The waiters had bloody hands and the head on the bar counter had no eyes. But it was all one hundred percent hygienic hey, this is California, right?
* * *
It was Seattle. Washington State and nonstop rain. But Halsey still liked to pretend, sometimes, that he had never made the move from San Diego.
"Another," said Halsey, indicating his glass.
Another vodka. Polish vodka ninety-four percent pure alcohol. Drinking that stuff was like setting your mouth on fire.
"I would be opposed if I were you," said an unstranger, sliding into the seat beside Halsey.
"Opposed?" said Halsey, trying to figure out where he had seen this guy before.
"I would negative on the choice," said the unstranger.
The unstranger was an ugly man with an axe-murderer's face, a middle-aged man dressed inappropriately in a lime-green suit which was twenty years too young for him and a splatter-dot necktie which was ten octaves louder than the conventions of good taste permitted.
"You've lost me already," said Halsey. "And who are you, anyway?"
"You are proposing, I believe," said Mister Ugly, "to consume another belt of that rotgut. What I am saying unto you is that I would not so do if I were you."
"But you're not me," said Halsey.
"No," said the unstranger. "But we're part of the same family."
"The human race, you mean?" said Halsey.
"No. Family. Family as in uncle, aunt, cousin, wife. Though the relationship is somewhat ... distant."
"I bet," said Halsey.
Who was this guy? Someone on TV, someone ... Tanchon! Right! Cebril Tanchon, who was on Edgar's team.
"Mr Tanchon," said Halsey.
"Okay, Cebril, then. Tell me how's Edgar holding up?"
"You are the media," said Cebril Tanchon. "It may be disproportionate for me to speak to you."
"Inapplicable. It may be that. In any case, that is not why I am here. I am not here to talk to you about my client. Rather, I am here to talk to you about you. I am here to save you."
"Save me? From what?"
"That," said Cebril, pointing at Halsey's fresh vodka, which had arrived during their conversation.
"I get it," said Halsey, with a grin. "You're here to save me from drinking myself to death."
"That," said Cebril, "or worse."
"What could be worse?" said Halsey.
"Let's hope you don't find out," said Cebril, rising to go.
"Tell me," said Halsey. "This saving people is this a hobby of yours?"
"No," said Cebril. "I have already instructed you. We belong to the same family."
"If you say so," said Halsey. "How about Edgar, then? Is he part of your family too?"
But Cebril Tanchon was already on his way out of the Zest Best Emporium, pushing his way out into the Seattle rain. On the bar he had left a card. A square of pasteboard a square, not the conventional larger-on-one-side oblong bearing just a name, no more. CEBRIL TANCHON that was all it said. No telephone number, no street address, no coffee pot details, no nothing.
"Well," said Halsey, picking up the card. "Maybe this is my way back in."
Seattle, the same day. Halsey laid Cebril Tanchon's card in front of his boss.
* * *
"What's this supposed to mean?" said Joey Blue.
"It means," said Halsey, "the plane fare would be wasted."
After the way Halsey had messed up the assassination inquiry, Joey Blue had been determined to send him to Florida to cover the synchronized swimming championships. But Halsey planned to stay right here in Seattle, location of the Court of Unitary Justice and, therefore, the source of the juiciest news stories on the planet.
"Well," said Joey, slowly, "I've been reconsidering. I'd like you to cover Ron."
"What's wrong with Ron?" said Joey. "He's a big story. He was the president."
"Yeah, but ... you know," said Halsey, "there's the issues thing. Big issues, international law the average hotdog eater just isn't going to go for it. Too intellectual. Too remote. But Edgar, now, that's a game that anyone can play."
"We've got other people who can do Edgar," said Joey.
"But I've got the inside track," said Halsey. "Cebril Tanchon came to see me today. He says I'm a member of his family. He wants to save me from drinking myself to death."
"And are you?" said Joey.
"Not that I know of," said Halsey. "I'm not his family and I'm not drinking myself to death."
"Then find out," said Joey. "Find out, one way or another. Is there a family connection or isn't there?"
"Does it matter?" said Halsey.
"We're reporting the news," said Joey. "Our credibility is on the line every time we go public. From what you're telling me, this guy Tanchon has some kind of weirdball agenda. If he's your wife's second cousin "
"You know what I mean. Find out if he's part of your family."
"No," said Halsey. "He doesn't feel like he's even from this planet."
"Well, check. Figure out that weirdball agenda of his, then come back and talk to me again. Meantime, I want you to take Ron. Oh, yeah and it wouldn't hurt to have a chat with your doctor, either. Maybe you are drinking yourself to death."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," said Halsey.
A wit once described a second marriage as the triumph of hope over experience. Two years after surviving a very bitter divorce, Halsey Olpatico was almost at the point of triumph. Almost.
"Poor Edgar," said Kim.
"What?" said Halsey, irritably.
He was half asleep. And, after a long evening of bar hopping, he was in no state for philosophical exchanges. Amazing, Kim's readiness to debate the heavier philosophical questions at two in the morning.
"I mean," said Kim, "why Edgar, in the first place? Why not oh, I don't know. The slave trade guys. Or Leopold. You know. Leopold the Second, king of the Belgians."
"Never heard of him," said Halsey.
"He was one of the all-time bad guys," said Kim. "Mark Twain wrote a play about him. You should read it some time."
"I'm too busy," said Halsey. "Plus, the world's too busy to worry about a bunch of bad guys nobody ever heard of. The whole thing's symbolic don't you get it? It's to make the point. Nobody is beyond the law."
"It won't be symbolic for Edgar," said Kim. "They'll fry him alive."
"They won't fry him," said Halsey. "They'll hang him. It's the ecofriendly option."
"Either way, I feel sorry for him," said Kim.
"So you want me to take Edgar?" said Halsey.
"No," said Kim. "Joey's right. You should take Ron. He was the president, after all."
* * *
Ron had been the president at one stage, but he had also become a very sick man, and his struggle with his illness, which had dragged out over years, had given him the status of a secular saint.
How do you accuse a saint?
It was entirely possible that the Court of Unitary Justice would find Ron guilty. In the eyes of the Court, the ways of gunboat diplomacy were not pardonable, and so just about every president was fair game. But the public was not likely to emotionally commit to the story, so how could the story possibly help Halsey's career?
Still ... Halsey dutifully started to do his research. But the more he learnt the less satisfied he was.
Ron had been elected to the presidency in 1980 and reelected in 1984, and was now scheduled to come before the Court of Unitary Justice on three sets of charges.
One set of charges was very complicated and involved the murky activities of the CIA in Nicaragua. From an emotional point of view it was highly unsatisfactory because of its complexity and the geographical and cultural distance between today's key media audience and the alleged victims.
The second set of charges was even less satisfactory, involving as it did some random shelling of the Lebanese hinterland at a time when Ron was unhappy with the actions of certain guerillas based in Lebanon. True, it was probably contrary to international law but since when was international law a topic of talk at the average breakfast table?
The third set of charges involved Ron's raid against Libya in 1986. And this was the set which made Halsey really disinclined to get involved. Whatever the legal nuances, it was clear that Ron had been up against a bunch of bad guys, real terrorists with real guns, and had been trying to hit them where they hurt. And the average hamburger-eater would probably think: Hey, how are you supposed to play by the rules when there aren't any rules?
Halsey was pretty sure of that because that was how he felt himself. The Court of Unitary Justice might quite possibly hang Ron, but, if so, then when they came to make the movie it would be Ron who would be the hero. The tragic saint, a martyr to the inhuman machineries of the law.
"I," said Halsey, "want Edgar."
But how could he get him?
Cebril was the key. So, very shortly, Halsey wrapped up his perfunctory research on Ron and zeroed in on Cebril Tanchon instead.
* * *
Halsey was drinking coffee in the Zest Best Emporium at seven in the morning when Cebril Tanchon caught up with him. Man, what an ugly guy! And such a bad suit. Today, a totally shapeless outfit of what looked like secondhand blue parachute silk. Worse, Cebril's silk necktie was a dazzling white which glittered with spangles. It called attention to itself, making it impossible to overlook the fact that it was stained with a smear of something yellow maybe egg. Today, Cebril smelt of stale cigar smoke.
* * *
"How are you becoming?" said Cebril, seating himself beside Halsey.
"Irritated," said Halsey. "You were wrong about the family connection, by the way. I spoke to my aunt Millie, she's the family genealogist. She's never heard of you."
"An omniscient aunt," said Cebril. "How helpful. If she's that good, you could quickrich maybe via public auction."
"Auction off Aunt Millie?" said Halsey. "No can do. She keeps the whole family in homebake cookies."
"I will bid for her myself if you change your mind," said Cebril. "Now, listen with appropriate focus, and don't baseball bat, because this is important. These charges against my client are absurd."
Appropriate focus? Baseball bat? Exactly where do you come from, Mr Tanchon?
"Is this an interview?" said Halsey.
"I suggest you record it, yes," said Cebril.
It was the first public statement from Edgar's team, and it made the news.
"You really can't get fired up about Ron, can you?" said Joey Blue. "And here was I, thinking you were a big issues guy. How wrong can you get?"
* * *
"You're right," said Halsey. "Ron is the historical issue. But, emotionally, I can't get into it. It's politics right?"
"You mean," said Joey, "you wouldn't get emotionally worked up if the British came sailing up the Potomac and burnt down half of Washington?"
He was referring to the events of 1814, a year in which the British had invaded Washington and had set fire to the White House. If your enemies do stuff like that then it's remembered forever as proof of exactly how evil they are, but if your friends misbehave in such a way then it's more natural to just let the whole thing be forgotten.
"That's ancient history," said Halsey, who was not going to let Joey Blue drag him into a useless argument about yesterday's wars. "The thing is, now we're the world's policeman, and sometimes a cop has to shoot someone."
"Shoot, maybe," said Joey. "But assassination is something else again. Right?"
"You're the boss," said Halsey.
"The Gadhafi guy," persisted Joey. "Ron tried to assassinate him. Bombed his house, wounded his wife, killed his adopted daughter. Isn't that enough juice?"
He was talking about Muammar al-Qaddafi, ruler of Libya, who had gotten his house bombed in a joint Anglo-American bombing raid back in April 1986.
"Collateral casualties," said Halsey, with a shrug. "You want to kill the bad guy, you got to risk the scenery."
"But Ron didn't kill the bad guy," said Joey, doing his best to be provocative. "The bad guy just got angry."
"So what?" said Halsey. "It's the motive that counts right? If you can find a law that says it's wrong, so what? I'd've done the same if I'd been Ron. But I wouldn't have done what Edgar did. Neither would any other decent human being. That's why I want Edgar and he's being arraigned at eleven. There's not much time."
"Well," said Joey, giving up on Ron, "if it's emotional juice that you want, then how about Jack?"
"Jack?" said Halsey, staring at his editor in disbelief.
"It's the trial of the century!" said Joey Blue.
"Says who?" said Halsey. "They weren't quality victims, Joey. They were whores. And Ron's were gooks."
"Whores and gooks," said Joey. "You could get lynched for that kind of stuff."
"Yeah," said Halsey, "I'm sure. Ms Bison would have the piano wire out in no time. Joey, I've given this a lot of thought. Edgar we're talking quality victim here. White woman "
"Child," said Joey. "You could get yourself in trouble, talking about her as a woman."
"Woman, child, whatever," said Halsey, warming to the task, starting to sell himself on the idea as he laid it out for Joey. "Innocent. Innocence defiled. Legalized rape. That's hotter than Jack, believe you me."
"No," said Joey. "Nothing's hotter than Jack."
Well, maybe. But Halsey thought that Jack would be far too raw for the livingroom. People want the truth, but they don't want that much truth.
"Joey," said Halsey, making his jump off the cliff. "This is how it is. I'm making a unilateral decision. I'm going to cover Edgar."
""Then you could be doing it freelance," said Joey, making one last effort to assert his authority. "I could fire you."
"Sure, go ahead," said Halsey, rising to leave. "I've still got that offer from Global, they're ready when you are."
A bluff. So he just had to hope that Joey Blue didn't call him on it. This would be a bad time to lose his job, particularly since Kim had just announced that she was pregnant, and, on the strength of that, they had just gone and gotten married. Halsey had big credit card debts and no savings, so, with fatherhood on the horizon, he desperately needed his job.
Another bar. The Minta Sinta Freebase Chamhouse, a drinkery run by the Aztec Cardiac Cult in the heart of Seattle.
* * *
"Still drinking?" said Cebril Tanchon, taking a seat beside Halsey. "With the baby on the launching pad?"
"She's the one who's pregnant, not me," said Halsey, wondering how Cebril had found out about that.
"Yes," said Cebril, "but your actions influence hers, and drinking is bad for the baby. You know that."
"I know a bunch of stuff," said Halsey. "But not much about you. You're a real hard guy to nail down. Who are you, for starters?"
"Tell me what you oddball," said Cebril. "Tell me what you induce and deduce, what you cogitate, and I'll tell you if you're starboard or port. Having eaten of the apple, what have you discovered?"
"I've found you're nominally of Lithuanian citizenship, to start with," said Halsey.
"Nominally?" said Cebril. "Well," said Halsey, "there's no evidence that you've ever been to Lithuania. Your accent checks out as American, but hard to place, and your diction is off the scale. The computers do suggest that you may be or have been a preacher, but that's just a suggestion. Anyway, you were admitted to the Court of Temporal Justice sorry, Unitary Justice "
"Old habits are hard to shake, right?" said Cebril, smiling in sympathy.
"Unitary Justice," said Halsey, picking up the broken thread of his discourse. "You got admitted, anyway. Some shady diplomatic deal with North Korea. The North Koreans got you in, got you admitted to the bar. But you sure don't look Korean."
"Indeed," said Cebril, smiling. "I've never even been to North Korea. Moreover, I'm certainly not a Communist, hard line or otherwise. The North Koreans are merely a convenience. They like money."
"Which comes to you from an account in an Austrian bank," said Halsey.
"Really?" said Cebril, raising an eyebrow, giving the impression of being both surprised and amused at one and the same time. "You have done well. I'm impressed that you've got that far. You are thinking, then, that you have reached the borderline where you have something to poker with. Are you not?"
"Yeah, well," said Halsey. "It's a story right? So. You want to talk?"
"Or what?" said Cebril, picking up on the note of menace in Halsey's voice. He looked around the restaurant. "I suppose it would be totally inappropriate for me to ignite a cigar in here."
"Yeah," said Halsey. "You'd get kicked out, or beaten up, or busted by the cops. One or the other."
"So I thought," said Cebril, with resignation. "Your forecast is threatening me. Am I right? Well? You stand silent."
"Is that the phrase? To sit silent? No? Well, in any case ... let us mutton on. Tell me if I don't talk, what follows?"
"Simple," said Halsey. "I go with what I've got. To coin a phrase, I dandelion the facts and the wind takes them where it will. Then we've got a big, murky mystery out there in the public domain. Mystery lawyer from out of nowhere buys his way into court. Get the picture?"
"You artist nicely," said Cebril. "You picasso."
"Now, this may be just fine with you," said Halsey. "On the other hand, if you talk with me, you get in right at the get-go with your side of the story. With your spin. You can spindoctor like crazy with a bit of luck, it won't look too bad. Anyway it's your choice."
"Hmmm," said Cebril, steepling his fingers together, thinking.
"Or," said Halsey, "maybe I should pass on what I know to the FBI. You're on Edgar's team, sure, but maybe Ron is your real interest. Maybe you're one of those out-there terrorists, aiming to gun down Ron before he gets his day in court."
Cebril shook his head slightly and permitted himself a slight but definite sigh.
"Let me first assure you," said Cebril, "that I am not one of the custard men. I am an extremely law-abiding man with a pronounced sense of justice. Let me pork belly a deal. I, for my part, undertake not to counterface any of our social covenants. You, for your part, will observe the decorum of silence, at least for the duration of the trial, for which duration you will glue with the defense team as, ah, a tactical adviser."
"I can do that?" said Halsey.
"In the Court of Unitary Justice, yes. Consider the advantages. You will have the privilege of being on the team for the trial's duration. At the swansong of that time, you and I will have a private talk, and I will answer any question you might have."
"Any?" said Halsey.
"Any," said Cebril, "and all."
"Deal," said Halsey.
"Oh, but ..."
"There is one small thing ..."
A pledge, as it happened. The pledge was short and simple.
"I, Halsey McDennis Olpatico IV, hereby solemnly pledge to abstain from the consumption of alcohol for the rest of my natural days."
Olpatico IV? How many years had it been since Halsey had seen that ostentatious "IV"? These days, he was plain and simple Halsey, whenever and wherever he could be.
"Is there a problem?" said Cebril.
"No," said Halsey. "No problem at all."
Inside track journalism. Do what it takes.
And Halsey signed.
"You what?" said Kim, laughter competing with astonishment.
"I signed the pledge," said Halsey.
"If that's so," said Kim, "then what are you doing with a glass of whiskey in your hand?"
"Celebrating," said Halsey.
"But the pledge?" said Kim.
"It'd never stand up in court," said Halsey.
"Then why did he make you sign it in the first place?" said Kim.
"Because he's bat-barking mad," said Halsey. "But he is also a story. And that's what counts."
"I'll drink to that," said Kim.
"Should you drink?" said Halsey, who was not an irresponsible man.
"Just one small one," said Kim. "Just one small drink. Then I'll stop."
And, three small drinks later, she did.
* * *
The trial. The glittering machineries of the Court of Unitary Justice. The defendant haggard, his face swollen, eyes trolling.
"Edgar Allan Poe. You are accused of having carnal knowledge of a female under the age of 18. How do you plead?"
Edgar stood mute. Had practiced for this. Had imagined, in advance, the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, the horrors of being buried alive. His mouthpiece spoke.
"My client pleads not guilty," said Cebril Tanchon. "Edgar will contend that he entered into a lawful marriage in accordance with the laws and customs of his times. These charges are fraudulent and shameful."
"Shameful?" The prosecutor was on her feet. "It's Poe who is shameful! That monster, Poe. She was thirteen years old. He raped her, she died! She was a child, he tore her clothes off, he wrenched her legs apart, her "
The judge, gavelling. The defense, objecting.
"Ms Bison has taken her melodramatics one step too far," said Cebril. "Edgar was married and happily married! for many years before his wife expired, tragically, of an illness entirely unrelated to her conjugal status. He was overcome by grief. He wrote a poem in her honor."
"Fetishistic behavior," sneered Ms Bison. "Serial killers take trophies, he "
Uproar from the battalion of Poe supporters who had crammed into the courtroom to lend moral support to their hero. More gavelling. Then a sudden rush toward Edgar a breakout attempt? Brief hand-to-hand combat. The screams of jolt sticks. The Marshals triumphant. The court cleared, all spectators banished.
* * *
When the court settled, it was clear that Edgar had come to life, snapping out of his slumped silence. He was stepping forward. A few steps: a lurching shamble.
* * *
"I will speak!"
Voice slurred. Brain damage? Maybe. Edgar Allan Poe, as one of his Twentieth Century biographers had deduced, had died of rabies. After being snatched from the last week of his life, Edgar had been treated for the disease which had been in the process of killing him. But he had already sustained permanent damage by the time the cure took effect.
Unfit to stand trial? Perhaps. But the Court of Unitary Justice had no interest in the question. Other courts held that a defendant must be capable of understanding and contributing to the proceedings, but the Court of Unitary Justice had no such rule. Necessarily. Modern technology was wonderful, but, even so, when people were kidnapped from their deathbeds, it was usually impossible to restore them to perfect health.
"Speak," said Edgar, tasting the word carefully, as if puzzled by its shape. "I will speak."
"It is not time for him to speak," said Ms Bison.
"But I permit it," said the judge, who was curious to hear this.
And, in any case, Edgar was already speaking.
"You cannot extend your own laws across all of time, across infinite space," said Edgar. "You are not God almighty."
"We don't need to be God to know a rapist when we see one," snapped Ms Bison. "This is the Court of Unitary Justice and justice is unitary. You, Poe, you raped a little girl."
The torn agony. That truly Romantic anguish.
"Oh, sure," said Ms Bison, "you went through a legal charade to rape her. Let's agree: Poe married his child bride. In accordance with law. But the rapists who contract their one-night marriages in Cockroach City also go through just such a legal charade."
Edgar was subsiding in sobbing grief. Halsey winced. The problem with Edgar was that he was too much himself. He didn't have that ironic unillusioned take on himself which characterized a modern man. Consequently, he came across as insincere: as a bit of a ham actor. But, all going well, sheer exhaustion would settle him down as the trial proceeded.
If more restrained, then Edgar would make a better story. As it was, the over-the-top guy they had on their hands came across as a bit of a clown.
"He loved her!"
Thus Cebril, speaking for his grief-disabled client.
"Love?" said Ms Bison savagely. "These acts of hate? Let's get real. Raping a child, only a Romantic would call that love. But Poe was and is a Romantic, isn't he? He's a Romantic, and the Romantic spirit is the spirit of self-excuse. Drug abuse, rape, sexual profligacy a Romantic can excuse anything. Take Byron, for instance."
Byron. Now that would be a great trial. He used his serving women as sex slaves, he committed incest, and, best of all, he fled his own nation to avoid the consequences of his actions. You could see Ms Bison slavering at the thought of Byron. Byron had actually been in the last Lottery, but chance had given them Edgar instead.
"If we set Poe free," said Ms Bison, "then we set a precedent which allows any perverted sex tourist to sodomise little children in Cockroach City with total impunity. If Poe is beyond the law, then so too are the sex tourists. If Poe is not within our jurisdiction then neither are they."
"Autre temps, autre moeurs," said Cebril crisply.
Halsey frowned. He understood the French other times, other morals but he knew his core audience well enough to know that, if Cebril didn't stick to English, then Edgar's struggling ratings would get even worse. (And, professional that he was, Halsey did want Edgar to be a worthwhile story in his own right, if possible, even though he judged that the most promising story, at the moment, was not Edgar but Cebril.)
Fortunately, the judge intervened at that point, requesting that Cebril Tanchon restrict himself to the English language.
The last interview. * * *
"You're Halsey," said Edgar.
"Yes," said Halsey.
Despite all the time that Halsey had spent on Edgar's team, there were days on which Edgar didn't really seem to recognize him. Medical science can only do so much. And this, unfortunately, seemed to be one of Edgar's bad days.
"That name ... is that a ... a ... "
Groping. Edgar Allan Poe, lost for words.
"It is neither a family name nor a personal name," said Halsey. "It's a registered personal imprint."
The complication, in Halsey's case, was that his registered personal imprint was also his given name. But let's keep this simple, huh? As simple as we can, under the circumstances.
"Imprint. And you're ... print. A newspaper man."
"That's right," said Halsey. "A newspaper man."
Well, it wasn't that simple. Okay, there were still newspapers, and some of the stuff which Halsey produced ended up getting piped to the print image people. But, in the polymorphously interfacing world in which Halsey lived, his stuff could just as easily end up on TV, or in one of the newer media in a gossip pot, for example. (If you could believe the pundits, in the future everyone would have a gossip pot, to chat with at breakfast or at intervals through the day. But, personally, Halsey thought it was going to stay very much a minority thing. Most people just weren't that conversational.)
"Some things don't change," said Edgar.
"That's right," said Halsey. "Some things don't."
True enough. Despite all the differences, in many ways Halsey's world was still much like Edgar's. Women were still women, men were still men, and newspapers were still newspapers, even when they were piped directly into your brain.
"So," said Halsey. "How do you feel?"
"Drunk," said Edgar.
And his face, which until then had been a mask of subdued grief, collapsed into a louche grin. Halsey smelt Edgar's breath, smelt the liquor. Edgar was drunk, yes. Someone had slipped him some alcohol, and Edgar had very little tolerance for strong drink. And, as the interview went on, Halsey realized it was hopeless.
For this privileged event, there were no cameras, no snoopers. The very laws which had enabled the establishment of the Court of Unitary Justice forbid anyone to pry into this confidential meeting, now or in the future. Which meant that Halsey could script this encounter however he wanted. Edgar, dead, would have no way to contradict him.
And is it even necessary to wait until he's dead? Well, let's think about the timing afterwards ...
Naturally, Halsey was recording the whole thing an optic nerve tap capturing what his eyes saw, and similar taps capturing the aural inputs but the data thus captured was malleable. It could be adjusted to meet the needs of whatever script Halsey ultimately came up with.
"If you could have your life over," said Halsey, "what would you do?"
"The same," said Edgar, drunk but defiant. "I'd do the same again, all over again."
The rock, pushed, pushes back, too despairing now or too fundamentally angry for any other course of action.
Okay, then. The interview was done. Now what? How should it be presented? What did the public want?
Script it as a tragedy. The Romantic lamenting for the dead wife, the reading of the raven poem you can do this. Highlight the "same all over again" as a wish to resurrect the relationship with the lost and beloved wife. Elide the underlying anger. Make Edgar softer, nicer, less defiant. Someone we'd like to take care of.
Now that the interview was in the bag, Halsey felt a growing sense of elation. Edgar's last interview was a scoop in its own right, and Halsey knew exactly how to tailor it. He knew how to reshape it with visuals, and how to edit it for the print market as well. For the print module, he would, perhaps, indicate how things smelt.
Yeah, way to go. Best timing? Well the hour just before the execution. Safer to wait until Edgar was actually dead. But an hour? Edgar would be busy. Medical checks, that kind of thing. Too late then for Edgar to do a critique. Write it this way: Slumped in despair, Edgar stank of fear and death.
"Way to go," muttered Halsey, pouring himself a celebratory glass of white wine in the privacy of his own livingroom.
It was his first drink in three days. And it was just wine. With the baby on the way, Halsey's vodka days were over for good. Cebril Tanchon's words had gone home. Halsey recognized that his actions did indeed affect Kim's: they were in this together. At moments, he even thought though not seriously of quitting entirely.
"Maybe," said Halsey, sipping, "maybe, after all this, the Cebril Tanchon revelations, whatever they are, will prove to be small beer."
Small beer: one of Cebril Tanchon's odd locutions which Halsey had adopted as his own.
* * *
The hanging. It has to end in death. They were dying when we took them. We took their dying flesh, leaving lookalike corpses to conceal the theft. If they are guilty, how can we, in good conscience, reward them by giving them the advantages of our medical science? True, they must benefit from that science in order to live long enough to stand trial. But, after that, an appropriate justice should follow. For them to live on at the taxpayer's expense does not fit our sense of justice.
* * *
A public hanging. It costs us a lot to run this court: we want to get value for money.
Three ropes. Jack, of necessity, must be hung in effigy, as he has taken a quicker exit route. (Under the Cultural Appropriacy Laws, prisoners are entitled to indulge in the customary rituals of their societies. And, in the Victorian England from which Jack hailed, for many beardless males the daily round of life included shaving with cutthroat razor.)
Ron is still smiling, as always. He looks dignified, standing there in his suit. He is wearing white. A white silk suit and a tartan tie. (Tartan? How come? There has to be a story there, if Halsey can but track it down.) As usual, Ron is totally disconnected from reality: he has no idea what is really going on. Edgar is suitably despondent, a very raven in appearance, his suit a funereal black. His appearance will do nothing to contradict Halsey's skillfully reengineered final interview which, right now, is one of the most sought-after items on the data market.
They are hung.
They are dead.
That night, Halsey smells them in his dreams.
Despite his bad dreams, Halsey slept solidly. He had achieved his main objective: he had made the Edgar story his. His schedule for the coming day was busy in addition to policing up the aftermath of the execution, he had a celebratory dinner scheduled with Kim and Joey Blue. He was looking forward to it.
* * *
All in all, things were going stunningly well. The Edgar interview was a hit, and better (maybe) was to come. After all, Cebril had promised Halsey an answer-all-questions opportunity. And Halsey had come to a couple of conclusions. One, that Cebril Tanchon was a man of his word. The other, that Cebril probably had a story well worth telling.
Better still, Halsey had received a message from Global. They were ready when he was.
"And did you sleep well?" Cebril. Cebril Tanchon, sitting at a gray desk, wearing an absurdly old-fashioned black suit complete with a stovepipe hat that might have come straight from Abraham Lincoln's wardrobe.
Halsey Olpatico was wide awake and blinking.
He was sitting in a big reclining high-tech chair, like a dentist's chair, only with restraining straps. Where? Gray room, gray carpet, gray desk. Gray curtains. Everything smelt, very faintly, of disinfectant. And of something else: the ghost of a cigar. On one wall hung a reproduction of Whistler's portrait of his mother; directly across from it, a gloomy old Germanic etching by Durer.
What time was it? And what day? Halsey tried to stare through the curtains, focusing on the mountains of his mental landscape, on the data streams with which he typically interfaced at least a dozen times a day, sometimes fleetingly, sometimes for hours. But there were no mental mountains to focus on.
"You've been clipped," said Cebril, who had noted that interrogation of purely hypothetical distances.
"It means we've disabled your internals," said Cebril. "You'll have to bare brain it, my friend."
"No problem," said Halsey, restraining the impulse to threaten to sue.
Stay cool, stay calm, and try to figure out what's going on.
"Now," said Cebril. "I promised you a private talk, did I not? I promised to answer your interrogatories. Very well. Let us quiz. First question."
"Okay," said Halsey, grabbing at the chance to orient himself to his revised reality. "First off where am I?"
"Ah," said Cebril. "The geographicals. A long way from Pioneer Square, as you may have guessed. Let me give you a hint. Please view, please."
On cue, the curtains turned transparent. Beyond the windows, the sullen horizons of a thunderous dawn. The gray daylight offered a view across a broad river of liquid pewter toward a city which was recognizably New York? Halsey looked again, and, this time, was not so sure. Too many new buildings, including huge skyscraper-sized globes and lozenges which seemed, impossibly, to support themselves in thin air.
"The future," said Halsey, naming what he saw.
"A future," said Cebril, correcting him.
"A future," said Halsey, tasting the difference.
"Indeed," said Cebril. "This is a future. One of the many. And I am a Prosecutor in the Court of Symbolic Justice. One of the few."
"If it's the future a future," said Halsey, "how come the fritzo retro look?"
"What?" said Cebril, looking at him blankly.
"Your blankets," said Halsey, lapsing into street English.
"My clothes, you mean?" said Cebril.
"Yes," said Halsey.
"Please, Mr Olpatico," said Cebril. "Time is short, and we have no time for sideburners. There'll be time enough later for you to read up on the fashion cycle, if you really want to. Only a little time, however our appeals process is very short, and we move on to the execution quickly."
"Execution?" said Halsey. "For your crime," said Cebril. "After all, you are guilty, are you not?"
"Hey," said Halsey. "You can't just snatch me out of my life and kill me! You'd slide history into a timeskid. It's not corpse time, baby. I'm in my prime! I'm a player! Do you know how dangerous this is? Ever heard of chronoclasm?"
"Let me quote you an old Roman motto," said Cebril. "It goes like this: Let justice be done even if entails the fall of the sky. In any case, in the present day our science treats temporal intervention as a common reference nullity. This means "
"That what you do to me and mine has no effect on you," said Halsey, his naturally quick mind abnormally focused, computing at quiz show speed. "But what have I done?"
"I think you know, Mr Olpatico."
"I don't," said Halsey. "And, in any case, symbolic justice is no justice at all. Justice is equal treatment under the law. One standard of enforcement for everyone. One unitary standard."
"Ah!" said Cebril registering droll amusement. "The reporter has become a convert! The morph is swift is it not, Mr Olpatico? However, the timing of your conversion perhaps leaves a little to regret."
"Look," said Halsey. "I'm innocent. I haven't done anything. Or are you is it the sins of omission route? Are you one of those Inactionist freaks?"
"No, Mr Olpatico, I am not a freak, and neither am I a clown. I am a Prosecutor, and this is your formal Orientation to the Sequence, and I reinforce that you must as you value your mortal soul bethink yourself of your sins."
Plainly, something about Halsey his attitude, or something he'd said had gravely offended Cebril Tanchon, who was worked himself up into a frenzy of moral rectitude. The increasingly artificial, old-fashioned language cued Halsey to the fact that he was being preached at. Cebril was operating in preacher mode.
"And?" said Cebril. "Do you acknowledge your sins, Mr Olpatico? Or are you determined to invite the special penalties which fall upon the obstinate?"
Special penalties over and above execution? Halsey didn't want to even begin imagining what that might mean. Instead, he tried to think of what he might have done.
The car accident? Hell no! He didn't do a Chappaquidick he stopped, he called the cops, he faced the music. The divorce, then. So much ugliness. He stole Malintha's favorite bluegrass CD. He punched out her lawyer. In an unforgivable moment, he even kicked Malintha's dog. Sure sign of a bad guy. But
"It's the lawyer, isn't it?" said Halsey, experiencing (or so he thought) a sudden flash of insight. "You're not human enough to care about the dog, are you?"
"What," said Cebril, holding up a bottle, "is this?"
"Vodka," said Halsey, identifying the label a Russian brand, tolerably famous.
"Alcohol," said Cebril.
"Yeah," said Halsey. "So what's your problem?"
"I think you know," said Cebril.
"Well ... there was that pledge," conceded Halsey. "But it'd never stand up in court."
"Mr Olpatico," said Cebril, "have you ever heard of Prohibition?"
"Counselor," said Halsey, "Prohibition got buried along with Al Capone."
"The law is the law," said Cebril. "Now as it was formerly. The law is the law, regardless of what you and your Mr Alphonse Capone may think about it. You are in breach of the law, Mr Olpatico. You betrayed your solemn pledge and partook of alcohol. As indeed did my mother."
"Your mother?" said Halsey, feeling as if he had just jumped out of a plane without a parachute, and was now plummeting earthwards in a mad uncontrollable spin. "How does your mother come into all this?"
"A good question, Mr Olpatico," said Cebril. "A very good question indeed. I well, I am what you see. But, after my birth, my mother became an alcoholic. My two brothers ... Mr Olpatico, have you heard of fetal alcohol syndrome?"
"Vaguely," said Halsey. "Do you mean your ... sorry to be crude, but I can't think of a ... a ... I mean, were your brothers, you know ... vegetables?"
"No, Mr Olpatico, we were not so lucky. No, Mr Olpatico, they were not sweet, lovable vegetables. They were they are mutant changelings. They can walk, they can talk they can even hold down jobs, when they choose to. But they are fashioned of evil. Sexually aberrant, treacherous little monsters."
"Hey," said Halsey. "Those are your brothers you're talking about."
"Exactly," said Cebril, steepling his fingers together, and looking uncharacteristically sad. He looked down. "My brothers. And my mother. My mother, whom we will bury very shortly. The hospital informs me it will be all over for her in barely another week or two."
There was silence then, while Halsey tried to process all this. The cumulative disordering shocks were starting to take full effect. He was glad he was safely strapped in the dentist's chair. Otherwise he might have fallen over. He was dazed, as disoriented as a man who has been unexpectedly hit over the head with the Andromeda Galaxy and has just woken up to find himself down on the floor in the middle of a bar full of crocodiles.
"Cebril ... Mr Cebril ... Mr Prosecutor ... Mr Tanchon, sir ... I'm very sad about your family troubles. And your mother ... well, I don't have the words. But ... I really don't think this is the way to go about putting things right."
Cebril Tanchon raised his eyes and looked Halsey squarely in the face.
"I don't want to set things right, Mr Olpatico," said Cebril, all axe murderer now, no humor left. "I want to set an example."
Hearing the cold and withered tones of that prosecutorial voice, Halsey saw how it was. Though technically sane, Cebril Tanchon was quite mad. And Halsey had, as the old schoolyard saying goes, two hopes slim and none.
Just one last shot.
"I thought you came to save me," said Halsey.
"I did," said Cebril. "I gave it my best percussion. But if you cannot be saved and you could not then you must be destroyed."
"Why me?" said Halsey.
"But you know that already," said Cebril.
Halsey was about to protest when he realized that, yes, he did know.
"We really are related," said Halsey.
"And the problem is transgenerational," said Cebril. "Habits are infective in the same way as genes. And the uncorking of the family drinking problem initiates with you."
* * *
At the trial, Halsey fought the good fight. He wasn't going to let them lynch him quietly. But, in addition to fighting for himself, he also made a special effort to say what he could in favor of Ron and Edgar. Given that it was a historical occasion, he wanted his remarks on the record.
"For someone made the most powerful man on the planet," said Halsey, "and faced from day to day with a host of potential disasters, up to and including global thermonuclear warfare, Ron didn't really do all that badly did he now?"
So much for Ron.
But, when it came time to speak of Edgar, Halsey thinking of what had been done to Edgar, and how just couldn't handle it. Poor Edgar.