alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
"Son, you mind telling me what it is that has so completely captured your attention since we left Kansas City?" said Mordecai Collins, as he guided the truck he was driving off the Interstate. The young man in the passenger seat, whose name was Bill and who was, in fact, no relation to Mordecai, looked up from his iPad, took off his glasses, and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"I've been reading about some legendary Hungarian gypsy tune that's supposed to make people feel so sad they want to commit suicide," he said. "It's part of some research I'm doing to fine-tune the act by adding some sound effects."

"So playing music that'll have people want to do away with themselves while watching my 'Amazing Mordecai' act would be beneficial, exactly, how—?" asked Collins.

"Don't be a jerk," said Bill, though Mordecai was old enough to be his father. "I'm researching how sound affects people—and audiences."

"Sounds like a gimmick to me," said Collins, and then: "You really think there's anything to it?"

"Yes, I do," said Bill, "but it's hard wading through all this stuff—there are no definitive answers, except maybe for this gypsy tune thing, which is almost certainly a myth. There are people who swear that music played in minor keys—and D minor in particular—makes people sad, but others disagree. One piece I read debunked the idea with examples from Spinal Tap, Miles Davis, and Eric Clapton."

"All very fascinating, I'm sure," said Collins. "Is there a bottom line to all your 'research'?"

"Hey, research doesn't necessarily have a 'bottom line', y'know?" said Bill. "But in the long run, it could come in handy."

"In the long run, kid, we'll all be pushing daisies," said Collins.

"That's as may be, but your act still needs updating."

"One step at a time, junior" said Collins. "I realized, back when I hired you, that the act needed to be reinvented, and you've made a lot of decisions that turned out well. You said: 'Get rid of the capes,' so I did. No capes. You said: 'Touch up the hair,' so I did, and now I don't look so much like a geezer. And branching out from straight read-your-mind mentalism to include a 'speak to the dead' spiritualism segment at the end was sheer genius, the way people lap it up. By the way, how big did the book on this next stop turn out to be?"

By "the book," Mordecai was referring to a printout of information about a town and its inhabitants, which had been collected on the Web by a group of "intelligent software agents" programmed by Bill to gather certain kinds of information that could be skillfully exploited by Collins while pumping audience members and purporting to speak with the dead.

Bill answered the question and was happy that Mordecai had changed the subject. He wasn't eager to mention the new infrasound equipment in the back of the truck, preferring to rely on Hopper's Law— It's easier to seek forgiveness than permission—with respect to his latest intended improvement to Mordecai's act.

* * *
The truck turned into the parking lot of the civic center in Novin, Kansas, early that afternoon. Mordecai and Bill got out of the truck to stretch their legs and take a good look at the performance venue.

The building looked as if it had once been the home to some fraternal order. Moose, maybe, or Elks. The portico at the entrance seemed out of place, resembling an afterthought that had been affixed to the main building with spit and scotch tape. There was no auditorium inside, just a raised platform that served as a stage at one end of a long room where folding chairs would be set up for that night's performance. "Reinvented" though Mordecai's act might have been, he and Bill still had a long way to go before they could hope to escape the sub-small-town circuit.

"So what do you think?" asked Collins after the pair had gotten back in the truck, but with Bill behind the wheel now. "Shall we quit while we're ahead?"

"What… and give up a career in the theater?" replied Bill, and started the engine. This exchange had become an arrival ritual for the two, with Bill's response quoting the punch line to one of the oldest jokes in show business.

The two men laughed soundlessly for a moment, and then Mordecai said: "Let's go find the hotel. We'll check in, and while I review the book, you come back and set up for tonight's show. Standard drill."

"You got it, boss," said Bill, mentally adding with a little something extra! as he put the truck in gear.

* * *
The size of the civic center belied the local population's thirst for entertainment that didn't consist of the usual shadows flickering on a television screen. The house, as one might hear said on Broadway, was packed. And Mordecai had the audience eating from the palm of his hand, even if most of the mental effects he performed were old before television was invented. Then again, "old" is new if you've never seen it before.

And, as it turned out, "the book" for Novin, Kansas, had been particularly useful for the spirit part of the act. As a typical example, Mordecai was able—using information that Bill's cybernetic "agents" had gleaned from public records, newspapers, Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs, and a number other sources—to "channel" the spirit of a beloved grandmother to convey some sage (yet noncommittal) advice about a recent long-distance breakup that had been suffered by a young woman in the audience.

For his finale, Mordecai had decided to focus on a local mystery: the disappearance, a decade earlier, of—of all things—a magician who, as best as Collins could figure out, was performing at this very civic center. According to the stories in the press, at the end of the last of six performances in Novin, Peter Templar had been locked in a trunk by his assistant, who then climbed onto the trunk and raised a curtain around herself and the trunk. At the count of three, the curtain fell to reveal the trunk, but unlike in the previous five performances, Peter Templar was not standing on the trunk. When the trunk was opened, the assistant was inside, unconscious. And Peter Templar had simply disappeared.

"It is time to bring this evening's demonstration to a close," intoned Mordecai, "but it would appear there is an insistent attempt at communication from the other side, from someone who walked as a mysterious stranger among you years ago." He closed his eyes and stretched out his right arm. He could almost feel the silence in the room. But there was something else, as well. Collins put whatever it might be out of his mind. The show, after all, must go on.

"I'm getting conflicting messages, as if this stranger was both supposed to disappear, and at the same time not disappear. Does that make sense?" Most of the faces in the audience nodded, even if nobody said anything. All the locals, apparently, remembered, or had been told about Peter Templar. The tuxedoed performer was supposed to disappear as part of his act, not disappear for real.

Mordecai closed his eyes again. After moment, he intoned: "The stranger says he is not far away." And as he said it, a chill ran down Mordecai's spine, which had never happened before during a performance. Mordecai quickly opened his eyes and saw a gray blob out of the corner of his eye. When he turned to face the blob, it disappeared.

"Did you see it?" cried a voice from the audience. "Yeah," said someone else. "What was that?"

The blob reappeared out of the corner of Mordecai's eye and again disappeared when he turned it its direction. By now, he felt a pervasive uneasiness. His face was drained of color and his mouth hung open. He raised his arms in supplication. The audience, individual members of which apparently were also perceiving some kind of elusive phenomenon, was on the verge of general hysteria when a crash was heard from the direction of the front door.

While most of the audience quickly left the building via the emergency exits, some venturesome souls—including Mordecai, who had recovered quickly and no longer felt anxious—cautiously approached the front door and opened it to see what had caused the crash.

There, on the other side of the threshold, lay the portico, which had become detached from the building and had collapsed outward. As it fell, anchoring sections at the bottom of the structure had scooped out the ground under the tile work that had formed the floor of the portico. And there, sticking up out of the ground at an impossible angle, were several bent lengths of rebar, to which were tied the skeletonized remains of a body, wearing what appeared to be a tuxedo.

* * *
The appearance of a body finally gave the police a basis for judging Peter Templar's disappearance to be the result of foul play, but after so many years, the case turned cold the moment the paperwork was filed.

As for Bill, he eventually admitted to Mordecai that he had set up an infrasound generator at the civic center as an experiment. He had read how infrasound—vibrations below the threshold of human hearing—could induce uneasiness and goose bumps in people, and how vibrations at a certain frequency actually caused eyeballs to resonate and create optical illusions. An unintended consequence of Bill's experiment was the generation of a resonant frequency in the building's structure that caused the portico to detach and collapse. In between all the activity associated with the finding of Peter Templar's body, Bill was able to pack up all of the act's props—including the infrasound setup—and stow it all in the truck without anybody being the wiser.

"Well, despite the grand publicity," said Mordecai, sitting on the passenger side with a pile of newspaper clippings in his lap as Bill drove the truck out of town, "I hope this escapade has taught you a lesson."

"Consider me taught," said Bill. "By the way, do you mind if I ask you a question that's been bugging me since that night?"

"What?" said Collins.

"Whatever possessed you to go out on a limb like that and say the stranger was 'not far away'?" asked Bill.

After a few moments, Mordecai turned to Bill and said: "To tell the truth? I've been wondering that myself, because—I kid you not—the words just came out by themselves."


In this week's Exhibit B, I'm intersecting with [livejournal.com profile] acalculatedname (whose entry is here).

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Until I went outside to look for the Northern Lights at a few minutes past midnight a couple of nights ago, I hadn’t really realized just how civilized our little corner of the desert steppe here in Kazakhstan had become, for now there were lights along most of the roads and walking paths of our area, which meant that many fewer places where one could look up at the night sky and get a good look at the stars without the lights effectively washing them out of the sky.

Most people don’t think about star-gazing much (if they think about it at all), but it likely strikes them as a pretty staid pastime. And while it's true that the deliberate contemplation—even with the unaided eye—of the objects adorning the inverted bowl of night provides an easy avenue to a state of serenity, that state is almost always punctuated by phenomena that draw the observer's attention.

I happened to be in Kazakhstan a few years ago as well, on another launch campaign, when I struck up an acquaintance with the campaign's senior manager. As it turned out, he and I shared similar backgrounds (engineering), grew up in the same part of the country (more or less), enjoyed watching Firefly (among other shows), and had worked during a number of years with roughly the same circle of people in the aerospace industry (he as an executive and entrepreneur, and I as an interpreter and translator).

We also shared an interest in what happens in the sky above, although in this department, his knowledge outstripped mine. He introduced me to "Iridium flares," which occur when sunlight is reflected from one of the highly reflective antennas on one of numerous Iridium satellites (which orbit at an altitude of about 500 miles) onto a point on the earth. If you are in just the right place and are looking in just the right direction, you'll see a bright light appear in the sky for a few seconds and then quickly fade (this can even happen in broad daylight, as the brightest flares are about 100 times as bright as Venus when that planet appears in our sky). These flares can be very jarring if you don't know what you're looking at.

One mid-August evening during that campaign, we killed some time over a couple of beers, chatting about nothing in particular, until well past midnight when it seemed feasible to go outside and see if there were any Perseid meteors to be observed. We grabbed a couple of chairs, went out the front gate of the hotel, found a place about 40 yards down the road where we would be out of the glare of the hotel's lights, seated ourselves in the middle of the road, and looked up toward the constellation Perseus (from which the name Perseid is derived for this meteor shower).

We did see a number of meteors, but not the 60-80 per hour that had been predicted, and even though we were observing a few hours after the "published" peak had occurred, the Perseid shower actually occurs over a period of a couple of weeks, not a couple of hours, so anything is possible. We continued to chat as we sat, and were distracted at one point by some Russian voices from some distance away, but after a few moments, it appeared that some of our Russian colleagues had simply stepped outside to grab a smoke.

Redirecting my gaze upward, I noticed a star that seemed to be moving slowly away from another, neighboring star, but so slowly that I wasn't sure it was actually moving (I thought perhaps it was an optical illusion, the result of staring at two points of light for too long). Then my acquaintance said, "Hey, will you look at that!" It turned out he was looking at the same point of light. A few seconds later, the moving star winked out, which would suggest it was a satellite that had passed into the earth's shadow, but as it was after one in the morning, that also suggested the satellite was in a sharply inclined orbit. Or perhaps it was a UFO? (Technically, it was, as far as we were concerned, because we could not identify the object.) We didn't have much time to think about it, in any event, as it had became apparent that the Russian voices we had heard earlier were now moving in our direction. I noted, in passing, that the owners of those voices would not pass any kind of sobriety test.

So now imagine, dear reader, that you have been celebrating a bit with friends and have now decided to walk back to your hotel room along a road where there is no traffic, at a time of night when all normal people in nearby buildings are sound asleep. Now imagine that, as you walk along, you almost literally walk into two indistinct figures sitting quietly on chairs faced in your direction in the middle of what is a particularly dark stretch of road.

The chatter stopped abruptly. We had been discovered.

I toyed with the kafkaesque idea of growling the Russian equivalent of "Hand over your papers!"—but only for a millisecond or two. Instead, I said "Good evening," even though it was well past midnight. The newcomers approached warily, and then recognized us and we all shook hands (apparently, one of the Russians had played basketball with my acquaintance a few days previously), and a short conversation ensued. All's well, as they say, that ends well, but I will tell you, just between us, that every member of that homeward-bound group had been sharply yanked in the direction of "more sober" upon spying us like that in the middle of the road.

So while it's almost certain that all the new lights in our area were installed to address safety concerns, I could not help but wonder, as I sought a dark stretch of road couple of nights ago to view an aurora that wasn't there, if—among those concerns—there might have been a strong desire on the part of a decision-maker or two to avoid ever again bumping into shadowy figures while walking home in the dark.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
The Great Leader's recent death had not changed day-to-day life much, if at all. There were still lines to stand in and small bribes to be paid to be assured of life's necessities, and everyone still spoke guardedly and then only after glancing around to see who might be within earshot.

If life was difficult in general, for travelers it was difficult in particular. Petrov had been on the road for three days, and had lost track of the number of times he'd been required to produce his papers, not to mention how, on the afternoon of the first day, some young snot with a badge had made him open his small suitcase for inspection, right there on the platform of the railroad station!

It was on the train that, as he sat with his head down and eyes closed, he had overheard a man seated behind him tell his neighbor of a novel way to get fellow guests to give one a wide berth upon entering the typical "communal" accommodations offered to travelers at hotels.

“You see, my friend,” said the voice, “there is a natural pecking order in such places, almost like in prison. The man most recent to arrive starts at the bottom, if he is of ordinary appearance, and unless something happens to change that, this means he will sleep in the least desirable spot and maybe even have to give up a few personal possessions just to be left in peace.”

“So it occurred to me, you see, this one time, after having finished filling out the papers at the registration desk, to stop by the hotel's kitchen and ask the person on duty there to bring some tea to me in my room in a few minutes, for which service I pay a little extra. Then I go up to the room and, upon first entering it and while those already in residence are starting to size me up, I look neither to the left nor to the right but march up to the best cot in the room, put my belongings on it, and then step over to some prominent item—a light fixture or a mirror on the wall—and say something like 'Would you be good enough to bring me some tea in a few minutes? I am in need of refreshment.'”

“As you may imagine, this throws the other room occupants into a little panic, until it occurs to them to wonder 'Hey, this old coot is just pulling our leg!' By that time, however, a knock is heard at the door as my tea is delivered, and the reaction in the room is often a sight to see, let me tell you! I then drink my tea in peace, and thereafter, everyone leaves me and my belongings quite alone.”

That night, still two days travel from his destination, Petrov unconsciously lit up with a broad smile while standing in line at the hotel registration desk, eager to try out this newly learned stratagem to mislead other occupants into thinking he had friends in the secret police who, as everyone knew, had ears everywhere. Alas, this untoward public display drew the attention of a uniform standing just inside the door, who approached, gave a little mechanical salute with his baton and took Petrov's papers from his hand as he was standing in line.

“You seem altogether very happy, comrade... Petrov,” said the policeman, reading the name from the identity document. “We are all in need of having our spirits lifted in the aftermath of The Great Leader's passing, so if you please, tell me what it was that brought a smile to your face?”

“Well, comrade policeman," said Petrov, thinking quickly, "I was just recalling how, just as I was leaving on this trip, my baby daughter pronounced her first sentence.”

“And what did she say?” asked the policeman, with a pleasant voice but very unpleasant eyes.

“She said, 'Oh, how tasty!', comrade. It was her meal time.”

After a moment, the papers were returned. “May your daughter grow into a citizen worthy of our great homeland!” The policeman turned on his heel and left.

After registering, Petrov gathered his suitcase and key and went by the kitchen. The boy on duty was talking with some men, so he stood at the door until the transaction was complete and the men had left. He then explained what he wanted, paid for the tea and the "extra" service and went up to the room.

His lodgings turned out to be a rather long room that stank of alcohol and urine and sweat. It was dark, because only one of the three light fixtures—the one nearest the sink on the back wall—had a working bulb. There were four other men in the room, and they all stared at him when he entered.

Without looking too closely at them, Petrov walked over to the most comfortable-looking cot, which had a rucksack on it, moved the rucksack to the floor, put his suitcase on the blanket, and then walked over to the mirror over the sink at the back wall of the room.

“Would you please be so kind to bring me some tea?” said Petrov, to the mirror. “It's been a long day, and some tea would really hit the spot.” As he turned back to face the room, he could not help but glance at the faces of the other men, to see their reaction.

They were all staring at him, but not in the way he expected. There was no apprehension, only contempt thinkly masked by smiles.

A moment later, a powerfully built, bearded man got up from a chair next to the cot where Petrov's suitcase lay, picked the rucksack up off the floor, replaced it on the bed, picked up Petrov's suitcase, and walked up to and past Petrov, who turned to keep his eyes on the man. The man stopped by the mirror, leaned in close to it and said, “And while you're at it, make sure you bring the rest of us some beer and dried salt fish! And hurry!” The man dropped Petrov's suitcase on the cot nearest the sink, where the stench of urine was strongest. He then leaned against the wall next to the mirror, and crossed his arms, as if waiting for a bus. Petrov looked about, only to find he was the center of attention.

Nobody moved for what seemed to Petrov like an hour. And when a knock came on the door, it was Petrov who about jumped out of his skin. The man closest to the door opened it, letting in the kitchen boy, who was wheeling a cart in front of him. “Right,” said the boy, unloading the cart, “tea, beer, and salt fish, just as you ordered.” He closed the door behind him as he left.

Utterly confused, Petrov turned back to his suitcase and saw it was lying open on the bed. The bearded man was extracting a cigarette from the pack Petrov had kept there. “Thanks. I don't mind if I do,” said the man. “Hey! Anyone else want one?” And the rest of the pack sailed past Petrov into the hands of the others.

Shoving Petrov out of the way, the bearded man rejoined the other three men, and they proceeded to open bottles and tear apart the fish. They smoked and told stories as they drank and ate, laughing and nudging each other as they glanced in Petrov's direction from time to time. Petrov thought he heard someone say something about wishes and horses, but stayed out of the conversation, working up only the courage to pour himself a glass of the tea and go back to his cot near the sink. When the time came to go to sleep, it turned out there was no way to turn off the light over his head. He slept fitfully.

Petrov got up early the next morning, dressed, went down to the front desk, and returned his key. By the hotel door, as he paused outside for a moment before heading out, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to see the front desk clerk standing there, offering him a cigarette, which he accepted. It was a foreign-made cigarette.

How...?

“It's really too bad your little escapade backfired on you last night,” said the clerk, after lighting both his and Petrov's cigarette. “But that big bearded one, he's a fast thinker, and figured two could play at your game. You see, a couple of the others had just been in the kitchen before you to order some beer and fish up to the room.”

Petrov had a little trouble comprehending what had been said, as all he could do was wonder ”Who is this 'clerk' who smokes foreign cigarettes? And how does he know all this?”

“I will say this, however,” added the clerk. “You were much more polite when you spoke into our microphone behind the mirror than was the bearded one. We appreciate that.”

And with that, the clerk took one more deep drag, and then pinched his cigarette out and went back into the hotel. After a moment, Petrov hesitantly picked up his suitcase and moved off, down the street, walking ever more quickly toward the station.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
When I saw who was sitting next to me in first class for the flight back to the States from London, my gut did a little flip. There he was, in the flesh, the guy whose work on the big and small screen over the past thirty years had made him a recognizable celebrity on several continents, though not the kind of superstar that would be flying home in a private jet.

He was good at the acting craft, because it was easy for me to suspend my disbelief and quickly think of him as someone other than himself, which helped me get over that dull stab of pain I felt whenever I would first see his face. But seeing him here, big as life and just himself, was a little like having a wild animal rake its claws over old wounds.

As you've probably guessed, I'm no fan. You see, this is the guy who stole my girl's heart before she and I had a chance to see if what we had was going to work.

Alice was her name. The lovely, beautiful, intelligent, sharp-as-a-tack Alice. The Alice with sunlight in her laugh and an elephant-shaped birthmark on her shoulder blade. And while there was an unmistakable attraction between us, it eventually became clear—to both of us—that she'd never really gotten over what had been a one-night fling with Jeff Marsh, the guy sitting next to me. Eventually, there came a moment when she brought this guy's name up just once too often, whereupon I lost it. We weren't talking about this guy again, were we? And then I packed my bags and left, with my tail between my legs, carrying wounds I licked for years.

And so here we were, in adjacent couches, aboard one of those packed flights with no empty seats—certainly none in first class—so I sat down and buried my nose in a book.

But I could not concentrate on reading. Mentally, I was trying to dispassionately step back and take a good, hard look at myself and understand my emotional state. I glanced over at Marsh. He was looking somewhat vacantly out the window at whatever there was to see out there and idly swirling what was left of his drink in his glass. He actually looked fairly harmless.

Have you ever heard of exposure therapy? It's a technique used to treat anxiety, PTSD, and the like, and to describe it in overly simple terms, it consists of getting a subject to come face-to-face with fear in a controlled environment. It occurred to me that, in point of fact, Marsh had never consciously done anything to hurt me, obviously posed no danger to me here at 36,000 feet, and so I was actually in a pretty good place for some impromptu self-therapy, because deep-seated hostility is not healthy unless there's a good reason for it.

So, by the time the attendants were preparing to serve the main meal, I had settled down, put the book away, and had started to do what I do for a living: I struck up a conversation and got him to open up. It's a talent of mine that's let me to make a comfortable life for myself and my family, and by the time our dishes were being cleared away, it was as if Jeff and I were old friends, and the feeling I had started with—that he was somehow Fortunato to my Montresor—had dissipated completely.

“So, is it true what they say about all you Hollywood types,” I said, sotto voce, in my best nudge-nudge-wink-wink manner, “how members of the opposite sex simply throw themselves at your feet?”

After a moment, his eyebrows shot up and he gave a little shrug. “Well, I've been married and divorced three times, if that answers your question.” He smiled a little and took a sip from his scotch-and-soda.

“Tough to find the right lady, isn't it?” I asked.

He didn't say anything and, after a moment, went back to looking out the window and swirling his drink, as if he hadn't heard me. I supposed I had crossed some line, but I held my peace. After a minute or two, he turned in his seat and faced me directly.

“The trick isn't finding her, Rhys, it's realizing when she's standing there, in front of you, when you weren't looking for anyone at all,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I said.

He sat back in his seat and took another sip of his drink. “A long time ago—oh, it must've been thirty-something years ago, before I hit the big time—I met this one girl and we hit it off from the get-go. Man, we had a great time... but it wasn't just the physical part that made it so fantastic. We were... so completely with each other, you know what I mean?” A moment later, his body seemed to deflate a little and his eyes drifted away again, toward the window.

“So what happened?”

“We said our goodbyes the next morning, and dashed off to wherever we were going that day, that's what happened. And then try as I might, I couldn't get her out of my mind. Heck, after all these years, there are still moments when I think of her.” He finished the rest of his drink and pressed the call button for the attendant. “I don't know why I'm telling you this.”

“Why didn't you go after her, tell her how you felt?” I said, while I thought What were the odds...?

“I would've, but—well, what can I say? I lost the scrap of paper on which she wrote her name and number, and the private detectives I spoke with said they'd need something a little more substantial to work with than 'green-eyed redhead with a curious birthmark'.”

“A birthmark?” I asked, and was struck by a unsettling combination of dread and relief.

“Yes, a birthmark. On her shoulder. It looked like an elephant. Can you imagine that?”

As we flew eastward, we spoke at length about other subjects, and by the time we landed, we'd exchanged business cards and our private phone numbers. We hugged like a pair old frat brothers as we parted company at the entrance to the immigration area, and I soon lost sight of him in the crowd.

As I walked out of the arrivals terminal into the New York sunshine after clearing customs, I looked at the card Marsh had given me, ran the ball of my index finger lightly along its edge, and wondered what Alice had done with her life since I had seen her last.


Week 3. Intersection!

I have been fortunate to be "intersecting" this week with that incomparable wonderer, [livejournal.com profile] adpaz!

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