As a magician there is very little chance that I will not give you exactly the card I want to give you. If I am doing a card trick and force a card on a volunteer, does that person have free will? They certainly feel like they do in the moment of selecting and drawing the card. And the better I do my job, the more adamant they feel about their choice being their own.
On the back of a few things that have happened of late, I’ve been thinking about free will. What does it mean to have free will? How do I know when I have it?
Libertarian philosophers will tell you that if you ‘feel’ you have a choice then you had free will. But, what about my example. I provide the illusion of choice. You believe that you have made a random choice, 52:1. If the person making the choice doesn’t know they have no choice at all; do they still have free will?
Another philosopher called Churchland has a slightly different idea. She believes that some things are determined, that means they will always happen, but there is free will. She states that you shouldn’t think of it as ‘free will’, but more as ‘How much control do I have?”
So, in my example, I will ask for a volunteer.
They have control to be part of the trick or not,
I will select someone that will suit my needs.
If I need to I will choose someone.
I control the deck and what it contains.
I control how I present the deck.
They do select a card
Often the card I give them will not be the one they selected
Usually they only feel they have a say on where the card goes.
How much control do they really have?
Let’s say, an event occurred that meant I needed to leave town in a hurry. I would have options of transport: car, plane or Greyhound. No cash for car, the airport is watched so onto the buses with scheduled times and locations. Already my choices are limited. Now, I could have gone anywhere, the Greyhound route network is extensive, but some destinations are like unchosen cards, they are there but seem unworthy somehow. This choosing provided only one logical option; which I took ‘feeling’ I had free will at the time.
I’m looking back on the last few days of my life and wonder how much free will I had. How much of my life am I really in control of? And if not me, whose really holding the deck?
Probabilities are part of a magicians bag of tricks. The magic behind the ‘magic’. The probability of drawing a particular card from a deck is 52:1. The probability of drawing four particular cards from a standard deck look like:
1/52 x 1/51 x1/50 x 1/49 = 4/6497400 or 1,624,350:1
A magician narrows the odds in their favour sorting, palming or forcing the card until there is very little probability of failure.
My… friends and I were recently told we are part of a group of rare individuals. Think of it like a rare gift, a random very rare gift.
Well, that’s what started me thinking. Hard numbers have been hard to come by so I’ve had to guesstimate a few. I know of about 30 individuals who may also have the gift. Thirty in a city the size of New Orleans. Of finding someone with the gift in that population, the probability is 13109:1. Very rare indeed.
Now the four of us were found a the same time so the math for that looks something like:
1/13109 x 1/13109 x 1/13109 x 1/13109 =
4/1661041836086161 or 415,260,459,021,540:1
That’s hundreds of trillions to 1 chance of finding all four of us at the same time. When you consider, two of us are…out of towners the odds of finding us all together are not worth speaking about.
So, what do I deduce from this?
Well, probability could be wrong, or at least my maths. Maybe the gift is not as rare as they would like to think. That’s how my friends will probably want to think of it.
I think like a magician. I think about ways of shortening the odds, palming or forcing the individuals where I want them, making situations that concentrates those individuals and put them right where I want them. That’s worth a ponder.
Whose controlling the hand to bring four individuals together on a dark rainy night in the middle of nowhere? Who has that sort of influence and power?
For what purpose?
Si Stebbins Stack. Good to remember when things get a little…heavy. It is a way for preparing a deck of cards so a magician can always know where a particular card is. I guess for me it’s an reminder of how in seeming chaos, order and peace can be found.
Our group, Bruce, Rain, Algernon and the Doctor were transported from a dark rainy night outside of New Orleans, to a hot and desolate wasteland under a baking sun. Finding shelter from the elements and the natives, they stumble upon a fellow traveller, one Elmer McCain who tells them he can get them home, but they must leave the the safety of their cave.
* * * * * *
The group were silent as the truth of what they’d just heard sunk in. There was a way to get home but they’d have to leave the protection of the irradiated cave and face whatever the wastelands had in store. They all dealt in their own way.
Algernon checked for immediate threats from the hunters driving the cars outside. He crawled out of the cave to note the cars had lost track of them, for now. The dust trails pointed towards distant mountains currently only a smudge on the horizon. Rain sat and listened to the conversation over the walkie-talkie. He took note of language, tone and names mentioned. In this way he discovered they were all women and call themselves collectively, The Valkyries. The Doctor scanned the whole cave with her geiger-counter and found a particularly high radiation reading in one small area. Poking at the loose rock, she found a number of highly useful items in a small cashe. A tube of ointment, a large needle, goggles, an arm bracer set with spikes and a skeletal glove. Without a thought she shared them out with the others, giving what she thought would be most appropriate for each. Bruce showed his distain for the whole situation by wondered aloud when Tina Turner was going to show up and sing.
“I don’t get it.” Algernon shrugged lost in the cultural reference.
“Mad Max, beyond Thunderdome.” The Doctor supplied as if reading a database entry on the film. She explained at length about the post-apocalyptic world leaving Algernon only a little more the wiser.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name, little lady.” Bruce asked casually of the Doctor as she handed him the bracer set.
“Margarita Athena Portaculis Martin.” She replied matter of factly and just as quickly snapped, “And I am neither little nor a lady. At least that’s what my grandmother says and I believe she’s a better judge than you.”
Rain smirked at the knock-back Bruce had received from the taciturn doctor. He then remembered he had failed numerous times to get that exact information.
“Hey, why did you tell him your name? He was patronizing.” Rain complained, not use to failing at the social niceties.
“Because he was polite and not creepy about it.” Peggy replied simply and turned to join the group conversation.
“So, you’re saying we’re not on earth?” Bruce queried unable to comprehend what he was hearing, “Well, where are we and what happened to my clothes?” He gestured to his less than work day attire.
“It’s part of the translation, from one alternate reality to another. You are changed to fit your location. “ McCain thought for a moment, “Think of it like a simulation. When you move into a new translation your avatar’s skin changes to suit the reality you’ve found yourself in.”
“And we’re somewhere else? Does that mean the Doc’s…er, Margarita’s Rockwheeler’s are out there too?” Rain asked enthusiastically.
“Possibly somewhere else yes, but also somewhat else.” McCain replied, settling into his role as an instructor, “I believe that we may be in a literary translation where an author’s writings have inspired the world around us.”
“Nonsense.” Margarita scoffed in her most academic voice of authority, “Quantum physics just doesn’t work like that. Physics isn’t inspired by human minds.”
“I agree,” added Bruce, “I don’t know what happened, but all this could be explained away by being drugged and dragged off to somewhere in Nevada.”
“Oh, for a moment there I thought you were going to say it was all my fault.” Rain laughed, gaining for himself a glower of disdain from Bruce.
“It probably is.”
“We need a vehicle.” Algernon interrupted with what sounded like the first piece of practical thinking the group had come up with.
“Like the thinking, mate. I just don’t want a lift in these womens’ bellies.” Rain turned in approval to the youth as Bruce looked askance at the school boy.
“Are you suggesting we steal a car?!”
If they were to save themselves, the group needed to move. However, no plan on how to acquire a vehicle could be reached. Bruce was dead against carjacking a car, perturbed at why everyone else was against dealing with the women they had heard over the radio.
So, still bickering over how things should be done, the group started walking out into the desert away from the mountains and the Valkyries. Not a lot of distance had been covered, however, before a brown smudge loomed up quickly on the horizon. A breeze whipped up a small dust cloud smothering the group and Margarita’s geiger-counter screamed a warning. Suddenly Bruce was well aware of what was moving towards them.
“Dust storm! Run!” He yelled in a voice that was use to being heard over a busy building site. Without argument the group ran back to the shelter of the cave, clambering over the rough ground and threw themselves inside to lay gasping and coughing.
No one noticed, until they had all caught their breath again, that Bruce was not with them. Horrified, Rain raced back to the cave entrance with the intention of finding him when Bruce stumbled into the cave choking. All exposed skin on his hands and face were torn up from the swirling dust and his breath came in short harsh gasps. The near miss was more than enough for the smaller man who, unharmed as he was, slumped to the dusty ground wide-eyed and breathing fast. He fumbled out of an internal pocket a small black box that he flipped open and closed with blurring fingers.
“Are you okay?” Bruce coughed, smarting over the scouring he’d just taken.
Rain stared at the bigger man a moment before coming to himself. It seemed incongruous that the one who was nearly lost in the dust would worry about his health. It was not a common experience for Rain and it took him a moment before he nodded his head.
“What’s that you’ve got there?”
In gratitude, Rain handed over the box. It was not a large and fitted neatly in the big man’s palm. Smooth black lacquer concealed the wooden box’s secrets well and try as he might, Bruce could not open the small compartment he’d seen while it was in Rain’s fast moving fingers. A smug little grin replaced the pale and terrified look as the box returned to Rain unopened.
“We’re not doing that again,” Bruce stated flatly saying out loud what they were all thinking.
“The radiation is in the rocks, but how about on top?” Algernon suggested hopefully. The climb to the cave had been climb enough for most, especially for McCain but, when the dust storm subsided he clambered out.
The sky was once again the empty blue of the desert and for miles around the desert was empty of life except for a lone streak of rust moving fast and alone. Algernon, with the geiger counter in his pocket, picked his way up the ever steepening rock until he reach the summit and took a reading. When he returned, scraped and windblown from the trip, McCain only shook his head.
“Those levels will still interfere with the translation. There’s nothing for it, we need to get away from this rock and fast enough to keep ahead of the dust storms.”
“I saw another car out there, patrolling alone.” Algernon said, reminded of that single streak across the desert, “Maybe we can attract them into an ambush.” It was the first idea that any of them had come up with that the majority could get behind. Bruce was not part of the majority.
“Look, can’t we try talking to these people.” He appealed to the group, “I can’t comprehend how you’ve all descended to carjacking so quickly.”
Rain, Algernon and Margarita responded well to Bruce’s plea for civilised behaviour. Algernon, by attracting the car with the flash of sunlight on metal and moving into a position lower down the rock from where he could spring out. Margarita in particular was eager to try a spear launcher she had affixed to her arm since appearing in the desert. Rain emptied a bag of small tools he had and filled it with the lightest dust he could find. Holding the opening it loosely in his hand he intended it as a instant dust cloud, a distraction for the more deadly in the group. He sat himself on the edge of a small cliff out where the car could see him. Beside him, the Walkie-Talkie crackled to life as the car’s occupants spotted Algernon’s signal.
“There, saw a glint of somet’ing. Might be those fellas we lost earlier? Maybe we’ll still get some long-pig tonight.” The Valkyrie said as the vehicle turned in towards the rocks.
“Please, at least let us talk first. If they’re hostile then we can defend ourselves.” Bruce pleaded with the group. Algernon pulled out a hand crossbow and lay low, ready with his ambush. Margarita leaned against the rock to steady her aim. Rain turned to look up at the perplexed upright citizen, his hands empty of a weapon.
“And you call me a bad guy.”
The car roared across the desert chewing through the empty space between them and their quarry. The group, now trained on what to look for, could now make out details. It had been at one time a sedan of some indeterminate colour, now completely lost under years of rust and dust. On the front, a makeshift bullbar protected the front and bonnet. The boot-lid was gone, in its place was a gunnery placement where a figure with a mohawk stood at a large mounted automatic weapon. They did not look civilised nor eager for conversation.
When she felt the target was in range, Margarita triggered the first of her projectiles. Flying true, the bolt shot straight through the windscreen and into the driver, a moment later, a small crossbow bolt flew through the open window and also hit the driver. The vehicle slew violently in the fine dust of the desert, catapulting the gunner into the air. The vehicle was slowed but not enough as it was still moving at speed towards their rock outcropping.
Algernon, with a split second’s thought, flung himself from his hiding place and leaped for the car. A slip meant instead of landing on the car as he’d intended, he only succeeded in landing in front. Grabbing the bullbar, he held himself above the ground and away from the crunching tyres. With a burst of adrenaline fueled energy, he launched himself onto the bonnet, rolled up the windscreen and fell into the passenger seat beside the obviously dead driver.
Both Bruce and Rain groaned as the former drew a crowbar from his equipment, the later jumped up and sprinted along the cliff edge. He too flung himself onto the hood of the car.
“Don’t forget to check for traps!” Margarita called as she reloaded her weapon.
Traps were the last thing on both of the young men’s minds as they race along the deserts sands in an uncontrolled vehicle. Rain looked down at Algernon who stared up at him through the windscreen, hands palms out in the universal sign,
“Try the hand brake.” Yelled Rain pointing to the lever between the passenger and driver’s seats. Carefully, he slid back along the roof of the vehicle until he arrived in the open boot.
Algernon spotted the large wheel in front of the driver and thought he understood its use. He slowly pulled the wheel around to the left and the car turned in a large lazy circle in front of the cave. The result was the car now headed back towards the rock outcropping. Straight back.
Meanwhile, the catapulted gunner of the car had picked herself up and was now climbing the rock towards Bruce and Margarita.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Bruce demanded, finally face to face with one of the Valkyries. But the fierce woman covered in leather and spikes showed no interest in a conversation as she pulled out her knife and climbed the last few metres between her and Bruce.
“What are you doing!” Margarita exclaimed bringing her now armed projectile gun to bear on the woman. The short spear shot from her arm and straight into the Valkyries leg. The Valkyrie growled something incoherent and continued her murderous climb.
Bruce shrugged, finally accepted defeat. He had tried to act like a civilised human. He now brought the crowbar down on the woman’s head knocking her unconscious.
In the back of the car, Rain stared through the through the passenger compartment to see the rock outcropping looming large.
“Algernon.” He focused all his attention through to Algernon in the passenger seat, “The stick with the ball on top beside your leg. It controls the gears. Bring the stick down to the centre to disengage the engine.” Instantly Algernon grabbed the gear stick and dragged it back into the neutral. With a crash and growl of gearing the engine revved wildly but to no use. Without the engine to propel it, the car slowed quickly in the soft sand. Rain slid out of the boot and ran along beside the car to the front door . Grabbing the driver’s door, he pulled it open then dragged the body off the accelerator. The car rolled to a stop.
“Wow! That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen!” Rain applauded Algernon wide eyed and shaking.
“I think that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” Algernon replied, a little wide eyed himself.
The car now still and silent, Rain examined the dead woman in front of him. Both the spear and the bolt were dead shots killing her instantly. Keeping his focus away from the the wounds they had inflicted on this once living person, he searched the body. He found a huge hunting knife, a small leather bag containing ten finger bones, a large needle, similar to the one found by Margarita, and a cutlass. As the adrenaline subsided, his head swam in the a very familiar way and Rain sat himself down in the dust beside the car quaking with uncontrollably.
Algernon made it back to the rock to see Bruce providing first aid to the Valkyrie, the spear bloodied but free of the woman’s thigh.
“You managed to get the spear out?” Algernon commented gesturing to the fine shot Margarita had made.
“Yes, I’ve wrapped the wound as best I could, but she’ll need medical help soon.” Bruce commented not looking up.
“Is it usable?” Algernon picked up the spear and after examining it handed it back to Margarita.
Bruce returned to his patient in shocked silence at the callousness of youth.
“So, if you’re not a Rockwheeler, what are you?” Margarita asked as she returned the spear to her small collection.
“A boy.” Algernon replied in his completely unconvincingly way.
“Where did you grow up?”
“Somewhere else……West Constance street?”
“Who looked after you? Fed you?”
“The Doctor.” He admitted, and both Margarita and Bruce took notice at this small revelation.
“Doctor of what? What was her specialty?”
“Um…things I didn’t understand.”
“Hard stuff, maths stuff, chemical stuff?” Margarita suggested.
“Yes.” Algernon replied.
“How old are you?” Bruce joined in the interrogation.
“15 years old.”
Much to Algernon’s relief the discussion eventually drifted on to the welfare of the Valkyrie Bruce had saved. Bruce would not leave her at the cave. Having injured her and then tended to those wounds he felt responsible for her livelihood. Instead he carried her to the car and placed her in the back where he found Rain, slumped behind the car. As the woman’s body moved the car, Rain jumped off the ground and spun to see Bruce.
“Oh, ready to go then are we?” He said falsely cheerful, “Decided on a direction?”
“I think towards the mountain.” Algernon replied getting in beside the unconscious Valkyrie in the back seat.
“Towards the cannibal women’s home?” Rain looked from Algernon to Bruce who only shrugged, no longer sure what was the right course in this crazy world.
“I think that’s where it’s safe from the dust.” Algernon explained and to that everyone had to agree.
Elmer and Bruce climbed in the boot while Rain took the passenger seat and Margarita took the driver’s.
“By the way, marvelous shot, Margarita.” Rain whispered as she sat down to take the wheel.
“Th-ank you.” She stuttered a reply and Rain noticed how shy the normally bossy doctor became when genuinely complimented, “It’s Peggy. Only my Yaya calls me Margarita.”
Rain smiled, his usual resilient self reasserting itself.
“My Yaya! She’s alone, she’s 90 and she has a bad hip!” Peggy horrified a her lack of duty to her aged grandmother. It was the first time in this whole adventure that she’d remembered her and her lack of thought made her feel physically ill.
“Hey, we’ll get back to her soon.” Rain soothed her, “Look, we already have a car.”
A rusty streak of dust and car scarred the desert drawing a line straight to the mountains. The sun still hung high in the sky, once again revealing to those looking for evidence, that this place wasn’t quite Earth. Soon the sheer cliffs of the mountain range became clear. A well driven path lead up a canyon no more than a crack in the Earth. High above the entrance to the canyon two cages hung, providing an excellent view for miles around to the two armed figures within.
“Er…I think we better stop.” Algernon’s voice sounded strained and worried. Rain turned to see the backseat awash in blood from the wounded Valkyrie and blanched.
“Stop the car!” Bruce ordered and Penny ground the tyres into the baked earth. Unable to deal with the sight and smell of the blood, Rain jumped out of the car and vomited.
Clambering out of the boot, Bruce opened the rear door nearest the injured woman, blood dripped off the door and onto the dust. For a moment it was too much for even him to process.
“What happened?” The look of shock on Bruce’s face slowly became one of accusation and he tried to make sense of the spectacle in front of him, “What….what did you do, Algernon?”
“I didn’t do anything.” Algernon protested, but as usual, his pleas of innocence never seemed to ring true to the others in the group. “Maybe the bumping…?”
“What bumps, I was driving smoothly.” Peggy turned in her seat and was confronted by the horror scene, “Almighty God you must have done something to her. What did you do?”
“And if he had?” Rain, pale and sober confronted the boy’s accusers, “If he had, why make us stop the car? Why not let her bleed out?” Rain looked seriously at the young man in the back of the blood-soaked car, maybe for the first time. “Come on, we can’t help her here. We’ll take her with us, get her to a hospital instead of whatever passes for one out here.”
Bruce pulled out a fresh bandage from his first aid kit and wrapped it tightly around the old to stop the blood, but he feared that even if they were to find help, she would not survive.
“Hera, your back?” Came a crackling voice over the walkie talkie. Rain quickly picked up the handset and replied in the same accent and intonation.
“Ah, yeah. Just spotted some tracks ‘ere. Gonna follow them for a bit.”
“Yeah, got it.” The voice answered accepting his words as those of their sister’s.
“You could have tried to learn something?” Bruce grumbled as he climbed back to the car
“Shut up!” Peggy screamed slamming the wheel, “Listen to the anthropologist. They’re cannibals. You’re the muscle. Don’t talk until you grow a brain!”
Bruce stared at Peggy as if he hadn’t seen her before. Slowly he climbed into the boot with McCain and Peggy turned the car to the left to followed the cliff face in silence.
Not far from the canyon entrance, a watershed lead up into the rocky mountains themselves. The geiger-counter had been steadily dropping over the whole journey and it was clear, if they were going to be free of the radiation’s influence, they needed to move up. With the group’s approval, Peggy turned the car and took the path. It narrowed almost instantly, leading to a large run-off canal. Flanked on both sides by steep cliffs of red stone, it climbed into the heart of the mountains. Here the air was cool and fresh after the dry dusty atmosphere of the flats and the group started to feel like they could actually survive their crazy journey.
Suddenly, the path eneded in a blind canyon, surrounded by insurmountable red stone walls. Here, protected by thick high stone from the weather and dust, a sink-hole fell away into darkness.
“The readings are good here, but we should have an even better chance of clearing the radiation down there.” Elmer nodded, pointing down into the sinkhole. Bruce had found some rope in the boot and he now unwound it, as the party tried to work out who to send down first.
“Send the Valkyrie down first and then we can follow, “ Rain suggested pointing to Algernon, “He’s light. We could send them down together.”
“I don’t think that’s a good i…” Algernon started shaking his head before being cut off by Bruce.
“There’s no way I’m leaving her alone with that teen hoodlum.” Bruce scowled and Algernon stepped away from the bigger man. “I can’t see why we couldn’t just take her to a hospital. Find some real help, not just drop her down a hole.”
“Bruce.” Rain walked up to the bigger man and placed his small hand on a massive bicep. He spoke quietly in his most sensible and persuasive tones, “This is the way to the hospital. The quicker we get her down the hole and back home, the quicker we can get her to real medical treatment.”
“I don’t like any of this.” Bruce grumbled but agreed grudgingly by preparing the woman for her descent down the hole.
The process of lowering was uneventful, Bruce being well versed in moving items around via rope. Algernon was still the obvious choice to go down first and soon he and the Valkyrie were down the hole with the geiger-counter. In the light from above Algernon explored the space. From above, the floor of the sink hole was an inky blackness and the group could only hear Algernon’s soft footfalls and the skitter of loose rock. The geiger-counter was almost silent.
Around him, the rock at first sight looked like smooth flowstone, or limestone polished smooth by the action of moving water. As Algernon’s eyes adjusted to the dim light he saw carved faces, merging smoothly from one to the next. The stone flowed toward two close metal doors set at the far end of the cave. As his eyes scanned the area, over in a dark corner, a small dim glow caught Algernon’s attention.
Out of place amongst the ancient stone and metal, a device the size of a small backpack, filled its immediate area with artificial light. As Algernon investigated the item, one by one, the rest of the group made it safely down the rope and into the cavern.
“Ah yes, I believe you’ve stumbled across the source of many of our problems.” McCain bent down to the unusual device. Tinkering with its many interfaces he finally switched the the machine off, its lights faded until they were all plunged back into the natural darkness.
“Yes, that should do it. It seems it was set up to draw travellers of The Strange to this place. I assume its what drew me here.” He studied the item more closely, eventually saying more to himself, “Hertzfeld will want to see this thing. It certainly doesn’t belong here, but I’d be hard pressed to say where it belongs.”
“Do you think that’s why Peggy’s portal brought us here.” Algernon theorised examining the device and the older man sat up surprised. McCain turned to Peggy, a quizzical expression on his weathered face.
“You made a portal?”
“Well more a matter displacement horizon, but…” She qualified and would have rambled of if McCain had not cut her off.
“And where did you say you did this?”
“My home, outside New Orleans. In my garage…” She squared her shoulders, expecting some sort of rebuke or ridicule. Instead McCain just blinked and shook his head.
Meanwhile, the large metal doors had attracted the attention of Rain. The flow stone leading to the door and their massive proportions spoke of a culture and society far beyond what they had seen from the Valkyries. He quickly applied the ointment Peggy had found. During their drive to the mountains he’d worked out it was meant to make one person invisible and he was curious to see how it performed. Instantly, he and everything on him disappeared even from his own sight. With a quiet chuckle, he snuck away through the two metal doors.
The doors emptied out into a hallway that snaked its way through the solid rock of the mountain. A light ahead became the glaring sun diffused by a deep canyon. The Valkyries canyon. From there he watched all variety of vehicles drive along the canyon floor to a small settlement sheltered in the stone walls of the mountains.
“You clever little bugger.” He thought, thinking back to how adamant Alagenon was to follow the road warriors into the mountains away from the exposed desert. For all his seeming naivety, it was clear the boy knew more than he let on. “It will be worthwhile keeping an eye on you.”
When Rain snuck back to the others, they had only started wondering where he’d got to and he was able to surprise them all by appearing in their midst.
“I’m here. ” He said, standing and breaking the illusion the lotion had created. He kept his face neutral and open taking pleasure at everyone’s surprised expressions. ” Ready to go? “
McCain instructed the group to sit in a circle around him, holding hands . The Valkyrie was included in the circle between Rain and Algernon, holding a hand each. Everyone felt self-conscious at this unusual process, but Bruce was the only one to complain out loud.
“First we have to travel down a hole and now we got to sit around in a circle singing Kum ba yah?”
“Come on, Professor. We can’t do anything for this woman while we’re here. This is our one chance.” Rain held out his hand to Bruce standing off to one side. Rolling his eyes, he sat down with the rest, taking Rain’s and Peggy’s hands.
“Don’t call me Professor.”
McCain turned something on his device on and closed his eyes. The four, with their unconscious patient, looked at each other across the circle, wondering how circumstance had lead them to be together. Each so very different, each surprised by the skills and knowledge of the others. Thinking of each other, a tug from somewhere deep in their being locked them together. A lifting, disembodied, spinning sensation took them. They closed their eyes as the cave spun into an uncomfortable blur around them. Then they were travelling with purpose from location to location through a black swirling energy that formed and united all around it. Their minds and wills were merely cogs, seized to be part of the machinery of movement, directing, propelling and easing process, all controlled somehow by McCain. Eventually the sensation of movement slowed and ceased. The spinning, disembodied feeling subsided until they felt safe enough to let go of each other’s hands and open their eyes.
Blinding fluorescent lights filled a white room. Around them a circle of cushions were arrayed and up the far end a roller door closed the space off from the outside world. Both Algernon and Rain leaped up when they noticed that they no longer held the hands of an injured woman, but a replicant complete with studded leather outfit and wrapped injury and none of the humanity.
“She didn’t have the spark of consciousness.”McCain said giving the once murderous Valkyrie no more than a second glance, “It was to be expected.”
Bruce was equally surprised to see Peggy wearing a homemade radiation top, yoga pants and steel toed Ugg boots. They hadn’t had much of a chance to see her in the dark of her porch. Now, her outlandish outfit in this clean and spartan environment made even her blush.
“This is the maddest VR simulation ever.” Rain wiped his hands together shakily and started from the once vibrant living person to Peggy in her homemade outfit in equal astonishment.
The roller door at the far end opened and a man and a woman stepped through. The woman dressed in a neatly tailored business suit went straight to McCain and asked in clipped toned what had happened.
“I was recurssing to Ardeyn to check in with Rainis when I was pulled off course by this, “ he gestured to the device from the cave. He handed it to the man who, though dressed more casually underneath, was covered in a white lab coat, “You’ll want to have a look at this. And…” McCain now gestured to the group still sitting on the floor, “…they’re all quickened.”
“All?” The man replied in disbelief looking from the group to McCain. Elmer McCain who was already walking out the roller door didn’t bother to turn around,
“Quickened, what does that mean? What’s the spark of consciousness?” Bruce was the first on his feet trying to make sense of the situation by taking charge. They were definitely home, but where ?
“I hope it doesn’t mean we now have to fight each other, ‘There can be only one!’” Quipped Rain weakly as he purposefully moved away from the once Valkyrie, “I can’t do a scottish accent.”
“Neither could he.” Giggled Peggy whose knowledge of movies was only eclipsed by her knowledge of science.
The business woman walked up to the group and introduced herself,
“My name is Katherine Manners, and I wish to welcome you all to The Estate. You have just made a translation from one recursion to another though The Strange. If McCain is correct then you all would have felt part of that transition either initiating it, quickening its progression or softening the impact of the transition. These skills shows you are all quickened and some part of you can interact with The Strange. It is a very rare gift so to find four individuals together is unique opportunity for us. Tell me, how long have you been travelling The Strange?”
Silence as the group look around at each other trying to make sense of her words in their own way.
“I’ve been travelling for the past six month, but I must say The Strange is a new one.” Rain yawned, not trying to hide his complete exhaustion.
“I’ve been travelling with these strangers for a couple of hours.” Bruce answered truthfully and pulled out his phone, visibly relaxing when he found it was no longer a Walkie-Talkie.
“I just want to travel home.” Peggy sighed, and in that moment looked fragile and lost.
“I’m just a boy.” Algernon stated in the way they’d all come to distrust.
As one, Bruce, Peggy and Rain turned to Katherine and replied,
“No. He is not just a boy!”
“Maybe we should debrief after you’re rested.” Katherine eyed the group, their clothes and injuries, “You’re welcome to stay here for the night.” With the offer of a safe place to stay and comfortable beds Bruce, Peggy and Rain instantly relaxed.
“Is it safe?” Algernon asked her directly still unsure of where his adventurers had landed him. Peggy and Rain who had over heard the comment paused and wondered once more about their unusual young companion.
“Oh!” Bruce looked up from his phone showing a Google search page open at a the Urban Dictionary, “I just found out what long-pig meant.”
Like a group of lost children, the four of them were led through a complex of buildings, offices and laboratories until they reach a section more for human comfort than human toil. Off a hallway a room full of double decker beds, clean and spartan like the rest of the complex, it called to the weary travellers. Rain spent no time plugging his phone into a charger, simply falling into a top bunk. Algernon looked around looking lost and alone.
“Is it safe?” He asked again uncertain of everything he saw.
“Perfectly safe, while I’m here.” Bruce reassured him and he too found a bed to stretch out on.
Peggy alone stood in the doorway, her arms wrapped around her protectively.
“I can’t sleep here.” She shook her head adamantly and Katherine showed her to another room across the hall.
Sleep came to the four of them in different ways. Bruce slept the sleep of the just and woke early ready for whatever the day held. To Peggy, sleep was delayed as she first rang her brother and convinced him to check on their Grandmother. Being solely responsible for her welfare for the past few years she was relieved and able to finally rest when he reported that she was well and calling for her Margarita. Rain dropped straight into an exhausted sleep, but as usual didn’t stay there long as the old dreams plagued him. Algernon lay listening to everything. Starting and every movement of his companions, every caught breath or sleep mumbled phrase. He heard everything and made sense of almost none of it. For him, that night was almost as nightmarish as the day they had just experienced.
The next morning, a hot breakfast was ready and waiting in the mess for the group as they awoke. Bruce was already seated with an array of dishes surrounding him as Algernon entered and discovered the wonder that is coffee. Peggy turned up soon after and all three were well into their breakfasts when Rain stumbled in, led by the nose straight to the coffee machine.
“Coffee-e is g-ood, isn’t it?” Algernon jittered in his seat after three heavily sugared black coffees.
“Nectar of the gods.” Croaked Rain clasping the hot mug like a life-line.
“This is not a bad place, hey Tobias?” Algernon said using a name he’d heard Rain mention the night before. Either by accident or on purpose, the results were the same.
The movement of the cup to Rain’s lips stopped and he stared, speechless at Algernon.
“Uh…where…where did you hear that?” The usually sharp little man stumbled over his words, forcing them out of nerveless lips, “My name is Rain,”
“Oh, sorry I…” Algernon started to apologise. Rain scanned the room ensuring the other two hadn’t heard and added before Algernon could finish,
“Rain. Remember.” He returned to his coffee as if nothing had happened.
After breakfast the group debriefed with McCain and the man in the lab coat from the night before, Hertzfeld. He seemed to be one of a group individuals in charge of the facility along with Katherine Manners. Hertzfeld seemed an ecentric scientist type whose main interest at that moment was Peggy’s portal machine.
“A teleporter, really?” Peggy was surprise that her machine, that she had created to find the illusive Rockwheelers, was a portal creator to other worlds. “I was about to start testing non-organic materials when someone stumbled out.” She looked to Algernon, who looked more nervous than usual at that moment, “I…I thought it was an invasion.”
“We’d be interested in supporting your work. We’d in fact like to offer you all jobs with The Estate, but Peggy’s research takes us into the realm of stable portals, a topic that we find very exciting.” Dr Hertzfeld addressed the group. Peggy became instantly suspicious of the senior man.
“You won’t take my work away from me or take the credit?” Peggy asked almost accusing him of similar practises in the past.
“That’s not how we do things here at The Estate.” He assured her, “We’re a philanthropic institution that seeks out and promotes good science in the more …esoteric fields of study. You would have heard of the Estate Foundation that funds the Morrison Fellowship Prizes each year?”
Peggy and Rain nodded. It was as big as the Nobel or Pulitzer Prizes and sought out those who studied the more unusual questions to life. Those who were given the prize were minor celebraties, if only for a short while. Algernon sat silently knowing nothing about culture of the world he’d been dragged into and Bruce looked confused, usually not caring for such things .
“The Estate is more than this.” Hertzfeld continued, “We monitor translations to and from Earth. That is, people leaving and arriving through The Strange. There’s a number of people who make a living travelling the recursions, called Recursion Miners. We make sure they don’t bring back anything that could harm Earth. Think of us as Border Control.”
“Or Men in Black!” Rain added slipping on imaginary black sunglasses.
“Keeping Earth safe. I like the sound of that.” Bruce mused finally hearing something that he could appreciate.
“It would be nice to conduct my research in a fully funded laboratory.” Peggy acknowledged, her mind slipping into a daydream of her perfect research space.
“Sounds like it could be fun for, a while.” Rain tried to play it cool, then quickly blew the image, “All those recursions, all those new identities to create. No one will ever find me out there.”
Algernon only wanted to know one thing,
“Do you have an information portal that I can start learning about Earth?”
Rain pulled out his laptop and handed to the young man.
“Welcome to Earth.”
People talk about other dimensions, parallel universes that are almost exactly like this one but for one decision or one event that changed everything. I catch myself sometimes wondering about the world where the Serbian Army did not storm Srebrenica in 1995. It’s a foolish dream because if it exists surely there is another me living there, having grown up under my mother and father…his mother and father. I think though it would be nice to see them from a distance, living their lives, interacting in that way that people who have spent their whole lives together do. That would be nice, to see them…loving each other with a look or touch.
I’d like to spend time walking the streets of my hometown that never knew murder on an industrial scale. Chatting with its neighbours both Christian and Muslim that never knew how to hate each other with bloody violence. And maybe, just maybe one night a young man who looks a lot like me would walk into cafe I just happen to be sitting in. I wave him over, his surprised to find someone that looks just like him and I would take a breath and say,
“Hi Amir, it’s so nice to meet you. Come sit and talk for awhile.”
Yeah,I’d like that.
The bus’s tyres splashed through the black puddles of rainwater by the side of Highway 58. As soon as it came to a full stop the twin doors swung open and two figures stepped out into the cold drizzle.
“Hopefully a walk in the rain will cool you two off.” Said the bus driver as she closed the doors and drove off, splashing puddles in her wake.
“Well how appropriate,“ Said the shorter who had already identified himself as Rain. He flipped his hood over his dark mop of hair and wrapped his black jacket closer to his sparse frame. His lilting tenor held the hint of England and places other than by the side of a New Orleans road on a rainy night. “So what now, Brucie of the bright and shining hi-vis?”
The bigger man turned his weathered face to the troublemaker in front of him. Under his thick all weather coat the orange high-visibility shirt of his profession showed clearly in the light of the passing car headlights. On his shoulder a duffle-bag hung, the head of a massive sledgehammer sticking out the top .
“The name’s Bruce and I’m handing you into police as soon…” He drawled in the local accent as he pulling out his phone, checking the signal strength. Nothing, not even emergency access. “…change of plan, we’ll find a gas station or house where I can use a phone and then you are off my hands.”
“In this?” Rain stared around at the near total blackness that surrounded them and spotted, past the cover of trees off the highway, a twinkle of lights. “Hey, it looks like you’re lucky nigh-” Rain started towards the light but was choked to a stop by his own coat collar in Bruce’s firm grasp.
“Oh, no. You’re not going anywhere without me.” Bruce said in Rain’s ear before pushing him ahead towards the light.
“You know I wasn’t doing any harm.” Rain said over his shoulder to the stoic giant behind him, “We’d been on the bus for hours when you got on. I was bored and she was enjoying it. What have you got against a little sleight of hand?”
“I know what you were up to. You gain the confidence of some sweet young thing and then hit them up for money, or worse. You jerks are all alike, I bet you’ve never worked a day in your life.”
Rain glanced at the sledgehammer and had to agree, his physique was not built for throwing around such lumps of metal.
“I’ll have you know, it takes a lot of work to get as good as I am. The art of Illusion is not a lazy man’s vocation.”
Bruce grunted, but said nothing more.
The twinkles of light resolved themselves into a group of houses alone in a stretch of what looked like reclaimed swamp land. All around the black shimmer of still water warned them both to stay on what was left of an asphalted road. Even the houses looked like they were being returned to the swamp. Sagging roof lines and warped timber-cladding were testament to the works of nature. The first house was a riot of lights from a distance. As the two men approached however, first a light in the garage and then one on the ground floor of the house went out.
“Friendly, aren’t they.” Rain quipped as they stepped up onto the porch and Bruce knocked on the door. The porch light went off and a muffled swear came from the other side of the door.
“Hello,” Rain leaned close to the door and spoke as cheerily as he could over the pounding of the storm. “I’m Rain and this is Bruce and we’re looking for some shelter from the weather, maybe a telephone?”
“I know who you are,” Came an accusatory woman’s voice from the other side, “You’re Rockwheelers, I saw your scout this afternoon! You better leave before I set off the mine!”
Rain thought to call her bluff until he looked down, and in a makeshift box beside the door, was a mine primed and ready to explode.
“Well, that’s clever, “Rain replied coolly, turning to Bruce, “Let’s not tarry, Brucie-boy.” Quickly he stepped away from the mine.
“I warned you!” Said the voice.
“Shut up and go!” Bruce yelled, pulling the smaller man around and covered him with his own body.
The mine went off with a Flash-Bang and the sizzle of a static electric shock. Though noisy, smelly and sending spots of white dancing in their vision, the mine did little to the two men but convince them to move on. Through the downpour, they crossed the road to the next house, down the street.
This house, in contrast, was black and deserted looking. It was in the same sorry state of repair but whereas the other was lit and occupied this looked abandoned to the elements. With no other place to go, Bruce knocked on the door and was greeted by a teenager in a private school uniform. Blazer, white shirt, dark shorts and black leather shoes. His affluent middle-class look was a stark contrast to the house around him.
“Sorry to disturb you, young man, but we need a phone. We’ve been stranded.” Bruce stated matter of factly. Under a heavy black fringe of hair, the kid”s large eyes moved from Bruce to Rain.
“Are you Rockwheelers?” He asked looking furtively over at the house across the way.
“Ur…like the dogs?” Rain replied confused, “Sorry to take you from your studies, but are your parents around?”
“No, not right now.” The boy admitted cautiously as would be expected living next to the crazy-mine-woman.
“Well, we only want to use your phone. You do have one, don’t you?” Bruce asked again. The boy just stood in the door looking confused.
“Telephone …sure.” He replied unconvincingly. It didn’t take the slippery mind of Rain to work out the kid didn’t seem to know what a telephone was or where to find one. Though, the kids confusion did give Rain a break.
“Don’t mind him, I’m Rain.” He said, slipping the steel grip of Bruce for a moment to step gracefully past the boy and into the house. “What’s your name?”
“Algernon, would you mind if we just have a look around for a phone? As soon as we make a call we’ll be out of your house, I promise.”
“Get back here, you’re not leaving my sight.” Bruce barge through Algernon and re-caught his quarry. Once inside however, both glanced around the what would have been the lounge. It was completely empty of any furniture, not a chair or card table and certainly no phone. This house didn’t just look abandoned, it had been and for some time.
“This is not your house is it?” Bruce rounded on Algernon who quailed physically under the accusation.
“This is my house, my parents will be home soon.” He responded automatically, backing up from the big man until his back hit the open door.
“Hey Algernon, there’s no shame in living rough.” Rain turned sympathetically to the young man, “I’ve been where you are now. You’ve done well to find this place, it’s a pretty good squat.”
Bruce’s baleful gaze once more fell on Rain, “Typical.” More gently, he spoke again to the Algernon , “I think you better come with me, I don’t feel comfortable leaving you alone.”
“Where are we going, Brucie? It’s raining!” Rain wailed, gesturing to outside the empty windows, “Why don’t we just stay here until morning…”
But Bruce wasn’t listening and dragged both Rain and Algernon back into the rain, the cold and the dark.
Across the road a female figure stood silhouetted against the porch light. When the group of three scuttled back across the road the figure disappeared back inside the house, closing the door behind her.
“Hey! Ma’am?” Bruce called, frustrated at the once more closed door.
“Brucie, she’s had a shock!” Rain chided the bigger man before trying again at the door, “I know we’ve given you a bit of a scare…
“…we’ve given her a scare…what about that mine…” Grumbled Bruce, Rain ignored his groaning and continued, “…and for that I’m sorry. If you could just give us access to your phone we can be on our way.”
“How did my mine not hurt you? Unless you’re not Rockwheelers…you just want to use the phone?” Came a nervous voice moving from thought to thought in quick succession.
“That’s right, just to call a cab.”
There was no reply, but footsteps could be heard moving away from the door and then the tearing of plasterwork as a cord was pulled through it. The next thing, the door opened and a corded telephone appeared through the gap. Bruce leaped for the phone, opening the door and a young woman with glasses pushed up on top of her head was exposed. Her eyes instantly lighted on Algernon hiding behind the two men.
“Rockwheeler!” She screamed and grabbed a long metal bodied torch from beside the door. Disappointed that this phone was also dead, Bruce hung up the receiver and tried offering it back to the screaming torch-wielding woman oblivious. Algernon sprung back from the porch in a clatter of ungainly limbs.
“She’s a mad scientist! She’s insane!”
Above the chaos of yelling voices and the incessant rain, a whirling-whining sound of electric motors started up. Sparks of electricity lit the night in front of the garage, strobing the heavy raindrops to stillness. One by one, the four focused on the sound and light show in front of them.
“My inventions!” The woman screamed forgetting the two men and the lost looking teen. All thoughts of Rockwheelers and bedraggled strangers forgotten, she pushed past the group and ran towards the garage door. Free once more from Bruce’s grip, Rain curiously followed her to the garage door with Bruce and Algernon not far behind.
Inside, a huge machine made of makeshift parts connected to a bank of home computers, was now booting up. An array of car batteries connected to unknown contraptions sparked sending arcs of electricity into the heart of the machine that groaned electronically into life.
“Can I help? ” Offered Rain from around the corner of the door. “I’m good with computers.”
“Don’t touch it! Did you touch it?” She cried, flinging herself bodily over the machine protectively. “I don’t know what he did, but when I opened the portal he stepped out. The first of an invasion!” She pointed to Algernon who looked aggrieved to have been blamed for anything to do with her machine.
“I never! You kidnapped me!”
The woman scampered around the contraption , flicking a switch, reading a scrolling screen of data and typing a command into another as the whine of the motors continued to increase. The energy build up was sudden and all encompassing. With a crash of light, sound and force something discharged, blasting everyone with a bright blinding flash. Blind, deaf, mute and numb, all four cowered under the assault…
Deserts and mountains encircled the little group of four. Harsh bright light beat down from a clear blue sky and reflected up from the baked earth. Suddenly they were all aware they were dry and very, very hot. Bruce was no longer wearing his all-weather jacket over hi-vis shirt, but a spiked leather jacket, and his hammer hung from his back in a kind of brace. Rain looked down at a full-length oilskin just like a 19th Century cowboys ‘Duster’. He couldn’t help but flick the length of it behind him experimentally laughing like a child in surprise and joy. The woman was now wearing a set of leather goggles high on her head and a hubcap breastplate strapped to her chest with thick leather thong. On her right forearm a harpoon-like weapon was strapped and she seemed surprised to see it there. The kid was the oddest of all. A full metal facemask covered his features making him look like a serial killer cyborg.
Before anyone could question what was going on, a walkie-talkie strapped to Bruce’s side crackled to life.
“There’s a likely bunch! Hey fellas! We’re going to eat well tonight!” A woman’s harsh voice spoke making everyone jump. Bruce spotted the plumes of dust rising off the desert. They could just hear the roar of unmuffled engines gaining speed.
“Run!” Bruce pointed to a rocky outcropping nearby and the group as one raced towards potential safety. Algernon proved the most agile, scampering up the steep side of the rock where he found a small cave. With help, the rest made it up the rock and into the relative darkness inside.
They weren’t alone.
Under the glow of the woman’s torch (now transformed into an actual stick with wound cloth) deep in the cave’s shadowed interior an elderly man lay. His clothes torn and dusty, sunburn, gashes and chaffing marked every inch of exposed skin. The man looked like he had traveled far and was not likely to travel further without help.
“Are you from the Estate? Have you come to rescue me?” He asked faintly, sitting up with an effort to face the group. All the words were understandable and all in the correct order. The group looked at each other as if he’d spoken a foreign language.
“Ur…Rain Bigby, Bruce, Algernon and …the Doc, “ Crouching down to the prone man’s level, Rain introduced the group, “ We’re not sure what’s going on. You couldn’t tell us where we are? ”
“Oh,” The old man sighed, disapointed as he slumped back against the wall of the cave, “I am Elmer McCain and I work for the Estate out of Seattle. As for where we are, one of the many world’s linked to the Earth by the Strange.”
“A Recursion.” Algernon piped up surprising everyone, including Rain who had used the moment’s distraction to try pick-pocket Bruce. The revelation made him stumble and Bruce was made aware.
“Yes, indeed. A Recursion.” El McCain nodded to the young man and looking at him knowingly.
“You know about these, recursions?” Bruce asked Algernon as he snatched the Walkie Talkie out of Rain’s tricky fingers and gave him a hard look. Rain only smile and put his hands up in surrender.
“Me? No, I don’t know anything.” Algernon protested weakly. He certainly seemed to know more about what was going on than the rest of the group.
“But that was meant to be a portal to the subterranean world of the Rockwheelers!” The woman now wailed and collapsed to the ground.
The roaring of the oncoming machines outside grew louder and all eyes went to the front of the cave. Thoughts of Recursions and Portal were forgotten in the immediate danger of being someone’s lunch.
“Right now we have more pressing issues.” Bruce announced and turned on Rain who was studying Algernon curiously. “You’re tricksy, why don’t you con those guys into leaving.” He said, handing the Walkie-Talkie to Rain.
‘Oh really? What a thought! I wonder why I didn’t think of that!” Rain replied sarcastically, snatching the radio from Bruce’s outstretch hand and listened carefully to the chatter from the hoons outside.
“They crawled into a cave on the rock, I sawed them.” Said one, and quickly Rain replied in the same accent, “Yeah, it goes all the way through to da other side. Let’s get them there.”
“Er…Roger!” Someone else replied and the engines’ roars began to fad as the cars circled the island of rock.
“Well I guess that will buy us some time.” Bruce replied, turning back to the old man. “So you know of a way to leave this place?”
“Yes, but my equipment isn’t working. There’s something blocking the translation,” He pulled out a strange piece of equipment and showed the group. It meant nothing Bruce and Rain and the kid was silent and watchful.
The image of misery at the revelation of her failures, the Doctor silently pulled a gadget from her pocket. Obviously homemade, it was wand-like with a dial wired to the top that started clicking and screeching as she moved it around the cave.
“A home-made geiger-counter?” Rain asked in awe, “You’re a genius! Doctor?” The woman blushed at the sudden compliment, but ignored the implied question as the old man nodded sagely at the device’s readings.
“Radiation. Probably trapped in the rocks here. That explains it. We need to move from this place and then possibly I’ll be able to get us back to Earth at the very least.”
To be continued…
Computers are marvelous things. All that calculating power and dumber than building supplies. There is no thought, just do or don’t do. I can sit at a computer all day, pouring out a life’s story, rich with details that is sadly not my own and the machine will accept it without a care.
Of course there are people who care, people who program computers to ask the right questions, verify my humanity, check against database after database to ensure my story is valid. I have a theory. It’s not the programmers manipulating the computers but the computers making them think in boxes, procedures and step-by-step instructions, to think like a computer. When they do that, they leave gaps because life isn’t squares is it. It’s lumpy odd shapes that work well together face to face but not when they’re just facts on a database record.
Anyway, I enjoy the power of computers, the ability to get between, behind, beneath and around systems and make them work for me. Human systems too, they all have their betweens, behind, beneaths and arounds.
Nobody tells you about the science of the street when you first find yourself there. Hitting the streets is one thing, but no one tells you that it hits back. Conservation of momentum I guess, old Newton was right!
At sixteen I found that I was free to do what I wanted after almost 12 years of group homes and foster care. I’d been with several families throughout my childhood having never found that ‘forever home’ they talk about on adverts for dog shelters. That’s where I went wrong! I should have been taken in by the animal welfare society instead of a succession of group homes! As a kid, puppy dog stares were my speciality.
At 16, with the blessing if not a few misgivings of the last family, I set out two days after my ‘birthday’ into the world and within a month was on the streets. It wasn’t that I’m a junkie or deadbeat and couldn’t hold down a job. More the jobs I could get at that time couldn’t hold me. Working fast food, deliveries or customer service counters (though the latter did allow me to talk to people) were not fulfilling. And let’s face it, it’s not that I wasn’t without a few talents.
Clever fingers, a winning personality and an insatiable mind meant in good times I could make it as a street performer. I can do anything from close up magic, juggling, stunt, even a little fire-breathing though that made everything taste of kerosene for a week. When street performance didn’t pay, there was always pick-pocketing and the more simple cons that left people feeling good about paying for my meals. I got by.
But it’s lonely on the street, even if you have friends and you never ,ever safe. Nothing is forever, nothing lasts or has any permanence. No one can be truly trusted for long, everyone is working their angle. I don’t sleep well as it is, on the street or in a squat I don’t think I ever sleep more than a few hours a night. It starts messing with your head.
Summer 2012 found me in a squat by the river not far from my regular haunts. There were others; junkies and worse that went through the place, but I kept to myself and learnt quickly to never leave anything behind I couldn’t do without. Not that I had much and no savings to speak of, but it was the height of the tourist season and street performances were paying well, especially if I wasn’t the one doing the performance; if you know what I mean.
Walking amongst the crowd looking like just another European backpacker, invisible as everyone’s attention is drawn to the action in the centre. A part of the people and not part of ‘them’; and parting them with their cash. The secret predator amongst the shoals of gawping tourists.
It wasn’t until I was sorting through my ‘takings’ for that morning that I realised I’d picked the wrong pocket. A driver’s license, credit cards and even the family photo of a well-known gang leader. He was a fixture of the streets, the legitimate businessman, someone even the police and politicians listened to. Even then the streets of London are covered with CCTV. It wouldn’t have taken him long to discover my face and from there my ‘name’ (I’ve never been one to give the same name twice) and most importantly where I stayed. I had no doubt that anyone I knew would tell this guy and his ‘associates’ everything they needed to know. I had to do something quickly, but what?
Running away is always first on my flight or fight list. Only problem is that takes money and a current passport; neither of those things I had. You also need a place to run to, which I don’t. Except maybe… nah, I don’t know the old country and it doesn’t know me. Nothing for me there. Besides, I didn’t think this particular ‘gentleman’s’ reach was so short it couldn’t get me wherever I holed up. There is fight, but I’ve never been much of a fighter. A man of words and well placed gestures has always been my way. And how would I fight an organised crime syndicate, it was laughable. No, I had to find another way and fast.
So I photocopied the content of the wallet, wrote a short note and sent the whole lot to myself at the address of the first group home I lived in, Mr and Mrs Morris of Slough. I figured they’d send it onto the next and then the next address I’d stayed over the years. With luck it would take a few weeks for the letter to make it to the last home who I still kept in touch with. By then, I’d have collected by mail no harm done.
If not they’d open it and read my letter. At least someone would know what happened to me.
Then I dressed myself in my best clothes; which is to say I stole a reasonably well fitting suit out of a dry cleaners delivery van. I figured white t-shirt with business suit and plimsolls would look respectable and sporty. Thus dressed I made my way to the office of the gentleman in question.
Obtaining an audience was the easiest part of the plan (getting past receptionists is a breeze with a sweet, well meaning attitude with the appearance of being exactly where I am meant to be) holding my cool in front of a man that could have me beaten senseless or worse was quite another.
He sat behind his black high gloss desk, a view of the Soho district he dominated through a floor to ceiling window behind him.
“So what do we have here? Another street artist?” He asked after looking me up and down a few times.
“Well spotted, sir. My name is Eric Leomund (see what I mean) and I was supporting my friend at their performance this morning.” I said respectfully with a casual air that hopefully suggested that I wasn’t intimidated.
“Really? I didn’t see you.” He looked at me and then to a bodyguard to stood by the door. He shook his head as well.
“I help get the crowd excited about the performance, applaud and ‘ooh’ at the right places. It was in that capacity that I found this…” I pulled out the wallet and went to hand it to the gentleman. The bodyguard quickly stepped up and took the wallet from me, checking its contents before handing it over to the gentleman.
The gentleman also checked the contents of the wallet, everything was there, I know, I made sure.
“You found this, after the performance?” It was one of those questions not said as a question, and I could see that my story was a little thin.
“Yes sir, lots of things are left behind after performances, but nothing as surprising as a wallet of a prominent business man as yourself.” I smiled, which was hard to keep up under the tidal pull of suspicion.
“And you didn’t think to ring before now?”
“As you said yourself sir, I’m a penniless street performer. It’s often easier to walk something back to its owner than find the change for the payphone. I apologise for the delay, I got here as soon as I could.”
“Uh, huh.” The business man sat back in his leather chair flipping his wallet between pudgy fingers. This took some time and I could feel the sweat rolling down my back and sticking my shirt to my skin. I didn’t flinch, nothing but shere balliness was going to get me through this.
After seeming hours (in hindsight more like 10 seconds) of this basting, the gentleman leaned forward.
“So, you are a street performer. What’s your bit?” He said with a cool interest and I let go the breath I’d not known I’d been holding.
“Close magic, sleight of hand is my speciality, “ And I pulled out my cards. I always carry my card, you never know when you need to distract someone with a little hocus pocus. The bodyguard jumped in again to take my cards, but this time the business man waved him aside and beckoned me over.
I spend 15 minutes running through my usual routine of self-deprecating humour distracting from my sleight of hand and had the businessman and his bodyguard scratching their heads.
“Can you do this on a stage or around tables in a club?” Asked the business man after I’d returned his card to him for the fifth time after we’d torn it up, burnt it and flushed the pieces down the ensuite. I told him I could and he offered me a job warming up the crowd for his headliner each night.
“But if I catch you using your fingers for anything other than magic I’ll have Reg here cut them off, are we clear.” He said. I replied to his message was clear and we shook hands. Ohh, that Timex on his wrist was so tempting. Classy, not like a gaudy Rolex. I let it lie.
From poverty, to near death to almost stardom in one afternoon. Such is my life. Momentum is a funny thing, but one thing is for sure, you can’t take advantage of the extra lift it can give you if your not already moving.