Paranoia (036 of 170)

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036
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Paranoia
by Joseph Finder
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Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder.
All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.


17

In the middle of the night my cell phone rang, ear-splittingly loud, only it wasn't the middle of the night. I could see a shaft of light behind the shades. The clock said five-thirty—A.M.? P.M.? I was so disoriented I had no idea. I grabbed the phone, wished I hadn't left it on.

"Yeah?"

"You're still asleep?" a voice said, incredulous.

"Who is this?"

"You left the Audi in a tow zone." Arnold Meacham, I realized at once: Wyatt's security Nazi. "It's not your car, it's leased by Wyatt Telecommunications, and the least you can do is take decent care of it—not leave it lying around like a discarded condom."

It came back to me: last night, getting wasted at Alley Cat, somehow getting home, forgetting to set the alarm ... Trion!

"Oh, shit," I said, jolting upright, my stomach doing a flip. My head throbbed, felt enormous, like one of those aliens on Star Trek.

"We set out the rules quite clearly," Meacham said. "No more carousing. No partying. You're expected to function at peak capacity." Was he talking faster and louder than normal? He sure seemed to be. I could barely keep up.

"I know," I croaked lamely.

"This is not an auspicious start."

"It was real—real busy yesterday. My first day, and my father—"

"I really don't give a shit. We have an explicit agreement, which you're expected to abide by. And what have you turned up on the skunkworks?"

"Skunkworks?" I flung my legs around to the floor, sat on the edge of the bed, massaged my temples with my free hand.

"Classified, codeword projects. What the hell do you think you're there for?"

"No, it's too early," I said. "Too soon, I mean." Slowly my brain was starting to function. "I was escorted everywhere yesterday. There wasn't a minute when I was left alone. It would have been far too risky for me to do anything sneaky. You don't want me blowing this assignment on the first day."

Meacham was silent for a few seconds. "Fair enough," he said. "But you should have an opportunity quite soon, and I expect you to take advantage of it. I want a report by close of business today, are we clear?"




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    Robin Hood (36 of 79)

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    36
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    Robin Hood
    by J. Walker Mcspadden
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    Chapter XI: How Robin Hood Fought Guy of Gisborne (Cont'd)

    "A blessing on your heart!" shouted Capul-Hide; "never saw I such shooting as that! Belike you are better than Robin Hood himself. But you have not yet told me your name."

    "Nay, by my faith," quoth Robin, "I must keep it secret till you have told me your own."

    "I do not disdain to tell it," said the other. "I dwell by dale and down, and to take bold Robin am I sworn. This would I tell him to his face, were he not so great a craven. When I am called by my right name, I am Guy of Gisborne."

    This he said with a great show of pride, and he strutted back and forth, forgetful that he had just been beaten at archery.

    Robin eyed him quietly. "Methinks I have heard of you elsewhere. Do you not bring men to the gallows for a living?"

    "Aye, but only outlaws such as Robin Hood."

    "But pray what harm has Robin Hood done you?"

    "He is a highway robber," said Sir Guy, evading the question.

    "Has he ever taken from the rich that he did not give again to the poor? Does he not protect the women and children and side with weak and helpless? Is not his greatest crime the shooting of a few King's deer?"

    "Have done with your sophistry," said Sir Guy impatiently. "I am more than ever of opinion that you are one of Robin's men yourself."

    "I have told you I am not," quoth Robin briefly. "But if I am to help you catch him, what is your plan?"

    "Do you see this silver bugle?" said the other. "A long blast upon it will summon the Sheriff and all his men, when once I have Robin within my grasp. And if you show him to me, I'll give you the half of my forty pounds reward."

    "I would not help hang a man for ten times forty pounds," said the outlaw. "Yet will I point out Robin to you for the reward I find at my sword's point. I myself am Robin Hood of Sherwood and Barnesdale."

    "Then have at you!" cried the other springing swiftly into action. His sword leaped forth from beneath the horse's hide with the speed born of long practice, and before Robin had come to guard, the other had smitten at him full and foul. Robin eluded the lunge and drew his own weapon.

    "A scurvy trick!" quoth he grimly, "to strike at a man unprepared."

    Then neither spoke more, but fell sternly to work—lunge and thrust and ward and parry—for two full hours the weapons smote together sullenly, and neither Robin Hood nor Sir Guy would yield an inch. I promise you that if you could have looked forth on the fight from behind the trunk of some friendly tree, you would have seen deadly sport such as few men beheld in Sherwood Forest. For the fighters glared sullenly at each other, the fires of hatred burning in their eyes. One was fighting for his life; the other for a reward and the King's favor.




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    Robin Hood (35 of 79)

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    Robin Hood
    by J. Walker Mcspadden
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    Chapter XI: How Robin Hood Fought Guy of Gisborne (Cont'd)

    The gallows was quickly put up and a new rope provided.

    "Now up with you!" commanded the Sheriff, "and let us see if your greenwood tricks will avail you to-morrow."

    "I would that I had bold Robin's horn," muttered poor John; "methinks 'tis all up with me even as the Sheriff hath spoken."

    In good sooth the time was dire and pressing. The rope was placed around the prisoner's neck and the men prepared to haul away.

    "Are you ready?" called the Sheriff. "One—two—"

    But before the "three" left his lips the faint sound of a silver bugle came floating over the hill.

    "By my troth, that is Sir Guy of Gisborne's horn," quoth the Sheriff; "and he bade me not to delay answering its summons. He has caught Robin Hood."

    "Pardon, Excellency," said one of his men; "but if he has caught Robin Hood, this is a merry day indeed. And let us save this fellow and build another gallows and hang them both together."

    "That's a brave thought!" said the Sheriff slapping his knee. "Take the rascal down and bind him fast to the gallows-tree against our return."

    So Little John was made fast to the gallows-tree, while the Sheriff and all his men who could march or hobble went out to get Robin Hood and bring him in for the double hanging.

    Let us leave talking of Little John and the Sheriff, and see what has become of Robin Hood.

    In the first place, he and Little John had come near having a quarrel that self-same morning because both had seen a curious looking yeoman, and each wanted to challenge him singly. But Robin would not give way to his lieutenant, and that is why John, in a huff, had gone with Will to Barnesdale.

    Meanwhile Robin approached the curious looking stranger. He seemed to be a three-legged creature at first sight, but on coming nearer you would have seen that 'twas really naught but a poorly clad man, who for a freak had covered up his rags with a capul-hide, nothing more nor less than the sun-dried skin of a horse, complete with head, tail, and mane. The skin of the head made a helmet; while the tail gave the curious three-legged appearance.

    "Good-morrow, good fellow," said Robin cheerily, "methinks by the bow you bear in your hand that you should be a good archer."

    "Indifferent good," said the other returning his greeting; "but 'tis not of archery that I am thinking this morning, for I have lost my way and would fain find it again."

    "By my faith, I could have believed 'twas your wits you'd lost!" thought Robin smiling. Then aloud: "I'll lead you through the wood," quoth he, "an you will tell me your business. For belike your speech is much gentler than your attire."

    "Who are you to ask me my business?" asked the other roughly.

    "I am one of the King's Rangers," replied Robin, "set here to guard his deer against curious looking strollers."

    "Curious looking I may be," returned the other, "but no stroller. Hark ye, since you are a Ranger, I must e'en demand your service. I am on the King's business and seek an outlaw. Men call him Robin Hood. Are you one of his men?"—eyeing him keenly.

    "Nay, God forbid!" said Robin; "but what want you with him?"

    "That is another tale. But I'd rather meet with that proud outlaw than forty good pounds of the King's money."

    Robin now saw how the land lay.

    "Come with me, good yeoman," said he, "and belike, a little later in the day, I can show you Robin's haunts when he is at home. Meanwhile let us have some pastime under the greenwood tree. Let us first try the mastery at shooting arrows."

    The other agreed, and they cut down two willow wands of a summer's growth that grew beneath a brier, and set them up at a distance of threescore yards.

    "Lead on, good fellow," quoth Robin. "The first shot to you."

    "Nay, by my faith," said the other, "I will follow your lead."

    So Robin stepped forth and bent his bow carelessly and sent his shaft whizzing toward the wand, missing it by a scant inch. He of the horse-hide followed with more care yet was a good three-fingers' breadth away. On the second round, the stranger led off and landed cleverly within the small garland at the top of the wand; but Robin shot far better and clave the wand itself, clean at the middle.




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    Paranoia (035 of 170)

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    Paranoia
    by Joseph Finder
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    Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder.
    All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.


    Part Two: 16 (Cont'd)

    I began to feel a pleasant, alcohol-fueled surge of confidence bordering on megalomania. I'd been parachuted into Nazi Germany, with little more than K rations and a shortwave radio, and the success of the Allies was riding entirely on me, nothing less than the fate of Western civilization.

    "I saw Elliot Krause today downtown," Seth said.

    I looked at him, uncomprehending.

    "Elliot Krause? Remember? Elliot Portosan?"

    My reaction time had slowed; it took me a few seconds, but then I burst out laughing. I hadn't heard Elliot Krause's name in years.

    "He's a partner in some law firm, of course."

    "Specializing in ... environmental law, right?" I said, choking with laughter, spitting out a mouthful of Scotch.

    "Do you remember his face?"

    "Forget his face, remember his pants?"

    This was why I liked spending time with Seth. We talked in Morse code; we got each other's references, all the inside jokes. Our shared history gave us a secret language, the way twins talk to each other when they're babies. One summer in high school when Seth was working at a snooty tennis club doing grounds maintenance during a big international tennis match, he let me sneak in without paying. They'd brought in some of those rented "portable restroom facilities" for the influx of spectators—Handy Houses or Portosans or Johnny On the Job, whatever cute name they had, I don't remember—those things that look like big old refrigerators. By the second or third day they'd gotten full, the Handy House crew hadn't bothered to come by and pump them out, and they reeked.

    There was this preppy kid named Elliot Krause we both hated, partly because he'd stolen Seth's girlfriend, and partly because he looked down on us as working-class kids. He showed up at the tournament, dressed in a faggoty tennis sweater and white duck pants, Seth's girlfriend on his arm, and he made the mistake of going into one of the Handy Houses to relieve himself. Seth, who was spearing trash at the moment, saw this and gave me an evil smile. He ran over to the booth, jammed the wooden handle of his trash-picker-upper thing through the latch, and me and a friend of ours, Flash Flaherty, started rocking the Porta Potti back and forth. You could hear Elliot inside shouting, "Hey! Hey! What the hell's going on?" and you could hear the sloshing of the unspeakable contents, and finally we got the thing flipped over, with Elliot trapped inside. I don't want to think about what the poor guy was floating in. Seth lost his job but he insisted that it was worth it—he'd have paid good money just for the privilege of seeing Elliot Krause emerge in his no-longer-white tennis whites, retching, covered in shit.

    By this point, recalling Elliot Krause putting his shit-splashed glasses back on his shit-covered face as he stumbled out of the Handy House, I was laughing so hard I lost my balance and sprawled onto the floor. For a couple of seconds I lay there, unable to get up. People crowded around me, giant heads leaning in, asking if I was okay. I was definitely looped. Everything had gotten smeary. For some reason I flashed on an image of my father and Antwoine Leonard, and the thought struck me as screamingly hilarious, and I couldn't stop laughing.

    I felt someone grab me by the shoulder, someone else grab me by the elbow. Seth and another guy were helping me out of the bar. Everyone seemed to be watching me.

    "Sorry, man," I said, feeling a wave of embarrassment wash over me. "Thanks. My car's right here."

    "You're not driving, bud."

    "It's right here," I insisted feebly.

    "That's not your car. That's an Audi or something."

    "It's mine," I said firmly, punctuating the statement with a vigorous nod. "Audi—A6, I think."

    "What happened to Bondo?"

    I shook my head. "New car."

    "Man, this new job, they paying you a lot more?"

    "Yeah," I said, then I added, my words slurred, "not that much more."

    He whistled for a cab, and he and the other guy hustled me into it. "You remember where you live?" Seth said.

    "Come on," I said. "Of course I remember."

    "You want a coffee for the ride home, sober you up a little?"

    "Nah," I said. "I got to get to sleep. Work tomorrow."

    Seth laughed. "I don't envy you, man," he said.




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    Paranoia (034 of 170)

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    034
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    170
    Paranoia
    by Joseph Finder
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    Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder.
    All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.


    Part Two: 16 (Cont'd)

    The Scotch buzz began to fade, and this humming low note of anxiety, a pedal note, was slowly growing louder, gradually getting higher-pitched, like microphone feedback, high and ear-splitting. By the time Seth came back, he'd forgotten what we were talking about. Seth, like most guys, tends to focus more on his own stuff than on anyone else's. Saved by male narcissism.

    "God, women love bartenders," he said. "Why is that?"

    "I don't know, Seth. Maybe it's you." I tipped my empty glass toward him.

    "No doubt. No doubt." He glugged another few ounces of Scotch in there, refreshed the ice. In a low, confiding voice, barely audible over the din of whooping voices and the blaring ballgame, he said, "My manager says he doesn't like my pour. Keeps making me use a pour tester, practice all the time. Plus he's always testing me now. 'Pour for me! Too much! You're giving away the store!' "

    "I think your pour's perfectly fine," I said.

    "I'm really supposed to write up a ticket, you know."

    "Go ahead. I'm making the big bucks now."

    "Na-ah, they let us comp four drinks a night, don't worry about it. So, you think you've got it bad at work. My boss at the firm is always giving me shit if I'm like ten minutes late."

    I shook my head.

    "I mean, Shapiro doesn't know how to use the copier. He doesn't know how to send a fax. He doesn't even know how to do a LexisNexis search. He'd be totally sunk without me."

    "Maybe he wants someone else to do the shitwork."

    Seth didn't seem to hear me. "So did I tell you about my latest scam?"

    "Tell me."

    "Get this—jingles!"

    "Huh?"

    "Jingles! There—like that!" He pointed up at the TV, some cheesy low-production-value ad for a mattress company with a stupid, annoying song they were always playing. "I met this guy at the law firm who works for an ad agency, he told me all about it. Told me he could get me an audition with one of those jingle companies like Megamusic or Crushing or Rocket. He said the easiest way to break in is by writing one of them."

    "You can't even read music, Seth."

    "Neither can Stevie Wonder. Look, a lot of the really talented guys can't read music. I mean, how long does it take to learn a thirty-second piece of music? This girl who does all those JCPenney ads, he said she can barely read music, but she's got the voice!"

    A woman next to me at the bar called out to Seth, "What kind of wine do you have?"

    "Red, white, and pink," he said. "What can I get you?"

    She said white, and he poured some into a water glass.

    He circled back to me. "The big bucks is in the singing, though. I just got to put a reel together, a CD, and pretty soon I'll be on the A list—it's all who you know. You following me? No work, mucho bucks!"

    "Sounds great," I said with not enough enthusiasm.

    "You're not into this?"

    "No, it sounds great, it really does," I said, mustering a little more enthusiasm. "Great scam." In the last couple of years, Seth and I talked a lot about scamming by, about how to do the least work possible. He loved hearing my stories of how I used to goof off at Wyatt, how I used to spend hours on the Internet looking at The Onion or Web sites like Bored-AtWork.com or ILoveBacon.com or FuckedCompany.com. I especially liked the sites that had a "manager" button you could click when your manager passed by, that killed the funny stuff and put back up whatever boring Excel spreadsheet you were working on. We both took pride in how little work we could get away with. That's why Seth loved being a paralegal—because it allowed him to be marginal, mostly unsupervised, cynical, and uncommitted to the working world.

    I got up to take a leak and on the way back bought a pack of Camel straights from the vending machine.

    "Again with this shit?" Seth said when he spied me tearing the plastic off the cigarette pack.

    "Yeah, yeah," I said in a leave-me-alone tone.

    "Don't come to me for help wheeling your oxygen tank around." He pulled a chilled martini glass out of the freezer, poured in a little vermouth. "Watch this." He tossed the vermouth out, over his shoulder, then poured in some Bombay Sapphire. "Now that's a perfect martini."

    I took a long swig of the Scotch as he went to ring up the martini and deliver it, enjoyed the burn at the back of my throat. Now it was really starting to kick in. I felt a little unsteady on the bar stool. I was drinking like your proverbial coal miner with a paycheck in his pocket. Nora Sommers and Chad Pierson and all the others had begun to recede, to shrink, to take on a harmless, antic, cartoon-character aura. So I had a shitty first day, what was so unusual about that? Everyone felt a little out-of-their-element on the first day in a new job. I was good, I had to keep this in mind. If I weren't so good, Wyatt would never have chosen me for his mission. Obviously he and his consigliere Judith wouldn't be wasting their time on me if they didn't think I could pull it off. They'd have just fired me and tossed me into the legal system to fend for myself. I'd be bent over that bunk in Marion.




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    Robin Hood (34 of 79)

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    34
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    Robin Hood
    by J. Walker Mcspadden
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    Chapter XI: How Robin Hood Fought Guy of Gisborne

    "I dwell by dale and down," quoth he,
    "And Robin to take I'm sworn;
    And when I am called by my right name,
    I am Guy of good Gisborne."

    Some weeks passed after the rescue of the widow's three sons; weeks spent by the Sheriff in the vain effort to entrap Robin Hood and his men. For Robin's name and deeds had come to the King's ears, in London town, and he sent word to the Sheriff to capture the outlaw, under penalty of losing his office. So the Sheriff tried every manner of means to surprise Robin Hood in the forest, but always without success. And he increased the price put upon Robin's head, in the hope that the best men of the kingdom could be induced to try their skill at a capture.

    Now there was a certain Guy of Gisborne, a hireling knight of the King's army, who heard of Robin and of the price upon his head. Sir Guy was one of the best men at the bow and the sword in all the King's service. But his heart was black and treacherous. He obtained the King's leave forthwith to seek out the forester; and armed with the King's scroll he came before the Sheriff at Nottingham.

    "I have come to capture Robin Hood," quoth he, "and mean to have him, dead or alive."

    "Right gladly would I aid you," answered the Sheriff, "even if the King's seal were not sufficient warrant. How many men need you?"

    "None," replied Sir Guy, "for I am convinced that forces of men can never come at the bold robber. I must needs go alone. But do you hold your men in readiness at Barnesdale, and when you hear a blast from this silver bugle, come quickly, for I shall have the sly Robin within my clutches."

    "Very good," said the Sheriff. "Marry, it shall be done." And he set about giving orders, while Guy of Gisborne sallied forth disguised.

    Now as luck would have it, Will Scarlet and Little John had gone to Barnesdale that very day to buy suits of Lincoln green for certain of the yeomen who had come out at the knees and elbows. But not deeming it best for both of them to run their necks into a noose, together, they parted just outside the town, and Will went within the gates, while John tarried and watched at the brow of the hill on the outside.

    Presently whom should he see but this same Will flying madly forth from the gates again, closely pursued by the Sheriff and threescore men. Over the moat Will sprang, through the bushes and briars, across the swamp, over stocks and stones, up the woodland roads in long leaps like a scared jack rabbit. And after him puffed the Sheriff and his men, their force scattering out in the flight as one man would tumble head-first into a ditch, another mire up in the swamp, another trip over a rolling stone, and still others sit down on the roadside and gasp for wind like fish out of water.

    Little John could not forbear laughing heartily at the scene, though he knew that 'twould be anything but a laughing matter if Will should stumble. And in truth one man was like to come upon him. It was William-a-Trent, the best runner among the Sheriff's men. He had come within twenty feet of Scarlet and was leaping upon him with long bounds like a greyhound, when John rose up quickly, drew his bow and let fly one of his fatal shafts. It would have been better for William-a-Trent to have been abed with sorrow—says the ballad—than to be that day in the greenwood slade to meet with Little John's arrow. He had run his last race.

    The others halted a moment in consternation, when the shaft came hurtling down from the hill; but looking up they beheld none save Little John, and with a cry of fierce joy they turned upon him. Meanwhile Will Scarlet had reached the brow of the hill and sped down the other side.

    "I'll just send one more little message of regret to the Sheriff," said Little John, "before I join Will."

    But this foolhardy deed was his undoing, for just as the arrow left the string, the good yew bow that had never before failed him snapped in twain.

    "Woe worth, woe worth thee, wicked wood, that ere thou grew on a tree!" cursed Little John, and planted his feet resolutely in the earth resolved to sell the path dearly; for the soldiers were now so close upon him that he dared not turn.

    And a right good account of himself he gave that day, dealing with each man as he came up according to his merit. And so winded were the pursuers when they reached the top of the hill that he laid out the first ten of them right and left with huge blows of his brawny fist.

    But if five men can do more than three, a score can overcome one.

    A body of archers stood off at a prudent distance and covered Little John with their arrows.

    "Now yield you!" panted the Sheriff. "Yield you, Little John, or Reynold Greenleaf, or whatever else name you carry this day! Yield you, or some few of these shafts will reach your heart!"

    "Marry, my heart has been touched by your words ere now," said Little John; "and I yield me."

    So the Sheriff's men laid hold of Little John and bound him fast with many cords, so fearful were they lest he should escape. And the Sheriff laughed aloud in glee, and thought of how he should avenge his stolen plate, and determined to make a good day's work of it.

    "By the Saints!" he said, "you shall be drawn by dale and down, and hanged high on a hill in Barnesdale this very day."

    "Hang and be hanged!" retorted the prisoner. "You may fail of your purpose if it be Heaven's will."

    Back down the hill and across the moor went the company speedily, for they feared a rescue. And as they went the stragglers joined them. Here a man got up feebly out of the ditch and rubbed his pate and fell in like a chicken with the pip going for its dinner. Yonder came hobbling a man with a lame ankle, or another with his shins torn by the briars or another with his jacket all muddy from the marsh. So in truth it was a tatterdemalion crew that limped and straggled and wandered back into Barnesdale that day. Yet all were merry, for the Sheriff had promised them flagons of wine, and moreover they were to hang speedily the boldest outlaw in England, next to Robin Hood himself.




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    Paranoia (033 of 170)

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    033
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    Paranoia
    by Joseph Finder
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    16

    I needed to blow off steam. It was everything—the way Nora Sommers had rubbed my face in it, being unable to tell her to go fuck herself, the impossibility of my surviving at Trion long enough to steal even a coffee mug, the general feeling of being in way over my head. And then, the cherry on the cake: my dad. Keeping the anger in, stopping myself from telling him off—you fucking ungrateful bigot, die already!—was corroding my insides.

    So I just showed up at Alley Cat, knowing that Seth would be working that night. I just wanted to sit at the bar and get shitfaced on free booze.

    "Hey, homey," Seth said, delighted to see me, "your first day at the new place, huh?"

    "Yeah."

    "That bad, huh?"

    "I don't want to talk about it."

    "Seriously bad. Wow." He poured me a Scotch like I was some old drunk, a regular. "Love the haircut, dude. Don't tell me you got drunk and woke up with that haircut."

    I ignored him. The Scotch went immediately to my head. I hadn't eaten any supper, and I was tired. It felt great.

    "How bad could it be, bud? It's your first day, they like show you where the bathroom is, right?" He looked up at the basketball game on TV, then back at me.

    I told him about Nora Sommers and her cute little Apple Newton trick.

    "What a bitch, huh? What'd she come down on you so hard for? What'd she expect—you're new, you don't know anything, right?"

    I shook my head. "No, she—" Suddenly I realized that I'd left out a key part of the story, the part about my allegedly being a superstar at Wyatt Telecom. Shit. The anecdote only made sense if you knew the dragon lady was trying to take me down a peg. My brain was fried. Trying to extricate myself from this minor slip seemed an insurmountable goal, like climbing Mount Everest or swimming across the Atlantic. Already I'd gotten caught in a lie. I felt gooey inside and very tired. Fortunately someone caught Seth's eye, signaled to him. "Sorry, man, it's half-price hamburger night," he announced as he went to fetch someone a couple of beers.

    I found myself thinking about the people I'd met today, the "cast of characters" as the bizarro Noah Mordden had referred to them, who were now parading through my head, getting more and more grotesque. I wanted to debrief with somebody, but I couldn't. Mostly I wanted to download, talk about Chad and Phil Whatever, the old-timer. I wanted to tell someone about Trion and what it was like and about my sighting of Jock Goddard in the cafeteria. But I couldn't, because I didn't trust myself to remember where the Great Wall ran, which part no one was supposed to know about.




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    Robin Hood (33 of 79)

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    Robin Hood
    by J. Walker Mcspadden
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    Chapter X: How A Beggar Filled the Public Eye (Cont'd)

    While they gasped and choked and sputtered and felt around wildly for that rogue of a beggar, he finished the job by picking up the cloak by its corners and shaking it vigorously in the faces of his suffering victims. Then he seized a stick which lay conveniently near, and began to rain blows down upon their heads, shoulders, and sides, all the time dancing first on one leg, then on the other, and crying,

    "Villains! rascals! here are the hundred pounds I promised. How do you like them? I' faith, you'll get all that's in the bag."

    Whack! whack! whack! whack! went the stick, emphasizing each word. Howls of pain might have gone up from the sufferers, but they had too much meal in their throats for that. Their one thought was to flee, and they stumbled off blindly down the road, the beggar following them a little way to give them a few parting love-taps.

    "Fare ye well, my masters," he said finally turning the other way; "and when next I come along the Barnesdale road, I hope you will be able to tell gold from meal dust!"

    With this he departed, an easy victor, and again went whistling on his way, while the three outlaws rubbed the meal out of their eyes and began to catch their breath again.

    As soon as they could look around them clearly, they beheld Robin Hood leaning against a tree trunk and surveying them smilingly. He had recovered his own spirits in full measure, on seeing their plight.

    "God save ye, gossips!" he said, "ye must, in sooth, have gone the wrong way and been to the mill, from the looks of your clothes."

    Then when they looked shamefaced and answered never a word, he went on, in a soft voice,

    "Did ye see aught of that bold beggar I sent you for, lately?"

    "In sooth, master," responded Much the miller's son, "we heard more of him than we saw him. He filled us so full of meal that I shall sweat meal for a week. I was born in a mill, and had the smell of meal in my nostrils from my very birth, you might say, and yet never before did I see such a quantity of the stuff in so small space."

    And he sneezed violently.

    "How was that?" asked Robin demurely.

    "Why we laid hold of the beggar, as you did order, when he offered to pay for his release out of the bag he carried upon his back."

    "The same I coveted," quoth Robin as if to himself.

    "So we agreed to this," went on Much, "and spread a cloak down, and he opened his bag and shook it thereon. Instantly a great cloud of meal filled the air, whereby we could neither see nor breathe; and in the midst of this cloud he vanished like a wizard."

    "But not before he left certain black and blue spots, to be remembered by, I see," commented Robin.

    "He was in league with the evil one," said one of the widow's sons, rubbing himself ruefully.

    Then Robin laughed outright, and sat him down upon the gnarled root of a tree, to finish his merriment.

    "Four bold outlaws, put to rout by a sorry beggar!" cried he. "I can laugh at ye, my men, for I am in the same boat with ye. But 'twould never do to have this tale get abroad—even in the greenwood—how that we could not hold our own with the odds in our favor. So let us have this little laugh all to ourselves, and no one else need be the wiser!"

    The others saw the point of this, and felt better directly, despite their itching desire to get hold of the beggar again. And none of the four ever told of the adventure.

    But the beggar must have boasted of it at the next tavern; or a little bird perched among the branches of a neighboring oak must have sung of it. For it got abroad, as such tales will, and was put into a right droll ballad which, I warrant you, the four outlaws did not like to hear.




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    Paranoia (032 of 170)

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    032
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    Paranoia
    by Joseph Finder
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    Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder.
    All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.


    Part Two: 15 (Cont'd)

    Antwoine came back down the hall toward us. He approached my father, almost menacingly close, but he spoke in a soft, gentle voice. "Mr. Cassidy, you want me to leave, I'll leave. Hell, I'll leave right now, I don't got no problem with that. I don't stay where I'm not wanted. I don't need a job that bad. As long as my parole officer knows I made a serious attempt to get a job, I'm cool."

    Dad was staring at the TV, an ad for Depends, a vein twitching under his left eye. I'd seen that face before, usually when he was chewing someone out, and it could scare the shit out of you. He used to make his football players run till someone puked, and if anyone refused to keep going, they got the Face. But he'd used it so many times on me that it had lost its power. Now he pivoted around and turned it on Antwoine, who'd no doubt seen a hell of a lot worse in the joint.

    "Did you say parole officer?"

    "You heard me right."

    "You're a fucking convict?"

    "Ex-con."

    "The hell you trying to do to me?" he said, staring at me. "You trying to kill me before the disease does? Look at me, I can't hardly move, and you put me alone in the house with a fucking convict?"

    Antwoine didn't even seem to be annoyed. "Like your son says, you ain't got nothing worth stealing, even if I wanted to," he said calmly, through sleepy eyes. "At least give me a little credit, if I wanted to pull off some kinda scam, I wouldn't take a job here."

    "You hear that?" Dad puffed, enraged. "You hear that?"

    "Plus, if I'm going to stay, we gotta come to agreement on a couple of things, you and me." Antwoine sniffed the air. "I can smell the smokes, and you're going to have to cut that shit out right now. That's the shit that got you here." He reached out one huge hand and tapped the arm of the Barcalounger. A compartment popped open, which I'd never seen before, and a red-and-white pack of Marlboros popped up like a jack-in-the-box. "Thought so. That's where my dad always hid his."

    "Hey!" my dad yelled. "I don't believe this!"

    "And you're gonna start a workout routine. Your muscles are wasting away. Your problem isn't your lungs, it's your muscles."

    "Are you out of your fuckin' mind?" Dad said.

    "You got the respirtary disease, you gotta exercise. Can't do anything about the lungs, those are gone, but the muscles we can do something about. We're gonna start with some leg lifts in your chair, get your leg muscles working again, and then we're going to walk for one minute. My old man had the emphysema, and me and my brother—"

    "You tell this big—tattooed nigger," Dad said between puffs, "to get his stuff—out of that room—and get the hell out of my house!"

    I almost lost it. I'd just had a supremely lousy day, and my temper was short, and for months and months I'd been busting my ass trying to find someone who'd put up with the old guy, replacing each one as he made them leave, a whole long parade, a huge waste of time. And here he was, summarily dismissing the latest who, granted, may not have been an ideal candidate, but was the only one we had. I wanted to let into him, let fly, but I couldn't. I couldn't scream at my father, this pathetic dying old man with end-stage emphysema. So I held it in, at the risk of exploding.

    Before I could say anything, Antwoine turned to me. "I believe your son hired me, so he's the only one who can fire me."

    I shook my head. "No such luck, Antwoine. You're not getting out of here—not so easy. Why don't you get started?"




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