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Zero Historyby William Gibson
Inchmale hailed a cab for her, the kind that had always been black, when she'd first known this city.
Pearlescent silver, this one. Glyphed in Prussian blue, advertising something German, banking services or business software; a smoother simulacrum of its black ancestors, its faux-leather upholstery a shade of orthopedic fawn.
"Their money's heavy," he said, dropping a loose warm mass of pound coins into her hand. "Buys many whores." The coins still retained the body heat of the fruit machine from which he'd deftly wrung them, almost in passing, on their way out of the King's Something.
"My countrymen's. Freely given."
"I don't need this." Trying to hand it back.
"For the cab." Giving the driver the address in Portman Square.
"Oh Reg," she said, "it wasn't that bad. I had it in money markets, most of it."
"Bad as anything else. Call him."
"Call him," he repeated, wrapped in Japanese herringbone Gore-Tex, multiply flapped and counter-intuitively buckled.
He closed the cab's door.
She watched him through the rear window as the cab pulled away. Stout and bearded, he turned now in Greek Street, a few minutes past midnight, to rejoin his stubborn protégé, Clammy of the Bollards. Back to the studio, to take up their lucrative creative struggle.
She sat back, noticing nothing at all until they passed Selfridges, the driver taking a right.
The club, only a few years old, was on the north side of Portman Square. Getting out, she paid and generously tipped the driver, anxious to be rid of Inchmale's winnings.
Cabinet, so called; of Curiosities, unspoken. Inchmale had become a member shortly after they, the three surviving members of the Curfew, had licensed the rights to "Hard to Be One" to a Chinese automobile manufacturer. Having already produced one Bollards album in Los Angeles, and with Clammy wanting to record the next in London, Inchmale had argued that joining Cabinet would ultimately prove cheaper than a hotel. And it had, she supposed, but only if you were talking about a very expensive hotel.
She was staying there now as a paying guest. Given the state of money markets, whatever those were, and the conversations she'd been having with her accountant in New York, she knew that she should be looking for more modestly priced accommodations.
A peculiarly narrow place, however expensive, Cabinet occupied half the vertical mass of an eighteenth-century townhouse, one whose façade reminded her of the face of someone starting to fall asleep on the subway. It shared a richly but soberly paneled foyer with whatever occupied the other, westernmost, half of the building, and she'd formed a vague conviction that this must be a foundation of some kind, perhaps philanthropic in nature, or dedicated to the advancement of peace in the Middle East, however eventual. Something hushed, in any case, as it appeared to have no visitors at all.
There was nothing, on façade or door, to indicate what that might be, no more than there was anything to indicate that Cabinet was Cabinet.
She'd seen those famously identical, silver-pelted Icelandic twins in the lounge, the first time she'd gone there, both of them drinking red wine from pint glasses, something Inchmale dubbed an Irish affectation. They weren't members, he'd made a point of noting. Cabinet's members, in the performing arts, were somewhat less than stellar, and she assumed that that suited Inchmale just about as well as it suited her.
It was the decor that had sold Inchmale, he said, and very likely it had been. Both he and it were arguably mad.
Pushing open the door, through which one might have ridden a horse without having to duck to clear the lintel, she was greeted by Robert, a large and comfortingly chalk-striped young man whose primary task was to mind the entrance without particularly seeming to.
"Good evening, Miss Henry."
"Good evening, Robert."
The decorators had kept it down, here, which was to say that they hadn't really gone publicly, ragingly, batshit insane. There was a huge, ornately carved desk, with something vaguely pornographic going on amid mahogany vines and grape clusters, at which sat one or another of the club's employees, young men for the most part, often wearing tortoiseshell spectacles of the sort she suspected of having been carved from actual turtles.
Beyond the desk's agreeably archaic mulch of paperwork twined a symmetrically opposed pair of marble stairways, leading to the floor above; that floor being bisected, as was everything above this foyer, into twin realms of presumed philanthropic mystery and Cabinet. From the Cabinet side, now, down the stairs with the wider-shins twist, cascaded the sound of earnest communal drinking, laughter and loud conversation bouncing sharply off unevenly translucent stone, marbled in shades of aged honey, petroleum jelly, and nicotine. The damaged edges of individual steps had been repaired with tidy rectangular inserts of less inspired stuff, pallid and mundane, which she was careful never to step on.
A tortoise-framed young man, seated at the desk, passed her the room key without being asked.
"You're welcome, Miss Henry."
Beyond the archway separating the stairways, the floor plan gave evidence of hesitation. Indicating, she guessed, some awkwardness inherent in the halving of the building's original purpose. She pressed a worn but regularly polished brass button, to call down the oldest elevator she'd ever seen, even in London. The size of a small, shallow closet, wider than it was deep, it took its time, descending its elongated cage of black-enameled steel.
To her right, in shadow, illuminated from within by an Edwardian museum fixture, stood a vitrine displaying taxidermy. Game birds, mostly; a pheasant, several quail, others she couldn't put a name to, all mounted as though caught in motion, crossing a sward of faded billiard-felt. All somewhat the worse for wear, though no more than might be expected for their probable age. Behind them, anthropomorphically upright, forelimbs outstretched in the manner of a cartoon somnambulist, came a moth-eaten ferret. Its teeth, which struck her as unrealistically large, she suspected of being wooden, and painted. Certainly its lips were painted, if not actually rouged, lending it a sinisterly festive air, like someone you'd dread running into at a Christmas party. Inchmale, on first pointing it out to her, had suggested she adopt it as a totem, her spirit beast. He claimed that he already had, subsequently discovering he could magically herniate the disks of unsuspecting music executives at will, causing them to suffer excruciating pain and a profound sense of helplessness.
The lift arrived. She'd been a guest here long enough to have mastered the intricacies of the articulated steel gate. Resisting an urge to nod to the ferret, she entered and ascended, slowly, to the third floor.
Here the narrow hallways, walls painted a very dark green, twisted confusingly. The route to her room involved opening several of what she assumed were fire doors, as they were very thick, heavy, and self-closing. The short sections of corridor, between, were hung with small watercolors, landscapes, un-peopled, each one featuring a distant folly. The very same distant folly, she'd noticed, regardless of the scene or region depicted. She refused to give Inchmale the satisfaction he'd derive from her asking about these, so hadn't. Something too thoroughly liminal about them. Best not addressed. Life sufficiently complicated as it was.
The key, attached to a weighty brass ferrule sprouting thick soft tassels of braided maroon silk, turned smoothly in the lock's brick-sized mass. Admitting her to Number Four, and the concentrated impact of Cabinet's designers' peculiarity, theatrically revealed when she prodded the mother-of-pearl dot set into an otherwise homely gutta-percha button.
Too tall, somehow, though she imagined that to be the result of a larger room having been divided, however cunningly. The bathroom, she suspected, might actually be larger than the bedroom, if that weren't some illusion.
They'd run with that tallness, employing a white, custom-printed wallpaper, decorated with ornate cartouches in glossy black. These were comprised, if you looked more closely, of enlarged bits of anatomical drawings of bugs. Scimitar mandibles, spiky elongated limbs, the delicate wings (she imagined) of mayflies. The two largest pieces of furniture in the room were the bed, its massive frame covered entirely in slabs of scrimshawed walrus ivory, with the enormous, staunchly ecclesiastic-looking lower jawbone of a right whale, fastened to the wall at its head, and a birdcage, so large she might have crouched in it herself, suspended from the ceiling. The cage was stacked with books, and fitted, inside, with minimalist Swiss halogen fixtures, each tiny bulb focused on one or another of Number Four's resident artifacts. And not just prop books, Inchmale had proudly pointed out. Fiction or non-, they all seemed to be about England, and so far she'd read parts of Dame Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics and most of Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male.
She took off her coat, putting it on a stuffed, satin-covered hanger in the wardrobe, and sat on the edge of the bed to untie her shoes. The Piblokto Madness bed, Inchmale called it. "Intense hysteria," she recited now, from memory, "depression, coprophagia, insensitivity to cold, echolalia." She kicked her shoes in the direction of the wardrobe's open door. "Hold the coprophagia," she added. Cabin fever, this culture-bound, arctic condition. Possibly dietary in origin. Linked to vitamin A toxicity. Inchmale was full of this sort of information, never more so than when he was in the studio. Give Clammy a whole hod of vitamin A, she'd suggested, he looks like he could use it.
Her gaze fell on three unopened brown cartons, stacked to the left of the wardrobe. These contained shrink-wrapped copies of the British edition of a book she'd written in hotel rooms, though none as peculiarly memorable as this one. She'd begun just after the Chinese car commercial money had come in. She'd gone to Staples, West Hollywood, and bought three flimsy Chinese-made folding tables, to lay the manuscript and its many illustrations out on, in her corner suite at the Marmont. That seemed a long time ago, and she didn't know what she'd do with these copies. The cartons of her copies of the American edition, she now remembered, were still in the luggage room of the Tribeca Grand.
"Echolalia," she said, and stood, removing her sweater, which she folded and put in a chest-high drawer in the wardrobe, beside a small silk land mine of potpourri. If she didn't touch it, she knew, she wouldn't have to smell it. Putting on an off-white Cabinet robe, more velour than terry but somehow just missing whatever it was that made her so un-fond of velour bathrobes. Men, particularly, looked fundamentally untrustworthy in them.
The room phone began to ring. It was a collage, its massive nautical-looking handset of rubber-coated bronze resting in a leather-padded cradle atop a cubical box of brass-cornered rosewood. Its ring was mechanical, tiny, as though you were hearing an old-fashioned bicycle bell far off down a quiet street. She stared hard, willing it to silence.
"Intense hysteria," she said.
It continued to ring.
Three steps and her hand was on it.
It was as absurdly heavy as ever.
"Coprophagia." Briskly, as if announcing a busy department in a large hospital.
"Hollis," he said, "hello."
She looked down at the handset, heavy as an old hammer and nearly as battered. Its thick cord, luxuriously cased in woven burgundy silk, resting against her bare forearm.
She pictured herself driving the handset through brittle antique rosewood, crushing the aged electro-mechanical cricket within. Too late now. It had already fallen silent.
"I saw Reg," he said.
"I told him to ask you to call."
"I didn't," she said.
"Good to hear your voice," he said.
"A good night's sleep, then," heartily. "I'll be by in the morning, for breakfast. We're driving back tonight. Pamela and I."
"Where are you?"
She saw herself taking an early cab to Paddington, the street in front of Cabinet deserted. Catching the Heathrow Express. Flying somewhere. Another phone ringing, in another room. His voice.
"Norwegian black metal," he said, flatly. She pictured Scandinavian folk jewelry, then self-corrected: the musical genre. "Reg said I might find it interesting."
Good for him, she thought, Inchmale's subclinical sadism sometimes finding a deserving target.
"I was planning on sleeping in," she said, if only to be difficult. She knew now that it was going to be impossible to avoid him.
"Eleven, then," he said. "Looking forward to it."
"Good night. Hubertus."
"Good night." He hung up.
She put the handset down. Careful of the hidden cricket. Not its fault.
Nor even his, probably. Whatever he was.
2. EDGE CITY
Milgrim considered the dog-headed angels in Gay Dolphin Gift Cove.
Their heads, rendered slightly less than three-quarter scale, appeared to have been cast from the sort of plaster once used to produce worryingly detailed wall-decorations: pirates, Mexicans, turbaned Arabs. There would almost certainly be examples of those here as well, he thought, in the most thoroughgoing trove of roadside American souvenir kitsch he'd ever seen.
Their bodies, apparently humanoid under white satin and sequins, were long, Modigliani-slender, perilously upright, paws crossed piously in the manner of medieval effigies. Their wings were the wings of Christmas ornaments, writ larger than would suit the average tree.
They were intended, he decided, with half a dozen of assorted breed facing him now, from behind glass, to sentimentally honor deceased pets.
Hands in trouser pockets, he quickly swung his gaze to a broader but generally no less peculiar visual complexity, noting as he did a great many items featuring Confederate-flag motifs. Mugs, magnets, ashtrays, statuettes. He considered a knee-high jockey boy, proffering a small round tray rather than the traditional ring. Its head and hands were a startling Martian green (so as not to give the traditional offense, he assumed). There were also energetically artificial orchids, coconuts carved to suggest the features of some generically indigenous race, and prepackaged collections of rocks and minerals. It was like being on the bottom of a Coney Island grab-it game, one in which the eclectically un-grabbed had been accumulating for decades. He looked up, imagining a giant, three-pronged claw, agent of stark removal, but there was only a large and heavily varnished shark, suspended overhead like the fuselage of a small plane.
How old did a place like this have to be, in America, to have "gay" in its name? Some percentage of the stock here, he judged, had been manufactured in Occupied Japan.
Half an hour earlier, across North Ocean Boulevard, he'd watched harshly tonsured child-soldiers, clad in skateboarding outfits still showing factory creases, ogling Chinese-made orc-killing blades, spiked and serrated like the jaws of extinct predators. The seller's stand had been hung with Mardi Gras beads, Confederate-flag beach towels, unauthorized Harley-Davidson memorabilia. He'd wondered how many young men had enjoyed an afternoon in Myrtle Beach as a final treat, before heading ultimately for whatever theater of war, wind whipping sand along the Grand Strand and the boardwalk.
In the amusement arcades, he judged, some of the machines were older than he was. And some of his own angels, not the better ones, spoke of an ancient and deeply impacted drug culture, ground down into the carnival grime of the place, interstitial and immortal; sundamaged skin, tattoos unreadable, eyes that peered from faces suggestive of gas-station taxidermy.
He was meeting someone here.
They were supposed to be alone. He himself wasn't, really. Somewhere nearby, Oliver Sleight would be watching a Milgrim-cursor on a website, on the screen of his Neo phone, identical to Milgrim's own. He'd given Milgrim the Neo on that first flight from Basel to Heathrow, stressing the necessity of keeping it with him at all times, and turned on, except when aboard commercial flights.
He moved, now, away from the dog-headed angels, the shadow of the shark. Past articles of an ostensibly more natural history: starfish, sand dollars, sea horses, conchs. He climbed a short flight of broad stairs, from the boardwalk level, toward North Ocean Boulevard. Until he found himself, eye-to-navel, with the stomach of a young, very pregnant woman, her elastic-paneled jeans chemically distressed in ways that suggested baroquely improbable patterns of wear. The taut pink T-shirt revealed her protruding navel in a way he found alarmingly suggestive of a single giant breast.
"You'd better be him," she said, then bit her lower lip. Blond, a face he'd forget as soon as he looked away. Large dark eyes.
"I'm meeting someone," he said, careful to maintain eye contact, uncomfortably aware that he was actually addressing the navel, or nipple, directly in front of his mouth.
Her eyes grew larger. "You aren't foreign, are you?"
"New York," Milgrim admitted, assuming that might all too easily qualify.
"I don't want him getting in any trouble," she said, at once softly and fiercely.
"None of us does," he instantly assured her. "No need. At all." His attempted smile felt like something forced from a flexible squeeze-toy. "And you are…; ?
"Seven or eight months," she said, in awe at her own gravidity. "He's not here. He didn't like this, here."
"None of us does," he said, then wondered if that was the right thing to say.
"You got GPS?"
"Yes," said Milgrim. Actually, according to Sleight, their Neos had two kinds, American and Russian, the American being notoriously political, and prone to unreliability in the vicinity of sensitive sites.
"He'll be there in an hour," she said, passing Milgrim a faintly damp slip of folded paper. "You better get started. And you better be alone."
Milgrim took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," he said, "but if it means driving, I won't be able to go alone. I don't have a license. My friend will have to drive me. It's a white Ford Taurus X."
She stared at him. Blinked. "Didn't they just fuck Ford up, when they went to giving them f-names?"
"My mother had a Freestyle. Transmission's a total piece of shit. Get that computer wet, car won't move at all. Gotta disconnect it first. Brakes wore out about two weeks off the lot. They always made that squealing noise anyway." But she seemed comforted, in this, as if by the recollection of something maternal, familiar.
"Right as rain," he said, surprising himself with an expression he might never have used before. He pocketed the slip of paper without looking at it. "Could you do something for me, please?" he asked her belly. "Could you call him, now, and let him know my friend will be driving?"
Lower lip worked its way back under her front teeth.
"My friend has the money," Milgrim said. "No trouble."
"And she called him?" asked Sleight, behind the wheel of the Taurus X, from the center of a goatee he occasionally trimmed with the aid of a size-adjustable guide, held between his teeth.
"She indicated she would," Milgrim said.
They were headed inland, toward the town of Conway, through a landscape that reminded Milgrim of driving somewhere near Los Angeles, to a destination you wouldn't be particularly anxious to reach. This abundantly laned highway, lapped by the lots of outlet malls, a Home Depot the size of a cruise ship, theme restaurants. Though interstitial detritus still spoke stubbornly of maritime activity and the farming of tobacco. Fables from before the Anaheiming. Milgrim concentrated on these leftovers, finding them centering. A lot offering garden mulch. A four-store strip mall with two pawnshops. A fireworks emporium with its own batting cage. Loans on your auto title. Serried ranks of unpainted concrete garden statuary.
"Was that a twelve-step program you were in, in Basel?" asked Sleight.
"I don't think so," said Milgrim, assuming Sleight was referring to the number of times his blood had been changed.
"How close will those numbers put us to where he wants us?" Milgrim asked. Sleight, back in Myrtle Beach, had tapped coordinates from the pregnant girl's note into his phone, which now rested on his lap.
"Close enough," Sleight said. "Looks like that's it now, off to the right."
They were well through Conway, or in any case through the malled-over fringes of whatever Conway was. Buildings were thinning out, the landscape revealing more of the lineaments of an extinct agriculture.
Sleight slowed, swung right, onto spread gravel, a crushed limestone, pale gray. "Money's under your seat," he said. They were rolling, with a smooth, even crunch of tires in gravel, toward a long, one-story, white-painted clapboard structure, overhung with a roof that lacked a porch beneath it. Rural roadside architecture of some previous day, plain but sturdy. Four smallish rectangular front windows had been modernized with plate glass.
Milgrim had the cardboard tube for the tracing paper upright between his thighs, two sticks of graphite wrapped in a Kleenex in the right side pocket of his chinos. There was half of a fresh five-foot sheet of foam-core illustration board in the back seat, in case he needed a flat surface to work on. Holding the bright red tube with his knees, he bent forward, fishing under the seat, and found a metallic-blue vinyl envelope with a molded integral zipper and three binder-holes. It contained enough bundled hundreds to give it the heft of a good-sized paperback dictionary.
Gravel-crunch ceased as they halted, not quite in front of the building. Milgrim saw a primitive rectangular sign on two weather-grayed uprights, rain-stained and faded, unreadable except for FAMILY, in pale blue italic serif caps. There were no other vehicles in the irregularly shaped gravel lot.
He opened the door, got out, stood, the red tube in his left hand. He considered, then uncapped it, drawing out the furled tracing paper. He propped the red tube against the passenger seat, picked up the money, and closed the door. A scroll of semi-translucent white paper was less threatening.
Cars passed on the highway. He walked the fifteen feet to the sign, his shoes crunching loudly on the gravel. Above the blue italic FAMILY, he made out EDGE CITY in what little remained of a peeling red; below it, RESTAURANT. At the bottom, to the left, had once been painted, in black, the childlike silhouettes of three houses, though like the red, sun and rain had largely erased them. To the right, in a different blue than FAMILY, was painted what he took to be a semi-abstract representation of hills, possibly of lakes. He guessed that this place was on or near the town's official outskirts, hence the name.
Someone, within the silent, apparently closed building, rapped sharply, once, on plate glass, perhaps with a ring.
Milgrim went obediently to the front door, the tracing paper upheld in one hand like a modest scepter, the vinyl envelope held against his side with the other.
The door opened inward, revealing a football player with an Eighties porn haircut. Or someone built like one. A tall, long-legged young man with exceptionally powerful-looking shoulders. He stepped back, gesturing for Milgrim to enter.
"Hello," said Milgrim, stepping into warm unmoving air, mixed scents of industrial-strength disinfectant and years of cooking. "I have your money." Indicating the plastic envelope. A place unused, though ready to be used. Mothballed, Edge City, like a B-52 in the desert. He saw the empty glass head of a gum machine, on its stand of wrinkle-finished brown pipe.
"Put it on the counter," the young man said. He wore pale blue jeans and a black T-shirt, both of which looked as though they might contain a percentage of Spandex, and heavy-looking black athletic shoes. Milgrim noted a narrow, rectangular, unusually positioned pocket, quite far down on the right side-seam. A stainless steel clip held some large folding knife firmly there.
Milgrim did as he was told, noting the chrome and the turquoise leatherette of the row of floor-mounted stools in front of the counter, which was topped with worn turquoise Formica. He partially unfurled the paper. "I'll need to make tracings," he explained. "It's the best way to capture the detail. I'll take photographs first."
"Who's in the car?"
"Why can't you drive?"
"DUI," said Milgrim, and it was true, at least in some philosophical sense.
Silently, the young man rounded an empty glass display-case that would once have contained cigarettes and candy. When he was opposite Milgrim, he reached beneath the counter and drew out something in a crumpled white plastic bag. He dropped this on the counter and swept the plastic envelope toward the far end, giving the impression that his body, highly trained, was doing these things of its own accord, while he himself continued to survey from some interior distance.
Milgrim opened the bag and took out a pair of folded, un-pressed trousers. They were the coppery beige shade he knew as coyote brown. Unfolding them, he lay them out flat along the Formica, took the camera from his jacket pocket, and began to photograph them, using the flash. He took six shots of the front, then turned them over and took six of the back. He took one photograph each of the four cargo pockets. He put the camera down, turned the pants inside out, and photographed them again. Pocketing the camera, he arranged them, still inside out, more neatly on the counter, spread the first of the four sheets of paper over them, and began, with one of the graphite sticks, to make his rubbing.
He liked doing this. There was something inherently satisfying about it. He'd been sent to Hackney, to a tailor who did alterations, to spend an afternoon learning how to do it properly, and it pleased him, somehow, that this was a time-honored means of stealing information. It was like making a rubbing of a tombstone, or a bronze in a cathedral. The medium-hard graphite, if correctly applied, captured every detail of seam and stitching, all a sample-maker would need to reproduce the garment, as well as providing for reconstruction of the pattern.
While he worked, the young man opened the envelope, unpacked the bundled hundreds, and silently counted them. "Needs a gusset," he said as he finished.
"Pardon?" Milgrim paused, the fingers of his right hand covered with graphite dust.
"Gusset," the young man said, reloading the blue envelope. "Inner thighs. They bind, if you're rappelling."
"Thanks," Milgrim said, showing graphite-smudged fingers. "Would you mind turning them over for me? I don't want to get this on them."
"Delta to Atlanta," Sleight said, handing Milgrim a ticket envelope. He was back in the very annoying suit he'd forgone for Myrtle Beach, the one with the freakishly short trousers.
"Coach," said Sleight, his satisfaction entirely evident. He passed Milgrim a second envelope. "British Midland to Heathrow."
Sleight frowned. "Business."
"He'll want you in a meeting, straight off the plane."
Milgrim nodded. "Bye," he said. He tucked the red tube beneath his arm and headed for check-in, his bag in his other hand, walking directly beneath a very large South Carolina state flag, oddly Islamic with its palm tree and crescent moon.
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