Unified Murder Theorem, Part III
Jeff Zias



Synopsis

They killed the guitar player on a Thursday night, as he sat in the bar, playing his instrument, blue light emanating from somewhere within. The last words the hit men said before they shot him were simply: "Goodbye from Nattasi."

JACK CRUGER, an accordion instructor, leads a mundane life. But all of that changes the moment that TONY STEFFEN walks in his door. Tony doesn't want to learn how to play the accordion he's brought with him -- he wants to hear Cruger play it. Cruger begins to play, and a blue light appears. According to Tony, the accordion will only make the blue light if Cruger plays it.

Before his next meeting with Tony, Cruger spends hours trying to make a baby with his beautiful wife CORRINA, following it up with a bit of time playing the strange new accordion. Much to his surprise, he begins to play songs he's never played before -- perfectly.

Tony informs Cruger that the blue strands of light coming out of the accordion are STRINGS, each representing a path, a possible outcome. Cruger has been chosen to be a "spinner" of strings by the "COMPANY," much more than an international corporation -- its job is to create and support all worlds, galaxies, and universes. God, or "the CHAIRMAN," prefers to have living beings "spin" the fates, rather than just throwing dice. But there's a catch -- there's another company, one that does what you expect the Devil to do. If Cruger spins for the "good guys," he'll be given protection in return -- other spinners will ensure that neither he nor his family will be harmed... except for what is beyond their control, such as intervention from the Other Company.

Cruger begins to spin, arousing the suspicion his next-door neighbor, LEON HARRIS. Harris, a computer programmer, is a large, strong health-nut -- and extremely nosy. He wonders why the non- descript white accountant next door was suddenly playing the black music that Leon Harris grew up with... and he wonders what caused the blue light that appeared when Cruger played his accordion.

Months pass, and Corrina Cruger finally becomes pregnant for the first time since her unfortunate miscarriage a few years before. Jack Cruger continues to play his accordion, knowing that the Company's "health plan" will also cover his new child. Tony, occasionally accompanied by a beautiful young woman named SKY, sometimes visits with Cruger.

Tony tells Cruger that many of the company's executive positions are still held by aliens, most from the planet named Tvonen. The Tvonen evolved in a fashion similar to humans, right down to their ancient tale of creation. But the Tvonen creation story is completely true. Tvonens were created as immortal, androgynous beings -- but then two of them fell from grace, and became gendered, mortal creatures. To this day, Tvonens must undergo a change and lose their immortality if they wish to gain a gender.

The Tvonens are now very advanced -- but their technology is completely analog-based, with no digital electronics at all. Earth is quickly becoming more technologically adept than the Tvonens. The Tvonens believe that human thought, with its pursuit of the Grand Unified Theory -- a theory that could describe every detail of the functioning of the universe -- would give the Company a giant edge in its ability to guide the universe.

Tony is in charge of implementing the theory into a computer system that will allow the Company to have such control over the universe. Obviously, such a prospect is not taken lightly by the Other Company, operated by renegade Tvonens and shape-shifting aliens known as Chysans.

But then Cruger finds Tony dead on his doorstep, and Leon Harris, watching from next door, comes over and takes Cruger inside to call the police. In a panic, Cruger runs outside, only to find Tony's body gone. When Harris tries to grab him, he gets a powerful taste of Cruger's otherworldly insurance policy. Cruger, now without Tony, decides to let Harris in on what the Company is all about.

In the wake of Tony's death, the two go in search of Tony's girlfriend Sky. They succeed in tracking her down, but she says she's never heard of anyone named Tony. The school has no records of Tony's. It's as if he's been erased from existence.

After being attacked by a group of thugs from the Other Company -- and being saved by the insurance policy -- Cruger and Harris try to figure out Tony's notes and how he could have been using his computer to control the entire universe.

Somewhere else, an alien posing as human is spending time in therapy. But while the doctor believes he's helping his patient, she's actually manipulating him in an alien sexual game.

And from above, in a ship orbiting the Earth, God -- the company's Chairman -- looks down down on Harris and Cruger and saw possible successors. He has been Chairman for two thousand years, but it will be time to go soon. Since the use of Earth's technology would be what gave the Company power over the universe, it seems fitting that a human should be the next chairman. Cruger and Harris, the Chairman realizes, were the Company's best hope.

If the Other Company doesn't get to them first...



Chapter Twenty-Three

Cruger got in his car and headed north on Interstate 280. The Cafe Emerson was located in downtown Palo Alto, a college town if there ever was one. Stanford students, faculty, residents, and the south Bay Area's bohemians assembled at the bars, restaurants, and frozen yogurt shops that lined the small downtown area. Cruger tapped his hands on the steering wheel and watched as the dark highway rolled through the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Signs declaring interstate highway 280 the most beautiful freeway in the country struck him as being arrogant and unverifiable.

If New Yorkers clung to their notions that there was more art, culture, and intelligentsia in Manhattan than anywhere else in the world, then Californians were equally resolute that the natural beauty in California surpassed that of anywhere else in the world. Never mind the smog, the traffic, the overpopulation, and the water pollution, Cruger thought. Maybe 50 years ago the entire San Francisco Bay area was fruit orchards, rolling golden hills, and forests filled with pines, douglas fir, and redwoods. But now mere pockets of natural beauty were intact.

Cruger always enjoyed this stretch of road. There were closer bars that featured musicians he could sit in with, but he had read that the Cafe Emerson attracted a strong field of local musicians, the people Cruger wanted to get to know.

The cafe's neon sign shined clearly into the night air. Cruger turned off University Avenue onto the small, European-looking side street. The cafe was surrounded by a brightly-lit Gelato shop on one side and a small art film house on the other. The film house displayed posters for two French films, each with a young wild-haired brunette girl who looked trapped between lust and logic. C'est la vie.

Cruger parked his car in a free lot across the street from the club. He pulled his accordion case out of the trunk and walked over to the Cafe Emerson.

His eyes adjusted as he walked in. It was dark enough to make almost everybody good-looking, but not so dark as to make everybody a squinting oaf. Small booths with flat wooden seats and circular candles nearly filled the room. A small bar at the back was the center of commerce.

On the other side of the club was a small stage. The band was on break: the drums, bass, and piano were unattended, looking like hapless artifacts of lost artisans. The house PA system played a track from the Miles Davis quintet, early sixties. The snare drum on stage rustled in sympathetic concert with the flow of melodic improvisations, humming to itself while no one was looking. Cruger surveyed the crowd and noticed that it was impossible to generalize about its composition. College students, yuppies, middle-aged couples, older couples, Asians, blacks, Hispanics, and whites were all in attendance. Cruger whimsically wondered if entrance was granted on a quota system. He got a beer and found a seat at the end of the bar.

"You gonna be playing tonight?" The question came from the young clean-cut guy standing next to Cruger. He pointed at Cruger's case.

"Oh, yeah," said Cruger, "I think I'll sit in a little later." Cruger was careful not to divulge what instrument he carried. He figured his case was shaped like a trumpet or alto sax case. The fear of disclosing his instrument -- the fear that he had anticipated since he first contemplated jamming in public -- gave rise to a deep chill that rose up through his body.

"You need to sign up on the sheet," the clean-cut guy said. "Otherwise they won't let you play." He pointed towards the front side of the stage.

Cruger went over and found the sign-up sheet. The first column asked for his name, the second column was for his choice of tunes, and the third his instrument. Two people were signed up ahead of him -- a guitarist and an alto sax player. Cruger wrote down his name and -- deciding to go with a blues to make it easy on himself -- picked the classic Thelonious Monk tune "Straight No Chaser." Damn, they'd be impressed. Who the hell ever heard an accordionist playing "Straight No Chaser?" Cruger wrote his instrument in the final column, feeling a little proud of his uniqueness.

He retreated back to his seat at the end of the bar. His new friend, the young guy, was still there.

"I'm going to sit in tonight, too," he said. "The name's Doug Housten."

"Jack Cruger. Nice to meet you." Cruger struggled for something to say: he didn't remember Doug's name or instrument from the list.

Doug set down his drink and stood. "Hate to run, but I need to go out to my car to get my axe; they want you to have your instrument out and tuned before they call you up , that way they don't have to sit around and wait. Hope my strings aren't too bad -- I just put on a new set, you know."

Cruger nodded as if he knew and watched Doug leave out the front door. He made a mental note of the vocabulary term: axe. When Doug came back, Cruger watched him tune and set his guitar on the side of the stage. Cruger brought his instrument over and adjusted the strap, made sure the bellows moved well, and then set it down on the side of the stage next to Doug's guitar.

Doug watched him and said, "Damn, I've never heard a jazz accordion player."

"Me neither." Cruger sipped his beer and anticipated the feeling of playing for the audience; he would lock in on that magical something that came over him when he played. When the band came back on stage, they were the motliest group of "people" Cruger had ever seen: the drummer looked like a male aerobics instructor with three days growth on his face; the bass player looked like an underfed truck driver. Conversely, the pianist -- hair cut short and yuppily clothed -- looked like a poster boy for the Young Republicans.

They struck a funky blues groove, starting off with an updated version of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." Rhythm and melody merged nicely; they were a pretty tight band.

Cruger listened for a few more tunes and then Doug sat in on an Ellington standard. He was a pretty good player, with good time and a tasty, melodic style. Knots of anticipation built in Cruger's stomach as he listened. When Doug finished it was time for Cruger to play his tune.

Cruger picked up his accordion. He knew his feeling of dread would go away as soon as he struck his first notes. The world was ready for a hot accordion player; he wondered if the reception to his playing would be thunderous, or just enthusiastic. Striking a few quick notes as a warmup, he stepped up onto the stage. He didn't worry: he knew that once the tune was in his head, his fingers would lock-in to the song and he would play effortlessly.

The drummer looked at Cruger and smiled. "OK, man. 'Straight No Chaser.' You want to take it up?" Cruger had no idea what the guy meant but he said "Okay, yeah," as coolly as he could.

The drummer nodded, shook his long dishwater-blond hair away from his face, and began clicking his sticks: "one-click, two-click, one-two-three four--"

And they were in. Cruger laid his fingers across the keys. He could feel the fast tempo from his toes to his head; the quick eighth notes of the melody were painted across his mind. He squeezed the box and moved his fingers. Out came an out-of-time, out-of-key, train- wrecked version of the melody. He was shocked. To salvage the situation, he tried to recapture the melody at the second bar but missed the notes; his rendition sounded ...badly experimental.

The piano player picked up the melody and finished the head of the tune. Acknowledging the beginning of the solo section, the he nodded to Cruger to take a chorus. Like the gambler who doesn't know when to quit, Cruger tried again and netted the same results. His playing seemed to have reverted to an entirely unskilled level. His improvisations sounded like a random smattering of poorly-timed, unmelodic ideas.

Wanting to escape from the musical low of the evening, the band wrapped up quickly. Cruger just nodded his appreciation and packed up his instrument. In half a minute he was out the door. Fortunately, he didn't run into anyone on the way out. He didn't want to endure a comment like, "That was, er, a very interesting style you have..."

In the car, on the way home, Cruger, with the usual high-IQ hindsight, understood his disaster. Only with the special accordion, the one for spinning, could he really play. Only with that instrument could he play the way he had at home. The stupidity of his error only amplified the sting of his humiliation. To hell with the blue light, he told himself. To hell with people seeing the blue light. That's the axe I'm playing from now on.



Harris enjoyed a good surmountable challenge. If the challenge was toward the insurmountable side, then the payoff was usually big -- very big.

Understanding the software on Tony's computer system was one of those challenges. Backward-engineering all of Tony's code would be a difficult task -- it would be impossible if Harris couldn't find the source code files. They had to be in the system somewhere.

Harris tried to run the development software and the system prompted "Password?" Harris had experience with a different log-in sequences, and he hoped this one would be a pushover. The best thing would be if it allowed an unlimited number of guesses. Second-best would be permitting a few guesses and then harmlessly locking him out. The worst would be sounding an alarm or shutting down after three guesses.

Harris decided his first guess would be the most ludicrously simple password imaginable. There was almost no chance that it would work. He typed in "Tony Steffens." Nothing happened.

For a second guess, Harris thought that maybe Tony, being an aspiring physicist, tried something a little different. Harris typed "e=mc2." Nothing.

Next guess. How about something that nobody on Earth would know? Remembering Cruger's rendition of the Tvonen creation story, he typed the name "Remad." Wait -- should that be "Rimad," or "Reemad?" Shrugging, Harris pressed the return key. The monitor flashed bright white for a moment, and a blue spark jumped out of the computer's case.

Harris shot back in fear of being electrocuted. But the blue wasn't an electrical spark -- it was like the light he had seen come out of Cruger's accordion. Harris looked at the computer -- on the screen were lists of files and dates -- had he gotten the password right? The blue spark hovered in front of the computer, its light ▀uctuating slightly. Harris carefully rolled his chair towards the wall. The light stayed where it was, just above the surface of the desk

Harris unplugged the computer. The spark vanished.

"This is damn weird." Harris muttered. He stood up and searched through the bare office, opening drawers and finding nothing useful. Finally he settled on his pocketknife and unplugged the computer's monitor, then proceeded to coax a screw out of the back and pop the computer's top. There, amidst a dozen accumulated dust balls, was something that resembled a glowing blue cocoon. Harris didn't notice the moments slip by as he stared. Its surface undulated slightly, as if it wasn't quite in focus; it seemed somehow warm, but Harris could feel no heat. Tendrils emanated from the object -- it was connected to the Mac's circuit board.

He put the top back on the computer and sat down heavily. So that's how a personal computer can control the universe, Harris thought. It was working in tandem with a Tvonen... thing. The computer, this little gray box he was staring at, was just like Cruger -- it was a spinner. But unlike Cruger, who had to rely on accordion keys to control his device, this spinner worked digitally.

Harris plugged in the computer. It started up. He typed in the password and the blue spark reappeared in front of him. Harris grinned: it was cheery, in an alien sort of way. The light outside was fading as Harris called up Tony's files and began putting together the pieces from information that may not have been in context. He knew that Tony's code must implement the missing pieces of the Unified Theorem. If he had access to the important files, it would only be a matter of time before he could locate the important stuff.

He had the universe at his fingertips. It felt good -- but maybe a little sticky.



Chapter Twenty-Four

The message on the answering machine in Tony's office wasn't very long, but it was perfectly clear.

"Hello, Mr. Harris and Mr. Cruger," it began. "You don't know me, but I'm one of Tony's... associates. I'd like you to meet me at the China Club in San Jose tonight at seven. Ask for Mr. Neswick's table."

It was just ten seconds of cassette tape, but the prospect of meeting someone from the Company was enough to force Cruger into getting dressed up. The China Club was an upscale hang-out posing as a Chinese restaurant. It was the kind of place where a waiter wearing a silk robe will serve you prime rib for dinner and fortune cookies for desert. And it was "stuffy" -- Cruger had been there once, and felt totally out of place.

"Relax," Harris had advised him. "No open collar, no sneakers, wear a tie for God's sake, and no plaids mixed with stripes. You'll be fine."

"Anything else, Mr. Blackwell?" Cruger asked.

"Yes, no bell-bottoms, polyesters, or tie-dyes -- but you could put in an earring, that would be a nice touch."

Cruger knew when to stop listening, which is why he was wearing a blue pin-striped suit with a gray shirt, a bold red silk tie, and freshly-shined black penny-loafers. The tie sang out the song of power... or was that confidence? He could never remember if yellow or red were the power look or the confidence look. If he had gone to business school, become an MBA, he would know these things.

Harris was wearing a double-breasted leather jacket that made his upper-body look like an right triangle. His smooth, dark skin shined like the marble floor Cruger's slippery dress shoes wanted to glide across.

"You don't look as bad as I would've guessed," Harris said as they walked into the club.

"Thanks. No earring, though -- sorry to let you down."

"That's okay," Harris said. "It would clash with my jacket."

"Well, just don't fall asleep," Cruger said. "Someone could mistake you for their fine Italian luggage. You could wake up in Florence, maybe Rome."

Harris told the expertly-dressed hostess they were there for a Mr. Neswick. Her perfect hair was streaked blond and permed to stand out from her head at just the correct asymmetric angle, regardless of gravity, breezes, earthquakes, other natural disasters. Her western clothes didn't quite clash with the pseudo-Chinese decor. The two men marveled at the bizarre mix of cultures in the place as the hostess led them through the club. Neswick waited for them at the table, seated next to one of the prettiest women Cruger had ever seen.

Her eyes sparkled and she had one of those upper lips -- cute and indented -- that Cruger loved to watch. Neswick, on the other hand, was a plump, spectacled, balding man who tightly gripped his drink.

"Gentlemen," he said. "It's a pleasure to meet you. My name is Neswick, and this is my daughter, Tamara."

"Tamara, nice to meet you." Cruger shook her hand, noticing that she was far more attractive than any child of Neswick's could be.

"You gentlemen don't know who I am -- am I right?" Neswick said, his eyes sweeping back and forth from Harris to Cruger.

"Right you are," Cruger said.

"Well, as you may have surmised, I am from the Company, as is my daughter," Neswick said, eyebrows raising as he spoke, as if his words needed more emphasis to be understood.

Cruger and Harris sat in silence, waiting for more information, something they had felt deprived of for too long.

Neswick continued. "Of course, we're all very sorry about Tony. We want to thank you for the work you've done, and would like both of you to continue on with the project."

"Did you know Tony well?" Harris asked. His voice was polite yet direct.

"No. He was never a direct contact of mine," Neswick said. "However, I have been able to closely review his files, and I am very familiar with his accomplishments."

The waiter brought Neswick another martini, and he immediately dipped into it. Fancy suit and all, Neswick looked like the kind of guy who drank five martinis. They sat in silence as the waiter handed out menus.

"So, what is our new relationship with you going to be like? Will you keep us informed, be our Company contact?" Cruger asked.

"Exactly," Neswick said. "I am now your supervisor, in addition to being Tamara's. Given the important work you two are now doing, I consider it an honor to be working with you gentlemen." Neswick's wide face got wider as he smiled.

Cruger had a list of questions he wanted to ask, but they all disappeared from his memory momentarily. Questions concerning the Company had a somewhat intimate quality to them. Cruger had felt comfortable discussing the issues with Tony; but jumping into a discussion of this sort with a near stranger made Cruger feel uncomfortable.

"Could you tell us exactly what our job is?" Harris asked.

Neswick laughed. "You're a straight shooter -- I like that. Right to the point, eh?" He grabbed his drink and took another small gulp as he composed his answer. "Your charter is to complete the program that implements the Unified Theorem, just as you have been doing. From what I have heard, you're very close."

"I think we might be close, but not having done this before..." Harris's voice dropped off as he shrugged his shoulders.

"Right," said Neswick. "That is the common theme in our work: doing things that have never been done before. Life itself would be interminably dull if we didn't do that."

"Dad's told me about the work you two have already done," Tamara said, her upper lip doing a dance. "It's impressive."

Before Cruger or Harris could make "aww shucks, it wasn't nothin' " noises, she turned to Harris and said "I'm especially interested in the computer work, to tell you the truth."

Harris smiled. "You see, Cruger, the women always go for the computer guys -- it's such a sexy line of work." Harris had a resonance in his voice Cruger hadn't heard before -- that and the sly wink should have warned him what was coming.

Tamara smiled. "You're right, I do find computer work pretty exciting. I did my undergrad work in computer science at Carnegie- Mellon, and my master's work at Stanford."

Harris was impressed. His eyebrows rose and then lowered slowly. "I never would have taken you for a computer nerd," he said, "but, then I don't like it when people judge a book by its cover. For example, you would never know it by looking that I can't play basketball at all."

Cruger had never thought of Harris as an all-out lady charmer before, but, now good old Leon seemed to have the charm turned on with afterburners. Tamara smiled at Harris and her upper lip did its thing again. Harris smiled in return. Cruger was surprised that Harris was flirting with Tamara: what did Harris know about getting ahead in business? The boss' daughter could be dangerous territory. He took a sip of water and looked at a lobster walking across the bottom of a nearby tank. Was this a business meeting or what?

"I was at Stanford in computer science also," said Harris. "Way before your time, though, I'm sure."

"Well, I was there from '85 to '87," she volunteered.

"Yep, just missed you. I was finished in '83. Did you take any courses from Freidenberg?"

"He was my adviser." Tamara's eyes sparkled now. Cruger couldn't help noticing she had the kind of skin that seemed to glow in the dim restaurant lighting. Tamara and Harris quickly descended into jargon- filled conversation; he half-heartedly listened for keywords like artificial intelligence and neural networks, then just gave up.

Fortunately, that was when the waiter brought their food -- a seafood salad for Harris, linguine and prawns for Cruger, some odd- looking and allegedly authentic Chinese dish for Tamara, and pure cholesterol and red meat for Neswick. Cruger was relieved: even computer geniuses need to close their mouths to eat.

"You gentlemen will be amused by my job outside of the Company -- my 'cover' if you will," Neswick said in an attempt to start up some non-computer conversation. "I work for the IRS. We have records on everybody, and I mean everybody. It's a good job for my line of work."

"Yes, well I guess it's good for us to have a friend in the IRS," Cruger said.

Neswick laughed. "Maybe I'll be around to cut you some slack someday. But, remember, 'I sure hope you have a good accountant.' That's our motto."

Guys like this work for the Company? Cruger looked over at Harris to see what he thought of their new boss, Mr. Dull, but Harris' face was unreadable.

Neswick smiled his careful smile while chewing his steak. He ate in small bites, chewing enthusiastically, enjoying every bit. "You men have the best jobs on the planet -- in the universe really. The war between technological advances and the failure of the species is in your hands." He shook his head and wiped his mouth again. "At this point, it looks as if the war is won."

"Yes, I think we're close," Harris said. "Although I don't know if the Unified Theorem is the whole war or just a large battle."

And was winning a war (or battle) satisfying even if your commander is a schmuck? Cruger listened half-heartedly as Neswick launched a discourse on the destiny of humanity and the Company's role in the far future. Then Neswick directed the conversation directly to him as Harris and Tamara launched into even more jargon. Cruger tried to pay attention, then looked away and wiped his mouth. This Neswick fellow's a nerd, the worst kind of boss, he thought. All grand schemes and no details. Cruger wondered about the Company and what Neswick was doing in it. And one question came to mind: can't God get good help these days?

His daughter, however, was a different story. She was bright and funny. By the time they had finished eating, Harris and Tamara had struck up quite a friendship. If body language meant anything, Tamara would probably be having Harris' children. Cruger wondered if this sort of thing happened to Harris every day. He remembered being dateless for parties and playing poker with the guys too often. Harris, conversely, probably spent his time screening calls from women like Tamara.

Tamara and Harris broke their attention from one another, realizing that the meal was coming to an end.

"Can't believe how much Tamara and I have in common," Harris said.

Cruger looked to Neswick to catch his reaction. Neswick smiled, of all things, seemingly totally at ease with the situation.

The waiter brought the fortune cookies and Neswick picked up the bill, despite the gutless protests from Harris and Cruger. Cruger wondered how the bill would be handled. Submitting an expense report to God was an image that few religions had anticipated.

Cruger cracked open his cookie. He especially enjoyed the 'you will meet the man of your dreams' fortunes that you could get at these places. He unraveled his and read it silently. 'Beware of the Tiger disguised as the Lamb.' Cruger thought about reading it aloud to the rest of them, but Harris had just opened his.

"You will make many new friends," Harris read with his testosterone voice. "How true -- these guys are on the ball." Tamara laughed. "Don't worry, I'm sure I won't meet anyone as interesting as you," Harris said with a nudge.

Tamara's smile proved that he had said just the right thing.

Neswick read his fortune aloud: " 'You are entering a period of great change.' They may have hit this one on the head," he mused.

"Here's mine," Tamara said. " 'To get what you want, you must know what you want. Learn to know yourself.' Damn, I hate these negative ones."

In that moment as Cruger watched her, Tamara looked younger, vulnerable, and anything but centered. For the first time Cruger saw her as less than totally in control. The look vanished as soon as Cruger noticed it -- had it been there at all?

Tamara crumpled her fortune and dropped it onto her plate. "You figure there are a couple guys that barely speak English sitting in a cookie factory making these up."

"But it's cheaper than having your palm or your tea leaves read," Harris said.

"Plus," Cruger said, "you get the cookie."

But he re-read his own fortune then: 'Beware of the Tiger disguised as the Lamb.' The guys at this particular cookie factory must have been manic depressive outpatients. Either that or they were very good at what they do.

"Don't worry about yours, Jack," Tamara said. "I'm sure it's not true."

Cruger was surprised. "I didn't read mine yet," Cruger said. "You must be thinking of another one." He handed his fortune to Tamara to read. She looked embarrassed.

"Oh, you're right, I was thinking of another one," she said. She passed the fortune to Harris, who read it and smirked. Neswick read it quickly and passed it back to Cruger.

"Not a fortune you want to keep and put on your office wall," Neswick said.

"That's true," Cruger said. "If I had an office wall, I'd save it for better stuff than this."

Tamara took Harris's fortune and wrote something on it with a pen she had pulled from her purse. She handed back the fortune. Phone number? Knock-knock joke? Harris smiled and pocketed the small slip of paper.

In the parking lot, Harris leaned over and kissed Tamara. It was nothing that Harold Robbins would put in a book or that D.H. Lawrence would write home about, but Cruger was impressed. The two had just met and already the sparks were flying.

Cruger got in Harris's car and they drove home. Harris had a content, dreamy look on his face.

"I don't know about Neswick. He seems pretty dull," Cruger said. "His daughter's quite a woman, though."

"Yeah, she is that." Harris' eyes held more of that far-away look than they did attention for the road.

"Must have bad taste in men, though -- I think she likes you."

"Her taste isn't so bad. She doesn't like you a bit," Harris said, smiling to himself.

"Touche. Well, just be careful. I think that secretary from the high school is after your action too, and she may be the vindictive type."

"Well, I'm just doing this to help our work, you know, keep Tamara and Shirley under close observation, investigate them as thoroughly and as often as possible. Don't want them hiding anything from us in their clothes either, you know. I'll tell them we're going on date just so they won't suspect my motivations."

"Oh yeah, hard work."

"Yeah man, hard work. But nothing's too hard for Harris and Cruger Investigations, Inc." They let the proposed company name hang in the silent air for a second, had a certain ring to it. Maybe they should go pro. "But," Harris said, "you're a happily monogamous married dude and all, so the dirty work is left to me."

Cruger nodded his head in agreement. "Yep, hard work for ya, but I think you'll live."

"Oh, yes, I will."



Chapter Twenty-Five

The next evening, Cruger sat with the ornate accordion in his hands. What do they tell you? If you fall off a horse, get right back on it again -- ridiculous! What if you broke your goddamned back falling off? His ego had felt worse than a broken back last week. Redemption, a complete reversal of the impression he made the previous week down at Cafe Emerson, would be the only thing that could help. But, as always, fears played mini-movies in his head, forcing him construct arguments that justified his intentions. He saw himself walking up to the stage, the musicians hooting, shaming him, disgracing him, calling him Polka man, yelling 'Where's your monkey, organ grinder?' and laughing at the request to allow him to play again.

Where's your compassion? Cruger screamed back in his head. I had one bad night. Give me a chance to redeem myself.

Hah, redeem yourself, they yelled. The drummer had horns growing out of his head; the bassist had fangs the size of steak knives. They looked at Cruger as if he were yesterday's garbage. Get him out of here!. A bouncer the size of the Himalayas grabbed Cruger and sent him sailing through the front door at ninety miles per hour. No, Cruger yelled, I really can play, he said while horizontal to the ground, moving at a rocket's clip.

The mind games his imagination played were overpowered by his desire to redeem himself by playing well. How could he hide this ability he had when, as an expressive art form, he needed to communicate this music to others?

So he went back to the Cafe Emerson. Since it was jam night he knew that the same musicians would be there. I hope they don't remember me, he started to try to tell himself. What, are you kidding? How many accordion players come in there and trip all over themselves? Of course they will remember you. Just hope that they give you another chance to play, now that you have the right axe.

When he arrived he immediately went up to the stage to sign up. No one recognized him, no one pointed their finger, hollered loudly or jeered at him. Cruger warily retreated to the bar. The smaller accordion, in its case, didn't look like the larger one he had last time, but it could be a trumpet or flugelhorn -- maybe.

The band was playing an up-tempo version of "St. Thomas." The groove was fast and tight, the melody and rhythm clicking together in a colorful, spotless embrace. Cruger hadn't played the tune but after listening for a minute he could see the notes in his head. His mind formed an improvisation based on the melody, and it played across his mind while he blocked out the band's guitar, concentrating on rhythm and chord changes. As a warmup, it was a good method. His ideas and central focus where nearly ready.

Cruger drank his beer and waited for his turn. In one more song he would walk to the side of the stage and get his instrument out. In the meantime he studied the band carefully. The bass player, same as last week, looked like the archetypal jazz musician. Locks of brown, half-braided frizzy hair scrawled a mosaic of collated anarchy across his neck and shoulders. He dressed in baggy earth-tone pants and cloth shirts that either came from impoverished African villages or chic, trendy boutiques that charged an arm and a leg for them.

Cruger's time to play came. He got up on stage, his self-talk hammering away a confidence building slogan that said: you're good, you're great, you'll play great...

The drummer counted off the tune; the lump in Cruger's throat smoothed as he played the head of the tune flawlessly. Notes streamed from his instrument like steam from a pot of boiling water. If Cruger hadn't had his eyes fixed to his somnambulist fingers, he would have seen the eyebrows of the drummer and bassist raise; his ability was a surprise.

After the melody, Cruger took the first solo, slowly building on the melody -- expanding its bounds until it became a bridge to new harmonic and rhythmic cousins of the original tune. He pulled along the rest of the rhythm section -- they reacted to his piecework innovations and paved new foundations for his expanding ideas. Cruger was playing well -- in fact, better than ever. The solo built smoothly to a climax before Cruger gradually took it back down to a final form that was symmetric to the beginning and middle.

Piano solo and guitar solo then followed. When the bass player took a solo, backed by only the sparse hi-hat of the drummer, Cruger noticed that the bassist either emulated some of Cruger's soloing form, or he truly had a similar style. Cruger listened intently. Joy and happiness lived in every note the bassist played. His instrument sang of happy struggle and achievement.

As the tune ended, Cruger heard a burst of applause from the audience. The drummer nodded to Cruger, saying something indecipherable that sounded a little like "Yeah, man." The other players smiled and applauded briefly, saying things like "hot, real hot," and "good chops." A wave of warmth rose up in Cruger, traveling from toe to head. He felt as if he had just been admitted to a club. After he packed his accordion back into his case, he made his way over to the bar, most of the people in the audience either smiling or complimenting his playing.

Half an hour later the band finished for the evening. The bass player made his way over to Cruger. He extended his strong, vein- covered hand.

"Hi, I'm Jay. Really liked your playing, man."

"Thanks. I'm Jack Cruger." They shook hands for a long time, Jay seemingly not in a hurry to let go.

When he remembered to stop shaking, Jay said, "Do you have a card? I might have some gigs to throw your way."

Cruger fished out one of his business cards. A mundane card -- "Jack Cruger, Accordion. Weddings, parties, lessons."

Jay glanced lazily at the card, not interested in the content. Jay was a talker, Cruger soon learned, and Jay wasn't his name. He had legally changed his name -- surprisingly following the pop performer trend -- to a single word name. The difference was, as opposed to Cher, Madonna, Sade, Sting, and Prince, his name was unpronounceable. The bass player's name was Jcxlpsiqzv. His driver's license said Jcxlpsiqzv. His credit cards said Jcxlpsiqzv. His library card said Jcxlpsiqzv.

People called him J.

J was a spiritual refugee from the sixties in a body from the fifties who wore clothes from the eighties. J's razor-sharp haircut had his initial carved in the side of his head above his left ear. Baggy pants, high-tops, a canvas army jacket and peach t-shirt completed his look. Although his image greatly upstaged his playing, at least to the less careful observer, he was a solid groove bassist with great chops.

The drummer wandered over and J introduced him as Bailey. He wore sweat bands around his wrists and forehead. A few strands of dirty blond hair piled over his head band across his eyes. And the biceps.

Bailey was a talker too. He talked about how solid J played. He was the man, the groove. According to the Bailey, J was a MuthuFuka.

Cruger learned the term MuthuFuka was reserved for the greatest of talents. According to Bailey, the following acts rated top status:

"Mingus was a MuthuFuka,"

"Branford Marsalis is a MuthuFuka,"

"The Forty-Niners is a bunch of MuthuFukas,"

"That lick's too tough: it's a MuthuFuka."

As far as Cruger knew, no accordionist ever was a MuthuFuka.

Cruger gulped some of his beer. Bailey was a born comedian, the kind of guy who could draw a crowd and get on all roll talking about almost anything. But here he was in his element and well-rehearsed with his quips.

Bailey's next musical term was Monster. As he explained its usage:

"You hear that dude play, man, he's a Monster,"

"Your axe has got a Monster sound,"

"He's a Monster player."

Cruger wished he had been able to have prepared himself for the evening by reading "Berlitz's Musician Talk in Ten Easy Lessons," or "The Square Guy-to-Musician Translation Pocket Book," where such phrases as "May I play my instrument with your band" are translated to "Hey, man, can I sit in with my axe and play down some standards, maybe trade fours."

They stood around and talked for while until they joined the piano player and a girl at a table.

J introduced Cruger. The piano player was Tony, and the girl was the Tony's girlfriend, Diane, a painter by day, waitress at the Emerson at night. They were discussing art and music.

Tony was saying: "Just like what a painter does, but real time. Actually, don't some painters paint real-time, like real fast in one sitting?"

"I don't know," J said, "but I wouldn't want to buy that painting."

Bailey laughed and Cruger chuckled, wishing he knew more about the intricacies of playing music.

"No man, you're wrong," Bailey said. "Think about it. The painter that works for months on his masterpiece is like the legit composer; a composer will slowly picture the whole piece and its development in his mind. Painting reactively and quickly -- what did you call it, real time? -- is more like what we do: instant interpretation, instant artistic response."

"That's true," J said. And it was settled: it was true. "I do something I can kind of see, kind of feel, but nothing I can actually put my hands around and really spell out." J shrugged. "I aim for what that feeling is, and the closer I come, the happier I am with the result."

"Yeah," Tony the pianist said, "I have a similar feeling usually. Sometimes, right before I play what I do, I see a texture or a pattern that reminds me of a feeling; then I try to quickly translate that feeling into notes -- the right notes."

"You can't go outside the structure too much, you know, just to try to capture what you're trying to say. That's the trick: stay within the chord changes and still express what you're feeling."

They all sat for a moment, nodding their heads.

"What about you man?" the drummer said to Cruger. "How do you approach it?"

Cruger thought for a moment, trying not to blush or gulp noticeably. Finally, he said "I try to clear my mind and just play."

Cruger heard laughing, starting with the drummer and then J. They were busting up and he didn't know why.

"Man, we're sitting here getting all philosophical and you hit the nail on the head," J said. "You just play. Shit, if that ain't the truth."

"But still, that's probably coming straight from his unconscious mind. You notice that he said clear my mind and play. That's getting his conscious mind out of the picture -- he plays straight from his subconscious," J said.

"Cool," Bailey murmured, pushing his hair back over his sweatband.

"But before you learned to clear your mind like that, how did you improvise? Did you think in terms of chords or modes or just use your ear?"

Honestly was, if not the best policy, then better than stammering and going weak-kneed. So Cruger said, "Before I learned to just play straight from the unconscious I literally couldn't play. The only tunes I could play were like LADY OF SPAIN -- I couldn't improvise at all."

J was smiling and shaking his head. "Amazing, just amazing. You had all of that untapped ability bottled up in there and didn't know how to release it. Just 'cause accordion players aren't supposed to play jazz, play good, play free."

The talked for a while more about music, art, the groove, playing straight from your head. Cruger sucked it up like a bear who'd found his first honeycomb.

After a while Cruger said goodnight. His head was reeling; he felt like a blind man who just got his sight and, first thing, saw a rainbow.



Chapter Twenty-Six

Cruger rapped on the door and Harris was there in a few seconds, swinging the door open with one hand and holding a Tupperware dish and a fork in the other. A gray t-shirt stretched across his chest, barely reaching to his navel. "C'mon in," he said.

Cruger stepped inside. "On an engineer's salary you should be able to afford the rest of that shirt."

"It's expensive, man. Designer and everything."

"Oh, then maybe it's your Oomphaloscepsis shirt."

"Whatever you say," Harris said, then: "OK, what the hell is Oomphalo-whatever?"

"The art of meditation while staring at one's navel," Cruger said. "Oomphaloscepsis. Surprised you didn't know that, being schooled in the fine arts... or martial arts, cultured, and all that stuff."

"Yep, I don't know how I survived all these years without knowing about Oomphaloscepsis."

"And it's all the rage in Tibet, Borneo, and Mill Valley. Plus, you got a nice looking inney."

"Thanks, I quite like it myself," Harris said, walking back to the kitchen, taking a forkful of Tupperwared microwaved leftover- stuff. "What brings you over, neighbor?"

"I don't know," Cruger said, leaning against the counter. The bright kitchen lights were hurting his eyes. "Seemed better than sitting at home watching the dust settle."

"Oomphaloscepsis not doing the trick, eh?"

Cruger grimaced. "The spheres weren't in conjunction."

"Ah," Harris said and took another bite of goop. "I understand."

"What's this?" Cruger said, picking up a piece of paper from the counter. "Been talking to the IRS lately?"

"Huh? No, that's Neswick's office number. He had his secretary call to set up an appointment with me."

"Yeah, Neswick's been setting up meetings with me too," Cruger said. "One-on-ones he calls them. He said he's preparing my performance review."

"Me too. He said he wants little group meetings with the three or four of us -- including Tamara -- as well as one-on-ones."

"Did he say anything about money, like getting paid for this job?"

"No," Harris said and then licked his lips and inhaled slowly. "Would you even want to be paid for this?"

"No, then it might become the same -- the same as work."

"Exactly. But it might start to become tough work anyway. I've been reading up on theoretical physics; is what we have enough to help us complete our implementation? Will people really be able to write a book titled HOW TO MAKE PLANETS AND GALAXIES, AN EASY DO-IT- YOURSELF GUIDE? Will bioengineering progress to the point of a BUILD YOURSELF A BEST FRIEND book? Isn't this the same as people playing God?"

Look at him, he's on a roll, Cruger thought. Damn engineer's head is too deep in it.

Harris continued: "And what if the evolution process was planned? What if this whole thing is canned, a setup? What if fish were programmed to become lizards to become rats to become dogs to become primates and so on? Then it would follow that you and I and our dumb-luck discoveries were planned too."

"It gets to the question: is God alive?" said Cruger. "And we've been through that."

"I think we know the organization is alive. What we don't know is who, when, where or what made The Company and started this whole universe. We know some of the how -- at least the spinning part."

Cruger felt nostalgic; his conversations with Tony were rolling back into his mind. "Most of this was predicted, if you can believe what Tony told me. Humans at this point were just expected to have a little more hair and a little more strength than we did thousands of years ago. You know, a chimpanzee could theoretically bench press 2,000 pounds? We're wimps, when you think about it."

Harris smiled. "Speak for yourself, couch potato."

Cruger thought of the complexity of the issues they faced. Could the two of them really handle this? Maybe they needed help. Maybe Neswick was around for a reason.

"Right now, we don't have all the answers, but, with the software in its current state, we theoretically have the ability to generate answers to any question," Harris said.

Cruger wondered what that meant. Was it better to potentially understand everything, or to have a finite set of answers? Potentially, he could see the best alternative was what they had: the ability to eventually understand everything. He asked Harris about it.

"You're right. Then time becomes the issue," said Harris. "If we understood time, then waiting for the answers could be compensated for. I could explore the question of time, but it may take a long time just to get that far."

"Damn, and they call me a smart-ass," said Cruger. "Is this the original chicken and egg problem or what?"

"Since we're marching down the path to God's place, at least conceptually, I think we can expect quite a few chicken and egg problems. And I can't figure what this spinning you do has much to do with anything."

They sat a moment, and without a word Harris went to the refrigerator and got them some Cabernet. Cruger watched as it swirled into a glass, his thoughts on spinning and what it meant to him. "Isn't there anything you do that gives you a feeling of locking in -- a feeling that you are doing more than just you yourself can do? When your game is really on, everything is effortless and pure joy, you know?"

Harris kept his eyes lowered as he sat down and put his feet up on the edge of the counter. "Well, the things that I'm best at are running, and, back in school, football. Sure, when I'm running I get that feeling of, it's like, undeniable power. Like I can go on and on. When my second wind kicks in and the endorphins are pumping into my brain, I'm at the top of the world."

"I've seen you at the end of your runs -- you don't look so good."

Harris let the comment pass. "When I played football, I played running back," Harris squeezed his thigh as if to recreate an old football sensation. "When my stuff was together, I felt like I was flying through clouds. It was effortless. Each run was a takeoff, a flight, and a landing. But when I was having a rough time, every minute lasted an hour, every carry was pain. The difference between a good day and a bad day was enormous. The funny thing, though, is that externally it didn't seem that way. Sometimes when I felt my stuff wasn't working I was still gaining yards. I guess I'm talking about internal sensations, mostly."

"These feelings, the locking in, the clicking, the effortlessness -- they mean something. Those feelings are the essence of spinning." Cruger realized that the words he had chosen were pedantic and, as if correcting himself, added, "at least for me they have meaning."

Harris still had a distant look on his face. "No, I'm sure you're right," he said. "I can relate."

Cruger heard Corrina's car pulling into the driveway next door. Cruger was usually pulling out of the driveway when Corrina pulled in. Two cars passing in the driveway -- that's modern marriage. Two cars passing in the street, that's friends; two cars passing on the freeway -- acquaintances.

He needed to tell her everything, to bring her along on his adventure. Be like a husband and wife, spending time together, sharing their lives. But would she believe the deep shit he and Harris were into -- maybe not. Maybe it was unbelievable. Too big a jump.

Cruger said goodbye to Harris and then, "Thanks for the talk, it was sort of cleansing, talking this deep metaphysical bullshit. It's a nice universe, but I'd hate to paint it."

"That's the difference between you and I," Harris said, his face now full of vigor and irony. "I'd enjoy painting it."



Chapter Twenty-Seven

... for every human being there is a diversity of existences ...
the single existence is itself an illusion ...
--Saul Bellow

Spinning was a solitary occupation, but for Cruger it was the most fulfilling thing he had done. Realizing that he was making some kind of impression on the entire species was a large reward. Did every action of every person every day contribute to the course of the future? Cruger thought that might be so; but spinning was a more direct and substantial contribution.

That night Cruger sat in the den and played. He was in a lazy, lonely mood, so he played ballads. In the middle of My Funny Valentine, an image began to appear across the room. At first it shimmered like a reflection in a lake; then the image began to solidify. Cruger, unfazed, kept playing; My Funny Valentine seemed a good soundtrack for this strangeness.

Now the image was as solid as Cruger -- it smiled at him like a reflection in the mirror. It was Cruger standing at the other side of the room: a different Cruger. Under his arm was a small guitar. He wore Cruger's favorite jeans, his watch, and a shirt that Cruger had never seen before.

Cruger stopped playing. He didn't know what to say, so he started with an insult. "Nice shirt. Where did you get it, K-Mart?"

"No, but I bought it with your sense of 'taste', if I could stretch the word that far," the image said. Its voice was familiar, like a less resonant version of the voice Cruger heard in his head.

"Jeez, you really are me. You're abusive and a royal pain in the ass." Cruger thought for a moment. "How do people stand me, or us?"

"Well," the new Cruger said, "considering that I'm from your future, you improve a little with time. And you finally get rid of that damned accordion."

"Hey, I like this accordion," Cruger said.

"Yeah, well listen to this." The new Cruger brought up his guitar and launched into a fast, flamenco vamp. Each note was a round and precisely attacked sound--he strummed and made percussive slaps against the side of the guitar while playing a vibrant melody on the upper strings. Cruger listened with rapt attention.

When he stopped, Cruger wondered if he should applaud. Instead he sneered and failed to make any comment at all.

The future Cruger looked up, mischievous eyes hooded by bushy eyebrows, and said, "As long as I'm here, let's jam." He started a blues tune with a funky, string-bending melody on top of a solid walking bass. "Or are you too nervous?"

Cruger grabbed his accordion. The interplay was clean and exotic: two nearly identical minds trading licks, rhythms, and locking a groove. Only the future Cruger was a better musician. Head bowed in concentration, forehead slightly wrinkled, the future Cruger was more explorative, playing tri-tone substitutions along with diminished and whole-tone scales. They began trading fours, allowing each other to stretch ideas and add to their improvisational statements. The tune then settled down into a quiet, sparse blues.

Cruger talked over the music. "What are you doing here?"

The future Cruger smiled, half his attention still dedicated to his walking bass line and the light chords he comped. "You brought me here. You were spinning, right?"

"Yeah."

"Well," the future Cruger said, "you obviously were spinning your own path and crossed a string right here and now -- that's not easy to do."

"But how could you be here right now if you're from my future?" A reasonable question, Cruger thought.

"Simple. I had decided to travel a little. Traveling, the way Harris had programmed it, is still a little flaky, so here I am. I mean, here we are."

Cruger said, "I thought you said that I crossed a string and that's how you got here."

"Right. I would have never time traveled here -- incorrectly -- if you hadn't crossed that string just now."

The music stopped. Cruger looked at himself standing there and thought he looked a little heavier. God, look at that paunch hang over the belt. Frightening to think that in the future spinning and the computer system were still a little buggy. He would have to remember to tell Harris to fix the time travel program's bug, whatever the time travel program was.

The future Cruger anticipated his thoughts. "I don't know which of your future selves I am. I'm sure to be just one of many."

"I think you're the smart-ass one," Cruger said.

"No, I think we're all like that," the future Cruger said, giving his younger self a wide, nearly sincere smile.

"You were playing some pretty weird licks there. Where did you learn to play like that?" Cruger said.

"So you want to know where you learned to play better?"

"No, I want to know where you learned. I don't consider it better." Cruger crossed his arms. "You probably can't even play a simple melodic minor scale."

Cruger's future self lifted the guitar and played a fast, perfect, melodic minor scale up and down three octaves, finishing with a double-time arpeggio up to a beautiful, ringing, high harmonic.

"You chump."

"Turkey."

"Jerk." Cruger never had been especially quick to make friends, but meeting himself only amplified the problem. The chemistry sucked. Still, he enjoyed sparring. He had to admit his future self was a great guitarist. Did he feel a pang of pride? Why be proud of himself, if this was not the future self that he would become?

"If you kick my ass, you would only be hurting yourself," the new Cruger said, an ironic gleam in his eyes.

The light reflecting off the future Cruger's body began to shudder and split into tiny waves and particles of dull colors. As the image wavered, Cruger wondered why he had annoyed himself so much. Were they so alike that they couldn't get along? Or had tension and fear of showing emotion created a barrier between them?

"Bye," the future Cruger waved.

Cruger raised the same hand and waved back. "Don't come back soon," he said to his fading replica.

The hands were different. Cruger's had his wedding band on it, and the double from the future's was bare. "Wait!" Cruger yelled. "Wait!"

But the strange colors that had cast a surreal shadow on the wall faded to a muddy darkness and the future Cruger was gone.

Cruger picked up his small, suddenly inadequate accordion. He played Send in the Clowns, too slowly, and wondered what it all meant.



Neswick decided to risk it by filling in Tamara.

"One of them is a loose cannon," Neswick said. "Erasures are to be reserved for special circumstances. Quite often there are complications, and it puts a strain on the system. Not to mention the Big Enigma."

Tamara nodded her head carefully.

"Even more importantly, it leaves us exposed. If anyone else catches a period of dissonance -- when the deleted life may be remembered by an observer -- they may be able to trace it back to us."

Tamara asked, "How is it patched up so that no one remembers the person?"

"Basically, it's like reverse-spinning the string that holds a person's life together. The string must be redone from their conception." Neswick wondered if she was playing dumb or if she was honestly inquisitive. He couldn't read her: she had her perpetual block up, as did he. He wanted to trust her; the father/daughter charade that they had been living since leaving the homeland was beginning to ingrain itself as reality.

"What does Harris think about the Tony incident?" he asked.

"Well, he definitely thinks Tony was erased by the Other Company. He seems to think it was a warning for Cruger to stop spinning."

"And what do you think it was?"

"Honestly, I don't know," she said. "Possibly one of our people just has it in for humans. I have to admit, after two tours of duty here, I'm getting a little sick of the constant facade."

"You don't even like the bit with their sex act? It's better than what we have at home," he said, smiling that mealy-mouthed smile that humans do when they think lascivious thoughts.

"Yes, it's good, but I wonder if we ever really experience it the way they do. It's sort of vicarious for me." She crossed her legs and felt a little uncomfortable. What is this, she thought, modesty? She wondered if her acting had become so good that it had finally supplanted her real personality.

"I don't hear you complaining."

She laughed. "Harris isn't too bad. As jobs go, I think I'll keep this one."



Chapter Twenty-Eight

"Good afternoon, I'm Jack Cruger. Mr. Neswick's expecting to see me at three."

She looked up from the nothingness on the large walnut desk. Her response was automatic, like a tape loop playing in her mind: "Please have a seat." She gestured to one of the large, squarish wooden chairs pushed against the far wall. "Mr. Neswick will be with you shortly."

Cruger sat as she continued to sit at her desk and stare disinterestedly at her plump fingers.

"Bet you don't get many happy people coming in here," Cruger said, just to break the silence. "Mostly mad, worried people?"

For a second he thought she might not respond at all, but then she looked at him and said, "I see the poorest scum of the earth to the millionaire sophisticates, the whole spectrum of humanity." She held out the word 'humanity' as if it needed to be emphasized, then shook her head, letting out a little wheezing laugh. "The whole spectrum," she said again, and grinned to herself.

Cruger decided to let the silence hang..

After a minute she reached over to the phone and pressed a button. "A Mr. Cruger to see you," she wheezed into the intercom. There was a burst of static and Miss Congeniality gestured towards the office door. Cruger got up and went inside.

"Make yourself at home," Neswick said, and Cruger found himself a chair across form Neswick's old, hardwood desk.

"Mrs. Branner," Neswick said as he made a gesture past his closed office door. "Been my secretary for eight years."

"Has she cracked a smile in that time?"

"Oh, I see you didn't get too acquainted with her," Neswick said, sounding surprised, as if Mrs. Branner were up for the personality of the month award. "She really is quite a fine woman."

Cruger took his word because it didn't matter and asked: "Are you able to do company business here, as well as IRS work?"

"Oh yes. But my Company business is really simpler than you may think -- it's not very time-consuming."

"May I ask what it is you do exactly?" Cruger looked for any facial reaction that might say to him no dice, an out-of-bounds question.

But Neswick answered, "You know the answer to that; I supervise you and report to my supervisor. It's that simple."

It sounded simple enough.

So Cruger started. "I was wondering about some things, like for instance, the boundary conditions. How it all started. If God keeps evolving as a company, who or what was originally in charge?"

"Excellent question. All it took was one tiny particle of anything. That would be an opposite of nothing. Once you have opposites, you have a definition of the entire universe itself in a microcosm. In a fraction of a second, you have many particles. The inverse law can utilize the molecular energy. A billion years or so and we have galaxies, black holes, and evolving worlds."

"What is so special about opposites?" said Cruger.

"All energy comes from opposites. Also, it is possible to inverse any given state to cause an equal and opposite reaction. Basic Newtonian stuff. Only thing is, this approach can be applied to any matter, state, or dimension.

"Oriental philosophy has similar concepts. In Japanese, as used in the word Aikido, the word 'ki' can be loosely translated as the submicroscopic bit of energy that is ubiquitous and always was, the original particle of the Universe before the Universe expanded with more 'ki' everywhere, in all of us, the energy of life: God. But ki doesn't imply the existence of an opposite of ki; at least not in Zen Buddhist teachings."

Cruger nodded and tried to look as though he'd been following along.

Neswick leaned forward and folded his hands. "You know, sometimes hypnosis is used to accelerate the learning process. Would you like to try that? It only takes a few minutes."

Cruger had no good answer ready. It seemed unusual, but considering that the man was trying to explain the nature of existence, the request didn't seem unreasonable. Neswick was surprisingly quick; Cruger heard his voice become velvety and low as his legs grew heavy and sank deep into the chair. Next thing he knew Mrs. Branner buzzed on the intercom: "Mr. Seager needs the report by three-thirty."

"Right." Neswick began shuffling papers together into a file folder. In a moment the folder was full of small, odd-sized receipts, yellow post-its, and small half-crumpled note-pad pages.

"Excuse me for one minute," he said to Cruger. Neswick got up and walked to the exterior office. Cruger could hear him talking in a calm tone.

Cruger looked around the room. Anything, no matter how insignificant, could be a clue. The chairs, the desk, the pictures on the wall, the smell -- no, that was probably only a clue concerning Neswick's horrid aftershave -- anything.

Cruger looked at the desk. Two pens and a desk calendar in the center; the telephone, the intercom, an envelope, a tablet -- Cruger's eyes returned to the envelope. MARTIN TRAVEL was written across the front in large red letters. Neswick was still in the outer office, talking loudly, so Cruger stepped over and slipped out the itinerary. Flight 85, San Jose to Denver.

Old Neswick going to Denver, Cruger thought. Interesting that he hadn't mentioned it. Cruger replaced the envelope and sat down.

Neswick's voice stopped and in a moment he was back in the room.

"Excuse me, had to get a bit of business done."

"No problem." Cruger sat back in the chair. "Now where were we?"



Cruger arrived an hour early for the flight. Since he had no luggage and wasn't going anywhere, he told himself this wouldn't be difficult.

Jack Cruger, incredible amateur detective. He was really cutting his teeth here. What would they call this, he wondered? A stakeout, or maybe just plain surveillance? Fancy words for sitting around and watching a fat guy get on a plane. But you had to be careful not to get too close, let the fat guy see you. That would be embarrassing, hard to explain.

Maybe he should have a story ready in case Neswick did see him. Oh, I'm flying to L.A. standby, going down for the Rose Parade. Well, not the Rose Parade. Going down to visit a friend, an old high school friend. Stanley Slotkin, that's the ticket. Who could be suspicious when you're visiting a guy named Stanley Slotkin?

Deciding that hiding behind a newspaper with a tiny hole cut in the center was passe, Cruger kept his sunglasses on and stood behind a small crowd of people at gate seventeen waiting for arriving passengers. He checked that no entrances were behind him; the only way to Neswick's departure gate was through the screening machine right in front of Cruger.

After twenty minutes of concentration and boredom Cruger finally saw Neswick. He wore a brown sweater over a red sport shirt, tan corduroy pants, and brown Rockport shoes. Neswick slid his leather carry-on bag onto the security machine's conveyor.

Tamara was right behind Neswick. She wrinkled her forehead and looked around as she stood waiting for her father to go through the metal detector. Her bright fuschia pants suit and white leather boots made her easy to spot in a crowd. She then slid her black leather purse off her shoulder and onto the conveyer, stepping through the metal detector quickly.

Cruger stayed where he was. Tamara was traveling with Neswick. So what? He could check with Harris, see what Tamara might have said about going somewhere. Maybe it was a perfectly innocent ski vacation to Colorado -- or maybe not. A two-day weekend trip, was it something they did often? Maybe Harris could help track it down, even if it was a wild goose. Cruger watched as they found seats in the waiting area and, with nothing to do but wait for the plane, turned to go.

Then, almost under his nose, Cruger recognized a face. Sky! She swung an Esprit bag onto the conveyor, walked through the metal detector, collected the bag, and walked over to Neswick and Tamara in the gate's waiting area, oblivious to Cruger's open-mouthed stare. He saw Sky kiss Neswick and then Tamara, laughing and talking, saying things and making motions that Cruger couldn't begin to read from that distance.

Cruger felt his stomach sink at least a yard. He knew innocent coincidences like this were harder to find than Dodo birds. Much harder.

To be continued...


Jeff Zias has worked at Apple Computer and Taligent. He enjoys spending time with his wife and two small children, playing jazz with Bay Area groups, writing software and prose, and building playhouses and other assorted toys for his children to trash. Having actually been a studious youth, Jeff has a BA in Applied Mathematics from Berkeley and an MS in Engineering Management from Santa Clara University. (Bio last updated in 1992.)

InterText stories written by Jeff Zias: "Unified Murder Theorem, Part I" (v2n1), "Unified Murder Theorem, Part II" (v2n2), "Unified Murder Theorem, Part III" (v2n3), "Unified Murder Theorem, Part IV" (v2n4).


InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Jeff Zias.