The place? Unit X-9. The who? Bixby with his pants around his ankles. All I needed was the when and I’d send my foot between his uprights. It was obvious they were getting ready for something. Maybe some kind of testing. See what a newer model Exo could do with a living piñata. That donkey and those little clowns were in for a treat. For all I knew they’d already been reduced to hair balls and confetti.
Maybe Bertram was going to be served up to Bixby there. Maybe Mary-Lou caught wind of it and would be there too. Maybe Snyder knew this. Send me on a fools errand to get us all in one place at the same time. Maybe . . . There was only one way to find out. But I needed to know when it was all going down. I rang up Jake before I left Hal’s. No answer. The kid was out.
I took the Volks’ out for a spin to clear my head. A long drive always does me good. It lets my thoughts work out the problems without holding on to any false solutions.
I drove aimlessly. I followed the direction of signals and stop signs. My movement was fluid. There’s a certain freedom to be found in a grid as long as you don’t have any place to be. Time was running out, but what did I care. There’s no reason to sweat when the flames are on high. The trick is to forget about the fire. Let yourself burn away the thought of impending pressures. This way anything and everything is open to scrutiny.
I stuck a smoke in my mouth. Lit it. A grey stream whipped about then was sucked out the window and into the day. I drove through the nicer parts of the city. It was crawling with people in clean clothes. Every one of them a product of advertisement, wearing and saying what they see and hear on television, on billboards. And everything about them seemed synthetic. Their hair. Their teeth. Their shoes. Not a spec of dirt could be found anywhere. Not a crease. It’s amazing they know how to tie their own shoes. Sometimes I wondered where the hell they all came from and where they were all going. But what the hell.
I shrugged. Drove on.
As I rounded a corner there was a group of protesters blocking the road. They were holding signs and screaming into megaphones, demanding outright things no bystander cared about. The signs read NO MORE RESERVED PARKING and MASTERBATION IS MURDER. I took a hit from my flask. Laid down the horn. Forced my way through.
The way I see it, anyone who has something to say about everything knows nothing at all . . . But that’s just me. I didn’t have time for their nonsense. They didn’t like that. Some of them pounded on the Volks’. Kicked the bumper as I went by . . . There’s no pleasing these animals. They always have something to complain about. Like the old proverb says, if you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll shake you down until there’s nothing left but pocket lint . . . The world has ADD, anyway, and there’s no use trying to figure it out. If I were a smarter man than I am I’d forget this whole mess. It’s a whole heck of a lot easier to do nothing, anyway. But what else would I do. I’m a two-bit gumshoe. And a two-bit gumshoe always sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong.
I couldn’t understand why Bertram would want to help any of them, or keep them around. What did he see in them, these people. What value did they hold in his eyes. Because they, too, live and breath and think? Because they, too, love and laugh and cry? Because we all have bellybuttons? Well, to be frank, I thought he was out of his mind. There’s one or two we could probably do without. I mean, the extinction of every species is a possibility, man can only expedite the fact. Might as well loosen the load along the way. Shit, maybe we were next on the list. Why can’t we be rubbed out. What say do we have in the workings of the cosmos or what lies in the belly of the Earth . . . Soon it could all be too late and all that will be left are the Exos. Machines walking around pretending to be human. They’ll live out our existence for us without a single original thought wired through their metallic bodies. I bet Marinetti would put cream in his coffin at the outcome of such a future.
Somehow in my wandering and wonderings I ended up back in front of the Snyder and Welles building. I parked. Let the Volks’ purr. The building loomed over me. Its immense form temporarily hindering sunlight as if hoarding it for itself.
What was I missing? Mary-Lou said her father loved this world and the people in it. That he would never leave them behind. She said he rode the bus to be closer to them. I looked over at the bus stop across the street. A young couple was sucking on each other’s faces. The guy had his hand up the woman’s shirt and she had hers down his pants. They were really going at it. An old man was standing beside them watching with a perverted grin on his face.
“Goddamn it, that’s it!”
They didn’t have Bertram. He was still out there in the city. Lost in the crowd. No one would suspect otherwise.
I flicked the cigarette out the window. Lit another.
“I’m coming for you, old man.”
I burned fossil fuels for hours looking for Bertram and came up empty-handed. Carbon dioxide emissions from the city smeared out into the atmosphere and magnified in brilliant streaks of colored light as the day died out. All tangerine and red and violet.
Death can be a beautiful thing if you look at it right. It’s the cause that comes into questioning. And that, too, is only a matter of perspective. Whether it be from war, murder, abortion, suicide, suffocation, strangulation, torture, terrorism, disease, cancer, sacrifice, by firing squad, by fire, revolution, gangrene, dehydration, starvation, constipation, consumption, heart disease, aneurism, snake bite, drowning, car accident, helicopter crash, shark attack, concussion, old age, kidney failure, overdose, maternal mortality, stoning, guillotine, electric chair, euthanasia, lightning strike, tornado, flood, castration, malpractice, lion, tigers or bear. Even allergies. All, if not most, are more terrible than the last by some degree, and we, as beings living such ephemeral lives, are unable to see the role these tragedies play in the broad stroke of all existence. How is it that something as black and bleak as death can move us to the point of inspiration and invention? How can we not navigate to higher states of self without such a compass? Is it not part of the experience?
I called it a night and headed for the office. There were other things to worry about, and I needed answers. I needed to find Bertram and Mary-Lou. I needed a drink.
I had nothing. Nothing at all. Back to square one. Unit X-9 was all I had left on the whereabouts of Bertram Welles. And a stiff drink would get me leveled, at least. Lay me out flat with my feet up on the desk wondering what would come next.
If they didn’t have Bertram, and he was still alive by chance, then he’d be holding the cards. If that were the case then it was only a matter of time before he’d come out with demands. Start waving the carrot around. See who’d bite first. Maybe he was looking for the highest bidder to help him with the work, to help unveil whatever it is he was working on. Maybe he already found someone . . . No. Snyder would’ve sniffed that out. Bertram knew what he was dealing with. A man like Snyder has his fingers on every pulse like a ventriloquist. Any movement will be from his doing. Like he said, there was momentum. And movers of the world are rarely recognized. They disappear like Bertram, only to be found in the gutters of history as true opportunists . . . Snyder certainly has the kind of green to make moves of his own. And that’s something to keep an eye on.
So what have I got? A badge. A license to carry. Four walls to marinate in. It’s certainly no way to live a life. There’s plenty of better ways I could be experiencing this thing with the time I’ve been given. Something that could resonate beyond the lengths of my arms and the sound of my voice. What it was, I wasn’t sure of. But I knew it was out there. Just like Bertram and Mary-Lou.
Before I could flick on the light to my office all I remember is the sound like that of glass shattering against my head.