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Chapter 2

2.
Peter Amblin’s latest assessment of the new Kidde B. movie lacks the surly insight he’s so deftly inked the prestigious pages of the Times with in the past. At moments scathing, and even bordering on tactless, Amblin, the man who made creen doyenne Jill Eberhart cry, has come to be known among some circles as “Pink Slip Pete,” for his hand in giving several newcomers to the movie industry a sudden two-year break in their careers after a poor performance.

So it was all the more serendipitous, and somewhat shocking, to find an Amblin somehow neutered in his wax on the Kidde’s impending bomb about an orphan from Brooklyn who inherits hip-hop recording giant Gat Records. Blindly stumbling over Christmas morning sized opportunities to gut the producers, director, and quasi-actors for feckless line delivery, inane plot, and cartoonish emoting, Amblin failed to even mention the dreadful idea of improvisation in the title, Oliver Twisted

Nester Cab paused in his typing and sighed at the monitor. After a moment, he began tapping the backspace key in frustration. He could have just held it down, but this was more satisfying. “Not enough panning,” he mumbled, “Pan Pan Pan.” He was distracted by a steady shuffle and a parade of sport coats and blouses moving past the window in his office door. It was two O’clock, and the prison break was beginning. The pastiest of copywriters and meekest of coffee makers had spent all day diligent, drawing up plans, and covertly e-mailing their contacts on the outside. It was well-known that the publisher would take the Friday before Memorial Day weekend to be the first to East Hampton and her fully restored colonial estate home, to get drunk on gimlets and speak sarcastically about what was left of the dwindling Weinstein Empire, at least that’s what most people imagined she did.

The marketing director, and most of the editorial staff, had gone home at noon, and now, with the office guard towers empty, the great escape had begun. Anarchy, as much anarchy as magazine people liked to indulge in, reined the hallways, and he thought he could sense giddiness in the elbow patches and floundering ties that sashayed across the space not obscured by his window blind. In half an hour, Nester Cab would likely be the last remaining employee at the offices of The Reviewers Review, the chosen to turn off the lights and lock the door. He stared at the screen for a moment, pondering a legitimate reason for working the word “pablum” into his review without sounding too cliché himself. He rested his head on the old oak desk for a moment and, without looking, opened the drawer to his right. He angled out a pint of Jack Daniels and cracked the sealed cap. His lips pursed and kissed the bottle neck, tasting the oaky fire that lingered on the rim. He drank several swallows and returned the pint to the drawer, pausing to look around his office.

Cab was an atavist, a lingering artifact from a time before he was born. Still a young man of thirty-eight, he clamored for a stake in the past. He arranged his personal spaces with petulant rebellion against the current year. His office remained sparse, even though he had been writing reviews of reviewers since 2008. The cuckoo clock on the wall swung its pendulum dutifully, and the cuckoo bird remained extended out on its lattice perch, frozen in an eternal death call. The last time it crowed was three years ago, and when it stopped, Nester left it there, simply because he wanted to look at it on his own terms instead of the clock’s terms. His worn leather chair, his metal Swingline stapler, his cherry wood library card case in the corner, his globe of the world that showed Prussia as a legitimate state, all absconded from various antique shops and all remained hallmarks of his own personal feng shui. Cab only dealt with technology when it was a necessity of livelihood. The computer he sat in front of was the only beeping, prodding, electric thing he would permit in his office, save his pod. He was a man continually on the run while sitting still, a fugitive from all the insistence of technology, the programming, the  generated voices that made suggestions and guided the user toward more of the same flashing, fast talking, life-integrating schizophrenia.

He sighed and reopened the whisky drawer to fish for another shot. A doorbell tone sounded on his computer, and a phony British butler’s voice smugly interrupted, “Shall I get that, sir?” Cab swallowed from the pint again and winced. He reached for the small nodule on top of his monitor that was the camera and angled it toward the wall. He considered breaking it off the monitor. “Answer.”

An animated image of a small wooden “mansion” door, just a couple of inches wide and tall, folded down over his review document and swung open with the sound of a latch that was too tinny to be right. Even on a tiny video interface, Aida Williams was a stunning, dark beauty with sharp features and wide, black curls that Nester knew she worked hard to iron out when she got ready every morning. He knew because she complained about it constantly. He saw her snort sarcastically and shake her head with a smirk.

“Tweet, tweet.”

“Hi, Aida.” He tipped the bottle again.

“C’mon, Nes. I didn’t call to talk to the cuckoo clock.” Her wide eyes always glowed like she was possessed by something fiery, if not a little mischievous, but something a person wanted to be close to.

“You’re three doors away from me.”

“Are you drinking?” she scolded.

“Yes.” He leaned back in his chair and sloshed the liquor about a bit, watching tiny bubbles rise. “What do you want?”

“I wanted to go get a drink.”

“Good timing. I’m the third door on your left. The one that says Cab.”

“I wanted to go out and get a drink.”

“I saw you walk by ten minutes ago. Why didn’t you ask me then?”

“I was busy. Do you want to go or not?”

“Ah!” He growled and stood up quickly, making the chair creak upright and roll backward. He capped the bottle and slid it into his brown trousers and, unintentionally, under the elastic band of his boxers. It felt cool against his skin, and the booze slopped around, making him think, uneasily, of catheter bags.

“Nes?”

“Just a minute,” he grunted.

Opening his office door was like entering the freeway from a nice residential street. The iridescent lights shocked him and the storm of sound; shuffling paper, clacking keyboards, rotors, and belts, and hums from scanners and routers and servers made him irritably apoplectic. Everyone was scrambling to escape, and Nester was in the way. He nearly walked into an editorial assistant who appeared to be running from angry natives with a FedEx envelope in his hand. The assistant’s chest brushed Nester’s shoulder, and he wobbled sideways spitting, “Damn it!”

An automatic vacuum the size of a large trashcan buzzed toward him saying, “Pardon me. Vacuuming in progress,” in a jocular voice. It turned a corner between rows of cubicles. He fished in his pocket for the key fob without keys and pressed the small button on it, locking his door. The electric lock toned, and a red LED shined.

Nester moved down the hall toward Aida’s office and paused in front of a vending machine set in the wall between doors. The sensor detected him, and an elderly celebrity’s voice, one he could not quite place, welcomed him to the machine. “How about a nice refreshing beverage?” Nester removed a five-credit token and inserted it. “What’ll you have?” The voice affected a bartender. Nester pressed the accordant picture. “Coke! A man who knows his soft drinks!” The voice effused. Nester plucked the plastic bottle from the dispenser. The whiskey pint cap poked him urgently in the belly as he bent over. The machine piped in again. “Thanks! Remember to enjoy the sweet life with Coca-Cola!” Nester smoothed his shirt and proceeded to Aida’s office with a brisk rap on her door.

“In!” he heard her holler.

Aida lounged behind her stainless steel desk in the middle of a luridly contemporary office, one of her long, nyloned legs straddling around her desk drawers as she leaned back in her chair. Soft jazz blurted from the palm-sized stereo speakers behind her. Aida was a woman Nester admired but would never admit to. It was a relationship that people have based on demonstration rather than confession. She had worked at The Reviewers Review for only four years, and he thought she had sold herself short. Despite the shame she seemed to attach to her community college degree, it was clear she had the semantics and finesse of a straight reviewer. She had been assigned to music and outclassed the overrated hacks at Rolling Stone, in his humble opinion, managing to write a superior review of every album while lambasting the reviewer of that album in irrefutable form. It was an insult to the reviewing elite that he relished.

They had become friends through argument, the strangest and strongest way to friendship. One day, shortly after she had started, the raucousness of the main office had been outshined by a short comment about John Coltrane that had turned into a shouting match about the crappiness that jazz as an art form had become. It ended in a tequila shooter contest at Murphy’s bar. Ever since then, they had become partners in understanding the world. They hated parts of one another and coveted others. Those that they coveted were stronger, and those that they hated soon became endearing annoyances. He coveted many more parts of her than she of him. It was something, though, that he could not ever bring himself to act on.

“I love this part.” She looped a finger through the air, conducting the music as Nester pulled the whiskey out of his pants. Aida rolled her eyes. “Classy, Nes.”

“You got cups?” He held the Coke bottle away from himself to twist off the cap, just in case the machine had shaken it up for him as a joke. She dug in her desk drawer and found a few plastic party flutes for champaign, the kind that came in two pieces that snap together.

“I see I’ve been missing the good happy hours.” He chuckled and assembled two glasses, and then poured in even amounts of whiskey and Coke.

“I snatched them from the New Year’s Eve party last year.” She took her glass and raised it to him, sipping and leaning her head back with a relieved sigh. “You know, you could have just told me you were coming down here and disconnected the call. I’ve been sitting here looking at your damn cuckoo clock and wondering what you were up to.” She pointed at the monitor, which showed his dimly lit room with the cuckoo bird silently cawing at them. “That’s a creepy clock, by the way.”

“At least it doesn’t work.” He leaned over and reached for her mouse. The image of the clock blanked out for a moment and reappeared.

“Camera conking out?”

“Probably. Stupid thing’s eight years old. Nothing is supposed to last beyond five anymore. I’m going to let it die and not request another one.” He clicked the disconnect icon, and the image rolled shut, sounding the first few bars of the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Aida twisted around in her chair. “So let’s go out for a little while.”

“Don’t you have other, more exciting friends you could go out with?”

“Sure, but I get a sense of amusing irony by being social with the biggest social recluse in the city.”

“Cute.” He took a drink and wandered about her office, modern and clean. It was decorated with vinyl album covers and concert posters she had framed, everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to the infamous Kidde B. himself.

Nester took another deep swallow and secretly thanked the unidentifiable celebrity for the Coke. “You ever think about dying?”

“No. And that’s the kind of shit we should be discussing at a bar with other scared and miserable people.”

He ignored her and went on. “I was writing my review of Amblin’s review of the Kidde B. movie. Another ridiculous two-hour advertisement for the latest in sneakers and big pants, and I thought about the fact that it’s all the same. Just some job like slinging grease in a fast food joint, but I get paid a little better. This is what I have to look back on when I die.”

“Okay, this is why we’re going out. I can’t take you being a drama queen without an overpriced drink and bad piano music to drown out the self-pity. So where are we going?”

“What?” he feigned incredulously.

“You pick. I’m buying, God help me.”

“I don’t even want to go and you’re asking me where to go. That’s like asking a death row inmate if he wants the injection or the chair or the gas chamber—huff, wheeze, jitter.”

“Definitely in drama queen mode. We’re going to Murphy’s because I know that’s what you’d pick.”

He finished his drink off and put the barely remaining whiskey in her desk drawer.

“I’ll go shut down.”

Aida stroked her head and looked sideways into her monitor. “How does my hair look?”

“Fine. It always looks fine.” He was clearly exasperated.

“Well, it better look damn good. You weren’t cursed with a sister’s hair, and you don’t spend an hour every goddamned morning getting it to behave.” She looked him in the eyes, challenging. “Damn good?”

“Damn good. I’ll shut down and we’ll walk.”

Nester strutted out of Aida’s office and stopped short as the automatic vacuum trundled toward him between the rows of cubicles. He noticed an object on the floor in front of it that appeared to be a ballpoint pen. The vacuum wobbled over it and promptly began to shudder and make sounds like those of a wood chipper as the pen was tossed about in its brushes. It lurched forward again and again as though it were a driving school student abusing a manual transmission. “Obstruction! Obstruction! Please call maintenance,” it panicked. The heavy machine lurched sideways and banged into the cubicle divider next to it. Nester heard a shower of office supplies, family pictures, coffee mugs, etc., slamming down on the desktop and floor behind the divider. He laughed satisfactorily and continued on to his office, clicking his key fob repeatedly until he saw the LED on the lock turn green. He threw the door open and laughed even harder at the crashing he heard from the hollering vacuum.

He was overtaken by animal instinct, the instinct of premonitional fear, perhaps, the remainder from a time of predators and prey, when humans had to worry about being stalked by something quiet, with dripping incisors and stained claws. Nester was slapped with the knowledge that someone had been in his office. He surveyed everything carefully before stepping across the threshold. There was nothing to hide behind but the desk, and he bent low to make sure no feet or legs bunched nefariously beneath it. He entered and looked for signs of some disturbed thing, all the while convincing himself of his silliness. The cuckoo still pleaded for life on its perch. There was no sign that the card catalogue had been rifled through. There was nothing in the card catalogue to rifle. He made a sweep of the perimeter, looking for signs of invasion.

Nester pulled his rotting chair back and took a last look around before focusing on shutting down his computer. Then he saw the intruder. A sheet of printer paper was folded in half and propped on the top row of keys on his keyboard, leaning against his monitor. He looked around again, opened the blinds to let the afternoon sun in, and peeked under the desk at his feet once more. His mind went to the monitor in Aida’s office. Nester recalled the shadow as his camera blanked out. Someone walked in front of the camera. Slowly, he plucked the sheet from the keyboard and unfolded it. Printed on the paper was the smiling portrait of a young soldier in desert fatigues, his military proper black hair in a thin tuft across his crown. He kneeled on one knee and smiled at the lens in a typical battlefield pose, his rifle rested against the upright leg. Below the printout was handwritten his name, rank, and serial number in intentional and conscientiously neat handwriting.

Nester uttered the words quietly. “Corporal Dan Forsythe, first infantry division. Zero nine one five two six.” Below this information, the handwriting became more scrawled and erratic for only a few words. Find him! He knows where they are.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferey M. Anderson