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The author of the widely acclaimed Orbital Decay "comes down to a near-future Earth and proves that he can handle a darker, scarier setting" (John Varley) in the story of a corrupt corporation, poised to unleash a sinister life form on 2012 St. Louis--and the reporter who can blow the whistle . . . if he stays alive long enough.
(Wednesday, 7:35 P.M.)
There was a man on the stage of the Muny Opera, but what he was singing wasn't the overture of Meet Me in St. Louis. In fact, if he was singing at all, it was a demented a capella called the New Madrid Blues.
My guess was that at one time he had been a young, mid-level businessman of some sort. Perhaps a lawyer. Possibly a combination of the two: a junior partner in the prestigious firm of Schmuck, Schmuck, Schmuck & Putz, specializing in corporate law. A yuppie of the highest degree, he had been a graduate of Washington University, graduating somewhere in the middle of his law school class: good enough to get an entry-level job with Schmucks and Putz, but not well enough compensated to have a place in Clayton or Ladue. So he had lived in a cracker box somewhere in the south side and commuted to work every day in the eight-year-old Volvo he had driven since his sophomore days at Wash You. Five days a week, he had battled traffic on the inner belt, dreaming of the day when he would have a Jaguar in the garage of a suburban spread in Huntleigh and his law firm would now be known as Schmuck, Schmuck, Schmuck, Putz & Dork, as he steeled himself for another grueling day of ladder climbing and telephone screaming.
And then the shit hit the fan last May and the bottom fell out of hostile takeovers of candy stores. His apartment house had fallen flat, burying his car beneath a hundred tons of broken cinderblock and not-quite-to-code drywall plaster, and the week after he moved into Squat City, where he had been forced to share a tent with strange ethnic persons who didn't wear fraternity rings and to survive on watered-down chicken soup and cheesefood sandwiches, he discovered that the Schmuck Brothers had decided to let some of their attorneys go. Sorry about that, we'll let you know when there's an opening ...
And his mind had snapped.
So now here he was, standing on the stage of the Muny, waving a black baseball bat over his head and raving like a crack fiend who hadn't had a decent fix in days.
"When selecting a baseball bat," he shouted, "there are five things to remember ...!"
His ragged, oil-splotched London Fog trenchcoat could have been looted from Brooks Brothers. That wasn't what tipped me off; it was his shoes. Handmade Italian leather loafers which, even though they now were being held together with frayed strips of yellow duct tape, fit him perfectly. And although his hair had grown down over his shoulders and his gray-streaked beard was halfway to the collar of his mildewed dress shirt, he still had the unmistakable articulation of an attorney, although I doubt the senior partners of his firm would have recognized him now.
"One! The size of the bat should be the right size for your hands to grip and hold comfortably!" He demonstrated by gripping the taped handle of the black mahogany bat between his fists, his anger causing the knuckles to turn white. "That means it's gotta be the right size for you to do some serious damage to some fucker's face!"
Scattered applause from the first few rows behind the orchestra pit. Give us your poor, your downtrodden, your teeming masses yearning to be free ... and if they can't have freedom, then there's always cheap entertainment. Farther back in the open-air amphitheater, though, only a few people seemed to be paying attention. At least a thousand people were crammed together into the Muny tonight, enduring the cold rain as they watched the nightly parade of homeless, half-mad speakers march onto the stage. On the proverbial one-to-ten scale, the former lawyer barely rated a four.
"Let's hear some music!" This from a woman in back of the seating area. A small group of down-and-out rock musicians stood in the wings, waiting for their chance to set up their equipment and play for any food stamps that might be tossed into their hat.
The lawyer either didn't hear her or wasn't paying attention. "Two!" he yelled, his voice beginning to crack. "The bat should be light enough so that you can swing it with the greatest speed!" He whipped the bat around like Ozzie Smith driving a grounder in Busch Stadium twenty years ago. "This means, y'gotta have the right instrument in order to knock their brains right outta their fuckin' skulls!"
A few yells of approval, this time even from the rear seats. He had their attention now; nothing gets people going like a little unfocused hatred. The bat looked a little familiar, though. I edged closer to the railing surrounding the orchestra pit and peered through the drizzle. There were white-painted autographs burned into the black surface of the bat.
Oh, God, this was a sacrilege. This sick puppy had managed to get his mitts on one of the team bats that had been on display in the Cardinals Hall of Fame. Probably stolen shortly after the quake, when Busch Stadium had been overrun by the newly homeless, before the Emergency Relief Agency had chased out the looters and set up their base of operations inside the stadium. By then, everything worth stealing from the display cases in the mini-museum was gone. I prayed that he hadn't gotten his hands on a pennant-year bat; that would have been the worst insult of all. A bat with Stan Musial's or Lou Brock's signature inscribed upon it, now in the hands of some crazy with a grudge.
"Three!" he howled. "The bat should be long enough to reach across home plate and the strike zone as you stand in a correct position inside the batter's box!"
"Get off the stage!" someone yelled from the seats.
The demented yup ignored him. "Remember, a longer bat is harder to swing, regardless of how much it weighs!" He hefted the bat menacingly. "That means you gotta get in good and close, so you can count his teeth before you bust 'em out of his goddamn lyin' mouth ..."
Now that I knew where the bat had come from, I made the proper association. He was reciting, with significant annotation, a list of batting recommendations that had been posted in the Hall of Fame museum next to a cutaway of a Louisville Slugger. The instructions were meant to advise Little Leaguers and other potential Cardinals champs of the future; now they were being howled by a psycho who would have given Hannibal Lector the chills. An innocent set of guidelines, reborn as directions for up-close-and-personal homicide.
(And with that memory, another one: Jamie sitting next to me on the MetroLink a couple of weeks before New Madrid. Saturday afternoon. We were on our way back from the stadium after watching the Cards stomp the gizzards out of the St. Petersburg Giants.
("Can I play Little League next year?"
("I dunno ... we'll see.")
"Four! If you plan to buy a bat and you normally wear batting gloves—"
"Get outta here! Yer not funny!"
The memory of a quiet Saturday afternoon with Jamie evaporated as suddenly as it had materialized. I couldn't have agreed more: it was not funny, if it had ever been funny in the first place.
I had come to the Muny in hopes of finding something worth reporting for the Big Muddy Inquirer. I was facing a Friday deadline and Pearl was breathing down my neck for my weekly column. Because I had heard that the squatters had recently broken the padlocks on the Muny's gates and turned the amphitheater into an unauthorized public forum, I had come to Forest Park to see if I could hear any revolutionary manifestos. I was sure that there were some budding Karl Marxes or Mao Tse-tungs out there, screaming for their chance to be let out of the box ... or just screaming, period.
So far, though, the only interesting speaker had been the psychotic Cards fan, and things were tough enough already without my repeating his advice for using a stolen baseball bat as a murder weapon. I turned and began to make my way up the concrete steps of the left-center aisle, feeling the rain pattering on the bill of my cap as I emerged from beneath the stage awning.
Huddled all around me were the new residents of Forest Park: people who had been left homeless by the New Madrid quake, either because their houses and apartments had collapsed during the quake or, as in the case of the north side communities, because last December's food riots had caused so many of the surviving buildings to be burned to the ground.
Forest Park was the largest municipal park in the country. Before the events of last May it had been a pleasant place in which to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon. The World's Fair had once been held here and so had the Olympic games, both more than a century ago. Now that the park had become a little bit of Third World culture stuck in middle America, the Muny was the only bit of free entertainment left available to the city's vast homeless population. Tommy Tune no longer danced across the stage, Ella Fitzgerald was long gone, and the national touring companies of Cats or Grand Hotel no longer performed here, but people still found their pleasure here ... such as it was.
I looked around as I walked up the steps, studying the dismal crowd. Men, women, and children; young and old, alone and with families, white, black, hispanic, oriental. No common denominator except that they were all clinging to the lowest rung of the ladder. They wore cheap ponchos and cast-off denim jackets and moth-eaten cloth coats donated by the Salvation Army; some didn't even have raingear to speak of, just plastic garbage sacks and soaked cardboard boxes. In the weak, jaundiced light cast by the few sodium-vapor lamps that still functioned, their faces reflected hardship, pain, hunger ...
Most of all, anger: the dull, half-realized, hopeless rage of those who were pissed upon yesterday, were pissed upon today, and undoubtedly would be left standing beneath the urinal tomorrow. Halfway up the aisle, I was jostled aside by a burly man making his way down the steps; I stumbled against a chair and almost fell into the lap of a young woman who was holding a child in her arms. The little boy was chewing on a piece of government-issue cheesefood; his eyes looked glazed beneath the hood of his undersize sweatshirt, and the long tendril of mucus hanging from his nose told me that he was ill. If he was lucky, perhaps it was only the flu, although that could quickly escalate into pneumonia. His mother glared at me with silent, implacable rage—What are you looking at?—and I quickly stepped away.
No one here wanted pity. No one wanted the few government handouts that were still being given to them. All they wanted was survival and a chance to get the hell out of Squat City.
The mad yuppie was through with his screed by the time I reached the covered terrace at the top of the stairs. The terrace was at the rear of the amphitheater, and it was crowded with people trying to get out of the drizzle. Through the stone arches and past the wrought-iron gates, I could see the glow of dozens of trash-barrel fires in the adjacent parking lot, silhouetting the people who huddled around them for warmth against the cold spring rain, watchful for the apes ...
Yes, apes. Real apes, not metaphorical in any sense whatsoever, although a case could be made for the ERA troopers who patrolled the park. One of the unforeseen side effects of the quake was that the Forest Park Zoo had practically split open at the seams, allowing lions, tigers, and bears—not to mention a few giraffes, antelopes, rhinos, and elephants—to escape. Most of the animals were recaptured by zoo personnel within the first few days after New Madrid, although quite a few wild birds had taken wing, and a handful of coyotes and bobcats had been wily enough get out of the inner city and into the county's wooded west side. Some of the zoo specimens, unfortunately, didn't make it back to their cages; two weeks after the quake, a rare Tibetan white leopard was shot by a redneck National Guardsman after it was cornered foraging through garbage cans in the University City neighborhood. When zoo officials arrived at the scene, they found the leopard's decapitated carcass lying in the alley; the weekend warrior who had shot the leopard had carved its head off and taken it back to his place in Fenton as a trophy.
But the apes that had survived the collapse of the monkey house had done much better. Only a handful of apes had been recaptured, mostly gorillas and orangutans; most of the chimpanzees and baboons had taken to the trees and had survived the short, relatively mild winter that followed the earthquake summer. Indeed, they had been fruitful and multiplied, adding to their numbers as the months wore on. Now monkey packs roamed the park like street gangs, raiding tents and terrorizing squatters.
Even the ERA troopers were frightened of them; there had been one rumored account that a chimpanzee pack had fallen upon a parked Hummer and chased its crew into the woods. If the story was true, then good for the chimps; I had more sympathy for runamok apes than for runamok goon squads.
There was no sign of apes, either human or simian, so I found a vacant spot beside one of the Doric columns holding up the awning. After looking around to make sure I wasn't being observed, I unzipped my leather bomber jacket and reached into the liner pocket to pull out my PT's earphone.
"Joker, can you hear me?" I said, switching on the PT and holding the earphone against my ear.
"I hear you, Gerry." Joker's voice was an androgynous murmur in my ear: HAL-9000 with a flat midwestern accent. It was picking up my voice from a small mike clipped to the underside of my jacket collar.
"Good deal," I replied. "Okay, open a file, slug it ... um, 'park,' suffix numeral one ... and get ready for dictation."
I usually typed my notes one-handed on Joker's miniature keyboard. Like many writers, I intuitively prefer to see my words on a screen, but there was no way I was going to fish out my palmtop and open it up in plain view, thereby revealing myself to be a reporter. During the December riots, too many of my colleagues had been attacked by rioters who had seen them as being authority figures, and a Post-Dispatch photographer had been killed by crossfire during the torching of the federal armory in Pine Lawn. Even if some of these people didn't necessarily see the press as their enemy, there was always the chance someone might try to mug me in order to grab Joker. A stolen PT was probably worth a few cans of tuna on the black market.
But somebody in the crowd knew there was a reporter among them.
"There's an IM for you. I would have signaled you earlier, but you told me not to call you."
Indeed I had; Joker's annunciator would have tipped off anyone nearby that I was carrying a PT. "This is a little strange. Although the IM was sent directly to me, it's addressed to John Tiernan. I was not informed that we would be taking John's messages."
I frowned as I heard this. John was another reporter for the Big Muddy Inquirer. Although he was my best friend, we normally stayed out of each other's work. Someone trying to send an instant message to John should have reached his own PT, Dingbat, not Joker; nor could we access each other's palmtops without entering special passwords.
But there was no sense in asking Joker if it was mistaken; my little Toshiba didn't make errors like that. "Okay, Joker," I said, "read it to me."
"IM received 6:12 P.M. as follows," Joker recited. "'I got your message. Need to talk at once. Please meet me near the rear entrance of the Muny at eight o'clock.' End of message. The sender did not leave a logon or a number."
I felt a cold chill when I heard this message. I believe in coincidence as much as the next superstitious person, but this was a bit too much.
An IM intended for John had been sent to me instead, requesting a meeting at the Muny ... and, as synchronicity would have it, where would I happen to be when I received it? At the Muny.
I took a deep breath. "Okay, Joker," I said, "what's the gag?"
"What gag, Gerry?"
"C'mon. Who really sent the message? Was it John?" I grinned. "Or was it Jah?"
"Negative. The message did not originate from either of those individuals. The person sending the IM did not leave a logon or a return number, but I can assure you that it was not received from any PT with which I regularly interface."
This was flat-out impossible. E-mail could not be sent anonymously; Joker's modem always logged the originating modem number. Joker must have contracted a virus of some sort. "Please run a self-diagnostic test," I said.
"Running test." There was a long pause while Joker's disk doctor pushed, prodded, asked embarrassing questions, and slipped a rectal thermometer up its cybernetic asshole. "Test complete," Joker said at last. "All sectors are clean. There is no evidence of tampering with my architecture."
"I don't understand."
"Neither do I, Gerry. Nonetheless, I do not have a return number for this IM."
I mulled it over for a second, then Joker spoke up again. "I have opened a file, slugged 'park,' suffix numeral one. Are you ready to dictate, Gerry?"
Excerpted from The Jericho Iteration by Allen Steele. Copyright © 1994 Allen M. Steele. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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