The sign above Hal’s was broken. The white neon flickered in a spastic fit. Any epileptic passing the place would surely seize up and hit the ground in a fit of their own. It made me feel sick. I looked away. When I turned around a white Cadillac pulled up and blocked the Volks’ in. The sign’s light reflected off the car windows and hit me in the face again . . . There is no escaping entropy. The slight decline of any system isn’t immediate, but it begins to flash violently in front of your eyes before it goes out completely.
The passenger window rolled down. It was one of Bixby’s boys pointing a .45 at me. Then the back window rolled down and Bixby’s head appeared.
“You’re gonna be shitting out your small intestine when I’m done with you!”
“Now, now, there’s no need to play hero just yet, Mr. Berringer. There’ll be plenty of time for that later.”
Bixby nodded, motioning for me to get in the back seat with him. I opened the door and got in.
“You mind tellin’ your monkey to point his little gun somewhere else. He looks nervous. And I don’t trust nervous monkeys with guns.”
“Put the gun down. I don’t think Mr. Berringer is going to try any funny business.”
The cowboy suckerfish lowered the gun.
“Now that we’re all nice and cozy, how about a drink?”
Bixby poured me one. I took the glass and threw it back. Bixby pulled out a pack of smokes and offered me one. I took it and lit it. He was buttering me up. Playing nice. I knew. But what the hell. I’ll take a drink and a smoke and blow clouds in his face for laughs.
“I apologize about our meeting the other day, Mr. Berringer. My boys and I were under orders, you see. We were just doing our job. You can understand that, right? Let bygones be bygones?
I looked him in the eyes.
“You got anymore of that brown stuff?”
“Of course. Help yourself.”
I poured a tall one. Swirled it. Took a couple hits and a drag of my cigarette. Filled the car with grey smoke and silence. Took my time. Let them mull it over for a bit. Make them think I’m an empty vessel here for the handouts.
Then I spoke.
“Before this is all over, I’m going to make sure you’re never able to reproduce.”
“Good . . . That’s good . . . We’ll consider this an armistice, then.”
I polished off my glass. Refilled it. Took another hit.
The Cadillac drove on into the night flashing white under every street light. I saw it in the reflections of the buildings as we headed out of the city. The rain finally stopped, and I was feeling good and tight.
“Any of you boys a fan of the circus?” I asked blowing another cloud of smoke into the small cab.
One of them let out a little mouse fart. I looked over at Bixby’s suckerfish. He was looking flush. I could tell he was clenching.
The Cadillac pulled through a large wrought iron gate and parked at a roundabout. From there, Acacia trees hung over a long brick walkway that led to an antebellum-style house with large columns at its entrance.
Damn Acacias, I thought. That’s all anyone ever writes about. What the hell’s so poetic about them anyway. I’ll take a Sycamore in the Fall over an Acacia any day. If I hear someone mention Acacias or cicadas on a Summer night one more time I’ll put one right between their eyes. BOOM!
We got out.
“Don’t you just love Acacias in the moonlight,” said a low and twangy voice coming from a dark part of the garden. It was a tall man with slick black hair and a chiseled jaw and white flashing teeth. He was wearing white pants and a white dress shirt that hung open exposing his muscular chest.
“I’m Lon Snyder, Mr. Berringer. But you can just call me Lon.”
He held out his hand. I shook it. It was soft like a baby’s ass. The hand of a man whose never known a hard living.
“Call me Frank.”
I imagined my snub nose against his forehead, the hammer back, then a bullet ripping a peephole all the way through to the back of his head. I smiled.
“This is some place, Lon. Where do you hide the bodies?”
He laughed easily. The cadence of each breathe flowed without force . . . Here was a man who could kill without malice and still get a full nights sleep.
“Come. Take a walk with me, Frank. There are some things I think I should explain to you. And hopefully afterward you won’t think of me as such a bad guy, and that I am, in fact, a man with pure intentions.”
We walked to the far end of the garden where the property ended at the edge of a long and treacherous bluff overlooking the city. The light emissions from all the buildings snuffed out the stars. There was nothing left but emulation, a shimmering wasteland stretched out where a desert had once been and would always be even long after the fall of civilization. The bright burning “S” on the Snyder and Welles building shined prominently over everything else. S for sinister. For subterfuge . . . For snake.
“Look at this city, Frank. What do you see?”
“A lot of money in your pocket.”
“There are thousands of people down there, Frank. Most of them have no idea of what they’re doing. They think they do. They wake up, go to work, provide for their families. They come home and watch their television programs and read their newspapers. They tend to their gardens and coach their kid’s little league teams. They scrimp and save for retirement. For some final resting place they can relax. All the while they know it’s going to end, but they busy themselves to forget this so that it may move along a little easier . . . You know what I speak of . . . They have dreams and aspirations like you and I do. Oh yes. But they’re small ant-like dreams that only grow so tall before being squashed by bigger, more aggressive dreams. You can call these bigger dreams vision if you’d like, because that’s just what they are. They’re dreams in action. They have momentum . . . And most of those people down there, without knowing it, are being swept along by this momentum. It is the great deluge which carries all men and women towards the future.”
“Are you trying to tell me you’re building an ark?”
“There are two kinds of people in this world: those who live in it, and those who build it to be lived in . . . The world needs architects, Frank. Otherwise we’d all still be living in caves . . . Now, I know we’ve started out on the wrong foot, and I do, with the upmost sincerity, apologize for having Bixby and his boys give you an unpleasant visit the other day, which I hope you will forgive me, but you have to understand it was strictly business. You see, Ms. Welles is under the false impression that I’ve abducted her father . . . This accusation couldn’t be farther from the truth . . . Bertram and I are . . . were . . . partners. Until he ran off with my property. And he hasn’t been seen since . . . So when we followed Mary-Lou to you, we could only assume you were working to protect her and her father.”
I listened to what Snyder was saying but I didn’t give a damn. For all I knew he was behind the making of Exos. Someone who wanted to replace man for profit. Eradicate the species and have the world to himself.
“What was so important that Welles felt like he had to take it from you?”
“That’s a confidential matter, Frank. He took something . . . very dear to me. Call it a gift to mankind. And don’t take this personally, but any man who sneaks around for a living can’t be trusted with someone else’s sentimentalities.”
“He took your security blanket, huh.”
Snyder laughed again. I wanted to hit him the face.
“Look, Frank, you were hired to do a job. And it should make no difference to you how this whole thing plays out so long as you get paid. We all have our jobs to do. Business as usual. And I make it my business to know what goes on related to my personal affairs. So I’ve been following Mary-Lou, and we followed her to you, and I even know she was with you earlier tonight . . . And I know she too has disappeared like Bertram. . . . It seems my men have lost her . . . And I’d like your help, Frank. If you find her and her father we could resolve this whole thing and go on with our lives . . . Do you know where she went, Frank?”
“She got herself to a nunnery. Said she’d had enough of men and their swordplay. Couldn’t take anymore of the tragedy.”
“Consider this your gallant quest to save the day. To be a true knight is shining armor . . . Mary-Lou is the only one who might be able to shed some light on where Bertram’s run off to. Without her the world remains in darkness.”
The tone in which Snyder spoke wreaked of insolence and contempt. I could tell he was putting me on. Picking me up to knock my dick in. But I’d play along. Be the fool for foolin’s sake.
“It’ll cost you.”
“I thought you might say that.”
He pulled out a envelope.
“Consider this a down-payment. Find the Welles’ and there will be plenty more where this came from.”
I took the envelope and opened it. Flipped through the bills. There was more green in there than the Everglades.
“Did you know Franklin is the only one on a bill that wasn’t president?”
“Aren’t you forgetting Hamilton?”
“Just find the girl, Frank.”
“I always get my ma . . . err . . . woman.”