The euphoria didn’t last long. In fact, it was the most fleeting euphoria of Eric Smith’s professional career. He’d just gotten off the phone with the Algogenics marketing manager. Build price: $0.79. License fee: $3.97. Retail: $5.99. Not the greatest margins, Marketing had said. But we’ll sell a ton of them.
Which is exactly what Eric had been claiming for E-retrieve all along. No more stolen cars. No more lost cars. No more lost keys. No more stolen or lost anything. Of course he hadn’t pitched exactly that to the development VP. Significant reduction in theft and loss. Should retail for almost one-fifth the cost of the original find-my-keys tile, with over ten times the capability.
So why this sense of foreboding? Everything had been going incredibly well. He’d met the love of his life, granted she’d been discovered on the second time around. Good relations with his ex. A beautiful and talented daughter who remained devoted to two parents who discovered after fifteen years of marriage that they didn’t really like each other. No financial worries. A rent-controlled, Upper East Side apartment that most New Yorkers would kill for: two bedrooms, two baths, living room, full kitchen, and, as Val liked to call it, the “everything” room: a vaulted-ceiling, twenty-by-thirty-foot room, serving as an office, conference room, and gymnasium, with a picture-window view of Manhattan and a 150-inch flat-screen TV, called a telescreen, on the wall. Always pleasant in the apartment regardless of the season, with a state-of-the-art centrally located climate control system, adjustable by the tenant for each room.
So tell me, Eric said to himself, what is the problem? There is no problem. Normal letdown after a huge success.
Chimes. His daughter Valerie on the telescreen. He clicked connect.
He had to admit he felt a little like Captain Kirk on the bridge of the starship Enterprise when looking at that huge screen. At least the visitors were friendly.
“Hi, sweetheart. How are things in sunny California?”
“It’s sunny in Sunnyvale. Not so much here.”
The background was her office at Teraffic headquarters in Palo Alto, not her home in Mountain View. She was beautiful, just like her mother. Dark hair, dark eyes, beautiful smile. He’d never quite figured out if she was also headstrong like her mother. She certainly wasn’t with him. But what was her personality like at work? He couldn’t tell. They never discussed anything about work.
Maybe that was one problem. Father and daughter, both successful product developers, and unable to talk about their work experiences. At least not until announcement. Be careful what you put in an email. When you delete them, they don’t go away. Were telephone conversations monitored? You just didn’t know.
After getting the MBA from Stanford, she got so many job offers. She chose Teraffic, the big West Coast networking company. After three years there, her yearly salary was higher than he’d ever made.
“You’re in the office today,” Eric said.
“Had to come in for a presentation. And you’re at home in the everything room?”
He smiled. “Everything, if you don’t mind occasional rearranging.”
“Dad,” she said soberly, “you look a little pale. Why don’t you try to get out more?”
“Well, you know I work completely at home now.”
“But you don’t even get out on weekends,” she persisted. “You know, here at Teraffic, if you work at home, you don’t have to be working every minute.”
“Why don’t you give Mitch Rayburn a call and play some tennis in the park? And think about coming out here for a while. The air is very good out here.”
“I will, sweetheart. I promise.”
After they disconnected, he realized she was right. He had trouble recalling the last time he’d left the apartment. It was over to Kristin’s place, but that might have been three weeks ago. A recent survey found that more activities were performed at home than ever before: work, entertainment, exercise, medical checkups. Maybe he was being paranoid, but in his case it seemed every time he went out, even if it was just over to Madison Avenue to pick up some groceries, he invariably developed some bug two days later that took two weeks to get rid of.
The thin, craggy, tanned face of Mitch Rayburn appeared on the telescreen. Working at home also. Mitch was one of those wiry people with boundless energy. They’d been playing tennis on and off for about twenty-five years, ever since their families met. Both couples had moved from Brooklyn to the city after the kids were grown.
“Hey,” Mitch said, “how are things at the Utopian Arms?”
“Confining,” Eric replied. Mitch and his wife Linda were one of the few couples to make a sustained effort to socialize with him after the divorce.
“Want to hit a few?” Mitch asked.
“Exactly my intention.”
“Meet you at the park in half an hour?”
Eric paused. “Problem is I don’t have time to get to the park and back. I have a meeting at two. How about some SuperPong?”
Mitch frowned. Eric knew he really didn’t like Pong. But Mitch agreed.
“King Pong it is,” Mitch said.
“Let me just move some stuff.” It didn’t matter. Indoors or out, he never got more than a game or two off Mitch.
He had the sofa bed on casters so it could easily be moved sideways against the wall and out of the way. Special tennis slippers so the downstairs neighbors didn’t complain. Sensor-equipped racquet. All set. Serves were okay because both players had high ceilings.
The avatar of Mitch wearing a white tennis shirt and black shorts appeared on the telescreen on the other side of a net. Mitch started a rally. The ball came at you almost as if you were on a real court. Sensors on the racquet calculated the pace of the ball, its spin, where it would hit on your racquet, and the direction, pace, and spin of your return shot. At last. Video games for the older generation.
“You really like this better than a game outdoors?” Mitch called out.
“No way,” Eric replied. “I just prefer the tennis slide-step to the treadmill.”
During a break, as both players sat in their desk chairs in their home offices, the screen showed their avatars seated by the side of the court as if during a changeover.
“Did you have any water damage from Hurricane Karl?” Eric asked.
“Just some stuff I had stored downstairs. How about you?”
“Nothing. I think the tenants here are getting overconfident. Some feel the flooding wouldn’t dare reach East 82nd Street.”
“They may be in for a rude—or wet—awakening.”
“I think you’re right.”
As play resumed, a horsefly settled on the rim of Eric’s racquet. He waved the racquet, but the fly wouldn’t budge. “Damn,” he muttered, turning the racquet face down and taking vicious swipes at the air. “I’m having enough trouble with my strokes without close-up spectators.” The bug flew off, but was right back as he prepared for the next point.
“Your game’s not on today,” Mitch said, at the next changeover. “Better off playing outdoors.”
“There’s this fly that’s been driving me crazy.”
Mitch feigned amazement. “A fly? That’s the lamest excuse I ever heard.”
“Did you think I was doing my world-famous interpretation of John McEnroe attacking cups on a watercooler?”
“It did cross my mind.”
A quarter to two. No time for a shower. Maybe one of the benefits of isolation. He said good-bye to Mitch and clicked the Meeting of the Minds 2.0 icon on his desktop. A hologram of a conference room, with table and chairs, appeared to his left. Holograms of his team began filing into the room. His own image greeted them at the door. Janice, always bubbly, greeted him. Robert, the best designer he’d ever had, looked dour as usual. He hated meetings, in person or via hologram. Each participant could control his own actions via his laptop. It was like making a collaborative movie on the fly.
“Okay,” Eric said. “Let’s get started.” He had to admit he was looking forward to announcing the good news.
Bud Crowley’s image filled the telescreen.
“Rick, can you excuse yourself for just a minute? I’ve got to talk to you.”
Bud Crowley. Heavyset, balding, late fifties. Seated behind his office desk. Crowley didn’t like working at home. He preferred a corporate environment. They’d worked together for twelve years. At Algogenics, Crowley was first line when Eric was a software developer. Crowley made him lead developer. When Crowley made project manager, Eric became first line. They’d always had a good rapport. Adjacent levels of the hierarchy must support each other. Crowley had an excellent reputation as a development manager who could get projects out the door, on time and under budget.
“Can’t I get with you in an hour, Bud? We just began this meeting.”
“It’s important, Eric. It won’t take long.”
He sent Robert his notes. “Robert, take over for me, please. Just follow the agenda on your laptop.” Good managerial strategy. Let the guy who hates meetings run the meeting. Especially with good news.
The hologram disappeared. On the telescreen Crowley looked edgy. Still wearing the ever-present vest. “I need to schedule a mid-year with you,” Crowley said.
Did you really interrupt my meeting for that? Wait a minute.
“A mid-year what?”
“Evaluation? I just had one four months ago.”
“That’s why it’s called a mid-year, Eric.”
Chills ran up Eric’s back.
“Bud, mid-years are for people about to get the boot.”
“Eric, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. I really don’t know what this is all about. There’s a new VP of development, and he wants mid-years.”
“Did you get a notice for Callahan?” Callahan was the planning manager, the weakest of all Crowley’s first lines. Crowley had spoken to Eric about replacing Callahan and returning him to staff.
Eric felt his anger rising. “Did you get a notice for any of your first lines? Did Jameson get one for you?”
“Eric, you know, even if that happened, I could not share that information with you.”
But there was a time when he shared all information like that. When Eric still worked at the corporate offices, Crowley would review with him who had to go in response to the latest round of cuts. He remembered Crowley escorting some poor slob who had worked all his life for Algogenics back to the guy’s cubicle. One hour to clean out your office and surrender your badge. Everyone else trying not to look, their expressions like they were attending a funeral. “This is tough on everyone,” Crowley had whispered to Eric as he passed by.
“Can you show the notice to me?”
“Eric, you know I can’t do that.”
“Can you at least give me some idea of what the issue is?”
Reluctantly, Crowley studied his desktop screen. “It doesn’t say much. There’s one interesting word, though.”
“Goddamn it,” Crowley exploded, “if anyone’s monitoring this call, and they probably are, I could be shit-canned myself for telling you this.” Crowley slumped back in his chair. “I’m sorry, Eric. That was a poor choice of words.”
“What’s the word in the notice?”
It was Eric’s turn to become furious. “Valerie,” he muttered. “Let me tell you something. If someone’s concocted a story that I’m leaking confidential data, I will sure as hell file a wrongful dismissal suit. Val and I are painfully careful about never discussing anything about our projects. We can’t even have a normal father-daughter conversation. ‘Did you work on anything interesting today, Dad?’ ‘Can’t tell you that.’”
“Calm down, Eric. It’s not your daughter.”
“Then who is it?”
“I honestly don’t know. We’ve got a little time before the review has to occur. How about trusting me to get to the bottom of this.”
Eric turned off the telescreen, monitor, and computer. Not sure whether the quiet was good or bad. He sat at his desk, leaning forward, hands on his chin, watching the blank screen.
His smartphone vibrated. He clicked on the computer and the telescreen. Kristin’s image appeared on the telescreen. No sense in telling her yet.
“Eric! What’s wrong?”
So much for concealment.
Wisps of blonde hair down the sides of her face. Soft, soothing. So different from Meredith, who was glamorous and intense.
“It’s probably nothing, Kris. Crowley called before and said he had to schedule a mid-year evaluation for me.”
Did she have to go through that bullshit? Probably not. She was a tenured associate professor of sociology at Columbia.
“Don’t you usually do pretty well at those?”
“I do. At least I did. I just had a real good one four months ago. But mid-years are usually for guys on probation.”
He really didn’t want to say canned, fired, given the boot. And he realized how much he needed to be with her tonight.
She looked worried. “Eric, that’s bizarre. There must be some mix-up. Did you ask Crowley about that?”
“We’ve got to talk about this,” she said quietly. “I’m coming over tonight.”
“Don’t come over, Kris. You’ll just have to go back uptown tomorrow. I’ll be okay.”
Maybe it was just a mistake. A transposition of serial numbers. Effuse apologies tomorrow. How could you think it was you?
“Eric, listen to this,” Kristin said. “Maybe this is fortuitous. Instead of class, we had a speaker today.”
But the way Crowley described it, a mistake seemed unlikely. New jobs were really hard to find now. How could he afford to stay in this apartment? He’d get a severance package for sure. How long would that last? He’d have to move in with Kristin. Well, that’s what they said they both wanted. Solve the problem of living apart.
“Did you ever hear of Sterling Davis?”
Sterling Davis. “It sounds familiar.”
“He’s the publisher of the Sentinel.”
Of course. New York Sentinel. Good reporting, little advertising. Not a major player in publishing.
“He’s very, very interesting,” Kristin said. “I mentioned your name to him after the talk. He knows all about you. And he wants to meet you.”
“I’ll get him on the telescreen.”
“That was the good news. The not-so-good news is that he wants to see you in person. He said he’d be available tonight at five.”
* * *
The offices of the New York Sentinel Publishing Company were in a gentrified section of the Lower East Side, not too far from the New York City Tenement Museum. The building was brick and glass, located near the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge. Eric heard that apartment rentals in the area were closing in on $3,000 per month, although the steep rise had abated somewhat as a result of the latest flooding. Three thousand a month, Eric mused. In the early twentieth century, with the mass immigration from Eastern Europe, tenements used to rent for $10 a month.
The layout for the New York Sentinel Publishing Company seemed normal enough, with the presses hidden behind a reception area, and the news and editorial areas on the second floor. The only abnormal thing was the location of the office of the publisher. A receptionist directed him one flight down.
As he descended the carpeted staircase, Eric realized he had no idea what this meeting was about. The secretary with whom he’d made the appointment simply said, “We’ll see you at five.” Maybe he should have tried to get more information from Kristin. But he had the feeling that was all the information there was.
This pretty much had to be a job interview. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to have something in reserve, something temporary, in the event of a worst-case scenario at Algogenics. What would I do at a newspaper? Probably write a technology column. I could handle that. Best not to mention the situation at Algogenics. It’s been a long time since I went for a job interview. Always easier to get another job while you’re still employed at the old one.
The lower level of the New York Sentinel publishing offices had a small reception area with no one there. The room was furnished in various levels of brown: tan carpet, dark mahogany desk, and walnut paneling on the walls. Secretary must have gone home, Eric thought. Through a half-opened door to the main office, he saw floor-to-ceiling bookshelves cluttered with papers and books; there was a large black man seated behind a desk and reading a report. Among the papers and books on the desk was a black computer monitor. Eric quietly approached the entrance. Above the doorway was a sign with large black block letters: ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.
Not very welcoming for job seekers, Eric thought as he approached the doorway. This was going to become nothing more than an amusing adventure to talk about with Kristin. The shelves on the far wall contained mostly books on the upper shelves, and stacks of reports and old newspapers on the lower ones. Piles of other papers were on the floor surrounding the desk. When the man behind the desk rose to greet him, Eric saw that the Sentinel publisher, Sterling Davis, was even larger than he’d imagined—about six-foot-seven, but with a soft, rounded face. Davis wore a wine-colored warm-up suit.
“Mr. Smith, I presume,” Davis said, looking down from glasses perched on his nose. He extended his hand. “Right on time.”
Eric shook Davis’s hand. “I had no trouble getting here,” he said. “The sign above your door stunned me a little.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Davis said. “We’re moving part of our operation upstate. Some of our senior editors have complained about having to give up their plush New York apartments.”
“Well, my apartment is utilitarian but not plush,” Eric replied. Stupid thing to say. He hasn’t even offered me a job yet. I’m not even sure this is a job interview. Change the subject. Quickly.
“Kristin—Professor Meyers—thought your presentation today went quite well.”
Davis smiled. “Ah, Professor Meyers at Columbia. Lovely woman. Now, is she your wife?”
There was no good term to describe their relationship. “Partner,” Eric said. He wanted to make a joke about their not getting married because neither wanted to give up their rent-controlled apartments, but decided against it.
“I thought the talk went well,” Davis said, “in spite of the usual harassment.”
“Not the students. Horseflies.” Davis studied Eric. “You look intrigued.”
“No, I mean there must be an infestation of them,” Eric said. “It’s very unusual for them to get into our apartment building. Yet earlier today, to get some exercise before a meeting, I played some indoor tennis. This horsefly just settled on my racquet and wouldn’t get off.”
Davis smiled. “I can understand that, although your situation is a bit different from mine. You’re so squeaky clean that the handler probably got bored, and tried to goad you into using your racquet as a flyswatter.”
“What?” What was this guy talking about?
“It wouldn’t have worked. You can’t swat the damn things. If you trap them they’ll self-destruct. Poof, like matter meeting antimatter. I actually managed to disconnect the receiver on one before the handler could send the signal.”
Puzzled, Eric stared at Davis.
“NAV 5,” Davis said. “And that’s not a mutual fund price. Nano Air Vehicle 5.”
“Exactly. But they can’t hurt you. They’re just there to snoop.”
“You’re saying the government is using drones to spy on its own citizens?”
“Oh, not the government,” Davis said, “although I wouldn’t put it past some congressmen doing it in return for large campaign contributions. Besides, the government has largely become a bunch of fund-raisers. They spend most of their energies trying to get elected. They don’t have time to devote to legislation. So who do they hire to write the laws? Companies like yours. No, I suspect the little emissary perched on your racquet was from your own company.”
Eric seriously considered the possibility that Davis was nuts.
“But let’s get down to business,” Davis said, leaning forward. “I’m going to make you a job offer.”
An offer, Eric thought. After a very brief interview.
“I appreciate that,” Eric said. “But, you know, I’m still employed at Algogenics.”
“Mr. Smith—Eric—can I call you Eric? I’ve been accused in the past of being insensitive. I can be the diplomatic Davis or the straightforward Davis. Which do you prefer?”
This was definitely the weirdest job interview Eric had ever experienced. “The straightforward Davis,” he said.
“Your job at Algogenics is finished. Kaput. History. I feel guilty about that, because I’m probably the cause.”
“That’s impossible,” Eric said, before realizing that this could be a trap. “I mean, there was some mix-up at work, but that was before I even met you or knew anything about you.”
“Tell me, in this ‘mix-up,’ did the word ‘associations’ come up at all?”
Eric could not believe what he just heard.
Davis looked genuinely concerned. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Sometimes the straightforward Davis is not appropriate.”
“No, no,” Eric rallied. “But how did you know that?”
“It’s not complicated. They’ve got horseflies, but I’ve got human contacts.”
Eric tried to remain calm. “Let’s assume you’re correct. Let’s assume I’m about to get fired. How is that your fault?”
“Associations,” Davis replied. “Your company, and virtually all other major companies, have a morbid fear of associations. I give talks on what is really going on in the world. Professor Meyers is one of my biggest supporters. And Professor Meyers happens to be your partner.”
To Eric, it just seemed too bizarre.
“Look,” Davis said, “let me give you some background on what we’re up against. Our institutions began as instruments. At least, that’s what Carroll Quigley, Bill Clinton’s old sociology professor at Georgetown, called them. They were entities created to fulfill a societal need. Weapons manufacturers who produce arms that enable the country to defend itself. Oil and gas producers to provide the country with energy. Doctors to keep people in good health. Banks to help companies get started and individuals to buy a home. Unfortunately, at some point, these entities deviate from their original intent and take on a new primary goal: their own survival. At this point, Quigley claims they become institutions, and once their survival seems assured, they strive to become more powerful, subverting their original purpose. Arms manufacturers don’t care how many innocent people get killed, as long as their companies sell more guns. Gas and oil producers don’t care how much they pollute the air and water, as long as people buy more of their offerings. Health maintenance organizations care less about the welfare of their patients and more about increasing their profits. Banks develop complex schemes to bilk other institutions and individuals out of their money.”
“It’s almost like you believe they’re alive,” Eric said.
“Quigley didn’t think so, and neither do I. But in their struggle for survival and then to become more powerful, they certainly exhibit lifelike characteristics—with their life-blood being money. The problem is because they are so gigantic and indistinct to us, their bodies—their corpus—are difficult to deal with. Especially when they incorporate us as their cells. The sad part is we created them as corporate structures, with the idea of their protecting us as individuals. Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. We’ve created these primitive behemoths who shit all over the globe, corrupt our democratic institutions, and really don’t care whether we live or die. We are all just another cell that can be replaced.”
Davis turned to his desktop monitor. “Take a look at this,” he said.
A scholarly-looking paper entitled, The Growing Sophistication of Corporate Scams: from S&Ls, to Enron, to Goldman Sachs, appeared on the screen. “It establishes a link between financial scandals centered around sophisticated financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations,” Davis said. “I show it to you because this paper had about as much effect on the public psyche as the exposés I ran in the Sentinel.
“The problem is, how many people read and understood this? I think my own post-2008 analysis in the Sentinel did better as far as readership was concerned, but both were after the fact. Each scandal occurs, worse than the one before. Sometimes the perpetrators are sent to jail, sometimes not. The institutions don’t care. These cells can be replaced. Governments struggle to recover. New regulations are put in place. Gradually the economy does recover. Then the most interesting phase occurs. The industry starts calling for less regulation. They can’t function with this stifling oversight. The economy is growing too slowly. It should be expanding faster. That marks the birth of the newest phase of financial disaster. The problem is we’re always playing catch-up. And that,” Davis said, “is where you fit in.”
Ah, Eric thought. The exciting climax to this interview.
“We need a program that, information-wise, keeps us ahead of the curve—very similar to the way the FBI tries to stop terrorist attacks before they happen. This program must be able to handle multiple streams of input data and alert us to impending financial disaster—a kind of economic warning system. As you may gather, I have a wide range of information sources. Usually their data is quite accurate, but sometimes not. Financial reports from various government agencies tend to be more incomplete rather than inaccurate. They get only what the financial industry wants them to see. Your software must enable us to determine what is the truth.
“A starting point is a recent article by a financial analyst named Paul W. Ackerman. Its title is ‘The Coming Tsunami of Financial Disasters.’ Unfortunately, copies of this report have been disappearing from the cloud—and even from personal computers.”
“Really?” Eric said skeptically.
“That seems to be the case. But I have a printed copy, and I’m making duplicate copies upstate.”
“Is that where I’d be working?”
“Yes. The air is much better there, and I have an expert team of exterminators to handle the horsefly problem.”
Eric smiled. Corporate information drones? I don’t know.
“Here’s the offer,” Davis said. “Both you and your partner would be very valuable additions to my company. Even though when I spoke to her she deferred to you, I think she’s interested. I can’t quite match your salary at Algogenics, but I can pay her more than she’s making now. As for E-retrieve, I’m sure you’re aware that everything you’ve developed belongs to your company. You will get a small monetary reward for your accomplishment, which I’m willing to match as a sign-on bonus. Think about it, discuss it with your partner, and let me know.”
They shook hands as Eric rose to leave. “One more thing,” Davis said. “I would not try to get the Ackerman report off the Web just yet. I should have my printed copies available tomorrow.”
In the cab going back to his apartment, Eric tried to make some sense of what he had just experienced. Sterling Davis is an evangelical kook. Kristin seems to have a lot of respect for him, but Kristin is a hopeless idealist. That’s one thing I love about her. I’m intrigued at how much information Davis has access to. But I’m also intrigued about the case of the disappearing report.
In his apartment, he found the low hum of his computers and the air-conditioning relaxing. It was seven o’clock. Should give Kristin a call. First, let’s see what I can find out about Mr. Ackerman’s report.
He used the desk monitor. Let’s see. “Paul Ackerman tsunami financial disasters.” Well, there they are. All sorts of links. Try one. Hmm. “404 message not found.” Try some others. All the different variations. “Oops! Page not found.” “You 404’d it, gnarly dude.” The links were all there, but the content was gone.
Of course it may not exist in the first place, he thought. Time to break out my own mega-browser. Not that much better than standard browsers, but it does have the ability to access remote crannies of the Internet. The name I’ve given it, Eric_Smith, is somewhat narcissistic. Let’s give it a try. Execute Eric_Smith.
He saw one entry that he hadn’t seen before in the list of links, and clicked on it. Voilà! There it was. “The Coming Tsunami of Financial Disasters,” by Paul W. Ackerman. He clicked on “Print.” Pages started spewing from the printer on the small table next to his desk.
He grabbed the first couple of pages and started reading. Powerful. Really powerful stuff.
“Mr. Smith, this is an emergency. Please turn off your printer.”
He had no idea where the voice was coming from. He looked around the apartment. No one there. He looked toward the door. Locked. This was New York. You always locked your apartment door. His monitor still showed the print window. He hadn’t turned on the telescreen, and it was still blank. He physically disconnected the system speakers.
No effect whatsoever. “Smith, this is an emergency. Turn off your printer!” The tone was more urgent.
A man was in the room, not on the telescreen, but in front of it. If someone were sent to break into his apartment to prevent his printing a sensitive document, Eric expected that person to be a cross between someone from the Mafia and an FBI agent—fiftyish, dark suit, dark glasses, muscular. This person was muscular, but younger. Early forties, no glasses, light tan sport shirt and dark brown slacks.
“I don’t understand,” Eric said. “How did you get in here?”
“I’ll explain that later. Now turn off that printer!”
The man, so realistic, still had a gossamer quality. “Hologram!” Eric realized. The unannounced accompaniment to Meeting of the Minds 2.0. He can’t hurt you, and he can’t actually do anything, Eric told himself. It’s just light and air. That’s why he tries to scare you into aborting that print. Still, it’s best not to challenge him.
“Smith! Turn off that goddamned printer!”
“All right. All right,” Eric said, rising from his chair. The print had to be almost complete. “Oh, shit,” he muttered, stumbling forward toward the printer table. The flop hurt him more than he expected. As he tried to get up, he heard a deafening crack, like lightning had scored a direct hit on his apartment. The room went dark, all humming sounds ceased, and smoke began to fill the room. He staggered toward the door, unlocked it, and stumbled into the smoke-filled hallway.
All his neighbors were in the hallway, stunned looks on their faces—shadowy faces he could not recognize. Some pounded on the elevator button; others started streaming toward the stairwell door. Smoke alarms squealed all over the place. A siren sounded from outside. Strangely, the exodus was orderly—no real panic. What the hell caused this? “Probably some knucklehead left his stove on. They should kick him out of here before he gets us all killed.” The descent down the stairwell was almost robotic.
Call Kristin when I get out. Is it all right if I spend a few nights at your place? She may just want to cast our lot with Davis. This may be a first. Driven from homes for reasons other than accidents, natural disasters, or military madness. He felt fortunate knowing he had somewhere to go. He studied the faces around him. Probably true of everyone else—for now, anyway.
About the Author: Bill Carr’s short story “Exquisite Hoax” was published in the Scholars And Rogues online literary journal. His work has also appeared in Menda City Review and The Penmen Review. He has had several articles published relative to online education and the computer industry. He received his master’s degree in English from Brooklyn College and currently serves as chairperson of the North Carolina B’nai B’rith Institute of Judaism.
Artwork: Deanna Crane