The Washington Post
Flashbackby Dan Simmons
The United States is near total collapse. But 87% of the population doesn't care: they're addicted to flashback, a drug that allows its users to re-experience the best moments of their lives. After ex-detective Nick Bottom's wife died in a car accident, he went under the flash to be with her; he's lost his job, his teenage son, and his livelihood as a result.
The United States is near total collapse. But 87% of the population doesn't care: they're addicted to flashback, a drug that allows its users to re-experience the best moments of their lives. After ex-detective Nick Bottom's wife died in a car accident, he went under the flash to be with her; he's lost his job, his teenage son, and his livelihood as a result.
Nick may be a lost soul but he's still a good cop, so he is hired to investigate the murder of a top governmental advisor's son. This flashback-addict becomes the one man who may be able to change the course of an entire nation turning away from the future to live in the past.
A provocative novel set in a future that seems scarily possible, FLASHBACK proves why Dan Simmons is one of our most exciting and versatile writers.
The Washington Post
- Quercus Books
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Read an Excerpt
By Dan Simmons
Reagan Arthur BooksCopyright © 2011 Dan Simmons
All right reserved.
Japanese Green Zone Above Denver—Friday, Sept. 10
YOU’RE PROBABLY wondering why I asked you to come here today, Mr. Bottom,” said Hiroshi Nakamura.
“No,” said Nick. “I know why you brought me here.”
Nakamura blinked. “You do?”
“Yeah,” said Nick. He thought, Fuck it. In for a penny, in for a pound. Nakamura wants to hire a detective. Show him you’re a detective. “You want me to find the person or persons who killed your son, Keigo.”
Nakamura blinked again but said nothing. It was as if hearing his son’s name spoken aloud had frozen him in place.
The old billionaire did glance to where his squat but massive security chief, Hideki Sato, was leaning against a step-tansu near the open shoji that looked out on the courtyard garden. If Sato gave his employer any response by movement, wink, or facial expression, Nick sure as hell couldn’t see it. Come to think of it, he didn’t remember having seen Sato blink during the ride up to the main house in the golf cart or during the introductions here in Nakamura’s office. The security chief’s eyes were obsidian marbles.
Finally Nakamura said, “Your deduction is correct, Mr. Bottom. And, as Sherlock Holmes would say, an elementary deduction since you were the homicide detective in charge of my son’s case when I was still in Japan and you and I have never met nor had any other contact.”
After the glance in Sato’s direction, Nakamura had returned his gaze to the single sheet of interactive e-vellum in his hand, but now his gray eyes looked up and bored into Nick.
“Do you think you can find my son’s killer or killers, Mr. Bottom?”
“I’m certain I can,” lied Nick. What the old billionaire was really asking him, he knew, was Can you turn back the clock and keep my only son from being killed and make everything all right again?
Nick would have said I’m certain I can to that question as well. He would have said anything he had to say to get the money this man could pay him. Enough money for Nick to return to Dara for years to come. Perhaps a lifetime to come.
Nakamura squinted slightly. Nick knew that one didn’t become a hundred-times-over billionaire in Japan, or one of only nine regional Federal Advisors in America, by being a fool.
“What makes you think that you can be successful now, Mr. Bottom, when you failed six years ago, at a time when you were a real homicide detective with the full resources of the Denver Police Department behind you?”
“There were four hundred homicide cases pending then, Mr. Nakamura. We had fifteen homicide detectives working them all, with new cases coming in every day. This time I’ll have just this one case to concentrate on and to solve. No distractions.”
Nakamura’s gray gaze, as unblinking as Sato’s darker stare and already chilly, grew noticeably chillier. “Are you saying, former detective sergeant Bottom, that you did not give my son’s murder the attention it deserved six years ago, despite the… ah… high profile of it and direction to give it priority from the governor of Colorado and from the president of the United States herself?”
Nick felt the flashback itch crawling in him like a centipede. He wanted to get out of this room and pull the warm wool cover of then, not-now, her, not-this over himself like a blanket.
“I’m saying that the DPD didn’t give any of its murder cases the manpower or attention they deserved six years ago,” said Nick. “Including your son’s case. Hell, it could have been the president’s kid murdered in Denver and the Major Crimes Unit couldn’t have solved it then.” He looked Nakamura straight in the eye, betting everything on this absurd tactic of honesty.
“Or solve it now,” he added. “It’s fifty times worse today.”
The billionaire’s office had not a single chair to sit in, not even one for Mr. Nakamura, and Nick Bottom and Hiroshi Nakamura stood facing each other across the narrow, chest-high expanse of the rich man’s slim, perfectly bare mahogany stand-up desk. Sato’s casual posture over at the tansu didn’t obscure the facts—at least to Nick Bottom’s eye—that the security chief was fully alert, would have been dangerous even if he weren’t armed, and had the indefinable lethality of an ex-soldier or cop or member of some other profession that had trained him to kill other men.
“It is, of course, your expertise after many years on the Denver Police Department, and your invaluable insights into the investigation, that are the prime reason we are considering you for this investigation,” Mr. Nakamura said smoothly.
Nick took a breath. He’d had enough of playing by Nakamura’s script.
“No, sir,” he said. “Those aren’t the reasons you’re considering hiring me. If you hire me to investigate your son’s murder, it’s because I’m the only person still alive who—under flashback—can see every page of the files that were lost in the cyberattack that wiped out the DPD’s entire archives five years ago.”
Nick thought to himself—And it’s also because I’m the only person who can, under the flash, relive every conversation with the witnesses and suspects and other detectives involved. Under flashback, I can reread the Murder Book that was lost with the files.
“If you hire me, Mr. Nakamura,” Nick continued aloud, “it will be because I’m the only person in the world who can go back almost six years to see and hear and witness everything again in a murder case that’s grown as cold as the bones of your son buried in your family Catholic cemetery in Hiroshima.”
Mr. Nakamura drew in a quick, shocked breath and then there was no sound at all in the room. Outside, the tiny waterfall tinkled softly into the tiny pond in the tiny gravel-raked courtyard.
Having played almost all of his cards, Nick shifted his weight, folded his arms, and looked around while he waited.
Advisor Hiroshi Nakamura’s office in his private home here in the Japanese Green Zone above Denver, although recently constructed, looked as if it might be a thousand years old. And still in Japan.
The sliding doors and windows were shoji and the heavier ones fusuma and all opened out into a small courtyard with its small but exquisitely formal Japanese garden. In the room, a single opaque shoji window allowed natural light into a tiny altar alcove where bamboo shadows moved over a vase holding cut plants and twigs of the autumn season, the vase itself perfectly positioned on the lacquered floor. The few pieces of furniture in the room were placed to show the Nipponese love of asymmetry and were of wood so dark that each ancient piece seemed to swallow light. The polished cedar floors and fresh tatami mats, in contrast, seemed to emanate their own warm light. A sensuous, fresh dried-grass smell rose from the tatami. Nick Bottom had had enough contact with the Japanese in his previous job as a Denver homicide detective to know that Mr. Nakamura’s compound, his house, his garden, this office, and the ikebana and few modest but precious artifacts on display here were all perfect expressions of wabi (simple quietude) and sabi (elegant simplicity and the celebration of the impermanent).
And Nick didn’t give the slightest shit.
He needed this job to get money. He needed the money to buy more flashback. He needed the flashback to get back to Dara.
Since he’d had to leave his shoes back in the entry genkan where Sato had left his, Nick Bottom’s prevalent emotion at the moment was simple regret that he’d grabbed this particular black sock this morning—the one on his left foot with a hole big enough to allow his big toe to poke through. He covertly scrunched his foot up, trying to worm the big toe back in the hole and out of sight, but that took two feet to do right and would be too obvious. Sato was paying attention to the squirming as it was. Nick curled the big toe up as much as he could.
“What kind of vehicle do you drive, Mr. Bottom?” asked Nakamura.
Nick almost laughed. He was ready to be dismissed and physically thrown out by Sato for his gai-jin’s impertinent mention of Nakamura’s all-hallowed son Keigo’s cold bones, but he hadn’t expected a question about his car. Besides, Nakamura had almost certainly watched him drive up on one of the fifty thousand or so surveillance cameras that had been tracking him as he approached the compound.
He cleared his throat and said, “Ah… I drive a twenty-year-old GoMotors gelding.”
The billionaire turned his head only slightly and barked Japanese syllables at Sato. Without straightening and with the slightest of smiles, the security chief shot back an even deeper and faster cascade of guttural Japanese to his boss. Nakamura nodded, evidently satisfied.
“Is your… ah… gelding a reliable vehicle, Mr. Bottom?”
Nick shook his head.
“The lithium-ion batteries are ancient, Mr. Nakamura, and with the way Bolivia feels about us these days, it doesn’t look like they’re going to be replaced any time soon. So, after a good twelve-hour charge, the piece of shi… the car… can go about forty miles at thirty-eight miles per hour or thirty-eight miles at forty miles per hour. We’ll both just have to hope that there won’t be any Bullitt-style high-speed chases in this investigation.”
Mr. Nakamura showed no hint of a smile. Or of recognition. Didn’t they watch great old movies in Hiroshima?
“We can supply you with a vehicle from the delegation for the duration of your investigation, Mr. Bottom. Perhaps a Lexus or Infiniti sedan.”
This time Nick couldn’t stop himself from laughing. “One of your hydrogen skateboards? No, sir. That won’t work. First of all, it’d just be stripped down to its carbon-fiber shell in any of the places I’ll be parking in Denver. Secondly—as your director of security can explain to you—I need a car that blends in just in case I have to tail someone during the investigation. Low profile, we private investigators call it.”
Mr. Nakamura made a deep, rumbling sound in his throat as if he were preparing to spit. Nick had heard this noise from Japanese men before when he’d been a cop. It seemed to express surprise and perhaps a little displeasure, although he’d heard it from the Nipponese men even when they were seeing something beautiful, like a garden view, for the first time. It was, Nick thought, probably as untranslatable as so many other things lost between this century’s newly eager Nipponese and infinitely weary Americans.
“Very well, then, Mr. Bottom,” Nakamura said at last. “Should we choose you for this investigation, you will need a vehicle with a greater range when the investigation takes you to Santa Fe, Nuevo Mexico. But we can discuss the details later.”
Santa Fe, thought Nick. Aww, God damn it. Not Santa Fe. Anywhere but Santa Fe. Just the name of the town made the deep scar tissue across and inside his belly muscles hurt. But he also heard another voice in his head, a movie voice, one of hundreds that lived there—Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.
“All right,” Nick said aloud. “We’ll discuss the car thing and a Santa Fe trip later. If you hire me.”
Nakamura was again looking at the single sheet of e-vellum in his hand.
“And you’re currently living in a former Baby Gap in the former Cherry Creek Mall, is that correct, Mr. Bottom?”
Jesus Christ, thought Nick Bottom. With his entire future probably depending upon the outcome of this interview, and with ten thousand questions Mr. Nakamura could have asked him that he could have answered while retaining at least a shred of the few tatters that still remained of his dignity, it had to be You’re currently living in a former Baby Gap in the former Cherry Creek Mall?
Yes, sir, Mr. Nakamura, sir, Nick was tempted to say, currently living in one-sixth of a former Baby Gap in the former Cherry Creek Mall in a shitty section of a shitty city in one forty-fourth of the former United States of America, that’s me, the former Nick Bottom. While you live up here with the other Japs on top of the mountain, surrounded by three rings of security that fucking Osama bin Laden’s fucking ghost couldn’t get through.
Nick said, “The Cherry Creek Mall Condos it’s called now. I guess the space my cubie’s part of used to be a Baby Gap.”
Of the three men, two were expensively dressed in the thin-lapelled, sleek-trousered, black-suited, crisp-white-shirted, white-pocket-squared, skinny-black-tied 1960s JFK look retrieved from more than seventy-five years earlier. Even Mr. Nakamura, in his late sixties, wouldn’t have been able to remember that historical era, so why, Nick wondered, had the style gurus in Japan brought this style back for the tenth time? The dead-Kennedys style looked good on slim, elegant Mr. Nakamura, and Sato was dressed almost as beautifully as his boss, although his black suit probably cost a thousand or two new bucks less than Nakamura’s. But the security chief’s suit would have required more tailoring. Nakamura was lean and fit despite his years, while Sato was built like the proverbial brick shithouse, if that phrase even applied to men. And if the Japanese had ever had brick shithouses.
Standing there, feeling the cool air of the breeze from the garden flowing across his curled-up bare big toe and realizing that he was by far the tallest man in the room but also the only one whose posture included his now-habitual slump, Nick wished that he’d at least pressed his shirt. He’d meant to but had never found the time the past week since the call for this interview came. So now he stood there in a wrinkled shirt under a wrinkled, twelve-year-old suit jacket—no matching trousers, just the least rumpled and least stained of his chinos—all of it probably producing a combined effect that made him look as if he’d slept not only in the clothes but on them. Nick had discovered only that morning in his cubie that he’d put on too much weight the last year or two to allow him to button these old trousers, or the suit jacket, or his shirt collar. He hoped that his too-wide-for-style belt might be hiding the opened trouser tops and the knot of his tie might be hiding the unbuttonable shirt collar, but the damned tie itself was three times wider than the ties on the two Japanese men. And it didn’t help Nick’s self-confidence when he considered that his tie, a gift from Dara, had probably cost one hundredth of what Nakamura had spent on his.
To hell with it. It was Nick’s only remaining tie.
Born in the next-to-last decade of the previous century, Nick Bottom was old enough to remember a tune from a child’s educational program that had been on TV then, and now the irritating singsong lyrics returned from childhood to rattle through his aching, flashback-hungry head—One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong…
To hell with it, thought Nick again and for a panicked second he was afraid he’d spoken aloud. It was becoming harder and harder for him to focus on anything in this miserable, increasingly unreal non-flashback world.
And then, because Mr. Nakamura seemed very comfortable with the stretching silence and Sato actively amused by it while Nick Bottom wasn’t at all comfortable with it, he added, “Of course, it’s been quite a few years since the Cherry Creek Mall was a mall or there were any stores there. BIAHTF.”
Nick pronounced the old acronym “buy-ought-if” the way everyone did and always had, but Nakamura’s expression remained blank or passively challenging or politely curious or perhaps a combination of all three. One thing was certain to Nick: the Nipponese executive wasn’t going to make any part of this interview easy.
Sato, who would have spent time on the street here in the States, didn’t bother to translate it to his boss.
“Before It All Hit The Fan,” Nick explained. He didn’t add that the more commonly used “die-ought-if” stood for “Day It All Hit The Fan.” He was certain that Nakamura knew both expressions. The man had been in Colorado as a federally appointed four-state Advisor for five months now. And he had undoubtedly heard all the American colloquialisms, even if only from his murdered son, years before.
“Ah,” said Mr. Nakamura and again looked down at the sheet of e-vellum in his hand. Images, videos, and columns of text flicked onto the single, paper-flexible page and scrolled or disappeared at the slightest shift of Nakamura’s manicured fingertips. Nick noticed that the older man’s fingers were blunt and strong, a workingman’s hands—although he doubted if Mr. Nakamura had ever used them for any physical labor that wasn’t part of some recreation he’d chosen. Yachting perhaps. Or polo. Or mountain climbing. All three of which had been mentioned in Hiroshi Nakamura’s gowiki-bio.
“And how long were you a member of the Denver Police Department, Mr. Bottom?” continued Mr. Nakamura. It seemed to Nick that the damned interview was running in reverse.
“I was a detective for nine years,” said Nick. “I was on the force for a total of seventeen years.” He was tempted to list some of his citations, but resisted. Nakamura had it all on his vellum database.
“A detective in both the Major Crimes Unit and then the Robbery-Homicide division?” read Nakamura, adding the question mark only out of politeness.
“Yes,” said Nick while thinking Let’s get to it, God damn it.
“And you were dismissed from the detectives’ bureau five years ago for reasons of…?” Nakamura had quit reading as if the reasons weren’t right there on the page and already well known to the billionaire. The question mark this time came only from Nakamura’s politely raised left eyebrow.
Asshole, thought Nick, secretly relieved that they’d finally reached the hard part of the interview. “My wife was killed in an automobile accident five years ago,” said Nick with no emotion, knowing that Nakamura and his security chief knew more about his life than he did. “I had some trouble… coping.”
Nakamura waited but it was Nick’s turn not to make this part of the interview easy. You know why you’re going to hire me for this job, jerkwad. Let’s get to it. Yes or no.
Finally Mr. Nakamura said softly, “So your dismissal from the Denver Police Department, after a nine-month probationary period, was for flashback abuse.”
“Yes.” Nick realized that he was smiling at the two men for the first time.
“And this addiction, Mr. Bottom, was also the reason for the failure of your personal private-detective agency two years after you were… ah… after you left the police force?”
“No,” lied Nick. “Not really. It’s just a hard time for any small business. The country’s in its twenty-third year of our Jobless Recovery, you know.”
The old joke didn’t seem to register on either of the Japanese men. Sato’s easy, leaning stance somehow reminded Nick of Jack Palance as the gunfighter in Shane, despite the total difference in the two men’s body form. Eyes never blinking. Waiting. Watching. Hoping that Nick will make his move so Sato–Palance can gun him down. As if Nick might still be armed after the multiple levels of security around this compound, after having his car CMRI’d and left half a mile down the hill, after having the 9mm Glock that he’d brought along—it would have seemed absurd, even to Sato, for him to have been traveling through the city without some weapon—confiscated.
Sato watched with the deadly, totally focused anticipation of a professional bodyguard. Or Jack Palance–in-Shane killer.
Instead of pursuing the flashback question, Mr. Nakamura suddenly said, “Bottom. This is an unusual last name in America, yes?”
“Yes, sir,” said Nick, getting used to the almost random jump of questions. “The funny part is that the original family name was English, Badham, but some guy behind a desk at Ellis Island misheard it. Just like the scene where mute little Michael Corleone gets renamed in Godfather Two.”
Mr. Nakamura, more and more obviously not an old-movie fan, just gave Nick that perfectly blank and inscrutable Japanese stare again.
Nick sighed audibly. He was getting tired of trying to make conversation. He said flatly, “Bottom’s an unusual name, but it’s been our name the hundred and fifty years or so my family’s been in the States.” Even if my son won’t use it, he thought.
As if reading Nick’s mind, Nakamura said, “Your wife is deceased but I understand you have a sixteen-year-old son, named…” The billionaire hesitated, lowering his gaze to the vellum again so that Nick could see the perfection of the razor-cut salt- and-pepper hair. “Val. Is Val short for something, Mr. Bottom?”
“No,” said Nick. “It’s just Val. There was an old actor whom my wife and I liked and… anyway, it’s just Val. I sent him away to L.A. a few years ago to live with his grandfather—my father-in-law—a retired UCLA professor. Better educational opportunities out there. But Val’s fifteen years old, Mr. Nakamura, not…”
Nick stopped. Val’s birthday had been on September 2, eight days ago. He’d forgotten it. Nakamura was right; his son was sixteen now. God damn it. He cleared his suddenly constricted throat and continued, “Anyway, yes, correct, I have one child. A son named Val. He lives with his maternal grandfather in Los Angeles.”
“And you are still a flashback addict, Mr. Bottom,” said Hiroshi Nakamura. This time there was no question mark, either in the billionaire’s flat voice or expression.
Here it is.
“No, Mr. Nakamura, I am not,” Nick said firmly. “I was. The department had every right to fire me. In the year after Dara was killed, I was a total mess. And, yes, I was still using too much of the drug when my investigations agency went under a year or so after I left the… after I was fired from the force.”
Sato lounged. Mr. Nakamura’s posture was still rigid and his face remained expressionless as he waited for more.
“But I’ve beaten the serious addiction part,” continued Nick. He raised his hands and spread his fingers. He was determined not to beg (he still had his ace in the hole, the reason they had to hire him) but for some stupid reason it was important to him that they trust him. “Look, Mr. Nakamura, you must know that it’s estimated that about eighty-five percent of Americans use flashback these days, but not all of us are addicts the way I was… briefly. A lot of us use the stuff occasionally… recreationally… socially… the way people drink wine here or sake in Japan.”
“Are you seriously suggesting, Mr. Bottom, that flashback can be used socially?”
Nick took a breath. The Japanese government had brought back the death penalty for anyone dealing, using, or even possessing flash, for God’s sake. They feared it the way the Muslims did. Except that in the New Global Caliphate, conviction of using or possessing flashback by sharia tribunals meant immediate beheading broadcast around the world on one of the twenty-four-hour Al Jazeera channels that televised only such stonings, beheadings, and other Islamic punishments. The channel was busy—and watched—day and night throughout the Caliphate in what was left of the Mideast, Europe, and in American cities with clusters of hajji Caliphate fans. Nick knew that a lot of non-Muslims in Denver watched it for the fun of it. Nick watched on especially bad nights.
“No,” Nick said at last. “I’m not saying it’s a social drug. I just mean that, used in moderation, flashback isn’t more harmful than… say… television.”
Nakamura’s gray eyes continued to bore.
“So, Mr. Bottom, you are not addicted to flashback the way you were in the years immediately following your wife’s tragic death? And if you were hired by me to investigate my son’s death, you would not be distracted from the investigation by the need to use the drug recreationally?”
“That’s correct, Mr. Nakamura.”
“Have you used the drug recently, Mr. Bottom?”
Nick hesitated only a second. “No. Absolutely not. I’ve had no urge or need to.”
Sato reached into his inside suit pocket and removed a cell phone that was a featureless chip of polished ebony smaller than Nick’s National Identity and Credit Card. Sato set the phone on the polished surface of the top step of the tansu.
Instantly, five of the dark-wood surfaces in the austere room became display screens. In ultimate HD, but not full 3D, the view was clearer than looking out perfectly transparent windows.
Nick and the two Japanese men were looking at multiple hidden-camera views of a furtive flashback addict sitting in his car on a side street not four miles from here, the images recorded less than forty-five minutes ago.
Oh, God damn it, thought Nick.
The multiple videos began to roll.
Japanese Green Zone Above Denver—Friday, Sept. 10
NICK’S FIRST RESPONSE was professional, a product of his years on Vice and Major Crimes stakeouts—This took five cameras, at least two of them in stealth-daylight MUAVs. Two with very long, stabilized lenses. One handheld impossibly close.
It was him, on the screens, of course. Him in his clapped-out gelding, windows down because the day was already hot in the September morning sun, the vehicle parked under an overhanging tree in a cul-de-sac in an abandoned development of new multimillion-dollar homes less than four miles down the hill from the Japanese Green Zone and about a mile off the Evergreen–Genesis exit from I-70. Nick had taken triple precautions to be sure he hadn’t been followed—although why would his prospective employer follow him before the hiring interview? No matter. He liked being paranoid. It had served him well during his years on the force. He’d even gotten out of the gelding and scanned the sky and overgrown shrubs and weeds growing out of the abandoned structures with his old IR, motion-sensor, and stealth-seeking binoculars. Nothing.
Now Nick watched himself settle back in the driver’s seat and remove from his rumpled suit coat pocket the only vial of flashback he’d brought along that morning.
He and the two Japanese men continued watching as the Nick on the screens closed his eyes, squeezed the vial and inhaled deeply, tossed the vial out the driver’s-side window, and settled back farther into the headrest, his eyes rolling up within seconds as they always did with flashers, his mouth open a bit—just as it was open now.
Since he’d come up the hill from Denver early and still had almost thirty minutes to kill before reaching the Colorado State Police roadblocks around the Green Zone—the first of three concentric circles of security he knew he’d be going through—it had been only a ten-minute vial. Ten measly bucks to relive ten easy fucks the street sources liked to say.
Seeing himself from five angles, three of them close up, was no different from watching the thousands of flashers nodding on street corners: Nick’s eyelids were lowered but not completely closed with just the bottom third of the rolled-up irises visible as they flicked back and forth in tune with the active REM. Nick’s body and face twitched on the five displays as emotions and reactions almost, not quite, found their way to the right muscles. The closest camera picked up the silver trail of drool from the left corner of the twitching, spastic mouth, zoomed in on the jaw working numbly as the flasher tried to talk while deep in the throes of his relived memory-experience. No words emerged fully formed, just the usual flasher’s idiot gabble-mumble. There was good audio pickup and Nick could now hear the soft rustle of the morning’s breeze in the cottonwood branches above his car. He’d been oblivious to it fifty minutes earlier.
“You’ve made your point,” he said after a couple of minutes to the two Japanese men, who seemed rapt in their attention to the five displays. “Are you going to make us watch all ten minutes of this crap?”
They were. Or, rather, Mr. Nakamura was. So the three men stood watching for the full ten minutes as Nick Bottom on the screens, as rumpled and sweaty as he was here in real life, drooled and twitched while the black dilated iris-dots on the hard-boiled eggs of his not-quite-lidded eyes flitted back and forth like two buzzing flies. Nick forced himself not to look down or away.
Why this is Hell. Nor am I out of it. It was one of the few non-movie quotes that he’d picked up from his English-major wife. Nick couldn’t have cited the precise source of the quote if his life depended on it, but he guessed it had something to do with Faustus and the Devil. Like her father, Dara had spoken and read German and several other languages besides English. And both father and daughter had seemed to know all the plays and novels and good movies in all those languages as well. Nick had a master’s degree in legal forensics—mildly unusual for a cop, even a homicide detective—but he’d always felt like an education impostor around Dara and her father.
He’d been flashing in the car on his honeymoon with Dara at the Hana Maui Hotel those eighteen years ago, and he was glad now that he hadn’t included any of their actual lovemaking in the quick flash—choosing instead to relive just their swimming in the infinity pool looking out on the Pacific where the moon was rising, to relive their rush to shower and dress quickly in their hale because they were late for their dinner reservation, and finally to reexperience their walking up to the dining lanai between sputtering torches and their talking to each other as the stars came out in the dark skies above them. The air had been scented with tropical flowers and the clean salt-smell from the sea. Nick had avoided flashing on the sex because the last thing he needed in this interview was a moist semen stain on his trousers, but now he was simply glad that his video-recorded idiot’s face wouldn’t be showing the uncoordinated spastic echoes of his orgasms from eighteen years earlier.
The endless video finally closed with the Nick Bottom–on-screen coming up and out of his twitchy trance, shaking his head, running his hands through his hair, tugging his tie tighter, checking himself in the rearview mirror, starting the car with a scraping, dying-electric-motor hum, and driving off. The five cameras, even the aerial ones, did not follow. Four of the five displays in the room went back to being antique dark wood. The final display had zoomed to the time stamp and frozen.
Hiroshi Nakamura and Hideki Sato held their silence but shifted their gazes.
After an absurd minute of this, Nick said, “All right, so I’m still a flashback addict. I go under the flash all the time—at least six or eight hours a day, about the same amount of time Americans used to spend sucking on the glass tit of TV—so what? You’ll still hire me for this job, Mr. Nakamura. And you’ll pay for my flashback so that I can go back almost six years to reanimate your son’s murder investigation.”
Sato hadn’t removed his chip-phone from the top of the antique tansu, and now all five display surfaces lit up with different photographs of twenty-year-old Keigo Nakamura.
Nick hardly gave the images a glance. He’d seen plenty of pictures of Keigo both alive and dead during the investigation six years ago and hadn’t been impressed. The billionaire’s son had a weak chin, slanty brown eyes, stupid spiked hair, and that pouty, surly, sneaky look that Nick had seen on too many young Asians here in the States. Nick had learned to hate that expression on the faces of young rich-shit Japanese tourists on their slumming-in-America expeditions. The only photos of Keigo Nakamura that had interested him at all had been the crime-scene and autopsy photos showing a huge smile—but one created by the ragged knife slash across the boy’s neck that revealed the white glisten of cervical vertebrae. The unknown assailant had almost severed Keigo’s head from his body when he’d cut the young heir’s throat.
“If you’re going to hire me, it’s precisely because of flashback,” Nick said softly. “Why don’t we quit fucking around and either get to it or call it a day? I have things to do today, other people to see.”
That last sentence was the biggest lie Nick had told.
Nakamura’s and Sato’s faces remained totally impassive, seemingly uninterested, as if Nick Bottom had already left the room.
Nakamura shook his head. Nick saw the man’s age now in the subtle but growing pouches under the eyes, the lines of wrinkles flowing back from the corners of the eyes. “You are mistaken to think that you are indispensable, Mr. Bottom. We have hard copies of all the police reports both before and after the cyberattack, both before and after you were removed from my son’s case. Mr. Sato has a complete dossier of everything the Denver Police Department had.”
Nick laughed. For the first time he saw anger in the aging billionaire Advisor’s eyes. He was glad to see it.
“You know better than that, Mr. Nakamura,” he said. “That ‘everything’ the department shared with you, both before and after I was heading up the investigation, constituted less than ten percent of what we kept in digital form. Paper’s too fucking expensive to print out tons of redundant crap, even for pushy Japanese billionaires with pull from the White House. Sato never even saw the Murder Book… did you, Hideki-san?”
The security chief’s expression did not change at the taunt and familiarity, but his already cold eyes turned to black ice. There was no hint of amusement there now.
“So you need me if there’s going to be a new investigation,” said Nick. “For the last time, I suggest we cut the bullshit and get on with it. How much will you pay me for this job?”
Nakamura stared in silence for another moment and then said softly, “If you succeed in finding my son’s killers, Mr. Bottom, I am prepared to pay you fifteen thousand dollars. Plus expenses.”
“Fifteen thousand new bucks or old dollars?” asked Nick in only slightly choked tones.
“Old dollars,” said Nakamura. “And expenses.”
Nick folded his arms as if he were thinking, but the movement was actually an attempt to catch his balance. He suddenly felt faint.
Fifteen thousand old dollars was the equivalent of a little more than twenty-two million new bucks.
Nick had about $160,000 in new bucks in his NICC balance now and owed several million to his former friends and to bookies and flashback dealers and various loan sharks.
$60,000,000 bucks. Mother of Christ. Nick planted his feet wider so he wouldn’t sway.
Still playing out his noir tough-guy string, he managed to put some energy in his voice. “All right, I want the fifteen thousand old dollars transferred to my card at once. No strings attached…‘no strings’ means no restrictions or tricks or evasions, Mr. Nakamura. Hire me and transfer the money. Now. Or call your golf cart guy to take me back to my car.”
This time it was the billionaire’s turn to laugh.
“Do you think us fools, Mr. Bottom? If we transferred the full payment to you now, you would flee at your first opportunity and spend it all on buying flashback for your own purposes.”
Of course I would, thought Nick. I’ll be alive again. And rich enough to spend the rest of Dara’s and my life together—several times over.
Still dizzy, Nick said, “What do you suggest, then? Half now? Half when I catch the guy?” Seventy-five hundred old dollars was enough to keep him under the flash for years.
Nakamura said, “I will transfer a suitable amount for expenses to your NIC Card and increase it as is needed. These are expenses, mind you. In new dollars. The fifteen thousand old dollars will be transferred to your private account only after my son’s killer is identified and the information has been verified by Mr. Sato.”
“After you’ve killed the guy I finger, you mean,” said Nick.
Mr. Nakamura ignored this. After a moment he said, “Our holistic contract has been transferred to your phone, Mr. Bottom. You can study it at your leisure. Your virtual signature will activate the contract and Mr. Sato will then transfer the money for initial expenses to your NICC. In the meantime, will you be so kind as to give Mr. Sato a ride back to Denver?”
“Why the hell should I do that?” said Nick.
“You will not see me again until this investigation is finished, Mr. Bottom, but you will be seeing much of Mr. Sato. He will be my full-time liaison with you for this investigation. Today I wish him to experience your vehicle and see your residence.”
“Experience my vehicle?” laughed Nick. “See my residence? What on earth for?”
“Mr. Sato has never seen a Baby Gap store,” said Hiroshi Nakamura. “It would amuse him to do so. This concludes our business, Mr. Bottom. Good day.”
The billionaire bowed almost infinitesimally, the bow all but invisible in its shallow curtness.
Nick Bottom did not bow. He turned on his heel and walked back toward the genkan entranceway and shoe-storage area, feeling the soft tatami under his exposed big toe every step of the way.
Hideki Sato followed close behind him without making any noise at all.
Los Angeles—Friday, Sept. 10
VAL RECLINED in a V where rusted steel met pigeon-shit-stained concrete under a crumbling overpass high over an abandoned stretch of the 101 not far from what was left of Union Station. Val loved this place not only for its relative coolness, as in lower temperature here in the shade, but also for its coolness. He liked to think that the steel-trussed and concrete ledges such as the one he and the guys were resting on now were the buttresses of some abandoned Gothic cathedral and he was the hunchback up here with the gargoyles. Charles Laughton, maybe. Val’s love of old movies was, he thought, probably the only thing he’d gotten from his old man before the bastard abandoned him.
The other guys in his little flashgang were coming out of flash now, their twitches and droolings changing to yawns, stretches, and shouts.
“All right!” screamed Coyne. He was as close to a leader as this raggedy-ass band of mewly white kids had ever managed.
“Fuckin’ A all right!” echoed Gene D. The tall, acned boy was absentmindedly rubbing his crotch as he came fully up and out from under, evidently trying to finish after the flash what he’d failed to achieve during the actual rape.
“Do her again, Ben!” cried Sully. His tats not only ran up and down the more muscled sixteen-year-old’s arms but turned his face into a Maori war mask.
Monk, Toohey, the Cruncher, and Dinjin twitched up and out of their repeated thirty-minute flashes and remained silent except for their yawns, belches, and farts. These four were all a year or two younger than Val and the other three older boys (but the Cruncher—Calvin—was by far the tallest and heaviest and stupidest of the eight). None of their attempts at sex had lasted even a minute before their premature whateveryoucallems, so Val wondered—What have these morons been flashing on for the other twenty-nine minutes? The stripping-her-naked part? The running-away part? Or did they just flash on their Magic Moment thirty times in a row, like a disc with a stuck Blu-ray beam?
The group had been flashing and reflashing on the rape of a spanic virgin girl a little more than an hour earlier. The plan—Coyne’s plan, mostly—had been to snatch one of the cute little fourth-grade spanic girls on her way to school and gang-bust her cherry. “One of those sweet little virgins with just an ant trail of hair above her gash,” as Coyne had so artfully put it. “Something we can flash on and get off on for weeks.”
But they hadn’t nabbed a sweet little fourth-grader. All those sweet little spanic girls were being driven to school by armed dads and older brothers, rumbling down the surface streets in their hybrid low-riders with the virgins peering out through the gunslit windows of the backseats. In the end, they’d just grabbed Hand Job Maria, the retarded ninth-grader who went to their own high school. HJM might have technically been a virgin—there had been some blood when Coyne had gone first—but the sight of her naked, the rolls of fat hanging down over her cheap underpants, her pasty white lump of a face with the vacant eyes staring up, her tits large but already old-looking, stretchmarked, and drooping—had excited Val in a sick-making way, but had also made him say he’d be lookout during the actual rape.
He’d flashed when the others did here under the high overpass, but only a ten-minute return to his fourth-birthday party back in Denver. Val tended to go back to that party the way he’d read about schizophrenics repeatedly burning their arms with cigarettes in order to remind themselves they were still alive.
The seven reanimated boys lit cigarettes and sprawled out on the exposed girders. They liked the girders, but no one wanted to lie on the narrow bands of steel sixty feet above the empty highway while twitching under flash. All of them wore holed jeans, black combat boots, and faded interactive T-shirts of the sort that almost all middle-class high school kids wore to their classes: images front and back of chillsweet dudes like Che and Fidel, Hitler and Himmler, Mao Somebody and Charles Manson, Mohammed al Aruf and Osama bin Laden—all of whom they knew almost nothing about. Coyne had interactive and voice-responsive faded images—which could go holo and respond in real dialogue when spoken to—of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris on the front and back of his T-shirt. Val and the others really didn’t know anything about Klebold and Harris, either, other than they were chillsweet killers about the age of the guys in this pathetic little flashgang who’d tried to off their entire school back when that was a new idea sometime in the last century when dinosaurs and Republicans still walked the earth.
Val, like the other guys lounging and smoking here high above the highway, had often thought about and talked of killing everyone in his school. The problem, of course, was that schools weren’t soft targets anymore. Klebold and Harris had had it easy (and word was that they’d screwed the pooch even so, their propane-tank bombs not even going off). Today the halls of Val’s high school near the Dodger Stadium Detention Center had almost as many armed guards as students in the halls, the local militias protected the kids stupid enough still to be going to and from school, and even the damned teachers were required to pack heat and take regular target practice at the LAPD’s firing range in the old Coca-Cola bottling plant off Central Ave.
Coyne stood up, unzipped, and took a leak out into space, the arc of urine falling six stories to the weed-spotted highway pavement far below. This started an epidemic of pissing. Monk, Toohey, the Cruncher, and Dinjin were the first to follow their leader, then Sully and Gene D. and finally Val. He didn’t have to piss, but long flashback sessions often created that urge and he didn’t want the other guys to know that he’d gone under for only a few minutes while they’d all been reflashing on their rape fun for an hour or more. Val unzipped and joined the piss brigade.
“Hey, stop!” Coyne shouted before the younger boys and Val were finished.
A roar echoed down the concrete canyon of the 101. It was hard to stop urinating once you started, but Val managed. Suddenly a dozen or so Harleys roared under them, the exposed tats and muscles of their male riders visible outside the black leather, the long black or gray hair streaming behind them.
“They’re burning real fucking gasoline!” screamed Gene D.
The riders passed under them without looking up, despite the fact that the boys were plainly visible with their little peckers hanging out over the void. The roaring Harleys were doing about eighty miles per hour.
“Shit, I wish we were down the road a mile or so,” breathed Sully.
They all knew what he meant. A little less than a mile ahead, with no exits in between, a twelve-foot chunk of the 101 had fallen away during the Big One, creating a twelve-foot gap dropping down sixty feet or so to darkness and concrete blocks studded with rebar stakes and twisted, rusted metal of old wrecks and, the boys had heard, scores of skeletons of other bikers. Some Harley-borne chillsweet had wedged a wide slab of concrete as a sort of ramp years ago and these bikers would have to hit that ramp at high speed, no more than three abreast, to jump that gap and go on their way to the first opening in the exit barricades out where the 101 met what was left of the Pasadena Freeway. Val had seen the stretch on both sides of this break in the raised highway and there were streaks of dried blood and torn rubber and sculpted rubble piles of chrome and steel on the west side of that ramp-jump gap. But the 101 curved just a little north here beyond Alameda and they couldn’t see the jump point from this overpass.
The boys avidly watched the bikes recede, the Harleys already narrowing their formation and jostling for position, the huge, hairy leader with his red tats injected with real blood leading and accelerating away around the curve, and as the roar of power and fuck-you-death defiance grew and echoed around them, Val felt himself grow physically excited in a way he hadn’t when the others had been banging poor Hand Job Maria.
Coyne caught his eye and smiled a bit, cigarette dangling from his thin lower lip, and Val knew that the older boy was also getting a hard-on. At times like this Val felt a little gay.
He spat loudly over the edge to hide his blush and embarrassment and zipped up, turning his back on the others. The roar of Harley engines grew, peaked, and diminished to the west.
Coyne reached under his T-shirt in back and pulled something from the waistband of his jeans.
“Holy shit!” shouted little Dinjin. “A gun.”
It was indeed. All seven boys gathered around Coyne where he squatted at the edge of the pigeon-splattered ledge.
“M-nine Beretta nine millimeter,” whispered Coyne to the huddled circle of heads above him. “Safety’s here…” He pushed a little lever backward and forward. Val guessed that the red dot meant “safety off.”
“Magazine release is here…” Coyne pushed a little button on the stock behind the trigger guard. The clip or magazine or whatever the hell it should be called slid out and Coyne caught it in his free hand. “Holds fifteen rounds. Can fire one in the chamber with the magazine out.”
“Can I hold it? Can I? Can I?” breathed Sully. “Please. I’ll just, you know, whatchamacallit, dry-fire it.”
“Is that like dry-humping a girl?” asked Monk.
“Shaddup,” said Val, Coyne, Sully, and Gene D. together. They didn’t like it when a junior member spoke out of turn.
Coyne held the magazineless semiauto up and pointed the muzzle at Sully. “I’ll give it to you if you know how to handle it. Can it shoot now?”
“Naww,” laughed Sully. “The clip’s…”
“Magazine,” said Coyne.
“Right, yeah. The magazine’s out. I can see the bullets packed in the… magazine. Gun’s safe.”
Val could see the bullets, too, or at least the top one in the magazine: brass-wrapped, lead-nosed, notched at the top as if cut with a penknife. It made him feel weird, stirred him the same way the roar of the Harley-Davidson motorcycles had.
“You’re a moron,” Coyne said to Sully. “Coulda killed yourself or me or any of these other rat-twats panting here.” Coyne racked the slide back on the old gun and a bullet that had been in the chamber arced up and out. The leader caught that round, slug, cartridge, bullet—whatever you should call it—in his free hand.
“There was one in the pipe,” Coyne said softly. “You would have blown your own dick off. Or killed one of us.”
Sully grinned and blinked rapidly, admonished but obviously still so eager to hold the weapon that he forgot to act pissed at being rebuked.
The fuckhead probably would have shot one of us, thought Val.
Coyne moved the butterfly safety so the red dot was covered up, pulled the trigger so that the slide slammed forward again, and handed the semiautomatic pistol to Sully, his oldest friend and first disciple. The other guys crowded closer to Sully as Coyne and Val stepped back three paces.
Val had turned to look out at the city.
To his southeast was downtown with what was left of its towers, including the stump of the U.S. Bank Tower—what old farts like his grandfather still called the Library Tower—and the vertical rubble of the Aon Center. Most of the other remaining towers were largely abandoned and wearing their black antiterrorist condoms.
But Val wasn’t looking at old buildings.
He saw Los Angeles, as everyone did now, as sections of owned and protected turf, almost as if the different areas he could see were pulsing in different colors. To his south and east was spanic turf, mostly reconquista. Straight south across the empty canyons of downtown were strongholds of nigger and chink turf with even more reconquista areas surrounding them. Behind Val, to the north, were serious chink, dink, and slope neighborhoods but all slowly giving way to the reconquista expansion, while farther west and north, especially up in the hills, the anglos had turned Mulholland Drive into a private road and protected the high ground not only with gates but with militia and electric fences. The Jap Green Zone was way west off the 405, up in the hills where the Getty Center museum used to be and surrounded by moats, electrified fences, security patrols, and MUAV kill zones. There were a hundred other less important—but rabidly defended—turfs in L.A. these days, and every goddamned one of them, Val knew, had its own checkpoints, roadblocks, and killing zones.
The rich-shit areas of Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Pacific Palisades, and parts of Santa Monica were where the real nighttime fun was these days, but Val’s grandfather didn’t have a car Val could steal, so he didn’t try to go there. The gang wouldn’t get into those gated and security-guarded richshit communities anyway. Coyne’s pathetic little flashgang was on foot, so the Pacific Ocean was as unreachable as the moon.
“Want to hold it?” Coyne asked Val.
Coyne had been going around the circle holding out the Beretta semiautomatic like a priest offering the Communion wafer and now it was Val’s turn.
Val took the pistol. He was surprised at how heavy it felt—even with the magazine out and still in Coyne’s hand—and the crosshatched butt or handle or whatever you called it felt cool in Val’s sweaty hand. Acting as if he knew what the fuck he was doing, Val racked the slide back and looked into the empty chamber.
“Sweet, isn’t it?” asked Coyne. The other six boys hovered behind Coyne like the eager acolytes they were.
“Yeah, sweet,” said Val and aimed the pistol at the distant stub of the U.S. Bank Tower. “Bang,” he said softly.
Coyne laughed so the other six behind him giggled like idiots.
Val was thinking of who he might shoot if Coyne gave him the gun and the loaded magazine. His grandfather, of course, but what the fuck had Leonard ever done to Val other than hover over him like some surrogate parent? One of his teachers, maybe, on the way to or from school, but the only one he hated was Ms. Daggis, the English teacher in ninth grade who’d made him read his fucking essay in front of the whole class. That had been the last time Val had written anything worth a damn in school. He liked to write stuff and he’d simply forgotten himself that one time.
If he had this gun, Val realized, he could find a way back to Denver and shoot his old man in the belly. He couldn’t fly there, Val knew. Shit, they stripped passengers stark naked these days, MRI’d them right there at the airport, and had fifty sensor-thingees sniff their orifices to make sure they hadn’t packed Semtex up their wazoos. Plus, only the Japs and richest Americans—like Coyne’s old lady—could travel by air.
No, he’d have to hitchhike, somehow get through a thousand miles or more of bandit country, staying away from the militia and fed-controlled Interstates, avoiding the walled city of Las Vegas, take those surface-street highways that the gypsy truckers knew about, and show up in Denver after his six years of exile and find his old man and…
Val realized that Coyne’s hand was open and extended. He wanted the pistol back.
Val handed it to him and the leader slapped in the magazine with a practiced movement and then ratcheted the slide back and let it slap back into place. Theoretically there was a bullet in the spout now and thirteen—or was it fourteen?—more waiting in the magazine.
“This is the tool,” said Coyne.
“This is the tool, fool,” echoed Sully. The six others giggled. Val waited.
“This is the tool,” repeated Coyne. “What we got to do now is make the real deal happen.”
“The real deal,” echoed Sully.
“Shut up, shithead,” said Coyne.
“Shut up, shithead,” said Sully and shut up with a goofy grin.
“We waste some people with this,” said Coyne, turning his gray-eyed gaze on each of them in turn, “and we can flash on it for years. And it’s got to be someone special.”
“Mr. Amherst?” said Gene D. Amherst was the principal of their high school.
“Fuck Mr. Amherst,” said Coyne. The six boys—everyone but Val, who was still thinking about wasting his old man—were so attentive that their mouths were hanging open. “For full flash value, we got to waste someone important. Someone no one expects to get offed. Someone who’ll get our faces and names on all the twenty-four-seven news feeds, even while they can’t catch us.”
“A movie star?” breathed Gene D. The boy with the serious acne was getting into it.
Coyne shook his head.
“There’s nothing in the ’verse like flashing after wasting somebody,” said the older boy. Coyne was only a month away from his seventeenth birthday and mandatory induction into the army. Val faced the same abyss eleven months from now.
“But it’s gotta be somebody special,” said Coyne. He looked from face to face. Now even Val was interested.
“Who?” said the Cruncher.
“A Jap,” said Coyne.
The other boys exploded into laughter.
“Zap a Jap!” cried Sully. “Clip a Nip!”
Val shook his head. “Their security’s too good. Their fucking cars are armored. They’ve got ninja bodyguards and Secret Service guys and MUAVs up the ass. And their Green Zone is… I mean we couldn’t… you can’t get to them, Coyne.”
“I can,” said Coyne. “There are fourteen rounds in this Beretta. I can get my hands on three more semiautos just like it and I can get us close enough to a real live Jap Advisor that even Dinjin couldn’t miss. The flashback on it will be gold. Who’s with me?”
Six of the seven other boys exploded in noise and high-fives and loud affirmation. Val just continued looking at Coyne’s gray and slightly mad eyes for a long minute.
Then Val nodded slowly.
The junior flashgang moved off the overpass ledge and into the overgrown trees and weeds toward the wilderness of the Old Plaza and El Pueblo de Los Angeles Park with its graffiti-desecrated church. There were flash and gun dealers waiting there.
Denver—Friday, Sept. 10
SATO COULDN’T FIT in the car seat or get the damned seat belt harness on.
Nick had done the entire three-tier security thing in reverse with Sato in tow: Mr. Nakamura’s personal security ninjas or whatever they were handing him off to the Nipponese Compound security people, the Japanese turning him over to the Colorado state troopers and the DS agents—the State Department’s Office of Diplomatic Security charged with protecting foreign diplomats—who gave Nick back his Glock 9 in its clip-on holster. And then Nick got in the gelding and was ready to leave, except for the fact that Sato wouldn’t fit.
“Sorry, power seat, but hasn’t worked for a while,” mumbled Nick as Sato’s mass filled all the space between the seat back and the dashboard. “Been meaning to fix that stuck harness as well.” The seat belt harness extended about twenty inches, which barely reached Sato’s shoulder, and would not extend farther.
“Do you have airbag?” asked the security chief.
“Ahh…,” said Nick and then remembered that the car had been CMRI’d on its way in. Sato must know that all the ancient hybrid’s airbags were missing. Nick had sold them years ago.
Sato fiddled with the unmoving power seat controls for a minute and then, just as Nick got out to come around to add his own useless fiddling, Sato planted his feet on the floorboards, gave out a sumo-wrestler’s grunt-growl, and straightened his legs.
The stalled power seat screeched back as far as it could go, the bearings almost tearing off their railings, until the back of the half-reclined seat was almost touching the rear seat.
Sato gave another weight lifter’s grunt and pulled down on the stuck shoulder harness with all his might.
Something in the mechanism tore and three yards of seat belt hung loose. Still half reclined, two feet farther back than the driver, Sato clicked the harness into the buckle.
Nick came back around and drove off. He would have rolled up the windows to shut out the DS agents’ laughter, but it was already far too hot in the little car and the air-conditioning wasn’t working with the batteries this low.
The low batteries were a problem.
Nick had popped his phone back in the dashboard slot and its nav function told him that the distance to the Cherry Creek Mall by the shortest route—reversing the way he’d come via Speer Boulevard, to 6, to I-70, and then the Evergreen exit to the Green Zone—was 29.81 miles. The DS guys had charged the gelding with their garage’s high-speed 240-volt charger, but the phone and car readouts both said that the old batteries only had enough charge to travel 24.35 miles, even factoring in the downhill stretch on I-70 dropping out of the foothills.
The last thing that Nick Bottom wanted on this particular Friday was to be stuck with Mr. Hideki Sato somewhere on Speer Boulevard—probably in reconquista territory south of downtown—five miles from their destination.
Fuck it, thought Nick, not for the first time that morning. No guts, no glory.
The gelding hummed, hissed, and rattled its way out of the Green Zone toward I-70.
Sato’s position, lying almost flat in the broken and fully reclined passenger seat and so far back that it seemed that Nick was a chauffeur up front and Sato the passenger in the rear seat, looked absurd, but the hefty security chief didn’t seem bothered by it. Sato folded his callused hands over his belly and looked up and out at the trees and sky.
Glancing at the sky, Nick said, “Mr. Sato, how did you get the video of me using the flashback on that cul-de-sac? Some of the shots looked to be from a handheld camera from about ten feet away.”
“They were,” said the security chief.
Nick tried to accelerate down the ramp onto the Interstate, but the gelding wasn’t in the mood to accelerate—even heading downhill. At least there wasn’t much traffic to merge into coming east on I-70. At one time, a time Nick could still remember clearly, a family could get on I-70 and drive 1,034 miles without ever leaving the Interstate except to pump gas—merging with I-15 about 500 miles from Denver in the Utah high desert and mountain country and staying on it the rest of the way to L.A.—ending up at the Pacific Ocean at the Santa Monica Pier.
Now an adventurous driver could get in his car and drive 98 miles west from Denver on I-70 to where state and federal protection ended at Vail. Beyond Vail, there be dragons.
“How did you get one of your people to within ten feet of my car with a camera?” asked Nick.
“Stealth suit,” said Sato. The short but absurdly solid man seemed totally relaxed.
Nick stopped himself from replying. Stealth suits were the stuff of agencies like the former CIA, long since disbanded, and of sci-fi action movies. How could the expense of a stealth suit possibly be justified just to follow Nicholas Bottom to an interview? Even if they’d badly wanted the footage to embarrass him as they did during the interview—why a stealth suit? And how’d they get the operative in the stealth suit so close to Nick’s car before Nick had zonked out under the flash—driving a stealth car? This was James Bond crap from the last century. Ridiculous.
Sato was almost certainly joking. But Nick, who still had a cop’s ability to pick up most of the subtle physical and auditory signals that someone was lying (with some inner-city types the signal was simple—the perp’s lips were moving), just couldn’t get any reading on Sato. Except for the security chief’s occasional and deliberate flashes of contempt, disdain, and amusement toward Nick, there was nothing. Beneath that Japanese layer of what Occidentals like Nick thought of as Asian inscrutability, Security Chief Sato wore another—probably professional—mask.
“The aerial video,” persisted Nick. “All MUAVs?”
“Not all miniature,” Sato said softly. “And one was a satellite feed.”
Nick laughed out loud. Sato didn’t join in the laugh or crack a smile.
Using full-size UAVs and tasking a recon satellite, even one of the Nakamura Group’s corporate sats, to watch me snort some flashback? He mentally laughed again at the thought.
Sato continued lying there like a tipped-over Buddha, his fingers interlaced over his broad but heavily muscled belly.
Nick braked lightly on the 6 percent I-70 grade down the mountain toward Denver, slowing the crawling car to an even more glacial pace, hoping against hope that the regenerative braking would add enough juice to the dying li-ion batteries to get him home. Even other old clunkers honked and roared past. The hydrogen vehicles in the far-left VIP lane were blurs.
He changed the subject in an attempt to keep Sato talking.
“How did you translate ‘gelding’ to your boss?”
“As a male horse whose testicles have been removed. This is correct, yes?”
“Yes,” said Nick. “But don’t you have geldings—old hybrids with the gasoline engines removed—in Japan?”
“Not legal in Japan,” said Sato. “Cars in Japan are inspected every year and must meet all modern standards. Few automobiles there are more than three years old. Hydrogen-powered vehicles are—how do you say it?—the norm in Japan.”
Still braking, watching his meters while trying to keep both his batteries and the conversation alive, Nick said, “Mr. Nakamura doesn’t seem to like old movies.”
Sato made that deep noise in his throat and chest. Nick had no idea how to interpret that. Different topic needed.
“You know,” said Nick, “this liaison idea isn’t going to work.”
“Riaison?” repeated Sato.
Nick didn’t smirk but he wondered if he’d brought up this conversation strand just to get Sato to mispronounce the word.
“The idea Mr. Nakamura brought up of you following me everywhere, reporting on everything I see and hear, being part of the investigation with me. It won’t work.”
“Why not, Mr. Bottom?”
“You know damn well why not,” snapped Nick. He was approaching the bottom of the hill, emerging onto the high, mostly flat prairie that stretched east past Denver some eight hundred miles or so to the Mississippi River, and he’d have to decide in a few minutes whether to continue a little north and then due east on I-70 to the Mousetrap and a short stretch of I-25 south to Speer Boulevard, with no stops, or angle right to go back on Highway 6 to Speer the way he’d come. The 6 route was a little shorter, I-70 perhaps a little easier on the dying batteries.
“My witnesses and suspects won’t talk with a Jap listening,” continued Nick. “Sorry, Japanese person. You know what I mean.”
Sato growled something that might mean assent.
Nick turned to look back and around and down at the security chief. “You weren’t one of Nakamura’s assistants or security people who dealt with the Denver PD six years ago when Keigo was murdered. I would have remembered you.”
Sato said nothing.
At the last second, Nick took the Highway 6 exit. Shorter was better. Or it had damned well better be.
All the charge meters were reading flashing amber or red but Nick knew that the gelding, like him, had a few more miles hidden in it somewhere.
“So why didn’t you come to the States with Mr. Nakamura when his son was killed?” demanded Nick. “It seems to me that as head of Nakamura’s security detail, you would have been front and center in asking questions of the cops here. But your name’s not even in the files.”
Again Sato remained silent. He seemed to be almost asleep, his eyelids almost—but not quite—closed.
Nick looked back at him again. He suddenly understood. “You were on Keigo’s security detail,” he said softly.
“I was Keigo Nakamura’s security detail,” said Sato. “His life was in my hands the entire time he was here making his film about Americans and flashback addiction.”
Nick rubbed his chin and cheek, feeling the stubble there from his hasty shave that morning. “Jesus.”
The gelding hummed and rattled along for a few minutes. The regenerative braking had helped some, even though it didn’t really show the added charge on the crappy gauges. Nick thought they might make it back to the Cherry Creek Mall Condos garage after all.
“Your name wasn’t in the files,” Nick said at last. “I’m certain of that even without checking under flashback. That means that you didn’t come forward. Nor did Nakamura ever mention it during the investigation. You had vital evidence about the murder of Keigo Nakamura, but you and your boss kept it secret from the Denver PD and all of us.”
“I do not know who murdered Keigo Nakamura,” Sato said in low tones. “We were… briefly separated. When I found him, he was dead. I had nothing to offer the police. There was little reason to remain in the United States.”
Nick barked a cop’s laugh. “The man who found the body flees the country… nothing to offer the police. Cute. I guess the main question is, how are you still working for Hiroshi Nakamura after his son was killed while under your protection?”
It was a brutal thing to say and for a minute Nick’s shoulder blades itched as he imagined the massive security chief firing his pistol through the back of Nick’s driver’s seat. Instead, there was only a slight intake of breath and Sato said, “Yes, that is an important question.”
Nick had another revelation. He blinked as if flashbulbs had gone off in front of him. “You already did an investigation—you and your security guys—didn’t you, Sato? What—five and a half years ago?”
“And even with all your technology and MUAVs and satellites and shit, you still couldn’t find out who killed your boss’s son.”
“No, we could not.”
“How long did your investigation run, Sato?”
“How many operatives on the job for those eighteen months?”
“Holy shit,” said Nick. “All that money and manpower. You couldn’t find Keigo’s murderer and you never told us—the Denver cops or the FBI—that you were carrying out your own investigation.”
“No,” confirmed Sato. His voice seemed to be coming from very far away.
“All that money and manpower and technology,” repeated Nick, “and you couldn’t find out who cut the boy’s throat. But your boss expects me to find the killer with nothing but shoe leather and some flashback.”
“What happens to you if this last try fails?” asked Nick. Somehow he knew the answer as soon as he asked the question, even if he couldn’t remember the correct word at that moment.
“I commit seppuku,” Sato said softly, neither his voice nor expression changing. “Just as I offered—but was denied permission to do—the first two times I failed my master. This time, permission has been granted ahead of time.”
“Jesus Christ,” whispered Nick.
His phone in the diskey slot buzzed a terrorist alert at the same instant he heard a distant THUMP through his open driver’s-side window and he saw a plume of black smoke to the north and east of them. Black Homeland Security helicopters were clearly visible, circling like carrion crows two miles or so north.
Nick verbally queried his phone but the phone had no data yet.
He looked in the rearview mirror and saw Sato touch his left ear. The earphone had been so tiny that Nick had missed it earlier.
“What is it?” asked Nick. “What’s going on?”
“A bombing. A car bomb, evidently. At the interchange of I-Seventy, I-Twenty-five, and Highway Thirty-six that you call the Mousetrap. Segments of two of the overpassing highways have collapsed. Several dozen vehicles are in the debris of the collapsed roadways. There seems to be no radiological, chemical, or bacteriological contamination detected.”
“Christ. I almost went that way. We’d be there now. Do they know who did it?”
Nick interpreted the shrug not as I don’t know nor as It’s not on the Net yet but as Does it matter?
And did it?
Hajji, AB, reconquista, flashgangs, anarchist syndicate, spanic militias, anglo militias, Black Muslims, Nuevo cartels, local cartels, Posse Comitatus, draft dodgers, aggrieved veterans, New Caliphate infiltrators… it didn’t matter, Nick realized. Knowing which terrorists had blown the Mousetrap to bits wouldn’t really help you avoid the next terrorist with a gun or IED or van full of fertilizer with a fuse.
But Nick was still irritated that Sato’s phone was picking up secure data faster than Nick’s not-quite-legal, grandfathered-in tap on the police tactical net.
He slowed at the Highway 6 overpass above I-25. Due north, beyond the huge black-oil-dipped wavy oval of the Mile High DHSDC, just west of the A-T-wrapped stubs of what was left of Denver’s high-rise buildings downtown, beyond the bulks of Six Flags Over the Jews and Coors Field, black smoke continued to rise. The Homeland Security choppers continued to buzz and flit and circle the smoke like vultures, while the lesser carrion birds of news choppers circled much farther out, not yet allowed close enough to bring the scene to waiting viewers.
Nick crossed I-25 and turned right onto Speer Boulevard.
“So if I fail in this investigation—a case you couldn’t solve five years ago in eighteen months of trying at a time when the witnesses’ memories and clues were fresh,” he said over his shoulder to Sato, “a case you couldn’t solve with twenty-seven operatives working for you, more tech than the FBI has, and Nakamura’s budget of billions of dollars behind you—you’re going to disembowel yourself?”
The security chief nodded and closed his eyes.
Cherry Creek—Friday, Sept. 10
THE GELDING ROLLED up the last ramp to the third and top floor of the Cherry Creek Mall Condos’ parking garage and died thirty feet short of the charging stations. Nick left it where it was, knowing that Mack or one of the boys would push it the rest of the way. The charging station in the Japanese Green Zone had taken fewer than forty minutes; here, with the mall’s old charging equipment, it would be twelve hours even for the partial charge. Nick didn’t care.
Sato had gotten through the two security checkpoints by handing over his NICC—the thin card was black rather than the usual diplomat’s or visiting alien’s green—and there’d been no problem. But Nick was looking forward to the last checkpoint at the armory check-room. If Sato thought his diplomatic status was going to allow him to carry a gun into the Cherry Creek Mall Condos interior, the security chief was in for a rude shock. The president of the United States couldn’t get a weapon into this complex if she hid it in her bra.
They were in the security airlock and Gunny G., the senior weapons expert and top security man for the mall, was behind the gun-check counter. Probably one of the guys at the security checkpoints had phoned him. An ex-marine, Gunny G. was of that indeterminate age beyond sixty but still fit and dangerous, and his square, tanned face under the crew cut seemed held together by old scars.
Nick handed over his Glock 9 and waited.
The former shopping mall didn’t have the Green Zone’s CMRI or layers of security, but the X-ray machine and ancient explosives-gunpowder sniffer in the entrance airlock had done their work. Nick could see the images of Sato and him glowing on Gunny’s screen to the left of the counter opening. Sato had some sort of oversized handgun in a shoulder holster in his left armpit, a small one in a belt holster around the curve of his left hip, a strap-on holster with a tiny semiautomatic on his right ankle, and a nasty-looking throwing knife on the belt above his right hip.
Before Gunny G. could growl his demands, Sato said, “Listen to this, please.” Risten. Prease.
The security chief passed across his NICC and when Gunny G. scanned it, he put his earbud and e-glasses on to access the encrypted information there. The former marine’s expression did not change, but when he handed Sato’s identity card back, he growled, “Go on in, Mr. Sato.” There was no attempt to disarm Sato.
Nick’s jaw actually dropped in surprise. He’d heard that expression for decades, but had never seen anyone’s jaw literally drop—much less experienced it himself.
The inner doors and gate opened and Sato stood to one side and made an “After you” gesture with his massive arm.
Nick led the way to his cubie. This section of town was obviously going through one of its daily brownouts and although generators kept the security doors, parking-area charging bays, security cameras, cubie doors, outside autoguns, and other essential equipment running, the lights were out above the second-floor mezzanine and the once-fancy skylight panels that ran the length of the ceiling were so caked with dust and grime that the light inside had paled to a sick, sad yellow. Most of the common-space ventilator fans were also out and since people propped their cubie doors open during the brownouts, the air was thick with the funk of several thousand people and their dirty bedding and cooking smells and cubie garbage.
Nick paused at the railing twenty feet above the old fountain that used to splash in front of the Saks Fifth Avenue store. The space was still home to some of the pricier windowless cubies in the complex, although it wasn’t overly inviting now, with its leaking trash bags heaped head-high outside the steel-shuttered entrance. He looked down at where the wild goose sculpture used to be.
The large, trapezoidal marble-sided fountain had long since been drained and filled in with soil so that some of the Saks-cubie residents could attempt to grow vegetables there, but a few steel cables still dropped from the high ceiling and one bronze goose remained. Originally, Nick remembered from the times he’d shopped here as a kid and young man, the sculpture had boasted a series of wild geese coming down in single file for a landing on the water—with the lowest goose, legs stiffly outstretched, seeming to throw up jets of spray to either side where its webbed feet contacted the surface of the water. How many geese had there been? Nick wondered. Six? Eight? More?
It would take flashback to find out and he wasn’t going to waste the drug on that. But now this one goose remained about ten feet above the makeshift garden, its broad bronze wings outstretched, its legs just beginning to deploy like stiff, web-footed landing gear.
Nick didn’t know why he paused here with Sato in tow… only that he always paused a second to stare at that lone remaining goose.
He shook his head angrily and led the way to the former Baby Gap and his home.
The residents of the other five cubies in the old commercial space were all home behind their partial walls and blankets since they were also on the dole and had nowhere to go during the long days. The old woman in the cubie next to Nick’s was snoring. The couple in the cubie opposite were screaming at each other, their two-year-old kid joining in and bringing the melded screams perilously close to the death frequency. The old soldier’s cubie was silent as always—Nick always waited for the stench that would tell everyone that the old man had finally hanged or shot himself in there—but the other two cubies had their TVs on and blaring. The Baby Gap acoustical ceiling had been twelve feet high; the thin cubie walls went up only eight feet.
Nick opened the door and let Sato enter his tiny space, his rage at this invasion of his privacy growing. But Mr. Nakamura had insisted that the security chief visit Nick’s home, and Nick would get the initial credit transfer only after the visit was complete.
Nick saw that he’d failed to make his bed that morning. The irony was that it had been an absurd little point of pride between Dara and him that he’d always made his bed, even before he met Dara, and if she hadn’t gotten to it on the mornings when they were both rushed to get to work, he would.
The unmade bed was all the more obvious since it took up almost a third of the space in Nick’s cubie.
Nick didn’t suggest that Sato sit down since a) he hadn’t invited him here and b) the only place to sit other than the unmade bed was the chair at the little desk on which Nick opened his phone’s virtual keyboard and that chair probably wasn’t sturdy enough to hold Sato. It was barely sturdy enough to hold Nick Bottom.
But the security chief showed no interest in sitting down. Crossing to the wall opposite Nick’s bed and the seventy-inch flatscreen display there, Sato activated the TV and passed his card through the set’s diskey slot.
Instantly three rows of faces, eighteen in all, appeared on the screen.
“You recognize these men and women?” asked Sato.
“Most of them. Some of them.” They’d all been familiar to Nick once, witnesses and suspects in Keigo Nakamura’s murder files, but flashback had the ironic side effect of dulling actual memory.
As if in response to this unspoken fact, Sato said, “Mr. Nakamura assumes that you will want to spend some hours reviewing their files and earlier interviews via the drug flashback before you begin your actual investigation. My strong recommendation is that you do such a flashback review for only one or two of these people at a time, so that the real-world investigation may begin and proceed as soon as possible. How many hours will you need for the flashback?”
Nick shrugged. “That homicide investigation took up four months of my life. If I were to review all of it under flashback, look back at all these people’s files and interviews, I’d be ready to start around Christmas.”
“That is, of course, totally unacceptable.”
“All right. When do you and Mr. Nakamura think I should be starting the foot leather part of the new investigation? A month from now? Two weeks?”
“Early tomorrow morning,” said Sato. “You are an expert at triggering flashback experiences. Choose critical memories to relive this afternoon and this evening, get a good night’s sleep, and I shall join you as you begin the reopened investigation in the morning.”
Nick opened his mouth to protest, then shut it. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the transfer of funds to his card.
Sato nodded for that card, passed it through his own phone’s diskey, and handed it back.
“You have the first month’s expenses now,” said Sato. “Including money for flashback purchase, of course, but also for transportation—you will need a new car, as Mr. Nakamura pointed out—and other incidentals. Obviously all expenditures will be tracked in real time from our end.”
Nick only nodded. But as Sato moved toward the door, Nick said, “Three of those eighteen are dead, you know.”
“But you still want me to review them under flash and keep them as a focus of the investigation?”
Nick shrugged again. “I’ll walk you out.”
The phrase sounded archaic even to Nick’s middle-aged ears. And he didn’t give a damn whether the security chief had trouble finding his way out of the mall. He only wanted to make sure he was really gone.
Surprisingly, Sato didn’t walk to any of the airlock exits. He crossed to the north mezzanine and the administrative corridor near the old Ralph Lauren store. Gunny G. and the black-armored security sergeant named Marx were there to meet him. The four men went through a door and up a flight of steps—the elevators weren’t working in the brownout—and out onto the roof. Nick knew this roof access; he had its entry code memorized and a hundred feet of Perlon-3 climbing rope, carabiners, and a rappel-harness in his cubie closet in case he ever had to leave the building quickly via the roof.
Now he squinted in the hazy light. Smoke was still rising many miles to the northwest.
The helicopter that came in to fetch Sato was one of the new silent ones that looked more like a dragonfly than any of the Homeland Security, police, and other choppers that Nick had known. The only noise as it touched down—Nick couldn’t have told anyone that the old mall had an infrared-marked heliport space on its roof—was the scrabble of gravel blowing across the grimy skylights and decommissioned solar panels.
Sato clambered in without saying a word to anyone and the Nakamura aircraft lifted off and flew due west.
On the way down the steps, Gunny G. said, “Some company you’re keeping these days, Nick.”
NICK DIDN’T HAVE TO leave the mall to get to his flashback dealer. Gary met him in the part of the subbasement that used to be the mall’s boiler room.
“Holy shit,” said the maintenance man when he saw the balance on Nick’s NICC. “How much of this you want to spend on the flash?”
“All of it,” said Nick. He handed the card to Gary and watched as the other man swiped it in his illicit, illegal, but quite effective black-market diskey.
“It’s going to take me some time to get that many vials together.”
“Ten minutes,” said Nick, who knew where Gary kept his supplies. “One minute more and I’ll do this buy on the street.”
“Easy, easy,” said Gary, making patting motions with his gnarled hands. “I’ll get it all up to you at your cubie in ten minutes. But they gonna be a lotta unhappy flashers in the building tonight.”
“Fuck ’em,” said Nick. “But don’t deliver to my cubie. I’ll meet you here in ten minutes.”
“You the buyer.”
“You’re damned right,” said Nick.
GARY WAS BACK IN the boiler room in eight minutes and so was Nick. He’d dumped his card and phone in his cubie and showered and changed clothes and passed his old police bug detector over himself—just in case Sato had put a tracker on him—and come down to the basement carrying only his old olive-canvas messenger bag slung over one shoulder.
Even with the high number of twenty-hour vials Nick had specified, there were a lot of flashback vials coming out of Gary’s duffel. Nick stuffed them into his messenger bag, wrapping them quickly in the towels he’d packed to keep them from rattling.
When Gary was gone, Nick went through the seldom-used door down into the pipe conduits and crawlspaces beneath the boiler room. There was a deeper crawlspace here going to the older pipes, most out of use now, that ran to and from the mall from the outside, and this access panel was locked with a number keypad for which no one working in the mall probably still had the code. Nick tapped in the seven-digit code. He knew this not from his time living at the mall but from a case ten years ago when he and other detectives had searched this whole maze of Cherry Creek underground heating and sewage pipes for a serial killer who’d specialized in children.
Clicking the access panel shut behind him, Nick pulled a tiny flashlight from his messenger bag and moved in a crouching run fifty yards or so, avoiding the rusty and corroded pipes that all but filled the space. Whatever was in there now—and dripping and oozing from those pipes—was bad enough to keep the street people out of this particular stretch of the underground maze. It was hard to breathe there.
Nick reached the first junction of tunnels and turned left. The tunnel here was just as small and just as foul-smelling. Nick counted twenty paces and stopped where several smaller pipes ran dripping into the concrete wall. An old inspection panel there looked corroded shut but it slid screechingly upward when Nick pulled.
The watertight plastic bag was there where he’d put it years ago and where he’d checked on it from time to time since. Nick removed the .32 semiautomatic pistol from its nest of oily rags and dropped it into his messenger bag. The weapon had been a throw-down belonging to Detective K. T. Lincoln, his last partner. Nick kept the wad of old bills in its own freezer bag but removed the cheap, traceless Walmart immigrant phone and tested it. The long-duration batteries were still good. The thing still got a signal down here.
Squatting in the steaming reek of the tunnel, Nick tapped in a number.
“Mothman here,” said the Pakistani-accented voice.
“Moth, this is Dr. B. I need you to pick me up at the storm sewer opening under the old bridge over Cherry Creek in about five minutes.”
There followed only the briefest of pauses. For more than a dozen years, Mohammed “Mothman” al Mahdi had been one of Detective Nicholas Bottom’s best street informants. And “Dr. B.” had been Mothman’s highest-paying cop. Nick had often checked on Mothman’s presence in the years since he was booted off the force, usually bringing a gift when he visited the cabbie. More to the point, Mothman was still afraid of Nick Bottom—both physically and because Nick knew enough about the Moth’s past that he could drop a dime on him at any time.
“Be there in five, Dr. B.”
IN THE MOVIES, STORM drains were always the size of the ones in L.A. You could drive a truck in those drains. They had driven an entire motorized regiment of Jeeps and trucks into those drains in the midtwentieth-century movie Them that Nick and Dara had liked. But storm drains in Denver were slimy, narrow affairs, and Nick was crawling on his belly and elbows by the time he kicked out the rusted rebar drain cover and dropped the four feet to the abandoned walkway under the old Cherry Creek bridge.
Mothman’s bumblebee pedicab, imported from Calcutta when that city went to all electric cabs, was waiting just under the shadow of the bridge. Nick slid into the backseat.
“Grossven’s cave,” directed Nick.
Mothman nodded and pedaled. Nick sat back deeper on the soiled cushions, making sure his face was out of sight.
Mickey Grossven’s flashcave was less than two miles along the river to the south. The condos here had burned in the original reconquista fighting and never been torn down or repaired. Nick slapped five dollars in old bucks cash into the Mothman’s hand—it was two months’ income for the illegal immigrant—and said, “You haven’t seen me or heard from me. If anyone tracks me, I’ll come hunting for you, Mohammed.”
“Trust me, Dr. B.”
Nick was already gone, ducking from the pedicab to the hole in the basement wall. Down a urine-reeking corridor, then up two flights of stairs, then to a halt in a corridor that led nowhere. A blank brick wall and burned debris ahead.
Nick stood there until the night-vision and infrared cameras could get a good look at him.
The wall slid open and Nick entered a windowless warehouse space half the size of a city block. The only light came from chemical glowsticks set into mounds of melted wax on the floor. There were hundreds of low cots in the dark room, perhaps a thousand, with a twitching form on each cot. Bottles hung above each cot and IV drips ran to each form.
Grossven and his huge bouncer met him in the entry area.
“Detective Bottom?” said Grossven. “We don’t have a problem here, do we?”
Nick shook his head. “Not ‘Detective’ any longer, Mickey. I just need a cot and an IV.”
Grossven showed his almost toothless grin and gestured to the huge, dark space. “Cots is what we got. Cots and time. All the time in the world. How much time you want, Detective?”
“Six hundred hours’ worth.”
Grossven had no eyebrows so he showed his surprise with his eyes only. “It’s a good start. Cash or charge today, Detective?”
Nick gave him a fifty-dollar bill.
“Lawrence,” said Grossven and the gigantic bouncer in dragonscale body armor led Nick to a cot in an uncrowded corner and expertly got the IV going. Nick set his bag under the cot, sliding the .32 into his pocket but knowing that his money and flashback vials would be safe here. It was what the hibernation caves were for. Mickey wouldn’t have stayed alive for a month if he’d allowed his customers to be robbed, and he’d been in the cave business for more than a decade.
More than twenty hours under the flash at a time, Nick knew, led to kidney and bowel problems. No breaks from the flash also led to psychotic episodes when the mind, finally wakened, couldn’t sort one reality from another.
Nick didn’t give a damn about the psychotic problems—he already knew which reality he’d chosen—but he would accept the four-hour interruptions to walk a bit on the indoor track upstairs so his muscles wouldn’t atrophy and to use the restroom and eat some energy bars. Once every week or two, he’d use the group showers next door. Maybe.
Six hundred hours with Dara wasn’t enough—it wasn’t even a full month—but it would be a start.
Lying back on his cot, the IV feed loose enough that it wouldn’t get in the way in case he needed to reach for his pistol, Nick lifted the first twenty-hour vial, visualized his memory trigger point, broke the seal, and inhaled deeply.
Echo Park, Los Angeles—Saturday, Sept. 11
PROFESSOR EMERITUS George Leonard Fox, PhD, moved slowly into the park, taking care not to trip, not to fall, not to break his increasingly brittle bones. It made him smile. It’s come to this, he thought. It’s why old people hobble. To protect their brittle bones. And there now, with the grace or curse of God, am I.
He realized he was being petulant and banished the childish emotion in return for increased vigilance as he slowly worked his way—but not hobbling, not yet, not quite—across the broken paving stones into the park. At age seventy-four Dr. George Leonard Fox had not yet begun using a cane or walking stick and he’d be damned if he’d hurt himself today so that he had to start using one. Broken flashback vials crunched underfoot but Leonard ignored the sound.
It was early, just after 7 a.m., and the air in Echo Park was relatively cool, the skies above a clear blue, the remaining tables and benches in the park damp with dew. During the weekday and weekend nights, countless gangs stabbed and shot each other for—for what? wondered Leonard. For possession of the park turf for a few hours? For status? For the fun of it?
For a man who had spent almost his entire lifetime struggling to understand things, Leonard realized that as he approached death from old age, should he be so lucky, he understood less and less.
But he understood that during the mornings on Saturdays and Sundays, the park belonged to old men such as himself.
Leonard raised his eyes from the treacherous sidewalk and saw that his friend Emilio Gabriel Fernández y Figueroa had staked out their favorite concrete chess table and was already setting up the chess pieces he’d brought.
“Buenos días, mi amigo,” said Leonard as he approached the table.
“Good morning, Leonard,” said Emilio with a smile.
The two spoke in Spanish or English on alternate Saturdays and Leonard had forgotten that it had been Spanish the previous week. How could he have forgotten? He’d had to struggle to remember the word “impoverishment”—empobrecimiento had been what Emilio had finally provided—so was he now showing the memory-loss effects of Alzheimer’s as well as trouble with balance and fear for his brittle bones?
Leonard smiled and tapped Emilio’s closed left fist. It was a black piece. Emilio got to be white again. He won the tap about three times out of four and always preferred to be white and to go first. Emilio sat on the concrete bench—the chessboard was already set up properly for him to be white from that side—and Leonard carefully took his place across from him. They used no chess clocks in their friendly games.
Emilio opened with his inevitable conservative pawn move. Leonard answered the opening with the same pawn move with which he always responded. The game moved into its predictable early stages and the men could relax and talk while they played.
“How goes your novel, Leonard?” Emilio asked the question as he was lighting a cigarette. Emilio Gabriel Fernández y Figueroa—the old man insisted that his grandfather had stolen the full family name from a character in a John Wayne movie—smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. Yet Emilio had been born in 1948, a full decade before Leonard, and was approaching his eighty-fourth birthday with no apparent worries about brittle bones, lung cancer, or anything else.
By his own admission, Emilio had lived a mostly charmed life. Coming as an illegal immigrant to California as a young man in the late 1960s, he’d made enough money as a translator and sometimes accountant to return to Mexico, get married, and then earn his master’s degree and PhD at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City. He then taught Spanish literature there and at IPN, the Instituto Politécnico Nacional, for years until—at about the time of his retirement—two of his sons and three of his grandsons were killed in battles between the drug cartels and Mexican federal police.
When the cartel-federal battles reached the level of real civil war and more than twenty-three million Mexicans, cartels included, flowed north into the United States within a period of less than seven months, five of Emilio’s surviving sons and eight of his grandsons joined the tsunami as leaders in the emerging reconquista effort separating the nascent Nuevo Mexico from much of the chaotic, cartel-controlled old Mexico. Professor Emilio Gabriel Fernández y Figueroa came north with his sons and grandsons and great-grandsons and most of his granddaughters and their families, returning to the United States—what was left of it—where he’d earned his original stake for his education and where he’d visited so many times as a respected academic.
Leonard had met Dr. Fernández y Figueroa in September of 2001, at a very high-profile literary conference at Yale. Both scholars had been presented to the conference as experts on the novels of Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier. It took less than an hour of panel discussion for Dr. George Leonard Fox to retreat on each of these fronts, deferring to the expertise of Professor Emilio Gabriel Fernández y Figueroa.
On the third day of that conference, aircraft hijacked by al Qaeda jihadists had flown into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, and it had been the ensuing private conversations between Leonard and Emilio that had set the basis for their friendship in Los Angeles that endured more than three decades later.
Leonard sighed and said, “My novel is stuck, Emilio. My idea was for it to be a War and Peace overview of the last forty years, but I can’t get beyond September 2008. I simply don’t understand that first financial crisis.”
Emilio smiled, exhaled smoke, and moved his bishop aggressively.
“Perhaps Proust should be your model, Leonard, and not Tolstoy.”
Leonard blocked the bishop’s line of attack by moving one of his pawns a single square. The pawn was protected by his knight.
After his initially conservative moves, Emilio would become overly aggressive through the use of a combination of his bishops and rooks, almost always at the expense of his other pieces. Leonard preferred his knights and a solid defense.
“No, Emilio, even if I had a magical madeleine, telling my own life interweaved with the events of the last decade would illuminate almost nothing. I wasn’t on this planet. I was on university campuses.”
Leonard had noticed a turning point when the nation and world started heading for hell… or at least his part of it. He had been teaching in both the classics and English departments at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the 1990s when the university—under a sort of blackmail from the instructor in question—appointed a fake scholar, fake Native American, fake professor (but true hater) named Ward Churchill to be head of their newly created Ethnic Studies Department. It had been a surrender to absolute political correctness—a term already inextricably intertwined with the term “university”—and a surrender to a type of rabid mediocrity. When he had returned from the Yale conference after 9-11 to find that this Ward Churchill had written an essay comparing the victims in the World Trade Center and Pentagon to “little Eichmanns,” it hadn’t surprised Professor George Leonard Fox. His students—the few English majors and even fewer classics majors—seemed to move apologetically through the hallways at CU, clinging to the walls, while Churchill’s Ethnic Studies students—tattooed, multiply pierced, their fists commonly raised in anger—would stride like Gestapo.
“No,” said Leonard again, “I don’t have even a Proustian ghost of a life to write about. I wanted to document the era we’ve both lived through as broadly and brilliantly as Tolstoy documented his. I just don’t know anything, understand anything… not war, not peace, not finances, not economics, not politics. Nothing.”
Emilio chuckled, coughed, and moved a rook five squares forward to support both his bishops in an attempted pincers move.
“Tolstoy once said that War and Peace was not meant to be a novel at all.”
“Well,” said Leonard, bringing his other knight into play, “then I’ve equaled Tolstoy. My mess of pages isn’t a novel either.”
Emilio’s bishop, protected by his rook, captured one of Leonard’s pawns.
“Check,” said Emilio.
Leonard calmly moved the knight he’d had in waiting, protecting his king and threatening Emilio’s bishop. It was a… Leonard blushed at even thinking the term… Mexican standoff.
“You could skip writing the novel and just write an equivalent to Tolstoy’s epilogue to War and Peace,” said Emilio. “You know—themes such as the fact that forces in history act beyond human reason, that none of us are free but consciousness creates in each of us the illusion of freedom and free will, that since free will is an illusion, history must find its true laws, and that even personality depends upon time, space, emotion, and causality.”
“That would be a treatise,” said Leonard, watching Emilio bring his other rook into play through traffic. “Not a novel.”
“No one reads novels anymore anyway, Leonard.”
“I know,” said Leonard, taking out Emilio’s first protective rook with his own bishop. “Check.”
Emilio frowned. It was too late to castle and he’d been profligate with the movement of his pawns and power pieces, leaving the royal hearth relatively unprotected. He abandoned his attack for a moment and swung his bishop back into a protective position.
“Check,” Leonard said again after he’d taken the bishop with his own bishop.
Emilio grunted and finally used his torpid knight to take Leonard’s bishop—Leonard had been prepared for the swap since Emilio depended more on his bishops—and now all pretense of formal defensive and offensive positions on the board melted away in a chaos of oddly placed pieces. Their games, so formal at the outset, almost always degraded into amateur play this way.
“It’s an age of treatises at least,” said Emilio Gabriel Fernández y Figueroa.
“It’s an age of Zeitstil,” Leonard said sharply.
Emilio knew the context of the phrase—“the style of the times”—and they’d discussed it more than once. The German intellectual Ernst Jünger had used that phrase in his Kaukasische Aufzeichnungnen secret notebooks during Hitler’s reign. Leonard despised the memory of Jünger—at least the World War II Jünger rather than the more outspoken Cold War Jünger—because the German had, as Leonard had, decided it was enough to secretly despise and ridicule Hitler rather than openly oppose tyranny. Zeitstil—“the style of the times”—was Jünger’s way of describing the use of euphemism and double-talk by those in power to wreck the very language that those in power had usurped. Jünger had seen it in 1930s and ’40s Germany; Leonard had watched it during his lifetime in America. Neither had acted.
“LTI,” whispered Emilio. It stood for Lingua tertii imperii—Jünger’s code phrase, borrowed from Victor Klemperer, for “Language of the Third Empire” and a bitter scholarly pun. “It has always been with us.”
Leonard shook his head. His knights were advancing against Emilio’s scattered defenses now.
“Not always. Not like this.”
“So your new War and Peace would have neither real war nor real peace in it, my friend. Only the confusion of our era and its language.”
“Yes,” said Leonard. Emilio had attempted defense by rook and now Leonard’s bishop swept across the board to take that rook.
“Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant,” said Emilio.
“Yes,” Leonard said again. The first time he’d heard that quote from Tacitus—“They make a desert and call it peace”—he’d been a freshman in college and the four words had struck him in the forehead like a fist. They still did.
“Check,” said Leonard. “Checkmate.”
“Ah, yes, very nice, very nice,” muttered Emilio. He stubbed out his cigarette and lit a new one, leaning back and crossing his arms. “Something is bothering you, my friend. Your grandson?”
Leonard took three slow breaths and began rearranging the pieces for a new game before answering.
“Yes. Val’s missed school all this week—I get the autocalls from the high school—and he comes in during the wee hours, sleeps late, and won’t talk to me. He’s not the boy he used to be.”
“Perhaps he is becoming the man he is going to be,” Emilio said softly.
“I hope not,” said Leonard. “This is a dark phase for him. He’s angry, resentful at everything—especially me—and, I think, using a lot of flashback.”
“You’ve found the vials?”
“No. I just have a strong feeling he’s doing the drug with his friends.”
The two old men had discussed flashback many times. How could they not? Emilio insisted that he had never tried it; he preferred memory to a false, chemical reliving of things. Besides, he said, when a man is in his eighties, he cannot give up time from real living for so many minutes of “reliving.” Leonard had admitted that he’d used flashback a few times, years before, but didn’t like how it made him feel. Nor, he admitted, were there any people or times so important to him that he would pay so much money to relive his time with them. “One of the benefits—or drawbacks, perhaps—of being married four times,” he’d said to Emilio.
Now Leonard expected to hear something philosophical from his older Mexican friend, perhaps consoling, but instead Emilio said, “A local spanic girl, Maria Hernandez, was raped yesterday while on her way to school. She had a—doubtful—reputation, but her father and brothers and the local reconquista militia have vowed to kill the boys who did it.”
“The boys?” asked Leonard. His voice was so hollow that it seemed to echo in his own ears.
“A gang of eight or nine anglo boys,” said Emilio. “Almost certainly one of these flashgangs we hear about every day now. They did it so they could redo it over and over.”
Leonard licked his lips. “If you’re thinking Val… no, not possible. Not Val. As angry and troubled as he is… no, not Val. Not rape. Never.”
Emilio peered at his fellow academic and chess partner with sad eyes. “The girl—Maria—knew one of the boys who raped her. An anglo student from her school who likes to call himself Billy the Kid. A certain William Coyne.”
Professor Emeritus George Leonard Fox thought that he might be physically ill. He’d met very few of Val’s friends over the five years since Nick had sent his grandson to live with him, but the always smiling, respectful, courteous, and, somehow, Leonard knew from forty years of teaching, Eddie Haskell–devious Billy Coyne had been one who’d been to the house often.
“I think I have to get Val out of this city,” said Leonard. Emilio had moved his white pawn forward, starting the second game, but Leonard wasn’t focusing on it.
“Sí, it might be a good idea, my friend. Do you have the money for the airfare?”
Leonard laughed bitterly. “With fares now going for more than a million new bucks per ticket for a Los Angeles–to-Denver flight? Hardly.”
“His father, perhaps? He was able to pay the boy’s fare here five years ago.”
Leonard shook his head. “Nick used almost all of my daughter’s life-insurance money to buy that ticket.”
“But he was a policeman…”
“Was,” said Leonard. “He’s nothing more than a flashback addict now. I used to have Val phone him monthly, but now Val doesn’t want to speak to his father and Nick doesn’t return my calls when I leave a message. I think he’s forgotten that he has a son.”
“Are there other relatives?”
Lost in thought, Leonard shook his head again. “You know about my family, Emilio. Four marriages over all those years but only three daughters. Dara dead in that Denver car accident. Kathryn married that French Muslim and moved to Paris more than twenty years ago—she’s lost in dhimmitude there. Under the veil, as they say. I haven’t heard from her at all in fifteen years. Eloise calls me from New Orleans three times a year—always to borrow money. She and her husband are both flash addicts. Neither has a job. The three ex-wives I loved are dead; the one I learned to hate—and who always hated me—is alive and rich and wouldn’t take a phone call from me, much less my grandson from another wife.”
“So,” said Emilio, “the father.”
“Yes. The father. Val says that he hates his father—when he says anything at all about him—but it would still be for the best, I think. And it would only be for eleven months until Val goes into the army. This city is getting too dangerous for the boy.”
Emilio was looking at Leonard with a mournful expression. “It may soon be too dangerous for you as well, my friend. You should both go. Soon. Very soon.”
Leonard blinked out of his reverie, all thoughts of chess gone. “What are you telling me, Emilio? What do you know?”
The older man sighed, raised his ivory-handled cane from where it was propped against their table, and leaned his weight on it. “The forces of La Raza and reconquista are very restless. There may be an effort to seize all power in Los Angeles soon.”
Leonard laughed out of sheer surprise. The two rarely discussed politics per se. “Seize power?” he said too loudly. “Don’t the spanics already run everything in L.A. except a few neighborhoods? Isn’t it already a law that the mayor must be spanic?”
“Spanic, yes. But not true reconquista, Leonard. Not governing all of Los Angeles as a province of Nuevo Mexico. This is… coming.”
Leonard could only stare. Finally he said, “That would mean civil war in the streets.”
“How much… how much time do we have?”
Emilio leaned more heavily on his cane, his doleful expression becoming even sadder. Leonard was reminded of his Cervantes and the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.
“If you and your grandson can go, you should go… soon,” whispered Emilio. He took a business card and a beautiful fountain pen from his pocket and wrote something on the card in Spanish and handed it across the table. Leonard could see that the card showed only Emilio’s name and an address about two miles east of Echo Park—he’d never asked Emilio where he lived—and a brief handwritten sentence telling anyone who read the note to allow this man to pass, that he was a friend, and to convey him to the address on the card. The signature was Emilio Gabriel Fernández y Figueroa.
“But how?” asked Leonard, folding the card carefully and setting it in his billfold. “How?”
“There are the convoys, both the eighteen-wheeler truck convoys that sometimes carry paying passengers and the groups of motorists who band together.”
“I don’t own a car.” Leonard was feeling the kind of vertigo that he’d always thought must assail a man just before a stroke or massive coronary. The heat of the September sun was suddenly too much to bear.
“The checkpoints and roadblocks…”
“Come see me at that address when you are certain that the two of you are leaving,” Emilio said in Castilian Spanish. “Something may be arranged.”
Leonard set his hands flat on the concrete chess table and stared at the liver spots and raised veins, at the knuckles swollen with arthritis. Were these his hands? How could they be?
“Do you remember what the Roman legionnaire Flaminius Rufus said about the City of the Immortals in Borges’s story ‘The Immortal’?” Emilio asked, speaking in English again.
Excerpted from Flashback by Dan Simmons Copyright © 2011 by Dan Simmons. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Dan Simmons is the award-winning author of several novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Olympos and The Terror. He lives in Colorado.
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