ted was there to meet him and to describe the job to him.
roger was led to a little room with a small desk. there was a laptop computer on the desk, a large pile of small pink paper slips, and two wire baskets labeled “good “ and “bad”.
ted logged into a list of people’s names. the names were in alphabetical order, last name first. and each name had a thirteen digit number beside it.
“these are payment slips people have sent in,” roger explained. “each one is supposed to have the person’s i d number on it. just check the slips against the list to see if the i d matches, or if the i d was even included. put the slips that match in the “good” basket and the ones that do not in the “bad” basket.”
“what happens when i fill up the baskets?”
“some one will come around to collect them. but it will go slower than you think.”
“and that’s it?” roger asked.
“that’s it,” said ted. “do you think you can handle it?”
“i guess. couldn’t a scanner do the job?”
“it might,” ted replied. he glanced over at roger. “these are not many jobs like this left. do you want it or not?”
“oh, yes, yes, i want it,” roger assured him. “can i ask you one question?”
“you can ask.”
“the person who had this job before. how long did they last?”
“forty-eight years, ten months, and twelve days. for some reason i guess they couldn’t quite make it to fifty years.”
roger considered this. “what kind of person was it? were they male or female, fat or thin, white or black, liberal or conservative, good looking or ugly - ?”
“i am afraid that is confidential,” said ted. “you could ask human resources but i will tell you right now you won’t get an answer.”
“all right, i was just curious.” roger sat down at the desk. “i don’t know if i can do this for forty-eight years.”
“give it a try. see how it goes. i leave you to it.”
if you saw me walking down the street you probably would not think i amounted to much.
you probably would not even be curious about what i was thinking.
but you might be surprised at what goes on inside my head.
i am not one of those people who just believes everything he is told, not me.
for example, you probably know that gravity is 32 feet per second per second.
have you ever wondered if that is really the best - or as scientists say, the optimum - rate?
my calculations are that 36 feet per second would get much better results in the long run.
here is another example - have you ever wondered about whether the way the earth revolves around the sun is really the best method?
whether the earth’s passage might be smoother and the weather might be pleasanter and not so extreme if the other planets - mercury and venus - were not in the way? or if mars and jupiter and the other planets were different distances away or were not there at all?
or if earth’s solar system might be better off in some other part of the galaxy - closer to the center, maybe, or closer to the outer edge?
or if the universe expanded at a slower or faster rate?
you probably never think about these things, or if you ever have you probably think that nothing could be done about them anyway.
but how do you know? whoever thought , back in the days of the greeks and romans, that a man would go to the moon, or that there would be computers and smart phones and such - phones that you carry around in your pocket and you can make full-length movies with? and look what happened to poor galileo.
but anyway thoughts like this are just scratching the surface of all the things i think about and all my thoughts about how the universe and so-called reality could be made better.
like the way human society is organized. and whether it could be organized better.
here is a subject you say which many people have in fact thought about. and argued and written millions of books about and fought thousands of wars and revolutions about.
true, but in my opinion they do not go nearly far enough.
for example, the first thing you have to do to set the world straight - not the last thing but the first thing - is abolish all countries. that is what i said, all countries , including and especially the united states , before you can even begin to rearrange society to make it more fair.
but does anybody say this? no, even so-called “left-wingers” are always running on about “patriotism” and “true patriotism”!
and then there is money. money is the worst thing that was ever invented. but will anybody come right out and say so - no! instead they talk about giving even more money to more people, which is just stupid if you ask me.
anyway these are the kind of things i think about, if anybody was interested.
but even more than patriotism, even more than money, there is one thing that really messes up the world.
no, not religion, because religion does not really amount to anything.
how much time does the average human spend on religion? one hour a week? and a lot of people not even that.
no, the biggest problem in the world is - women.
women are the cause of almost all the grief and confusion in the world. they just are.
men in the modern world try to treat women like equals, like they are the same as men, but they are not.
but once you let them think that you should “respect” them or care what they think, then they have you at their mercy.
i think all the women in the world should be the slaves of all the men in the world.
and their thoughts and opinions should not be counted for anything because they are not really capable of thought.
but there should not be any private property so no one man should “own” any one women or group of women.
instead every woman should be the slave of every man and do what any and every man tells her to do.
but that is just my opinion based on my own experience and observation and thoughts.
maybe you think differently.
but that gets back to what i was saying in the beginning, that you never really know what other people are thinking.
maybe you think my views on women or patriotism or whatever are terrible and shocking, but the next guy (or woman!) that you pass by in the street might have what you would regard as even worse views.
how do you know?
a lot of people might have ideas that even i would find shocking, though i don’t think so, because i think of myself as being pretty broad minded and open to all suggestions.
a pleasant evening. a pink sunset over the forest surrounding the airport.
alfredo stood with twenty other drivers of limousines in a waiting area outside the main terminal.
he was waiting for beatriz, whom he had not seen since he had had a brief look at her when she had driven him to the dock on the lake .
don reynard had explained to him that in order to maintain the fiction that beatriz was a journalist and alfredo her bodyguard, beatriz would arrive on a plane, alfredo would meet her, and they would then drive to the compound where the child - the target of the operation - was held.
suddenly beatriz approached. the plane had apparently arrived early. alfredo had not even taken out the little sign identifying himself as her driver.
she was even more beautiful than alfredo remembered.
“you are early,” alfredo told her.
“yes, just as i planned,” beatriz replied.
they understood each other perfectly.
“let’s go,” beatriz said. “i know a place we can stop.”
maria paced nervously, pausing every few minutes to look out a window, although night had fallen and she could not see past the walls of the compound.
she could not understand why a journalist was to be admitted to the compound. it seemed to contradict everything that had been done previously to protect gerald and guard his privacy.
she had been given reasons but she did not really believe them.
gerald was in his usual place in front of the cold fireplace, with a sketchpad, drawing a graphic novel.
“something is going to happen,” maria blurted out.
“of course something is going to happen,” gerald replied. “how could nothing happen?”
only a few lights were visible on the highway outside the motel.
beatriz pulled the shade on the window. she turned to alfredo. “you know they are probably watching everything we do.”
“do you care?” alfredo asked.
and then alfredo took her.
he took her as no man had ever taken a woman before.
he took her as a volcano takes an island as it disappears into the ocean forever, as the last star in the universe blazes outward and consumes a million galaxies….
and still beatriz cried for more…
watching the proceedings on his little screen in his bungalow, don reynard roared with laughter.
“go, big fellow, go!” he cried. “go!”
“come and look at this!” he shouted over his shoulder. “you don’t want to miss this!”
“do you think we could make a run for it?” beatriz asked alfredo, as she watched him button up his shirt. “and leave all this nonsense behind?”
“we could try,” alfredo told her. “but i contracted to do a job.”
“oh, of course. and you want your reward - your kingdom.”
“i contracted to do a job,” alfredo repeated. “i never liked welshers.”
“but you have not gotten the kingdom yet,” beatriz replied. “if you do not do the job, no one will be cheated of anything.”
“i contracted to do the job.”
“oh, very well.” beatriz sat up and began picking her clothes off the floor. “i suppose we may as well run over the details of this happy proceeding.”
“yes,” alfredo agreed.
“will you try to bring a weapon in with you?”
“it is worth a try, but anything too elaborate might backfire.” alfredo produced a small pistol and showed it to beatriz.
“this is a 259 coronado with 17 g’s of blast power, filed down with an 88 dominican grip, capable of 60 pops, 20 second.”
“it looks like a toy.”
“it is not much more than a toy. we can try to get it in playing innocent - ‘ i am a bodyguard, of course i need a weapon’. or you could use such charms on the guards that they forget all about me. perhaps try your charms first, fall back on the innocence.”
“yes, that sounds as good as anything, i suppose. no doubt if we can not get the gun in, you have other methods.”
“that is what they are paying me for.”
gerald put down his sketchbook and stood up when the woman and the man, the journalist and her bodyguard, entered the room. they were unaccompanied by any guards, although maria and gerald had heard some palavering in the outer room before their entry.
“good evening,” maria greeted beatriz. she felt strangely calm.
“good evening,” beatriz replied with her most charming smile. behind her, alfredo scanned the room.
“and who is charming little man?” beatriz continued, looking at gerald, who stared directly into her eyes.
“this is gerald,” maria answered easily. “and he is prepared to answer any questions you might have. are you not, gerald?”
“who is he?” gerald asked, pointing to alfredo.
“who am i?” alfredo smiled and stepped forward and looked at gerald.
and in that moment he knew the truth.
the child was himself.
alfredo took the 259 coronado out of his pocket and shot gerald between the eyes.
seated side by side on the couch, don reynard and don carlos watched gerald fall backward.
and alfredo disappear in a cloud of green and red smoke.
“that went well, “ said don reynard.
“as well as could be expected,” don carlos agreed.
“so is the universe saved now?” don reynard asked.
don reynard stood up when alfredo entered. he looked like every other man who had ever hired alfredo to do what he did.
the room was bare except for a pair of couches facing each other, with a low table between them. on the table were a bottle of whiskey and a couple of glasses.
“we meet at last, my dear sir,” don reynard addressed alfredo. he did not offer to shake hands, but indicated that alfredo should sit down across from him. “i have heard a great deal about you.”
“no doubt, “ alfredo replied, as he seated himself on the edge of the offered couch.
“i hope you did not find the elaborate means i took to arrange this meeting too onerous.”
“no doubt you had your reasons.”
“i did. would you care for a drink?”
“i doubt if you went to all this trouble to bring me here to poison me. so, yes, i’ll have a drink.”
don reynard poured two stiff drinks from the bottle on the low table. he indicated that alfredo could take either one, and he took one.
“my sources tell me,” said don reynard.leaning back on his couch, “that you spoke with don carlos.”
alfredo just shrugged.
“no doubt he told you some story about myself. perhaps some story about a man named bud johnson.”
“he may have.”
“don carlos is a fool.” don reynard laughed. “there is no such person as bud johnson, he is a fiction we have imposed on him.”
“if you say so.”
“in any case, you came to me.”
“i told him you had contacted me first, and that therefore i would hear what you had to say first.”
“ha ha. no doubt you are thinking that if you go to him he will tell you that i am deluded, that he has imposed some fiction on me.”
alfredo took a sip of his drink. “he told me he was the richest man in the world.”
“yes, it pleases him to think so. as it pleases him to tell you about my concern with bud johnson, who does not exist.”
“be that as it may,” said alfredo, “you must want me to do something to somebody.”
“yes, of course. look here.” don reynard reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and took out a tablet the size of a wallet. he placed it on the table and unfolded it so that its screen faced alfredo.
“this is real time,” said don reynard. “the picture is not quite the best.”
“it is good enough,” said alfredo. “but what exactly am i watching?”
the picture showed a moderately beautiful young woman, dressed very plainly in slacks and a white shirt, sitting in a wicker chair with a book. the picture was clear enough to show that she was not concentrating on the book, but kept glancing at -
a boy about eight or nine years old, seated on the floor in front of a fireplace, turning the pages of an oversized book. the boy rocked back and forth slightly as he perused the book.
“it is the boy we are interested in,” said don reynard. “not the woman.”
“you want me to kidnap him?”
“if you can. but kill him if you can not.”
“i assume you have no qualms about killing a child.”
“i do not know what qualms are.”
“well, you can always look it up in the dictionary under ‘q’ if you are curious.”
alftedo stared at the screen. “they must be well guarded.”
“of course. we would not have gone to the trouble of enquiring as to your services if it were otherwise. “
“speaking of my services -“
“we are aware of their value. what did you have in mind? any particular currency?”
“what is money in today’s world? i was thinking of something more substantial.”
don reynard smiled. “such as?”
“preferably an island. it need not be a large one.”
“i am sure it can be arranged. do we have a deal, then?”
“tell me more about this job. do you have any entry at all to this well guarded target- or am i to work from scratch?”
“ah. i have no doubt you could work from scratch, as you put it, but we do have an entry, one we would prefer to use, as it is in place, and we would like to get this whole affair over and done with as quickly as possible.”
“you have met beatriz.”
“i have? you mean - “
“the woman who picked you up and drove you to the dock.”
“oh. i hardly saw her. except when she let me out at the dock. she did not introduce herself.”
“but you noticed her. eh?”
alberto shrugged. “a woman is a woman.”
“ha, ha, to are sure. a most worthy sentiment. what a different world it would be, eh, if all adhered to it?”
“well, what of this beatriz? “ alberto replied impatiently.
“i see you are all business, my friend. well, beatriz will impersonate a reporter, a reporter for a european newspaper -“
“yes, one of the last in existence, and as such she will gain entrance to interview the child and the governess. you will accompany her as a bodyguard. the child has been represented as some sort of prodigy, in order to justify to the curious the massive security around it. a journalist will be allowed admittance, to counter allegations of fraud.“
“i see. and once inside this massive security i am to kidnap or kill the child and the governess, and then get out, with them and this beatriz in tow?”
“the governess is of no importance. beatriz can take care of herself. as for the rest, that is what you are being paid for.”
he had seen and done many things, most of them too terrible to be described.
and yet when the black limousine turned off the highway into the barely visible dirt road he felt that he was about to come to the end of his long journey.
or to start a new one.
the limo bounced along the dirt road. and bounced and bounced. thick vegetation covered both sides of the road, and brushed up against the tinted windows.
the rear passenger seat that alfredo occupied was blocked off from the front seat and alfredo could not tell how many persons, if any, were in the front seat.
alfredo wondered how often the limo, or any vehicle, drove the road and how often any vehicle that did had to be repaired and serviced.
finally the limo stopped. alfredo waited.
the door was opened. by the most beautiful woman alfredo had ever seen. and alfredo had seen a great many beautiful women.
the woman was wearing a uniform of some kind. a chauffeur’s uniform? a military uniform? who was she?
alfredo only knew that he would possess her. if he had to destroy the universe to do so.
but he would bide his time. the woman motioned to alfredo to get out of the limousine.
when alfredp got out of the limo he saw that it had pulled up to a dock at what looked like a large lake. nothing was visible on its horizon.
a small boat waited at the dock. the woman pointed to it and its motor started up.
“this is getting a bit tiresome,” alfredo told the woman. “ will this boat take me to don reynard?”
“one way or another,” she answered.
alfredo looked around. the lake seemed surrounded by dense jungle. except for the dirt road they had arrived by, he did not see any other openings. there was no beach of any kind, and there were no buildings visible.
“no one is forcing you to do anything, sir,” the woman said. “if you wish to meet don reynard, get on the boat.”
“and if i do not wish to do so, will i be driven back?”
“if you like. but who is being tiresome now?”
alfredo smiled and nodded. his eyes burned into the woman, telling her, we will meet again. he turned and got on to the boat.
the boat started up immediately. it had no human crew, and was obviously remote controlled, or sentient. it headed directly into the center of the lake, toward the bare horizon.
alfredo turned his eyes back to the shore. the woman and the limousine were gone.
gerald had done well on his latest tests, so maria was forced to let him out into the garden, even though she felt he did not really deserve it.
maria watched as gerald prowled around the garden.
why am i watching him, she wondered, do i not get enough of him during the day? and sometimes during the night?
it was not necessary for maria to watch gerald. he - like herself - was under the constant surveillance of a company of guards who patrolled the compound she and gerald were domiciled in.
and who watched, 24 hours a day, the monitors fed by the innumerable hidden cameras in the compound that recorded every word and action of maria and gerald.
doctor remigio had assured maria, at the outset, that the cameras would not record her most intimate moments, and she had gone along with the charade, and expressed her gratitude, as she had gone along with everything else since she had awakened from the dream of her previously sheltered existence.
maria also assumed that a recording device had been placed in her brain so that the doctor could survey all her thoughts and dreams, including - most especially including - those she was unaware of herself.
when you thought about it, was that really so remarkable? most humans - and perhaps most other animals - since the dawn of time had assumed that they had no secrets from gods and demons and angels and saints.
doctor remigio - and his gang of thugs patrolling the grounds - were her gods and demons, that was all.
maria turned away from the window and went over to the piano, and played a few notes of her favorite piece - the sonata number 6 of merline. she played it often. if the doctor or captain mendoza
or any of the thugs didn’t like it and were sick of it - too bad.
maria had been tutoring gerald for almost a year now. he was almost eight years old and starting to show a distressing amount of energy.
especially for a child who was being brought up and groomed to be the apostle of a new religion of universal peace and love.
maria and gerald lived “alone “ in the compound, visited only occasionally by doctor remigio and less occasionally by the manly but ponderously polite captain mendoza , captain of the company of guards.
doctor remigio had visited only a few days before, and expressed himself satisfied with gerald’s progress. he liked to vary the time between his visits so as not to be predictable, but maria felt he would not be back for a while.
neither maria nor doctor remigio made any real effort to conceal their distaste for each other.
maria had tried to give up on wondering why doctor remigio had chosen her to tutor gerald. she had tried with even less success to give up wondering why doctor remigio had allowed to her to live, after the coup in which her father, the deposed president, and her other family members had been killed.
her best guess was that doctor remigio was keeping her alive for possible use as a pawn in some future game - but with whom or what?
maria’s playing, and her desultory thoughts, were suddenly interrupted by gerald’s screaming out in the garden. he sounded like he was being attacked by some wild beast.
not again, maria thought. lately gerald had taken to screaming at the top of his lungs for no reason, usually when he was allowed out by himself. maria would almost have been happy to let him just scream until he exhausted himself, but his cries attracted the attentions of the guards.
and one guard in particular, a corporal salazar , who was convinced the child was possessed by demons and had offered more than once to arrange for an exorcism. the other guards were less solicitous, and treated gerald with the same offhand contempt that they treated maria.
and sure enough, when maria got outside, she found portly corporal salazar and a bored looking private approaching gerald at about the same distance as herself.
as always, gerald abruptly stopped his screaming as soon as maria was at his side.
“what were you screaming about this time, gerald?” maria asked, although she already knew the answer.
“screaming? i was not screaming,” gerald answered with a straight face and a bewildered air.
corporal salazar came up to them. “exorcism, miss, exorcism,” he announced without preliminaries. “surely you must agree with me this time.”
“i thank you for your concern,” maria replied. “but gerald seems fine now. in fact, he has just informed me that he was making no noise. isn’t that right, gerald?”
“yes.” gerald looked at corporal salazar with a forlorn air. “i do not know what the fuss is about.”
“i feel i have to inform the captain of this, miss, “ the corporal stated.
“i thought you had already done so,” maria replied. evenly. “do whatever you think is right. come, gerald, i think you have had enough time in the garden. it is time to resume your lessons.”
gerald followed maria back to the house, leaving corporal salazar to his thoughts.
“i don’t want any more lessons today,” gerald said as soon as they were out of the corporal’s hearing. “i want to read comic books.”
i have been indulging him too much lately, maria thought, but answered, “very well, you may read comic books. we will have some lessons after dinner.”
gerald, who never thought more than a few minutes ahead, nodded happily.
but her relaxation was destined to be short lived.
alfredo had a phone in his pocket, purchased for him by the woman who was keeping him.
he hesitated to use it. he decided to keep walking, on the chance he might encounter a working pay phone.
the sky overhead grew darker.
alfredo left the waterfront behind, and came to an area where high rises fronted the water.
he saw a man sitting alone on a park bench. a white haired man, impeccably groomed, wearing an old fashioned but brand new gray fedora. a stout looking walking stick was balanced on his knee.
alfredo approached the man on the bench . “excuse me. sir, but do you know where avenue a———————— is?” this was the street of the address on the matchbook.
the man looked up at him. “avenue a—————? why, it is all the way on the other side of the city. at the edge of the jungle.”
“ah. thank you.” alfredo looked around. “would you happen to know if there are any public phones nearby?”
“a public phone? no need for that.” the man reached into the pocket of his jacket and produced a small phone. “use this, sir. i insist.”
alfredo took the phone. “thank you.”
“may i ask,” the man in the fedora continued, “if you are going to call…. “ he rattled off the eighteen digit number from the matchbook.
“yes, i was,” alfredo, in no way surprised, answered.
“then i advise you not to call it.” the man had turned on the bench and faced alfredo directly. he gripped his walking stick firmly as he spoke.
alfredo smiled. “and why might that be?”
“because i know the man who will answer the call. or one of whose flunkies will answer the call. his name is don reynard de axa and he is a fool. he will offer you a generous sum to kill a man named bud johnson, whom don reynard imagines to be a person of consequence but is actually of no consequence whatever.” the man paused and looked alfredo in the eye. “but i am prepared to make you a much better offer.”
“and who might you be?” asked alfredo.
“you have never heard of me, but i am don carlos and i am the richest man in the world.”
“i see. and you are going to make me an offer to do what —?”
“to carry out a delicate operation. but one i am sure you are capable of.”
“involving - ?”
“involving a kidnapping, among other things.”
“a kidnapping!” alfredo laughed. “in this century?”
“oh, not for ransom, not for ransom ha ha!” don carlos held up his hand. “but the operation will involve kidnapping, among other things.and i am prepared to pay - ”
but alfredo held up his hand in turn. “if it is all the same to you, sir, i think i will hear this don reynard’s offer first. after all, he contacted me first.”
“of course, of course, suit yourself.” don carlos got to his feet. “i will leave you, i don’t wish to intrude on your conversation.”
alfredo held the phone out to don carlos. “i am afraid i would be abusing your hospitality by using your phone.”
“oh keep it, keep it by all means. it is only a telephone.” don carlos pointed down the beach, toward a bend in the bay. “do you see that low building over there? the green one?”
“it is a restaurant with the homely nomenclature of the sunrise cafe. why don’t you meet me there for breakfast tomorrow morning, let us say ten o’clock?”
“thank you. i will do that - if circumstances permit.”
“then i bid you good morning.” don carlos turned and set off down the beach at a brisk pace, swinging his stick.
alfredo watched him go. after a moment’s hesitation alfredo dialed the eighteen digit number.
as he expected his call was answered immediately. “whom am i speaking to?” a voice asked.
“i am alfredo.”
“stay where you are. a car will pick you up shortly.”
alfredo put the phone in his pocket and looked down the road the way he had come.
a few raindrops began to fall.
after five minutes a black limousine with tinted windows appeared.