The end always comes too swift. There’s all this conflict and commotion and before you know it it’s over. Whatever came before has gone out of focus. There is only the immediate present slapping you in the face with the reality that there never is any other time.
I stood staring up at the erection of glass and steel bleeding with the colors of a new day. I took one last hit from the dirt in my hand. Blew smoke. Flicked it aside. Pulled out my flask. Threw one back. Then another. I was ready.
The lobby had a hollowness to it, like being inside the bare bones of some giant and ancient beast dead a long time. There was nothing but marble from floor to ceiling. Each step reverberated around the place. A repetition of sound like an echo chamber. A little number sat behind a large desk, her head bent over papers pretending to look busy. You could tell she knew the importance of a person by the sound of their shoes. She looked up when I was close enough to touch her. This wasn’t her first rodeo.
“Can I help you?”
But before I could open my mouth I heard a twang ring in my ears.
“No need, darlin’. I’ll take care of Mr. Berringer.”
Bixby and his boys came towards me.
I pictured a tumbleweed rolling across the space between us. A whistling in air.
“I see you got my message.”
“Yea I got your love letter. Yours is in the mail.”
He stood there squinting one eye. Trying to look serious.
“Looks like you’re forgettin’ someone, Mr. Berringer.”
“I have what you’ve been looking for right here.”
I reached down between my legs. Grabbed what was there.
“These bells toll for thee.”
Bixby shook his head.
“That’s too bad. Mr. Snyder is going to be mighty disappointed.”
“There’s plenty here for the four of you.”
“You need to learn some manners, Mr. Berringer?”
“Call me Frank.”
“I told you you were goin’ to be in a world of hell.”
“And I told you you were going to be shitting out your small intestine.”
Bixby motioned for his boys to come after me. They did. Both suckerfish peeled away from his sides. I pulled out my snub nose. One them knocked it out of my hand. The other one tried to grab me. I managed to shake him loose but the other one was ready and put a fist in my gut. I barreled over. Felt like puking. I did. They stood there and watched. I wiped my mouth.
“Don’t you girls have dolls to play with?”
They just stood there.
“There’s no reason we needed resort to violence, Mr. Berringer. This could’ve been much easier.”
This time both cowboy goons put their hands on me. One at each arm. A thin silvery string of droll hung from my chin. As Bixby made his way towards us I made moves of my own. I lifted my leg and stomped down on one of the bastard’s feet. He wailed. I spun around put my fist in the other’s jaw. He side stepped and slipped on the pool of puke on the floor. Hit the ground and laid there like a piece of wood. The other one saw red. Charged me. I spun around. Grabbing him as he came at me. Helped the bastard along. Rammed him head first into the desk. The little number jumped out of her seat and screamed. Both sucker fish laid there bleeding.
“All you had to do is hold up your end of the bargain, Mr. Berringer.”
Bixby went for his Colt. I rushed him. By the time he had the gun in his hand my arms were on his shoulders. I kicked my leg back. Swung it forward.
“Gird up thy loins!”
I put everything into it. Bixby made a noise like a guy who’s been kicked in the sack and hit the ground in fetal position, rocking back and forth and moaning in pain as if it were his first language. The girl behind the desk gasped. She made to pick up the phone. I turned towards her. She stopped.
“I have an appointment with Lon Snyder.”
She looked nervous.
I looked down at Bixby. He was still wiggling around down there.
“I always get my man.”
I picked up my snub nose. Went to the elevator. Hit the number.
The doors opened to an office larger than most houses. A broad mahogany desk sat alone at the far end. A long crimson rug led me towards it like a pathway of blood. Behind the desk were large bay windows that opened to a terrace overlooking the city. Lon Snyder was standing out there watching the flames and black smoke off in the distance as if it were by his doing. He turned when he heard me coming for him.
I moved closer. I could tell by the look on his face there were some important people missing from the equation. He hesitated. Then he spoke.
“Last I heard he was in Lhasa escaping the human soundtrack.”
He shook his head.
“You still haven’t found him?”
Another trick. Snyder was putting me on. He started talking to himself.
“This has become a huge waste of my time. I should’ve bought that old prune out a long time ago. I thought I was doing him a favor by letting him hang around.”
Snyder paused. Looked up remembering where he was, who was standing before him.
“Why she’s just fine, Frank. Why don’t you ask her yourself.”
Mary-Lou came out of a side door. She was standing there. Every inch of her woman.
“They hurt you?”
“Who? Cassandra? I wouldn’t hurt her. She works for me, Frank.”
Cassandra? I should’ve seen this coming. She was an Exo. Top of the line. A femme fatale. She was the something rotten in Denmark. There was no doubt in my mind.
“I think it’s time we told him, Lon. This has gone on long enough. Frank has obviously lost touch with reality. I think it’s safe to say he couldn’t find his own gun if it wasn’t attached to his hip. It’s time to accept Bertram as a lost cause.”
“He has the lighter, damnit!”
I didn’t like this.
“Yes!” He snapped like a child throwing tantrum. Then he collected himself. Smoothed out the frustration on his face. “Once again, I should explain something to you, Frank.”
Snyder put his hands behind his back and began pacing around.
“The mind is a powerful thing. It has the capacity to turn disillusionment into reality. It gives meaning when there is none. Makes belief truth. In the wake of its deterioration it can create a world for a person within the space of moments and memories long since past, and some that are not entirely real. That is where Bertram Welles is now. And maybe even yourself.”
Maybe Bertram had invented a way out, a way to rewrite the past. Something that would forgive us of all our transgressions. Had Bertram built a time machine? I wondered.
“Bertram Welles suffers from dementia, Frank. And until recently it was quite manageable.”
What was this, some kind of plot twist? I didn’t think so. Smelt like bullshit to me.
“Bertram was my father’s partner. A true genius in every respect of the word. There is no doubt about it. Together he and my father built this company and revolutionized the way we bring energy to the world. But as of late Bertram has been getting progressively worse. It seems he has lost all touch with the present. I thought it might help him to hang around, to be close to his life’s work and so live in the routine. I was wrong. He no longer recognizes his surroundings. He started throwing fits out of his own confusion. He’s even come to stealing what isn’t his and hiding it only to forget what he has stolen and where has hidden it. Bertram Welles has finally gone to point of no return. He is as my lovely Cassandra put it, a lost cause.”
I pulled out a smoke. Stuck it in the corner of my mouth.
“You mean to tell me all this was over a little lighter?”
I took mine out. Got a flame going.
“If you needed fire that badly I would’ve helped you burn.”
I lit my cigarette. Took a drag. Blew smoke.
“This isn’t just some simple flick of the thumb, Frank. It’s a work of art. My great great great great great grandfather, Johann Wolfgang Dobereiner, invented this lighter. Or lamp as he called it. He was able to encapsulate thousands of years of evolution into the hands of every human being. Without this invention who knows where the world might be. Perhaps still throwing logs in piles to give themselves light in the dark.”
“Then why all the run around?”
Lon laughed his easy laugh.
“That was part of the fun, really. This was a special case made just for you. I couldn’t bother our finest men in blue to settle a personal matter. How would that look. No no no. You see, Frank, this is a family heirloom. It’s part of a legacy. Something that is meaningless to your kind of people. You simply cannot understand because people like you don’t know what lineage is. There is no pride of where you come from. Nothing holds you to the past except some name handed down to you from godknowswhere. And even that is garbage, like Dog Latin. There are few people in this world, Frank, who can trace their families heritage for thousands of years. They know exactly where they came from because they are part of a preservation. An order. I come from such a place. You do not. Can you tell me where your family was during the Crusades? Huh, Frank? Can you trace them all the way back before this desert was inhabited by indigenous cultures. That is something you will never understand. How can you.”
“And what about all this talk of new solar technologies and free energy?”
“Free energy!? No one in their right mind would do such a thing. We provide a product, Frank. A service. It would be against my best interest to just give it away. Yes, we are working on new technologies. Some of which involves solar. But there’s money to be made on the ground floor of any new market. We invest in sustainable living for the same reason people want to change the world. Freedom is itself a product. An idea in the distance like some fata morgana. Shapeless, yet nonetheless there altogether. What does that word even mean? The word freedom like love contains in itself an entirely different meaning from one person to the next.”
I agreed with him. But I kept my mouth shut. It made me wanna puke.
Snyder moved towards the terrace. I followed. He stopped at the threshold and turned towards me.
“There’s always someone willing to pay a price for something that’ll make their life better. But all the same it has a price . . . Like men. They, too, have a price . . . Take your pal Hal for instance. All I had to do was pay someone to spin a yarn in his ear, shove dollar bills in his pocket and tell him to pass it on. It was that easy. There are instances in life that seem entirely plausible. The chain of communication spreads far and wide and men assume it to be true yet it is orchestrated nonetheless. Remember what I said about momentum. A larger vision of how the world should be. This is no dream, Frank. You are not asleep. What I’m saying to you is real.”
“And her and Bixby?” I nodded towards Mary-Lou.
“One to spark the fire. The other to stoke it. And in turn both were to keep you looking for Bertram.”
“So why are you telling me this now?”
“Who’s going to believe you.”
The bastard was right again. But like all villainous lunatics who start divulging their schemes when they think they have the whole world in the palm of their hand, Snyder spoke too soon. He thought I was like the rest of them. Assumed he could take me for a ride like a coin-operated pony.
“This task required someone like yourself, Frank. An idealist. A dreamer. Someone entirely detached from reality. If I could make you believe you were in fact onto something big, why you would put your whole soul into it.”
I’d had a enough of the games. The charades. Most of all I was sick of this asshole putting me on. There is something sinister about manipulation, whether it be for the greater good or not. Anyone willing to boast about their ability to bend the reality of another to fit their agenda, especially under false pretenses, couldn’t possibly have a soul. No Bertram Welles would think of such a thing. A man truly living for all and giving without expectation. That’s when it hit me. I realized what Snyder was saying was partially true. It was real to some degree. Only he wasn’t really Lon Snyder. I’d been looking at this thing through distorted glass and the man before me was no man at all. No. It was a warped manifestation. A thing designed out of vain egotism. This was a machine. An Exo. What I thought would come to be had already become so. Snyder’s creation had already replaced him. And Mary-Lou. For all I knew they already exterminated Bertram Welles, and the real Lon Snyder along with him. They’d already integrated without causing a ruckus. A silent war had been perpetrated upon humanity. They could fool everyone else, but not me.
“We all play our part. You know that, Frank. Even a man like you has a place in the world. So long as someone like me puts him to use,” Exo Snyder continued.
I clenched my jaw. Felt my fingers curling.
The machine went on verbally masturbating. But I’d already stopped listening. Nothing anyone says means a damn thing anyway. It is only in what we do. And I already knew what part I would play. I played it.
I cut him short.
“I’d rather be a fool in the forest than a king.”
“I believe you.”
“At least then I’d know there is a time to ripe and a time to rot.”
“I bet you stole that from a book. Didn’t you, Frank.”
I wasn’t going to leave until I exposed every last wire. And before another lie came out of its metallic mouth I went him.
“Wait . . . What are you . . . Stop that . . . Cassandra? Hey!”
I worked my fingers into that fake mop on its head and began tearing.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING!?”
I yanked and tugged with everything I had. Two handfuls, pulling.
“I’m going to show the world what you really are!”
“HEELLLPPP! THIS NUT’S LOST HIS MIND! CAASSAANNDRAA!”
The Exo femme fatale came running and jumped on my back. She tried to pull me off. I was locked on. The three of us were a maelstrom of flesh and nails and hair and teeth with the flames out there still burning part of the city and black smoke a haze over everything, even the sun that ball of light like a stone being rolled back up to the top of some monstrous blue mountain.
“GET THIS CRAZY SON OF A BITCH OFF ME!”
Exo Snyder kept wailing. Exo Mary-Lou too. We scuffled around out onto the terrace like a love affair gone awry. I held on like a dead man. My fingers digging in further the more Cassandra tried pulling me off. She scratched and clawed like a hell cat. It wasn’t until she put both her thumbs in my eyes that I let go. The two of us fell back and hit the ground. All the opposing tension from Exo Snyder trying to escape sent his body flying forward and over the railing head first, his feet kicking against the inevitable fall.
I heard him scream all the way down until he wasn’t.