Friday, p.18

Friday, страница 18



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  “I don’t know. Less than a minute.”

  “Long enough, that’s clear.”

  “Are you going to take it back?”

  “Me? Friday, why would I do that? Such virtuosity deserves applause. But she’s wasting a major talent on a very minor scam. Let’s get along upstairs; you want to finish with MasterCard before the lottery drawing.”

  I went back temporarily to being “Marjorie Baldwin” and we were allowed to talk to “our Mr. Chambers” in the main office of California MasterCard. Mr. Chambers was a most likable person—hospitable, sociable, sympathetic, friendly, and just the man, it appeared, that I needed to see, as the sign on his desk told us that he was Vice-President for Client Relations.

  After several minutes I began to see that his authority was to say no and that his major talent lay in saying no in so many pleasant, friendly words that the client hardly realized that she was being turned down.

  First, please understand, Miss Baldwin, that California MasterCard and Chicago Imperium MasterCard are separate corporations and that you do not have a contract with us. To our regret. True, as a matter of courtesy and reciprocity we ordinarily honor credit cards issued by them and they honor ours. But he was truly sorry to say that at the moment—he wanted to emphasize “at the moment”—the Imperium had cut off communication and, strange as it seems, there was not today even an established rate of exchange between bruins and crowns…so how can we possibly honor a credit card from the Imperium even though we want to and will gladly do so…later. But we do want to make your stay with us happy and what can we do for you toward that end?

  I asked when he thought the emergency would be over.

  Mr. Chambers looked blank. “Emergency? What emergency, Miss Baldwin? Perhaps there is one in the Imperium since they have seen fit to close their borders…but certainly not here! Look around you—did you ever see a country so glowing with peace and prosperity?”

  I agreed with him and stood up, as there seemed no point in arguing. “Thank you, Mr. Chambers. You have been most gracious.”

  “My pleasure, Miss Baldwin. MasterCard service. And don’t forget: Anything I can do for you, anything at all, I am at your service.”

  “Thank you, I’ll remember. Uh, is there a public terminal somewhere in this building? I bought a lottery ticket earlier today and it turns out that the drawing is almost at once.”

  He grinned broadly. “My dear Miss Baldwin, I’m so happy that you asked! Right on this floor we have a large conference room and every Friday afternoon just before the drawing everything stops and our entire office staff—or at least those who hold tickets; attendance is not compulsory—all of us crowd in and watch the drawing. J.B.—that’s our president and chief executive—old J.B. decided that it was better to do it that way than to have the punters sneaking away to washrooms and toke shops and pretending they weren’t. Better for morale. When one of our people wins one—does happen—she or he gets a fancy cake with sparklers on it, just like a birthday, a gift from old J.B. himself. He comes out and has a piece with the lucky winner.”

  “Sounds like a happy ship.”

  “Oh, it is! This is one financial institution where computer crime is unheard of, they all love old J.B.” He glanced at his finger. “Let’s get on into the conference room.”

  Mr. Chambers saw to it that we were placed in VIP seats, fetched coffee to us himself, then decided to sit down and watch the drawing.

  The terminal screen occupied most of the end wall of the room. We sat through an hour of minor prizes during which the master of ceremonies exchanged utterly sidesplitting jokes with his assistant, mostly about the physical charms of the girl who picked the slips out of the tumble bowl. She clearly had been picked for those physical charms, which were considerable—that and her willingness to wear a costume that not only displayed them but also assured the audience that she was not hiding anything. Each time she plunged in an arm and drew out a lucky number she was dressed principally in a blindfold. It looked like easy pleasant work if the studio was properly heated.

  Halfway through there were loud squeals from up front; a MasterCard clerk had won a thousand bruins. Chambers grinned broadly. “Doesn’t happen often but when it does, it cheers everyone up for days. Shall we go? No, you still have a ticket that might win, don’t you? Unlikely as it is that lightning will strike here twice.”

  At last with a blare of trumpets we reached the week’s grand prize—the “Giant, Supreme, All-California Super Prize!!!” The girl with the goose bumps drew two honorary prizes first, a year’s supply of Ukiah Gold with hash pipe, and dinner with the great sensie star Bobby “The Brute” Pizarro.

  Then she drew the last lucky ticket; the master of ceremonies read off the numbers and they appeared in blazing light above his head. “Mr. Zee!” he shouted. “Has the owner registered this number?”

  “One moment—No, not registered.”

  “We have a Cinderella! We have an unknown winner! Somewhere in our great and wonderful Confederacy someone is two hundred thousand bruins richer! Is that child of fortune listening now? Will she—or he—call in and let us put her on the air before this program ends? Or will he wake up tomorrow morning to be told that she is rich? There is the number, folks! It will shine up there until the end of this program, then it will be repeated every news break until fortune’s darling claims her prize. And now a message—”

  “Friday,” Georges whispered, “let me see your ticket.”

  “Not necessary, Georges,” I whispered back. “That’s it, all right.”

  Mr. Chambers stood up. “Show’s over. Nice that one of our little family won something. Been a pleasure to have you with us, Miss Baldwin and Mr. Karo—and don’t hesitate to call on me if we can help you.”

  “Mr. Chambers,” I asked, “can MasterCard collect this for me? I don’t want to do it in person.”

  Mr. Chambers is a nice man but a touch slow. He had to compare the numbers on my lottery ticket with the numbers still shining on the screen three times before he could believe it. Then Georges had to stop him when he was about to run in all directions, to order a photographer, call National Lottery headquarters, send for a holovision crew—and just as well that Georges stopped him because I might have been rough about it. I get annoyed by big males who won’t listen to my objections.

  “Mr. Chambers!” Georges said. “Didn’t you hear her? She does not want to do it in person. No publicity.”

  “What? But the winners are always in the news; that’s routine! This won’t take a moment if that’s what’s worrying you because—you remember the girl who won earlier?—about now she is being photographed with J. B. and her cake. Let’s go straight to his office and—”

  “Georges,” I said. “American Express.”

  Georges is not slow—and I wouldn’t mind marrying him if Janet ever turned him loose. “Mr. Chambers,” he said quickly, “what is the address of the San Jose main office of American Express?”

  Chambers’ four-winds flight stopped abruptly. “What did you say?”

  “Can you tell us the address of American Express? Miss Baldwin will take her winning ticket there for collection. I will call ahead and make sure that they understand that banking privacy is a requisite.”

  “But you can’t do that. She won it here.”

  “We can and we will. She did not win it here. She simply happened to be here when the drawing took place elsewhere. Please stand aside; we’re leaving.”

  Then we had to do it all over again for J.B. He was a dignified old duck with a cigar in one side of his mouth and sticky white cake icing on his upper lip. He was neither slow nor stupid but he was in the habit of seeing his wishes carried out and Georges had to mention American Express quite loudly before he got it through his skull that I would not hold still for any publicity whatever (Boss would faint!) and that we were about to go to those Rialto moneychangers rather than deal with his firm.

  “But Miss Bulgrin is a MasterCard client.”
br />   “No,” I disagreed. “I had thought that I was a MasterCard client but Mr. Chambers refused to honor my credit. So I’ll start an account with American Express. Without photographers.”

  “Chambers.” There was the knell of doom in his voice. “What Is This?”

  Chambers explained that my credit card had been issued through the Imperial Bank of Saint Louis.

  “A most reputable house,” J.B. commented. “Chambers. Issue her another card. On us. At once. And collect her winning ticket for her.” He looked at me and took his cigar out of his mouth. “No publicity. The affairs of MasterCard’s clients are always confidential. Satisfactory, Miss Walgreen?”

  “Quite, sir.”

  “Chambers. Do it.”

  “Yes, sir. What credit limit, sir?”

  “What extent of credit do you require, Miss Belgium? Perhaps I should ask that in crowns—what is your amount with my colleagues in Saint Louis?”

  “I am a gold client, sir. My account is always reckoned in bullion rather than crowns under their two-tier method for gold customers. Can we figure it that way? You see, I’m not used to thinking in bruins. I travel so much that it is easier for me to think in grams of gold.” (It is almost unfair to mention gold to a banker in a soft-currency country; it clouds his thinking.)

  “You wish to pay in gold?”

  “If I may. By draft in grams, three nines, on Ceres and South Africa Acceptances, Luna City office. Would that be satisfactory? I usually pay quarterly—you see, I travel so much—but I can instruct C. and S. A. A. to pay you monthly if quarterly is not convenient.”

  “Quarterly is quite satisfactory.” (Of course it was—the interest charges pile up.)

  “Now the credit limit—Truthfully, sir, I don’t like to place too much of my financial activity in any one bank or any one country. Shall we hold it down to thirty kilos?”

  “If that is your wish, Miss Bedlam. If you ever wish to increase it, just let us know.” He added, “Chambers. Do it.”

  So we went back to the same office in which I had been told that my credit was no good. Mr. Chambers offered me an application form. “Let me help you fill it out, miss.”

  I glanced at it. Parents’ names. Grandparents’ names. Place and date of birth. Addresses including street numbers for the past fifteen years. Present employer. Past employer immediately preceding. Reason for leaving past employment. Present rate of pay. Bank accounts. Three references from persons who have known you at least ten years. Have you ever applied for bankruptcy or had a petition of involuntary receivership filed against you or been a director or responsible officer of any business, partnership, or corporation that has applied for reorganization under paragraph thirteen of Public Law Ninety-Seven of the California Confederacy Civil Code? Have you ever been convicted of—

  “Friday. No.”

  “So I was about to say.” I stood up.

  Georges said, “Good-bye, Mr. Chambers.”

  “Something wrong?”

  “But yes. Your employer told you to issue to Miss Baldwin a gold credit card with a limit of thirty kilograms, fine gold; he did not tell you to subject her to an impertinent quiz.”

  “But this is a routine require—”

  “Never mind. Just tell J.B. you flubbed again.”

  Our Mr. Chambers turned a light green. “Do please sit down.”

  Ten minutes later we left, me with a brand-new gold-colored credit card good anywhere (I hoped). In exchange I had listed my Saint Louis P.O. box number, my next-of-kin address (Janet), and my account number in Luna City with a written instruction to bill C and S.A.A., Ltd. quarterly for my debts. I also had a comfortable wad of bruins and another like it of crowns, and a receipt for my lottery ticket.

  We left the building, crossed the corner into National Plaza, found a bench, and sat down. It was just eighteen, pleasantly cool but the sun was still high above the Santa Cruz Mountains.

  Georges inquired, “Dear Friday, what are your wishes?”

  “To sit here for a moment and collect my thoughts. Then I should buy you a drink. I won a lottery; that calls for buying a drink. At least.”

  “At least,” he agreed. “You won two hundred thousand bruins for…twenty bruins?”

  “A dollar,” I agreed. “I tipped her the change.”

  “Near enough. You won about eight thousand dollars.”

  “Seventy-four hundred and seven dollars and some cents.”

  “Not a fortune but a respectable sum of money.”

  “Quite respectable,” I agreed, “for a woman who started the day dependent on the charity of friends. Unless I’m credited something for my ‘adequate’ performance last night.”

  “My brother Ian would prescribe a fat lip for that remark. I wanted to add that, while seventy-four hundred is a respectable sum, I find myself more impressed by the fact that, with no assets other than that lottery ticket, you persuaded a most conservative credit banking firm to extend to you an open account in the amount of a million dollars, reckoned in gold. How did you do it, dear? You didn’t even wiggle. Not even a sultry tone of voice.”

  “But, Georges, you caused them to issue me their band.”

  “I don’t think so. Oh, I did try to back your play…but you initiated each move.”

  “Not the one about that horrid questionnaire! You got me out of that.”

  “Oh. That silly ass had no business quizzing you. His boss had already ordered him to issue the card.”

  “You saved me. I was about to lose my nerve. Georges—dear Georges!—I know that you have told me that I must not be uneasy about what I am—and I’m trying, I truly am!—but to be faced with a form that demands to know all about my parents and grandparents—it’s dismaying!”

  “Can’t expect you to get well overnight. We’ll keep working on it. You certainly did not lose your nerve over how much credit to ask.”

  “Oh. I once heard someone say”—it was Boss—“that it was much easier to borrow a million than it was to borrow ten. So when they asked me, that’s what I named. Not quite a million BritCan dollars. Nine hundred and sixty-four thousand, about.”

  “I’m not going to quibble. When we passed nine hundred thousand I ran out of oxygen. Adequate one, do you know what a professor is paid?”

  “Does it matter? From what I know of the profession one successful new design of a living artifact can pay in the millions. Even millions of grams, rather than dollars. Haven’t you had any successful designs? Or is that a rude question?”

  “Let’s change the subject. Where are we sleeping tonight?”

  “We could be in San Diego in forty minutes. On in Las Vegas in thirty-five. Each has advantages and disadvantages for getting into the Imperium. Georges, now that I have enough money, I’m going to report in, no matter how many fanatics are assassinating officials. But I promise cross-my-heart to visit Winnipeg just as soon as I have a few days’ leave.”

  “I may still be unable to return to Winnipeg.”

  “Or I’ll come visit you in Montréal. Look, dear, we’ll swap all the addresses we have; I’m not going to lose you. You not only assure me that I’m human, you tell me that I’m adequate—you’re good for my morale. Now choose, for I’ll take either one: San Diego and talk Spanglish, or Vegas and look at pretty naked ladies.”


  We did both and wound up in Vicksburg.

  The Texas-Chicago border turned out to be closed from both sides all the way, so I decided to try the river route first. Of course Vicksburg is still Texas but, for my purpose, its situation as the major river port just outside the Imperium was the point that counted—especially that it was the leading smugglers’ port, both directions.

  Like ancient Gaul, Vicksburg is divided into three parts. There is the low town, the port, right on the water and sometimes flooded, and there is the high town sitting on a bluff a hundred meters high and itself divided into old town and new town. Old town is surrounded by battlefields of a war long forgotten (but not by V
icksburg!). These battlefields are sacred; nothing may be built on them. So the new town is outside this holy ground, and functions through being tied to old town and to itself by a system of tunnels and tubes. High town is joined to low town by escalators and funiculars to the city barricade.

  To me, high town was just a place to sleep. We punched into the Vicksburg Hilton (twin to the Bellingham Hilton even to The Breakfast Bar in the basement) but my business was down on the river. It was a happy-sad time as Georges knew that I would not let him come any farther with me and we had quit discussing it. Indeed, I did not permit him to go with me to low town—and had warned him that any day I might not come back, might not even stop to punch a message to him to record in our hotel suite. When the moment came to jump, I would jump.

  Vicksburg low town is a lusty, evil place, as swarmingly alive as a dunghill. In daylight city police travel in pairs; at night they leave the place alone. It is a city of grifters, whores, smugglers, pushers, drug wholesalers, spivs, pimps, hire hatchets, military mercenaries, recruiters, fences, fagins, beggars, clandestine surgeons, blackbirders, glimjacks, outstanders, short con, long con, sting riggers, girlboys, you name it, they sell it in Vicksburg low town. It’s a wonderful place and be sure to get a blood test afterward.

  It is the only place I know of where a living artifact, marked by his design (four arms, no legs, eyes in the back of his skull, whatever) can step (or slither) up to a bar, buy a beer, and have absolutely no special attention paid to him or his oddity. As for my sort, being artificial meant nothing—not in a community where 95 percent of the residents did not dare step onto an escalator leading to the upper city.

  I was tempted to stay there. There was something so warm and friendly about all these outcasts, no one of whom would ever point a finger of scorn. Had it not been for Boss on one hand and Georges and the memory of places that smelled better on the other hand, I might have stayed in (lower) Vicksburg and found a scam that suited my talents.

  “But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep.” Master Robert Frost knew why a person keeps on going when she would rather stop. Dressed as if I were a soldier out of work and shopping for the best recruiting deal, I frequented river town listening for a riverboat skipper willing to smuggle live cargo. I had been disappointed to learn how little traffic there was on the river. No news was coming out of the Imperium and no boats were coming down the river, so very few skippers were willing to risk going upriver.

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