broken.

The first step to restoring the fountain was to restore the gardens. Colette found herself frequently digging to get the stubborn palm-plants out of the courtyard. She was making good progress, but near the fountain there was a particularly deep rooted palm resisting her every move. It was surrounded by large stones that the roots had enveloped so the process of uprooting it entailed digging around the stones, loosening them, and then pulling the roots out with the stones attached. After several days of this, she’d created a hole two feet deep that extended under the fountain. Did this thing ever end?

Leaning down to pull a larger than usual stone out, Colette lost her grip as the stone fell into a deeper cavity down below. The dirt around where the stone had been collapsed inwards and Colette fell, her foot catching on the root that she had been trying so hard to free up. Hanging there upside down, one foot around a root, hanging over  a hole that so filled with blackness that she was unable to fathom just how big it was, she realized she had found part of the secret of her still unnamed house.

“HELP!” she screamed and the echoes told her that the room below her might well be as large as the courtyard above. A fall might break her neck. One foot, hanging there she realized that she might well be standing in a mirror image of the courtyard above as well as hanging in a dark hole. The mystic nature of the past days and weeks had hollowed out the core of her disbelief. The rituals, the stories, all of it gathered below in the inky blackness of a deep, dark, well.

Sparkles of light and the fuzz of static air in the blackness below… she imagined a black fountain extending downwards surrounded by upside down plants, and a dark mirror version of her house. For just a moment, she felt like she was standing upright in the mirror image of her house with dark workers working on dark walls and dark zelij. The light of the blackness faded as she felt hands grabbing her leg and she was pulled out of the hole.

There was no way to rescue her gently. She used her hands to protect her head and face as  workmen pulled her from the cavern she had discovered. The secrets of the house were revealing themselves to her. She knew it would be dangerous when she started but she now knew that the danger was far more than she had expected.  Each secret would require something from her, but the vision of that black house down below didn’t go away.

The day was too far gone for any exploration of what she had discovered. By the time she had been rescued, bandaged, and given hot mint tea – the daylight had gone. Ahmed put sheets of plywood over the hole she had revealed.

She was shaken by the idea of the dark house under hers. Did the dark house contain a dark version of her?  Had she released a djinn or opened up a portal to another world?  The practical part of her mind shut that line of reasoning down. It was just a cavern. No house, no workers, no mirror image. But she could swear that she had also seen two doors in the cavern as they pulled her out. One in the West wall and one in the East. She knew that she had the keys.

 

Chapter 18

Death

The exploration of the basement, which is what she decided to call it, was put off for a while because of an emergency that no one had expected. Aziza and Honest Adil were already getting a divorce. It turned out that Honest Adil wasn’t so honest after all and he had been sleeping with her sister Jamila both before and after the wedding. Aziza found out the hard way, she walked into her house after a friend had cancelled a coffee date. She caught Jamila in the act. Neighbors heard the screaming and intervened before she could kill either or both of them.

It was a disaster on countless levels both emotionally and financially. Simo’s family didn’t want her to end the marriage. They were desperately trying to convince Aziza that what she had seen wasn’t real,  that it had been some an apparition or possession, or that it was a test from God.  Jamila and Adil were to blame – but not for the act. They were to blame for allowing the shaitan to trick them.  Aziza was not a fool. She wanted nothing to do with her sister or her husband.  She escaped to the only refuge she could think of, the house of her new foreign friend Colette.

Simo would have told his mother the whereabouts of the girl, but Colette swore him to secrecy on pain of losing his job. Meanwhile, Jamila and Adil had run off together. They had left town and no one knew where they had gone. Lala came to the house while Aziza hid in Colette’s room and complained about the whole situation to Colette. Simo translated while Colette gave him hard looks to keep him from spilling the beans to his mom revealing everything he knew.

In an effort to make some sort of peace (which Colette couldn’t begin to fathom happening when the cheating couple had run off together and the bride was in hiding) the mother of Aziza – a sophisticated Fassi woman named Fatima-Zahara, also came to Colette’s to negotiate with Lala about the best way to annul the marriage and how to make sure the dowry was dealt with in a fair way. Since Adil had run off with Jamila, it was almost certain the dowry would remain with Aziza. Lala was trying to save the marriage and in a sense, not have the dowry leave the family.

Adil had payed a hefty sum, borrowed from his parents, brothers, uncles, cousins, and friends – for the right to marry Aziza. The money had gone to Aziza and she had put it in the hands of her mother. Normally, with an annulment, this would be returned to the grooms family, but since this had been an especially shameful end of a very short marriage that had been consummated – Fatima-Zahara insisted that the bride price not be refunded. Adil couldn’t have his cake and eat it too.

None of this would have particularly impacted Colette’s exploration of the basement, except that she was now roommates with a constantly sobbing runaway bride who had lost her husband to her sister. It was awful.  Colette took it upon herself to prevent Aziza from throwing herself off the balcony. It was her primary task. Colette counted her blessings on not becoming involved with Simo’s other brother, since the whole family now struck her as slightly insane.

Colette learned a lot about Morocco and Moroccans in those days of hiding Aziza. Part of what she learned was that Moroccan girls who spoke English had an excellent command of words that American girls also used to describe cheating husbands and boyfriends. Aziza had one of the most foul mouths Colette had ever heard, but to be fair, the two people she was heaping her disrespect on certainly deserved it.

Colette wanted to get away from it all, but at the same time, she watched with  a morbid fascination to see how Moroccan families would settle something that would have ended up in massive lawsuits back in New York.

Eventually, Adil and Jamila were located. They had run to the city of Mohammadia and were staying with Simo’s cousin who, once they ran out of money, began complaining to his mother about the freeloaders in his salon. She called Lala as soon as she got found out and the hiding couple was revealed. .

Lala sent Simo in his car to bring them home. She also brought the aldul (the officiating officer of the marrrige) from Fez along with the marriage paperwork and a lawyer. At the end of the whole affair, Lala paid an additional fee equal to half of the original bride-price to the aldul so that he would change the name of the bride from Aziza to Jamila. There was no additional bride price paid for Jamila. Since Moroccan paperwork moves in a slow French bureaucracy, the papers hadn’t been filed yet.

Aziza kept the bride price and none was paid for Jamila. The happy (but poor) couple returned to Aziza’s house and packed Aziza’s things up and sent them back to her mother’s house. Aziza, now less emotional since she had never technically been married and was quite a bit wealthier, asked if she could stay in Colette’s riad in return for acting as cook and housekeeper. Colette agreed and Aziza revealed where she was to her mother (who Colette now suspected had known she was there all along.) Aziza moved into the room oppossite Colette’s and began cooking all the meals for the household.

Aziza’s cooking was flavorful, but everything seemed to be cooked for people who had no teeth – pressure cooked to such an extreme that everything crumbled upon entering one’s mouth. Ahmed and the other toothless workers were happy with this. It was a cooking style born of cooking for her father and uncles, whose teeth had been prematurely rotted by taking intensely sugary tea and cake for breakfast throughout their entire lives. Colette, missed having food that crunched,  but was very happy to have a female friend in the house. One who spoke even better English than Simo, even if she did break down and sob from time to time.

As for Simo, he doted on Aziza and followed her around like a puppy. Aziza wanted nothing to do with him but gladly accepted his gifts of food, electronics, and clothing. Colette had expected that the baker brother, the Prince Charming one, would turn up at some point, but it didn’t happen.

She found herself in a strange place – never before had she wanted bacon and crispy vegetables so badly, but she knew that was probably a substitute desire for her body wanting to get laid. All of the affair talk had ignited her sex drive. It was a desire that could not be easily satisfied in religious nor in secular Morocco.

Still,  things were fine, somehow.  With Aziza as her new, rent – housekeeper and cook – her household had grown to four. Ahmed as a sort of overseer and groundskeeper ‘Merry Christmas and H1N1!’, Simo was her personal assistant, and Aziza managing the food and cleaning. Now that Aziza was in the house and the family drama was so tense – Lala, Simo’s mother, stopped coming as much. The workmen continued restoring the third floor and installing the bathrooms  – sort of. To Colette’s eye it sometimes looked more like they came to work to take smoke breaks. Life moved on, however.

Much to her surprise, the Moroccans, even Aziza, moved on from the drama in about a month. That was all it took. At that time, Colette was finally going to explore the basement, but then, Aziza’s mom died. What would have been a distant tragedy before was now a death in the family.

There were some complications to the death. Fatima-Zahara was holding Aziza’s dowry money. She left everything she owned or possessed to Aziza in what seemed to be a hastily drawn up last will and testament. So, Aziza inherited the deed to the family home, a large sum of money, and the family history. Jamila got nothing. Aziza’s brothers were each left a sum of money, but her mother had known they were deadbeats and anything left to them would be squandered and sold off – so she left the house, the business, and most of the money to Aziza. Moroccans have a saying that a son is yours until he marries but a daughter is yours forever.

Family history is usually a bit cloudy but for Fatima-Zahara’s family it was a very concrete thing. There was a book passed down from mother to favorite daughter for generations containing all the details of marriages, births, business, and death. As a newly instated (sort of) member of the family, Colette was a part of the funeral ceremonies and mourning.

It was all so different from the New York version. It might as well have been the customs and culture on another planet. Aziza was still living in her house but her uncle and her brothers lived in the family house – which usually would have been the property of the father except for a contract that had been laid out by Fatima-Zahira’s mother long ago when they were married.  Aziza was now the rightful owner but of course she didn’t want to kick them out – or return. The mourners came to Colettes riad to pay their respects and try to get in good with the new matron of one of the most important Fassi families.

The full impact of the family history didn’t really come clear until one day when Aziza appeared at Colette’s door holding a very old book in her hands.

“Hey, here’s a weird coincidence you’re never going to believe. My grandmother used to be the cook in this house. How strange is that? I knew I felt at home here, but I never knew that. It says in this book, which is a sort of matrilineal family history, that she has took a job working for the Conver family in Sanhaja. She says some kind of rude things about them being Jews that never should have left the Mellah…no offense.”

Colette was neither Jewish nor a Conver, so she wasn’t offended. Nor was she surprised. She had learned that nothing happened in Morocco without a deeper reason.

 

Chapter 19

Temperance

Colette had nightmares. In most of them Chloe, the dead Conver sister,  was screaming at her. Weeping and accusing. Waving her hands violently in Colette’s face and shouting “Hshuma!”, the Moroccan word so often repeated and used to control the behavior of others  “Shame!” Dreams about deep dark pits that she had to go down. Dreams about love affairs that ended badly. Nightmares about betrayal, death, strength, tolerance, magic, and love. The nightmares often started pleasant but then would descend into chaos as if her entire mind was being lowered into an abyss. Prince Charming the Baker, Simo’s brother Yunis sometimes appeared, but even then, when she thought she might be saved, the nightmares ended badly.

She needed to temper herself. Take it easy. She recognized the signs of culture shock. It was becoming harder to deal with though and with all the many challenges and odd adventures happening around her, she was crumbling under the pressure of it all. All things should be taken in moderation, she told herself, but to be honest, she couldn’t imagine how to reduce the powerful emotional impact this country took on her. It was all good to say that a little moderation was a good thing, but when it came to an actual temperance of something as elusive and unexpected as a total sensory impact – she wasn’t sure how to achieve that. Her solution was to sit with a big mug of hot chocolate and take some deep breaths. What she really wanted was a bottle of wine, but even though she’d found a bottle shop where alcohol could be purchased – she hadn’t bought any. She had never been one to drink alone. Hot chocolate would have to do.

The chasm in the courtyard had been widened. She had forbidden anyone from venturing into it before her – which was a surprisingly easy order to enforce. Not a single Moroccan among them wanted to venture down into a pit filled with djinn. She had thought she would need to post a guardian to keep everyone clear,  but none of the Moroccans would venture into it – they didn’t even like walking by it.

Simo’s mother suggested (through Simo)  that they fill it with rubble from the hotel. There was plenty of that around her house. Simo said his mother wanted to come and perform another exorcism because by opening the hole in the ground, she was certain the entire house was infested with Djinn – again. There was no way to get rid of rats with a hidden nest, would it be different with spirits? Probably not. She would eventually clear them all out, but only when there were no more doors were hidden. Colette shook her head no. She didn’t know what to do, but she was sure that another exorcism was the wrong answer.

Later while Simo and Ahmed were buying supplies in town, Colette brewed a batch of hot chocolate for herself and Aziza. The two sat, looking at the hole,  drinking hot chocolate.  It was just the two of them in the house at that moment and it was then that Colette decided to satisfy her curiosity about several things.

“Aziza,” she said “Every other person seems to be going out of their way to get away from this house. You, though, you’ve just inherited money and a house – you have choices and yet you continue to stay here. Why are you staying?

Aziza sipped her chocolate. These days,  she filled Colette with a sense of awe. The days of emotional breakdown were long past. No longer was there any crying or weeping. No more hair pulling or chaos breakdowns. She was strong and exuded a confidence that calmed those around her. Aziza was composed,  filled with purpose,  and suddenly completely unflappable. She stared at her mug (milk with chocolate was what the Moroccans translated it as or ‘halib bil shoklat’). Finally, her thoughts composed she looked up into Colette’s eyes.

“I stay because I don’t want to leave you alone in this house. Bad things would happen.” She said it directly and matter of factly.

“Aziza, I’m glad you are here, but that’s ridiculous. Simo is here most of the time. Ahmed and his dogs are just outside. There are workmen coming and going from here most of the time and I think that  maybe you need to move on with your life, not just stay here for me. I don’t want you to stay here just for me.”

“At night, you would  be alone here if Simo were to go out for tea or went to a cafe to watch a football match. Ahmed is old and he is outside. It’s not safe for you to be here alone.”

“What is there to hurt me here? It’s an empty house. This house is perfectly safe and if you’re worried about the djinn like Lala, then you don’t have to be. I’m not Moroccan, so they’ll leave me alone.” Colette didn’t know if that was true or not, but then, she didn’t really believe in djinn, did she? It was a deeply  uncomfortable question to ask herself at this point because she didn’t want to give herself an honest answer. That realization told her the house was affecting her more than she had known. Maybe Aziza was right.

“Why haven’t you been down into the hole?” Aziza and everyone else called it ‘the hole’ instead of the more comfortable ‘basement’ that Colette had labeled it.

“Things have just been too busy…”

“And what about the nightmares?”

Colette hadn’t said anything about nightmares to anyone. “What nightmares?” She wasn’t going to say anything now.

“Oh, come on, I can’t be the only one having them. I know they are coming from that hole. My dreams are terrifying ever since you opened that thing up.”

“Aziza, you’ve been through a lot. Anyone would be having nightmares…” Colette felt terrible lying to her friend, but she wasn’t about to admit to her nightmares. Aziza was right and Colette knew it. She was glad to have her staying because the hole – she mentally kicked herself – the basement was filling her head with dark thoughts. That was it. Her fears were driving her. The moment she recognized it, it drove her to make a decision.

“We’re going down the hole – into the basement tomorrow.” She didn’t really have the right to force Aziza to come with her, but for some reason included the woman in her plans anyway. They would go down, she would figure out which keys opened the doors,  and they would see what lay on the other side. Hopefully they would not release anything evil.

Colette shivered. What lay on the other side! If she were going down there to explore the world of spirits, death, and the paranormal, she must be brave. She reminded herself that she was only opening some old doors and seeing what was in the rooms. It was probably old, rotten furniture and caved in tunnels. Nothing more. She would be lucky if she found a tin spoon down there. Maybe they were graves. Filled with bodies…

She stopped herself. Aziza was watching her with those big beautiful wide eyes, sometimes it felt like she was having her thoughts observed.

“Okay. We’ll go tomorrow,” Aziza said. There was o protest, no doubt, no argument – just agreement. Then she changed the subject.

“I’ve been reading more about my relative, the cook. Do you want to know what happened to her? She tells a lot about the house. She tells a lot about the family. I’ve been waiting until you were ready to share it – I can wait more if you want, but I really want to tell you.”

“No, I’d love to know more. Especially before we go down there.” Colette was glad to be talking about something else, but she knew they were still really talking about the same thing. Aziza dove into telling what she had learned from the family diary.

“My grandmother lived in the kasbah of Sefrou, it’s one of the poorest areas of the medina even today and back in that time it was where the second poorest people in the city lived. Actually, that’s pretty much still true – even today.”

“Where did the poorest live?”

“The Mellah. Jews in Sefrou and Fez were salt merchants. The area they lived in was typically known as where to get salt. In Arabic salt  is ‘milhah’ so mellah is place where you get salt.”

“The Jews were always the poorest?”

“No. Not always. After the French came into Morocco, they built new cities outside of the old cities. The ville nouvelle was built in the early 1900’s. Before the French, the Jews had been forced to live in the mellah and it was locked and gated each evening to keep them inside. No one was allowed in or out. Under the French, the Jews could move out so most of them left the medina and moved into the ville-nouvelle.”

“But the Conver family lived in this house for generations before the French came.”

“True, but they were rich and had power. Plus, Conver is not a Jewish name so they weren’t really considered people of salt. They were foreigners with money. Not poor salt people.”

“Salt of the earth…” Colette mused.

“Huh?”

“Oh, nothing. Go on.”

“So the Jews moved out of the medina and the houses they left were then occupied by the poorest people who came from the surrounding countryside looking for jobs in the city. The Mellah became a den of prostitution, drinking, gambling, and crime.”

“But your grandmother wasn’t from there.”

“No, she was from the kasbah. The kasbah was the next step up. Poor, honest working people with good religious values. It was also, umm, where people went for magic. Religious magic. But anyway, let me go on…” Colette hadn’t stopped her but the conversation had made a significant deviation.

“My grandmother took a job working for the Conver family. She came up from Sefrou, probably slept in the house during the week and went home one or two days a week to take care of her parents. I learned something about her that I’m a little ashamed of, I mean, it’s sort of okay in the modern world, but it’s nothing that I would share with anyone else. I’ll tell you but please, don’t tell anyone…”

Colette promised that she wouldn’t.

“My grandmother had been working in the house in one capacity or another since she was a little girl. She doesn’t go into great detail about it, but when she was very young, she had a love affair with the man who became the master of the house. She must have been a child really, maybe just thirteen or fourteen years old – but anyway, she got pregnant and had a child out of wedlock. She writes that her family convinced everyone she had been married to a Berber man who died shortly after the wedding was consummated. They used the girls’ absence from the house and the poverty of the family as an excuse for why no one else had known.”

“People believed that?”

“People believe what you tell them. Look at my sister’s wedding. I’ve already heard people recollecting that they were there – even though what they are remembering was my wedding. No one wants to call someone else a liar and the brain adjusts to what ‘reality’ offers up. We all mold the truth to our own purpose and if one person starts shouting ‘Liar!’ then it’s possible that soon everyone will be.”

It helped explain a lot to Colette, the Moroccan concept of the truth was a more relative thing than that of truth in the west. Truth was neither fixed nor absolute in Morocco. The past was changeable by simply saying it was different. Fascinating.

The cook’s son had actually been a Conver bastard. The implications of that fact landed on her like a ton of bricks.

“Your grandmother’s son…your uncle….was a Conver bastard?” Colette felt harsh using the term but Aziza didnt take it as hard as a native English speaker might, it was a word with a definition and the definition fit her dead uncle.

“Yup. That’s the thing that made me crazy. But he wasn’t my uncle. That’s where it gets really interesting.”

Colette wondered if the girl knew yet about the suicide and the love affair with his half-sister. She wondered if a woman would actually write about those things, but then, if she was willing to write about an illicit affair and birthing a bastard from her employer, it was probably fair to guess that she would write about it all.

“Did she write about Chloe and the tutor, did she write about ….the suicide?”

“Suicide? What are you talking about? Who committed suicide?”

“Your uncle…umm…your grandmother’s son.” Colette explained about the affair, about the suicide, and about the marriage and death of Chloe. Aziza listened with a puzzled look on her face. As Colette finished the summary of what she had learned from the hermit,  she finally thought to ask  “If he wasn’t your uncle, what was he?”

Aziza shook her head. “He was my father.” Now Colette was confused. That didn’t fit with the story she had been told.

“That’s not possible.” That wasn’t possible on so many levels. If that were the case than the boy must have survived, plus he must have been very old when he sired Aziza, plus, plus, plus….”It’s just not possible.” Maybe she was making things up…maybe her grief.

“No, you’ve got to listen to this.” Aziza began to tell the cooks story.

 

Chapter 20

The Cooks Story

The cook was the first one to find out that her son and Chloe were secretly falling in love. Since she was the only one (besides her immediate family) who knew about the boy’s true origins, she knew that the love affair was impossible. She couldn’t tell the boy that he was falling in love with his half-sister, but she told him that it had to end. He, of course, wouldn’t listen.

It was she who put love potions in the French tutor’s soup and it was she who told Chloe stories of romance and adventure that included a dashing young pilot. Using herbs, lizard skin, and other magic confections, she led the dashing young Gerard to fall in love with the young woman and hoped to make her son forget about his incestuous desire for the girl.

This it turned out, was impossible. Finally, the cook had no choice but to tell the boy that he was in love with his sister. It was one thing to fall in love with a Jewish girl,  but it  was another to fall in love with your own sister. God would let a Muslim marry a Jew but no man could marry his sister. The boy had no choice but to give up on the affair. He tried to kill himself by throwing himself from the cliffs at the quarry but was saved by a wandering Berber who swam out, pulled the boy to shore from where he floated unconscious in the quarry lake, and revived him.

It was the opportunity the cook had been looking for. She had been looking for a way to truly end the affair. Using her herbal powers and secret magic potions, she put the boy into a state of suspended animation – a sort of coma – and convinced the world that he had died. She hid him in the lower chambers of the house she worked in.

The cook’s plan was to help Chloe channel her grief into a love for Gerard. Once the wedding was complete, she would take her son and start a new life somewhere else. It was a good plan, except that the boy managed wake up,  sneak out, and left a letter for Chloe, telling her that he was alive and still loved her. The cook caught him and made sure that he didn’t repeat it, but the girl took the letter as a sign that there was life after death. Little did she know that her half-brother/love was being held captive down in the basement by his mother. For month’s the boy was held captive in the basement while the cook continued to work her magic on the couple above. For all the world, she was a woman in mourning for her lost son. In truth, she was suffering more by having to keep her child locked up and sedated.

Meanwhile, the girl took her letter from the other side as proof that life existed after death. She became obsessed with dark magic and began pressing the cook questions about magic until finally, having no choice, the cook introduced her to an l’fkha in the Kasbah.  Chloe was sure that she could find a way to see her lost love again but all of her efforts to visit the dead boy were in vain because the boy was actually alive and being kept prisoner in the very house she lived in.

Finally, the wedding day came. The tragic events of that day played out with the bride and groom being poisoned. The world was sure the cook had taken her revenge on the happy couple for the death of her son. The cook was intelligent and she also realized that even with her son alive, there was no way that she could expect to not be blamed for the deaths of Chloe and Gerard. So, taking her son from the prison she’d been keeping him in she fled from Sefrou to begin a new life somewhere else as a new person.

The truth was, it hadn’t been the cook who had poisoned the couple at all. In fact, from the cook’s point of view, it was obvious who had killed the couple. It had been Chloe, trying one last time to reach the lost love of her life. Or, possibly despairing of a marriage to anyone besides her dearly departed.

 

Chapter 21

Into the Hole

“Wait a minute…you mean we’re related?” Out of the whole story that was the thing that made Colette the most amazed, the fact that she was actually related to Aziza.

“Huh?” Aziza said. “Where did you get that?”

“Well, if your grandfather was a Conver, that means we’re related. Right?” Colette was excited to realize that this woman she felt so close to was actually a relative – a kind of sister.

Aziza looked at her with a strange expression. “Are you a Conver?”

“Of course I am,” she said, but then, she realized that in fact she wasn’t at all. Why had she thought that? For a moment, she’d been so certain that she was a part of the Conver family – it was like their story had become hers by her moving into the house. She’d bought the house from them and the house was hers, but as to the blood of the family, she was no relation.

That was odd, how was it that she had suddenly been so sure of the fact that she was one of the descendants of Nicholas Conver, the builder of the house. She’d  thought she had taken possession of the house, but now it was quite apparent to her that the house had taken possession of her.

“No. I mean, of course I’m not. I don’t know what got into me there, Aziza. No, I’m a Samson. This house is getting to me, that’s all.  I got excited about the story and somehow became a part of it.  But, it does mean that this house is part of your heritage. I can understand why you’ve stayed, now.”

“That’s right.” Aziza nodded. “I want to understand more. I want to see the rooms.”

“I’m not giving you my house!” Colette laughed.

“I don’t want it! You can keep all my family djinn and ghosts. I just want to discover the stories.” Aziza was laughing too.

“Tell me the rest of your grandmother’s story,” Colette said. “What happened to her when she ran away?”

“It’s actually quite interesting,” Aziza said. “I’m so happy that she wrote this history and kept this journal. She went to Marrakech where she was married to my grandfather. He was a wealthy merchant who owned several houses and trading inns, called caravansary. He made his fortune the old fashioned way, by inheriting it and expanding it. Her love potions were truly powerful because despite having a son out of wedlock and being a penniless runaway, she managed to take a job with him and then to convince him to marry her.”

“She was one of several wives and eventually, he set her up as the head of household in Fez. Apparently, in addition to being a great cook, my grandmother was also a very good looking woman. She was his third wife and everyone assumed that he had been keeping her and his son, my father, out of the way until his first wife had died. She was known to be rather fierce. People thought he had brought them down from the countryside and installed them in his house. I mean, we know the truth now, but that’s what everyone thought. My grandfather always claimed my father as one of his oldest children.”

“When he died, his fortune was split between his sixteen children. In some cases they sold everything and moved away, but my father inherited the house and business in Fez and became quite successful himself. He remained a bachelor until he was in his 60’s. Apparently it was only my mother who was able to win his heart.”

Aziza’s eyes became glossy with tears as she thought of her mother.

“My mother was just thirteen when she married him. He was nearly seventy-five years old when I was born in 1981. I remember him, but not very well. He died when I was six. He was a very handsome man. Tall, strong. Beautiful dark eyes and he could sing the saddest songs….I always felt like my father was my job to take care of…he went quickly though.”

“He must have been an amazing man,” Colette murmured.

“Yes,” Aziza said. “I can’t wait to see where my grandmother kept him prisoner. I wonder what it will be like.”

She would soon find out. It was time to go into the hole the next day.

Colette suffered no nightmares that night and the morning dawned bright and clear. Ahmed prepared tea and malawi, goat cheese stuffed pancakes covered in honey. Simo prepared for the expedition while the girls ate. It had become an expedition because of the time they had all spent staring at the open hole in the courtyard.

The gear was all laid out. There were flashlights, shovels, a hammer, a pair of big bolt cutters, a crowbar, a shovel. Work gloves, buckets, and a hose that stretched down into the hole from a spigot on the fountain. The preparations were lavish for going into a basement but such was the way of things when djinn were involved.

Fueled on tea and Moroccan pancakes, Colette was ready to go when another member suddenly joined the expedition.

Yunis. Her dark prince charming had finally appeared. He smiled and said hello in heavy accented English before diving into serious sounding conversation with Aziza and Simo. He motioned to the hole and argued vehemently and finally the three of them came to some sort of agreement.

“What was that about?” Colette asked.

“Oh, nothing,” said Simo. “He’s just my brother.” Sometimes Colette had a desire to strangle Simo and his way of keeping things from her.

“He wants to come with us,” Aziza said.

“Yes,” Yunis said in velvety accented tones. “I want to come with you into the hole.”

“H1N1,” said Ahmed, the smile on his crinkly face making him look just like a skinny, tan, Santa Claus.

It was too big conversation to have been condensed into only that, but Colette was learning that it was sometimes easier to pull teeth than to get complete information from Moroccans before they wanted to give it to you. Everything had a value.

As she looked at them, she wondered if Ahmed too carried Jewish blood in his veins. Simo and Yunis, were both descendants of Mellah Jews who had converted to Islam. Aziza, with the Conver blood coursing in her veins was also Jewish. She was the one who was an actual descendent of this place. Looking at Ahmed, she was pretty sure that he was exactly what he looked like and nothing else. Ahmed was a glorious old Berber with a huge heart and a handful of nonsense English.

Gearing up with the odd assortment of garden and hand tools Simo had laid out, they climbed down a wooden ladder that had been placed in the hole. Ahmed stayed on the surface ready to turn the hose on if they needed it. Colette had no idea what Simo intended to do with the hose.

She carried her big ring of keys clipped to her belt. The question was, did she want to go to the East door or the West door. It was a terrible dilemma. The lady or the tiger?  She stood at the bottom of the ladder, paralyzed by her indecision, trying to remember the words of the woman who called herself Chloe – who could not have actually been Chloe.  The house was oriented a certain way…which way should she go ..what had the woman told her about directions.

Finally, realizing that everyone was waiting for her to move, she strode to one of the doors and began fumbling with the keys. It was the West door. It wasn’t the first key she tried, nor the second. They say the third time is the charm…nope, not that one either. It was the ninth or tenth…to be honest she’d lost track. Meanwhile Simo was wondering through the pit dragging the hose behind him. Yunis and Aziza were having an easy conversation in Arabic. Finally, she managed to find the right key and having to use more muscle than she had expected, she turned it in the lock and heard the familiar sound of a loud click. She turned to tell the others…

That was when the explosion happened.

An explosion of water in her face. Apparently Ahmed had turned on the water and since Simo had it pointing towards her, the water exploded outwards and into her face. If she’d of had a weak heart, she would have died. The timing coudn’t have been worse. She stumbled forward pushing the weight of her body into the door and fell as the door gave way. She fell into the darkness and heard the startled cries of Aziza and Yunis.

She was out of the water and into the murky musty mystic grey darkness of the first basement room.

The rest of her crew followed with flashlights blazing. Simo shouted for Ahmed to shut off the water and soon it stopped splashing on the floor where he had dropped it. The group of them followed Colette into the room and played their lights on the walls and ceiling. Rough hewn, earthen walls lined with shelves filled with jars, pots, and ceramic ware. Two smaller doors stood to either side and the smell of water in ancient dust permeated everything. They’d found the pantry.

The jars and pots were filled with ancient food stuffs and the ceramic crockery was empty, this was simply where it had been stored. The room was interesting and Colette intended to call someone from a museum or something to see if there was any historical value to it, but there was nothing really extraordinary. No treasure or skeletons. It was like going into grandma’s basement – which, essentially it was.

She found the keys to the two smaller doors. The first contained a small empty room. The other opened to a flight of stairs that climbed upwards. The steps were hewn from the earth and led to a blank wall that none of them was unable to budge. She had found stairs that led nowhere.

Yunis and Aziza, bored, had already climbed up to the courtyard. Simo was still with her. He was excited.

“Colette, go up into the courtyard kitchen. I think this door leads there.” Simo called out instructions, as she descended the hidden stairs to nowhere. “Take the hose and turn it on when you get to kitchen. Spray it all over the floor.  Maybe we can find where the water leaks out…”

Colette wondered why he had brought the hose down in the first place. She exited the basement pantry, climbed up the rungs of the wooden ladder, and felt an intense pang of jealousy as she saw Yunis and Aziza sitting together on a bench in the courtyard. They were having an intimate conversation. So much for her fantasies of a dark prince charming. God dammit. Why did he have to show up and ruin it for her?

She turned on the faucet and went into the ground floor kitchen.

“Simo!” She yelled. “Can you hear me? Simo?” She walked around the room banging on the walls and pouring water all over the tile floor. On the side where she thought the stairs led there was a big wall of zeillij. Intricate patterns with what she figured were steeped in Jewish and Moroccan symbolism. She was on the right path. She knew it, even with the pangs of jealousy she was now feeling, she felt excited. She was weeding out the imbalance she had suffered in the past. Things were getting better.

Then she saw it. A small stream of water running into the wall. She ran outside to shut off the tap and then came back to the wall, banging on it. “Simo!” She couldn’t hear him at first but gradually she became aware or of a steady thumping to her left. Running her hands over the zellij, she found a loose tile and wriggled it. It fell, revealing a keyhole. It was a secret door!

Once again, she was searching through the ring of keys for the one that would fit. This time she got it on the first try. It was the smallest of the keys and when she turned it something amazing happened. A door hidden in the lines of zellij opened towards her. She pulled on it, felt a slight resistance, and then felt it give. As it opened she could hear Simo cursing as he fell forward, then trying to rebalance himself, fell backwards down the steps..

It served him right for the hose in her face, she thought as she rushed down to make sure he was okay.

 

Chapter 22

The Devil is in the Details

Thankfully, he was fine. A big bump on his big head was all the damage he suffered. Colette helped him up and then strode purposefully towards the other door. She was tired of the secrets of this house was keeping. She was tired of everything being held back and always being afraid that something else was coming. She was going to open this door and any doors she found inside. It was time to put the keys away. She was through not having all the information she wanted.

Everything was coming out now. She didn’t care if Aziza and Yunis weren’t there. It wasn’t their business anyway and despite her DNA, it wasn’t Aziza’s house. Who did she think she was living rent free and taking any man that came into the house as if she were the owner of the world? If the cook had been like Aziza, it was no wonder she had been chased off.

Colette knew that her thoughts weren’t fair, but she didn’t care. Life wasn’t fair and she was tired of being nice and getting water in her face. She was tired of getting shoved around and bothered by people as she tried to learn and respect their culture and they ignored hers. This was her house. She’d bought it. She’d paid for it. Not only with money but with bruised ego and now battered dreams where Prince Charming ran off with someone else.

Again, it took three keys before she found the one she needed. She was sure of what she would find in this room anyway. Nothing but junk and old dust. Rotting furniture and more rats – although, since the exorcism Lala had conducted, she hadn’t seen a single rat or mouse in the place. She kicked the door open with Simo still coming across the basement towards her.

“Miss Colette, maybe you should be care…”he stopped as she spun towards him, then finished the word “…ful.” He didn’t know what had gotten into her or why that wild look was in her eyes – it was him that had been knocked down the stairs, after all, but he decided that was all he was going to say. She looked at him for a moment, considering which limb to tear off first and then turned back to the room that had been locked since – well, since the family left the house.

Boxes. Wooden crates. Dust. Junk. She was sure. “Simo, get me a hammer and a prybar.” She walked into the room shining her light around to get an assessment of what was there. Some wood and plaster picture frames leaning against the wall with the pictures facing the other way. An iron bound chest there. It looked like a treasure chest…haha. As if there would be treasure in a shitty old place like this. She felt the bitterness sapping away at any joy she might have found. Wooden boxes wrapped in decaying canvas. Despite her bitter cynicism, she had to admit, this was starting to look like a treasure vault.

She felt a sudden urge to shut the door and tell everyone that she’d found nothing. Aziza’s new found relationship to the house seemed much more threatening. Colette knew gold and she suddenly knew, without a doubt, that there was gold in this room. A lot of it. Had Simo figured that out yet…? Was she just imgaining things. No.

Aziza and Yunis were at the door now with Simo.

“What’s in here?” Aziza asked. “Did you find anything?”

“Just more junk,” Colette lied. “Let’s call it a day. I can’t breathe this dust any more.” She turned and kept herself from shoving Aziza out of the way, just barely. Aziza was a man stealer, just like her sister, no doubt about it. No wonder poor Jamila hated her so much. Well, she wasn’t going to get the chance to steal this treasure, that was for certain. Colette checked herself…it was Aziza who had her man stolen, her husband. And as for the treasure, there might not be anything there at all.

Simo and Yunis were silent as Colette closed and locked the door. Just so things wouldn’t look too suspicious, she walked across the basement and locked the other door too. Then she began to climb the ladder up to the courtyard.

“You coming?” She said to the three watching her from below. The keys. She was the one with the keys and so whatever the keys revealed, she owned. At least she hoped so.

She knew she was being greedy and selfish. She knew that she was acting paranoid and kind of awful, but it was better than punching that bitch in the face and then kicking her ass. She reminded herself that she didn’t even know Yunis but it didn’t matter. Why in the world should he be interested in her anyway, he didn’t know her. She didn’t know him. He might be an awful person. Look what his brother had done, married the wrong sister, and then run away with the right one. She needed them to go. She needed time away from the house and away from Simo, Yunis, and Aziza – but now that she thought the house might be sitting on a treasure room, there was no way she could leave without seeing what was there.

“Aziza?” She said as the girl climbed out of the hole behind Simo but ahead of Yunis.

“Can you and Simo go get us some fresh fruit from the souq?” Colette couldn’t help it, there was still a part of her that wanted Yunis, wanted to prove that she could make him want her. She knew if she could get him alone, she could win him over. It was the least important thing going on right now, but for some reason, her bruised ego had made it priority number one.

But all to no avail.

“Sure,” Aziza said. “Come on guys.” And with that, the queen left with her admirers. It was for the best, but still, Colette had wanted to have a chance, she wanted a shot at it. At him.

As the sound of the car faded into the distance, Colette got out her phone and dialed Destiny in New York. It was the first time she had called since she had left.

“Hello?” a sleepy voice said. It was early morning in New York even if it was almost noon in Morocco.

Hearing her girlfriend’s voice, even if it was filled with annoyance at being woke from sleep brought a feling of homesickness over Colette. She felt tears coming. “Hi Destiny, it’s Colette.” She was going to blubber, no doubt about it.

“Damn girlfried, it’s about time you called. I thought maybe you found some beautiful Arab man and became a prisoner of lovemaking.” Sometimes, Destiny knew just what to say, in this case it was just what to say to make Colette actually begin blubbering.

“I hate it, I hate it here, Destiny. I’m like a prisoner, nobody cares about me. I don’t feel like I can go out, I feel like I have no one …I …I …I…”

All the annoyance and sleep was gone from Destiny’s voice. “Whoa…whoa girl. Slow down. I’m here, I’m here. Tell Big Mama what the problem is.” Colette began to feel better almost immediately. She got control of herself as she told Destiny everything that had happened so far. Just getting it out made a huge difference – trapped in her own head, the whole thing with Yunis had taken on some sort of significance, but telling Destiny about it, she started to see it in a different light. Destiny was a great friend. She listened and then she called bullshit.

“You have got to be kidding me, right?” Destiny said. “You’re sitting there crying over a Moroccan baker that you’ve never even had a conversation with?  Colette, get ahold of yourself girl. You might be imagining Prince Charming, but the reality is he’s probably as dumb as a stick with the dick of a two-year-old. Hell, girl. For all you know, he’s gay.”

“And that girl? What the hell you letting her stay in your house for? Did you invite her? Just cause her grandpa screwed the help don’t make her the lady of the manor. You bought the house. It’s yours. It’s all yours. You got the contract with you, right? You got it all translated into English, right? Just read that thing and find out what’s happening. Sounds like these people are eating you alive, woman.”

“No, they’re not. I mean, they’re helping me with everything. They’ve done so much for me already…”

“Colette. You’re paying for everything. Trust me. Nobody is doing nothing for free. You pay your helper, right? You pay the guardian, right? All them women that came, you paid them didn’t you?”

It was true. Simo had suggested it. He said that they had come, including Lala, just out of the goodness of their hearts, but that it would be a good thing to give them something. So she had told him to pay them what he thought was fair. They’d all been making more working for her than they would have working for anyone else. Even Aziza, not that she needed any money, but she was eating Colette’s food, staying in her house, and she hadn’t offered to pay for anything yet. How in the world had she come to feel like they were all doing her favors? She had felt like she owed them but actually, if anyone was owed anything – it was her.

“Destiny, what should I do?” Colette asked, finally. It wasn’t like her, but she felt out of her depth. It had taken Destiny, the great manipulator to point out that Colette was being manipulated. She hadn’t seen it. Maybe Destiny could point her in the right direction.

Destiny laughed. “What the fuck do you think you should do? Go down there and see what’s in them boxes, Girl. I’m dying to know if you just bought a big house full of treasure.” Simple enough. But first she wanted to re-read the deed to her house and property.

After getting off the phone she went upstairs to go over the paperwork. It was straightforward and clear. She was the sole owner of the house and all it contained. She owned the hotel, the land, and the property on the land. It was free and clear with no strange clauses or tricky wording. The one odd bit that she hadn’t noticed before was about providing maintenance to any current tenants or residents of the house.

Since the house had been unoccupied, she hadn’t thought much about it, she’d known there was a guardian and had figured the clause simply meant that she couldn’t evict him and take away his job. She’d agreed to keep Ahmed on as a gardener and guardian. Now she wondered about Aziza. Did the girl moving in make her a resident? She was just a guest, right?

The devil was in the details. She was just going to have to ask Aziza to leave. She liked the girl, but she couldn’t really keep her around any more. It was too much strain. And, she really didn’t want to discover any treasure with a descendant of the Conver family living in the house. She felt a little bit guilty over that, a little selfish and greedy,  but she knew it was the right way to go forward. She had to protect herself.

Chapter 23

The Ivory Tower

“You want me to leave?” Aziza sounded shocked. “I thought we were friends?”

Colette attempted to explain things the way she had thought it out. “We are friends, but I’m having work done in the house and having you live here, makes it more complicated. You have a house, you have money, so it’s not like I’m kicking you onto the street.”

“But you are kicking me out.” Aziza was both hurt and offended. “The white queen in her ivory tower doesn’t want any of the locals cramping her style.” It was closer to the truth than she knew. “This is about Yunis, isn’t it. I’m Moroccan, I know when a woman likes a man. I could see it the way you looked at him.You didn’t even have to say anything.”

Well, that would have made things easier, if Collete were willing to admit it – which she wasn’t. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Oh, you know! Simo told me how much you like his brother. He’s a little jealous you know. Simo has a crush on you and you’ve got a crush on his brother. And now, you’re kicking me out because of it. I see how it is.”

“Simo has a vivid imagination. Contrary to what you may think or what he may have told you, he is not my confidant, I don’t run to him giggling every time an attractive man appears.”

“Ah ha! I knew it!” Aziza declared. “You think Yunis is attractive.”

Colette didn’t believe for a second that Simo had a crush on her or that he had said anything to Aziza about her liking Yunis. It was clear that Simo had a crush on Aziza. This was just Aziza showing her family colors. That was what got her blood boiling. “I thought you said we were friends.”

“Yeah, so did I, but now you’re kicking me out.” Aziza was making this much more ugly than it needed to be but now that Colette had seen the ugliness, she was like an OCD  book keeper following a discrepancy to the source.

“You thought I liked Yunis?” Even as she said it she felt like the 13-year-old girl she sounded like. She was admitting it, but she had to, in order to expose the crime.

“Of course I did. Anyone could see it? Especially a Moroccan. You can’t hide things like that from a Moroccan. You are not a Moroccan so you can’t hide anything from us. ” Aziza was putting Colette into her versus all of the Moroccans mentality.

“You thought I liked him but you still went after him? Who’s the real bitch here? ” Colette felt more petty and more teenage by the second.

“Went after him? He came after me. Of course I let him, he’s a very attractive man. It was his choice, not mine. I don’t even like him.”

“You still think you can say you were my friend after admitting that? After letting him think he could sniff up your tree? ” It was the trap. Colette had opened it as if she held the keys and Aziza had walked in and closed the door behind her. There’s no country where a friend can go after a guy she knows her girlfriend likes. No matter what your culture, if you did that, you were a bitch. If the guy your friend likes comes after you, you push him away. That was what friends did. Any other reaction revealed the truth. Aziza may have never heard the phrase ‘sniffing up your tree’ but she knew she was caught. It wasn’t the Moroccan way though, to ever admit defeat.

“You’re just making excuses to try to get me out of the picture now. You think if you send me back to Fez that maybe he’ll come sniff up your stinky old tree. Don’t count on it. He’s hooked on me. That dog is mine.”

Colette was surprised by this whole conversation. It wasn’t the one she had practiced. Still, it was good. The truth was finding a way to the surface.  Aziza was justifying Colette kicking her out more with every word she said. One thing was sure, she didn’t mind sending the girl home now. She’d felt guilty before, like she was trying to rob her, but now, now she felt like she was reclaiming her house.

“Aziza. We’re done with this conversation. Get your things out of my house. Simo will drive you back down to Fez…and you can have Yunis too. He’s not my type. I’m not sure what you thought, but I’m not interested in players like him or in fake friends that don’t respect me. This old tree has been sniffed at enough.” It hurt to call herself old, but in a way it was liberating. She turned and walked away and thought she heard Aziza mumble the word ‘bitch’ as she did so. That’s right. She was a tough fucking bitch. It was time people around here started learning that. How had she forgotten?

“Simo,” she shouted to the young man as he sat munching fruit with his brother in the salon. “Would you and Yunis please help Aziza get her things and then take her back to her house in Fez. She won’t be staying with us any longer. Also, I’d prefer if your family no longer came to visit.”

“Miss Colette? Why? ” He was confused and torn between keeping a pretty great job and defending his family. Maybe he really did have a crush on her. All of this was so stupid in the first place. Yunis wasn’t any sort of prize. She’d built an aura around him, maybe she’d needed to have a light at the end of the tunnel. Some reason why she had dragged herself across the Atlantic to a country where she couldn’t even go sit in a wine bar with her girlfriends at the end of a workout. This whole thing was ridiculous. It was time to move on.

“I’m tired of always having people around. I want some me time. In fact, I’d prefer if you take a few days off and go visit your family. If you want to keep working for me, you can come back in a few days.”

When Aziza and the two guys were finally gone, it was nearly 3 PM. Colette called Ahmed into the house and asked him to come down into the basement with her. She unlocked the door to the treasure room and had him shine the light while she opened the boxes and looked at the treasures. She felt like Howard Carter, the man who had discovered King Tut’s tomb. A part of her wanted to keep it all a big secret, but she knew that was wrong – she needed someone else here. She needed a witness so that she would be compelled to do what was right – though Ahmed’s loyalty was such that if she had chosen to murder people and bury them in her basement – he would have never told.

She knew that whatever she found here, she would have to share it – somehow. She was soon to discover, that there was a lot to share.

The final key on her ring opened up the iron clad box. It was filled with gold coins just like the one that Monsieur DeFou had given to her. It was a fortune and it was hers.

She became aware of Ahmed standing over her with the flashlight. She took a coin and handed it up to him, half expecting the heavy flashlight to come down and crush her skull. Ahmed’s three teeth were bared in an almost toothless grin as he took the coin from her extended hand.

“Merry Christmas.”

 

Chapter 24

A Star is Born

Moroccan customs was a funny thing. It turned out that the biggest worry of the customs agents had was that she might be taking ‘precious fossils’ out of the country. They asked her if she had any fossils and when she said no, they didn’t even look at her very heavy baggage.

She probably would have drawn some notice if she had checked a box of gold coins, a bunch books written in Hebrew, and a huge collection of Jewish artifacts in rubber tubs.  That wasn’t how it worked.  In New York, it was just a matter of paying the right people, right around $10,000, which, thanks to the machinations of Destiny, didn’t have to even come out of her bank account.

The key was donating the Hebrew books and artifacts to the Jewish museum in New York City. Colette agreed to donate the books, ceramics, religious items of Moroccan Jewish origin to the museum in exchange for them paying the aforementioned $10,000 in ‘transit fees’ and transporting a few crates of ‘personal items’ that she didn’t want to be bothered by customs with.

The iron bound box of gold coins, a couple of paintings, some beautiful ceramics, and a few old books in French and English were all delivered to her condo without her having to sign for anything at all. The Jewish Museum was exhilarated to have the items she donated and valued the collection (not including the things she had kept like the gold coins) at more than $15 million dollars. It was described in The New York Times as ‘The Moroccan Jewish Treasure Trove” and the museum named the wing they would be housed in as ‘The Colette Samson Wing’.

The whole process moved out of her hands with a single call from her friend Destiny. In a very short time the museum’s director had flown to Morocco to evaluate the potential of the collection himself. It never paid to underestimate the influence of a smoking hot African-American model with a killer haymaker.

There were families who came out of the woodwork to make claims on the treasure after the announcement – both in Morocco and the USA, but thankfully, the announcement was not made until the after everything had been transported. The museum generally families with legitimate claims a cash settlement, added their names to the list of benefactors, and reminded them that their families contribution had become a part of Jewish world heritage. The combination of cash, fame, and a bit of greed shaming – not to mention the threat of a legal battle and plenty of bad press if they tried to steal this from the world Jewish community were enough to turn even the greediest of claimants away.

One family that didn’t make an appearance was the Conver family. In fact, Colette had no luck finding any of them. There was no records of Chloe, Pierre-Antoine had taken a trip to Paris and pulled a magician’s disappearing act. As for the hermit – he didn’t return to his cave. Colette desperately wanted to find them. She knew the treasure belonged to them,  that the treasure wasn’t hers. She didn’t want to be one of those people who bought something incredibly valuable from an old person for a ridiculously low price.

However, circumstances had made her that, not by intention but still – here she was. Her purpose in keeping the things she had snuck through customs was to ensure that she was able to give them back to the Conver family. The problem was, there were no Conver family members to be found and from what she could tell, none of them had left any children behind. Of course, there are worse things than being burdened with a treasure trove.

Colette had needed the time away from Morocco. She intended to go back but for now, she needed to be back among her own people. She needed to get her head together and she needed to have the treasure out of her riad. It was not good to have a basement full of treasure.

Almost immeidately upon finding it, it had begun to make her crazy. She’d always laughed at those movies where friends end up killing each other over a big fortune they don’t want to share. “There’s enough for everyone to share,” she’d always said “Why in the world would they kill each other over it?”

But now she knew. Millions upon millions of dollars. It had made her lose her head. Not only had she wanted to protect it and keep it from everyone else, but it had made her suspicious and crazy. In the end, only one thing had saved her. Ahmed. The simple toothless smile of the Berber had shown her what was happening. As she realized what she had, she had expected that he was going to kill her over it. At the very least, she thought he would tell everyone, but in fact, he hadn’t even tried to keep the gold coin she handed him. He handed it back to her and then, using body language, suggested that they lock up the room and go back upstairs before anyone wandered in.

His smile. It was genuine. He didn’t care about money. Maybe all those women who had come to help with the house didn’t care about money either. Maybe Simo wasn’t in this for the money. Aziza? Well, mabye she was being too hard on the girl. It wasn’t as if she had any claim to Yunis, hell, it wasn’t even as if she actually wanted him. He had been a sort of grasping fantasy for a man to protect her. Something that she didn’t need. Gold is oriented towards the East. That was what Chloe had told her. Love was to the West.

She wondered about that. Had Chloe been talking about her love of gold, kept locked up in a basement closet. Was she talking about how food and love were hopelessly intertwined – the stomach being the way to the heart and the pantry being the way to the stomach? Or was it something else…she didn’t know. She might never know.

Being back in New York, Colette felt good about what she had accomplished. She felt good about her decisions. Before leaving Sanhaja, she’d asked Ahmed to take over the project of restoring the house. She’d arranged a large bank transfer to Wajaf, the big Moroccan bank and then told Simo that he would be working for Ahmed now. She gave both men a raise and left strict instructions to not let anyone move into or stay in the house besides the two of them. She would return when the house was fully restored. At that point, she would see what could be done about the hotel. For now, it was nice to be back in New York…and to be a star again instead of just some crazy white lady who had bought an even crazier house.

 

Chapter 25

I Won’t Moon Over You

One of the things Colette couldn’t figure out was how she had developed that crazy obsession over Yunis. He wasn’t her type. She liked brainy guys with open minds and open hearts who when asked about God usually replied “Who?”

Before she left, she’d finally been able to sit down with Yunis, heart fluttering like a schoolgirl and within about a minute of the conversation, she didn’t want to be near him. His English was decent, but his mind was soggy, maybe it was from all the baking. He’d talked about how much he loved God, how he was looking for a good Islamic woman, and about how life in Morocco gave him everything he wanted. “Those guys,” he had motioned his arm expansively, ”Out there, they all want to leave Morocco but for me, everything I want is here.”

It was at about that time that she’d realized just how little of what she wanted was in Morocco. Including Yunis. She wanted theatre, fashion, arts, shopping, and bacon. Yes, bacon. She’d never before spent much time thinking about bacon or any other meat, but a few months in Morocco had driven her desire for bacon to a fever pitch. Maybe Yunis was just another sort of bacon, but it had been romance and flirting she was after, rather than salty smoked meat. Maybe that was the answer there.

In any event, she didn’t miss him and she didn’t care if he and Aziza got married and had a hundred children. In fact, she didn’t care about much besides this sudden desire to find Pierre-Antoine, Abraham, or the reportedly long dead Chloe Conver. None of them had a listed telephone or address of permanent record (well except for the Hermit. Simo was watching for his return and promised to notify her right away when and if it happened) The whole situation had driven her to distraction.

There had been odd and mysterious occurences each time she had met any of them. As she recalled each event, her skin had puckered into goose bumps. She would keep looking and she would find them and return what was rightfully theirs, but the task seemed to be impossible. She delved into immigration records, birth certificates, and all of the genealogists tools which finally led her to the Church of Latter Day Saints, who have the largest collection of lineage tracing resources on the planet. She went to the New York Family History Center on Columbus Avenue. The ladies inside were helpful and to her surprise, didn’t try to convert her, though they did ask if she were a Mormon.

The search turned up something that she hadn’t expected. By this point, this didn’t surprise her. There was no record of the Conver family in Morocco, but she found that there was a wealthy Conver family from Marseille. They weren’t Jewish, but the patriarch and founder of the family fortune was Nicholas Conver, just as the founding father of the Moroccan family had been named.

Conver had been a rich man, by any definition. There was little information that remained about him, there were several certain facts. Nicholas Conver had been the official engraver for the King of France and as such was a member of the diplomatic corps that had been sent to deal with the Sultans of Morocco. He had made the journey to Fez, which at that time was the Imperial capital and then had spent more than a year living there.

Interestingly, he was also the designer and engraver of one of the first European tarot decks. The tarot was a deck of cards used for a game in France at the time. It was steeped in mystery and used by fortune tellers from that time all the way to the present to tell fortunes. Some said that the tarot had origins older than the pyramids. Nicholas Conver was the original French tarot designer.

He had been sent to Fez, but there was no record of he or his family settling there. Today there were very few members of the Conver family to be found in Marseille, though she did find a small enclave that lived in a village near the town of Aix-en-Provence. That, however, was as far as she was able to follow that track. If she wanted to know more, she would have to go to France. Maybe once when Riad Conver was completely restored she would take on this quest.

Through immigration records, she found that Pierre-Antoine Conver had immigrated in 1947 from France, not from Morocco. The city of origin was listed as Marseilles. There was no record of a Chloe Conver immigrating to the United States. In fact, there was no record of a Chloe Conver anywhere – something that seemed impossible given that there were nearly 8 billion people in the world. A google search brought Colette to where it had all began…type “Chloe Conver” into Google and you find lady’s handbags and exotic luxury designs, though the shop had disappeared from the street and from search results.

Colette didn’t spend all of her time obsessing over the Conver family, the treasure, or thinking about her house in Morocco. She spent most of her time re-discovering just how much she had missed her beautiful city. Coming out of a Broadway show with Destiny, looking up at the sky and seeing the full moon shining down between the valleys of massive towers.

“I love New York!” She shouted, much to the delight of the people around her who figured she was probably some tourist seeing the city for the first time. In her enthusiasm and amidst the laughter of Destiny and her other girlfriends, she spun around with her arms spread out and crashed right into some poor guy that was coming around the corner. She ended up knocking him and his pizza onto the ground with her on top of them both. It was a bacon pizza…she could smell it.

 

Chapter 26

The Sun also Rises

Destiny and her friends pulled Colette off of the poor guy. His pizza was smooshed but at least it was in a box and not smooshed on the two of them. Luckily it hadn’t been raining and the fall to the ground was easily brushed off. He was kind about the whole thing and laughed as they helped him up.

“It’s not every day that I get mugged by a gang of beautiful women,” he laughed. They all laughed with him. He wasn’t terribly handsome, but pleasant looking and his voice was particularly nice.

“I’m awful sorry,” Colette said.”I should pay more attention to what I’m doing.”

Again he laughed. “I’m rather glad that you weren’t paying attention.” He wiped away his curly black bangs from where they had fallen over his face. Colette, the jewelry designer, noticed that he had silver rings on every one of his fingers – including his thumb. He wore black trousers and a white jacket, which thankfully she hadn’t ruined by knocking him in the gutter. As she brushed the back of it, she could feel the tightness of his muscles. He was in good shape.

“Let me make it up to you,” she said.”Can I buy you a drink?”

“I thought that was supposed to be my line, but I accept. What’s your name?”

“I’m Colette Samson,” she told him, extending her hand.

“Lordy Lordy Colette Forty,” he said then seeing the scowl on her face, apologized. “Sorry, I bet you hate that. You’re obviously much younger than forty.” She forgave him instantly.

“I’m so pleased that we bumped into each other. I’m Nick. Nick Conver.” The took her extended hand. His name caused her to take a step back and look into his face carefully. Was this some sort of a set up? Had he planned this? What was going on here…

The look of surprise on his face as she pulled back wasn’t faked, neither was the warmth of his voice. “Was it something I said?” It had to be a coincidence, which, she had learned by this point was probably the last thing in the world it was.

“Let me buy you a drink, Nick. I won’t take no for an answer.” She moved back towards him and smiled. Her friends had fallen into their own conversations when they had seen that she was interested and he looked like a likely candidate. That’s the way friends were supposed to operate.

“In that case, the answer is yes. Right now or would you rather meet later?” he said.

“IThere’s no time like the present,” she said “Come on, I know a little place right around the corner.”

“What about your friends? Aren’t they coming?” he spluttered, a bit surprised at being hijacked this way by a woman who had literally knocked him off his feet just minutes before. “Uh, what about my pizza?”

“Bring the pizza. I’ll catch up with my friends later.”  There was a part of her that felt like a cougar grabbing this guy from the street and dragging him back to her den, but he was at least as old as she was and besides – she had a good reason to take him.

There were no shortages of places she could have taken him, but she chose to take him to the sky deck at the Broadway Bar. It wasn’t the fanciest, wasn’t the trendiest, or the chicist – but it was a place he cold bring his pizza and where they could talk without getting drowned out by the noise or the music. And besides, it was her guilty pleasure in New York City – no where else was there a view like this.

Finding a table and placing their drink orders (a gin fizz for her and a pastis for him) she got down to business.

“Nick, I hope you’ll forgive me, but you’ve got an interesting name. Can you tell me about it?” There wasn’t any point in beating around the bush.

“Sure, thanks. I’ve always thought it was kind of plain. It’s a family name. My great grandfather – times ten or so – he was Nicholas Conver. If you’re into fortune telling or the occult, he was supposed to be the guy who made the fortune telling cards, the tarot. I mean, that’s the story….” he trailed off as she stared into his face.

She could see it. She could see the family resemblance.

“Tell me about your parents,” she said. The poor guy was getting the interrogation treatment and had to be feeling sorry to h