No 170 - 2002
The Alfalfa Interview
Freddy awakened at 6AM and slipped out of the room. The clerk at the desk had the package for him. He opened it in the car: a cell phone and driving instructions. He drove for an hour through country roads until he came to the prescribed crossing. There were no cars out, except for a few pickups and farm machinery. He pulled the car to the side of the road and climbed through the barbed wire fence. He could see the tree on the hillock, just as they had described.
From the tree he had a good view of the Kokosing river valley. He drank the coffee he had bought at a gas station, and turned on the phone. He looked at his watch - he had a few minutes.
When he had left PanTechnic, Mary McCabe, the estate manager, was sitting vigil next to a comatose girl, swaddled in blankets on the couch, a wet rag over her eyes, lips moving soundlessly.
‘Are you going back now?’
The rest of the investigative team had gone back to London a few days earlier.
‘I don’t know.’ Freddy felt immensely tired, as if he had banged heads in a rugby match. He had eaten a tasteless meal at a family restaurant near the hotel, then collapsed into a comfortless sleep.
The heat from the early morning sun warmed his face, the spiky grass poking through the gaps in the sleeves of his shirt. The scene at the PanTechnic estate had been war-like, the children numb and aphasic, unable to communicate. Had they been damaged then released from the depths of the Cesura estate? Were they drugged or hypnotized to prevent them from telling what had gone on there? Or was there something complicit taking place, their blank expressions the perfect cover for sleeper operatives that would spring into action at a signal for some unfathomable task?
The team’s visit to PanTechnic had done nothing to bring them closer to understanding what was behind the migration of the hundred or so children from the PanTechnic equihood that his client - the ‘Tyrant’, they called him - owned, to the Cesura estate. Freddy’s Millbank friends believed that Cesura was under the direction of the infamous (to them) Citizen Mundi, a deranged underground activist, anti- just about everything, most recently notorious for making a market in securities based on terrorist/disruptive talent, a dark world inversion of the markets in human potential that had grown like topsy in the past decade and that were Freddy’s bread and butter. It was not clear to Freddy whether the Tyrant and his minions were aware of this connection - or whether they knew perhaps more than he did.
Two months ago, these children, barely of majority, had been the high-end talent at PanTechnic, the first yield from the development program put in place when the Tyrant had taken over a few years back. Their future earning potential had been bundled into strip securities floated to a receptive market. Following the success of this initial offering, Freddy was working through the details of a more speculative parcel based on the potential of the unborn (unconceived, in fact) offspring of this crop, ‘downstream progeny’, in the lingo of the prospectus.
Then came the exodus, first out of their families’ homes into disused townhouses on the fringes of the estate, then away to this new estate ten miles away, a secured establishment that the SWAT team of which Freddy was part had been unable to breach.
When the news of the move to the townhouses had broken, Freddy had been called to a briefing in a club in St. James, given by a couple of electronic secondstory men - Freddy had learned not to ask the origin of the Tyrant’s contractors - who had tapped into a web world created by the children. It was a mish-mash of text and images, packaged into frames, appearing like an odd conflation of pharmaceutical lab reports, psychoanalytic subject charts, and security analyst profiles. Text fragments flashed on the screen as the skin-headed consultants flipped through the site: ‘...optimal valuation possible under extreme circumstances... possible hedge component... enhance with multiple psychotic overlays.’ The words evoked the patois of Freddy’s own work, uncomfortably familiar yet ripped from their normal context. Sometimes they edged into nonsense or poetry - who could tell the difference? - “...broken flesh, broken mind, broken speech... truth, a broken body... particular knowledge, into the natural man in bits... point, dot, zero, drop, germ, seed, semen... fissured and splintered, crystal structure... broken knowledge, inquire farther...”
Then, as the meeting was winding down, the assembled team trying to focus on what to do next, an image appeared on the screen: a house with the roof and exterior walls off, a close-up of a walk-in closet in the attic. There was something on one of the interior walls, a figure upright against it. Willy, the skin who was operating the computer, zoomed in closer.
It was Freddy. His arms and legs were clamped in manacles against the wall. As they watched, the closet door, which faced the back of the house, opened slowly.
The screen blanked out. Willy lifted his hands up and made an expression of non-involvement. Freddy looked at Bevan, the other skin, who was staring at him.
‘You get around, son.’
Freddy felt something brushing his hand, looked down at a yellowjacket buzzing across his knuckles. He shook his arm, and leaped to his feat, jiggling frantically as the insect zipped from hand to head and back again, finally flying off.
The phone rang. He followed the instructions, entering a series of numbers. There was a beep. Freddy waited.
‘Mr. Martins, thank you for joining us.’
A central European accent, a voice used to speaking English.
‘You are alone.’
‘Can you hear us clearly?’
‘And the weather?’
‘It’s beautiful. Was it really necessary to have me in the middle of a corn field?’
A chuckle. ‘Alfalfa, I believe, Mr. Martins. You’re no farm boy, I gather.’
Freddy scraped mud from the edge of his shoe.
‘Not by a long shot.’
‘Enjoy the view, Mr. Martins. We needed to be sure you were alone - and that reception would be clear.’
‘How do you know I am alone?’
‘Please, Mr. Martins, we needn’t go into that. We brought you here for a reason, so if you please...?’
‘It’s your nickel.’
Chuckle again. ‘Charming idiom - your American friends are rubbing off on you. Tell me, did you enjoy your tour?’
‘A waste of time.’
‘Indeed. You were expecting more?’
‘No. Williams wanted to start there.’ Freddy thought of Barn Williams, the Tyrant’s lieutenant who headed the entourage, sweating in his dress shirt as he sat in the rental car before departing for the airport, making no pretence of hiding his suspicion and distrust.
‘That was the easy path.’
‘Williams is a fool.’
‘We agree on something.’
‘Was that your handiwork I saw yesterday?’
Chuckle - now devoid of humor. ‘You are referring to the prodigal contingent?’
‘They followed down the road far enough alright. Your program includes psychological torture? Or something simpler - drugs, surgery?’
‘The truth is, Mr. Martins, we don’t know.’
‘How is that?’
‘You see, we’re on the outside as well.’
‘This isn’t your deal?’
‘We’re funding it. But they’re really on their own.’
Freddy stood and walked around the tree.
‘Can we pick up the pace here?’
‘Why don’t you join us, Mr. Martins.’
‘And do what?’
‘What you’ve always done. Put together deals. Match the market to the investment. Why should we reinvent the wheel?’
‘That should be obvious.’
‘So I’ve done this before, sort of.’
‘Yes. And your position right now - it could be useful.’
‘With our other friends - your ‘SWAT’ team. So colorful, these military analogies. But, I can’t help thinking that the team lacks a certain... ruthlessness. It really is a requirement for this type of work.’
‘Whereas your organization?’
‘Oh, we get by, Mr. Martins. Good, old-fashioned tenacity.’
‘Where’s the incentive for me?’
‘What do you want?’
‘I’ll need to think about that.’
‘Naturally. Of course, you need to evaluate the alternatives, as well.’
Freddy did not reply. The sun was burning through the morning haze. A tractor moved across a hill two small valleys away.
‘Your client is wasting his time, Mr. Martins. And ours.’
‘He doesn’t want to see his investment go to waste.’
‘He has been offered a settlement. A generous one, given the circumstances.’
‘If you say so.’
‘What exactly does this ‘team’ hope to accomplish?’
‘We’re investors. We still own rights to the entire asset pool in all the equihoods you’re pulling from.’
‘Mr. Martins, you are brighter than this. So you must be aware that we know more about you than you about us. We hate to be so crude, but a thorough unwinding of how your client got into this investment - Atrium, Recante, Fisheye - would make quite a nice story for any number of news journals.’
Freddy’s anger rose.
‘The regulators looked at all that when it happened - there wasn’t even an investigation.’
‘Of course. But then, we know details that the regulators were never privy to. Due to our unique perspective.’
There was a long pause at the other end. He picked at the bark on the tree. He needed to pee badly. The voice came back.
‘Your confidence in your management - and your client - is remarkable. I should think you might be concerned that you would be a convenient - ‘fall guy’ - I think that’s the phrase.’
Freddy cradled the phone between his shoulder and ear, and peed nervously against the tree.
‘You say you’re on the outside. I’m not sure how I’m going to help you.’
‘We’ll get you on the inside.’
‘So I’ll get to meet this crew of... maenads?’
‘A classical education is an asset, Mr. Martins. Especially the Greek. Such insight into the human animal. You’ll meet your maenads. Better yet.’ The familiar chuckle. ‘You’ll meet the Citizen.’
Freddy looked down and shifted his feet to avoid the steaming downflow of his urine off the tree trunk.
‘Goodbye, Mr. Martins.’
The call went dead.
Acknowledgement: the second set of text fragments from the children’s web world, beginning with ‘...broken flesh’, contains phrases taken from Chapter XI (‘Fraction’) of Love’s Body by Norman O. Brown.
Joel E. Turner’s fiction has appeared in Ambit, Proof and New Millenium. He lives near Philadelphia and designs analytic software for banks. ‘The Alfalfa Interview’ is a chapter from an unpublished novel, Generation ’Dex.
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