Spruce Hill, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1, 2000
My apartment is a nightmare. Somewhere in this pile of shit is that woman’s number. Not that I can remember her name. I suppose it would be helpful if I knew what the hell I was looking for. It was the woman with the book club. I wrote down her name and number and left it here, in the kitchen for Balero, once upon a time. On this pile of paper chaos on the counter. And—no pressure—but Roland will be here any minute.
Did he take it in his room? Bah! I can’t remember. God, it was like a month ago.
Well, here goes. Gotta break into his room. I didn’t want to have to do this, buddy. But, you know—emergency.
…and his room is an even deeper pile of shit than the kitchen. Wow. They should have twelve step groups for people with bedrooms like this.
Number, number, number. Somewhere in here is a number.
Malinda? Margaret? Something with an M. Maybe he used it as a bookmark. Maybe it’s in that book right there on his nightstand, which would be way too easy.
There is a bookmark! It’s a folded up piece of paper. I hold my breath and open it. There’s a name and a number. Daryl. (Hmm… Wrong gender.) No area code. Not sure if that helps. I snap the book shut, toss it into the hallway, and keep digging. Within seconds I’m drowning in Van Zorn propaganda: pamphlets, books, notes, magazines, on topics like time travel, paradoxes, parallel universes, hyper dimensional beings, and some bullshit called “meta time”. I flip through Balero’s journals, something that feels deeply uncool to do. Each one has a more moronic phrase on the cover than the last, like Impossible Algorithms and Sacred Primes. It’s filled front to back with handwritten notes, exercises, thoughts, even equations.
Wow. Someone’s been a good little soldier.
I remember when he really started getting into this crap. I was happy he found something to get so excited about, to fill up his criminally underused imagination. But after a couple of weeks his language changed. I mean he actually started using different words, dropping weird catch phrases into every other conversation, didn’t matter what we were talking about. I looked around online, and pretty much every bit of nonsense that was coming out of Balero’s mouth was on this dickbag Van Zorn’s website.
It’s like this one time we were chilling at home. Couldn’t have been three weeks ago. Just not even talking about anything in particular and he started going off on some shit. I was just like, dude stop. He was trying to connect the “impossibility of self-awareness in a post-quantum era” into a discussion of what happens to the human mind under the influence of psychedelics.
I was like, “Just stop talking. You sound like an idiot. And stop hanging out with these assholes. They’re literally making you dumber.”
He had his hand up, frozen mid-gesture, in the middle of driving home a particularly salient point. But all of his points were starting to sound salient. Every sentence was emphasized.
Instead of fighting back he just went to his room, slammed the door, and didn’t talk to me for two weeks. If I wasn’t willing to speak his language, he wasn’t going to speak to me at all.
Which I now realize is why he was acting like such a smug little shit in front of Leah’s house on Sunday.
Oh Jesus Christ, Balero. Where the hell did you go? I’m getting to the point where I don’t even care about the goddamn device any more. I just hope you’re OK. Wherever the hell you are.
Ten minutes later a cheerless Max knocks at my door and announces with a silent nod that it’s time to go. I grab my backpack, make sure my note is visible on the couch in case Balero comes home, and—I’ll never get used to this—head downstairs to Roland’s waiting limo.
“Good morning Marcus. All set to conquer the world? Good, good. What can we get you?”
The smell of coffee almost blacks me out. There’s a goddamn espresso machine in here. How is that even possible?
“Uh, I’ll take a double espresso, I guess.”
There’s classical music playing in the background. Something lively but masculine. Beethoven maybe.
We lurch into traffic.
“So! Once we pick up Zeke, I was thinking we could go to the movies.”
Roland gives a dry smirk, still the naughty grandpa.
“Yeah, why not? I’m sure you’re sick of hotel rooms by now. God knows I am. Movie theaters are excellent places to conduct secret affairs and hatch dangerous plots of espionage and intrigue. Plus they have snacks! Max likes snacks. Don’t you Max?”
He smiles and slaps an unfazed Max in the leg.
I decide that Roland man is 100% old school American bravado, and he absolutely doesn’t fit in the world anymore.
“Are you serious?”
He waves this away.
“Mostly it’s just a cheap place to have a conversation without the threat of being overheard.”
I’m sitting across the seat from the two of them: I’m facing the front of the limo, they’re facing the back. Max hands me a small covered to-go cup. I throw back the espresso in two gulps.
Roland claps his hands.
“Today is the day we turn our attention to your scampering young friend.”
“Ah! Well, I have something that might help us there. Hang on.” I place the empty cup between my shoes, fish Balero’s book out of my backpack, and hand it over to Roland. Max intercepts the move and makes sure the book isn’t a bomb or whatever, then hands it to Roland.
“Well, I already have the phone numbers of the dozen or so friends Balero might call for help if, you know, he were stranded somewhere, but he’s been spending more and more time with these book club idiots, and I don’t know any of them. The bookmark is a number. Some guy named Daryl. Might be part of the group. Plus there’s some scattered notes and phone numbers on the inside cover.”
We pull onto a busy street. A truck honks at us and we swerve to the left. The limo driver doesn’t honk back.
“Ford Van Zorn.”
“This is who, exactly?”
“He’s one of the lunatics at that New Age expo we crashed last month. Where I saw Leah and the… thing. Every flavor of quantum science mystic bullshit you can think of, this guy sells it. Balero sat through one of his talks or whatever and got hooked.”
Roland hands his coffee to Max (who’s already holding his own coffee), kills the music with the flick of a switch, and flips through the book.
“Get my glasses, will you?”
Max twists and turns in his seat, unsure how to proceed with a hot coffee in each hand. I offer to take one. He hands me both.
“Thucydides Was Wrong, which right away is a pile of nonsense. Thank you, Max. Now, let’s see…”
Silence as Roland reads and Max, well, just sits there and is Max. I watch the city go by and try to think which one of Balero’s friends we should call first. Or maybe his parents. We’re talking about a man who doesn’t often leave the apartment with cash, let alone his wallet. It’s a really good day when he remembers his keys.
Max touches my knee. It’s a silent command to stop bouncing my leg.
Roland thinks I’m talking to him.
“No, you did the right thing.”
“No, I meant… Never mind. I did the right thing?”
He turns one page of Van Zorn’s book, then another. And another.
More time passes, and I wonder if he’s going to read the whole damn thing right now.
“So do you just drive around all the time? In a limo? Not that, you know, there’s anything wrong with that.”
“Like, don’t you have an office somewhere, or something?”
Still no reply.
“Uh… We’re here, actually. Roland?” I tap at my window and point. “We’re at Zeke’s place.”
Still no goddamn reply.
Roland turns the book over and reads the back and the inside covers, muttering to himself.
He finally lifts his ice blue gaze to me.
“I said, what was Balero like just before your excursion to Leah’s house?”
“What was he like?”
“How was he acting? What did he say?”
“We haven’t, ah, exactly been on speaking terms lately.”
Roland winces at me over the top of the book. His voice has lowered to a growl.
“I see. And did you notice anything strange about his speech or mannerisms before you started giving each other the silent treatment?”
That’s funny. The silent treatment. Yeah, I guess you could call it that.
“Looney tunes. That’s how I’d describe him. Like, even more than usual. Basically spouting the same crap this guy sells.” I wave my hand at the book.
Roland starts to ask something and is interrupted by the sharp hiss and gurgle of the espresso machine. Max is whipping up another beverage. Roland asks him if he’d mind. Max just gives him a cold look through dark sunglasses and keeps frothing.
When he’s finally finished, an exasperated Roland asks me what, if anything, Balero’s had to say about this new world he’d discovered in Van Zorn’s writings. Or anything else I could think of.
“Dude, I don’t even know where to start. Shouldn’t we go get Zeke? It’s past nine.”
“Please, Marcus. It’s important.”
“Well, his room is full of this shit. He has all of the man’s books, a bunch of magazines and pamphlets, and what look like seven or eight workbooks. Like hundreds of pages of handwritten notes.”
“What about his activities? Anything unusual?”
“Yeah, like the book club? He talked about that nonstop for a few days.”
“The book club.”
“What kind of book club?”
“I don’t know, probably to read this guy’s books.” Again I point to the book in Roland’s hand.
“Did he say that specifically?”
“Yeah he did, actually.”
“And how often did he attend these meetings?”
“I don’t know, like once a week? Sometimes maybe twice?”
“A book club.”
“Jesus, yes! A book club. A book club!”
Roland gazes out the window. He’s a thousand miles away.
“I don’t get it. Are book clubs bad? I mean, I get that this guy is a few French fries short of a Happy Meal, but…”
Max whips his head back and forth to loosen his neck, making sounds like rocks clacking in a towel.
“A book club…” Roland whispers to the window.
After a few more seconds he sighs, opens the book, and shows the inside flap to Max. They’re looking at Van Zorn’s picture.
“San Luis Obispo?”
Max thinks for a second, then nods. Roland looks back at me.
“St. Louis what? I don’t…”
“Marcus, did Balero mention anything that sounded like ‘The Church of Radioactive Light’?”
He flips through the book, tracks something down, and recites it.
“ ‘For I am not here to sell you another way of thinking, or even a template of new living. I am here for a much more important reason, and that is to show you that the human learning process itself is a disease from which every one of us suffers.’ ” He points up as he continues. “ ‘The very fabric of our way of thinking, our heuristically recursive model of deduction in the light of scientific advances from the last century is itself polluted beyond recognition by the shadows of the impossible and the infinite loops of the final paradox.’ ”
Yep! That sounds like Balero. Or rather, Balero sounds like this guy. And I’m seriously starting to wonder if I’m wasting my time as a psych major; I should have been a New Age author like this hack. Sounds like anyone can make a living pulling this rainbow colored glitter out of their ass.
“Your friend is in a cult.”
Roland’s furry white eyebrows are all the way up.
“Your friend, Balero, is up to his elbows in a religious cult.”
Yeah, right. The same guy who can recite math theorems and Shakespeare sonnets to the letter while smoking his weight in purple buds at the same time? Who’s never been inside a church against his will other than to drop acid and speak backwards Latin? He’s stupid, but he’s not that kind of stupid.
“I don’t think so.”
“Look, I don’t know how to break this to you, kid. I recognize this guy, and his name ain’t Ford Van Zorn. The FBI’s been keeping an eye on him for a few years now. His real name’s…” He snaps his fingers and looks at an entirely unhelpful Max. “Something like Vogel or Vagel. Doesn’t matter. We can make a phone call. Wouldn’t take more than ten minutes. My contacts are extremely well placed.”
I make a noise that’s somewhere between a scoff and a raspberry.
“He operates … Listen to me! He operates under at least two other names in various parts of North and South America. I’m not making this up, Marcus. He’s a very dangerous man.”
Max nudges Roland. Roland closes his eyes and sighs.
“My babysitter here gets nervous if we linger anywhere for too long. It’s all right, Max. We’re not in that bad of a neighborhood.”
We are, kind of. They have what looks like a mini staring contest. Roland wins. He turns back to me.
“Look—we might be in a bigger pickle here than you think. These devices are nothing to play with. They have been known to cause enhanced physical and mental abilities, yes, but there are also recorded incidents of hallucinations, schizophrenic-like behavior, and sometimes even episodes of shared psychosis. You follow me? So the feats of apparent superhuman abilities can be difficult to measure or verify, because people around the affected person are themselves operating with compromised faculties. This is why anyone who happens to get their hands on one of the damn things are instructed to turn it over to me ASAP, where I then turn it over to someone else who has the necessary technology to quarantine it without causing any serious harm to himself or others. Sort of like a game of hot potato. Now, you’d know all this if you’d been through the induction rigmarole for Holcomb’s little support circle, but we didn’t have time to get you oriented before all this various shit started hitting the fan.”
Speaking of shit hitting fans. I take a deep breath and say something I probably should have said much earlier.
“Balero listened in on some of my phone calls with Zeke about stealing the device.”
Dead silence, then a thunderous rage.
I don’t care anymore. After yesterday it’s all out in the open anyway. Fuck it.
“My point is that he thinks Zeke and I were after something that he believes to be bullshit. Which means,” I sigh, “that there’s a very good chance he could have just tossed it or left it in the woods or something. There’s—in my opinion—only the smallest chance he would have taken it to one of these Van Zorn fanatics.”
“Marcus, God dammit, if this thing gets in the hands of a cult, or anything resembling a cult, things could go south very, very fast. Worst case, we could be looking at a hostage situation, which would attract…”
“The Feds,” Max says, literally the first words I’ve heard him speak.
“The Feds,” Roland echoes. “That’s right. And guess what happens then?”
There is a pause. They’re both looking at me.
“I don’t know, people die?”
Roland closes his eyes in frustration.
“Yes, but what else?”
“The cursed thing gets confiscated by the government and we’re back where we started!”
He’s shaking now, eyes bulging out of his head. Dude needs to maybe lay off the caffeine.
“It won’t come to that. Believe me.”
Neither one of them believes me.
A beat later Roland rubs his eyes and says, “Well, let’s hope to Christ you’re right. Why don’t you go and get Zeke. We have a world of work ahead of us.”
I get out of the limo and run up the steps to Zeke’s building. I’m worried he might still be sleeping, based on the several paranoid texts he sent me throughout the night, but he opens the door before I finish knocking.
His face is white. Whiter than usual. And he’s not alone. There are two girls in his…
“Well, well, well. Speak of the devil.”
I don’t recognize the girl who says this, but I sure as hell recognize the girl standing next to her.
God fucking dammit.
The girl I don’t know pushes Zeke out of the way and fills the doorframe. She’s tall, like an Amazon woman. She’s wearing too much makeup and a grin of the shit-eating variety.
“So you’re Marcus,” she says. “Boy are we glad to see you.”
“Hi, Leah,” I try to say over her shoulder.
“Damn, Leah—this one’s cute too! Wish we were here to party and not bust your fuckin’ balls.” She switches from jocular to dripping with brimstone somewhere in the middle of this sentence.
“Can I come in?”
Amazon Woman steps aside. Zeke’s on the couch with his face in his hands. Leah’s standing next to him, wearing that We need to talk look that only moms and scorned girlfriends seem to be able to pull off.
Great. At least I don’t have to go the rest of my life wondering when our little adventure at her house will finally be avenged. Because that day is here. And there is no escape; I know from just looking at Amazon Woman that she can outrun me.
All we need now is Balero.
And Roland. Shit! Oh, he’s going to love this.
I hold up my hand. I actually hold up my Christing hand like I need to use the potty at Sunday school. And I’m still standing in the hallway for some reason.
“I’m sorry, are you… asking permission to say something?”
I gesture wildly at the hallway behind me.
“My friend, my… Roland is downstairs. Do you mind if I go and… I really think you’re going to want to, you know… He has lots of important information about things.”
I decide for some reason that Leah’s friend can probably hold her liquor and doesn’t brush her teeth very often.
“He’s kind of hard to miss. He’s, uh…” (I actually gulp) “…in a limo.”
This pleases the Amazon Woman. It pleases her very much. She turns to Leah and says, “Did you hear that? There’s a limo! Very fancy!” Then, back to me. “I’ll go. Why don’t you stay here and get comfy. You and Leah can catch up.”
She reaches out for my shoulders, and for two solid seconds I swear to God I think she’s actually going to pick me up and deposit me on the couch next to Zeke, but instead she just kind of slides me out of the way and makes for the stairs.
“Yeah, join the party,” Zeke says through his hands.
I reluctantly do. In a gesture of complete ego deflation I sit on the couch next to Zeke and feel every bit the disobeying schoolboy sitting before an angry teacher. Leah doesn’t say anything. She just does one of those very long, drawn out sighs of the profoundly disappointed.
I thought she’d lead with a question, but I guess it’s up to us to start. I can see that Zeke is like two exits away from a complete emotional breakdown, so I decide to take the lead. I’m just opening my mouth when Zeke cuts me off.
“Oh, shut up. I don’t need any more lies from you.”
Zeke looks down at his feet.
I barge ahead.
“Leah, listen to me. You have every right to be furious with us. Every right. We violated your home…”
“My bedroom!” she interrupts.
“Right, and your bedroom. We violated the sanctity of your house and home and…” I look at Zeke. “…and we’re both very sorry for what happened. But Leah, there’s another side to this. And it’s not anything like you think.”
I look up at Leah and remember how young she is. Her anger easily adds a decade to her age. I force myself to remember that she’s young and frightened and we fucked with her in a very serious and uncool way. And this moment, what’s happening right here, is not something I even remotely rehearsed for.
“I’m all ears.”
“I know you are. Look, Leah…”
The door opens and Amazon Woman enters the apartment with Roland and a very unhappy looking Max in tow. “These are the guys in the limo.” She’s lost all her mirth.
It’s clear from their faces that neither Leah nor her tall friend expected two very old men to enter the situation. The mood of the room changes: this is no longer a fun game of girls against boys, of revenge. The edge of something big and dangerous pierces the room like a bad smell.
Leah pretends to be annoyed.
“Who are you?”
Roland’s voice is the voice of authority and former-military and very-much-not-fucking-around.
“God dammit, we don’t have time for whatever this is. And I’m not giving anyone here my name until I know exactly what’s…”
Dead stop. He gives Leah a long hard stare, then gapes at me.
“Good Christ. That’s her, isn’t it?”
I nod. Yeah, it’s her.
The room is now in a free fall: Roland is speechless, something I never thought I’d see. Amazon Woman appears to have lost all her Amazon powers. Zeke is suddenly at full attention and almost falling off the edge of the couch, and Leah is indignant at what I’d guess is her sudden loss of control over the situation.
She turns on her heels and fully faces Roland, vibrating with fury.
“I’m sorry, what exactly do you have to do with any of this?”
Roland is breathless. “My dear, I’m afraid the situation is much larger than you realize.”
“Bigger how? Explain.”
Max whispers something in Roland’s ear. He nods and examines his shoes. Finally he looks up and addresses all of us.
“Well, I suppose it was inevitable that we’d all have a conversation at some point.”
This comment hangs in the middle of the room for a way longer than it feels like it should. For a few beats all we do is hold our positions and listen to each other breathe. No one quite knows what to do. Roland offers a few Uhs and Wells but never quite gets another sentence going. It’s so quiet that for a second it feels like the whole room is underwater.
“Why don’t we do names?”
Zeke says this. It’s a simple plea, but it works.
Roland comes thundering back to life. “Yes! Thank you, Mr. Eppler. That’s an excellent idea! Why don’t we start with names. I’m Roland. This here is my body man, Max.”
Amazon Woman finds this mildly amusing.
“Your body man?”
“Yes. And you are, my dear?”
Amazon Woman just huffs and rolls her eyes.
Roland turns to Leah.
“And you are Leah Schaudt, of course. The woman of the hour.” I can tell Roland is trying to say this with the mocking fanfare of a beauty pageant host, but he falters somewhere in the middle of it.
Leah sits down and gives the slightest of nods.
Roland gathers himself up for another puff of gusto. “My associates Mr. Mulvaney and Mr. Eppler you already know. I didn’t catch your name.”
He’s looking at the tall one. Leah doesn’t wait for a response.
“A very protective friend,” Courtney corrects.
Roland’s face lights up. He looks Courtney up and down and says, “I see! She is your body man, in a way. Your Max!”
Courtney switches her weight from one foot to another. “Goddamn right.”
“OK!” Roland claps his hands. “Listen up. I’m the adult here, and I decide what’s going to happen next. I realize,” he gestures to Zeke, “that this is your home, and the last thing I want to do is tell a man what to do in his own home, but I think we can all agree that this is a singular situation, yes?”
This gets no response.
“Yes. And I have more experience than anyone in this room with this kind of… ah… event. So—and you’ll forgive me for this, Mr. Eppler—I’m not about to let us have the conversation we all very much need to have… here. This is what my body man and I would refer to as an ‘unsecured location’.”
Zeke laughs. “You got that right.”
Max nudges Roland. They share another whisper. “Yes, I was coming to that.” Then, back to the room: “I’m afraid our time here is at an end. I’m not allowed to dawdle anywhere for too long these days. ” Sideways glare at Max. “Now; a hotel room would be ideal, but I sense we’d have a difficult time finding one on such short notice, given the imminent sporting event your city will soon be hosting. And it wouldn’t look so good with the six of us wandering in and out of the same room.”
Then, to Zeke. “Mr. Eppler—this is your neighborhood. Is there any place nearby—preferably an open, public space, something neutral and buzzing with activity—where a strange group like ours might blend in?”
“Well,” Zeke says, thinking out loud, “there’s the zoo.”