I got drunk for six days, and on the seventh I remembered I had a job to do. I remembered I was going to go see Hal and find out what he knew about Bixby and Snyder and the deal gone wrong with Jake. I remembered I had to find Bertram and Mary-Lou and figure out what this whole thing was all about. It’s easy to forget your true aim when you have a little bit of cash in your pocket. You become forgetful, lazy, distracted. Enough green can change a man’s life with the snap of the fingers, but in the hands of a fool it fogs his perception. It makes it easier to slip into a stinking abyss of blackouts and vomit, waking to a bog of your own filth, only to drink more and forget the whole mess.
As I struggled to pull myself together, brief flashbacks from the past few days came to mind through a violent hangover. There were slurred images of a busy street. Streaks of color whirling past a crowd of people with wild faces full of mad laughter. They were all around me. It was a black mass of leather and ink.
“Listen! . . . Listen to me!”
“What do you want, sweet heart?” One of the Hell’s Angels-looking mongoloids asked.
I spun around and held my lighter up to his grizzled face. Flicked the thing to life.
“I’m looking . . . for an honest man! . . . Have you . . . Have you seen . . . uh . . . him?”
The beast opened his larger mouth and let out a great big belly laugh. Some of his spit spackled my face . . . It was no laughing matter. I remember that. I could feel the emotion, sitting there in a half daze as the vague images formed into a fogged piece of memory.
“Kick his ass, Duke!” Said a high nasally voice like a weasel getting stepped on by a boot.
The rest taunted and cheered and yelled, egging the bastard on. The hairy beast tried shoving me aside. There was a struggle. He leaned in towards the little fire in my hand. The thick beard ignited. Someone screamed. A face full of flames took off running down the street. A woman chased after him.
Before the rest of the mob could realize what had happened I was already running in the opposite direction, shoving people out of my way. My arms spinning like a windmill. One of the bystanders bit me. Another one kicked me in the shin. Some started yelling at the roughnecks to get their attention. Then they were on me, barreling like a hell cloud of dust and devilish furry. Next thing I knew I woke up in a dumpster filled with grease from a Chinese Restaurant and a mess in my pants. It was a long walk reeking like spoiled dim sum smothered in ass butter . . . I swore off the sauce right then. I would never have another drop of the stuff. None.
After I got cleaned up and dressed, I sent money to Nancy and what I owed Mrs. Kelter to get them both off my ass. I didn’t like having debts hanging over my head. The gallows is one thing, but a living Hell is another . . . And Hell is other people.
I got in the Volks’ and headed for Hal.
At Hal’s I ordered a beer . . . What the hell. I’m no saint.
Hal slid the beer across the counter. I took a long pull. Some made its way down the corners of my mouth and chin. I wiped it up with the back of my hand and belched for good measure.
“What happened to you the other night?”
“You came in here with your pants around your ankles, waving a gun in the air, screaming, ‘GIVE ME LIVERY, OR GIVE ME BREASTS!’ And before I had a chance to talk some sense into you, you were off running down the street making fart noises with your mouth.”
“Gold fever, Hal. Give a poor man fast cash and it quickly goes to his head.”
“Yea, and turns him into an ass.”
“More like a man of La Mancha with a gun . . . I should’ve never weaned off the milk.”
“You had a lot of green on you too. Where’d you get that kind of cash, you win the lottery or somethin’?
“Let’s just say I have a tiger by the tail, Hal. And it shits out Benny’s like an ATM.”
“Does this pussycat have a name?”
“Yea . . . Mary-Lou . . . Which is why I’m here. You find out anything on Snyder and Welles?”
“Little birds talk more than you think. In fact, they won’t shut up once you get ‘em goin. They sing!”
Hal laid it out for me. He knew a guy who knew a guy who heard something about something . . . You know how it goes. Turns out Jake wasn’t far off. There was an underground network working through the city. Some occult-like mumbo jumbo with esoteric encryptions passed around by word of mouth. Sometimes hand signals. Sometimes through verbal code. I could only guess it had to do with the Exos. With the rise of newer technologies, humans wouldn’t be needed as the blood of the world. Elitists could cast them out of the garden and replace them with machines. This is what Snyder meant by momentum. And it was gaining fast. Hal told me the word was that Snyder and Welles had been working on a new way to harness the Sun’s energy. Solar power on crack. Welles probably felt philanthropic. With an unlimited resource of energy the world could finally be free of servitude and suffering. There would no longer be a need for electricity bills. Gas in your car. Power-lines stretching across the continent. From what I understand, Snyder had other plans. I could only assume he wanted to use the power of the sun to mobilize an army of machines to eradicate a large portion of the population so that the few could reign like gods . . . The sun was going to scorch the earth.
“ . . . The flame of Prometheus.”
“We’re on our way out, Hal. The gods are against us.”
“I never took you for a defeatist.”
“If my parent’s had named me Zeus instead of Frank, I might think otherwise.”
“There was also something about an X-9. Maybe a code word. No one is saying anything for certain. But the bees are buzzin’, and it looks like that might be the hive.”
“Sweet ass honey.”
“So what are you gunna do?”
“First, I’m going to find Mary-Lou and Bertram Welles. Then I’m going to hogtie some cowboys for an overdue ass whooping. Maybe watch Snyder take it like the ass he is. And after that I don’t really care much.”
I polished off my beer, then ordered another. I needed the fuel.
A man is defined by his actions. Say what you want, but it doesn’t mean shit until it’s done.
I’d been careless. Estranged. Selfish. Maybe that’s why Nancy left me. Maybe that’s why I was living out of an office. I pushed the world away so I could rot alone. If I’d had a soul it was fading away or had burnt out long ago. Was there anything left from a beautifully burning thing? I didn’t know. But there has to be something, some residual of light like the tail-end of a shooting star to be observed with wonder and awe. Why else go on? There is some truth to this, or I could be making it all up.
Where was Mary-Lou? Where, oh where could she be? And what about Bertram? No good deed goes unpunished, right? I had to find them before Snyder did. That snake. Only the truly wicked assume they are strong because they can manipulate what is intended for good and use it for their own aim. Whatever Bertram had, Snyder would do anything to get. As for Mary-Lou, well, it was safe to say he wanted her too, but for other reasons.